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Shooting the Beach

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May 6th, 1944 – one month to the day before D-Day – German troops scatter for safety as Lt. Albert Lanker of the 31st Photo Reconnaissance Squadron flies fast and very low over the beach in “Outlaw”, his F-5 Lightning (a variant of the Lockheed P-38 fighter). Lanker’s job was to photograph the beach obstructions on the Normandy coast for the planners of the massive invasion; it was only his third mission.

Jobs of this sort were called “dicing” missions, because the pilot, flying low (and unarmed) was dicing with death every time he flew. On this mission, Lanker was fired on, without effect, by one intrepid German with a rifle. He ended his run by clearing a cliff by a cool six feet, and flew home with his precious snapshots  – “… Won our presidential citation by this picture,” a squadron member later wrote beneath the photo, mounted in its scrapbook.

Prominent in the photograph are hochpfählen – “high stakes” tipped with explosive mines designed to destroy landing craft and amphibious vehicles.

The photograph and scrapbook come from the Museum Archives Division’s 31st Photographic Reconnaissance Squadron (Smith) Collection, 1943-1945. A painting of Lt. Lanker’s flight appears in the book Combat in the Sky, by Philip Handleman.

Allan Janus is a museum specialist in the Archives Division of the National Air and Space Museum.

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2 thoughts on “Shooting the Beach

  1. My father served in the 5th Special Engineers Brigade during WWII. He served as a draftsman and was involved with the design process of the Mulberry artificial harbor. Later he earned a degree in architecture from Harvard.

    When he died I inherited some pictures he had which appear to be from the same mission as the one posted in this blog. The date and identifying markings make that pretty clear.

    Here’s a link to one:

    It was very nice to learn more about their origin and the pilot that took them.

    Norman Smith

  2. My grandfather, Lt. George W. Sandell served in the 31st Photo Reconnaissance Squadron in England. He keep quite a large photo journal. This photo is in it! Written below it reads:

    “Photo of Germans installing beach fortification in France, one month prior to invasion. Taken with nose camera in P-38 at 30ft. altitude. Note the German soldiers running for cover. With the plane flying at this low altitude, they had little time to run before the plane was apon them. Photo taken by Lt. Louis Lanker, later killed, photo was in front cover of Time magazine.”

    There is around 100 or so photos in this album. All with a hand written caption under them. On the last page is a ticket home and a post card from the resort they were put up in apon their return.

    When I was a young boy I remember watching an 8mm movie converted to vhs with my grandfather. It was several hours of footage form the base of the 31st Photo Reconnaissance Squadron. It had music of the era playing in the backround, and a man narrating it. If anyone knows how to find a copy of it please let me know.

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