‘The Luftwaffe received its death blow at the Ardennes offensive. In unfamiliar conditions and with insufficient training and combat experience, our numerical strength had no effect,’ German Ace Adolf Galland.
On Jan. 1, 1945, it was not a happy New Year’s Day for the Allied Air Forces on the continent of Europe or for the German Luftwaffe. That morning the Luftwaffe launched its planned Unternehmen Bodenplatte (Operation Baseplate), a surprise, low-level, mass air attack by some 850 fighters and fighter-bombers – mostly but not exclusively Focke-Wulf Fw 190s and Messerschmitt Bf 109s – against 17 Allied airfields in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France.
According to RAF Memorial Flight Club website, the aim was to regain dominance of the air by destroying as many Allied aircraft as possible on the ground, along with stores, fuel supplies and airfield infrastructure. Every Luftwaffe fighter and fighter-bomber unit along the Western Front was involved, along with night-fighter units redeployed for the operation, with Junkers Ju 88s acting as pathfinders. Secrecy was so tight that not all German ground forces had been informed of the operation and some Luftwaffe formations suffered casualties from their own ‘flak’. British intelligence (‘Ultra’) had tracked the movement and build-up of the Luftwaffe forces, but it had not been realised that the operation was imminent and so surprise was achieved.
Nevertheless, as explained by Malcom V Lowe in his book Bf 109 JABO UNITS IN THE WEST, the results of the Bodenplatte attack were mixed. ln some cases considerable damage was caused, while at other locations very little was militarily accomplished. Although the whole operation achieved tactical surprise, and appears to have come as a nasty shock to the Allies, it was arguably a strategic defeat and the cost to the Luftwaffe was heavy. The losses of Bf 109 and Fw 190 airframes could be made good given time, but the death or capture of experienced airmen was irreversible. Even the loss of `green’ pilots was a blow to the already depleted Jagdwaffe.
American light anti-aircraft batteries had taken a considerable toll on the attackers, who also lost some of their number to their own flak units. USAAF and RAF fighters also proved to be highly capable opponents where they were able to intercept the raiders from a position of advantage.
An official listing of credited air-to-air claims by USAAF pilots was published and subsequently revised following the war. This confirmed 63 victories, plus six half-shares, for American fighter pilots on Jan. 1, 1945. Of course, this included Bf 109s, Fw 190s and their twin-engined pathfinders too. These claims represent the true scale of the Luftwaffe’s crippling losses during Bodenplatte. Without a doubt, in some cases considerable damage had been inflicted on several Allied airfields, but by that late stage in the war these losses of aircraft and infrastructure could easily be made up.
At the time of Bodenplatte, Generalleutnant Adolf Galland was head of the German fighter force (General der Jagdflieger). Suitably unhappy, he had this to say following the operation;
‘The Luftwaffe received its death blow at the Ardennes offensive. In unfamiliar conditions and with insufficient training and combat experience, our numerical strength had no effect. It was decimated while in transfer, on the ground, in large air battles, especially during Christmas, and was finally destroyed. Operation Ground Slab [Bodenplatte] was the conclusion of this tragic chapter.
`In the early morning of January 1, 1945, every aircraft took off. They went into a large-scale well-prepared, low-level attack on Allied airfields in the north of France, Belgium and Holland. With this action, the enemy’s air force was to be paralysed in one stroke. In good weather this large-scale action should have been made correspondingly earlier. The briefing order demanded the very greatest effort from all units. According to records, about 400 Allied aeroplanes were destroyed, but the enemy was able to replace material losses quickly. In this forced action we sacrificed our last substance. Because of terrific defensive anti-aircraft fire from the attacked airfields, from flying through barrages intended for V1 bombs, and from enemy fighters, and because of fuel shortage, we had a total loss of nearly 300 fighter pilots, including 59 leaders. Only by radically dissolving some units was it possible to retain the remainder.’
The practically needless loss of so many aircraft and their pilots for so little gain was a hammer blow for the Luftwaffe. Sorely needed resources for the Reichsvertridigung had been lost, including the death or capture of invaluable experienced pilots. The losses sustained by the Bf 109 units, together with those flying the Fw 190, were a disaster for the Germans.
Bf 109 JABO UNITS IN THE WEST is published by Osprey Publishing and is available to order here.
Photo credit: Gareth Hector via RAF Memorial Flight Club, Crown Copyright, German Federal Archive via Wikipedia and U.S. Air Force