Text: Jan Bobek
Illustration: Martin Novotný
Cat. No. 8203
Zerstörergeschwader 1, known as Wespen (wasps) or Wespengeschwader due to the painting on the bows of its Messerschmitt Bf 110s, derived its origins from the pre-war JG 132 “Richthofen”. The Richthofen tradition was maintained by the unit, although its designation was gradually changed to ZG 141, ZG 1 and later to SKG 210.
ZG 1 was re-established in Lechfeld in January 1942. At that time, Stab, I. and II./SKG 210 specialized in the deployment of Bf 110s as fighter-bombers. At the same time, the newly established III./ZG 1 was armed with Messerschmitt Bf 109 E.
The entire Geschwader moved to Belgorod, Russia at the end of May 1942 as part of VIII. Fliegerkorps, commanded by Gen. Feldm. Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen, a cousin of the well-known Manfred. ZG 1 was not involved in the fighting in the Crimea, but was deployed in the direction of Taganrog, Rostov and Krasnodar. The main task of its airmen was to support ground troops. It attacked supply columns, bridges, flak and field artillery positions and attacked infantry groups and armoured vehicles at the front. In doing so, Bf 110 crews used powerful nose armament and bombs, most often of 250 and 50 kg caliber. The preferred method of bombing was the steep descent, which the crews called Sturzflug (dive flight). The 110s came to be known as "flying artillery". Between June and August 1942, the worst enemy of the ZG 1 pilots was the Soviet anti-aircraft defences. During this period, I./ZG 1 lost 19 machines to their guns and II./ZG 1 lost as many as 52. Many of the damaged aircraft managed to return over their own territory with one engine.
In aerial combat, the Bf 110 pilots tried to take advantage of the high speed and strong armament in the nose. But sometimes Bf 110 crews also used the so-called defensive ring, which they had already used in the Battle of Britain. However, there were also losses in combat with Soviet airmen. And one Bf 110 was even shot down by a tank.
The combat deployment of the Wasps was extremely intense on some days. An example is August 25, 1942, during which I./ZG 1 was deployed in the Kotluban area. From quarter to four in the morning until six thirty in the evening (German time), Bf 110 crews carried out 25 missions with a total of 134 deployed aircraft. They dropped 79.6 tons of bombs on enemy positions and destroyed one tank, four guns (three others were disabled), three tractors and sixteen trucks, and damaged dozen of others. They also destroyed four towed vehicles and two sleds. A train was hit as well, and bombs severed the tracks in six places. One Bf 110 was shot down by flak, its crew being killed.
A boxart created years ago by our late friend Martin Novotný shows a crew from 6./ZG 1 in combat with Polikarpov I-16. During June 1942 this Staffel lost two commanders. First it was Hptm. Götz Baumann, who was wounded in a combat flight on 9 June. His successor, Oblt. Albert Heilmayer was shot down by flak just two days later. The new commander was Oblt. Egon Albrecht (25 v., KC), a German born in Brazil.
However, ZG 1 did not fight only the Red Army. Surprisingly, its jealous rival was von Richthofen, the commander of VIII. Fliegerkorps. His HQ often found itself in a situation of a dynamic battlefield where it did not have the information to deploy units effectively. But the improvising ZG 1 was able to support very effectively the ground troops.
The officers of ZG 1 also tried to get the command to scientifically prepare a solution for calibrating compasses in areas with large quantities of iron ore. Due to this anomaly, navigation errors and aircraft losses were occurring. The unwillingness of the command to address this problem led Kommodore Diesing to contact scientific services by himself and resolve the problem at the unit level.
Von Richthofen decided to disband the two Gruppen of ZG 1 in June 1942, but the ZG 1 command discreetly contacted Göring, who wanted to maintain Richthofen Geschwader unit's tradition. An exasperated Wolfram von Richthofen began to complicate the logistics and delivery of new equipment to ZG 1, but at the end of June he was transferred to command Luftflotte 4 and the situation gradually calmed down. This problem is discussed in detail by John J. Vasco in the second volume of Ian Allan Publishing's Zerstörer.