Launched as part of the Battle of the Bulge, Operation Bodenplatte was meant to devastate Allied airfields in the Low Countries. While Wehrmacht soldiers were fighting the ground offensive in the Ardennes, the Luftwaffe was tasked with destroying as many Allied aircraft as possible. Unfortunately for the Germans, the mission, better known as the “Hangover Raid,” crippled what remained of the country’s air forces.
Planning the Luftwaffe‘s last grand stand in the air
Following the Allied success in Normandy after the D-Day landings in June 1944, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had managed to push his forces further into Germany’s defensive frontier, using supply problems and the weather to his advantage. All sections of the German Army were struggling in some capacity, with the Luftwaffe suffering fuel supply and veteran pilot shortages.
Hoping to regain aerial dominance, Germany concocted a plan to attack Allied airfields and aircraft, so as to hinder their success along the Western Front. On September 16, 1944, Generalleutnant Werner Kreipe, chief of the Luftwaffe‘s General Staff, was charged with planning such an offensive.
The original plan was developed by General of Fighters Adolf Galland and approved by the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe. It detailed assaults on airfields in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, in support of the Ardennes Offensive. This was refined by Generalmajor Dietrich Peltz, who stated a single, coordinated blow would be more effective, as it would prevent engagements between well-trained Allied pilots and the lesser-skilled German airmen.
A number of units were pulled from active service on the Western Front, so they could be involved in what became known as Operation Bodenplatte. The primary aircraft would be Messerschmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s, with medium bomber and night-fighter units serving as pathfinders.
Initially scheduled to occur on December 16, 1944, the start of the Battle of the Bulge, the aerial assault was postponed a number of times over the following weeks due to poor weather. As conditions became more favorable, the decision was made to launch Operation Bodenplatte on New Year’s Day, 1945, as support for Operation Nordwind.
Instead of celebrating the dawn of a new year on the evening of December 31, 1944, the Luftwaffe pilots involved in Operation Bodenplatte were instructed to head to bed early, while ground crews prepped their aircraft. In the early hours of January 1, 1945, they took off from base, with 17 airfields as their targets: Ursel, Deurne, Woensdrecht, Asch, Evere, Volkel, Grimbergen, Sint-Truiden, Ghent, Metz, Melsbroek, Ophoven, Eindhoven, Heesch, Le Culot, Gilze en Rijen and Maldegem.
A later review of the plans would conclude that a number were incorrectly attacked.
Maintaining radio silence in the dark and led by the flares from Junkers Ju-88 and -188s, the plan was to strike at dawn, which was equivalent to around 9:20 AM local time, given the time of year. When they launched their attack, the Germans were aided by the element of surprise, as none of the Allied airfields had been anticipating an aerial assault. While British Intelligence had recorded increased Luftwaffe movement and buildup in the region, it hadn’t realized an attack was imminent.
Upon arriving at the airfields across the Low Countries, it became apparent that many Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons were away on missions, with some locations deserted altogether. This was evident in Grimbergen, where the Jagdgeschwader 26 (JG.26) were met with an empty airfield, the 132 Wing RAF having recently moved to Woensdrecht. The aircraft that remained were protected by flak crews, meaning the Luftwaffe suffered more aircraft losses than the Allies on the ground.
Similarly in Ghent, home to the No 131 (Polish) Wing, a number of Mk IX Supermaine Spitfire squadrons were away on a aerial bombing mission. As such, the German pilots could only target buildings, trucks and a small number of parked aircraft. Among the most heavily-damaged airfields was Metz, where the American 365th Fighter Group’s fleet of Republic P-47 Thunderbolts were strafed with machine gun and cannon fire. This not only damaged aircraft, but caused fuel tanks and munitions to explode.
Throughout it all, the Allies put up a tough fight against the Luftwaffe, inflicting a number of casualties, both human and aircraft. At around 12:00 PM that day, the German pilots left in ones and twos. An assessment of the damage caused showed that, while a good portion of the targets had suffered damage, others had escaped relatively unscathed.
The Allies suffered far less damage than the Germans
While the Luftwaffe claimed Operation Bodenplatte was a success, in terms of surprising the Allies, tactically, it crippled what remained of Germany’s weakening air forces. Of the 850 aircraft that had participated in the mission, 40 percent were destroyed or damaged. Of the pilots charged with manning them, 143 were killed or listed as missing in action (MIA), 70 had been taken as prisoners of war (POWs) and 21 had suffered various injuries. This amounted to the largest single-day loss for the Luftwaffe.
It’s reported that around half of the German aircraft downed during Operation Bodenplatte were taken out by friendly fire. When a post-mission analysis was conducted, it found that only a third of the air combat groups involved – 11 out of 34 – had launched their attacks on time and with surprise.
The Allies, on the other hand, were able to pick themselves up rather quickly after the air raids. Only 250 aircraft were destroyed, while 150 suffered damage that was subsequently repaired. Additionally, only a handful of pilots lost their lives. Within a week of Operation Bodenplatte, a number of aircraft were back in the air, destined for the Ardennes as part of the continuing Battle of the Bulge.
Why did Operation Bodenplatte go so wrong?
An analysis of Operation Bodenplatte showed that the mission was doomed from the start. The majority of the pilots assigned to the aircraft involved were inexperienced and had underwent far less training than those who’d flown earlier in the war. This inexperience was shown in the way the pilots conducted their attack, circling back over the airfields a number of times, meaning the Allies on the ground were given more opportunities to fire their anti-aircraft artillery at them.
The poor planning that went into Operation Bodenplatte also contributed to its failure. A number of the flight paths took pilots over heavily-guarded and -armed V2 launch sites, particularly around The Hague. The maps provided by the higher command were also half-complete. They featured only illustrations of the intended targets and left out details regarding the flight paths, to ensure the Allies wouldn’t be able to decipher anything, should the documents fall into their hands.
Secrecy also played a factor in the mission’s shortcomings. The majority of commanders were barred from providing advanced notice to pilots, meaning many were told what to do moments before taking off. Important details were omitted as a result, and many took to the air without a full understanding of what they were to do. As far as they understood, they were taking part in a reconnaissance mission.
Finally, the Allies were not as hungover as the Luftwaffe had hoped they’d be following their New Year’s Eve celebrations. Many had toned down their partying the night before, as they were scheduled to conduct dawn missions the following day. Some were even on their way back of base when the Germans launched their attack, meaning they were able to provide additional support from the air, taking out a number of enemy aircraft.