Looking at their efforts over the period between mid-April and the invasion itself, it is not easy to deduce what Luftflotte 3 was expecting its reconnaissance units to achieve. Allied Intelligence analysts were conscious that they might lack the full picture either of operations flown or results obtained and were accordingly cautious in their estimates of what the Germans might know of invasion preparations. As time went on however, they noted how the results of photographic sorties were being compared with those from months or even years earlier, and realised that the Luftwaffe cannot have successfully covered those targets in the interim.
Since the Germans expected an invasion, why did they make so little effort regularly to photograph — at a minimum — all the major ports in Southern England in Spring 1944? How did they prioritise: why photograph Penzance and Newlyn before Falmouth, why Christchurch rather than Weymouth and Portland? It is not as if they did not know where the naval bases and the prewar ferry ports were. Repeated coverage of these targets could have shown how fast preparations were advancing and even whether embarkation was underway. Venturing further inland could have revealed evidence of the immense build-up of troops and material in Southern England. As mentioned above, the Germans could estimate the overall threat by extrapolating from the photos they had to the known capacities of other English harbours, but would they not have preferred hard evidence to informed guesswork?
If they hoped to spot the invasion force after it had sailed, why was German “security reconnaissance” almost non-existent at night? They had Ju 88s with anti-shipping radar in France but preferred to use them over the Mediterranean and Atlantic rather than patrolling the Channel where admittedly they would have been more vulnerable to Allied night fighters. Were they reliant on reports from their E-boats, or satisfied with the human and signals intelligence they were getting?
Throughout the war, single, fighter-type aircraft operating at high altitude proved hard to intercept with fighters of similar performance; as the German “tip and run” raids had shown, fast and low incursions were also difficult for the RAF to counter, if far from invulnerable. What is more, there was no recent experience of reconnaissance over England being particularly costly, because precious flew overflights had even been attempted for several months.
ADGB’s review of the first half of May made this comment on German efforts:
In daylight varying amounts of cloud over the Channel played some part in hampering the enemy’s reconnaissance programme, although the effect of this factor was probably less than that of our defences.
The same inhibiting factors were felt to be valid over the next fortnight as well. Regarding defences, reports from the Y-Service make it clear that German controllers were regularly warning their pilots of Allied aircraft operating defensively over England as well as those marauding over France and Belgium. Sometimes the airmen were advised that they had been spotted, sometimes they were recalled but we do not know is how just cautious the ground stations were. Were missions ordered to abort at the slightest sign of a threat or only where interception was imminent.
The weather was undoubtedly a factor limiting operations but there were numerous days when aircraft got off the ground and flew out over the sea but gave no sign of wishing to go any further and it is hard to conclude that the Luftwaffe took every opportunity the get photographs of British targets at this period. There is no sign that they ever tried to go inland seeking out troop assembly areas, stores dumps and so on, so any estimates they made of Allied strength from aerial reconnaissance could only have been derived from an evaluation of the shipping capacity their sorties identified. It seems probable therefore that the Allies’ physical deception measures such as dummy tanks and aircraft were largely wasted since the Luftwaffe hardly ever tried to get much beyond the coast, although they may perhaps have overflown some of the fake landing craft, for example during the 24 May mission which took in Foulness, Canterbury, Dover and Folkestone.
In order to deceive the Germans as to the planned location of the D-Day landings, 255 fake landing craft were moored in Dover Harbour. From a distance — for example, from an enemy aircraft flying past at high speed — the dummy craft could be mistaken for the real thing. In fact they were only made from wood and canvas, or inflatable rubber stiffened with metal struts!
It is true that in mid-April 1944 there were only a Stab and three (soon to be four) Staffeln of Bf 109 photo-reconnaissance aircraft (plus a handful of Fw 190s) along the Channel Coast, say 35–50 machines in all. Accident-prone as Luftwaffe pilots were, maintaining material strength does not seem to have been a problem, with a constant flow of aircraft between the front line and the repair, servicing and conversion facilities in France and Belgium. Maintaining a flow of trained pilots was never the Luftwaffe’s wartime strong point and it is possible that specialised instruction for the single-seater pilot-observer role may have been a limiting factor. It is of course possible that strength was being conserved for battlefield reconnaissance once the invaders were ashore but this presupposes great pessimism about the possibilities of properly forewarned defenders stopping the landings in their tracks.
The Luftwaffe’s contingency plan for meeting an invasion—Drohende Gefahr West (Imminent Danger West)—was reactive, drafting units in from all over Europe once the Western Allies committed themselves. The sooner the Germans could get these reinforcements moving, the better able they would be to counter the landings. By early May the concentration of Allied shipping in the harbours of Dorset, Hampshire and West Sussex had been identified, so knowing when troops and vehicles actually embarked was surely of critical importance. As it was, the Germans missed the embarkation and the ships setting sail, the invasion achieved surprise and the Luftwaffe’s reinforcements only began arriving after the Allies had established themselves ashore.
A more determined effort to obtain coastal and overland photographs must undoubtedly have cost men and aircraft, but military commanders have to weigh potential losses against expected gains. Knowledge of the composition of the invading forces, the direction and timing of their attack cannot surely not have seemed as if it was not worth losing some pilots and machines.
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