When Allied airborne and amphibious troops invaded southern France in the early morning of 15 August 1944, they set in motion the fourth major onslaught against the occupied Continent in 3 months. The first blow had been stuck in Italy with the Allied offensive which began on the night of 11-12 May and had carried forward some 200 miles to the Pisa-Rimini line, liberating Rome and liquidating at least a dozen German divisions. The second blow had been the cross-channel invasion of Normandy which began on 6 June and had broken the German 7th Army, surrounded most of it, and was on the verge of capturing Paris. The third blow had been the massive Soviet attack across the Pripet Marshes which began on 22 June and had split the Baltic States at Riga, reached Warsaw in Poland, and was poised on the boundaries of East Prussia itself.
This was the picture on 15 August, the date set for invasion.
Thus the new Allied uppercut against southern France found the Germans in a situation which was already desperate. Though the Allied threat to the Riviera had been obvious for months, the hard pressed Germans had been obliged to pull away a sizable proportion of the forces they had allocated to defend it. Only 10 Nazi divisions remained south of the River Loire and but 7 were actually deployed along the Mediterranean coast. Even more depleted, after a year of strategic bombing by the Allies, was the German Air Force. It was estimated to have in southern France the puny total of 200 operational aircraft, of which 130 were bombers designed for antishipping attacks. It was believed that the Hun might be able to scrape together from Italy and northern France another 50 bombers and 80 single-engine fighters. As for German naval defenses, these consisted of a handful of destroyers and torpedo boats and perhaps 5 U-boats.
Depleted and dispersed though the German defenses were, their capabilities were still considerable. The coast they were guarding is a rugged one, with rocky promontories overlooking the small beaches. The French had long ago established a number of well-sited coastal batteries at the obvious points. These the Germans increased, while they also deployed some 450 heavy and 1,200 light antiaircraft guns in the area, largely along the shore. Finally, there seemed little chance of tactical surprise since the Allied build-up in Corsica was clearly visible to German reconnaissance aircraft.
For the invasion the Allies marshaled a force with clear-cut and overwhelming superiority in every respect. Against the Luftwaffe's 200 furtive aircraft, the Mediterranean Allied Air Forces could muster 5,000. Against the 7 weak German divisions the United States Seventh Army could throw in a stronger force of crack United States and French divisions, plus an assortment of paratroop, Commando and Special Service forces. And the dinky German naval units would sally, if they dared, in the face of 450 British, United States, French, and Italian warships, including about 5 battleships and 10 aircraft carriers.
In collecting this might array, the Allies had faced two difficult problems: (1) the redeployment of the available ground and air forces so as to be able to hit southern France without at the same time hamstringing the advance of the Fifth and Eighth Armies in Italy, and (2) the build-up of primitive, malarial Corsica into a satisfactory springboard for the air participation in the landings. Both these matters are dealt with later. It suffices for this introductory summary of the situation to record that XII Tactical Air Command under Brig. Gen. Gordon P. Saville was charged with the responsibility of providing the air cooperation. By D-day it was effectively installed on 14 Corsican operational airfields, with all supplies needed to maintain about 40 United States, British, and French squadrons, plus some 6 squadrons on loan from the Strategic Air Force. Other elements of MAAF on call from XII TAC were based as follows: Provisional Troop Carrier Air Division-west coast of Italy above Rome; Desert Air Force-North Central Italy; Tactical Air Force's medium bombers-Corsica and Sardinia; Strategic Air Force-Foggia area; Coastal Air Force-scattered throughout area; and, finally, a Carrier Task Force, standing offshore between Corsica and Toulon.
The major purpose behind the operation were:
The initial assignment of the Seventh Army, as stated in its Field Order No. 1, was to "assault the south coast of France, secure a beachhead east of Toulon and then assault and capture Toulon." Thereafter its intention was to advance toward Lyon and Vichy or westward to the Atlantic as determined by developments, eventually joining up with the Allied armies in northern France.
The task of the AAF, as stated in MAAF's Outline Plan of 12 July, was as follows:
In addition MAAF had all its regular commitments to work with the armies in Italy and to conduct strategic bombing of German priority objectives and special operations in aid of the Partisans.
As far back as 1 April 1943 the eyes of the Allied forces in the Mediterranean were focusing on a possible landing in southern France. By 9 December 1943, the scheme had reached the point of decision and a directive was issued to General Eisenhower to the effect that it would take place in May. Intensive planning began at once in accordance with Allied Force Headquarters directive of 29 December. On 4 February the combined planning staffs of Air, Army, and Navy met to compare views and on 31 March the first Provisional Outline Air Plan was issued.
Shortly thereafter, however, the stalemate in Italy forced a recasting of plans, and it was decided to shelve the plan and concentrate on a decision in the battle for Rome. The battle began on 11-12 May and almost immediately a shattering defeat upon the German armies. The Allies had just captured Rome and were in all-out pursuit of the disorganized enemy during early June when the Normandy assault began; it was clearly inadvisable to halt in the middle of success in Italy to invade southern France.
Not until the end of the month was the decision to execute the program finally made. By then the Allied armies in Italy had largely exploited their success and were slowing down in front of the formidable Pisa-Rimini defense line. And in Normandy, though Cherbourg had been taken and the beachhead secured, the Allied armies were temporarily stalled and had fallen definitely behind schedule. Action was wanted and wanted quickly. Most of the high command in the Mediterranean would have preferred to concentrate on advancing the rest of the way up Italy and thence into the Hungarian plain. However, on 2 July invasion was decided upon, with direction that it be launched on 15 August. Gen. Sir Henry M. Wilson had already, on 28 June, approved the Outline Plans, and on 7 July AFHQ directed that they be put into effect.
MAAF's Outline Air Plan, which was issued in final form on 12 July in compliance with this directive, laid down the broad tasks and assigned the control of operations as follows:
Following the directive from MAAF, each of the three major units involved--Strategic, Coastal, and Tactical Air Forces--produced its own plan for its share of the invasion. In the case of Strategic and Coastal, the operation posed no major problems, calling for little more than normal performance of routine tasks. Upon Tactical fell the major burden of the job and its commander, Maj. Gen John K. Cannon, besides planning the actual assault operations, had to reorganize his entire air force and occupy the new bases in Corsica. As of June 1944 MATAF was a joint command composed chiefly of the British Desert Air Force and the U.S. Twelfth Air Force. TAF was functioning entirely in cooperation with the Fifth and Eighth Armies in Italy, whose advances had been made possible by its spectacularly successful interdiction of German supply lines. General Cannon's problem was to keep enough air power behind General Alexander to enable the Fithe and Eighth to continue their advance and at the same time muster adequate striking force for the assault on France. He solved it by leaving to Desert Air Force the cooperation with the armies in Italy and moving XII Tactical Air Command (a hybrid outfit consisting chiefly of fighters and fighter-bombers) to Corsica. MATAF's two medium bomber wings were kept separate, available to help either Desert Air Force or XII TAC as occasion arose. These arrangements were promulgated on 7 July in MATAF Operations Instruction No. 2. MATAF's Outline Plan, issued the next day, made provision for the operations of troop carrier units being borrowed form England and called upon XII TAC to prepare the final detailed assault plan. This was issued as Operations Order No. 1 on 8 August, while the over-all MATAF bombing plan appeared as Operations Instruction No. 3 on 4 August.
Plans contemplated the use of airborne troops. Since the Mediterranean theater had been largely stripped of troop carrier units for Normandy, it was necessary to borrow them back again from England. Accordingly, dispositions were made as described in the section on the airborne phase of the operation, which appears later.
When the scheme was first approved at the end of 1943 with a target date of late May, an immediate survey was instituted to ascertain how many airdromes could be constructed there and how may groups could be supported. Simultaneously exhaustive study began on the signals and communications requirements. It was at once obvious that a difficult logistic and construction job was in prospect. This was energetically pushed throughout the spring and not allowed to lag even during the months when invasion was on the shelf.
There were only two ports on the island. Ajaccio, with a capacity of 3,000 tons a day, could accept one Liberty ship at a time providing the draft was not more than 22 feet. Bastia could accept 2,00 tons a day by coasters or other small vessels. However, Bastia could not be used because the Germans were mining the channel nightly. The terrain in Corsica made it imperative to build practically all operational airdromes on the east coast.
No internal transportation
existed. Every railroad bridge on the east coast had been demolished.
Bridges and tunnels on the cross island route from Ajaccio to Bastia had
been destroyed. It was evident, therefore, that our forces would have to
rely on their own transportation facilities for the movement of supplies
in Corsica, and that the build-up of any considerable operation would
have to proceed gradually over a period of months. The following steps
Personnel build-up into Corsica had started months before with the accumulation of supplies, which proceeded over a period of approximately 3 months. By 15 May, all elements of Coastal Air Force scheduled for Corsica were on the island, as well as a bombardment wing of the Twelfth Air Force, together with certain elements of an RAF wing, constituting a coastal air force of offensive striking power. In addition to the above forces, the operation called for the XII Tactical Air Command, reinforced by some French squadrons and some RAF squadrons, as the main assault force. All of these forces were actively engaged in cooperation with the armies in Italy until D minus 20. This entire assault force was moved into Corsica in an 8-day period, without any cessation in operations. This move was accomplished by dividing each squadron into advance and rear echelons, and by the use of an LST ferry lift.
The estimated requirement in bombs alone was 52,000 tons. This build-up was accomplished by bringing Liberty ships into Cagliari, where the supplies were transshipped into coasters, the coasters discharging along the east coast of Corsica. While the supply position of Corsica has always been precarious, presenting difficulties of arranging transshipments and meeting convoy schedules and offering only limited port capacity, the objective was met in every respect.
The initial reconnaissance of existing airfields and sites for new ones was made in the early part of October 1943 while fighting was still going on and the northeastern corner of Corsica was under German control. At that time there were two existing small airfields which could be considered operational: Ajaccio and Calvi, on the west side of the island. The original airfield program called for the improvement and enlargement of these two fields. In addition, the repair, improvement, and enlargement of Ghisonaccia and Borgo on the east side and two new fair-weather sites for the Coastal Air Force were to be provided. This program was expanded to meet the important needs of the Tactical Air Force. On 10 August there were 14 operational airfields, all-weather and semi-all-weather, available for use by fighters, fighter-bombers, and medium bombers. Eighteen groups of tactical aircraft could readily be accommodated.
During early construction operations the employable aviation engineer units varied from a minimum of half a battalion to two and one-half battalions at a maximum. Higher priority airfield requirements in Italy, North Africa, and other parts of the theater prevented the assignment of additional units and retarded their early release from other projects. French units and civilian labor, supplemented by U.S. equipment and supplies, performed most of the work at Ghisonaccia and Ajaccio. Italian troops, available for November 1943 to the early part of May 1944, assisted greatly in providing need hand labor. These troops expedited early completion of new airfields, such as Solenzara and Alesan. With these few units all work was done, including the numerous related airfield installations and projects such as removing mines; construction of radar stations and access roads to gasoline and bomb dumps and water points; elimination of bush and dry vegetation fire hazards; and erection of airfield buildings.
The problems faced by the Signals Planning Staff at Headquarters, MAAF involved not only the creation of a competent communications net on Corsica, but also the control of air operations from fighter direction ships during the assault phase and the speedy development of landline and radio nets in southern France. Perhaps the most interesting detail was the employment of a separate fighter direction ship, rather than use of the headquarters ship itself, to direct the assault air cooperation. The need for such a procedure was one of the major lessons learned at Anzio.
Arrangements were made with the U.S.
naval commander in North African waters for headquarters and fighter
direction ships and GCI-mounted LST's as follows:
The headquarters ship arrived in Algiers on or about 20 March 1944. Representatives of the MAAF Planning Staff were invited aboard to inspect the facilities. Certain modifications were suggested; the ship then proceeded to Oran, carried out the suggested modifications, returned to Algiers, and participated in the operation. FDT 13, which had been used as a fighter direction ship in the Normandy effort, arrived on or about 3 August 1944. This ship was fitted with United Kingdom communications facilities, which necessitated the changing of the antenna systems to accommodate the MAAF theater frequencies and the provision of additional channels. These modifications were performed by XII TAC, and preliminary reports indicated that all communications functioned extremely well.