Germany and WW2 air battles

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Germany and WW2 air battles

Berichtdoor Typhoon » 01 jan 2009, 08:54

Greatest aerial campaign in history, involving the air forces of the United States, Great Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union. As early as 1939–1940, Royal Air Force units executed reconnaissance and leaflet-dropping raids over Hitler’s Reich. The RAF began more serious operations even as the Luftwaffe blitzed the home islands. On the night of 15–16 May 1940, RAF bombers struck targets in the Ruhr Valley. These operations culminated in raids on Berlin itself in August. Flown primarily by Vickers Wellington, Armstrong Whitworth Whitley, and Handley Page Hampden twin-engine machines, the raids caused little actual damage but did help boost British morale and heralded things to come.

These early British attacks were hampered by several factors. The RAF lacked long-range escort fighters; the bombers had insufficient defensive firepower; bombsights were inaccurate, as was navigation; and the bomb-carrying capacity was low. These inadequacies forced RAF Bomber Command to turn to area-bombing, or city-busting. The subsequent introduction of four-engine Handley Page Halifax and Avro Lancaster heavy bombers and the leadership of Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris enabled Bomber Command to overcome some of these handicaps.

These developments occurred in the face of a German air force whose greatest strength in interceptors would not be reached until the summer of 1944. The German fighter force would include some formidable aircraft, including the Messerschmitt Bf 109, 110, and 410, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, and a handful of Messerschmitt Me 262 jets late in the war.

Meanwhile, Bomber Command’s efforts slowly intensified through 1941. Bremen, Hamburg, and Kiel were bombed, in part because they were easily located at night. As for specific targets, the RAF concentrated first on oil production facilities and, later, rail centers in the Ruhr. The Luftwaffe, however, countered with the introduction of the Liechtenstein air-to-air radar system, and Bomber Command’s losses increased.

New equipment, such as the Gee radar system, allowed relatively accurate all-weather bombing by night, and losses temporarily fell. Essen, Lübeck, and Rostock were all successfully attacked in March and April 1942. On 30–31 May, the RAF’s first 1,000-plane raid took place, made possible by Harris’s scraping together every available aircraft, including those from training units. Cologne was heavily bombed, and only 41 bombers were lost, a manageable rate of 3.8 percent. This raid’s size surprised the Germans and equally heartened the British.

More important, it gave Bomber Command a new lease on life just as the U.S. Eighth Air Force became active against Germany from bases in the United Kingdom. The consequent accretion of Allied strength, coupled with the Luftwaffe’s growing commitments in North Africa, over the Mediterranean, and in Russia, would eat into the latter’s reservoir of aircrews, the training establishment, and, eventually, the production of aircraft. The initiation of the Allies’ Combined Bombing Offensive took shape at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943.

It was first manifested in the RAF’s Battle of the Ruhr. On 5 March, 442 heavy bombers attacked Essen. Twin-engine de Havilland Mosquitos equipped with Oboe direction-finding radar led the way. These were the first of more than 18,500 sorties flown against targets in the Ruhr by the termination date of 14 July. Of the bombers dispatched, 872 failed to return; another 2,126 suffered damage.

In the meantime, U.S. Eighth Air Force bombers made their first daylight raid on Germany on 27 January 1943. Of 91 bombers dispatched, 55 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses attacked the German navy’s U-boat facilities at Wilhelmshaven. Others bombed Emden. Consolidated B-24 Liberators accompanying the mission, unable to find their targets due to weather, returned to base with their bombs. No aircraft were lost. It seemed an auspicious first use of heavily armed four-engine daylight raiders over Germany.

Before 1943, the Luftwaffe’s principal task lay in devising effective night-fighting techniques to counter British operations. This was largely accomplished through the development of radar-directed flak batteries and searchlights using two variants of a system called Würzburg. This system could also be used for vectoring night-fighters to their targets. A subsequent, complementary device (Freya) came to be used for early warning. The resulting combined system, Himmelbett, was eventually arranged in a north-to-south line through northwestern Germany and the Low Countries to provide the so-called Kammhuber Line (named after Major General Josef Kammhuber, its principal advocate).

Although attacks by Bomber Command and the Eight Air Force continued almost daily thereafter, two high points were reached in the summer and fall of 1943. In the first instance, combined daytime and nighttime assaults on Hamburg in late July resulted in the first-ever devastation of a city by firestorm. Unusually good weather and the use of radar-jamming foil strips (Window, or chaff) allowed Allied bombers to swamp the Germans’ defenses and burn out the heart of the city. Some 50,000 Germans were killed, another 40,000 injured, and yet another 1 million driven out. But that same month also saw the Luftwaffe’s first use of a new aerial weapon. On 28 July, interceptors fired 210mm air-to-air rockets into Eighth Air Force bomber formations, knocking three B-17s from the sky. German night-fighters also began to overcome the RAF’s radar-jamming efforts as the summer waned.

The second high point witnessed the Eighth Air Force’s attacks on ball-bearing factories at Schweinfurt and the Messerschmitt aircraft plant at Regensburg. In two separate efforts in August and October 1943, the USAAF lost 120 heavy bombers. Hundreds of others were damaged, and thousands of air crewmen were killed and wounded. Though U.S. fighter escorts had first entered German airspace in July, deep-penetration raids were flown without cover due to the escorts’ limited combat radius. Appalling losses to the bombers were the result. Despite the activation of the USAAF’s Fifteenth Air Force in Italy in November (for attacks on southern Germany, Austria, and the Balkans), the Allies appeared to lose the initiative in the air war as 1943 drew to a close.

In part to offset any resulting ill effects, Bomber Command launched the Battle of Berlin on the night of 18 November 1943. As over Hamburg, the RAF bombed at night while the Eighth Air Force eventually attacked by day, its first raid over the city occurring on 4 March 1944. U.S. bombers assaulted the Reich capital three more times that month, flying 1,700 sorties and being accompanied now by long-range escort fighters, most notably North American P-51 Mustangs. Although reduced in strength, the Luftwaffe could still fight back. On 6 March, for example, 69 U.S. bombers were lost to flak and interceptors. Although Berlin was badly damaged, the destruction did not cost Germany the war, as planners (especially British planners) had assumed it would. Nevertheless, by early 1944 the Luftwaffe had stationed 75 percent of its fighter strength in the West within Germany proper as a result of the bombing campaign. That disposition helped denude fighter forces from other theaters, despite an actual increase in total German fighter strength through the summer of that year.

The USAAF’s big week attacks of 20–27 February 1944 broke the back of the Luftwaffe fighter arm. Combined with the raids on Berlin and other cities, these attacks by Allied bombers and escorts cost the Luftwaffe approximately 1,000 pilots from January to April. This critical loss could not be overcome. Bomber production ceased and the Luftwaffe stripped its remaining fighter strength to skeletal remnants on all fronts to place 1,260 of an available 1,975 remaining fighters and fighter-bombers in the home-defense role as 1944 progressed. The turn of the year 1944–1945 saw the Luftwaffe hounded from every quarter.

The Luftwaffe’s last offensive action, Operation Bodenplatte (1 January 1945) achieved tactical surprise at enormous cost in attacks on Allied airfields across the Low Countries and northeastern France. Subsequent engagements over the Remagen bridgehead in March and Bavarin April saw the frequent appearance of the Me 262 as well as the Arado Ar 234 Blitz, the world’s first operational jet bomber. But even remarkable aircraft like these proved too little, too late to prevent the ultimate demise of Germany and the Luftwaffe.
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