Having seen action on all fronts of World War 2, JG 52 would go on to become the most successful fighter unit of all times boasting well over 10 000 air-to-air kills. Among its members were over seventy Knight’s Cross recipients and the three highest scoring aces of the Luftwaffe: Erich Hartmann, Gerhard Barkhorn and Günther Rall.
The unit’s early days: November 1, 1938 – September 1, 1939
November 1, 1938 saw the establishment of I./JG 433 at Ingolstadt-Manching under the command of Hptm. Dietrich Graf von Pfeilund Klein-Ellguth. The new unit was initially equipped with Messerschmitt Bf 109 D-1 fighters, but in March 1939 it took delivery of its first E-1 models. On April 20, 1939 I./JG 433 moved to Böblingen where it was re-designated I./JG 52 on May 1, 1939. After an intensive work-up period the unit deployed to Bonn-Hangelar on August 29,1939 with a task of protecting Germany’s western borders during the imminent invasion of France.
Back at Böblingen airfield Stab/JG 52 was stood up on August 19, 1939 with Maj. Hubert Merhart von Bernegg as the CO.
On September 13, 1939 the existing 4., 5. and 6. Staffeln JG 52 were merged into
II./JG 52, whose first commander was Hptm. Hans-Günther von Kornatzki.
The last JG 52 Gruppe to be formed was III./JG 52 which was activated at Böblingen on March 1, 1939 under Hptm. Wolf-Heinrich von Houwald. The unit was equipped with Messerschmitt Bf 109 E-1 and E-3 fighters.
The Phony War: September 3, 1939 – May 9, 1940
On September 3, 1939 Great Britain and France declared war on the German Reich. Within hours of the formal war declaration the aircraft of I. and II./JG 52 launched combat patrols over the western border of Germany. In the late afternoon of September 8, 1939, while on patrol over the Rhine, Lt. Paul Eberhard Gutbrod from 6./JG 52 downed a French reconnaissance aircraft from GAO 553. The ill-fated Mureaux ANF 115 was the first kill of JG 52. The first victory for I./JG 52 was scored by Lt. Hans Berthel on October 6, 1939 when he shot down a LeO 451 near Wachendorf. On October 13, 1939 Lt. Kurt Kirchner from 1./JG 52 dispatched a British Blenheim bomber over Duisburg. By the end of the Phony War the pilots of JG 52 scored six air-to-air kills for a loss of one aircrew killed in action and one wounded.
The Western Campaign: May 5, 1940 – June 25, 1940
May 10, 1940 – the beginning of the invasion of France and the Low Countries – saw JG 52 stationed near Mannheim. Both Geschwaderstab and I. and II. Gruppen were directly subordinated to the V. Fliegerkorps, which was responsible for supporting the left flank of the advancing Armeegruppe A. III./JG 52 was tasked with protecting airspace over the German border. On May 14, 1940 the II./JG 52 crews engaged Allied bombers attacking Wehrmacht troops crossing the Meuse River and claimed no fewer than eleven enemy aircraft destroyed. May 18, 1939 was the day of the baptism of fire for the pilots of III./JG 52. The Luftwaffe fighters shot down four Curtiss Hawk H-75A aircraft, but two of the Messerschmitts suffered serious battle damage and had to make forced landings behind the German lines. It was during that engagement that the future ace, Lt. Günther Rall, scored his first aerial victory. By the end of the war Rall’s tally would stand at 275 air-to-air kills. The only kill claimed by the pilots of I./JG 52 in the French campaign was a Curtiss H-75A downed by Fw. Alfons Bacher from 3./JG 52 on May 26, 1940 near Chatilly. In total, the Geschwader pilots claimed 37 air-to-air kills during the fighting in the West in the spring of 1940.
Combat operations over England: June 26, 1940 – June 9, 1941
After the fall of France the only JG 52 aircraft patrolling the Channel were from the Geschwaderstab. It was not until July 22, 1940 that the aircrews and ground equipment of III./JG 52 arrived at Coquelles airfield. The Gruppe flew its first combat sortie from their new base on July 24, 1940 – a fighter sweep over Kent’s coast. The Germans were bounced by a formation of Spitfires and lost three pilots in quick succession: Gruppenkommandeur. Wolf-Heinrich von Houwald, Staffelkapitän 7./JG 52 Oblt. Herbert Fermer and Gefr. Erich Frank from 7./JG 52. In another sortie launched later that day the CO of 8./JG 52, Oblt. Lothar Ehrlich was shot down and later listed as MIA. The only victory on that day was claimed by Uffz. Josef Zwernemann from 7./JG 52, who would later become an ace with 126 kills to his credit. The Gruppe did not fare much better on the following day, July 25: the unit lost four more pilots to enemy action, including two flight commanders, and claimed only a single air-to-air kill. The pilots from III./JG 52 flew their final sortie over England on July 29,1940 and this time managed to down two RAF fighters without own losses. Having suffered serious losses among its senior commanders, the unit was withdrawn to Leeuwarden on July 7, 1940 and then transferred to Zerbst in Germany.