Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Generalleutnant Hans Seidemann and the Yak-3 - "Unbekannte Pflicht" Walter Wolfrum on the Bf 109 with Peter Cronauer (296 Verlag)

In June 1941, the Wehrmacht swept into Russia. Apparently caught by surprise, large numbers of out-moded machines in Russia's Air Force, the VVS, were destroyed on the ground and in the air. Alexander Yakovlev moved his design and manufacturing facilities east of the Ural Mountains and began production of the Yak-9 in 1942. Eventually some 16,800 Yak-9 models were built, more than any other aircraft in the Soviet Air Force. The Yak-9 was designed for mass production and durability. Due to shortages in Russia, it incorporated a minimum of scarce strategic materials. They were designed to outnumber the enemy, not for technical superiority. While not necessarily out-classing the Fw 190 or even the increasingly obsolescent Bf 109 in its early incarnations, Yakovlev's piston-engined fighters were good fighters in numbers, durable, maneuverable, fast, light, capable of absorbing a lot of battle damage and still getting home. The 'T' -tank-destroyer- variant armed with a 37mm cannon packed decent firepower. And appearing during the summer of 1944 the Yak 3 was one of the lightest, fastest most agile fighters of WW II  - " perhaps only the Spitfire could rival this machine for manoeuvrability "  according to Yefim Gordon and Dimitri Khazanov.

".. the Yak 3 conferred a considerable advantage - the effect of surprise. Its silhouette was essentially the same as that of the previous versions of the Yak fighter, but its performance simply didn't compare. It could out-climb and out-turn the Fw 190 and caused some panic among the Luftwaffe pilots who had difficulty comprehending just what had suddenly happened to them.."

(Joseph Risso, 11 victories, in "Normandie Niemen" by Jean-Charles Stasi)

 The Fw 190s and Bf 109s were hard-pressed to keep up with the Yak -3 and Jagdwaffe pilots were expressly forbidden from engaging the  Yak 3 below certain altitudes. If it had one weakness the wooden Yak 3 offered little protection to its pilot, the undercarriage locking mechanism was prone to failure and its outstanding manoeuverability and light structural strength resulted in several accidents. Even so, 7-victory ace Francois de Geoffre chose not to open his French-language memoir of flying and fighting with the Normandie Niemen with a description of this supreme dogfighter's air combat capabilities - his sortie flown on 23 September 1944 was a successful low-level high speed strafing of Gumbinnen rail station - the first incursion deep into German territory by the Regiment;

 " ...pushing the throttle wide open, and tucked in alongside side each other, our flight of four Yak-3s accelerated down the track and were rapidly airborne. We didn't climb but stayed low. At more than 500 km/h our deadly excursion through West Prussia was underway - 40 minutes of hurdling trees, roads, and villages, leaving our ear-shattering calling cards - the awesome fireworks of four cannon and eight machine guns.."

Flying Legends 2010, Nico Charpentier pictures, Yak-3 flown by British aerobatics champion Mark Jeffries, powered by a  V-12 1400 hp Allison engine, a rebuild by the 'original' factory in Russia following the discovery of the 'original' jigs. The original Klimov engines are not available however. Mark said;

 " ..I start the display at 400 mph, maximum speed is 500 mph, although I haven't had it up to 500 mph yet ! Instructions to Luftwaffe pilots were - do not engage below 4,000 metres, the sort of heights at which the Yak 3 normally operated. It is lighter and just as powerful so will out-turn any contemporary. In a dogfight it will just get on your tail and shoot you down.."

Walter Wolfrum's memoir was entitled "Unbekannte Pflicht" co-written with Peter Cronauer and published by 296 Verlag. He recalled a confrontation with  General Hans Seidemann  Kommandierender General of VIII. Fliegerkorps (Generalleutnant from 1 January 1944) not over the qualities of the Yak-3 but over the type's very existence!

" ....In the meantime I replayed that last dogfight in my head. No, they could not have been Yak-9s. What had just put me through the wringer looked very similar to a Yak-9, but evidently was in another class in terms of performance - and also in another class to the Bf 109. Could have I perhaps have encountered two of the mythical Yak-3A fighters, about which I had heard some terrible stories in the mess (Kasino) ? Supposedly we were near Schweidnitz, where our Corps commander, General Hans Seidemann, had set up his headquarters. This was a good opportunity to meet the jovial commander, whose champagne I had drunk on many occasions, and report to him directly. Seidemann had to be informed about the new Yak. We had to adapt our tactics to meet this new threat. I asked my (driver) to take me to him.  On arrival I was immediately summoned  into the Schweidnitzer officers' mess to meet him and his Staff. Admittedly, the anaesthetic of the artillery doctor who had just sown up my head wound was still working; it had a very long lasting effect. Nevertheless, I believed that I started to present a militarily correct account of my recent combat experiences, when Seidemann, after the first sentences, spluttered;

"..Have you all gone mad? You and your Jak-3! There is no Jak-3! And certainly not in this section of the front! It is a fairy tale ("ein Ammenmärchen"), how often do I have to explain this?!? "

Although I thought I knew him quite well, the General who had so often praised me for my 'extraordinary achievements in the air war' and who had visited me in hospital after my last serious wound, now gave me a terrible bawling out in front of his approvingly grinning staff officers ('machte mich zur Minna'). In unrestrained fashion the 42-year-old worked himself into a frenzy -  we let ourselves be driven mad by the enemy propaganda, and had the audacity to spread it further, he roared. We were seeing ghosts and over-reacting. All that remained now was to charge me with cowardice before the enemy and make an example of me in front of my comrades..

I wanted to blurt out a reply, but the effects of the cognac and seething with anger brought forth no more than a slurring. A few hours ago, I had just escaped with my life and for our gentlemen with the 'raspberry trouser seams' it was simply not true, that which could not be true. Although outwardly unmoved, my mood grew ever darker. I let Seidemann's never-ending tirade go over my head. In order not to succumb to the temptation to utter a retort, I turned on my heels and walked out, leaving him and his entourage standing there....

....Perhaps they did actually believe what they were claiming - that we still had the best machines. But those days were long gone. In the hands of an experienced pilot the Bf 109 could still be dangerous. But how many experienced pilots did we still have left? And by early 1945 the 109 was starting to get long in the tooth. It's development had reached its high point with the agile 'Friedrich'. Since then every planned upgrade and improvement was actually a step backwards. During the summer of 1944 I flew the G-6, in 1945 I flew the G-14, the G-10 and finally the K-4. The fuselage was strengthened, armament was increased and each time the engine had to be up-rated  to compensate. But the DB engine had reached the end of its development potential. The latest variant, the DB 605 was essentially the same DB 601 that had powered the 109 at the outbreak of the war. While the engine had been overhauled it was very vulnerable and breakdowns and failures piled up. When we flew for just three or four minutes at full-throttle and with emergency power, the engine was finished. The average engine life under front conditions was in any case only around 40 hours....In addition, we had not made any decisive progress in the armament. The 30 mm cannon MK 108, which fired through the propeller hub of the Me 109, was on paper an absolutely lethal gun and appeared mainly suited to combating the ubiquitous Il-2, but the weapon tended to jam easily. It fired shells weighing 480 grams at a muzzle velocity of only 550 meters per second and at a rate of 660 rounds per minute. One could almost observe the trajectory of these heavy, slow projectiles falling away without ever reaching their target - unless you were at very close range. I preferred the old MG 151/20, despite its smaller caliber. You could shoot much more accurately with it .."