AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
Editorial Abstract: Is the United States ready to deal with an opponent who employs asymmetric strategies in an attempt to wage a "poor man's air war . This case study of the Luftwaffe's efforts to cope with the loss of daylight air superiority in 1944-45 shows how a military organization, faced with the neutralization of most of its weaponry and the increasing irrelevance of its doctrine, may attempt to prolong its useful life. The ability to inflict unexpected casualties on the US Air Force, its coalition partners, or friendly populations might pay disproportionate dividends to a future adversary.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN an air force loses the ability to gain and maintain air superiority? How might an energetic and resourceful air force leadership deal with this situation? As the United States prepares to face twenty-first-century adversaries, it is extremely unlikely that it will encounter an air force able to match the US Air Force in terms of technology, training, numbers, and combat power. However, the United States may well have to deal with opponents who employ asymmetric strategies in an attempt to wage a "poor man's air war."
A study of the Luftwaffe's efforts to cope with the loss of daylight air superiority in 1944-45 is of more than historical interest. It serves as a case study of how a military organization, faced with neutralization of most of its weaponry and the increasing irrelevance of its doctrine, may attempt to prolong its useful life. Since the United States may encounter such an adversary in the future, an examination of how a past foe coped with this state of affairs may enlighten contemporary air and space planners.
The Loss of Air Superiority over the Homeland
When the Anglo-American bomber offensive began seriously to threaten Germany's control of its airspace, the Luftwaffe leadership responded energetically. Gen Gunther Korten, chief of the Luftwaffe General Staff, set to the task of creating "an umbrella of fighter aircraft over the Reich." Korten belonged to a "defensive clique" that included Col Adolf Galland--the inspector general of fighters--and Field Marshal Erhard Milch--the chief of air armament. Korten beefed up the homeland air-defense organization, finally creating Air Fleet Reich--equivalent to a numbered air force--which centralized all flak, fighter, and command-and-control functions. At the same time, and in keeping with basic Luftwaffe doctrine, Korten's reforms also called for strong bomber forces in both the eastern and western theaters in order to permit the Luftwaffe to carry out strategic operations. (1) Even so, Korten's program brought about an increase in the strength and efficacy of Germany's air defenses.
Korten's organizational reforms were matched by Milch in fighter production. In partnership with Albert Speer, the armaments minister, Milch minimized the inefficiency of the German aircraft industry. Through stringent measures, he was able to boost aircraft output without increasing consumption of raw materials. (2) By June 1943, German factories were producing over 1,100 fighters per month. In March 1944, Milch and Speer set up a joint "Fighter Staff" with far-reaching authority over production, plant dispersal, construction of bombproof factories, raw material, and labor matters. German aircraft production finally peaked in September 1944 at just over 3,700, despite months of Allied air attacks. (3) The production reflects the underlying tension between the need to strengthen the home-defense forces and the desire to retain an offensive capability. Thus, the Germans also manufactured thousands of bombers (whose production consumed far more raw materials and factory floor space than did fighter aircraft) in 1943-44. (4) The quest for offensive power did its part to make the loss of air superiority permanent.
The Luftwaffe's operational response to the crisis was no less energetic. It placed great hopes in its basic interceptors, the Messerschmitt (Me) Bf 109G and Focke-Wulf Fw 190A. These aircraft initially lacked the necessary armament to deal with American heavy bombers, so later variants carried 13 mm machine guns and 30 mm cannons in place of the earlier 7.9 mm and 20 mm weaponry. Both types could also carry 21 cm rocket mortars to break up enemy bomber formations from well outside the radius of their defensive fire-power. The German fighters would then pick off the stragglers at will.
Yet, these modifications also hastened the loss of air superiority once American long-range escort fighters appeared on the scene. The heavily laden 109s and 190s were severely handicapped in combat with their less encumbered American adversaries--a problem the Luftwaffe command never solved. One attempted remedy involved the development of specially stripped fighter aircraft with superior high-altitude performance and air-to-air capability. These included Bf 109G and K fighters with special superchargers and methanol and nitrous oxide injection, as well as the "long-nosed" Fw 190D and Ta 152. These vastly improved interceptors appeared only in small numbers; coordinating the "light" and "heavy" aircraft proved extremely difficult--and tactically ineffective--in practice.
Another proposal that has attracted post-war attention was Galland's suggestion to mass some 2,000-3,000 German fighters for a knock-out blow. His goal was to commit this force against an American bomber formation in order to "shoot down an approximate total of 400-500 four-engined bombers against a loss of about 400 aircraft and about 100-150 pilots." (5) A victory on this scale would cause the Americans to cease daylight penetrations, restoring air superiority at a single stroke. In Galland's view, Hitler scuttled this potentially decisive action by earmarking his carefully husbanded fighter reserve for support of the Ardennes counteroffensive in December 1944.
One has reasons to doubt the potential effectiveness of the "Great Blow." While the operation was in the planning stages, considerable portions of the fighter reserve engaged American formations, but even under favorable conditions, the Germans did not down a significant number of American aircraft. (6) The standards of German fighter-pilot training were so low by fall 1944 that the bulk of the 2,000+ pilots participating in the proposed operation would have been incapable of operating effectively. In particular, the task of assembling and controlling such a large quantity of aircraft in a single operation was probably beyond the Luftwaffe's capability in late 1944.
With conventional German tactics proving increasingly futile, desperate expedients arose. In summer 1944, the Luftwaffe command created the "assault fighter groups." Modified Fw 190s, with increased armor plating and packing heavy armament, formed into "flying wedges" of 48 aircraft. The massed juggernaut, heavily escorted by conventional fighters, would approach a B-17 combat box from directly astern. The rationale was simple: to ensure the greatest possible number of kills, shatter enemy morale, and disrupt formation discipline. As one Sturmgruppe pilot recalled, "We positioned ourselves about 100 yards behind the bombers before opening fire. From such a range we could hardly miss, and as the 3 cm explosive …