Geschwader Bongart’s transformation into a combat unit was at once an indication of the Luftwaffe’s flexibility and its weakness. The increasing threat to German communications, life and property posed by French insurgency was countered by the redeployment of assets already to hand, but Luftflotte 3 was not able to constitute a specially trained and equipped formation. It was not even able to rationalise the new unit’s aircraft inventory to minimise maintenance and supply problems. Geschwader Bongart operated a ragbag of types and sub-types, even within individual Staffeln. None of these aircraft was new — one Bf 110 had been built in April 1940 — and probably the most modern machine on strength was a Bf 109 G-5 handed down from JG 1. The Geschwader met neither aerial opposition nor, apparently, any anti-aircraft defence more powerful than infantry machine guns and seems to have lost very few aeroplanes on operations.
It could neither maintain reconnaissance cover over every insecure area nor respond to every “terrorist” incident. From the German perspective, it was probably most effectively employed in the support of 1944’s successive punitive expeditions by ground forces against Maquis-held areas in the south east. As seems inevitable in counter-insurgency warfare, large numbers of non-combatants were killed because (then as now) they found themselves in the way of armed force or fell victim to reprisals or intimidatory violence. Judging by the towns and villages whose casualties are given above, with the possible exception of the Vercors operation, Geschwader Bongart probably killed far more civilians than Resistance fighters. At times German intelligence was either faulty or none too particular and a “partisan village” — Séderon for example — could be occupied almost entirely by non-combatants.
It is difficult to escape the impression that the Germans retrospectively classified anyone they killed during these operations as a terrorist. There is no doubt that Bongart was used to support ground operations during which atrocities were committed either in the treatment of combatants or in “reprisals” against such civilians as happened to be in the vicinity. The Geschwader reported on its operations not only to Luftflotte 3 but also to the number two in the SS police and security apparatus in France. It seems probable that these agencies were identifying targets for the Geschwader and a number of them were divorced from any current ground fighting. Such attacks appear to have been intended as punishment or intimidation (“deterrence” in modern terms) — letting the populace know that they were being watched and that resistance activity came at a cost. Whether the aircrew were ever briefed in such terms is unknown but those directing operations had no need for honesty when euphemisms such as “important terrorist base” would have served equally well.
In writing this article, I’ve found that internet searches on place names cropping up in wartime sources often produce more detail or leads to other air attacks. Towns, organisations and individuals across France have worked to document the actions fought by local Resistance groups and to commemorate the lives lost during the occupation, deportations and liberation. The many 70th anniversaries occurring in 2014 have brought a spate of new pages as commemorations are held and exhibtions mounted.
In Lyon, the Cercle Aéronautique Louis Mouillard (C.A.L.M) has produced “Les Bombardements de Représailles Allemandes sur la Région Rhône-Alpes, Été 1944” (German reprisal bombings in the Rhône-Alpes Region, Summer 1944). This carries two copyright dates, October 2013 and June 2014; for most of the incidents it does not cite individual sources. Sources for Luftwaffe units are given as “ULTRA decrypyts; Geschwader Bongart by Beale and deZeng; article by P. [sic] Baudru in Jet & Prop; Sonderkommando Bongart by Jean-Louis Roba”, the most recent of which appeared 15 years ago. The C.A.L.M. document gives valuable leads which can be cross-checked but it does mention some bombings or strafings which I haven’t been able to corroborate so far:
I learned a lot more about the March 1944 Glières operation from http://beaucoudray.free.fr. This site commemorates a Maquis operating around the St. Lô area of Normandy, its pages have a vivid orange background and its navigation system is unfathomable — I found the extensive Glières pages via a search engine, they don’t seem to be accessible from within the site itself. Especially useful were the details (drawn from Bundesarchiv files) of debates among German commanders about the use of aircraft in the operation.
Something else I’ve learned as this article has evolved is not to take too literally the contemporary accounts of the numbers and types of aircraft involved, the number and calibre of their bombs or where their bases were.
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