D-Day Through the RAF Museum’s Collection

Most stories about D-Day understandably focus on the actions on the ground. And rightly so. However, it was widely recognised, then and now, that the invasion could not have been successful without the contribution of air power. The Royal Air Force Museum has in its vast collection a multitude of documents, photographs and objects which relate to D-Day. Especially the aircraft on display, both at the London and Cosford site, tell the story of the invasion in their unique visual way.

More than any other service, it was the Royal Air Force which prepared the ground troops for the invasion. Photo reconnaissance aircraft had mapped every square foot of the Normandy beaches and the areas behind, providing vital information to the ground troops.

The elegant Spitfire Mk XIX at Cosford. This version was used for photo-reconnaissance

Several weeks prior to D-Day, RAF bomber aircraft had started ‘softening up’ the German defences. The infrastructure was targeted, aiming to impede Germans bringing up supplies and reinforcements. Fighter-bombers such as the Supermarine Spitfire and the Hawker Typhoon, and medium bombers such as the North American Mitchell and de Havilland Mosquito attacked roads, bridges, major crossroads, airfields and rail targets. Also, the heavy bombers, the Avro Lancaster and its lesser known twin, the Handley Page Halifax became involved. They dropped 55,000 tons of bombs on larger targets such as depots and railway junctions.

A Mitchell medium bomber in invasion colours

Surprisingly, the region around Calais was attacked more intensely to confuse the Nazi authorities and to make them believe it to be the invasion target. The ruse worked. Even days after D-Day, Hitler was convinced it was a mere diversion to the main invasion and he withheld the forces defending Calais until it was too late.

Map outlying the Bomber Command operations on the night of 5-6 June 1944

Closer to D-Day, coastal gun batteries and radar stations came under attack. All six of the long-range radar stations taken out, the Germans were blind to what was coming. As explained by Officer Geoffrey Murphy:

‘On 5th of June, 25 Typhoons from 121 Wing, led by Wing Cdr Charles Green, attacked a large radar installation near Cap de la Hague, putting it out of action. On that same evening, at about 8pm, two Typhoons of 245 Sqd flown by Flying Officer Douglas Martin and myself, were scrambled to join aircraft from other squadrons to carry out a standing patrol along the south coast of England, between Weymouth and Southampton, covering an area of about 20 miles out to sea. Although it had been clear for some weeks that the preparations for the invasion of France were proceeding rapidly, the date on which it would take place and the area in which the beachhead would be established, had naturally been a closely guarded secret. So, as we climbed into the gradually darkening sky, we were amazed to discover that, as far as the eye could see to the South, columns of ships, large, small, naval and merchant, had formed-up into parallel lines and were steaming towards the Normandy coast of France, as though proceeding to a regatta.’

Hawker Typhoon, armed with gun and underwing rockets. At the RAF Museum in London.

One aircraft closely associated with the invasion in Normandy is the Hawker Typhoon. Originally contemplated as a successor to the Supermarine Spitfire, its thick wings rendered it inferior as a fighter aircraft. However, its rugged construction, powerful engine and heavy armament of four 20 mm cannons, bombs and rockets made it excellent for low-level attacks. Before, during and after D-Day bombed, rocketed and strafed anything that moved and that could be deemed hostile. The successor to the Typhoon was the Tempest, of which two examples are on display at the RAF Museum in London. Its thin wings made it an excellent all-round combat aircraft. However, on D-Day, only two Tempest squadrons were operational.

The Supermarine Spitfire, of which the RAF Museum has five versions on display, was the main RAF fighter aircraft. It did what the Typhoon did, but it excelled as a fighter aircraft. While the armada of ships sailed toward the beaches, Spitfires were patrolling over the fleet, keeping a look out for any German aircraft, or escorting bombers to their targets. Others were spotting for Royal Navy guns, making sure the shells landed on target.

The invasion of Sicily in the summer of 1943 had taught the perils of wrong identification of aircraft. Several aircraft were lost to friendly fire. Jumpy gunners tended to fire first, ask questions later. The Sicilian invasion was small compared to the one planned for Normandy and it was expected that the friendly fire losses would have been much higher. For this reason, the Allied aircraft were painted in clear identification markings, called invasion stripes. These were five bands, ¦white¦black¦white¦black¦white, painted on the wings and rear fuselage. For security reasons, the orders to paint the stripes were not given until 3 June. In most cases, the stripes were painted only hours before D-Day, the paint still wet.

Lancasters were not only used for bombing, but also for electronic deception.

After blinding the German forces, the RAF fed them wrong information. The 1943 Dambuster Raid – the RAF Museum London has recently launched the excellent Dambusters Virtual Reality Experience – was carried out by the famous No. 617 Squadron. They were now tasked to dropped bundles of ‘Window’, large quantities of thin aluminium strips. These gave German radar false signals and convinced them that another fleet was heading toward Calais. The main American heavy bomber, the Boeing Fortress was also in service with the RAF. For D-Day, some were equipped with devices such as the ‘Airborne Cigar’. This consisted of powerful receivers and transmitters, jamming German radio frequencies. Now, the German forces were not only blind, but also deaf.

Paratrooper Rupert

An ultimate deception operation evolved around paratrooper Rupert. In fact, Rupert was a sackcloth, filled with sand and straw in the crude shape of a dummy parachutist. 450 Ruperts were dropped on the night of the invasion. Many Ruperts were designed to produce gunfire sounds or fire flares to add to the confusion for the German defenders.

This does not mean that no real paratroopers were dropped. Far from it, 15 RAF squadrons of transport and glider tug aircraft, such as the Halifax and the Douglas Dakota, flew most of the British 6th Airborne Division into Normandy, a few hours before the first troops hit the beaches. One week after the invasion, RAF Dakotas were the first transport aircraft to land in France. They brought in supplies and brought back wounded soldiers. These were cared for by air ambulance nurses, who became the first British women in active service to be sent into a war zone.

Air Ambulance, unloading wounded soldier from a Dakota. The nurses were often called the Flying Nightingales

While Spitfires and Mosquitoes protected the invasion fleet from German air attacks, other aircraft under Coastal Command protected it from German speed boats and submarines. Day and night, their aircraft patrolled the approaches to the invasion fleet. Short Sunderland flying boats or Consolidated Liberator long range aircraft were equipped with radar and were excellent at spotting and engaging German submarines. But when it came to attacking, nothing came away unscathed from the Bristol Beaufighter, armed to the teeth with ten guns and rockets, bombs or a torpedo.

Bristol Beaufighter in invasion colours

It may be expected that the RAF’s contribution was limited to the air, but this would mean omitting the contribution of the hundreds of RAF personnel at sea and on the beaches. Naval vessels were equipped with radar, operated by RAF personnel, directing Allied aircraft and protecting the troops on the beaches from the air. While the beaches were being stormed by the Army soldiers dressed in khaki, some men wearing the distinctive blue battledress. They belonged to the RAF Beach Squadrons, directing the RAF aircraft from the ground to the front line. The forward air controllers acted as a liaison between the troops and the patrolling aircraft, directing the latter toward the target. They even landed on Omaha beach with the Americans, directing RAF night fighters in defence of the beach heads.

In the two months prior to D-Day, the RAF flew 71,800 sorties, dropping 94,200 tons of bombs, almost half of the total of the Allied air forces. Unfortunately, it also meant that 702 aircraft were lost before D-Day. Many aircrew were shot down over sea. The RAF had its own Air Sea Rescue Units, a combination of patrol aircraft, even old Spitfires, flying boats, such as the Short Sunderland and hundreds of Marine Craft boats, especially high-speed launches. On D-Day alone, 163 aircrew and 60 other personnel were rescued.

No. 1 Beach Squadron, also known as the RAF Blue Commandos

Once the troops were on shore, they were supported by Spitfires, Typhoons and other powerful combat aircraft. However, not all aircraft fit that description. The tiny, unarmed and unarmoured Taylorcraft Auster was an Air Observation Post aircraft, directing artillery fire with devastating accuracy. Able to take off and land from short runways, it would also land and evacuate wounded soldiers. The Austers were flown by Army pilots, serving in RAF squadrons.

The nimble Auster airborne observation aircraft

So where was the Luftwaffe, the German counterpart to the RAF? The incessant attacks on airfields and the deception missions had left it in absolute disarray. While the RAF conducted a total of 5,656 sorties, the Luftwaffe struggled to get 319 aircraft in the air that day. Only two Fw 190 fighter aircraft appeared over the beaches that day, led by German ace Joseph Priller. He was convinced it was a one-way mission, but against all odds, he survived and finished the war with 100 victories. The RAF Museum has two rare Fw 190s on displays.

The air plan for D-Day was the most complex ever devised, involving thousands of aircraft, each with their own task, route and time schedule. Not only did the RAF need to coordinate with the Americans, the RAF itself was an amalgamation of different nationalities, from the Commonwealth, but also from several countries which had been subjugated through Nazi invasion. Several ‘national’ RAF squadrons were raised and participated on D-Day: Dutch squadrons flying Mitchells, Polish Mosquitoes, Belgian Spitfires or Norwegian Sunderlands. The RAF had trained them to the highest standard and, united, they achieved victory on D-Day.

The RAF on D-Day in one image. A Spitfire Mk Vb with a Polish pilot and an RAF Marine Craft

Aircraft types in our collection that served on D-Day:

RAF Museum London:

Avro Anson: Hangar 5
Avro Lancaster: Hangar 5
Boeing Fortress: Hangar 5
Bristol Beaufighter: Hangar 4
Consolidated Liberator: Hangar 5
de Havilland Mosquito: Hangar 5
Focke-Wulf Fw 190: Hangar 5
Handley Page Halifax: Hangar 5
Hawker Typhoon: Hangar 3
Hawker Tempest V: Hangar 3
Junkers Ju 87: Hangar 5
Marine Craft boats: Hangar 1
Messerschmitt Bf 110: Hangar 5
North American Mitchell: Hangar 5
North American Mustang: Hangar 5
Short Sunderland: Hangar 1
Supermarine Spitfire V, XVI and F24: Hangars 1 and 3
Taylorcraft Auster: Hangar 3

at the RAF Museum Midlands:

de Havilland Mosquito: War in the Air
Douglas Dakota: National Cold War Exhibition
Focke-Wulf Fw 190: War in the Air
Junkers Ju 88: War in the Air
Messerschmitt Bf 109: War in the Air

About the Author

Kris Hendrix: Researcher

As researcher at the RAF Museum I feel privileged to be allowed to explore the Museum’s archives and find information for public and media enquiries, exhibitions, blogs and vlogs. I love the stories of a 100 years of RAF history and I am passionate about sharing these inspiring stories to a wider audience.