Eclipse of the Luftwaffe II

Ambush

Ambush!
by Heinz Krebs
The German Me 262 jet fighters, used primarily to attack USAAF heavy bomber formations in early 1945, were very vulnerable to fighter attacks during take-off and landing. The Allies had therefore adapted a strategy of having fighters patrol in the vicinity of Me262 bases, waiting for the return of the German jets from their missions. These ambushes soon proved highly effective, with the Luftwaffe losing many jets to the guns of the USAAF.
To counteract the mounting losses special units were formed, equipped with the Focke-Wulf 190 D-9 (“Dora Neun”), regarded by many as the Luftwaffe’s finest piston-engined fighter of the war. Manned by experienced veterans of JG52 and JG54, they were tasked with providing top cover for the jets at their airfields at Munich, and Ainring near Salzburg. In order to make these aircraft clearly discernable to the German anti-aircraft gunners, their undersides were painted red with white stripes, thus the legend of the “parrot wing” was born.
One of this unit’s elements was the so-called “strangler swarm” led by Lt. Heino Sachsenberg.
Here we see Sachsenberg in his Focke Wulf 190 Dora 9 “Rote 1” W.Nr. 600424, as he turns into P-51s over the airfield of Ainring in an attempt to protect the approaching jet fighters from the Mustangs’ attack.

On the night of June 12—13, the famous secret weapon of Peenemünde, the Luftwaffe’s V-1 robot bomb (V for Vergeltung, vengeance) was first launched against London. The mysterious ramps along the Channel coast had been heavily and continuously bombed at low level by the Allies; replicas of these sloping platforms had been built in Florida for practice in the most effective methods of destroying them. The flying bomb was a form of pilotless aircraft built not only at Peenemünde but at Friedrichshafen and other centers, and about nine thousand were launched, principally against London, during the three months following the initial launching in June. The V-1 carried a ton of high explosive, had a range of up to 150 miles and flew at about 2,500 feet at a speed that at its greatest approached 400 m.p.h. Barely a third of the bombs launched reached their targets; they either were exploded in flight by the Allied fighters and the ground defenses or failed to explode at all. The V-1 proved a propaganda weapon that helped to maintain German morale; after the initial surprise caused by it in London, the British accepted it as an additional danger of war, but less hazardous in the end than the fearful raids of the blitz period. The damage from blast was widespread, and the East End of London, particularly Stepney and Poplar, suffered badly. By the end of 1944, three quarters of a million homes in Greater London were added to the already heavy total of damaged property. Hitler and Goering miscalculated again when they thought, after trials with a captured Spitfire, that the V-1 was invulnerable from the air and would bombard Britain into submission from a hundred launching sites along the Channel. By the time the V-1 was ready for launching, many of the ramps had been damaged and enough was known of the weapon for an increasingly effective defense to be organized when the launchings finally began. On July 5 Churchill was able to reveal in the House of Commons that the first 2,754 bombs had killed only 2,752 people. The bomb ceased to be a major tactical weapon.

Meanwhile the Allied invasion, which by July was fully established, was paralleled by Russian penetration of Poland and the threat this meant to East Prussia. According to Galland, Goering was inaccessible and he kept away from the Luftwaffe command. During July, the carrying out of a plot to kill Hitler at his daily staff conference, inspired mainly by a group of generals who wanted to eliminate Goering and Himmler in a single act of assassination along with the Führer, had to be postponed twice. On July 11 Goering was present at the staff conference but not Himmler, and the attempt planned for that day was abandoned. The second time, on July 15, Hitler himself left before the bomb, which was hidden in a briefcase, could be placed. Then it was decided to concentrate the plot on Hitler alone. The conferences, which Goering attended when he was available, took place either at the Berghof in the south or at the Wolf’s Lair in Rastenburg, according to Hitler’s movements. On the third attempt, on July 20 at Rastenburg, the bomb exploded in Hitler’s presence, but Count Klaus von Stauffenberg’s briefcase holding it had been moved away from the Führer, to the far side of the support of the heavy table, by a Colonel Brandt as he leaned over to get a better view of Hitler’s maps. Brandt was among those killed, but Hitler was only lightly injured by burns and bruises. He suffered, however, considerable shock and a temporary paralysis of the right arm. Bodenschatz, who was representing Goering, was severely injured. Himmler, who was at headquarters but not at the conference, immediately took charge of the investigations, while Goebbels, acting with considerable initiative, seized the chance offered him to take control of Berlin.

Goering was at his headquarters some fifty miles away when the news came of the attempt on Hitler’s life and of its failure. Later he was to boast, “If the attempt had succeeded, I should have had to handle it,” though Himmler had other views on this. Goering went straight to Rastenburg and arrived in time to join in another of those strange tea parties which so often seemed to occur at moments of crisis. For on July 20 Mussolini, dictator of Lombardy, if he was still dictator anywhere, was visiting Hitler; his train was delayed and he arrived, accompanied by Marshal Graziani, to be greeted by a Hitler who was pale and shaking and carried his arm in a sling.

All the hierarchy except Goebbels were now present: Goering, Ribbentrop, Himmler and Grand Admiral Doenitz, the new naval Commander in Chief, as well as Keitel and Jodl. After inspecting the debris, the dictators and their colleagues sat down to tea angry and unnerved. They knew by this time that the conspiracy had been planned on a considerable scale and involved many highly placed Army officers, for, thinking Hitler dead, the conspirators had already attempted to take over the administrative center of Berlin and had been prevented from completing its encirclement by the action of Goebbels, who knew that Hitler had survived. Recriminations broke out in a savage display of ill-manners which took little account of the presence of the guests from Italy. Hitler at first listened, chewing pills of varied colors, while his commanders, their voices raised, began to shout at each other; Doenitz blamed the disasters of the war on the Army; Goering agreed, only to be attacked at once by the Grand Admiral for the failure of the Luftwaffe. Goering, flushed and angry, defended his service and then turned to Ribbentrop and attacked him for the futility of his foreign policy. The quarrel reached a stage where he actually threatened Ribbentrop with his field marshal’s baton. “You dirty little champagne salesman,” he yelled, “shut your damned mouth!” He called him Ribbentrop, and this more than anything nettled the other, who had secured his titular “von” only through his adoption by an aunt. Ribbentrop demanded to be treated with respect, shouting, “I am still the Foreign Minister, and my name is von Ribbentrop!” Only when the Roehm plot was mentioned did Hitler’s concentrated fury at the ingrates who had tried to take away his life break out in a sudden scream for vengeance—not only against all the men implicated, but against their wives and their children as well. He was as good as his word. Mussolini, troubled and embarrassed by the scene he had witnessed, withdrew from the tea party. He never saw Hitler again.

The generals who were found guilty after a disgraceful form of trial were hanged by the neck on ropes hauled up over meathooks—all except Rommel, who, as the favorite soldier of the German people, was told on October 14 to commit suicide, after which he would be accorded a state funeral to save his face and that of Hitler. Rommel, having informed his wife of his fate, was taken away in a car and given a few minutes in which to shoot himself. His wife was then notified, as he had told her she would be, that he had died of a cerebral embolism, and the messages of sympathy poured in. Among them was one from Goering.

Even Goering, Hitler’s paladin, was not above suspicion. When the postwar trials uncovered to some extent the maneuvers of power among the Nazis, it was revealed that the Gestapo had been ordered by Himmler to investigate Goering’s connections with the revolt; and Himmler was heard to remark to Doenitz that, if Hitler had been killed, “it is absolutely certain, Herr Grossadmiral, that under no circumstances would the Reich Marshal have become his successor.”

The map of Europe, which in 1940 had been unrolled for Hitler to trample on, now recoiled against him. By August the Russians were on the borders of East Prussia and in the suburbs of Warsaw. Rumania and her oil had gone and Bulgaria had withdrawn from the fight, while France had been liberated from both north and south, and Belgium and Holland penetrated. The Allies in the west pushed forward until their supplies of fuel and ammunition ran short; by September the forces of Germany were all but pressed back inside their natural frontier.

During August Galland, finding Goering still inaccessible and indeed “not well,” appealed finally to Speer to help him persuade Hitler not to use the last reserves from the Luftwaffe’s training schools to help fill the great void gaping in the German Army. Speer, who had first taken over air armament as well as ground armament production, went to see Hitler with Galland, only to be turned out and told to look after his war industry. “If the Reich Marshal does not act, then it is my duty to act,” Speer had said, but he must have regretted his well-meant attempts to help when he met the angry and overwrought Führer. This was followed by a summons to a conference the next day in which Hitler said he would dissolve the useless fighter arm. He ordered Speer to set about transforming the aircraft production industry into a plant to manufacture heavy armament. Speer left the meeting in despair.

In his decision to strip down the Luftwaffe’s remaining strength Hitler was no doubt influenced by the existence of Count Werner von Braun’s pioneer rocket, the V-2. The first of these prophetic weapons was launched against Britain just as the victory against the V-1 had been finally achieved. Against the V-2 there was no defense at all except to destroy it before it was launched or to destroy its center of production. By September 1944 the V-2 was ready for action. There was a stockpile of some two thousand of these highly mobile rockets that could be launched from woodlands and forests with comparative ease, and the monthly production rate was to average five hundred right up to the end of the war. Its range was some two hundred miles, its speed 3,500 m.p.h., its weight two and a half tons at take-off (including its warhead of one ton of high explosive), and it reached a height of some seventy miles. Between September and December over four thousand of these bombs were launched by the German Army against London and Antwerp. It was the Army and not the Air Force that had charge of the V-2, but Goering transformed some of his Heinkel bombers so that they could launch V-1 bombs from the air. This form of raiding on London and Antwerp continued with decreasing effect until the end of the war. Hitler and Goering could, however, claim that they had managed to return to their old policy of aggression from the air during the final months of the war.

In October Hitler at last consented to the formation of a jet-fighter unit to operate the ME 262, though it was humiliating that the suggestion had to come initially from Himmler to the Führer, and not from Goering himself. The previous month, at a conference in Rastenburg on September 23, Goering, against Galland’s wishes, had supported the mass production of a new and inferior jet plane, the HE 162, the Volks fighter, which it was hoped would be manned by thousands of schoolboys trained in gliders. After a miracle of production, the Volks fighter prototype was ready for demonstration in December, but it disintegrated in the air. The war was over before it was ready for mass production.

There was a certain revival of strength in the Luftwaffe in preparation for Hitler’s final counteroffensive in the Ardennes. Goering, however, was so ineffective by now that at a conference on November 6 Hitler accused him of not knowing what was going on; as for the Luftwaffe, the Führer had come to a “devastating conclusion” concerning its ineffectiveness. Goering was foolish enough to attempt to regain his lost prestige by calling a conference of all the leaders of the day and the night fighter units at the headquarters of the Reich Air Fleet at Wannsee and attacking them, losing his self-control and insulting them in so aggressive a manner that he caused, as Galland puts it, “bitterness and revolt.” Goering did worse than this; he had his words recorded and ordered that “the record be played at intervals to the pilots at action stations.” The Luftwaffe men had their own views about both Goering and his speech which they did not bother to keep to themselves.

The offensive in the Ardennes, after some initial success, failed. In the New Year Hitler was faced with the final converging of the great armies of the East and the West which pressed simultaneously on the borders of Germany. By the end of January, East and West Prussia were severed from the Reich. Zhukov was a hundred miles from Berlin. The Russians had taken Silesia, with all its essential raw materials. Goering had evacuated Rominten, the first of his properties to fall into the hands of the enemy. Hitler last used the Wolf’s Lair on November 20, and then it was abandoned to the enemy.

Goering’s own description of the disposal of forces at this time by Hitler shows that strategy was reduced to what he himself described as a fire station. “The troops were sent wherever there was a fire,” he said. “For instance, if the Eastern Command wanted troops for an anticipated action and the Western desired troops to check an attack already in progress, the troops were usually sent west. But it was the same principle as a fire department. Hitler, of course, made the final decision.”

At the close of the year Goering decided to promote General Karl Koller as Chief of Staff of the Luftwaffe. Koller was unwilling, but went to Carinhall, where Goering had called him for interview. He asked permission to speak frankly, which Goering granted; Koller immediately criticized him for not visiting the operations headquarters for a year, for his habit of sending his adjutant to the phone when his senior officers wanted to consult him, and for neglecting so often to make necessary decisions on points that had been put to him. Koller said he had often been forced to protect himself by taking action on Goering’s behalf and filing in the War Diary his unanswered telegrams requesting guidance. Goering simply pleaded with him to forget and forgive, gave him a free hand in everything and, with a show of boyish despair, promised to be “good” in future.

He was less boyish with Galland, whose criticism, either spoken or implied, he could not so readily accept. In January Galland was dismissed and sent on leave; no successor was appointed. Goering afterward considered him to be the driving force behind a delegation of fighter pilots that had talked to him at the Haus der Flieger and presented the pilots’ case, which was that their general, Galland, had been removed, that the bomber command had precedence over the fighter command and received the ME 262 over their heads, that they were expected to achieve impossibilities in bad weather, and, finally, that Goering had insulted them and openly doubted their fighting spirit. Goering flew into a rage and threatened to court-martial their spokesman, Lützow, who was sent to Italy and told he must not communicate again with either Galland or the fighter pilots. As for the dismissal of Galland, Hitler himself intervened. Goering recalled him to Carinhall, made some show of magnanimity and told him Hitler had given permission for him to fly again in action. The mutineers and he were permitted to form their own unit of jet fighters. Galland, without loss of rank, ended the war as he began it, the captain of a squadron of fighters, but this time with jets.

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