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Death Ride of the Luftwaffe - Operation Bodenplatte 1945

death-ride-of-the-luftwaffe-operation-bodenplatte-1945
death-ride-of-the-luftwaffe-operation-bodenplatte-1945

Introduction

Having spent quality time in the Air Force I am obviously very fond of everything connected with aviation and fighters. The Second World War was the first time that the aviation theories of great exponents of air warfare like Giulio Douhet were put into practice.

Towards the end of the war, the Luftwaffe on prodding from Adolf Hitler launched its final battle with a view to help the German army slice the American and British armies into two. In December 1944, Hitler had launched his final assault known as the 'Battle of the bulge'. If successful the plan envisaged the capture of Antwerp and the annihilation of the Allies supply line with a thrust through the snow-capped Ardennes.

The plan hinged on a number of factors. The first was the weather which Hitler assumed would remain bad so as to deny the Allies the use of their air force for the creation of a favorable air situation. The second was the ability of the Luftwaffe to destroy the airfields and the aircraft on the ground itself to prevent the Allied air force from exerting itself. Hitler was well aware that without air cover his thrust would fail. He exhorted the Luftwaffe to carry out a last offensive action to allow the German army to move forward as per plan and capture the channel ports.

We know now that German aircraft production had peaked in 1944 and plenty of fighters were available. However, there was a dire shortage of trained and veteran aircrew and this was a drawback that had a bearing on the result of this Air battle.

This was the genesis of "Operation Bodenplatte." Since 1943 the Luftwaffe had been on the back foot, with the round the clock air raids by the RAF and the USAAF. After the capture of the channel airfields pursuant to operation D-day, when the Allies landed in force at Normandy the Allied air force had complete control of the air and the German army was greatly hampered. The advent of the P 51 Mustang, long-range escort fighter the situation had greatly deteriorated by the summer of 1944. The net result was that daylight flying by the Luftwaffe was restricted and only night flying was possible.

By July 1944, after the bomb plot to kill Hitler failed, the front was stabilized and Hitler conceived his ambitious plan to drive a wedge in the Allied lines and seize Antwerp and give breathing space to the Wehrmacht.



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The operation

Hitler felt that he had been saved from death by an act of providence. He planned a mighty offensive to seize the initiative from the allies. For this purpose, he had a very important role for the Luftwaffe as Hitler also realized that this was his last chance in the West to seize the initiative.

On 16th September 1944, General Werner Kreipe the chief of staff of the Luftwaffe received an order from Hitler to get the Luftwaffe ready for a massive operation in the West. On 21 October, the plan for the winter offensive was disclosed by Hitler to his generals. General Kreipe ordered to transfer all fighter aircraft to Western command thereby greatly weakening the Luftwaffe in other sectors.

Herman Goring who was out of favor with Hitler was informed of this plan. He did not oppose it with the idea that a victory in the West would rehabilitate him in the eyes of the Fuhrer. By a careful marshaling of resources, air command West had assembled 2400 aircraft for the assault. The German air force planned a massive attack to smash the US AAF and RAF in one blow. All the aircraft were to deliver a concentrated punch. The aim was to destroy the aircraft on the ground so that the enemy air forces would lose the capability of challenging the Luftwaffe over the airspace of Germany.

It was an ambitious plan but there were certain limiting factors. There was no shortage of aircraft but the bigger problem was the shortage of aircrew and gasoline for the planes. The pilot shortage was very serious as almost all the senior pilots had either been killed or captured. There were very few experienced pilots and the bulk of the pilots were youngsters who had been hastily recruited and trained. With the shortage of fuel, even the training had been cut down and the pilots were given the wings almost immediately. This was to be a serious limiting factor in the air battle.

The pilots thrown into combat were extremely raw and experienced. Initially, the Luftwaffe was to start operations on 16 December 1944 in conjunction with the ground offensive. Bad weather put paid to this and though the ground offensive began they like the Allied forces were unable to operate and the date of the offensive was pushed back to 01 January 1945.

The Luftwaffe launched its operation on first January 45 but by then the ground offensive was running out of steam. The operation however had the element of surprise. British signals intelligence recorded the buildup of the German air forces in the region but did not realize that an operation was in the offing.

The German aircrew though lacking in experience were enthusiastic about the operation. A great many allied aircraft were destroyed on the ground. The Allied Air Force's however made good their losses with new aircraft within a week. The bigger failure was that the Allied aircrew was not targeted and the Germans concentrated on destroying aircraft on the ground. On the other hand, the Germans lost a lot of aircrews and these could not be replaced with the result in the months to come, the Luftwaffe lost its ability to cope with the Allied air force.

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Luftwaffe's failure

An analysis at the end of the war shows that only 11 of the Luftwaffe 34 air combat Gruppen (groups) were able to mount attacks on time and surprise the enemy. The Luftwaffe targeted 16 airbases that housed fighters and bombers. The Germans threw into the battle over 1000 planes consisting of the Messermicht109 and the Folk Wulf. A limited number of ME-262 were also used.

A high level of secrecy was maintained and most of the aircrew only told about the mission at the time of flight. It was like a double-edged sword as the anti-aircraft crew was not aware of this offensive and many of them mistook them as enemy planes and indiscriminately fired on them downing quite a few.

The Luftwaffe mounted the attack on 16 airfields simultaneously. They bombed and strafed any aircraft on the ground. A few of the Allied planes took off and engaged the German planes in dog fights. The number of aircraft exactly destroyed was not announced as the United States AF underreported losses.

Meticulous research after the war has shown that the Americans and the British lost 305 aircraft on the ground and 190 were damaged. In the dog fight, the Germans could shoot down 15 planes and damage another 12. It was a commendable effort but to no avail as the Germans lost precious aircrew which they could not replace. 143 crew were killed and 70 taken prisoner. Besides 22 of the most senior pilots of the Luftwaffe were lost.


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Last Word

In hindsight, we can see that the Germans committed a strategic blunder. Instead of targeting the aircraft on the ground, the Germans were required to bomb the airmens quarters and the crew rooms. The allies would be able to replace the aircraft but in case the aircrew had been targeted the result would have been different. In case the Luftwaffe was to attack the aircrew crew rooms and quarters they would have required greater planning and for that, there was no time. It was typical of Hitler to look for grass when there was none.

Many experts feel that Operation Bodenplatte was a wasted effort. The planes could have been better used to stop the Allies when they were entering Germany. In hindsight, we can see that the basic mistake by Hitler was in fighting a two-front war the futility of which he knew very well. Yet he was dragged into it by a set of circumstances dictated by his beliefs.

Comments

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 08, 2020:

Peggy, thank you for sparing time and commenting

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on August 08, 2020:

I guess we can be forever grateful that Operation Bodenplatte did not succeed in its ultimate goal. Thanks for adding detailed information about this battle.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 07, 2020:

Liz. thank you for a sweet comment.

Liz Westwood from UK on August 07, 2020:

It is interesting to read the insight of an experienced airman like yourself on this historic air offensive.

MG Singh emge (author) from Singapore on August 06, 2020:

Flourish, such a pleasure to read your comment. Thank you.

FlourishAnyway from USA on August 06, 2020:

Very well written. You obviously know your stuff. These history articles are extremely enjoyable. Keep them coming, my friend. You are a prolific writer and I’m try to keep up with the reading!