Rouen, Northwestern 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, and momen­tarily attached to 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.

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-17 Flying Fort­res­ses against the rail­road marshaling yards in Rouen’s suburb of Sotte­ville, roughly 40 miles into France from the English Chan­nel. Escorting the heavy bombers were 4 squad­rons of RAF Super­marine Spit­fire fighters. The first bomber off the ground was flown by 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 bombs. About half the bombs fell within the tar­get area, the rail yard; some rolling stock was 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, 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