The Nachtjagd in 1945
On January 1st 1945, the Luftwaffe launched Operation Bodenplatte (Baseplate), an air-to-ground effort against Allied airpower. More than 800 Luftwaffe aircraft struck about two dozen Allied airfields.
The Bodenplatte attack broke the back of the Luftwaffe. In the course of destroying 232 Allied aircraft on the ground, the Germans lost 280. While only a handful of Allied personnel lost their lives, no fewer than 213 irreplaceable German pilots were killed or captured.
Bomber Command had been targeting German fuel production and reserves for some time (production was reduced from 175000 tonnes in April 1944 to 7000 tonnes the following September and in February 1945 they could only meet 5% of their aviation fuel needs) such that, combined with a growing offensive from the Russians on the Eastern Front, it became inevitable that night fighter (Nachtjagd) operations would be reduced.
The way they achieved this was by Nachtjagdgeschwaders (NJGs) having to rate their crews into three categories, with the 'bottom of the heap' being crews who had achieved no successes. These orders are made clear in the KTB of Stab NJG6, which notes the following:
On 23 January 1945: “With immediate effect, on the grounds of the serious fuel situation, only Spitzenbesatzungen (crews with Abschüsse (aerial victories) to their credit) must be employed. Practice flights, GCI sorties and test flights are to be strictly limited”, and then on 24-25 January: “All crews are to be classified in Category 1 and Category 2 (Spitzenbesatzungen) and a category of non-flying crews. Every Gruppe, on average, will be allocated 20 crews (usually at least 27 crews formed a Gruppe), in the Categories 1 and 2. All other crews must be re-employed in other duties such as ferrying and other flights. The aircraft of the latter category of crews can be struck off charge permanently.”
"Top line" meant crews who had achieved at least one aerial victory (this is evidenced from recorded sorties in the flying logbooks of quite a number of German night fighter crew members). Evidence points to Category 1 crews flying the most, while the Category 2 crews joined the fray when tactical and weather conditions were very favourable. Later in January, in order to save even more fuel, there was a further prohibition from taxying aircraft before and after take off. Another order in early February 1945 stated that nightfighters should only be used in situations that clearly promised success (source: both from ULTRA DEFE 3)
So the situation on the fateful night of 3 March 1945 was that although fewer night fighter aircraft were airborne in defence of the target from NJG 4 based at Gutersloh to the east and NJG 1 at Dortmund to the south, the crews featured some of the top “experten” (aces) of the Luftwaffe including Heinz Schnaufer who finished the war with 121 victories, Georg Hermann Greiner (51 victories), Martin Drewes (52 victories) and Josef Kraft (56 victories). My research shows that Schnaufer was almost certainly responsible for the destruction of both ME453 and PB806 from 467 squadron. This is the type of map the German nightfighter pilot would have used, it shows important features such as radio beacons, airfields and flak zones.
On take-off from Gutersloh (JR), Schnaufer would probably have been vectored to radio beacon "Ludwig" (GQ) to be in position to intercept the approaching bomber stream: these tactics of GCI (Ground Control Interception) were known as "Zahme Sau" (Tame Boar) whereas freelancing was "Wilde Sau" (Wild Boar). The jamming of German ground-to-air communications was increasingly effective as the war progressed so freelancing became more of the norm. Schnaufer was fortunate in having a very skilful Funker in Fritz Rumpelhardt, to whom Schnaufer gave credit for at least 80 of his victories.
Gutersloh airfield, an aerial photograph taken just before the war started.
As can be seen, it's a grass airfield with no permanent runways. Points A are refuelling areas, B are slit trenches and C, a compass swinging point with an aircraft in position. Compass swinging involves calibrating the compass, ensuring that no deviation has occurred by moving the aircraft round to true north, and also calibrating any radio-navigation equipment. Any new electrical/magnetic equipment installed in an aircraft, for instance Naxos which could home in on the bombers H2S equipment, required a fresh compass swing. A "Kompensierscheibe" is a large wooden disc that was reinforced by a wooden construction below the disc itself in a (sometimes even almost 2 metres deep) foundation. The entire disc could be moved around by hand power or by a motor located inside the foundation.
Heinz Wolfgang Schnaufer
Schnaufer had not flown on the night of Rolly’s baptism of fire because he was in Berlin at a planning meeting. Just over a week later on 16th February he had celebrated his twenty-third birthday, but right now his responsibilities rested heavily on his young shoulders. In his office at Gutersloh airfield on the plains of north-west Germany, the home of Nachtjagdgeschwader 4 (NJG 4), he was pondering a high risk operation that was to take place that night in which he had had a hand. Operation Gisela was aimed at hitting the British bombers when they were at their most vulnerable flying back over the North Sea and almost home, perhaps even over England with the crews beginning to relax and thinking that they had evaded the grim reaper yet one more time. Luftwaffe nightfighters were to follow the RAF planes home, make their attacks on the unsuspecting enemy then flee at wavetop height back to their bases.
Major Heinz Wolfgang Schnaufer was German’s top nightfighter ace, so far with one hundred and sixteen confirmed victories to his name, all of them bombers and most of them “viermots”, four-engined bombers - Stirlings, Halifaxes or Lancasters, the first on the night of 2nd June 1942. He had been based in Belgium at the airfield at St-Trond, roughly half way between Aachen and Brussels, with NJG1 where he had earned the nickname “the Night Ghost of St-Trond”, however he had been appointed as Kommodore of the entire Geschwader of NJG4 in October 1944, taking command the following month with the rank of Major.
Viewed from an understanding of the structure of a typical British squadron, it's difficult to appreciate exactly what this promotion entailed. The late Peter Hinchliffe explains it all to perfection in his excellent biography of Heinz Schnaufer entitled "Ace of Diamonds":
....he (Schnaufer) was the youngest German officer to have reached a position of such responsibility. The extent....of this can be judged by recalling that each fighter Geschwader normally comprised three or four Gruppen, each made up of three Staffeln of nine to twelve aircraft. When Schnaufer commanded NJG4 it had three Gruppen so that its strength was between 90 and 120 aircraft......There is no direct comparison between the RAF "flights", "Squadrons" etc and the Luftwaffe system, but if one tried to compare the responsibility shouldered by young Schnaufer with that exercised by his equivalent in Bomber Command, one would find that "Major" equates to the Royal Air Force rank of Squadron Leader, and a squadron Leader would probably hold no higher command position than that of Flight Commander, with a Wing Commander having command of the squadron. There were usually three flights to a squadron. So whereas Schnaufer exercised direct control over at least 100 aircraft, their crews, their ground crews and all their support staff, his British equivalent in rank might have had nominal command of eight to ten machines.
Despite his exulted position, Schnaufer had already tacitly acknowledged to some of his nightfighter colleagues that the war was over, that Germany could not win, but he stressed that he still expected them to do their utmost to defend their homeland, to do their duty in the defence of the Fatherland and the German people. He knew that his comments about Germany’s untenable position were dangerous, but he was confident that they would go no further than the almost “secret society” that was the nightfighter arm of the Luftwaffe.
Schnaufer’s closest friends and confidantes were his longtime and experienced crew of Fritz Rumpelhardt and Wilhelm “Willem” Gansler. Rumpelhardt was the “funker”, the radio and radar operator, Willem the mechanic or flight engineer. Schnaufer and he had first “crewed up” at Wunstorf in July 1941, where they decided that they could fly together and that they would volunteer to join the nightfighters who were starting to experience success after a faltering beginning. The German propaganda machine was extolling the virtues and capabilities of the pilots who were emerging as the first aces of this fledging section.
On the night of 3 March 1945, Schnaufer and his usual crew were airborne at 9.30pm in his favourite Bf110G4 nightfighter coded G9+EF as the Allied bomber stream flew across Belgium towards Germany. Heinz had brought this aircraft with him from his previous Geschwader NJG1 at St Trond, though his new command flew the larger Ju88s. Schnaufer flew this type but decided that he preferred the Bf110 and retained it, his old call sign and his code.
Along with most other German nightfighters, his aircraft was fitted with a deadly weapon that had decimated RAF bombers for nearly two years without being fully understood by Bomber Command, this was "Schrage Musik". This comprised two upward-firing 20mm cannons installed at the rear of the cockpit, inclined at an angle of 70 or 80° which were aimed through a Revi gunsight above the pilot's head.
Having spotted his target, the pilot manoeuvred into position underneath the bomber, effectively in its blindspot. A few cannon shells aimed between the inner and outer engines, the area of the fuel tanks on the Lancaster, invariably was enough to cause the destruction of the bomber as the wings erupted on fire.
The RAF knew they were losing large numbers of bombers but they could not work out the tactic that was causing it. Bomber crews were told that the Germans were using a special shell called a "scarecrow" which exploded in an oily black ball to simulate a bomber exploding. The reality was that it was bombers exploding, but the truth would be bad for morale.
In a post-war interview, Heinz Schnaufer said that he had attacked 20 to 30 bombers at a range of 80 yards with his Schrage Musik guns and of those only about 10% saw him approaching at a distance of 150 to 200 metres and tried to evade him by "corkscrewing" before he could open fire.
Once airborne from his airfield at Gutersloh, Schnaufer was to destroy 2 Lancasters within the next 81 minutes, however the attacks were within 10 minutes of each other. This page from his logbook shows against 96 and 97 his two "abschusse", aerial victories for 3.3.45, see detail below.
Both abschusse were in grid area "HQ", the first at 9.55pm and an altitude of 2,500 metres (8,200 feet): this was probably ME453 on its way to the target, the annotation above shows "SW of Osnabruck", and the second was probably PB806 at 10.04pm, altitude 2,300 metres (7,500) which had already dropped its bombs, annotated as "NE of Munster". (My thanks to Wim Govaerts for the copy of the logbook and additional notes.)
The cover picture on Wim Govaert's fascinating biography of Schnaufer illustrates the lethal method of attack, totally immune from observation and the Lancaster's firepower.
This is an extract from Fritz Rumpelhart's briefer logbook for the same night:
The very "raw" and inexperienced Lancaster crew of ME453 would have stood little chance against such men as these: Schnaufer at that date had completed 164 missions in which he shot down 114 bombers. Seven more bombers were to fall victim to the Night Ghost before the close of hostilities.