Typhoon tank busters over Normandy

A section of Hawker Typhoon Mark IBs of No. 175 Squadron RAF take off from B5/Le Fresne Camilly, Normandy, watched by armourers at work on another Typhoon of No. 245 Squadron RAF.

A section of Hawker Typhoon Mark IBs of No. 175 Squadron RAF take off from B5/Le Fresne Camilly, Normandy, watched by armourers at work on another Typhoon of No. 245 Squadron RAF.

3 inch, 60 pounder  SAP (Semi Armour Piercing), Rocket Projectiles being loaded onto the launch rails of an RAF Hawker Typhoon, circa 1944. A pair of 20mm cannon barrels are visible above the launch rails.

3 inch, 60 pounder SAP (Semi Armour Piercing), Rocket Projectiles being loaded onto the launch rails of an RAF Hawker Typhoon, circa 1944. A pair of 20mm cannon barrels are visible above the launch rails.

The Hawker Typhoon had made an unpromising start when it first entered service in 1941. It came into its own when it was developed as a ground attack aircraft and fitted with rockets. By 1944 the Allies had gained dominance in the air over France and the Typhoon was to range far and wide over the battlefield, playing a critical role in the Allied success.

John Golley flew 73 Typhoon sorties with No 245 Squadron RAF over Normandy in 1944. In his memoir, which he wrote in the form of fiction, placing himself in different perspectives, he recounts a typical operation:

A and B Flights were flying in finger-four formation as pilots switched on and adjusted reflector gun sights, turned cannon buttons to the fire position and flipped down rocket switches in preparation for the attack.

As the weather man had predicted, a layer of patchy white cloud was sailing over the target area. The Squadron had been flying for about fifteen minutes when Collins called ‘Archduke, line astern, GO!’ and they circled round waiting for the red smoke shell to burst over the ‘dug-in’ tanks at the crossroads.

The Squadron had previously made several attacks in this area, usually against targets which were holding up the advance of our troops. Consequently, pilots had had an opportunity to look at the terrain. The landscape was Bocage country, closely bordered with hedges and wooded areas, making it ideal for tanks because there was plenty of surrounding cover.

The Second Tactical Air Force was able to operate without any hindrance from the Luftwaffe, except for the odd skirmish, and so Typhoons were able to make air-to-ground attacks without having to worry about bandits being in the area. Typhoon squadrons, therefore, could freely comb the countryside looking for anything on the roads or lanes and immediately dive down and attack. Such air superiority ensured that it was a suicidal exercise for Panzer divisions to be out in the open during daylight hours. As yet, rocket Typhoons had never had an opportunity to catch Panzer armour on the move and they had to be content with attacks on very small groups of tanks or those dug in.

… He wanted to get the op over and done with, expecting the flak to come up at any second. He became more tense and nervous, and cursed the brown jobs [RAF slang for the British Army] for keeping them hanging about like this. … [Finally] The good old red smoke billowed out and one after the other the Typhoons performed a wing-over into a steep dive. Automatically, the Squadron spread out in echelon, each man firing short bursts from his cannons to keep the German gunners’ heads down.

Down they hurtled with speed rapidly building up towards 500 mph and controls getting heavy, requiring real physical effort on rudder pedals and stick. German gunners were pumping up tracer shells which came up at them in an arc, slowly at first and then rushing past like shooting stars, carving up the sky in red and yellow hoops. When they appeared to be coming straight for the aircraft instinctive reaction was to kick on rudder and slide or skid sideways out of the line of fire. The Typhoon was a rugged beast and it would take more than one man’s physical strength on the controls to break it.

The last few seconds of the dive were crucial. It was the time when the pilot had to keep his head on the target and fly the aircraft without skid or slide which would send the rockets off line. Range was also of vital importance and a distance of 2,200 yards, or a little over a mile, was considered to be ideal because at that point a rocket achieved its maximum velocity.

Out of a corner of his eye, Stanford caught a glimpse of tell-tale puffs of smoke coming from the rocket rails of a Typhoon ahead and to one side of him and knew that the pilot had fired his salvo. Almost immediately he let go his eight rockets and pulled out of the dive into a steep climbing turn.

The Battle for Normandy: A rocket fired from a Typhoon of No 181 Squadron, Royal Air Force, on its way towards buildings at Carpiquet airfield. The Canadian 3rd Division took Carpiquet to the west of Caen on 4 July.

The Battle for Normandy: A rocket fired from a Typhoon of No 181 Squadron, Royal Air Force, on its way towards buildings at Carpiquet airfield. The Canadian 3rd Division took Carpiquet to the west of Caen on 4 July.

While there was little opposition in the air this did not mean that flying operations were without risk and fate could capriciously claim a man caught by particular circumstance. Typhoons from No. 257 Squadron took off at 4:20 p.m. on the 6th July from its base in Hurn, Hampshire. The squadron was back its base at 6:10 p.m. and one man was missing:

6.7.1944

The W.C. [Wing Commander] Flying once more led the Wing on a low level job to prang a bridge over the RIVER RISLE S. of BEAUMONT LE ROGER. Two hits were observed on the track at one end of the bridge and a crater still unrepaired remained from a previous attack at the other end thus cutting line at both ends. Hits were also observed on the supporting arches.

An armed recce led by S.L. [Squadron Leader] Arhens brought very little joy, indeed it brought one of our most popular pilots to grief. F.S.[Flight Sergeant] Bob Blair flying as the C.O’s N°2 followed his N°1 down to bomb some suspected M.T. [Motor Transport] on a road. They both bombed but F.S. Blair must have dived too low and the blast and rubble from his own or the C.O’s 8 bomb damaged his aircraft and started a glycol leak.

There was no flack from M.T. as they were subsequently discovered to have already been pranged. F.S. Blair was ordered to try and make the beachead. He replied that he would do so. The N°4 in the section was ordered to accompany him but a few minutes later Bob called up in a calm sure voice that his engine was on fire and that he was baling out. His aircraft crashed and blew up.

The N°4, F.S. Marriott, reported that the flew low over the crash and saw Bob lying still, on his face, with very little of his white parachute visible. It is believed that the parachute did not have time to open fully due to lack of height.

F.L. Smith led an Armed Recce late tonight in the area of the RIVER SEINE. Bad weather and agreat deal of lightning hindered the operation and the squadron returned to base.

From the Operation Record Book of No 257 Squadron, the original can be seen at Yves Brosseron’s site, which remembers Flight Sergeant Robert R Blair, and his final resting place in the village of Saint-Martin-De-Bienfaite in France.

Wing Commander R E P Brooker, the No. 123 Wing Leader, takes off from Thorney Island, Hampshire, in his Hawker Typhoon Mark IB, MN570 'B', with seven more Typhoons of No. 198 Squadron RAF, on a sortie over the Normandy beachhead. They attacked and destroyed several German armoured vehicles on the Caen-Falaise road.

Wing Commander R E P Brooker, the No. 123 Wing Leader, takes off from Thorney Island, Hampshire, in his Hawker Typhoon Mark IB, MN570 ‘B’, with seven more Typhoons of No. 198 Squadron RAF, on a sortie over the Normandy beachhead. They attacked and destroyed several German armoured vehicles on the Caen-Falaise road.

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