Luftwaffe preparations for the Ardennes Offensive

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, Marshal 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.

Operation Bodenplatte

The ever-lengthening lines of communication made the problems of keeping such massive armies supplied too great until such time as the port of Antwerp could be opened. This was not done until early November, and the Allied offensive ground to a halt. This, coupled with worsening weather, gave the Luftwaffe a breathing space, in which the fighter arm was expanded using pilots from disbanded bomber units and re-equipped with new aircraft. At this stage the Jagdflieger was of very mixed worth; undertrained and inexperienced pilots, leavened with old stagers who were very dangerous but too few in number, equipped with fighters that were basically good, and in some cases excellent, but were only effective in the right hands. From October 1944, they were increasingly handicapped by a shortage of fuel.

Allied fighter units advanced to bases near the German border, which enabled them to range deep into Germany. From this point on, fighter operations became inextricably linked with the American long-range escort missions, even though they were not an integral part of them.

What amounted to the last throw of the Luftwaffe came at dawn on 1 January 1945, with Operation Bodenplatte. This was an all-out assault on Allied airfields on the continent by 800 or more fighters. While this destroyed almost 300 Allied aircraft, Jagdflieger losses were horrendous; many irreplaceable fighter leaders went down during this operation. The attack caused a hiatus in Allied fighter operations, the brunt of the air fighting for the next week or so being borne by the Tempests of 122 Wing, which had escaped the onslaught. The Jagdflieger never recovered. From this moment on they were encountered in the air only infrequently, though the fuel shortages meant that those met with were more than likely to be Experten. In spite of this, a handful of Allied fighter pilots managed to build up respectable scores, even though opportunities were few.

German losses were 159 pilots KIA, 53 captured, 19 wounded.

The Luftwaffe lost 300+ Planes and 212 pilots never returned, among the pilots lost were 3 Kommodoren, 6 Gruppenkommandeure and 10 Staffelkapitane. Men the Luftwaffe would not be able to replace.

281 aircraft lost with 60-100%, 35 with under 60 %

The Luftwaffe crews knew a large-scale action was going to take place but not the date. The crews were also not participating in a happy hour the day/night before.

The Pathfinders that led the day fighter force consisted of Ju 88G-6 Nachtjägers from several night-fighter staffels, as well as at least one Me 262 from KG 51.

Effect on Ardennes German Army Operations

Hitler and the OKW hoped to give Field Marshal Walter Model’s troops further relief from Operation BODENPLATTE (Base-plate). The majority of the Luftwaffe’s fighters had been concentrated for use in WACHT AM RHEIN and BODENPLATTE, which left the home front extremely vulnerable. Germany was now more powerless than ever to resist the waves of Allied bombers.

BODENPLATTE had little positive effect on the operations of the German army units. After the divisions under Field-Marshal Bernard Montgomery also attacked the breakthrough area from the north on 3 January, and consequently threatened to encircle many German units, the OKW ordered a general retreat. The front was gradually withdrawn, though not without considerable losses. In late January/early February 1945 Model’s troops, or what was left of them, found themselves back in the same positions they had taken up on 16 December. During its final stage, the German retreat was speeded up further by the beginning of the Soviet Vistula offensive on 12 January. The OKW was now forced rapidly to throw motorized units at the eastern front, since most of the armaments and personnel had been poured into Army Group B since November 1944. The lack of these troops now made itself felt in the east, and their absence allowed the Red Army to advance rapidly westwards.

Even though Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D Eisenhower did not succeed in his intention of trapping the German panzer units in the Ardennes, the Allies could look back on a respectable victory. The German attack had collapsed after only a few days, and the Germans had suffered heavy losses (10,749 dead, 34,225 wounded, and 600-700 armoured vehicles lost).

 

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