Saturday, 31 January 2015

Nightfighters in the East: new units


During the spring and summer of 1942, the increasing number of Soviet night raids had found an effective response from the fighters of JG 54. However, the Geschwader was soon called to switch priorities and support the ground forces in the second summer offensive on the Eastern front

Enemy raids however did not stop: Red Air Force bombers continued to harass German lines of communication at night, as well as dropping thousands of partisans in occupied areas. To find a solution to these problems, Wolfgang Falck was sent on an inspection tour in Russia in the summer of 1942. At the conclusion of its tour, he recommended the use of local Luftwaffe resources to mount night fighter patrols along the front.

Falck considered impossible the transfer of any of the existing Nachtjagd units to the East. Bomber Command operations over Germany were in fact escalating and all nightfighter squadrons were hard pressed countering the British bombers. Therefore, he advised making good use of those bomber, zerstorer and reconnaissance pilots who were proficient in blind flying to face the night raids.
The concept was quickly accepted by senior Luftwaffe leaders, and those pilots selected for the role were sent to Wiener-Neustadt to receive further specialised training.

Operations officially commenced in October 1942, but soon the events on the ground dictated a rapid switch in priorities. The Sixth Army was completely surrounded by the end of November, and the newly trained nightfighter units had to divert their duties flying ground attack missions around the Stalingrad pocket, until the Sixth Army surrendered on 5 February 1943.

After a brief respite to recover from the heavy losses sustained, the Nachtjager pilots started exacting a steady toll of Soviet bombers. First to score was Josef Kociok of 10(N)./ZG 1, who claimed two bombers on the night of 12/13 March. Kociok's victories were followed by another future ace's kill: in the night of 15-16 March, Oblt Gunter Bertram scored his first victory.
Leutnant Josef Kociok, KIA 26 September 1943

Posted at NJS (Nacthjagdschule) of Luftflotte 6, Bertram was an experienced pilot, most probably an instructor with the unit, although no sources are available to confirm it. Bertram quickly established himself as a successful hunter, reaching 12 kills in June, less than three months after his first claim.

In the meantime, IV./NJG 5, under the command Hptm Prinz zu Sayn Wittgentstein, moved to the Eastern Front in February. Already an Experte with 22 victories, Wittgenstein quickly found ideal conditions in the east, where there was no electronic/radio jamming and Soviet bombers were less perfomant then their RAF counterparts. The young aristocrat scored two "doubles" on 16-17 and 22-23 April, followed a fifth success on 2-3 May.
The Gruppe was unexpectedly recalled to the Western front for less than two months and then again sent to the East in July, for the forthcoming operations in the Kursk salient.
Once again, Wittgenstein led its unit by example, achieving multiple kills on many sorties, with the exploit of 20-21 July when seven bombers fell under his guns. On 9 August 1943, a DB-3 marked his 60th victory. Wittgenstein was called back to Germany and IV./NJG 5 redesignated I./NJG 100, thus becoming permanently assigned to the Eastern Front.

The other two already mentioned Experten, Kociok and Bertram continued scoring steadily against the Red Air Force, and were occasionally joined my more pilots. Oblt Landau of 10./NJG 5 scored a treble on 16-17 July, while Hptm Lechner added three victories to its Western account reaching 14 on 29-30 July.

The success of these pilots and units did not prevent, however, the Red Army from halting the Wermacht attack at Kursk, thus marking an end to any German offensive operation on the Eastern Front. From that moment until the end of the war, the Luftwaffe and the Wermacht were forced to operate defensively, having lost any strategic edge against the enemy.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Nightfighters in the East: the Beginning

On 21 June 1941, the Wermacht launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. The bulk of the Luftwaffe was committed to the invasion and achieved spectacular successes in the first days of the attack, destroying thousands of Soviet aircraft in the air and on the ground.  The tasks assigned to fighter, bomber and ground attack units were essentially tactics: destruction of enemy airfield, lines of communication, supply depots and enemy strongholds. Barbarossa can be considered as the ultimate Blitzkrieg, with the aviation acting as flying artillery for ground forces.

The Luftwaffe had therefore conceived its plans from a tactical point of view: for this reason, no night fighting units had been sent to the Eastern Front, since the threat of night bombing was not considered effective as it was on the Western Front. The Soviet Air Force, however, began almost immediately to mount night operations against the advancing Germans and even attacked Berlin. If the Luftwaffe air superiority was almost undisputed by day, there was not any organized form of night air defense to counter Russian raids.

Luftwaffe units had to improvise, utilizing at the best the longer daylight hours of the summer, flying patrols at sunrise and sunset on known targets. The first kill came on the night of 25-26, when Ogfr Josef Kociok shot down an SB-2. Although it would have taken him long to score more kills after his first victory, he was to become one of the most successful night fighter pilots on the Eastern Front.
Bf 109 G-2 of 9./JG 54 at Krasnogvardeisk in 1942

The second victory was scored on 20-21 October 1941, when an Il-4 was destroyed by Lt Rudolf Altendorf over Berlin. After Altendorf’s victory, the long and harsh Russian winter prevented fighter units from scoring any other night kills. The Luftwaffe was in fact caught totally unprepared for severe cold weather operations: its units struggled for the whole winter period to keep decent serviceability rates by day, with night sorties becoming almost impossible. The following summer, however, a few pilots from JG 54 were to achieve great success against Russian night intruders.

By the summer of 1942, JG 54 was the highest scoring unit of the Jagdwaffe. Operating in the northern sector, the Geschwader experienced ever increasing enemy activity at night. To counter such raids, pilot from III. Gruppe decided to take advantage of the longer summer daylight conditions, mounting patrols at dusk and noon. They were soon rewarded with significant results. On  the night between 7-8 June, 1942, two pilots from 8./JG 54 shot down 6 enemy aircraft: Oblt Gunther Fink destroyed four R-5 bombers, while Lt Hans-Joachim Heyer took other two of the same type.
Hptm Gunther Fink (1918-1943)
The same two pilots scored five more victories on the night of 10-11 June, four aircraft for Fink and one for Heyer. Again on the following night, 11-12 June, they scored one kill each, and they were joined by Hptm Reinhard Seiler who scored twice and Oblt Werner Feise with one. Their victims were SB-2s and R-5s.
III./ JG 54 continued to its exploits over the following night: on 14-15 June Reinhard Seiler destroyed two R-5, Gunther Fink one PS-84 (Li-2), while Erwin Leykauf and Waldemar Wubke got one R-5 each. The following night Seiler scored four more kills against Soviet intruders, and Heyer scored two on the night of 17-18 June.
Oltb Erwin Leykauf

After a few days of apparent calm, night sorties flared up again and the Gruppe had a field night on 22-23 June, destroying 8 enemy aircraft. Two of them were shot down by Reinhard Seiler, and six by Erwin Leykauf. One solitary kill was scored by Oblt Gunther Fink on 24-25 June, followed by six victories on 25-26 June: three of them for Seiler and one each for Leykauf, Werner Feise and Wolfgang Kretschmer, the latter achieving his first victory.

Reinhard Seiler’s last night kills were achieved with a double on the night of 27-28 June. After that date, JG 54 priorities shifted drastically. The entire geschwader was infact heavily committed on daylight operations, supporting the Wermacht for the 1942 summer offensive. Despite that, two pilots managed to achieve their first night kills. Hptm Karl Sattig destroyed to U-2 on the night of 5 July, and Hptm Joachim Wandel shot down seven enemy aircraft on 7-8 July, a single one on 8-9 July, two more on 19-20 July, ending its night exploits with three U-2s shot down on the night of 2-3 August 1942.