This aviation art print by Mark Postlethwaite depicts a Focke Wulf Fw 190D-9 of 14/JG26 flown by Ofw. Werner Zech, which is intercepted by a P-51 Mustang of the 339th FG flown by Captain Francis R. Gerard, 18th March 1945.
The fighter reinforcements were needed for Hitler’s last great offensive in the west, Operation Wacht am Rhein (Watch on the Rhine), the Battle of the Ardennes, known to the Allies as the Battle of the Bulge. Although Allied intelligence knew that German armies were shifting positions and concentrating behind the Ardennes forest, and had exact knowledge of every westward transfer of a fighter unit—the Luftwaffe sent and confirmed all such information by radio—somehow the pieces were not assembled properly, and the German offensive on the morning of December 16 achieved complete tactical surprise. The II. Jagdkorps contribution was to have been a massed dawn attack on Allied tactical airfields on the first day of the offensive. This attack, code-named Operation Bodenplatte (Baseplate), had been finalized by General Peltz and his staff and fighter unit commanders at a conference in Altenkirchen on December 14, but intriguing details—the use of night fighters as guide aircraft, special pyrotechnic signals, and other techniques—had been picked up by Ultra weeks earlier. Bodenplatte was delayed repeatedly by exceptionally bad weather which grounded the air forces of both sides. Bad weather may have disappointed Peltz, but was welcomed by the German ground forces, which were thus able to move freely during the daylight hours, unseen and unattacked by Allied aircraft.
General Schmid’s I. Jagdkorps commanded the few conventional fighters still available for the defense of the Reich. Jagddivision 1 controlled the two former Wilde Sau Geschwader, which were based south and west of Berlin for the defense of northern and central Germany. JG 300 was headquartered at Jüterbog; JG 301, at Stendal. III./JG 7 was to transfer to Brandenburg-Briest and join Jagddivision 1 when it returned to operations. It moved in late December, but flew no missions until January. Jagddivision 8 was responsible for defending the south and southeast, but controlled only the Hungarian fighters, which had flown their last organized mission against the Fifteenth Air Force on November 7. They were now under orders from their own government to ignore the strategic bombers and assist the German and Hungarian armies in their fight against the advancing Red Army.
The sleet and fog blanketing northwestern Europe on the 17th grounded the Eighth Air Force and much of the Luftwaffe, but JG 300, a bad-weather wing, was still able to take off. It was scrambled and ordered to form up and fly in an unusual direction—southeast, to the Silesian oil installations at Blechhammer and Odertal. The USSTAF had ordered the Fifteenth Air Force to fly another mission to these critical targets. The Italy-based bomber crews had not seen a Luftwaffe fighter in two months, and the 49th Bomb Wing was taken completely by surprise when the JG 300 Sturmgruppe suddenly burst from the clouds in wedge formation, prepared for an assault attack. The Geschwader, led on this occasion by Lt. Klaus Bretschneider, the Kapitän of 5.(Sturm)/JG 300, had managed to stay in formation in the clouds until an unescorted bomber wing was located. The Sturmgruppe flew a complete circle and attacked the rear of the 461st Bomb Group, flying in the high rear position, while III./JG 300 attacked from the flanks. Nine 461st B-24s went down immediately; a tenth ditched on the return flight. The attacks proceeded forward in the bomber stream, and brought down two B-24s from the 484th Group, two from the 464th, one from the 451st, and probably several of the five others which did not return from the mission. Lightnings of the 14th Fighter Group and Mustangs from the 52nd and 325th Groups quickly reached the B-24s and drove off the German fighters, at the cost of three Lightnings and two Mustangs. The Stab and four Gruppen of JG 300, the only Geschwader involved in this interception, lost 19 KIA, including a member of the Stab of the new IV./JG 300; 6 WIA; and 36 fighters.
Uffz. Ernst Schröder led a Schwarm of four 5.(Sturm)/JG 300 Fw 190s on the mission, and has provided this account:
After an hour of standing around Löbnitz, my airplane is still unserviceable. A red flare goes up; cockpit readiness! My Staffel comrades climb into their cockpits and strap in. Every loudspeaker on the field then broadcasts a message for me to report to the Stab dispersal area; “Blue 13” is ready for me. I grab my parachute and run a couple of hundred meters to the plane, which had once belonged to Obstlt. Dahl, our previous Kommodore.
The green flare for takeoff soars into the sky just as I reach the plane. I buckle on my chute and strap in with the aid of the mechanics. I am last to take off, and have no time to adjust the seat and rudder pedals, which were positioned for the shorter Dahl. I thus have to fly the mission with my knees bent back almost double. Lt. Bretschneider has taken off first, and climbs away in a broad sweep so that everyone can join up. At 1,500 meters [5,000 ft.] I catch the rear plane and then pick my way through the heap looking for my leaderless Schwarm. I find them and am in position by the time we reach Wittenberg on the Elbe, the assembly point for the whole Geschwader, which is marked by colored smoke rounds fired by the Flak. Messerschmitts from our escorting Gruppen approach from the right and below. After two orbits at 2,500 meters [8,000 ft.] the formation is complete: 30 Sturmgruppe Fw 190s escorted by 50–60 Bf 109s. While we fly just beneath the clouds we are ordered by the Jagddivision 1 controller at Döberitz to climb away to the southeast. We are told over the radio about the locations of American bomber formations coming up from Italy. We climb through 4,000 meters [13,000 ft.] and put on our oxygen masks.
Bretschneider leads us around most of the towering cloud formations, but through some of the smaller ones, but we stick together. I look around my cockpit and discover that I am flying the most heavily armed fighter in the Gruppe, with the full original Sturmbock armament of two 30-mm cannon, two 20-mm cannon, and two 12.7-mm machine guns; most of the others have been lightened by removing or substituting some of the guns. The task of my Schwarm is to fly high cover for the Gruppe, to fend off the first escorts; the heavy “dungheap” I am flying will not make the job any easier. My usual airplane is a standard Fw 190A-8 with no extra guns or armor.
After a long flight in peaceful silence, we are given the position of the oncoming enemy bombers. The radio then crackles with an impatient series of course changes. The controller tells us that the dicken Autos should be in sight. But—nothing. We switch on our guns and gunsights. Suddenly, from Bretschneider: “Viktor, Viktor von Specht Anton. Ich sehe dicke Autos! Wir machen Pauke-Pauke!” [“Roger, Roger from Woodpecker Leader. I see the bombers. We are attacking!”]
I pull my Schwarm up about 100 meters [330 ft.] above the Gruppe for a better overall view. I see the contrails of only a few escorts above the bombers. We drop our tanks on orders. Bretschneider swings us onto a reciprocal course to the bombers. The first Pulk of red-tailed B-24s passes us. As the second approaches, Bretschneider begins a fairly tight right turn to slot us in between the second and third Pulks, which are passing from our left to our right. I remain on course for a last look around and then join my comrades. We rapidly overhaul the second Pulk. The few P-38s overhead do not come down; perhaps they are calling for reinforcements. From my high position I have a perfect view of the unfolding drama. First the B-24 tail gunners open fire, filling the sky with tracer. The Sturmböcke bore in at full throttle, weaving slightly to throw off the gunners’ aim. At 300 meters [1,000 ft.] the main force opens fire with their cannon. The explosive shells streak toward their targets, and within seconds two bombers have turned into fireballs. Others quickly catch fire. My radio becomes an incoherent babble of shouts and cries. My Schwarm comes down last. I line up on my target, press the firing button at 300 meters, and—nothing! Damn! I close to 30 meters [100 ft.], swearing and flipping all the circuit breakers. Nothing works. I look around to see a sky full of falling debris and parachutes. I give up, and break away in a steep dive. A few months earlier, I would have been expected to ram a bomber. But in December 1944 we are so short of pilots that this is no longer required. I shall face no repercussions for my action.
I land at Liegnitz in Silesia, having been in the air for two hours. After refueling, I return to Löbnitz, land, and taxi to the Stab dispersal. I begin shouting at the first mechanic to reach me about the failure of my guns. He reaches into the cockpit and calmly points to an extra safety switch, still set on “safe.” A special feature of Dahl’s crate, one I had never seen before. Upon reflection, I am pleased for the sake of the ten American airmen that my guns had not worked.
For the next several days the Eighth Air Force was directed against tactical targets in western Germany whenever it could get off the ground. Two Jagdgruppen were ordered to intercept heavy bombers in the Bonn area on the 18th, but unsurprisingly could not get through the P-51 escort screen. The Fifteenth continued its campaign against strategic targets in central Europe, once again without aerial opposition.
The weather over western Europe cleared on the 23rd, in time for a small tactical raid by the heavy bombers and a maximum defensive effort by the strengthened II. Jagdkorps. The Eighth Air Force heavy bombers were well-protected by their experienced escorts and were scarcely molested. Some RAF Bomber Command heavies, and the Ninth Air Force mediums, were not as fortunate. A small force of 27 Lancasters and 3 Mosquitoes, all from No. 8 Pathfinder Group, was sent to bomb a Cologne rail yard through what was expected to be cloud. The cloud cleared, leaving the bombers in a strung-out formation, and unescorted. Major Toni Hackl, who now commanded II./JG 26, was leading its new Fw 190D-9 “long noses” on a sweep of the Ardennes. They had engaged some P-51s when he received word of the tempting target. He broke free with five of his men and headed toward Cologne. He quickly downed the leading Lancaster and one of the Mosquitoes; his five pilots downed five more Lancasters. His fighters were not touched by British return fire, never saw an escort, and broke away only when out of ammunition. The pilot of the leading Lancaster was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross.
II.Jagdkorps directed the rest of its fighters to Ninth Air Force B-26 formations making a maximum-strength raid on communications centers supporting the German offensive. The result, according to the official USAAF history, was the “most furious aerial opposition ever encountered by the medium bombers.” Thirty-eight B-26s were lost. Claims by the exuberant German pilots were so high that it is impossible to sort out their individual targets. The attack by IV.(Sturm)/JG 3 stood out; the unit was able to form a close-formation Sturmgruppe wedge and decimate a B-26 box in a stern attack.
The weather over northwestern Europe stayed good on the 24th, allowing the Eighth Air Force to fly its greatest strike of the war—2,700 sorties—against German communications centers and airfields. The 3rd Bomb Division’s leading 4th Combat Wing was attacked over Liége by IV.(Sturm)/JG 3, which shot down three 487th Bomb Group B-17s and collided with two others. One of the lost B-17s was piloted by the wing commander, BGen. Fred Castle, who was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for the mission.
Two other Jagdgruppen, II.(Sturm)/JG 300 and III./JG 301, attempted to attack the 2nd and 1st Bomb Divisions in the Magdeburg–Brunswick area. Lt. Bretschneider was leading the JG 300 formation again, despite his low rank, but the large formation was spotted by the 357th Fighter Group, and the Geschwader and especially the vulnerable Sturmböcke were soon engaged in desperate combat. The Sturmgruppe lost 6 KIA, 7 WIA, and 14 Fw 190s; Bretschneider, one of the most successful formation leaders in the RLV force, was one of the pilots killed. III./JG 301 claimed a successful attack on B-17s, but the American unit involved cannot be determined. The other Luftwaffe fighter units in the west were fully occupied over the Bulge, attempting to shield their Army from Allied tactical aircraft. For the day I. Jagdkorps and II. Jagdkorps lost 68 pilots killed and 19 injured.
The Eighth Air Force’s 1st Bomb Division stood down on Christmas Day; the 2nd and 3rd Divisions targeted communications centers and rail bridges west of the Rhine. The I. Jagdkorps fighters did not fly. II. Jagdkorps attempted to assemble a battle formation comprising the Stab and three Gruppen of JG 1, plus IV.(Sturm)/JG 3—all of them experienced RLV units—to oppose the bombers. The Gefechtsverband could not be formed. Every Gruppe but one was broken up by the P-51 escorts; I./JG 1 reached the 2nd Bomb Division stream unmolested, downed three 389th Bomb Group B-24s, and returned to Twente short only three Fw 190s, all of whose pilots survived. IV.(Sturm)/JG 3 apparently shot down a single 467th Group B-24, but was punished badly by 479th Group Mustangs, losing eight Fw 190s and seven pilots. Again most of the day’s aerial activity was over the Bulge, on tactical missions; II. Jagdkorps lost a total of 49 pilots KIA and 13 WIA.
Whenever possible for the next five days, the Eighth Air Force bombers attacked German communications targets and rail yards behind the Ardennes battlefront, taking off for some missions through freezing rain. I. Jagdkorps was not ordered to intercept the heavies until the 31st, when, with the ground situation stabilized, the Eighth Air Force returned to its strategic campaign, sending 2,100 fighters and bombers to a variety of targets, including the Hamburg-Harburg refineries and the Misburg hydrogenation plant. JG 300 and JG 301 scrambled in full force against the 3rd Bomb Division, which was making the deepest penetration. Both Geschwader succeeded in finding small openings in the escort screen. The “Bloody 100th” Group was scourged once again, losing seven B-17s to the fighters, three to collision, two to Flak, and one to an internal fire. The 452nd Bomb Group was also hit by the Focke-Wulfs, and lost five B-17s. The P-51s then arrived to inflict typical punishment on the German fighters, which lost 24 KIA and 10 WIA on the mission.
The following table shows the strength of I. Jagdkorps (containing the RLV fighters) and II. Jagdkorps (containing the western front tactical fighters) at the end of the last two quarters of 1944. These totals include some units that were rebuilding and not operational. These were intended to be activated for Galland’s Big Blow against the Eighth Air Force, but most were instead ordered to II. Jagdkorps for the Ardennes battle.
The German winter offensive had stalled, and on the 31st the top priority missions for all of the II. Jagdkorps fighters were within the Bulge. They had flown a few offensive ground-support missions over the Ardennes to aid the leading armor units and the fighting around Bastogne, but their most valuable service was on anti-Jabo patrols, searching for the deadly Allied fighter-bombers. This was very dangerous work, because once the Allied fighters dropped their ordnance they were equal in performance to the German fighters, and nearly always outnumbered them. During December 16–31, II. Jagdkorps lost 400 pilots killed or missing. Despite these losses and the stagnant ground situation, the II. Jagdkorps unit commanders received coded radio messages on the afternoon of the 31st announcing that Operation Bodenplatte would be carried out on the next day and authorizing the briefing of the pilots. The coded attack time came through later. The targeted airfields would be all be hit at 0920 hours. Although it no longer made any military sense, General Peltz had gotten his wish, and 34 Jagdgruppen—the largest force of German fighters ever to take to the air—would take off at dawn on a mission which would seal the fate of the German fighter force.