121 EAW Staff Ride Normandy
Fourteen personnel from 121 EAW and across the Station took part in an Expeditionary Air Power Staff Ride to Normandy in France.
The group set off from RAF Coningsby on a bright June morning and travelled to Southwick Park, Gen Dwight D Eisenhower’s Headquarters for the planning and execution of Op OVERLORD, for an overnight stop to kick off the Staff Ride.
Our Air Power Expert, Gp Capt (Ret’d) Chris Finn from BBMF, started the proceedings in the Map Room with an informative presentation regarding the Strategic setting and “Monty’s Plan”. His back drop was the original D-Day landing strategic map, which has been set to match H-Hour on that historic day.
Day 2 started with an early rise for a quick trip to Portsmouth Ferry Terminal. After a thorough search by Port authorities who mistook us for football hooligans, we boarded ready to set sail for Normandy. We gathered, after breakfast, on the windy deck in readiness for the first session.
Flt Lt Stu Wood, our Det Commander, presented the Convoy Plan; maritime threat; and the contribution of air power in the achievement of control of the sea. A Group Discussion period followed that focused on the appropriateness of the traditional concepts of control, of the air and sea to current and potential future operations.
After the 6 hour Ferry crossing, we docked in France where we made our way to Pegasus Bridge. Flt Lt Al McLaughlan gave the next presentation focusing on the 6th British Airborne Assault spanning from the planning and training through to the aftermath, operational and tactical effect.
We arrived at Mercure Hotel in Caen, noting it was a vast improvement on the transit block at Southwick Park, where we checked in and then set off to explore the cultural side of Caen and take in the English football match, which turned out a disappointment to most but a delight in the eyes of our Scottish contingent.
On Day 3 we made our way down to SWORD beach (one of the British landing beaches), where Chris Finn informed us about Air C2 (air defence and air support). He explored the effectiveness of the arrangements of Air C2 from D-Day until the air forces were established ashore and encouraged discussion about this concept today.
Afterward, we made our way to Strongpoint HILLMAN (a German Defence Battery overlooking SWORD beach), located in the village of Coleville-Montgomery. The village name was changed in memory of the famous Field Marshall. Sgt Dawn Reid gave us an explanation about the Initial British Landings; what the British D-Day final objective was; and why it was not achieved.
In Douvres-la-Deliverande Radar site, Flt Lt McLaughlan gave a presentation about the Deception Plan, although trying to understand Flt Lt McLaughlan’s strong Welsh brogue could be considered deception plan enough!
To round off the morning, we arrived at Arromanches View point for a presentation by Chris Finn on Theatre Logistics. He explored how effective and flexible the Theatre logistics plan was and its implementation. He expertly tied this in with the modern concept of the Expeditionary Air Wing that we practise today and explained how a well-implemented and planned logistics chain is essential to delivering air power.
After lunch, we concluded our visits with Flt Lt Luke O’Brien talking us through what unique problems the air logistics organisations faced and how they were overcome. Importantly this stand took place at Airfield B-5, the home of the 121 Expeditionary Typhoon Force the forebears of the current 121 Expeditionary Air Wing. Given the austere nature of operating out of a field in blustery Normandy, Baltic Air Policing didn’t seem so bad after all.
Day 4 started at the Longues Battery, where SAC Chris Randall gave a presentation about Integrated Fires, in front of one of the badly damaged artillery pieces (This piece took a direct hit from one of the invasion fleet ships). He talked us through how effective air operations were to seal-off Normandy and suppress German defences.
After this we moved onto OMAHA Beach where we fully appreciated the turmoil faced by the Americans compared to the British forces. In comparison to SWORD beach, which was a relatively gentle incline, OMAHA beach was a massive expanse with a steep bank to overcome, whilst under heavy fire, with a shingle bank and very little other cover available. This was made famous in the film Saving Private Ryan.
FS Scott Murray gave his presentation on the beach about Command & Decision making, in particular what problems Gen Omar Bradley faced on D-Day and how they were overcome; he also discussed how close Bradley was to calling off the attack on OMAHA Beach.
We proceeded to have a beach walk, led by Chris Finn. This included an overview of the beach and its battlements. We then visited the American cemetery and museum, where we could witness the true “cost” in terms of human lives not only laid down on D-Day, but throughout the war. Notable burials in this cemetery include Medal of Honor recipients including Brigadier-General Theodore Roosevelt Jr (son of President Theodore Roosevelt) and Quentin Roosevelt who was an aviator KIA during WW1 but was reinterred to be placed next to his brother. Also buried there are the Niland Brothers, the true life inspiration for Saving Private Ryan, laid to rest side by side.
Before Dinner, we travelled to the Caen Castle and positioned on the ramparts for a presentation by Flt Lt Stu Wood. He covered the bombing of Caen and the morality of Monty’s decision to destroy such a heavily civilianised area. An intense discussion period followed on the concept of a ‘just war’ and whether the events in Caen should have been considered a war crime. Rather unsurprisingly, a unanimous decision was unachievable.
Day 5 began in Cagny with a presentation by WO Taylor on Operation GOODWOOD, before we moved to the St Lambert viewpoint for Chris Finn’s overview of the Falaise pocket. We then proceeded to Mt Ormel Museum where the heavens opened! This made it particularly challenging to deliver my presentation given we were in the open using a flip chart! I focused on the Fighter Bomber Typhoon and its effectiveness in the destruction of the retreating Germans, including the physical & mental effects of air attacks on the battered German Forces.
Before visiting the museum, we had a group discussion on what we had learnt from the week and how it reflects in the job we do today.
The conclusion to our trip on Day 6 was the return journey back to RAF Coningsby, thankful we were on the Ferry as the Euro Tunnel had broken down!
On a personal note I would highly recommend to all personnel that these trips are few and far between and would urge anyone who has an opportunity to participate in one should jump at the chance, especially when you have such an experienced guide with a wealth of knowledge such as Mr Finn.