Getting Flight Stripes
If it's white it's American, if it's black it's British, if you can't see it, it's Luftwaffe.
This was how many German soldiers described the situation in the skies over France in 1944. Hundreds of Allied aircraft patrolled the beaches during the D-Day landings, including fighters and bombers who were tasked with knocking out bridges and rail lines to delay German reinforcements from moving up into the landing areas.
By June 1944, the huge material superiority of the Allied Air Forces also meant that friendly fire had become as big a danger as German fighters. To counter this, white and black D-Day stripes were painted on the wings and fuselage of every aircraft taking part in Operation Overlord to identify them as Allied craft.
By June 1944 the Allied Air Forces in Great Britain consisted of more than 13,000 operational aircraft (plus 3,500 gliders). On D-day, swarms of long and medium range bombers pounded the beaches and hit German assembly areas deep inland. Over the invasion fleet and the landing forces themselves circled 3,700 fighters, including the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) wings of 2nd Tactical Air Force.
Against the congested Allied armada the once vaunted Luftwaffe, which had only 200 planes left in all of France, could contribute less than a hundred flights to the defence of Normandy. None of these managed a successful attack against any Allied targets on the landing beaches or the assembled fleets. On June 7th when more than a dozen German bombers tried to break through to hit the beaches, pilots of the RCAF’s 401 Squadron chased them away, destroying six in the process.
To keep the Germans from discovering this plan and disguising their own planes with flight stripes, entire airforces were literally painted overnight from June 5th – 6th. Photos from the era show many aircraft with carefully painted stripes while others had a sloppy rush job, no doubt done by exhausted and overworked ground-crews painting with anything from brushes to mops. The task was top secret and any English civilian who happened to see this frantic painting spree became a guest of the Military Police on the airbase, at least until the invasion had gotten underway.
Some units kept the stripes throughout the war as recognition bands – placing them in the European Theatre of Operations. However, by July 1944, most Allied aircraft had begun removing them. The flight stripe served a practical purpose, protecting Canadian and Allied fighters and bombers from being misidentified; however sixty years later they are still a recognizable symbol of Allied air power in the Second World War.