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The pause in the autumn of 1944

Raul Colon
PO Box 29754
Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico 00929

Once the Western Allies landed in Normandy on the morning of June 6th, 1944, there was no respite for the once much vaunted Luftwaffe as it tried desperately to fend off the advancing British, Canadian and American ground armies in the West while at the same time trying to stop the massive bomber formations that were pounding Germany’s infrastructure. It was a nearly impossible task to begin with, but the odds against were dramatically increased because the Luftwaffe was also engaging another powerful enemy: the Soviet Union. The task now was impossible. But something happened during the months of September and October of 1944 that gave the Luftwaffe a respite, the allied armies in the West were advancing so rapidly that they outran their supply lines, thus forcing them to halt and consolidate their gains. This pause in the action was a welcome relief for the strained German ground forces. The slow down in allied air operations meant that the Luftwaffe could reduce its operation to a bare minimum on the Western Front. Meanwhile, Luftwaffe operations above the fatherland would continue unabated. Beside the let down by the allies, there was a shift in strategic bombing objectives during the autumn. The pre-invasion bombing campaign implemented by the United States 8th Air Force and the British’s Bomber Command; centralised on the degradation and eventual destruction of Germany’s industrial base. This objective shifted to the degradation of the Reich’s very efficient transportation system in October. The change of targets provided the crippled German oil industry with time to repair its refineries and depot facilities. As a result, production of aviation graded fuel increased from a low of 18,000 tons in October to nearly 39,000 tons in November.

Meanwhile, the German aircraft industry was emerging from its large scale re-organization and began to mass produce combat aircraft once again. In September alone, the collective aircraft industry delivered to the German air force 3,821 combat planes. This total would be the highest output of produced aircraft since the war started five years before. Nearly four/fifths of these newly delivered aircrafts were Messerschmitt Bf-109s and Fw-190s. Nearly five hundred Messerschmitt Bf-110s and Junkers Ju-88 were also delivered. They would be assigned to the recently re-organized night fighter force. One hundred and forty four aircraft; Messerschmitt Me-163s, Me-262s and Arado Ar-234s jet powered fighters; were also produced. This dramatic increase in aircraft production was the direct result of not only the re-organization effort or the change in direction of the allied bombing campaign, but mainly because Germany concentrated all of its aircraft development and production resources into delivery of fighter aircraft only. This increase in available fighters was welcome news for many Gruppen or squadrons bled dry by months of fighting attrition. Fifteen fighter groups that sustained heavy losses in France during the Allied invasion of 1944 were reconstituted with the new fighters coming out of Germany’s assembly lines. Germany’s unexpected fighter production surge also helped the Luftwaffe to increment its day fighter force. In September of 1944, the complete Luftwaffe day fighter inventory was 1,900 aircraft, by the middle of November there were 3,300 fighters available for action.

Even as the Luftwaffe started to emerge from the dreadful state which it was thrown in the immediate aftermath of the Allied invasion, their political and military standing within German Fuehrer Adolf Hitler’s inner circle was at the lowest point. Their slide continued with the news of the Anglo/American landings at Nijmegen and Arnhem, Holland. The almost nonexistent Luftwaffe effort to deny the invaders air supremacy made Hitler even madder. In a conference with top air force officials a few days after the landings in Holland, Hitler lambasted Luftwaffe’s Chief of Staff, General Werner Kreipe and his staff for their collective inefficiency in dealing with the Allies in France and now in Holland. Kreipe tried to reply but Hitler was in one of his famous tirades and would have nothing to do with him. In fact, after the meting, Hitler banished General Kreipe from ever entering his headquarters again. On November 1944, Kreipe was replaced by General Karl Koller. Meanwhile, with the Battle for France almost at an end, in early August 1944 Hitler rescinded his initial order that the newly developed Me-262 be delivered only to bomber units. This action paved the way for the new jet aircraft to enter service where it was most needed: the fighter force. Initial trials for the new jet aircraft began in earnest. At the beginning these trials made slow progress due mainly to the aircraft’s jet engine. Some 262s were lost because the engines tended to be underpowered while operating at low level. Nevertheless, Kommando Nowotny, the first assigned squadron to operate the Me-262; claimed some success destroying four American high flying reconnaissance aircraft. The situation changed dramatically on September when the refined Jumo 004 engine was ready for mass production. On that month, 91 Me-262s were delivered to front line Luftwaffe squadrons, nearly four times the output of August.

Me 262A-1a

On the 3rd of September, 1944 the Nowotny moved to front line airfields at Achmer and Hesepe in north west Germany. Their primary assigned task was the engagement of America’s fighters escorting the heavy bombers on deep penetration missions. Their mission was to try to disturb the fighters into dropping their external fuel tanks while engaging their faster enemy. This would have left the US bombers easy prey for the Luftwaffe’s conventional fighter force. This highly studied tactic sounded very good on paper but in the cut and thrust combat environment, it did not get off the ground. Several factors contributed to the tactic’s ultimate demise. Chief among them was the unreliability of the early jet engines. Many 262s were grounded while they waited for a new engine. Another factor was the speed at which the new jet fighter landed: around 120 mph. This played havoc with the aircraft landing tires which at this point in the war were made of synthetic rather than actual rubber. The tires often blew, forcing the aircraft to spin and crash. Added to these factors were the Allies. At the beginning, Allied pilots were so awed at the sight of the new Me-262 that they did not know how to approach it, but as combat contact with the new fighter began to become more regular, the allies began to understand the 262’s capabilities and, more importantly for them, its weaknesses. The 262’s performance at high altitude did not have any par, it was its low speed operations, near approach or just taking off from a runway, that provided the allies with their chance to down the German jet plane. This factor was augmented by the fact that the Me-262 needed a special runway from which to operate. The discovery of these fields enabled the allies to focus their bombing effort on them. Allied fighter-bombers where actually deployed on stand-in patrols overhead the discovered fields looking for a chance to catch a 262s taking off or landing. On the morning of October 7th, the Nowotny deployed five 262s, the largest number they had ever deployed for one particular operation, to intercept an American bomber formation heading towards one of Germany’s synthetic oil refineries in the central part of the country. A formation of American P-51 Mustangs, arguably the best piston engine fighter of the war, were circling 15,000ft above the Achmer airfield when they spotted two 262s taking off. They were shot down before they could reach fighting speed. Another 262 was shot down while engaging the Mustangs above Achmer. Only one Me-262 made it back to the base and it was probably because the aircraft failed to encounter any enemy aircraft.

Things did not improve. In November 8th the Nowotny suffered the biggest one day casualty number since they began operating the 262. Major Walter Nowotny himself was shot down and killed in action. By pure chance, General Galland was at Achmer at the time, conducting an inspection of the base and its fighter assets. He now understood that Nowotny was given an almost impossible task and despite his and his team’s best effort; he was not successful. The notion that a fighter pilot, even one as accomplished and intelligent as Nowotny, could operate at a high level a completely new type of aircraft without receiving proper conversion training was not reasonable, Galland now realized. The aircraft’s poor engine performance made a tough situation even tougher. The proximity of the 262 airfield to the ever retreating German lines permitted the allies to deploy massive number of fighters above them, waiting to catch a 262 on approach or taking off. Meanwhile the much less publicized Arado Ar-234A was maybe the sole ray of hope for the Luftwaffe during the Battle of France.

Two deployable 234As were the first German aircraft to operate deep inside the allied territory, thus restoring the German air force some sense of pride. They had not done a deep penetration flight of any type in the West since late 1942. The first deployed 234s were assigned to Kommando Sperling, a reconnaissance unit based at Rheine. The units went on to perform photographic operations above south east England, France, Holland and Belgium. In December another 234 recon unit was formed in northern Italy. Although at the beginning the 234 was utilized as a recon platform, the 234 was actually a bombing platform. The Luftwaffe’s ultimate goal was to field as many squadrons as possible of 234 in an effort to bring the bombing war to their multiple adversaries. As production of the 234 began to pick up, field units began to convert from the Junkers Ju-88 to the new jet bomber. Conversion training, one of the Achilles’ heals of the 262’s first deployable operations, was modified. There was also a larger number of pilots with jet aircraft experience available. Hitler expected great things from the 234. He regularly pressed Goering to bring the aircraft into action as soon as possible.

As the autumn of 1944 played out, Germany’s military position continued to decline. In the west, east and south theatres; enemy troops were advancing towards and in some cases, had crossed over her borders. Faced with the options of unconditional surrender or continuing fighting; the German high command decided on the later, mainly because the Nazi propaganda machine described the terms of surrender as being more harsh than that of Versailles in 1919, the Nazis even foresaw of the disintegration of Germany as a nation. As one often repeated saying of the era ran, “enjoy the war, because the peace will be dreadful”. In the end, none of the wonder weapons deployed by the Luftwaffe made any dent in the allied air effort. Yet, following their almost complete demise as a coherent fighting force in the summer of ’44, the Luftwaffe made a remarkable comeback that autumn.

History of the German Night Fighter Force 1917-1945, Gebhard Aders, Jane’s, London 1978
German Aircraft of the Second World War, JR Smith and EJ Creek, Putman, London 1972
Luftwaffe Handbook, Ian Allan, Shepperton, 1986