The Clastres aerodrome was located on the northern edge of the village of Clastres, about __ miles south-southeast of the city of Saint-Quentin, France.History
The original Clastres aérodrome was built by the French Army in 1937. It covered an area of about 100 hectares and had two grass runways.
The Luftwaffe took over the Clastres aerodrome in 1940. In 1942 it began to greatly expand the facility, eventually building three 2500 meter runways, 42 hangars and, in the village of Clastres, barracks. Construction continued into 1944.
The placement on the map of the runways and other facilities is only approximate.
I. / JG 27
subunit of II. / JG 27
JG 3 I. /JG 3
JG 5 I. / JG 5
414 B-24s and 265 fighters are dispatched to attack airfields and V-weapon sites in France; 115 hit V-weapons sites in the Pas de Calais; 91 hit Clastres Airfield, 53 hit Romilly air depot, 50 hit La Perthe Airfield, 12 hit Laon/Athies Airfield, 14 hit railroad bridges, 13 hit targets of opportunity and 11 hit Bretigny Airfield; 1 B-24 is lost, 1 is damaged beyond repair and 139 are damaged; 11 airmen are KIA, 9 WIA and 9 MIA. Escort is provided by 265 P-47s and P-51s; 2 P-51s are lost (pilots are MIA). The 91 B-24s attacking Clastres included aircraft from the 445th, 458th, 466th and 467th Bombardment Groups.
Donald R. Shannon (Top turret gunner, B-24 "Howling Banshee," 753rd Bombardment Squadron, 458th Bombardment Group), Combat Diary.
During and immediately after the Normandy invasion Allied forces had effectively surpressed most Luftwaffe activity. By August, however, there began to be a resurgence. As part of an effort to suppress it the three squadrons of the 367th Fighter Group, flying P-38 Lightnings, were ordered to simultaneously attack three separate airfields in the Laon area on August 22. The 392nd Squadron, led by Major Rogers, dive-bombed and destroyed two hangers on one airfield but were jumped by 12 FW 190s as it completed its attack. Maj. Rogers called the other squadrons for help. The 393rd was jumped by 18 ME 109s and FW 190s as they reformed from their dive bomb run. Lt. Buchanan shot down one but two Germans cornered Lt. Awtrey and shot off his canopy. Even without a canopy, Awtrey outmaneuvered the two and riddled one of them. Lt. Stanley Johnson called to report that his aircraft had been shot to pieces and he was bailing out; his parachute was seen to open but he was never heard of again. After bombing its target, the 394th Squadron, led by Lt. Pieper, turned to help the 392nd. His flight bounced four Germans but in turn was attacked by three others. One of the FW 190s shot out one of Lt. Pieper's engines but was destroyed in turn by Pieper's wingman, Lt. Lee. The fight continued with the 394th shooting down six additional aircraft including one destroyed by Lt. Pieper flying with one engine feathered. In the mean time, the 392nd had taken care of itself, destroying five enemy aircraft without a loss. Victories were by Lieutenants Hartwig, Kines, O'Donnel, Diefendorf and Markley. Altogether the Group had destroyed 14 enemy aircraft for a loss of one.
On August 25, 1944, the 367th Fighter Group, flying P-38 Lightnings, was sent back to the area for another simultaneous bombing of three airfields, this time at Peronne, Rosieres-en-Santerre and Clastres. The dive bombing attacks ignited one of the greatest fighter versus fighter air battles in U.S. history. It was unique in that most of the action took place in a relatively small area and from 3,000 feet to ground level. There are still witnesses to this dramatic event who refer to it as the "The day the sky over I'Aisne was on fire." (See Chapter 12 of "Quand le Ciel de I'Aisne Etait en Feu" by Jean Hallade.)
The attack at Clastres was carried out by the 394th Squadron with 12 aircraft under the command of Major Grover J. Gardner. A German participant recalls that about forty patrolling Focke Wulf 190s of Gruppe II/Jagdgeschwader 6 spotted the 12 aircraft of the 394th and fell on them out of the sun, downing many in the surprise rush. The American version is that Major Gardner radioed the other two squadrons with the location of an estimated thirty Focke Wulf 190s that had just taken off and then, leaving Captain Charles F. Matheson's flight to fly cover, lead his flight into the initial attack in which four FW 190s fell simultaneously; Maj. Gardner and the other three members of his flight were then quickly surrounded and shot down. At that point the cover flight arrived and a melee ensued: Captain Matheson shot down two FW 190s, Lt. Ross P. Lezie damaged one and destroyed another, Lt. Sydney S. Platt shot down one and Lt. Raymond S. Tremblay hit the wing root and cockpit of one. After driving three 190s from the tail of a P-38, Lt. William H. Lemley had his right engine shot out, but was able to escape at tree top level. Lieutenants Cyril Broniee and Edward W. Conney were shot down and killed in action.
On hearing the 394th's calls for help, the twenty-one aircraft of 392nd and 393rd Squadrons had abandoned their attacks the other two airfields to join the fight. With their arrival, II/JG 6 was overwhelmed. Major Joseph H. Griffin lead the 392nd in an attacked from out of the sun and shot down one FW 190 and damaged another; Lieutenants Clark R. Livingston and Sam Plotecia shot down one and damaged one, respectively. Captain Laurence E. "Scrappy" Blumer lead the 393rd and with Lt. William E. Awtrey on his wing destroyed five enemy aircraft withing a fifteen minute period, making him the "Fastest Ace in a Day." Lt. Stanley E. Pacek flying his third combat mission shot down two and Lieutenants Joseph A. Dobrowolski and Melvin D. Jones destroyed one each.
The 367th Fighter Group reported 7 P-38 destroyed (against II/JG 6 claims of 11 destroyed); II/JG 6 reported 17 FW190s destroyed, 2 damaged (against 367th claims of 13 confirmed destroyed, 8 unconfirmed destroyed, 1 probable destroyed, 6 damaged).
For its achievements on August 25th, the 367th Fighter Group received the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest possible award for a unit in combat.
Known participants in the battle
Mission report for 394th Squadron, 367th Fighter Group (fields
with questionmarks were illegible on my copy)
367th Fighter Group ... Received a DUC for a mission in France on 25 Aug: after attacking landing grounds at Clastres, Peronne, and Rosieres through an intense antiaircraft barrage, the group engaged a number of enemy planes and then, despite a low fuel supply, strafed a train and convoy after leaving the scene of battle; later the same day the 367th flew a fighter sweep of more than 800 miles, hitting landing grounds at Cognac, Bourges, and Dijon.
Returning to the Laon area on August 25th, the 367th Group simultaneously attacked three Luftwaffe airfields at Clastres, Perone and Rossiers. The dive bombing attacks ignited one of the greatest fighter versus fighter air battles in U.S. history. It was unique in that most of the action took place in a relatively small area and from 3,000 feet to ground level. There are still witnesses to this dramatic event who refer to it as the "The day the sky over I'Aisne was on fire." (See Chapter 12 of "Quand le Ciel de I'Aisne Etait en Feu" by Jean Hallade.) The fight started when Major Gardner, leading the 394th Squadron, radioed the other two squadrons the location of 30 FW 190s that had just taken off. He led his flight on the initial attack and four FW 190s fell simultaneously. Before the cover flight could reach them, Major Gardner and the other three members of his flight were surrounded and shot down. Captain Matheson leading the cover flight shot down two, Lt Lezie damaged one and destroyed another. Lt Platt shot down another while Lt Tremblay hit the wing root and cockpit of another FW 190. After driving three 190s from the tail of a P-38, Lt Lemley had his right engine shot out, but was able to escape at tree top level. Lieutenants Brownley and Cooney were shot down and killed in action. With the 392nd and 393rd Squadrons joining the fight the odds were more even. Major Griffin leading the 392nd attacked from out of the sun and shot down one FW 190 and damaged another as did Lieutenants Livingston and Plotecia. Captain Blumer leading the 393rd and with Lt Awtrey on his wing destroyed five enemy aircraft becoming an ace on one mission. Lt Pacek flying his third combat mission shot down two and Lieutenants Dobrowolski and Melvin Jones destroyed one each. Of the 50 enemy aircraft engaged, 25 were destroyed, one probably destroyed and 17 damaged. The 367th lost two pilots KIA. Four others bailed out over enemy held France.
I held the rank of Feldwebel, when I joined my first operational flying unit at the end of 1943: the II Gruppe of Zerstoerergeschwader 26. Flying the twin-engined Messerschmitt 410 heavy fighter, we operated against the American heavy bomber formations over eastern Germany and during the late spring I shot down two Liberators using my 5cm cannon. As the enemy escort fighters began to range deeper and deeper over our homeland, however, our Gruppe and others similarly equipped began to suffer severe losses while our success rate against the bombers declined.
It soon became clear that under such conditions there was little future for the Me410 as a bomber destroyer and, in July 1944, we received orders to convert on to the Focke Wulf 190; for the conversion we remained at our airfield at Koenigsberg/Oder. As the new aircraft arrived our Gruppe was redesignated as the II. Gruppe of Jagdgeschwader 6 and we were told that we were to operate in an entirely new role: that of air superiority fighter and ground attack. For the latter the aircraft were fitted with launchers for 21cm rockets, in addition to the normal armament of four 20mm cannon and two 13mm machine guns.
On 3 August 1944 I made my first flight in the FW190. I found the aircraft pleasant to fly, though after the excellent ground visibility of the Me410 the massive motor cowling of the Focke Wulf was disconcertingly restrictive. Flying against the heavy bombers in the Me410 had been rather like driving one truck against another; fighter-versus-fighter combat in a FW190 was something quite different. This might not have been so bad, had there been sufficient time for us to assimilate our new role. But this was not the case. The battle around the allied bridgeheads in Normandy was entering its most critical phase and we were to go into action as soon as possible. On 18 August, just over two weeks later and with 10 hours, 54 minutes flying time in the FW190, I received orders to depart with the Gruppe for France on the following day.
Flying in easy stages, we took four days to move ourselves and our forty-odd brand-new FW190A-8s from Koenigsberg to our forward operational base at Herpy near Reims. At that time the Allied air superiority was such that the permanent Luftwaffe bases in France were all being bombed regularly. So the operational units were forced to move out and use improvised airstrips in the surrounding countryside; the move had been planned before the invasion, and the fields surveyed and stocked with the necessary fuel and ammunition. Our airstrip at Herpy as nothing more than a piece of flat cow pasture surrounded by trees in which our aircraft could be hidden; nearby was our tented accommodation. The Allied fighter-bombers seemed to be everywhere and our survival depended on the strictest attention to camouflage. As part of this we even had a herd of cows which were moved on to the field when no flying was in progress. As well as giving the place a rustic look, these performed the valuable task of obliterating the tracks made on the grass by the aircraft. Such attention to detail paid off and there were no attacks on Herpy while I was there.
When we arrived at Herpy the German retreat out of Normandy was in its closing stages; the troops were streaming back across the Seine, making frantic demands for air cover to give them some respite from the incessant Allied air attacks. Since we were to operate as fighters rather than as ground-attack aircraft, the hefty 21cm rocket launchers were removed from our aircraft.
On the third day after our arrival in France, 25 August, we took off for our first full-scale operation: a sweep by the entire Gruppe as far as the Seine or as directed by our ground controller when we were airborne. Led by our Kommandeur, Hauptmann Elstermann, the forty-odd FW 190s took off shortly after noon; so sketchy had our training been that this was, in fact, the first occasion on which II./JG 6 had ever flown together as a Gruppe. My Staffel, the 7th, was to fly as top-cover and so took off first; we orbited the field while the others got airborne, then the large formation climbed away to the west with our Staffel about 6,000ft above the other two.
Soon after leaving the vicinity of Herpy we received new orders from the ground: enemy fighter-bombers were attacking the airfield at Chastres near St Quentin. We were to engage them. Elstermann turned the Gruppe on to a northerly heading and shortly afterwards I caught sight of some aircraft a few miles away to the north, below the level of our Staffel but above the main part of the formation. I called the Gruppenkommandeur: "Achtung, Fragezeichen von rechts" (attention, question marks -- unidentified aircraft -- to the right). He acknowledged my call and identified the aircraft as American P-38 Lightnings. With the sun on our backs we went after them and as we got closer I counted about twelve. Elstermann gave the order "Zusatzbehaelter weg!" and as the drop tanks tumbled away from the aircraft my Staffelkapitän, Oberleutnant Paffrath, took us down to attack. I took my Schwarm to follow him in a tight turn, but suddenly my Focke Wulf gave a shudder, the wing dropped, and I found myself spinning helplessly into the melee below. I had to take the standard spin recovery action, pushing the stick forwards and applying opposite rudder, with the dogfight going on all around me. It was utter chaos, with Focke Wulfs chasing Lightnings chasing Focke Wulfs. I recovered from my spin and fired a burst at one Lightning, only to have to break away when another Lightning curved round and opened fire at me. Then I discovered what had caused me to spin in the first place: my drop tank was still in position and resisted all my efforts to get it to release. Since it was almost full of fuel the tank weighed about 500 lbs; no wonder I could not turn as tightly as the aircraft which had got rid of their tanks!
Our initial attack hit the Americans hard and I saw some Lightnings go down. We might have been new to the business of dogfighting, but with the advantage of the sun and numbers we held the initiative. The surviving American fighters twisted and turned, trying to avoid our repeated attacks.
Then, suddenly, there seemed to be Lightnings diving on us from all directions; now it was our turn to become the hunted. Obviously far more experienced than we were in fighter-versus-fighter combat, the American pilots who had just arrived on the scene cruised overhead seeking their victims, then dived down in pairs to pick them off before zooming back to altitude. We were being chopped up by experts and I watched Focke Wulf after Focke Wulf go down.
I climbed and tried to re-join the fight, moving in to cover the tail of a Focke Wulf without any protection. But as I got there a pair of Lightnings came down after us; he went into a tight turn and as I tried to follow I found myself spinning out of control again. I repeated this unnerving experience a couple more times before deciding to give up; my meagre experience handling the FW190 was insufficient for this situation and the middle of a dogfight was no place to learn. I was doing nothing to help my comrades and if I stayed around much longer I would almost certainly make an easy victim for one of the Lightnings. I broke away and dived down to low altitude, making good my escape. I landed back at Herpy, taxied to my dispersal point, shut down the engine and clambered out; my flying suit was wringing wet with sweat.
Then in dribs and drabs the survivors of the fight came in, some of them bearing the scars of battle. As the afternoon wore on the magnitude of the disaster which had befallen our Gruppe became clear: sixteen of our aircraft had been destroyed, with fourteen pilots killed or missing and three more wounded. Amongst the missing was the Kapitän of the 8th Staffel, Leutnant Rudi Dassow, who had been one of the most successful twin-engined fighter pilots in the Luftwaffe with 22 kills including twelve of four-engined bombers. Our own Staffelkapitän, Oberleutnant Paffrath, was amongst the wounded.
The scale of the losses during the battle on 25 August came as a great shock: with so many aircraft destroyed and damaged, our fighting strength had been reduced by about half in a single engagement. We were indeed learning the lessons of combat the hard way. Yet we had little time to mourn our comrades: the battle was continuing and the retreating German ground troops were taking a terrible beating from the Allied aircraft.
For its outstanding acheivements on August 25, the 367th Fighter Group received the Presidential Unit Citation, the highest possible award for a unit in combat. The commendation cited the group for bombing three airfields at Clastres, Peronne, and Rosieres, France, and engaging more than fifty enemy aircraft in aerial combat, destroying twenty-five, probably destroying one, and damaging seventeen.
On September 11, 1944, the 467th Bombardment Group began a period of ferrying operations to carry much needed gasoline to France for the ground troops fighting on the western front. Men from the Group were assigned to France to perform the necessary duties in connection with TRUCKIN' operations. The first airfield used was Orleans/Bricy south of Paris, but this was soon changed to Clastres, and it was to here that most of the Group's planes flew.
Below: Lt. Pease and crew, of the 788th BS, with makeshift cooking arrangements. On the whole the "truckin' operations" afforded pleasure to the crews and enabled them to visit local towns recently liberated. Many of the crews returned with souvenirs of their trips to France.
Members of the group spent their spare time improving their quarters, including building floors, furniture and improving the tent heating systems. Building materials were scrounged from may sources including wood from bomb crates found at a German bomb dump in a nearby woods and nails from the charred ruins of a German hanger.
In 1952 American forces under the auspices of NATO reconfigured the aerodrome to handle jet fighter aircraft. A new 2400 meter long concrete runway with a parallel taxiway was constructed, with aircraft parking areas at either end and a perimeter fence. Most (about 1800 meters) of the old first runway, and all of old second and third runways, were outside the fenced perimeter. Of the portion of the old first runway outside the perimeter, the first 1000 meters (approx.) was used as a motor vehicle testing facility and the remainder was demolished and returned to farmland. The old second and third runways and many of the old taxiways devolved into farm access roads.
The reconfigured airfield was intended as an auxiliary field to which to disperse aircraft in the event of hostilities; no NATO units were ever stationed there and no buildings were built. Local residents report that the airfield was exercised about once per year.
The French military took possession of the airfield when France withdrew from the NATO military command structure in 1968. Although aircraft occasionally landed there in connection with military exercises, no units were ever stationed there during this period.
In 2001 ownership of the aerodrome was transferred to the Communauté de Communes du Canton de St-Simon and is slated to become an industrial park. On October 19, 2002, the village of Clastres hosted a "farewell" celebration and dedicated a monument on the wall of the village cemetery in memory of the units who had served at the aerodrome. Members of all units that had been stationed there were invited to take part in the celebrations. Seven members of the 387th Bombardment Group and descendants of two others attended, together with members of their families. The Germans were represented by two airmen and members of their families. Eino Latvala, a former member of the 559th Bombardment Squadron, presented two plaques to the Mayor of Clastres, France, on behalf of the former members of the 387th Bombardment Group; one of the plaques bore the following inscription, the other a French translation thereof.