Junkers Ju 88 as a night fighter

The Ju 88 ended the Second World War as the most important German night fighter, despite being developed as a bomber. Early in the development of the Ju 88 it became clear that it would be just as fast as the Bf 110 heavy fighter, and Junkers worked on producing a fighter version of their fast bomber. A small number of Ju 88C-0 pre-production aircraft saw service as ground attack aircraft in Poland in 1939, but during the first part of the war only a tiny number of Ju 88 fighters were built – only 130 had been built by the end of 1941.

The German night fighter force came into existence in the summer of 1940 after Bomber Command began attacking German industry at night. Even then, only small numbers of Ju 88s were involved. II./NJG 1 received the type in July 1940, before being redesignated as I./NJG 2 in September. For the next year it flew intruder missions over British airfields, before being transferred to the Mediterranean in October 1941.

The Ju 88 came into its own as a night fighter during 1943. The German night fighter defences were based around a series of ground control stations that guided the night fighter units onto their targets (this system was known as the Kammhuber line in Britain, after the commander of the system, or the Himmelbett system in Germany). This system worked well with the relatively short ranged Bf 110.

On 9 May 1943 a Ju 88R-1 landed in Scotland. It carried the key German radar systems, and allowed the British to perfect their “Window” system. This involved dropping bundles of metal foil out of the bombers, cluttering up German radar screens. It was first used on 24 July 1943 and blinded the Himmelbett system.

The German response was the Wilde Sau (Wild Boar) system, in which individual night fighters loitered over potential targets, attacking targets of opportunity and landing where ever they were when petrol ran short. This required a plane with more endurance than the Bf 110 – the Ju 88. In 1943 production doubled, to over 700 and in 1944 reached a peak of 2,518.

By the end of 1943 new radar equipment had been developed that was unaffected by British jamming. This allowed the night fighters to adopt a new system – Zahme Sau, (Tame Boar). This was designed to set up long running battles by directing night fighters against the bomber stream as soon as it crossed into German territory. Carrying FuG 200 Lichtenstein SN-2 radar, the Flensburg system, which could detect the RAF’s Monica tail warning radar and Naxos, which detected the H2S ground radar used by RAF pathfinders, and armed with upward firing Scräge Musik guns that allowed the fighter to destroy the British bombers from below, the Luftwaffe began to inflict unsustainably high losses on RAF Bomber Command. During the Battle of Berlin of early 1944 losses rose to around 10% per mission.

Despite these heavy losses, Bomber Command was only withdrawn from the skies over German when control was taken away from “Bomber” Harris during the months before D-Day. While the British heavy bombers took part in the campaign against communication links in France, the German night fighter units rested and built up their strength. Confidence was high, but before the heavy bomber campaign resumed disaster struck.

On 13 July 1944 a Ju 88G-1 landed at Woodbridge, Essex, having followed a reciprocal compass course when the crew mis-read their compass and were flying north when they thought they were flying south. The captured aircraft carried SN-2 and Flensburg kits. The RAF was able to change the length of the metal strips used in Window to make it effective against the SN-2 radar, and simply removed the Monica system from their aircraft. When the bombing campaign resumed in the second half of 1944, the German night fighters were once again almost blinded.

Although new radar systems were introduced, the German night fighter units were soon hit by a series of blows from which they never recovered. The invasion of France and the Allied advance towards German saw large parts of their radar network captured. Fuel shortages began to limit the amount of time the night fighters could spend in the air. As the American escort fighters began to destroy the Luftwaffe’s day fighter forces, night fighter units were ordered to join in the fight against the 8th Air Force, suffering heavy losses and achieving little. At the start of 1945 the Luftwaffe still had 913 serviceable night fighters. By the start of April that figure had been reduced to only 563, most of which were grounded by a lack of fuel.

The Ju 88 was a potentially deadly night fighter, but one that appeared in significant numbers too late in the war to do anything other than briefly increase the cost of the British heavy bombing campaign.

Year

Number Built

Type

Running Total

1941

65

C

128

1942

257

C

385

1943

706

C and R

1091

1944

2,518

R, mostly G

3609

1945

355

G

3964

Aircraft of the Luftwaffe 1935-1945, Jean-Denis G.G. Lepage. Combines a good background history of the Luftwaffe with a comprehensive examination of its aircraft, from the biplanes of the mid 1930s to the main wartime aircraft and on to the seemingly unending range of experimental designs that wasted so much effort towards the end of the war. A useful general guide that provides an impressively wide range of information on almost every element of the Luftwaffe (Read Full Review)
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (30 June 2007), Junkers Ju 88 as a night fighter, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_ju88_night_fighter.html

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