Blacking Out the Sky – The Largest Air Attack of an Entire War

YouTube / Dark Skies

Over 1,400 Allied aircraft were sent to battle to take down the Germans at Saint Michael salient. However, the heavy rain made the terrain muddy, and the thick fog had it hard for the Allies to attack the German trenches. 

In retaliation, the Germans charged back with all their might. While the Germans may not know it yet, they were about to be attacked by the biggest air offensive in the entire war. 

The Saint-Mhiel Salient

Saint-Mhiel or Saint Michael is a town in northeastern France that was left out in the line of fortifications erected by the French in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870. 

However, Saint-Mhiel fell after German control after the army failed to capture the Verdun fortifications. The French army then tried to recapture Saint-Mhiel several times, but it only brought more bloodshed. 

By 1918, it was still under Prussian control. The Salient’s reduction was assigned to the American expeditionary force headed by Commander General John J Pershing. Pershing and his men soon got the opportunity to show off their combat skills. 

Mitchel’s Air Operation

The Americans soon began mobilizing 14 divisions made up of over 550 men in August 1918 for the attack. Meanwhile, the French mobilized four divisions with around 100,000 soldiers. 

On the other hand, the German Fifth Army was over 50,000 strong, supported by about 200 aircraft. However, despite being outnumbered, they were ready to battle.

The Infantry would be protected by Colonel George S Patton’s tank Corps while the skies would be dominated by aircraft rallied by Colonel William L Billy Mitchell. 

Fighting Over Grey Skies

Mitchell was told that the attack could be postponed due to bad weather, and he remarked, “There’s not going to be a battle at Saint-Mhiel anyway. All we have to do is jump at the Germans, and the quicker we do it, the better.” 

The moment to attack came two days later on September 12th. Despite the conditions, soldiers and tanks advanced toward German lines, and Mitchell’s aircraft took to the skies. 

Pushing Them Back

The number of aircraft in the sky soon overwhelmed the Germans as the bombers made their runs and increased the confusion. 

Another German formation of about 3,000 infantry was seen advancing near the line of the 42nd Division. As a result, Mitchell dispatched the 96th Aero Squadron to eliminate the hostile columns.

 Nine bombers dropped over 250 bombs over the area, scattering the German forces. By midnight, the Allies accomplished their objective, penetrating deep into the Salient. 

Liberating the Salient

By the end of September 15th Saint-Mhiel Salient was under American control. Over 16,000 Germans became prisoners of war, with over 2,400 lost in combat. 

Meanwhile, the Allies had lost 7,000 men. Between September 12th and 16th, Mitchell’s aircraft flew 3,357 sorties. After leading the single biggest air offensive of the entire war, Mitchell was promoted to Brigadier General and was recognized for his efforts in the offensive and for proving that the US Army was more than capable of taking the fight against the Germans.