Friday, 19 December 2014

Fernachtjager - Long range night aces of the Luftwaffe

In the late summer of 1940, when the bulk of the Luftwaffe was engaged in the fierce battles over Britain, the newly formed Nachtjagd was experiencing frustrating times against Bomber Command's night raids over Germany. Radar technology was still in its embryonic phase, thus intercepting bombers at night was an extremely difficult task and results were disappointing.

To address the problem, it was decided to send night fighters in offensive sorties over Britain. The unit chosen for the task was the Zerstorer Staffel of KG 30, equipped with Junkers Ju 88C long range fighters. The staffel was redesignated I./NJG 2 and moved to Gilze-Rijen in the Netherlands.

It had been originally planned to attack the enemy bombers as they took off from their bases and along their approaching routes over the North Sea. However, no radars had enough range yet to monitor the British mainland, and the fighters did not have any airborne radar sets, thus rendering interception over the North Sea impossible.

The only viable method was to infiltrate the bomber stream on its way back to England, attacking bombers when they where flying with their navigation lights on their landing approach.

The first victory came on the night of 20-21 October, when Hptm Karl Hulschoff destroyed a Hereford near Dishforth (the Hereford was the Napier Dagger-powered version of the Handley Page Hampden).
A few nights later, 24-25th, Lt Kurt Hermann scored two kills against Blenheims and Lt Hans Hahn a third one against a Wellington. A further kill came before the end of the month, when Lt Heinz Volker destroyed a Hampden over the Lincolshire coast.

The month of November and December saw the Gruppe scoring other kills over England. Hahn and Herman increased their tallies and started gaining a reputation as long range intruders, together with Heinz Struning who scored his first victory on 23-24 November; he was to become one of the leading night fighter pilots of the Luftwaffe.
Hans Hahn

The new year started with four victories in the first four days, scored by Lt Rudolf Stradner, Uffz Helmut Arnold, Hans Hahn and Lt Gerhard Bohme respectively. Bad weather prevented the units from achieving more success, and the only two other kills were scored by Oblt Albert Schultz on the night of 15-16 January.

The following month started the beginning of six months of greater success for I./NJG 2. Twelve kills were scored in the month of February alone, with leading aces such as Hermann and Struning increasing their scores, while Oblt Paul Semrau opened its account.
The night of 10-11 February was particularly successful, when seven kills were scored against British bombers.
If March was a relatively quiet month with only 8 victories - two of them for Hans Hahn-, April was the month when the Fernacthjager became the nightmare of RAF defences. I./NJG 2 scored 25 victories and severely disrupted Bomber Command operations over Eastern England.
Hans Hahn increased its score to 8 kills, Heinz Volker to 7, and future ace Wilhelm Beier scored his first two kills.
The final exploit came on the night of 29-30 April, when Ofw. Hermann Sommer shot down three Blenheims and a Beaufort, plus five other aircraft on the ground.
Heinz Struning

In addition to their air-to-air kills, the Gruppe's Junkers Ju 88 were also attacking ground targets, dropping fragmentation bombs on enemy airfields and strafing parked aircraft. The amount of disruption was so severe that the RAF suspended all night training operations over Eastern England and the psychological effect on Bomber Command's was also very heavy.

From May to August 1941, I/NJG 2 scored steadily, achieving 13 victories in May, 21 in June , 19 in July and 15 in August.
Hans Hahn opened the streak downing a Stirling on 2-3 May and then shooting down a Fulmar and a Blenheim on the following nights.
Heinz Struning and Wilhelm Beier achieved acedom on 9-10 May and 3-4 June respectively. Another Fernachjager who rose to fame was Paul Semrau, who scored 4 four victories in May and June.

The months of July and August were to be final swan song for the Gruppe.

Wilhelm Beier scored multiple kills in  the nights of 5-6, 6-7, 17-18 July and 7-8 August, reaching 14 confirmed victories. Feldwebel Alfons Koster started achieving fame in July, reaching 5 kills on 14-15 July and increasing his tally to 11 within October.
Wilhelm Beier

Hans Hahn, the leading Fernachtjager ace, was awarded the Knight's Cross on 9 July as the first pilot to score 10 victories at night,  and went on shooting down two more enemy bombers, before finally meeting his fate on the night of 12-13 October. The German ace attacked an Airspeed Oxford on a training flight near Grantham, but the two aircraft collided and both crashed.

The death of Hahn marked the end of I./NJG 2's experience an night intruders over Britain, as in the following the days the Gruppe was withdrawn from Channel operations and sent to the Mediterranean theatre, supporting Afrika Korps operations in North Africa and against Malta.

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