The Battle of the Bulge was the final German offensive campaign on the Western Front in World War II. Hitler’s orders were to split the Allied Forces and halt Allied use of the Belgian port of Antwerp, and so the action was slated for the densely forested Ardennes region of Belgium. The Germans began their assault on December 16, 1944 with over 400,000 troops, together with 1,400 tanks and other military assets. By January 25, 1945, when the attacks were finally subdued, close to 85,000 Germans were dead and the Allies had lost nearly 20,000 lives during the actions. These staggering final figures show that the Battle of the Bulge was the largest and bloodiest single battle fought in World War II, and the second deadliest campaign in American history!
The campaign launched at the onset of winter, with brutal weather that severely limited tactical reconnaissance. This, combined with Allied overconfidence, gave the Germans the opportunity to build up a significant force to begin the campaign. It was the 422nd Night Fighter Squadron (442nd NFS) that took on the Luftwaffe at night over the Bulge. They scored a total of 17 kills and one enemy plane damaged. It was their stint during this short period that put the total kills at 43 enemy aircraft, making the 442nd the top fighters after dark.
“All Hell Broke Loose”
In early September 1944, the 422nd NFS had just moved their P-61A Black Widows from the air base in Chateaudun, France to the new airbase at Florennes, Belgium (known as A-78), which had recently been captured from the Germans. By early in November, winter weather had started to build up, and on the night of November 26, all hell broke loose. On this particular night, P-61A Double Trouble was up with Lt. Bob Bolinder and Lt. Robert Graham. They were flying a defensive patrol over the area that the American VIII Corps was occupying. Halfway through the mission, their ground-controlled interception, GCI Marmite (Marmite was the radar station that was monitoring their patrol), radioed that there was an unidentified aircraft at a distance of 13 miles. Lieutenant Graham gave his pilot the vector, and closure was quick. At a distance of three miles, the radar observer’s (R/O) airborne intercept radar picked up the bogey, and they continued to close in until they were at point-blank range. There was still no positive visual identification, and in an effort to pull up underneath, the P-61 overshot its quarry. Lieutenant Bolinder immediately did a tight 360 but lost the target! Backing off, they waited for GCI to pick it up again, which didn’t take long. With the new information, they closed in on the target again and this time drew to less than 100 feet, allowing a positive visual—it was a Heinkel He 111 flying at about 180mph.
Lieutenant Bolinder picks it up from there: “The enemy aircraft suddenly peeled off sharply to port and did a 360 turn, which rolled him right back on his original course. As I steadied, I lined him up and gave him a long burst with my 20 mm cannons. [The P-61A did not have the .50 caliber top turret at this time.] The distance between us at this point was about 400 feet, with the enemy aircraft ahead and slightly above us. My first burst hit him along his port wing root. I fired a total of four long bursts into the He 111 and was forced to pull up abruptly to avoid flying debris. Three seconds after pulling up, the enemy aircraft exploded and fell to the ground with pieces of it scattered over a wide area. I did not see any parachutes and the explosion was so violent that the crew would have had a hard time trying get out.” This had been the 422nd’s first kill, and the first enemy aircraft destroyed during the brief but intense Battle of the Bulge.
Threat Lurking in the Shadows
There was a serious threat to the Allied aircraft lurking in the shadows. Back in July 1944, the Germans had let it be known that they had a jet aircraft. It turned out to be the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet. Accurate guesses were that it could do 600mph and that the American’s P-51 Mustang was no match for it. On the night of November 15, 1944, the team of Cpt. Robert Elmore (pilot) and R/O Lt. Leonard Mapes recorded a first while flying in their Shoo Shoo Baby: a nighttime confirmation of the night-flying Me 163. At the time, they were near Bonn, Germany. Lieutenant Mapes comments on that mission: “I picked the bogey up and he was coming toward us at a terrific speed and he was quite a bit higher than we were. As it was about to pass over us, he made a hard 180-degree turn. I could not find him on my radar but remember seeing him, and it reminds me of a piece of a pie-shaped figure with a long tail of flame coming from the rear end. I was busy keeping Lieutenant Elmore [informed] about it, when all of sudden the flame from the rear quieted down to just a glow and the Me 163 began to spiral down, coming straight at us.”
Mapes continued, “I could see intermittent bursts of fire from its nose, which meant he was firing on us. As I kept telling Lieutenant Elmore what he was doing, he started taking hard evasive action. All of a sudden, the Me 163 broke off and went into a just about straight up climb with a long tail of flame shooting out from its rear end. We never could get into a position to fire our cannon. But we stayed in the area and went below the cloud layer and managed to strafe several trains. This was the first Me 163 to be sighted by a night fighter, according to our squadron’s knowledge. A few days before ours, there was an in-the-air encounter; rocket-powered German aircraft were observed by American bomber crews while in a mission over Germany.”
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