Monday, 25 April 2011

The Luftwaffe's Steinbock Offensive on Britain in 1944

As 1944 opened the long-planned invasion of France by combined British, Empire and American armies was becoming close to reality. England was groaning under the weight of men, tanks, guns and supplies – a contemporary joke had it that southern England might soon sink.

By January 1944 Fighter Command had achieved a clear superiority over the Luftwaffe in the skies over Britain, the North Sea, the Low Countries and northern France. That superiority had not yet become the total control of the skies that the planners of D-Day demanded had to be achieved, at least temporarily, but things were moving in the right direction. Yet even as the Luftwaffe was being defeated in the skies, Fighter Command was broken up.

On 15 November 1943 RAF Fighter Command was divided into two. The nightfighter Beaufighters and Mosquitoes, plus the older models of Spitfire and other fighters were formed into the Air Defence of Great Britain (ADGB) force. Their task was to defend the skies over Britain from attack by German bombers by day or night.

The increasingly effective ground attack Typhoons and Hurribombers were allocated to the 2nd Tactical Air Force (TAF), along with some lighter bombers from Bomber Command. Their role was to attack those targets on the Continent that it was necessary to destroy before the invasion could take pale. These were chiefly transport links, but also coastal defences and supply depots.

The commander of Fighter Command, Leigh-Mallory, was transferred to take over the 2nd TAF, while the ADGB was given to Air Marshal Sir Roderic Hill. He would soon be very busy.

Soon after dusk on 17th January British radar station began to pick up large formations of German aircraft taking off from the Low Countries and Denmark. Then everything suddenly went blank. The Germans had developed a new and highly effective method of jamming radar, which they named düppel. Behind that mask a total of 227 bombers flew towards London.

Fortunately for the British, the jamming affected only the ground based radar, not the air-to-air radar sets carried by the Beaufighter and Mosquito nightfighters. In all 25 German aircraft were brought down by anti-aircraft guns or nightfighters. This loss rate of over 10% could not be sustained, but the new assault had been ordered personally by Hitler.

This Steinbock offensive was designed to damage cities and towns in England in the hope that this would somehow delay the expected Allied invasion of France. In fact it caused the deaths of 1556 civilians, and seriously injured more than 3,000. The losses to the Luftwaffe were heavy, around 300 bombers shot down out of 700 employed. The offensive petered out in early May.


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