When we think of D-Day, we tend to envision the waves of landing craft approaching the beaches and Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) with barrage balloons in tow, or maybe waves of C-47s winging away from their bases in Southern England with their paratroopers. These are powerful visuals and while the soldiers and paratroopers really did do the heavy lifting of liberating France, these images overshadow a remarkable and invisible war that is often forgotten. This “Wizard War” was fought with electrons instead of bullets, but it was no less critical in the Allied victory than the expenditure of ordnance.
While vast arsenals of munitions, men, aircraft, tanks, and planes were assembled in England during the spring of 1944, an equally intensive program was underway to launch an electronic offensive of unparalleled scope and sophistication. Some of these technologies were ready only just in time while others were already in use but new enhancements or capabilities were husbanded in advance of the landings to avoid giving away the Allied advantage.
I’m always a little dismayed to see the exuberance with which some museum visitors regard the German jet and rocket technologies on display at the museum and one often overhears comments to the effect of “if Hitler hadn’t interfered with the Messerschmitt Me 262 production, they could have won the air war.” While it is certainly true that the Germans held a commanding lead in 1944 in jet and rocket production, it is also true that whatever military advantage they offered was vastly overshadowed by many other fields in which the Allies totally overmatched the Germans. This was especially true in regards to the electronic frontier. Here are a few of the remarkable, but overlooked technologies that were essential to the Allied victory in Normandy.
Radar was used by all sides in World War II and was probably best known for facilitating the British victory in the Battle of Britain. However, radar had come a very long way since the first generation Chain Home radar stations countered the offensive bomber formations of the Blitz. The British development of the cavity magnetron in 1940 made microwave radar possible, giving far greater definition and resistance to jamming than anything the Germans had. By D-Day, the combination of the quartz oscillator and the cavity magnetron had yielded an extensive array of ground-based and aircraft equipment that allowed the offensive resources of the Allies to be applied efficiently and effectively. Without them, the German defenses would have been exceptionally difficult to crack. Though the soldiers on Omaha Beach would never think they had it easy (and as discussed below, they were indeed let down by some of this technology), the reality is that Operation Overlord was about far more than simply having enough men and equipment while tricking the Germans into thinking the landing was occurring elsewhere. At its most basic level, Normandy was a giant navigation problem.
Troop transports flying without benefit of radar (they had no room for it) needed to place troops in the right landing zone under cover of darkness. Minesweepers had to clear precise paths through Channel minefields. Bombers had to strike fortifications, bridges and rail yards, even through cloud, and a massive aerial ballet had to occur that simultaneously struck critical targets while not revealing invasion plans. Without the vast electronic armada, the landings would have suffered far greater losses and required an even greater expenditure of lives and resources.
This list of key electronic system designations used on D-Day was collated by Professor J.W.S. Pringle in his survey of the Telecommunications Research Establishment (Britain’s electronic R&D organization), published as “The Work of TRE in the invasion of Europe (IEEE Proceedings, Vol. 132. Pt. A., No. 6, October 1985). It is not even a complete list of the equipment developed or adapted for the invasion, but it gives a sense of the massive electronic forces arrayed against Germany.
Among the remarkable technologies not in the list above was something called Decca. The minesweepers that paved the way for the landing craft at Normandy did not have GPS, but they did have Decca, which had accuracies that were not all that much worse than first generation GPS receivers. Decca was a hyperbolic system started by an American in the late 1930s and developed by the British Decca record company during the first years of World War II. D-Day was its first (and only) operational use in the war. Trials had been conducted in secret in the Irish Sea earlier in the year. You can read more about this fascinating technology here.
For everything that went right on D-Day, there were some areas where the Wizard War went very wrong (see the above caption). The worst occurred with the use of radar to bomb the defenses on Omaha Beach. Concerns over having bombs fall short in to the arriving formations of landing craft shortly before they reached the beach resulted in an order to wait 10-30 seconds in bomb release when only using radar. With complete cloud cover on the morning of the invasion, the bomb delay was in full force and nearly all of the 2,944 tons of bombs missed useful targets by a mile or more. The only positive aspect was that some of the minefields behind the beach defenses were hit instead, but overall this one error alone likely contributed many additional hundreds of casualties, if not more, on Omaha and the British landing beaches.
These errors aside, the overall electronic armada arrayed for Normandy worked well and most ships and aircraft arrived when and where they were needed. The German electronic defenses were also almost wholly nullified, with radar and communications effectively jammed. The Gee hyperbolic navigation receivers that guided so many ships and aircraft during the invasion were vulnerable to jamming, but extra frequencies had been set aside so that jamming would be easily sidestepped. In the event, German jamming did not appear. D-Day was as much an electronic surprise to the German technicians at their stations behind the beach as it was to those soldiers manning the pillboxes on the beach.
Roger Connor is a museum specialist in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum.
On April 24, we passed another milestone in preparations to move the Horten 229 V3 center section from the Paul Garber Facility in Maryland to the Mary Baker Engen Restoration Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia. Collections staff positioned the jet onto a new steel frame that will support and steady the artifact, and provide the solid base for a cover that will encapsulate the artifact during the journey by road.
Collections Processing Unit staff member Anthony Wallace is working with transportation officials in Maryland and Virginia to obtain the permits required to haul the center section of the Horten 229 V3 over major highways around midnight to avoid traffic.
Russ Lee is a curator in the Aeronautics Department of the National Air and Space Museum.
This, the 87th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s epic solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic in 1927, gives us an opportunity to revisit the diminutive Ryan airplane that carried the twentieth century’s best known aviator into history. The Ryan NYP Spirit of St. Louis has been in our care since April 30, 1928, when Lindbergh flew it to nearby Bolling Field, in Washington, D.C. where it was accepted into the Smithsonian’s collection of national treasures. Over the next few days, it was dismantled and physically towed through the streets of the nation’s capital to the Arts and Industries Building where it was lifted up and suspended. The Spirit has been on display at the Smithsonian ever since. It was moved once in 1948 to make room for the arrival of the original 1903 Wright Flyer and again in 1976 when it was installed in the National Air and Space Museum’s new building after a quick clean-up and conservation. Twice since then, the Spirit has been lowered, once in 1991 for a thorough inspection, and again in 2000 when it was moved out of harm’s way during a ceiling replacement project.
Just last month, Boeing announced a most generous donation of $30 million to the museum to promote our educational programs and to reimagine and reinvent our signature main hall. The gift will allow us to completely reinterpret what is now the Boeing Milestones of Flight Hall and, for the purpose of this conversation, will allow us to lower the Spirit to the floor once again and give it the detailed inspection and conservation it deserves. We hope that we find that it is still in excellent shape. It was well-made by a team at Ryan who cared deeply and personally for the well-being of its young pilot.
The Spirit has been handled with great care since its arrival in the Smithsonian in 1928. The same can’t be said for its arrival in Paris a year earlier, on May 21, 1927.
After flying for more than 33 hours and well over 5,633 km (3,500 miles), Lindbergh arrived over Paris late in the evening. Paris was, and is, the “City of Light,” which made it easy for the exhausted young aviator to find his destination. His only problem was finding Le Bourget Airport in the dark. All he knew was that the field was somewhere northeast of the city. Cleverly he followed a line of lights that led in that direction. He assumed that no one would expect him so he carried several letters of introduction, just in case.
The letters weren’t necessary. The line of lights he was following was actually a chain of automobiles, with headlights blazing, fighting to get to Le Bourget before the gallant American landed. When he did land moments later, Lindbergh was immersed in a human wave of more than 150,000 exuberant well-wishers. In their excitement, the crowd swarmed Lindbergh and his aircraft. Lindbergh was rescued by noted French aviators George Delage and Michel Detroyat. The Spirit was not so lucky. Before airport officials and members of the French Air Force could cordon off the aircraft, souvenir hunters had grabbed at the aircraft tearing off pieces of fabric from the wings, fuselage, and tail. Deeply embarrassed, the French Air Force managed to move the Spirit to the safety of a nearby hangar where they patched the wings and replaced the fuselage fabric before Lindbergh returned several days later. They also replaced a small piece of fabric that had been removed from the right side of the rudder. One over-enthusiastic spectator cut-out the winged “R” insignia of Ryan Airlines, the manufacturer of the Spirit, and took it home. To this day, if you look closely, you will notice the winged “R” on the left side of the rudder, and the blank patch on the right. As for the missing “R” itself, one can only imagine that it still hangs above a fireplace somewhere in Paris.
F. Robert van der Linden is Chair of the Aeronautics Department and curator of special purpose aircraft at the National Air and Space Museum.
As people start making their summer vacation plans, I often daydream about traveling around the world. Then I realize that I don’t even need to leave the office to see far off places. The National Air and Space Museum Archives’ photography collection allows me to travel anywhere (and almost any time in the past 100 or so years)!
Moving inland, I make my way to the capital city of Rome and the independent city-state of the Vatican, where I view St. Peter’s Square and Basilica from a dirigible.
Desiring some excellent croissants and wine, I fly to Paris, France. I arrive on 17 August 1910 to witness Alfred Leblanc circling the Eiffel Tower to celebrate his Circuit de l’Est win.
I almost get lost on my way to 1916 Petrograd, Russia, forgetting that St. Petersburg was renamed in 1914 during WWI and then again as Leningrad in 1924, before returning to St. Petersburg in 1991.
Then, taking my cues from Barry Manilow, I sunbathe at the Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janiero, Brazil.
Continuing my beach theme, I pass over Bermuda.
Finally, I return home to Washington, DC. But wait! It’s 1897 and William A. Eddy and Edward Herbert Young are standing on the lawn controlling a tandem of nine “Eddy kites” with a suspended camera to photograph the Capitol Building.
And then it’s back to the future and back to work! Enjoy your summer vacations—real or imagined—wherever they may take you!
Elizabeth C. Borja is an archivist in the National Air and Space Museum’s Archives Department.
Little more than 55 years ago, the thought of sending humans into space was only the makings of science fiction. On April 9, 1959, sci-fi and reality merged as NASA introduced the seven American astronauts who would participate in the first human spaceflight program in the United States, Project Mercury. Within four months of the announcement, all seven astronauts—Walter M. “Wally” Schirra Jr., Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, John H. Glenn Jr., M. Scott Carpenter, Alan B. Shepard Jr., Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, and L. Gordon Cooper, Jr. —and their wives had signed contracts with Life magazine for exclusive access to the astronauts, their families, and their individual roles in the “Space Race” story. The major cover story that ran in Life’s September 14, 1959, issue rocketed these astronauts, quickly nicknamed “the Mercury Seven,” to celebrity status.
Although Life held exclusive rights to the Mercury Seven’s stories, Look magazine developed a very different approach to covering the “Space Race” saga: What if a woman could be the first American in space? In 1959, Look arranged for Betty Skelton, accomplished aerobatics champion and race car driver, to participate in a series of physical and psychological tests like those given to the Mercury Seven astronauts—a space-age publicity stunt.
As an experienced pilot and adept (but unofficial) team member, Skelton held the respect of the Mercury Seven astronauts who admiringly referred to her as “eight.” (Listen to Skelton’s NASA oral history interview.)
Sadly, not participating in an official NASA capacity meant that this training opportunity would only serve to support Look’s February 2, 1960, cover story “Should a Girl Be First in Space?” While Skelton was acutely aware that a woman would not be among the first Americans in space, she nevertheless dutifully participated in this publicity stunt in the hopes of paving the way to a future where women could be anything they choose, including astronauts.
Amanda Buel is an archivist in the National Air and Space Museum’s Archives Department.