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'Out of bed at 0400 hours. A wash, coffee, one fried egg, and then into the cars to drive out to our planes. At top speed we fly eastward over the Crimea. Then the Kerch Peninsula: everywhere destroyed villages, burned-out vehicles, the terrain ploughed over by bombs, innumerable pits, trenches and other positions. Shortly before reaching Kerch we land at a forward airfield to refuel. Then we take off again, flying southward across the Black Sea, climbing higher and higher, with nothing around us but clouds and the sea below.

'Altitude 13,000 feet. Suddenly, punctually to the minute the fighters are with us which are to escort us from here on. We are still climbing in a wide arc. We don our oxygen masks in order to remain wakeful and fresh. Below us nothing but water. Then the coast comes into sight and we see the port which is our target. With quiet engines up in the blue skies, we approach the target. Yes, there are the ships at the jetty! We set our dive brakes and adjust our sights.

'Our dive becomes steeper and steeper. Then they discover us and we see the muzzle flash of their anti-aircraft guns. Altitude 17,000, 13,000, 10,000 feet. Before us blacks puffs of anti-aircraft shells are bursting. I swerve my plane to the left to take shelter above a cloud and dive blindly through it. Then we are at 6,600 feet and I see again the jetty before me. Speed boats have started their engines and are dashing out to sea in wild curves. 1,100 feet! A large ship alongside the pier comes into my sights. I press my thumb. Now we level out and immediately our plane shoots upward at a sharp angle. The Russian anti-aircraft guns are firing wildly and blindly. I start to climb in a zig-zag course, then the flame of a bomb striking in the middle of the ships can be seen. Flying away towards the sea we can observe blood-red flames and black smoke rising at an angle with the wind. Flames and smoke of other explosions from hits on other vessels follow, made by squadrons which followed us.

'Our fighters drive off a few Ratas which have meanwhile taken to the air.'

On 7 June the Stukas maintained a constant series of attacks on Soviet artillery and positions in the line of advance. The deciding factor in the eventual victory of the German Army was the annihilating dive-bomber attacks on pin-point targets. Directed by reconnaissance aircraft, the Stukas plunged down into steep valleys to bomb firing positions at Inkerman. Soviet resistance in the city eventually collapsed on 1 July and the strongest military fortress in the world was in German hands.

Meanwhile II/Sch.G 1, which had been transferred to meet the Russian offensive against Kharkov, went into action at the beginning of June with new 30 mm MK 101 armour-piercing cannon. The newly introduced Hs129s played a significant part in the Kharkov battles, putting many tanks out of action and causing panic among Soviet troops. In spite of this successful debut, however, difficulties with the aircraft's engines - particularly piston troubles and lack of spare parts, coupled with vulnerability and extreme sensitivity to the dust and sand of the south Russian steppes - drastically reduced the number of aircraft available for operations. In addition, proper training in the use of the cannon had been postponed and, left to their own devices, the pilots followed the wrong tactics of using up all their ammunition to set a single tank on fire; what mattered was that the shells, on penetrating the tank, should kill or disable the crew. The unit's armourers had not received any training in the maintenance of the cannon and, as a result, 4/Sch.G 1 had experienced so many defects that the MK 101s were dismantled and replaced by bomb racks.

A detachment of JG 51 was also operating the Hs129 at this time. Panzer Jäger Staffel/JG 51 was given the task of convincing flying personnel of the effectiveness of attacks on tanks if properly carried out. Between 11 August and 16 September, this unit's eight aircraft carried out 73 sorties, claiming 29 tanks during operations on the Moscow Front before taking advantage of a lull in active operations to carry out intensive training against dummy tanks. The whole Staffel reached a 60% average of hits, and successful firing practice against the heaviest types of Soviet tanks increased the confidence of crews in the cannon. Exercises were also carried out with the army to ensure that air support would arrive as required at the scene of fighting.

On 16 December, a strong force of 250 Russian tanks broke through the Italian lines on the Donbend. Bombers and Stukas, together with II/Sch.G 1's Bf109s, failed to achieve any success, but six of 4/Sch.G 1's aircraft which had retained their cannon succeeded in destroying ten tanks in two days. Although This achievement was a valuable indication of what the cannon-carrying Hs129 could do, it was on too small a scale to affect the situation, and the unit fell back to Voroshilovgrad. By this time the strength of the unit had been greatly reduced by AA and infantry fire and no Bf109s were left. The anti-tank Staffel of JG 51 was therefore brought up from the Moscow front as a temporary means of restoring strength, and the arrival of this unit's trained personnel had a good effect on the pilots of II/Sch.G 1. While operating together between 1 and 16 January 1943, the two units each claimed to have destroyed thirteen tanks. After II/Sch.G 1 had received a few replacement aircraft it was again possible to detach the PzJ.St./JG 51, During the subsequent Russian retreat from Kharkov to Voronezh, II/Sch.G I destroyed a further 23 tanks, and on 27 January it was withdrawn with only six serviceable aircraft to Kursk, where it was re-equipped with more cannon-carrying aircraft.

Henschel Hs129 badly damaged while on the ground. During operations, 75% of the Henschels shot down were lost to direct hits on the engines by infantry fire. (Author's collection)

Oblt. Johannes Meinicke, Staffelkapitän of I/Sch.G 1, awards the Frontflugspange to Lt. Harang while a staff officer stands by to present a rusty bucket of wildflowers! Meinicke, later awarded the Knight's Cross, was killed near Mutino, Russia, on 4 September 1943. (Author's collection)

The growth in Russian tank production made the development of an anti-tank arm within the framework of the close-support organisation a matter of supreme importance. However, it was not easy to provide an aircraft sufficiently slow for accurate lire, and at the same time heavily armoured and yet with sufficient speed for low-level operations in daylight. Experiences with the Hs129 indicated that this aircraft was not the final answer to these problems, and in November 1942 the Schlachtflieger began to receive fighter-bomber versions of the Focke-Wulf Fw190, an aircraft with an air-cooled engine, considered a special advantage for ground-attack work since it could not be put out of action by hits in the cooling system. The machine possessed a high degree of manoeuvrability, its guns and cannon gave it a very heavy firepower, and its wide-track undercarriage permitted operations from relatively primitive forward airstrips.

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