Tactical Thunder: The Ninth Air Force in World War II

January 22, 2021 Topic: History Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IIAir ForceAir PowerOperation Overlord

Tactical Thunder: The Ninth Air Force in World War II

The deployment of the Ninth Air Force brought the concept of tactical air support into action for the Allies.

Here's What You Need to Know: Ninth Air Force P-47s assumed a major role in Normandy after the Allied ground forces finally broke out of the hedgerows that kept them bottled up.

As the landing craft carrying the invading Allied ground forces of Operation Overlord motored toward the Normandy beaches on June 6, 1944, they were protected and supported by the largest aerial armada the world has ever seen. In spite of medium-level clouds, a covering umbrella of American and British fighters kept the skies clear of German fighters.

Squadrons of Douglas A-20 Havoc light bombers and fighter bombers came in low over the beaches to bomb and strafe German positions and gun emplacements on the shore. Large formations of Martin B-26 Marauder medium bombers dumped their bomb loads on German gun positions a few minutes before H-Hour. A stream of glider-towing transports passed over the ships that had brought the troops across the English Channel.

Earlier that morning those same transports delivered loads of American and British paratroopers onto the drop zones around the town of St.-Mere-église. The American light and medium bombers, fighter bombers, and transports were all from Lt. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton’s United States Ninth Air Force.

Dedicated Ground Support

Along with the British Second Tactical Air Force, the Ninth Air Force was formed specifically to support the ground forces whose lot was to fight in Western Europe. The D-Day landings commenced the final and best-known period of Ninth Air Force’s wartime service, but by June 6, 1944, it had been in combat almost two years and was in the second phase of the it’s colorful history.

Furthermore, the Ninth Air Force of Normandy and Western Europe took an entirely different role than it played in 1942 and 1943, when it was a multifunction U.S. Army air force assigned to support British forces and conduct strategic bombing operations in the Middle East.

The creation of the unit that came to be known as the Ninth Air Force occurred in a somewhat roundabout manner, primarily as a result of Allied reactions to enemy activity in different parts of the globe. In early 1942, the Allied Combined Chiefs of Staff decided to consider the Far East and Middle East as interdependent areas of operation, with resources to be allocated according to the military situation at the time. The air routes that had been established from the United States and Europe to the Far East passed through the Middle East, so it was logical to consider the two areas together when it came to reinforcement in time of emergency.

Aircraft and combat units from either area of operation could be rushed to the other, considering that they were on opposite sides of the vast Asian continent. Consequently, when the Japanese gained the advantage in Burma and China in the wake of the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, thus ruling out planned heavy bomber operations against Japan, the U.S. War Department decided to halt some of the combat units that had been destined for China in the Middle East to meet an emerging threat. The British Eighth Army was battling the Afrika Korps. The decision was prompted at least in part by German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s new offensive in Libya and western Egypt and the resulting threat to Cairo and Palestine.

HALPRO and AQUILA

The first American air unit to serve in the Middle East was a special project under the command of Colonel Harry Halverson known as the Halverson Project, HALPRO for short. HALPRO was made up of a squadron of Consolidated B-24D Liberator bombers whose original mission had been to serve as the nucleus of a heavy bomber force based in China to begin a strategic bombing campaign against the Japanese mainland. Another force under the command of Colonel Caleb Haynes, known as AQUILA, had already arrived in India with a handful of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers and Douglas C-47 Skytrain transports with the same purpose in mind.

These two forces were to combine and launch attacks on Japan. Before the heavy bombers arrived, President Franklin Roosevelt authorized a daring attack on Japan by Army B-25 Mitchell medium bombers launched from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. Although news of the raid was seen as a means of raising American morale, it was a disaster for the Chinese as Japanese troops invaded all areas from which future air attacks against Japan could be launched, killing more than 250,000 Chinese civilians in the process. Japanese troops took control of the regions where the bomber bases were under construction, leaving the B-17s and B-24s without an Asian mission. The HALPRO force was halted in the Middle East and the AQUILA B-17s were ultimately ordered to Palestine as well.

The commander of the new Middle Eastern Air Force was Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, who came to the assignment in a manner even more roundabout than the creation of his new command. Brereton, who was one of the highest ranking officers in the Air Corps before the war, was in the Philippines on December 8, 1941, where he had just assumed command of the Far East Air Forces. Two weeks later, President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed to abandon the Philippines to their fate, and Brereton and his headquarters were ordered to Australia to organize an Allied air effort against the Japanese.

Brereton was only in Australia for a little over two months; in March 1942 he transferred to India to organize and take command of the Tenth Air Force, a new organization planned for operations in the China-Burma-India Theater. Brereton’s stay in India was also short lived. In June he was ordered to Cairo to take command of American air operations in the Middle East. He was also ordered to take any available bombers and all of the transports in India with him. The B-17s of the 9th Bombardment Squadron, the former AQUILA project, were part of the move.

In 1941, after an inspection trip of British air forces in the region, Maj. Gen. George Brett recommended the long-range B-24 Liberator as the ideal heavy bomber for the Middle East, and deliveries of the four-engine bombers to the Royal Air Force soon commenced. By mid-1942, when the first American air units arrived, one squadron of Royal Air Force Liberators was operational in Palestine. When America entered the war, the British immediately requested the assignment of American heavy bombers to the Middle East, but the air staff balked, reasoning that any bombers sent there would take away from the planned buildup of a heavy bomber force in Britain.

Strategic Strike on Ploesti

The changing military situation in Libya and Egypt led to a change of heart; the War Department decided to establish an air force in the Middle East with one heavy bomber group, two of medium bombers, and six pursuit groups. Brereton’s new command was initially organized as the Middle Eastern Air Force, but plans were laid for it to become the Ninth Air Force once all of the necessary units had reached the theater.

As the situation in China deteriorated, ruining American plans for an air offensive against Japan from Chinese bases, Army Air Forces commander General Henry “Hap” Arnold obtained permission from President Roosevelt to halt the secret HALPRO force in the Middle East. Arnold planned to use the B-24s for a strike on the oil refinery complex at Ploesti, Romania, which was the largest single source of all German gasoline and oil supplies and one of the most important targets in the ETO.

The mission against Ploesti was flown on the night of June 12, 1942, with negligible results, but it did have the distinction of being the first American bombing mission of the war with strategic objectives. Ninth Air Force would be going back to Ploesti. After the first Ploesti mission, HALPRO remained at Lydda, Palestine, as the HAL Squadron for operations in support of the British Eighth Army against Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Its B-24s and the 9th Bombardment Squadron’s B-17s formed the nucleus of what would become the IX Bomber Command. On July 20, the two squadrons were organized into the 1st Provisional Group (Bombardment). The combined strength of the HAL and 9th Squadrons amounted to only 28 heavy bombers—19 B-24s and nine B-17s. Although the number of Liberators would increase, B-17 strength remained at less than a dozen airplanes.

The American bombers joined with RAF Liberators in attacks on Axis shipping in the Mediterranean and targets in North Africa and along the Mediterranean shore. Although the American and British Liberators struck targets as far west as Benghazi, Libya, the B-17s’ limited range restricted them to missions no farther than Tobruk.

Reinforcements for the Middle Eastern Air Force came in late July, when the 344th Bombardment Squadron arrived as the advance element of the 98th Bombardment Group, which was on its way to Palestine from Florida. The 98th Group headquarters arrived by ship in mid-August along with personnel of the 57th Fighter Group, equipped with Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters and the first American fighter group assigned to the Middle East.