Wednesday, 6 June 2018

notes on the cult of the 'fighter ace' in the Luftwaffe -why the Luftwaffe failed (3)



The basic combat unit of the Jagdfliegerei was the two-ship Rotte formation. Two Rotten constituted a Schwarm and three Schwärme comprised a Staffel  etc..The Rotte was led by a Rottenfuehrer and the duty of the other member of the Rotten was to protect the leader at all costsThis 'individualist' approach had in the view of some commentators serious structural consequences for the Luftwaffe only occasionally touched upon in the literature. This approach was essentially a system of promotion and honours that emphasized personal aerial victories over leadership.  As the 'dashing fighter pilot' scored more victories so his status was enhanced, along with his officer career. Stilla writes ;

".. He who did not kill could not assert himself as unit leader for long. (…) The front units were exclusively led by "aces", whose main focus and ambition consisted, and had to consist in, leading the squadron's kill list. In turn the aerial victories returned by that CO's Gruppe had to be ahead of those of other fighter Gruppen..."


The example of Helmut Wick (above; carried on the shoulders of his crew and cigar in his mouth to celebrate another successful sortie, 29 October 1940..) who progressed from lowly Staffelkapitän to Kommodore of the Richthofener -Jagdgeschwader 2 - in only a matter of months during the Battle of Britain is perhaps a good example. Having claimed some thirty victories during the summer of 1940,  received the Eichenlaub from Hitler himself on 8 October 1940, Wick was shot down and killed over the Channel in late November 1940 barely two months after being appointed CO. Having given interviews in the American press that came across as arrogant and dismissive of the qualities of RAF fighter pilots, he certainly paid for his hubris - " I want to die shooting down RAF pilots.." he was quoted as saying. His death was the result of  " his greed for fame and laurels " according to Robert Michulec in 'Luftwaffe Aces of the Western Front'.

"..NAZI FLIER LAUGHS AT BRITISH AIRMEN; Says Best of Foe's Aviators Have Been Shot Down-- Thinks Others Scared CLAIMS FULL AIR MASTERY Decorated Fighter Ridicules Anti-Aircraft Fire and Use of Barrage Balloons.."
headline in the New York Times, 13 October 1940 here



What drove Wick and other Jagdflieger appointed to command in the 'good years' was an almost over-riding concern for the Abschussliste- the system of points and then decorations awarded for a certain number of 'victories'- which was ultimately no more than personal ambition and the need for recognition. The 'good years' of course being the 'years' when the 'ace' shot down fighters and not bombers. Over France and England, over North Africa and in the East..in all these theatres the Luftwaffe fighter ace concentrated on shooting down other fighters..

" although this gave them big scores which was certainly Luftwaffe policy, strategically it was a war-losing approach as it was the Allied bombers that destroyed the Wehrmacht's fighting power.." (Eriksson in 'Alarmstart')

The results of such policies only became evident later on. When the Battle for Germany got underway in mid-1943 the Jagdflieger were hard-pushed to take on the US bomber fleets effectively. And then, when in a  matter of months the Jagdflieger had worked out tactics to counter the heavy defensive armament - US bomber formations could number upwards of one thousand Viermots - hundreds of fast, agile and long-legged escort fighters appeared on the scene.

The 'rush' for honours in the Jagdwaffe via aerial victories also led in some cases to something approaching systemic over-claiming. It may be true perhaps that all fighter pilots over-claim and the vast majority of over-claiming may well have been made in good faith in the heat of very dangerous action. However and most importantly - and this is the point that should be made to those who say, well, over-claiming..yes, maybe, but everyone did it - in the Luftwaffe there is no doubt that  more than a few aces sought glory and career advancement at the expense of all else.

With the launch of Barbarossa in June 1941 one Geschwader in particular - JG 53 -  began a run of colossal victory scores. Through June, July and August 1941, the Stab and I./JG 53 returned over 200 victory claims. The Kommodore von Maltzahn picked up his Oakleaves in July taking his score from 16 to 49 in a six week period although he was nonetheless forced to make three crash landings during the same period. Oblt Hans-Joachim Heinecke went from 0 to 16 and was appointed Staffelkapitän of I./JG 53. It was a similar story for II./JG 53 (minus its 6. Staffel) Despite the early loss of Kommandeur Bretnuetz, over fourteen weeks and for the loss of six pilots the Gruppe returned some 194 victories.  According to Jean-Louis Roba in his four volume treatment of the Geschwader published by Lela Presse these figures are patently "inflated".

The exploits of III./JG 53 over the fourteen week period from the launch of Barbarossa to the end of September 1941 have assumed almost 'legendary' status - by the end of the first summer in the East, III./JG 53 had submitted claims for some 373 victories! But as Jean-Louis Roba has pointed out ;

   "..operating over Heeresgruppe Mitte, this latter organisation seems to have largely abdicated its authority to 'adjudicate' in the claims confirmation process..".

 While its defenders claim Wilcke's Gruppe - established by Mölders - was a nursery for Draufgänger, as evidenced by the three Ritterkreuze awarded in this short space of time, Roba continues;

 " ..it is nonetheless a fact that many of these pilots' victory claims were no more than flights of fancy and that they were 'encouraged' to file these claims by a benevolent hierarchy and propaganda media looking for new heroes.. ".

 These 373 claims were made for the loss of some 31 Friedrichs either seriously damaged or destroyed and just three pilots killed..including Ritterkreuz holder Lt. Erich Schmidt, ( RK awarded 23 July for 31 victories) who was downed by Soviet anti-aircraft fire near Dubno.




Above; Erich Schmidt III./JG 53, RK 23 July 1941. Note the forty seven Abschussbalken, his final tally.


I./JG 53 returned to Russia for the offensives of 1942 and received its first Bf 109 G-2 fighters later that summer. Roba again;

 " From the outset the huge victory list accumulated by I./JG 53 simply staggers - 913 victory claims in a 19-week period for only 15 pilots lost at an average of 7 victories/day. "

 One of these losses was Kommandeur Kaminski, shot down and wounded on 24 July 1942. (On his return from convalescence during late 1943 Kaminski was appointed CO of Zerstörer Gruppe II./ZG 76) Oblt. Tonne opened this second campaign in the East with 19 victories and finished it with 101 ! A youthful Uffz. Wilhelm Crinius had yet to open his score on his arrival in the unit in February 1942 - on 22 September he had 'achieved' his 100th! By now 'Stalin's Falcons' had learnt the lessons of 1941. Moreover, new, more modern types had made their appearance in addition to Allied equipment supplied under Lend-Lease.

" The pilots exaggerated claims were probably not the result of deliberate falsification, but it was self-evident that there was no rigour in the claims validation process whatsoever ".

This blogger is tempted to add - as is so often claimed for the Jagdwaffe !  Jean-Louis Roba argues that these huge victory totals should be divided by two, three, four or even five to arrive at claims approaching the reality of Soviet losses. I./JG 53 went back to Sicily prior to Stalingrad, while of those JG 53 aces who had run up such huge scores in just a short three-month period, very few would see the end of the war - Uffz. Franz Hagedorn (25 or 37 vics), Uffz. Helmut Peissert (38) and Ritterkreuz holder Walter Zellot (86) would all perish soon afterwards in Russia.

Having been told by Alfred Price and others over the years that the Luftwaffe aerial victories verification process was not open to abuse, more recent (Russian) research also appears to have demonstrated the contrary...

Johannes Matthews writes " ..Hartmann was ambitious and had worked out that the best way to be the best was to survive the longest, so cut out all the risks.."  For example, Hartmann made very few IL-2 claims, even avoided combat with the IL-2 Shturmovik altogether..Matthews writing on the TOCH forum goes further .." Hartmann's Staffel .. (were ).. not happy with him, though this could be down to his avoidance of anything other than high altitude combat... ...I will confess regarding fraudulent claims that I have noticed certain traits that would support this, firstly why when a whole Gruppe is in a certain region such claims are almost all made by the same Staffel, also it takes at least two to make fraudulent claims i.e Rudorffer and Tangermann, Schall and Anton Resch always seemed to claim together, and are in my mind suspect. Hartmann makes large numbers of claims whilst with Birkner. Another telling point is if they get transfered to the West, or just another unit how different their claims are in volume. With 9./JG 52 if false claims are true here, it must have continued for years, so replacement pilots must have been groomed to assist. Generally I have found JG 52's claims not outrageous. Sad thing is that some over-claimers caused inflation in the medals league, and some appeared to have been so much more deserving than others. But my only defense for Hartmann is that in August 1944 when he accelerated towards the "300" mark that he was the only pilot in his Staffel actually making claims. He also made so few claims over the Il-2, which would make sense, if he had claimed many I would question it as they flew at extremely low altitude, and his claims were almost all at high altitude. Yet Hartmann was not popular with other pilots(for whatever reason). Perhaps they suspected that he was a fraud, or perhaps he was just selfish in his pursuit of numbers.......he was also a poor officer..."

Price ignores the fact that in the Luftwaffe there were incentives to over-claim. In addition, the approach to medals and promotions may have skewed fighting efficiency. An example often cited now is the "Expertenschwarm" of 4./JG 27. The risk of being exposed was not very great and the official punishment not necessarily harsh. While Sawallisch was killed in a crash shortly after the fraud was exposed, Bendert, besides being sent to train new pilots - which might or might not have been a punishment - received the Ritterkreuz for his troubles. And of course there was the 'propaganda' aspect; the 'ace' might well bring 'glory' not only on himself, but also to his unit and his CO. So if the CO began to suspect that one of his “stars” was in fact over-claiming badly he might well try to solve the problem inside his unit. Or not.

Long suspected of being an 'unreliable' over-claimer (see above) Erich Rudorffer of II./JG 2 notes in Mombeek's "Dans le ciel de France"   (Vol. 4, 1943) following the death of Wolf von Bülow, Staffelkapitän of 5./ JG 2 and son of the former Kommodore Maj. Harry von Bulow in a bombing raid on Kairouan on 23 February 1943;

" ..although he had sought refuge in a shelter, Oblt. von Bülow's body was riddled with shrapnel. His death was a terrible blow to morale. The atmosphere within the unit was going downhill fast following Dickfeld's departure. There was far too much bad feeling and competitiveness around aerial victories and the 'scramble' for decorations and promotion had become far too important. In fact each individual pilot's motivation turned on his claims and what they could get him and such a state of affairs could only harm any 'esprit de corps' ..."

It is of course possible to argue the opposite case - that this 'system' of constant front-line action made the most of the limited resources available to the Jagdwaffe. As Claes Sundin points out in his latest profile book, an ace like Grislawski could by 1944 anticipate every opponent's manoeuvre in the sky such was his level of experience. At the same time the average Allied fighter pilot would perhaps only fly or have flown 50-100 sorties before being rotated away from the front. ".. Just how good could they be ? " Those Luftwaffe aces still in the air had far more experience than the average Allied pilot.

 "..by the time of the Normandy landings I had flown more than 800 sorties. In spite of the fact that the Allies had aircraft everywhere, in huge numbers, I always had complete control of the situation, able to predict every enemy pilot's slightest maneuver or tactical move...and just how good could they (US pilots) be when after 40-50 combat sorties they went home again? " (Alfred Grislawski quoted in Sundin, Luftwaffe Profile book no. 6)

In his 380-page study on the air war over Normandy 1944, David Clark writes: "..We noted how many German super-aces appeared in the air battle. The skill level of the pool of German pilots was not homogenous but rather, presented a dramatic contrast. The killing of so many good pilots in the first six months of 1944 left most Gruppen with a smattering of super-aces, a small number of experienced but not yet expert pilots, and the vast majority with but a few hours flying experience. These latter had been desperately pressed into service without sufficient training." ("Angels Eight: Normandy Air War", p. 59)

 Training or mentoring new pilots was a crucial role, but one shunned almost entirely by the fighter aces; as losses continued to rise through late 1943 and early 1944 new pilots arriving in front-line units were for the most part avoided by the old-hands, with one of two notable exceptions. They were simply not going to be around long enough to get to know. New German pilots lacked the training, experience and expertise which set off a long downward spiral, with the losses and the inability to replace pilots with comparable fighter pilots in experience and training let alone enough aircraft and fuel. In addition the Jagdwaffe was and remained throughout the war a 'fair-weather' force. Even aces such as Steinhoff were judged by the Americans post-war to have had 'lousy' instrument skills.

But the Luftwaffe cult of the 'fighter ace' could lead to other problems. There was for example no such thing as a culture of flight safety in the Luftwaffe as explained in a previous blog post here. The 'ace' lacked the wherewithal to clean up disciplinary problems. Or even create 'team spirit' - the victories in aerial combat had to be his! Some aces pushed claims to this end.

"..there were essentially two types of pilot. In the first category were those who were already relatively experienced. They would reveal nothing about how to engage in combat or shoot. We were in the second - just kids who had to try and acquire the experience. This is why my first successes happened relatively late on, after I had flown a lot and observed a lot.."

Uffz. Eduard Isken, 7./JG 77


Above; Nowotny in front of 3./JG 54 'Yellow 2' - he made his first claim with this Staffel.

While Luftwaffe fighter aces enjoyed 'celebrity status' - none more so than Nowotny, a 250-victory Russian Front ace with JG 54 - their political leaders were happy to keep them on a "loose leash", as long as they produced 'results'. But when Nowotny was appointed to head up the Me 262 jet fighter trials unit, one of the first to complain was Messerschmitt himself - Nowotny was not up to the task (see Boehme for more..) While mass production of the Me 262 had started in the summer of 1944 hardly any pilots had been trained to fly it by the time of the Allied Normandy landings. The first operational deployment of the Me 262 was chaotic - the first hurriedly trained jet bomber pilots of the Einsatzkommando I./KG 51 (otherwise known as Kommando Schenk) arrived in northern France in late August 1944. The first Me 262 jet bomber sorties were flown piecemeal against troop concentrations along the banks of the river Seine from 25 August 1944 before the survivors began falling back to Holland a matter of weeks later in September 1944.  And while it may seem unfair to blame Nowotny for this state of affairs the point is this; a number of fighter aces enjoyed reputations that were 'artificially' boosted (..by German propaganda) and which are repeated endlessly in the literature  - even today - but which do not always stand up to examination. Not surprisingly certain Luftwaffe officers were promoted to command positions who were not up to the tasks of leadership, neither in terms of character nor in terms of intellect.

As the war progressed and the numbers of inexperienced pilots increased and the numbers of 'super' aces decreased, the Luftwaffe's fighter ace 'model' could obviously not be sustained. In his history of JG 53 Jochen Prien discusses the Luftwaffe leadership's reaction to the aces 'failure' to halt the invasion of Sicily. The Luftwaffe hierarchy was quick to adopt a more repressive stance towards their fighter pilots - including courts martial - as soon as 'results' failed to materialize. Galvanising pilots - who naturally wanted to keep their jobs and to stay on the 'right' side of their superiors - may have led -dangerously- to claim 'inflation' and, as mentioned, may even be seen to have skewed the fighting efficiency of the Jagdwaffe as a whole.

More on this blog;

"Walter Dahl - his aircraft and his (inflated) claims" here

"JG 2 vs the RAF 1941 - Luftwaffe fighter ace claims and credits" here

"Aces of Aces -Erich Hartmann - 352 victories or 80? " here