Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Eighth USAAF Ordeal and Triumph II

A comparison of this raid with the Schweinfurt raids of August 17, 1943, and October 14, 1943, reveals how the air war had changed. One indication of the intensity of bomber versus fighter combat is the number of fighters claimed by bomber gunners. The numbers claimed had no relation whatever to actual German losses, but they did indicate the frequency of attack, the activity of the gunners, and the ferocity and duration of the attack perceived by the bomber crews. During the August 17, 1943, Regensburg-Schweinfurt mission (Eighth Air Force Mission no. 84) 346 bombers lost 60 of their own and claimed 288 German fighters destroyed, 37 probably destroyed, and 99 damaged. In fact, The Germans lost 34 fighters shot down, 12 damaged beyond repair, and 25 damaged. On October 14, 1943 (Eighth Air Force Mission no. 115), the 291 attacking American bombers again lost 60 of their own number and claimed 186 German fighters shot down, 27 probably destroyed, and 89 damaged. 

The Luftwaffe actually lost 31 destroyed, 12 written off, and 34 damaged. On March 6, the 730 American bombers lost 69 but claimed only half of the number of Germans as in the earlier two contests: 97 German fighters destroyed, 28 probably destroyed, and 60 damaged. A far larger force had suffered a 9.5 percent loss rate (half of that of the two earlier missions) and suffered far less contact with enemy fighters. Antiaircraft fire accounted for one-third of the bombers lost in the Berlin raid, a much higher percentage than in the Schweinfurt raids, that reveals the decline in German fighter effectiveness. 

As to escort statistics for the three raids, in August 1943, VIII Fighter Command dispatched 240 short-range P-47s; they claimed nineteen kills, three probables, and four damaged. In October, 196 P-47s newly outfitted with small drop tanks, escorting their bombers as far as Aachen, claimed thirteen kills, one probable, and four damaged. In the Berlin raid, however, the P-47s, whose range had just reached its maximum in February 1944 with the employment of new, larger tanks, claimed thirty-six kills, seven probables, and twelve damaged. The P-38s, which had an ineffective day, claimed three kills and one damaged. The P-51s, which defended the bombers over the target and during deep stretches when desperate Luftwaffe pilots could no longer wait for them to depart and had to attack before they themselves ran out of fuel, claimed fourty-three destroyed, one probable, and twenty damaged. One hundred P-51s bore the brunt of the battle and, in losing only five of their number, achieved an 8-to-1 kill ratio. The claims of the American fighters were many times more accurate than those of the bombers. Each American fighter came equipped with gun cameras, which verified their scores by actually picturing bullet strikes on German aircraft. 

The war diary of the Luftwaffe I Fighter Corps, however, only acknowledged that eighteen of its fighters had been destroyed and thirty-nine had been more than 60 percent damaged. The I Fighter Corps claimed that ninety-five bombers and fifteen American fighters had been definitely destroyed and ten bombers probably destroyed. Obviously, aircraft combat claims were subjective. The Germans had lost heavily enough that they offered no concentrated opposition over the return route, even though they had sufficient time to land, refuel, and rearm. Some of them managed to pick off several stragglers. 

Two subsequent raids on March 8 and 9 met less opposition, even though the weather on March 8 allowed visual bombing and, therefore, excellent conditions for Luftwaffe takeoffs, landings, and air-to-air interceptions. The Americans lost 37 bombers and 18 fighters, while their fighters claimed 79 destroyed, 8 probables, and 25 damaged, plus 8 destroyed, 4 probably destroyed, and 7 damaged on the ground. In this attack, few twin-engine fighters presented themselves, presumably because they had suffered severely two days earlier. The March 9 mission, conducted in complete cloud cover all the way to, over, and from Berlin, encountered only 15 interceptors. The Germans did not wish to expend their force in questionable takeoff and landing conditions. For the week, the Eighth wrote off 153 heavy bombers lost attacking Berlin, only 25 fewer than during Big Week. 

By the end of March 1944, the Eighth had written off 349 heavy bombers- 23.3 percent of its force. Ominously for the Germans, so heavily had the Eighth been reinforced that this figure represented a sortie loss rate of only 3.3 percent-a drop from both January and February. The AAF official history claimed that "by April 1, 1944 the GAF was a defeated force."

The events of April 1944, a black month for the Eighth, tend to refute that claim. The weather in April, as in March, proved poor. Nevertheless, the Eighth launched strikes of more than 400 heavy bombers on fifteen of the month's days, thirteen of the attacks on targets inside Germany; nine of those strikes employed, for at least some of the groups involved, visual methods of sighting. The first raid of the month, on April 1, set the tone for the entire month-it was a fiasco. Of 440 heavy bombers dispatched, only 165 bombed targets, and some of those bombed the town of Schaffhausen in neutral Switzerland, angering the Swiss and causing both the AAF and the U. S. government a great deal of expense and embarrassment. Half of the force ran into heavy weather and turned back. The remainder scattered widely throughout southwestern Germany and bombed targets of opportunity; some bombed 120 miles south of their assigned objectives. Luckily, the weather played no favorites and prevented the Germans from taking full advantage of the Eighth's scattered formations-only 12 bombers failed to return. The Germans may also have chosen to conserve their fighter forces depleted in March's air battles. 

On April 22, the Germans initiated a new tactic by infiltrating the bomber stream as it approached its bases to land and shooting down fourteen late returnees as they tried to touch down in the dark. This tactic, fortunately not repeated, sent a chill throughout the Eighth, which feared that the Germans had finally begun to take advantage of the heavy bombers at their weakest moments-when they milled about, out of formation, in the air over their congested airfields waiting to land in the evening or to form up in the morning. These periods, sometimes hours long, were clearly visible to the Germans on their radar equipment. 

On April 29, the Eighth lost sixty-three heavy bombers over one of the Reich's most heavily defended targets, Berlin. In this raid, as in others, the heaviest losses were taken by groups that failed to meet their escorts. Brig. Gen. Orvil A. Anderson, the Eighth's operations officer, had an immediate first impression that the April 29 mission was "the poorest operation . . . I've seen during the year . . . I've been here." Calling the mission "poorly executed all the way through," Anderson said, "It can go down on the records as one of the dumbest ones we've done. From the point of execution it just didn't click nothing clicked." The last major raid of the month had proved more costly and just as poorly managed as the first. 

The Eighth embarked on a more successful tack when it initiated the practice of flying fighter sweeps in weather unsuitable for bombers. On April 5 and 16, hundreds of fighters attacked airfields in western and central Germany. Spaatz, reporting to Arnold on previous sweeps, said, "Eighth Air Force fighters inaugurated a series of sweeps against airdromes, transportation, and Flak towers, which will be increased in scope and should prove very demoralizing to the Hun." A week later, Spaatz instructed the AAF Public Relations Office in Washington: 

In order to destroy the Luftwaffe it is essential that emphasis be given to the destruction of planes on the ground as well as in the air and that our pilots be encouraged in strafing operations by official and public credit for their accomplishments. . . . Recommend that Public Relations policy in US be adjusted to support present need for emphasis on strafing. 

In an account of April 5, Spaatz emphasized to General Giles that properly conducted fighter sweeps inflicted real attrition on the Luftwaffe by destroying its aircraft on the ground and demoralizing personnel. Spaatz added, 

Inasmuch as the pilots are briefed to shoot up any moving target within Germany, [emphasis added] 750 or 1000 fighter aircraft roaming deep into Germany is evidence to the German people of the GAF's weakness and no amount of Goebbels' propaganda can counteract this impression. It is my plan to keep this type of attack going. 

The rise in the number of claims of enemy aircraft damaged or destroyed on the ground by Eighth Air Force fighters amply illustrates the increasing use of the counterair sweep; from 1 plane in the last two weeks of January to 40 in February, to 113 in March and 712 in the first twelve days of Apri1. This tactic was not employed without cost. Combined with fighter attacks in support of preinvasion operations, it sent fighter losses up from 232 in March to 338 in April to 475 in May. Many of the best of the Eighth's fighter pilots lost their lives or spent the rest of the war in prisoner-of-war (POW) camps because of the intense light antiaircraft fire they encountered. Although they were hated by their pilots, these missions increased Luftwaffe attrition. 

In April 1944, the Eighth Air Force wrote off as lost or not repairable 422 heavy bombers, more than in any other month of the air war over Europe. This represented a loss of about 25 percent of the heavy bombers on hand in tactical units, an increase of 1.3 percent over March's figures. Despite the addition of 6 new heavy bombardment groups, which raised the Eighth to a total of 39 heavy bombardment groups and 1,872 heavy bombers, the sortie loss rate climbed to 3.6 percent from March's 3.3 percent. The heavy-bomber losses of the Fifteenth Air Force jumped from 99 to 214, many of those the result of POINTBLANK missions. German losses remained high, too. Some 447 Luftwaffe fighter pilots, 20 percent of the total force, would never fly combat again, nor would 43 percent of their fighter aircraft. The Luftwaffe's home fighter command lost 38 percent of its pilots. These figures had declined from the previous month, but the loss of trained pilots could never be made good.

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