D-Day: 6 June 1944

From Johnnie Houlton's autobiography

DDayPhoto © Carolyn Grace
ML407 in full D-Day markings painted on with rollers and brushes as done for Johnnie Houlton in 1944.

D-Day minus 1 . . . .

By 5 June a ruling was in force that the airfields were sealed, with all personnel to remain in camp. For the first time in the history of the squadron every pilot was in his camp bed by 9pm, only to be aroused at 10.30pm for the D-Day briefing.

We can all recall incidents of high drama in our lifetime, and that is how I record the scene in the Operations tent that night. The Briefing Officers uncovered the maps of the Normandy coast, then laid out the broad outline of the entire operation. We were shown the sites of the five landing beaches, the airborne assault areas, the shipping lanes and the general tactical plan; all balanced against the forecast weather. As we listened, the vanguard of 5,000 ships and 287,000 men was already on its way across the Channel; the great forward move which had been fought for over the last four years since Dunkirk. I remember the stillness in the briefing tent; the awareness that, right then, history was in the making; and I had a vivid sense of a concentrated will for success going out to the soldiers and sailors of the invading force.

One thousand fighters were to patrol the invasion area at all times during the daylight, and 485 Squadron was scheduled to carry out four patrols during D-Day itself, the first one to begin at first light. All squadrons were to split up into three Sections of four aircraft flying in line abreast, and each Section leader would have freedom of action within the overall patrol area, extending fifteen miles inland from the Normandy coast. In effect, the well-proven role of Desert Air Force giving air cover and close support to the Eighth Army was being handed over to the Second Tactical Air Force, now to over-fly the re-entry into Europe. An aerial corridor was established for all aircraft operating day or night in direct support of the landings, and these aircraft would set course over Selsey Bill and above our own airfield which, at 110 miles, was the shortest distance to the Normandy beaches.

At 11.30pm a growling rumble from the night sky surged through the tent, and the deafening roar of hard-working engines effectively ended our briefing. The glider tugs and transports were passing overhead, precisely as planned, to deliver leading elements of the British Sixth Airborne Division into the vital left flank of the battle area. I was not the only one whose back-hair rose, not just because of the uncanny timing of the Armada setting course above us; but in visualising the cold courage needed to jump into the hostile darkness, or to ride down inside a plywood box with a gliding angle like a large brick and then - if physically capable - to group up and fight a black-out battle, to guarantee a toe-hold on the Continent.

That background roar of aircraft overhead was to stay with us non-stop for days and weeks on end, a constant reminder of this high point in the tide of war.

June6Aerial shot of Gold Beach, taken at 10.20am, 6 June 1944, by Air Commodore Geddes in a P.R. (photo recon) Mustang.
Note wing with 'invasion' stripes in bottom right of picture. Photo from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

D-Day . . . .

But when I started up OU-V for my first patrol of the day, the engine failed to run at the first attempt, and I ended up chasing the other eleven aircraft to the take-off point. To reach my position with the second Section I swung wide round the tail-enders, then stamped on the brakes as the remains of a telephone, a wooden chair and my propeller tips sprayed up in front of me. The Flying Controller, carried away with the occasion, had planted a field telephone on a chair on the edge of the marshalling area. The Airfield Commandant leapt from his car using rude words; but was persuaded to drive me at high speed back to the dispersal area, where I climbed into a reserve aircraft and took off ten minutes behind the squadron. Altogether, it was a bad start to a very big day.

Climbing slowly across Channel I picked up the single line of ships heading for the beaches, fed by lines of ships sailing in from east and west, presenting an awesome impression of power and purpose. Landing craft were heading inshore towards the beaches, but from 10,000ft it was difficult to pick up ground detail. Weaving gently along in the British Second Army sector I sighted countless Sections of patrolling fighters covering the whole area, and spent some time studying the airborne assault area astride the Orne River and Canal running inland from Ouistreham to the city of Caen. Hundreds of parachutes were concentrated on and around the drop zone, proof of the high ability of the troopers and the crews of their transport aircraft, in one of the most outstanding feats of D-Day.

Back at Selsey after my one-hour solo patrol, all reports indicated that tactical surprise had been achieved, and this had been dramatically underlined by the total absence of the Luftwaffe.

In mid-afternoon [of D-Day] I led Blue Section during the third patrol of the day. South of Omaha beach, below a shallow, broken layer of cumulus, I glimpsed a Ju 88 above cloud diving away fast to the south. Climbing at full throttle I saw the enemy aircraft enter a large isolated cloud above the main layer, and when it reappeared on the other side I was closing rapidly.

Our aircraft were equipped with the gyro gunsight which eliminated the snap calculations and guesswork required to hit a target aircraft - especially one in a reasonably straight flight path; and it also enabled the guns to be used accurately at a far greater range than before. I was well aware, however, that most pilots were sceptical of the new instrument and preferred to use the conventional type of sight, which was still incorporated on the screen of the new sight. Normally one would open fire at ranges below 250 yards; but I adjusted the gyro sight on to the target at 500 yards with a deflection angle of 45-degrees, positioned the aiming dot on the right-hand engine of the enemy aircraft, and fired a three-second burst. The engine disintegrated, fire broke out, two crew members bailed out and the aircraft dived steeply to crash on a roadway, blowing apart on impact.

As I turned back towards the beach-head I sighted a second Ju 88 heading south and made an almost identical attack, which stopped the right-hand engine. This aircraft then went into a steep, jinking dive with the rear gunner firing at the other members of my section who all attacked, until the Ju 88 flattened out and crash-landed at high speed. One of its propellers broke free, to spin and bound far away across the fields and hedges, like a giant Catherine wheel. As we reached the beach-head, radio chatter indicated that other pilots - 349 (Belgian Squadron) - were dealing with another German bomber, so this belated effort appeared to have been a costly exercise for the Luftwaffe.

By now, two lines of ships were ranged towards the beaches, with two more lines of unloaded ships heading back. As we flew back over the in-bound lanes, the two lines of ships advancing up and down the Channel to the turning point for Normandy, stretched right back to the visible horizon. The Squadron’s fourth patrol at dusk was uneventful. And so ended D-Day. Intelligence reports confirmed that the Army was ashore in strength, there was no doubt that the invasion had succeeded, and an overwhelming mood of relief had replaced the tension of the proceeding days.

Supreme Headquarters nominated the Ju. 88 as the first enemy aircraft to be shot down since the invasion began, putting 485 (N.Z.) Squadron at the top of the scoreboard for D-Day. Some days before the invasion I had casually suggested we should run a sweepstake for the first pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft after the invasion began, and I duly collected a few shillings from the pool. When we later had time to unwind and celebrate, my modest winnings were well short of the cost of the party .

lancastersNearly 100 lancasters of RAF Bomber Command en route to attack enemy positions in Normandy and Brittany.
Photo from the collections of The Australian War Museum, London.

The Week Following D-Day . . . .

From D-Day onwards, operations in support of the invasion continued at a high tempo, and for the first 24 days my log-book records 20 beach patrols, 4 shipping patrols and 2 escorts for heavy bombers. Second Tactical Air Force and RAF Fighter Command flew approximately 90,000 sorties during June 1944, by far the greatest monthly effort ever recorded in the history of air warfare, and around one quarter of that effort was concentrated directly above the Allied beach-heads. It was a massive reversal of the desperate shortage of air cover over Dunkirk, where the efforts of British fighters were beyond sight and sound of the soldiers. I hoped that the constant presence of the Royal Air Force over the beach-heads in 1944 would have reassured those who fought their way out of France in 1940.

Enemy aircraft made sporadic appearances, mostly in fighter-bombers or fighter sweep roles, but with the mass of Allied fighters milling around in the area, the individual pilot’s chances of intercepting these intruders were fairly slim. However the Squadron continued to get its share of the action for the first few weeks, and part of the exhilaration of that time arose from the way all aircraft now operated in independent sections of four, well spaced out in line abreast. This was the formation which had been developed during the battle over Malta, and it certainly allowed each pilot to search the sky efficiently, and yet to cross-over for the other pilots in his formation. Section leaders could use a free-ranging initiative which had been impossible during the fighter sweeps over northern France, when German fighters had been operating in considerable strength over their own bases. The only operational restrictions were to patrol strictly within the beach-head area, and to keep clear of the Fleet elements now positioned off-shore, as any approaching aircraft would be treated as hostile by the Royal Navy.

On my first patrol on 7 June two bomb-carrying FW 190s dived past the section towards shipping anchored off the British beaches, but I smartly broke off the chase when they disappeared from view amongst the violent barrage flung up by the Fleet. Our second patrol late in the afternoon of 8 June came alive when 222 Squadron reported enemy aircraft flying inland above the Ouistreham Canal. I was leading Blue Section below cloud, flying straight at the canal from the east, and called for the Section to make a steep climbing turn to the right up through the cloud layer. By sheer luck, three of us emerged behind a formation of twenty Me 109s, and ahead of some pursuing Spitfires which were out of range. Frank Transom and Pat Patterson were still with me, and as we latched on to three of the tail-enders the whole German gaggle - which was flying in three sections in loose line astern - began porpoising in and out of another cloud layer close above us. It was an unusual and frustrating sensation following these undulations, and trying to line up for a short burst each time the target briefly popped out of the cloud. By my fourth attempt I was about 50 yards behind and closing fast, as the Me 109 reappeared and pulled up again. This time I followed him into the cloud, firing a long burst as OU-V bounced around in his slip-stream, and just as I heard Frank’s unmistakeable yell over the RT, ‘I’ve got the bastard’, a great blob of black smoke and debris came back at me through the murk, and I half-rolled to break cloud simultaneously with the Me 109, which was trailing smoke and diving for the deck. Two other Me 109s were going down in flames - one destroyed by Frank and one by Pat - while the one I had hit started to flatten out of the dive, but crashed in a wood.

AerialAerial view taken June 6, 1944, of the Allied Naval forces engaged in the Overlord operation of landing
while Allied forces storm the Normandy beaches on D-Day.
Photo from the collections of Wall Street Journal.

I called Blue Section to rejoin me at the coastal end of the Canal but, shooting out from below one of the cloud layers, I found myself below and ahead of twenty FW 190s. Calling the sighting on the RT I broke up into the leading aircraft, and the whole gaggle split outwards. Johnnie Niven - our CO - promptly arrived with his section, and a hectic mêlée developed. I had used all my ammunition on the Me 109, but Al Stead destroyed one FW 190, and Johnnie Niven and Mick Esdaile damaged one each. The dogfight drifted out over the sea into an area of very bad light and poor visibility, caused by towering black clouds against the low sun. A multitude of orange flashes and ‘flaming onions’ from the gloom below revealed that the navy had, very sensibly, opened up on one and all - which rapidly broke up the party.

After four more uneventful beach-head patrols in the next three days, I suggested to the CO and Wing Operations that it would make better sense to have patrols sweeping inland in the direction of the German aerodromes, to intercept enemy aircraft before they reached the battle area. The umbrella of 1,000 fighters over the beach-heads was no doubt excellent for the morale of the army, but the fact remained that some aircraft were arriving over the troops and dropping bombs.

Group headquarters insisted that we still confine our patrols to the prescribed coastal strip, so I quietly organised my own Section to make private sweeps inland. Each member of the Blue Section was to keep strict RT silence, except in emergency, and we would slip away to search up to 50 miles inland. We would not be missed in the beach-head area, and reckoned that if we had any success, it would cancel out any rockets for being absent without leave.

Arriving over the beaches at first light on 12 June I took Blue Section away inland, as planned. It was a beautiful, clear morning; and we were flying over gently rolling country, very similar to the English Downs. Thirty miles south of Utah Beach, I caught a glint on a lake 8,000ft below, then picked out a tiny speck moving north. Keeping my eyes locked on to the moving object I waggled my wings and went down in a wide, diving turn to identify two Me 109 fighter-bombers ahead of us and in line astern, flying towards the beaches at zero feet. I hit the rear fighter-bomber with a three-second burst from 200 yards and the 109 reared up, burning fiercely and disintegrating. At about 600 ft the pilot seemed to catapault outwards and upwardsNB, his parachute opening immediately; the wreckage stalled, fell, and exploded in a cornfield, which erupted in a sheet of flame. Unhappily for the German pilot, his parachute dropped into the heart of the fire. I then sent in my Number Two, Bill Newenham, who successfully attacked the other fighter-bomber, which crashed in the same area. As I expected, no awkward questions were asked as to how Blue Section happened to be so far outside the patrol area.

On 13 June the whole Squadron landed in France for the first time, to refuel following a patrol. The landing strip had been built by engineers inside the British beach-head and very close to the front line, where the airmen of the refuelling and rearming parties were doing a great job in primitive and dangerous conditions. There were no buildings at all, just a few earth walls and revetments, petrol bowsers and stacks of ammunition positioned at irregular intervals, and a few tents dotted around the perimeter. I had an unpleasant surprise as I switched off my engine near a petrol bowser. Nobody was in sight but a voice from a hole in the ground shouted at me to get out and get down. Joining some airmen in a large slit trench I drank some horrible-tasting black tea, as they explained that a sniper was active from a ragged wood about 500 yards away. After ten minutes a whistle signalled the return to work, and we wasted no time in refuelling and getting airborne again. Some days later I heard that a tank had been brought in to wipe out the sniper, who was reported to have been a young French girl, newly married to a German soldier who had been killed in the beach-head. I found it curiously reassuring, on this crucial battlefield, to glimpse both innocence and despair in that fleeting tragedy.

From Johnnie Houlton's autobiography Spitfire Strikes, pages 180 to 188

Johnnie_and_crewPhoto from Johnnie Houlton’s book ’Spitfire Strikes’

Johnnie Houlton with his ground crew, Selsey, June 1944, shortly after shooting down an Me 109 over Omaha Beach:
(back row): Ron 'Knocker' White (fitter), J.H., Vic Strange (fitter), Michael 'Paddy' Fahey (electrician)
(front row): 'Lofty' (armourer), 'Ginger' Gibson (radio)

NB German Ejector Seat Research

The pilot of the Me 109 destroyed by Johnnie Houlton on 12 June 1944 appeared to be hurled violently upwards, and well clear of the aircraft. Researcher Hugh Smallwood learnt from Martin Baker Ltd (the manufacturer of the first ejector seats fitted to post-war aircraft) that the groundwork for ejector seats was indeed carried out in war-time Germany.

The first successful ejection was from a German aircraft in 1942, following an emergency during a test flight; but there is no indication that ejector seats were ever fitted to operational aircraft. The Imperial War Museum holds documents from Focke-Wulf, Messerschmitt, Arado and Blohm & Voss relating to ejector seat development.

In his book I Flew for the Führer (Evans, London, 1953) Heinze Knoke describes kicking the stick hard forward with both feet (in a crippled ME 109) and being shot clear of the aircraft in a great, tumbling arc.

Use of that same technique would account for the spectacular, upwards departure of the Me 109 pilot from his aircraft on 12 June 1944.