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LUFTWAFFE GROUND ATTACK UNITS 1939-45
MEDITERRANEAN AND BALKAN OPERATIONS
In January 1941 the Stukas of I/St.G 1 and II/St.G 2, operating under Stab/St.G 3 with a total of 79 aircraft, arrived in Sicily to attack Allied convoys. Their first action took place on 10 January when a convoy from Alexandria was attacked and the carrier HMS Illustrious was severely damaged. A further attack was prevented by a shortage of suitable bombs but the next day twelve Ju87R-1s attacked and hit the crusisers HMS Gloucester and Southampton as they made their way back to Alexandria; Southampton was abandoned and sunk.
On 1 3 January, after reconnaissance aircraft had discovered HMS Illustrious in Valletta Harbour, Hptm. Hozzel's I/St.G 1 struggled into the air with special 2,200 lb bombs for the first in a series of determined attacks. Vicious anti-aircraft fire caused heavy losses, but the attacks continued for a week, during which, Hozzel recalls, 'We now lost our best crews. The leader of my 2 Staffel, a very hard chap, could not report to me for tears. He was the last of his Staffel; all his old chaps were lost'. The dive-bombers caused serious damage to the dockyard during these attacks, but although the carrier was hit repeatedly it eventually sailed via Alexandria to the USA for extensive repairs.
At about this time the Luftwaffe began its preparations for the invasion of the Balkans and by 5 April, Stab, I and III/St.G 2, I/St.G 3 and II (Schlacht)/LG 2 had assembled on Bulgarian airfields under VIII Fliegerkorps. Additional ground-attack forces were assembled in Austria under the Kommandeur of Stab./St.G 3 who controlled II/St.G 77 and a number of fighter Gruppen, while the Kommandeur of St.G 77, leading the Stab, I and III/St.G 77, also had a number of fighter and destroyer Gruppen under his command in Rumania for ground-attack duties.
On 6 April German and Italian forces attacked Yugoslavia. After completely destroying Prilep airfield, II (Schlacht)LG 2 attacked enemy columns and flew reconnaissance sorties in support of the attack on Skopje, crossing the border into Greece within two days. Heavy air attacks ensured German mastery of the air and St.G 77 heavily bombed Belgrade, while forces under Stab/St.G 3 attacked defences in the path of the German 2nd Army thrusting into Yugoslavia from Austria. By 14 April Yugoslavia had sued for peace. In Greece, Stukas from VIII Fliegerkorps harrassed retreating Allied troops and obliterated all resistance, while II (Schlacht)/LG 2 struck at positions near Servia. Although Gloster Gladiators destroyed a few of LG 2's Bf109s, the pace of the German advance eventually forced the RAF to withdraw to Crete, giving the Luftwaffe complete mastery in the air. Athens fell on 27 April and a parachute assault supported by VIII Fliegerkorps at Corinth allowed the Germans to fan out across the Peloponnese.
Already the Allies had begun to evacuate their troops to Crete, and once again the hard-worked II/LG 2 was in the spearhead of the attacks, bombing and strafing vessels in the Aegean Sea and Suda Bay. VIII Fliegerkorps then turned its attention to the invasion of Crete itself, Stukas and ground-attack fighters making heavy attacks on British defences. Fearful of a seaborne assault, the Allies sent a powerful force of warships to Crete and, in so doing, set the stage for one of the Stukas' most spectacular victories. Between 21 and 23 May the destroyers HMS Juno, Greyhound, Kashmir and Kelly were sunk, together with the cruiser HMS Gloucester. In an attempt to neutralise the Stukas' bases, a large force of warships set out from Alexandria but, as it sailed, it was spotted by patrolling aircraft of the Libyan-based II/St.G 2, During the attack which followed, the destroyer HMS Nubian was damaged and the carrier HMS Formidable so badly damaged that she had to be withdrawn from the area for repairs.
Ju87B-1s of the 10.Staffel of Hptm. von Brauchitsch's élite IV(Stuka)/LG 1 during the French campaign; the machine in the background is coded L1 + DU, the 'D' in the white of the first Staffel in the Gruppe. Note bomb lugs. (Author's collection)
Ju87B2s of an unidentified unit over France, 1940, (Author's collection)
Stuka sorties against Royal Navy vessels covering the evacuation of Crete were equally successful; the destroyer HMS Hereward was sunk and the destroyer Dido and the cruiser Orion damaged. Oblt. Arnim Thiede of the 'Immelmann' Geschwader received the Ritterkreuz for his successful operations against shipping during the Crete campaign, and he was reported then to have sunk three freighters, scored a direct hit on a cruiser and damaged a destroyer and a light cruiser.
While the bulk of the Stukagruppen now massed for the forthcoming invasion of Russia, I/St.G 1, II/St.G 2 and I/St.G 3 remained in the Mediterranean theatre to support Rommel in North Africa, With little in the way of Allied defences to oppose them, the Stukas were able to operate freely during the desert offensives and counter-offensives. In December 1941, Luftflotte 2 arrived in the area with the Ergänzungs (training and replacement) Gruppe of St.G 1; and in March 1942 I/St.G I and II/St.G 2 were redesignated II and III/St.G 3 respectively to bring the Geschwader up to full strength. On 21 March III Gruppe moved to Biscari-San Pietro in Sicily, where it converted to the Ju87D-1; during renewed attempts to neutralise Malta, when crews often made three sorties per day, formations of about twenty aircraft set out with an entire Gruppe of fighters as escort. Eventually, demands for air support from North Africa reduced the strength of units operating against Malta and although small raids by single sections of dive bombers continued, they lacked adequate defensive covering fire and became easy prey for the defending fighters.
At the end of May 1942, III/St.G 3 too was recalled to North Africa and in June and July, when operations in support of the Afrika Korps' advance to El Alamein called for intense efforts, they again flew as many as three sorties a day, attacking troops, transport and tank concentrations, artillery positions, airfields, stores and ammunition dumps. In early June the entire Geschwader made repeated attacks on the fortress of Bir Hacheim and, up until the time of its capture, many raids were directed against shipping and installations at Tobruk Harbour; but the long advance had exhausted German air and ground forces alike, and Rommel was halted at El Alamein. The now greatly reinforced Desert Air Force inflicted heavy losses, and in spite of close escort flown by the more experienced Luftwaffe fighter-pilots the Allied fighters invariably broke through the defensive screen. As in the Battle of Britain, the Stukas were too slow for the escort. One particularly notable success for the Desert Air Force occurred during the evening of 3 July when a formation of fifteen Stukas, heavily escorted by fighters, was intercepted over El Alamein. In the ensuing air battle the Allied fighters claimed all but two of the dive- bombers destroyed, some being chased back as far as their own airfield before being shot down. Final attacks against El Alamein extended the Luftwaffe to its limit with the result that sorties were considerably reduced due to natural attrition and combat losses.
Achieving almost total surprise, German troops stormed into Russia at 0300 on 22 June 1941. The IV (Stuka)/LG 1, with 42 aircraft, was placed under the command of Luftflotte 5 in the far north for an attack against Murmansk, but the remaining Stukagruppen were subordinate to Luftflotte 2 which was to provide air support for Army Group Centre. II and III/St.G 1 (with 87 aircraft), I and III/St.G 2 (83) and II (Schlacht)/LG 2 (56 mixed Bf109s and Hs123s) were collected under VIII Fliegerkorps in the north of Army Group Centre's zone of operations, while St.G 77 (122) came under the control of II Fliegerkorps in the south. On the first day of the campaign the Luftwaffe attacked Russian airfields and destroyed no less than 1,800 aircraft, mostly on the ground. Any survivors were promptly dealt with by German fighters and the Stukas were again able to operate in skies virtually free of enemy opposition. St.G 77 bombed defences along the River Bug in support of Panzer Group 2, and the Stukas and ground-attack aircraft of VIII Fliegerkorps assisted 9th Army and Panzer Group 3 to break through the border fortifications in east Prussia by bombing tanks, gun batteries and enemy transport. During the period from 22 June to the end of November, Stukageschwader 77 recorded the destruction of 2,401 vehicles, 234 tanks, 92 gun batteries and 21 trains for the loss of fourteen pilots.
Engine test for a yellow-nosed Ju87B-2 of Hptm. Hubertus Hitschold's I/St.G 2 in the Peloponnese in May 1941, at the time of the great Stuka attacks on the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean. (Hans Obert)
Stukas of I/St.G 1 and II/St.G 2 attack HMS Illustrious 100 miles west of Malta on 10 January 1941. 'As the Stukas pulled out of their dives. Illustrious appeared to vanish from sight in a great cliff of spray and water thrown up by the bursting bombs.' Hit six times and damaged by three near misses, the carrier was on fire, her flight deck wrecked, her steering gear crippled and her anti-aircraft guns out of action. (Author's collection)
At the end of the first week of July, Army Group Centre's forces were converging on Smolensk and for several days the Stuka pilots flew against transport and tanks on the Moscow Highway between Smolensk and Minsk. Once Smolensk had been surrounded on 27 July, VIII Fliegerkorps moved north to assist in Army Group North's attack on Leningrad. During September I and III/ St.G 2 carried out a number of attacks against the Russian Baltic Fleet in the heavily defended Kronstadt Harbour, during which the aircraft of Hptm, Dr. Ernst Kupfer (RK 23.11.41, EL 12.1.43, S 11.4.44) was shot up three times in succession; the third time Kupfer was so seriously wounded thai it was thought he would not fly again. Oblt. Hans-Ulrich Rudel (RK, EL, S, Br, Gold EL) sank the battleship Marat with a direct hit on the ship's magazine on 23 September, but a second attack resulted in the loss of Hptm. Ernst-Siegfried Steen (RK 17.10.41), the commander of III/St.G 2. Hit by flak, Steen deliberately tried to fly his crippled machine into the side of the heavy cruiser Kirov.
Even during these early days of the Russian campaign it became obvious that the use of bombs against tanks was most unsatisfactory. On 26 June the whole of St.G 2 had attacked a concentration of 60 tanks south of Grodno, but only one tank was knocked out and this was due to a lucky round of machine-gun fire. Although the impracticability of dive-bombing tanks was clear to the pilots themselves, it was only slowly appreciated by the Luftwaffe's policy-forming staff, a fact which was eventually to have far-reaching consequences, for one of the greatest German mistakes in the East was the failure to provide a step-by-step answer to the growth in Russian tank strength.
The potentially disastrous implications of this oversight were lost in the summer months of 1941, as the Germans drove ever deeper into Russia. The constant operational flying in support of the summer advances caused pilot fatigue, but the campaign seemed to be going well and morale in the Stukagruppen was high. Although Russian fighters occasionally pressed home their attacks with great determination - some penetrated the fighter screen by diving down and ramming the Stukas - the greatest hazard so far encountered was the Russian flak. Often, as at Kronstadt, this was accurate and intense.
Major Walter Enneccerus, Gruppenkommandeur of II/St.G 2, over the Mediterranean in his Ju87R-2 coded T6 + AC. On 26 May 1941, Enneccerus's Gruppe attacked and badly damaged the carrier HMS Formidable. On 17 March 1942 the Gruppe was re-designated III/St.G 3, and operated from Sicily against Malta from 21 March to 24 May. (US National Archives)
Meanwhile, in the far north, IV (Stuka)/LG I had been flying in support of German forces struggling towards Murmansk. During the opening stages ot the drive the Ju87Rs bombed pillboxes forming the Soviet defences and then flew intensive operations for more than a week in support of exhausted infantry who advanced over very difficult terrain and took Kandalaska; but here the advance faltered and petered out. Similarly, the northern thrust bogged down and the Stukas were again transferred, to support an offensive which ground to a halt outside Murmansk.
The first ominous signs of an exceptionally early Russian winter appeared on the Central Front in early October, Heavy rains turned the roads to mud and slowed the advance towards Moscow. As the temperature dropped the Luftwaffe was presented with all manner of technical difficulties and at the same time Russian resistance became increasingly stubborn. II/LG 2 and I/St.G 2, which had recently begun converting to the Ju87D-1, were forced to break up an attack against their own airfield at Kalinin, and St.G 1 carried out numerous sorties against the Mozhaysk defence lines before Moscow, By 19 November forward German Army units were within nineteen miles of Moscow, but further progress was impossible. Russian counter-attacks threw back the worn out troops and a great deal of ground was lost before the front could be stabilised.
Meanwhile, attack and counter-attack in the far north exhausted both sides alike, and the Northern Front froze rigid. In February 1942 IV (Stuka)/LG 1 was redesignated and, under the command of Maj. Hans-Karl Stepp (RK 7.2.42, EL 27.4.44), became I/St.G 5. The unit frequently attacked installations on the Belomorsk-Murmansk railway, destroyed rolling stock and cut the branch lines running to various sectors of the front. Prolonged interruption of traffic proved impossible, however, and weather conditions finally forced the unit south to join St.G 1 under Oberst Walter Hagen (RK, EL 17.2.42), which had begun converting to the Ju87D-1 on the Leningrad Front.
As a result of experience in the Spanish Civil War and the subsequent success of the Hs123s during the Polish and French campaigns, a decision was taken in mid-1941 to expand the ground-attack arm of the Luftwaffe, It was intended that the principal item of equipment would be the Henschel Hs129, a heavily armed and armoured aircraft which had been in the process of development since 1937. Although the Luftwaffe had flatly refused to accept the early pre-production version in 1940, improved variants were subsequently developed and pressed into service with 4 Staffel of the first of the specialised ground-attack units, Schlachtgesehwader 1.
Originally equipped with the Hs123 and Bf109E, I Gruppe of Sch.G 1 had been activated in Germany during January 1942. At the same time, II (Schlacht)/LG 2 was redesignated to form II/Sch.G 1; and in May the Geschwader arrived on the southern sector of the Eastern Front, where Luftflotte 4 was to support an offensive into the Crimea to clear the Kerch Peninsula and take Sevastopol. The attack commenced on 8 May with simultaneous ground assaults and merciless dive-bomber attacks upon the deeply organised Russian positions by units of VIII Fliegerkorps, Russian fortifications were attacked by St.G 77 while Sch.G 1 strafed and bombed every movement in the enemy rear area until, with the exception of the fortress of Sevastopol, the Peninsula was secure. A Russian attack on Kharkov necessitated the removal of Sch.G 1, but the remainder of VIII Fliegerkorps took off at first light on 2 June and, led by St.G 77, struck at positions in the suburbs and city area of Sevastopol. Between 2 and 6 June a daily average of 600 sorties was recorded, imposing a considerable strain on pilots, ground personnel and machines alike. St.G 77 cut off the city water supply by destroying the pumping installations, reservoirs and electric power station and attacks were also carried out against airfields in the Western Caucasus and on Black Sea ports to prevent the arrival of any aid for Sevastopol. Hptm. Herbert Pabst, who flew with Stukageschwader 77, gives his personal account of such a sortie against ports on the Caucasus coast:
Stuka attack on the Tobruk trenches, seen from the gunner's position of a Ju87D of Major Kurt Kuhlmey's St.G 3. (James V. Crow)
Stuka attack on a convoy - diving, seen from the pilot's position, and climbing away, seen from the gunner's position. (Author's collection)
'Out of bed at 0400 hours. A wash, coffee, one fried egg, and then into the cars to drive out to our planes. At top speed we fly eastward over the Crimea. Then the Kerch Peninsula: everywhere destroyed villages, burned-out vehicles, the terrain ploughed over by bombs, innumerable pits, trenches and other positions. Shortly before reaching Kerch we land at a forward airfield to refuel. Then we take off again, flying southward across the Black Sea, climbing higher and higher, with nothing around us but clouds and the sea below.
'Altitude 13,000 feet. Suddenly, punctually to the minute the fighters are with us which are to escort us from here on. We are still climbing in a wide arc. We don our oxygen masks in order to remain wakeful and fresh. Below us nothing but water. Then the coast comes into sight and we see the port which is our target. With quiet engines up in the blue skies, we approach the target. Yes, there are the ships at the jetty! We set our dive brakes and adjust our sights.
'Our dive becomes steeper and steeper. Then they discover us and we see the muzzle flash of their anti-aircraft guns. Altitude 17,000, 13,000, 10,000 feet. Before us blacks puffs of anti-aircraft shells are bursting. I swerve my plane to the left to take shelter above a cloud and dive blindly through it. Then we are at 6,600 feet and I see again the jetty before me. Speed boats have started their engines and are dashing out to sea in wild curves. 1,100 feet! A large ship alongside the pier comes into my sights. I press my thumb. Now we level out and immediately our plane shoots upward at a sharp angle. The Russian anti-aircraft guns are firing wildly and blindly. I start to climb in a zig-zag course, then the flame of a bomb striking in the middle of the ships can be seen. Flying away towards the sea we can observe blood-red flames and black smoke rising at an angle with the wind. Flames and smoke of other explosions from hits on other vessels follow, made by squadrons which followed us.
'Our fighters drive off a few Ratas which have meanwhile taken to the air.'
On 7 June the Stukas maintained a constant series of attacks on Soviet artillery and positions in the line of advance. The deciding factor in the eventual victory of the German Army was the annihilating dive-bomber attacks on pin-point targets. Directed by reconnaissance aircraft, the Stukas plunged down into steep valleys to bomb firing positions at Inkerman. Soviet resistance in the city eventually collapsed on 1 July and the strongest military fortress in the world was in German hands.
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