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The Spearhead "Stukas"
L-4 Piper Cubs and the Men Who Flew in Them
Artillery Spotting, Surveillance, Aerial Photography

  Top photo of 3AD Piper Cub #52 in Belgium in Sept., 1944, is from Army Signal Corps by way of Dan Fong, Staff. Photo insert above is from the 1946 "Spearhead in the West" and shows Capt. Francis P. Farrel, Division Artillery Air Officer, with French or Belgium civilians and another soldier some weeks before Farrel was killed in action while on an air mission over Stolberg Germany. The above illustration (with German fighters attacking a Piper Cub) is by 3AD WWII combat-artist John Garner, also from "Spearhead in the West."


From "Spearhead in the West," 1946
Author or authors unknown


That's what the doughboys and tankers of the 3rd Armored Division called them. Actually it was a term of endearment, because the men of the "Spearhead" knew and appreciated the worth of artillery liaison aircraft over the blazing front line.

It wasn't a spectacular job. The pilot sat up front and attended to the business of flying. Behind him, the observer, an experienced artilleryman, studied the ground and compared it with his 1/25,000 map. There was constant radio communication with Division Artillery, somewhere below and to the rear. Liaison pilots and observers were workmen. There was little glory attached to the service -- certainly none of the glitter and dash of pursuit or the Jove-like power of heavy bombardment. They didn't go home after completing a certain number of missions. Instead, they flew right out of one campaign and into another. Except for the complete adoration of ground forces, who had seen Cub observers direct withering counter-battery on enemy big guns, the reward was small.

Surveillance of scheduled shoots and the registration of counter-battery was the aerial observer's bread and butter, but quite often he was called upon to direct close support fire. In the bocage country of Normandy, where high ground was at a premium of blood, the Cubs were a God-send. Their appearance over the battle zone was a matter of vast satisfaction to Allied ground troops and a constant source of irritation to the enemy. German soldiers knew that the cost of poor camouflage discipline was always detection by the Cubs and a subsequent rain of American high explosives. There was nothing that Jerry could do about it; when he counter-attacked the American line, the flying observers brought down a barrage of hot steel.

When the Germans attempted to knock Fortresses and Liberators out of formation, ever-present Cubs put the finger on one flak position after another -- and "the finger" meant an immediate counter-battery. Sometimes the enemy was goaded to a boiling rage and then he sent over a flight of precious fighters to neutralize the irritation. A Luftwaffe pilot who bailed out of a smashed ME-109 over Hastenrath, Germany, admitted that his mission had been to strafe the landing strips of liaison aircraft. That day, seventeen enemy fighters were shot down by anti-aircraft while attempting to carry out like sorties.

There was plenty of danger in artillery flying. Flak and small arms was part of it; enemy planes were big poison. When a Focke-Wulf 190 popped out of the clouds or zoomed from the deck in a vicious attack, your Cub pilot might only rely on a minimum of evasive action to keep his dog-tags together. In comparison with a fighter, light plane speed was a joke. There was no armor plate to deflect machine-gun slugs and cannon fire, no high speed to elude attack.

Cub pilots were probably more respectful of their own artillery arching through the air on the way to enemy positions than they were of flak or Nazi fighters. Captain Francis P. Farrel, Division Air Officer, and a famous "Spearhead" pilot, was killed in action when his L-4 was destroyed by an American shell over Stolberg, Germany. Lt. Thomas Turner, a redheaded veteran of Africa and Sicily, as well as the western European campaign, barely escaped a like fate when a 105mm projectile passed completely through the stabilizer and rudder of his aircraft without detonating! These were the unfortunate accidents of war which were almost impossible to prevent under combat conditions.

There was no blemish of temperament about the little L-4 Cubs. They paced the attacking Spearheads day after day. Whenever the armor coiled, the small planes landed to refuel with regular gasoline before resuming aerial reconnaissance. The work was done from altitudes of 2,000 to 3,000 feet over the lines, but a low ceiling often forced the tiny machines much lower. Regardless of the weather, if there was any visibility at all, the Cubs went up.

Each artillery battalion of the "Spearhead" Division, along with the headquarters commanded by Colonel Frederic J. Brown, operated a pair of these small, but indispensable airplanes. They kept a constant vigil on the front line, and there was very little "incoming mail" when the " "Stukas" were flying.


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