During 1944 the percentage of allied bombers lost to or damaged by enemy fighters declined sharply, while the percentage damaged by flak remained almost constant.
With more than one million tons of bombs dropped, close to one million civilians killed or wounded and in excess of 3,500,000 industrial and residential structures destroyed, the Allied bomber offensive was industrial war on a grand scale. The air action that unfolded over Germany has often been described as a battle between day/nightfighters and bombers. What has frequently been missed by historians, however, was the impact of German anti-aircraft defences (flak).
As told by Donald Nijboer in his book German Flak Defences Vs Allied Heavy Bombers, by late 1943 the USAAF began to take the science of ‘flak analysis’ seriously after it had realized, to its cost, that the Flakwaffe posed a far greater threat than had original been estimated. The number of heavy bombers shot down and damaged was increasing month on month, forcing a change in tactics and the use of electronic countermeasures. In October of that year the USAAF introduced a gun-laying radar jammer codenamed Carpet I, and two months later, on Dec. 20, the Eighth Air Force used chaff for the first time. While these methods reduced losses, they were never totally effective.
In November 1944 Headquarters, Eighth Air Force Operational Analysis Section produced an in-depth study titled ‘An Evaluation Taken to Protect Bombers from Loss and Damage’. The results were sobering. New tactics were recommended, but many of the old methods remained. The report read, in part, as follows:
During the past year enemy flak defenses have been concentrated and our bombers faced many more guns. The percentage of bombers lost to or damaged by enemy fighters has declined sharply, while the percentage lost to flak has declined only moderately. The percentage damaged by flak has remained almost constant. As a result, there has been a steady increase in the relative importance of flak until in June, July and August 1944, flak accounted for about two-thirds of the 700 bombers lost and 98 per cent of the 13,000 bombers damaged.
In number, the current rate is startling. From 3,360 to 4,453 bombers have returned with flak damage in each of the six months ending September 1944 — a monthly average just about double the total number damaged by flak in the entire first year of operations. All our efforts to reduce flak damage have apparently been offset by the fact that we have increasingly flown over targets defended by more and more guns. Further, enemy equipment, gunnery and ammunition have probably improved. The 60-gun target of a year ago is likely to be defended by 300 guns today. This makes it essential that we increase our efforts to decrease flak risks by re-examining the tactics we have been using and such new tactics as offer real possibilities.
The principal tactics to reduce flak risks are:
- 1. Avoid flying over flak defenses en route to and from the target
- 2. Enter and leave the target area on course, which cross over the weakest flak defenses in the shortest time possible — i.e. with allowances for wind vector.
- 3. Fly at the highest altitude consistent with other defensive and offensive considerations.
- 4. Plan the spacing and axes of attack of bombing units to make the fullest use of the radio countermeasures Window and Carpet.
- 5. Minimize the number of bombers flying together as a bombing unit.
- 6. Increase the spread of the entire formation in altitude and breadth to reduce the risk from barrage fire.
- 7. Close up in trail so as to reduce the time between attacks of successive bombing units, and thus saturate the enemy flak defenses when they are employing continuously pointed or predicted concentration firing tactics.
- 8. Plan evasive action when flying over known anti-aircraft positions (except on a bomb run) to make it difficult or impossible for the enemy to get accurate data for continuously pointed or predicted concentration firing tactics.
Dismissed as ineffective and a waste of resources, the Flakwaffe in fact made a major contribution to the defence of the Third Reich. At least half of the USAAF aircraft shot down over Germany fell to flak (5,380), and it was estimated that flak accounted for 1,229 aircraft lost by Bomber Command between January 1942 and April 1945. Anti-aircraft fire had two roles to play. One was to shoot down enemy aircraft and the other, more important, role was to force bombers to drop their ordnance sooner or from a higher altitude, thus reducing bombing accuracy. Flak also damaged aircraft, causing them to slow down and lose altitude, making bombers easy pickings for marauding German fighters.
As General Henry H. ‘Hap’ Arnold, the commanding general of the USAAF, remarked: ‘We never conquered the German flak artillery.’
German Flak Defences Vs Allied Heavy Bombers is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.