As the sun rose over Aschen Field, Lt. Col. John Meyer sat in the cockpit of his P-51 Mustang. Yet another morning, yet another dawn patrol. Recent weeks had seen a flurry of frustration, as low clouds and snow had made it nearly impossible for pilots like him to assist the ground forces in their fight against a desperate German offensive. But things had changed dramatically as the weather had cleared, turning the attackers into helpless defenders against an Allied aerial assault that completely dominated the enemy.
For Meyer, an ace with thirty-five and a half kills to his credit, it seemed that the tide had turned, and maybe things were returning somewhat to the more mundane normal. Preparing to head for St. Vith (now recaptured by the Germans), his Mustang’s windscreen was suddenly filled with the silhouette of a Focke Wulf Fw-190 as it came screaming at him head-on. This was not mundane, and this was decidedly not normal. And it wasn’t Meyer’s experience alone.
It was Adolf Hitler’s New Year’s Day surprise.
On 1944′s final night, nearly every German pilot on the Western Front had been sent to bed early and awakened at 5am on New Year’s day. Charles Whiting gives us more background in his book Ardennes – The Secret War. “German intelligence had worked out the locations of every Allied air base, and now every pilot was given a large-scale map on which these bases were clearly marked, together with return course, landmarks and detailed routing instructions. They were going to ‘take out’ every one of those bases…in the greatest German aerial attack since the Battle of Britain…”
The surprise experienced by Lt. Col. John Meyer in the cockpit of his plane reverberated all the way up the Allied chain of command. Field Marshal Montgomery’s Chief of Staff was holding his usual morning briefing at an airfield in Brussels when an Fw-190 ripped by the window. For the second time in two weeks, Allied forces had been caught completely off guard, as more than 1,000 German aircraft struck bases all over the place.
Col. Meyer stared death in the face, then rejoiced at his good fortune as the enemy 190 turned at the last second to shred a C-47 transport (which happened to be empty). The stunned pilot tore down the runway and took off. With his landing gear still retracting, he turned, gave his foe a burst of gunfire, and added another kill to his impressive tally.
He was one of the fortunate ones, as only about 30 other Allied pilots achieved kills. The Germans lost roughly a hundred aircraft in the massed attack, but they succeeded in destroying hundreds of aircraft (most of them parked on runways in the New Year’s dawn), effectively shutting down Allied airpower for a week.
Simultaneously, eight German divisions launched another attack on the Western Front. Operation North Wind, a much smaller and ultimately weaker version of Watch on the Rhine, may not have been anywhere near the scale of the offensive launched two weeks prior, but it achieved the same level of surprise.
New Year’s Day was no day of celebration for the Allies in Western Europe.
Recommended Reading: Ardennes: The Secret War