Text: Jan Bobek
Illustration: Adam Tooby
Cat. No. 82115
When Adolf Hitler broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Treaty and attacked Stalin’s Soviet Union with his allies on June 22, 1941, the greatest ground and air battles in world history took place. However, the forces of Germany and its satellites launched the attack later than originally planned. And the command's ideas that the Soviets would be defeated by winter were wrong for many reasons. In addition, the Soviet Union soon began to receive help under the Lend-Lease Act. Coming winter 1941/1942 German ground and air units were in a situation for which they were often ill-equipped, unlike their opponents who knew the terrain and the Russian winter well.
One of the units that fought in Russia at that time was Jagdgeschwader 54 “Grünherz” under the command of Kommodore Hannes Trautloft. One of his Gruppen, I./JG 54, was commanded from February 1942 by Hptm. Hans Philipp, whose duel is depicted on a boxart by Adam Tooby. Trautloft ordered preparation of report relating Geschwader experiences from November 1, 1941, to April 30, 1942. It is available in the Bundesarchiv under the signature RL 10/477. The document is 80 pages long and in a few paragraphs, I will try to summarize some interesting points from the first seven chapters.
JG 54 was deployed on a frontline stretching 330 km long in the Army Group Nord area between Lake Ilmen and Leningrad. It was subordinated to Luftflotte 1 within the I. Fliegerkorps. Its armament consisted of Bf 109 F-2s and the first F-4s were received by III. Gruppe in March 1942. In December the temperature dropped to minus 10´C, but by January it reached minus 42°C. During this period, JG 54 flew 8,946 combat sorties and 1,258 ground attack sorties. In doing so, it claimed the shoot-down of 51 reconnaissance, courier and transport aircraft types, 107 bombers, most of which were modern Pe-2 and Il-2s, and destroyed 518 fighter aircraft, more than 80% of which were modern aircraft.
During the winter the Soviet airmen modified their formations in a manner similar to that used by the Germans. Due to the technical superiority of the Bf 109 F, their enemies began to use a defensive circle against which the Germans had to develop offensive tactics. On this battlefield JG 54 encountered for the first time the Curtiss P-40s, which they judged to have good rate of climb and ability to manoeuvre in turns.
The Soviet formations usually flew machines with white camouflage paint as well as the original dark camouflage, which made it difficult for the Germans to get an overview of the number and position of their enemies. The Bf 109 F usually used a four-plane formation (Schwarm), which was split into a pair (Rotte) that attacked and a second Rotte that provided cover. The recommended method of attack was at close range from the rear, due to the quality of the armour of the Soviet machines. When the firing ceased, it was recommended to pull in and fly over the enemy so that the German machine would not be hit by debris.
Soviet bomber formations usually flew in numbers of three to twelve machines with a strong fighter escort. Against such superior numbers, it was necessary to call in additional Rotten and Schwärme from other sections of the front in order to draw the fighter escorts into the fight and then attack the bombers. The Pe-2 formations were very disciplined and it was not recommended to attack them directly from the rear. If a bomber was hit, the other Pe-2 crews would try to line it up in the centre of the formation to protect it.
According to the JG 54 pilots, the Il-2s had excellent armour and it was recommended to fire at the tail surfaces, ideally from above or from the side. The JG 54 report shows respect for the rear gunners of enemy bombers. Mention is also made of the problem of retraining rookie pilots, who had a great appetite for combat but at the same time underestimated the enemy.
Escorting German bombers was more difficult than in the summer of 1941, mainly because of the timing of rendezvous and also because Ju 88 crews tended to use looser formations. JG 54 rated better the Stukas crews, who maintained tight formations in a disciplined manner.
JG 54 judged the enemy anti-aircraft defences to be highly effective, these were particularly dangerous during strafing attacks. It was not recommended to attack a single target twice, and it was essential to fly low when departing.