Sunday, 28 August 2011

Seine bridgehead 22 August 1944 - the Jagdwaffe vs. US anti-aircraft artillery at Mantes

During the last days of August 1944 the Luftwaffe fought one of its most desperate and least successful 'battles' – and possibly therefore one of the least well-known. With German forces falling back from Normandy in headlong flight and disarray as the neck of the Falaise pocket was closing shut (21 August), the focus of the fighting in France switched to the crossing of the Seine at the gates of Paris. The US 79th Infantry Division made the initial crossing of the Seine River at Mantes-Gassicourt on 20 August, establishing a small bridgehead on the east bank of the River. They were followed by the 30th Infantry Division who made an uneventful crossing and started the expansion and exploitation of the area, while rapidly pursuing the German Army in what was commonly known as the “rat-race”. The Germans of course attempted to mount desperate rearguard actions over the period 21-30 August 1944. The fighting around Mantes is notable for the first encounters of American ground forces with the Tiger II tank, as elements of 3./ sPz. Abt 503 had refitted with the King Tiger after Normandy. In the air the rump of the Luftwaffe – most notably Gruppen of JG 1, JG 2, JG 11, JG 53, JG 76 and JG 26 - flew hundreds of sorties against the bridgeheads and the pontoon bridges themselves, sustaining very high losses to American anti-aircraft artillery. The Mantes bridgehead actions were also significant for being one of the rare occasions on which the Luftwaffe utilized  21 cm Werfer rocket launchers against ground targets..

The Werfgranate was a make-shift adaptation of the 210mm Nebelwerfer artillery rocket system slung under the wings of Bf 109 and Fw 190 fighters to bombard closely packed bomber formations from a safe distance astern in an effort to break them up. The weapon comprised a pair of open-tube Ofenrohre, the rockets weighing 110 kg of which 41 kg was explosive warhead and 18 kg solid fuel propellant - the tubes had a huge impact on the aircraft aerodynamics. They were never intended to be a pin-point application as was the case with Allied air launched rockets. This did not stop the Jagdwaffe from using them at very low altitudes against the pontoon bridges that had been thrown over the Seine..

Of course the Luftwaffe had already started to evacuate a number of major air bases in and around Paris and by 17 August 1944 when Luftflotte 3 was ordered to withdraw to Reims, most of its forces had been bled white by incessant Allied bombing. The Luftwaffe had been able to offer little help to beleaguered German ground forces escaping the Falaise pocket and had concentrated most of its efforts on attempting to hamper Allied tank spearheads pushing on towards Paris between Dreux and Chartres. Don Caldwell in his “JG 26 Top Guns..” mentions Werfer attacks on 17 August by II./JG 26. However the Shermans claimed by George-Peter Eder were apparently brewed up as a (highly improbable) result of Spitfires being brought down in their proximity. Eder’s Abschussmeldung (victory report) reproduced in Frappé's " La Luftwaffe face au débarquement ";

“ On 17 August 1944 I was airborne at 11:00 with II./JG 26 as the Staffelkapitän of 6./JG 26 to strafe Allied tank concentrations between Chartres and Dreux. At 11:53 I attacked two Spitfire IXs orbiting over a group of tanks and was able to open up at distances of between 60 to 50 metres. After my first burst I saw a plume of smoke from one Spitfire which then went down over its starboard wing and impacted the ground between two Sherman tanks which as a result of the Spitfire exploding also went up in flames. I saw pieces fly off the second Spitfire which also plunged straight down onto a third tank which exploded under the impact ..”

At least one of Eder’s witnesses- Fw. Hasenclever of 7.Staffel - was killed in combat the following day.
By the third week of August the Jagdwaffe had less than 150 serviceable fighters in France – attrition among its relatively inexperienced crews had been murderous and would become more so as the last crews were thrown into the ground battle; few if any had been trained for the ground-attack role.

One of the heaviest days fighting over the Mantes bridges across the Seine was 22 August 1944 – nearly all the fighter Gruppen of the Jagdwaffe still present on the western Front participated in the actions in and around the Mantes bridgehead during the day with as many as 100 sorties being flown on this date alone. Weather conditions were mostly poor, forcing the pilots down to low altitude and making them relatively easy targets for American AAA protecting the pontoon bridges that had been thrown across the Seine. The Werfer gave the Fw 190s something of a ‘stand-off’ range although accuracy suffered accordingly and there were no recorded hits on the bridges. Typically the heavily laden Fw 190s were escorted to their targets by the lighter Bf 109s and after the rockets were discharged the bridgehead area was strafed and machine-gunned with attacks continuing until dusk on this and subsequent days. At Magnanville the 456th Anti-Aircraft recorded the day’s attacks;

at 11:35 8 Bf 109s carried out a dive-bombing attack from 3,000 feet launching rockets. Three were claimed shot down.

at 12h22-12h45 a further attack by 20-30 Bf 109s

at 16:100 four Fw 190s launched rockets at battery ‘A’ dug in at Rosny-sur-Seine; two were claimed shot down.

At 20:00 a further attack by Bf 109s; one claimed shot down and its pilot captured.

The Fw 190s of I./JG 11 under their new Kommandeur Hptm. Walter Matoni had only just returned to France days previously and by 20 August had already lost two of their four Staffelkapitänen, Oblt. Herbert Christmann 1./JG11 and Lt. Rudolf Schmid of 4./JG 11. On 22 August they were airborne from their base at Dammartin north-east of Paris on four occasions through the day on 22 August for no apparent losses. That evening Erich Hondt, Staffelkapitän of 2./JG 11 wrote to his parents;

“ I have just returned from a Schlachtflug – ground-attack sortie. Four self-propelled anti-aircraft trucks and one flak position wiped out. My, you should have seen the confusion on the ground! My Staffel followed me in and took care of the rest! As usual my crate took the lion’s share of hits; I counted eight hits on my machine and had to turn back. Because of the petrol fumes from the hit in the fuel tank I was almost drunk when I got back. But not before getting tangled up with five Amis. I managed to hide in a one-man-cloud ( sic “ Ein-Mann-Wolke”) before finding my way home unscathed. That was my third sortie today and I stood in for the Kommandeur and achieved a good result. It was through sheer luck that I caught sight of the American flak position and immediately attacked; our infantry can be grateful for that. Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to fly the fourth sortie of the day as I’d already spent three hours in the air. Things are difficult here and we really have to push ourselves. Many dear comrades, including once again my closest friends, have failed to return. So far though my Staffel has sustained the fewest losses and for that I am very pilots are just returning now from another combat sortie. Everyone is back, but they’ve taken hits. One of them has had to carry out a belly landing on the airfield..” (Prien, page 1141)

Above; belly-landed Fw 190 A-8 WNr. 173053 flown by Gefr. Paul Dorlöchter of 3./JG 11, downed by US anti-aircraft fire in the vicinity of Mantes, 24 August 1944

II./JG 53 under Hptm. Meimberg at Achery, close to La Fère, south-east of Amiens, was also heavily involved over Mantes on 22 August, its Bf 109s flying their first sorties against the bridgehead at 08:00, most probably as escort for the rocket-launching Fw 190s of I./JG 26. A second sortie in collaboration with III./JG 76 was flown at mid-day, with one Bf 109 shot down over the town by battery ‘D’ of the 313th US Infantry. Around 20 Bf 109s were intercepted by P-47s of the 379th FS over Gassicourt and in the resulting dogfight Oblt. Karl Paashaus, Staffelführer of 8./JG 53, claimed his 26th victory. Three more pilots of this Staffel, Uffzn Milcarek, Wigge and Weihrauch all claimed Thunderbolts shot down. A third and fourth sortie were flown later in the day with upwards of 25 Bf 109s airborne from Achery at 18:45 to escort Fw 190 rocket launchers. On their return they were caught on their approach by P-38s and in a matter of moments no fewer than ten Bf 109s went down. Oblt. Julius Schwarz, Meimberg’s wingman recalled;

“ We were quickly caught up in a violent combat – I took hits in the cockpit and my windshield shattered in my face, the shards of plexiglass inflicting deep lacerations. I was instantly blinded and groped desperately to extract myself from the cockpit. Moments later my fall was arrested as my chute caught at the top of a tree and impact with the ground was hard, resulting in a broken leg. As luck would have it, first aid arrived moments later. I was taken by ambulance to the hospital in Verdun before being transferred to Metz, followed by long months of convalescence. I was fortunate in one respect – the first aid that I had received at the site enabled the doctors to save the sight in one of my eyes..”

Three pilots of 7. Staffel were killed; Uffz. Lehmann crashed at the controls of his “white 14”, Gefr. Michaelis came down five km south of the airfield in his “white 5” and Uffz. Wucherpfennig in his “white 12” was brought down west of Achery towards Fargniers. The final victim of this aerial clash was the victorious Oblt. Karl Paashaus, killed having baled out of his “red 1” north of Achery – his comrades reported that he had been machine-gunned by an American fighter as he swung down under his parachute. Meimberg paid tribute to Paashaus in his memoir ‘Feindberührung’;
“ Paashaus was buried with military honours and I recall the ceremony even today. Paashaus was a first class officer and an excellent Staffel leader. He wasn’t always the easiest subordinate to manage and was not known to mince his words. As I stood in front of his grave I spoke some very private and heartfelt words and felt very alone…”

III./JG 76 under Hptm. Egon Albrecht had only arrived in France the previous day, 21 August, following the unit’s five-week conversion onto the Bf 109. With around 40 Bf 109 G-14s, they were based in the vicinity of Chalons-sur-Marne on the satellite field at the village of Athis and their first sorties against the Mantes bridgehead were flown on 22 August resulting in disastrous losses. At least four Bf 109s were shot down by ground fire, including “black 22 “ flown by Ofhr. Grab of the Stab III./JG 76, Lt Naumann and Uffz. Dunker’s 11. Staffel “yellow 9” and “yellow 15” and “blue 7” of 12. Staffel flown by Fw. Guttmann. Guttmann had succeeded in extricating himself from his doomed fighter but his parachute caught on the tailplane and carried him to his death. Naumann’s G-14s was excavated during September 2001 – no human remains were recovered although items were found at the crash site indicating that the pilot was still in the cockpit when the aircraft impacted the ground. Later during the afternoon of 22 August 1944, the Bf 109 G-14s of 9. Staffel were caught getting airborne from Athis on another rocket-launcher escort sortie - a squadron of P-51s claimed no fewer than eight Bf 109s shot down. Uffz. Kurt Renner of 9./JG 76 recalled;

“ was some time after mid-day when I took off with my Staffel to escort rocket-launching fighters attacking the Seine bridges. Enemy fighters were reported approaching the field as we were getting airborne. I had barely reached a height of 800 feet when suddenly there was a terrible hammering noise behind me and the engine started to smoke. Visibility in the cockpit was quickly nil, while up in front of me flames erupted from the cowl. I was far too low to bale out and as luck would have it I was able to put down rather haphazardly in a field. With my aircraft now well ablaze I scrambled clear of the cockpit. At that moment a Mustang roared low overhead, I managed to make it to the cover of a thicket. I could see a church in the distance and starting running towards it. As I reached the first houses a woman came out and seeing what a state I was in led me into her house to give me first aid. She treated my burns with olive oil and made contact with the German authorities so that an ambulance could come and collect me. It may well be thanks to her that I am alive today…”

Gruppenkommandeur III./ JG 76 Htpm. Egon Albrecht, a decorated Zerstörer pilot, would be shot down and killed by P-38s only three days later.

Elsewhere a report from Battery ‘C’ of the 463rd Anti-Aircraft at Dennemont on one of the huge ‘loops’ that characterized the Seine in this locality reported;

“ around 15 enemy aircraft appeared at low altitude all guns blazing; two were hit and crashed in flames, one at Sandrancourt and the other at St-Cyr-en-Athies. Only one pilot was seen to bale out..”
These were most probably the heavily laden Fw 190s of I./JG 26, flying against the bridgehead from an air strip close to Vitry-en-Artois – it was this Gruppe that III./JG 76 was planned to escort to the target area. According to Bruno Renoult in his “ air battles over the Mantes bridgehead, August 1944” (article in 39-45 Magazine Sept 2002) the pilot seen to bale out at low level was likely to have been Uffz. Hans Sandoz of 2./JG 26 who succeeded in jumping clear of his blazing Fw 190 “black 4” only for his chute to fail to deploy correctly at the low altitude.. Lt. Fred Heckmann of 3./JG 26 claimed an “Auster” at 12:35 on the same sortie.

For the single day of 22 August the 463rd Anti-Aircraft dug in along the banks of the Seine claimed 11 Bf 109s and 3 Fw 190s over the course of 7 separate air attacks, the 456th AAA no fewer than 10 Bf 109s and 5 Fw 190s, although there is a good chance that the two US anti-aircraft units were firing at the same aircraft – even so 22 August 1944 was certainly one of the most intense of the war for the US AAA batteries along the Seine. Colonel J.B. Fraser of the 23th AAA Group later wrote;

“ when I think of the splendid work done (…) during the period when we were establishing a bridgehead across the Seine, probably never before has a Group Commander had the privilege of commanding organizations that have achieved what you have achieved; 94 enemy planes destroyed and 47 more probably destroyed…(..) we have established an all time record of 43 planes destroyed during the two days of 21 and 22 August 1944….”

Certainly the Luftwaffe failed spectacularly to hamper the progress of US forces across the Seine, with more than 20 crash sites being identified post-war within a 10 km radius of Mantes, with others further out. Paris was liberated on 25 August, although French histories lay the emphasis on the resistance insurrection and strike that took place with the Americans at the gates of the city. In total some 30 Jagdwaffe pilots were lost and at least 10 killed during the five-day air-ground battle for the Mantes bridges during the latter days of August 1944, with another 20 falling to combat with US fighters in the vicinity during the same period.