SHAEP HQ, Versailles, France · January 1, 1945

Nazi Germany’s position on the Western Front had declined precipitously after the D-Day landings of Allied troops on June 6, 1944. Gen. George S. Patton’s Third U.S. Army was driving rapidly into the enemy’s rear. The German High Com­mand (Ober­kom­mando der Weh­rmacht) was aware that German troops were in danger of being cut off and surrounded in the so-called Falaise Pocket south of Caen in Normandy. The OKW there­fore issued orders to Field Marshal Gert von Rund­stedt (suc­cessor to Field Marshal Guenther von Kluge, a suicide four months before on August 19) to with­draw his forces from France and Belgium and regroup behind the safety of the so-called Sieg­fried Line (Westwall) on German soil. Almost without resistance, Anglo-American troops occupied France and Belgium in October 1944.

On September 16, 1944, Adolf Hitler instructed Col. Gen. Alfred Jodl and his staff at the OKW to plan a surprise offen­sive in the Ardennes, a heavily forested area shared by Belgium, France, and Luxem­bourg. On Octo­ber 12, Jodl pro­duced the first plan, Wacht am Rhein, or Watch on the Rhine. Its aim was to encircle and destroy the Ameri­can armies under Gen. Omar Brad­ley and the Twenty-First Army Group under newly minted British Field Marshal Ber­nard Law Mont­go­mery; capture Antwerp, the Belgium deep-water harbor that was the chief source of supply for the Anglo-American armies; and nego­ti­ate a peace treaty on the Western Front in Germany’s favor. (By now Hitler despaired of ever nego­ti­ating an armis­tice or peace treaty with the Soviets on the Eastern Front, so he pinned all his hopes on achieving a stalemate in the West.)

The German ground offensive, begun in foul weather on Decem­ber 16, 1944, and popu­larly known in the West as “The Battle of the Bulge,” had a subor­dinate air com­ponent known as Opera­tion Boden­platte (Base­plate) (Unte­rnehmen Boden­platte). The main thrust of Boden­platte, how­ever, was repeatedly delayed due to bad flying weather until New Year’s Day 1945, the first day of improved weather condi­tions. In all, the Luft­waffe, short of expe­ri­enced pilots, air­craft, and fuel, managed to deploy close to 1,000 fighters and fighter-bombers—including some Me 262s jets—in attacks on 17 British and Amer­i­can airfields in Belgium, the south of the Netherlands, and Eastern France.

Despite some surprise and tactical successes Boden­platte failed to achieve German air supe­riority, even temp­orarily, while German ground forces under Supreme Com­mander of Army Group West Field Marshal Walter Model (another sui­cide down the road) con­tinued to be exposed to punishing Allied air attacks. By Janu­ary 28, 1945, the bone-tired retreating Germans had their backs to the West Wall, almost from whence they had started the month before. The Luft­waffe’s Boden­platte cam­paign was the last large-scale stra­tegic offen­sive opera­tion mounted by Her­mann Goering’s air force and, like the exag­gerated expec­ta­tions of the land-based Watch on the Rhine, was an igno­minious German defeat at great expense and disproportionate loss.

German Ardennes Ground and Air Offensives, December 1944 to January 1945

Ardennes Campaign/Battle of the Bulge, December 16–26, 1944

Above: The original objectives of the German Ardennes Offen­sive (Battle of the Bulge) are out­lined in dashed lines on this map. The solid line indicates the Germans’ furthest advance—the 60 mile-wide “bulge” made in the Western Allies’ front lines. Germany’s ini­tial 13-division assault force con­sisted of 200,000 men, 340 tanks, and 280 other tracked vehicles. Reinforce­ments added another 100,000 men, 440 or more tanks, and 440 or more other tracked vehicles. The Luft­waffe had roughly 2,400 air­craft. Between 67,200 and 100,000 Ger­mans were killed, wounded, or went missing between Decem­ber 16, 1944, and Janu­ary 25, 1945. The Ameri­cans initially had 83,000 men, 242 medium tanks, 182 other tracked vehicles across five divi­sions, four infan­try and one armored. By Christ­mas Eve, reinforce­ments had brought U.S. strength up to 610,000 men. The Allies had 4,155 artillery pieces, 1,616 medium tanks, and 6,000 aircraft.

Operation Bodenplatte: Destroyed U.S. P-47s at Metz-Frescaty airfieldOperation Bodenplatte: Fire crews at Melsbroek airfield near Brussels

Left: Several among the 20 or so P-47 Thunder­bolts at Metz-Frescaty air­field in France destroyed during Opera­tion Boden­platte, a sub­ordinate opera­tion to Opera­tion Watch on the Rhine. The Luft­waffe managed to put 500 air­craft into the air on Decem­ber 16. This first day had been the originally planned date for the strike against Allied air­fields. How­ever, the weather proved partic­u­larly bad and opera­tions were suspended, resuming furiously on Janu­ary 1, 1945, using practi­cally every German fighter and fighter-bomber—almost 1,000 air­craft—that could still fly. The Luft­waffe bombed 11 vulner­able air­fields in Bel­gium, 5 in Holland, and 1 in France—air­fields where many of the German pilots had been formerly based. Boden­platte cost the Luft­waffe 271 destroyed and 65 damaged air­craft, 143 pilots killed or missing, 21 wounded, and 70 taken captive. One Ger­man fighter wing (JG 4) lost 42 per­cent of its pilots: 18 killed, 1 wounded, and 5 taken pri­soner. Many of those lost were valu­able forma­tion leaders. Incred­ibly, many pilots on their return flight were brought down by German flak bat­teries, which had not been alerted to the opera­tion on security grounds. The Allies lost 150 com­bat air­craft destroyed and 111 damaged, as well as 17 non­combat air­craft, including Field Marshal Mont­go­mery’s personal air­plane. Pilot losses were few, but over 100 ground crew were killed.

Right: Fire crews at Melsbroek airfield near Brussels, Belgium, spray foam on an RAF Avro Lan­caster in an attempt to save it from burning. The four-engine bomber had landed at Mels­broek with the star­board inner engine out of action and the propeller feathered.

Operation Bodenplatte: Damaged RAF aircraft at MelsbroekOperation Bodenplatte: Destroyed aircraft at Eindhoven

Left: The Luftwaffe strike at Mels­broek was an out­standing success, causing consid­erable damage to RAF and U.S. air­craft based there. Some 15 to 20 U.S. bombers were destroyed. Among the many RAF losses were two entire squa­drons of recon­nais­sance air­craft, 11 or 13 Vickers Wellington twin-engine medium bombers, 5 Spitfires, and 1 Douglas Dakota.

Right: One eyewitness said that “all hell seemed to break loose” when dozens of enemy aircraft (about 75 in all) flew over the tree­tops that lined Eind­hoven field in the Nether­lands beginning about 9:15 a.m on Janu­ary 1, 1945. For the next 20 minutes “Focke Wulfs and Messer­schmitts” [Fw 190s and Bf 109s] carried out “one of the finest strafing jobs one would want to see.” The enemy pilots “system­atically climbed, dived, fired their guns and even took time off to wave to some of the boys.” Before long the whole air­field was covered by heavy clouds of billowing smoke; explosions went off in every direction and fires were seen wherever one looked. Among the aircraft carnage were 8 RAF Hawker Typhoons fighter bombers and 3 RAF P‑51 Mustang fighters.

Operation Bodenplatte, January 1, 1945: Luftwaffe’s Failed Gamble to Break Allied Air Superiority Over Western Europe