Tuesday 7 July 2020

more (photo) highlights from JG 77 -Battle of Britain, Tunisia, Malta, Romania

Jagdgeschwader 77 is one of the least well –known Luftwaffe fighter units but it was a 'colourful' Geschwader in more ways than one - and not just because of the range of emblems and insignia displayed on the Bf 109s that its pilots flew virtually from first to last. From its rather convoluted early history and diverse origins, JG 77 saw hard-fought action on all fronts (Germany, Norway, the Netherlands, France, Greece, USSR, North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Romania...) and counted among its ranks at one time or another many leading fighter aces (Bär, Gollob, Müncheberg, Ihlefeld, Steinhoff, Reinert...). Unusually its three Gruppen often fought together but in ‘difficult’ theatres, where, heavily out-numbered and with ‘backs to the wall’, it was difficult to build big scores - aside perhaps from Russia during the summer of 1941. Certainly its pilots received fewer awards than any other Jagdgeschwader fighting from first to last – only 27 Ritterkreuze and 7 Oakleaves - and no pilot was decorated twice with high awards while in the unit. As there is very little on JG 77 in English, the unit would make an excellent subject for an Osprey title - but apparently they are not interested.  Ask me how I know. One reason the new Casemate ‘Day fighter Aces of the Luftwaffe’ titles include a certain amount of JG 77 material. Otherwise some highlights/extracts of a text I've compiled follow;

On August 25, 1940, I./JG 77 under Hptm. Johannes Janke was ordered to Marquise between Calais and Boulogne - at the height of the Battle of Britain. At Marquise I./JG 77 would be based alongside its former neighbour from the campaign in the West, I.(J)/LG 2, commanded by recent appointee Hptm. Bernhard Mielke. However I./JG 77 lacked the experience acquired by the first Lehrgeschwader Gruppe and their debut in the Battle of Britain would, as a result, prove catastrophic.

below; seen here left Hptm. Johannes Janke, Gkr. I/JG 77 during the Battle of Britain

‘....31 August 1940 was to be a black day for I./JG 77 recently posted to reinforce the Channel front. The Emils had only just moved into Marquise (between Calais and Boulogne-sur-Mer) and were assigned to fly their first sortie – a free hunt – over Kent that morning. The Gruppe was quickly caught up in a wild dogfight with British fighters. Although Lt Herbert Muetherich of 3./JG 77 -a future Knight’s Cross recipient- claimed a Spitfire shot down, 2. Staffel lost their Kapitän, Oblt. Ekkehard Priebe, who was taken captive after being forced to bale out over Ealham. While this in itself was a serious blow, the second sortie of the day, a bomber escort mission, proved to be a total disaster – at 3,000 feet over the Thames estuary a formation of Hurricanes fell on 1. Staffel. Six JG 77 Bf 109s were shot down including the Emil of Fw. Walter Evers, a veteran of the campaign in the West. Among the pilots forced to bale out were the Staffelkapitän, Oblt. Hans-Jurgen Ehrig, and Lt. Jura Petrenko– of Russo-German parentage- who was flying his first combat sortie of the war at the controls of ‘Yellow 4’..”

The Bf 109 E-4, ‘White 13′ of Oblt. Hans-Jurgen Ehrig, Staffelkapitän of 1./JG77, lies crumpled in a field at Gates Farm near Tenterden, Kent on the afternoon of 31st August 1940. Damaged by fighters while over Hornchurch on an escort mission, Ehrig attempted to return to France but, harried by F/Lt. M.L. Robinson of 601 Sqn, he was forced to put his damaged aircraft down and was subsequently taken prisoner. 31 August 1940 was disastrous for JG 77 which, newly introduced to the Battle of Britain, lost five aircraft from 1. Staffel and one from 2. Staffel. 

Despite the setbacks endured during the Tunisian campaign in early 1943, the atmosphere could still be cheerful at I./JG 77 as shown in this fine image that featured on the cover of  Jägerblatt during 1971;

From left to right: Leutnant Karl Eberle (2./JG 77, 8 victories), Leutnant Armin Köhler (bare-headed future Ritterkreuzträger and Kapitän 2./JG 77), Hauptmann Bär (Kommandeur I./JG 77), Oberleutnant Heinz-Edgar Berres (future Ritterkreuzträger and Kapitän 1./JG 77) and Oberleutnant Ernst Laube (just out of shot, Chef der 3./JG 77, 8 victories). 

Cover of Jägerblatt dated June 1957 carrying the news of Heinz Bär's death in a light aircraft accident on 28 April 1957 aged 44 years old. " So muessen wir Abschied nahmen von einem unsere fähigsten Jagdflieger des letzten Krieges'' - We must say farewell to one of our most able fighter pilots of the last war'. In this  image taken (probably) in late 1942 in Sicily, Bär is seen with the lion cub mascot lent by Leipzig Zoo. The emblem under the cockpit of Bär’s I./JG 77 Bf 109 G-2 depicted a lion jumping from the coat of arms of the city of Leipzig, also Bär's Heimatstadt . Part of his Kommandeur 'Winkel Dreieck' is just visible behind Bär's shoulder. The grown animal was returned to its zoo. This is a slightly wider and brighter image than the photo on Page 1277 of the Jagdgeschwader 77 history (Teil 3).

below; 2./JG 77 Bf 109 F-4 'Black 4' assigned to Ofw. Walter Brandt who claimed fourteen victories over Malta and was the leading ace of this campaign..

In his diary, Lt Armin Köhler (3./JG 77) described the first Mediterranean engagement on July 5, 1942;

 "Comiso. 15.00 Uhr, erster Einsatz gegen Malta - first sortie to Malta. Life jackets, dinghy and Kanalhosen are handed out - ‘Channel’ trousers for operations over the sea. Mission: escorting Ju 88s, contact at 5,200 meters over our airfield. Participants: I./JG 77 and II./JG 53. Objective: Luqa/Miccaba airfield. A large formation of Bf 109s orbits between 5 and 6.000 meters. “ Da – Land!” Over there, land! The island of Gozo and then further to the south, Malta! Twenty 'Red Indians' are reported at 8,000 meters. The Ju 88s dive on the airfield. The anti-aircraft guns unleash accurate salvos. There's a lot of debris floating around the sky. I am constantly swivelling my neck to watch the sky above my head, especially in the direction of the sun. I'm waiting for the Spitfires to arrive at any minute. And then they are there! Here they come, diving down on us. I manage to briefly get on the tail of one of them but he spots me just as I am about to squeeze the firing button. He manages to take evasive action – eine Abschwung – a Split-S. All of our machines return to base. [...] 18:30 hours, our next sortie. Ju 88s attack Ta Venezia. Several machines return with hits. There are the Spitfires, although there are some Hurricanes and P-40s. We are not used to flying at these sorts of altitudes and it’s having an impact on the machines – my supercharger pressure regulator is faulty. The engines are suffering in the heat…

Below; Pilots of 8./JG 77, Mizil, Romania, spring 1944. The ace Uffz. Karl-Heinz ‘Pummel' Böttner is in the middle (fourth from the right). Second right is Uffz. Jürgen Kilian.

below; Erich Sommavilla flew with III./JG 77 in Mizil during July 1944

July 22, 1944 saw a repeat of the attack of the week before with approximately four hundred and fifty bombers launched. Four B-24s and one HSS were claimed by III./JG 77 as well as two P-38s. ‘Pummel' Böttner returned his 16th victory – another Liberator- and 8./JG 77 suffered only minor material losses. That day, at least nine B-24s were lost to the combined actions of the fighter force and the Flak arm. It was during this period that 8./JG 77 was taken over by Lt Wilhelm Mockel. Born in 1918 Mockel had spent a number of years as an instructor in training schools. Sent in mid-1944 to I./JG 53 operating in Romania, he was then posted to III./JG 77, a Gruppe short on officers. Mockel may have volunteered for combat but he had no experience of it - unlike the survivors of the African and Italian campaigns, aces such as Hackler or Böttner.

 July 28, 1944 saw the 15th USAF mount its fourteenth attack on the Romanian oilfields; some 350 bombers were launched, fully intending in this last phase of the assault to deal the final blow to the defense of the oilfields and refineries. Some twenty four-engine bombers were lost, two of which were attributed to Uffz Böttner. But in the course of the fighting 8./JG 77 lost two pilots, both probably reinforcements having arrived in Romania at the beginning of 1944. On  July 31, three hundred and fifty bombers were split between Bucharest and Ploesti. 7./JG 77 was decimated and 8./JG 77 lost three aircraft and one pilot killed. The Kapitän Mockel was wounded and temporarily put out of action (his post would then probably have been taken over by Hackler). Poorly guided from the ground, the Bf 109s were directed towards the escort which was present in much greater numbers, resulting in substantial losses.

On August 6, an internal note from the Luftwaffenmission in Romania stated brutally; Romanian airspace can no longer be defended by aircraft because 1°) the enemy is far superior in number; 2°) the German and Romanian fighter pilots no longer have enough experience. Indeed, apart from a few 'old hands', the ranks of III./JG 77 were largely made up of novices. Attacks could only be mounted when certain of having at least a slight tactical advantage. III./JG 77 had thus become no more than an auxiliary force, the defenders relying mainly on the Flak as well as on the units producing smoke to mask the objectives.

G-6 Gustav 'Black 2' flown by Uffz. Jürgen Kilian 8./JG 77

Below;a  recent ebay find - a Bf 109 K-4 of III./JG 77 - this is a 12. Staffel machine, 'Blue 3' assigned to Lt. Günther Beine. Beine was posted to III./JG 77 during September 1944. The 'red heart' badge is visible on the cowl..

III./JG 77 received 75 brand new Bf 109 K-4's in November 1944 while based at Neuruppin and a number of images of these machines are known. 'Blue 3' has featured in a recent issue of 'Luftwaffe in Focus' magazine. Note this is not the same 12./JG 77 ‘blue 3’ K-4 featured on page 87 of the Luftwaffe Gallery JG 77 ‘special album’.

" JG 77 Fighting on every Front " is a Luftwaffe Gallery 'Special album' via Erik Mombeeck and still available on his site.