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MARTIN PEGG
LUFTWAFFE GROUND ATTACK UNITS 1939-45

TUNIS, ITALY AND FRANCE

As the first of the Fw190s entered service with the ground-attack arm, two new Hs129-equipped units were raised for operations in the Middle East and the first, 4/Sch.G 2, alternatively known as the Schlacht und Panzer-fliegerstaffel 'Afrika', left Poland on 2 November with fourteen aircraft. At the end of the first week's operations from Staraset, however, only two aircraft survived and the unit's personnel, evacuated to southern Italy, were refitting at Bari when, in February 1943, the Jabo-Staffeln of JG 27 and JG 53 were amalgamated and equipped with Hs129s to form 8/Sch.G 2. This unit was more successful than its predecessor but could make no substantial or distinctive contribution to the Tunisian fighting. Based at the large airfield at El Aouina, 8/Sch.G 2 joined the Ju87s of St.G 3 and the Fw190s of III/SKG 10 (formed on 20 December by redesignating III/ZG 2).

Oblt. Meinicke (left, with Ritterkreuz) during Schlacht-geschwader 1's operations near Smolensk in late 1942 (Author's collection)

During the British October-November offensive from El Alamein, St.G 3 lost approximately 125 aircraft during 960 sorties mounted in support of the Afrika Korps against troop columns, tank concentrations and troop transport generally. Thereafter the number of Stuka sorties dropped, mainly due to low serviceability and the vital neccessity of avoiding losses in view of the overall situation. Also, increasing use was now being made of the Fw190s in the ground-attack role and between 11 November and 11 February, III/SKG 10 claimed 449 vehicles destroyed and a further 196 damaged during 51 operations undertaken in a vain effort to stem the Allied advance. In January, however, III/SKG 10 lost about half of the 30 Fw190s transferred to Gabes when the airfield was heavily bombed by the RAF, and further losses occurred from extremely accurate AA when the unit attacked the airfield and harbour at Bone. From 10 November, battered Luftwaffe units encountered a new hazard when RAF Beaufighters from Malta made numerous night and day raids against the airfield at El Aouina, destroying hangars and setting workshops and parked aircraft alight. As the Allies closed in on the remaining Axis units in Tunisia, III/St.G 3 was badly shot up over El Guetter by newly-arrived American Spitfires on 3 April and had to be finally withdrawn to Sicily, The remaining Fw 190s could not redress a hopeless situation and on 12 May the North African campaign came to an end with the final surrender of German and Italian troops.

It then became apparent that an invasion of Sicily was imminent and towards the end of June, ground-attack forces in the area (III/SKG 10 and the Fw190 Staffeln of Maj. Wolfgang Schenck's Sch.G 2) were strengthened by the arrival from France of II and IV/SKG 10; both had previously been extremely active and successful in low-level daylight attacks against targets along the south coast of England.

The invasion of Sicily opened on 10 June 1943, and although bombing of German airfields had caused heavy losses Sch.G 2 and SKG 10 were committed to opposing the invasion force, attacking troops and vehicles as they poured ashore. Losses were catastrophic and after four days the remnants of these decimated units were withdrawn to Italy, Sardinia and Corsica. SKG 10's Kommodore was killed on 15 July when the engine of his Fw190 failed during take-off from Reggio, and II Gruppe's Kommandeur, Helmut Viedebannt (RK 30.12.42) took temporary command until the arrival of Maj. Schumann.

Sicily was completely overrun by 17 August and on 3 September the British 8th Army made a diversionary landing on the toe of Italy in preparation for the main assault at Salerno six days later, By this time I/Sch.G 1 had left for the Eastern Front, and in the remaining units some 60% of the ground crews were suffering from malaria. The resultant reduction in serviceability was such that during October II/Sch.G 2 and II and III/SKG 10 were compelled to operate under a single Stab in order to make up a sizeable force, and with the reorganisation of the ground attack forces (see Table 2) this composite unit formed the basis of SG 4.

During December the Allied flak grew too concentrated and intense for ground strafing and although losses over the target were reduced by carrying out high-speed dive attacks, constant Allied fighter patrols often broke up the German formations, Maj. Brücker, the Geschwader's new Kommodore, personally led nineteen sorties during this period, in eighteen of which he was intercepted. Consequently, operations fell off as the bomb-laden Fw190s had to be escorted by a far greater number of their own fighters. On 19 December a determined effort was made against US 5th Army positions by between 30 and 35 Fw190s escorted by 60 to 65 Bf109s. This was followed on the morning of the 28th by 20 to 25 Focke-Wulfs, again escorted by about 60 Messerschmitts, which appeared over the central sectors of the battlefront; and on 30 December a small formation ot Fw190s bombed troops and motor transport concentrations near Minturno. Thereafter, sorties again fell off as III/SG 4 left the fighting in Italy to refit and retrain in France.

On 22 June 1944 the Allies landed behind the German lines at Anzio, The landings were preceded by heavy bombing raids which left SG 4 with only about 30 airworthy machines. As these were pulled back to airfields north of Rome to prevent further losses they could not immediately oppose the landings, but the Germans reacted quickly and by the end of the first day an estimated total of 100 sorties, flown by small groups of four to five aircraft from I and II/SG 4, appeared over the beach-head. Shortly afterwards, during a period of relative quiet, the two Gruppen were withdrawn from Viterbo to Piacenza in order to allow some of the units' pilots to do some more training; unit losses sustained during the early months of 1944 were such that SG 4 alone absorbed some 50% of the total output from the Schlachtfliegerschule; i.e. between 30 to 60 pilots per month. Further reinforcements arrived in the form of 14(Jabo)/JG 5, which had been operating with considerable success in the Arctic Circle; it was redesignated 4/SG 4, and its commander Hptm. Friedrich-Wilhelm Strakeljahn (RK 19.8.43) became the Kommandeur of II/SG 4.

At the end of May the Geschwader went into action again, but with total lack of success, in the ground-attack rôle, losing the new Kommodore, Maj, Georg Dörffel during an attack north-west of Rome. In June, however, I Gruppe under Maj. Dörnbrack operated for a while with tremendous success as fighters against low-level intruders, claiming 27 of these shot down without loss to themselves; but experience had shown that it was virtually impossible to operate the Schlachtflieger in the West. Consequently, plans to transfer two unspecified Schlachtgeschwader to the West immediately after D-Day were cancelled and I and II/SG 4 were withdrawn to northern Russia, being joined by Maj. Weyert's III Gruppe from Normandy after only a fortnight's participation in the battle against the invasion.

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