Airpower Ardennes 1944

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Luftwaffe Situation

The situation for the Luftwaffe was not encouraging. Fuel was the main concern within the Luftwaffe with aircraft availability a close second. The general policy was one of a concerted effort to conserve fuel and assets. This resulted in a stockage of reserve fuel and ammunition as well as an increase in serviceable aircraft. The past few months of near uninterrupted Allied air superiority caused many problems for the Luftwaffe. Despite these problems, FM Herman Goering, Commander of the Luftwaffe, was able to equip and recommitted fifteen decimated Luftwaffe units by the end of October. The strength of twin-engine fighters increased by 25 percent from the beginning of the year, however, monthly German losses averaged 1,800 single-engine fighters in the West alone. This, along with the increase in deliveries, resulted in only a slight increase in actual availability of aircraft. The readiness emphasis on fighters was accomplished at the expense of the bomber and reconnaissance arms of the Luftwaffe.

Regardless of the number of planes, the desperate situation in aviation fuel limited use of the new planes. As mentioned earlier, aviation fuel production was suffering and stocks were being depleted. The shortage of fuel had two primary effects. First, pilot training was cut from 250 hours to 110 hours. Secondly, as a result of pilot and fuel shortages, Luftwaffe planes were only able to engage Allied missions over Germany on an average of four days a month compared to the Allies who conducted missions on a daily basis At the start of the offensive, Luftwaffe Command West had a strength of 2,292 planes of all types of which only 1,376 were operational.

In September, there were seventy-five serviceable airfields within a 125-mile radius of the Ardennes Offensive staging area. However, within the first four weeks of the build-up, thirty-four of the airfields were rendered unserviceable or partially unserviceable by Allied air interdiction. Poor soil conditions inhibited the repair of damaged airfields. To make matters worse, none of these airfields was suited for winter operations. These conditions forced the Luftwaffe to consolidate aircraft at a few bases. Additionally, the Germans wanted these forward airbases to conserve fuel and provide maximum time on station for ground support. This consolidation resulted in overcrowding of aircraft and gave Allied aircraft a target-rich environment when attacking these airbases.

By December 1944, the Luftwaffe received 527 Me-262 jet fighters. The Luftwaffe fielded the first Me-262 units this same month. However, technical problems and an effort to conserve aviation fuel resulted in a lack of pilot training. This would result in the Me-262 having no significant influence on the war much less the Ardennes Offensive.

Approximately 75 percent of single engine fighters in the Luftwaffe were located on the Western Front—an amount of approximately 1,500. Of these, approximately 70 percent were serviceable. German production of single engine fighters for October was 850 ME-109s and 650 FW-190s. Production of twin engine fighters was 240 aircraft with the majority being Me-110s, which were used mainly as night fighters. The strength of the Me-110s had grown to over 700 by November. Approximately 225 bombers were located in the area and were used for night bombing of Allied supply lines.

During the preparations and build-up for the offensive, the Luftwaffe was mainly used for reconnaissance. Planes were also used to fly up and down the front to attempt to drown out the sound of vehicles moving into place on the final few days before the assault.

Such was the situation in Luftwaffe preparations for the Ardennes Offensive. Although there was a rather large number of fighters and bombers in the area, restrictions on fuel usage would limit the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe during the build-up. This situation resulted in the Ardennes Offensive being the first offensive the Germans launched without air superiority. As the offensive would unfold, the results of the unprepared Luftwaffe would be fatal.

Allied Situation

Next, it is important to view the actions of the Allies during the build-up phase and how these actions would affect German logistics efforts for the Ardennes Offensive. Much of Hitler’s plan depended on the Allies remaining static and the Germans holding the line of September. This thesis paper will not cover the full range of Allied operation in the West, only those aspects that affected the German offensive or logistics preparations.

In an effort to secure access to the port of Antwerp, British and Canadian troops surrounded the Germans on 3 November in the Schelde Estuary at the mouth of the Rhine and accepted their surrender. Although Antwerp was now in Allied control, the Allies would have to clear the mines in the estuary before the port could be used. The Germans were unable to demolish cranes or docks and the port required only minor repairs. The port was finally available to Allied shipping on 28 November. This provided a major port to receive supplies and greatly cut the resupply time to units at the front that were stalled by fuel shortages. Once Antwerp was opened, the priority of the Red Ball Express from Normandy shifted to Antwerp. By November, the Allies were using La Havre, Rouen, Cherbourg, and ports in Southern France as primary ports with over 1.2 million tons of supplies. By December, over 420 thousand tons of supplies were arriving at Antwerp—27 percent of all Allied supplies. This was what Hitler expected and wanted. Now, if successful, the capture of Antwerp would bring about the results he wanted from his offensive.

On 16 November, the Allies began an expected attack over the Rohr River toward the Rhine. At the beginning of this offensive, 2,500 Allied bombers dropped more than 9,400 tons of high explosives on German positions and reserve locations in the heaviest tactical bombing of the war to date. This disrupted operations in that area and caused OKW to shift two divisions designated for the Ardennes to Fifteenth Army to block the Allies advance.

Meanwhile in France, the Allies were able to forward stage bombers on the continent. This increased the range and reduced the turn-around time for bombing raids on German industry and transportation centers. I do not believe Hitler expected Allied strategic and operational bombing to degrade war production to the degree it did. The Allies were in a situation that Hitler envisioned: ties to a port and with over stretched lines of communications. However, Hitler did not expect the Allies to possess such superiority in the air.

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