Luftwaffe – The Battle of the Atlantic

Fw 200, “SG+KS” of I.Gruppe/KG 40.

Three He 111 bombers were flying westwards just above the surface of the North Sea, their slipstreams lashing the water and their pilots tensely concentrated on avoiding the single careless movement that would plunge them to destruction. For at flying speed water is as hard as stone.

They were flying low so as to duck beneath the British radar beams and thus achieve surprise for their attack on the convoy that had reportedly left Pentland Firth at noon, and was now steaming south along the Scottish coast. The autumn sun had set and twilight had descended. Only in the west was the sky still bright, and that meant favourable conditions: the bombers would attack from a dark horizon, and surprise should be complete.

In the leading Heinkel, as observer and commander, sat Major Martin Harlinghausen, X Air Corps’ chief of staff. Beside him, as pilot, was his staff operations officer, Captain Robert Kowalewski. The three machines represented X Air Corps’ staff section, an institution peculiar to the German Luftwaffe. The Corps, still under the command of Air General Hans Ferdinand Geisler, had now as formerly the task of attacking Britain’s shipping. But its leaders were not “chair-borne”. By leading the attack, they demanded nothing from the Geschwader and Gruppen that they were not prepared to undertake themselves.

Harlinghausen had developed a special method of attacking enemy ships, known as the “Swedish turnip” system. It was based on the old naval axiom that ships present the best target when approached directly from the beam. And the lower an aircraft’s approach, the higher the target stands out of the water, and the clearer becomes its silhouette against the horizon. The last applies particularly at dusk, but also on starlit or moonlit nights.

They sighted the convoy about twenty sea-miles north-east of Kinnaird Head, and promptly set a parallel course to plan the attack.

“We’ll take the fourth from the left,” said Harlinghausen. It was the largest vessel and presumably, with its extensive hull and superstructure aft and amidships, a tanker. Kowalewski banked left towards the convoy. “I can’t see her, Harling,” he said.

“Another ten degrees to port,” his chief corrected. He was lying prone and forward, his head almost against the cockpit Perspex, and so was able to concentrate exclusively on the target, while the pilot was farther back and otherwise preoccupied. After months of practice together, they had acquired instant mutual understanding and response.

“Now you are right on target,” said Harlinghausen. He exuded calm, having first tried out his “Swedish turnip” system long before in the Spanish civil war. Then it had been with the old He 59, which could only be used for low-level surprise attack, else it would be spotted too soon and shot down.

The He 111 now approached the tanker at a speed of about 200 m.p.h. and an altitude of forty-five meters. To maintain this also needed practice, for at such height the barometric altimeter was so unreliable that it often showed the plane as flying deep under the water. Correct altitude was, however, a crucial factor in Harlinghausen’s calculations, for in the first three seconds the bombs fell respectively five, fifteen and twenty-five metres, or forty-five in all. In this time the Heinkel covered a distance of 240 metres, so in order to hit the target that was the distance from which the bombs must be released. In three seconds their loss of momentum was minimal: they at first flew with the bomber and below it, then dropped against the target in a gentle arc.

The tanker’s silhouette loomed ever larger from the sea, her crew still unaware of the impending blow. Kowalewski aimed directly for the superstructure, below which was the engine-room. With every second the Heinkel drew eighty metres nearer, and decks, bridge and masts took shape. Finally at 240 metres the release signal was given, and four 500-lb. bombs fell in close succession. For Harlinghausen had adjusted the mechanism to produce the minimum interval between them, namely about eight metres. In this way one at least was bound to strike.

Three seconds later the Heinkel thundered across the tanker, and almost simultaneously the bombs struck. But they only detonated after a delay of eight seconds, when the aircraft was safely away. The tanker exploded in a sheet of flame.

As the Heinkel made a circuit, burning oil was seen pouring from the stricken vessel. She was an 8,000 tonner, as had been determined from the convoy’s radio exchanges. For the second Heinkel carried a monitoring team, tuned in to the same wavelength.

The convoy’s defences were now alerted, but ignoring the tracer that laced towards him Harlinghausen attacked again, this time using his starboard bomb-rack against a freighter.

During 1940 he and his pilot succeeded three times in sinking two ships on one sortie by using alternate bomb-racks. By September this single crew had claimed no less than 100,000 tons of shipping.

[During the first year of the war—i.e. from September 3, 1939 till August 30, 1940—the Luftwaffe claimed to have sunk a total of 1,376,813 tons. Figure published by the Allies after the war indicate that in fact they only lost some 440,000 tons to German air attack during this period.]

After that the operating conditions grew more difficult. The defence was stepped up, and each month it became harder to approach the ships. Though the “Lion” Geschwader , KG 26, were trained in low-level attack and practised with cement bombs in the Norwegian fiords, their successes were small and their losses increased.

But in October, 1940, success returned. The few available four-engined Focke-Wulf FW 200s, brought together to form I/KG 40 at Bordeaux, were flying armed reconnaissance patrols far out into the Atlantic. On October 24th while so engaged, First-Lieutenant Bernhard Jope came upon the 42,348-ton liner Empress of Britain, now being used as a troopship, some sixty miles west of Ireland. Going down, he attacked not from the beam but from astern. Bombs exploded in the superstructure, and the liner hove to on fire. The British tried to take her in tow, but two days later she was torpedoed by Lieutenant Jenisch’s U 32, which had been called to the scene by radio.

Let us move on to February 9, 1941. Twenty engines were being warmed up in front of the hangars of Bordeaux-Merignac airfield, but they represented only five aircraft: five four-engined Fw 200 “Condors”.

It was six in the morning as Captain Fritz Fliegel, squadron commander of 2/KG 40 took off, followed by First-Lieutenants Adam, Buchholz, Jope and Schlosser. The heavy machines left the ground reluctantly, their fuselage- and wing-tanks being filled to capacity with nearly 2,000 gallons of fuel. Each carried a crew of six: first pilot and co-pilot, two radio-operators, flight mechanic and rear-gunner.

But the bomb load was a mere 2,000 lb. Though the Fw 200 was the heaviest machine the Luftwaffe had, it had never been designed as a bomber, being only a converted air-liner. Germany’s real long-range bomber, the He 177, was still vainly in the testing stage. Considering their makeshift character, and how few they were, it is astonishing what the crews managed to achieve with these Condors.

Fliegel and his squadron headed south-west, their target a speck far off in the wastes of the Atlantic, somewhere between Portugal and the Azores. There the previous evening Lieutenant Nicolai Clausen of U-boat U 37 had happened upon a British convoy out from Gibraltar and bound for England. It was a chance encounter, for the convoys habitually made a wide detour to avoid the Luftwaffe and U-boat bases on the French coast. As the U 37 shadowed it, the sighting report was forwarded via C.-in-C. U-boats, Admiral Karl Dönitz, to KG 40 at Bordeaux. In the early hours of February 9th the U 37 attacked, sinking the freighters Courland and Estrellano. Then, remaining in contact, Clausen kept the approaching Condors informed of the convoy’s position. It was only a question of when they would get there.

They did so at noon, after over six hours’ flight, finding the convoy some 400 miles south-west of Lisbon. Fliegel allocated the targets and went down to attack. The need to do so was itself indicative of the makeshift character of the machines. They were unable to bomb horizontally from high altitude, as heavy bombers should, because of the lack of a suitable bomb-sight. The so-called “Lotfernrohr 7d” only came into use much later. Fliegel had to bring his heavy plane down low over the sea, then turn towards the selected ship and try to approach from the beam so that the target would present as large an image as possible.

At 400 yards range, and an altitude of about 150 feet, he let go the first of his four 500-lb. bombs. At the same moment the flight-mechanic opened fire with the ventral machine-guns, spraying the deck positions to hold down the ship’s anti-aircraft crews. Seconds later the Fw 200 roared over the mast-tops—surely a big enough target! First-Lieutenant Adam had his wing-tanks hit while still on the approach, and was lucky that his plane did not catch fire.

Petrol poured out in a sheet from holes the size of an orange, and he at once turned back in an attempt to reach the coast.

The other aircraft made repeated attacks. Buchholz, one of KG 40’s “aces”, missed his freighter by a hair’s breadth, the bombs exploding hard by the gunwale. Fliegel and Schlosser twice scored hits, Jope once. Five freighters were sunk: the British Jura, Dagmar I, Varna and Britannic, and the Norwegian Tejo. At the end U 37 came up again and sank a further vessel.

Thus convoy HG 53 had already lost half the sixteen ships that had set out from Gibraltar, despite the protection of nine escort vessels. Unless the remainder could take evasive action, the British Admiralty could only fear the worst. It took the extreme step of ordering the ships to disperse and make for their destination singly.

On the German side the success was greatly exaggerated. According to Secret Sitrep No. 520/21 of Luftwaffe Command Intelligence, 2/KG 40 reported six ships totalling 29,500 tons sunk, and three further ships totalling 16,000 tons damaged. Even experienced naval airmen found it difficult to estimate the size of ships from the air, especially while concentrating on attacking them. Thus Schlosser reported the 2,490-ton Britannic as a vessel of 6,000 tons, Fliegel the 967-ton Tejo as one of 3,500 tons. In fact only freighters of between 1,000 and 3,000 tons were at this time plying the Gibraltar route.

None the less, the Condors had accounted for five ships totalling 9,200 tons, and the number and size of their victims were not all that important. The paramount feature of their success was that for the first time it was based on close co-operation between the Luftwaffe and U-boat arms, even though on this occasion their official roles were reversed. Normally it was the function of aircraft to spot the convoys, and of U-boats to attack them. All the same, Dönitz took the success as a favourable sign. Perhaps now, at last, his submarines would receive better and more far-reaching information, instead of wasting so much of their energies in fruitless search.

In mid-March 1941 Dönitz received the new “Fliegerführer Atlantik”—none other than Lieutenant-Colonel Martin Harlinghausen—at Lorient, and said to him: “Imagine our situation as a land problem, with the enemy convoy at Hamburg, and my nearest U-boats at Oslo, Paris, Vienna and Prague—each with a maximum circle of vision of twenty miles. How on earth can they expect to find the convoy unless directed to it by air reconnaissance?”

The problem was as old as the war, and the idea of adapting the Fw 200 for long-range reconnaissance had already been mooted in autumn 1939 by Major Petersen, navigation officer on the staff of X Air Corps.

Created by Kurt Tank, the “Condor” had first flown in July 1937, and since then had beaten several long-distance records: Berlin-New York in twenty-five hours, New York-Berlin in twenty, Berlin-Tokio in forty-six hours eighteen minutes—all of course with intermediate landings. Export orders were mounting when the war came and put an end to the trade. By that time the Luftwaffe’s failure to develop a four-engined bomber-cum-reconnaissance aircraft had become public knowledge, so when X Air Corps suggested to Jeschonnek that the Fw 200 be used as a stop-gap, he agreed. Petersen, who had flown the plane as a civil airlines pilot, was himself put in charge of the first experimental squadron, and during the Norwegian campaign it did some useful reconnaissance.

For its new role Focke-Wulf reinforced the fuselage, built in auxiliary tanks and fitted bomb brackets under the wings. With that, plus the necessary re-arrangement of the interior, the military version of the Fw 200-C was ready. It did of course still betray its civil origin: it was too weak in structure, too slow and too vulnerable. Its initial armament of a single 20 mm cannon in a turret above the cockpit, plus two machine-guns in the ventral and rear-dorsal positions, could hardly be expected to offer much defence against fighter attack.

On the other hand its range was impressive—particularly at a time when the Luftwaffe was bitterly disappointed at the failure of the Ju 88 to fulfil its earlier promise. Even the “normal” version of the Fw 220-C had an operating radius of close on 1,000 miles, plus a twenty per cent reserve for navigation errors, discharging mission, etc. With auxiliary fuselage tanks this was raised to 1,100 miles, while the “long-distance” version, with fuel containers in place of bombs, could make a round trip of nearly 1,400 miles in both directions. Flights lasting fourteen to sixteen hours were by no means uncommon.

The significance of the above was seen when I/KG 40, newly formed by Lieutenant Colonel Petersen, was posted in the summer of 1940 to south-west France on the Atlantic: 1 and 2 Squadrons to Bordeaux-Merignac, 3 Squadron to Cognac. They could carry out armed reconnaissance all the way from the Bay of Biscay to the west of Ireland, then continue on to land at Stavanger-Sola, or Vaernes near Trondheim, in Norway. On the next day or the day after they would make the same flight in reverse.

Thus, for all the improvised character of the instrument, the Luftwaffe was able to supply the far-scanning eyes that the U-boats so badly needed. Speaking on December 30, 1940, to the command armed forces staff on the situation in the Atlantic, Dönitz urged: “Just let me have a minimum of twenty Fw 200s solely for reconnaissance purposes, and the U-boat successes will shoot up!” And on January 4, 1941, the German Admiralty reiterated: “To enable our naval command centres to prosecute the war in the Atlantic systematic reconnaissance is essential.”

But behind the façade of sober discussion was a battle royal as to who should have the ultimate operational control of the Condor Gruppe: the Luftwaffe or the Navy. On January 6th Hitler himself decided the issue with the order: “I/KG 40 will be under the command of the Commander in Chief of the Navy.” And he tried to appease Goering by giving him back the Navy’s Kampfgruppe 806, so that he could add its Ju 88s to Sperrle’s Luftflotte 3 for the bomber raids on England.

It was one of those decisions that gave little satisfaction to either side. Dönitz won control of I/KG 40, only to find that the Gruppe was much weaker than he had thought. For though its full establishment was twenty to twenty-five machines, the daily serviceability state was at best six to eight—another demonstration that a plane improvised from an air-liner was unsuited to the wear and tear of operations. How could such a small handful of aircraft be expected to comb the wastes of the Atlantic with anything like the thoroughness the U-boat chief required?

On January 16, 1941, Captain Verlohr, squadron commander of I/KG 40, sighted a convoy west of Ireland, and sank two ships totalling 10,857 tons by the “Swedish turnip” method. After that he remained in contact for several hours till his fuel was only just enough to bring him home. Meanwhile he was unsuccessful either in getting a second Fw 200 to relieve him or in bringing U-boats to the scene—they were too far away. Consequently contact was lost, night fell, and next morning the convoy was no longer to be found.

The same thing happened on January 23rd, 28th and 31 st. On each occasion a large convoy was sighted, and always the aircraft was forced to leave before U-boats reached the position. On the other hand the aircraft themselves sank ships every time. In fact the sinkings achieved by “armed reconnaissance” rose from fifteen vessels totalling 63,175 tons in January, to twenty-two totalling 84,515 tons in February. These are the Allied figures that became available after the war. The contemporary claims were a good deal higher.

To carry out their long-distance missions successfully, with all that that entailed, the Condor crews had to operate at the limit of their capacity. They represented the cream of the bomber training schools, where trial crews were put together and their performance judged. And they learnt much from their senior colleagues, who as former Lufthansa pilots were already expert at blind and long-distance flying. Most successful operationally were Lieutenant-Colonel Petersen—soon to command the whole KG 40 Geschwader —then his Gruppen and squadron commanders Verlohr, Daser, Buchholz, Jope and Mayr. The last two are still chief pilots with Lufthansa today.

Yet no string of individual performances could disguise the fact that the main job of providing effective reconnaissance for the U-boat arm could never be carried out so long as the number of serviceable aircraft could be counted on the fingers of one hand. In 1941 the monthly production of Focke-Wulf Condors amounted to only four or five, which represented no net increase. As the U-boats still sailed blindly through the seas, the following dialogue would take place each morning at Dönitz’s war-room at Lorient between himself and his chief of operations, Commander Eberhardt Godt:

Dönitz: “Are there any reconnaissance flights today?”

Godt : “Jawohl, Herr Admiral.”

Dönitz : “By how many aircraft?”

Godt : “By one, Herr Admiral”

The two would look at each other and smile sadly; and Dönitz, whose U-boats were the paramount source of concern to the British, would shrug his shoulders in resignation.

Even Martin Harlinghausen could do nothing to improve the situation when, in March 1941, he became first Fliegerführer Atlantik, with the task of concentrating all maritime aircraft under one command. With Goering and Jeschonnek contesting the naval control of I/KG 40 from the start, Hitler finally rescinded his previous order and put the Condors too under the new Fliegerführer’s command. But though this saved appearances, the job of providing reconnaissance for the C.-in-C. U-boats remained the same, and as the months went by there was still no increase in the force.

Harlinghausen—to whom Dönitz had allocated Château Branderion, some twelve miles distant from Lorient, as staff HQ—had moreover other tasks on hand. The first was to combat the shipping lanes from the Irish Sea through the English Channel to the Tyne; the second to support Sperrle’s Luftflotte 3 in its attacks on British harbours.

To serve this far-flung battle-line the Fliegerführer had the following forces at his command:

At Bordeaux: I/KG 40 (Fw 200), HI/KG 40 (He 111, later Fw 200)

In Holland: II/KG 40 (Do 217)

In Brittany (Lannion): One LR reconnaissance squadron, 3 (F)/123 (Ju 88)

Three coastal Gruppen, two equipped with Ju 88s, the third still with He 115 seaplanes

These forces maintained daily patrols of the British shipping lanes from the Irish Sea to the Thames estuary, not only reporting convoys but attacking them. Even those “fat, tired birds”, the ancient He 115s under Major Stockmann, with their two 500-lb. bombs and two forward firing fixed machine-guns, scored successes, flying from Brest to the Bristol Channel.

But the spring months of 1941 also saw a strengthening of the British defence. Not only were the convoys provided with more powerful anti-submarine escort, but the light flak defences of the mercantile ships were also greatly augmented—as the German airmen found to their cost. Low-level attack by the “Swedish turnip” method was still the order of the day, and as the planes screamed over the mast-tops they were vulnerable targets for seconds on end.

At the outset it was calculated by the Fliegerführer Atlantik’s staff that for every aircraft lost 30,000 tons of shipping were sunk. Now the ratio abruptly changed. The aircraft, confronted with a wall of flak, could no longer get at the ships. By June the losses were so heavy that Harlinghausen had to bar the method of attack that he himself had introduced in 1939.

British counter-measures also compelled the U-boats to abandon their productive hunting grounds in the North Channel between Ireland and Scotland. Six of them were lost there between March 7th and April 5th alone, amongst them the vessels of such outstanding U-boat captains as Prien (U 47), Schepke (U 100) and Kretschmer (U 99), who was the only one to be rescued. Dönitz withdrew his vessels far to the west, there to conduct wide-spread searches of the North Atlantic, in regions mostly out of range for the Condors, whose western limit of reconnaissance was the twenty-second parallel, about 1,000 miles from their base of operations.

In mid-July, 1941, co-operation between the two arms took a new short lease of life when Dönitz sent his U-boat packs to harass the convoys leaving Gibraltar. But though the U-boat operations were thus again within the Condors’ range, low-level attacks, except occasionally on isolated ships, were now out of the question, and the sighting had to be done through binoculars. None the less, they did a much better job of reconnaissance, and on a number of occasions, after the U-boats had been driven off by the escort, they led them back to the convoy’s position.

In September, 1941, Dönitz brought the U-boats to the north again, and in November the Condors flew sixty-two reconnaissance missions over the North Atlantic. But though five convoys were sighted, with only one could they keep in touch for two consecutive days. The rest were lost sight of. In December there were only twenty-three missions, though on one occasion the convoy was shadowed for five whole days. “In every case,” the Fliegerführer Atlantik war diary records, “fixes were given to bring U-boats to the scene.”

After that the co-operative effort was again disrupted. The U-boats were engaged in the Mediterranean, and from January, 1942, along the Atlantic coast of America, seeking hunting grounds where the defence was still new and inexperienced. I/KG 40 was posted to Vaernes in Norway. For in 1942 the Allies began to send convoys to Russia, thereby opening up a giant new operations zone: the Arctic Ocean.

Meanwhile, on the English Channel coast, the British had since mid-1941 been waging a non-stop bomber offensive in the hope of compelling the Luftwaffe to withdraw some of its fighter units from the Russian front. But in fact the only two fighter Geschwader stationed on the Channel—the “Richthofen” JG 2 and the “Schlageter” JG 26—continued to oppose these raids alone. In autumn, 1941, II/JG 26 was re-equipped with the first production series of the new fighter type, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190. Acting defensively, these fighters and the Me 109s inflicted considerable losses.

The period was marked by three main episodes:

  1. The vain attempt of the Luftwaffe, despite 218 sorties, to rescue the Bismarck from her pursuit by the British fleet (May 26-28, 1941).
  2. The successful break through the Channel, aided by strong air cover, of the battleships Scharnhorst and Gneisenau and the cruiser Prinz Eugen (February 12, 1942).
  3. The British and Canadian landing attempt at Dieppe, bloodily repulsed and with the loss of 106 British bombers and fighters (August 19, 1942).

When on May 24, 1941, Luftflotte 3’s H.Q. in Paris was apprised of the 41,700-ton Bismarck’s intention of docking at St. Nazaire, she had already sunk the British battle-cruiser Hood. The Luftwaffe was bidden to do all it could to secure her arrival at that port. It would, however, be at least two days before she could steam into range of Ju 88 and He 111 cover. Meanwhile, where was she?

On May 26th—the vital day for making contact—a low-pressure front from the north-west, with its resulting storms, made flying almost impossible. Though Harlinghausen’s reconnaissance planes took off, they flew into a visionless void. At 15.45 a single Fw 200 did, however, suddenly happen upon the British battleship Rodney, with several destroyers. But the near-by flagship King George V was completely hidden by the low-scudding clouds, and unlike British long-range reconnaissance aircraft, the Condors still carried no radar aid.

According to the information given—certainly inexact in the prevailing weather conditions—the enemy’s position was some 750 miles off the French coast. Yet the maximum distance the Ju 88s and He 111s could fly out to sea was 550 miles. That settled the matter, and the take-off was ordered for the following morning (27th May) at 03.00. By that time the Bismarck’s fate had been sealed. At 21.05 the previous evening torpedoes from aircraft of the carrier Ark Royal had damaged her propellers and rudder, and she could no longer elude pursuit.

The last friends the battleship saw, as she fought for her life, was at 09.50 on the 27th. They were five Ju 88s of the coastal Gruppe 606, which had left their base hours before. In the midst of the great artillery duel they tried to intervene by diving on the nearest cruiser, but every bomb missed. When an hour later seventeen Heinkels of I/KG 28 arrived on the scene from Nantes, the Bismarck was already beneath the waves. Unsuccessfully they attacked the Ark Royal, each with two 500-lb. and eight 250-lb. bombs, all of which again missed.

After that came Kampfgruppe 100, II/KG 1, II/KG 54 and I/KG 77 in succession, but none of them found the enemy. For months on end these formations had been engaged in night bomber attacks on England, and suddenly to send them out over stormy seas to the limit of their range, on a job for which they had never been trained, was optimistic indeed. As for the Geschwader that had been so trained—KGs 26 and 30—no one thought of these until it was too late. Though the returning British fleet was again harried from the air during the whole of the following day, and hundreds of bombs were dropped, only one destroyer (the Mashona) was so damaged that it finally sank off the west coast of Ireland.

The German aircrews returned in chastened mood. All the 218 sorties they had flown had not helped the Bismarck a jot. Only next year did their fortunes change for the better: with the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau venture, Dieppe, and above all with the knock-out blow in the Arctic against Convoy PQ 17.


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