Published Air & Space Power Journal - Summer 1997
To Win the Winter Sky: The Air War over the Ardennes, 1944-1945 by Danny S. Parker. Combined Books, Inc., Conshohocken, Pennsylvania 19428, 1994, 528 pages.
Danny Parker delivers a compelling historical work about air combat over the Battle of the Bulge that will change the way readers think about this battle. Most historical work on the second Ardennes offensive focuses on ground operations, the allure of personalities like Patton and Montgomery, or the defense of Bastogne. Parker shows how Allied performance on the ground hinged on the ability of air commanders to swing their considerable might to the emergency when its seriousness became apparent. No armored offensive could withstand the destruction delivered by Allied air forces under airmen like Hoyt Vandenberg, Jimmy Doolittle, and Pete Quesada.
An unflattering characterization of the main protagonist, Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring, begins the book, and Parker efficiently scans the important elements of Nazi highlevel planning that went into Wacht Am Rhein, the code name for what we call the Battle of the Bulge. All the trends looked dismal for Germany by late 1944, yet Hitler hoped that a surprise counteroffensive would split the US and British forces and drive all the way to Antwerp. For a variety of reasons, it caught the Allies unprepared.
One of those reasons, which Parker explores in depth, is Allied overreliance on Ultra decrypts. Hitler suspected a leak in the Nazi hierarchy and enforced a high degree of secrecy that hid the buildup of forces in the Ardennes from Ultra. This fed the predispositions of Allied commanders, who ignored important preattack aerial reconnaissance. Also, the unusually bad weather that accompanied the attack kept Allied airpower from detecting and fully interdicting German armored columns during the initial penetration. Bad weather hampered the Allied attempt to win air superiority and crippled the attack in the first days of the battle, yet Parker's research shows that early air operations still slowed the armored spearheads on the narrow roads of the Ardennes.
To explore those crucial first days, the author takes a tactical perspective. Although the thick overcast on the first seven days of the attack (16-22 December 1944) inhibited a full Allied air effort, the newly revealed story emphasizes the airmen's courage in the face of this obstacle. Alerted to the attack by scouts of the US First Army, pilots from General Quesada's IX Tactical Air Command flew into the thick overcast, determined to find the enemy. In the first three days, bombing and strafing through holes in the clouds and using new radar-bombing techniques, they scattered and slowed the Sixth Panzer Army, in whose path lay a crucial Allied logistical depot at Liege. When the skies cleared on 23 December (Patton decorated his chaplain, whom he'd ordered to pray for clear skies), Allied tactical and strategic airpower poured into the fray, dominating the Luftwaffe and crippling the ground offensive through direct attack and interdiction. The Allied high command's ability to concentrate airpower on and around the battlefield, including the 3,500 aircraft of Doolittle's Eighth Air Force, testifies to airpower's flexibility and lethality.
The story is well told. Parker provides a steady stream of exciting yet sobering air combat accounts that give the work an intimate feel. His technique reminds one of Donald Caldwell's JG26: Top Guns of the Luftwaffe, and, in fact, their work overlaps. The feared pilots of Jagdeschwader 26 saw heavy action in support of the Ardennes offensive. JG26 met its doom in a last great act of defiance on New Year's Day 1945 in Operation Base Plate, a massive Luftwaffe attack on Allied airfields that serves as a climax to the book.
Gen Dietrich Peltz, bomber pilot and commander of Luftwaffe air operations in the Ardennes offensive, designed the operation as a preemptive strike on Allied airfields, but weather delayed its execution. Fighter ace Adolph Galland opposed Base Plate in favor of concentrated antibomber attacks he hoped would stop the Allied strategic campaign. Reminiscent of LeighMallory's "Big Wing" approach during the Battle of Britain, Galland's idea died because of Wacht Am Rhein. Although Base Plate achieved tactical surprise, Allied antiaircraft artillery and fighters butchered the attackers in one of the most crippling oneday air encounters of the war. Among the irreplaceable losses were at least 80 wing, group, and squadron leaders. This led to bomberfighter tensions in the Luftwaffe leadership that culminated in the "mutiny of the aces." Conducted against the unyielding depth and breadth of Allied air operations, Base Plate sealed the fate of the Luftwaffe.
The debate about airpower's decisiveness in World War II often emphasizes strategic bombing. This focus trivializes the multifaceted transformation in warfare produced by air forces both away from and on the battlefield. Parker reveals how Allied tactical and strategic forces converged during the Battle of the Bulge, stripping Germany's "geniuses of war" of the means to communicate their brilliance in any other form but artful retreat. To Win the Winter Sky is presented in an absorbing style that allows readers to gain new perspectives about airpower in World War II while immersing themselves in exciting and sobering personal stories that define the unique arena of air combat.
Lt Col Tom Ehrhard, USAF