Text: Jan Zdiarský
Illustration: Shigeo Koike
Cat. No. 82111
The bombing mission of the 8th AF on 22.12.1943 against transport targets in Osnabruck and Munster took place in very difficult conditions. Thick cloud cover, coupled with a radar malfunction of one of the lead aircraft, caused great navigational problems and ultimately the impossibility of good target aiming. Of the 402 B-17 and B-24 bombers from 8th AF, only 311 were able to attack their targets. Lessons learned by VIII. Bomber Command headquarter from previous heavy losses of four-engine bombers, which were attributed to Luftwaffe fighters, led to the dispatch of strong fighter protection. The bombers were protected by 40 Lightnings and 448 Thunderbolts from the 8th AF, along with 28 Mustangs from the 9th AF. Still, bomber losses were quite heavy - five B-17s and twelve B-24s, with three more bombers written off on their return.
Fighters from JG 1, JG 3, JG 11, ZG 26, and JG 54 flew against the intruders. They claimed victory over seven American fighters in addition to the eighteen bombers. However, losses among the "little brothers" amounted to only two Lightnings and one Thunderbolt.
The two P-38s lost belonged to the 55th Fighter Group based at Nuthampstead. While one of them, Lt. R. W. Brown managed to crash-land his aircraft near Onnerpolder, Holland, after a dogfight with German fighters and was captured, the other, Lt. J. R. Pruitt crashed and is still listed as missing. His aircraft probably crashed near Wilsum, Germany.
The conqueror of Lt. Pruitt was Hptm. Friedrich Eberle, commander of III./JG 1 and thus became his fifteenth victory. At the time, the recently thirty-year-old Austrian Eberle was an experienced fighter and commander. His combat career began with the outbreak of war in September 1939, when he served with JG 51. He scored his first kill, a French Morane, on 23 November 1939. This was followed by involvement in the Battle of Britain, during which he scored two more kills. In November 1940 he was appointed commander of 1st Staffel JG 51. With this unit he raised his score to twelve. Various command posts in training and replenishment units followed from the end of 1941, after which, already at the rank of Hptm., he was assigned to 9./JG 1 on 8 October 1943.
The battle of 22 Dec 1943, depicted in Koike Shigeo's painting, also falls into this period. The victory depicted was achieved by Hptm. Eberle in the cockpit of a Bf 109G W.Nr.160303 marked "White 20". He was shot down himself in the same machine on 30 January 1944. It happened after a duel with Lt. Robert Booth of the 359th FG.
Although Eberle was wounded in combat, he continued to command the unit until 22 April 1944, when he turned it over to Maj Hartmann Grasser. He himself was transferred to the Frontflieger-Sammelgruppe (depot of operational pilots) at Quedlinburg, and after less than a month's rest, he became the Staffel commander at Kdo. Skagerrak. At that time his victory score stopped at number 33.
On 1.7.1944 he was sent to Rotenburg/Wümme, to become the commander of the newly formed III. Gruppe of Jagdgeschwader 4. In this new command position has not achieved any victory. Neither air nor personal. According to the pilots of his unit, he showed a strong tendency to avoid danger, even to cowardice. Many times he turned his aircraft back after takeoff because of alleged malfunctions. This happened already on the very first combat operation of his fresh Gruppe on Monday, September 11, 1944. The premonition came true. III./JG 4 suffered heavy losses that day in an encounter with 3rd BD bombers and their fighter escorts. Sometimes he withdrew from combat alone, at other times he led his entire unit out of the possibility of encountering the enemy. Failure to obey orders, self-interpretation of instructions... The pilots of III./JG 4 still remembered his defeatism decades later with considerable disdain.
But it's very easy to judge. At that time, they were all young boys shortly out of training, full of vigor to fight and could not put themselves in the skin of their commander. He himself had been through many battles since the beginning of the war, he had been shot down and wounded several times, rescued by parachute, made crash landings. In addition, he witnessed many times how pilots under his command died, he must have been the one who sent out casualty reports, wrote letters to the families.
Whether justified or not, the situation with the unit's leadership in combat was repeated on 1 January 1945 during Operation Bodenplatte. That day, Hptm. Eberle led I. and III./JG 4 to the Belgian A-89 Le Culot airfield. In a combination of successive problems and navigational difficulties, Hptm. Eberle turned his III Gruppe back shortly after crossing the battle lines. Confusion ensued among the other pilots, some continuing on to a target they could not find, some returning. Eberle faced severe punishment for this action. Although some sources state that he was court-martialled in a field trial, it was more likely a sort of public pillorying involving the pilots of I. and III. Gruppe JG 4. An actual field trial would probably have had a more far-reaching impact on Eberle himself, but also on the commander of JG 4, ObstLt. Michalski. Friedrich Eberle retained his military rank, but had to leave the unit. It is impossible to know what was going through his mind during the flight to LeCulot. What is certain, however, is that his decision probably saved the lives of quite a few pilots in his unit. Whether he had any idea what a disaster the whole Bodenplatte would be for the Luftwaffe is questionable. This last act of Friedrich Eberle in command of III./JG 4 is indicative of the psychological strain and exhaustion that could easily befall a commanding officer in a war that lasted several years, rather than the personal courage or failure of any particular pilot.
Not only for courage in combat, but for the art of defying what we consider to be senseless and beyond dangerous, those who can do so deserve great respect.