A “Maximum Effort” Christmas Eve: The 8th Air Force joins the Battle of the Bulge

The Battle of the Bulge was the last major German offensive campaign on the Western Front.  The plan was a Blitzkrieg attack to split the Allied forces, dividing the U.S. and British forces, along a 75 mile front, in the wooded and poorly defended Ardennes.  Success depended on surprise- take advantage of thick fog to render the Allied air cover useless and English-speaking commandos infiltrating American lines to spread misinformation and sow distrust.

Over 600,000 American troops fought in the Battle of the Bulge, over a bloody three weeks.  There were an estimated 89,000 US casualties, including 19,000 who died.  However, the Germans lost between 80,000 and 100,000.  It is also estimated that approximately 3,000 civilians were killed.

The battle began on December 16, but poor weather limited the use of aircraft until December 24.  Christmas Eve was a “Maximum Effort” mission, where even “war weary” planes that had been grounded would fly if they could.  Throughout England, 2,034 four-engine bombers, both Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses and Consolidated B-24 Liberators, took flight. Martin Presswood, Pilot with the 570th Bomb Squadron, wrote about the Christmas Eve mission-

“The Group Air Executive, Lt. Col.George Von Arb, tells us that because of the lack of air support since the Battle of the Bulge began, morale of the Allied ground troops is very low; and for that reason all 2,034 airplanes from the 8th Air Force are being routed over the battle zone at an altitude of 15,000 feet to let the troops know that we are back in the air.  Once past the battle zone, the various Group formations will fan out and head toward their assigned targets.  Usually, 8th Air Force airplanes do not fly over enemy territory under an altitude of 20,000 feet because anti-aircraft fire is less accurate at high altitudes.  He says that higher authorities know of the greater risk, but have decided that the risk is necessary under the circumstances.  Those of us who will be flying the mission wonder if the risk is worth it…”

After finishing the fly over, Presswood and his crew continued onto the target at Zellhausen to complete their bombing mission.

AIR POWER IN THE BATTLE OF THE BULGE

As Dr. Robert Allen, 352nd Special Operations Group Historian at RAF Mildenhall in the UK noted,  “There are many reasons to remember the Battle of the Bulge.  Professional ones include reminders of the cost of being surprised… If U.S. generals had known local history better, they would have placed more U.S. troops in the Ardennes; the Germans had successfully broken through defenders here in 1914 and 1940.” However, Dr. Allen also notes the lessons learned during the battle- the importance of air power as well as the need for join service efforts.

One of the main reasons the Germans lost the battle was they did not have enough fuel for their tanks. American troops and bombers destroyed all the fuel depots they could and eventually the German tanks ran out of fuel.  Between December 16, 1944, and January 16, 1945, the Eighth and Ninth Air Forces claimed more than 400 enemy fighters shot down, and destroyed 11,378 German transport vehicles, 1,161 tanks and other armored vehicles, 507 locomotives, 6,266 railroad cars, 472 gun positions, 974 rail cuts, 421 road cuts, and 36 bridges.

The 390th Bomb Group participated in 19 bombing missions during this time.  When the offensive ended on January 25, the 390th Bomb Group had lost 18 aircraft.

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