The Pilots Speak
Painting courtesy of Jerry Crandall/Eagle Editions Ltd.
Signed and numbered limited edition prints avaialble, visit their site at
Eagle Editions Ltd.
First hand descriptions of air combat on the Eastern Front are extremely hard to find, especially from the Russian point of view. The purpose of this section of the JG 54 Homepage is to paint a picture of battle in the skies over Europe and Russia from the people who were there.
If anyone has any narrative accounts from pilots who served with JG 54 or other Geschwader, or the VVS or other Allied Air Forces, and wish to share them with this page, please contact me
What follows are two descriptions that were kindly provided and translated by Christer Bergström. Christer felt I should add that he does not claim one pilot shot down the other. However, the air battles described did occur on the same date and perhaps are of the same encounter.
This is an excerpt from Christer Bergström's book "BLACK CROSS - RED STAR: German and Russian Fighter aces in Combat Vol. 1" due to be published by Pacifica Press in the U.S. next autumn or in the spring of the year 2000. Any comments will be appreciated by the author.
Many thanks to Mr. Andrey Mikhailov for research and translation of the Viktor Golubev story.
Vasiliy Golubev - Hero of the Soviet Union, 39 victories.
On 13 August 1941, the successful Naval Air Force pair Golubev-Knyazev of 13 OAE (independent fighter squadron) was shot down. Patrolling the air above the railroad station Veimarn at 8 am, two flights of I-16s were jumped by a Staffel of Messerschmitt 109s. The Soviets managed to evade the first attack without suffering any looses, but the Bf 109s came back. A whirling dogfight followed, in which the two Russians had to use all their skills. Leytenant Knyazev's Ishak was shot in flames and the pilot bailed out. Fighting alone, Leytenant Golubev was eventually defeated. A Bf 109 sneaked up on his tail. A violent strike told him that his aircraft was hit. Turning away, he felt another strike - from below. His flight altitude was too low by now, the ground came rushing against him. Hot oil splashed into his face and covered his goggles; he threw them off and saw a small shrubbery in front of him. Having slowed down the speed by turning off the engine, Golubev managed to pull the stick by using all his strength and both hands. Then followed the crash. Vasiliy Golubev came to conciousness only on the following day.
As he returned to his unit one month later, Vasiliy Golubev would find that only nine I-16s were left out of originally twenty-six in 13 OAE. This independent squadron was shortly afterwards incorporated with the KBF's 13th Fighter Aviation Regiment. (V. F. Golubev: "Krylia krepnyt v boyu, 2nd edition, Lenizdat, Leningrad, 1984, p. 38).
Max-Helmut Ostermann, 102 victories, Knights Cross w/Swords, KIA 9 August 1942.
The Russian flight leader had noticed us and turned around. My wingman made another attack. Once again, the Russian turned and met him head-on. Damn, this was a tough fellow!
The rest of my flight intervened and made wild attacks on him from all positions. This Russian pilot definately was one of their top aces. He avoided each attack exactly in the right moment, pulled up and then went down steeply over his wing. He even had the nerves to pull up behind our flight and fire some very accurate bursts. We lay above him, dove on him at high speed and then pulled up steeply.
So far, I hadn't intervened in the combat, since I wanted my Katschmarek (wingman) to have this kill. But suddenly the Russian tried to get away, heading for two Russian naval ships anchoring in the bay. The AAA on the ships was already firing at us. It was now or never! I went down after him, but he turned to the right. I had aimed slightly to the left and he noticed this immediately. As I pulled up again, he had already banked to the left. Then he came around and started shooting at me from behind!
Suddenly, light AAA fire opened up at me from the ships. I turned left as hard as I could, went down over the left wing and then pulled left again. I made this very fast, and the Russian was in front of me. Slightly above him, I finally managed to get a burst at him. I could see hits! The plane left a trail of dark smoke. Heinz J. Nowarra: "Am Himmel über Russland", Erich Pabel Verlag, Rastatt, 1975.
Hans-Ekkehard Bob, 60 victories, Knights Cross.
On April 17, 1943, VIII Bomber Command dispatched 107 unescorted B-17s to the Bremen area. What happened next is described by Hauptmann Bob, Staffelkapitan of 9./JG 54.
Note: Special thanks to Herr Bob for providing this combat report and to Gunther Rosipal for taking the time to translate it. I have made some changes with regards to word spacing and grammar. I tried to keep true to the original text; any mistakes are mine.
C o m b a t r e p o r t
Staffelkapitän Hptm. Bob
I started behind the Gruppenstab (II.Gruppe) as leader of 9.Staffel JG 54 from the airbase at Oldenburg on April 17th,1943, 12:29 CET for reported American B-17s. Around 12:40 CET we recognized 120 to 150 four-engine Boeing-type bombers, altitude 7-8000 meters, west of Wilhelmshaven. The enemy unit flew course S to S/E. We passed the enemy bombers on the left, to attack him frontally. As we had just enough lead to set up an attack, the enemy turned left, so that we now had a right-hand position to the bombers. Now I corrected my direction a bit and set up a frontal attack with the whole Staffel. At the same time the enemy continued turning left, so that I was in a very bad attack position - I did not expect an effective attack. Meanwhile, the B-17s attacked Bremen and turned back South, then turned West. Now I started another attack and flew directly frontal to the leading box. I opened fire on the right B-17 of the leading box from 500 meters up to ramming-distance; I observed very good hits in the canopy and engines of the Boeing. At the last moment I wanted to push underneath the Boeing, but I failed, ramming the bomber.
My 109 completely lost its tail. The aircraft immediately went into a very fast spin and did not react naturally to any rudder movements. I decided to bail out at once. For that I pushed away the canopy and opened the beltlock. I was immediately catapulted out of the aircraft. I overturned permanately and lost altitude from 6000 to 5000 meters, where I could launch my parachute. I hung in the parachute belt with a big brake moment. It took 15 to 20 minutes with strong windspeed, until I reached ground; passing by woods, lakes and electricity-wires. In any case, the stormy wind and my wild pendulum swings made the crash was so heavy that I lost consciousness. I was dragged several hundred meters through field.
When I woke up and wanted to disconnect the parachute belt, I could not do it because the rubber dinghy handicapped me. I first stripped off the chute so I could bring the chute down by pulling on the ropes. In the Home Area were stationed homeguards, who were former soldiers in WWI. They observed the dogfight and saw the fall of the American bomber from which the crew bailed out. The homeguards mission was to catch the Americans. Their mission was successful and they caught me too. German flight-overalls looked nearly like the American ones, although we had strange badges on ours. As a Hauptmann, I had to one line with two wings to signify my rank. I was still groggy from crashing to the ground, so I didn't resist against being caught. A little bit later, when my mind cleared up, one of the homeguards said to another:
"Look man, there is an Ami, wearing the Knights Cross!!"
So then all turned: they celebrated my victory. In the nearby village of Großkören, the mayor gave a big victory party, where I became honary citizen of Großkören. It was a drunken anticipation of the "Endsieg". My parachute jump had consequences: My whole body had green and blue fields - I could not move for the next three days. The victory was proofed and confirmed by the RLM.
Artist sketch of the Hptm. Bob's close encounter.
Note: Jim Perry searched his vast database and found that III Gruppe's only 100% loss this day was a Me 109G-4 WNr. 14935. This most likely was Hans-Ekkehard Bob's Yellow 1.
April 17, 1943, represented the most successful Luftwaffe interception yet faced by VIII Bomber Command. Including Hauptmann Bob's victory, sixteen bombers were lost - double that for any previous mission. It was a shadow of things to come.
Hannes Trautloft, Kommodore JG 54
The following is an excerpt from the personal diary of Hannes Trautloft. Hans-Ekkehard Bob has been kind enough to grant his permission to put up a small portion of the diary. The tireless Gunther Rosipal translated the transcript.
June 22nd 1941:
"Thoughts of contemplation...
At 2:30, when the stars of the night sky are still shining bright, I arrive at the airfield. The clover on the taxiway stands in dew and cold of the night. My pilots coatboots are wet. The airfield awoke a long time ago. In the pens, 45 engines are turning simultaneously warm. Their monotonous noise is mixed up by those engines, which are throtteled by the Oberwerksmeistern. Then blue-yellow flames are thrown brightly out of the exhaust manifolds . The air on the runway is filled with that strange smell, a mixture of soil, flowers, grass, gasoline and oil. The first birds begin to twitter. In the east the firmament changes is color, shadows and darkness quite quickly. A day of destiny starts, everyone on that airfield knows it. We jump into our machines feeling chilly. Every metal in the cockpit is cold, the seatbelts are clammy. My 1.Wart fixes me, shouts 'Hals und Beinbruch!' to me, then I close the canopy. The engine starts in a thundering way. As everytime before a mission, my throat is dry, and maybe my heart beats today a bit faster than the other times.
At 2:50 we start. All Geschwader of the 1st Fliegerkorps have the order to cross the border at 3:00. With our flight crossing the border, the front gets alive. At 3:05 artillery fire suddenly starts on the whole length of the frontline. Everywhere you see that lighting of that canon fire. An exciting view. The eastern frontline starts in that second. From above you can look over the river Memel to the North; to the South the view reaches the Romintener Heide. We all feel the view of this gigantic drama that here and now the door of a new history - but even for all our destiny - will pushed up.
Our direction is Kowno. The pilots fly nervous. I know that from the first missions on other theatres. It is the nervousness looking to the new. So many things are unsolved: What will the Russian do? Will we be lucky with our surprise? Do the Russian fighters join the fight? Are their aircraft better than ours? The passing of the first mission gives us a quick answer. The Russians were surprised about our attack. Most of the airfields were attacked without any defence. In front and below us lies on the dark ground an image of shape and outline - the city and the airfield of Kowno. In exact this moment the sun rises in the east over the horizon and suddenly we stay in that endless transparent clearness of the morning sky; the bright rays on our aircraft.
Our Bomber units attack the airfield of Kowno - the hits are falling between the stored aircraft. Suddenly in front of us there are two enemy fighters - as quick as they came they leave. There is no dogfight between them and us. We return. The Front is burning on many places, large black clouds are rising to the sky. The first mission gave two victories. The Russians were not prepared for this surprise attack. But it changes very quickly during the passage of the day.
The airfields of Gerlinden and Lindental announce that they saw enemy bombers passing the airfields. 'Alarmstaffeln' are starting to prevent their entry of east Prussian territory. 17 of 26 SB-2-type Martin-Bombers are shot down. The remainder disappear in a wild escape. Everywhere you see burning, crashing aircraft and parachutes in the air. The passing enemy is hunted to the city of Schaulen.
We are in combat all day long. Every pilot has to fly five to seven missions. The spine and the extension of the spine are hurting. The escorting of bomber units changes with free hunting and ground attack missions. In the afternoon we have air superiority. Russian fighters can no longer be seen.
In the late afternoon, we suddenly meet an enemy bombing unit consisting 50 to 60 SB-2 Martin-Bombers. Unfortunately we are low on gasoline, so that we can only make two attacks. The first is without success. During the second attack there is a bomber with a burning right engine. The aircraft drops its bombs in desparation and then it explodes in the air. Turning away we get the tough defensive fire of the reargunners of the other planes. The enemy unit turns in a south direction. We have to head home because we have no more gas. We are calling for support by radio - so that another 11 aircraft from this unit are shot down by others. With the hits to the Me 109 the landing gear can not be lowered - it must be landed on its belly. It works sensible and straight. Thank God that another new machine came today. It is even equipped with a film-camera. One hour later we start again for the next mission. One pilot loses his orientation completely during a dogfight. He calls us in the late afternoon from Litzmannstadt.
In the evening we fly a mission in direction of Schaulen. But we have no enemy-contact. We cross our infantery and ground troops in a low level flight. They have marched half the distance between the border and Kowno and Schaulen. The heavy development of dust clouds shows us - in the same way as it was in Poland - the direction of walking for each coloumn. Everywhere we can observe fires. Complete villages are burning. Tauroggen burns with a big black smokecloud - visible from far away. After the last mission the succsess of the day can be called to the Korps. Just with one loss, the Geschwader claimed 45 airvictories and 35 ground victories during the low-level-attacks.
We feel the excertions of the day very quickly - we are all 'tired like dogs' and are ready for sleep. But we just can sleep at midnight. After two hours we have to be ready for the next missions.
Now it is a very bad time for fighterpilots to sleep!"
By kind permission of Hans-Ekkehard Bob
Translated by Günther Rosipal
Remarks to bold text:
1) An Oberwerkmeister was an technical official, not a soldier. He was responsible for the technical state of the aircraft. He decided the way of repairing hidden or crashed aircraft. He worked together in a strong way with the technical officer (TO) of a Geschwader, Gruppe or Staffel. The Oberwerkmeister wore a special Uniform differing completely from the other Luftwaffe- Uniforms.
2) The 1.Wart had direct rsponsibility for the combat-clearness of one aircraft. Normally the pilots gave their special caterin to their 1. and 2. Wart to motivate them to do good work. The status of the 1.Wart was nearly that like his "pesonal" pilot - he had to do good work on the ground, the pilot in the air.
3) "Hals- und Beinbruch" is the german pilot slang for "Good luck" It could be translated to "Neck- and Leg-Brake"
4) Martin-Bomber. Nearly every two-engined Russian bomber was called a Martin-Bomber because of the similarity to the American bombers of the Martin company.
Hans-Ekkehard Bob, 60 victories, Knights Cross.
Note: Once again, Hans-Ekkehard Bob has been kind enough to relate another story from his wartime experiences. The original text was translated by Gunther Rosipal.
The war against Russia was just 24 hours old and both sides used all their air units. In particular, the Soviet Union pushed its units into the fight without consideration. The bombers came in several waves of squadron strength against the attacking German units. This continued on June 23, 1941, the second day of the war. The Russian bombing units, equipped with SB-2 and SB-3's - a two-engined bomber - flew without interruption in waves of 12 aircraft. That was just what we fighters were waiting for. We also flew in squadron strength, without a pause, against those masses of bombers. On June 23, my squadron flew missions with eight aircraft (two "Schwärme") against the Russian airforce in the Kedainiai-area. At 11:45 we recognized a bombing-unit with two-motor SB-2's, which flew in a clear formation of 3 echelon (each consisting of 9 aircraft). They joined together in several waves. My squadron and I attacked the unit immediatelly.
In a very short time we shot down (most burning) 8 machines and each of my pilots could claim a victory. But one of the machines survived, perhaps that of the leader. He tried to escape eastwards at low level. I flew an attack with my "Schwarm" from high behind him, a bit from the side. It couldn't work in another way because of the low altitude of the bomber. I shot with the cannon and machine guns. My three companions attacked the aircraft in the same way, but their attacks astonishingly did not show any effect. It looked like that the machine of the leader was protected in a very special way, perhaps armoured. That is the only way I could explain to myself that our very extreme hits did not afford any effect.
The bomber carried on trying to escape in at low level and because of my gasoline shortage, I started my last attack. I matched my speed to that of the bomber. I set myself 50 meters (55 yds) behind him to aim with all concentration at him and to fight by shooting. After a while it worked, flying very slow behind the bomber, the hits started him burning. As both engines and parts of the fuselage were burning - astonishingly the bomber was still flying - I opened the throttle to climb away beneath the bomber. Logically I passed very near to the bomber and saw the backgunner eye to eye, while he aimed at me and shot. That all happened above a wood with just 20 meters (22 yds) of altitude. Just when I was at the same level as the bomber, I got a very strong hit in my aircraft. The aircraft shaked like a wounded animal and yet I turned away quickly to the south. Suddenly there was dead silence around me, the engine stopped. My feelings I had in this moment are not explainable. I was allone, 20 meters (22 yds) above a wood with a standing engine. I had no time to take a look around for my other Staffel-aircraft. I had to decide in seconds how to reach the ground safely. Luckily I still had a good speed, so that I could pull the machine a bit higher. Around me, to the horizon was wood. In the last second I found in that sea of wood a small forest-break, maybe 200 meters (220 yds) long and 50 meters (55 yds) wide. "Come on, quickly, you must get it!" I talked to myself. Instinctively I did the necessary motions. There was only the possibility of a gearless landing. There were just seconds to go: "Will I manage it or not?" Flaps out, throwing away of the canopy. I hit some tree-tops and touched down. In the last moment I pulled up my legs, just away from the side rudder-control, so they would not to be crushed during hard damages of the machine. It is an acrobatic act, which was successful by pushing my feet against the panelboard. A good trained sportsman can do that, so I was one in that time.
The machine touched the ground, skidded over the floor and stood still after some meters - nothing happend to me. I took a deep breath through my body and my mind. The silence arround me was appealing. I looked to see if someone had observed my emergency landing - about 200 kilometers (125 miles) behind the Russian lines - to make a defense if necessary. In every aircraft we had a shoulderbag: This bag consisted bread (hard and dry), "Pervitin" (a well known inciting pharmaca), and two field bottles of tea. Later it was pointed out, that the two tea bottles were my critical to survival. It is the necessary fluid which the body needs to save its power in case of summer temperatures up to 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit).
I worried that the important survival kit would be lost by throwing away the canopy, particularly if you think about, that the aircraft with a landing speed of 140 Km/h (87 mph) stops by landing without gear in less meters and everthing flies around. In that way also the survival kit could be thrown outside. But what luck: I climbed out of the aircraft and found that bag laying on the ground near the wings. Picking it up, I run into the near wood. Meanwhile I heard far away voices of men and the barking of dogs. The were on my track and I had to try to disappear deeper into the wood. After a time, when I walked through the wood westwards and the barking of the dogs still did not stop, I decided to burrow myself in the tight and totally broken wood. I dug a hole in the size of my body with my hands, layed down in it and covered myself with the soil and some leaves. As I layed down silent, thousands of mosquitos attacked me. This was the second worse situation (except the fact that I was behind the Russian lines). The mosquitos had many attack positions because I just wore the summer flying suit. All the uncovered parts of my skin were littered with mosquitos and it took all my energy to withstand the torture without making a sound. Those mosquitos were "punishment pure".
In the late afternoon I listened to the sound of nearing Messerschmitts. I recognized at once the engine sounds and then another strange engine sound - which revealed itself as the sound of a Heinkel [Hentschel? - GR] reconnaissance aircraft. Obviously they had discovered my emergency landed aircraft and the reconnaissance aircraft tried to find me by flying circles. As I heard later, my Staffel pilots started the rescue action. A school comrade from Freiburg - Ltn. Friedrich Rupp - was a former pilot in a reconnaissance-Staffel. During a holiday I met him at my hometown of Freiburg. He complained about being a reconnaissance pilot and I promised him to take him to my fighter Staffel. My former Kommodore, Hannes Trautloft, helped me, and a short time before the Russian campaign, Rupp (in those days still Feldwebel) joined my Staffel. I took him through a short-training as a fighter-pilot and so he stayed in my Staffel. He proved to be a good fighter pilot and was promoted after a while to the Rank of a Leutnant. Later he was so successful, that he was awarded with the Knights cross on January 24, 1943. Ltn. Rupp led that rescue mission by procuring a slow reconnaissance aircraft from a nearby reconnaissance unit. Then he flew, joined by four Bf109's to my supposed emergency landing area - and he found it. He tried to land in a small clearing for carrying me up. I was faced with a problematic decision: Should I let them see me and earn the danger that the Russians will also see me, and, if the rescue missions fails, betray my position? With the chance getting rescued, the temptation was big. I made the heartrending deicision to stay in my cover. The final reason for my decision was the fact, that a slow reconnaissance plane will have difficulties during landing. I looked melancholy at my rescuers, who turned back and flew homewards. Now I was totally alone. First I kept on walking through the wood to get as much distance as possible from my landing position. I would burrow myself again, waiting for the night, then walking in the darkness to the west. I turned my uniform jacket inside out. In that way all military insignias and my rank were invisible. Equipped with the bag, two bottles of tea and a compass, I started my way in the twilight hour, through the dark wood and moving constantly to the west. With some small pauses, I walked until the morning light. As I said, I turned my uniform jacket inside out, sticked my handgun my pocket and sneaked on. So the morning passed away. Finally I reached a small wooden hut and hoped that I could rest there for a while. I pushed the door open and there standing were two Russian soldiers . The shock on both sides was evident. At once I recognized that these two soldiers were desserters because they quivered with fear. So that gave me a kind of safeness. With a nonchalant "Karascho" (means: good! or oK!) I smashed the door closed and disappeard in the wood again. Of course I was not really sure, if they were active soldiers who could bring trouble to me. I walked on consequently to the west and after a while I realized that I was not being pursued. So the day went on with walking, rests and steady observation. The following night I wanted to rest a little bit. I digged a hole again, covered myself with leaves and twigs and slept a little bit in spite of the suspense of being discovered.
In the early morning I went on my way again. After a while I heard far away westwards the thunder of artillery. This must be the frontline. Now I had to be more careful because the landscape became more open. I left the wood behind me and looked upon meadows and fields. In a stooped position stalking on, I recognized big dusty clouds 2 or 3 km (1 or 2 miles) away from me. There must be a so called "runway". But who was there on that street? Germans or Russians? With biggest strain I crawled nearer, sometimes completly flat. When I was still 100 meters (110 yds) away from the runway, much to my relief, I recognized German uniforms. At once I ran to the trek, hands upwards and loudly shouting "Hier deutscher Offizier!!!" (here german officer!!!) They stopped short and put their guns on me. As they told me later, they thought that I was a partisan - I looked very strange with a three day old beard, wild hair, the uniform turned inside out and completely dirty. I repeated often, loudly shouting: "Hier deutscher Offizier, nicht schießen!!!" (here german officer, don't shoot!!!) and no one shot. Like a prisoner I was brought to a commando car of Oberstleutnant Wenck. In 1941 Wenck was just Oberstleutnant and later became well known as Generaloberst and commanding General of the "Armee Wenck" who should save by Hitlers order with a no longer existing army. That is irony of destiny. So, at last OTL Wenck believed me, after I turned my uniform back again and being recognizable as Oberleutnant of the Luftwaffe. Then I pulled my Knights Cross out of my pocket and stayed in that way of the backseat of Wenck's car. When Wenck turned to me and saw the Knights Cross, he said: "Oh, so we have rescued a brave wearer of the Knights Cross and famous pilot!" After the tortures of the last days his words moved me to tears. I was back again with my guys.
At this time OTL Wenck was the chief of staff of a panzer division, which was involved in a big battle of encirclement. We drove to the staff of the division, which had to go through tough tank attacks to reinforce what was happening on the ground at that time. The flying officer Bob, who did not know anything about it - in between. I did not feel very good in that situation. Sometimes we were just 100 meters (110 yds) away from the shooting and I saw 500 meters (550 yds) away from us a Russian monster tank (52 tons) [KV-2? - BW] which shot steadily in our direction. At that time it was the biggest tank of the world. It was a special construction which could not turn the cannon because of the heavy weight. The tracks of the tank were broken, so he could not turn onto his target - our command stand. So he shot in one direction many meters beneath us. That was our luck. In such situations "my back went on ice". Around evening the tank battle lulled and we ran to the command stand, which was situated in a motor-bus. For celebrating the gone day, OTL Wenck gave a cup of champagne to me, which I emptied with one swallow. At once I was drunken and fell down asleep. Meanwhile they informed my unit that I was found in the frontline. They brought me back in a reconnaisance tank, where I felt like in an Ironcoffin. It was necessary to use an armoured car because we crossed a battle line where we were attacked by infantry. The bullets sounded like trickle, but it was really unearthly. When we reached the the rear lines, there was a "Fieseler Storch" waiting to bring me back to my Geschwader. Meanwhile a big party was prepared to salute the "lost son". On the next day we had new missions to fly.
Pavlichenko Alexandr Alexandrovich, commander 210BAP, Southern Front.
On Nov 10, 1998, our friend Vlad Antipov interviewed Pavlichenko Aleancrovich. Pavlichenko started his combat career during the 1939 Finnish Winter War flying the TB-3 heavy bomber. He is very glad that those in West are interested in Russian aviation history. He flew the Su-2, Il-2, and Il-10 during World War II. Pavlichenko was commanded the 210 BAP, was shot down only and flew 128 combat missions in the Su-2.
On March 14, 1942, we on ours of Su-2 have flied up from Budenovka airfield, near Voroshilovgrad, for performance of reconnaissance of ground forces of the opponent in area of Taganrog - Rostov. By executing photographing of the opponent, I have unwrapped the plane and has gone by a rate on the airfield. Mine of gunner, St. Lieutenant Alexandr Pakhomov sitting in machine-gun turret, periodically reported, that the sky clean and opponent is not visible.
I already have become to be reduced and prepares for flight of a line of front. Up to a line of front there were approximately 12 km. I have looked at hours - 1348.At the rate, at height of 1.800 meters village Krasnyi Luch was well seen. I unexpectedly is loud in headphones has heard " Us attack!!! ", also has roared a machine gun. I have looked back and has seen, that on our plane, on the part of the sun already having divided(shared) there were two pairs German fighters. Two planes flied directly behind us, and others two, more to the right and hardly above. In a cabin the machine gun roared. I have tried to make the left turn to pass(miss) fighters in before, but had no time. Back attacking pair with close to a distance has opened fire on fuselage.
Result of hits I have understood at once. " I am wounded, land faster! " - has cried Pakhomov. I have looked back and has seen, that he has fallen on knees. Has not passed also of several seconds, as other pair coming more to the right and from above has given about itself to know. Sasha continued to groan. The plane has shaken. The opponent shot on a wing, for certain knowing, that there there ar e petrol tanks. I distinctly have seen as above a cabin have flown by two back fighters.The right wing burned. Behind the plane the rich black smoke crept. Expecting worse the second attack of fighters and that petrol tanks and to tear off a wing at any moment could blow up, I not deliberating have come in the left spiral. On the large speed, that also was possible to me. Has remembered speed on the device - 500 km/h ! I had itself to look behind air.
But fortunately more attacks has not followed. The German pilots likely have counted, that we shall fall already and without their help. Being reduced on a spiral up to height of 200 meters and by flying a line of front I have become to select a platform for the compelled landing. The beginnings to leave from a roll. The plane did not cope, likely have fused or the cables right aileron are damaged. I turn off the motor. Height of 150 meters. To time remains a little. I hide a head, previously by warning an gunner. The Earth. The plane under a corner of 35-40 degrees touches by the left wing ground. Us sharply throws to the right. The plane by the right wing is beaten about ground. The burning wing has torn off. Continuing to touch trees, at the plane the engine falls off, he becomes on a nose and I am filled up by a cabin downwards … Has lost consciousness. The eyewitnesses of air fight were the soldiers. By seeing a place of our fall they have equipped a sledge and have sent to us. I have opened eyes from colds. The hours showed 0200. Night. Independently to leave I could not. Turn-over crash pylon struts has pressed me in a cabin under an instrument board. By adhering the plane to horses the soldiers have turnedhim. Also have pulled out us.
All crew was alive. Remained safe as well the photoequipment with photos, which we have made. Them at once have forwarded in a staff. And us with Pakhomov have sent in hospital. Both of us then were at war. But served in different shelfs. He has remained in 210 BAP, and I have got in 108 Gv. ShAP.
Hans Iffland, IV./JG3
An excerpt from Jerry Ethell's Bomber Command from Lowe & B. Hould Publishers. Hans Iffland describes the first daylight raid against Berlin by the Eighth Air Force.
Normally we got up at about 6:00 AM and reported to the operations building at 6:30, where we had our breakfast. Officers and NCOs sat around chatting, some playing cards, others writing letters or reading books.
There were several rooms and offices in the operations building, as well as the main briefing room. There was a large gridded map on one wall of the waiting room, where the position of the bomber stream was marked when it began to come in. Next to the map was a large board with all of the pilots' names, their victory scores, which operations they had flown in, and when pilots had had to break off operations prematurely for any reason. So one could see at a glance which pilots had pressed on with their attacks, and which were liable to break away at the least sign of engine or other trouble. Obviously, if a man had engine trouble and returned early four times in a row, questions would be asked. The board also showed who was sick or wounded, who was on leave, etc.
While waiting, I would play cards or ping-pong.
When the bombers were reported coming in, we had three states of readiness. First was 30 Minute Readiness: "Achtung, Achtung, Achtung, Achtung, eine Durchsage: Ab sofort 30 Minuten Beritschaft!" This was a loose form of readiness, and meant only that the pilots were not allowed to leave the airfield. Normally martial music was played over the loudspeakers, and the announcements would interrupt this. Next readiness state was 15 Minute Readiness order as before, but "15 Minuten Beritschaft!" Then came more music. On this order the pilots walked to the Staffel readiness rooms; next, they went to their aircraft dispersed around the airfield. Earlier in the day, each aircraft had been run up by the ground crewman, so each was ready for action, fully fueled up and armed. Each aircraft carried a drop tank under its belly. The engine had been warmed up first thing in the morning. At this stage, the pilots put on their life jackets and other flying clothing (though it was this often worm throughout the day).
Next stage was Cockpit Readiness: "Achtung, Achtung, ab sofort, Sitzbereitschaft!" The pilots walked over to their aircraft and climbed in, strapped on their parachutes, did up their seat harnesses, pulled on their helmets, and did up their radio connectors. Each Messerschmitt already had the large crank handle in place, sticking out the starboard side of the engine, ready for the engine to be started.
At Cockpit Readiness, the pilots could hear the fighter broadcasts via a telephone line plugged into each aircraft. Cockpit Readiness usually lasted no more than ten to fifteen minutes, though it could last for as much as an hour. For me, the minutes between being ordered to Cockpit Readiness and being given the order to take off were the most terrible of all. After the order came to get airborne, one was too busy to think about one's possible fate. But waiting to go, with nothing to do but think about what might happen - that was the most terrible time of all. Would one still be alive that evening, or was this the beginning of one's last day? My own greatest fear was that I might be seriously wounded, with permanent injuries. Death was, of course, a fear, but that would have been the end. The thought of being left a cripple for the rest of all one's life was, for me, the greatest fear of all.
At 11:37 came the order to scramble. A single green flare rose up from the operations building. The scramble takeoff was normal for a German fighter unit, with the aircraft of the three Staffeln and the Stab unit dispersed at four points equidistant around the airfield. On the order to scramble, two crewman hopped onto the wing of the Messerschmitt and began turning the crank handle to get the heavy flywheel of the inertia starter revolving. They would the crank faster and faster, then the pilot pulled a handle beside his right knee to clutch in the engine, which usually coughed a couple of times before starting with a throaty roar. After engine starting, the Stab took off first, straight out of their dispersal point. As they passed the center of the airfield, the tenth Staffel, situated ninety degrees to the left around the perimeter of the airfield, began its takeoff run. Then the eleventh, then the twelfth Staffeln. After takeoff, the Stab turned left, circling the airfield, and climbed away, collecting the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth Staffeln. Once the Gruppe had assembled, the leader, Major Friedrich-Karl Mueller, swung it around to a southeasterly heading for Magdeburg.
When we were within about 800 meters of the bombers, we felt ourselves safe from the enemy fighters and had only the bombers' return fire to worry about. At such a range it was difficult to tell a Mustang from a Messerschmitt, and both would be shot at by the bombers' gunners. Our orders were to help the Destroyers punch through the screen of escorts, so that they could engage the bombers. I remember seeing the bomber formation like a swarm of insects in the distance.
It was terrible to have to attack the bombers, which opened fire at very long ranges (about 800 meters), while our Messerschmitts had only limited ammunition - we had to hold fire until about 300 or 400 meters. This interception on 6 March 1944 was one of my first operational head-on attacks against an enemy bomber formation. The head-on attack was adopted because it was a more cost-effective way of engaging the bombers. When we attacked from the rear, there was a long period of overtaking when the enemy gunners were shooting at us, but we were not within range to fire at them. As a result, we sometimes lost more fighters than we shot down bombers. When we attacked from head-on, we were able to fire for only about one second, but the bombers were big, and we were relatively so small, that we were far more likely to hit them than they were likely to hit us. Our tactic was to attack by Staffeln in line abreast, so that the enemy bombers could not concentrate their fire against any one of us.
During the firing run, everything happened very quickly. We were flying at about 450 kilometers per hour, and the bombers were flying at about 380 kilometers per hour, so closing speed was 800 to 900 kilometers per hour. After firing my short burst at one of the B-17s, I pulled up over it. I attacked from slightly above, allowing a slight deflection angle and aiming at the nose. We knew that just a single hit with a 3cm explosive round would have devastating effects anywhere on the nose, but it was hardly possible to aim so accurately during the brief firing pass. I aimed at the nose, but saw the flashes of my rounds exploding against the Fortress's port wing root. And the whole time, we could see the tracer rounds from the bombers flashing past us. I saw four or five founds exploding around the wing root.
As I pulled up over the bomber, I dropped my left wing to see the result of my attack and to give the enemy gunners the smallest possible target at which to aim. I had also to pull up to get out of the way of the fire from the other Staffeln of the Gruppe coming in behind me. Of course, I did not want to ram the B-17. I saw the port wing of the B-17 slowly begin to fold up, and the bomber went down. Then I was out the back of the formation, and my main concern was to join up with other Messerschmitts of the Gruppe for the next attack.
On this day we knocked down thirteen bombers in return for only one of our fighters wrecked, and none of our pilots was killed or wounded. It seemed that we really were able to overcome the massive numerical superiority enjoyed by the enemy. We were astonished by our success, which gave us all new hope. We felt we really had grasped the problem of dealing with the great formations of bombers.
I tried to join up with the machines from my Staffel, which carried white numbers. The eleventh Staffel had yellow numbers. If one was alone, one was highly vulnerable to attack from the Mustangs, and many of our fighters were last that way. The Gruppe pulled around in a sweeping turn to the left of the formation, and then the fighters sped, flying a course parallel to and slightly above the bombers, overtaking them out of gun range as they moved into position for a second head-on attack. It was very important to deliver the second attack in line abreast with sufficient aircraft. If one or two attacked alone, the bombers would concentrate their fire on these, and that was extremely dangerous. Our orders were to continue attacking the bombers so long as we had ammunition and fuel. It was frowned upon if undamaged fighters returned with fuel and ammunition remaining. Even if we had only ten rounds of cannon ammunition left, we were expected to deliver another attack against the bombers.
I came in for my second attack, but the target bomber made a slight turn, causing my rounds to miss. At the time of the first attack, the bombers had been flying in close formation. Now there were gaps in the formation, and the bombers were flying further apart so the pilot would have more room to maneuver. The B-17 snaked from side to side when I opened fire; it was enough to make the rounds miss during the brief firing pass. Then I was out of ammunition.
The most dangerous part of the engagement was getting through the screen of escorts. On this day we had done so without difficulty. Our orders were to engage the enemy fighters only when we had to. Otherwise we had to concentrate our attack on the bombers, which represented the greatest danger to our country. The only exception was when we were escorting the Destroyers.
Once one was out of ammunition, it was important to join up with other German fighters, because it was very dangerous if one was attacked by American escorts. if there were four or five of us together, the Americans would be more careful about attacking us. Also, being short of fuel, it was important to fix our position and decide where we were going to land.
On breaking away from the bombers, we went down in a rapid descent to about 200 meters to get well clear of the enemy fighters. At that altitude our camouflaged aircraft were very difficult to see from high above, while we could see the enemy machines silhouetted against the sky. A 200- to 300-meter altitude also gave us good R/T range, so we could contact our base. Sometimes we flew back even lower than that and climbed only when we wished to call our base to make sure it was safe for us to land there, since it might have come under enemy attack. When we arrived back over Salzwedel, we flew low over the airfield, and those pilots who claimed victories waggled their wings. I saw another aircraft in front of me doing it; then I did it. We knew we had been successful even before we landed. When we were overtaking the bombers for our second attack, we had seen some going down, others streaming fuel or smoke. One went down about 1,000 meters and then exploded. Another was on fire, and parachutes were coming from it. If there was a burning machine in the formation, the others would have to pull away from it in case it exploded. It made a vivid impression.
After landing and taxiing to the Staffel dispersal, the first to meet me was my mechanic. He had seen me rock my wings, and when I had shut down the engine and opened the hood, he stood by the trailing edge of the wing, clapped his hands above his head, shouted, "Herr Leutnant, gratuliere!" and offered me a cigarette. Obviously, if a pilot scored a kill, that counted for the mechanic also; it meant he had done a good job preparing the machine. No shortage of cigarettes for the Luftwaffe; we were looked after very well as regards food and drink. I do not remember any problems when we operated in Germany, though there had been some difficulties in getting supplies through when we were in Italy.
When I reached the Gefechtsstand, our commander, Major Mueller, was already there receiving the reports from his pilots. I awaited my turn, then marched to the table. I clicked my heels, saluted, and proudly said, "Melde gehorsamst. Vom Einsatz zuruck. Eine Fortress abgeschossen!" Then I explained how I had hit it and seen the wing fold up on the port side before it went down. "Ach, das war Ihrer! Hab ich gesehen!" exclaimed one of the other pilots. This was important, for without a witness, it was very difficult to get credit for a victory. Several other pilots said the same thing: The bomber had gone down in a spectacular manner, and several pilots remembered seeing it. "Gratuliere!" smiled Mueller. After me, other pilots reported kills. Each one was marked on the board beside the pilot's name, so soon it was clear we had had a very successful day.
Salzwedel was a permanent Luftwaffe airfield. Mueller announced, when the Gruppe was stood down from readiness, "Tonight we celebrate!" After a bath and changing out of my sweaty flying suit, I was at the officers Kasino for dinner at 7:00 PM. Jagdgeschwader 3 had links with the Henkell wine company, which ensured that the we never ran short of wine. Whenever a pilot was killed, it was usual for the Kommandeur to deliver a short requiem after dinner; then the pilots drank a toast to his memory before hurling their glasses (special cheap ones!) into the fireplace. But there had been no losses on this day.
The party would have gone on until after midnight, but it came to an end when Mueller said, "Jungs, that's enough. We must be ready again tomorrow." At a Luftwaffe officers' party we did not have violent games. We sang songs (not Nazi party songs!): "Es ist so wunder wunder schon, hoch in den blauen Luftigen Hohen"; "Oh, du schoner We-e-esterwald"; "Auf der Luneburger Heide, in den wunderschonen Land". One of the officers would accompany the songs on guitar. A pleasant comradely evening, with the other officers steadily getting more and more drunk, then off to bed.
Verne Woods, 91st BG
I am indebted to Mr. Woods for giving me permission to reprint the story of his last mission.
THE DEATH OF THE BLACK SWAN
The December 31, 1943, mission to the Bordeaux-Cognac area of France was a long one -- a scheduled eleven hours from take-off to landing. Nevertheless we were told that it would be an easy milk run. After 11 missions as co-pilot, I'd a week before taken over the crew as first pilot. This was to be my 13th mission, my second
as first pilot. Curiously, the co-pilot on the December 31 mission was Stuart Mendelsohn, my former first pilot. This reversal of roles came about because Mendelsohn had recently been named 324th squadron (91st BG) operations officer. In that capacity, he had assigned himself as my co-pilot on the Bordeaux mission. We flew the mission in a B-17F, The Black Swan.
As I remember, the mission was flown at 21,000 feet. Over the Bay of Biscay, a strong tail wind took us to the Bordeaux area much sooner than expected. That same wind, however, was to greatly retard our trip home. Immediately after crossing the French coast, we encountered unexpectedly heavy and accurate flak. A loud and powerful flak explosion suddenly rocked our plane sending it careening dangerously close to another B-17. The big, black explosive cloud enveloped us momentarily as we passed through it. Shrapnel tore holes into B-17's aluminum skin near Mendelsohn but no one was wounded. But a moment later, the number three engine froze up. We couldn't feather the prop so a noticeable drag was created. And apparently, the aluminum blades of the supercharger on engine four were broken because engine manifold pressure dropped sharply. We couldn't keep up with the formation so we had to drop out. Nor could we maintain altitude, even with full throttle.
We reversed course, turning northeast back out over the Bay of Biscay. There we opened our bomb bay doors and released our bombs harmlessly over the water. With greatly compromised engine thrust, we assumed a limping, solitary, northerly course which we hoped would take us back to England. Our progress was slowed because of the strong head wind. We estimated that it would take two hours to reach the Brest Peninsula. At full throttle, we were gradually losing altitude and there was nothing we could do about it. When we reached about 14,000 feet we stopped losing altitude. Soon afterwards the temperature gauge on our number one engine began creeping up. We had to throttle back and as a result we began to lose altitude again. The unfeathered number three engine and the yawing to the left due to unbalanced engine thrust created in a heavy drag. We feared that we would have to ditch the plane in the Bay. Mendelsohn and I debated the wisdom of turning east again where we could abandon the plane by parachute over dry land. We decided that this could be avoided because we knew that at lower altitudes reciprocating engines (unlike jet engines) are more efficient. Also, in the denser air of lower altitudes, engine cooling improves and we might be able to operate our over-heating number one engine at a higher throttle setting.
At about 10,000 feet we again stopped losing altitude. We crossed our fingers and breathed easier. Still, we had two concerns, the primary one being fuel. Two and a half engines at near-full throttle burn much more fuel than four engines at cruising speed. The drag caused by our unfeathered number three engine and the yawing pull of engines one and two also consumed extra fuel. Our other concern, a lesser one, was the 40-minute transit across the Brest Peninsula and the possibility of a fighter attack awaiting us. During our two hours homeward journey out over the Bay of Biscay, Mendelsohn and I had ample time to consider the best strategies for survival. Should we follow recommended procedures whereby crippled planes, having left formation, are to hit the deck -- that is, to fly over enemy territory at a low altitude where detection and tracking are more difficult. Or should we maintain our 10,000 feet altitude?
Several considerations led us to decide to remain at that altitude. We thought it probable that we would run out of fuel somewhere over the Brest Peninsula. If so, we should be at least a thousand feet above the ground before bailing out. But the real reason that we decided to remain at 10,000 feet was because we needed the altitude cushion. Our crippled B-17 simply wouldn't climb. Once we lost a bit of altitude, we couldn't, even with the two and a half engines at full throttle, regain it. Later, of course, I was to rue the fact that we didn't follow recommended procedures whereby pilots of straggling planes are instructed to return at tree-top level.
We didn't see the two FW-190s until they were on top of us. They came from the classic twelve o'clock high position, in tandem, one after the other. Before I saw the FW-190s, small black puffs of smoke suddenly appeared before us. Exploding 20 mm shells. At about the same time, I saw the undersides of the FW-190s as they made a diving turn directly ahead of us. Only the ball turret gunner go a shot at them. The FW-190 pilots seemed to be inexperienced. Both had fired their guns much too early. Quite unlike the fighter attacks I'd been subjected to over Germany where pilots held their fire until they almost rammed you. After that first pass, my crew watched (and reported the progress on the interphone) as the two FW-190s circled back out of range on our right. On their second frontal pass, they again fired their 20mm cannons prematurely. Because of this seeming ineptitude, I was beginning to feel a little more confident. Then on the third pass, the lead FW-190 held fire until the last second. I knew we were going to get blasted. And we were.
Two or three (maybe more) shells crashed through the right cockpit window tearing the frame away. Exploding in the cockpit, the shells killed Mendelsohn in the co-pilot's seat instantly. Blood was spattered everywhere. Seeing it on my jacket and flight gloves, I thought I was hit, too. The wind coming through the large gap on the right side of the cockpit was deafening. But the plane itself seemed to be flyable except that I couldn't correct for a shallow dive to the right. The rudder seemed locked tight. I think I pushed the panic button, signaling everybody to leave the plane. (Much later, I tried to remember whether the alarm ever sounded and I still wonder if I pushed the button at all.)
I tried to get the plane straight and level but was unable to correct for the jammed right rudder. The wind-noise in the cockpit was unbelievably shrill, but the engines were running fine. Then, at about 4,000 feet (actually, I don't know what the altitude was) the dive steepened and in a moment of sudden panic, I decided that I'd better get the hell out. I switched on the automatic pilot (as pilots are instructed to do before parachuting) and left the cockpit seat. I was surprised to see Richard Hensley, the engineer/top-turret-gunner, still there, sitting on the pedestal of the top turret gun. He didn't seem to be hurt. I gestured toward the open front escape hatch from which the bombardier and navigator had already evacuated. I then picked up a parachute pack to give him, but he refused it. He acknowledged nothing that I did. Then in a second moment of panic, I realized that the plane was about to crash at any moment. I snapped on the same parachute pack I had offered to Hensley and dived through the open hatch.
I pulled the cord, the parachute opened and the next second I was on the ground on my knees. I don't remember a moment of free fall. A hundred or so yards away, the B-17 hit the ground at about the same time. I knew that Mendelsohn and Hensley were in it. Heavy black smoke soon marked the impact point. Far downwind, still high in the sky, I counted five parachutes of crew members who had evacuated earlier. The two FW-190s were no where in sight.
EPILOGUE ONE: My B-17 crashed into a French farmer's barn in the small village of Bannalac in Brittany. Fifty five years later, on October 31, 1998, Yves Carnot, the grandson of the farmer into whose barn The Black Swan had crashed erected a small granite monument in memory of my two crew members who died there. Mr. Carnot sent me a video of the ceremonies which were attended by some 300 people. Included among them was a representative of the American embassy in Paris. But neither I nor any of the other four still-surviving crew members was there. Earlier in the year, in May, 1998, Mr. Carnot had visited me and my wife in Lexington, Massachusetts, bringing with him several aluminum scraps from The Black Swan recovered from the crash site. I referred Mr. Carnot to the curator of the 91st Bomb Group museum in Bassingbourn, England, and Carnot sent the curator several scrap pieces for display in the museum. The curator, Steve Pena, subsequently wrote me to say "You'll be pleased to learn that pieces of The Black Swan have at last returned to Bassingbourn."
EPILOGUE TWO: The Luftwaffe pilot who shot me down is, most certainly I believe, Obfw. Addi Glunz of JG 26. I have learned this only recently -- in May, 1999. If this is so, then I have been under the mistaken impression all these years that the FW-190 pilots were inexperienced. Glunz was in fact one of the Luftwaffe's most talented pilots, a fighter ace who had downed scores of British and American fighters and bombers. My B-17, The Black Swan, was Glunz's victory number 51. The recorded date, time and locale of Glunz's claimed victory correspond precisely with my experiences. I learned of this Luftwaffe pilot only after posting an item to the Twelve O'clock High discussion forum under the heading, "Who Shot Me Down?" Donald Caldwell, the author of the recently published book, "The JG 26 War Diary Volume Two 1943-1945" responded with the information. (I subsequently purchased his fine book.) Caldwell wrote that Glunz had survived the war, but, unfortunately, has been incapacitated with Alzheimer's since 1986. So I will forever be unable to compare notes with him on the events which took place on that fateful day, December 31, 1943.
Hans-Ekkehard Bob, 60 victories, Knights Cross.
Below is an excerpt from Christer Bergström's book "BLACK CROSS - RED STAR: German and Russian Fighter aces in Combat Vol. 3" due to be published by Eagle Editions in the U.S. spring of the year 2003. Visit the Black Cross - Red Star website for news and updates.
III./JG 54's last Mission in the East - Velikiye Luki
By Christer Bergström
In November 1942, the Soviet Western and Kalinin fronts opened a major offensiveagainst German Army Group Center. The Soviet attack was supported by an aviation widely superior in numbers to the Luftwaffe in that area. To bolster the German air asset, numerous Luftwaffe reinforcements were brought in, including III./JG 54. With the regular Gruppenkommandeur, Major Reinhard Seiler, on home leave, the latter Jagdgruppe was led by 9.”Teufelstaffel” (Devil’s squadron)/JG 54’s commander, Oberleutnant Hans- Ekkehard Bob. He was a Knight’s Cross holder and long-time veteran with fifty victories on his score board.
III./JG 54 immediately was thown into a series of difficult air combats. The main task of the German fighters in this area was to intercept the large numbers of Il-2s that were craeting mounting problems to the German ground troops. Soviet 292 ShAD made more than one hundred combat flights to support the Third Assault Army on December 16 and 17, 1942. This cost them six combat losses.
By this time, more and more Il-2s equipped with rear gunners started to appear. “The Il-2’s rear gun came as a very nasty surprise to us,” recalls Hans-Ekkehard Bob. “Their rear gunners were very dangerous, and we always tried to place ourselves in their dead angle. Personally, I preferred to attack from the side and aim at the cockpit. During those days, I always flew an aircraft with Gondola arms, which were effective against the Il-2’s armor plates.”
The fighting soon became concentrated around Velikiye Luki, a small town on German Army Group Center's left (northern) flank, where the Soviets had succeeded in enveloping a German Army garisson in a "small-scale second Stalingrad". Commanded by Oberst Wilke, a groupment of mainly He 111s flew in supplies to the surrounded troops at Velikiye Luki. On December 26, 1942, the Soviets penetrated into Velikiye Luki and cut the German garisson in two halves - each so small that henceforth supplies to the surviving Germans could only be air-dropped. Two German Army divisions started a relief thrust to Velikiye Luki on December 29. Covering the advance, 9./JG 54’s Oberfeldwebel Eugen-Ludwig Zweigart attained his fiftieth through fifty-third victories by claiming two La-5s and two Yak-1s. The La-5s encountered by Zweigart probably belonged to 169 IAP, which claimed to have shot down twenty-one German aircraft - including twelve in a single combat—on December 29. Leytenant Pavel Grazhdaninov reportedly destroyed two Ju 87s - of which he taraned one, surviving the feat with injuries. These 169 IAP claims not only are three times higher than the actual Luftwaffe losses in this area on that day - the circumstances lead to the assumption that they may also include the figures for the next day.
On December 30 - with clear skies - Soviet air armies 3 VA and 6 VA (operating immediately to the north of the former, and mainly responsible for air operations against Demyansk) made a combined all-out effort against German airfields and troop positions between Lake Ilmen and Vitebsk. The note for December 30 in 7./JG 54’s war diary reads: “Ein wunderbarer, glasklarer Wintertag bringt für die Gruppe über dem heissumkämpften Velikiye Luki wieder einen Grosskampftag. Der Russe fliegt mit ungezählten Mengen ein. Wo man hinfliegt, wimmelt es geradezu von Russen.”
This time, JG 54 Grünherz took the brunt of the air fighting on the German side. On this December 30, I./JG 54’s nine-victory ace Feldwebel Heinrich Bruhn and his wingman, Unteroffizier Paul Grothoff, were bounced by five of Airacobras from 28 GIAP (formerly 153 IAP) south of Lake Ilmen. Kapitan Anatoliy Kislyakov, leading the Soviet formation, shot down the two Bf 109s in quick succession. Both pilots survived and were captured by the Soviets. Asking to meet his defeater, Bruhn was next day introduced to Kislyakov—who remembers this encounter: “The appearance of a simple Russian guy obviously did not appeal to Bruhn. But he seemed to feel more ensured when I told him that I already had eleven German planes on my account.” Meanwhile, 7./JG 54’s Leutnant Friedrich Rupp attained his forty-eighth through fiftieth victories.
Oberleutnant Hans-Ekkehard Bob’s 9./JG 54 chalked up six victories—including two each by Oberleutnants Bob and Franz Eisenach, and the Staffel’s three hundredth through Leutnant Rudolf Klemm. But all of this was superceded by the Grünherzgeschwader’s I. and II. Gruppen, which fought against 6 VA’s formations. Hauptmann Hans Philipp, I./JG 54’s C.O. and the Geschwader’s leading ace, claimed eight victories (Nos 123 – 130), while II./JG 54’s Leutnant Max Stotz almost placed himself alongside with Philipp by shooting down ten Soviet aircraft on December 30, 1942 - reaching a tally of 129. Major Hans “Assi” Hahn, Stotz’s Gruppenkommandeur, contributed with another five kills to JG 54’s total score for the day of forty-five. The Luftwaffe’s own losses in the area between Lake Ilmen and Vitebsk on December 30 were at least ten aircraft.
JG 54’s claims may be exaggerated, but the Soviets undoubtedly suffered the highest losses. Among the personal casualties during the fighting with I. and II./JG 54 on December 30, 1942 was the commander of 21 GIAP (formerly 38 IAP), Podpolkovnik Georgiy Konyev. Credited with fourteen individual and eighteen shared victories on 312 combat sorties, Konyev belonged to 6 VA’s most outstanding aces by the time of his death.
The New year opened badly for the Germans. Deteriorating weather conditions hampered flight activities, but Gefechtsverband Wilke still lost seven He 111s - including six from KG 53 - during missions to Velikiye Luki on New Year’s Day. Out of forty-five air-dropped supply containers, only seven reached the surrounded German garisson. By that time, these troops were “so weak from losses that they could no longer be described as a unified combat formation,” in the words of historian Werner Haupt. German LIX Army Corps’s “Gruppe Wöhler” prepared a new relief operation.
Following a period of thick fog and low clouds, the weather forecast for January 4 looked promising, and that date was chosen for the relief operation. Due to thick snow that hampered the supply columns, the operational strength of Gefechtsverband Wilke’s fighter units - Stab, I., and III./JG 51 - had been radically reduced, so Oberleutnant Bob shifed a part of his III./JG 54 from Smolensk to Izotscha, 20 miles southwest of Velikiye Luki.
While the German He 111s and Ju 87s were dispatched against the Soviet troop positions, 3 VA sent in the entire 292 ShAD and 1 ShAK against “Gruppe Wöhler.” III./JG 54’s Izotscha detachment was scrambled just after noon on January 4, 1943, and caught a formation of 292 ShAD Il-2s that attacked German troop positions southwest of Velikiye Luki. Six Il-2s were shot down, including two as Feldwebel Alfred Dettke’s thirty-first and thirty-second victories. In the middle of this combat, the Shturmovik pilot B. Lopatin had his Il-2 severely hit by 20mm shells which killed his rear gunner. Lopatin prepared himself to receive the coup de grace when suddenly a Bf 109 appeared in front of him. Lopatin immediately pressed the firing button to his guns, and the German fighter caught the full burst and started burning. Lopatin saw the enemy pilot bail out and hit his plane’s tailfin, where he got stuck, following the descending Bf 109 down to impact. Thus died 9./JG 54’s Unteroffizier Alfred Bleck, victor in five air combats. Another III./JG 54 Bf 109 crashed upon return to Izotscha.
The air fighting became intensified on January 5, with 3 VA launching an increasing number of Il-2s against “Gruppe Wöhler.” III./JG 54 claimed nine and IV./JG 51 four Soviet aircraft shot down - all Il-2s. In return Soviet fighters shot down and killed 7./JG 54’s ace Feldwebel Alfred Dettke, shortly after he had scored his thirty-third and last victory.
“When the weather permitted flying, our missions in the Velikiye Luki area were absolutely terrible,” recalls Hans-Ekkehard Bob. “Day by day our numerical inferiority grew. The Russians dispatched vast numbers of Il-2s. They flew in long rows to be able to attack such a small target as Velikiye Luki. They made their approach flight at low altitude, and when we intercepted, they went even lower.”
During furious air fighting on January 6, the German fighter pilots claimed thirty-four victories in the Velikiye Luki area—including four each by IV./JG 51’s Leutnant Wolfgang Böwing-Treuding and Feldwebel Kurt Tanzer. In return, Soviet 32 GIAP alone claimed seventeen victories, one of them probably against 7./JG 54’s 28-victory ace Feldwebel Josef Brechtl. Stöber paid back by shooting down five Soviet aircraft (his victories 29 through 33) on three sorties that day. With one of his victims, erroneously reported as a LaGG-3, he killed 32 GIAP’s Eskadrilya commander Starshiy Leytenant Aleksandr Koshelev.
Oberst Wilke’s impression was that the German fighters managed to maintain their upper hand throughout the aerial combats over Velikiye Luki. But Oberleutnant Hans-Ekkehard Bob saw things slightly different. “Our task,” he said, “was to keep German fighters airborne over Velikiye Luki all the time. We took off in Rotten or Schwarm formations, one group overlapping the other. We got involved into many air combats and noticed that the Russian fighters had grown stronger. It was here during the Battle of Velikiye Luki that we for the first time learned that our reconnaissance Staffeln had been equipped with Messerschmitt 109s, and that they even needed fighter escort. We regarded this as a sign of greater danger from the Russian fighters.” The first Nahaufklärungsstaffel to bring the Bf 109 into service in the East, 2.(H)/21, also lost a Bf 109 F-2 during the operations on January 6.
After the first days in January 1943, it was clear that the Battle of Velikiye Luki was more or less settled. A large part of “Gruppe Wöhler” lay shattered in the snow, and the garisson at Velikiye Luki was split into two halves, each in a shrinking territory. The surrounded area still in German hands in fact was so small that III./StG 1’s Ju 87s “dive-bombed” supply containers!
III./JG 54’s last day of operations in the Velikiye Luki area, January 15, 1943, contributed to bring down the mood in the Gruppe. 9./JG 54’s War Diary reads: “One Rotte carries out a free hunting mission, and engages five P-40s without any success. Three other Rotten on free hunting. Lt. Klemm shoots down a Pe-2 (No. 20), Oblt. Eisenach one LaGG-3 (No. 9). Uffz. Zester transfers a Bf 109 to Smolensk. Lt. Kromer returns to base with a shot up left wing.” During another mission that day, 7./JG 54’s Rotte Feldwebel Kurt Stöber – Leutnant Alfred Doege was shot down by Soviet fighters. Both were lost. With Stöber, 7./JG 54 was deprived of another of its best airmen, credited with thirty-six victories. In the War Diary of 7./JG 54, it was noted: “Der Verlust dieser Rotte hat die Staffel in tiefste Trauer versetzt. In wenigen Einsatztagen an der Mittelfront hat die Staffel vier ihrer besten Jagdflieger verloren.”
The Battle of Velikiye Luki would prove to be III./JG 54’s final mission in the East. It was next shifted to the West