The Combined Bomber Offensive: Classical and Revolutionary,
Combined and Divided, Planned and Fortuitous
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The German Fighter Battle Against the American Bombers
Lieutenant General Johannes Steinhoff
Inspector General, German Air Force
Translated and edited by Lieutenant Colonel William Geffen.
I have read both Dr. Frankland's paper on the operations of the "Combined Bomber Offensive" and Dr. Futrell's commentary with great interest. While I do not want to create the impression that what I have to say is in the nature of a critique of Dr. Frankland's paper—which I do not feel called upon to do—I must nevertheless admit that I was less impressed by his remarks than by those of Dr. Futrell. Thus, my remarks will be principally directed toward what Dr. Futrell had to say.
First, I would like to make a few basic observations concerning the German Air Force prior to and during World War II. In the 1930s Germany had developed an air force which was not suitable for extended military operations both in terms of organization and structure as well as number. The bomber force was strategically impotent and in Germany it was not referred to as either a strategic or tactical bomber force, but simply as an "operational" force. Those who to this day continue to insist that the development of a German strategic long-range bomber force would have changed the course of World War II overlook the fact that the resources and power potential of Germany were insufficient to accomplish such a goal.
The United States and Great Britain, on the other hand, developed their strategic bomber force with a more or less clearly delineated goal in mind. Based on my knowledge of the history of the development of the Allied bomber forces, it seems to me that the course chosen by the United States was a more sound one than that of Great Britain. However, I am ready to admit at this point that the Lancasters (used for night flying operations) and the Liberators and Fortresses (used for daylight operations) complemented each other admirably in the fulfillment of their assigned missions.
However, I do believe that Dr. Futrell's criticism concerning the work of the Strategic Bombing Survey is fully justified. But then, we are all much wiser today than we were in 1943! Had the Allies, from the start of the Combined Bombing Offensive, concentrated their attacks directly and exclusively toward the destruction of the German energy (fuel and electricity) resources system— and I exclude here even the fuel production and distribution facilities—instead of switching back and forth to other target systems (such as air force bases and installations and the transportation network), the consequences for Germany would have been catastrophic. However, how easily one can make mistakes and do things the wrong way had already been demonstrated by Goering during the Battle of Britain.
What part such fortuitous, unexpected mistakes and faulty planning can play in war, by giving the enemy an advantage, is most clearly shown by the development of the German fighter (tactical) force during World War II. The German tactical air force did not keep pace with the parallel development of the Allied bomber force. It was primarily a fair-weather air force in 1940, and it remained such throughout the war. Since the Messerschmitt 110 (a two-engine plane with a crew of two, pilot and radio/ navigator) was used for daylight attacks during the Battle of Britain, the German Air Force in 1940 did not possess the capacity to carry out sustained night flying operations, at least not flying under IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) only Later on during the war, when the Allied bomber forces began to penetrate the borders of the German homeland in daylight operations, the Luftwaffe, because of the lack of all-weather training, was unable to deploy its fighter-intercepter force since the frequently prevailing heavy and thick cloud cover prevented the interceptors from getting to the required attack altitude against the Allied bomber fleets.
Furthermore, if the development and employment of the first jet fighter, the Messerschmitt 262, had been forcefully and purposely pursued, damage to the American bomber forces during their daylight raids in 1944 would have far exceeded that achieved by the German air defenses during the Schweinfurt raid in 1943. But here again, lack of proper planning and improper direction and dispersement of the available operational jet fighter force by the political leadership denied the Luftwaffe the success it could have achieved.
With these brief introductory remarks, I would like to turn now to a discussion of German fighter-interceptor operations against the United States bomber force, based on my own personal experiences during World War II.
I purposely entitled my comments "The German Fighter Battle against the American Bombers," because the appearance of these bombers in 1943 was the turning point in World War II aerial warfare. At this time one of my best friends—he fell at the end of the war—was Commander of Fighter Forces. In one of the best books ever written on aerial warfare, entitled The Last Squadron (Die sterbende Jagd), the author described a briefing of the pilots of a fighter wing by this commander, in which he tells them that the chivalrous duel in the air is a dining of the past.
The acrobatics are over, no more hide and seek, no more holding back and picking and choosing your target. That's all a thing of the past. It's mass we're up against now, and the mass flying in the enemy planes are not airmen; they're gunners strapped in their turrets, infantry of the air. So we too must create mass.
And this is how it was in fact. From one day to another the era of sportsmanlike, chivalrous hunting had ended. The air space over Europe had turned into a battleground with fortresses and trenches —and it was our duty to storm those fortifications and break through.
Now, it is not true by any means that all the previous phases of aerial warfare had been child's play. The Battle of Britain, for instance, will go down in military history as a classic example of merciless battle between individual fighter pilots. But the result of our first fighter attack against Flying Fortresses was terrible for us indeed. We did not shoot down a single bomber but lost a considerable number of our own fighters. This occurred during the American attack on Rouen on 17 August 1942.
My friend Fips Priller, who was immortalized by Darryl F. Zanuck in the movie The Longest Day as a German Wing Commander during the Normandy Invasion, immediately beat the alarm. The same reaction came from the Commanding General of Fighter Forces, General Galland, who told Goering:
Unless we immediately reinforce our fighter units, unless we are given better and more effective armament and develop new tactics for the attack, these birds one day will fly all the way to Berlin.
While the fighter forces received little reinforcement, the weapons were improved, and aerial tactics for "storming" these fortresses were developed.
It was in April 1943 that I first came in contact with the "four-engine jobs," as we called the B-17s. At that time the battle for North Africa was already lost, and we were defending, with little success, the beachhead of Cape Bon, that spit of land northeast of Tunis where the bulk of the Afrika-Korps and the Italian Army were later taken prisoners by the Allied forces.
After a dogfight with Spitfires we were prepared for landing, when a glittering armada of bombers, of a type we had never seen before, moved above us in the bright midday sun. It was too late for attack then, but I should soon have an opportunity to see these giant birds close-up.
This occurred after we had regrouped fragments of our air force wings in Sicily and were bringing them back to operational status. The Commanding General of the Fighter Forces had showered us with pamphlets, all concentrating on one subject: "How to attack a close-up formation of four-engine bombers."
The finer points of the doctrine for attacking these bombers had not yet been worked out in the air, but a few principles had nevertheless already been established. These were:
1. Attempt to break up the formation; single planes are easy to shoot down.
2. If you succeed in leading your concentrated fighter force, in frontal attack on collision course, right into the bomber formation, you will be sure to break it up.
3. Maintain your fighter force in the closest formation possible and do not open fire except at shortest range, but then "fire from all buttonholes," as we used to say.
In the meantime the Twelfth U.S. Air Force had been deployed into North Africa, and Sicily had been softened up for an invasion by continuous bomber attacks. On 25 June 1943 our radar stations reported an enemy bomber formation approaching from the Mediterranean about halfway between Sardinia and Sicily, heading for Naples. I might explain at this point that after losing the Battle of Britain primarily because of the lack of electronic devices, we had concentrated on developing much more effective radar equipment than we had possessed at the beginning of the war.
During the preceding days we had drilled in the new tactics, and I had attempted to prepare the two operational wings, comprising about 120 aircraft, for their first encounter with the four-engine bombers. After we had received take-off orders it was determined that the bombers had not, as expected, attacked the Naples port installation but had instead bombed the ferry traffic between Messina and the Italian mainland. At this point the bomber formation was already flying in the direction of North Africa, returning to base, and it was almost impossible to make them out on the radar screens because they had gone down to low altitude. My formation was able to take off with about 100 aircraft and was directed to proceed to the area between Sardinia and Sicily. As we were approaching the area I was advised that the enemy had disappeared from the radar screens and was probably proceeding at almost surface altitude. Visibility was restricted due to strong haze, but just at the moment when I had decided to return to base because of fuel shortage, the armada appeared below me. The Fortresses were flying in a wide front, only a few yards above the sea, in a formation so huge you could hardly see from one end to the other. It seemed virtually impossible to launch a well-coordinated attack; we had never practiced attacking bombers near the surface. The result was terrible. There was not a single kill, and the entire German formation went into panic, because the majority of the pilots had to be directed to base by radar and were short of fuel. Altogether, we lost six aircraft.
The same evening we received orders from Goering that were typical of the methods that the German High Command used on us.
They stated that one pilot from each fighter unit participating in the action against the bombers off Africa was to be court-martialled for cowardice in the face of the enemy. The unit commanders all volunteered for court-martial, and only through this decision could a completely ridiculous trial before a military court be avoided.
This first taste of fighting four-engine bombers was completely sufficient for us. We started intensive training and were soon to have an opportunity to practice what we had learned. In the meantime, a variety of methods for defense had been tested in Germany. One unit commander had succeeded in breaking up a four-engine bomber formation with a 1,000-pound bomb, and now the other units were beginning to train the same way, but without any success Under these tactics, a few aircraft were armed with single 1,000-pound bombs with time fuses, but in order to succeed the attacking aircraft had to climb above the bomber formation and measure the range in height accurately enough to ensure sufficient blast effect from the bomb. To the best of my knowledge, there was only one instance where a bomber formation was broken up through these tactics.
We had considerably more success with an army weapon, a bazooka type of rocket launcher, mounted underneath each wing of either the Messerschmitt 109 or the Focke Wulf 190. The rocket caliber was 220 millimeters. The trajectory of this weapon was terrible. In order to fire at a range of 1,000 meters, the rocket launcher had to be 150 meters above the target. If, however, we succeeded in maneuvering the rocket-carrying aircraft to the right altitude and as close as 1,000 meters to the bomber formation, the detonations usually succeeded in breaking up the Fortresses or Liberators. As single planes they could then, as I explained before, be killed off fairly easily. The problem with this type of rocket operation was, however, to get the extremely slow climbing, rocket-carrying aircraft up to the altitude of the enemy formation, for the weight of the rockets was considerable and it took a great deal of patience to bring these aircraft up to attack altitude.
The fighter escort accompanying the American bomber formations—and very soon after we had prepared methods for attack, they began to have fighter escorts—usually reacted very promptly to our tactics, forcing us constantly to develop new methods for attack. One of the most interesting, and at the same time the most dangerous, method was the employment of ramming tactics by our fighters. In 1943 we began to provide strong armor plate for the Focke Wulf and deployed these aircraft to units whose mission it was to approach the bombers as close as possible and, if weapons did not succeed, to ram the enemy aircraft. Indeed, the bombers were rammed frequently, and the surprising thing is that in most cases the pilots of the ramming fighters were able to bail out after ramming. Again, however, there was the problem of getting these aircraft up to attack altitude, since the heavy additional armorplating reduced the rate of climb.
The best success was finally achieved with air-to-air missiles that had been specifically developed for attacking aircraft. After I had been almost exclusively employed against four-engine bombers from 1943 until the end of 1944, I was able to activate the first jet fighter wing equipped with the Messerschmitt 262 jet fighter, and we began to arm our aircraft with air-to-air missiles, designated R4M with a caliber of 50 millimeters. Underneath each wing, we mounted 24 of these missiles and fired them in a salvo of 48 missiles from a distance of 1,000 meters. The results were exceptionally good, for when firing at close enemy formations one kill was usually certain. However, these air-to-air missiles were not used by conventional aircraft, but only by jet fighters.
In the course of this defensive battle against the four-engine enemy bombers the number of German fighter pilots remaining, most of whom were not very experienced anyway, was enormously depleted. With the battle going on, morale continued to go down. This was aggravated, of course, by the hopelessness of the overall situation, which began to become more and more obvious. A bad problem facing each pilot was the return to base after a mission. Very frequently fighting took place over long distances above cloud cover, and the completely disoriented fighters had to go below the deck and attempt to land wherever they could. Together with insufficient navigational aids, this resulted in many additional losses and a wide scattering of our aircraft. Here we had to adopt a procedure to put up new fighter formations, formed from these elements. We organized the next attack on the bomber formations or the attack on the next enemy penetration, if it occurred the same day, by authorizing the senior officer present on a base where a number of fighters had landed to assume command and to lead them back into battle immediately after refuelling and rearming. I need not point out that such a procedure was not very effective.
Toward the end of 1944 the situation of the German fighter forces was such that, while we still had a limited cadre of experienced pilots, the majority of the fighter pilots were very young and inexperienced. Between late 1944 and early 1945, the average young pilot flew only two missions before he was killed—that is what the statistics say. On the other hand, the aircraft situation was excellent. We were virtually drowning in aircraft. For instance, during October of 1944 alone, 4,300 fighter aircraft were built. However, the fuel situation was hopeless; for training purposes almost no fuel was released any more.
It is well known that jet fighters in larger numbers were not released for interceptor missions until very late during the war, namely early in 1945. Hitler never recognized their value, and it has been said of him that he simply did not have a conception of battle in the air. But even if all available jet fighters had been deployed for attack on the bombers, I do not believe that the fortunes of war would have changed.
Of those who took part in the great aerial battles against the bombers, not many are still alive. The survivors agree with me that attacking these fortresses was not a pleasure. Those who like myself have flown these attacks and have maneuvered through the stream of innumerable bombers will never be able to forget this picture, and I am sure there is not one who could claim that he did not feel relieved when he had landed back home in one piece.
I hope that through my reminiscences I have succeeded in describing a phase of World War II that, in my opinion, was the most important and most decisive of the entire struggle.
1. Gerd Gaiser, The Last Squadron, trans. Paul Findlay (New York, 1956), p. 207.
2. For more details see Josef Priller, Geschichte eines Jagdgeschwaders. Das JG 26 (Schlageter) 1937-1945, ed. Hans Otto Boehm (Neckargemund, 1962) .
3. Adolf Galland, The First and the Last. The Rise and Fad of the German Fighter Forces, 19381945, trans. Mervyn Savill (New York, 1954), pp. 115, 169-170.