It’s Normandy, 1944, and it seems that the biggest worry the British troops have is the lack of beer in the bridgehead!
They’ve successfully survived the channel crossing, endured terrifying landings, and forced their way into the countryside against strong German resistance; but they’re not concerned about the V1 flying bomb blitz which threatens their loved ones’ safety back home; they’re not dwelling on their on-going failed attempts to capture the port of Cherbourg – their main concern is the lack of beer.
Two weeks after D-Day, on the 20th June 1944, Reuter’s special correspondent working with the Allied Forces in France contacted the UK newspapers to say that all they could get from the now- liberated estaminets was some pretty watery cider. It wasn’t until the 12th July when the battling troops in Normandy finally received some ‘real British beer’; but even then they only received one pint per man.
However, some enterprising pilots attached to the RAF, and the USAAF – had already been privately shipping beer into Northern France, using what was known as ‘flying pubs’.
Some of the initial efforts at bringing beer over the Channel after D-Day used jettison tanks carried by aircraft such as the Typhoon and the Spitfire. These were apparently semi-official efforts because the Air Ministry sent a photograph to the newspapers depicting a Spitfire from 332 Squadron (Norwegian) at Tangmere Airfield in Sussex having its tank filled with beer. The beer was contained within two wooden casks and had been supplied by Henty & Constable, a Chichester brewer. The photograph showed the pilot relaxing on the wing while the 45-gallon jettison tank was being filled.
On D-Day plus seven, the 13th June 1944, 270 gallons of beer, presumably from Henty & Constable, was flown in drop tanks beneath three Spitfire Mk IXbs from Tangmere; landing at the Bény-Sur-Mer airfield in Normandy. This first known landing of beer during the invasion occurred 110 miles south of England and three miles from the sea.
On 17th June 1944, 11 days after the beginning of the invasion and four days after Berryman’s landing, a Spitfire from 416 Squadron, Royal Canadian Air Force, was flown from England to the newly built Bazenville airfield, only three miles from Gold Beach. It had a drop tank full of beer beneath its fuselage, and even though the tank had been cleaned out thoroughly with steam, unfortunately the beer still tasted of petrol.
The larger Hawker Typhoon was able to carry even more beer. From 19th July 1944, pilots attached to the RAF’s 123 Wing at Martragny, just east of Bayeux, were flying rocket-firing Typhoons: they ran a ‘shuftie-kite’ over to Shoreham which was 110 miles away, and the local brewery there would fill two 90-gallon jettison tanks which were attached beneath each wing of the Typhoon with beer. The pilot would race back across the Channel where the RAF personnel at Martragny would quickly drink it.
Another method of supplying beer to the troops was to attach casks to the bomb racks. Pilots attached to the RAF’s No. 131 Wing (Polish) flying Spitfire Mk IXs claimed that they invented the ‘beer bomb’ idea: they used casks with attached home-made nose-cones to make them streamlined, and these were fitted to the Spitfire’s bomb racks.
Anyway, flying at 15,000 feet, this journey over the channel cooled the beer down nicely; just perfect for those on the ground. According to newspaper reports it wasn’t only beer that the Spitfires supplied after D-Day in jettison tanks: P-47 Thunderbolt fighters had carried ice-cream in their drop-tanks to troops on the beachheads of Normandy.
But, unfortunately, inexperienced American pilots mistook the Typhoon for the German Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter and according to reports the aerial beer transporter was attacked twice in one day by American Thunderbolts, forcing it to jettison its beer load into the Channel. So, the beer flights came to a halt, and it was arranged for an old twin-engine Anson to bring in cases of Guinness. The Guinness was mixed with champagne to produce Black Velvet: hardly a cockney’s drink, but it was better than nothing and they seemed to like it.
Finally, the flying drays were supplanted by organized supplies of beer for the troops, and in November 1944 the Government ruled that beer supplies for overseas troops should equal five percent of total national beer production: this meant all naturally condition beer with a lifespan of six or more weeks, all stronger ‘export’ beers, and all beers that were capable of being pasteurized were to be put in the capable hands of the Naafe, the Force’s catering service. Of course at the same time the breweries in liberated sections of France were also being put to good use!