LUFTWAFFE GROUND ATTACK UNITS 1939-45
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.
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.
Major Günther Tonne (wearing Ritterkreuz), the Kommodore of Schnellkarnpfgeschwader 10 from its formation, with pilots of I/SKG 10 on the Channel front in 1943. The Fw190A-4/U8 in the background bears the black triangle Gruppe marking ahead of the fuselage cross and a white individual letter aft: II Gruppe aircraft bore these markings reversed. (This system was also used on Hs129s of Sch.G 1 and Sch.G 2: and on the night-flying Ju87Ds of 'Gefechtsverbande Hallensleben' in the West, when the position of the triangle identified NSGr.l and 2). By mid-June 1941 only I/SKG 10 remained in France, the remainder of the unit being transferred south to oppose the Allied invasion of Sicily, Tonne died when the engine of his Fw 190 failed on take-of at Reggio on 15 July. (Hans Obert)
Front view of a yellow-nosed Hs129B-1/R2, showing the 30 mm MK 101 cannon beneath the fuselage. During the Soviet advance of November 1942 pilots of 8/Sch.G 1 often went into action without proper training for antitank cannon attacks, and losses were heavy. Shortly afterwards the Anti-Tank Staffel of Jagdgeschwader 51 was attached to II/Sch.G I with beneficial results. (Author's collection)
As the only ground-attack unit with operational experience in the West, SG 4 was taken off the Eastern Front in October and, in preparation for the German counter-attack in the Ardennes, went into training in radio-controlled bad-weather flying, this being seen as the only practical method of keeping down losses on daylight operations. However, the weather prior to the offensive was too bad even for this type of training and SG 4 was not only inexperienced in this type of sortie, but was still in the process of assembling at its designated airfields when the offensive opened on 16 December. In spite of Göring's promises to the General der Schlachtflieger that JG 2 would be specially devoted to escorting SG 4 during the offensive, this escort frequently did not materialise and SG 4 was therefore compelled to provide its own escort. Attacks were carried out in the Bastogne area and against Elsenborn airfield, but from the start losses were disproportionately high, chiefly from fighters.
On 1 January 1945 the Luftwaffe launched 'Bodenplatte', its all-out assault against Allied airfields in Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg. All three Gruppen of SG 4 took part but only the Stabsstaffel and a few other aircraft made the rendezvous. Those aircraft which pressed on encountered heavy flak over the front line and four of III/SG 4's aircraft were shot down, including that flown by the Geschwader Kommodore Obstlt. Alfred Druschel. Thereafter, the whole unit was transferred to the East to meet the Russian January offensive.
In addition to the Nachtschlachtgruppen, a number of other specialised ground-attack units operated in the West during the final stages of the war. I./SG 5 was redesignated in November 1944 to form III/KG 200 and after night-flying training at Staaken the unit arrived at Twente in early February, joining Sonderstaffel Einhorn, an operational training unit formed to operate in the anti- shipping role with heavy calibre bombs, and Maj. Dahlmann's NSGr.20, the redesignated III/KG 51, which had itself been formed from the remnants of I/SKG 10 after heavy righting in Normandy.
During March, all three units mounted day and night sorties against bridges and suitable targets around the bridgeheads, principally at Nijmegen and Rernagen. Here they joined the Ju87s of Maj. Rohn's NSGr.2 which had been operating in Holland, Belgium and NW Germany with Hptm. Wilburg's NSGr.l under the joint designation 'Gefechtsverband Haltensleben'. Flying on nights of good visibility yet sufficient cloud cover, 'Gefechtsverband Hallensleben' concentrated its attacks in mid-March against Allied transport columns, easily visible by their headlights, in the Remagen bridgehead, and although a number of aircraft were lost to Allied flak and night fighters, overall operational losses were low. However, on 14 March NSGr.2 suffered a major setback when American P-47s discovered its well-hidden base at Lippe. A number of the Gruppe's aircraft were standing out in the open and the hour-long attack destroyed the airfield buildings, crews living quarters and fourteen aircraft, leaving Lippe virtually useless.
Formed from JG 27 and JG 53 personnel, 8/Sch.G 2 became operational on the Hs129 in February 1943 under Fliegerführer Tunis: this photo shows one of the unit's aircraft near Tripoli - note green-on-sand 'scribble' camouflage. By July 1943 the Staffel was in Russia, taking part in Operation 'Ziladelle' at Kursk. (Author's collection)
At Remagen, all possible methods of destroying the bridge were tried and eventually a number of NSGr.20's pilots who had lost everything in the war - their families and all their possessions - volunteered to crash their Focke-Wulfs onto the bridge with a bomb on board. However, this method was not practicable as with standard fusing the bomb only became live a certain time after being released. A new type of fuse was manufactured during the last weeks of the war, bin by that time even suicide missions could not alter the eventual outcome of hostilities and no such methods were ever employed.
On the Eastern Front, the first large assault against Stalingrad was launched in September 1942. Stukagruppen from St.G 1, St.G 2 and St.G 77 were heavily committed in attacks synchronised with ground operations and aircrews, forbidden to release their bombs until they had firmly established the exact position of their own troops, flew four or more sorties daily over the city. Russian fighter opposition to these raids was largely ineffective and was only pressed home when the formations met over the Russian-held part of the city. Flak caused the greatest number of casualties, but the anti-aircraft guns often used up all their ammunition during the Stukas' morning attacks as fresh supplies could only be brought up at night. Bridges over the Don carrying reinforcements were bombed to destruction by St.G 2, but they were soon replaced by pontoons, and after a short delay maximum traffic was again reinforcing the city.
German troops were still engaged in bitter hand- to-hand battles amid the rubble when, on 19 November, the Russians launched a counter-attack timed to coincide with the onset of the winter freeze. Many German aircraft were iced up and thick patches of fog further prevented a major attack, but the more experienced crews from St.G 2 were ordered off from Karpovka and at Kalatsch the Fw190s of II/Sch.G 1 under Maj. Alfred Druschel (RK 21.8.41, FL 3.9.42, S 20.2.43) scrambled for bombing and strafing attacks. Nevertheless, the Russians succeeded in closing the ring around Stalingrad during the night of 22 November, and as they strengthened their grip, Luftwaffe units were forced to operate in defence of their own threatened airfields. Forward air fields between the rivers Chir and Don were abandoned, and at Oblivskaya St.G 2 and Oberst Hubertus Hitschold's Sch.G 1 attacked infantry, cavalry, artillery and tanks on the very edge of their runways. Ultimately Oblivskaya had to be evacuated, and the Stuka and ground-attack units retreated in great confusion to Morovskaya, an airfield vital to the Stalingrad airlift. This, loo, was captured, and with the 6th Army completely isolated its fate was a foregone conclusion. On 2 February, German resistance in the Stalingrad pocket ceased.
Feldwebel Stuka pilot in flying clothing, 1940. He wears the lightweight fawn canvas summer flying helmet with brown bakelite earphone housings. The tan canvas flying suit, worn at this period by bomber and Stuka crews, has a diagonal zip fastener which gives the suit a taped effect on the right shoulder. There were two types of lifejacket in use by Stuka crews at this time: the fighter pattern illustrated - note compass strapped to air tube and the ribbed kapok type usually worn by bomber crews. A rank patch bearing three stylised white wings on a brown background is worn on the upper arms. The blue Other Ranks sidecap is stuffed in the thigh pocket, with white thread Luftwaffe eagle badge and black-white-red national cockade. The flying boots have black suede legs and black leather feet and straps.
MESSERSCHMITT Bf109E-4/B of II (Schlacht)/LG 2, summer 1941
Messerschmitt Bf109E-4/B flown by Willi Tritsch of II (Schlacht)/LG 2, Russia, summer 1941. The wings are camouflaged in a splinter pattern of shades 70 and 71, which also appear along the fuselage spine, fading off in soft sprayed patches on the sides. This meeting of this mottled camouflage and the blue, shade 65, of the undersides is further obscured by patches of the grey-green shade termed 'RLM-Grau'. The yellow areas are an indication of the Russian theatre. The white 'C' is the individual aircraft code, the triangle of black a Gruppe symbol. Note that their positions are reversed on the starboard side. The Mickey Mouse emblem of the Gruppe appears on both sides of the cowling; note that the close-up view is the starboard presentation - the mouse always faced the tail of the aircraft.
JUNKERS Ju87D-1 Trop. of 6/St.G 3, July 1942
Junkers Ju87D-1 Trop. of 6/St.G 3, operating in the Western Desert, July 1942. The upper surface splinter scheme of shades 70 and 71 is very weathered, with poor definition, but the factory scheme is illustrated on the upper view. The white fuselage band is the theatre marking for Africa, Mediterranean, and South Russia. The Geschwader code S7 appears on the left of the fuselage cross on both sides, followed by the individual aircraft letter K, and the 6 Staffel code, P. The diving raven emblem, retained when I/St. G 1 was redesignated II/St.G 3 in March 1942, appears on the port side only. The two filler triangles appeared low on both sides beneath the cockpit (yellow, E87) and in the position shown on the port side only (red, white lettering). Bombs were painted RLM-Grau.
HENSCHEL Hs129B-2/R2 of 8 (Pz)/Sch. G 1, spring 1943
Henschel Hs129B-2/R2, Werke Nr. 0364, flown by Rudolf-Heinz Ruffer, Staflelkapitän of 8 (Pz)/Sch.G 1 in the Kuban area of Russia, spring 1943. The aircraft is finished in badly weathered splinter pattern of shades 70 and 71, with blue 65 undersurfaces and yellow Russian theatre markings. 'J' is the individual aircraft code, and the horizontal bar, always to the rear of the fuselage cross, is the II Gruppe emblem within the Geschwader. Note the rendering of the Infantry Assault Badge on top of the nose and above and left of the 'J' on the fuselage; this symbolised the close comradeship between infantry and ground-attack aircrews. The patch views illustrate this, and the row of destroyed tank victory tallies on the rudder. For some reason the factory call-sign markings, GS-IN, are retained below the wings. These should have been painted out on delivery to an operational unit, but are occasionally observed on fighting aircraft.
JUNKERS Ju87B-1 of 6/St.G 77, spring 1941