Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Storming the bombers - a chronicle of Jagdgeschwader 4 - the Luftwaffe's fourth fighter wing by Erik Mombeek

The fourth fighter wing of the Luftwaffe was initially established during 1942 and committed to operations in defence of the Rumanian oil fields during 1943. I./JG 4 first saw action in combat against a strike force of B-24 Liberators dispatched on the celebrated low level attack against Ploesti on 1 August 1943, Operation “Tidal Wave”. JG 4 was subsequently deployed in the bitterly fought German defensive campaign on the Italian penin­sula during the first half of 1944, prior to being shifted to the Normandy invasion front and then falling back to the frontiers of the Reich in September that year. It was during the summer of 1944 that JG 4 underwent considerable reinforcement with two new Gruppen swelling its ranks. The most effective of these was II. (Sturm)/JG 4, a so-called “Storm” or "assault" wing, built up around a hard core of former Sturmstaffel 1 pilots and an intake of young daredevil volunteers. Committed against the massive USAF bomber fleets pounding the Reich, the Sturm fighters were deployed to bring down the American bombers by any means, including ramming if necessary.

An extract from Chapter 5 - The creation of II.(Sturm)/ JG 4   (my translation from the original German text..)

Uffz. Herbert Chlond -formerly of 2./ZG 1- was now a 5.(Sturm)/JG 4 pilot, as he explained ;
“The pilots transferred from Hohensalza to Salzwedel by train or road. I was soon sent to Giessen to take on charge my aircraft and ferry it to Salzwedel – I touched down there for the first time on 14 August 1944. It wasn’t long afterwards that we welcomed our new Staffelkapitän – Hptm. Erich Jugel. He was a replacement for Hptm. Fulda who we only knew for a few days. We encountered Obstlt. von Kornatzki from time to time as he came out onto the field to check our progress during our period of settling in and training. He seemed to be an officer concerned for the well-being of his men – almost like a father figure, paternalistic and well-liked by all ranks. I do not recall ever having to sign any document pledging to bring home a victory on every sortie – or even undertaking to ram enemy bombers.”

While the new Staffelkapitäne were all experienced pilots, only Zehart – aged 25 years and posted to 7. (Sturm)/JG 4 – had any real experience of fighter combat tactics. The Kapitän of 5. Staffel, Hptm. Wilhelm Fulda – aged thirty-five years old – was a decorated glider pilot and Knights Cross recipient. He was quickly replaced by the thirty year old Hptm. Erich Jugel. Jugel was a former observer with III. (Kampf-)/Lehrgeschwader 1 prior to training as a pilot and subsequently serving as Staffelkapitän of 11./ LG 1.

The Kapitän of 8. Staffel, Major Gerhard Schröder was thirty two years old and also a former observer, prior to serving as Staffelführer with II./KG 55 ‘Greif’ before he shifted to KG 51 ‘Edelweiß’.

Hptm. Manfred Köpke was twenty seven years old and appointed Kapitän of 6. (Sturm)/JG 4. Athough he had initially trained as a fighter pilot at Werneuchen, he had opted for the bomber arm and it was not until the summer of 1944 that he was passed out on single-engine fighters. One of his pilots, Uffz. Josef Weichmann, recalled:

“My Staffelkapitän had suffered a head injury in Russia and since that time had occasional difficulties with his balance. When flying on instruments – for example through layers of cloud – he always required one of us to tuck in closely alongside him to maintain some sort of visual reference, otherwise he quickly became disorientated. He would order us to lead the Staffel under such circumstances and hung on to our tails until such time as visibility cleared.”

Among the more notable pilots of 5. (Sturm)/JG 4 was Hptm. Werner Vorberg – not just on account of his age- although he was thirty-four years old! He had initially been turned down for flying training school and it was only as a result of a mix-up in his march orders – which should have sent him to a paratroops unit – that he had ended up at flying school. By the time the mistake was noticed he had already received his pilot’s qualification. He was subsequently to fly twin-engine glider tugs and saw action in the Balkans, Russia and Italy, prior to volunteering as a Sturm pilot. One of his Staffel comrades was Oblt. Emil Lübenau, who had previously been a fighter instructor at Toul in late 1943 and early 1944.

In 6. (Sturm)/JG 4 – aside from Lt. Rudolf Metz, a former JG 5 and Sturmstaffel 1 pilot who spent a few days with 8. (Sturm)/JG 4 – the pilot complement included Ogfr. Gerhard Kott. Kott had been posted on 27 April 1944 to 10./JG 3 at Salzwedel and his claimed his first victory – shooting down a B-17 – on 19 May. However he had been blamed for the take-off accident that had resulted in the death of Ofhr. Eberhard Nolting on 16 July at Holzkirchen and was subsequently transferred to II. (Sturm)/JG 4 on 26 July 44.

The Staffel also counted Lt. Hans-Heinrich Lehmann (a transport unit veteran) and Günther Kunst on its pilot strength. According to his family, Kunst had undergone his baptism of fire on 14 January 1944, downing a bomber during this same action. Uffz. Josef Weichmann recalled his arrival in the Staffel;

“I graduated from fighter training school in February 1944 and was posted to the Oschersleben Focke-Wulf factory in the Harz as a ferry pilot. As we were not front line aviators I had always imagined that I and my comrades were likely to be the first to be remustered as foot soldiers should the need ever arise. As my duties involved ferrying new aircraft out to front line airfields that were under almost constant aerial attack, I felt a sense of hopelessness and was powerless to intervene. When the calls went out at the highest levels of the Luftwaffe, I therefore resolved to volunteer for duty as a Sturm pilot. I arrived at Salzwedel in June 1944 and thus became one of the first intake of pilots of the Sturmgruppe JG 4. Von Kornatzki was an outstanding man – a real father figure to us. He did his best to prepare us for the forthcoming battles, instructing us in all sorts of techniques for attacking the bombers.”

Gefreiter Heinz Papenberg also arrived at 6. (Sturm)/JG 4:

“As a pilot of Jagdgeschwader 5 since 1943, I was “dismissed” for damaging an aircraft while making a belly landing and was transferred to an Überführungs-Geschwader in Germany."Geschwader" is a big word for a “club” which was barely at Staffel strength. I met quite a few pilots there who had the same bad luck story. Our job was to transfer brand new aircraft from the factories to front-line airfields. After hearing of a call for volunteers to report to a Sturmstaffel, I volunteered with two or three comrades. We were ordered to Werneuchen near Berlin, where Oberstleutnant von Kornatzki personally received us. He was of medium height and very congenial. During our first conversation, he asked me: “Why do you want to join the Reichsverteidigung? You must understand that many of us will be killed. Besides, you are married!” I answered him: “I volunteered because I am married!” – “Das ist ein Wort!” he said - “That makes sense!”- He replied with his typical rolling “r” and shook my hand. My comrades had similar motives – while we were prepared to risk our necks in the search for glory and no doubt believed that the war could all but be won by ourselves single-handedly, we nonetheless wanted to protect our country against enemy bombing attacks. So we signed the Sturmjäger oath. The volunteers in Salzwedel soon numbered some seventy-two pilots.”

Two young pilots, Uffz. Fritz Wetzke and Kurt Scherer, arriving fresh from 1./Ergänzung Jagdgruppe Ost, had also signed up for the Sturmgruppe. Scherer recalled:
“I signed up for a Sturmeinheit – an assault or 'Storm' unit – of my own free will as soon as I heard about them – even though at that stage I had never even flown a fighter aircraft. I wanted to combat the Allied bomber streams whatever the cost – they were reducing our homeland to rubble and ruins, destroying our culture and annihilating our people en masse. The pilots of the Sturmgruppen were not criminals, or murderers, potential suicides or demoted officers as has often been portrayed in the post-war years. I was of sound mind and body and a talented young pilot full of the resolve, courage and motivation required by these elite units. After enlisting I was sent to Bürgünd in Hungary to complete a fighter pilot’s training course. On 1 July I was posted to 1./Ergänzung Jagdgruppe Ost at Liegnitz in Silesia. It was here – at the end of the month – that I received my posting to a Sturm unit. Arriving at Salzwedel our new Kommandeur lectured us about the duties and responsibilities of a Sturmjäger- an assault fighter. We were allowed a day to reflect on the consequences and the dangers of our new assignment – either signing the oath or taking the decision to return to a ‘normal’ fighter Geschwader. No pressure was put on anybody to sign the Sturm declaration of intent although Obstlt. von Kornatzki made it quite clear what our new responsibilities entailed; – should it come down to it, we were expected to bring down a four-engine bomber by ramming it with our own machines. As we expected there was not a single one of us who wished to be transferred elsewhere – we swore to fight in defence of the Reich in accordance with the rules and principles of the Sturmgruppen. We knew – as pilots in the Sturmgruppe – that we might have to lay down our lives to defend our homeland and the German people. We promised that on each sortie on which we made contact with the enemy we would pursue our attacks to the closest possible range – and should we be unable to down the bomber with our fixed armament, then we were to destroy it by ramming. Although each of us had signed this declaration individually, the oath was again read out and sworn in front of the General of the Fighter Arm, Adolf Galland, on the occasion of an inspection visit. During his speech to us he declared that our Sturmgruppe was now a fully-fledged operational unit. Every pilot understood the import and seriousness of this moment- our commitment was embodied in the handshake that the General exchanged with each one of us. The entire Gruppe was then airborne for a flypast – it proved to be a superb demonstration. The day was rounded off with a demonstration of captured American aircraft, in particular a P-51 Mustang – it was stressed that our Bf 109s and Fw 190s were generally superior to this type. We soon realised on our first combat sortie that this statement was not entirely accurate.”
Despite the appalling losses sustained by JG 4 during WW II, author Erik Mombeek managed to locate around one hundred JG 4 and Sturmstaffel 1 veterans and their personal accounts and photographs bring his history of JG 4 vividly to life and imbue it with a human dimension which many will find moving. The first volume of this two part history covers the unit’s establishment, deployments and combat actions through to Autumn 1944, providing for the first time in English a day-by-day, mission-by-mission study of the Luftwaffe’s 4th fighter wing.