Lessons Learned – The Luftwaffe Over the Reich 1942


This Fw 190A-3, “brown 12,” saw long service in II./JG 26. Here it prepares to roll out under the close supervision of a large ground staff.

As winter 1942/43 set in, both the Luftwaffe and USAAF worked feverishly on equipment and tactics. Armorers on every American bomber base in England improvised fittings in the noses of their B-17s and B-24s to accommodate various additional machine guns. New formations and tactical doctrines, most stemming from the fertile mind of the 305th Bomb Group commander, Colonel Curtis LeMay, were established throughout the Eighth Air Force. The staggered 18-plane combat box, known to the Germans as a Pulk (bunch), was but one of his ideas.

The Bf 109 and Fw 190 models reaching the Luftwaffe at the end of 1942 differed only in detail from those of 1941. Both fighter designs showed unmistakable signs of reaching maturity. Weights continued to rise, and engine power had to be increased to keep pace. Barred from major increases in engine compression ratios by Germany’s chronic shortage of high-strength, high-temperature metal alloys and high-octane aviation fuel, engineers sought chemical additives to increase the energy of the detonations within the existing engines’ cylinders. The Bf 109G-1’s DB 605A engine had introduced nitrous oxide (GM-1) injection as a means of temporarily boosting engine power at altitude. The Bf 109G-4 was based on the G-1, but lacked the earlier fighter’s complicated cockpit pressurization system, and was equipped with a new radio, the FuG 16Z, which had multiple channels and homing capabilities. The Fw 190A-3 had a new BMW 801D-2 engine with greater power than its predecessor. Cooling louvers cut into the cowling finally solved the Focke-Wulf fighter’s overheating problem. The Fw 190A-3 was succeeded in late 1942 by the A-4, which had the FuG 16Z radio. While flying at their preferred altitudes the Bf 109G-4 and Fw 190A-4 were equal in performance to the best RAF fighter, the Spitfire IX.

Most of the new fighters arriving at JG 2 and JG 26 bases at the end of 1942 were Bf 109s. Kurt Tank’s Fw 190 was now in chronic short supply. Having overcome most of its original problems, it was now in great demand on all of the Luftwaffe’s widespread combat fronts, for reconnaissance and ground-attack duties as well as in its original air-superiority role. If someone had to give them up, the two Kanalgeschwader were the most logical choices, as the performance of the Fw 190 dropped off markedly above 7,500 meters (25,000 ft.), which happened to be the altitude flown by the B-17 formations. On the other hand, Willi Messerschmitt’s latest fighter, the Bf 109G-4, was in its element above 9,000 meters (30,000 ft.). By the spring of 1943, III./JG 26 was equipped exclusively with Messerschmitts, while I./JG 2 and II./JG 26 were flying a mixture of Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs. Mixed equipment did not prove satisfactory at the Gruppe level, and these two Gruppen were allowed to turn in their Messerschmitts for more Focke-Wulfs, remaining Fw 190 units until the war’s end.

When II./JG 2 returned from North Africa it was re-equipped with Bf 109s. Each of the two Kanalgeschwader now had two Fw 190 Gruppen and one Bf 109 Gruppe. The Bf 109 was an excellent dogfighter, especially at high altitudes, and later played a useful role as high cover over Germany, taking on the Allied escort fighters while the Fw 190 units concentrated on the bombers. However, the fighters of Luftflotte 3 rarely had time to form up for such coordinated attacks, and the Bf 109 and Fw 190 Gruppen were forced to attack the bomber formations independently. The Fw 190A-4’s armament mix of two MG 17 light machine guns, two MG FF 20-mm cannon, and two MG 151/20 20-mm cannon was considered effective against all targets. However, the Bf 109G-4’s standard armament of two MG 17s and one MG 151/20 was too light to do much damage to B-17s and B-24s. In the next model of the Messerschmitt fighter to enter service, the Bf 109G-6, the MG 17s were replaced with heavier MG 131s. Plumbing for yet another chemical additive, MW 50 (methanol–water), was added to increase low-altitude performance, but most pilots noted instead the deterioration in maneuverability resulting from its increased weight. They gave it the derisory nickname “Beule” (boil) for the bulky fairings covering the MG 131 breeches.

The Bf 109 was always notorious for its fragile construction. All in all, the Fw 190 was a much more survivable aircraft, and was the mount preferred by most of the western Jagdflieger (fighter pilots) in 1942–3. Erich Schwarz, an experienced Kanaljäger (Channel fighter), quoted a favorite saying in JG 26: “When a Focke-Wulf crashed, Professor Tank made the broken parts thicker. When a Bf 109 crashed, Professor Messerschmitt made the parts that had held together thinner.” In Schwarz’s opinion, “The Bf 109 was a good airplane, but could not compare with the Fw 190. The Bf 109 had great success in the east, but the enemy there did not have the technically developed arsenal that we faced in the west.”

General Galland kept the pressure on Major Oesau and Major Schöpfel. Their percentage of successful interceptions had to be sharply increased; only then might the new threat be nipped in the bud. At year’s end Galland was working on a set of detailed tactical regulations prescribing the methods of attack on heavy bombers. In his post-war interrogation he summarized their content as follows. Fighter units were to fly on a course parallel to and on one side of the bombers until about 5 km (3 miles) ahead of them. They were then to turn in by Schwärme and attack head-on. They were to aim at the bombers’ cockpits, open fire at 800 meters (875 yards), and maintain a near-level course, passing above their target after ceasing fire. The second approved attack method was from the rear, which required concentrated attacks; the fighters were to attack by Schwärme in rapid succession and at high speed, and pass over the bombers after ceasing fire.

In Galland’s mind, one key to success with these tactics was for the fighters to maintain formation, or at least visual contact, in order to permit repeated concentrated attacks. Keeping position above the bombers was essential—and yet, from now until the end of the war, the German pilot’s favorite method of ending an attack from either front or rear was with a split-S, which left him far beneath the attacked formation, and alone. Many pilots facing the hailstorm of defensive fire felt an irresistible urge to break off their attacks too soon. Although the bombers’ guns did not bring down many German fighters, their streams of .50-inch tracers did in fact form an extremely effective defensive shield. Despite Galland’s wishes, German formation attacks were rarely carried out exactly as prescribed. Some pilots would invariably break away prematurely, and the rest would pass through the bomber formation at whatever angle and orientation promised the best chance for survival. The formation leaders found it difficult to reassemble the scattered fighters, and each successive attack could be counted on for no greater than half the strength of the one preceding it.

The Luftflotte 3 fighter commanders, apparently on their own initiative, were themselves working to improve the efficiency of their interceptions. Attack formations were to be increased in size, and tactics were to be modified. On December 20, most attacks had been made from dead ahead—12 o’clock level, as viewed from the bombers. The bombers were in effective firing range for only a fraction of a second at the closing speed of roughly 900 km/h (550 mph), and the flat angle of attack and the high altitude made range estimation extremely difficult. Pilots could not help but worry about the possibility of colliding with their target, and many broke off their attacks far too soon. JG 26 veteran Karl Borris has stated that, after experimentation, the optimum attack angle was found to be from dead ahead as before, but from ten degrees above the horizontal. A constant angle of fire could be maintained, similar to that practised often against ground targets. The proper lead was attained by keeping the Revi’s crosshairs on the nose of the bomber. Distance estimation was simplified, and even the less experienced pilots could score hits. Thus was born the form of attack most feared by bomber crews—from 12 o’clock high.

The year ended with the great German offensive aspirations in south Russia and the Mediterranean in tatters. A growing night-bomber offensive against the Reich’s industrial and population centers demanded build-up of the integrated radar, Flak, and night-fighter defenses. Yet the upper Luftwaffe leadership still maintained that offensive air action was the best way to keep the Reich’s enemies far from its borders. Bomber production continued at a high level throughout 1942, and Luftwaffe research and development teams pressed ahead with the next generation of offensive air armament.

A recent student of German air defenses has concluded, “By the end of 1942, the USAAF may have been in the war, but from a German perspective it appeared to make very little difference.” The Eighth Air Force had been blooded in combat, and the German fighter pilots and command staffs from Luftflotte 3 and Lw Bfh Mitte accorded the new enemy considerable respect. Yet the measures taken to strengthen the daylight defenses against this new threat remained piecemeal and counterproductive. The needs of the combat fronts took precedence; fighter deployments in Luftflotte 3 had to divide their efforts between air defense and a number of other operational tasks, and the few regular fighter units in the Reich territory had to be buttressed by training units. Yet the Reich itself was virtually inviolate by day in 1942, and the existing defenses seemed to be holding their own against Anglo-American daylight strikes into the occupied western territories. Jeschonnek definitely summed up the prevailing wisdom when he told one of his staff officers, “Galland can take care of the [daylight] defense in the west with one wing.” 1943 would see this attitude put to a most severe test.

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