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MARTIN PEGG
LUFTWAFFE GROUND ATTACK UNITS 1939-45

Even before the fighting in Norway had ended, German forces launched a campaign in the West on 10 May against Belgium, Holland and France. The Hs123s of II (Schlacht)/LG 2 and over 350 Stukas from St.G 2, III/St.G 51, I/St.G 76, and I/ and III/St.G 77 were controlled by VIII Fliegerkorps, now under Luftflotte 2.

The wing-mounted machine guns of a Ju87B-1 of 9/St.G 2 are re-armed during the French campaign, 1940. (Author's collection)

Once free of effective air opposition, the Stukas bombed Belgian positions without respite in support of airborne troops landing to capture the Eben Emael fort and vital bridges over the Albert Canal At Moerdijk, road and railway viaducts captured by paratroops held out for three days until relieved by advancing German Army units, a feat made possible by continuous Stuka support. Further Stuka sorties assisted deep armoured thrusts either side of Liége, and on 12 May St.G 2 and St.G 77 attacked armoured columns west of the city.

The main attack in the West, however, was made through the Ardennes into France. By the evening of 12 May, panzer divisions had reached the river Meuse near Sedan, where the Luftwaffe was to smash resistance in the northern extension of the Magi not Line. VIII Fleigerkorps was transferred to Luftflotte 3 for the attack and throughout the morning of 13 May the Stukas were armed and fuelled at their forward airfields. The first Stukas appeared over the Maginot Line towards midday and immediately dived onto the gunpits and pillboxes. The noise was terrifying; the wailing of engines and sirens pierced by the shriek and crash of falling bombs totally demoralised the defenders. After five hours, during which more than 200 Stuka sorties were flown, the German Army crossed the Meuse to find the French soldiers too stunned to fight back.

The Ju87B with extra wing tanks was designated Ju87R. Here Ju87R-2s, almost certainly of Hptm. Hozzel's 1/St.G 1, stand ready for action. This was the only Stuka unit involved in the Norwegian campaign. (US National Archives)

For the next two weeks the Stukagruppen brought an extreme concentration of striking power to bear against vital rear areas, opening a path to the Channel. II (Schlacht)/LG 2, escorted by Bf109Es and aided by a Luftwaffe Flakregiment, successfully destroyed a counter-attack by French tanks and motorised infantry near Cambrai. Although several Stukas were lost, including those flown by the Kommodore of St.G 77 and the Gruppenkommandeur of III/St.G 51, initial losses were light; but once the dive-bombers reached Boulogne, Dunkirk and other Channel ports, they encountered serious opposition for the first time when they came within range of the eight-gunned RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes operating from southern England. Losses began to mount; a formation from I/St.G 76 was scattered by British fighter attacks over Dunkirk, and one of the unit's pilots later reported that This was our first real taste of war'. Moreover, the effect of intensive operations was beginning to tell; the number of serviceable aircraft in many units dropped to below 50% of original strength, and the pilots too began to feel the strain of continuous action.

During the evacuation of British forces from Dunkirk, the dive-bomber pilots found the highly manoeuvrable warships difficult targets, but the slower and less agile merchantmen presented easier prey. Although large-scale operations were prevented by bad weather and RAF fighters often broke up the formations of German aircraft before they reached the beaches, a large number of destroyers, passenger ships and many smaller and assorted merchant vessels were sunk. After 4 June, when the evacuation of British troops was completed, the Germans turned their attention to the south for operations east of Paris. Dive-bombers supported the crossing of the Marne, Seine and Loire rivers until Paris fell and hostilities ceased on 24 June.

The end of the campaign in France also marked the final phasing out of the Hs123s, which had proved remarkably successful in areas where the Luftwaffe enjoyed air superiority. The unit therefore withdrew to Brunswick for training on the Bf109E, followed by a move to Boblingen for specialised fighter-bomber, or Jabo, training. Meanwhile, the Stukagruppen assembled at various airfields in the Cherbourg Peninsula in preparation for the assault on Britain and on 6 July were regrouped and reorganised to form Geschwader of full strength. Thus, III/St.G 51 became II/St.G 1; I (Stuka)/186 became III/St.G 1; and I/St.G 76 became III/St.G 77. Shortly afterwards I Gruppe of Stukageschwader 3 was activated with the formation of a Stabsstaffel consisting of a few crews and machines from I/St.G 76 under Hptm. Sigel.

During July, dive-bombing attacks were mainly directed against Channel convoys with some isolated attacks against harbour installations. On 9 July St.G 77 bombed Portland naval base, losing Hptm. Freiherr von Dalwigk zu Lichtenfels, the Gruppenkommandeur of I/St.G 77, whose aircraft was shot down into the sea by Spitfires. On 27 July Stukagruppen from as many as three different Geschwader took part in several raids against shipping and some 60 machines twice attacked a convoy near the Dover Straits. Dover itself was attacked by IV (Stuka)/LG 1 and St.G 1 on the 29th, and on the morning of 8 August 57 aircraft from St.G 2, St.G 3 and St.G 77 took part in a running battle against a convoy off the Isle of Wight, during which three Ju87s were shot down by RAF fighters. In the afternoon, 87 escorted Ju87s again attacked the convoy and, although only four of the ships remained undamaged as they sailed into Swanage, five more Stukas failed to return.

The Battle of Britain began in earnest at midday on 13 August, but the only Stuka unit to meet with any success was IV (Stuka)/LG 1 commanded by Hptm. von Brauchitsch, who led his 40 aircraft in an attack on Detling airfield and returned to base without loss. Elsewhere, II/St.G 2 under Maj. Walter Ennecerus (RK 21.7.40) attacked the RAF fighter station at Middle Wallop, but the Gruppe was intercepted by fighters which, as Maj. Ennecerus reported, 'ripped our backs open to the collar'. St.G 77 under Maj. Graf von Schönborn (RK) was unable to locate its target at Warmwell because of dense cloud, and II/St.G 1 under Hptm. Anton Keil (RK 19.8.40) also ran into navigational difficulties; unable to find Rochester airfield, the formation jettisoned its bombs when attacked.

Nine aircraft from St.G 2 failed to return from attacking Tangmere on the 16th, and on 18 August St.G 77 suffered a staggering defeat when it attacked Poling radar station, Ford and Thorney Island. No less than sixteen aircraft were shot down, including that flown by Hptm, Meisel, Kommandeur of I Gruppe, whose machine had been specially fitted with armour plate from wrecked French Morane fighters; two aircraft crashed on their way home and four more were damaged. Clearly such losses could not be tolerated, and in order to prevent their complete destruction the Stukagruppen were immediately withdrawn from further participation in the battle.

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