Saturday 6 April 2024

JG 2 Doras in action 23-25 March 1945 - death of the Kommandeur


Fourteen Doras from I./JG 2 were airborne from Zellhausen at 07:00 to attack the US pontoon bridge and the bridgehead across the Rhine at Oppenheim, west of Darmstadt (in the Mainz-Bingen district of Rhineland-Palatinate). Bombs  were released on the river before the Doras were intercepted by US fighters. Fw Erich Söldner (below) failed to return but had in fact landed at Gotha. Söldner had claimed his first victory on 3 March 1944, downing a 15th AF B-17 during a raid on Rome. 

The remaining pilots including three members of the Gruppenstab (Kommandeur Hrdlicka, Oblt Willi Kohlstrunk and Uffz. Horst Buttgereit) all returned to Nidda. Ogfr. Max Wojacek (below)  also managed to evade the US fighters and landed at Nidda. 

" ..a thick layer of oil started to spray over my windscreen and soon the airframe was covered."

Around ten III./JG 2 Fw 190 Doras were airborne from Babenhausen early on the morning of 23 March. They were attacked by 368th FG P-47s who claimed two, one coming down in the river Rhine and the other managing to put down in a field alongside the river. Fhr. Karl Belsen of 10./JG 2 made an emergency landing five kms north of Oppenheim. He recalled;

" ..our target was the American pontoon bridge thrown over the Rhine at Oppenheim. We over-flew the Rhine at low level south of the town before turning back on an easterly heading. Shortly before dropping our ordnance we pulled up to around 200 m to fuse the bombs. It was at that moment that my engine was hit by small arms fire from the ground. It stopped right over the river. Attempts to re-start it were in vain.I more or less 'glided' across the river and managed to put down in the first field. As the machine slid along the ground I suddenly remembered that I had failed to jettison the bomb. As the aircraft came to a stand I quickly jumped out of the cockpit out onto the wing - the bomb had been torn off its rack and lay some 200-300m away. It was at that moment that it exploded! I was still on the wing - breathing a huge sigh of relief  - when I came under rifle fire from a Volkssturm militia-man on the nearby river bank. He must have taken me for an American but heard me screaming insults at him in German because he soon lowered his weapon. I set off to return back to Babenhausen, a journey which involved several detours. It was while I was waiting for a bus in Heidelberg that I was approached by two men in black leather overcoats who asked me to follow them. After showing me their Gestapo badges they asked to see my Soldbuch - I handed them my Frontflugausweis ( a 'safe conduct' pass for front-line service pilots) which I took out of my brown leather tunic. But they were not at all interested in this. I started to explain that flying with a combat fighter unit I was expressly forbidden from carrying personal documents on sorties, except for the one that I had just shown them and that they must have known this. At that point they became a little more conciliatory. Apparently an RAF bomber had come down in the area over night and some members of the crew had not yet been caught. Their boss -who had noticed me waiting at the bus stop from his office - had assumed I must have been one of them on the run. In the end I got back to my Gruppe about five days later.." ***

At 11:00 the 'Richthofen' were in the air again - at least 18 Doras flew the sortie directed at American vehicle convoys and road traffic on the Oppenheim-Gross Gerau road south of Mainz. A number of Doras carrried bombs while the remainder of the force flew as top cover. After only some 15 minutes in the air they ran into 354th FG P-51s north-east of Hanau.  The American pilots filed some ten claims, including three for Maj. George Lamb. Almost certainly one of his victims was Oblt. Willi Kohlstrunk (left), a former KG 3 bomber pilot who had lost a leg in a bad crash in 1940. Flying a D-9 marked with the Stab 'chevron vertical bar' Kohlstrunk was hit over Kohden near Bad Salzhausen. With his D-9 in flames, he managed to jump clear but hit the airframe and sustained another serious leg injury. At least seven Fw 190 D-9s failed to return. ..[Incorrect: this figure does not correspond with 'official' Verlustmeldungen. The most likely scenario is that several of these would have put down elsewhere..] Those survivors that did arrive back in Zellhausen found that the last surviving group of I./JG 2 pilots had already evacuated the airfield and shifted to Ziegenhain, near Kassel, some 160 kms to the north.

The following day, 24 March, was notable for the launch of the Operation 'Varsity' Rhine crossings. This was the largest airborne operation (against a single objective) of the war and was supported by bombing raids on German airfields all over western and central Germany.  JG 2 put another eight Doras in the air to attack the bridgehead at Oppenheim but the Fw 190s were forced to jettison their ordnance before reaching their target. Some 113 B-17s raided Ziegenhain at around 17h00. 

On 25 March  around 15 Doras of I. and II./JG 2 were in the air from 06:00. Once again the target was the bridge at Oppenheim.  Ogfr. Max Wojacek reported difficulties with his aircraft as a jet of engine oil started to spray over his windscreen and soon covered the airframe.  Unwilling to break radio silence  he indicated to formation leader Hrdlicka his intention to turn back by waggling his wings. Hrdlicka had nodded his assent. Wojacek proceded to carry out an emergency landing on the airfield at Giessen, side-slipping down to maintain some 'forward' visibility before straightening out for a 'three-pointer' at the last moment. 

The return home proved fatal for a number of Dora pilots including the Kommandeur of I./JG 2. Hptm. Franz Hrdlicka and his wingman Uffz. Horst Buttgereit were both shot down by enemy fighters. According to the letter of condolence that was sent to Hrdlicka's brother, both pilots were attempting to reach Nidda. Buttgereit's sister - having fled her home in East Prussia ahead of the Russians and made her way to Leipzig - did not learn of her brother's death in combat until 1952. Both Hrdlicka and Buttgereit were buried in Nidda. Ofhr. Gerhard Frisch (2./JG 2) heard the warning calls from the airfield - 'Lucie Anton am eigenen Gartenzaun' - and Hrdlicka's voice over the radio but had already been hit by a burst of fire that left his cockpit filling with smoke.  [IncorrectLucie Anton is code for LAndung..the phrase heard was 'Indianer am eigenen Gartenzaun'..or 'enemy fighters over own airfield' ] Jettisoning the canopy to clear the smoke he saw that he was 'surrounded by five or six' Mustangs - it was time to jump. He made the mistake of pulling the ripcord almost immediately and during his long descent he was circled by P-51s. One American pilot even waved a greeting at him. It was Frisch's last sortie with the 'Richthofen' - he had already been posted for Me 262 jet training at Lechfeld.   

Karl Belsen's war ended on 31 March during a sortie over the front - described by one of his comrades as 'a personal initiative' - after he collided with a P-47 that he had opened fire on near Bad Hersfeld (Eisenach). He managed to jump clear, albeit injured.. Max Wojacek flew his last sortie on 7 April - he would be shot down in flames by P-51s over Querfurt. He managed to bail out and was taken to the local hospital with serious burns.

(*** Holger Nauroth's version of Belsen's account differs in areas of detail from that published in 'Dans le Ciel de France' Vol 6. Thanks to Jochen for corrections and more detail. )

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