Friday 12 November 2010

Luftwaffe over Tunisia, February to May 1943 - Kagero Air Battles series

Air Battles is a Kagero series focusing on specific aircraft and units in combat. Each volume is soft-cover, comprises around 56 large-format pages and details the aircraft, units and aces that were key to a battle or theatre of operations in a riveting combat diary format. The well written English text includes a full breakdown of missions and scores and is brought vividly to life with first person accounts, pilot portraits, superb colour profile artwork and maps. Over 50 photographs feature in each book, with free extras for modellers, such as masking foil and decal sheets.

This second volume covering the Luftwaffe over Tunisia and No. 10 in the Air Battles series is in four parts and details the final months of the Luftwaffe in North Africa during the first half of 1943. This relatively little-known campaign proved to be just as disastrous for the Luftwaffe – in particular its transport fleet- as had its recent participation in the battle for Stalingrad. With the tide turning in the air and on the ground the Axis air forces operating in North Africa were very much on the back foot. Notwithstanding an almost constant round of Stuka and Ju 88 tactical bombing sorties in support of German ground troops, Luftwaffe operations over Tunisia from March 1943 were characterised by massive and hugely risky transport missions flown by fleets of Ju 52s and Me323 Gigants. These were undertaken at grievous cost. Despite the best efforts of the handful of Luftwaffe fighter units in the theatre, most notably Gruppen of JG 77, JG 51 and JG 53, the Luftwaffe was on the wrong end of some serious reverses.

A feature of Kagero books are the first person accounts drawn from German language sources and thus largely previously unpublished in English. This volume is no exception and opens in typical Kagero style with a two-page account from TG 5 transport pilot Peter Ernst, one of the few survivors from the 22 April 1943 massacre of a flight of fourteen Messerschmitt 323 Gigant transports tasked urgently with flying 170 tonnes of fuel into Tunis for the beleaguered Heeresgruppe Afrika;

“ ..after an eventful passage over the Mediterranean the African coast hove into view. Suddenly all hell broke loose.. Spitfires and Tomahawks tore into our tight wedge formation from the rear and the sides. Our machine guns chattered in response. Tracers laced the sky wasn’t long before the first Gigant erupted in flames and plunged into the sea, trailing an oily plume of black smoke…”

In total all fourteen Gigant transports and their precious cargoes went down that day and it was clear that Heeresgruppe Afrika was fighting a losing battle as a result of Allied fighter interdiction of air and sea supply routes. Allied air superiority was exacting a similar toll on the ground as reported by Armin Köhler of I./JG 77;

“ Enemy raids start at 05:30 hr. At 09:00 we are bombed by 18 Boeings. An hour later another raid follows. .the tension becomes unbearable. Every single one of us, lower ranks and officers alike, is becoming a nervous wreck as a result of the constant bombardment. That was only the beginning of the hot spring in Tunisia.”

Of course it was just as tough in the air, but at least the pilots of JG77, JG53 and JG51 could fight back there.

“.. On the afternoon of 21 March seventeen Ju 87 Ds of III./St. G3 escorted by a handful of Bf 109s of II./JG51 were swarmed by 36 Spitfires. Three Stukas went down in flames but the Messerschmitt pilots stood their ground. Hptm. Grasser, Oblt. Rammelt and Ofw. Schulz each shot down one Spitfire apiece in a matter of minutes ..”

The text portrays the efforts of the few hard-pressed Luftwaffe fighter units as they attempted to counter increasingly Allied dominance in the air but with the odds stacked against them they were steadily worn down in a war of attrition. Even new aircraft didn’t help. I./JG 77 was re-equipped with Bf 109 G-6s. Lt. Armin Köhler was not enthusiastic;

“I went up for a practice flight in one of the new G-6s. Nothing to be happy about. It handles well, but performance is sorely lacking. With each new variant these Messerschmitts get slower not faster. I had the underwing armament removed from mine – otherwise I wouldn’t even dare pull it off the ground..”

Major Müncheberg, Kommodore of JG 77 is just one of the many Luftwaffe aces whose exploits over Tunisia are detailed in the text. After adding 24 victories to his total over Tunisia Müncheberg was killed on 23 March 1943 in combat with USAAF Spitfires from the 52nd Fighter Group. After shooting one down, he was in collision with a second and crashed to his death in Bf 109 G-6 WNr. 16381. Elsewhere Köhler comments that the pressure of events was starting to tell - even the Kommandeur was starting to “lose it”. Hptm. Heinz Bär claimed two on 24 March ;

“ At 09:40 13 Bf 109s of I. Gruppe scrambled to intercept 18 B-25s of the 321st BG escorted by Warhawks of the 58th and 59th Fighter Squadrons. The 109s caught up with them just short of the target. Two of the Warhawks must have had very competent pilots – although outnumbered they put up quite a fight which went on for several minutes. Finally Hptm. Bär, furious with his pilots, lost his temper and yelled over the R/T; ‘Get out of the way you stupid bastards!’ It took him less than a minute to bring down the two valiant Warhawks..”

The text presents a blow –by-blow account of Operation Flax – the huge Allied air operations undertaken against the Axis to prevent them supplying and withdrawing resources during April 1943. Several large scale air battles took place, including the Sunday 18 April Palmsontag Massaker - the so-called Palm Sunday massacre – which saw a huge formation of 65 Junkers Ju 52s set upon and mauled by Allied fighters over Cape Bon while evacuating Heer forces escaping from the Allied ground offensive Operation Vulcan. Allied interdiction efforts continued until 27 April and were successful in destroying Axis logistical support. In fact so soon after Stalingrad, Flax inflicted such grievous losses on the German transport fleets they were unable to recover thereafter.

The final chapter is entitled ‘ The Defeat in Africa’ and with the fall of Tunis and Bizerte, the two principal ports, the fate of the Axis forces in North Africa was sealed. Despite orders ‘to stand and fight’ JaFü 2 had already begun to evacuate as many men and machines as possible to Sicily. Lt Reinert of 4./JG77 was piloting a Bf109 G while sitting on the lap of Lt. Zeno Bäumel while carrying the Staffel’s chief mechanic, Ofw. Walter, inside the rear fuselage. Bäumel recalled;

“.. over the Bay of Tunis we ran into a group of British Martlet carrier-borne fighters. Reinert manoeuvred onto the tail of the rearmost machine, its pilot utterly oblivious to our presence. I watched over Reinert’s shoulder as he positioned himself for the ‘kill’. At one moment I got carried away and yelled into his ear to open fire. At that moment Reinert squeezed the trigger. His first burst was inconclusive. He fired again hitting the Martlet in its port wing and cockpit. The British machine rolled into a spin and slammed into the sea..”

As you can gather I particularly enjoyed the concise narratives liberally distributed throughout the text - all supported by endnotes and a bibliography. The text is complemented with around fifty period black and white photographs, a pull out colour profile section and a selection of very attractive artworks. The emblems, personal markings and aircraft numbers of the profiled aircraft feature on the free decal sheet in 1:32, 1:48 and 1:72 scales and include some unusually camouflaged JG 77 machines, as well as a nice II./Sch. G.2 Fw 190 A-5, making this volume something of a bargain for the ardent modeller and Luftwaffe enthusiast.

Kagero books are distributed by and available from Casemate Publishing. My thanks to Casemate Publishing for supplying a copy for review on this blog. To purchase this book click here