German Air Tactics Against Ground Targets

Statistical analysis of Luftwaffe air attacks on ground targets in the Third U.S. Army from Antiaircraft Artillery: A Brief History of Operations in Europe, 1 August 1944 to 8 May, 1945, Third United States Army.

German Air Tactics Against Ground Targets in the Third U.S. Army Area

1. Prior to the allied landings of the continent, 6 June 1944, a great deal already was known of the tactics of the German Air Force in attacking ground targets. Attacks of appreciable size had occurred in Italy and Sicily and along the North African coast, and some time had been devoted to their study. Targets of opportunity in forward areas received 63% of attacks, highways and bridges received but 4% of attention, and ports and harbors, airfields and ammunition dumps received 33%, 55% of attacks were by dive-bombing, 20% level-bombing, 10% strafing, 12% unknown, and 3% reconnaissance flights. Bombers made much use of cloud cover and the blinding effect of the bright sun in making their approaches to the target areas. In brief, strong, close-in defenses of all vital objectives seemed dictated by past Luftwaffe performances, with forward zones of divisions, and roads and bridges being of prime importance. An adequate alert status and an efficient warning system were necessary to guard against surprise.

2. Experiences in Italy were, to a certain extent, repeated during the course of Third U.S. Army’s operations on the continent from 1 August 1944 to 8 May 1945. Thus, during periods of rapid and threatening advance, armored spearheads were continually attacked by large numbers of low-flying aircraft which attempted to blunt their thrusts. As rivers were reached, emphasis turned to attacks upon the bridges and crowded bridge areas. It the air effort was particularly large, much of it spilled over into troop and artillery areas of infantry divisions following the armor. Little if any air activity was encountered behind corps rear boundaries during such times. Sole large-scale exception to this was during the initial break-through drive of Third U.S. Army’s VIII Corps down the Cotentin Peninsula. During that period, from 1 August to 12 August 1944, the GAF made a frenzied effort that struck night and day not only at the spearheading armor and motorized infantry, but at bridges, road defiles, dams and antiaircraft behind them up and down the historic Avranches supply route Thus, targets were chosen because of their vital importance, and merely vulnerable targets, such as supply dumps, airfields, and the like were left almost untouched.

3. During periods of comparatively little forward movement, such as occurred along the Moselle River in France, there were few attacks made but, weather permitting, reconnaissance was flown almost daily over division and corps zones while some nuisance strafing and bombing of artillery positions occurred.

4. The only time this over-all pattern varied was during the German break-through effort in Luxembourg and Belgium in the First U.S. Army sector. As Third U.S. Army withdrew its divisions from its own line and turned north to strike at the south flank of the German bulge, the Luftwaffe for the first time penetrated deeply into the army area behind corps rear boundaries. Supply installations, bridges, railway supply trains, troop assemblies and convoys, CPs—all were bombed and strafed while at the same time close support was furnished German panzer units by attacks upon our artillery, tanks and beleaguered garrisons, such as at Bastogne, Belgium. Several nuisance attacks and one large-scale attack was made on airfields in the army area. In addition, many reconnaissance sorties were flown. A comparison of figures shows that while the Hun was on the defensive, approximately 20% of air activity occurred behind corps boundaries, but that during the counter-offensive approximately 40% of all sorties were reported behind corps, and this at a time when the Army had four corps instead of the usual two or three.

5. It is difficult to state altitudes at which attacks were made since many attacks combined several tactics, and strafing frequently followed bombing. For the entire course of the army’s operations, 2,463 raids by 6,192 enemy aircraft were reported by AAA sources. Of these, 1,226 raids developed into actual attacks, the remaining raids being for reconnaissance or unknown purposes. A graphical presentation of types of attacks appears below. The type of attack was unknown on 3.7% of the 1,226 raids involving attacks.

German Air Tactics against Ground Targets

6. A total of 6,192 enemy aircraft were over the entire army area of which AAA gunners engaged 4,985. The remaining 1,207 airplanes were observed but not fired upon for various reasons, such as being out of range, etc. However, many of these 4,985 aircraft were seen and engaged by several units in succession. The tabulation below tallies German aircraft as they were separately observed and reported by the various AAA battalions. Screening to eliminate duplicate reports of the same airplanes has not been done.

Frequency of Engagements
by Plane Types
 Cat I 
 Cat II 
3043 Me-109 426 225
2267 FW-190 296 174
377 Ju-88 35 29
359 Me-262 22 21
134 Me-210 and Me-410 10 5
56 He-111 7 9
40 Ar-234 2 1
38 Me-110 8 3
27 Ju-87 3 1
16 Ju-188 2 2
11 Ju-52 4 1
10 Do-217 3 1
9 Bu-181 7 0
4 Me-108 2 1
4 Me-163 0 0
3 FW-200 1 1
3 Fi-156 1 0
2 He-177 1 0
2 Hs-126 0 0
1 Go-145 1 0
2747 Unknown 276 106
40 Obsn and Trng Types 16 3
11 Jet-propelled types 0 0
Unfiltered Total  9204 Unfiltered Claims 1123 583
Filtered Total  6192 Approved Claims 927 279

7. Tactics of attacking aircraft varied considerably but some generalities may be stated. Thus, while enemy pilots took advantage of a low sun in making attacks at dusk and dawn no preference for these particular hours was shown and attacks were spread throughout periods of the day and night. Cloud cover also was used where available. Attacking planes tended to fly closer to the ground toward the end of the war, thus hoping to defeat radar early warning facilities and also to reduce time within range of light AAA weapons. There were no massed bombing attacks attempted. Individual tactics and ruses were noted as follows:

(a) “Window” was occasionally dropped in large quantities but on only one occasion did it make radar tracking of airplanes impossible.

(b) Enemy aircraft cut their motors to glide silently toward a target, thus, hoping to escape detection.

(c) Enemy aircraft made little use of tracer ammunition in their night strafing attacks.

(d) Some E/A flew in low to attract light AAA fire, even turning their landing lights on for this purpose. When fire was opened from the ground, other planes at higher altitudes and out of range bombed the disclosed positions.

(e) Most attacks were by E/A attacking one, two, or three at a time. In raids involving 50-75 airplanes, the formations broke up into smell elements of 2 to 4 planes, attacking from all directions.

(f) E/A engaged in mock dogfights, leading ground troops to believe a allied aircraft were pursuing German aircraft.

(g) Rocket-firing techniques appeared to be to dive at an angle of 45°, releasing the rockets at 500-1,000 ft altitude.

(h) Most frequently used evasive maneuver, when engaged by AAA, was to dive low and level off near the ground. In avoiding AW fire, violent turns were used, or planes dropped to hedge-hopping levels. Bursts of speed also were employed. Those E/A which tried to climb or make bank turns were often shot down, except where they climbed to cloud cover or directly into the sun.


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