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.

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