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MARTIN PEGG
LUFTWAFFE GROUND ATTACK UNITS 1939-45

Stuka sorties against Royal Navy vessels covering the evacuation of Crete were equally successful; the destroyer HMS Hereward was sunk and the destroyer Dido and the cruiser Orion damaged. Oblt. Arnim Thiede of the 'Immelmann' Geschwader received the Ritterkreuz for his successful operations against shipping during the Crete campaign, and he was reported then to have sunk three freighters, scored a direct hit on a cruiser and damaged a destroyer and a light cruiser.

While the bulk of the Stukagruppen now massed for the forthcoming invasion of Russia, I/St.G 1, II/St.G 2 and I/St.G 3 remained in the Mediterranean theatre to support Rommel in North Africa, With little in the way of Allied defences to oppose them, the Stukas were able to operate freely during the desert offensives and counter-offensives. In December 1941, Luftflotte 2 arrived in the area with the Ergänzungs (training and replacement) Gruppe of St.G 1; and in March 1942 I/St.G I and II/St.G 2 were redesignated II and III/St.G 3 respectively to bring the Geschwader up to full strength. On 21 March III Gruppe moved to Biscari-San Pietro in Sicily, where it converted to the Ju87D-1; during renewed attempts to neutralise Malta, when crews often made three sorties per day, formations of about twenty aircraft set out with an entire Gruppe of fighters as escort. Eventually, demands for air support from North Africa reduced the strength of units operating against Malta and although small raids by single sections of dive bombers continued, they lacked adequate defensive covering fire and became easy prey for the defending fighters.

At the end of May 1942, III/St.G 3 too was recalled to North Africa and in June and July, when operations in support of the Afrika Korps' advance to El Alamein called for intense efforts, they again flew as many as three sorties a day, attacking troops, transport and tank concentrations, artillery positions, airfields, stores and ammunition dumps. In early June the entire Geschwader made repeated attacks on the fortress of Bir Hacheim and, up until the time of its capture, many raids were directed against shipping and installations at Tobruk Harbour; but the long advance had exhausted German air and ground forces alike, and Rommel was halted at El Alamein. The now greatly reinforced Desert Air Force inflicted heavy losses, and in spite of close escort flown by the more experienced Luftwaffe fighter-pilots the Allied fighters invariably broke through the defensive screen. As in the Battle of Britain, the Stukas were too slow for the escort. One particularly notable success for the Desert Air Force occurred during the evening of 3 July when a formation of fifteen Stukas, heavily escorted by fighters, was intercepted over El Alamein. In the ensuing air battle the Allied fighters claimed all but two of the dive- bombers destroyed, some being chased back as far as their own airfield before being shot down. Final attacks against El Alamein extended the Luftwaffe to its limit with the result that sorties were considerably reduced due to natural attrition and combat losses.

BARBAROSSA

Achieving almost total surprise, German troops stormed into Russia at 0300 on 22 June 1941. The IV (Stuka)/LG 1, with 42 aircraft, was placed under the command of Luftflotte 5 in the far north for an attack against Murmansk, but the remaining Stukagruppen were subordinate to Luftflotte 2 which was to provide air support for Army Group Centre. II and III/St.G 1 (with 87 aircraft), I and III/St.G 2 (83) and II (Schlacht)/LG 2 (56 mixed Bf109s and Hs123s) were collected under VIII Fliegerkorps in the north of Army Group Centre's zone of operations, while St.G 77 (122) came under the control of II Fliegerkorps in the south. On the first day of the campaign the Luftwaffe attacked Russian airfields and destroyed no less than 1,800 aircraft, mostly on the ground. Any survivors were promptly dealt with by German fighters and the Stukas were again able to operate in skies virtually free of enemy opposition. St.G 77 bombed defences along the River Bug in support of Panzer Group 2, and the Stukas and ground-attack aircraft of VIII Fliegerkorps assisted 9th Army and Panzer Group 3 to break through the border fortifications in east Prussia by bombing tanks, gun batteries and enemy transport. During the period from 22 June to the end of November, Stukageschwader 77 recorded the destruction of 2,401 vehicles, 234 tanks, 92 gun batteries and 21 trains for the loss of fourteen pilots.

Engine test for a yellow-nosed Ju87B-2 of Hptm. Hubertus Hitschold's I/St.G 2 in the Peloponnese in May 1941, at the time of the great Stuka attacks on the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. (Hans Obert)

Stukas of I/St.G 1 and II/St.G 2 attack HMS Illustrious 100 miles west of Malta on 10 January 1941. 'As the Stukas pulled out of their dives. Illustrious appeared to vanish from sight in a great cliff of spray and water thrown up by the bursting bombs.' Hit six times and damaged by three near misses, the carrier was on fire, her flight deck wrecked, her steering gear crippled and her anti-aircraft guns out of action. (Author's collection)

At the end of the first week of July, Army Group Centre's forces were converging on Smolensk and for several days the Stuka pilots flew against transport and tanks on the Moscow Highway between Smolensk and Minsk. Once Smolensk had been surrounded on 27 July, VIII Fliegerkorps moved north to assist in Army Group North's attack on Leningrad. During September I and III/ St.G 2 carried out a number of attacks against the Russian Baltic Fleet in the heavily defended Kronstadt Harbour, during which the aircraft of Hptm, Dr. Ernst Kupfer (RK 23.11.41, EL 12.1.43, S 11.4.44) was shot up three times in succession; the third time Kupfer was so seriously wounded thai it was thought he would not fly again. Oblt. Hans-Ulrich Rudel (RK, EL, S, Br, Gold EL) sank the battleship Marat with a direct hit on the ship's magazine on 23 September, but a second attack resulted in the loss of Hptm. Ernst-Siegfried Steen (RK 17.10.41), the commander of III/St.G 2. Hit by flak, Steen deliberately tried to fly his crippled machine into the side of the heavy cruiser Kirov.

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