77 Years Ago…
Dawn comes early in England during the summer. At 0200, June 6, 1944, the rumble of 48 Pratt and Whitney R-2800s reverberated over the quiet English countryside surrounding the former RAF base of Beaulieau Roads between Southampton and Bournemouth that was now home to the 9th Air Force’s 365th Fighter Group.
On the taxiway, the big P-47s – resplendent in the black and white identification stripes hurriedly applied with mops and brooms by the ground crews two nights before – S-turned heavily under their loads of two 500-lb bombs on the wing shackles and a 110-gallon drop tank on the centerline mount, as they took their turn to fly off into the rising sun.
At the runway, the flagman checked each pair as they moved into position; the engines roared as the pilots advanced their throttles to takeoff power, then began their roll as they were waved off. In the middle of the sixteen P-47s of the 388th Fighter Squadron, 2nd Lieutenant Archie Maltby ran his hands over his wool pants to dry his sweating palms, then pulled on his flying gloves. Today was the second mission he would fly since joining the group at the end of April.
The next two airplanes moved into position and took off. The ground crew signaled Maltby and his wingman to move forward. He checked the engine instruments, worked the controls quickly in a last-minute check, and pushed the throttle forward. Halfway down the runway, the heavy Thunderbolt’s tail came up, and then he was airborne with the main gear thumping into the wells. A right turn brought the two Thunderbolts over the Isle of Wight in a matter of moments; they joined the rest of the formation, heading east across the English Channel toward the coast of Normandy in the partly-cloudy skies.
“I’ll never forget what it was like that day. There were so many airplanes in the sky that there was a serious risk of collision, and there were so many ships in the Channel it seemed that you could have walked from ship to ship from England to France.”
The assignment for the 365th F.G. that day was to patrol the Cotentin Peninsula, to insure the Germans were unable to reinforce their units facing the invading Americans at Omaha and Utah Beaches. After an hour, the Thunderbolts were free of their bombs and most of their ammunition. Returning to base, the pilots told the excited ground crews what they had seen. After a quick meal, they were back in their planes for a second sweep of the beachhead. “We thought that was it for the day when we got back from the second mission, but all of a sudden there was a call that radar had picked up the Luftwaffe heading toward the beaches, and all the airplanes that had been fueled were scrambled.” In fact, the only two members of the Luftwaffe to make an appearance over the Normandy beaches on D-Day were Oberst Josef “Pips” Priller, Geschwader Kommodore of JG26, and his wingman. “By the time we got there, Priller had already made his famous run over the beaches and gotten out of there.”
When they returned, night had fallen on England. “It really was the longest day I can ever remember.”