Messerschmitt Bf 110 vol. III


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.

 

Maj. Erich Groth (in the middle), the recipient of the Knight’s Cross, which was awarded to him on 1st October 1940 for 13 aerial victories, posing in front of his Bf 110E-1, WNr 6863, M8+KC, of Stab II./ZG 76, Pori airfield, Finland, 8th August 1941. [Kagero's Archive]


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!”.

 

 Messerschmitts Bf 110E-2 of SKG 210 sweeping over a snow-covered steppe; in the foreground the aircraft coded S9+EP.[Kagero's Archive]