Operation Bodenplatte, 1 January 1945

Operation Bodenplatte (1 January 1945) was a large Luftwaffe attack on Allied airfields in Belgium, Holland and France in which a large number of Allied aircraft were destroyed on the ground, but the Luftwaffe lost a large number of irreplaceable veteran pilots, a blow from which its fighter force never recovered.

During 1944 German military production actually reached its highest level of the entire war, with nearly 25,000 fighter aircraft produced! This included nearly 13,000 Bf 109s and 7,500 Fw 190s. However although production was high so were losses, and the Germans were losing control of the skies. Adolf Galland came up with a plan to at least win some time. He wanted to gather a force of up to 2,000 fighters, keep them out of normal combat, and use them to attack one USAAF raid in overwhelming strength. He hoped to be able to shoot down around 400-500 bombers in a single ‘great blow’, which he believed would effectively knock the Eighth Air Force out of the battle for some time.

By mid-December Galland had managed to gather a force of 3,000 operational fighters, although many of their pilots were very inexperienced, and fuel supplies were very low. His plan for an attack on the bombers was scrapped in favour of a single massive blow on the Allied tactical air forces, the plan of Generalmajor Dietrich Peltz. His logic was that this attack would avoid the increasingly unequal battles between well trained Allied pilots and the increasingly inexperienced Luftwaffe, and would also use less of the scarce fuel supplies.

Although the attack ended as a costly failure, it was well planned. Eleven Allied airfields were chosen as targets. Careful routes was laid out, and the largely inexperienced fighter pilots would be guided to their targets by aircraft from the night fighter units. Ju 88s from NJG 1, NJG 5, NJG 6, NJG 100 and NJG 1010 were to act as pathfinders.

The original plan was for the attack to take place on the same day as the start of the battle of the Bulge, 16 December and Peltz briefed the key fighter commanders on 14 December. However the same poor weather that kept the Allies grounded at the start of the battle also affected the Germans, and the operation finally took place on 1 January 1945. By this point the Ardennes offensive had already failed, and it had thus lost much of its purpose.

Some of the carefully gathered fighters were lost before the day. On 23 December a large force of fighters was used to oppose Allied heavy bombers as they attacked the rail links heading to the Ardennes. 800 German fighters were committed to the fight on this day. On 24 December the Germans were forced to react when the Eighth Air Force sent 1,900 heavy bombers to attack tactical targets. On 25 December they made another attempt to stop the heavy bombers, but over these three days only 13 heavy bombers were lost. The Americans claimed to have shot down 220 German fighters over the same three days.

The Germans recorded suffering 98 casualties on 23 December and 106 casualties on 24 December. Some units suffered very heavily, with JG 26 losing a dozen of the new Fw 190Ds in three days, and III/ JG 54 losing thirty aircraft in a single day on 29 December. In December the Luftwaffe lost 500 pilots dead or missing, 194 wounded and 35 known to be prisoners. Of these 316 of the dead or missing came in the last nine days of the year. Amongst the month’s losses were two gruppenkommandeurn and Major Johannes Wiese, Kommodore of JG 77. Even before Bodenplatte Galland’s carefully horded fighter force was being whittled away.

3 Jagddivision

In the north 3 Jagddivision attacked 2nd Tactical Air Force using JG 1, 3, 6, 26, 27 and 77 and two Gruppen from JG 54 which were operating with JG 26. Their targets were the airfields at Antwerp, Brussels, St. Denis-Westrem, Maldegem, Ursel, Eindhoven and Volkel. This was the main part of the German attack.

The attack on Antwerp/ Deurne hit No.146 Wing, but only one Typhoon from No.266 Squadron and two from No.257 Squadron were damaged.

At Eindhoven two Canadian Typhoon squadrons suffered very heavy losses of aircraft. Some success was also achieved at Brussels and St. Denis-Westram. The attacks on Antwerp, Le Culot and Volkel were disastrous.

JG 1

JG 1 attacked the airfields at Irsel, Maldegem and St. Denis Westrem.

Irsel (or Ursel) was a mixed USAAF/ RAF base with a small number of Mosquitoes and Lancasters present. Maldegam was a RAF Spitfire base. They were to be attacked by Stab, I and III./JG 1. At both places the Germans were dragged into dogfights and suffered heavy losses. In return they destroyed 16 aircraft at Maldegem and six at Ursel.

II/JG 1 attacked St. Denijs Westrem, the home of the three Polish squadrons of No.131 Wing (Nos.302, 308 and 317 Squadrons). Here the Poles had also been sent on an early morning raid, and returned to base during the attack. The Poles claimed almost 20 Fw 190s, and the Germans acknowledged 17 losses, 47% of the aircraft involved! The Germans shot down two of the Polish Spitfires and destroyed eighteen more on the ground.

JG 1 lost 25 pilots and 29 out of 70 aircraft, although did claim to have destroyed 60 aircraft.

JG 3

JG 3 carried out the attack on Eindhoven. Here a large number of Typhoons were destroyed, but the Germans lost two of their staffelkapitans.  The base was home two eight Typhoon squadrons from Nos.124 and 143 Wings, three Spitfire units from No.39 (Reconnaissance) Wing, No.83 Group’s Communications Squadron and No.403 Repair and Salvage Unit. Some of their aircraft were already in the air, but eight Typhoons from No.438 Squadron and eight from No.440 Squadron were caught lined up on the runway ready to take off. Flt Lt Pete Wilson, the commander of No.438 Squadron, was mortally wounded in the initial attack. During the attack 60 of the 125 Typhoons at the base were damaged, although of these 24 were repaired locally and ten elsewhere, leaving 17 destroyed and nine damaged too badly to be worth repairing. The PR unit lost about a dozen aircraft, although this did include some that were about to be replaced. Even here the Germans didn’t get away entirely without losses, as some of returning Allied aircraft attacked a formation of 15 Fw 190s on their way home and claimed four of them.  However the German losses here were lower than in most cases, with around 15-16 of the 81 pilots involved killed or captured.

JG 3 was also meant to attack Gilze-Rijen but this base was almost untouched, with only one aircraft destroyed and one damaged.

JG 6

JG 6 failed to find their target at Volkel and none of the aircraft based there were damaged or lost. Some did attack the RCAF base at Heesch, which they flew over while attempting to find Volkel, but most of the aircraft based here were already in the air. No.401 Squadron was about to take off, and scrambled to intercept, resulting in a dogfight. This may well have been the fight in which JG 6’s commander, Kommodore Kogler¸ was forced to bail out. JG 6 lost 23 pilots killed or captured from the 78 who took part in the mission, and achieved nothing.

JG 26 and III./JG 54

JG 26 and parts of JG 54 were to attack two targets – Brussels-Evere and Brussels-Grimbergen. Evere was a shared USAAF and RAF fighter base, Grimbergen was a USAAF B-17 base. The unit was able to put 110 aircraft into the air, one of the larger contributions to the operation. They were supported by 17 Fw 190s from III./JG 54

On the day of the attack the RAF had 60 Spitfires from No.127 Wing at Evere, while the Americans had a number of B-17s and B-24s on the field. In total there were around 100 Allied aircraft present.

In contrast Grimbergen was almost deserted.

I./JG 26 and III./JG 54 were to attack Grimbergen, while II. and III./JG 26 hit Evere. The exact number of aircraft involved in each attack is someone unclear. However in both cases quite a few aircraft were lost or had to abandon the mission before arrival.

The attack on Evere was one of the more successful missions. The Allies lost 32 fighters, 22 twin engined transport aircraft and 13 four engined bombers. The fighter losses included twelve from No.127 Wing, so the rest must have come from No.147 and No.271 Squadrons, which were visiting on the day.

On the German side II./JG 26 lost 13 Fw 190s damaged and 2 destroyed, and nine pilots killed or captured while III./JG 26 lost 6 Bf 109s and four pilots. This was thus one of the more successful parts of Bodenplatte, but even here the Germans lost more pilots than the Allies.

I./ JG 26 and III/.JG 54

I./ JG 26 and III/.JG 54 attacked Grimbergen, but discovered that the airfield was almost empty. They destroyed half a dozen aircraft parked between the hangers, but lost five dead, four missing and one wounded. Amongst the dead was the commander of 11.Staffel. The gruppe had lost around 60% of its aircraft, and wouldn’t be operational until the end of January

JG 27

All four Gruppen of JG 27 took part in the attack. They contributed just over 70 Bf 109s to an attack on the RAF base at Brussels-Melsbrock, supported by 15 Fw 190s from IV./JG 54. JG 27’s route took it from its bases around Osnabruck, over Utrecht and towards Melsbrock from the north. The airfield was the base of three Mitchell squadrons and 34(PR) Wing. Two of the Mitchell squadrons were away on a bombing mission, but the PR wing lost eleven Wellingtons, five Mosquitoes and three Spitfires destroyed. Four more Mitchells, two Spitfires, nine communications aircraft, one Stirling and several US aircraft from other units were also destroyed. Two Spitfires and an Auster were shot down in the air. On the German side JG 27 lost 18 pilots killed, captured or wounded, with 11 of the loses coming on the approach or return flights. Hautpmann Hanns-Heinze Dudck, Kommandeur of IV. Gruppe, was taken prisoner after he was forced to bail out over Venray.

JG 77

JG 77’s targets was the RAF airfield at Antwerp-Deurne (B.70), although the unit also attacked Woendsdrecht (B.79). An inconclusive fight developed over Woendsdrecht, while the main part of the force went on to Deurne. Nine squadrons were based here, giving the Germans a very large number of targets, but they only managed to destroy 12 Spitfires in a very ineffective attack. Two more were lost in the dogfight. The Germans lost 11 pilots from the 59 involved, one of the lower loss rates.

Jafu Mittelrhein

In the centre of the front JG 2, 4 and 11 and elements from SG 4 were to attack the American airfields at St. Trond, Le Culot and Asch.

 

JG 2 and SG 4

JG 2 and SG 4 were to attack the USAAF base at St. Trond (Sint Truiden).

JG 2 suffered heavy losses. They lost more than a dozen aircraft on the way in, including that of the Gruppenkommandeur of II./JG 2, Hauptmann George Schroder, who was forced to bail out near Verviers. The defenders of St. Trond were alerted to the attack, and the Germans came under heavy AA fire. They suffered more losses on the way out, and by the time they were back at base had suffered 40% casualties, with 33 pilots dead or missing (including ten PoWs) and four wounded. In return they had destroyed less than a dozen P-47s from the 48th and 404th Fighter Groups, all on the ground.

SG 4’s part in the operation began badly. Their mission was to fly from their base at Cologne, pass around the northern flank of the Ardennes battlefield and join 90 fighters from JG 2 coming from Frankfurt. The combined force would then attack the airfield at St. Trond in Belgium. However the aircraft from III./ SG 4 came under flak fire before reaching the rendezvous point and lost four aircraft. Amongst the dead was the recently appointed group commander, Oberst Alfred Druschel.

JG 4

JG 4 was to attack at Le Culot, but this mission ended in disaster. Only around 12-15% of the unit appears to have attacked their target, and in return they suffered a 47% loss rate! Some of their aircraft got lost at attacked the RAF fighter base at Ophoven and others hit St. Trond and Asch. However they lost 17 pilots killed or missing and around 26 aircraft.

JG 11

JG 11’s target was the USAAF base at Asch. The unit was only able to commit 41 Fw 190s and 20 Bf 109s to the attack, with the Fw 190s attacking the airfield while the Bf 109s provided top cover. On the way in the unit flew over Ophoven, and half of the aircraft attacked there instead. When the other half reached Asch they found the 487th Squadron of the 352nd Fighter Group ready to take off and aircraft from the 366th Fighter Group already in the air. In the resulting battle the Americans lost one P-47 but claimed 35 victories. The Germans actually lost 28 aircraft and 24 pilots, with about 14 of the aircraft lost in the battle at Asch. 

The raid did have one later victim. That afternoon the Typhoons of Nos.164 and 183 Squadrons of No.123 Wing were arriving at the US airfield after carrying out a raid and were mistaken for a second wave of Germans. One Typhoon was shot down by a US P-51 after the incoming Typhoons were mistaken for Fw 190s and two others were damaged by the German attack. F/O Donald Webber was killed in the incident.

5. Jagddivision

In the south 5 Jagddivision used JG 53 to attack the 9th Air Force bases at Metz. The unit lost 30 Bf 109s out of the 80 that took part in the attack, a loss rate of 48%. One of the three gruppen involved was intercepted by US fighters, and lost 11 of its 25 aircraft without achieving anything. The other two attacked the airfield at Metz-Frescaty, where they destroyed around 22 P-47s and damaged another 11. However they lost another 19 aircraft. In total JG 53 lost 17 pilots, almost a quarter of the total involved.

 

Overall results

Although the Germans destroyed more aircraft than they lost (although only just), the operation was a disaster for the Luftwaffe. The raid cost them over 200 pilots, including twenty two unit leaders. In contrast most of the Allied aircraft were destroyed on the ground, and only a relative handful of Allied pilots were killed. At this stage in the war both sides could easily replace lost aircraft, but the Germans couldn’t replace their experienced pilots. Many of the units involved in Bodenplatte never recovered from the losses they suffered on 1 January.

The exact number of Allied aircraft destroyed in the attack is surprisingly unclear. Many of the airfields that were attacked were occupied by multiple units, while not every aircraft present on the airfields belonged to the units based there (this includes visiting aircraft, aircraft attached directly to the airfield itself, damaged aircraft being repaired and obsolete aircraft ready to be returned home). In addition some authors have used German claims, which were inevitably higher than the Allied figures. Figures could also change over time – an aircraft that was reported as simply damaged on 1 January could have been written a few days later and moved into the destroyed list.

The official figures reported by the RAF and USAAF come to around 173 aircraft destroyed and another 137 damaged on the ground, some of which were later written off. However this probably excludes all US 8th Air Force losses, and underestimates the 9th Air Force losses. Many attempts have been made to produce a more accurate figure, and the general consensus appears to be that losses were nearer to 300 aircraft destroyed and 200 damaged, roughly equally split between the RAF and USAAF. Another fifteen aircraft were shot down and ten damaged in the air. Ten pilots are known to have been killed in their aircraft, although this does include the two No.438 Squadron pilots killed while attempting to take off.

On the German side the number of casualties appears to be fairly clear, with 143 pilots killed or missing and another 70 captured, for a total of 213 who didn’t return. Another 21 were wounded. Most of the units involved in the raid were devastated by it – JG 4 suffered 42% casualties and JGs 1, 2, 6, 11, 26 and 53 each suffered over 30%. To make things worse, many of the casualties came amongst the most experienced men in the units, and included three Geschwaderkommodre, five Gruppenkommandeurs and fourteen Staffelkapitan.

The loses included:

Geschwaderkommodre: Major Gunther Specht, Kommodore JG 11; Oberst Alfred Druschel, Kommodore of SG 4

Gruppenkommandeurs: Hauptmann George Hackbarth, I/ JG 1 ( killed); Hauptmann George Schroder, II./JG 2 (POW); Helmut Kuhle, III/ JG 6; Hptm Horst-Gunther von Fassong, III Gruppe/ JG 11 (killed); Hautpmann Hanns-Heinze Dudeck, IV. Gruppe/ JG 27 (POW)

Staffelkapitan: Lt Hans-Ulrich Jung, 7./JG 3; Oblt Eberhard Fischler Graf von Treuberg, 11./ JG 3; Hauptmann Ewald Trost (?/ JG 6) (POW); Hauptmann Norbert Katz (?/ JG 6)  (killed); Lother Gerlach (?/ JG 6) (missing); Willi Bottlander, Staffelkapitan of 11./ JG54; Oblt Heinrich Hackler, Staffelkapitan of 11./ JG 77

The Luftwaffe did manage a few more days of significant operations in January. On 6 January they flew 150-175 sorties to support Operation Nordwind in Alsace. On 14 January they suffered 139 casualties – 69 on home defence and the rest on the western front. Loses included 28 of the new Fw 190D-9s. On 16 January they put up an unexpectedly determined resistance to the day’s fighter bomber operations but again at heavy cost. However by end of the month Hitler had lost all confidence in the ability of the fighter units to operate on the Western Front. At the same time the Soviet Vistula-Oder offensive was directly threatening Berlin, so JG 1, 3, 4, 6 11 and 77 and I and II/ JG 301 were ordered east. The already weak fighter forces in the west were almost eliminated, leaving the Allies free to roam the skies over Germany. The failure of Bodenplatte and the removal of Galland from his post as head of the fighter force also triggered the Mutiny of the Aces of 22 January 1945 when a group of leading aces led by Oberst Gunther Lutzow and supported by Steinhoff, Trautloft, Neumann and Rodel confronted Goering with a list of demands. Unsurprising these demands were rejected, and the aces were sent away and threatened with court martials.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (12 April 2021), Operation Bodenplatte, 1 January 1945 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/operation_bodenplatte.html

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