Operation Steinbock

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This was the German series of ‘baby Blitz’ night air raids against London and other major targets in the south of England under the direct control of the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (21 January/29 May 1944).

The operation was undertaken largely as a propaganda and German morale-boosting effort, and also as retaliation against the British for the night area bombing campaign on German cities by Air Chief Marshal Sir Arthur Harris’s RAF Bomber Command. The operation was supervised by Generalmajor Dietrich Peltz, the Angriffsführer ‘England’ (attack leader England) and commander of the IX Fliegerkorps in Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle’s Luftflotte III. For the ‘Steinbock’ offensive, the Germans assembled a force of 474 bombers, and the offensive was undertaken in parallel with but in the opposite direction to Bomber Command’s campaign against Berlin. Targeting primarily objectives in and around Greater London, ‘Steinbock’ achieved little in the way of real results and suffered the loss of some 329 aircraft during its five-month duration, therefore averaging the loss of 82 aircraft per month.

The operation therefore effectively denied the Germans all use of their bomber force for other tasks, such as attacks on the inevitable Allied amphibious assault across the English Channel, which commanders such as Generalfeldmarschall Hugo Sperrle felt would have offered a greater return. It should be noted, though, that the primary objective of ‘Steinbock’ changed during the operation from retaliation to the attempted disruption of the Allied preparations in the south of England for the ‘Overlord’ invasion. By June 1944, when ‘Overlord’ was launched, ‘Steinbock’ had so degraded the Luftwaffe’s offensive capability that it could not provide any significant counterattacks when the invasion began. The offensive also marked the last German large-scale operation against England using manned bombers, later efforts devolving onto the V-1 flying bomb and V-2 ballistic missile.

So far as the background to ‘Steinbock’ was concerned, by the autumn of 1943 the Luftwaffe was faced by a major dilemma. The Oberkommando der Luftwaffe, controlled directly by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, was unable to prevent the infliction of increasingly serious damage to German cities and German war-making industries by the Allied strategic bombing offensive. Generalfeldmarschall Erhard Milch, who was responsible to the Reichsluftfahrtministerium for production matters, recommended the doubling fighter production to strengthen Germany’s air defences, but the pace at which production now increased was slow.

The British bombing of German industries during Battle of the Ruhr (March/July 1943) had caused an interlude in German aircraft production nicknamed the Zulieferungskrise (delivery crisis). Worse was to follow, for in July 1943 RAF Bomber Command managed a brief neutralisation of the German night-fighter defences, in particularly those of the radar-controlled ‘Kammhuber-Linie’, by the introduction of new tactics and ‘Window’ (chaff) to saturate German ground and air radars with a myriad false echoes. The ‘Gomorrah’ bombing of Hamburg in July inflicted 26,000 casualties and destroyed large parts of the city and its industry.

The overwhelming consensus within the Luftwaffe high command was that German air power should now concentrate its resources on defensive efforts against the Allied air forces. The proposal was presented by Göring to Adolf Hitler, who insisted that the Luftwaffe had disappointed him all too frequently, and that a change from the offensive to defensive in the air war was out of the question. Göring soon stated that the Hitler was right, and that the only way to stop the destruction of Germany was to launch against the British retaliatory attacks so heavy and devastating that the British would therefore not dare risk another raid like that on Hamburg without the fear of similar retribution.

It was at the end of November 1943 that Peltz was summoned to a conference at which Göring informed him that he was to be placed in command of ‘Steinbock’, a renewed large-scale bombing operation against the UK with emphasis on targets in and around London. It was hoped that the operation could be launched in December, but this proved unrealistic. By the third week of January 1944, however, a force approaching 600 aircraft had been amassed by redeploying five Kampfgruppen (bomber wings) from the Italian front and by rebuilding existing bomber units in the west.

On 3 December 1943 Göring issued orders for ‘Steinbock’ with the objective of ‘avenging the enemy’s terror attacks' on Germany. Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Luftflotte II on the Italian front was to provide Peltz with six Kampfgruppen, and the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe would contribute another three which were currently being rested and rehabilitated. The bombers were to carry so-called ‘English mixture’ ordnance loads, namely 70% incendiaries and 30% HE bombs, the latter including 1,102-lb (500-kg) bombs and mines.

Two units flying the new four-engined Heinkel He 177 heavy bomber were available for the start of the attack: these were the I/Kampfgeschwader 40 and the 3./KG 100 operating from airfields at Rheine and Châteaudun, with an initial combined strength of 46 aircraft. However, the main weight of the offensive was to devolve largely on twin-engined medium bombers. The Junkers Ju 188 and Dornier Do 217 were of relatively recent development, and the great majority of the Junkers Ju 88 aircraft were of the Ju 88A-4 model essentially unchanged since 1941. Apart from the numbers of conventional medium and heavy bombers optimised for the level bombing role, the Luftwaffe also employed a number of fast bomber types, such as the Ju 88S aerodynamically refined and boosted version of the Ju 88A-4 and the Messerschmitt Me 410 Hornisse fighter-bomber, as well as a number of other fighter-bomber types. These were more difficult to intercept as a result of their high speed, but carried only limited warloads and could not offer the same bombing accuracy as the conventional bombers.

The composition of the attacking forces used in ‘Steinbock’ was never fixed, for bomber units were disbanded, or withdrawn for refits and/or conversions to other aircraft types, or redeployed to other theatres of operation as the situation demanded.

By mid-March, Peltz’s force had 232 serviceable aircraft, as the 3./KG 2 had been withdrawn for conversion to the Ju 188, while the III/KG 30, along with the II and III/KG 6, had been redeployed to support the 'Margarethe' occupation of Hungary.

In an effort to confuse British radars, the ventral gondolas of some Ju 88 aircraft were fitted with the Kettenhund (watchdog) active radar jammer, and some aircraft also carried the FuG 216 tail-warning radar to detect the approach of British night fighters before they could make their attack.

In overall terms, the Luftwaffe units which took part in ‘Steinbock’ were, at the start of 1944, the following (with number of operational aircraft): the Stab and I, II, III and V Gruppen of the KG2 ‘Holzhammer’ (74 Do 217, 31 Ju 188 and 25 Me 410 aircraft), the Stab and I, II and III Gruppen of the KG 6 (79 Ju 88 and 41 Ju 188 aircraft), the II/KG 30 ‘Adler’ (31 Ju 88 aircraft), the I/KG 40 (15 He 177 aircraft), the Stab and I and II Gruppen of the KG 54 ‘Totenkopf’ (61 Ju 88 aircraft), the I/KG 66 (23 Ju 88 and Ju 188 aircraft), the Stab/KG 76 (four Ju 88 aircraft), the I/KG 100 (27 He 177 aircraft), and the I/SKG 10 (20 Focke-Wulf Fw 190 aircraft).

The reorganisation of the Royal Air Force to facilitate the forthcoming invasion of Europe included, on 15 November 1943, the division of Air Marshal (from 15 December Air Chief Marshal) Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory’s RAF Fighter Command: many of the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Typhoon squadrons were grouped into the 2nd Tactical Air Force for support of the invasion of Europe, and the rest of the command was formed into the Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB). This latter was responsible for the day and night defence of the UK from German air attack. As Leigh-Mallory was had by now become the commander-in-chief of the Allied Expeditionary Air Force for the Normandy invasion, command of the ADGB was given to Air Marshal Sir Roderic Hill, and by January 1944 the ADGB’s Nos 10 and 11 Groups, commanded by Air Vice Marshals C. R. Steele and H. W. L. Saunders respectively, were responsible for the defence of southern England. For night defence the ADGB had seven squadrons of de Havilland Mosquito NF.Mks XII, XIII and XVII night fighters with about 127 operational aircraft equipped with airborne interception aids, including the latest AI.Mks VIII and X centimetric-wavelength radars. For the urban defence of Greater London there were numerous heavy anti-aircraft (AA) batteries equipped with 3.7-in (943-mm) and 5.25-in (133-mm) guns. Many batteries were now equipped with the new Mk III gunlaying radar, which made them highly effective in putting up a predicted barrage against air targets at night or in adverse weather.

Within ‘Steinbock’ the attacks on London were known as ‘Mars’, and the first raid took place during the night of 21/22 January. The various parts of the British capital had been allocated the names of devastated German cities as their codenames to emphasise in the German aircrews’ minds the retaliatory nature of the operation. This first raid was against ‘München’, namely the Waterloo area of London, and comprised two waves of 447 sorties, primarily by Ju 88 and Do 217 bombers, carrying 475 tons of bombs including a 60% incendiary element. The first wave bombed from 20.40 to 22.09 and the second wave from 04.19 to 05.45.Many bomber crews flew two sorties on this night. Despite the extensive use of Duppel (chaff) and target marking with white and green flares by the KG 66, the Luftwaffe’s pathfinder element, hardly any bombers reached London and it is estimated that only some 30 tons of bombs fell on the capital, with much of the rest of the German bomb loads scattered throughout the home counties. The Houses of Parliament, Parliament Square, Westminster Hall, the Embankment, New Scotland Yard and parts of Pimlico were all hit by incendiaries, and some 14 people were killed and 74 injured.

Hitler was reportedly furious that the Luftwaffe had failed to find London, which lay only 95 to 125 miles (150 to 200 km) from German ground-control stations, yet the British were hitting German urban targets, small as well as large, over a radius of 620 miles (1000 km) and often in adverse weather. Peltz responded that the failures owed as much to the Luftwaffe’s lack of interference-free radio and navigational aids as to untrained crews, and that the British with their H2S and Gee electronic navigation systems were technologically ahead of the Germans. The lack of dedicated pathfinder units also caused navigational problems, as the few aircraft employed in this role were more at risk from electronic countermeasures and fighter interception. The strength of the British defences also compelled the Luftwaffe to fly dogleg courses, and inexperienced German crews quickly became lost. The earlier ending of reconnaissance flights over England also had the effect of preventing the Luftwaffe from gathering intelligence on British radar and radio frequency bands.

The Germans lost some 40 bombers in this initial raid: 25 of these succumbed to British action, the Mosquito night fighter force claiming 16 bombers destroyed or probably destroyed, and the other nine probably fell victim to anti-aircraft fire. Just as worrying for the Luftwaffe was the fact that a further 18 bombers were lost to non-combat causes, including pilot error, navigation error leading to fuel exhaustion, and landing crashes at base.

This first operation coincided with the Allied ‘Shingle’ landings at Anzio in western Italy, and as an immediate consequence three of the Kampfgruppen were returned to Italy. Adverse weather also intervened, and the next raid on London was delayed until 28 January, when only Me 410 and Fw 190 fighter-bombers were used. On the following night a force of 285 bombers, most of them Ju 88 and Ju 188 aircraft, attacked and started a major fire in the Surrey Commercial Docks. The bomber force lost 28 aircraft shot down. Following this operation the I/KG 40 was withdrawn. The two attacks in January caused the deaths of about 100 people in London, with some 200 more injured.

Some 240 sorties were flown on 3/4 February, but only 26 tons of bombs fell on London and much of the rest of the bomb loads was scattered across south-eastern England. Fires were started in Hackney and Tilbury, and the casualties in London totalled 17 dead and 12 injured. On 13/14 February 158.5 tons of bombs were dropped over England, with a mere 4 tons falling on the capital.

There now followed a period of more accurate bombing. On 18/19 February, 200 sorties dropped 185 tons of bombs on Whitehall, Queen’s Gate and Pimlico in a 30-minute raid which killed 180 civilians and wounded another 463. On 20/21 February the Germans committed some 200 aircraft including 14 He 177 heavy bombers of the I/KG 100. Whitehall was hit once again, as too were Horse Guards Parade, St James’s Park, the Treasury, the Admiralty, the War Office and the Scottish Office, and some 216 persons were killed and 417 badly injured. On the night of 22/23 February 32 of London’s boroughs recorded incidents, with 72 people killed in Chelsea following a direct hit on a block of flats near the King’s Road. In total there were 160 fatalities and 348 serious injuries. Targets on the night of 23/24 February were government buildings around the Westminster area, with over 170 aircraft targeting London. The 1,300 operational sorties out in February had produced mixed results. The month’s bomber losses were 72, however, and at 5.2% of the number committed this was a prohibitively high figure.

During March there were four attacks on London, followed by raids on Hull and Bristol. On 14/15 March, 100 German aircraft dropped incendiaries and HE bombs across Westminster, Hyde Park, Knightsbridge, Rochester Row, Monck Street, Cliveden Place, Medway Street and Flask Lane. On 21 March Paddington railway station was hit. Attacks on the British capital continued until the night of 20/21 April 1944. By this time 31 major raids had been flown since January, 14 of them against the British capital. Peltz’s force had dropped a total of some 2,000 tons of bombs at a cost of 329 bombers lost.

From a time late in April the German attacks were switched to the channel ports on the south coast of England, where shipping for the forthcoming Allied invasion of Europe was massing. However, the offensive yielded little in the way of useful results for the Luftwaffe, but was also costly in aircraft and personnel. Some small attacks were also made on Weymouth, Torquay and Falmouth. March, April and May had therefore seen the diversification of the offensive to targets as far separated as Hull and Falmouth, but results were still poor, and in March losses amounted to 75 aircraft (8.3%), in April to 75 aircraft (8.7%) and in May to some 50 aircraft (about 10%). The campaign ended with the raid of 29 May against Falmouth and Portsmouth.

Although ‘Steinbock’ had involved more Luftwaffe aircraft than any other raids on the UK since 1941, the high level of the air and ground defences' capabilities, the relative inexperience of the German bomber crews, and the Germans' lack of bomber numbers meant that only minor damage and few casualties were inflicted. The initial bomber strength had been created only at great expense to the Luftwaffe’s other operational tasks. Most of the German bombs failed to reach their targets, and those that did represented only a fraction of the British bomb loads hitting German targets. Moreover, the German failure to target the assembly areas for the shipping being assembled for ‘Overlord’ meant that there was no significant impact on the Allied timetable for the invasion.

Ironically, therefore, the raids were more costly to German military capability than to that the British, for they drained the Luftwaffe of irreplaceable aircrew and aircraft, and thereby reduced the capability with which the Germans might otherwise have been able to deploy against ‘Overlord’. Between a time late in December 1943 and May 1944 the Luftwaffe bomber strength in northern Europe fell from 695 to just 133 aircraft. By way of contrast, on 6 June 1944 the ADGB had 45 squadrons available to support the invasion, totalling some 809 serviceable aircraft. The air raid casualties in the UK during the first five months of 1944 totalled 1,556 killed and 2,916 seriously injured.