Falaise – fighter bombers attack the German retreat

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing wrecked enemy vehicles left by the retreating German columns burning on a road in the Falaise area after coming under attack by aircraft of the 2nd Tactical Air Force.

Vertical photographic-reconnaissance aerial showing wrecked enemy vehicles left by the retreating German columns burning on a road in the Falaise area after coming under attack by aircraft of the 2nd Tactical Air Force.

Wing Commander J E 'Johnnie' Johnson, commanding No. 144 (Canadian) Wing, on the the wing of his Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX with his Labrador retriever Sally, at Bazenville, Normandy, 31 July 1944.

Wing Commander J E ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, commanding No. 144 (Canadian) Wing, on the the wing of his Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX with his Labrador retriever Sally, at Bazenville, Normandy, 31 July 1944.


As Rommel had predicted Allied air power had made the movement of German troops extremely difficult in France, ever since D-Day. As the Germans now found themselves in a concentrated mass, desperately trying to break out from encirclement, they now came under even more intense bombardment from the air.

Amongst those joining the attack was fighter ‘Ace’ Wing Commander J.E. ‘Johnie’ Johnson, who commanded No 144 (later 127) Wing RCAF, the first to be stationed in France. He had scored more victories whilst patrolling over France and was only days away from shooting down two more Fw 190s, bringing his score to 32, equalling the British record – held until then by ‘Sailor’ Malan. However the focus for the next couple of days was ground attacks rather than enemy aircraft:

A gleam of reflected sunshire on metal here, a swirl or eddy of dust there, or fresh tracks leading across the fields were sufficient evidence to bring down the fighter-bombers with their assorted armoury of weapons. When darkness fell and brought some relief to the battered Germans there was time to take stock of the situation and to add up the score.

My own pilots had amassed a total of slightly more than 200 destroyed or damaged vehicles, plus a few tanks attacked with doubtful results. For once the weather was in our favour, and the forecast for the morrow was fine and sunny. The pilots turned in immediately after dinner, for they would require all their energy for the new day. As they settled down to sleep, they heard the continuous drone of our light bombers making their flight across the beach-head to harry the enemy columns throughout the short night.

The Canadians were up well before the dawn, and the first pair of Spitfires retracted their wheels as the first hint of a lighter sky flushed the eastern horizon. The Germans were making strenuous efforts to salvage what equipment they could from the débacle and get it across the Seine. Such enemy action had been anticipated: some of the Typhoon effort was diverted to attacking barges and small craft as they ferried to and fro across the river.

Once more the Spitfire pilots turned their attention to the killing-ground and attacked all manner of enemy transports wherever they were to be found. They were located on the highways and lanes, in the woods and copses, in small villages and hamlets, beneath the long shadows of tall hedges, in farmyards and even camouflaged with newly mown grass to resemble haystacks.

During the previous night many of the enemy had decided to abandon a great proportion of their transports: they could be seen continuing the retreat on foot and in hastily commandeered farm-carts. Sometimes the despairing enemy waved white sheets at the Spitfires as they hurtled down to attack; but these signs were ignored; our own ground troops were still some distance away and there was no organisation available to round up large numbers of prisoners.

On this day, 19th August, my Canadians claimed a total of almost 500 enemy transports destroyed or damaged, of which many were left burning. Even so, this score was not outstanding since Dal Russel’s wing easily outstripped us with a score of more than 700.‘ Afterwards our efforts in the Falaise gap gradually petered out, for the transports and personnel of the German Seventh Army had either been eliminated or had withdrawn across the Seine.

The Falaise gap ranks as one of the greatest killing-grounds of the war, and is a classic example of the devastating effects of tactical air power when applied in concentrated form against targets of this nature. During these few days, pilots of the Second Tactical Air Force flew more than 12,000 missions and practically wiped out no less than eight infantry divisions and two armoured Panzer divisions. The Second Tactical Air Force had in fact turned an enemy retreat into a complete rout.

After the fighting had ebbed away from Falaise, we decided to drive there and see the results of our attacks at first hand. We thought that we were prepared for the dreadful scenes, which Eisenhower later said could only be described by Dante.

On the last flights the stench from the decaying bodies below had even penetrated through the cockpit canopies of the Spitfires. Another, and perhaps the most important, object of our visit was to bring back a suitable German staff car, since it was obvious that we should soon be on the move across France, and a comfortable Mercedes would provide a welcome change from our hard-riding jeeps.

After we left Falaise behind, all the roads were so choked with burnt-out German equipment that it was quite impos- sible to continue the journey. The bloated corpses of unfortunate domestic animals also lay in our path, so we took to the fields and tried to make some progress across country. Each spinny and copse contained its dreadful quota of dead Germans lying beside their wrecked vehicles, and once we came across the body of what had been a beautiful woman lying sprawled across the back seat of a staff car.

We found our limousines, which consisted of Renaults, Citroéns, Mer- cedes and strangely enough a smooth Chevrolet. We had brought ropes, jacks and a few jerrycans of petrol, but it was impossible to extricate any of the cars. Soon we abandoned our search and left the fields and lanes, heavy with their rotting burden in the warm sunshine.

See J. E. Johnson: Wing Leader: Top-scoring Allied Fighter Pilot of World War Two

Contemporary footage of the battle from a British public information film:

A knocked-out German PzKpfw IV tank with the burnt bodies of two of its crew in the Falaise pocket, 24 August 1944.

A knocked-out German PzKpfw IV tank with the burnt bodies of two of its crew in the Falaise pocket, 24 August 1944.

Wrecked German transport and knocked out tanks on a road in the Falaise-Argentan area, 21 August 1944.

Wrecked German transport and knocked out tanks on a road in the Falaise-Argentan area, 21 August 1944.

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