An Open Letter to the Airborne Community on the History of OPERATION NEPTUNE June 6, 1944
This letter was written by Randy Hils, USAAF Troop Carrier Historian. As he points out, the published record on OPERATION NEPTUNE is in urgent need of correction.
January, 17 2003
To: E. M. Flanagan, Lt. Gen. USA (Ret)
Re: An Open Letter to the Airborne Community on the History of OPERATION NEPTUNE June 6, 1944
I am writing to you regarding the history of OPERATION NEPTUNE, the airborne assault on Normandy, June 6, 1944. In reading your recent book, Airborne: A Combat History of American Airborne Forces, I noted a number of statements that seem to be transcribed from earlier inaccurate accounts of this mission.
It is noted on the jacket of your book that you are, “America’s leading expert on airborne history.” As such I thought that you would have an interest in reviewing some of the problems that seem to be endemic in airborne history related to NEPTUNE.
Although this letter is addressed to you personally it is an open letter to the airborne community and copies will be sent to a number of airborne and troop carrier historians. There needs to be a serious debate on the historicity of NEPTUNE. I hope that you will pass it on to the Army historians noted in the Acknowledgements section of your book. Perhaps it will challenge them to undertake a new study of NEPTUNE as some of the history the U.S. Army disseminates today on the subject is seriously flawed.
It was a little over three years ago that I began what has grown into continuous study of NEPTUNE. While collecting information on my father’s service in WWII as a troop carrier radio operator I was introduced to, D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of WWII, by Dr. Stephen E. Ambrose. I was already familiar with the history and some of the official records of dad’s unit, the 440th Troop Carrier Group. My further interest in NEPTUNE was stimulated more I think by my military training and experience as a Marine Corps
Airlift Planner. From that perspective much of what I had read about the NEPTUNE mission didn’t make sense. Of particular note histories don’t address the primary operational elements that comprise an airborne/airlift mission.
In reading your book I thought that your account, in so far as I am familiar with airborne history was quite good until I came to Chapter 13, Operation Neptune: Airborne Invasion of Normandy. It was surprising to read that you base most of your material on 9th Troop Carrier Command on Ambrose’s D-Day. Over the past few years Ambrose’s writing on troop carrier in NEPTUNE has been largely discredited by both airborne and troop carrier historians who engaged in dialog on the subject. Some have also published articles on the
Ambrose errors. Using your text as a basis I will illuminate for you the problems with Ambrose’s work and explore some of the research and material that has come to light through my work as well as the work of others I am associated with on the issue of NEPTUNE history.
To preface my analysis I must first point out that I believe the root cause of inaccurate history about NEPTUNE lies with General S.L.A. Marshall. Marshall and his historical team as you may be aware, were charged with recording the history of the Normandy Invasion. Teams collected information in the form of oral recollections from soldiers in the field. These reports and official airborne documents were later the basis for the Regimental Field Studies of the various parachute infantry regiments that participated in NEPTUNE as well as the basis for Marshall’s own book, Night Drop
In reading some of the field studies and Marshall’s book what was noticeably absent from these root histories were any accounts by troop carrier aircrews or any reference to the records of 9th Troop Carrier Command. Most information regarding the performance of troop carrier on NEPTUNE comes from the paratroopers they carried. While I believe that these paratroopers gave what they believed to be honest accounts of the mission there is in some recollections related to troop carrier a point from which their knowledge of the
facts departs into assumption. From their place with in the aircraft they would have limited knowledge that could be imparted regarding wounds to pilots, damage to the aircraft and its effect on control and finally the aeronautical problems the pilots faced in varying situations. Oral recollections have their place in historical study however they are often interpreted as absolute fact.
Marshall could have addressed accusations of evasive action, excess speed and low drops by simply referencing the chalk numbers of the paratroopers involved to the records of the pilots who carried them and conducting an interview with the aircrew of that aircraft. The result is, the actions of one fourth of the
participants in NEPTUNE, are judged, by persons who really didn’t have the facts or expertise to make those conclusions. I can well imagine the hue and cry that would arise should pilots from the point of an aircraft be the sole contributors to a historical study that would judge the performance of an infantry squad or platoon on the ground.
The failure of Marshall, to accurately report the NEPTUNE mission constitutes one of the major historical debacles of WWII. Marshall is the spring from which the river of misinformation on NEPTUNE continues to flow, even to this day. A historian seeking objective information regarding troop carrier operations at
Normandy will find the regimental field studies of the parachute infantry of little value. They were ill conceived, inaccurate and they remain incomplete.
By examining your work, Airborne: A Combat History of American Airborne Forces, I will support most of my contentions regarding the history of NEPTUNE. As you did not cite either by endnote or footnote your specific sources, if I assume a particular source and I am wrong, please feel free to correct me.
Many of my citations will come from, Airborne Operations In WWII, European Theater, USAF Historical Studies: No. 97, by Dr. John C. Warren, September 1956. Heretofore I will refer to this monograph simply as (Warren). It is, I believe the first historical study to blend the combined official documents of the 82nd Airborne, 101st Airborne, and 9th Troop Carrier Command. It is meticulously footnoted to those documents as well as other sources.
To reference Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day book, from here on I will reference it as (Ambrose).
Chapter 13 of your book, Operation Neptune: Airborne Invasion of Normandy. Beginning on page 179 paragraph 3, number of C-47s for paratroopers of the 82nd, 378. For the 101st you state 490 planes. Your total is, 868 planes for the paratroopers. From the official records we find, NEPTUNE ALBANY, the 101st including Pathfinders: dispatched 433. For NEPTUNE BOSTON, the 82nd including Pathfinders: dispatched 378 for a total of 821. (Warren page 224, Appendix 1). Another source for this information would be the after action reports of the individual troop carrier groups.
In paragraph three of the same page you contend that “The majority of the pilots were novices,” “relatively inexperienced” and “each with only a few hundred flying hours.” Do you have a document or statistical sampling to back these statements up? In three years of research and correspondence with troop
carrier Aircraft Commanders, (First Pilots), I could find none with less than 450 hours going into Normandy. Col. Robert Gates, CO of the 88th Troop Carrier Squadron offered that his Aircraft Commanders were required a minimum of 800 hours. The threshold for an “experienced” pilot in aviation is 500 hours. Troop carrier pilots because of frequency of their missions, the C-47s being in high demand at all times, and the range of their aircraft, accumulated hours at a faster rate than fighter or bomber pilots.
From activation to the end of the war each troop carrier unit kept a daily diary, sometimes called a “war diary'” of daily activities, I have three of them at hand. They record the daily activity and training down to minute detail. The pilots came from the same Advanced Twin Engine schools as bomber pilots by which
time they would have accumulated 200 hours of flight training. For TC there was an additional 25 hours of transition training into the C-47. Pilots then trained “day and night” for months in the unique requirements of TC operations. Recorded are combined training cycles with airborne units at various airborne training centers before the groups undertook the long arduous transcontinental movements of their groups. The 440th TCG took the southern route through the Caribbean to Brazil, across the Atlantic to Ascension Island to North Africa and finally to England. There the groups participated in further joint training operations that culminated in OPERATION EAGLE, the final dress rehearsal for NEPTUNE.
Finally, you compare these “inexperienced” “novices” with the “superbly qualified “Blue Angels” types of later years.” No, they were not Blue Angels. Conversely, would the Blue Angels be capable of, or qualified to, undertake a double glider tow, in an era, when weather analysis consisted of the Operations Officer, walking outside and, being able to see the other side of the airfield through the haze yelled, get them in the air!
You state that there were, “no guidance lights except a small blue light in the tail of the plane ahead.” In actuality the formation lights consisted of three sets of three blue lights dimmed to the minimum. One set on each wing and another set down the top of the fuselage. They were shielded in such a way as to
be only visible from directly behind or above. Reference the 2003 edition of, Airborne Troop Carrier: 3-1-5 Group, by William L. Brinson, page 111. I also have in my files identical descriptions of the formation lighting in correspondence with troop carrier veterans.
What is your basis for the last statement of this paragraph, “Their worst fear was a midair collision?” How many pilots did you interview to feel comfortable with this generalization? Troop carrier pilots had practiced
separation procedures in the event of weather. If weather was anticipated flight leaders would assign various altitudes and headings for an allotted period of time and with the aid of the ADF, Automatic Direction Finder a group could reform after flying through weather. I believe their worst fears, like the rest of us, varied from man to man.
Page 181, last paragraph, the pathfinders, “most of the pathfinder plane pilots failed to find the proper DZs. One planeload from the 101st was lost; the men jumped early and were lost in the Channel”. In Warren, pages 32-33, summarizing the work of the pathfinders, ” though only two serials achieved the degree prescribed in the directives, all teams were put near enough their zones to perform their missions in spite of cloudy weather.”
As for the troopers who you allege jumped to their deaths in the Channel, this statement of yours is a apparently a derivative of, “One team landed in the Channel”, page 196, (Ambrose). Actually the aircraft was shot down and ditched, all aboard were rescued, page 33, paragraph two, (Warren). Also see, D-Day with the Screaming Eagles, George Koskimaki, pages 34 and 35 for a detailed account of the ditching. See Warren and Koskimaki for detailed accounts of the pathfinders set up of equipment. Your contention that most of the pathfinders did not activate their guidance equipment is in error.
Page 182, the last two paragraphs a citation of two paragraphs from, (Ambrose). “They could speed up which most of them did. They were supposed to throttle back to ninety miles per hour or less, to reduce the opening shock for the paratroopers, but ninety miles per hour at 600 feet made them easy targets for the Germans on the ground, so they pushed the throttle forward and sped up to 150 miles per hour, meanwhile either descending to 300 feet or climbing to 2000 feet or more. They twisted and turned, spilling their passengers and cargo.” “They had no idea where they were, except that they were over the Cotentin.”
This paragraph is one of many that were without citation in the D-Day book, (Ambrose). Of interest are Ambrose’s conclusions of what “most” did. On June 2, 2000 Ambrose called troop carrier historian Lew Johnson and left a lengthy telephone message in which he admitted that he had not interviewed a single
troop carrier pilot for his book, (copy in my files). The book does contain a couple of collected oral recollections from TC personnel. With that in mind, how could Ambrose know what “most” pilots did?
“Approaching the zones the formations would descend to 700 feet and slow down from the cruising speed of 140 miles per hour to 110 miles per hour” (Warren), page 35. Also verified to me in several correspondences with troop carrier pilots.
Of particular surprise to many of the 440th TCG pilots is the last sentence, “They had no idea where they were, except that they were over the Contentin.” Reference page 38, of D-Day with the Screaming Eagles,
Captain Frank Lillyman’s statement, “Credit should be given to the 440th and 441st Groups of Troop Carrier Command. Using radar only, and no lights because of the tenuous position, forty-seven aircraft delivered their personnel to the intended DZ this totaled more than the other two drop zones combined.”
To read page 200 of D-Day, (Ambrose), one would think that troop carrier is taking a pretty good beating, “Virtually every plane got hit by something.” This is a fabrication at odds with the official records that show 21 aircraft destroyed and 196 damaged, (Warren), page 224.
Another fabrication, “one suggestion was that every pilot of Troop Carrier Command be made to jump from a plane going 150 miles per hour.” Page 223, (Ambrose), End note 61, 82nd Airborne Debriefing Conference, August 13, 1944, copy in EC, (Eisenhower Center). I obtained the full text of the referenced document and found that the statement does not exist in the text of that document.
These are just a few examples of many more errors in the Ambrose book on D-Day. Since 1995 veterans of the troop carrier have written to Ambrose, providing empirical evidence of the errors in his book. Some asked that the errors be corrected and called for a dialog on the subject. A number of those thoughtful letters are in my files. Twice, Ambrose promised to address these issues only to later renege on those promises. When stories appeared in the press in the beginning of 2002 regarding the accuracy issues the Ambrose organization opted instead to mount a misinformation campaign portraying the veterans as cranks.
John Keegan in Six Armies in Normandy concluded that the troop carrier pilots were the “least qualified” disgruntled, pilots in the AAF. Clay Blair in Ridgway’s Paratroopers concluded that they were the, “bottom of the pile,” “the least motivated.” Utter hogwash! The most detailed account of pilot training and selection can be found in Federal Document, The Army Air Forces in WWII: Vol. Six, Men and Planes. This was a seven volume series on the wartime history of the AAF was initiated by the government. Civilian historians were utilized for the study, to preclude any bias by the U.S.A.F. My research on assignments per particular classes indicates that pilots were largely selected for a particular type of aircraft based on the needs of the service.
The commonality of Ambrose, Keegan, Blair and so many more historians on Normandy at least when it comes to troop carrier is that: they are wholly unfamiliar with their subject, few ever interviewed troop carrier personnel and fewer still ever examined the official records of the units involved.
Some heretofore unstudied aeronautical problems of the mission are the weights and balance of the aircraft, weather and the effect of control on the perception of speed and opening shock. The first and foremost mission consideration of an Airlift Planner is weights and balance, that is the loading related to the center of gravity of the plane around which the flight control is designed. An aircraft that is miss-loaded or overloaded is out of its weights and balance. Violation of performance design by overloading remains today a common cause of air crashes.
A random sampling of pilot records for Normandy indicated the troop carrier planes were overloaded from 1,000 to 4,000 pounds! The overloads seriously affected pilot control of the aircraft. The primary reason for upping the jump speed from 90 miles per hour to 110 miles per hour was to adjust for the anticipated excess loads of parachute skids and parapacks of equipment not normally carried on practice jumps. Further the paratroopers themselves had never been so heavily loaded. Even at 110 miles per hour some of the planes were at stall speed and some did stall in flight.
Troop Carrier formations flew with each flight stacked fifty feet higher than the preceding flight so that turbulence would be reduced on both the following aircraft and their parachutists. A serial with the leader at 700 feet would ideally have the tail end Charlies at 1200 feet. Unfortunately the cloud cover at Normandy was recorded as low as 300 feet to a high of 2500 feet. Formations, some recording the cloud cover as low as 500 feet flattened out and turbulence seriously affected both the following aircraft as well as the troopers that jumped from them.
The cloud cover extended as much as fifteen miles inland on a peninsula about twenty miles wide. Some pilots with sometimes just minutes to identify a DZ often slowed suddenly, some also had to loose altitude as the clouds were encountered on the descent leg from 1500 feet. Many paratroopers swear that by the sound of the engines the pilots speeded up instead of slowing down and there is no doubt opening shock tore away the equipment of some. A couple of different control problems I believe contributed significantly to those perceptions.
First, according to troop carrier pilot, Lew Johnson, a very effective way to, “slow down and loose altitude in a C-47 is to pull the throttles back, and at the same time set the engine revolutions higher. The forward motion of the airplane makes the propellers windmill faster without power being applied, which acts as an airbrake to reduce forward speed. To the uninitiated, this sounds like power being applied.”
Secondly, pilots who had to slow suddenly behind other aircraft were in danger of over running the leaders ahead as they slowed for the jump. The sudden drop in airspeed brought them to the point of stalling. As the troopers exited the aircraft pilots had to apply power to keep from stalling and troopers jumped into full prop blast to the sound of speeding engines experiencing terrific opening shock yet the aircraft were only going 110 miles per hour.
Third, normally in practice jumps pilots feathered the left prop to reduce to a minimum prop blast and resulting opening shock. Even under the best circumstances at Normandy given the extreme loading, feathering the prop wasn’t an option. Close to stall speed the effect of feathering the prop would be the same as losing an engine. Loaded as these planes were losing an engine would cause them to immediately drop like a rock. Some severely overloaded planes would even require climb power to effect the tail high position required for troopers to clear the aircraft at 110 miles per hour. Again engines are straining as power is applied to maintain the weight of the moment.
Page 192, last paragraph you claim planes dropped their troopers at “175 miles per hour.” Other histories vary between 150 to even 200 miles per hour yet all available information indicates a C-47 loaded in excess of 30,000 pounds gross tops out at about 150 miles per hour.
I undertook independent research with commercial pilots flying C-47s today to verify what troop carrier pilots related. Without indicating the circumstances or reasons for my questions the commercial pilots verified the control conditions that I just described to you.
Another little studied detail of Normandy was wind. According to General John Galvin author of Air Assault: The Development of Airmobile Warfare (1969) the wind speed gusted from 20-30 knots over the drop zones. Many paratroopers were injured hitting the ground more horizontally than vertically. Oral histories confirm this experience as well as being dragged for good distances in chutes. Correspondence with the 82nd Airborne Advanced Airborne Assault School brought to light some very interesting information. The safe limit for wind over the drop zone today is 13 knots.
Regarding Marshall and Ambrose their historical problems are not confined to NEPTUNE. Marshall’s credibility has been severely damaged by the discovery of fabrications related to his accusations of cowardice by British coxswains at Omaha Beach. Colonel David Hackworth who worked with Marshall in Vietnam gives us another rather chilling insight into Marshall in his book, About Face. Ambrose was nailed to the wall by railroad historians who documented fifty pages of errors in his book, Nothing Like it in the World. Complete documentation of some of these incidents and others can be found at the History News Network web site of George Mason University at: http://hnn.us/articles/504.html titled, Ambrose, How the Story Developed, the articles are intermingled with articles on Ambrose plagiarism.
The material I have presented is just a partial sampling of the errors I have identified regarding the history of NEPTUNE. Historians and writers continue to crank out histories of D-Day compounding the errors I have cited and more.
General Ridgway and General Gavin wrote strong letters of commendation regarding troop carrier at Normandy, the troop carrier units earned the Distinguished Unit Citation for Normandy, many pilots earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery under fire, making multiple passes to get troopers into their drop zones. Other pilots sacrificed themselves and their crews for their troopers yet you will find little if any mention of these facts in histories on D-Day.
To many of the troop carrier men who served the airborne in major battles and on thousands of little known missions the history of NEPTUNE as it continues to be presented is an insult. An insult not only to their dedication and professionalism it is a desecration of the memory and sacrifices of their comrades who perished at Normandy. The unfortunate recipients of this flawed history will be future generations. Should you require any related documentation, please feel free to contact me.