Letters from War – Witnessing a massive bombing raid and fighting near Saint-Lô, 1944

This is part of our “Letters from War” series documenting the World War II letters of Irvin Schwartz of Pine Grove, PA. The letters were all published in the West Schuylkill Press-Herald between 1943 and 1945. 

Read the previous letter here

In August 1944, Private First Class Irvin Schwartz decided to reflect on the remarkable scenes he had witnessed during the Battle of Normandy in a letter to his hometown newspaper. Schwartz, a 19-year-old anti-tank gunner in the 26th Regiment, 1st US Army Division, had watched as thousands of American warplanes shredded German defenses outside the French city of Saint-Lô on July 25, 1944.

Schwartz 1944 (1)
A 1944 photograph of Irvin Schwartz

The bombing campaign marked the opening of Operation Cobra, an offensive designed to allow Allied forces to finally breakout of Normandy and the infamous hedgerows where fighting had been concentrated since the D-Day landings on June 6. Schwartz reflected on what he saw near Saint-Lô on July 25, 1944 in a remarkable letter home to his former employers at the West Schuylkill Press-Herald. 

In the letter, Schwartz described seeing a massive air raid take place, watching American planes blown out of the sky by anti-aircraft fire. He watched air crews evacuating their planes – some with parachutes and others speeding to earth without them. He witnessed aircraft blown out of the sky. Schwartz and his comrades gaped as the surviving aircraft dropped thousands of tons of bombs directly over their heads and the resulting thundering concussion as they smashed into the German frontline but a few miles away.

He then turns his pen to the aftermath and and his regiment’s rapid moves across France toward the east. He describes the infamous V-1 weapons used by the Germans on British cities. These “buzz bombs” were early version of cruise missiles that wreaked havoc in London during World War II.

With the Allied Force in France

August 30, 1944

Dear Mae:

Again I am writing from the famed hedgerows of France – the very spot from where today are coming the greatest headlines featured on your radio, newsreel, and in the newspaper. Although these hedges are gradually disappearing as we approach the German border, they are still to be seen on all our flanks.

As we leave Paris, the “hub” of Western Europe, far behind, as we near the Pas de Calais area which is the scene of the Flying Bomb installations; and as this great allied war machine races toward Berlin minute after minute from practically every direction, our minds briefly go back to the starting point of this present advance which is today seriously threatening the Belgium border.

I am now thinking of St. Lo, a city which ever since the start of this attack has been exactly what the latter half its name indicates. And then also the mass bombing mission wherein between 3,000 and 4,000 aircraft of the United States Air Force stationed in England took part.

St. Lo
A colorized photograph of the ruins of Saint-Lô in 1944 (Wikimedia Commons)

We were being shelled by the Nazis’ much-heard-about “88” as well as by other enemy artillery pieces as our company commander spoke to us briefly on the “the things to come.” It was one or two days before the bombing mission which officially started the move, that we were given the least possible information on our next objective. Our commanding officer went as far as to say that we can be on the lookout for the scheduled air attack.

American troops fighting in the hedgerows of Normandy in the summer of 1944 (Wikimedia Commons)

So we waited patiently for the planes. At times we heard some aircraft far away but they turned out to be some P-47 Thunderbolts which in turn strafed and divebombed the Jerries not far from our own positions. Other times we heard planes and they happened to be P-51 Mustangs and in some cases P-38 Lightnings, but not part of the thing we knew was coming.

Probably then or probably 48 hours later. We heard more planes and what they really were wasn’t the bombers we had on our minds but huge C-47 transports carrying wounded soldiers to hospitals in England. So we just waited on as patiently as possible until the big show really did get underway. Yes at the time, St. Lo still stood “high.”

One very beautiful, warm, sunny, mid-morning we heard a roaring sound of motors many miles away. It seemed to come from a northerly direction which inclined us to believe this might be it. We heard the noise many minutes before we could finally see a group of little specks which seemed like birds coming toward us but which were miles away.

B-17 Formation
A formation of B-17s from the 8th Air Force on a mission over Germany in 1944 (National Air and Space Museum)

The noise became more thrilling and the “birds” larger. We could see even smaller “birds” patrolling the front, rear, and both left and right flanks of the “families” of 33 or 35 in a group. They came nearer, they showed up better, and we knew the show was on. The pursuits – Lightnings, Mustangs and Thunderbolts – escorted the bombers and were on the lookout for any appearance of the Luftwaffe. But the German air force failed to appear.

Our fighter planes marked the target for our bombers, and the target was just in front of our own very front lines. White streamers were stretched all along our lines for the benefit of our thousands and thousands of airmen – all flying in nice formation from bases all over England.

Our bombers came within sufficient range which enabled us to decide that they were “heavies” or four-engined bombers. But this caused numerous arguments. Many argued they were our own B-17 Flying Fortresses while others believed they were B-24 Liberators of the U.S. Air Force. Some even said they were Lancasters, Halifaxes, and Stirlings – all four engined bombers of the Royal Air Force.

Finally I decided they were “Forts” and three minutes later my statement was proved. There were “families” of 33 or 35 in a group and there were many, many groups. There was much German anti-aircraft fire which undoubtedly tried to make up for the absence of the Luftwaffe fighter planes. In the face of ack-ack all around them, our planes dropped their “eggs” almost directly over us but they naturally landed on the Nazi positions.

Each plane seemed to drop its bombs with ease and turn to the right and head for the Normandy Beachheads, across the English Channel, and finally Old England.

B-17-bombs-away (1)
B-17s dropping their payload. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Libs” suddenly comprised the formations and the heavies kept coming for the rest of the morning. Noon arrived and we grabbed our mess kits for a little chow and still the planes came. All the time we stood on a high hill watching the spectacle, entirely ignoring the fact that we were well within reach of German artillery fire. We even never gave our steel helmets a thought and yet before the air mission commenced, we never felt right without them.

Suddenly one boy yells “one’s hit” and a line of dark smoke was seen stretching from the tail of a Fort for miles back. Another was hit and caught fire. The pilot desperately tried to “fly out” the flame and succeeded. And another was hit and very suddenly was in flames. Then another plane came down to the ground behind enemy lines. In some of these cases the crew bailed out, in some only part of the crews jumped before the plane burned, while in some cases the airmen never received the chance to use their parachutes.

Combat B-17
Combat photograph of a B-17 in flames and going down (Reddit)

In one case I saw a flyer bail out of a Liberator. His chute opened nicely but caught the tail of his burning craft. The fire came nearer and nearer to the plane’s twin-tail until finally the parachute was ablaze. Down came a little dark silhouette chuteless. He made the supreme sacrifice, as did all our airmen who weren’t given the opportunity to jump out before their bombers were hit, caught fire, and crashed.

In the meantime, our dive-bombers spotted most of the Jerry ack-ack guns and eventually decreased that noise to almost a standstill. After our heavies came over for well over two hours we thought the end of the start has come. But soon the bombing resumed. This time by two-engined medium bombers which were B-26 Marauders of the USAAF. They, too, did their share and were being escorted by P-47’s, P-38’s, and P-51’s. The bombing ceased in the afternoon after a long period of earth-shaking over a wide area and dark thick clouds of smoke spreading low over the ground for miles and miles – a result of the bombs dropped by both our heavies and our mediums.

B-26 Bomb Run
B-26 Marauder medium bombers on a bomb run over Normandy. (Wikimedia)

We then knew it was the end, but also the beginning of “a push” which I figured would gain for us approximately 40 to 50 miles – about 80 kilometers, as distance is represented here in France. But to this very day our tide rides high on the road to Berlin, and although St. Lo is destroyed, we are gaining qualities which long ago made up for losses there.

US Army forces moving through shattered Saint-Lo

You probably knew long before I did that the air attack was enacted by more than 1,500 heavies, over 500 mediums, and well over 1,000 escorting fighters. Also that some bombs dropped short; among our casualties being General Lesley J. McNair.

Yes, “the things” which still today the British call the Pilotless Planes launched from the Pas de Calais section in Northwestern France to London and southern England, surprised us as Hitler’s much publicized “secret weapon,” but so is our mighty drive today surprising not only Germany but this entire world.

The robot plane or flying bomb – another name given to Hitler’s V-1 weapon, has never affected our war effort, while at the same time our present drive will undoubtedly continue until final victory – putting an end to another traditioned German military machine which such a short time ago threatened the destruction of this entire world. Remember the pile of debris which however still holds the name of St. Lo.

A V1 rocket in flight toward its target (Wikimedia Commons)

We saw planes come down and beyond doubt many more were forced down between the scene of the bombing and the beach before reaching the shores of England, but it was the start of the end of World War II. Our airmen, who we saw make the supreme sacrifice, are the very ones who will win us final victory here in the European Theatre. Remember them in your prayers.

As I look over these paragraphs, I discover that I really wrote them hastily, although this by all means was necessary, taking into consideration the number of minutes we are allowed by the speed of this front for writing or resting. Should I be allowed sufficient time, I will “take you to Paris” in my next letter, even though we have left the former French capital far behind in our string of liberated cities.

In the meantime, as “Blood and Guts” Patton rolls on, “Remember St. Lo.”

As ever,

Irvin R. Schwartz,

U.S. Army

P.S. – Today my helmet goes off to the little French girl who upon seeing the Luftwaffe make one of its rare daylight appearances ran and cautioned two American officers who were sleeping along these numerous hedgerows that enemy aircraft was overhead. This in turn enabled the two officers to take cover from possible strafing and bombing on the part of the Messerschmitts, Foche-Wulfes, Dornies, Heinkels, or whatever else the Luftwaffe might have sent up in the line of aircraft.

This tiny Mademoiselle may not have been a member of the F.F.I – French Forces of the Interior, but just the same she can forever say that she actually took part in the Battle of France, and also helped to set her country free after four years of Nazi domination. Today, everybody “pitches in” for final victory.

Featured Image: The shattered city of Saint-Lô in July 1944 (Wikimedia Commons)

This is part of a series titled: “Letters from War.” Read more of the letters written by Irvin Schwartz during World War II

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