“Group all down [after a dive bombing mission against trucks on a road between Lille and Pont-à-Marcq in northern France] — Group Ops say not to let anyone go up for practice flying as they want to work on the planes.”
~4th Fighter Group tower diary, Debden, 1530 hrs, June 5, 1944.
This short entry begins the 4th Fighter Group’s preparation for their part in Operation Overlord, the long-anticipated invasion of the European continent by land forces of the allied nations. Later, ground crews reported to the three massive “C” hangars on the base to begin painting large black and white stripes around the wings and fuselages of all of the group’s P-51 Mustangs. These “invasion stripes” were mandated by Supreme Allied Headquarters to mark participating planes as friendly to potentially nervous ground, sea, and fellow air forces. All planes were so marked by midnight.
At 1645 hrs, all pilots were called to the station cinema where they watched a secret film on proper techniques for bombing special targets such as tanks, trucks, bridges, and rail traffic. The films had been made in the US with key target types the pilots would find in France faithfully replicated full size.
The base was locked down at 2000 hrs, and all pilots were briefed at 2300 hrs on the general invasion plan, which would involve multiple missions flown by one or two squadrons at a time, not the full group all at once. They were advised to try and catch a few winks - the next day was going to be a long one.
June 6th - D-Day - began early for the 4th, with two (334th and 335th, led by Col. Don Blakeslee) squadrons of Mustangs, each with a pair of 500-lb. bombs hanging on the wing racks, briefing at 0215 and wheels-up by 0327 hrs on a fighter sweep to the Rouen, France area. This was the 196th operational sortie for the 334th Fighter Squadron since September 1942, and their 65th “show” with P-51s. Over 3,000 allied planes across England joined them in and over the dark clouds as they made their way across the Channel to France along carefully-orchestrated paths in the congested airspace. The invasion force of over 6,000 ships plowing towards Normandy in the murky waters below made for an unforgettable sight to the pilots as they contemplated their part in the big day.
After bombing their targets, and with empty wing racks but plenty of fuel and ammunition, they went hunting for targets of opportunity. 22-year-old 1Lt. Ralph K. Hofer of 334, leading Red section in his P-51B Mustang, Salem Representative, had been heard about 0705 exclaiming over the radio, “Whoo, a train!” as he and a few squadron mates found one east of Calais and rolled in for their first pass. It was one of the first strafing attacks of the invasion. This action and Lt. Hofer and Salem Representative are the subject of my painting.
On return to base at 0955, Hofer’s plane was found to have been hit in an internal wing fuel tank by flak. He had fired 449 .50 caliber rounds on that first mission. Ralph waited on the ground while the Mustang was repaired. He watched as P-51s took off and landed all day on their way to and from France. Hofer was finally able to make the last ‘show,' another 334-335 dual mission, which departed Debden at 1825 hrs. The always ebullient Hofer and his spirit perfectly captured the personality of the 4th Fighter Group, formed in the UK from the American volunteers in the three Royal Air Force “Eagle” squadrons.
The duty day finally ended around midnight, after the last planes landed. Still amped up from the six missions flown during D-Day, the officer’s club lounge stayed open for the pilots of the 4th until the wee hours. The day had been intense, with good results, including 4.0 Luftwaffe Fw 190s credited shot down (most of any 8AF group), but the cost had been high - ten planes lost, with their pilots killed (7), captured (2) and evader (1). No other 8th Air Force fighter group lost more than three aircraft that day.
Ralph K. Hofer hailed from Salem, Missouri. Finding his way into the war via crossing the border and joining the Royal Canadian Air Force for training, he quickly established himself as a hunter by downing his first enemy aircraft on his very first mission with the 4th Fighter Group. This almost unheard of feat for a pilot new to combat flying wasn’t an anomaly in his career as Hofer went on to become a triple ace, officially credited with 15 aerial victories over his 286 combat hours and 74.5 operational sorties. At the time, a tour in fighters was 300 hours. He was killed in action on July 2, 1944, crashing his Mustang into the very gun emplacement that shot him down(!) at Mostar-Sud airfield, Yugoslavia during Operation FRANTIC II. His combat awards include the Distinguished Flying Cross with six oak leaf clusters, the Air Medal with four OLC, the Belgian Croix de Guerre 1940 with Palm, a Presidential Unit Citation, and the Purple Heart.
The unique legacy of the 4th Fighter Group continued with success in Korea, Vietnam, and Desert Storm, and lives on today with one of the Air Force's leading fighter wings, the 4th Fighter Wing, based at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina flying the awesome F-15E Strike Eagle. For further reading on Lt. Hofer and his fellow Debden Eagles, I recommend starting with “1000 Destroyed - The Life and Times of the 4th Fighter Group,” by Grover C. Hall, Jr.
February 16th, 2018
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