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Night fight of the Luftwaffe

Written by Sakhal

In the beginning of World War Two the essential of the Luftwaffe's fighter dotation was composed of a restricted number of monomotors, nearly all of the type Messerschmitt Me Bf 109. These limited their actions to deter the sparse aircraft of the RAF that approached German cities to bomb them with anti-nazi propaganda. The first flight of the RAF in enemy territory was in the night of the 4th September 1939, launching propaganda leaflets over Hamburg, Bremen and several towns in the Ruhrgebiet. Also from French bases were bombarded with such harmless material locations in Germany, Czechoslovakia and Poland. However, since May 1940 the situation would radically change, due to the German bombing over Rotterdam, which caused fires, civilian casualties and the capitulation of Holland. Winston Churchill decided then to involve the RAF in missions against important industrial areas located in German territory. Three weeks later, the RAF had sent 1700 missions against these targets, specially in the Ruhr, being lost in those many incursions barely 39 attacking aircraft... and those casualties were caused mainly by on-flight accidents. From this situation, the Germans concluded that they would have to reinforce their anti-aircraft night defenses, being these either artillery, aircraft or detection devices. It was imperative to support the Luftwaffe in the task of the early detection of the enemy aircraft and their subsequent annihilation.

Night fight of the Luftwaffe

Lancaster Mk I heavy bomber of the Royal Air Force.

Night fight of the Luftwaffe

Halifax Mk III heavy bomber of the Royal Air Force.

In July 1940 the night fighter squadrons amounted about 40 aircraft, and were equipped with the Me Bf 109, some Ju 88 and two squadrons of Me Bf 110, bimotor heavy fighter that was slower than the Me Bf 109, but gifted with a much superior operational range, higher firepower and place for two crewmen. These forces were supported from land by a dotation of searchlights and some primitive radars model Freya. In this early stage of night fighting, the tactics consisted in sending the fighters after the radars had sent the alarm, then gaining those altitude and waiting for the enemy to arrive, while keeping contact by radio with ground operators, and finally falling upon the enemy aircraft once these were illuminated by the searchlights. This system, however, was not very satisfactory, since the searchlights were ineffective under unfavorable weather conditions or cloudy sky, and lacked mobility, being attached to the artillery batteries, which rendered the anti- aircraft defenses effective only in the places where the enemy bombers dropped their bombs, and not along the routes that they followed to reach their targets; also it happened sometimes that German aircraft were mistaken by enemies and attacked by the ground artillery. Besides, the radar Freya was very deficient in its prestations, being its definition so mediocre that often signals from enemy and ally aircraft were mixed, sometimes long before the fighter had spotted the enemy.

For replacing the Freya a new precision radar was ordered; it was made by Telefunken and named Wuerzburg. From 1941 the radar stations serving the Nachtjagd, separated by 30 kilometers each, used the Freya for remote detection, the Wuerzburg for tracking the route of the enemy and an additional device from Telefunken to direct the fighters. In the fall 1941, due to the incursions from the RAF becoming more agressive and to the demands from the newly opened Eastern Front, the German anti-aircraft defenses experimented a saturation. In that time night fighting had acquired a formidable importance, amounting the forces to 250 bimotors, including the Do 17. Devoted to the defense of the Third Reich and the airspace of the occupied territories, the night fight forces and their ground support facilities would continually increase in number, like a gigantic spider net extending along the continent. Equipped with the newer radars such as the Wuerzburg Reise and the Lichtenstein (this one compact enough to be installed in an aircraft), and amounting about 400 aircraft in the late 1942, the night fighting unit had acquired more importance than ever. During 1942 British bombers amounted 1291 losses at the guns of their twin-engined enemies. The RAF suffered this carnage until mid 1943; only in June of the same year had lost 250 aircraft.

The 25th July 1943 the RAF bombers heading towards Hamburg carried with them the first countermeasure ever developed against a radar, called Windows, consisting of metallic sheets measuring about 30 x 15 centimeters, that were launched from the bombers in dense formations, forming some kind of metallic rain that reflected the radar signals back to their emitters, creating confusion. Statistically, the new countermeasure reduced the number of Allied casualties to about a fifth part. In the other side, the inhabitants of Hamburg had to suffer due to the effectiveness of this method: during eight nights the Allied bombers attacked the city with almost impunity, causing colosal damages and 50000 deaths. The deploying of Windows in the battlesky supposed for the night fighter squadrons the return to earlier defensive tactics; radar-controlled searchlights illuminated the areas where clouds of metallic sheets were detected by the radar stations, and the fighters headed there to shoot down the bombers, whose luminous flares for target marking contributed to betray them. Since the incursions orchestrated by the RAF were increasingly numerous, the skies of Germany became true wasp nests during the night. The practice of patrolling the potential targets was effective and in the late 1943 the Nachtjagd accounted new successes against the Halifax and Lancaster bombers. In that time the Germans found as well the remedy against Windows; the new generation of onboard radars, such as the SN-2, Naxos or Flensburg, worked with wavelengths that were much different from those that the Allied technicians had managed to neutralize.

Night fight of the Luftwaffe

In the early 1944 the advantages granted by the new equipment were exploited to the maximum by adopting a new method of operation: the crews in state of alert, were alerted about the progression of the enemy bombers, generally with enough time to perform preliminar maneuvers without excessive haste; before taking off, the radio-operator of each aircraft adjusted the onboard receivers to the frequency Reichjagerwelle, which transmitted to the night fighters the orders from the Command, information about the enemy forces (quantity, position, route, presumable target, etc...) and communicated the coordinates of the radio station to link with in the next stage of the mission, when the fighter would be at 6000 meters of altitude, which was the operational altitude of the cuatrimotor bombers; from that moment, the fighters should seek contact with and engage the enemy on their own. The first signal of the presence of Allied bombers was usually catched in the SN-2 screen or through the Naxos receiver, set to operate in the frequency used by the navigational radars of the bombers. Sometimes the turbulences caused by the passing cuatrimotor bombers revealed them to the German fighters. After the enemy was spotted, the crews of the Luftwaffe were obliged to report to ground stations about the position and route of the enemy formation, before attacking it; this information would be later given to the crews of the fighters called to intervene in other sectors in the enemy penetration line. Once this was done, the interceptor would choose a first target and place itself on a firing position, preferably from the rear, in a level located a bit below the line of flight. Then, practically at point-blank and using preferably the dorsal turrets equipped with Schrage Musik (a battery of two 20 millimeters MG 151 cannons obliquely oriented), was how the nocturnal hunters of the Luftwaffe would shoot down the heavy British bombers. The fighters that lacked Schrage Musik would seek the adequate position for firing their frontal armament, which in certain aircraft could be composed of eight artillery pieces. However, in any case, the Germans were very careful in aiming to the engines, the propellers or the fuel deposits located in the wings, refraining always from shooting the central section of the fuselage, where the bombs were stored, since the detonation of these would cause the destruction of the fighter itself.

Night fight of the Luftwaffe

Dornier Do 217J heavy night fighter of the Luftwaffe.

This change of tactics caused again severe losses to the Allies. In the incursion of the 28th January 1944 against Berlin, the RAF had to lament the loss of 43 aircraft. The 15th February in another incursion against the capital of the Reich, the British recounted 42 aircraft lost, and 78 more during the operation launched the 19th against Leipzig. The 24th March were shot down 72 of the 811 cuatrimotor bombers sent again against Berlin. The culminating point of the Nachtjagd during this titanic aerial battle was reached the 31st March when about 200 aircraft of the Luftwaffe were mobilized to intercept the 781 Lancaster and Halifax launched by the RAF Bomber Command against Nuremberg. That night every circumstance conspired against the British, who suffered a historical setback. The sky in Germany was illuminated by a splendid moon and the temperature had descended anormally, originating those long condensation trails that signaled to the interceptors the exact position of each enemy bomber. In these conditions the German fighters managed to destroy 107 cuatrimotors and to damage seriously another 24.

Due to the preparatives for the Operation Overlord (landing in Normandy), the Allies had modified the objectives for the RAF strategic bombers, and because of the timely coincidence of these plans with the last successes obtained by the German night fighters, these believed that the RAF had abnegated from attacking the German cities. But they were sadly mistaken. Soon after the Allied troops had success in the invasion of the continental Europe, where they had disembarked the 6th June 1944, the RAF intensified their terrible nocturnal incursions against Germany. And now, without exposing much their pilots against the fury of the night hunters of the Luftwaffe... Because, the 13th July, an unexperienced pilot of the Luftwaffe landed by mistake in the base of Woodbridge, in Sussex, granting to the British technicians the secrets of the SN-2 and the Flensburg that equipped his Ju 88. After studying these devices, the corresponding countermeasures were developed, creating a new type of Windows that once again sowed confusion in the German defensive system. Even more when the secrets of the Naxos would be stolen as well by the Allies shortly after...

One of the last shocks caused by the German night fighters to the Allies, and a very unpleasant one, in a moment in which their aviation no longer had a worthy rival in the skies of Europe, happened the 3rd March 1945. A hundred of fighters dared to cross the North Sea to attack 27 bases from where the RAF bombers departed, located in the counties of Suffolk, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. During this operation, called Gisella, were used aircraft mostly of the type Ju 88 and He 219, which withdrew from the attack with meaningless losses since the British aerial defenses claimed only six shot downs. According to the best informed analysts, one of the big mistakes of the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain was to neglect the bombardment of the RAF airfields, which would cause numerous losses and the failure of the operation. As can be seen, in this occasion the mistake was rectified, but very, very late... Nothing could already save an agonishing Luftwaffe and its nocturnal branch, the Natchjagd. Not even the intervention, in the last weeks of the conflict, of the fantastic turbojet fighter Me 262, aircraft that inaugurated a new era in the Histoy of Aviation, giving a dimension unknown until then to the combat between aircraft.

Night fight of the Luftwaffe

Night fighter version of the Luftwaffe's Messerschmitt Me 262.

Main aircraft of night fight of the Luftwaffe

Messerschmitt Me Bf 110 G4: with a cruising speed of 500 kilometers/hour and 2100 kilometers of range, it was equipped with a radar FuG 202 Lichtenstein BC, being its weapons two 30 -millimeter cannons and four 20-millimeter cannons.

Dornier Do 217 J: modified version for night fighting of the bomber Do 217E. It was equipped with a redoubtable battery of four 20-millimeter cannons and four 7.92-millimeter machine guns, plus the standard defense weapons.

Focke-Wulf TA 154 Moskito: essentially built in wood, like its homophone from the Royal Air Force, it should replace in the role of night fight the Me Bf 110 and the Ju 88. It flew for the first time the 7th June 1943, but difficulties related to the conception of the aircraft caused that only seven units entered the Nachtjagd. It was equipped with a FuG 202 radar, two 30 millimeters cannons and another two 50-millimeter cannons installed in the flanks of the aircraft.

Heinkel He 219 A-7/R1: equipped with a FuG 212 radar, it attacked the enemy bombers by making use of her six 30-millimeter cannons and another two 20-millimeter cannons installed in a ventral gondola.

Messerschmitt Me 262 B-1 a/U-1: emerged in the last weeks of the conflict, it was the two-seater night fight version of the Me 262. It was equipped with three radars (FuG 218, FuG 350 Z-C Naxos and EBL 3) and a powerful armament consisting of two 30-millimeter cannons and two rocket launchers under the wings. Two of the 30-millimeter cannons had been removed from the original version to allocate the radar equipment while the additional seat was destined to the radar operator. Incomprehensibly many Me 262 were withdrawn from the role of attacking bombers, in which they were so effective, to employ them in tactical actions for which they were not adequate.

The fate of Heinrich zu Sayn Wittgenstein

The German night fight units were the breeding ground where some of the best aces of the Luftwaffe flourished. One of the most renowned and competent of them was Major Prince Heinrich zu Sayn Wittgenstein, who during his operational record destroyed more than 80 Allied bombers. Shot down during a mission against the RAF, in the night of the 21th January 1944, his lifeless body would be found, in the next morning, among the calcined remainings of his Junkers Ju 88. It is believed that he was shot down by a British fighter-bomber of the type Mosquito, that extraordinary combat aircraft conceived and produced by the firm De Havilland. With the death of the famous and aristocratic officer of the Luftwaffe, Germany lost one of their great champions of the night fight, attending to his awesome record of 83 homologated victories, of which 27 were obtained in the Eastern Front. Only other two aviators of the speciality would surpass him, being one of them Major Heinz Wolfgang Schnaufer - ace of the aces of the Nachtjagd - who achieved 121 victories during 164 fight missions. As to Prince Heinrich, he obtained his greatest achievements in July 1943 when, in a single night, he managed to shoot down seven enemy aircraft, and at least six in the night of the 2nd January 1944, during the operations carried against a British incursion against Berlin. It is worthy to remember that many other pilots of the German night fight distinguished themselves by the large number of enemy aircraft destroyed in a single mission. The particular conditions in which nocturnal combats were carried and the high density of targets - for the raids of the RAF amounted sometimes even a thousand of aircraft - facilitated the task to the aviators of the Luftwaffe, who practically had no other limitations than their fuel and ammunition loads.

Night fight of the Luftwaffe

Major Prince Heinrich zu Sayn Wittgenstein next to a Junkers Ju 88 in May 1943, whose tail indicates the 29 aircraft destroyed by him in that date.

The night of the 21th January 1944, Prince Heinrich took off from Stendal, in his Junkers Ju 88C-6C equipped with radar SN-2 Lichtenstein and MG 151 cannons installed in a dorsal twin mounting of oblique trajectory (Schrage Musik). He was oriented by his radar operator, Feldwebel Ostheimer, towards a formation of RAF bombers that was heading towards Magdeburg. One hour later he shot down a Lancaster by using the Schrage Musik artillery; subsequently he polished off three more heavy bombers in a rapid succession and then he engaged a fourth aircraft. When firing with the cannons against the bombs compartment, it started a fire that was apparently extinguished. Bringing close then his aircraft to the Lancaster, Prince Heinrich wanted to shoot once more against the British bomber, when this one suddenly exploded. In that moment some violent explosions were heard in the larboard wing of the German fighter; Prince Heinrich ordered his assistant to skydive while he tried to take control of his damaged aircraft. But, while Ostheimer survived the parachute jump, Prince Heinrich died in the cockpit of his Junkers Ju 88, which crashed near Schonhausen. Near there were found the remainings of a Heinkel He 219 piloted by another great German pilot, Captain Manfred Meurer, with a total of 65 victories. It was though then that Meurer could have collided with the Lancaster destroyed by Sayn Wittgenstein. Let us now see the testimony of the assistant sergeant (Feldwebel) Ostheimer, navigant and radarist of the famous pilot, who related so the last mission of the Prince:

"At 22:00 h. I obtain the first contact in the SN-2, indicate the route of the enemy to the pilot and soon after visualize the target. It is a Lancaster. We place ourselves in good position and open fire. The left wing of the bomber catches fire almost instantly and the aircraft falls in a pronounced dive that ends in a spin. The cuatrimotor reaches the ground about 22:05 h., disintegrating in a violent explosion. I witnessed its fall until the moment of the impact.
We return to the hunt and, momentarily, I get to detect in my screen about six aircraft. Shortly after I localize a new target which is, once again, a Lancaster. Since the first burst, I see a small fire starting aboard. The enemy aircraft rolls on its left wing and then falls, vertically, eventually crashing against the ground. It was between 22:10 h. and 22:15 h. when the impact happened, followed by a violent explosion caused, probably, by the explosion of the bombs that it carried. Moments later we make visual contact with a third Lancaster. Long burst and the bomber catches fire before falling. The impact against the ground happened, more or less, between 22:25 h. and 22:30 h. Immediately after I identify another cuatrimotor. Another burst and, again, the enemy aircraft catches fire. It was about 22:35 h. when I observed its fall.
I detect a new echo in my screen and we catch another Lancaster, which ignites with our first shots. The crew seems, however, to have controlled the fire, so we retake the attack position. Major Wittgenstein gets ready to shoot when our aircraft violently vibrates, shaken by several explosions. A fire starts in the left wing and the aircraft loses altitude. The cockpit canopy glass breaks upon my head and I receive, through the onboard phone, the order of immediately evacuate the aircraft. I remove my mask and the helmet and jump. After waiting some seconds I open the parachute and eventually take contact with the ground east of the Hohengoehrener dam, near Schoenhaussen."

Night fight of the Luftwaffe

Junkers Ju 88C-6C of the Nachtjagdgeschwader 2, piloted by Major Heinrich zu Sayn Wittgenstein in January 1944.

Specifications for Junkers Ju 88C-6C

Wingspan: 20 meters

Length: 14.36 meters (excluding antennas)

Height: 5.06 meters

Engines: Two Junkers Jumo 211J of 1350 horsepower

Maximum speed: 488 kilometers/hour

Operative ceiling: 9900 meters

Maximum range: 1980 kilometers

Armament: Three MG FF/M 20-millimeter cannons (one in the nose and two in the ventral gondola), two MG 151 20-millimeter cannons (in dorsal position), three MG 17 7.92-millimeter machine guns (in the nose) and one MG 131 13-millimeter machine gun (in the cockpit shooting backwards)

Article updated: 2015-07-01

Categories: Aviation - Electronic War - World War Two - 20th_Century - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2014-10-11

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