Color profiles: Janusz Światłoń, captions: Mariusz Łukasik.
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The air war over Africa broke out as soon as the Italians declared war on the Great Britain and France, on 10th June 1940. The following day British Blenheims raided an Italian airfield at El Adem. Throughout the latter part of 1940 the Regia Aeronautica and the RAF traded blows with varied intensity and results. On 30th January 1941
a new adversary arrived in Africa – Messerschmitt Bf 110s of III./ZG 26 under Maj. Karl Kaschka, the vanguard of the German Luftwaffe. During the spring offensive of the newly constituted Afrikakorps, III./ZG 26 was practically the only fighter unit (besides the Italians) available to Gen. Rommel. As the desert war flared up, both rival sides rushed in reinforcements. On 18th April 1./JG 27, equipped with Messerschmitt Bf 109s of the E-7 trop variant and led by Oblt. Karl-Heinz Redlich, set up shop at Ain el Gazala. Already the following day they made their presence felt by shooting down four Hurricanes, including two by the Staffelkapitän, an ace with 10 victories to his name. Soon the 1. Staffel was joined by 2./JG 27 under Oblt. Gerlitz and Gruppenstab I./JG 27 (headed by Gruppenkommandeur Hptm. Neumann), and on 22nd April by 3./JG 27 led by Oblt. Hommuth. Hence, all component units of I./JG 27 were by then deployed in Africa.
Until September III./ZG 26 and I./JG 27 were the only Luftwaffe fighter outfits in that theatre of operations. Then, at the end of the month, Hptm. Lippert’s II./JG 27 was transferred to Libya, taking up station at Ain el Gazala. The II. Gruppe brought along the then latest Messerschmitt Bf 109 Fs, mostly of F-4 trop variant. The ‘Friedrich’ quickly dominated the African skies. It was not until nine months later, when the Spitfire Mk V was introduced to the theatre, that RAF attained qualitative parity with the German fighters. On 3rd October 1941 Uffz. Horst Reuter of 5./JG 27 scored the first Bf 109 F victory over Africa, shooting down a Hurricane of No 33 Sqn RAF flown by Sgt. Lowry. In early December 1941 also I./JG 27 converted to Bf 109 Fs. The Germans were steadily building up their fighter forces in the theatre, bringing in III/JG 53 ‘Pik As’ under Hptm. Wilcke, III./JG 27 (Hptm. Braune) and Stab JG 27 (Maj. Woldenga). Along came another Experte, Oblt. Erbo Graf von Kageneck credited with 65 victories. Here in Africa he was to find his inglorious death. After tallying two more victories (on 12th December), on Christmas Eve he was critically injured in combat with RAF fighters, and died of his wounds in hospital in early 1942.
At the turn of the year the air war in the Western Desert went on unabated. In early 1942 the German top-scorers were Lt. Marseille and Oblt. Homuth, with Ofw. Schultz close behind them. All three of them had already passed the 40-victory mark, for which Marseille an Schultz were awarded the Knight’s Cross on 22nd February 1942. A month later to the day there was another opportunity to celebrate, for
Lt. Korner tallied the 1,000th victory for Jagdgeschwader 27. During spring 1942 Oblt. Hans-Joachim Marseille outscored all his rivals, recording numerous multiple ‘kills’. On 17th June he reached the 100-victory mark. Targets were plenty, as the intensity of the air battles fought in that period over the deserts began to resemble the Battle of Britain, only on a smaller scale.
July 1942 was a period of rest and recuperation for both fighting sides, but this mostly referred to ground troops. In late August 1942 the Afrikakorps mounted yet another offensive, and the pace of air operations again quickened. Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe brought in III./ZG 1 equipped with Bf 109 E-7s, as well as 8. and 10./ZG 26 operating Bf 110s. Of the 109 units, I./JG 77, III./JG 77 and later II./JG 77 also saw service in Africa, whilst III./JG 53 and (partially) JG 27 were rotated back. With time the Luftwaffe introduced Bf 109 G-2s, Fw 190 A fighter-bombers, Me 210s and new variants of the Bf 110 to the North African theatre.
Camouflage and Painting schemes
In general, the air war over Africa, especially the initial phase, was for the Luftwaffe the time of experiments with new camouflages to suit a completely different terrain. The first German aircraft to see service on that continent carried European RLM 02/71/65 set of colours. The only new element was a white (RLM 21) band around rear fuselage, a theatre marking of Axis air forces. The band’s width and its exact location were the subject of slight modifications. The aircraft retained their earlier colour markings: yellow (RLM 04) engine cowlings and rudders. Propeller spinners traditionally carried Staffel-assigned colours, although only in same cases were entire spinners overpainted. Individual variations are so frequent that a careful analysis of available photos is required in each case.
In August 1941 the RLM introduced new shades for tropical camouflage – RLM 79 Sandgelb and RLM 80 Olivgrün for upper surfaces, and RLM 78
for undersides. New painting schemes were being applied at factories, hence they appeared in the African front only after the first batch of new aircraft had been delivered. Meanwhile, older aircraft were repainted with new paints in the field, at times in a somewhat creative manner, which resulted in a great variety of patterns. Allegedly aircraft of 1./JG 27, whilst staging through Sicily on their way to Libya, were camouflaged with Italian paints: light sandy Nocciola Chiaro 4 and green Verde Oliva Scuro 2.
The Bf 109 E-7s repainted by field workshops were camouflaged with RLM 79 on the upper surfaces, supplemented by irregular spots of RLM 80. In some cases only RLM 79 was used. Also the exact location of colour demarcation line was different in various machines. Frequent side effects of repainting aircraft were disappearance of factory-applied stencil markings and national insignia of non-standard proportions. Painting rules were more clearly identified in case of later Bf 109 Fs, which usually featured RLM 79 on upper surfaces, and RLM 78 on undersides. The location of the division line between the colours also differed slightly. The Bf 109 Fs adopted, as standard, white spinners, front cowlings, and wingtips; earlier-style yellow cowlngs and rudders became relatively rare. Bf 110s initially carried European camouflage; later they were repainted in RLM 79/RLM 78 set, with low colour demarcation line. Sporadically their camouflage was supplemented with squiggles in RLM 80. The only theatre marking used was white (RLM 21) fuselage band.
Tactical markings in form of letter and digit codes were painted on fuselages, and in some cases also on wings. As for individual markings, unit emblems and victory bars (Abschussbalken), the latter usually found on rudders, were popular. The night camouflage used by
1./NJG 3, which in summer 1941 was stationed in Benghazi, is a case apart. All surfaces were painted in black (RLM 22), with only partially visible white fuselage band used for recognition.
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