In the spring of 1943 the Allies commenced the around-the-clock bombing campaign of the western parts of the III Reich.
After sundown streams of RAF bombers invaded the enemy airspace. In broad daylight they were replaced by tightly packed defensive boxes of American Flying Fortresses and Liberators. Germans scrambled every airworthy fighter aircraft in the Luftwaffe’s inventory in this part of Europe to challenge those raids. The most demanding task in the Defence of the Reich system fell upon the night fighter pilots, pressed into combat equally at night and at day. One of them was the young Lt. Dieter Schmidt-Barbo, who in September 1941 – at the age of 22 – was posted to 8./NJG 1, which at that time was stationed at Twente in the Netherlands.
Like many other young and enthusiastic night fighter pilots, upon his arrival at the unit he eagerly started the hazardous frontline service. Soon he realized that the Himmelbett (“four-poster bed”) system, in use at that time with the Luftwaffe, favoured the most experienced crews, which were assigned “more profitable” patrol zones. The Himmelbett system based on zones or ‘boxes’, marked on maps. Each zone was patrolled by a single fighter, waiting in the dark for his prey. Obviously, RAF bombers followed the same approach routes to their targets, across a limited number of the Himmelbett zones. Those ‘hunting grounds’ were manned by the most experienced night fighter crews, whose scores continued to mount. Meanwhile, the ‘youngsters’ had to contend themselves with marginal ‘boxes’, where a stray enemy bomber could rarely be chanced upon.
Such was the fate of Lt. Dieter Schmidt-Barbo who did not tally a single victory during a year and a half of his night fighter frontline service. Hoverer, this was to change on 4th March 1943, when unexpectedly his Staffel was scrambled at day to counter the incoming formation of Fortresses. Schmidt-Barbo recalled:
“At 1030 hrs I was still in bed when Werner Rapp (who on that day served as our liaison officer at the day fighter force HQ) called me with the following order: the Staffel at combat readiness!
I passed the news to Gustel Geiger, who responded: What a nonsense! We won’t even catch up with them, as usually.
– Whatever, you’ve got to get off the bed anyway!
Our commander, Hptm. Lütje, did not show up yet, so I called up Werner asking, if he had talked to him already. Werner was very excited: Yes, yes, I just talked to him. He didn’t turn up yet? The Americans will be over the airfield any minute now. Twenty bombers! I’ll get back to you later!
So, off we go! I rode my motorbike to our aircraft. On the way I met Hptm. Lütje, who was completing crews for the mission. He himself slept in the command post quarters. Our aircraft was ready for action. The groundcrew bustled around it. I called Werner again from the operations room to ask if we were supposed to climb aboard our machines.
– Of course, for Christ’s sake, where on earth are you anyway? How much longer will you hang around? How many crews are ready?
– Good, get on now!
That day I was to fly the Bf 110G-4 “Kurfürst-Siegfried”. To my left, where the CO’s machine was parked, I heard the roar of the engines revved up. A moment I saw the signal “start the engines”. When I pressed the starters, one thought rumbled around in my head: Keep your fingers crossed and hope that malicious gnomes did not spoil anything! Both engines roared to life. The commander was already taxiing out in front of me. I quickly rolled in trail. Becker was still in the hangar and couldn’t see the remaining machines. Chaos reigned on the field. In front of us an aircraft from the 9. Staffel was taking off. Behind him, two machines from the 7. Staffel barred each other’s way. Another aircraft from the 9. Staffel showed up; clouds of dust billowed up, the situation seemed to slip out of control. At that moment the commander’s aircraft rushed forward. Should I follow him closely? I lingered for too long and by now all I could see ahead was swirling dirt, kicked up by the CO’s manoeuvring machine. I took the risk to move on and quickly teamed up with him in the air. Only two of us got airborne, Heinzelmann mucked about for to long on the ground and was to join us later.
We were slowly climbing up. Our headsets filled with loud static, which died away after a while, whereupon we heard a clear voice of a ground controller, directing us towards the enemy.
I did not pay much attention to the radio communication. After all, it was meant for our commander. Suddenly the CO rocked the wings of his machine and slowed down. Something must have happened! I looked around but didn’t see anything of interest. We kept the north-east course, gradually loosing speed. In the distance, The Zuider Zee bay already came into sight. Suddenly, a voice ran in my ears: This is Karin 1, confirmed. We have them in sight!
I asked Schönfeld: Is Karin the code of our flight?
– But I can’t see anything!
– Neither can I!
Finally I saw them, ahead and off to the right. They almost passed us by, flying at higher altitude. They were some 2000 metres above, a big, tight formation of four-engined bombers. A flight of three bombers at the outermost right side of their combat box1 distanced itself a little from the rest of formation. The bombers were pulling thick contrails. We were slowly closing in. Now I could clearly see the Boeings’ olive upper surfaces; one of them seemed damaged.
Finally our fighters turned up, one or two charged headlong and slashed through the bomber formation. The bombers tightened up their box even more. With Heinzelmann flying behind me, we levelled off at their altitude. There were 16 of them. Our fighters kept making passes at the bombers but failed to carry out a cohesive attack. On or two Me 110s hit from the rear, causing one of the Yankees to drop out of formation. Our ‘vic’ strenuously pressed on above the bombers, overtaking their formation.
– We’re attacking head-on!
– Roger, roger!
We were ready. I glanced at the Boeings. They were now slightly lower, to the right side. The leading bomber sprayed us with a hail of tracer rounds. I could clearly observe their tracks. The weather was very fine, windy but cloudless.
In the meantime we reached the Zuider Zee, to the west of Texel; it was half past eleven hours. Our commander orbited towards the enemy formation. I followed him and immediately found myself nose to nose with the Yankees. My reflexive gunsight was already on. Throttle to the firewall and let’s get them. In a split second a caught one of the bombers in my sights and pressed trigger. The guns responded with thundering noise, spewing gun powder cloud, which boiled around the cockpit. The burst went too high. Small correction. I clutched the trigger again. I had him.
Another loomed in sight. This time I was more precise with giving deflection. Again a deafening rumble of guns spitting fire. My burst tore into the bomber’s fuselage and wingroot. I flashed past him and left the enemy formation behind. What now? I saw another Me 110 ahead of me, which orbited towards the ground. I came in trail.
We came through this unscathed. I couldn’t see any bullet holes in our machine. Then I had a look around. One of the bombers was descending, apparently attempting to belly-land on the Texel island. Another bomber slammed into the water nearby. A column of black smoke, raising from the surface of the sea, marked the spot of its crash.
The engaged bombers belonged to 91st Bomb Group, led by Maj. Paul Fishburne. Hptm. Lütje reported one B-17 shot down at 1131 hrs, moments later four Bf 110s finished off another Fortress. Their victims were B-17F, s/n 42-5370 (flown by Lt. Henderson) and B-17F, s/n 41-24512 “Rose O’Day” (flown by Lt. Felton).
The Eastern Front
Well before dawn of Sunday 22 June
1941, the Luftwaffe’s camouflaged
forward airstrips along the border with the Soviet Union erupted in an unusual flurry of activity. The air filled with the rumble of engines warming up. Last-minute orders and instructions were passed around. The first wave of 868 aircraft was being readied for combat, which was about to open a new front of 1500 kilometres. Some 150 bombers – Do 17s of KG 2, Ju 88s of KG 3 and He 111s of KG 53 – were already airborne and heading east, so that they could reach their assigned targets at three o’clock sharp. One is tempted to say: the proverbial German precision.
Theodor Rossiwall, Staffelkapitän 5./ZG 26, who was in the spearhead of the Luftwaffe’s pre-emptive strike, recalled:
“Here in the east the sun rises damned early – so take-off had been ordered for 0250 hrs. The groundcrew had to be at the aircraft at 0030 hrs. At exactly 3 o’clock the battle on the ground started. For the Staffel, clawing for height above the airfield, it was a fantastic sight. In the quiet and the dark of the morning suddenly fire spouted from thousands and thousands of barrels of every calibre, creating a glowing snake below us on the awakening countryside. On the other side of the border one could see the points of impact. A hurricane burst loose on the Bolshevik troops standing at the ready…”.
In the autumn of 1940 the determined resistance of the Royal Air Force fighters over the southern England the English Channel mercilessly demonstrated the weaknesses of the contemporary Luftwaffe. The single-engined Bf 109Es operated at their maximum range. Their pilots, upon reaching London, were forced to keep an eye on the hostile skies around them and the ever dropping pointers of fuel gauges. The Ju 87 Stuka, the “star” of German Blitzkrieg, was hastily withdrawn from the cross-Channel operations. Without the air dominance of the German Jäger, this slow, tactical support bomber was for British Hurricanes and Spitfires as much a challenge as a towed target sleeve. However, no other Luftwaffe units suffered such crushing humiliation during the Battle of Britain as the Zerstörergeschwadern. The twin-engined Messerschmitts 110, lacking the manoeuvrability of a ‘thoroughbred’ fighter, failed miserably in “paving the way” through British air defences for the German raiders. Soon, they were chased into defensive Lufbery circles or themselves sought protection of Bf 109s. Hence, it seemed that the days of the Reichsmarschall Göring’s favourites were all but numbered.
Fortunately for the Germans, soon after the outbreak of the war with the Soviet Union it became obvious that in this far end of Europe the time seemed to stand still. The Luftwaffe faced a fleet of bi-planes, many of which were still equipped with fixed undercarriage. In popular Ishaks the landing gear had to be manually cranked up. In early MiGs pilots preferred to fly with canopies slid back since these were hardly transparent and once shut, they notoriously jammed. The first LaGG fighters were duly dubbed “Varnished Guaranteed Coffins”. Radio sets, if at all, were mounted in commanders’ aircraft; the remaining pilots had to communicate with one another by hand signals or waggling wings. Soviet pilots’ training was at a disastrously low level, tactics suicidal, commanding poor, the combat experience – practically none. Lessons were not learned after ignominious defeats during the “winter war” (1939-1940) with Finland. Of those who gained invaluable experience in the air against Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War, many – on Stalin orders – were sent to Gulag camps in Siberia or executed. 75 percent of the Soviet first-line aircraft were antiquated I-15s, I-152s, I-153s (bi-planes) and I-16s. In combat with such an air force the Messerschmitt Bf 110 could once again prove its worth, as in times German invasions on Poland, Norway or France.
In his strategic plans Stalin apparently did not foresee Germans’ quick victory in the West; he underestimated Hitler. When he finally realized that it was Russia’s turn to face Wehrmacht, he played for time. To Germany he kept sending trainloads of grain, oil, iron ore and other strategic materiel – he was buying time, desperately needed to rebuild the might of the soviet army, at that time far behind modern standards and demoralized by recent purges.
So as not to provoke their “ally”, numerous warnings of the impending war with Germany were being ignored, negated or hushed up. The Red Army was helplessly waiting for the first blow, which almost brought it to its knees. The VVS4 pilots anxiously watched intruders, which trespassed the border with impunity on reconnaissance missions. Russian aircraft were still stuck on airfields well known to the enemy, neatly lined up in long rows – the way visiting generals liked it. Camouflaging was not ordered.
To make the matters worse, the German attack fell upon the Red Air Force in a most unfortunate moment. When it became obvious that war was only a question of time, Russians began a hasty modernisation of their air force. In result, most airfields were literally crammed with aircraft of all types. What happened next, astounded even the Germans.
The priority task for the Luftwaffe in the first days of the war in the East was „grounding” the enemy air force, the tactics perfected during the Wehrmacht’s earlier campaigns. Due to the magnitude of the task (German intelligence reported that Russians could likely have as many as 15,000 combat aircraft at hand, including 9000 in the western part of the country), almost every armed aircraft in the Luftwaffe’s inventory was thrown into the battle. One of the very first aerial attacks, by Bf 110s of 6./ZG 26 led by Hptm. Johannes Freiherr von Richthofen (a cousin of the famed “Red Baron”), was in fact carried out a few minutes before the scheduled time. The 6./ZG 26’s Messerschmitts hit the 15 IAP/8 SAD airbase in the Lithuanian Alytus, located half-way between Vilnius and the border with Eastern Prussia, one of the 66 Red Air Force airfields knocked out during the day. By the end of the day the Luftwaffe claimed 2000 VVS aircraft destroyed in the air and on the ground, by the end of the week – 4000. Had the Russia been the size of France, the war in the East would have practically been over.
Initially the defence was somewhat chaotic, but at times extremely determined. From the very beginning of the war in the East Soviet pilots commonly practiced an unsophisticated tactics of tarans (aerial ramming), usually destroying the tail control surfaces of an enemy aircraft with propeller. In the course of 1941 quite a few Bf 110s were “shot down” in this way. Already on the first day of the war Mladshiy Leytenant (2/Lt.) D. Kokorev of 124 IAP claimed successful ramming of an unknown Bf 110. Also on 4th July a machine of ZG 26 was likewise brought down by Mladshiy Leytenant (2/Lt.) Aleksandr Lukyanov of 159 IAP/2 SAD, while flying a MiG-3 during a Zerstörern raid on an airbase near Dno. Although such tactics seriously endangered, and in fact quite often ended the attacking pilot’s life, Soviet pilots performed several hundred tarans throughout the war.
In the summer and autumn of 1941 German armies advanced east, along the entire front, almost unchecked. The Soviet air force, decimated in the first week of the war, gave away the skies over the pathless tracts of Russian steppes in possession of the Luftwaffe. The German superiority in the air was established and held by fighter outfits equipped with the Friedrichs, the latest Messerschmitt 109 versions to enter combat, which practically had no match in this part of the world. Meanwhile on the ground, the fast retreating Red Army was trailed by disorganized, commandless masses of troops, jammed transport columns, units desperately trying to obey contradictory orders – an ideal target for a ground-attack aircraft. Bf 110 was fitted with a battery of four machine guns and two 20mm cannons, tightly packed in the aircraft’s nose – a powerful onboard weaponry at that time. When subsequent versions were equipped with more potent engines, Bf 110 could also considerably increase its bombload. It all meant a “second youth” for the Zerstörern.
At the time when the „Barbarossa” operation – the German invasion of the Soviet Union – was launched, Messerschmitts 110 equipped, besides recon units, only two Geschwadern, each with two Gruppen on strength. By the end of 1941 the war-weary Bf 110s were to phase out in favour of its successor – the Me 210. However, when the first Me 210s started to roll off the assembly lines, the latest design by Willy Messerschmitt – the man, whose genius was unquestioned in the Third Reich – was found to be nothing short of a disaster. Thus, the Zerstörer units heavily engaged in the east and suffering obvious combat losses, were deprived of replacement machines! When the Luftwaffe fought in the Battle of Britain, it could field 444 Bf 110s (as on 10th August 1940); by the 13th December 1941 there were only 28 airworthy machines around. While in February 1941 German factories churned out 123 Bf 110s, the production dropped down to one aircraft in December 1941. In January 1942 not a single Bf 110 was produced in Germany! Finally, in March 1942, 42 Bf 110s were delivered to frontline units.
The initial staggering losses inflicted upon the Red Army surpassed the most optimistic scenarios by the German strategists; the numbers of destroyed ordnance fascinated, bewildered, and finally frightened. This enormous country seemed to have limitless stocks of aircraft, lorries, locomotives and other equipment. In the period between 22 June and 27 September only one unit (in practice, some 50 serviceable BF 110C/E in two Gruppen) Zerstörergeschwader 26 “Horst Wessel”, accounted for 96 enemy aircraft shot down, with further 741 destroyed on the ground, 166 artillery pieces, 3280 vehicles, 49 trains, one armoured train, 68 locomotives and four bridges.
However, the stiffening Russian resistance, fuelled up by more and more reinforcements brought forward by Russians from the country’s interior, began to wear down the German troops, accustomed to quick victories, as well as to the war fought on their own terms.
One of the Bf 110 pilots, which participated in this campaign, recalled the specific conditions of the battles fought at that time in the following words:
“The Russians won the battle without it even taking place. They brought the war down to ground level. They didn’t like the altitude – anything over 3000 metres they simply ignored. That, in turn, didn’t suit us. It was only from 5000 (metres) upwards that our machines were able to show what they could really do. But he so-and-so’s wouldn’t play. They buzzed around in the lower regions attacking our ground troops, and didn’t give a damn what was happening above them. This was all very well for our Kampfgruppen, who were going about their business completely undisturbed. But the infantry were sending up howls of protest and asking for help.
Some bright spark back in Berlin had ‘discovered’ that the best way to tackle a Il-2 was from Below. But how do you get underneath a machine that’s flying ten metres above the ground? We couldn’t dive on them either, for then we were simply shooting up our own troops below them. And from the sides the damn things seemed to be armoured like tortoises!”.
Stab, I. and II./ZG 26, subordinated to Fliegerkorps VII (Luftflotte 2), started their war in the East from Suwalki airbase (III. Gruppe was at that time posted to the Mediterranean region). In mid-July the Geschwader operated in the area of Vilnius, reaching Pskov (Pleskau) in August, and Smolensk by the end of September (the II. Gruppe moved in mid-September to Pärnu in Estonia, on the Gulf of Riga). The post of Kommodore was in this period (from November 1940 until September 1941) by Obst. Johann Schalk. His two Kommandeure were Hptm. Herbert Kaminski (replaced by the end of 1941 by 1941, Hptm. Wilhelm Spies) of I./ZG 26, and Hptm. Ralph von Rettberg, CO of II./ZG 26. Soon after the start of the campaign in the East, I. and II./ZG 26 were transferred from the central zone up north, to spearhead the advance of the field marshal von Leeb’s Army Group “North”, through the Baltic States towards Leningrad.
The 5./ZG 26’s diary clearly demonstrates the changing pace of the German drive east. On 1st June 1941 the Staffel was still stationed at Argos, in the Peloponnesus, Greece, escorting Ju 52 transports bound for Crete. On 22nd June, the opening day of “Barbarossa”, the unit carried out four Tiefangriff (low level mission) and Bombenwurf (bombing mission) against, among others, airfields at Alytus, in the south of Lithuania, and Lida airbase in Byelorussia.
The following day the Staffel flew another four missions: Tiefangriff and Bombenwurf against enemy mechanised columns and trains, as well as Kampfverband begleitet (bomber escort) in the Vilnius area. Between 24th and 29th June the 5./ZG 26’s machines attacked targets around Minsk, mostly columns of lorries.
During the first week of July the Staffel set up shop in Vilnius, from where it often flew out twice a day. On 1st July it was twice Tiefangriff in the vicinity of Dünaburg; on 2nd and 3rd Bewaffnete Aufklärung (armed reconaissance) and Bombenwurf at Borrisow, on 5th and 6th Freie Jagd near Polozk, in the northern Byelorussia. For the next week the Staffel moved forward to the airfield at Sloboda, Byelorussia. From here the ‘destroyers’ had already in reach the targets in Russia proper – Nevel, Velikiye Luki, Smolensk. Day after day Bf 110s pounded ground targets; on 9th July the unit’s Messerschmitts flew Jagdschutz (interception mission) around Polozk-Czina. On 13th the Staffel flew as many as seven Freie Jagd (fighter sweeps) over Smolensk and Vitebsk area, the following two days it was tasked with a series of Bewaffnete Aufklärung and Tiefangriff.
From 16th July 5./ZG 26 stationed in Pskov in Russia, just east of the border with Latvia and Estonia. From there the unit had within its operational range the city of Leningrad, as well as Staraya Russa or Dorpat (Tartu) in Estonia (west of the Lake Peipus). Three, four missions per day, almost exclusively Abwehrschlachten (ground-attack missions). The pace of advance clearly slackened. Between 30th July and 20th August the Staffel moved to Sarodinye, some 100 km east of Lake Peipus. It’s hard to find this place on any map. As one of the pilots recalled later, “there was no town nearby, not even a village, just a spot in the middle of a forest. But it wasn’t a bad airfield. In fact, it wasn’t an airfield at all – just a lot of firebreaks cut among the trees. Each Rotte had its own runway, pointing in all directions. In the middle of it all a small clearing, surrounded by tall trees, where we set up our tents”.
More VVS bases are ‘worked over’ by the 5./ZG 26’s machines: Sivierskaya, Krasnogvardeisk, Jadrovo, Sipovo. The morning mission on 13th August is Infanterieschutz (own infantry protection). More Freie Jagd are ‘on the board’, on 14th and 15th over Kingisepp, and on 18th and 19th in the area of Leningrad. Besides, almost invariably, low level strafing and bombing. Finally on 23rd August 1931 the exhausted 5./ZG 26 was ordered back to Germany for rest and recuperation.
The remaining Staffeln were equally busy during the first months of the German campaign in the east. On 28th July, during the assault of the German Sixteenth Army against the railway junction at Velikiye Luki, Russian antiaircraft batteries claimed the life of Hptm. Richthofen, Staffelkapitän 6./ZG 26, whose aircraft crashed into woods, causing a massive forest fire.
Meanwhile, the Red Air Force tried to recuperate from the initial shock and re-group behind ever changing defence lines. Whenever the local Wehrmacht headquarters started to complain about the increased activity of VVS aircraft, Bf 110s of ZG 26 were unleashed to wreak havoc at enemy airfields. On 2nd August the twin-engined Messerschmitts “paid a visit” at the airbase in Tallinn, destroying 40 aircraft on the ground. Some Russian pilots, like many before them, occasionally made a fatal mistake – engage a Bf 110 head-on. During one of the Zerstörer raids on VVS bases, Leytenant (Lt.) Vasiliy Golubev, the Soviet naval fighter ace from 13 OIAE/KBF, scrambled to intercept the incoming formation of twin-engined machines, which he thought to be Ju 88s. With no time to manoeuvre into a better firing position, he charged forward, hoping to break the enemy attack. However, the “Junkers” formation pressed on firmly, and when Golubev came in range, he was greeted with a thunderous hail of fire from 20 mm guns. Fortunately for the Soviet ace, the runway he had taken off from was right below him, and from behind he was guarded by his faithful wingman, Leytenant (Lt.) Dmitriy Knyazev. When one of the Bf 110s veered around to finish off Golubev, who was struggling to belly-in his stricken machine, Knyazew got the German off his tail and, after a wild chase, shot down the Messerschmitt in the vicinity of Narva.
On 19th August ZG 26 again set upon airfields of the Baltic Fleet naval air force. This time the target was the 5 IAP/KBF base at Nizino, to the south-west of Leningrad. Oblt. Johannes Kiel of I./ZG 26 recounted this mission:
We started diving from an altitude of 3,000 metres, right into the antiaircraft fire. AAA bursts appear to the left, to the right, and between our aircraft. And still we continue toward our target. Battle excitement has caught us. Each of us concentrates only on the target. We approach the airfield rapidly. Each pilot has singled out his target… The ground comes rushing forward us, as if it is going to consume us. Five hundred, three hundred, one hundred metres. Our guns start hammering. The Zerstörergruppe comes sweeping down over the airfield, only a few metres above the ground. Here and there we can see enemy aircraft burst into flames, and then we climb again. A wild circus is commenced. The formation is split as each pilot seeks his target. The aircraft dive upon their victims from all directions…
‘Achtung! Fighters from the left!’ The enemy fighters have arrived already! Everything is on fire on the airfield beneath us. Heavy explosions are sounding and there is thick smoke in the air. We dive into the smoke over and over again, and discover more hidden aircraft. As in a dream, I can see one of our own aircraft disengage with a thick trail of smoke – hit by antiaircraft fire. The damaged plane is turning away to the west. It starts losing altitude, goes deeper and deeper. There. It hits the ground”.
By the end of August the Wehrmacht arrived at the gates of Leningrad. Just like Moscow or Stalingrad, the city named after the father of the revolution and the cradle of the Bolshevism was fiercely defended against the Luftwaffe raids. For the Zerstörer crews it meant a bitter repetition of the previous autumn:
“It was just like London and the south of England all over again. The flak around Leningrad was horrendous. We could understand now why the anti-aircraft defences of the many airfields we had encountered en route had been practically non-existent. Enemy fighters began to appear as well – something we hadn’t experienced since leaving White Russia. Here, there were whole bunches of them, often flying at an altitude of 6000-7000 metres. But they weren’t particularly dangerous. We could easily outmanoeuvre them. They occasionally tried to attack us, but clumsily and without skill. Our fighters (Bf 109s of JG 54) usually made short work of them”.