RAF 651, 652 and 653 Squadrons were an unusual units – their pilots were Army officers, Royal Artillery officers who were expert gunners – Air Observation Post (AOP) Pilots, while their ground crew were RAF personnel. They flew over the Normandy battlefield at low level in slow unarmed Auster aircraft. But with their ability to bring down the full weight of the Allied artillery, including, if needed the Naval guns firing from offshore, they were an extremely potent force.
Twenty-five year old Captain Lyell Munro flew with 653 Squadron, which had arrived in France on the 28 June. He had joined the Royal Artillery in August 1940 before being selected for officer training – and then again selected for pilot training which he began in 1942. Like most of his colleagues, Normandy was his first time in action. He was soon flying over the very thick of the battle, over the heavily contested Hill [or Point] 112:
The lower slopes of the hill were dotted with the remains of British tanks, some still smoking; most of them were Sherman tanks. The Sherman, apart from being under-gunned, had the fault of providing inadequate protection for its own ammunition, which tended to detonate inside the tank if it sustained a hit. The effect on the crew can best be left to the imagination.
On top of the hill sat a single Tiger tank, which acted as an OP as well as an almost impregnable anti-tank gun emplacement. In the small fields adjoining, surrounded by high hedges, mortar positions and infantry were dug in. It seemed to me that I could not do better than make the lives of these people as difficult as possible, and I made it my business to put this into practice, with some success.
Flight Diary 19 July: Captain Munro found a tank and possible Infantry or Mortar emplacement near Pt 112. He watched it with great patience and persistence. Finally seeing movement there and shooting it up.
To begin with I attacked the mortar area by calling down the concentrated fire of a field regiment. The immediate result was to stop the mortar fire and to set ablaze a half tracked vehicle concealed behind a hedge; it was probably carrying ammunition for the mortar positions nearby. The Tiger tank was then given the same treatment but as field guns are not designed to penetrate solid steel of any great thickness at such a range it only made the tank withdraw slightly and sit tight while I continued to observe.
I then saw it fire its 88 mm gun: a cloud of dust sprang up in front of it and almost at once I saw a red ball of fire pass well behind the aircraft. I turned round and flew back and the same thing happened. It was not good shooting. The gunner failed to lay off to allow for the speed of the aircraft — a modest 60-70 mph — but if left unpunished I reckoned it might start a bad precedent, so I returned to the strip and obtained the CRA’s [Commander Royal Artillery – senior artillery officer in the division] consent to shoot a single medium gun (and of course a ‘blanked’ gun as a kind of tweedledee to fire simultaneously and eliminate any chance of enemy sound-ranging).
After I had re—netted the wireless I set off again and started to engage my target, which was still sitting there, master of all it surveyed.
Flight Diary 20 July: Captain Munro returned to his pet tank, so infuriating it that, losing all self-control, it fired at him using AR This so annoyed Captain Munro that he got the CRA’s permission to destroy the tank and locality. He got a successful concentration down.
The first rounds fell close to it, but before I could correct onto it, it retreated about a 100 yds and waited to see what would happen next. The answer was another group of 4.5 inch shells, which were too close for his comfort. He set off at full speed, disappeared into the village of Esquay, and did not return. (When the village was eventually captured, a Tiger tank was found abandoned, with one track off. I like to think it was the one I had seen off earlier).
[Editor: A German Tiger tank commander, Ernst Streng, was in the same battle. He kept a diary, which for that day reads:
That damned English crow is hanging in the sky again. Doesn’t he know there’s a war on? He’s got a nerve, flying in curves and circles over the front like that!.
A machine—gun could easily bring him down. But nothing stirs in our front line. The infantryman there knows that the slightest sign of life will bring down the shells from the enemy batteries — and they will be bang on target. Throughout the intense heat of the July afternoon our infantry lie motionless in their holes in the ground, following with their eyes every movement in the sky above.]
Later the same day I put a heavy concentration on what was reported to be an infantry HQ, and Freddie destroyed a group of vehicles in Maltot. In the afternoon several FW 190s passed low over the ALG and did some bombing on the road north of Baron-sur-Odon. It rained heavily next morning and we could do nothing, but the afternoon was clear and Geoff did several shoots on Point 112 with medium guns, shooting up tanks and infantry localities.
We learned later that Operation ‘Goodwood’ had come to a halt, partly on account of bogging down in mud and partly due to meeting stiff German defences. However, it had captured Caen, cleared the high ground to the south of it and tied up the German armour, although at the cost of heavy casualties once again.
Operation ‘Jupiter’ had not yet achieved is objectives, and the battle for Point 112 continued unchecked.
We had noticed one or two graves in the paddock adjoining the Field Dressing Station beside us; in the last few days they had increased steadily until it was filled with rows of white crosses. As usual in Normandy it was the infantry who bore the brunt of the casualties and to a lesser extent the tank—crews. We had some consolation in knowing that the artillery support they received was proving a battle-winning factor, but it was always the poor bloody infantryman who had to occupy the ground.
Ronald Lyell Munro’s Above the Battle is one of only two published accounts of the experiences of the AOP pilots.