Thursday 16 June 2016

Circuses over France - on the eve of Barbarossa; 21 June 1941 in the West

 On the eve of Barbarossa, 21 June 1941 -  and indicating perhaps that the British, via Ultra, were aware of the imminent German invasion of the Soviet Union - the RAF mounted two successive Circuses over northern France for the first time. Circuses were essentially large-scale fighter sweeps, taking the war to the Luftwaffe. The RAF's tactic was to lure the German fighters - principally of JG 2 and JG 26 - into the air to write them down using a handful of bombers as 'bait' escorted by sometimes as many as nine squadrons of fighters. This is what Jean-Louis Roba in his new publication for Lela Presse, 'Non-Stop Offensive' (cover image left, go here to purchase), refers to as " the Battle of Britain in reverse" - and which in many instances imposed similar constraints on the RAF fighter squadrons as the Jagdwaffe had endured during the previous summer. Circus N° 16 targeted the airfield at Longuenesse (St-Omer) during the early afternoon – six Blenheims of 21 Sqd and an ‘escort’ of no fewer than fifteen squadrons of fighters. JG 26 alone intercepted, the German pilots claiming four victories. After scrambling from Audembert with his wingman Ofw. Bruno Hegenauer in tow, Kommodore Galland was soon up-sun and at altitude, launching a diving attack that pierced the RAF fighter screen to set one of the Blenheims alight. He claimed a second Blenheim shot down although this ‘victory’ was not confirmed and his 'victim' returned home. Galland’s machine, an early series Bf 109 F-2, WNr. 5776, was hit by future ace Boleslaw ‘Ghandi’ Drobinski of 303 Sqn - damage later assessed at 40% - but the Kommodore JG 26 was able to carry out a belly landing close to the airfield at Calais-Marck before being picked up by a Bf 108 and ferried back to Audembert. Fw. Bruno Hagenauer bailed out near St. Omer while Gefr. Christian Knees of 9./ JG 26 was shot down on his first sortie. II./JG 26 who chased after the RAF raiders also lost several machines to the Biggin Hill fighters, two pilots being shot down over the UK resulting in a largely positive outcome for the RAF from Circus N° 16 – at least five JG 26 Bf 109s for one Blenheim and three fighters damaged.

Circus N° 17, mounted later that afternoon against the aerodrome at Desvres, resulted in II. Gruppe of the Richthofen being scrambled in support of the Schlageter over the coastal sector between Boulogne and Le Touquet to counter no fewer than seventeen fighter squadrons escorting six 110 Sqd Blenheims. For the second time that day the fighting was largely favourable to the raiding RAF force. Kommodore Galland was airborne again, this time in his replacement Friedrich, minus a wingman. This was Bf 109 F-2 WNr. 6713 (DG+MU) displaying a chevron and two bars. (Isby in his excellent account in 'The Decisive Duel' states that Galland's second machine of the day was an Emil).

Once again the aggressively flown Spitfires brought him down, although not before he claimed his 70th (probably the Spitfire of P/O Edward of 616 Sqd which came down near Boulogne). The moments after being shot up Galland described as the most terrifying seconds of his life. Wounded in the head and the right arm, it was only with great difficulty that he managed to extricate himself from his doomed machine. WNr. 6713 crashed at Bellebrune, 12 km east of Boulogne-sur-Mer. On landing Galland was taken to a farm by some "unpleasant looking Frenchmen" before being taken back to Audembert and on to the Kriegsmarine Lazarett at Hardinghem. Theo Osterkamp later drove over to inform Galland that his tally of victories ( revised down to 69 as subsequently seen on the rudder scoreboard of his F-2 WNr. 6750) had now earned him the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords (Ritterkreuz des Eisernen Kreuzes mit Eichenlaub und Schwertern). In addition to the Kommodore, JG 26 suffered three more losses.

Während des Geburtstagsempfangs im April 1941 bei Generalleutnant Theodor Osterkamp (r.) schildert der Jagdflieger der deutschen Luftwaffe, Oberstleutnant Adolf Galland (2.v.l.) einen Luftkampf; 2.v.r. Oberstleutnant Werner Mölders. (Dreesen) 10443-41 - Galland at Osterkamp's 49th birthday describing a combat, April 1941 (Bundesarchiv photo via wiki commmons)

II./JG 2 claimed no less than eleven victories ( ten Spitfires and a single Hurricane), with the notable aces adding to their scores; Ofw. Kurt Bühligen (4./JG 2, three Spitfires), Lt. Siegfried Schnell (4./JG 2, two Spitfires west of Le Touquet), Oblt. Hans-Jürgen Hepe (4./JG 2, two Spitfires) and the Kommandeur Greisert (a single Spitfire). These Spitfire claims were in addition to eight Spitfires claimed by JG 26. In total the RAF lost no more than four Spitfires for nineteen German claims !

The extent of the over-claiming on the German side may be a reflection of the RAF’s numerical superiority or it may possibly reflect the intensity of the fighting - the British had lost in fact (inclusive of the losses sustained during the early afternoon )… just three Hurricanes and probably a similar number of Spitfires. The RAF though had claimed some thirty victories- including a number of the new Friedrichs. While just as optimistic, the British claims were at least partially founded since JG 26 had lost around ten aircraft plus a further four aircraft seriously damaged. Of the JG 2 pilots, Uffz. Lorenz Dessoy of 5. Staffel had to bale out following combat with a Spitfire off Tréport. He was rescued by the Seenot and was able to rejoin his unit. Dessoy would eventually perish in 1945 shortly before the end of the war. It was notable too that no British bomber was lost during the course of the fighting, no doubt as a result of the excellent protection afforded by the imposing fighter escort. While generally described as Galland's worst day of the war - shot down twice - the Schlageter and the Richthofener were about to enjoy their most successful period of the conflict! Although Galland himself would be shot down again in another Friedrich on his next sortie on 2 July - the leading fighter ace of the Luftwaffe downed three times in three consecutive sorties!

Also on this blog;

Kanalgeschwader JG 2- Bf 109 Friedrich into service

Bf 109s Jabos of JG 2 in 1941

Operation Sunrise, 24 July 1941 - I./JG 2 versus RAF bombers over France

Der Reichsmarschall bei Oberst Galland JG 26 - Der Adler 01/42