June 6, 1944, D-day for the long awaited Allied invasion of continental Europe. Success meant the beginning of the end of Germany’s Third Reich; failure would give new hope to a regime of institutionalized murder, slavery. and exploitation of conquered lands.
Success required full cooperation between American and British invasion, sea, and air forces.
The first demand of support for air was to assure that no enemy aircraft attacked the invasion forces. While the German Luftwaffe was notably absent, air support was also requested to prevent the Germans from bringing up reserve forces to bolster their defences. This involved air attacks on rail and road traffic and—especially crucial—destroying bridges to slow reinforcements to the battle.
The U.S. Strategic Bombing Command of the Eighth Air Force, applying the self-serving dogma preached by Army Air Force leaders Generals Harold Arnold, Carl Spaatz, and others, balked at assigning heavy bombers to such an assignment. They argued that such an effort would detract from the bombing of German population centers intended “to destroy the will and ability of the Germans to continue the conflict.” (The strategic air campaign was a near-total failure. The “will” of the German people never influenced the course of the war and the carpet bombings of cities had little impact on German’s military resources. What it did achieve was the death and maiming of thousands of non-combatants including the aged, women, and children.) Their position prevailed.
With the American heavy bombers unavailable, it was left to the U.S. Ninth (Tactical) Air Force based in England to provide air support for the invasion. Medium-sized bombers attacked the rail lines, marshaling yards, and tunnels while fighter-bombers attacked bridges and vehicles headed towards Normandy.
The task of dealing with the bridges, extremely difficult to destroy and routinely defended by Luftwaffe fighters, was assigned to squadrons of P-47 Thunderbolt fighter-bombers. Armed with thousand-pound bombs, they would aim at destroying the bridge supports to collapse each target. In a post-war assessment, Walt W. Rostow, a member of the Office of Strategic Services during the war, wrote that the bomber command determined “that 1,200 tons [of bombs] per bridge were necessary.” On May 7, 1944, experimental attacks were carried out by “P-47 fighter-bombers each carrying two 1,000-pound bombs.” In a statistical report, “three bridges were badly damaged, and a fourth was dropped into the Seine by six P-47s …”
First Lieutenant L. C. Beck, a P-47 Thunderbolt pilot with the 406th Fighter Group, led a flight on 29 June as top cover for a flight of P-47s bombing a bridge when a flight of German FW-190 fighters attacked Beck’s flight. With his engines damaged, Lt. Beck was forced to crash land. He escaped serious injuries and, with amazing good fortune, found himself in the company of French resistance fighters. They rushed him to a nearby farmhouse and later to Anet, a “sleepy little town.”
Holed-up in a small room on the third floor of a cafe and awaiting French resistance fighters to smugglehim out of German-held territory, Beck decided to write his autobiography—on the back of old cafe menus! When the time came to move on to Paris as the first stage back toward freedom, he packed the manuscript in a box marked with his parents’ address and asked his French host, Paulette, to mail it when victory was achieved. His parents received the package on January 6, 1946.
The rest of his story comes from others who survived the war.
Beck departed Anet on July 17, eighteen days after crash landing. He thought he would be taken to an airstrip where an American aircraft would take him to England, as had been done with other Allied escapees. It was not to happen. Instead, Beck was escorted to Paris: ”Lieutenant Beck and several other flyers [were taken] to the Pigalle section of Paris and left at the Piccadilly Hotel,” reported a survivor. “The same afternoon, a German Luftwaffe officer in disguise represented himself to the aviators as a French resistance chief …” Following three days where the German sought to gain information, “[t]hey were given quite a tour of Paris, before being driven directly to Gestapo headquarters” and imprisoned in the Fresnes prison as political prisoners.”
Prior to D-day, the Germans had incarcerated downed airmen in Luftwaffe stalags where POWs received decent treatment with their status reported to Allied authorities and hence to the families. Following D-day, things changed: Hitler labeled airman as terrorflieger (terror flyers) who deserved to be lynched. Allied airmen seeking to escape with aid from the French were considered “political prisoners.” Packed into boxcars in lots of seventy, several French and two American airmen managed to pry open the floor of one boxcar and escaped before the train left Paris. The German response was to order the remaining prisoners to remove all their clothes and threaten that grenades would be thrown into the boxcars if anyone else attempted escape.
After five days and nights naked, without water and with but little food, they finally reached their destination, the Buchenwald concentration camp. Beck did not survive his incarceration. A young Belgian who attempted to aid Beck wrote to his parents that their son had died “on the night of Sunday 29 and Monday 30, October, 1944. He suffered of a purulent pleurisy, which he caught during his stay in the camp.”
Beck’s memoir was first published as Fighter Pilot (1946), but then largely disappeared. As it happens, Beck had flown the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter with the 406th Fighter Group while I had flown the same aircraft with the 404th. My interest in Beck’s fate led me to Frank Lewis, one of his 406th colleagues. Lewis, now a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, had done considerable research not only on Beck but all the American airmen incarcerated in Buchenwald, which he estimates at 168. He then learned that official reports failed to mention American airman incarcerated in Buchenwald. The “oversight” convinced him that American authorities preferred that the atrocity remain classified: The Cold War was on and the Germans were now on our side and the public need not be reminded of the inhumane treatment afforded American “political prisoners” in one of Germany’s most notorious concentration camps. This book brings back some of America’s forgotten heroes.
Robert Huddleston was a combat pilot in the European air war of World War II. He writes from North Carolina.