Text: Jan Bobek

Illustration: Antonis Karydis

Cat. No. 7470

Jagdgeschwader 26 “Schlageter” is best known for its deployment in Western Europe, which lasted continuously from September 1939 until the end of the war. However, in 1941 its 7th Staffel was deployed for several months in the Balkans, Sicily and Africa. In August 1942, a specialized high-altitude 11./JG 26 was established in France, but in November it was transferred to Italy, then Sicily, and subsequently became involved in fighting in North Africa. In early 1943 it was incorporated into II./JG 51.

The largest part of JG 26 to separate from its parent unit was the contingent that arrived in Russia in early 1943. This was again the 7./JG 26 under the command of Hat. Klaus Mietusch and I./JG 26 led by Maj. Johannes Seifert consisting of a Stab and three Staffeln. Their Fw 190 As were then a novelty on the Eastern Front. JG 26 was backed up by JG 54 “Grünherz”, which was familiarizing itself with the Focke-Wulfs at this time. Mietusch with his 7./JG 26 joined I./JG 54 on the Leningrad front. As a replacement, 4./JG 54 moved to France and continued on the Bf 109 G type. Seifert's I./JG 26 began operating from the Relbitsy base west of Lake Ilmen in early February 1943. Technical support was provided by ground personnel of III./JG 54, whose pilots, without their Bf 109 Gs, moved to Western Europe as well.

In mid-February 1943, I./JG 26 performed attacks against Soviet infantry massing around Lake Ilmen. The pilots completed up to ten sorties a day over several days, and the enemy troops eventually withdrew. Seifert´s I./JG 26 first encountered Soviet aircraft on 16 February west of Demyansk. Airmen from Stab and 1./JG 26 claimed eleven Il-2s without loss of their own.

The first encounter with the Soviet fighters showed that after two years of fighting these had learned a lot and handled well both their new domestically produced aircraft as their machines delivered under Lend-Lease. The battle occurred on 17 February south of Lake Ilmen. I./JG 26s clashed with a formation of Il-2s with fighter escort identified as Yaks and P-40s. The fighter escort prevented the loss of the bombers, one of the German pilots crashed into the ground during the engagement, another was shot down by a fighter, and the third pilot was shot down by flak. Four more Fw 190s sustained damage, one of which was so severe that the machine had to be written off. Pilots from I./JG 26 reported three Curtiss P-40s shot down.

The climatic and combat conditions on this battlefield were very different from what the Schlagetergeschwader airmen knew from their time in France. Air battles were usually fought at lower altitudes and in smaller formations. Fighting often occurred over the front area, where Soviet anti-aircraft artillery was also a tough opponent. One of the airmen who had experience with this battlefield was the commander of 3./JG 26 Hptm. Rolf Hermichen. At the beginning of the war he served as a Bf 110 pilot in 6./ZG 1, which was later redesignated 9./ZG 76 and then 6./SKG 210. He achieved four victories in the Battle of France and added three more during the Battle of Britain. Before the attack on the Soviet Union, he scored one more victory in Norway. In the fighting in the East he performed many strafing attacks and also achieved his last three victories in the Bf 110, shooting down a Pe-2 bomber and two Yak-1s. In 1942 he was appointed commander of 3./JG 26.

Photographs of JG 26's deployments to the Eastern Front are very rare and a number of them relating to Hermichen were published by the late Jerry Crandall in his book Fighters of the Iron Cross. Hermichen scored his 22nd victory after returning to the Eastern Front on February 18, 1943, in a dogfight with a LaGG-3 fighter pilot, while fighting a formation of Il-2s.  For the illustration, rendered on a boxart by Antonis Karydis, we have selected Hermichen’s duel with Pe-2 bombers, which took place on March 7 south of Lake Ilmen. He claimed two victories and apparently clashed with several crews from 46. BAP, which conducted a free search for targets in German-occupied territory. The only casualty was the crew of Lt. Georgiy G. Reshetnikov, who remains missing together with his navigator Ml. lt. Mikhail I. Nakonechnyuk and gunner Serzh. Grigory F. Silenok.