This was the German final air offensive, wrongly believed by the Allies to have been ‘Hermann’ (1 January 1945).
The operation was designed to support ‘Wacht am Rhein’ through the destruction of all Allied tactical air power capable of intervening over the Ardennes region during the later stages of the last offensive.
As such, ‘Bodenplatte’ was conceived as the means whereby the German fighter arm could cripple the Allied air forces based in the Low Countries and thus gain for Germany decisive air superiority in the opening stages of the ‘Wacht am Rhein’ offensive in order that the ground forces could press their offensive in ‘Wacht am Rhein’ without interference from Allied tactical warplanes. The undertaking was planned for 16 December, the day on which ‘Wacht am Rhein’ started, but the adverse weather on which the German ground offensive was posited was in fact so bad that the ‘Bodenplatte’ had to be delayed several times, and was launched only on 1 January 1945 in an effort to re-energise the ground offensive, which had entered a stagnant phase, and also to support the ‘Nordwind’ (iii) offensive launched farther to the south on this same day.
The degree of secrecy imposed on the development and implementation of ‘Bodenplatte’ was so effective that a not inconsiderable number of German ground and naval forces had not been informed of the operation, and a some or the air units suffered considerable ‘friendly fire’ casualties from the anti-aircraft artillery of ground and naval forces which could not believe that it was the Luftwaffe which was mounting an effort of this scale.
In overall terms, the operation did manage to achieve some measure of surprise and therefore tactical success, but in operational and strategic terms was a complete failure. Large numbers of Allied aircraft were indeed destroyed or severely damaged on the ground, but these losses had been made good within a week, and Allied aircrew casualties were small as most of the Allied losses were of aircraft sitting on the ground. On the other side of the coin, however, the Germans lost many aircraft, which they could replace, albeit at a pace slower than that of the Allies, but more importantly used large quantities of irreplaceable fuel and lost a high proportion of their fighter pilots, including many of their fast-diminishing number of experienced pilots, whom they could not replace.
Subsequent assessment of the operation suggested that during the operation only 11 of the Luftwaffe’s 34 fighter Gruppen committed to the effort actually attacked according to schedule and with tactical surprise. The operation therefore failed to achieve any measure of German air superiority, even on a temporary basis, and thus left the German ground forces at the mercy of Allied air attacks.
The Western Allies’ armies were very capably supported by tactical air power as they advanced to the east across North-West Europe from mid-August to mid-December 1944. The British and Canadian armies enjoyed the benefits provided by Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s 2nd Tactical Air Force, which had Air Vice Marshal B. E. Embry’s No. 2 Group, Air Vice Marshal H. Broadhurst’s No. 83 Group, Air Vice Marshal L. O. Brown’s (from 10 November Air Vice Marshal E. C. Huddleston’s) No. 84 Group and Air Vice Marshal C.R. Steele’s No. 85 Group to provide constant close air support. The US armies had similar support from Major General Hoyt S. Vandenberg’s US 9th AAF, whose major elements were Major General Elwood R. Quesada’s IX Tactical Air Command, Major General Otto P. Weyland’s XIX Tactical Air Command and Brigadier General Richard E. Nugent’s XXIX Tactical Air Command (Provisional), and Major General Ralph Royce’s 1st Tactical Air Force (Provisional), whose major element was Brigadier General Gordon P. Saville’s XII Tactical Air Command. The RAF and USAAF effectively harassed the German ground, air and strength by attacking strongpoints and interdicting their lines of communication. At the dame time, the air reconnaissance elements attached to the Allied air forces kept commanders, at all levels, fully informed of German movements. So great was the level of Allied air superiority that the German ground forces could not operate effectively especially as the Luftwaffe found it difficult in not actually impossible to provide effective air cover and air reconnaissance. The German air units were short of fuel and pilots, was woefully short of experienced combat leaders and by this stage of the war was heavily outnumbered.
The land campaign thus moved remorselessly eastward to the line of the Rhine river which was the last major natural obstacle to the great Allied strategic advance into the German heartlands. By this time most of France had been liberated, as had the Belgian cities of Brussels and Antwerp, the latter offering the possibility of significantly improved logistical support for the Allied armies in the north once the waterways leading to this great port had been secured. Although ‘Market’ and ‘Garden’ had failed in September 1944, by the start of 1945 the Allies had overrun most of the southern Netherlands and the Scheldt river estuary approaches to Antwerp. As the Allied ground forces advanced across Europe, their supporting tactical air forces moved in their wake to new bases so that they were close to the front and could provide timely close support. The one factor which most signally limited the Allies, especially late in 1944, was the weather. The onset of winter rain turned airfields first to mud and then into quagmires, effectively ending the air forces’ to continue flight operations until the ground froze, which presented its own problems, and then fog and low cloud were as much the air forces’ enemy as were the Germans.
In was in this impending military, geographic and climatic situation that Adolf Hitler ordered the planning and implementation of ‘Wacht am Rhein’ in an effort to reserve the course of the North-West European campaign by punching a hole through the Ardennes front of Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges’s US 1st Army, thereby dividing the Allied armies in the north into two parts (the British and Canadians of Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group in the north and the Americans and French of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 12th Army Group and Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers’s Allied 6th Army Group in the south) and driving through take Antwerp and its huge dumps of all types of military matériel.
A precondition of ‘Wacht am Rhein’ was a period of bad weather so that the Allies’ tactical air power would be grounded and therefore be unable to provide their ground forces with support. ‘Wacht am Rhein’ initially had this benefit, although the poor weather also hampered the Luftwaffe, which nonetheless managed to put 500 aircraft into the air on 16 December. This was the day originally planned for the ‘Bodenplatte’ date for the strike against Allied airfields, but the weather in the area earmarked for attack was notably bad and the operation was postponed.
‘Wacht am Rhein’ achieved operation and tactical surprise, and gained considerable initial success. To counter the attack from the air, the USAAF gave operational control of Nugent’s XXIX Tactical Air Command (Provisional) to Coningham’s 2nd Tactical Air Force, and on 23 December the 2nd Tactical Air Force was able to provide the US ground forces with much needed support, and helped prevent the German capture of Malmédy and Bastogne. This left the Germans with only St Vith for the logistical support of their operations, and this was a chokepoint whose constriction caused the German attack to falter.
The Luftwaffe had been able to fly several thousand sorties over the Ardennes region in December, but its encounters with the RAF and USAAF had meant heavy losses in aircraft and pilots. In the eight days between 17 and 27 December when flight operations were possible, for example, the Germans lost 644 fighters and had another 227 damaged, and pilot losses were 322 dead, 23 taken prisoner and 133 wounded.
It was in September 1944 that Hitler decided to recover Germany’s fortunes by launching an offensive to the west, and on 16 September he directed General Werner Kreipe, the chief-of-staff of the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe, to prepare the air strength which would be needed for the offensive. On 21 October Kreipe ordered Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen Stumpff’s Luftflotte ‘Reich’, responsible for the air defence of Germany, to transfer seven Jagdgeschwadern and Schlachtgeschwadern (fighter ground and air support wings) to Generalleutnant Alexander Holle’s (from 16 November Generalleutnant Josef Schmid’s) Luftwaffenkommando ‘West’ for the offensive. On 14 November Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, ordered Generalmajor Max-Josef Ibel’s 2nd Jagddivision and Generalmajor Walter Grabmann’s 3rd Jagddivision to prepare their units for a major ground-attack operation in the Ardennes, with preparations to be completed by 27 November for an attack to be carried out on the first day of ‘Wacht am Rhein’.
The task of planning the attack was allocated to Generalleutnant Dietrich Peltz, who was appointed commander of the II Fliegerkorps on 8 December. The Luftwaffenkommando ‘West’ had ordered the local unit commanders except Oberstleutnant Walther Dahl of Jagdgeschwader 300 and Oberstleutnant Fritz Aufhammer of Jagdgeschwader 301 to attend the main planning meeting at Flammersfeld on 5 December.
On 14 December Peltz officially initiated plans for a major blow against the Allied air strength in North-West Europe. Not a fighter pilot, Peltz had gained his operational experience in dive-bombers, and his experience in the Polish, French and first stages of the Soviet campaigns had made him a very capable ground-attack specialist and thus an ideal selection to plan ‘Bodenplatte’. On 15 December, the concept was developed into an operational plan with the help of the Luftwaffe’s Jagdgeschwaderkommodoren, among them Oberst Gotthard Handrick (Jagdabschnittsführer ‘Mittelrhein’), Grabmann of the 3rd Jagddivision and Generalmajor Karl Hentschell, commander of the 5th Jagddivision. As originally conceived, ‘Bodenplatte’ was to have supported ‘Wacht am Rhein’ from the following day, but the same dire weather conditions which prevented the RAF and USAAF from providing air support for the hard-pressed Allied ground forces also made it impossible to begin ‘Bodenplatte’, which was finally launched only on 1 January 1945. By this time the German ground forces had lost the initiative in the land battle as a result of Allied resistance and an improvement in the weather which allowed the Allied air forces to operate once more.
‘Bodenplatte’ was based on surprise attacks on 27 Allied air bases in Belgium, the Netherlands and France with the object destroying or severely damaging as many runways, hangars and Allied aircraft as possible. The targets for the German attack included Antwerp-Deurne in Belgium, Asch in Belgium, Brussels-Evère in Belgium, Brussels-Grimbergen in Belgium, Brussels-Melsbroek in Belgium, Eindhoven in the Netherlands, Ghent/Sint-Denijs-Westrem in Belgium, Gilze-Rijen in the Netherlands, Heesch in the Netherlands, Le Culot in Belgium, Maldegem in Belgium, Metz-Frescaty in France, Ophoven in Belgium, Sint-Truiden in Belgium, Ursel in Belgium, Volkel in the Netherlands and Woensdrecht in the Netherlands.
Every fighter and fighter-bomber Geschwader currently occupied with air defence along the Western Front was redeployed for the undertaking, and Kampfgeschwadern and Nachtjagdgeschwadern (bomber and night fighter wings) provided small numbers of multi-engined aircraft as pathfinders for the single-seater attack elements, which comprised mostly single-engined Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighters armed with cannon, machine gun and bombs.
An egregious blunder right from the start of the planning process was the routing of many of the German units over some of the most heavily defended areas on the continent, namely the V-2 ballistic missile launch sites around The Hague. These sites were protected by large numbers of German anti-aircraft artillery units. Some of these were not warned at all about the forthcoming operations, and others were warned but then not updated about the changing timetables and routes of the German formations. As a result many of the German fighter units lost aircraft to ‘friendly fire’ even before they reached their target areas.
At the beginning of 1945 Schmid’s Luftwaffenkommando ‘West’ controlled 267 heavy and 277 medium or light anti-aircraft batteries, and in addition to this there were 100 German naval anti-aircraft batteries along the Dutch coast. The path of most of the attacking forces lay in the sector of Generalmajor Friedrich-Wilhelm Deutsch’s 16th Flakdivision, which had its control station at Doetinchem some 15 miles (24 km) to the east of Arnhem.
After five years of war and heavy attrition, many of the more recently qualified Luftwaffe pilots had emerged from a distinctly truncated training programme, and in general lacked all but the basic flying skills and were, moreover, poor marksmen in both air-to-air and air-to-surface gunnery. This too was the result of a lack of fuel, which curtailed the number of hours trainees were allowed in the air, a lack of experienced instructors, and the fact that many instructors and their better pupils were forced to fly front-line operations to bolster the front-line Jagdgeschwadern. Allied long-range fighters exacerbated this situation by shooting down many training aircraft, and by a time late in 1944 there were no areas in which German pilots could be trained without the possibility of coming under air attack. Allied personnel who witnessed the attacks frequently remarked on the poor marksmanship of the strafing aircraft, and many Luftwaffe aircraft succumbed to Allied anti-aircraft as they were flying too high and too slowly.
The ‘Bodenplatte’ plan called for the units to maintain strict radio silence and secrecy in order to maintain surprise. Maps were also only half complete, identified only Allied installations, and were bereft of flight paths lest any of these documents fall into the hands of the Allies, thereby making it possible for them to back-trace the locations of German fighter bases. Most commanders were also refused permission to brief their pilots until the last moments before take-off. Inevitably, the result was a major degree of tactical confusion as commanders were able to convey only the barest essentials of the plan. When the operation started, many German pilots still did not understand the nature and objective of the operation, or even what exactly was required of them. Many of the pilots believed that the operation was merely a reconnaissance in force over the front, and were happy to follow their flight leaders on this basis.
The British and dominion bases (with the type of warplane based on each) which the Germans attacked were Deurne (Hawker Typhoon, Supermarine Spitfire and North American Mustang fighters) to be attacked by JG 77, Brussels-Evère (Spitfire fighters) to be attacked by JG 26 and JG 54, Brussels-Melsbroek (North American Mitchell medium bombers) to be attacked by JG 27 and JG 54, Eindhoven (Typhoon and Spitfire fighters) to be attacked by JG 3, Ghent/Sint-Denijs-Westrem (Spitfire fighters) to be attacked by JG 1, Gilze-en-Rijen (Spitfire and Mustang fighters) to be attacked by KG 51 and JG 3, Heesch (Spitfire fighters) to be attacked by JG 53, Maldegem (Spitfire fighters) to be attacked by JG 1, Metz-Frescaty (Republic Thunderbolt fighters) to be attacked by JG 53, Ophoven (Spitfire fighters) to be attacked by JG 4, Volkel (Typhoon and Hawker Tempest fighters) to be attacked by JG 6, Woensdrecht (Spitfire fighters) to be attacked by JG 77 and Ursel (de Havilland Mosquito multi-role warplanes and Avro Lancaster bombers) to be attacked by JG 1.
The US bases (sometimes shared with the British and with the type of warplane based on each) were Asch (Republic P-47 Thunderbolt and North American P-51 Mustang fighters) to be attacked by JG 11, Brussels-Evère (Spitfire fighters) to be attacked by JG 26 and JG 54, Brussels-Grimbergen (Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers and P-51 Mustang fighters) to be attacked by JG 26 and JG 54, Le Culot (Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighters) to be attacked by JG 4, Metz-Frescaty (P-47 Thunderbolt fighters) to be attacked by JG 53 and Sint-Truiden (P-47 Thunderbolt fighters) to be attacked by SG 4 and JG 2.
It is not clear whether or not some of these bases were deliberately targeted, and there is indeed evidence that Brussels-Grimbergen, Heesch and Ophoven were targeted in error.
In all, the Luftwaffe deployed 1,035 aircraft from several Jagdgeschwadern fighter, Kampfgeschwadern bomber, Nachtjadggeschwadern night fighter and Schlachtgeschwadern ground-attack wings. Of the fighter aircraft, 38.5% were Bf 109 machines, 38.5% were Fw 190A machines and 23% were Fw 190D machines.
After ‘Bodenplatte’, the Allies retrieved log-books from several crashed German aircraft. In several of these, the entry Auftrag Hermann 1.1. 1945, Zeit: 9.20 Uhr came to be translated as ‘Operation Hermann to start on 1 January 1945 at 09.20’, and this led the Allies to believe that the operation itself was named ‘Hermann’ for Göring, though in fact what it gave was the exact date and time of the attack. Four other codewords associated with ‘Bodenplatte’ were ‘Varus’ to indicate that the operation was to proceed and that would take place within 24 hours of the ‘Varus’ order being given, ‘Teutonicus’ to indicate permission to brief the pilots and to arrange for aircraft to be armed and readied at the edge of the relevant airfield, ‘Dorothea’ to indicate a delay in the attack, and ‘Spätlese’ to cancel the undertaking after the attacking formations had taken off.
‘Ultra’ intelligence based on the decrypts of German radio transmissions had recorded the movement and build-up of the German air forces in the region, but this had not led to an assessment that a major air operation was imminent. Allied intelligence failed to detect the German undertaking, and in ‘Ultra’ transcripts there are only a few indications of what was happening on the other side of the front. On 4 December 1944, Peltz’s II Jagdkorps had ordered the stockpiling of navigational aids such as ‘golden rain’ flares and smoke bombs, but Allied intelligence made no written observations about the significance of this communication. It also disregarded communications to Junkers Ju 88 groups regarding the use of flares when leading formations. Intelligence concluded that these instructions were designed for a ground-support mission rather than an interception undertaking, and while this was a reasonable assumption it appended no indications of the possible ground targets were. On 20 December, a 3rd Jagddivision signal was intercepted, and this confirmed the fact that the locations for emergency landing grounds during a ‘special undertaking’ remained unchanged. This was a clear indication that something was afoot, but Allied intelligence again did not comment on it. It also ignored more messages indicating that low-level attacks were being practised. By 16 December Allied intelligence had monitored the relocation of both German army and air force formations opposite the US-held front in the Ardennes, yet no major German effort was suspected.
Oberstleutnant Herbert Ihlefeld’s JG 1 was responsible for the attack on Ursel and Maldegem airfields. JG 1 flew a mixed complement of fighters: the Stabschwarm (headquarters flight), Hauptmann Georg Hackbarth’s I/JG 1 and Oberleutnant Fritz Wegner’s II/JG 1 had the Fw 190 while Hauptmann Harald Moldenhauer’s III/JG 1 had the Bf 109. I/JG 1 lost four of their number in ‘friendly fire’ incidents, three of the four pilots being killed. The attacks at Maldegem and Ursel began at 08.30. Both I/JG 1 and II/JG 1 became involved in intense dogfights. III/JG 1 lost only one aeroplane over the target, but not to British fire. I/JG 1lost another Fw 190 to ‘friendly fire’ as it made its way to Ursel. III/JG 1 lost at least two more Fw 190 fighters to ‘friendly fire’. The German losses might well have been heavier but for the fact that the British anti-aircraft defences of Maldegem airfield had been removed in December.
The Stabschwarm/JG 1 and I/JG 1 lost 13 Fw 190 fighters and nine pilots were missing (five killed and four captured). Thus the loss rates in personnel and matériel were 39% and 56% respectively. III/JG 1 lost only three Bf 109 fighters with one pilot dead and two captured. I/JG 1 claimed 30 Spitfire fighters destroyed on the ground and two shot down over Maldegem.
At Maldegem the Germans destroyed 16 aircraft, and at Ursel only six. The claims of I/JG 1 were actually more in line with British total losses at both Maldegem and Ursel. Group Captain P. R. Walker’s No. 135 Wing lost 13 Spitfire fighters destroyed and two damaged beyond repair. At Ursel, six aircraft were destroyed, including one B-17, two Lancaster and one Mosquito aircraft. I/JG 1 and III/JG 1 lost a total of 16 aircraft and 12 pilots. II/JG 1 attacked the airfield at Ghent/Sint-Denijs-Westrem. Of its 36 Fw 190 fighters, were shot down for a 47% loss rate, and several experienced pilot were killed. In exchange, the Gruppe shot down two Spitfire fighters, and seven other force-landed. At Ghent/Sint-Denijs-Westrem 18 Spitfire fighters were destroyed on the ground.
Altogether JG 1 lost 25 pilots and 29 aircraft, and for the destruction of about 60 Allied aircraft (54 of them on the ground) this cannot be seen as a genuinely worthwhile success, although the damage inflicted at Ghent/Sint-Denijs-Westrem and Maldegem had been significant. Just nine of the fighters lost by JG 1 were confirmed as combat victims of Spitfire fighters, although it is possible that another three more were shot down by Spitfire fighters or perhaps by anti-aircraft fire. Only two Spitfire fighters were shot down and destroyed, with another two damaged, and Nos 308 and 317 Squadrons each lost one pilot killed. The total Spitfire losses were perhaps as high as 32.
Oberst Alfred Druschel’s Schlachtgeschwader 4 and Oberstleutnant Kurt Bühligen’s JG 2 attacked Sint-Truiden. The ground crews of Major Walter Matoni’s I/JG 2 had managed to make available 35 out of a possible 46 Fw 190 fighters, of which 29 were of the Fw 190D variant, but only 33 pilots were fit for operations. Hauptmann Georg Schroder’s II/JG 2 could field 20 of a possible 29 Bf 109 fighters. The Stabschwarm/JG 2 had three Fw 190 fighters ready for the mission. It is uncertain whether or not Bühligen took part in the mission. Hauptmann Siegfried Lemke’s III/JG 2 reported 40 Fw 190 fighters operational, 34 of them of the Fw 190D variant, but only 28 of unit’s 43 pilots were fit for operations, and the formation therefore fielded only 28 fighters. In total, JG 2 had 84 aircraft ready on 31 December, this total including 28 Fw 190D-9 fighters.
SG 4 had 152 aircraft on strength, of which just 60 were operational, and 129 pilots fit for action. The Stabschwarm/SG 4 had three Fw 190 machines and two pilots. Major Dorbäck’s I/SG 4 had 21 Fw 190 machines operational and 27 pilots fit to fly. Major Gerhard Weyert’s II/SG 4 had 27 Fw 190 machines operational, but its pilot strength is unknown. III/SG 4 had 24 Fw 190 aircraft, but only 16 of these were available at the forward airfields, and its pilot strength is unknown. Thus SG 4 had about 55 operational Fw 190 aircraft.
At 09.12 JG 2 crossed the front line at Malmédy and was targeted by a huge volume of Allied anti-aircraft fire as this entire area had been the scene of heavy fighting and had also had been attacked by V-1 cruise and V-2 ballistic missiles. I/JG 2 lost at least seven fighters, II/JG 2 seven fighters and III/JG 2 10 fighters to anti-aircraft fire. JG 2 attacked Asch and Ophoven airfields by mistake, and the Geschwader’s whole mission proved disastrous. I/JG 2 lost 18 Fw 190 fighters, and another six were damaged by anti-aircraft fire and in air combat, this representing 73% of the unit’s committed strength. Of the 15 pilots reported as missing, only six survived to be taken prisoner. II/JG 2 lost five Bf 109 fighters and had another three damaged for a loss rate of 40%, and its pilot losses were three missing, one dead and one wounded. III/JG 2 lost 19 Fw 190 fighters and had another three damaged for a loss rate of 79%, and its casualties were nine pilots killed, two wounded and four taken prisoner. According to another source, JG 2’s losses amounted to 40% of its force, with 24 pilots killed or posted missing, four wounded and 10 taken prisoner. Yet another source claims that the pilot losses were 23 killed or missing.
Just as disastrous was the mission of SG 4. As it assembled, it flew across JG 11’s flight path, its formation was broken up, and some of its pilots joined JG 11 in the confusion. Unable to re-establish their cohesion, Dörnback’s I/SG 4 and Weyert’s II/SG 4 decided to turn back. Druschel, the Geschwaderkommodore, continued with five pilots of III/SG 4 who had lost contact with their own Gruppe. These six aircraft crossed the front near Hürtgenwald at about 09.10, and as they did so US anti-aircraft batteries opened fire on them, claiming seven aircraft in the next 30 minutes. Only six of SG 4’s 50 Fw 190 machines carried out an attack on airfields near Aachen and also on the airfield at Asch aerodrome. Of these six aircraft, four did not return, and Druschel himself was reported missing.
The objective of Oberstleutnant Johann Kogler’s JG 6 was Volkel. Hauptmann Willi Elstermann’s I/JG 6 and Major Helmut Kühle’s III/JG 6 were to deliver the attack on ground targets while Hauptmann Johannes Naumann’s II/JG 6 provided cover against Allied fighters. I/JG 6 had 29 of its 34 Fw 190 aircraft available, and II/JG 6 got 25 aircraft into the air. In overall terms, most of the 99 Fw 190 fighters on strength were made available for the operation, but only 78 of the aircraft took off. III/JG 6 received orders to target only petrol installations on the airfield. En route to the target area, JG 6 approached the airfield at Heesch, and some of the pilots assumed this to be Volkel airfield. (It is not likely that the airstrip at Heesch, which had been built in October 1944, was known to the Luftwaffe.) Heesch was the location of Group Captain G. R. McGregor’s No. 126 Wing (RCAF), which had despatched its Nos 411 and 442 Squadrons on reconnaissance missions early on that morning, so the majority of the wing’s aircraft were airborne, while No. 401 Squadron was on the ground but preparing for take-off when JG 6 appeared at 09.15.
Most of the German pilots had failed to notice the airfield as they were concentrating on keeping formation at low altitude. No. 401 Squadron scrambled, and some of the German fighters were authorised to engage while the main body continued to search for Volkel. At Helmond the Stabschwarm/JG 6 and II/JG 6 stumbled on another airstrip, which currently had no aircraft on the ground. Some of the German pilots believed this to be Volkel and attacked, losing several of their number to anti-aircraft fire. II/JG 6 suffered severe losses at the hands of the Spitfire and Tempest fighters based at Helmond, and inflicted very little damage on Heesch and Helmond. Thus all four Gruppen failed to find Volkel, whose Tempest fighters remained untouched. The only success gained by JG 6 was I/JG 6’s erroneous attack on Eindhoven, which claimed 33 fighters and six medium bombers. Like Volkel, Helmond and Heesch had escaped damage. In dogfights over Helmond, JG 6 claimed six kills, but in fact only two Spitfire fighters were shot down and one badly damaged. Only one other fighter, a Typhoon, was shot down. Of I/JG 6’s 29 Fw 190 aircraft, seven were lost and two damaged; of II/JG 6’s 25 Fw 190 aircraft, eight were destroyed and two damaged; and of III/JG 6’s 20 Bf 109 aircraft, 12 were lost. In total, therefore, JG 6 lost 43% of its strength and suffered 16 pilots killed or missing and seven captured. As well as the Geschwaderkommodore, JG 6 lost two of its three Gruppenkommandeure and three Staffelkapitäne.
Deurne was the airfield to be attacked by Major Siegfried Freytag’s JG 77, and was one of the complex of bases round Antwerp that accommodated the largest Allied air power contingent, totalling nine squadrons. This key strategic area had been under incessant attack by V-1 and V-2 missiles, and given the threat posed by the former had been provided with notably powerful anti-aircraft defences.
At 08.00, two formations of 18 Bf 109 aircraft of Major Münnichow’s I/JG 77 and Major Armin Köhler’s III/JG 77 lifted off with their pathfinders, and at the same time 23 Bf 109 aircraft of Major Siegfried Freytag’s II/JG 77 took off. These Gruppen met and came into formation in the area of Bocholt. Heading south and still to the north of Antwerp, JG 77 passed over Woensdrecht airfield, which currently accommodated Lieutenant Colonel H. Mehre’s No. 132 Wing (Norwegian) and its five Spitfire units, namely No. 331 Squadron (British), No. 332 Squadron RAF (Norwegian), Nos 66 and 127 Squadrons (British) and No. 322 Squadron (Dutch). Some pilots of II/JG 77 either believed mistakenly that they were near Antwerp, or thought that the opportunity thus presented was too good to ignore. Two German fighters were claimed shot down and one pilot captured, but none of JG 77’s casualties fit this description.
The main body of JG 77 continued toward Antwerp, and between 12 and 30 German fighters attacked Deurne airfield between 09.25 and 09.40. The anti-aircraft defences were on full alert and the Germans attacked in a disorganised manner. Group Captain T. L. B. McGuinness’s No. 145 Wing was missed completely and, despite the large number of targets available, the destruction inflicted by the German aircraft was light: just 12 Spitfire aircraft were destroyed. In total, 14 Allied aircraft were destroyed and nine damaged. JG 77 lost 11 Bf 109 fighters and their pilots: of these latter six were killed and five were captured, according to Allied sources, but German records show the loss of only 10 pilots, of whom four were listed as captured.
Oberstleutnant Helmut Bennemann’s JG 53 was entrusted with the attack on the airfield at Metz-Frescaty currently used by the USAAF, and its units involved were the Stabschwarm/JG 53, Major Julius Meimberg’s II/JG 53, Hauptmann Franz Götz’s III/JG 53 and Hauptmann Friedrich Müer’s IV/JG 53. III/JG 53 was to destroy the anti-aircraft installations in the area of Metz, and the other Gruppen were to attack the airfield. The USAAF’s XIX Tactical Air Command had established a strong presence in north-eastern France and was supporting Lieutenant General George S. Patton’s US 3rd Army of Bradley’s US 12th Army Group, and JG 53 was to knock out the airfields from which this army received its air support. Some 26 Bf 109 aircraft took off, but these were intercepted by 12 P-47 fighters of the 367th Fighter Squadron of Colonel James T. Tipton’s 358th Fighter Group. The P-47 pilots claimed 13 German aircraft destroyed, one probably destroyed and six damaged for no losses. On the way home at 09.20, III/JG 53 was intercepted by the same group’s 366th Fighter Squadron. In total, III/JG 53 lost 10 Bf 109 fighters to the 358th Fighter Group, and had an eleventh aeroplane damaged. Of the 25 Bf 109 fighters of III/JG 53 committed to ‘Bodenplatte’, 11 were shot down, representing 40% of the attacking force.
Although III/JG 53 failed in its attack, JG 53’s main attack was a comparative success. The Stabschwarm/JG 53, II/JG 53 and IV/JG 53 met no opposition on the outward part of their flight, and the Germans then inflicted significant damage on the US fighters parked on the airfield. The JG 53 units involved reported the loss of 20 Bf 109 fighters and damage to another seven aircraft, this representing almost 50% of the 52 attacking fighters. Some 13 pilots were missing: three had been killed, six were missing, and four were taken prisoner; another three pilots had been were wounded. In return, JG 53 claimed 27 US fighters destroyed on the ground and another eight damaged, and a further four US fighters shot down in air combat. In total JG 53 had lost 30 Bf 109 fighters and had another eight damaged in the two parts of its operation, this representing a loss rate of 48%. The USAAF’s actual losses were 22 P-47 aircraft destroyed and 11 damaged.
The airfield at Le Culot was 28 miles (45 km) to the north-east of Charleroi, and was the target of Oberstleutnant Gerhard Michalski’s JG 4. The main airstrip was known locally as Beauvechain, and an auxiliary field, known as Le Culot East but called Burettes by the local population, lay nearby. It was known to the Luftwaffe because several of its units had operated there.
Of JG 4’s strength, five aircraft were shot down by anti-aircraft fire, and another, whose pilot had became lost, reached the Eindhoven area, and was then shot down, the pilot being killed. The remaining eight to 10 fighters of Hauptmann Ernst Laube’s IV/JG 4 continued toward their target and, after another 10 minutes, located a fairly large airfield and attacked what they believed to be Le Culot but was in fact the nearby Sint-Truiden which was currently the home of Lieutenant Colonel Harold L. McNeely’s 48th Fighter Group and Lieutenant Colonel Leo C. Moon’s 404th Fighter Group. The 492nd Fighter Squadron was readying to take off at 09.20 as JG 4 attacked at 09.15. Several taxiing P-47 fighters were abandoned by pilots and strafed to destruction, and thus JG 4’s small attack achieved considerable damage inasmuch as the total US losses were 10 aircraft destroyed and 31 damaged, whereas the Germans lost eight aircraft (including seven Bf 109 fighters) and three damaged. No damage was inflicted on Le Culot airfield.
Major Rudolf Schröder’s II (Sturm)/JG 4 took off for Le Culot at 08.08 but became lost and stumbled on Asch airfield, where the Germans claimed one P-47 destroyed and two twin-engined aircraft damaged, as well as two trains and a number of trucks destroyed. The unit also claimed one Auster single-engined liaison and battlefield reconnaissance aeroplane shot down, although this machine was probably a Stinson L-1 Vigilant of the US Army’s 125th Liaison Squadron. However, nearly the entire Gruppe of 17 Fw 190 warplanes was lost.
Hauptmann Wilhelm Steinmann’s I/JG 4 and Hauptmann Friedrich Eberle’s III/JG 4 were to attack Le Culot simultaneously and, taking off at 08.20 and heading to the north-west, comprised 35 Bf 109 machines including nine from III/JG 4. Two Ju 88G-1 pathfinders of Major Friedrich Schwab’s II/NJG 101 led the force. Some of I/JG 4’s aircraft attacked the Spitfire fighters of Group Captain F. D. S’ Scott-Malden’s No. 125 Wing on Ophoven airfield with unknown results, and also destroyed two P-47 and one B-17 machines. I/JG 4 reported two Bf 109 aircraft missing, one damaged and one destroyed in return for one hangar, one P-47 and several vehicles claimed as destroyed, as well as the anti-aircraft battery. The attack on the Spitfire fighters at Ophoven and the destruction of one B-17 and two P-47 fighters are not included in this total. Another source suggests two Spitfire fighters destroyed and 10 damaged at Ophoven. According to one source, JG 4’s losses were 25 out of the 55 fighters involved, and with 17 pilots killed or missing and seven captured, JG 4 suffered a 42% loss rate. A more modern source claims that JG 4 committed 75 aircraft, of which a mere 12 attacked ground targets. Two Ju 88 pathfinders were lost, as well as 26 fighters with six more damaged.
The airfield at Asch had been constructed in November 1944 and was currently the home of Colonel James D. Mayden’s 352nd Fighter Group of Lieutenant General James H. Doolittle’s 8th AAF and Colonel Harald N. Holt’s 366th Fighter Group of Vandenberg’s 9th AAF. Major Günther Specht’s JG 11 was entrusted with the destruction of this airfield. Hauptmann Rüdiger Kirchmayr’s I/JG 11 had only 16 Fw 190 fighters on strength and a mere six operational pilots, who were committed alongside the four pilots of the Stabschwarm/JG 11. Hauptmann Horst-Günther von Fassong’s III/JG 11 also had more aircraft than pilots, so pilots from other Staffeln made up the numbers. Thus only 41 Fw 190 fighters of JG 11 took part in ‘Bodenplatte’, in the form of four from the Stabschwarm/JG 11, six from I/JG 11 and 31 from III/JG 11. The 20 fighters of II/JG 11 were Bf 109 machines. The German plan called for a low-level attack by I/JG 11 and III/JG 11 while II/JG 11 operated as cover against intervention by US fighters. The pilots were shown maps and photographs of the airfield they were to attack, but were not told the target’s identity until the morning of ‘Bodenplatte’. As they crossed the Allied line, four fighters were lost to anti-aircraft fire. Its course took JG 11 straight over Ophoven, which a sizeable proportion of JG 11 attacked in the mistaken belief that it was Asch. The other aircraft continued to Asch. Located just 3.1 miles (5 km) to the north of Asch, Ophoven housed No. 125 Wing, and was attacked by about half (some 30 Fw 190 and Bf 109 fighters) of JG 11.
Asch was notable for a chance event. The 390th Fighter Squadron of the 366th Fighter Group had launched two fighter sweeps that morning, and this played a crucial part in the failure of JG 11’s attack. Major John C. Meyer, the commander of the 352nd Fighter Group’s 487th Fighter Squadron, had foreseen major German air activity and had 12 P-51 fighters about to take off on a combat patrol when the attack began, and these all took off under fire. Several pilots became ‘aces’ during the day. No P-51 aircraft were lost, while two were damaged in the air and one on the ground. The 336th Fighter Group lost one P-47. The 366th Fighter Group was credited with eight ‘kills’ and the anti-aircraft guns claimed another seven aircraft, but, as was always the case, overclaiming was likely. Luftwaffe records indicate that JG 11 lost 28 fighters: four pilots (two of them wounded) made it back to German-held territory, four were captured and the other 20 were killed. Some 24 Bf 109 and Fw 190 fighters were lost over Allied territory, and among the Germans killed was Specht, an ‘ace’ with 34 victories.
Little is known about the claims of JG 11. According to one German document, 13 fighters, two twin-engined and one four-engined aircraft were claimed as destroyed. Five fighters were claimed damaged on the airfield at ‘Glabbeek’ (actually Ophoven). Ten aerial victories and one probable were also claimed. But US figures indicate that these claims were excessive. The Americans claimed 35 kills, but only 14 of these can be judged with a degree of certainty to have been shot down by USAAF fighters, with two more as possibles. Four aircraft were confirmed to have been shot down by anti-aircraft fire. JG 11’s total losses were 28 aircraft.
Oberst Josef Priller’s JG 26 and Hauptmann Robert Weiss’s III/JG 54 were to strike at Brussels-Evère and Brussels-Grimbergen. At the end of December Major Anton Hackl’s II/JG 26 had 39 Fw 190D-9 fighters and Hauptmann Walter Krupinski’s III/JG 26 had 45 Bf 109 fighters, and records suggest that JG 26 put 110 aircraft into the air on 1 January, 81 of these being Fw 190 aircraft and 29 being Bf 109 aircraft. Some 17 Fw 190 fighters of III/JG 54 took part with JG 26.
Unknown to the Germans, Brussels-Grimbergen was almost completely devoid of aircraft while Brussels-Evère, located slightly farther to the south, was one of the most densely populated airfields in Belgium and thus had many targets for German attack. The main Allied strength was the 60 Spitfire F.Mk 16 fighters of Group Captain W. R. MacBrien’s No. 127 Wing (RCAF), although there were also some Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress and Consolidated B-24 Liberator four-engined heavy bombers of the US 8th AAF. In overall terms, therefore, there were well over 100 aircraft on the airfield.
It was at 08.13 that the first German formation lifted off and set course: in total, 64 Fw 190D-9 fighters were involved. Before the target was reached, however, some 14 of the German fighters had been forced to turn back as a result of mechanical problems or damage inflicted by anti-aircraft fire, and three more Fw 190 fighters were also lost to ‘friendly’ anti-aircraft fire. At 09.10, when the German fighters reached the front line, Allied heavy anti-aircraft units began to engage the formation, and another five fighters were shot down: the greatest weight of fire was generated by British naval batteries defending the Scheldt estuary and thus the maritime approaches to Antwerp. As the German formation crossed the area of the Dutch and Belgian border, Major Karl Borris’s I/JG 26 and Krupinski’s III/JG 54 were intercepted by Spitfire fighters, which shot down five of the Fw 190 aircraft. I/JG 26 destroyed or damaged the few aircraft left on the airfield, but the anti-aircraft defences claimed five ‘kills’ and I/JG 26 reported two Fw 190 fighters lost to Spitfire attack. Several other fighters were lost over the airfield, and other losses resulted from ‘friendly fire’ on the return flight. The raid was a disaster. The Germans destroyed just six aircraft at Brussels-Grimbergen for the loss of 21 Fw 190 fighters and another two severely damaged and eight less severely damaged. Some 17 pilots were missing, of whom eight were taken prisoner.
Between 44 and 52 Fw 190 fighters of Hackl’s II/JG 26 and Krupinski’s III/JG 26 took off to attack Brussels-Evère. The German fighters knocked out the anti-aircraft positions and destroyed anything combustible: hangars, trucks, fuel dumps and aircraft. No. 127 Wing lost one Spitfire in the air and 11 on the ground, and other losses were 11 vehicles damaged and one destroyed. In all, some 60 or 61 Allied aircraft were destroyed at Brussels-Evère. Many transport aircraft were located there and these were attractive targets for the German pilots, who therefore left many more Spitfire machines undamaged. Given the number of Spitfire fighters on the field, the Canadian wing suffered what were seen as ‘low’ losses, and Johnson attributed much of the Germans’ relative failure on the poor standard of the German pilots’ marksmanship. The Allied losses at Brussels-Evère were 32 fighters, 22 twin-engined aircraft and 13 four-engined aircraft destroyed, and nine single-engined, six twin-engined and one four-engine aircraft damaged. II/JG 26’s losses included 13 Fw 190 fighters destroyed and two damaged. Nine pilots were lost, five being killed and the other four taken prisoner. III/JG 26 lost six Bf 109 fighters and four pilots (three killed and one taken prisoner). Thus the attack on Brussels-Evère can be seen only as a German tactical success.
Major Ludwig Franzisket’s JG 27, together with Hauptmann Rudolf Klemm’s IV/JG 54, was allocated Brussels-Melsbroek airfield as its target. On 31 December JG 27 could muster only the following operational pilots (aircraft): 22 (22) in Hauptmann Eberhard Schade’s I/JG27, 19 (13) in Hauptmann Gerhard Hoyer’s II/JG 27, 13 (15) in Hauptmann Dr Peter Werfft’s III/JG 27 and 16 (17) in Hauptmann Hanns-Heinz Dudeck’s IV/JG 27. The IV Gruppe of Oberst Dieter Hrabak’s JG 54 had only recently been rebuilt, and had just 21 pilots for the 15 of its 23 Fw 190s which were operational. Altogether 28 Bf 109 aircraft of JG 27 and 15 Fw 190 aircraft of JG 54 took off for ‘Bodenplatte’, and of these seven were lost to Allied aircraft and ‘friendly’ anti-aircraft fire before they reached the target.
The Germans struck Brussels-Melsbroek hard. According to the leader of III/JG 27, the Allied anti-aircraft positions were unmanned and the aircraft were bunched together or arranged in rows, which made them perfect targets. The attack was very successful, and caused considerable damage among the units based there: the reconnaissance element lost the equivalent of two squadrons of aircraft, No. 69 Squadron lost 11 Vickers Wellington bombers as well as two more damaged; possibly all of No. 140 Squadron’s Mosquito warplanes were lost; at least five of No. 16 Squadron’s Spitfire fighters were destroyed; No. 271 Squadron lost at least seven Handley Page Harrow transports; another 15 miscellaneous aircraft were destroyed; Group Captain C. R. Dunlop’s No. 139 Wing reported five B-25 bombers destroyed and another five damaged; and some 15 to 20 USAAF bombers were also destroyed. Another source avers that that 13 Wellington bombers were destroyed, as well as five Mosquito warplanes, four Auster liaison aircraft and five Avro Anson light transport and communications aircraft. Three Spitfire fighters were also lost and another two damaged. At least one Douglas Dakota transport of RAF Transport Command was destroyed.
The pilots of JG 27 and JG 54 claimed 85 aircraft destroyed and 40 damaged, and German reconnaissance was able to confirm that 49 aircraft had indeed been destroyed. JG 27 suffered acceptable losses, in the form of 17 Bf 109 aircraft shot down, 11 pilots killed, one wounded and three taken prisoner. IV/JG 54 lost two pilots killed and one taken prisoner, and its matériel losses were three Fw 190s shot down and one damaged.
Major Heinrich Bär’s JG 3 and Major Wolfgang Schenk’s KG 51 were allocated the task of destroying the Allied units at Eindhoven and Gilze-Rijen, where there were eight squadrons (three with the Spitfire and eight with the Typhoon). For this task some 22 Bf 109 fighters of Oberleutnant Alfred Seidel’s I/JG 3 took off, together with four aircraft of the Stabschwarm/JG 3, 15 of Major Karl-Heinz Langer’s III/JG 3 and 19 Fw 190 fighters of Hauptmann Hubert-York Weydenhammer’s IV/JG 3. KG 51 contributed some 21 of its 30 Messerschmitt Me 262 turbojet-powered aircraft. Some histories mistakenly include KG 76 in the order of battle for this undertaking. Each Staffel was expected to make at least three firing passes.
After taking off, I/JG 3 joined the leading unit, IV (Sturm)/JG 3, with III/JG 3 following. The Geschwader’s Bf 109 and Fw 190 aircraft reached the target area at about 09.20, and Bär led the attack. Some pilots in fact made four passes, and the attack destroyed anti-aircraft positions, fuel storage facilities and vehicles. There were almost 300 aircraft of the British and Canadian squadrons in the target area, which also held great equipment stores and fuel dumps, and the attack caused fires all over the airfield.
JG 3 claimed the destruction on the ground of 53 single-engined and 11 twin-engined aircraft, and also damage to five fighters and one four-engined heavy bomber, and additionally claimed to have shot down four Typhoon, three Spitfire, one Tempest and another unidentified aircraft in air combat. In overall terms, JG 3 managed to destroy 43 aircraft according to British records, and damage another 60, some of them severely. JG 3 believed that it had destroyed 116 aircraft. The Geschwader did not come away unscathed, however, for I/JG 3 lost nine of its aircraft and pilots, a 50% loss rate, and damage to the aircraft which did return meant that the Gruppe was unserviceable; British anti-aircraft fire was credited with shooting down five of the German aircraft. In total, JG 3 lost 15 of the 60 fighters it despatched, representing a 25% loss rate. Some 15 pilots were missing: nine were killed, five taken prisoner, and one posted missing. Another source says that the Geschwader lost 16 pilots as 10 killed or missing and six taken prisoner.
The damage done at Eindhoven was significant, and can be considered a victory for JG 3, which was aided by elements of JG 6 which had misidentified Eindhoven as one their targets. The greatest losses were among the reconnaissance squadrons and Group Captain C. L. Green’s No. 124 Wing (RCAF), which lost 24 aircraft destroyed or damaged. The visiting aircraft of Group Captain E. H. G. Moncrief’s No. 39 (Reconnaissance) Wing lost 30 machines destroyed or damaged, and Group Captain P. Y. Davoud’s No. 143 Wing (RCAF) lost 29 aircraft destroyed or damaged. It is probably that JG 3 was responsible for about 67% of the damage. Another source gives the British and Canadian losses as 47 aircraft destroyed and 43 damaged.
The results of ‘Bodenplatte’ are difficult to judge given the confusion over loss records on each side, especially as it is likely that more aircraft were destroyed than listed. The Americans did not keep a full record of their losses, and it appears that the 8th AAF’s losses were not included in loss totals. When estimates are added to the admitted losses, it seems probably that the Allied losses were 232 aircraft destroyed (143 single-engined, 74 twin-engined and 15 four-engined machines) and 156 aircraft damaged (139 single-engined, 12 twin-engined and five four-engined machines). Research into individual squadron records confirms the destruction of still more US aircraft, suggesting at least another 16 B-17, 14 B-24, eight P-51 and at least two P-47 machines destroyed. Thus loss figures of 290 aircraft destroyed and 180 aircraft damaged seems a more realistic overall assessment than the conservative figures given by the RAF, RCAF and USAAF. And when the 15 Allied aircraft shot down and 10 damaged in aerial combat are added to those destroyed or damaged on the ground, the overall totals are in the order of 305 aircraft destroyed and 190 aircraft damaged.
In summation, ‘Bodenplatte’ achieved almost total tactical surprise, but it was undone by poor execution and low pilot skill, and therefore failed to achieve its object in a manner which was also very costly to German air power. Some of the British, Canadian and US units targeted in ‘Bodenplatte’ were severely degraded and others were not so badly affected, but most units sustained some hurt. What cannot be escaped, though, is the fact that the Germans, launched ‘Bodenplatte’ under conditions, such as poor planning and low pilot skill, which clearly indicated any advantage gained would be outweighed by possible losses. Thus ‘Bodenplatte’ weakened the German fighter arm past any realistic hope of reconstruction in the time and with the resources left to Germany in World War II.
The Luftwaffe lost 143 pilots killed and missing, 70 taken prisoner and 21 wounded, these figures including three Geschwaderkommodoren, five Gruppenkommandeure and 14 Staffelkapitäne, and represented the largest single-day loss suffered by the Luftwaffe. Many of the formation leaders lost were experienced veterans, which placed even more pressure on those who were left. Thus ‘Bodenplatte’ was a shorter-term tactical success but a longer-term operational defeat. The Allies were soon able to make good their matériel and manpower losses, but the Germans found it impossible to replace lost pilot with men of equal calibre, and while they were able to replace aircraft they could not replace the fuel which had been consumed.
World War II lasted for another 17 weeks, and in that time the German fighter arm struggled manfully but impossibly to recover from ‘Bodenplatte’ and remain an effective force. The exhausted German units were no longer capable of mounting any effective defence of German air space during ‘Plunder’ and ‘Varsity’, the Allied crossings of the Rhine River, or the Western Allies’ invasion of Germany. Subsequent German operations were insignificant and could not in general challenge Allied air supremacy: the only Luftwaffe branch able to make profitable sorties was the night fighter force. In the last six weeks of the war, the Luftwaffe was to lose another 200 pilots killed.