This aviation art print by Mark Postlethwaite depicts Heinkel He 177s of KG40 preparing for an operation over England during Operation Steinbock in early 1944.
The highly optimistic aim of ‘Steinbock’ was to avenge the so-called RAF terror attacks on German cities. As the Baedeker raids had failed to do this, the reasoning was that more force was needed. This was of course to completely ignore the fact that whatever the Luftwaffe could do, the combined bomber forces of the RAF and USAAF could pay them back one hundredfold. It also presupposed that the effete citizenry of England could sustain far less bombardment than the sturdy National Socialists of the Third Reich without revolting against the government.
Actually, Goering had a point. A ruthless and authoritarian dictatorship, backed by the Gestapo with its pervasive network of informers, was far better equipped to hold its citizens in subjugation than was any democratic government, even with the constraints of war. In more recent times, this was underlined by the Gulf War of 1991, when Saddam Hussein retained control of Iraq despite a massive military defeat. However, friend Hermann reckoned without the British national trait which is at once their greatest strength and their greatest weakness-they are stubborn!
For ‘Steinbock’, the offensive strength of Luftflotte 3 was more than doubled. Gruppen were transferred from other theatres in conditions of great secrecy, while units already in place flew little. In consequence, serviceability was exceptionally high at the start of the campaign, whereas the norm was little more than 50 per cent.
In order to maximise the damage, the largest bombs available to the Luftwaffe, of 2,500kg, were to be used while stocks lasted, and smaller bombs used only to bring the bomb load up to the maximum. These were to be filled with the extremely powerful, if sensitive, ‘England Mixture’, consisting of Hexogen and Trialen. For fire-raising, the new AB 1000 container was used. This held up to 620 1kg incendiary bombs, dispensing them at intervals to spread them evenly over a large area.
The lack of navigational and bombing accuracy demonstrated in many of the Baedeker Raids was unaffordable. To improve matters, the Pathfinder Gruppe I/KG 66 was equipped with Egon, a new system similar in concept to the British Oboe. The bomber, tracked by ground radar, flew a curving course at high altitude a constant distance to it. A second ground radar measured the range to the bomber and signalled the bomb release point. The maximum range of this system was about 275km, and the maximum obtainable accuracy about 200m, although this last was difficult to attain under operational conditions. A second gadget was Truhe, which aided navigation by monitoring signals from the British Gee navigational system. Knickebein and Y-Gerät were also used, in a hopeful attempt to conceal the new systems.
The first ‘Steinbock’ raid took place on 21 January 1944, with 227 bombers. No longer was the ‘Crocodile’ used: the main force assembled into compact gaggles, crossing the coast of England between Hastings and Folkestone, and set course for London. As the bombers came within range of British radar they started to drop clouds of Düppel. Ahead of them were the Pathfinders of I/KG 66, which, as they approached the city, dropped a string of white flares to indicate the correct course for the main force. The target area, with Waterloo Station at its centre, was then marked with green and white flares. The main force bombed, then escaped eastwards towards the North Sea. Returning to base, they refuelled and rearmed, then, minus seven of their original number, set out once more for the capital.
A raid of 447 sorties on the same night sounds impressive, but in fact little damage was done. Most bombs fell well outside the London area, with Kent getting more than its fair share, presumably on the approach. This appears to indicate poorly trained bomber crews and inadequate target-marking.
Despite the extensive use of Düppel, losses were heavy. British fighters and anti-aircraft guns accounted for 25 bombers, while another eighteen were lost for operational reasons, amounting to nearly 19 per cent of the aircraft taking part. At this rate, the ‘Steinbock’ force would quickly have bled to death. Never again was a double raid mounted.
A raid by 285 bombers on 29 January caused considerably more damage, starting many fires, for fourteen losses-a more acceptable attrition rate. By then, however, the Allied landing at Anzio in Italy had caused four Gruppen of bombers, three of Ju 88s and one of He 177s to be transferred to the Mediterranean. This was a serious loss of strength.
Nine raids were made on London during February. The first four were largely ineffective but the remainder were fairly concentrated. A change in tactics became apparent. No longer did the bombers head straight for the target area; instead they flew past London, on at least one occasion as far as High Wycombe. This may have been an attempt to mislead the defenders as to the real target. The turning point was marked by red and white flares and the main force then headed back for London at full throttle in a shallow dive.
High above the capital, at 9,000m, a Ju 88S of I/KG 66 released eighteen red marker bombs on Westminster. The main force bombers swept in at high speed, bombed, then headed towards the coast while continuing to descend. This high-speed escape made life very difficult for the RAF night fighters, but they still managed to inflict a high toll. In all, 72 bombers were lost during the month.
The pattern was broken during March when four raids on London were followed by attacks on Bristol, Hull and Portsmouth. Then, on 18/19 April, came the last manned raid of the war on London. In a terribly unfortunate incident, North Middlesex Hospital in Edmonton was hit by five high explosive bombs. The nurse’s quarters were hit, the ward above the children’s ward was set on fire and the x-ray rooms were destroyed. Nineteen people were killed, including several nurses, and 86 were injured. Many of the victims were trapped in the rubble for several hours.
The next attack came on 30 April, when 101 aircraft raided Plymouth. They included a dozen Do 217s of III/KG 100, carrying the Fritz X guided bomb. Their main target was the battleship King George V, but this was obscured by the harbour smokescreen. Little damage was caused, for the loss of three bombers, two of them missile-carrying Dorniers. ‘Steinbock’ finally fizzled out in May. On 14 May 91 bombers raided Bristol but only succeeded in landing three tonnes of bombs on the city, losing six bombers in the process. A few attacks were made on the invasion ports, but to little effect. The campaign had, like the Baedeker Raids, been an almost total failure, with more than 300 bombers lost for little result, apart from tying down a considerable amount of defensive resources.
Serious attempts to streamline production and to adapt it to Germany’s deteriorating war situation were made in the production plans prepared under the impression of increased strategic bombing on 8 August 1943 (no. 223/1) and 1 October 1943 (no. 224/1). In these plans the focal point shifted heavily towards increased fighter production, while bomber production rate was kept at its current level. This shift was advocated by Milch, who was well aware of the status of Germany’s battered air defenses and of the need to regain air superiority in order to avert military defeat. At that time Hitler also pressed for type reduction. In September 1943, probably following the aforementioned meeting with Messerschmitt, he asked Speer to convince Göring and Milch that fewer aircraft types should be produced. Production plan 224/1, submitted after Hitler’s meeting with Speer, projected a monthly output of 3,327 single-engine fighters and 577 twin-engine fighters by July 1944. This plan set the goals for the 1944 production rate, but production plan 225/1, published in December 1943, was less ambitious and more balanced. Upon Hitler’s request the production figures of fighters were somewhat reduced in order to enable production of the massive He 177 bomber. Göring also pressed for increased bomber production in order to strengthen his bomber arm for the expected resumption of the night bombing campaign against England. This campaign started on the night of 21-22 January 1944 under the codename “Steinbock,” when 447 bombers attacked London. The attacks continued with an ever-decreasing force until May. Not much was achieved, because the attacks were not concentrated and the attackers suffered grave losses. This so-called Little Blitz practically finished off the Luftwaffe’s long-range bomber force and thus wasted most of the increased bomber output demanded by Hitler.
Since production plan 225/1 (December 1943) was the last formal production program published until July 1944, it was supposed to represent aircraft production for most of 1944, including a fairly large number of bombers, which proved to be completely ineffective during the “Little Blitz.” However, events unfolding in the following months dictated a sharp deviation from this plan towards vastly increased fighter production. This shift of policy happened in spite of Hitler’s repeated demands to continue bomber production. Yielding somewhat to this pressure, the Jägerstab approved in early March 1944 reduced bomber production regardless of the decision to concentrate all efforts on fighter production. It also decided to equip 30 percent of the He 177 bombers with modern guided bombs and aerial torpedoes in order to improve their operational capabilities. Even in April 1944, when Saur submitted a revised production plan that included no bombers, Hitler demanded to continue production of the same troubled He 177. The German navy also expressed interest in the aircraft as a long-range maritime reconnaissance platform to support the new submarine offensive it hoped to start in 1944-45 with its revolutionary new submarines. In late May and early June, plans were made to produce the aircraft in a new forest factory in Eger, Czechoslovakia, in order to free German capacity for fighter production. All these meddling explains why quite large numbers of this costly and ineffective aircraft were produced in 1944. Hitler finally declared the He 177 “vollkommen uninteressant” (completely uninteresting) in mid-June 1944, but its production continued at a low rate for several more weeks, mainly for the maritime reconnaissance role. The ax finally fall on this bomber at the beginning of July 1944 after a key discussion chaired by Göring, aimed at terminating or limiting the production of less important aircraft types. It was decided, among other matters, to terminate all conventional bomber production. Even afterwards it took a couple of months until the production lines came to a complete stop. After the He 177 was finally terminated in autumn 1944, the only strategic offensive weapon left to the Luftwaffe was the V-1 (which was never included in the aircraft production programs).