German night fighters transformed aerial combat. The success of German night fighters was such that the Allies had to reform their tactics in an attempt to reduce their effectiveness.
American bombers were usually used for daylight bombing raids on Nazi Germany. RAF bombers were usually used for nighttime bombing raids. A typical raid would involve a flight coming into mainland Europe over the coast of the Netherlands en route to targets such as Cologne, Frankfurt and Nuremberg. The return journey would take the bombers over Strasbourg, Paris and back to their bases usually in East Anglia. Prior to night fighters, bombers were most at risk from anti-aircraft fire – especially if they were caught in a searchlight. Night fighters put a new dynamic into a bombing run.
Germany’s main night fighters were the Messerschmitt Bf-110G, the Junker Ju-88G6, the Dornier Do-217J and the Heinkel He-219A Uhu (Owl). Towards the end of the war, a night fighting version of the Me-262 was used. Though this was potentially a highly effective weapon, as with other weapons developed by Germany towards the end of the war, it was a case of ‘too little too late’.
The Messerschmitt Bf-110G was a very successful night fighter. With a top speed of 342 mph and a maximum ceiling of 26,000 feet, it could easily get among a formation of bombers. Equipped with 2 x 30mm and 2 x 20mm cannon with a 7.9mm machine gun, it also carried a formidable weapons load.
The Junkers Ju-88G6 was also a widely used night fighter. Unlike the Messerschmitt Bf-110G, it was equipped with the ‘Schrage Musik’ – upward-firing 2 x 20mm cannon mounted in the central fuselage. It had a maximum speed of 311 mph and a maximum ceiling of 32,500 feet. Along with the ‘Schrage Musik’, this night fighter was also equipped with 3 x 20mm cannon and 3 x 7.9mm machine guns.
The Dornier Do-217J had a maximum speed of 320 mph and a maximum ceiling of 31,170 feet. More heavily armed than the Messerschmitt Bf-110G or Junkers Ju-88G6, it was equipped with 4 x 20mm cannon, 4 x 7.9mm machine guns, and 1 x 13mm machine gun in a remote-controlled dorsal turret.
The Heinkel ‘Owl’ first flew in 1942 and on paper was a potentially fearsome opponent to nighttime bombers. However, only 268 were ever built because of the targeting of the factories by Allied bombers. It was the fastest of the propeller-driven night fighting aircraft with a top speed of 416 mph and a ceiling of 41,660 feet. It was armed with 2 x 30mm and 2 x 20mm cannon and 2 x 30mm ‘Schrage Musik’ cannon.
All the above aircraft could not fly blind at night and had to be equipped with night flying radar. In the case of the Luftwaffe, they used the Lichtenstein radar. By 1943, Germany had developed a radar shield that identified aircraft when they were miles away and gave night fighters a fix on incoming bombers so that the night fighters themselves could then use their Lichtenstein radar before attacking. At twenty-miles intervals across the coast of northern Europe, the Germans built a long-range early warning radar called ‘Freya’. This would pick up an incoming raid when it was still miles out. As the raid closed, it would be picked up by short-range radar called ‘Wurzburg’. This radar system would also have a second fix on circling night fighters and by decreasing the angle between both fixes would bring the night fighters nearer to the incoming bombers. Once they were near enough, each fighter would use its Lichtenstein radar to hunt out a target.
“If it was the flak that caused the damage and forced bomber crews to jink their aircraft, thus making accurate bombing difficult, it was the venomously efficient night fighters that were the real killers.” Flight-Lieutenant Alfred Price.
General Josef Kammhuber, commander of the Luftwaffe’s night fighting force, had developed the tactics for the night fighters. He designed a routine whereby German night fighters were brought in behind incoming bombers so that they could attack them in the rear. Once Lichtenstein had made contact, a pilot would radio in ‘Pauke’, which was the Luftwaffe equivalent of ‘Tally Ho’ – that the pilot was about to attack a target. The radar operator in each night fighter gave the pilot a running commentary of the flight path that should be taken.
“Like that of an enemy sniper, the task of the night time crew amounted to little short of cold-blooded murder. If it was possible to get within 50 yards behind and astern of a still unsuspecting victim, a favourite German tactic was the pull the fighter up on to its tail, at the same time opening fire. The battery of cannon pumped out a stream of explosive shells, to rake the raider from stem to stern. All too often the first thing the hapless bomber crew knew of the attack was the shudder as their aircraft buckled under the impact of the exploding shells.” Alfred Price
By July 1943, German night fighters had a success rate of 5%. While impressive in the sense that this was a very new way of fighting, it also meant that very many RAF bombers got through. However, the element of ‘never knowing’ was a major worry for Bomber Command crews – would we be next? The experts in the RAF swiftly found a solution to the problems of German night fighters. Logically, night fighters were only as good as their radar. If Lichtenstein could be compromised, then RAF bombers would be ain a much safer position. What was called ‘Windows’ undermined Lichtenstein by a remarkable degree. ‘Windows’ was very simple. Windows comprised of many thousands of strips of aluminium foil – 30 cms long and 1.5 cms wide – that was dropped in bundles of 2,000. German radar worked off of a system of being able to produce a bearing and an elevation for night fighters to home in on. ‘Windows’ made this impossible and each bomber dropped ‘Windows’ at one-minute intervals thus saturating radar on the ground with blips. This resulted in ‘Wurzburg’ not being able to give the night fighters the bearings they required.