Chapter 11

Final Defence of the Reich

When the Allied invasion of north-west Europe came on 6 June 1944, the Jagdwaffe was heavily outnumbered over the beaches of Normandy and could only offer little resistance. Hugo Sperrle, commander of Luftflotte 3, only had two operational Jagdgeschwader, JG 2 and JG 26, in the region, neither of which had been reinforced prior to the invasion, and even allowing for support from other Jagdgruppen in north-west Europe, the Luftwaffe could initially muster fewer than 300 serviceable fighters to counter the 4,000 Allied fighters that were available to support the landings.

With the Allies quickly gaining a foothold in Normandy, Göring deployed more than twenty Jagdgruppen forward from their bases in Germany to northern France. These additional units would never be enough to influence the air battle over the invasion area and moving them forward from their home bases in Germany simply weakened the Luftwaffe’s ability to defend the Reich. Furthermore, as their new airfields in northern France came increasingly under Allied attack, the Jagdwaffe was forced to operate from dispersed sites and remote landing strips with all the associated communications, logistical and maintenance problems that such moves always bring.

The air war over north-west Europe was now entering its final phase. In the weeks following the invasion, the Allies were able to mount six times more air sorties than the Luftwaffe and losses amongst the Jagdflieger were high: nearly 200 pilots in the first month after the invasion. However, the Allies did not have everything their own way and Allied losses exceeded 300 aircraft during the month of July alone. While the Jagdgruppen were struggling to achieve parity, the fact was that the Allies could afford such losses whereas the Luftwaffe could not. It was only a matter of time before the Jagdgruppen were forced to abandon their airfields in France and withdraw to Germany.

The Luftwaffe was now in retreat and could not sustain such losses and so changes were introduced to offer the more experienced pilots some protection. For example, a Staffelkapitän was only allowed to fly an operational mission if there were at least five other aircraft in the formation. For a Gruppenkommandeur the number of fighters required was at least fifteen and for a Geschwaderkommodore the number increased to forty-five but, while a good idea, the reality was the Jagdwaffe rarely had the numbers required to provide such protection for its combat leaders.

The nature of the air war over north-west Europe had also changed and the defence of the Reich was no longer straightforward. Before the invasion the general pattern was to counter the American heavy bomber raids by day and those of RAF Bomber Command at night but as the Allies took a foothold in Europe, the Jagdflieger were now facing many different types of aircraft on a daily basis. Not only were there the strategic-bomber raids deep into the heart of Germany but there were also numerous tactical raids over much shorter distances in and around the forward battle area, and carried out by a variety of aircraft ranging from single-engine fighters and fighter-bombers to twin-engine light or medium bombers.

As the Allies occupied more airfields then the task became even greater. The Luftwaffe responded by adapting its chain of command so that Jagdgruppen allocated to defending the Reich were part of Luftflotte Reich while those allocated to the local and more tactical battle in northern France were allocated to Luftflotte 3. In the end, these organizational changes made little or no difference to the Jagdflieger and he soon learned to engage whatever Allied aircraft came his way, whether it was a single-engine fighter at low level or a high-level four-engine heavy bomber.

Tactics against the heavy bomber raids now focused on the employment of air battle groups, which started appearing over north-west Europe during the summer of 1944. Galland believed that better results could be achieved by using a mix of front and stern attacks and this led to the introduction of the Gefechtsverband, a large mixed fighter formation where the combination of frontal attacks and more conventional stern attacks was used to best effect. New specialist units, known as Sturmgruppen, were formed and equipped with heavily armed FW 190A-8 Sturmbocks (‘Battering Rams’), armed with two MK 108 30 mm cannon and two MG 151 20 mm cannon.37 Their pilots were volunteers and tasked with breaking up the large bomber formations but because the FW 190 continued to struggle at high altitude, the Sturmbocks were supported by two Gruppen of Bf 109Gs tasked with holding off any fighter escort.

The Sturmbocks were at the heart of the Gefechtsverband. One of the most successful units was JG 300 led by the very capable Walther Dahl, a pioneer of the Gefechtsverband, who had just been awarded the Knight’s Cross for sixty-seven victories. An example of success came on 7 July when a large American raid, consisting of more than a thousand B-17s and B-24s, was dispatched to bomb aircraft factories in the Leipzig area and the synthetic oil plants at Böhlen, Leuna-Merseburg and Lützkendorf. The formation was intercepted by a Gefechtsverband consisting of a Sturmgruppe, IV./JG 3, led by Hauptmann Wilhelm Moritz, escorted by two Gruppen of JG 300 led by Dahl. It took just minutes to annihilate the B-24s: at least twenty-eight Liberators fell to the Sturmgruppe, earning Moritz the Knight’s Cross; Dahl would later be awarded the Oak Leaves for 128 victories and his leadership of JG 300.

Although there were successes, there were inevitable problems when leading such a large formation of about a hundred fighters and one of the biggest challenges its leader faced was getting the Gefechtsverband into a position from where it could make its attack. It took time to take off and climb to height, and such a large formation proved unwieldy as far as manoeuvring was concerned, particularly in weather conditions other than clear sky. While the use of large numbers may have seemed a good idea, the tactic did not prove as successful as had been hoped as the problem of manoeuvring the Gefechtsverband meant that the Jagdflieger rarely found he was in a position to make an attack.

While the Jagdwaffe continued to struggle in the west, the Soviet summer offensive in the east was crashing through the German central sector and was already paving the way towards Berlin. Furthermore, a change of government in Romania, following the invasion by Soviet forces, had now seen this one-time member of the Axis powers change sides and declare war on Germany. The Jagdwaffe in the east now had fewer than 500 single-engine fighters with around 300 FW 190As and about 170 Bf 109Gs. The FW 190s were spread across the three main sectors. About seventy were operating as fighters with JG 54 and allocated to Luftflotte 1 in the north (based in Finland and Estonia) and a dozen more were operating in the central sector as a mixed force with Bf 109Gs of the Stab of JG 51, now led by Major Fritz Losigkeit. The other FW 190s, about 200 in all, were operating in the ground-attack role with Luftflotte 6 and Luftflotte 4 in the central and southern sectors respectively.

The Bf 109Gs were also spread across the Eastern Front, with a single Gruppe of JG 5 retaining twenty aircraft in Finland for the Arctic Front and about sixty aircraft operating with two Gruppen of JG 51 in the central sector under the command of Erich Leie. The remainder were operating in the southern sector, with three Gruppen from JG 52 and a single Gruppe of JG 53, all under the command of Oberstleutnant Dietrich Hrabak. This force totalled less than ninety aircraft as JG 52, like other Jagdgruppen on the eastern and southern fronts, had already been weakened by the loss of Staffeln to counter the American daylight raids on Germany in the west.

The Jagdwaffe in the east continued to face overwhelming odds; in some places the Red Air Force had an advantage of more than 30 : 1. Further more, as the Soviets pushed west, Germany’s two fronts were slowly being squeezed closer together and it would not be long before units operating in the east would come under threat from long-range fighters operating from the west.

Despite such overwhelming opposition, the Jagdwaffe in the east still produced a number of high scorers including a trio of Staffelkapitäne serving with JG 51 – Oberleutnant Joachim Brendel of 1./JG 51, Leutnant Günther Josten of 3./JG 51 and Leutnant Günther Schack of 9./JG 51 – who all passed 150 victories for which each received the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross.

These were impressive achievements but they could not match that of Erich Hartmann, still serving as Kapitän of 9./JG 52, who claimed his 274th victory on 17 August to become the Luftwaffe’s highest-scoring Experte by surpassing the score of Gerhard Barkhorn, his best friend and colleague in JG 52. Just a week later, on 24 August, Hartmann took his total to an unprecedented 302 victories after shooting down eleven aircraft in a period of just three hours during the afternoon to add to the eight he had claimed the afternoon before. Hartmann had become the first fighter pilot ever to reach a triple century of victories and by the end of the month he had added two more victories to bring his total for August alone to thirty-five, all achieved during the last two weeks of the month. It was a quite remarkable achievement and earned Hartmann the coveted Diamonds, which were presented to him personally by Hitler at the Wolfsschanze.

Stalin’s offensive in the north had ended the siege of Leningrad and resulted in the two long-serving FW 190 Gruppen of JG 54 being with-drawn deeper into Latvia and to new bases on the Courland peninsula. Increasing problems of logistical support, resulting in a lack of fuel and spares, had now become a major concern as the Red Army’s offensive in the central sector pushed German forces back towards the Reich.

With all but one Staffel of JG 51 having converted back to the Bf 109, JG 54’s two Gruppen were the only fighter variants of the FW 190 now on the Eastern Front; the only other FW 190s along the Eastern Front were ground-attack versions. JG 54 had also suffered losses, most notably its Kommodore, Horst Ademeit, who had served with the Geschwader since Barbarossa. Ademeit was a holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and was credited with 166 victories but he failed to return from a sortie on 7 August over Russian lines near Dünaburg.

Ademeit was just one of many losses in the east and others included Anton Hafner, Kapitän of 8./JG 51 and holder of the Oak Leaves with 204 victories before his death, and Otto Fönnekold of 5./JG 52 who was killed at Budak in Hungary. Having just landed, Fönnekold, holder of the Knight’s Cross and with 136 victories, was taxiing back to the dispersal when the airfield came under attack from an American Mustang; Fönnekold stood no chance.

Meanwhile in the west, some of the Luftwaffe’s finest had also fallen. In the immediate aftermath of the Allied invasion in Normandy, 22-year-old Hauptmann Karl-Heinz Weber of III./JG 1 (136 victories and holder of the Oak Leaves) was killed on 7 June, and Major Josef Wurmheller, Kommandeur of III./JG 2 (102 victories and holder of the Swords), was killed on 22 June.

There was also the death of Emil Lang, Kommandeur of II./JG 26. Lang’s Gruppe had been the first to claim a hundred victories over Normandy and he had personally claimed twenty-nine victories in the west since his arrival in April 1944 to add to the 144 he had been credited with on the Eastern Front. Then, on 3 September, having just taken off from Melsbroek in Belgium, Lang’s FW 190A suffered a technical problem and he was unable to raise the undercarriage. As Lang was trying to resolve the problem at a height of just over 500 feet, his wingman, Unteroffizier Hans-Joachim Borreck, spotted a formation of American fighters to the rear making an attack. Lang, holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and with 173 victories, was last seen crashing to earth in flames; his aircraft’s undercarriage was still down.

Hitler felt the Luftwaffe had retreated too quickly, particularly in the west. It was not so much that he questioned the courage of his pilots but that he felt the ground and support units had fled too hastily and accused them of running away. Hugo Sperrle was relieved of his command, although he was arguably a scapegoat. Given the vast strength of the Allied forces there was little he could have done but the Luftwaffe had indeed failed to have any real impact on the advancing Allied troops on the ground. Sperrle was replaced by Otto Dessloch as Luftflotte 3 was designated Luftwaffe Command West.

There were further changes forced on the High Command as Günther Korten, the Chief of the General Staff, died from injuries sustained during the attempted assassination of Hitler in the Wolfsschanze in July. Göring appointed Werner Kreipe as Korten’s replacement, although Hitler would clearly have preferred Ritter von Greim.38

At just forty years old, Kreipe was young to be in command and may well have proved to be a good leader had Hitler not continued to interfere in the Luftwaffe’s affairs due to the incompetence of Göring. After a devastating Allied raid on Darmstadt in September 1944 Hitler laid the blame well and truly on the Luftwaffe and considered replacing Göring with Greim but instead asked for Kreipe’s resignation. Kreipe was eventually replaced by the uninspiring Karl Koller, who was appointed as the seventh and last Chief of the General Staff, but as it turned out his appointment would make little difference; at that stage of the war there was little that any chief could have done.

While changes were happening in the High Command, the struggle went on for the Jagdwaffe. Despite its precarious position, the Luftwaffe would not become short of aircraft and although more raw materials were being allocated to the Army for the construction of Panzers and artillery, aircraft production in Germany remained high. The German aviation industry produced about 36,000 aircraft during 1944 and during September alone, when German fighter production peaked, nearly 3,000 fighters were delivered, of which two-thirds were Bf 109s and a third were FW 190s.

Even though aircraft production had remained high, delays in the German jet-fighter programme meant that Bf 109s would have to be built until the end of the war. As materials became increasingly scarce, parts of the 109 were built out of wood, including the tail assembly, and other materials such as steel sheeting were used. The Bf 109K-4, which appeared towards the end of 1944, incorporated in one airframe the best of various upgrades to the earlier Gustav, and was produced in large numbers, but in reality its introduction made little or no difference to the air battle over the Reich.

The FW 190 had also evolved with the introduction of the F and G variants for the ground-attack role; these were essentially fighter-bomber versions of the 190A. There was also the FW 190D-9, known as the Dora 9, which was powered by a 2,000 hp Junkers Jumo 213 inline engine; these started to appear in the latter half of 1944.

Pilots were initially wary of the Dora, mainly because its roll rate was less than earlier variants and its extended nose to house the engine (earning it the name of ‘Long Nose’ to the Allies) made it sluggish in pitch, but the pilots soon discovered that the Dora accelerated extremely well, was faster overall and could both climb and dive better than earlier FW 190 variants. Taking all this into account, the Dora was the most formidable piston-engine fighter to enter service with the Luftwaffe during the war and proved a true match for the American P-51D Mustang. However, the Dora was only ever intended to be an interim solution as Focke-Wulf’s ultimate design for a high altitude fighter was the Ta 152H, featuring a wider wing span, stretched fuselage and with a pressurized cockpit. The Ta 152H first appeared at the end of 1944, although only about 150 were ever built and very few actually saw operational service, the only recorded examples being a handful delivered to JG 301.

It was an extraordinary effort by the German aviation industry which coincided with the Allies struggling at times to provide the logistical support required to maintain their advance across north-west Europe. There was even a slight lull in the air war, not for any great length of time but it did allow a number of Jagdgruppen to receive new aircraft. However, the fact remained that the latest variants of fighters appearing over Europe were starting to reach the performance limits of any piston engine, which meant that improved performance could only come with a new form of propulsion.

Germany had been researching new and far more advanced engines for a number of years, and the first new type to make a stunning entry into the combat arena during 1944 was the Messerschmitt Me 163 Komet, the only rocket-powered fighter aircraft of the war. At less than 20 feet in length, and with a wing span of only 30 feet, the Me 163 was a small but extremely potent aircraft. Having first flown as early as 1941, its performance far exceeded that of any piston-engine fighter; it immediately recorded a speed in excess of 620 mph. Powered by a Walter HWK 109 liquid-fuel rocket, the Komet’s rate of climb of around 30,000 feet per minute meant that it could be up into the bomber stream in just a couple of minutes, but its endurance was limited to a few minutes only.

The Komet made its first operational appearance during May 1944. Because of its extremely high speed, Allied fighter pilots were at a loss as to how to counter it but the only realistic tactic for the Me 163 was to take-off and zoom up through an enemy formation to a height in excess of 35,000 feet, and then dive back down through the formation. This gave the pilot two very brief opportunities to fire at the enemy – once on the way up and then on the way down – before he had to land.

While the Me 163 was in a class of its own, its excessive fuel consumption limited its operational radius to about 25 miles and its two MK 108 30 mm cannon meant that the Komet’s capability as a fighter was extremely limited. Although the aircraft generally handled well at high level, the cockpit was unpressurized and so the effectiveness of the aircraft at altitude was also limited by the personal endurance of the pilot. Also, to reduce weight, the Komet had no conventional undercarriage, which meant it had to be launched from a wheeled dolly and had to land back on a retractable skid, and this often caused back injuries to pilots if landing on an unprepared landing strip.

Fewer than 400 Komets were built and the only combat unit equipped with the Me 163 was JG 400 at Brandis near Leipzig under the command of Major Wolfgang Späte. The first aerial actions occurred at the end of July 1944 but the Me 163 proved largely ineffective with only a dozen or so confirmed victories by the end of the war, with the most successful Komet pilot being Feldwebel Siegfried Schubert with three victories.

The Komet was just the start of a new and exciting fighter programme as the long awaited Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe, the world’s first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft, arrived during the summer of 1944 and started to make its mark in the second half of the year. Although Germany had identified the potential of the jet fighter long before the outbreak of the war, engine problems had prevented the aircraft from becoming operational earlier, and a combination of maintenance problems and a lack of fuel during the last months of the war would ultimately reduce its effectiveness as a fighter.

The Me 262 entered the war at too late a stage to influence its outcome seriously. Nonetheless, it was a potent fighter. Just short of 35 feet in length and with a wing span of just over 41 feet, it had first flown in 1941. Initially it was powered by a conventional Junkers Jumo 210 piston engine mounted on the prototype’s nose but in July 1942 it first flew with Jumo 004 jet engines. Test flights continued over the next year but engine availability, combined with technical problems, continued to plague the project. The operational life of each engine was only expected to be about fifty hours, although in reality many did not last half that long and an engine change proved to be a lengthy task lasting several hours.

Hitler had believed the Me 262 would be most effective as an attack aircraft rather than a fighter, and at a top level meeting held at the Berghof in May 1943 – which included Milch, Göring and Galland – he demanded to know how many of his new jet aircraft were to be manufactured as bombers. Milch informed him that without considerable design changes the answer would be none. Hitler was livid and transferred the jet aircraft programme away from the fighter branch of the Luftwaffe and gave it to the bomber, with Milch being stripped of his position, but the Me 262 was already late and changes to its design at such a late stage would only add further delays.39

A special test unit, Erprobungskommando 262, was formed at Lechfeld under the command of Hauptmann Werner Thierfelder, a veteran of many campaigns with twenty-seven victories and a holder of the Knight’s Cross. Thierfelder would be killed soon after when, on 18 July 1944, his Me 262 crashed in unknown circumstances, although it is possible that his aircraft entered an unrecoverable dive.

Although the handling characteristics and tactics were yet to be properly worked out and developed for the new jet fighter, the first victory credited to a Me 262 occurred on 26 July 1944 when Leutnant Alfred Schreiber intercepted and damaged a Mosquito reconnaissance aircraft of the RAF, which subsequently crashed.

Regardless of opinion as to whether the Me 262 would best serve as a bomber or as a fighter, its performance was most impressive. Armed with four MK 108 30 mm cannon, it had a top speed of around 560 mph, was capable of operating at altitudes up to 35,000 feet and had a rate of climb of 4,000 feet per minute. Its high speed and excellent rate of climb made the Me 262 difficult to intercept but it did lack manoeuvrability when at high speed and its slow throttle response meant the jet engines required careful managing during combat to prevent flameout. Too much closing speed could also cause problems as it would mean flying through the opponent’s turning circle. Nonetheless, despite its high wing loading and lack of thrust at lower speeds, the Me 262 pilot soon learned that the aircraft was quite manoeuvrable. It was able to maintain its high speed in tight turns better than conventional piston engine fighters and its leading-edge slats reduced the stalling speed in slower speed manoeuvring to a respectable 160 mph.

In September 1944, the highly decorated Walter Nowotny was given command of his own specialist Me 262 unit, called Kommando Nowotny, that operated from airfields near Osnabrück. Nowotny had already gained some experience on the jet fighter during his brief time in command of Erprobungskommando 262, having replaced Werner Thierfelder, and his new unit was responsible for the development of tactics for the jet fighter.

Because of the Me 262’s high performance, it was particularly important to develop new methods of attacking large formations of heavy bombers. When attacking head-on the closing speed was nearly 400 yards a second and far too high for an accurate attack. Even when attacking from astern the combination of having to close to within a suitable range and a high closing speed often meant the Me 262’s cannon were ineffective. Therefore, the pilots soon learned how to adapt their attacks by developing a roller-coaster manoeuvre in which they approached the bomber formation from high and behind. Then, from a position about 3 miles astern and about 5,000–6,000 feet above the target, they went into a shallow dive. This enabled the 262 to avoid any fighter escort by its speed until, at a range of about a mile, the pilot would pull up sharply to reduce his rate of closing. Having then levelled off at a range of around a thousand yards from his target, and still with 100 mph of overtaking margin, the pilot would close quickly to 500 yards when he would open fire and maintain his attack until the minimum range of 200 yards when he had to break off. This tactic proved very effective. The bomber’s gunners found it difficult to track the jet fighter due to the high closing speed and the relatively slow tracking of their electric gun turrets.

Although the aircraft was undeniably impressive in terms of performance, flying the Me 262 also proved quite dangerous. Not only did the pilot have to contend with the enemy but he also had to deal with continuing technical problems and unreliability; many Me 262s were destroyed or severely damaged in flying accidents. There was also increasing concern amongst senior officers about its lack of combat success, which had done little to offset the problem of Allied air superiority.

Nowotny’s unit received a visit by Galland, accompanied by Alfred Keller, the commander of Luftflotte 1, on 7 November during which several pilots expressed their concerns about the suitability of the Me 262 for combat. Keller questioned them and came to the conclusion that some had lost their fighting spirit. This was not true, certainly as far as Nowotny was concerned. The following day he engaged a large formation of American bombers escorted by Mustangs and during the encounter that followed he was heard to report engine trouble and a fire. Whether this was a technical problem or due to enemy action is unclear but Walter Nowotny was killed; he was just twenty-three years old but had achieved a staggering 258 victories, making him the fifth-highest-scoring Experte of the war.

The sustained Allied bombing campaign against the German oil industry in Germany, Romania, Hungary and Poland was now having a severe impact on the Luftwaffe’s ability to defend the Reich. The flying training schools, in particular, were given little or no allocation and were receiving only 10 per cent of the fuel required. The Jagdwaffe had become increasingly reliant on pilots with previous flying experience, such as bomber pilots, to reduce the training burden, and the night-fighter force, which had been so successful only a year before, was no longer able to make an impact on the war at night.

Galland continued to push for quality rather than quantity, believing one Me 262 jet fighter to be worth a handful of Bf 109s but delays in jet production meant this could not be achieved. Galland had also seen his earlier request for more units to be transferred back to Germany denied, although he did manage to persuade a number of commanders to give up some of their aircraft as the Reich units were reinforced for one last time. This was the last roll of the dice but the Jagdflieger were now expected to protect such a large number of potential targets across a vast area and facing all fronts, and all at a time when the Allies were enjoying such overwhelming air superiority. Losses reached an all-time high on 26 November when more than a hundred pilots were hit during the day; sixty were killed in action and a further thirty were wounded with others taken as prisoners of war, for the destruction of just twenty-five American fighters and a handful of bombers.

In what would effectively be one last attempt to inflict serious losses on the American heavy bomber force, Galland decided to hold back aircraft and fuel for one all-out effort. He hoped his aerial force of 2,000 fighters could shoot down 500 American heavy bombers in one day and compel the Allies to cease their bombing offensive over the Reich.40 It was a desperate plan at a most desperate time but by the end of November Galland had assembled enough aircraft – thirty-three Gruppen – to mount an all-out attack. However, this ambitious plan did not materialize as Hitler decided instead to use the Jagdgruppen to support his own surprise offensive in the Ardennes in what later became known as the Battle of the Bulge. Although the Jagdgruppen suffered relatively low losses during the early stages of the new offensive, the situation changed when the offensive seemingly stalled and the Luftwaffe launched Operation Bodenplatte on 1 January 1945.

Originally planned to coincide with the launch of the ground offensive on 16 December, Bodenplatte was delayed by bad weather, and was then delayed again, before eventually, on New Year’s Day 1945, the attack took place. The plan was to hit seventeen Allied forward operating airfields in the Low Countries and France to gain local air superiority above German forces advancing on the ground but this rather ambitious idea would prove to be the operation that finally brought the Jagdwaffe to its knees.

It was barely daylight when the FW 190s and Bf 109s of more than thirty Gruppen, a total of a thousand German fighters, supported by a number of night-fighter and bomber units, got airborne. All three Gruppen of JG 11 took off from their home airfields of Darmstadt-Griesheim, Gross-Ostheim and Zellhausen, some sixty-five aircraft in all, led by Günther Specht. Their transit took them across Koblenz at low level and then over Aachen to their nominated targets, the American airfield at Asch and the RAF airfield at Ophoven. Unfortunately for JG 11, a number of American fighters were already airborne and during the aerial combat that followed the Jagdgeschwader lost twenty-eight aircraft with twenty-five pilots killed. Amongst those killed was Günther Specht, a veteran of many campaigns and holder of the Knight’s Cross.

The story was similar elsewhere. JG 26, led by Oberstleutnant Josef Priller and tasked to attack the airfields at Grimbergen and Evere, lost twenty-four of the sixty FW 190s taking part. It was Priller’s last operational sortie of the war as a posting to the staff followed. Since the campaign against France in 1940 he had flown more than 1,300 operational sorties and was just one of eight to be credited with a hundred victories against the Western Allies for which he was awarded the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords.

JG 26’s losses during Bodenplatte were indicative of the Luftwaffe’s casualties that day. JG 27 lost fifteen of its Bf 109 pilots during its raid on Melsbroek in Belgium and the FW 190s of JG 1, led by Oberst Herbert Ihlefeld, suffered similar losses as they attacked other airfields in Belgium, notably Ghent/Sint-Denijs where a Polish fighter wing of Spitfires was based, and two other airfields being used by RAF Spitfires near Maldegem and near Ursel. Although JG 1 claimed more than thirty Spitfires destroyed on the ground and a further eight shot down during aerial combat, ten of its pilots were killed, including Hauptmann Hans-Georg Hackbarth, Kommandeur of I./JG 1, with thirty victories.

While the losses of JG 1 had been bad, those of JG 2 and JG 4 were far worse. Their mission was to attack the airfield at Saint Truiden, used by American P-47 Thunderbolts, and at Le Culot, home to American P-38 Lightnings, and resulted in JG 2 losing thirty-seven pilots killed and JG 4 losing twenty-six; at nearly 40 and 50 per cent losses respectively, these were the most costly outcomes of all the Jagdwaffe’s fighter units taking part in Bodenplatte.

Most units suffered badly but one of the few successful units that day was JG 3. Its twenty-two FW 190s taking part in the raid destroyed more than forty RAF Typhoons and Spitfires at airfields at Eindhoven and Gilze-Rijen in Holland. However, while some surprise and tactical success was achieved, the overall outcome of Bodenplatte was a disaster. Although several hundred Allied aircraft had been destroyed or damaged on the ground, these could easily be replaced and the fact that the Allies had lost aircraft, rather than pilots, meant that the Luftwaffe was not able to go on to achieve the local air superiority that it had tried so hard to achieve. Furthermore, there had been an unacceptable loss of aircraft, which was partly due to the fact the operation had been kept so secret. Many ground defence and anti-aircraft units were unaware that it was taking place and therefore many losses were due to friendly fire, before the attacks against the Allied airfields had even taken place.

Bodenplatte would prove to be the last major air offensive launched by the Luftwaffe during the war and having cost the lives of more than 200 Jagdflieger it effectively brought an end to Germany’s fighter operations in the west. Amongst the losses were two Geschwader-kommodore, six Gruppenkommandeure and nine Staffelkapitäne; men that would be impossible to replace.

Following the disaster of Bodenplatte there were the occasional successes during the early days of 1945. Gerhard Barkhorn scored his 301st and final victory of the war before being appointed Kommodore of JG 6. His new unit was equipped with the FW 190D, although Barkhorn chose to retain his Bf 109G as well, but it was an inexperienced Geschwader and was suffering heavy losses against superior American opposition. Barkhorn would soon receive a brief rest from operations but he would later go on to fly the Me 262 during the final weeks of the war.

Losses continued to mount elsewhere and they included Heinz-Gerhard Vogt, Kapitän of 5./JG 26, a holder of the Knight’s Cross with forty-eight victories, who had led his Staffel during Bodenplatte just two weeks before. On the morning of 15 January, Vogt was leading four FW 190D ‘long-noses’ from their home base of Nordhorn to attack American fighter-bombers near St Vith in Belgium. As the FW 190s passed Aachen they were spotted by a group of Mustangs escorting a large formation of heavy bombers heading towards Cologne. Heavily outnumbered and bounced from above, the 190s fought hard but Vogt was shot down. It was the sixth time he had been shot down but this time it proved fatal.

In one last desperate attempt to hold back the Red advance in the east, the Luftwaffe transferred more than 600 fighters to the Eastern Front at the end of January, bringing the total number of fighters in the east to nearly 900 but the Red Air Force had now expanded to a staggering 16,000 aircraft along the front.41 Not only was there the problem of inferior numbers, the Jagdwaffe in the east had suffered a severe lack of fuel with many units only capable of mounting a handful of sorties at any one time. Even though they had received dozens of new FW 190s, the arrival of these fighters had come too late. Russian armour was already encroaching on German soil and the Jagdflieger, hopelessly outnumbered, could barely protect their ground forces from total annihilation.

One loss during this final phase in the east was Otto Kittel, Kapitän of 2./JG 54, who was killed on 14 February while attacking eight Sturmoviks at low level. Having damaged one, Kittel was seen to be closing in on another when his FW 190 was hit by return fire from the rear gunner and crashed in flames. Kittel, holder of the Swords and credited with 267 victories, was the fourth-highest-scoring Experte of the war.

The death of Otto Kittel seemed to trigger an end to the Luftwaffe’s resistance in the Courland peninsula and it was not long before German units caught up in the pocket were flying west to surrender to the western Allies, while some opted to head for neutral Sweden; anything was better than to surrender to the Russians.

Despite Germany facing an inevitable defeat, the struggles continued along the Eastern Front as the Red Army closed in on Berlin and there was still time for some to achieve success. One was Hauptmann Helmut Lipfert who had assumed command of I./JG 53 in February and continued to add to his personal total until the final days. During his two months in command Lipfert added more than twenty victories to his personal score, making him a double centurion and earning him the Jagdwaffe’s last Oak Leaves of the war. Lipfert’s award was announced on 17 April and came just four days before Major Willi Batz, now Kommandeur of II./JG 52, became the Jagdwaffe’s last recipient of the coveted Swords for his 237 victories, all but three of which had been achieved on the Eastern Front.

During the later stages of the war, many decorations were being awarded on a points basis with the Jagdflieger earning points depending on the difficulty and importance of his victim. The highest number of points awarded for a kill was three and this was for the shooting down of a four-engined bomber, such as a B-17 or a Lancaster. A pilot who managed to force a bomber from its defensive formation scored two points and a pilot who completed the shooting down of an already crippled bomber received one point. Also worth one point was the shooting down of an enemy fighter, which demonstrates how little importance was placed on this. One point was enough to be awarded the Iron Cross Second Class with three points earning a First Class. The number of points needed for the Knight’s Cross varied but was generally around forty, emphasising how much the award had retained its importance.

The early months of 1945 saw the introduction of another new German fighter, the Heinkel He 162 Volksjäger (‘People’s Fighter’). Powered by a single BMW 003 turbojet engine mounted in a unique pod nacelle on top of the fuselage directly aft of the cockpit, the Volksjäger was the last of the three new revolutionary types to enter service with the Luftwaffe. It was smaller than the Me 262 and capable of speeds in excess of 500 mph but was armed with only two cannon: either the MG 151 20 mm or MK 108 30 mm.

The Volksjäger was a final and desperate attempt to bring a new aircraft into service in large numbers, the idea being that it would be quick and cheap to build as it could be mass-produced by a semi-skilled labour force using readily available materials such as wood due to metals being in such short supply. Its first flight took place in December 1944, just three months after the requirement had been issued, and the evaluation unit, Erprobungskommando 162, was formed the following month. The Volksjäger entered operational service with I./JG 1 at Parchim during February but did not take part in combat until the last weeks of the war by which time just over a hundred had been delivered. Only one Allied aircraft, a Typhoon, is believed to have been lost to the type but this is unconfirmed. Like the Komet and the Schwalbe before it, the Volksjäger had arrived far too late.

However, the Me 262 continued to cause the Allied bombers significant problems until the end of the war, by which time more than 1,400 had been built. One of the 262 units was JG 7, which had formed at the end of 1944 under the command of Oberstleutnant Johannes Steinhoff and included Kommando Nowotny, now re-designated as III./JG 7 under the command of Major Erich Hohagen.

Steinhoff changed the more traditional fighter tactics that had been familiar to his pilots so that they were better suited to the capabilities of the Me 262. He dropped the four-aircraft Schwarm in favour of a three-aircraft Kette, not because he did not like the Schwarm but the speed of the 262 meant its pilots did not need to provide as much mutual cover for each other as had been the case with other fighters, and three Me 262s could take off together in a line abreast formation. It simply became easier to operate as a formation of three.

When Steinhoff departed to join another new Me 262 unit, command of JG 7 was given to the double centurion Theodor Weissenberger who was elevated from his previous appointment as Kommandeur of I./JG 7 to lead the Geschwader until the end of the war; amongst his eventual total of 208 victories were seven B-17s and a Mustang he claimed while flying the 262.

JG 7 operated in small numbers from airfields at Parchim, Brandenburg-Briest and Oranienburg. It continuously suffered from an irregular supply of aircraft and spares and during the early months of 1945 it could rarely put into the air more than six Me 262s at a time. However, by March it was able to mount larger raids against the bomber formations and its heaviest attack took place on 18 March when thirty-seven Me 262s of JG 7 attacked an American force of 1,300 bombers and 700 fighters destined for Berlin, claiming twelve bombers and one fighter for the loss of three 262s.

Throughout its existence, JG 7 boasted some of the Luftwaffe’s greatest amongst its ranks. In addition to Steinhoff and Weissenberger, its pilots included Erich Rudorffer (who achieved a final total of 222 victories), Heinrich Ehrler (209), Walter Schuck (206) and Franz Schall (137). Others included Wolfgang Späte (99), who had commanded JG 400 (the only combat unit equipped with the Me 163 Komet), and Georg-Peter Eder (78) who had led a charmed war, having been shot down no less than seventeen times, twelve of these events having resulted in quite serious injuries.

The loss of records makes it all but impossible to determine exactly how many Allied aircraft were shot down by JG 7 during its six-month existence but the details of almost 300 victory claims are known. Given the number of Experten serving with the unit during the last months of the war, this figure is not surprising. Hauptmann Franz Schall is known to have shot down eleven Allied aircraft (six American Mustangs and two B-17 heavy bombers and three RAF Lancasters) while leading 10./JG 7 from Oranienburg during March and early April, to add to his six victories while flying the Me 262 with Kommando Nowotny in late 1944. He died on 10 April 1945 during an emergency landing at Parchim when his aircraft rolled into a bomb crater, killing him instantly. Schall was the third-highest-scoring jet pilot of the war.

Schall’s death came just days after the loss of the double centurion Major Heinrich Ehrler, a holder of the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves. Ehrler had joined the Stab of JG 7 at the end of February and had quickly come to terms with the 262, claiming six victories during the past two weeks. On 4 April he took off from Brandenburg-Briest to engage a formation of B-24s to the east of Hamburg. Having claimed two of the bombers, he then ran out of ammunition and during his last radio transmission to his commanding officer, Theodor Weissenberger, Ehrler reported that he was about to ram the bomber. Whether he did is not clear but the B-24 crashed near the town of Havelberg and Ehrler’s Me 262 came down in woods near Schaarlippe near Berlin; his body was recovered the following day.

JG 7 was a remarkable Jagdgeschwader and it may well be that the Luftwaffe’s final aerial victory of the war went to one of its pilots, Oberleutnant Fritz Stehle of I./JG 7, who claimed a Yak-9 over Freiburg at around 16.00 on 8 May, the final day of the war in Europe.

The Me 262 was also flown by 10./NJG 11, the only jet night-fighter unit to have been formed, based at Burg near Magdeburg under the command of Kurt Welter. Initially called Sonderkommando Stamp after its founder Major Gerhard Stamp, and then Sonderkommando Welter after its new commander, the unit’s main task was to intercept the faster RAF Mosquito bombers that were operating in the Berlin area.

Initially there were no radar-equipped Me 262s and so the Nachtjagdflieger had to rely on a mix of close control and searchlights in the target area to illuminate the attackers, and use proven Wilde Sau tactics. A single-seat Me 262 fitted with the FuG 218 radar was later delivered to the unit before a handful of radar-equipped two-seat Me 262s were introduced in the last weeks of the war. Welter’s unit was eventually credited with shooting down more than forty Mosquitos. Although his personal score while flying the Me 262 remains unclear, Welter is believed to be the highest-scoring 262 pilot of the war and was awarded the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves, finishing the war with sixty-three victories, of which fifty-six were at night.

Another Me 262 unit was formed in March 1945 after Adolf Galland, no longer amongst Göring’s preferred generals after criticizing the Luftwaffe’s policy and tactics, had been removed from his appointment as General der Jagdflieger and replaced by Gordon Gollob. Hitler had always recognized Galland’s huge influence amongst the Jagdwaffe and so ordered Göring to give Galland a fighter unit and challenged Galland to turn the Me 262 into the war-winning machine that they hoped it would be.

The unit Galland formed, Jagdverband 44 (JV 44), was an elite unit and eventually totalled some fifty pilots and twenty-five aircraft, although only a handful were ever serviceable at any one time. Known as Der Galland Zirkus (‘The Galland Circus’) or Die Jet Experten (‘The Jet Aces’), JV 44 included several experienced and decorated pilots that had been transferred from other fighter units; all were considered capable of converting to the jet fighter in a very short period of time. Its top five Experten totalled more than a thousand victories between them: Gerhard Barkhorn (301); Heinz Bär (221, including 16 while flying the Me 262); Walter Krupinski (197, including 2 while serving with JV 44); Johannes Steinhoff, who had been transferred from JG 7, (178, including 6 with JV 44); and Günther Lützow (110, including 2 with JV 44).

JV 44 would not fly its first operational sorties until the final weeks of the war, by which time all the Me 262 pilots had further developed their tactics as Allied bomber crews had become more familiar with the jet fighters. A small number of aircraft were equipped with twenty-four 55 mm R4M rockets that enabled the pilot to approach the bomber formation from the side, but still outside the range of the bomber’s guns. When he had a big enough target he would unleash his salvo of rockets; it only required one or two hits to bring a large bomber down.

The Allies had learned that the 262 was at its most vulnerable when on the ground or during take-off and landing, and so carried out numerous bombing raids against airfields known to be carrying out jet operations. Allied fighters were also tasked to patrol over these airfields and to attack the jets when they were coming in to land. Galland’s response was to form his own protection flight of five FW 190Ds, led by Leutnant Heinz Sachsenberg, to provide his jets with fighter cover during take-off and landing.

Galland led JV 44 until 26 April, gaining seven victories while flying the Me 262, before he was wounded while leading twelve rocket-equipped 262s from München-Reim against a formation of American B-26 medium bombers attacking the airfield at Lechfeld. While claiming his second bomber, and the last of his 104 victories, he was hit by return fire and wounded in the knee. After disengaging from the bombers Galland was attacked by a Thunderbolt and his aircraft sustained further damage but Galland was able to recover his aircraft successfully back to his base, although he landed during an airfield attack and suffered further injury when he had to vacate his aircraft quickly. Galland’s injuries prevented him from returning to operational flying and command of JV 44 was passed to Heinz Bär until the end of the war, now just a matter of days away.

As the Allies advanced, airfields and bases in western Germany were quickly overrun. The Allies enjoyed total air superiority, being able to attack the Luftwaffe where and when they pleased. One major loss during the final weeks of the war was Karl-Wilhelm Hofmann, one of the stalwarts of JG 26. Hofmann had gained his first victory in 1942 and, despite a serious injury to his eye following an incident on the ground involving the bolt of a machine gun, he continued to fly with an eye patch and was awarded the Knight’s Cross following his fortieth victory. After leading 8./JG 26 against the airfield at Brussels-Evere during Bodenplatte, Hofmann was given command of 5./JG 26 but on 26 March 1945 he was leading eight FW 190s in the Wesel–Bocholt area when he claimed his forty-fourth victim but did not return from the mission. Although Hofmann had been shot down, he managed to bail out of his aircraft but was too low for his parachute to deploy fully. Hofmann was killed two days after his twenty-third birthday.

In a last desperate attempt to defend the Reich, one new unit to form was Sonderkommando Elbe (‘Special Force Elbe’), whose young pilots were trained just enough to fly a Bf 109 and deliberately ram an enemy bomber’s tail, causing the bomber to fall out of control, after which the pilot was expected to make his escape by bailing out of his aircraft. This idea was intended to generate one large all-out effort against American bombers that would hopefully curtail the daylight bombing offensive for just a few months. It did not work. When the unit went into action in April 1945 there was only enough fuel, aircraft and pilots for a force of about 150 fighters to mount an attack; only fifty returned and the bombing offensive continued.

It is quite fitting that one of the Luftwaffe’s last aerial victories of the war belonged to Erich Hartmann, now Kommandeur of I./JG 52. Hartmann’s last victory, and his 352nd overall, occurred on 8 May, the final day of the war in Europe, during a reconnaissance sortie over Brno in Czechoslovakia. From his vantage point at 12,000 feet, Hartmann and his wingman spotted two Yak-9s performing aerobatics over Soviet troops below in a victory show. Hartmann pounced and quickly sent one of the Yaks to the ground before taking up position to attack the second.

Before he could make his next attack, Hartmann spotted several American Mustangs approaching from the west. He was caught between the Allied lines, east and west, and decided against making a last stand. The war was all but over and there was nothing to be gained, and so Hartmann led his wingman away at low level and returned to base. With the Red Army just a few miles away, the members of JG 52 destroyed their remaining Bf 109s and fled west. Like most others, Hartmann chose to surrender to the Americans but he would later be handed over to the Russians and was not released until 1955; he was one of the last prisoners of war to be returned to Germany. Erich Hartmann died in 1993 at the age of seventy-one.

Within hours of Hartmann’s final victory over the advancing Russian lines, the war in Europe was over. In the early years of the Second World War the Jagdflieger had achieved remarkable successes using surprise and cunning, combined with aggression and improvisation. Some of those qualities seemed to have been lost by the final stages of the war; relatively few of the top aces survived through the last days of the Reich. Their courage and ability had been beyond question but as the Third Reich fell apart, the Luftwaffe died with it.


The Kommandeur of II./JG 26, Hauptmann Joachim Müncheberg, takes Hauptmann Egon Meyer of JG 2 on a tour of Abbeville in 1942. From left: Oberleutnant Kurt Ebersberger, the long-term Kapitän of 4./JG 26; Meyer; Müncheberg and Gerhard Schöpfel. (Meyer via Caldwell)


Oberleutnant ‘Wutz’ Galland of II./JG 26 refights an air battle with his hands at Abbeville during 1942. (Bundesarchiv-Bildarchiv 357-1853-8)


Hauptmann Josef Priller, Kommandeur of III./JG 26, is interviewed beside his Fw 190A-3 at Wevelghem during August 1942. (Bundesarchiv-Bildarchiv 613-2317-14)


Leutnant Josef Wurmheller (left) of 7./JG 2 pictured at the end of 1942 soon after receiving the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross for sixty victories. He is pictured with Oberleutnant Erich Leie, Gruppenkommandeur of I./JG 2, at Beaumont le Roger in northern France, just days before Leie’s appointment as Gruppenkommandeur of I./JG 51 (Chris Goss collection)


Hauptmann Josef Priller, photographed while Kommandeur of III./JG 26 in 1942. (Genth via Caldwell)


Oberfeldwebel Adolf Glunz of 4./JG 26 with his new Knight’s Cross in August 1943. Glunz was the only NCO pilot of JG 26 to receive this award. (Glunz via Caldwell)


Leutnant Josef Wurmheller was appointed Staffelkapitän of 9./JG 2 in April 1943 and recorded his seventieth victory soon after when he shot down a B-17 heavy bomber. ‘Sepp’ Wurmheller would later be posthumously awarded the Swords to his Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves after being killed on 22 June 1944 while Kommandeur of III./JG 2 ‘Richthofen’, having achieved 102 victories. (Chris Goss collection)


Günther Rall in front of his aircraft ‘Yellow One’. After more than 250 victories on the Eastern Front, Rall was appointed Kommandeur of II./JG 27 in April 1944. Having been shot down and wounded the following month, he had the opportunity to fly a number of American fighters that had fallen into the Luftwaffe’s hands in order to devise tactics to counter them. Rall ended the war with 275 victories and was the third-highest-scoring Experte of the war. (John Weal)


Oberleutnant George-Peter Eder while serving with JG 2. Eder was one of the pioneers of the head-on frontal attack to combat the American heavy bombers. He joined II./JG 26 in August 1944 as a post-D-Day reinforcement and became its Kommandeur after Hauptmann Emil Lang’s death on 3 September. The following month Eder joined Kommando Nowotny, the first jet-fighter unit. (Körner via Caldwell)


Oberstleutnant Josef Priller and Major Klaus Mietusch speaking informally with members of III./JG 26, probably at Villacoublay-Nord in June or July 1944. (Genth via Caldwell)


Hauptmann Robert Weiss, Kommandeur of III./JG 54, photographed on the invasion front in the summer of 1944. (Bundesarchiv-Bildarchiv 674-7785-8)


Major Walter Nowotny was given command of a special Me 262 unit, dubbed Kommando Nowotny, in September 1944, flying from airfields near Osnabrück. Nowotny claimed three victories while flying the Me 262 before his death on 8 November 1944. This may have been as a result of an engine failure in his Me 262 or he could have been shot down by American fighters. At just twenty-three years old, Nowotny was the fifth-highest-scoring Jagdflieger of the war with 258 victories for which he was awarded the coveted Diamonds to the Knight’s Cross. (John Weal)


The Messerschmitt Me 262 Schwalbe, the world’s first operational jet-powered fighter, entered service during the summer of 1944. Hitler’s vision had been for the Me 262 to be used as a ground-attack aircraft but it started to make its mark as a fighter in the second half of the year, although it had entered the war too late to influence its outcome. (Chris Goss collection)


Hauptmann Erich Hartmann of 9./JG 52 pictured on 23 November 1944 after achieving his 327th victory. (John Weal)


Hauptmann Heinz Knoke, Kommandeur of III./JG 11, was one of the last recipients of the Knight’s Cross. While Staffelkapitän of 5./JG 11 in March 1943, he had brought down a B-17 with a 250 kg bomb dropped from his Bf 109 to become the first fighter pilot to achieve such a feat. (Chris Goss collection)


Still only twenty-two years old, Erich Hartmann became the highest-scoring fighter pilot in history with a quite staggering 352 aerial victories and was the Luftwaffe’s eighth recipient of the coveted Diamonds to the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords. (John Weal)


Few photographs capture the legacy of the Jagdflieger better than this picture of Oberleutnant Joachim Müncheberg in early 1941 during his highly successful Mediterranean tour as Staffelkapitän of 7./JG 26. He is seen wearing the Knight’s Cross and would later add the Oak Leaves and Swords during his 135 victories but, like so many other gallant young Jagdflieger, Müncheberg’s life was cut short when he was killed on 23 March 1943 while leading JG 77 in North Africa at the age of twenty-four. (Bundesarchiv-Bildarchiv 435-1016a-31)

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