Rouen, Normandy, Occupied France August 17, 1942

On ­July 4, 1942, a dozen Douglas A-20 Havoc medium bombers took off from a small, grassy air­strip in Norfolk, about 100 miles north­east of London, Eng­land, and headed for Nazi-occupied Holland. Half the bombers were Amer­i­can, part of the U.S. Army Air Force’s Eighth Air Force 15th Bom­bard­ment Squa­dron, and momen­tarily attached to No. 226 Squa­dron of the Royal Air Force. The Inde­pen­dence Day raiders inflicted mini­mal damage on four Dutch airfields for the loss of one RAF and two American crews. It was the first strike against Nazi-occupied Europe involving American bombers and aviators.

The next month, on this date, August 17, 1942, the USAAF began the opening attack of its stra­tegic bombing cam­paign against the Nazi enemy, having over­come the lack of long-range heavy bombers. The mission of the 97th Bomb Group was an exper­i­mental day­light strike by 12 four-engine Boeing B‑17E Flying For­tres­ses against French rail­road marshaling yards in Rouen’s suburb of Sotte­ville, 35 miles inland from the English Chan­nel. Escorting the heavy bombers were 4 squa­drons of RAF Super­marine Spit­fire fighters. The first bomber off the air­strip in Northamp­ton­shire, Eng­land, was flown by boyish Maj. Paul Tibbets, who three years later would pilot the B‑29 Super­fortress Enola Gay on another first-of-its-kind mission against Hiroshima, Japan.

The sortie against Rouen-Sotteville was moderately success­ful. Flying at 23,000 ft, the war­birds unloaded 18.5 tons of 600‑lb bombs. About half the bombs fell within the tar­get area, the rail yard; a round­house and some rolling stock were destroyed, about a third of the track lines were damaged, and two large trans­ship­ment sheds were hit. The remaining bombs fell on com­mer­cial and resi­den­tial areas about 2,000 ft to the south of the aiming point, killing 52 civil­ians and wounding 120. A larger follow-up raid on the same rail yard a month later was more inac­curate, killing 140 civil­ians and wounding 200. No bombers were lost to flak or enemy planes on either raid. After the first Rouen raid Maj. Gen. Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, first com­mander of the Eighth Air Force, tele­graphed Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, chief of the Army Air Forces: “The attack on Rouen far exceeded in accu­racy any pre­vious high-alti­tude bombing . . . by German or Allied air­craft. More­over, it was my under­standing that the results justified ‘our belief’ in the feasi­bil­ity of day­light bombing.” With these words the myth (or lie) of day­light pre­ci­sion bombing was given a huge organizational boost.

For the next 10 months the Rouen air strategy pushed by Spaatz, Arnold, and Brig. Gen. Ira Eaker, com­mander of the VIII Bomber Com­mand, the bomber com­po­nent of the Eighth Air Force, was distin­guished by one signif­i­cant modi­fi­ca­tion; namely, the day­light pre­ci­sion bombing of enemy indus­trial and mili­tary targets was con­ducted most of the time by unescorted, not escorted heavy bombers, which, like the July 4, 1942, raid in Holland, took a heavy toll on Allied air­crews. How­ever, the theo­ret­ical versus the act­ual success of dropping ordi­nance pre­cisely on a target area was just as debat­able as when Spaatz touted the success of the Rouen air­strike to Arnold in August that year. The next year, 1943, Allied aerial bombings killed nearly 7,500 French men, women, and chil­dren. The number of French civil­ians who perished in Allied aerial bombings before, during, and after their country’s lib­er­ation in 1944 might be as high as 70,000, with 100,000 wounded.

In the five years between May 1940 and V-E (Victory in Europe) Day, May 8, 1945, close to 1,600 French towns and cities were on the receiving end of Allied air strikes and artil­lery fire. Par­tic­u­larly along the French coast, Allied troops and French resis­tance fighters found them­selves lib­er­ating giant mounds of bricks, timber, and roofs as they moved through knots of sullen resi­dents picking through the wreck­age of their homes and busi­nesses, burying their dead, and caring for sur­vivors. On August 31, 1944, Cana­dian forces entered the once beaut­i­ful city of Rouen. Like the rest of France, Rouen had paid a steep price for its liberation.

Bombing Our Friends to Hurt Our Enemy: The Agony of Rouen, France

Daylight precision bombing: Rouen-Sotteville marshaling yard, July 8, 1944Daylight precision bombing: Rouen cathedral burning, 1944

Left: A damage-assessment photograph after an Amer­i­can air raid on July 8, 1944, on the Rouen-Sotte­ville mar­shaling/classi­fi­ca­tion yards shows exten­sive cratering; the German occupiers—and French rail­road workers—were usually able to repair the damage quickly. Because it was a major trans­por­ta­tion and com­muni­ca­tion hub on the Seine River, Rouen was bombed more than two dozen times by B-17s, B-24s, Avro Lan­casters, A-20 Havocs, B-26 Mitchell Marau­ders, and RAF DeHavil­land Mosqui­tos, the latter three bomber types being twin-engine. Beginning on March 12, 1943, bombers hitting Rouen were escorted by RAF Spit­fires flying out of English airfields.

Right: Rouen firefighters work to extinguish flames inside the city’s historic Notre Dame Cathe­dral, which suffered severe damage on the night of April 18/19 and again on May 31, 1944. Gen. Dwight D. Eisen­hower, the person in charge of the Allied inva­sion of France, had directed the USAAF and RAF to begin striking at major trans­por­ta­tion centers like Rouen to make them unus­able to the Germans. The April raiders success­fully plastered the Sotte­ville marshaling yards with incen­di­aries in their first salvo. Their second fiery salvo hit resi­den­tial areas and Rouen’s magnif­i­cent Gothic cathe­dral lying miles from the rail yards. A few blocks from the cathe­dral France’s largest Gothic-style civic building, the Palace of Justice, was gutted by fire. In Sotte­ville alone more than 2,200 buildings were destroyed in the con­fla­gra­tion along with 900 civil­ians. By the end of May 1944 40,000 Rouen­naisse had been rendered home­less. Harrowing destruc­tion like this and else­where across France, even if acci­den­tal, sorely tested French morale on the eve of D-Day, the June 6, 1944, start date of France’s liber­a­tion from German occupation and Vichy French collaborators.

Daylight precision bombing: Rouen oil depot burning, August 1944Daylight precision bombing: bombing Germans fleeing Rouen, August 1944

Left: Smoke pours from a Rouen oil depot during a raid by the U.S. Eighth Air Force in August 1944. By the time of this raid, pre­ci­sion deliv­ery of bombs had increased tremen­dously over­all. Eighth Air Force typically put 31.8 per­cent of its bombs with­in 1,000 ft of the aim point from an aver­age alti­tude of 21,000 ft. U.S. Ninth Air Force low-level fighter bombers turned in a better per­for­mance; for example, destroying 75 percent of the 24 bridges between Rouen and Paris by D-Day.

Right: Thick black smoke rises along Rouen’s Seine river front as Ninth Air Force A-20 Havoc and B-26 Mitchell Marau­der medium bombers hit German forces fleeing the city, late-August 1944. The retreating German Army, lacking bridges to cross, resorted to ferries, which were under rocket and artil­lery attack from the air. When Cana­dian infantry entered Rouen on a rainy August 30, the German enemy was gone.

Contemporary Newsreel of U.S. B-17s Bombing Rouen, France, August 17, 1942

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