Allied Attacks on the Luftwaffe and the Aviation Industry

While the grinding air campaign on the Eastern Front continued, the failures of the Luftwaffe enabled the western Allies to strengthen their strategic air campaign against Germany. In 1943 Allied air power started to target aviation production facilities directly. The RAF bombed some facilities connected to the aviation industry in 1940–1942, before the arrival of the USAAF. These attacks were mostly inaccurate, because of the RAF’s inability to attack precision targets at night. Therefore, the RAF carpet-bombed cities related to the aviation industry and not the factories. Furthermore, these sporadic attacks were not part of a general bombing policy targeting the aviation industry.Another mode of operation used by the RAF from 1941 in an effort to weaken the Luftwaffe was to offensively engage German fighters over western France by commencing fighter sweeps. These operations failed largely because most German fighter units had been transferred by that time to the East. Additionally, the RAF suffered heavy losses in the process. The turning point came in 1942. While British Bomber Command increased its carpet-bombing of German cities at night, the USAAF’s Eighth Air Force, operating from England, started its own campaign of daylight precision bombing, using bombers heavily armed with defensive armament and equipped with the modern Norden bombsight. As it built up its force throughout 1942, the Eighth Air Force restricted its attacks to targets in Western Europe and refrained from engaging the heavy defenses of the Reich. The American bombers usually flew their missions without fighter escort and relied on their own defensive armament in order to deal with enemy fighters. Although early attacks concentrated mainly on submarine-related targets in France, from August 1942 the Americans started bombing aviation factories producing for the Germans in France, the Netherlands and Belgium. Among the attacked factories was Fokker’s factory near Amsterdam, the Gnôme et Rhône aero-engine factory at Le Mans (attacked twice), and a couple of Erla repair shops in Belgium.These attacks were widely dispersed and formed no serious threat to German aircraft production. Furthermore, they formed no part of a strategy aimed at disabling Germany’s aircraft production. As the Eighth Air Force gathered strength and prepared to attack Germany, the need for a clearly defined bombing strategy came up. The basic assumption (and a correct one) was that German fighters posed the greatest threat to the Combined Bomber Offensive (CBO), which had been decided upon in the Casablanca Conference in January 1943. Therefore American plans for the CBO viewed the reduction of German fighter strength as an intermediate objective in order to obtain air supremacy over Europe. As a result the German aviation industry was listed as the second highest priority target for the CBO after submarine construction yards. At that time the Battle of the Atlantic was raging and submarines posed a serious threat to the Allied war effort. The menace of the submarines was therefore reflected in the top priority allocated to their construction facilities and their bases. The aviation industry became priority target number one of the CBO following a new directive the Allies’ Combined Chiefs of Staff issued on 14 June 1943, code named “Pointblank.” This change of priorities reflected, on the one hand, the turn of the tide in the Battle of the Atlantic in the previous month, and on the other hand the intensification of the bombing campaign against Germany. Pointblank divided the aviation industry into 4 main target systems: airframes, engines, propellers and accessories. It was assumed that the complete disruption of any one of these systems would bring aircraft production to a halt. The Allies decided to concentrate their attacks on the airframe factories. This decision was part of the widely accepted notion that achieving air superiority was the basic requirement for the conduct of successful strategic bombing campaign. It is noteworthy that a year later another aviation industry was placed on top of the target list when the USAAF prepared to begin its strategic bombing campaign against Japan. This decision reflected lessons learned over Europe. Second priority target complexes in the Pointblank directive were German submarine yards and bases—an objective that reflected the still-burning needs of the Battle of the Atlantic, even after it finally tipped in favor of the Allies. The third objective was the rest of the aviation industry, the ball-bearings industry, and oil production. These last two items drew directly from prewar researches that had attempted to identify “bottleneck” industries, the destruction of which would cause the collapse of the enemy’s entire war economy.8 Pointblank was a central strategic directive of World War II, because it served as a guideline for the strategic bombing of Germany until 17 April 1944. As we shall see, these intervening 10 months were most crucial in the history of the German aviation industry. Once deciding to target the aviation industry the Allies started to collect detailed intelligence about factories involved in aviation production and about the workflow of aircraft production in Germany. Different branches of Allied intelligence prepared elaborate organizational charts and flow charts in order to find out exactly how aircraft were produced in Germany, by whom and where. By studying and analyzing this material Allied intelligence officers tried to locate bottlenecks and particularly vulnerable points along the production process.9 It was a long and tedious job that involved the use of different intelligence sources, from interpretation of thousands of aerial images through agents’ reports and highly secret deciphering of German coded radio traffic. The quality of the intelligence was excellent and it enabled the USAAF to concentrate its attacks on some of the most important fighter-producing factories of the Third Reich right from the beginning. One of the first aircraft factories to be attacked by the Americans was the WNF Wiener Neustadt factory in Austria, license-producing Me 109 fighters. It was attacked on 13 March 1943 by bombers of the Fifteenth Air Force operating from North Africa.10 The larger Eighth Air Force, operating from England, started its offensive on 17 April 1943 by dropping 262 tons of bombs from 105 bombers on Focke-Wulf’s main plant in Bremen. This attack destroyed or heavily damaged 50 percent of the factory, as well as destroying 10 FW 190 fighters and damag ing another 12.11 The main offensive, however, began only in June 1943, as weather conditions overEurope improved. A total of 6 airframe factories producing Me 109 and FW 190 fighters were bombed. In August two more factories were bombed, including Messerschmitt’s important Regensburg plant.No aircraft production factory or related target was bombed in September, but in October four aircraft factories and one propeller factory (VDM in Frankfurt/M) were bombed. Among those targets bombed in October was Focke-Wulf’s Marienburg factory, which was the most distant target attacked so far by the Eighth Air Force.13 In addition to these pinpoint attacks, Hamburg suffered in July the worst carpetbombing so far. A rare combined effort by the RAF and the USAAF killed around 40,000 and destroyed large parts of the city in a series of raids. Furthermore, the RAF dropped for the first time during its Hamburg raids stripes of chaff—stripes of aluminum foil used to deceive radar. These stripes, code named “Window,” practically paralyzed German defenses and enabled the RAF to heavily bomb the city with a relatively small number of losses. The Hamburg disaster was just the kind of wake-up call the German leadership needed in order to shift priorities. Within days after the end of the raids Göring ordered to switch the focal point of German airpower to defense of the Reich. Next to the Luftwaffe, the RLM and the aviation industry were also ordered to adjust to the new priorities.14 From now on aircraft production switched more and more to fighters and fighters’ equipment.