Wacht am Rhein – Air War

On 17 December 1944, the day after German forces launched their ‘Wacht-am-Rhein’ counter-offensive in the Ardennes, Me 262 jet-bombers of I. and II./KG 51 conducted ground-attack operations to the north of the core offensive area, attacking British troop and vehicle concentrations in north-eastern Belgium. Hauptmann Rudolf Abrahamczik, Staffelkapitän of 2./KG 51, accompanied by Oberfeldwebel Hermann Wieczorek, also of 2. Staffel, were briefed to attack enemy motorised and armoured columns in the around Bree, a few kilometres west of the River Maas and close to the Dutch border. In a mission lasting 40 minutes, Abrahamczik’s Leipheim-built Me 262 A-1a, W.Nr. 170106, 9K+LK, and Wieczorek’s Schwäbisch-Hall-built Me 262 A-1a, W.Nr. 110613, 9K+DK, were each loaded with a pair of SD 250 semi armour-piercing fragmentation bombs. Both aircraft had previously been used by KG(J) 54. A painting by Mark Postlethwaite. http://www.posart.com

General Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, the German Commander-in-Chief, gave three reasons for Allied victories in NW Europe: ‘Three factors defeated us in the west where I was in command. First, the unheard of superiority of your Air Force which made all movement in daytime impossible. Second, the lack of motor fuel – oil and gas – so that the Panzers and even the remaining Luftwaffe were unable to move. Third, the systematic destruction of all railway communications so that it was impossible to bring one single railroad train across the Rhine.’ All three reasons were a direct result of the Allied air supremacy in 1944/45. Field Marshal Walter Model, GOC Heeresgruppe B, produced the following edict issued to all his unit commanders:

Enemy number one is the enemy airforce which because of its absolute superiority tries to destroy our spearheads of attacks and our artillery through fighter bomber [known as Jabos] attacks and bomb carpets and to render movements in rear areas impossible. The armament industry at home and the leadership are trying with all possible means to render ineffective, for the time being, this air superiority at least for the purpose of supporting our actions [such as Wacht am Rhein and Nordwind]. During this time of year our attacking troops profit from fog and the danger of icing of aircraft. Everywhere the troops will employ camouflage, and at every halt they will dig in deeply troops, weapons and vehicles.

Hitler realised that Wacht am Rhein needed the maximum of bad flying weather to keep the Jabos from savaging his panzer armies. He needed a minimum of at least a five-day forecast of poor weather from his chief meteorologist, Dr Werner Schwerdtfeger. The OKW diary keeper, Dr Percy Schramm, noted, The attack can only be carried out at a time when the prevailing weather conditions will be a considerable handicap for enemy air forces.’ And Hitler himself wrote:

The only thing which is not in our favour this time is the air situation. That is why we are now forced to take advantage of the bad winter weather. The air situation forces us to do so. I cannot wait until the weather gets better. I would be happier if we could somehow hold off until the spring … now there are at least some weeks before there can be carpet bombing [by the USAAF] of troop concentrations. That means a lot …’

Another captured order from Model elaborated in more detail the instructions to be passed down to all junior line commanders:

These are the means to protect against the Anglo-American highwaymen. (1) Maintenance of a proper march interval between vehicles; (2) No rest stops on roads; (3) Use of woods for camouflage; (4) Preparation of fox-holes. ‘Spade work provides the best highway furnace’; (5) Only combat vehicles or supply columns on roads; (6) Importance of night marches; (7) Danger of icy serpentine roads. ‘Therefore seek cover first. Then fire away.’ Each soldier who knocks down an enemy strafer plane with his infantry weapon, even a machine pistol, rifle or machine-gun, will receive a ten-day special furlough!

For a year or more Adolf Hitler had lost all confidence in the Luftwaffe. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göering had for many years been Hitler’s favourite warrior, having been responsible, with his Stukas, for the panzers’ success in overrunning half of Europe in 1939 and 1940. His star began to wane after his failures to eliminate the British Army at Dunkirk, for the inability of the Luftwaffe, despite the Baedecker raids and the London blitz, to win the Battle of Britain. Further disasters occurred in the capture of Crete, failure to support the German armies in North Africa, and failure to prevent the 1,000-bomber raids over Berlin and a dozen other cities. And more recently in Normandy, lack of success in keeping the Jabos at bay.

After Hamburg was practically destroyed by the RAF’s ‘fire storm’, General Adolf Galland, the Luftwaffe Chief of fighter forces, describes a meeting between ‘der Dicke’, the ‘fat one’, and his Führer:

We were met with a shattering picture. Göering had completely broken down. With his head buried in his arms on the table, he moaned some indistinguishable words. We stood there for some time in embarrassment, until at last he pulled himself together and said that we [Galland and General Dietrich Peltz] were witnessing his deepest moments of despair. The Führer had lost faith in him. The Führer had announced that the Luftwaffe had disappointed him too often, and a changeover from offensive to defensive in the air against the west was out of the question.

After the wreck of Hamburg Göering, Galland and Peltz had agreed among themselves that the Luftwaffe should immediately refocus on defensive efforts against the Allied fighter forces. Offensive air weapons would be sacrificed to produce increased fighter forces. Even Dietrich Peltz, the Chief of the Luftwaffe bomber forces, agreed. But the Führer, of course, had the power of veto. Professor Willi Messerschmitt was working on his sixth prototype at the jet aircraft plant at Regensberg – the ME-262 jet fighter. Hitler, of course, said, ‘I’m not interested in this plane as a fighter. I order this plane built as a bomber.’ At Dessau the Junkers designers were producing the Jumo-004B jet engine and the large swept-wing JU-287 jet bomber, and at Brandenburg Dr Walter Blume had assembled five prototypes of the AR-234 jet bomber.

On 20 June 1944 Hitler ordered Field Marshal Erhard Milch (Göering’s deputy) and Karl-Otto Saur (Albert Speer’s deputy) to examine ways to increase the output of the ME-262 jets to a thousand per month. Nine days later Hitler signed a decree ordering that only fighter aircraft would be produced. After the debacle for the Wehrmacht in Normandy, at his Wolfschanze HQ, Hitler discussed the consequences of that defeat with his right-hand adviser, General Alfred Jodl: ‘We must do everything to ensure that we can hold the Luftwaffe formations at home as a last reserve in readiness to be employed at some point where we can turn the tables once more. I cannot say now, when and where that point will be … There is no doubt that if we could suddenly pump in an additional 800 fighters and at once bring up our fighter strength to 2,000 – as we probably could – the whole crisis would be overcome at once.’ Galland accordingly produced a grandiose plan, Der Grosse Schlag (the Great Blow), whereby on 12 November 1944 more than 3,000 (out of a total of 3,700) aircraft and pilots, in eighteen fighter groups, would, in the most decisive air battle of the war, cripple, perhaps destroy, the US Eighth Air Force. This plan was never sanctioned but Operation Bodenplatte (base plate) was instead.

By September 1944 the Luftwaffe had written off in five years an astonishing 81,444 aircraft and an equivalent amount of pilots. And in five days of intensive bombing in February 1944, the Allied air forces had destroyed or severely damaged about 75 per cent of the German aircraft facilities. Almost unbelievably Albert Speer, Hitler’s armaments minister, had managed to boost German fighter strength to its greatest operational levels of the war.

On 20 December 1944 the Luftwaffenkommando West, under Generalleutnant Josef ‘Beppo’ Schmidt, had an operational strength of 2,360. The 33 squadrons included 1,770 single-engine fighters, 155 ground attack aircraft, 135 night ground attack aircraft, 140 twin-engined fighters, 65 reconnaissance aircraft, 55 high-level bombers and, rather surprisingly, 40 jet aircraft (ME-262 A-2 bombers plus 16 Arado-234s). On other fronts, the Russian and Italian, another 2,200 Luftwaffe planes were in action.

The Allied air strength was a massive 9,720. The 8th USAAF had 2,710 heavy bombers and 1,234 fighters; 9th USAAF had 1,111 medium bombers and 1,502 fighters; 2nd British TAF had 293 medium bombers and 999 fighters, and RAF Bomber Command had 1,871 heavy bombers. In addition there were 411 reconnaissance planes, split 217 with 9th USAAF and 194 with 2nd British TAF.

In the winter of 1944/5 the Luftwaffe had a total of 66 operational bases in the west, including 13 guarding the Berlin area.

At the start of Wacht am Rhein, Major General Hoyt Vandenberg’s 9th US Air Force command provided tactical air support to Lt General Omar Bradley’s US 12th Army Group. They were based on 29 airfields, with eight in Belgium, one in the Ardennes (at Verviers), one in Luxembourg, six in the Paris region and the remainder in France between the Seine and the Moselle.

General Otto ‘Opie’ Weyland commanded XIX Tactical Air Command, which supported General Patton’s US Third Army. They proudly called themselves ‘Patton’s Air Force’. Weyland wrote:

We were very mobile in Europe and this caused a lot of communications problems. We always tried to stay as close to the action as possible to extend our range, increase our time over the target and run several missions a day. During the Battle of the Bulge, some of my units ran four or five missions a day. We had to be close to do that. I couldn’t stay back in Brest or some goddamned place 500 miles to the rear. We depended heavily on spiral cable. One cable could handle sixteen messages simultaneously. My intelligence people monopolised communications like hell, and the administrative boys also thought that the cable had been strung out for their exclusive use. Fighter control in the air was done through ground controllers using radar. Mission assignments came from my combat HQ and usually went out the night before the missions were flown.

General Elwood ‘Pete’ Quesada commanded IX TAC, based at Verviers, which supported General Courtney Hodges’ First US Army.

A US tighter group consisted of three fighter squadrons, each with about 25 operational aircraft. Each squadron had about 80 fighter pilots with the necessary ground crew, administrative and service personnel. For the average combat mission, each squadron supplied four flights of four aircraft each with an extra flight of four aircraft on standby status. During the Battle of the Bulge combat losses and wear and tear often reduced these figures. The Luftwaffe equivalent was the Geschwader, usually with three Gruppen of three Staffeln of twelve aircraft each. Their smallest tactical unit was the four-plane Schwarme.

The North American P-51 Mustang had a top speed of 437 mph, which in 1944 was very fast indeed. The Republic P-47D Thunderbolt and the twin-engined Lockheed P-38 Lightnings were the two excellent aircraft that could give close ground support, fighter escort duties, and carry bombs or rockets. They could also take punishment from light flak and small arms fire, but were not as good in one-on-one fighter dogfights, which the Mustang could definitely achieve. Danny Parker in To Win the Winter Sky noted, ‘Establishment of air superiority centred on beating the enemy’s fighters in the air. To the man in the cockpit this reduced to survival. Operations analysis of fighter combat conclusively showed what the pilots suspected “Speed is Life”.’ Manoeuvrability, altitude ceiling, acceleration, range and rate of climb were important but generally overshadowed by speed itself. Studies showed that 80 per cent of kills were made when one plane made a single pass at another and shot down the enemy before the opponent knew what was happening. One fighter pilot described the brevity of air combat from sighting to decision as ‘the ten-second eternity of the dogfight’. Only 36 per cent of Eighth Air Force aircrew in the second half of 1944 could be expected to survive a 25-mission tour of duty. In fact in August 1944 the typical tour was extended from 25 to 35 missions!

The only weakness in the American air forces was the P-61 ‘Black Widows’, used as night fighter groups. Most of them had more than 300 combat hours on the clock and were definitely ‘tired’. Moreover, their radar sets no longer functioned properly. This was one of the reasons why the massive Wacht am Rhein build up which was mainly done at night was rarely detected.

The Luftwaffe were still mainly dependent on their sturdy warhorses used in the 1939–40 Blitzkrieg, the ME-109s and FW-190s, although they were upgraded from time to time. From a production point of view it was quicker and more economical to keep on producing still reliable but now slightly out-of-date machines.

Johannes Steinhoff was Kommodore of JG77, stationed on the outskirts of Berlin to try to protect the capital. He wrote in the autumn of 1944:

We were given large numbers of new Messerchmitts. We were assigned young pilots who were timid, inexperienced and scared. We flew little, fuel was in short supply, but we were able to practice some formation flying and formation attacks on mock bomber flights. The young pilots were not yet ready for combat. It was hard enough leading and keeping together a large combat formation of experienced fighter pilots but with youngsters it was hopeless, they were just windy. They were expected to fly in precise formation stuck in the middle of an enormous unit made up of more than a hundred fighters, keeping distance, height and spacing constant. They were supposed to watch their airspace and not let themselves be lured into dogfights with enemy fighters. They had absolutely no experience in aerial combat and when the formation attacked the bomber armada they were told they must keep in position – come what may. It could never work.

The US Army Air Corps had established a specific operational policy, mainly based on the British RAF experiences in winning the long-drawn-out campaign in North Africa:

First Priority Gain necessary degree of air superiority. This will be accomplished by attacks against aircraft in the air and on the ground and against those installations that the enemy requires for the application of air power.

Second Priority Isolate the battlefield by clipping off the enemy’s communications lines, destroy bridges and roads, strangle the enemy supply route (air interdiction).

Third Priority Provide the ground forces with direct support, by attacking enemy troops, tanks and strongpoints.

Generally the fighter-bombers would be used for close support while maintaining air superiority. The medium bombers addressed the second priority, blasting bridges, roads and rails to the enemy’s rear. The use of the heavy bombers for isolating the battlefield was acknowledged as possible but should not deviate from strategic mission.

It was ironical that the 30-year-old General Major Dietrich Peltz, chosen by Hitler to plan and organise the Luftwaffe part in Wacht am Rhein, was a bombing expert. Hitler wanted a determined, aggressive Luftwaffe leader whose military ambitions matched his own. General Adolf Galland was the obvious choice as a ‘fighter’ expert but Hitler regarded him as a ‘defeatist’ after his proposal for Der Grosse Schlag. Peltz scrapped the Galland plan and concentrated on two important tasks. Initially a huge concentrated surprise air strike by all Luftwaffe fighters on Allied air bases to knock out the USAAF and RAF on the ground in France and Belgium. Thus the close-range danger from the US Ninth Air Force and British 2nd Tactical Air Force would be vastly reduced. The Luftwaffe would then be able to establish a protective fighter ‘umbrella’ over the panzer armies. At the same time, fast bombers of the 3 Flieger Division would smash up American columns in the rear areas. Night fighter-bombers would attack enemy ground targets and shield the movement of the three German armies. Model’s order of 11 December specified the priorities and three days later Hermann Göering sent out an operational order. All the fighter units – 12 fighter Geschwader with 40 Gruppen – would be moved closer to the start lines, coming under the control of Luftflotte West in Limburg.

Operation Bodenplatte meant that the still huge Luftwaffe collection of pilots and planes had been trained single-mindedly to shoot down Allied bombers over Germany, as in Galland’s ‘Great Blow’. The limited training of the Luftwaffe pilots had concentrated on the tactics of air-to-air combat, and not the very dangerous ground support of Bodenplatte.

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