Sunday, 21 August 2011

Eastern Front night-fighters - Wittgenstein, Fischer, Bertram (1)

Current reading is Claire Rose Knott's nicely done bio of Heinrich Prinz zu Sayn Wittgenstein ('Princes of Darkness'). At the same time I've come across Gebhard Aders 1977 article for Modell Fan magazine devoted to Wittgenstein, an interesting source that author Knott appears not to have seen. Wittgenstein scored many of his victories in the East and was particularly active during the summer 1943 Kursk offensive. 

The first Luftwaffe night fighters on the Eastern Front were the so-called Nachtjagdschwärme Ost. Their organisation was piece-meal - venerable Heinkel He 111s drawn from the Eastern Front Kampfgeschwader with neither search radar -as was usually the case in the west- nor controlled by any kind of ground control as later existed in the shape of the Nachtjagdzüge - the night fighter trains. There were no fleets of four-engine bombers to contend with in the air either - operations over the front in the early stages of the war in the East consisted of hunting and engaging the small Russian aircraft, mostly U2 and R5 biplanes, that operated by night supplying mines and shells to partisan groups located behind the front lines. The He 111 were of course large and ponderous aircraft which were hardly suited to this form of aerial interdiction but there were no other available aircraft. The He 111 as flown by aces such as Gunther Bertram enjoyed some successes on nights when the moon was full. 

" My first victim had only just got airborne. Closing from astern, I swept alongside and past it, presenting my Bordfunker with the opportunity to unleash a long salvo from his MG. Given that the Russians only managed speeds of between 150-180 kph, while I had to maintain the speed of our cumbersome He 111 at 230 kph at least, achieving a downing was always very much down to good fortune.."

Following re-equipment with the Ju 88 the Nachtjagd Ost was put on a more organised footing. NJG 100 was formed at Brjansk from IV./NJG 5 which had shifted to the Russian Front in early 1943. Heinrich Prinz zu Sayn Wittgenstein was appointed Kommandeur of I./NJG 100 during the summer of 1943. By this stage of the war in the East the Soviets were creating serious difficulties for the Germans in the air. At night the Red Air force specialised in harassment sorties with elderly biplanes - the Polykarpov PO-2, known to the Germans as the 'Nähmaschine' (sewing machine) or 'UvD' (Unteroffizier von Dienst, or Duty NCO), did little damage in night raids, but was an immense nuisance. Its pilots would switch off their engines and glide in from altitude during their bombing run; their small bombs thus often fell without warning. More often than not though their engines were fitted with silencers which made their engine sounds virtually inaudible from the ground at heights above 800 feet.

During the first half of 1943 Wittgenstein flew two Ju 88 C-6s with IV./NJG 5. These aircraft are particularly interesting for the modeller. Ju 88 C-6 C9+AE was equipped with FuG 212 radar, the lower fuselage Bodenwanne gondola and Schräge Muzik mounted in line astern and is generally reckoned to be one of the first Ju 88s so-equipped. C9+DE lacked all these features and was apparently flown on clear bright nights as an Expreßjäger or 'fast-hunter'. Wittgenstein scored the majority of his victories over Kursk in this machine. The image below is taken from Aders article and depicts AE with yellow fuselage Eastern theatre band, black lower surfaces and mottled dark grey finish (probably 74/75)

Simon Schatz's superlative artwork from Claire's book can be seen at Simon's blog

I./ NJG 100 Staffelkapitän and later Kommandeur August Fischer published his memoir - entitled " Bis der Wind umsprang " in 1961 (Engelbert Verlag of Balve). This is not a particularly rare book as Luftwaffe memoirs go - but remains almost entirely unexploited eg Claire Rose Knott in her 'Princes of Darkness'. Fischer flew with Wittgenstein in NJG 100 and mentions him throughout the text. A translated extract appears here..