Tuesday 7 February 2012

A history of Jagdgeschwader 53 'Pik As' part 2 Batailles Aériennes 59

Part two of Jean-Louis Roba's planned four-part series on JG 53 is just published by Lela Presse in their Batailles aériennes series of quarterly monographs. This is a very nice 108-page A-4 format softback with over 200 nicely reproduced photos (including 10-15 colour images) and twenty of Thierry Dekker's superlative artworks - all for less than the price of an Osprey. Recommended, even if you don't read French.

Covering the period March 1941 to December 1942 Roba describes and analyses the performance of a Jagdgeschwader that some saw as an ace 'nursery'. Roba in his usual trenchant, even provocative, style begs to differ. During early 1941 the entire Geschwader converted onto the latest variant of the Bf 109, the Friedrich, and returned to northern France to counter the RAF's attempts to 'lean into Europe'. Early April saw Fw. Josef Wurmheller (5./JG 53) claim a Spitfire and a Blenheim in his first combat sorties since coming down in the Channel during November 1940. On 26 April Lt. Wolfgang Tonne (3./JG 53) became an ace, downing a Spitfire south of Boulogne-sur-Mer (the RAF reported this as a 242 Sq. Hurricane). The combats over the Channel up to June 1941 were very much an interlude for JG 53 prior to the invasion of the Soviet Union which nonetheless resulted in the loss of six pilots killed in action. With the launch of Barbarossa I./JG 53 began its run of colossal victory scores - through June, July and August 1941, over 200 for the Stab and I./JG 53, " a figure which is patently inflated ".  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 " a largely exaggerated figure for just two Staffeln ". The exploits of III./JG 53 over this fourteen week period to the end of September are also detailed. Operating over Heeresgruppe Mitte, this latter organisation seems to have largely abdicated its authority to 'adjudicate' in the claims confirmation process. By the end of the first summer in the East, III./JG 53 had submitted claims for some 373 victories! 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, " 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 31 Friedrich 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.

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

Profile courtesy of artist Thierry Dekker for this blog. Click on the image for a larger view.
Messerschmitt Bf 109 F-2 (WNr. 6702) assigned to Ofw. Hermann Neuhoff, 7./JG 53, Lepel, early July 1941. Neuhoff was shot down over Malta on 10 April 1942 by a "Hurricane" and taken captive.  He was awarded the RK on the same day for his 40 victories. Neuhoff was most probably shot down by a JG 53 Bf 109.

There followed a period of rest in Holland and conversion onto the F-4 variant, that nonetheless saw the loss of the Kommandeur I./JG 53 Franz von Werra. He was replaced by Zerstörer ace Hptm Herbert Kaminski who was awarded the RK on 6 August 1941. Late 1941 and early 1942 saw JG 53 active in a new theatre of operations - deployed to Sicily. The Mediterranean meant the time of 'easy' victories was over  - the hazards of the Med - long over-sea flights, RAF Spitfires and Hurricanes and the British exploitation of Ultra all saw to that. Some 45 victory claims were filed for combats over Malta during the first two months in the Med - for some 25 actual RAF losses. During the spring of 1942 operations over Malta continued relentlessly. A Jabo Staffel was established under Oblt. Werner Langemann. JG 53 filed over 100 victory claims for this period for 25 pilots lost - the successful pilots, Oblt. Helmut Belser (8./JG 53), Zellot, von Maltzahn, Rollwage had all run up scores in the Soviet Union - few if any 'new' aces appeared.  A claim of note was 6./JG 53 Ofw. Rudolf Ehrenberger's 20th on 31 March - for a Hampden over Luqa. In some listings this has even been registered as a Mosquito ! Roba suggests that it was a Hudson flying in from Gibraltar. On 14 April von Maltzahn was credited with a P-40, another extremely rare type over Malta.

I./JG 53 returned to Russia for the offensives of 1942 and received its first Bf 109 G-2 fighters later that summer. " 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 ". One is tempted to add  - as is so often claimed for the Jagdwaffe !  The author 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.

Profile courtesy of artist Thierry Dekker for this blog. Click on the image for a larger view
Messerschmitt Bf 109 F-4 of 10.(Jabo)/JG 53, Gela, Sicily April 1942. The men of the Jabo Staffel referred to themselves as the "Bomben-Export Langemann u Co. GmbH"

JG 53 Friedrichs at Comiso, Sicily during 1942,  courtesy of Michael Meyer and a recent Ebay auction  - these are not images taken from this installment of Roba's JG 53 history.
Michael Meyer's Ebay auctions can be found here
For more on JG 53 on Sicily on this blog, again courtesy of Michael Meyer, go here