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.

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