The increasing intensity of the U. S. daylight heavy-bomber offensive and the new tactics of the fighter escorts posed an insoluble problem to the Luftwaffe's day-fighter forces. These forces already labored under the self-imposed handicaps of faulty organization and incompetent higher leadership. From October 1943 through March 1944, Goering, Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe, attempted to cope with the deteriorating air situation by strictly enforcing a policy of ignoring the fighter escort and attacking the heavy bombers. Maj. Gen. Adolph Galland, who commanded the Luftwaffe day fighter force, protested vociferously against this directive, claiming that it unnecessarily handcuffed his pilots. German pilots under orders to avoid American fighters were put on the defensive and robbed of the aggressiveness needed for successful fighter-to-fighter combat.
Other German wartime critics advocated attacking the escorts at the earliest possible point to force them to jettison their drop tanks and reduce their range. This apparently simple stratagem demonstrated the depth of the German defensive problem. The Luftwaffe did not base substantial numbers of fighters in France for three reasons: they would be vulnerable to harassing raids from medium bombers and fighter-bombers, their bases would require additional manpower for heavy antiaircraft defenses and for ground defense against partisans, and their supply dumps would stretch logistical links as well as offer targets to air raids. To catch incoming U. S. fighters, German fighters would have to scramble from western Germany or eastern France. Provided enough of them avoided and survived the RAF fighter sweeps vectored precisely by radar and "Y" Service, and provided they distinguished American from hunting British groups, the German fighters would then have to compel all the Americans to strip (jettison) their tanks. Otherwise an American group would leave behind one squadron to deal with the few penetrating Germans and continue onward. Of course, all Luftwaffe fighter aircraft committed to this operation would be unavailable to attack the heavy bombers over Germany.
If the Luftwaffe had waited until the RAF was out of range to begin its attack on the U. S. fighters, much of the advantage of forcing the stripping of tanks would have evaporated. In any case, the Eighth's fighter groups actively sought combat with the Luftwaffe, whether flying to or departing escort duty. It is difficult to see what the tactic of forcing the Eighth's fighters to jettison early would have accomplished other than to play directly into Spaatz's and Doolittle's hands by provoking air battles not only within range of all AAF fighters but within the reach of short-range RAF fighters as well. If the Luftwaffe wished to begin the battle over France instead of deep over the Reich, all the better. Given the growing technical inferiority of German aircraft, the relative lack of training and experience of German fighter pilots, and the superior numbers of Allied fighter aircraft, such a policy could have only one result: even greater disaster for the Luftwaffe.
To some extent the charges against Goering were typical of the postwar scapegoating indulged in by German generals. Goering and Hitler presented obvious, large, and defenseless targets. After March 1944, when the Luftwaffe's situation had worsened, Goering authorized one fighter group from each fighter division to attack and divert American escorts. Granting permission for diversionary operations instead of all-out attacks on American fighters did not, of course, return the initiative to the German fighter pilots, but it showed more flexibility on Goering's part than his subordinates tended to attribute to him. Also at the end of March, Goering responded to the pleas of his subordinates by consolidating the three defensive air commands facing the American bombers. He gave operational control of three of the most important of the Reich's western air defenses to the Luftwaffe's I Fighter Corps. Before then the I Fighter Corps, (responsible for northern air defense sectors, coastal areas devoted to naval operations, the Berlin area, and industrial districts of the Rhineland, Westphalia, and central Germany), the 7th Fighter Division (responsible for the defense of southern Germany, especially the industrial areas of Frankfurt-am- Main, Mannheim, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, Munich, and Augsburg), and Fighter Command Ostmark, (charged with defending vital Austrian targets such as Vienna, Wiener-Neustadt, Steyr, and Linz) had operated semiautonomously. Each had forces inadequate to defend its sector, but there was no central operational control mechanism capable of forcing the commands to cooperate with each other. This was an important factor in the Luftwaffe's inability to concentrate all of its defensive strength on the attacking U. S. forces. The shortage of fighters to apply against its opponent was as much a function of the Luftwaffe's own inefficiency as it was of the heavy losses inflicted by the Americans.
Ever larger numbers of American long-range escorts succeeded in wrecking the combined interceptor tactics the Germans had developed to combat deepbomber penetrations. Before February 1944, the Germans almost always waited to attack until the escort had left the bombers to return home, which happened on any deep-penetration raid in 1943. Waiting to attack until the escort left allowed for basing deep within Germany, and for defensive aircraft to be concentrated after the bombers had committed to a specific route and probable destination. Fighters could concentrate without being attacked. During the Schweinfurt missions and later, German twin-engine fighters had stayed beyond range of the bombers' defensive armament and shelled them with 210mm rockets, adapted from the German rocket mortar and known by the ground troops as the "screaming meemie." When the bombers loosened their positions to avoid rocket explosions, the single-engine fighters would attack the attenuated formation. In the face of vigorous escorts this tactic did not work. Not only were concentration areas liable to attack, so were home airfields. The performance of the American single-engine fighter escorts so outclassed that of the twin-engine German heavy fighters as to make the latter virtually helpless. If the Germans wished to employ their heavy fighters at all, their light fighters had to escort the twin-engine fighters, much to the detriment of German morale and firepower directed against the bombers. By the end of March, the twin-engine fighters seldom arose to defend against American daylight raids.
The increasing numbers of American escorts forced the Luftwaffe to modify its single-engine fighter tactics. As early as mid-December 1943, map exercises at I Fighter Corps Headquarters had demonstrated that commitment of individual single-engine fighter groups alone had little chance of success. A single group would become too involved in fighter-to-fighter combat with the escorts. On December 29, 1943, I Fighter Corps ordered future attacks on Allied heavy bomber formations to employ a wing formation of at least three closely aligned groups to ensure that at least one group of fighters penetrated to the bomber stream. These larger formations required longer time to marshal, offered targets that were easier for Allied air controllers to identify, and proved difficult for increasingly inexperienced German fighter pilots.
Throughout March and far the rest of the air war against Germany, U. S. fighter escorts so efficiently accompanied their bombers that large U. S. losses resulted only when navigational or timing errors by either bombers or fighters caused them to miss their rendezvous, or when a small contingent of the escorts was overwhelmed by large numbers of enemy fighters, which then broke through to attack the bombers. The March 6, 1944, Eighth Air Force mission to Berlin, which will be discussed in detail below, illustrates many of the tactical and operational changes involved in the increased use of escort fighters.
The harsh weather of the winter of 1943-1944 continued unabated in March. It allowed only two days of visual bombing over Germany-on March 8, when the Eighth lost 37 of 623 bombers dispatched against the Erkner Ball Bearing Works in Berlin and on March 18, when it lost 43 of 738 bombers that attacked airfields and aircraft assembly plants in central and southern Germany. The 80 bombers lost in those two days made them, aside from the 69 of 730 lost in the March 6 mission on Berlin, the worst two days of the month. A lack of visual bombing opportunities did not prevent the Eighth from launching full-scale efforts of 400 or more heavy bombers on fifteen of the month's days.
The Eighth had attempted to launch two large missions against Berlin on March 3 and 4. Bad weather had stopped both in their tracks, but not before fighters, which missed the recall, appeared over Berlin on March 3 and a lone wing of B-17s (the 13th Combat Wing from Curtis LeMay's 3d Bombardment Division), became the first of the Eighth's bombers to hit the German capital by pushing through heavy clouds on March 4. These efforts alerted the Germans to the Eighth's intentions.
On March 6, a total of 730 American bombers, taking three hours to assemble and climb to bombing altitude (24,000 to 27,000 feet), formed up over England and headed due east to Berlin. German radar spotted them and their RAF Spitfire escort as soon as they left their bases and tracked them for the entire mission. American escort consisted of 801 fighters (thirteen Eighth Air Force and four Ninth Air Force groups). Eleven groups of P-47s (615 aircraft) provided the second leg of the penetration escort. Three groups of P-38s (86 aircraft), one of which turned back because of an excessive number of engine failures, supplied medium-range escort, and four groups of P-51s (100 aircraft) flew deep escort. Three groups of the P-47s flew two missions, providing return escort on their second flight. For the far reaches of the trip the bombers had none too many escorts.
Seventy miles east of the Dutch-German border, at the practical P-47 range limit, the B-17s of the 3d Bombardment Division grouped in a sixty-mile-long column of combat wing pairs and ran smack into the middle of a concentration of perhaps 150 German single-engine fighters. The small number of P-38s operationally available for that leg of the relay left the bombers underescorted. German ground controllers, having detected an escort gap in the center of the column, sent small forces to the head and tail of the U. S. force to distract and pin the escort, and then threw the remaining 100 fighters at the momentarily unprotected center. In less than thirty minutes the aggressive German attack downed perhaps twenty bombers of the 3d Bombardment Division.
The attack singled out the 100th Bombardment Group. In fierce air combat at 24,000 feet and at 43 degrees below zero the group took a fearful beating. As it had so often before and would again, the sky over Germany filled with the carnage of air battle. Bf 109s and FW19Os dived and twisted through the bombers' formation, whose gunners tried futilely to keep them at bay. At one point an attacking Bf 109 dived through the formation, apparently enveloped in flames. Three gunners on three different bombers claimed and were awarded a sure kill. After diving below the clouds, the German pilot landed his slightly injured aircraft at his home field.
As the fight continued, the American pilots, sweating profusely despite the cold, in leather clothes and restrictive oxygen masks, dared not try any but the slightest wobble of evasive action for fear of crashing into each other in formation. Once a bomber spouted smoke or flames and, laboring, fell back from the safety of the formation, the fighters finished it off like predators stalking a herd.
The crew of a fatally injured bomber had little time to escape before hundreds of gallons of fuel or six thousand pounds of bombs exploded. If the bomber began to spin, the centrifugal force it generated trapped the crew within it. Many airmen were crushed and broken by the tail surfaces of their own bombers when the slipstream grabbed them as they exited and brutally pushed them to the rear. Anyone who bailed out started a five-mile descent to ground by falling through other bomber formations, perhaps meeting grisly death on props and leading wing edges. Soon the sky filled with falling men, loose hatch covers, ejected shell casings, and spinning pieces of debris. Parachutes-white U.S. and brown German, either of which could be collapsed by the close passage of aircraft--dotted the sky.
The Germans did not have things all their own way. When the slow twin-engine Bf 110s and Me 210s, made even clumsier by the large racks and rockets carried under their wings, attempted to close within rocket range of U. S. bombers, American escorts sliced through their formations killing or scattering the Zerstorers (destroyers), leaving the survivors shaken. On March 6, Zerstorergeschwader Horst Wessel scrambled nine aircraft: two aborted because of mechanical problems, one was damaged, five were lost in air-to-air combat (with one pilot killed and four wounded), and the unit's commander landed his damaged plane at a different airfield. When the single-engine FW 190s and Bf 109s formed up to assault the bombardment divisions, squadrons of P-51s struck them first, disrupting their attack formations and pursuing them as they sought, as ordered, to avoid the escort and close with the bombers.
As the fighters dueled, a P-51 stuck on the tail of an FW 190, shredding it with bullets from its six .50-caliber machine guns. The German pilot huddled behind the armor in his cockpit, finally abandoning his ruined aircraft. Back in England, review of P-51 gun cameras clearly showed the German leaving his plane, which blew up a few moments later. The American pilot gained a kill and another small brightly painted swastika on the side of his plane. Eighth Air Force public relations officers passed the film to the press, which recorded for the American home front the death of another of the Nazi's vaunted fighter planes.
The 2d Bombardment Division, just behind the 3d, saw only two German fighters in the same defensive area. Over Berlin the Germans concentrated seventy- five twin-engine day and night fighters, escorted by about twenty-five single- engine fighters. They attacked the leading elements of the 1st Bombardment Division, the first division over the city, and attempted to saturate the defending escort. They were the only heavy opposition and they ceased as the 1st left the target area.
One of the bombers lost over Berlin that day carried to earth with it the Commander of the 4th Combat Wing, Brig. Gen. Russ Wilson. In all, enemy fighters accounted for 41 bombers, 4 more landed in Sweden, and the remaining 24 fell victim to antiaircraft fire or accidents. Six more heavy bombers had sustained enough damage to be not repairable. The totals amounted to 75 heavy bombers lost or not repairable, 347 heavy bombers damaged, and 11 escort fighters lost. Nor had the bombing been accurate; most of the 1,648 tons of bombs and 2,448,000 propaganda leaflets fell on areas other than their primary targets, the industrial suburbs. USSTAF admitted, "Generally poor results were obtained in Berlin area." Spaatz reported to Arnold that the Eighth had hit none of its primary targets. Perhaps its crews were tired or rattled by their losses. An Allied intelligence report aptly summed up the day: "Thus, on this occasion, due no doubt to skillful handling, a good appreciation of our intentions, and good flying weather, the Luftwaffe gave few of the expected indications of rigor mortis." On the return trip American fighters claimed 1 German aircraft destroyed and 12 damaged on the ground. Ten hours after takeoff the bombers landed back in England.