Merely days following the Allied forces’ D-Day landings, amidst the rigorous advances through the Normandy battlefields, and against staunch German opposition.
British troops who had successfully crossed the English Channel and endured the landings faced an unexpected concern.
Their worry was not primarily the V1 flying bomb raids unsettling their loved ones back in Britain, nor the frustrating delays in seizing the strategic port of Cherbourg. Instead, it was the stark absence of beer within the established beachhead that troubled them.
On June 20, 1944, a fortnight after the D-Day landings, a special correspondent from Reuters reporting with the Allied Forces in France alerted British newspapers that the only libation on offer in the small cafes just miles from the landing sites was cider, “and it is pretty watery stuff. I saw a British private wistfully order a pint of mild and bitter: but the glass he sat down with contained the eternal cider.”
45 gallon Drop Tanks
Regrettably, there were no available transport planes to deliver non-critical supplies to the forward landing grounds.
To address this, several Spitfire squadrons based out of RAF Tangmere ingeniously adapted by using a 45-gallon drop tank—typically reserved for fuel—after steam cleaning it for the transportation of ale.
A notable Air Ministry photo captured the moment, depicting Wing Commander Rolf Arne Berg of No. 132 Norwegian Wing perched on the wing of a Mk IX Spitfire, observing as Pale Ale was transferred from kegs into the aircraft’s modified drop tank.
The Spitfire Mk IX represented an advanced iteration of the iconic fighter, equipped with pylons beneath the wings capable of holding bombs or extra fuel tanks.
It was ingeniously discovered that these bomb pylons could be repurposed to transport beer kegs.
Historical photos reveal the use of kegs in various sizes, though it’s unclear if these could be jettisoned during emergencies. When flown at higher altitudes, the beer would be naturally chilled by the cold air, arriving perfectly cooled for enjoyment.
One notable adaptation involved converting a long-range fuel tank to carry beer, a modification officially known as Mod. XXX. This clever tweak quickly caught the attention of propaganda services, likely leading to its “official” moniker.
Officially, it wasn’t until July 12 that “real British beer” was formally delivered to the troops fighting in Normandy, and even then it was limited to one pint per man.
However, well before this date, resourceful RAF and USAAF pilots had taken it upon themselves to covertly transport beer into Northern France, with their aircraft fondly termed “flying pubs” by the servicemen.
One of the initial efforts to ferry beer across the Channel post-D-Day involved using the planes’ expendable drop tanks, or “jettison tanks” as the RAF officially named them. These tanks, which normally carried extra fuel to extend the fighters’ range, were appropriated for the beer deliveries.
These operations appear to have been at least semi-official; the Air Ministry even released a photo to the press showcasing a Spitfire from 332 (Norwegian) Squadron at Tangmere airfield in Sussex.
The image captured the moment beer from two wooden kegs, provided by Chichester brewery Henty & Constable, was poured into a 45-gallon drop tank, while the pilot lounged on the aircraft’s wing.
That pilot was likely Wing Commander Rolf Arne Borg, the leader of No. 132 Norwegian wing, though the aircraft depicted wasn’t his, as his own bore the distinctive Norwegian red and blue rings on the spinner.
It’s believed that the beer from Henty and Constable was transported in the drop tanks slung beneath three Spitfire Mk IXbs from Tangmere to an airstrip at Bény-Sur-Mer in Normandy.
This airfield lay 110 miles south of England and just three miles inland from the coast. The first recorded delivery of beer during the invasion occurred on June 13, 1944, a week after D-Day.
Flight Lieutenant Lloyd Berryman of 412 Squadron, 126 Wing, Second Tactical Air Force, Royal Canadian Air Force, was one of the pilots involved. The Bény-Sur-Mer airstrip, designated B4, wasn’t officially completed until two days after Berryman’s beer run.
His superior, Wing Commander Keith Hudson, had singled him out during a briefing at Tangmere to transport a “sizeable” shipment of beer to B4, a mission Berryman later reminisced:
“The instructions went something like this, ‘Get a couple other pilots and arrange with the officers’ mess to steam out the jet [jettison] tanks and load them up with beer. When we get over the beachhead drop out of formation and land on the strip. We’re told the Nazis are fouling the drinking water, so it will be appreciated. There’s no trouble finding the strip, the battleship Rodney is firing salvoes on Caen and it’s immediately below. We’ll be flying over at 13,000 [feet] so the beer will be cold enough when you arrive.’
“I remember getting Murray Haver from Hamilton and a third pilot (whose name escapes me) to carry out the caper. In reflection it now seems like an appropriate Air Force gesture for which the erks (infantrymen) would be most appreciative. By the time I got down to 5,000 the welcoming from the Rodney was hardly inviting but sure enough there was the strip. Wheels down and in we go, three Spits with 90-gallon jet tanks fully loaded with cool beer.
“As I rolled to the end of the mesh runway it was hard to figure … there was absolutely no one in sight. What do we do now, I wondered, we can’t just sit here and wait for someone to show up. What’s with the communications? Finally I saw someone peering out at us from behind a tree and I waved frantically to get him out to the aircraft. Sure enough out bounds this army type and he climbs onto the wing with the welcome: ‘What the hell are you doing here?’ Whereupon he got a short, but nevertheless terse, version of the story.
“‘Look,’ he said, ‘can you see that church steeple at the far end of the strip? Well it’s loaded with German snipers and we’ve been all day trying to clear them out so you better drop your tanks and bugger off before it’s too late.’ In moments we were out of there, but such was the welcoming for the first Spitfire at our B4 airstrip in Normandy.”
On June 17, 1944, eleven days into the invasion and four days subsequent to Berryman’s arrival, a Spitfire from the 416 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force made the journey from England to the freshly constructed airstrip at Bazenville, a mere three miles from Gold Beach.
The aircraft arrived with a drop tank repurposed to carry beer, affixed beneath its body. Despite being thoroughly steam-cleaned beforehand, the beer unfortunately retained a petrol flavor, as recounted by Dan Noonan, a Flight Commander with the 416 Squadron.
The robust Hawker Typhoon, capable of carrying a greater load, became another courier for the RAF’s thirst-quenching missions.
Pilots from the RAF’s 123 Wing, which operated rocket-firing Typhoons and was stationed from July 19, 1944, at Martragny, just east of Bayeux, would embark on quick hops to Shoreham, 110 miles distant. There, a local brewery would fill two 90-gallon drop tanks fixed beneath the Typhoon’s wings with beer.
The pilots would then dash back over the Channel, delivering the beer to eagerly waiting RAF personnel at Martragny, who made sure to consume it promptly.
Group Captain Desmond Scott, the New Zealand-born RAF ace and commander of the 123 Wing, noted that while the beer acquired a slightly metallic taste during transit, it was nonetheless rapidly consumed by the squadron.
Crossing the channel at altitudes of around 15,000 feet had the added benefit of chilling the beer, making it refreshingly cool upon arrival.
Newspaper accounts even detailed that Spitfires, using jettison tanks fashioned from vulcanised paper fibre, supplied beer shortly after D-Day.
Additionally, it was reported that P-47 Thunderbolt fighters, likely operated by the USAAF, had transported iced custard or ice cream in their drop tanks to the troops on the Normandy beaches, arriving “iced in perfect condition” thanks to the high-altitude flight. This wasn’t as far-fetched as it might sound, given that the US military had its own mobile ice cream-making machines during the war, as did many US Navy ships.
The daring ventures of the Typhoons were featured in Time Magazine on July 2, 1944, with the article titled “Flying Pubs”:
A great thirst attacked British troops rushing emergency landing strips to completion in the dust of Normandy. Thinking of luckier comrades guzzling in country estaminets and town bistros, the runway builders began to grouse. They wanted beer. They got it. Rocket-firing Typhoons, before going on to shoot up Nazis, landed on the runways with auxiliary fuel tanks full of beer. Swarms of the thirsty gathered round with enamel mugs. The first tank-fulls tasted bad because of the tank linings; this flavor was overcome by chemical means and later loads were delicious. Just like the corner pub at home.
The Legend Johnie Johnson
Just three days after D-Day, Wing Commander Johnnie Johnson and his 127 Wing, comprising two Canadian squadrons, touched down at the freshly constructed airfield at St Croix-sur-Mer, known as B3, situated a mere mile and a half from the Normandy beaches.
Having endured days subsisting on canned military “compo” rations, Johnson reached out for assistance to Arthur King, his favored landlord at the Unicorn pub in Chichester. King coordinated with the daily Anson flights that arrived at St Croix from Tangmere carrying mail, newspapers, and spare parts, ensuring that additional comforts like tomatoes, fresh lobsters, just-baked bread, and “a reasonable supply of stout” were included on the Anson’s journey, much to the delight of the airmen.
As word of this special arrangement found its way into the press, it wasn’t long before Arthur King received a visit from a Customs and Excise official. King was cautioned that he would require an export license to continue these cross-Channel deliveries. This incident was later noted by Johnson in his memoirs:
Since its introduction to the Service in 1939, the versatile Spitfire had participated in many diverse roles … Now it fulfilled yet another role, perhaps not so vital as some of the tasks it had undertaken in the past, but to us of supreme importance. Back in England some ingenious mind had modified the bomb racks slung under each wing so that a small barrel of beer could be carried instead of a 500-pound bomb. Daily, this modern version of the brewers’ dray flew across the Channel and alighted at St Croix. The beer suffered no ill effects from its unorthodox journey and was more than welcome in our mess.
Last Orders Please
Over time, systematic beer deliveries replaced the ad-hoc “flying drays” for the troops. By November 1944, the government decreed that military personnel overseas were to receive an allotment equal to five percent of the UK’s total beer output.
This meant that all robust “export” beers, naturally conditioned beers with a shelf life of six weeks or more, and any beer suitable for pasteurization were to be directed to the forces’ catering service, the Naafi. Concurrently, breweries in the newly freed regions of France began contributing to the effort.
Back home, however, beer shortages began to affect the civilian population. Breweries cited a lack of workforce, as women who had filled in for conscripted men were now being evacuated with their children due to the looming threats of V1 and V2 rockets.
The Nottingham Evening Post described scenes of “panic drinking” in some pubs, with patrons hastily consuming their pints in fear of missing out.
In some areas, only mild ale was on offer, as the more durable bitter was reserved for soldiers. Many establishments had to limit their opening hours to a mere hour and a half at midday and two hours in the evening due to the beer scarcity.
The beer shortage even impacted those working in agriculture. In August 1944, reports emerged that parts of Lincolnshire were so affected by the beer drought that pubs announced they would not uphold the long-standing tradition of providing beer for the harvest season. Instead of the customary pints, harvest workers would be offered cups of tea.