FOURTEEN RAIDERS DOWNED
Monday, January 1, 1945
‘The enemy attacks were very low-level indeed. On several occasions the guns had to break off firing owing to the target disappearing behind buildings or trees.’
ON New Year’s Day 1945, Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Henderson RA, of the 97th Anti-Tank Regiment, took command of 92nd LAA when Lieutenant-Colonel Bazeley transferred to 7th Field Regiment.
That same morning, the Germans launched a massive air offensive with almost 1,000 planes against 16 Allied airfields in forward areas of Belgium and Holland. Operation Bodenplatte (Baseplate) was the last major attack in the West by the Luftwaffe – and brought the 92nd’s most dramatic and successful engagement of the war.
At 9.15am, the regiment’s air sentries saw a long line of 50 to 60 enemy aircraft approaching from the east. The first wave consisted of between 15 and 18 FW 190s, flying in line astern at treetop level. The planes, each carrying one bomb slung below the fuselage, passed over the 92nd’s guns towards Helmond and became involved in dogfights with British Spitfires, Typhoons and Tempests. As they broke off from the battle, they swept back in strafing runs across the 92nd’s area.
Ten minutes later, three more FW 190s roared across at 500ft from west to east, followed shortly afterwards by a single unidentified aircraft flying at between 200ft and 300ft and an ME 109 at 100ft over Leunen church. The planes had light green camouflaged livery and their German insignia were small – some of the ME 109s were reported to have RAF roundels and markings and some had an unusual red surround to the black German cross.
As more and more raiders – including at least one jet- propelled ME 262 – filled the skies, it became clear that for the anti-aircraft crews, this was a moment of extreme danger, but also a golden opportunity. All their years of training had been devoted to identifying targets in a couple of seconds, aiming and shooting almost instantaneously. And here, on this first day of 1945, there were targets galore. For the next 45 minutes the Bofors fired almost continuously with devastating effect.
One gun of D Troop 318, commanded by Sergeant William ‘Taffy’ James, destroyed three aircraft and shared in the destruction of a fourth. 319, which was at rest at the time, with many guns stripped down for maintenance, rapidly brought its Bofors into action and shot down two more. 317 destroyed at least one FW 190.
‘The enemy attacks were very low-level indeed,’ Major Crane wrote in a report soon after. ‘The pilots were determined, and displayed great skill in low flying. On several occasions the guns had to break off firing owing to the target disappearing behind buildings, trees, or flying below prescribed safety limits.’
In all, the regiment fired 1,765 rounds and destroyed seven planes outright. Two more were shot down in conjunction with a neighbouring regiment, and five more were awarded as probably destroyed. Four of the German planes were downed in an area only 1,000 yards square – testimony to the intensity of the battle.
As the action ended at 10.15am, the gunlayers slumped from their Bofors, exhausted and dizzy from the frenzied pace of the firing. ‘Today was a really happy one for us,’ the 318 war diary recorded. ‘The Luftwaffe came seeking action and we took it up.’
Jack Prior said: ‘We were beginning to believe our anti-aircraft role was over, but we were proved dramatically wrong.’ Knowing that his men – without time to aim properly – had mainly been firing over open sights, the CO summed it up even more succinctly. ‘Sheer good shooting, entirely visual,’ he said.
By the end of the day, the Germans had lost more than 200 aircraft over Holland and Belgium and the Luftwaffe’s last gamble had come to nothing. Later, the 3rd Division intelligence summary acknowledged the 92nd’s superb performance during the New Year’s Day attack. Twenty-nine planes had been destroyed by the corps, but the 14 shot down by the 92nd were ‘by far the largest to the credit of a single LAA regiment on that memorable morning’.