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Franks, Norman L. The Battle of the Airfields, 1st January 1945. London: Grub Street, 1994
ISBN 1 898697 15 9
Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering had since October 1944 entertained the notion of hurling the entire fighter strength of the Luftwaffe in the West against the supposedly vulnerable forward airfields of the advancing Allies.
On 15 December, Generalmajor Dietrich Peltz, responsible for planning the air attack, briefed his commanders on Operation Bodenplatte. Code words would be transmitted to signal preparation and execution of Bodenplatte as soon as suitably clear weather could be forecast with assurance. Much of the Luftwaffe's carefully husbanded strength, however, was dissipated in operations in the last month of the year. "In December the Luftwaffe lost 535 fighter pilots killed, missing, or as prisoners, with nearly 200 more wounded." Despite the casualties, the long-germinating scheme finally came to fruition.
On the last day of 1944 the code words were signalled and the operation was set for the following morning: 1 January 1945.
Aircraft, including some recalled from missions already in progress, were hurriedly readied. Pilots were assembled and briefed. Although it was New Year's Eve, some flyers were ordered to bed without celebration or celebratory beverages. Others reveled until it was time to climb into their Messerschmitts and Focke Wulfs. Night fighters were prepared on each base to serve as pathfinders, leading the waves of attacking aircraft to the targets.
On the Allied side of the lines, nasty weather had sharply curtailed Allied air operations in the last days of 1944, and the promise of improved conditions for 1 January led to plans for renewed and reinvigorated missions over and behind the front, particularly in support of ground troops still fighting the Battle of the Bulge. As with the Luftwaffe, New Year's Eve festivities kept some RAF and USAAF pilots up late -- or straight through until morning -- and a few had to be pulled from their bunks at dawn. Even so, the airfields of British 2nd Tactical Air Force and American 9th Air Force were for the most part bustling with activity by the time the sun rose on the first day of the year.
Some ninety miles to the south-west of Volkel, at the base at St Denis-Westrem, near Ghent, the Polish pilots of 308 Squadron were preparing to take-off on an early show. Flying fighter-bomber Spitfire IXs, all three squadrons of Group Captain Alexsander Gabszewicz's 131 Polish Wing were due off soon after dawn. 308, under Squadron Leader Karol Pniak VM, KW, DFC, were first off at 8:15 a.m. to attack a ferry and building near Wounstrecht. One pilot who stood down was Flying Officer Wlodzimierz 'Jimmy' Link, who had gone down with a cold and sore throat, and so stayed in bed. His place was taken by Flying Officer Tadeusz Szlenkier.
Norman Franks, author of dozens of books on aviation and air combat, sets the scene on both sides of the front in western Europe at the turn of the year. The Battle of the Airfields was originally published in 1982 and reissued in an updated edition in 1994 by Grub Street with each copy signed by the author. That new edition, recently dispatched to us by Seven Hills (US distributor for Grub Street), includes new appendices and a three-page "Addendum" with additional details and clarifications concerning Luftwaffe pilots, material come to light since the original publication.
Feldwebel Gunther Egli of III/JG54 was hit by German ground fire over Rotterdam and had to jettison his long-range tank. Going into strafe Grimbergen, his D-9 was hit again by Allied fire, and he crash landed near B.60's boundary, and was taken prisoner by some Poles. He gave his unit as being JG104, the fighter school he'd attended at Furth, so as not to give his captors his real unit. Ever since then, historians have concluded that some instructors from this school had taken part in Bodenplatte (including me in the original edition!).
(See also the new Green Hearts by Axel Urbanke for details of the role played by III/JG 54 in Operation Bodenplatte.)
Franks takes each airfield in turn, chapter by chapter, describing from both attacker's and defender's perspectives the interplay of Allied missions getting airborne, German air strikes arriving in waves and attacking parked aircraft, fuel dumps, and base facilities, and losses to each side. The text is liberally sprinkled with quotes from pilots and groundcrew adding personal details.
"Ian and I had breakfast in the Mess and were just getting into a jeep to travel to the airfield, which was on the other side of the road from the Officer's Mess, when Ian, who was a pipe smoker, said he'd forgotten his pipe. He went back for it which delayed us for about ten to fifteen minutes. While he was getting it, a crowd of the squadron boys were standing around. It was a lovely clear morning, and one of the boys said, 'Christ! look at those three Hurricanes.' These were aircraft, low flying, coming across the airfield, and I yelled, 'Hurricanes be buggered-- they're 109s.'
Not every raid was as successful. At least one target strip was closed and not in use while at other airfields RAF fighters were already in the air.
"On our return from the morning sortie we had very little fuel left. Nevertheless we had height advantage and therefore were in a superior position. Despite numerical disadvantage of one to two, this enabled us to score heavily. I claimed one FW190A-8 that day. It fell near a small place called Rosdam which is some five kilometres west from Zwignaarde and two kilometres east of Deurle. A large part of the aircraft, including the engine and cockpit, got buried in the ground. This was due to the high momentum at impact and the softness of the boggy ground.
Operation Bodenplatte certainly caused some losses and concern among the Allied tactical air forces. Had the Luftwaffe fighters managed to assault the airfields half an hour earlier -- before the bulk of the Allied aircraft were in the air -- they might have wrought serious carnage. Had not the Jagdwaffe been so diluted by casualties and inexperienced, under-trained pilots, its performance might have been considerably better. As it was, the Luftwaffe lost around 300 aircraft and -- more importantly -- 200 pilots killed, missing, or prisoner in a few hours on 1 January 1945. Among them were some of the most experienced Staffel, Gruppe, and Geschwader commanders. It was a self-inflicted blow from which the Luftwaffe could not recover.
Allied losses, Franks notes, are difficult to assess. Counting machines destroyed on the ground and those downed in dogfights against the attackers, he calculates about 150 aircraft lost. Not an inconsiderable total, but the Allies possessed a wealth of replacement machines which were already being delivered by the next day.
If, therefore, the Allied aircraft lost on 1st January can be said to be about 150, and the Germans 300, Bodenplatte cost the attackers a two to one loss ratio. This in itself was a disaster but the real disaster was the loss it could not afford-- 214 operational fighter pilots!
In interesting appendices, new to the 1994 edition, Chris Thomas offers a revealing examination of RAF losses. "Some authors have hinted at a conspiracy to hide the true, unacceptable, total of aircraft destroyed." Thomas thoroughly reviews the relevant Form 78 "movement cards" and squadron Operational Records Books, carefully counts noses, presents an exhaustive compilation of strengths and losses, and concludes actual losses were very much in line with official reports. In short, there was no slaughter on the airfields, no hidden German victory, and no cover up.
A worthwhile treatment of the New Year's death ride of the Jagdwaffe.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Grub Street or its US distributor, Seven Hills.
Thanks to Seven Hills Book Distributors for providing this review copy.
Reviewed 28 July 1998
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