“While the English press dubbed the raids the “Baby Blitz”, the Germans called it “Operation Steinbock”. The campaign would go down in history as the final Nazi bomber offensive of World War Two.”
BY EARLY 1944, THE DRONE OF GERMAN BOMBERS was a sound most Londoners hoped they’d never have to hear again.
During the dark months of 1940 and 1941, the Luftwaffe hammered the city on a nightly basis. But in the years since then, things had been comparatively quiet. On the evening of Jan. 22, 1944, the British capital would again be in Hitler’s crosshairs.
Just after 8:40 p.m., more than 400 enemy bombers appeared without warning over London’s rooftops. It was a massive raid. High explosive and incendiary bombs rained down on the unsuspecting metropolis while the skies over the Thames sparkled were lit with anti-aircraft artillery.
After a half hour of destruction, the attack was over; far below Westminster burned. Firebombs had struck Parliament, the Embankment, New Scotland Yard and a host of other sites across the city centre.
Just before dawn, a second wave of bombers appeared carrying yet another lethal payload to deliver onto the still-smoldering city. By sunrise, nearly 100 Londoners were wounded or dead. It was just the beginning of a deadly four-month air onslaught against Great Britain the likes of which the country hadn’t seen since the war’s grim early days.
While the English press dubbed the raids the “Baby Blitz”, the Germans called it “Operation Steinbock”. The campaign would go down in history as the final Nazi bomber offensive of World War Two.
The Fuhrer Strikes Back
Throughout late 1943, the Nazi Reichsmarschall lobbied Hitler to direct the Third Reich’s dwindling bomber force to undertake massive retaliatory strikes on London. By pounding the enemy capital to dust, he argued, the Allies just might be deterred from future raids on German cities for fear of reprisals. Also, news that England was in taking a beating would be pure gold for the Nazi propaganda machine.
Others within the Luftwaffe high command argued vigorously against the plan – the Fatherland’s limited air power should be hoarded for use against a future Allied invasion of Europe, they maintained. Ultimately, the thirst for vengeance trumped pragmatism and in November, Goering’s strategy was given the green light — German bombers would again savage London.
To carry out the campaign, Berlin assigned a 30-year-old Luftwaffe general by the name of Dietrich Peltz. The veteran of more than 320 combat missions immediately set himself to the task of organizing the raids. But from the start, the shortcomings of Germany’s strategy became all too evident.
Not Up For the Job
First and foremost, the Luftwaffe was not built for strategic bombing. From its very founding in the 1930s, the Hitler’s air force was organized around the concept of Blitzkrieg. Nazi bombers specialized in tactical missions and close air support, not city busting. Undeterred, Peltz stripped what heavy aircraft he could from all fronts for the upcoming attack on the British Isles. Eight whole bomber units or Kampfgeschwader totalling more than 500 aircraft were massed across France, Germany and the Low Countries. Dornier Do 217s, Junkers Ju 88s, Ju 188s and Messerschmitt Me 410s would make up the bulk of the attacking force. And while purpose-built strategic bombers were in short supply, a number of new Heinkel He 188s were earmarked for Steinbock. The long-range warplanes was among the only aircraft in Hitler’s arsenal capable of hauling a bomb load comparable to a Boeing B-17 or Avro Lancaster.
To accentuate the retaliatory nature of the campaign, target areas in the British capital were codenamed for German cities that had fallen victim to Allied bombers: Berlin, Hamburg, Hannover, Munich, etc. While the opening attack on Jan. 22 rocked London, only about 30 of the 475 tons (roughly 6 percent) of bombs dropped actually hit within the city core. Most landed harmlessly in sparsely populated outlying regions. Meanwhile, Allied fighters and flak crews claimed an estimated 25 aircraft. Another 18 bombers crashed on landing or flew off course during the mission and were lost. It was an embarrassing start.
A follow up strike on London was mounted a week later. Nearly 280 planes inflicted only moderate damage, while 28 Luftwaffe aircraft never made it back to base.
Smaller missions were ordered on the nights of Feb. 3, 13 and 18 causing additional casualties. The last of these raids saw a terrifying 186 tons of ordnance fall on the city killing 200 civilians.
A 200-plane mission spearheaded by 14 He 117s reached the city the night of Feb. 20. Bombs fell all over Whitehall striking famous landmarks like Horse Guards Parade, St. James Park, the Treasury, and the Admiralty. Even the prime minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street suffered damaged. More than 600 casualties were reported in just the one night. Feb. 23 saw still more bombings. In fact, the sorties continued unabated into March.
Home Field Advantage
Despite the destruction German bomb crews were visiting on London, the missions to southern England were anything but milk runs.
In 1940, British air defences withered in the face of the Luftwaffe’s offensive. But now in 1944, local forces were far more robust. In order to reach their targets, the Heinkels and Dorniers were forced to run a deadly gauntlet of Mosquito night fighters and radar guided searchlights and more accurate flak batteries all across southern England. London itself bristled with guns. While Hitler’s bombers were still managing to unload their deadly payloads onto the British capital, the Luftwaffe was paying dearly for the opportunity. More than 72 German aircraft had been destroyed in the first month of the campaign alone. Losses would only mount from there.
Counting the Dead
Germany continued the London raids into April, while committing other planes to sorties against Hull and even Bristol. But while as many as 1,500 British civilians lay dead and hospitals were choked with nearly 3,000 wounded, Operation Steinbock was clearly failing as far as Berlin was concerned — RAF and American bombers continued to pound the Reich without reprieve. Worse, the high command was squandering planes and pilots the Luftwaffe could ill afford to lose in such a foolhardy gambit. Of the 524 aircraft committed to the campaign, nearly 330 (or 60 percent) had been lost. In fact, the operation probably did more harm to the German war effort than good. By May, the generals finally called off the raids.
Berlin was still determined to hammer away at the British Isles, but from that point on it would do so with rockets and missiles like the V-1 and V-2. These would continue to strike the city until the final weeks of the war.
Of course, Operation Steinbock wasn’t the end for the Luftwaffe. The German air force would launch an even larger and more audacious one-time offensive in the months to come. On New Years Day, 1945, more than 1,000 fighters and bombers would take part in a last desperate bid to steal control of the skies over Western Europe from the Allies. It too failed.