The Luftwaffe was hard pressed to even compete with Allied airpower over Italy and northwest Europe, and what little strength it had was thrown away in Hitler’s last gamble in the West – the Ardennes offensive.
RAF armourers prepare to load air-to-ground rockets onto a Hawker Typhoon 1b of No 609 Squadron, France, August 1944.
German fears of a ground war on more than one front had become a reality as early as September 1943, when Anglo-American forces invaded Italy, landing across the Straits of Messina from Sicily and launching an amphibious attack at Salerno, just to the south of Naples. Adolf Hitler’s decision to fight for control of the Italian peninsula was unavoidable; if he had merely allowed the Allies to occupy the country his entire southern flank would have been dangerously exposed. But it quickly became apparent that he did not have the resources needed to do the job. Although land battles in late 1943 and early 1944 delayed the Allied advance, bogging it down in the mountainous approaches to Cassino and Rome, the Luftwaffe was not strong enough to make any decisive impact. At the beginning of 1944 Luftflotte 2, responsible for the Italian theatre, had no more than 370 aircraft available, of which less than 100 were bombers or ground-attack machines.
Messerschmitt Bf 110Cs of Zerstörergeschwader 26 on a forward airstrip in Sicily, July 1943. By this stage in the war, the Luftwaffe is struggling to maintain air superiority, though enemy air attack is clearly not expected in this case.
The aftermath of an Allied air attack on a German airfield near Trapani in Sicily on the 26th July 1943.
Poor showing in Italy.
Reinforcements were found after the Allies tried to break the deadlock around Cassino by landing farther north, at Anzio on the 22nd January 1944, but the numbers were still inadequate. By late January, 140 bombers had been brought in from Greece, France and Germany, including Dornier Do 217s and Heinkel He 177s equipped with Henschel Hs 293 and Fritz X radio-controlled bombs. Their novelty value did have a temporary effect, sinking a number of Allied warships and merchantmen. A serious shortage of fighters, however, meant that the Luftwaffe never gained air superiority, and the Allies were able to destroy many of the bombers before they could find suitable targets. By the same token, the despatch of 50 fighters from Western Europe in early March was insufficient to enable ground forces to execute successful counterattacks against the new beachhead or in the area of Cassino. By late March 1944, it was obvious that airpower was being wasted and a number of squadrons were redeployed. Thereafter, the Luftwaffe played little part in the Italian campaign, leaving ground units to use their ingenuity and terrain advantages in order to survive. It was not what the Wehrmacht had been trained to expect.
By then, it was apparent that Allied landings on the northern coast of occupied Europe would not be long in coming. On the 1st April, substantial elements of the Anglo-American bomber fleet were shifted from strategic attacks to ones that were designed to support an amphibious assault. Though none of the German commanders could be sure where or when the landings would take place, Allied preparations gradually wore down defences throughout the theatre. One of the prerequisites for Allied success was air superiority, to protect both the invasion fleet and the forces once ashore. Luftflotte 3, covering France and the Low Countries, was reinforced, partly at the cost of the Italian theatre but also because some squadrons protecting the homeland could be diverted now that Allied bombers were otherwise occupied, but as in Italy and the East, there were never enough aircraft to go around. Thus, though the highly experienced close-support formations of Fliegerkorps II were transferred from northern Italy to Luftflotte 3 in February 1944 and, a month later, the anti-shipping experts of Fliegerkorps X joined them, Anglo-American air superiority was already such that they could only assume the defensive, waiting for the inevitable attack.
A Focke-Wulf Fw 190A, captured intact by the Allies after being abandoned on an airfield near Naples, September 1943. Note the bomb under the fuselage and the empty racks under the wing. If it could avoid enemy air defences, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190A WAS an effective fighter-bomber.
A Heinkel He 177a-3/R2 six-seat heavy bomber, reconnaissance and anti-shipping aircraft in 1943. Despite its appearance, this aircraft was fitted with four-engines, two on each side in a coupled instillation driving a single propeller. The arrangement gave continued trouble, however, and would plague the bomber throughout its service life. This Heinkel He 177 operated with Kampfgeschwader 100 during the “Baby Bitz” on Britain at the beginning of 1944.
An upper fuselage gunner of a Heinkel He 177. In this aft dorsal turret was a 13mm MG 131 machine gun.
A Dornier Do 217 night-bomber, photographed in December 1942. This version of the Dornier Do 217 differed from earlier models in terms of its redesigned forward fuselage, extending the glazed panels to the nose, and its ability to carry and launch radio-controlled bombs. It saw service in Kampfgeschwader 100.
Renewed attacks on Britain.
This was something that neither Hitler nor Göring was prepared to do. Just as on the Eastern Front, they insisted on an air offensive to try to disrupt enemy preparations. As early as the 3rd December 1943, Göring issued a directive ordering renewed bombing attacks on Britain. A total of 525 bombers were scraped together, but the raids, known to the British public as the “Baby Blitz”, were disastrous for the Luftwaffe. Between the 21st January and the end of May 1944, 29 raids were carried out, during which nearly 3048 tonnes (3000 tons) of bombs were dropped, but at a cost of 329 precious aircraft. Some of the attacks were targeted against ports in south-eastern England in hopes of disrupting the invasion build-up, but they had little impact against well-coordinated defences, and actually prevented proper air reconnaissance from taking place. By early June, Luftflotte 3 had just over 800 aircraft available and had no clear idea of where the invasion would come. By then, the Allies had amassed more than 7000 aircraft, enough to ensure that attacks could be carried out all along the disputed coastline, disguising the true intention of an attack in Normandy. And ensuring total Allied air superiority.
The effects of Allied air superiority: a German train, camouflaged in a vain attempt to escape attention, stands wrecked in the rail yards at Münster, April 1945. Allied interdiction of enemy supply lines had largely succeeded by this stage in the war, disrupting the movement of troops and supplies.
Allied air-to-ground rockets head towards their targets, Normandy, July 1944. The ability to hit enemy road and rail communications played a key role in the breakout battles in August.
By the time of the Normandy invasion on the 6th June 1944, the Luftwaffe could no longer cope in the English Channel skies. On that day, the only thing on which Göring had lavished all his best boasts and which was designed to prevent a single enemy fighter from ever reaching Berlin, “‘or call me Meyer”, only managed to put 327 planes into the air to confront the greatest air bombardment and invasion armada in the whole history of warfare. The results were inevitable.
On the 6th June 1944, the Anglo-Americans used their air superiority to drop paratroopers on the flanks of the assault area, to observe enemy positions on the coast, to lend close support to troops as they went ashore and, most significantly, to interdict German lines of supply and communications. Although, the Allies flew more than 14,000 air sorties on D-Day itself, to which Luftflotte 3 could respond with a mere 319. Most of the attacking troops saw no sign of the Luftwaffe during the day of the invasion or, indeed, during the succeeding weeks. It was a comprehensive display of aerial power which Göring could not hope to match.
British intelligence officers examine the remains of a Messerschmitt Bf 109G, shot down near Tilly-sur-Seulles in Normandy, July 1944. Luftwaffe activity in norther France was curtailed by fuel shortages and overwhelming Allied superiority.
As the war in northern Europe draws to a close, the remains of the Luftwaffe are either destroyed or captured by Allied troops. This is a hanger at Wunstorf near Hannover.
But it would be wrong to assume that the Luftwaffe did nothing. As soon as the invasion occurred, reinforcements were despatched. Some 300 fighters and 120 bombers by mid-June and attempts were made to carry out attacks, not least against the Allied naval and transport fleet concentrating offshore. Sea mines were dropped, usually at night, and high-level bombing raids were executed, although the impact was small. By August, when the Allies finally broke out of the close country around Caen in Normandy, there was nothing to prevent their rapid advance to liberate Paris and sweep on into Belgium and towards the German frontier. In the process, German troops learnt what it was like to suffer constant air attention: those trapped in the “Falaise Pocket” in late August came under sustained attack from rocket-firing Typhoon and Thunderbolt fighter-bombers, losing their equipment and combat cohesion and suffering heavy casualties. The Luftwaffe could do nothing to help.
Nor could it prevent a resumption of the Anglo-American strategic bombing campaign. Raids on key German targets had not ceased entirely during the Allied build-up to D-Day, but once the troops were safely ashore and the breakout from the beachhead had been achieved, the bomber fleet were free to turn their full attention to the German homeland, attacking both by day and by night. German air defences were still theoretically formidable. However by the 1st October 1944, for example, the number of night-fighters available to combat the RAF’s heavy bombers had risen to 830, but the practical problems of operating the Luftwaffe effectively were legion. During daylight hours, American escort fighters, now capable of flying the length and breadth of Germany with fuel to spare for air-to-air combat protected the B-17 Flying Fortress’s and B-24 Liberator’s. At night, new British jamming techniques rendered the SN-2 Lichtenstein radar of German fighters inoperable, leaving frustrated pilots to scour the darkness of the night sky’s for the evermore elusive targets. Even when the Luftwaffe managed to gain a technological advantage, as with the deployment of jet and rocket-powered aircraft the lack of fuel and of pilot experience left the Allies relatively secure. In the end, it was Luftwaffe-manned anti-aircraft guns as much as fighters that imposed losses on the enemy air forces.
Once the Luftwaffe has been swept from the skies, the bomber fleet enjoy free rein. This photograph of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress’s of the US 8th Army Air Force gives a good impression of Allied airpower.
A shot taken from a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress’s waist gunners position of another of the formation silhouetted by dark puffs of flak smoke.
An artist’s impression of a raid on Germany. Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress’s flying in formation and suffering damage from flak.
An RAF reconnaissance photograph, taken in early October 1944, shows a relatively undamaged portion of the Krupps armaments factory in Essen. A major raid, involving 1055 bombers, was mounted on the night of the 23rd/24th October.
A post-raid reconnaissance photograph shows damage inflicted on the Krupps works at Essen on the night of the 23rd/24th October 1944. Buildings have been devastated, but RAF Bomber Command carried out two follow-up raids to ensure complete disruption.
German cities and industry bombed.
The Allies responded to their achievement of air superiority over Germany in two ways, both of which hastened the destruction of the Nazi regime. The Americans, always more in favour of concentrating against key components of the enemy’s war machine than his civilian workforce, sought out facilities connected to oil, transportation and the air industry, the destruction of which did nothing to improve matters for the Luftwaffe. By comparison, the RAF sent increasingly strong forces against cities and the industrial complexes within them, culminating with some American day-light help in the controversial bombing of Dresden on the 13th/14th February 1945. The creation of a “firestorm”, similar to that which had engulfed and devastated Hamburg 18 months earlier, led to the death of at least 50,000 civilians. RAF Bomber Command, having committed 796 Lancasters and 9 Mosquitoes to the attack, lost just 6 aircraft to enemy defences. The whole of Germany now lay vulnerable, bereft of the one instrument that might have protected it: an effective air force.
It was not just the practical problems of fuel shortages, pilot inexperience and enemy superiority that destroyed the Luftwaffe in the West. Hitler’s strategic decision also played an important part, wasting the assets that were still available. His plans for “reprisal” attacks on Britain at a time when Allied air superiority was such that the attempt was doomed inevitably to failure, caused irreplaceable losses to the Luftwaffe’s bomber arm, but the real damage came eventually at the very beginning of 1945. As the Western Allies advanced towards Germany in the autumn of 1944, Hitler perceived a potential weakness in their deployment, with the Anglo-Canadian thrust into the Low Countries veering away from the American spearhead towards the German frontier. The area in-between included the heavily wooded Ardennes, scene of the panzer breakthrough in 1940. Hitler convinced himself that this success could be replicated, despite differences in enemy capability and time of year. In the greatest of secrecy, he prepared an armoured attack that would thrust through the Ardennes and split the Anglo-Canadians from the Americans. Even if the Western Allies did not collapse, time would be gained for a German concentration of resources against the Soviets in the East.
A young pilot is helped into his flying gear by a member of the ground crew. He will be ready to intercept the oncoming wave of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress’s.
A swarm of Messerschmitt Bf 109’s scramble to combat the oncoming Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress’s.
An artist’s impression of the outcome of an attack on a flight of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress’s. The aircraft plunges to the ground and 5 crew members hit the “silk”, but what of the other 5?
The end of the road for a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress’s crew after 54 missions. The much loved “Nose Art” of the American’s in this case the Top Hated flying Stork, didn’t bring the “Babies” home.
The Ardennes Offensive.
It was an over-ambitious plan in every way. The commitment of Germany’s last major reserves, both on the ground and in the air, meant that failure would be catastrophic, with little to prevent defeat. Nevertheless, the secret deployment of nearly 30 divisions, 10 of them armoured, was supported by an impressive total of 2460 aircraft, the bulk of which were fighters, tasked with the destruction of Allied airbases in accordance with Blitzkrieg tradition. As the panzers pushed through to the River Meuse, the plan was for the Anglo-American tactical air forces to be so badly hit that they would be incapable of interfering, at least during the early, crucial, stages of the offensive. Codenamed Operation “Bodenplatte”, or Ground Plate, it was all set to begin on the 16th December 1944, the opening of what the Americans would latter call the “Battle of the Bulge”. It was to be Hitler’s last gamble in the West.
Gunther Bahr (centre) poses with his crew in front of their Messerschmitt Bf 110G night-fighter, 1945. Bahr has just been told that he has been awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, but he has not yet received the medal.
Two night-fighter pilots celebrate having received their Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, on the 28th January 1945. On the left is Stabsfeldwebel Ludwig Bellof; on the right Stabsfeldwebel Leopold Hackl. Both served with Nachtjagdgeschwader 3.
General Adolf Galland salutes as a wreath is laid to commemorate Oberst Walter Oesau, killed in a dogfight with US fighters over the Eifel region of Germany on the 11th May 1944.
Oberst Walter Oesau, photographed in early 1944. He was the third Luftwaffe fighter pilot to achieve the magic figure of 100 aerial “kills”; he scored 123 before he was killed.
The weather negates airpower.
Operation “Bodenplatte” did not take place as planned, principally because of the weather. One of the reasons for choosing such a late date for the attack was that the Allied airpower would be grounded by fog or snow, but if that was the case on enemy airfields, and then it was only logical that it would be the same on their German equivalents. For most of the first week of the “Battle of the Bulge”, neither side could deploy its airpower effectively; something that was far more of a loss to the Germans than it was to the Allies. Despite quite deep advances into the Ardennes by panzer task forces, some of which reached to within 16klm (10 miles) of the River Meuse, the Americans were strong enough to absorb the blow and push in seemingly limitless reinforcements to contain and the squeeze the “Bulge”. Moreover, once the weather cleared, Allied air advantages were apparent and kicked in. fighter-bombers swooped down to hit panzers that were desperately short of fuel, supplies were dropped to sustain American paratroopers besieged in Bastogne, and bombers started to sever the links between frontline German formations and what little they still had by way of support. Luftwaffe aircraft that appeared were promptly shot down by defending fighters or anti-aircraft units.
But Hitler remained confident that all-out air effort was still viable. As a result, at 09:00 hours on the 1st January 1945 a total of nearly 800 Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s, equipped as fighter-bombers, took to the skies, aiming to destroy the Allied air forces in northwest Europe. It was a forlorn hope, for though some minor successes were achieved through surprise, an attack against the airbase at Eindhoven, for example, inflicted significant damage on two Canadian Typhoon squadrons, the losses sustained by the Luftwaffe were crippling. By the end of the day about 200 of the attackers had been shot down, depriving the Germans of pilots they could ill afford to lose. By comparison, the Allies loss of 144 aircraft, many of them unmanned on the ground, was easy to replace from reserve stocks.
Messerschmitt Bf 110D long-range fighters of Zerstörergeschwader 1 over the Eastern Front, 1944. Note the elaborately painted representation of a wasp on the nose of the lead aircraft – ZG1 was known as the Wespen Geschwader and pilots took pride in advertising the fact. By 1944, this was perhaps not advisable.
A rather unusual Junkers Ju 88G night-fighter, equipped with Lichtenstein radar but powered by what appear to be supercharged engins driving four-bladed propellers
A Heinkel He 219A Uhu (Owl), equipped with SN-2 Lichtenstein and C-1 Lichtenstein radar antennae. The He 219 was the heaviest of the German night-fighters, but development was slow and the first examples did not enter squadron service until mid-1943. Thereafter, they exacted a steady toll on RAF bombers but were too few in number to make a difference.
An artist’s impression of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress’s return trip. Over the sea it is attacked by a Luftwaffe fighter and tries to limp home engine on fire.
This Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress of the 457th Bomb Group burned out at Glatton, near Peterborough, in June 1944.
With the failure of Operation “Bodenplatte”, the Luftwaffe in the West was finished as an effective fighting force. Crippling fuel shortages were such that entire formations of aircraft were grounded, while many of the new machines still being produced, largely in factories that had been dispersed away from the cities to avoid Allied bombing, could not be delivered because of enemy air attacks on transportation systems. Even if the new aircraft had reached the frontline, the chances of them being properly crewed were minimal, the training organisation having virtually collapsed. In such circumstances, there was little to stop Allied aircraft from roaming at will over a rapidly shrinking Reich. What did remain, however, was a variety of “Wonder Weapons”, the story of which is one of missed opportunities and false hopes, epitomising many of the problems which bedevilled the whole of the Luftwaffe throughout its brief existence. That story needs to be told before any final judgement can be made.
General view of a crowded Heinkel factory. Such German manufacturing potential had been largely destroyed by Allied bombing by 1945.
A spectacular display of anti-aircraft tracer fire lights up the sky over southern England as defences concentrate against incoming V1 “flying bombs”, late 1944.