During the Battle of Britain in 1940, the German Air Force for the first time in World War II ran into a literal wall of opposition in the air. Convinced that the Luftwaffe was the qualitative superior of the Royal Air Force, the Germans suffered a terrible shock as well as appalling losses as the British Spitfires, Hurricanes, Beaufighters, all aided by the miracle of radar that permitted swift and accurate vectoring of climbing fighters to German formations, broke the back of the Luftwaffe’s attempt to bomb England out of the war.
Defeated though they were over the British Isles, the Germans maintained an unquestioned air superiority over the Continent. As the British improved their fighter planes, so did the Germans, and for many months there was no question but that the German pilot had the better of the odds in aerial combat over occupied Europe.
Beginning in the spring of 1942, however, the Royal Air Force not only improved in quality, but poured increasing numbers of fighters and bombers into the air, and stepped up the tempo of operations against the Continent. This new offensive program dictated to the Luftwaffe the necessity for more effective defense against the accelerating British air activity; and while the British unquestionably were making headway, European skies continued in general to be the safe home grounds of the German Air Force.
Along the vast Soviet front the Luftwaffe, despite numerical inferiority, reigned supreme against an opponent suffering from inferior equipment, tactics, and pilots. Yet this vast aerial arena was beginning to exert its influence in the struggle for air supremacy by draining equipment and man power from other fronts.
Upon this scene entered the specter of massed waves of heavy bombers from England, flown by the Americans, and lesser numbers of these bombers from bases in Africa and, later, from Italy. For this much-heralded mass assault the German fighter pilot and his machine—to say nothing of the American bomber and its crew—were untested and unproven. To their credit, the Germans quickly, after initial B-17 operations, took heed of the threat that grew with alarming speed, and funneled extensive activities into the development of defenses to oppose the daylight raids against Germany which the B-17’s and B-24/s promised.
In their early attacks against the Fortresses bristling with heavy-caliber machine guns, the Germans proved poorly trained and ill-prepared for the new method of air warfare. In addition to the fact that the B-17 was a completely new type of opponent, the reports of its heavy defensive firepower proved a serious limiting psychological factor. The Germans apparently believed as strongly as we did in the ability of the Flying Fortress to live up to its name.
Early battles proved conclusively that existing German methods of attacking bombers would not avail against the B-17. Until the debut of the Fortress formations the firing attacks against bombers were made singly, or by the Rotte, a two-fighter formation. This failed to provide the attacker with firepower sufficient to destroy the B-17, with its outstanding structural strength, for the German pilots estimated that at least twenty to twenty-five hits with 20-mm. cannon shells were needed to bring down a Fortress.
In their first interceptions of the American heavy bombers, the Luftwaffe pilots followed their customary tactics of closing from the rear. Experience quickly taught them that this was begging for trouble. Against a formation of only 27 Fortresses, the fighters had to close with slow speed and must face the tremendous defensive array of no less than 200 heavy-caliber machine guns which would open fire at a distance of 1,000 yards.
By attacking from the front, the fighter pilots still had to accept the danger inherent in the defensive fire screen of the entire bomber formation, but they gained the vital advantage of enormously increasing the rate of closure, which reduced the effectiveness of the enemy guns; furthermore, they enhanced the possibility of scoring cannon-shell strikes in the critical areas of the cockpit, engines, and wing fuel tanks.
The success of the German fighter defense system—which reached its bloody pinnacle in the defense of Schweinfurt on October 14, 1943—was owing in great part to the efficiency with which the Germans accepted the problem. In their attacks against the American formations, they drew heavily on night-fighter resources. They made this move despite the weariness of the night-fighter pilots and their preference for and experience in fighting as lone wolves. Yet these defects were more than compensated for by the extensive endurance of the twin-engine night fighters, their ability to follow with great precision the commands of ground vector controllers, and their heavy firepower. Later, after the disaster of Schweinfurt, American escort fighters rampaged through the heavy twin-engine German ships and exacted crushing losses; the big airplanes proved too cumbersome and vulnerable to the American fighters and were soon stricken from the main stream of battle. Unhappily, however, this was not until after Schweinfurt.
Late in 1942 the concentrated mass saturation raids of the Royal Air Force Bomber Command, and the threat of United States Army Air Forces daylight precision bombing led to the institution of a major change in the anti-aircraft batteries and tactics of the Luftwaffe, to which 90 per cent of all the German flak batteries were assigned. Previously, the heavy A.A. guns had been spread out in batteries of four. To increase firepower and concentration in a given airspace, the guns were regrouped in batteries of six to eight heavy weapons. To defend particularly vital areas, the Germans formed their Grossbatterien, each made up of two or three of the larger groupings, with as many as 24 heavy guns firing under a single control.
This again went through another reorganization, as a result of which up to 40 guns were firing under single-command control. If the command site found the range properly, and accurately tracked the bombers in respect to height, lead, and position in space, the effect upon the bomber formations was catastrophic.
When the 12 B-17’s of the Eighth Air Force made their first attack of the war against Rouen, Germany was expending little of her air power in daylight defense against bombers. Instead, her fighters and bombers were operating with brilliant effect along the Russian front and in the African desert, as well as creating a serious air defense against the nocturnal raids of the British. The total fighter force of the Luftwaffe in Germany proper at that time included perhaps 130 machines. Daylight fighter strength in France amounted to another 300 airplanes, all well within German maintenance capabilities.
The year 1942 was a period of testing of daylight defenses on a minor scale, for the Americans as well as the Germans. By the beginning of 1943 the Luftwaffe recognized the full threat of American precision bombing, and made their first major moves to stem the attacks. Their avowed purpose went further than this; they planned, and believed they had the strength and the means, to break the back of the coming American heavy bomber offensive.
Unfortunately for the VIII Bomber Command, the first six months of 1943 were literally made to order for the German reorganization and marshaling of forces. The VIII’s attacks were too infrequent, and they were insufficient in strength, to overwhelm the powerful and resilient German defense system. By their very nature the attacks enabled the Germans to perfect their daylight defensive system, to eliminate weaknesses, and to exploit their strength to the utmost. We could not have assisted the Luftwaffe in its defensive planning and preparations more than we did.
The VIIIth attacked—lightly and infrequently, for reasons explained in Chapter I—the cities of Hamm, Emden, Cologne, Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, and Kiel. This provided the perfect opportunity for the German fighter sector control headquarters to gain badly needed skills in quicklyplotting the paths of the bomber groups and transmitting their height, course, speed, and formation to the fighter forces, which enabled the Germans to vector every available airplane to the scene of battle with great efficiency.
Moreover, this outstanding target plot system permitted the Germans again to use fighters which had carried out their attacks. Leaving the battle at high speed, the planes landed, and their pilots remained in the cockpit while skilled ground crews in minutes loaded new gun belts and refilled the fuel tanks. These fighters took off again quickly, to be vectored back into the combat scene. Thus they met the bombers as they returned from the attack. This greatly increased the effectiveness of the defense system; it enabled the Germans to use a hundred fighters, for example, with perhaps the impact of 150 airplanes.
The Germans also experimented with hundreds of other new devices which might increase their effectiveness in air defense.
The 25th Experimental Commando, created personally by General Adolf Galland, chief of the German fighter forces, tested out the hundreds of suggestions that poured in from combat units, industry, or even the general populace. The 21-cm. mortar—an aircraft rocket that struck with terrifying effects against our bombers—was rushed into production. Aerial bombs were released against bomber formations, as well as aerial mines that drifted ahead of and into the groups. Cables with and without bombs were trailed in the air, to be dropped into the B-17 formations. Rocket batteries and cluster bombs with automatic photocell ignition, repeater-exploding rockets—all these and others saw combat trials.
These innovations were supplementary to the standard armament of the German fighters and of the bombers pressed into service as flying gun batteries. The weapons of the single-engine fighters included the 7.9-mm. (.30 caliber) and 12.7-mm. (.50 caliber) machine gun, and cannon of 15, 20, 23, 30, and 37 mm.
Perhaps the most effective of the German single-engine fighters was the Focke-Wulf FW-190, one of the greatest military planes of history. Powered with a 1,700-horsepower radial engine, the FW-190 flew faster than four hundred miles per hour, had amazing maneuverability, climbed rapidly, and carried the formidable armament of four 20-mm. cannon in the wings and two heavy machine guns mounted in the nose. Swift, agile, and heavily armored throughout its belly, it was an effective bomber destroyer.
Most famous of the Luftwaffe’s fighters was the veteran of air battles in Spain, all across Europe and Africa, and in the Battle of Britain—the Messerschmitt Me-109. In its defense version the Me-109G was available in great numbers. With a top speed of more than four hundred miles per hour, extremely agile in the air, and able to fly to altitudes of 40,000 feet and above, the Me-109G was a superb fighting machine. As a bomber destroyer it carried two heavy cannon in underwing mounts, plus two heavy nose machine guns and a single cannon firing through the propeller hub. Both the FW-100 and the Me-109G could also accommodate rockets and/or aerial bombs. The main twin-engine fighter was the Messerschmitt Me-110, a slow (350 mph) two-seated plane that had been slaughtered by the nimble Spitfires and Hurricanes of the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain. In speed, however, it was greatly superior to the B-17, and with a combination of heavy cannon and machine guns in the nose—up to four cannon and two guns in some models—plus rocket batteries and/ or bombs, the Me-110 was a deadly opponent. Its large size gave it great endurance; it could take off from bases far from the bomber stream and still attack the Fortresses.
The replacement for the Me-110, the Me-210 model, was available for the Schweinfurt raid, but in lesser numbers. Faster (390 to 410 mph), the Me-210 was also more heavily armored, and it stood a greater chance of absorbing and surviving the B-17’s defensive firepower than its predecessor.
Many of the night fighters of the Luftwaffe were actually bombers, notably the Junkers Ju-88, one of the most versatile military machines ever produced by any nation. As a night fighter the Ju-88 was unusually well protected with armor plating, and would carry as many as six 20-mm. cannon, plus heavy machine guns, besides having the advantage of long endurance in the air.
The Fortresses that invaded Germany could expect to encounter not only these defending fighters, but variations of bombers and other fighters, like the swift, single-engine Heinkel He-113, in lesser numbers. The armament variations were many, and a single 37-mm. cannon shell might tear the wing right off a B-17. With rockets, aerial bombs, and other ordnance, Germany had created a virtual wall of fire in her skies.
The Rosarius Traveling Circus, which toured Germany in the summer of 1943, proved of invaluable aid. This was a flight made up of all flyable captured Allied aircraft, which visited German units to teach pilots the details and the techniques of our aircraft. It was a brilliant move. Unit leaders actually flew the captured airplanes—including the B-17—and were able thus to develop their attack techniques with what must be considered a unique advantage for a fighter force.
If we learned anything from the lessons of our air war in Europe, it was that it is impossible to label any aspect of that fantastic struggle in simple black and white. The German fighter defenses over their homeland became extraordinarily effective only because the Germans stripped other fronts of their air power. The Luftwaffe consumed a fantastic number of men, and expended in great quantities matériel, fuel, and airplanes. They threw into the defense of their industrial heartland nothing short of a superb and fantastic effort. Throughout the year 1943 virtually every new single-engine fighter airplane in the Luftwaffe went for the growing air-defense structure of Germany, at the expense of the other fighting fronts where planes were needed so desperately.
Further, many squadrons of Messerschmitt Me-109 single-engine fighters were actually recalled from the Russian front in the summer of 1943 to assist in the daylight defense of the Reich. The Germans singled out their best and most experienced fighter pilots from every front, and ordered them back to the homeland. The effects of this air-power drain were significant and critical, and they constituted a major contribution to the eventual defeat of Germany.
Whatever the reasons, the most formidable aerial-defense system in history was at the peak of its strength and efficiency by the fall of 1943. By August—two months before the October 14 raid—the permanent daylight defenses of Germany included some six hundred Me-109 and FW-190 single-engine fighters, plus at least 180 twin-engine day fighters or “destroyers.” There existed as a defense against the mounting British raids (which in July-August, 1943, smashed Hamburg into a gutted, largely-abandoned wasteland) a night-fighter force of nearly one thousand single-engine and twin-engine fighters. This alone constituted nearly 20 per cent of the total operational strength of the Luftwaffe, and these heavily armed machines also were available for the defense of the Reich daring daylight hours.
Because of the extended range of the October 14 attack by the B-17’s—400 miles from their English bases—the Germans had available against them in operational condition some twelve hundred defending fighter aircraft. All these machines were able to fight in brilliantly coordinated attacks, and to coincide their efforts with the massed anti-aircraft fire from the ground.
And yet this incredible opposition was not all. Many of these airplanes would fly second sorties during the Schweinfurt raid, and thus in effect increase the aggregate number of fighters involved.
Because of the particular route of the bombers, the Germans were able to call upon many supporting fighter squadrons in France, Belgium, and Holland. It required no more than telephone calls on lines always open to transfer the fighters to German bases,, and thus fit them perfectly into the system of ground vectoring.
The first assault against Schweinfurt, on August 17, contributed heavily to the masterful and bloody defense of that city two months later. The majority of the leaders of the German government reacted to the August raid with great shock.
Albert Speer, Reichsminister of Armaments, warned that should the Americans continue to hammer in steady raids against the ball-bearings industry, then within sixty days the German armaments industry would suffer ill effects. Within four months, he emphasized with utmost gravity, reserves would be exhausted and the war economy would truly be crippled. The Germans heeded the warning all too well.
Thus the stage was set for the grimmest drama of the war in the skies. By the fall of 1943 the Luftwaffe had whetted its appetite and honed to the ultimate degree its skill against the unescorted daylight raids by the VIII’s B-17’s. The air-defense system of the Reich was at the very peak of its strength and its efficiency. Not simply in quantity of superb fighter planes and massed flak batteries, but in the skill and freshness of its pilots, in their courage, and in their unswerving belief that they would triumph.