To support the German offensive through the Ardennes the Luftwaffe had planned a co-ordinated operation to try to neutralise the Allied fighter bombers. The heavily outnumbered Luftwaffe had made little impact on the battle so far. Rather than directly confronting the Allied fighters in the air, Operation Bodenplatte aimed to destroy as many Allied fighters on the ground as possible. News Year’s Day was the first day that the weather would be favourable from early morning. Luftwaffe pilot Willi Heilman of III Gruppe recalled the early morning excitement:
We were awoken at 3 o’clock in the morning and half an hour later all the pilots of JG 26 and III/JG54 were assembled in the mess room. Hptm. Worner came in with the ominous envelope already open in his hand. ‘To make it brief boys, we’re taking off with more than a thousand fighters at the crack of dawn to prang various airfields on the Dutch-Belgian border’
Then followed the details of the take-off, flying order, targets and return flights. Brussels was the target of III/JG 54. The whole mission was to be carried out at less than 600 feet until we reached the targets so that the enemy ground stations could not pick us up. To this end, radio silence was the order until we reached the target.
We were given a magnificent breakfast, cutlets, roast beef and a glass of wine. For sweets there were patries and several cups of fragrant coffee.
The last minutes before we were airborne seemed an eternity. Nervous fingers stubbed out half smoked cigarettes. In the scarlet glow the sun slowly appeared above the horizon to the east. It was 8.25am. And the armada took off …
This account, together with many more, appears in To Win the Winter Sky: The Air War over the Ardennes 1944-1945
Despite the careful planning Operation Bodenplatte did not achieve the level of surprise hoped for, only a minority of attacks were to hit undefended airfields. The Allied fighters were soon in the air and the large numbers of very inexperienced German pilots who had been pressed into service paid the price. To make matters worse the secrecy surrounding the operation meant that German anti-aircraft units had not been warned about it and more low flying planes fell to ‘friendly fire’.
The Luftwaffe lost 143 pilots killed and missing, while 70 were captured and 21 wounded – it was the worst single day’s losses for the Luftwaffe. These pilots were irreplaceable.
Although the Allies are estimated to have lost almost 300 aircraft destroyed and about 180 damaged on the ground, these were empty aircraft and such was the Allied supply situation most planes were replaced within a week.
Contemporary film of aerial combat and ground strafing by planes of the 8th Air Force during this period:
Amongst the targets for the RAF on 1st January 1945 was the familiar site of the Dortmund-Ems Canal, a key route in German industrial supply. In 1940 a raid on the canal had led to the first Victoria Cross for Bomber Command. Now another member of Bomber Command was similarly recognised:
1370700 Flight Sergeant George Thompson, R.A.F.V.R., 9 Squadron (Deceased) :-
This airman was the wireless operator in a Lancaster aircraft which attacked the Dortmund-Ems Canal in daylight on 1st January, 1945. The bombs had just been released when a heavy shell hit the aircraft in front of the mid-upper turret. Fire broke out and dense smoke filled the fuselage. The nose of the aircraft was then hit and an inrush of air, clearing the smoke, revealed a scene of utter devastation. Most of the perspex screen of the nose compartment had been shot away, gaping holes had been torn in the canopy above the pilot’s head, the inter-communication wiring was severed, and there was a large hole in the floor of the aircraft. Bedding and other equipment were badly damaged or alight; one engine was on fire.
Flight Sergeant Thompson saw that the gunner was unconscious in the blazing mid-upper turret. Without hesitation he went down the fuselage into the fire and the exploding ammunition. He pulled the gunner from his turret and, edging his way round the hole in the floor, carried him away from the flames. With his bare hands, he extinguished the gunner’s burning clothing. He himself sustained serious burns on his face, hands and legs.
Flight Sergeant Thompson then noticed that the rear gun turret was also on fire. Despite his own severe injuries he moved painfully to the rear of the fuselage where he found the rear gunner with his clothing alight, overcome by flames and fumes. A second time Flight Sergeant Thompson braved the flames. With great difficulty he extricated the helpless gunner and carried him clear. Again, he used his bare hands, already burnt, to beat out flames on a comrade’s clothing.
Flight Sergeant Thompson, by now almost exhausted, felt that his duty was not yet done. He must report the fate of the crew to the captain. He made the perilous journey back through the burning fuselage, clinging to the sides with his burnt hands to get across the hole in the floor. The flow of cold air caused him intense pain and frost-bite developed. So pitiful was his condition that his captain failed to recognise him. Still, his only concern was for the two gunners he had left in the rear of the aircraft. He was given such attention as was possible until a crash-landing was made some forty minutes later.
When the aircraft was hit, Flight Sergeant Thompson might have devoted his efforts to quelling the fire and so have contributed to his own safety. He preferred to go through the fire to succoor his comrades. He knew that he would then be in no position to hear or heed any order which might to given to abandon the aircraft. He hazarded his own life in order to save the lives of others. Young in years and experience, his actions were those of a veteran.
Three weeks later Flight Sergeant Thompson died of his injuries. One of the gunners unfortunately also died, but the other owes his life to the superb gallantry of Flight Sergeant Thompson, whose signal courage and self-sacrifice will ever be an inspiration to the Service.