Friday, 26 February 2016

Book Review - The last year of the Luftwaffe by Alfred Price

The last year of the Luftwaffe: May 1944 to May 1945 by Alfred Price

London: Greenhill, 2001                      ISBN 1853674400

This book is a handy little history of the death throes of the once world-conquering Luftwaffe. It is a succinct chronicle of the activities, weapons and politics of the final twelve months of this fighting force.

Beginning his narrative in the build up to D-Day, Price describes how what was, in May 1944, a formidable force awaiting invasion and the resumption of the Soviet advance, became, in May 1945 a force with no bombers, no pilots and no fuel, that could barely fly a single plane into Berlin.

Price makes clear a few points that I think are worth noting: despite the Allied bombing the German aircraft factories continued to push out record numbers of 'planes, partly by severely rationalizing the models produced. Thus, there was never a shortage of fighters at any time, to the extent that by 1945 if a 'plane got damaged it wasn't repaired, as it was simpler to take a new one from an aircraft park.

What the Allied bombing did do however, was to cripple the fuel supply to the Luftwaffe. This became one of the major impediments to continued flying by the force. In April 1944 175,000 tons of fuel was produced, but in June that figure had reduced to 55,000 tons. Later in the book Price notes - referring to the deployment of the Heinkel He 177 heavy bomber - "If the heavy bomber force mounted ten sorties per aircraft per month, and the operational training organization turns out new crews at a rate sufficient to replace moderate attrition, about 35,000 tons of aviation fuel would have been required per month [assuming a fleet of 270 bombers, which was about one-twentieth of the numbers of heavy bombers available to the USAAF and RAF]. That was nearly one-fifth of the total German aviation fuel production in May 1944, the month when production reached it's peak." This fuel crisis became the major problem for the Luftwaffe into 1945.

One shibboleth that Price convincingly demolishes is the idea that Hitler's requirement that the Me 262 be developed as a ground attack aircraft delayed the implementation of this weapon to the extent that Germany lost the air war. Price shows that the Me 262 was not delayed by the decision to turn it into a bomb-carrier, but by the unserviceability of its engines - the first squadrons were deployed with an engine life of 10 hours, which meant that they were almost impossible to keep in the field. The training of pilots to fly these difficult aircraft was also an issue, with some units being withdrawn to retrain the pilots after their first initial injection into the fight.

The reason the Me 262 was deployed before it was ready, and why other more-or-less ineffective weapons such as the Me 163, the Bachem Natter and various missiles were the subject of much work, was to try and find an effective counter to the massive Allied air raids that were flying at will over the Reich. Price recounts the telling statistics that despite the best efforts of the Germans, loss rates for the Allied bombers never climbed much about 3% per mission from all sources. The German fighter loss rate was higher, and unlike the Allies, who could easily replace both pilots and 'planes, the Luftwaffe was rapidly running out of experienced pilots.

The thinking of the Nazi hierarchy did not help either - there were several attempts at "decisive blows" such as Operation Bodenplatte. Given the overwhelming material advantage of the Allies, these large-scale operations never had a chance of having a decisive impact on the Allies war effort, and in fact usually resulted in the loss of precious pilots, while using up ever more of the dwindling stocks of fuel.

As the final few months of the War closed in, more desperate tactics began to be thought of. The strange piggy-back Mistel "flying bombs" were used in a vain attempt to slow the Russian advance, and pilots were trained for ramming attacks against the bomber formations. These schemes did nothing to halt the inevitable.

For those with an interest in this subject, this book is well worth picking up: it is well-written and contains useful charts and statistics, as well as a bibliography. The index is next-to-useless, but that is to be expected in a work published by Greenhill. One for aficionados.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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