”Our task was: ”Clear Eindhoven’s airfield.”This would be the Luftwaffe’s last major victory, and by destroying 116 aircraft at Eindhoven’s airfield, Jagdgeschwader 3 contributed greatly.”
Major Karl-Heinz Langer, commander of the III. Gruppe of Luftwaffe Jagdgeschwader 3 on 1 Januari 1945.1
New Year’s Day 1 January 1945 dawned with a brilliant sunshine on the snowy landscape. At the airbase Frescaty near the French city of Metz was Technical Sergeant Marion Hill from the 365th Fighter Group ’Hell Hawks’ of U.S. 9th Air Force. He explains:
’The weather on New Year’s Day was clear and cold. Everyone was looking forward to a full day of successful missions. […] Usually just after briefings were finished, the next hour or so was light in duties and we would take the opportunity to relax. […] I happened to look up at the ring of hills about 500 feet high that surrounded Metz and our base in the form of a U. At the same time we heard ack-ack firing in Metz and then saw flashes from the wings of a large number of planes. Everyone at about the same time yelled ’Messerschmitts!’ and dived for any cover that could be found. […] I and one other fellow dived for a foundation wall of burned-out barracks. The barrier protected us in one direction only, but was better than nothing. As we were lying there, the first pass of the Germans was right overhead: they missed us. Then I looked toward the east of the field where the German planes were flying back and forth, parallel to the way we were lying. They worked their way across the field, firing all the time until they were overhead.’2
Almost exactly at the same time, Joe Roddis, one of the ground crew in No. 485 Squadron, RAF, was on his way to one of the hangars at the airbase Maldegem in northwestern Belgium. He explains:
’As we came around the corner of the hanger the sound of aircraft engines in flight made us look across the airfield in the direction of the control tower. Three or four planes, slightly banked, were coming around the tower heading for our dispersal in a shallow dive at a height of about 30 metres. I distinctly rèmember saying to Bill Parker: “The Yanks are out early this morning.” They looked like Mustangs and before he could reply, the leading edges of the incoming planes started to flash and sparkle and all hell broke loose.
The visitors were doing a very thorough job in reducing our Spitfires to ashes. They took turns to dive onto our parked aircraft and after each run across a Spitfire burst into flames, exploded and sagged in the middle. They were so clinical and accurate in what they were doing. […] When eventually the 109s had either run out of ammunition or were getting low on fuel, they departed as quickly as they had arrived. Apart from two parked in the hangar, only three aircraft survived to fly again.’3
This was Operation ’Bodenplatte’—the Luftwaffe’s last major offensive effort on the Western Front—which had struck the Allied tactical air forces at full strength.
When the C-in-C of the Luftwaffe, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring on 14 November 1944 submitted his operational orders to the German Air Force for its participation in the Ardennes Offensive, ’a single, concentrated stroke against all Allied airfields in the front area’s proximity in order to neutralize the tactical aviation’ was at the top of the priority list.4 The detailed plan for this massive airbase attack—one of the largest in World War II—was made by the commander of the II. Jagdkorps, Generalmajor Dietrich Peltz, in consultation with Generalfeldmarschall Model.5
Peltz was one of the German Air Force’s foremost experts on tactical air attacks. Already in 1936 he had served as a flight officer at one of the Luftwaffe’s first dive-bomber units, and conducted more than one hundred combat missions with a Junkers 87 Stuka during the campaigns in Poland and on the Western Front in 1939 and 1940. Then he was transferred to a bomber unit specialized in low-level attacks and equipped with the twin-engine dive bomber Junkers 88, and participated in the Battle of Britain and the war on the Eastern Front from 1941 to 1942. The following year Peltz was appointed to General der Kampfflieger. This was a title, not a military rank; at that time, Peltz was an Oberst, but in January 1944 he was promoted to Generalmajor. With his mere 29 years of age, he thus was the youngest general in Europe since Napoleon—which should say a good deal about his abilities.
The position as General der Kampfflieger meant that Peltz was responsible both for the German bomber aviation’s development, and that he took an active part in the planning of its operations. In this position, he often ended up in dispute with his counterpart in the German fighter aviation, Generalleutnant Adolf Galland, General der Jagdflieger. Their disagreèments mainly were about different perspectives and priorities regarding strategy and resource allocation. The controversy became acute in matters concerning the new jet plane Messerschmitt 262. Galland wanted to see it exclusively as a fighter plane, while Peltz—who in a memorandum had called for ’jet bombers for action against England as soon as possible’—in May 1944, on the orders of Hitler, took over responsibility for all matters relating to this aircraft. Galland’s two biographers Raymond F. Toliver and Trevor J. Constable wrote, ’Relations with the Bomber Arm thereafter became increasingly strained, as Peltz took steps to prepare bomber
Generalmajor Dietrich Peltz, the commander of II. Jagdkorps in the Luftwaffe, was in charge of Operation ‘Bodenplatte,’ the air attack against Allied airfields on New Year’s morning 1945. Peltz was one of the German dive-bomber pioneers. During the Battle of Britain in 1940 and on the Eastern Front in 1941, he distinguished himself for low-level precision-attacks with a twin-engine Junkers Ju 88. Later Peltz was appointed to General der Kampfflieger, in charge of the German Bomber Aviation’s development and planning. Carrying the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords, Peltz was one of the highest awarded German soldiers of World War II. Peltz passed away in 2001, at the age of 87. (BArch, Bild 183-S73637)
Geschwader for Me 262 operations. […] The two major arms of the Luftwaffe struggled with each other.’6
The tension between the two branches of the German Air Force culminated in January 1945, when Reichsmarschall Göring relieved Galland from his position as General der Jagdflieger and soon afterwards appointed Peltz as commander of the Reich Air Defense.
The controversy between Galland and Peltz has influenced the image of Operation ’Bodenplatte’ in history writing, where Peltz often has come to be seen in a rather negative light. In short, Operation ’Bodenplatte’ can be described as ’Göring’s and Peltz’ venture,’ and the operation not only was an alternative to the big plan for which Galland planned to use his fighter reserves, the ’Big Blow’ as Galland called it, but it also negated Galland’s plan. More on this below.
However, as far as Operation ’Bodenplatte’ is concerned, there hardly was anyone better suited to plan the massive blow against Allied airfields on the Western Front than Dietrich Peltz. Lieutenant General Carl Spaatz, at that time commander of the U.S. Strategic Air Forces in Europe, characterized Peltz as the most competent commander the Germans had.7
In actual fact, ’Bodenplatte’ followed nothing but the usual pattern for large-scale military operations since the beginning of World War II: The German invasions of Poland in 1939, on the Western Front in 1940, and of the Soviet Union in 1941 all opened with extensive air base attacks. The Battle of Britain was largely, at least during its initial phase, nothing but a single air base attack operation to create the basic conditions for a planned invasion of the British Isles. Likewise, the great Soviet ground operation at Kursk in July 1943 began with a massive air operation against German airfields. In modern time, U.S. and NATO operations against Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011 began with large-scale air attacks against the opponent’s air bases and air defense structures. In view of the completely devastating Allied air superiority, at no other point could it have been more motivated to try to neutralize the opponent’s aviation than at the Ardennes in the winter of 1944/1945.
Having drawn up the outlines of the operation, Peltz summoned all Luftwaffe wing and group commanders on the Western Front to a planning conference on 5 December.* The meeting took place in the II. Jagdkorps’ headquarters in the picturesque Flammersfeld, a small spa town with half-timbered houses and five hundred rural residents, about forty minutes drive north from Koblenz. There met some of the Luftwaffe’s most experienced and skilled unit commanders of the entire war.** Three of the participants, the commanders of the 3. Jagd-Division and the 8. Jagd-Division, Generalmajor Walter Grabmann and Oberst Gotthardt Handrick, plus Jagdfliegerführer Mittelrhein, Oberstleutnant Hanns Trubenbach—all with experience in leading air units going back to the pre-war years—were brought into Peltz’ planning and command staff for ’Bodenplatte.’8
Although the opposite has been suggested, nothing else can be said except that Operation ’Bodenplatte’ was planned both carefully and with great skill, like much else concerning the German Ardennes Offensive. It was determined that the entire German fighter and ground-attack aviation in the West would perform a single, simultaneous strike against the Allied airfields on the Western Front. The attack was to be made at dawn, and the approach flight would be carried out at low altitude, 60 to 120 feet, to avoid detection by Allied radar. The night fighter wings were instructed to participate, each with a pair of Junkers 88s as pathfinders for each of the German attack formations. A total of seventy Ju 88s with crews particularly skilled in navigation were detailed for this purpose. These would guide the attack forces by the use of signal flares and smoke bombs, since strict radio silence was ordered during the operation.
Just as with the ground operation, the preparations for ’Bodenplatte’ were made under the strictest secrecy. For instance, the German air units remained at their regular air bases at a relatively large distance from the front lines. This made it necessary for the aircraft to use drop tanks during the approach flight, so no bombs could be used during ’Bodenplatte’. Instead, the attacks were carried out with aircraft machine guns and automatic cannons. To the advantage of the German commanders, it should be noted that the preparations for this vast operation completely overrode the Allied intelligence organization. The attack came as a complete surprise.
The only real weakness of ‘Bodenplatte’ was the inadequate training standards of the average participating airman. In order to overcome this, to some extent, they practiced low-level attacks against training airfields and aircraft dummies on the ground throughout December 1944. But the flight skills of the majority of the hastily trained young pilots left much to be desired. For that reason, it was deèmed impractical to take off early for an attack at sunrise, which otherwise would have been ideal as it could reduce the risk of encountering enemy fighters in the air. Instead the attack time was set at 0920, so that the inexperienced pilots could carry out the final and most important part of their approach flight in daylight; at this time of the year, the sun rises at 0843 in Belgium.
According to the original plan, ‘Bodenplatte’ would have been deployed on the same morning as the ground troops started their large offensive in the West. This, however, was in contrast to the plan for ’Herbstnebel,’ which—as we have seen—said that the offensive would begin once the weather outlook indicated a period of several days of bad flying weather. Fog, low clouds, rain and sleet also made it impossible to execute Operation ‘Bodenplatte’ during the first seven days of ’Herbstnebel.’ When the high pressure arrived on 23 December, which unleashed the air forces on both sides on a large scale, the weather cleared up from the east, with the Allied airfields farthest away to the west still covered in mist at dawn. Thereby, it was not possible to execute ‘Bodenplatte’ on that day either. The huge air battle on 23 December cost Germans dearly. Besides one hundred and thirty-six shot down fighter planes, at least sixty-five were damaged, and to these were added the non-combat losses. Thus, to launch Operation ‘Bodenplatte’ on the next day was out of the question.
Over the four days of clear weather that followed, the Luftwaffe could only react defensively against the Allied air strikes. This cost the II. Jagdkorps a further severe bloodletting—it lost more than five hundred aircraft in combat between 23 and 27 December. The new low pressure that settled over the area on 28 December came as a blessing to Peltz’ Air Corps. While bombed air base installations were repaired and the units were replenished with newly manufactured aircraft and newly trained pilots, preparations were made for ’Bodenplatte.’
When the forecast on 31 December 1944 for the next day suggested cloudless skies, a light southwestern breeze and a temperature of 23 degrees—quite ideal flying weather—it was decided to deploy the attack on New Year’s Day. On the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, the code words ’Varus’ and ’Teutonicus’ were submitted to the German air units. ’Varus’ meant that the operation would take place within 24 hours; ’Teutonicus’ was the signal that the German unit commanders would inform their airmen and have all aircraft readied. At half past seven in the evening came the next code message that had been determined at the conference in Flammersfeld: ’Hermann.’ This meant that the attack would be deployed next morning at 0920 hours. (This has given rise to the fairly common misconception that the operation had the codename Operation ’Hermann.’)
Despite the bloody losses that their units had sustained in the past weeks, it was not demoralized German pilots who received their orders. On the contrary, the instructions were received with some enthusiasm, suggesting a still high morale. One of the flight officers of Jagdgeschwader 1 (JG 1), Oberleutnant Fritz Wegner—after the war he would advance to become a lieutenant general in the Bundesluftwaffe—confirms that the German fighter pilots who in the morning of 1 January 1945 climbed into their aircraft were ’filled with confidence.’9
In dark first morning of the last year of the war, hundreds of Messerschmitt 109s and Focke Wulf 190s— along with Arado 234 jet bombers from III. Gruppe/ Kampfgeschwader 76 and Messerschmitt 262 jet fighter-bombers from Kampfgeschwader 51—taxied out on the runways of thirty-five airfields from Stuttgart-Echterdingen in the south to Delmenhorst, ten miles from Brèmen in the north. It has been argued that the exact number of the participating German aircraft is not known—a common estimate is between 850 and 900—but the fact is that various German messages picked up by the British Ultra decoders at Bletchley Park placed the number at exactly 622.10 In any event, it was the absolute maximum that the Luftwaffe at this time was able to deploy on the Western Front. They belonged to thirty-four fighter groups from the wings Jagdgeschwader JG 1, JG 11, JG 2, JG 3, JG 4, JG 6, JG 26, JG 27, JG 53, JG 54, and JG 77, and jet planes from III./KG 76 and KG 51. Moreover, the night fighter wings Nachtjagdgeschwader NJG 1, NJG 5, NJG 100, and NJG 101 contributed with pathfinders.
The Allies were completely caught with their pants down. Oberleutnant Emil Clade, one of the pilots of Jagdgeschwader 27, said, ’As we arrived over [the airfield at] Melsbroek everything was peaceful. The AAA batteries were not manned and around the fuel stations, bombers and fighters were standing in circles as if cows around a water hole. Without hesitation everybody dove down on this prey as they arrived over the field.’11 On this airfield alone, the Germans counted 125 Allied aicraft destroyed on the ground.12
In Jagdgeschwader 4, the II. Gruppe took off with seventeen Focke Wulf 190s at 0708 hrs, followed by the I., III., and IV. Gruppen with twenty-six, nine, and sixteen Messerschmitt 109s respectively at 0720.13 Oberleutnant Lothar Wolf from this fighter wing tells of how American pilots came calmly walking towards their parked Thunderbolt fighter-bombers at the airbase at Saint-Trond when the Germans struck. Feldwebel Werner Hohenberg from Jagdgeschwader 2, which also attacked this airfield, rèmembered how excited he was when the German aircraft dived down against their target and he could see large numbers of Thunderbolt planes lined up, ’wingtip at wingtip, as on a parade.’14 According to U.S. data, 41 aircraft were destroyed or damaged at Saint-Trond, where the 48th and 404th Fighter groups of Brigadier General Richard E. Nugent’s XXIX Tactical Air Command were stationed. The actual number may have been higher. Hohenberg said:
Firing from all our guns, we attacked the airfield, and already after our first attack so many of the Thunderbolts were burning that the thick smoke from the fires made it hard to see anything when we made our next low-level attack. But as far as I can judge, we managed to set fire to most if not all of the American aircraft at the air base at Saint-Trond. It must have been a staggering blow to the American units on that base. I felt elated when we set course for home. This feeling remained when I shortly afterwards ended up in U.S. custody after my plane had been shot down by antiaircraft fire.15
From the attack on the airfield at Maldegem, where Jagdgeschwader 1 was reported to have destroyed thirty fighters on the ground, one of the German airmen, Oberfeldwebel Fritz Haspel said, ’We flew straight towards the target and were fired at by a machine gunner who sat atop a tower. A burst of fire from a Messerschmitt silenced him. Within a few minutes all the parked aircraft stood on fire, apart from one, which probably had empty fuel tanks.’16Similar scenes took place at the air base Metz-Frescaty, where Oberfeldwebel Kurt Opitz in Jagdgeschwader 53 was one of the attacking German pilots. Opitz headed straight for forty Thunderbolts parked wingtip to wingtip, and with just the first volley he could set several of them on fire.
From the attack on Brussels-Evere, Feldwebel Heinz Gomann from Jagdgeschwader 26 rèmembered, ’Within minutes everything combustible was burning: aircraft, petrol trucks, hangars, etc.’ Afterwards Jagdgeschwader 26 could sum up the results of the attack on Evere to 104 aircraft destroyed on the ground—twenty B-17 and B-24 four-engine bombers, twenty-four twin-engine aircraft and sixty fighters.17
The situation looked the same at the air base at Eindhoven, according to one of the pilots of the attacking Jagdgeschwader 3, Feldwebel Oskar Bösch, ’In the shortest possible time the field was engulfed in flames and smoke and after some 4-5 attacks visibility was almost reduced to zero.’18 On the ground at that air base the Dutch pilot Flight Lieutenant Zinnicq Bergmann, who had volunteered to fly for the Allies, became a helpless witness to the murderous efficiency of the German attack, ’Even if they had fired with their eyes closed, they would have hit something. Next to about 300 aircraft, most of them parked in line, the airfield was filled with vehicles of every type, fuel and ammo dumps and stocks of all sorts of equipment. Fire started all over the airfield…’19
The Germans counted 116 Allied aircraft put out of commission at Eindhoven’s air base.20 The Allies’ own loss reports are, as we shall see, highly incomplete. However, of the 107 British Typhoon fighter-bombers at that base, 60 were recorded as destroyed or damaged.21 In addition to this, at least 30 Mustang and Spitfire fighter aircraft from 39 Wing were destroyed or damaged at this base, in 83 GCS eight aircraft were destroyed or damaged, and six other aircraft destroyed or damaged. Thus, in total at least 103 Allied aircraft were put out of action at Eindhoven on 1 January 1945.22
In fact, it has never been possible to establish the total number of Allied aircraft put out of action through Operation ’Bodenplatte.’ Research made on the subject has arrived at most remarkable conclusions. John Manrho and Ron Pütz, who compiled an in-depth research in a voluminous book on ’Bodenplatte,’ write, ’What were the actual losses on the Allied airfields? Several attempts have been made to calculate this, but regrettably until this day no exact numbers are known.’23 Manrho’s and Pütz’ examination of the official Allied loss figures led them to conclude that these are far too low.24 Donald Caldwell, author of several highly esteèmed works on aviation history, wrote, ’In their embarassment at having been taken completely by surprise, the Allied air commanders failed to compile a comprehensive list of their losses.’25 British air war historian Norman Franks points out in his work on ’Bodenplatte’ that some authors have ’hinted at a conspiracy to hide the true, unacceptable, total of aircraft destroyed’ on 1 January 1945.26
Thus, for instance, the official Allied figure of the number of destroyed British aircraft at Brussels-Melsbroek is 47 (with another 14 damaged).27 But according to the close examination made by John Manrho and Ron Pütz, more British aircraft than that were destroyed, and there is photographic evidence that shows that a large number of U.S. aircraft at the base also were destroyed.28 The Germans reported that they put a total of 125 aircraft at the base out of commission (including 85 totally destroyed). But survivors on the ground asserted that the losses could have been even higher. Michael Wetz, one of the pilots based at Brussels Melsbroek, said, ’Afterwards, I think I counted 150 burning aircraft on the field.’29
‘German planes were flying back and forth. They worked their way across the field, firing all the time until they were overhead,’ recalls Technical Sergeant Marion Hill from the air base Frescaty on 1 January 1945. A few minutes later, rows of Thunderbolt fighter-bombers had been turned into burning scrap heaps on the airfield. (Bryan Price via Don Barnes)
‘Firing from all our guns, we attacked the airfield, and already after our first attack so many of the Thunderbolts were burning that the thick smoke from the fires made it hard to see anything when we made our next low-level attack. But as far as I can judge, we managed to set fire to most if not all of the American aircraft at the air base at Saint-Trond.’ That was how one of the German pilots who participated in the air attacks against Allied air bases on 1 January 1945, Feldwebel Werner Hohenberg of Jagdgeschwader 2, experienced the situation. (Bryan Price via Don Barnes)
Across southern Netherlands, central Belgium and northeastern France, scenes such as these could be seen at dawn on 1 January 1945— burning Allied aircraft and destroyed air base installations. With Operation ‘Bodenplatte,’ the Germans achieved the same total surprise as with ‘Herbstnebel’ two weeks earlier. (Bryan Price via Don Barnes)
It has never been possible to determine the exact number of Allied aircraft that were put out of commission during Operation Bo-denplatte.’ ’In their embarassment at having been taken completely by surprise, the Allied air commanders failed to compile a comprehensive list of their losses,’ wrote U.S. aviation historian Donald Caldwell. Contrary to what has often been claimed, the German Armed Forces High Command noted that the German ground troops were granted ’a brief relief’ in the Allied air strikes as a result of Operation ’Bodenplatte.’ (Bryan Price via Don Barnes)
At Metz-Frescaty, the losses on the ground were reported as 22 destroyed and 11 damaged Thunderbolts, all belonging to the 365th Fighter Group.30 But the neighboring unit at the same air base, the 368th Fighter Group, noted that several among its Thunderbolts also were ’destroyed or seriously damaged,’ apart from the losses inflicted on the 365th Fighter Group during the Luftwaffe raid against Frescaty.31 However, no aircraft of the 368th Fighter Group are included in the official compilation of aircraft losses at Metz-Frescaty on 1 January 1945. The authors of the chronicle of 365th Fighter Group, Barnes, Crump, and Sutherland, have interviewed several veterans who were at Metz-Frescaty that fateful day, and describe the airfield as ‘a miniature Armageddon’ after the German attack.32
At Gilze-Rijen, which was attacked by Ar 234 jet bombers from III./ KG 76, Allied sources say that only one fighter-bombers hade been destroyed while about half a dozen others received some kind of damage. According to German photo reconnaissance, however, twenty-five destroyed aircraft could be seen on the ground on the aerial photographs.33
One of the Allied airmen who experienced Operation ’Bodenplatte,’ was World War II’s leading French fighter ace Pierre Clostermann, who with the rank an RAF Flight Lieutenant in the RAF’s No. 274 squadron was present at the airbase Volkel on New Year’s Day 1945. In his well-known war memoirs, Le Grand Cirque, which was released shortly after the war, Clostermann was highly critical of the official Allied loss figures. Still in the book’s last edition, published in 2004 (in total, nearly three million copies of his book have been printed), two years before the author’s death, Clostermann holds the same opinion:
’The American censorship and the Press services, in a flat spin, tried to present this attack as a great Allied victory, by publishing peculiar figures. We pilots were still laughing about them three months later.’34
U.S. historian Danny S. Parker writes:
The quoted Allied losses appear greatly under-counted for reasons that to this day remain obscure. In a report dated January 3rd, the RAF recorded losses included 144 aircraft destroyed and another 84 seriously damaged. The USAAF acknowledged only 134 losses with 62 planes damaged beyond repair. Whether this figure included the 40 admitted ground losses of the Eighth Air Force (16 B-17s, 14 B-24s, 8 P-51s, 2 P-47s) is unclear. Neither estimates include the approximately 70 aircraft shot down by the Germans during the operation.35
Thus, at least 340 aircraft were totally destroyed on the ground (196 American and 144 British), while 84 British and an unspecified number of U.S. aircraft were damaged. Moreover, if the 70 shot down Allied aircraft are included, the number increases to 494. If 40 destroyed aircraft from the 8th Air Force are added, the total reaches at least 534.
Not even the Allies’ own loss statistics are very consistent. According to a report by the SHAEF, the British losses are given as 168 destroyed aircraft, and according to statistics from British 83 Group, this unit alone recorded 127 combat aircraft totally destroyed and 133 damaged.36 If the 133 damaged aircraft of 83 Group are added, the total rises to 583.
The first German compilation, made by the II. Jagdkorps on the evening on 1 January 1945, and based on ’yet incomplete reports,’ found that 398 Allied aircraft hade been ’with certainty’ destroyed, and another 93 had ’probably’ been destroyed on the ground, to which an additional 31 ’with certainty’ and one ’probably’ had been shot down in air combat.37 Following air photo reconnaissance flights over the attacked airfields, the results were specified on the following day to 402 Allied aircraft destroyed and 114 damaged on the attacked airfields.38Another 79 were claimed to have been shot down in the air, bringing the grand total to 593. After further reconnaissance flights, the number of destroyed Allied aircraft were three days later corrected to ’at least 500.’39 It is not known whether this reduces the number of aircraft that were reported to have been damaged, but it can safely be assumed that at least a hundred Allied aircraft were damaged in addition to those that were completely destroyed or written off. It is therefore quite possible that about six hundred, or even more, Allied aircraft were put out of action by the Luftwaffe’s surprising lightning attack in Operation ’Bodenplatte’ at dawn on 1 January 1945. Quite interestingly, in the 1981 edition of his memoirs, Pierre Clostermann wrote, ’In total, 800 Allied aircraft were put out of action within a couple of minutes.’40
It should also be taken into account that most of the German pilots available for ’Bodenplatte’ were totally inadequately trained in flying, gunnery, and navigation. Of the thirty-four fighter groups equipped with Messerschmitt 109 and Focke Wulf 190 piston-engine aircraft, only a third managed to carry out their attacks with success against fully manned Allied airfields according to the plan. Of the remainder, ten groups never even managed to locate their targets, while the others either conducted entirely unsuccessful attacks or attacked airfields where there proved to be no more than a handful of aircraft.
Jagdgeschwader 11, which employed around ninety fighters, was intercepted by eight Thunderbolts from U.S. 366th Fighter Group in the air above its target, the air base Asch. The confusion that these eight American fighter pilots caused among the German pilots was so large that additional Thunderbolt planes and a dozen Mustangs from the 352nd Fighter Group, led by fighter ace Lieutenant Colonel John C. Meyer, managed to take off from the airfield in the midst of the German attack. Despite their numerical disadvantage, the vastly superior American fighter pilots shot down one German fighter plane after another in what from the ground looked like pure clay dove shooting. Lieutenant Colonel Meyer managed to shoot down a Focke Wulf 190 while he took off from the runway. Two of his pilots, Captain William T. Whisner, Jr. and Lieutenant Sanford K. Moats, shot down four German fighters apiece, and Captain Henry M. Stewart II and Lieutenant Alden P. Rigby claimed three each. When the remainder of Jagdgeschwader 11 returned to their air bases after the mission, twenty-four aircraft were missing. Among the casualties were two of the unit’s most experienced pilots— the Geschwader commander Major Günther Specht and the commander of the III. Gruppe, Hauptmann Horst-Günther von Fassong. The American losses were confined to two aircraft in the air, and four destroyed on the ground at Asch.
Other German units, such as the III. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 53, were seriously affected by Allied fighter interception during the approach flight. Still others were overtaken by Allied fighters during the return flight and suffered dearly. Allied anti-aircraft fire took a further large toll on the attackers. For example, Jagdgeschwader 2 made its approach flight just where the German V 1s used to pass on the way to Liège or Antwerp, and where, consequently, large amounts of anti-aircraft guns were deployed. Of about eighty fighters, Jagdgeschwader 2 lost no less than forty-three.
In addition, several German aircraft were by mistake shot down by their own air defense—although the number that were lost for this reason in reality was somewhere between 30 and 35 and not 100, as it has sometimes been inferred. That so many German aircraft fell victim to ’friendly fire’ can be explained partly by the fact that the secrecy surrounding ’Bodenplatte’ was so high that the air defense never was informed about the operation, and also that the Germans dismounted the aircraft’s IFF sets whereby the air defense could identify those as German—this in order to avoid the risk that these valuable instruments fell into enemy hands.
Still other German fighter pilots simply lost the orientation and made èmergency landings with empty fuel tanks somewhere in hostile territory. In total, ’Bodenplatte’ cost the participating German units a loss of 280 aircraft (271 Bf 109s/Fw 190s and nine Ju 88s), and another 70 returned with battle damage. The personnel losses were 143 killed or missing, 70 captured, and 21 wounded. Among those who failed to return were three wing commanders (Geschwaderkommodore), five group commanders (Gruppenkommandeur), and fourteen squadron commanders (Staffelkapitan).*
This obviously was a terrible blow to the Luftwaffe, but the question is whether the German losses have not been overemphasized in history writing. Oberst Hajo Herrmann, a highly skillful tactician in the Staff of the II. Jagdkorps at this time, asserted that ’Bodenplatte’ was by far the most advantageous of the few opportunities that still were available for the badly mauled Luftwaffe at this late stage in the war:
’The operation had a preventive nature, as a surprising tactical assault, and was well prepared… In this way we hoped to achieve an effect that would not have been possible through air combat.’41
The disastrous air battle—from the German point of view—between Jagdgeschwader 11 and two small American fighter squadrons over Asch gives an indication of the extrèmely limited potential that the German fighter force, at this time, had to assert itself against the Allied aviation.
This leads us back to Fighter General Galland’s alternative plan—der grosse Schlag, the ’Big Blow’ According to this, the great fighter reserves built up in Germany and on the Western Front in late fall of 1944 were to be deployed in one concentrated attack against a larger formation of American heavy bombers. In his memoirs, Galland said that he expected to be able to deploy at least 2,000 fighters in an initial attack, followed by two attack waves of 150 and 500 fighters respectively, as well as approximately 100 night fighter aircraft that would block the retreat routes to the Swedish and Swiss airspace. Thereby, said Galland, the Germans would have been able to shoot down 400-500 U.S. heavy bombers against own losses of perhaps 400 aircraft and 100-150 pilots.42
According to Galland, and many of his followers, this could have led to such a shock to the Allies that they would have had to cancel their strategic air offensive. However, this plan had to be shelved when Galland’s fighter reserve was transferred to the Western Front for tactical missions. ’On 20 November the transfers to the Western Front began, despite my objections and reports,’ Galland wrote. He continued, ’After that, I saw no meaning to continue the fight.’43
However, it may justifiably be questioned whether Galland’s estimates were realistic. Firstly, it is highly doubtful that as many as 2,000 fighters could have been deployed at one and the same time. There hardly is any reason to believe that more than one thousand German fighters could have been mobilized against a larger formation of heavy bombers. There also was a real case that was similar to the “’Big Blow,’ and which gives an indication of how things would have looked, had Galland’s plan been carried out:
On 27 November 1944 the 8th Air Force despatched force of 483 heavy bombers, escorted by 730 fighters, against rail targets in Germany. On that day, the Luftwaffe employed every available fighter plane in a maximum effort to repel the American attack. According to Allied estimates, 750 German fighters—a record number, never to be reached again—were pitted against the American formations.44
The result of this massive German effort represents a devastating verdict on the capability of the German fighter aviation at this time: the German fighter pilots managed to shoot down not even one of the nearly five hundred American bombers, but were locked into bitter air fighting with the American fighter escort, which according to the German sources resulted in the shooting down of eighty-one German and only ten U.S. fighter planes.45 The American fighter pilots reported how they had ’attacked the novice [German] formations that stupidly clung together while Mustangs shot them down.’46
The generally rather harsh judgment of postwar writers on ’Bodenplatte’ must be seen in light of the controversy between the leaderships of the German fighter and bomber forces (where the former early on managed to create a distinct concept of the history), and—not least—of the extrèmely embarrassing fact that the Allies were caught totally off guard by the German Air Force.
What often is overlooked when ’Bodenplatte’ is discussed, is the golden opportunity to deal Luftwaffe a defeat of gigantic proportions relative to the massive deployment of German aircraft. In depictions of ’Bodenplatte,’ the so successful—from the American perspective—air battle over Asch on 1 January 1945 is usually given much attention; focus should rather be on the many similar ’Asch air battles’ that should have taken place, had the Allies not been taken by surprise and actually failed to bring up their fighters against the German formations in most places. The relatively few Allied fighters that attacked the German formations in the air managed to shoot down an estimated 150 German aircraft. It is easy to imagine what the result would have been if instead of a few dozen there had been hundreds of Allied fighter pouncing on the German machines as these came in on cruising speed and at low altitude. Had the Allies learned of the German intentions in advance, and despatched their entire fighter armada—with reinforcèments from the 8th Air Force (which actually had 650 fighters in the air over western Germany a few hours after ’Bodenplatte’)—they might very well have been able to achieve a Turkey shoot of vast dimensions, an Allied fighter aviation’s ’Big Blow’ against the Luftwaffe.* But now the Germans apparently managed to conceal their preparations too cleverly for the Allies. The notion of the lost opportunity hardly could have escaped the officers of the Allied staffs when the result of New Year’s Day 1945 was evaluated. On top of this, the fact that the Allies were taken by surprise led to far from insignificant losses.
To dismiss the Allied losses on the ground (nowadays usually set at 300 destroyed aircraft and a further 180 damaged) as low—not uncommon when Operation ’Bodenplatte’ is discussed—only testifies to an ignorance of air war history. Nowhere can even the idea of one hundred aircraft losses to the enemy be described as a failure or a poor result. For example, during the famous Battle of Britain Day on 15 September 1940, when it is considered that the Luftwaffe’s spine was broken, the Germans lost fifty-seven aircraft. No writer would dream of describing that as particularly mild losses.
The 500-600 Allied aircraft put out of action by the Luftwaffe through ’Bodenplatte’ was a result that the Germans by this time never would have been able to achieve in air combat at a price of 280 own aircraft. Pierre Clostermann is absolutely certain in his review of ’Bodenplatte’: ’This operation had been brilliantly worked out and superbly executed. […] The Luftwaffe’s success, won at the cost of 280 or so machines, succeeded in nearly paralysing the tactical air force for more than one week’47
Three pilots of U.S. 365th Fighter Group, Lieutenant Robert Tracey, Lieutenant Bob Thoman, and Lieutenant John Vitz, posing for the photographer in front of the remains of Thomans’ Thunderbolt, dubbed ‘Ma Cherie on the afternoon of 1 January 1945. This was not what the American airmen, who had dismissed the Luftwaffe just a bit too early, had expected. Astonishment is clearly read in their faces. (Bryan Price via Don Barnes)
What German generals said after the war is one thing, but the German High Command’s view of Operation ’Bodenplatte’ in January 1945 is summarized by Percy E. Schramm, responsible for the War Diary of the German Armed Forces High Command (OKW): ‘A great success.’48 This opinion was shared by many of the German airmen who participated in the operation. For example Oberleutnant Emil Clade from Jagdgeschwader 27, said,’ From my own perspective I believed that the attack had been a success.’49 Donald Caldwell describes the scene when the pilots of the III. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 26 returned to base after completing the mission on 1 January 1945, ’It was an enthusiastic group of pilots who landed back on Plantlünne. Heinz Gehrke recalls buzzing the field while happily and vigorously rocking his wings, signaling his victory at Evere’50Oberleutnant Lothar Wolf from Jagdgeschwader 4 describes the impression made on the German fighter pilots by the great devastation wrought on the attacked Allied air bases, ’It was a rare but to us at that time truly wonderful sight.’51 For 1 January 1945, the war diary for the III. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 3 reads:
The fighter aviation attacks Allied airfields in Holland, Belgium and northern France. Our Gruppe took off with 15 aircraft that we contributed to the Geschwader formation. Our task was: “Clear Eindhoven’s airfield. This would be the Luftwaffe’s last major victory, and by destroying 116 aircraft at Eindhoven’s airfield, Jagdgeschwader 3 contributed greatly.’52
Needless to say, the mood was different in some of the Luftwaffe units that had sustained very high losses, such as Jagdgeschwader 2 or Jagdgeschwader 11, but heavy losses of their own was something that the German pilots were accustomed to since more than a year.* It is difficult to find any support for the rather common assertion that Operation ‘Bodenplatte’ was what definitely broke the spine of the Luftwaffe. The losses sustained during ’Bodenplatte’ were high indeed—they amounted to the highest loss inflicted to the Luftwaffe in a single day during the entire war— but the II. Jagdkorps had been dealt even greater losses during the two days 23-24 December 1944, with 293 fighter aircraft.53 During those forty-eight hours, the personnel losses were almost as high as during ’Bodenplatte’: 205 pilots killed, missing, captured or wounded. And still the Luftwaffe managed to carry out this powerful operation on 1 January 1945, and on the next day the Germans could despatch nearly five hundred aircraft on combat missions over the Western Front.54 On 14 January 1945 a new major effort was made with probably at least 700 German fighter aircraft in the air in the West. After that, almost all air units of the II. Jagdkorps were shifted to the Eastern Front, where these German airmen—along with far more experienced colleagues in the old Eastern Front air units—helped to temporarily halt the Soviet offensive in front of Berlin’s gates.
The II. Jagdkorps had in practice ceased to exist as a very effective fighter force after the Battle of Normandy in August 1944. But that did not mean that its aviators could not carry out major efforts by exercising great energy. Because of the extrèmely high losses, morale paradoxically remained at a relatively high level; the fighting spirits of those who arrived fresh from flight schools was always on top—they often never realized how difficult the situation was until it was too late for themselves.
After the attack on the air base Metz-Frescaty, the Messerschmitt 109 ’White 11’ from IV. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 53 with Oberfeldwebel Stefan Kohl at the controls was shot down by ground fire and crashed near the airfield. Kohl tried to get back to the German lines on foot, but was arrested by French resistance fighters and taken to the air base. There he was interrogated by Major Robert Brooking in the 386th Fighter Squadron’s command post barrack. Brooking had led the crucial air strike against SS-Kampfgruppe Peiper at Cheneux on 18 December, for which he received a Silver Star. But now little more than smoldering scrap heaps remained of many of the aircraft that had performed this famous mission.
Even though it was the German pilot who was in captivity, he appeared in a merry and superior manner, almost as if the roles had been reversed. While Brooking asked his questions, Oberfeldwebel Kohl suddenly got up from his chair, walked to the window, pointed with one thumb at the rows of bullet-riddled and still smoldering Thunderbolt planes and said with a broad smile in perfect English, ’What do you think of That?’55
As Major Robert Brooking of U.S. 386th Fighter Squadron interrogated the shot down German pilot Oberfeldwebel Stefan Kohl from Jagdgeschwa-der 53 Pik As’ the German suddenly stood up from his chair and walked over to barrack window, pointed at the rows of destroyed Thunderbolt fighter-bombers and asked the American in perfect English: ‘What do you think of that?’ Afterwards, when the Americans were to take a photo of Kohl outdoors, he insisted on first polishing his boots, combing his hair and straightening his flight jacket. (Via Don Barnes)
It was too much for Brooking, who, boiling with anger, rushed out. He knew too well that the German was right—’the squadron was in a shambles,’ as he himself said later.56 Brooking’s own airplane, dubbed ’The Fickle Finger’—with which he had performed the famous attack on Peiper’s column—was just one of many that had gone up in flames during the German attack.57
Afterwards, when the Americans wanted to take a photo of Kohl outdoors, he first insisted on polishing his boots, combing his hair and straightening his flying suit. 58 The photograph of Kohl shows a smiling, confident young man with the fur collar half-raised and the forage cap jauntily askew. The guarding U.S. military police looks extrèmely embarrassed. Afterwards Kohl commented that Americans ’probably feared that I would steal one of the aircraft and fly home.’59
Another of the downed and captured German fighter pilots, at Saint-Trond, told his captors that ’this is just as the Führer said it would be,’ and then added: ’Germany yesterday, Belgium today and United States tomorrow!’60
’Bodenplatte’ of course had a psychological impact even on the Allied side, although the detrimental effects could be limited because the whole truth was not cabled out. Pierre Clostermann says that ’Allied public opinion would have been dealt a staggering blow’ if the true extent of the damage inflicted by the Luftwaffe had come to light.61But the headquarters of course understood what it really looked like. ’Operation Bodenplatte,’ said Danny S. Parker, ’made an indelible impression on Allied air commanders.’62
It made the Allied generals fear that it was the beginning of a renewed offensive on the northern German attack flank against Liège. The American strategic air commander Spaatz ’now estimated the war in Europe would not end before late summer.’63
The losses inflicted on the Allies during ’Bodenplatte,’ had hit a tactical aviation that already was heavily weakened. When the Allies landed in Normandy in June 1944, the 9th Air Force mustered around 2,000 aircraft, including about 1,500 fighters, but the accumulated losses caused this strength to dwindle. Between June and September, 900 fighters/fighter-bombers were lost. Before the invasion, the Allies had calculated that losses of up to 20 percent could be fully replaced, but the loss ratio reached 25 percent in June and increased to 26.7 percent in August. In early December 1944, the fighter strength of the 9th Air Force was down to 1,300 aircraft, and would continue to decline. Despite relatively few days of flying weather during this month, the loss ratio reached a record level of nearly 29 percent. This combined with the sharp decline in the flow of newly manufactured aircraft from the USA in the fall and winter, meant that the strength of some Fighter Groups in the 9th Air Force dropped to less than half of the assigned number—from 75 to only 35 aircraft.64
Major Robert Brooking, C.O. of U.S. 386th Fighter Squadron. The photograph was taken in late 1944 and shows him in the cockpit of his P-47 Thunderbolt ‘The Fickle Finger’ which not only took part in the attack against SS-Kampfgruppe Peiper on 18 December 1944, but which was also destroyed when Jagdgeschwader 53 ‘Pik As’ strafed the airbase on New Year’s Day 1945. (Robert Brooking via Don Barnes)
As evidence for the view that the German air base attacks on 1 January 1945 did ’not really’ damage the striking capacity of the Allied tactical aviation, it is sometimes asserted that the air units of XIX Tactical Air Command alone conducted 407 combat sorties on 2 January1945. Among other things, the 405th Fighter Group is reported to have bombed German tanks at Clervaux while the 354th Fighter Group attacked targets right at the front. On that same day, the Luftwaffe carried out up to five hundred combat sorties over the front, including three hundred over Bastogne alone.65In regard to the results during previous days in December 1944 (for example, on 26 December, when the Germans despatched 404 aircraft and lost 65, most of them in air combat), the launching of so many aircraft from both sides over such a limited area would have been expected to produce extensive aerial combats and heavy Luftwaffe losses on 2 January 1945. But interestingly, nothing of the kind occurred on this day. Jagdgeschwader 1 reported one aircraft missing on a combat mission, Jagdgeschwader 4 lost four, and Jagdgeschwader 53 five Messerschmitt 109s in air combat.66 None of the other participating German fighter units lost any aircraft in aerial combat on the Western Front on this 2 January 1945, which indeed is strange if so many Allied aircraft were in the air. In addition, on this 2 January, German aircraft supported a German counter-offensive east of Bastogne, where U.S. 6th Armored Division was particularly hard hit, as we shall see later. Nevertheless, e.g. III. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 11 met no other opposition than ground fire as its Focke Wulf 190 fighter aircraft carried out a fighter sweep in the front area—despite the fact that some of the pilots flew astray on the way home and then happened to pass low over an American fighter air base.67The III. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 53—which operated in the same area as the XIX Tactical Air Command—also undertook a mission over the front area to combat enemy fighter-bombers, but returned to base without having seen any such.68 IV. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 53—one of the few German units that was inflicted with any losses whatsoever in aerial combat on the Western Front on that day—was able to carry out low-level attacks against American tanks at the front quite undisturbed by enemy aircraft. When the German aircraft later landed at their own air base, they were, however, bounced by eight Mustang fighters (probably from the 361st Fighter Group, which claimed to have shot down five German aircraft).69
Interestingly, an evaluation of Operation ’Bodenplatte’ made by Oberst Rudolf Wodarg of the Luftwaffe Intelligence Department on 27 January 1945, noted that the German air base attacks on 1 January 1945 ’impeded’ the Allied air effort ’during the first days of January as a result of oil storage depots being burned out, restricted landing at airfields, re-routing of aircraft, and the recall of air transports.’70 Percy E. Schramm notes in a summary of the discussions in the German Armed Forces High Command that the German ground troops had ’a brief relief’ in the Allied air strikes as a result of Operation ’Bodenplatte.’71
A common objection to the effect of ’Bodenplatte’ is that the Americans were able to replace their aircraft losses fairly quickly. This is true, but not to the extent that otherwise was normal. Winter storms in the Atlantic made it very difficult to bring replacèments for the losses to the Continent, particularly in the shape of fighters, whose limited range meant that they could not be flown over from the USA. On 27 December 1944, Lieutenant General Spaatz received a report from the commander of the 9th Air Force, Major General Hoyt Vandenberg, on the miserable replacèment situation:
’Replacèment fighter aircraft including P-47, P-38 and P-61 negligible during past ten days. Operational efficiency of each command will be seriously affected unless fighters of all types are furnished to the TACs immediately. This applies particularly to the 474 and 370 Ftr Gps. IX TAC estimates that 422 Night Ftr Sq will be non-operational within one week if replacèments are not received.’72
It has been argued that it would have been more effective if the Germans had concentrated on shooting down an equal number of Allied aircraft in the air, since this also would have entailed high Allied losses of trained airmen—supposedly more difficult to replace. Except the fact that this hardly could have been accomplished by the inadequately trained German pilots in the West at that time, it is an argument that does not hold up to examination—as historian Dannny S. Parker shows, ’Even had a large number of Allied pilots been killed, the results could not have been decisive, for by the beginning of 1945, so imposing was the advantage of Allied air juggernaut, that they were no longer lacking in trained aircrew or aircraft.’73
In fact, it was easier to replace pilot losses than aircraft losses, because the men could always be flown over from the USA via Canada, Greenland, and Iceland, while the aircraft had to be stowed on board ships that had to contend with heavy seas in the Atlantic.
The pitiful remains of Brooking‗s P-47 Thunderbolt ’The Fickle Finger’ at Metz-Frescaty on 1 January 1945. (Bryan Price via Don Barnes)
Overall, Operation ’Bodenplatte’ actually allows itself to be described as the War Diary for III. Gruppe/ Jagdgeschwader 3 put it, as the Luftwaffe’s last major victory. Without doubt, the operation gave a dividend that probably can be considered significantly higher than what might have been expected given the average poor standard of the participating pilots—no doubt the result of good and professional planning on the German side. It produced, in Hajo Herrmann’s words, ’a result that was not possible through air combat.’ While it may not have been quite as Pierre Clostermann put it, that the entire tactical aviation was almost paralyzed for more than a week—during the following week, more bad weather was what mainly kept the Allied tactical aircraft on the ground—the losses on the Allied side of course gave the German ground forces in the Ardennes a certain relief. The final verdict is that ’Bodenplatte,’ like the Ardennes Offensive, after all, may be considered as the most rational move on the basis of Hitler’s perspective. It is difficult to see how the II. Jagdkorps could have been more effectively used at the turn of 1944/1945; the objection that ’Bodenplatte’—or for that matter the Ardennes Offensive—failed to bring about a new turning point in the war is senseless: Overall, the most rational from the German people’s perspective had neither been to concentrate forces on the Western Front or to the defense in the East, or to despatch all fighters against the American bombers, but it would have been to make peace as soon as possible, because the war was irrevocably lost. However, this could not have been the Nazi dictator’s perspective.
The Luftwaffe’s attempt to support the German ground troops during the Ardennes Battle resulted in a terrible bloodletting among the German pilots. Long after the battle, the whole area was strewn with German aircraft wrecks. In this picture, Lieutenant Paul A. Warp, adjutant of the 68th Tank Battalion, U.S. 6th Armored Division, is posing in the cockpit of a downed Focke Wulf 190. (The Paul Warp Collection)
The Ardennes Offensive was based on several strong foundations. We have already seen the masterful German masking of the preparations, the brilliant organizational apparatus that brought the great forces to the front, the concentration of total superior tanks, the timing of the offensive to a period of poor flying weather, the bombardment of Liège and Antwerp by V rockets, the operation of modern submarines against Allied traffic across the English Channel, and now even the surprising mass attack against the Allied air bases.
And when the Allied aviation now had made it more or less impossible to bring forward the third German assault wave to the Ardennes front, von Rundstedt took the decision to launch this in another diversionary offensive seventy miles to the south.
Operation ’Bodenplatte’ was only one of the two big surprises for the Allies in the new year. Half an hour before midnight on New Year’s night, German 1. Armee attacked from positions southeast of Saarbrücken, seventy miles south of the Ardennes, southwards, against U.S. Seventh Army. Thus began a new German offensive, Operation ’Nordwind’ (’North Wind’). The attack plan was drafted by Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt and aimed at taking advantage of the fact that parts of Patton’s Third Army had left this sector of the front to attack northwards. Hitler expanded the plan into a double pincer operation with a view to surround and annihilate U.S. Seventh Army and French First Army (1re Armee) in Alsace, and recapture Strasbourg.
Although they had expected a German attack in this area, the Americans were taken by surprise and thrown back. They would have retreated from Strasbourg, had it not been for the sharp protests from the French Commander Charles de Gaulle, who argued that this would be tantamount to a ’national disaster.’ Instead, the Americans quickly brought up reinforcèments to the threatened front area. Having retreated about ten miles, they managed to halt the Germans, who then shifted the emphasis of the assault southeast, to the front on the Rhine, about twenty miles southwest of Karlsruhe. On 5 January, the XIV. SS-Armeekorps crossed the Rhine at Gambsheim, six miles north of Strasbourg, and established a one mile wide bridgehead on the western side of the river. Two days later, the southern part of the pincer operation was launched as German 19. Armee south of Strasbourg attacked north from the so-called ’Colmar Pocket’—the only remaining Germans foothold west of the Rhine in Alsace since Strasbourg had been seized by the Allies on 23 November.
Although this combined German offensive was considerably less extensive than the Ardennes Offensive and did not lead to as large territorial gains, it caused the Allies heavy losses and a series of embarrassing tactical defeats. On 8 January, Combat Command B, U.S. 12th Armored Division attempted to counter-attack at Gambsheim, but was repelled with, according to German data, a loss of 14 tanks and over 100 other combat vehicles. During the advance from the Colmar Pocket, German LXIV. Armeekorps succeeded on 9 January in encircling a French combat group in Obenheim, which ended with more than 700 French prisoners being taken. Another French force was surrounded and destroyed at Erstein, a bit farther to the northwest.
In the sector north of Strasbourg, Kampfgruppe Feuchtinger (the 21. Panzer-Division and the 25. Panzergrenadier-Division) advanced south from the Franco-German border north of the Gambsheim bridgehead and on 9 January assaulted Hatten, ten miles from the German point of departure. This sparked a week-long battle with U.S. 14th Armored Division, which cost the Americans about 75 tanks.74 Another 150 American tanks were knocked out but could be repaired afterwards. The German armor losses are estimated at around 50 tanks and tank destroyers.75
It was only when the Germans were forced to transfer units from the Alsace Front to the Eastern Front, where the great Soviet winter offensive was launched on 12 January, that the German attacks petered out. First of all, the LXIV. Armeekorps was halted south of Strasbourg, and eventually even the northern forces were. But the battle was not yet over. Now that the Americans went over to the counter-attack, they sustained some of their worst losses in this front sector. On 16 January, U.S. 12th Armored Division renewed its attack against the bridgehead at Gambsheim, but was again repulsed. On 17 January, this division’s Combat Command B clashed with the 10. SS-Panzer-Division ’Frundsberg’ at Herrlisheim in the Gambsheim bridgehead. In a two-day battle, the SS Division succeeded in wiping out two entire U.S. battalions—the 17th Armored Infantry Battalion and the 43rd Tank Battalion—and knocked out all the tanks in the 23rd Tank Battalion and captured the commander of the 43rd Tank Battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Nicholas Novosel. According to U.S. sources, the Germans captured 42 of the 12th Armored Division’s Sherman tanks.76
As a result of this defeat, U.S. Seventh Army retreated across River Moder, just six miles north of Strasbourg. Thus, the Germans had regained about 40 percent of Alsace/Elsass.
But any further German success was not possible. More and more units left the Alsace Front to be sent to the Eastern Front, including Kampfgruppe Feuchtinger. The Allies now vigorously counter-attacked against the ’Colmar Pocket’ in the south, and this was compressed more and more until it was completely annihilated after the first week of February.
Although Operation ’Nordwind’ never managed to fully accomplish its objectives, it contributed in the big picture to further shake up the Allied commanders, which resulted in the Ardennes Battle becoming more drawn out than it might otherwise have been.
GERMAN ’WONDER WEAPON’ AGAINST LUXEMBOURG
As we have seen, the Germans employed their latest arms technology in the Ardennes Offensive, in a concentration not seen in any other operation. One of the ‘wonder weapons’ that was introduced for the first time in connection with this operation, was a huge gun leveled against the city of Luxembourg, where both the U.S. 12th Army Group and the Third Army had their headquarters located. The specialty of this gun was not its caliber, 15 cm, but its enormous range of fire.
This weapon went under several different names. Two of these—Hochdruckpumpe (high pressure pump) and Tausendfüssler (millipede)—was because the long barrel was fitted with a row of multiple propellant charges that went off as the projectile passed to provide an increased muzzle velocity. Otherwise, this weapon was known as the Fleissiges Lieschen (Busy Lizzie) or simply V 3 (Vergeltungswaffe 3).
Originally the idea was to shell London with a 130-meter (427 ft) long barrel from Mimoyecques on the French Channel coast. The German plan called for several such guns firing up to 600 shells per day against London. However, this could not be materialized before Montgomery’s troops in early September 1944 forced the Germans to evacuate the area.
Two smaller versions, each with a 50-meter (164 ft) barrel fitted with twelve propellant charges were mounted, however, by Artillerie-Abteilung 705 at Lampaden, eight miles southeast of the German city of Trier. Like the V 2 rocket, the V 3 operations were commanded by SS-Gruppenführer Hans Kammler. In December 1944 he received orders from Generalfeldmarschall von Rundstedt to employ his two V 3s to support Operation ‘Herbstnebel’ by shelling the city of Luxembourg.
The first piece was ready for operations on 30 December 1944. In Kammler’s presence, seven shells with a muzzle velocity of 935 meters (3,068 ft) per second were fired in quick succession on New Year’s Eve. They hit the city of Luxembourg, at a distance of 27 miles. This created panic among both civilians and military personnel in the city, where no one thought that the Germans had any artillery piece with such a range of fire.1
The V 3, however, had a more psychological than material effect. Although the second V 3 started shelling Luxembourg on 11 January 1945, not more than one hundred and eighty-three 97-kg (213-lb) shells had been fired by the time the U.S. Army on 22 February forced the Germans to suspend this activity. Only 142 shells landed in Luxembourg, including not more than 44 in the urban area—which cost the relatively limited number of ten killed and thirty wounded. The action of the V 3, however is yet another evidence of the huge efforts made by the Germans for the Ardennes Offensive.
1 Toland, p. 352.
The liberators are here! A Belgian boy is watching as a column of Sherman tanks roll into his village, which the Germans left shortly before. But although the German offensive towards River Meuse was halted, drawn out and bloody battles remained before the Ardennes finally would be totally liberated from the occupiers. (NARA, lll-SC-198123)
* Some depictions give the incorrect date 15 December. However, the summons, which were intercepted by British Ultra, show that 5 December was the correct date. (National Archives, Kew: Ultra files HW 5/626. CX/MSS/T. HP 8624 West.)
** Among them wing commanders such as Oberstleutnant Herbert Ihlefeld, Oberstleutnant Kurt Bühligen, Major Heinz Bär, Major Günther Specht, Oberst Josef Priller, Oberstleutnant Gustav Rödel, and Oberstleutnant Helmut Bennemann, and group commanders such as Major Karl Borris, Major Anton Hackl, Hauptmann Walter Krupinski, Major Julius Meimberg, Hauptmann Franz Götz, and Hauptmann Robert Weiss. The fighter general Galland also was present.
* One of the wing commanders lost during ’Bodenplatte’ was Oberst Alfred Druschel, who had coordinated the tactical air support of the 5. Panzerarmee at the opening of the Ardennes Offensive, before he, a few days later, succeeded Oberstleutnant Janssen to command Schlachtgeschwader 4. (National Archives, Kew: Ultra files HW 5/633. CX/MSS/T 401/92. West.)
* During the huge air battle near the Mariana Islands in the Philippine Sea on 19-20 June 1944—when U.S. aircraft carrier-based fighters were reported to have shot down 402 Japanese aircraft against own losses of only 29 planes—one of the American fighter pilots from aircraft carrier Lexington was heard saying: ’It was just like an old turkey shoot down home.’ Commander Paul D. Buie on Lexington forwarded this to the press, who named this highly uneven air battle the ’Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.’
* Feldwebel Werner Hohenberg, who was shot down by American anti-aircraft fire and was captured shortly after the attack on the air base at Saint-Trond, however said that later that day he met several other downed and captured pilots from Jagdgeschwader 2, and that ’they were all in good spirits and full of confidence.’ (Interview with the author.)