Stur­movik killer Otto Kittel

Top scor­ing Fw 190 ace and ‘Stur­movik’ killer

Aviation Classics - - CONTENTS -

Many pi­lots be­came an ‘ace’ fly­ing the Fw 190 but the high­est scorer of them all was Otto Kittel. Fight­ing ex­clu­sively on the Eastern Front, he amassed 267 aerial vic­to­ries and be­came par­tic­u­larly skilled at destroying Soviet ‘Stur­movik’ fighter-bombers…

Just af­ter 10am on the morn­ing of July 13, 1943, four Luft­waffe Focke-wulf Fw 190A-4 fighters of II./JG 54, led by Ober­feld­webel Otto Kittel, were scram­bled from strip alert at Orel, on the Eastern Front in Rus­sia, about 220 miles south-south­west of Moscow. A mas­sive Ger­man of­fen­sive in the east, or­dered by Hitler and co­de­named Op­er­a­tion Zi­tadelle (Citadel), had com­menced on July 5, 1943. Now in its ninth day, the Ger­man ad­vance was fal­ter­ing and was des­tined to col­lapse into a re­ver­sal and retreat un­der the sheer weight of Soviet coun­ter­at­tacks. Hitler called a stop to the of­fen­sive on July 17 and the Ger­mans never re­cov­ered from the set­back. The as­sault and the sub­se­quent Soviet of­fen­sives en­com­passed the Battle of Kursk, which saw the largest tank bat­tles in his­tory, with air power play­ing a sig­nif­i­cant part. The fight­ing was to cost the Ger­mans al­most 200,000 ca­su­al­ties; more than 700 Ger­man tanks were lost and al­most as many Luft­waffe air­craft were de­stroyed or dam­aged. The cost to the Sovi­ets was even greater, but they re­gained ter­ri­tory along a front of 1200 miles. The battle en­cap­su­lated a con­test for air su­pe­ri­or­ity and air sup­port of the ground forces, with the ad­van­tage shift­ing to the Sovi­ets from this point on. For the Luft­waffe pi­lots life on the Eastern Front was be­com­ing much harder; for them it was no longer the ‘turkey shoot’ it had been ear­lier in the war and their chances of sur­viv­ing and of achiev­ing high scores as fighter pi­lots were less­ened.

Bruno kittel

It was at this turn­ing point in the war, in the midst of this mas­sive battle, that Ober­feld­webel Otto Kittel, ‘Bruno’ to his many Luft­waffe friends, led his ‘sch­warm’ of four Fw 190s off the ground at Orel on the morn­ing of July 13. His faith­ful wing­man, Un­terof­fizier Ul­rich Wernitz, quickly slot­ted into po­si­tion on his right as Kittel led the bull­nosed fighters in a rapid climb to 3000m (10,000ft), leav­ing power in hand for the rest of the pi­lots to keep up. They had been scram­bled be­cause the Ger­man troops and tanks in their sec­tor were be­ing sub­jected to an­other attack by Soviet Air Force Ilyushin Il-2 ‘Stur­movik’ ar­moured close-sup­port ground-attack air­craft. Yet again the Grün­herz (Green Hearts) of JG 54, as they were known to the Wehrma­cht sol­diers, be­cause of the unit badge, were needed to fight off the Soviet air attack within sight of the Ger­man troops. Kittel was now an ac­knowl­edged ‘ex­perte’, as the Luft­waffe called its aces. With 66 vic­to­ries con­firmed up to this point, all with JG 54 on the Eastern Front, he was a ris­ing star among the Luft­waffe’s fighter pi­lots. Af­ter a cau­tious and slow start to his ca­reer he had, since Fe­bru­ary 1943, been granted flight leader sta­tus and cleared to fly on ‘Freie Jagd’ roam­ing com­bat pa­trols when­ever there was the op­por­tu­nity. On the first day of Op­er­a­tion Zi­tadelle, Kittel had shot down four en­emy air­craft; he claimed three more the next day. He was also de­vel­op­ing a rep­u­ta­tion for killing the heav­ily ar­moured Il-2 ‘Stur­moviks’ which were vir­tu­ally im­mune to con­ven­tional meth­ods of fighter attack. In fact, 22 of Kittel’s 66 kills so far were against the ‘Fly­ing Tank’, the ‘Sch­lächter’ (Slaugh­terer) or ‘Der Sch­warze Tod’ (the Black Death), as the Wehrma­cht sol­diers var­i­ously nick­named the Il-2. He was about to add to that score in their de­fence.

Il-2 ‘Stur­movik’

The Il-2 ‘Stur­movik’ was pro­duced in huge num­bers by the Sovi­ets; in fact more than 36,000 were man­u­fac­tured – mak­ing it the most pro­duced com­bat air­craft of all time, just ahead of the Messer­schmitt Bf 109. The front fuse­lage of the air­craft was es­sen­tially an ar­moured ‘bath­tub’, the ar­mour plate rang­ing in thick­ness from 5-12mm (2-5in), de­signed to pro­tect the en­gine, the pi­lot’s cock­pit, the coolant and oil ra­di­a­tors, and the fuel tanks. Thanks to this ar­mour pro­tec­tion the ‘Stur­movik’ could take a great deal of pun­ish­ment with­out be­ing brought down. The Luft­waffe pi­lots re­ferred to the Il-2 as the ‘Eis­erner Gus­tav’ (Iron Gus­tav) or the ‘Ze­ment­bomber’ (Con­crete Bomber). One of the few vul­ner­a­ble points of the ‘Stur­movik’ was the oil cooler lo­cated on the un­der­side, but this was a very small tar­get and it pro­truded only a short dis­tance be­low the belly of the air­craft. Re­li­able and hardy, but rel­a­tively slow (top speed was only about 250mph) and not es­pe­cially ma­noeu­vrable, the ‘Stur­movik’ was armed with two for­ward fir­ing 23mm can­nons and two 7.62mm ma­chine guns. The Type 3M vari­ant of the Il-2 car­ried two 37mm can­nons in con­for­mal gun pods mounted un­der the wings, in­stead of the orig­i­nal smaller-cal­i­bre can­nons; this ver­sion was in­tended as a spe­cial­ist anti-tank air­craft and was first used op­er­a­tionally dur­ing the Battle of Kursk. By this stage of the war, the stan­dard two-man (or woman) crew of the

‘Stur­moviks’ in­cluded a rear­ward fac­ing gun­ner sit­ting on a can­vas sling seat with a sin­gle 12.7mm ma­chine gun for pro­tec­tion against stern at­tacks by the Ger­man fighters. The air-to-ground ar­ma­ment of the Il-2 in­cluded rock­ets, which were very in­ac­cu­rate, and small ‘shaped charge’ 1.5kg (3.3lb) bomblets, which were first used on a large scale dur­ing the Battle of Kursk and which could eas­ily pen­e­trate the up­per ar­mour of the Ger­man heavy tanks. The Il-2 could carry up to 192 of th­ese weapons in four ex­ter­nal clus­ter bomb dis­pensers or up to 220 in the in­ner wing pan­els’ in­ter­nal weapon bays. Stan­dard tac­tics of the Soviet ‘Stur­movik’ for­ma­tions, usu­ally of any­thing from four to 12 air­craft, were to race across the en­emy po­si­tions at low level (50m/160ft) bomb­ing and straf­ing, or to attack from sev­eral thou­sand feet, from a ‘cir­cle of death’, in a 30º dive. All in all, the ‘Stur­movik’ was an ef­fec­tive ground attack and close sup­port air­craft and a for­mi­da­ble op­po­nent for both the Luft­waffe fighter pi­lots and for the Wehrma­cht troops on the ground.

July 13, 1943: Fw190 vs ‘stur­movik’

Find­ing prey was not dif­fi­cult for the four Luft­waffe Fw 190 fighter pi­lots on the morn­ing of July 13 and with his ex­cel­lent eye­sight Kittel was the first to spot the ap­par­ently un­escorted ‘Stur­moviks’ among the ‘flak’ and ground ex­plo­sions be­low. Call­ing the con­tacts to his for­ma­tion he led the 190s down on to the Soviet air­craft in a steep high speed dive. He was trust­ing that his wing­man would be as dis­ci­plined as he had al­ways been him­self when he was fly­ing in that role ear­lier in his ca­reer and that Wernitz would guard their rear against any Soviet es­cort fighters that might ap­pear. Ap­proach­ing from the stern and drop­ping be­neath the for­ma­tion of 12 ‘Stur­moviks’, which were fly­ing straight and level at 500m (1600ft), Kittel closed in un­seen to 200m (220 yards), with around 100mph (160kph) over­take. Then he raised the nose of his Fw 190 into a 10º climb and opened up on the un­der­side of his cho­sen vic­tim with an ac­cu­rate burst of can­non and ma­chine gun fire. Oil gushed from the ‘Stur­movik’ as Kittel broke away hard to avoid a col­li­sion and zoomed up in a steep full-throt­tle climb to sev­eral thou­sand feet, rolling al­most in­verted at the top of the climb to keep the en­emy air­craft in view. As he did so he saw his vic­tim hit the ground be­low him and dis­in­te­grate with a mas­sive ex­plo­sion. An­other of the Soviet air­craft fol­lowed it to de­struc­tion, hav­ing fallen vic­tim to the guns of one of the other Fw 190s. The Soviet pi­lots were now fully alerted to the dan­ger and dived their ‘Stur­moviks’ to low level, about 150m (500ft) above the ground, to pre­vent the Ger­man fighters at­tack­ing from be­low. Recog­nis­ing this, Kittel re­verted to the Luft­waffe’s al­ter­na­tive tac­tic of a steep div­ing attack from above. This could be suc­cess­ful against the ‘Stur­movik’ if the Fw 190’s can­nons were fired into the top of the wing roots, which con­tained the in­ter­nal weapons bays, and into the top of the cock­pit area, with the chance of hit­ting the pi­lot or the fuel tank be­hind the pi­lot’s seat. It was a dif­fi­cult attack to judge, as even start­ing from a very steep dive, the for­ward speed of the tar­get would cause the dive to flat­ten; if it re­duced to less than 35º it would bring the at­tack­ing air­craft within the field of fire of the ‘Stur­movik’ rear gun­ner. This tac­tic also pre­sented a chal­leng­ing gun­nery de­flec­tion prob­lem, as this was a high-an­gle-off attack re­quir­ing the shooter to aim well ahead of the tar­get. Fi­nally, there was an ob­vi­ous risk of a col­li­sion from press­ing in too close. Pitch­ing in from above with­out hes­i­ta­tion, Kittel aimed well ahead of one of the Il-2s and fired. The ‘Stur­movik’ sim­ply flew into the ground as if pushed there by the weight of his rounds. Per­haps he had hit the pi­lot? The Soviet air­craft dis­in­te­grated on im­pact as Kittel con­verted the steep dive back into a zoom climb, strain­ing against the high G forces ex­erted on his body as he ‘bot­tomed out’. Rolling over in­verted at the top, he

re­peated an iden­ti­cal attack with equal suc­cess against a third ‘Stur­movik’, which blew up in mid-air as his rounds struck home. He had de­stroyed three of the Soviet air­craft in only four min­utes. With more of the ‘Stur­moviks’ downed by the other Fw 190 pi­lots, the Soviet for­ma­tion had been dec­i­mated. Some Soviet Lav­ochkin La-5 fighters were now be­lat­edly be­gin­ning to ap­pear over­head, so Kittel took the safe op­tion as he had been taught and had learned to do. He led the Fw 190s away and back to base to live and fight an­other day. As if to prove the point, Kittel was air­borne again later the same day and claimed yet an­other ‘Stur­movik’ fly­ing at 700m (2300ft) at 1.41pm, bring­ing his to­tal score to 70 en­emy air­craft de­stroyed.

the early years

Otto Kittel was born at Krons­dorf in the Su­den­ten­land (now Krasov in the Czech Repub­lic) on Fe­bru­ary 21, 1917, to par­ents who were part of the Ger­man-speak­ing pop­u­la­tion of the area. Fas­ci­nated by avi­a­tion from a young age, Otto longed to be­come a pi­lot. Su­den­ten­land was an­nexed to Nazi Ger­many in 1938 and a year later Kittel joined the Luft­waffe at the age of 22. By Fe­bru­ary 1941, Kittel had com­pleted the ex­ten­sive and im­pres­sive Luft­waffe pi­lot train­ing pro­gramme and was as­signed to II./JG 54 with the rank of Un­terof­fizier, fly­ing Bf 109s, ini­tially from Le Mans in France. All his op­er­a­tional fly­ing would sub­se­quently be with JG 54. Small in stature with a re­served and thought­ful per­son­al­ity, ‘Bruno’ Kittel did not fit popular per­cep­tions of a typ­i­cal fighter pi­lot. He was a quiet and calm young pi­lot who spoke slowly and softly. Those who knew him at that time de­scribed him as be­ing mod­est, tac­i­turn even, and rather too se­ri­ous. They also recog­nised in him an un­shake­able calm, great pres­ence of mind and speed of re­ac­tions, and a strong sense of duty. Kittel like to be well rested and fully alert for all his flights and, pe­cu­liarly, he took ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to get the nec­es­sary sleep, even be­tween sor­ties. He quickly de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for to­tal re­li­a­bil­ity which, with his other per­sonal at­tributes, drew the ad­mi­ra­tion of both his su­pe­ri­ors and his peers. He was well liked. In June 1942 Kittel mar­ried his sweet­heart, Edith, by ‘Fern­trau­ung’ (dis­tance wed­ding) at a proxy cer­e­mony con­ducted for him on the Eastern Front. Dur­ing the war, spe­cial rules were signed off by Hitler en­abling the long dis­tance mar­riage of ser­vice per­son­nel to their brides at home when both could not be present in the same place. The ‘Fern­trau­ung’ cer­e­mony was held in the field with the bride­groom’s ser­vice col­leagues present as wit­nesses and usu­ally with a pho­to­graph of the bride on the ta­ble in front of them. Once com­pleted, the pa­per­work was sent back to the bride for her part of the cer­e­mony in her home town reg­istry of­fice. If the worst should hap­pen, the wife was then en­ti­tled to a widow’s pen­sion. De­spite be­ing of­fi­cially mar­ried, Otto and Edith were not to see each other for sev­eral months and for the rest of the war he car­ried with him the ex­tra con­cerns and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of be­ing a mar­ried man.

Ju­nior Bf 109 pi­lot

When the Ger­man in­va­sion of the Soviet Union, Op­er­a­tion Bar­barossa, be­gan on June 22, 1941, JG 54 was tasked with sup­port­ing Army Group North on the Eastern Front, where it was to serve for the rest of the war. Two days later, on June 24, Kittel, fly­ing a Bf 109F, claimed his first two kills. Both were against Soviet Air Force Tupolev SB-2 ‘Katyushka’ twin-en­gine light bombers. On June 30 he claimed his first two Il-2 ‘Stur­moviks’ shot down near Dun­aberg. Kittel quickly be­came a re­spected fighter pi­lot with JG 54, but his score rose only slowly. By the end of 1941, af­ter six months at the front, he had only 10 vic­to­ries to his name. At this stage of his ca­reer he was op­er­at­ing mainly as a ded­i­cated wing­man, which re­duced his op­por­tu­ni­ties to take kills. Nonethe­less, he was awarded the Iron Cross Sec­ond Class on June 30, 1941, and the Iron Cross First Class in Oc­to­ber that year. Dur­ing this fighter pi­lot ‘ap­pren­tice­ship’ Kittel learned much from the more ex­pe­ri­enced and ex­pert aces with whom he flew, such as Hannes Traut­loft (58 kills), Hans Philipp (206 kills) and Wal­ter Nowotny (258 kills), who of­fered their ad­vice about aerial com­bat and who led by ex­am­ple.

It was drummed into him that the pri­or­ity was to en­gage the en­emy bombers re­gard­less of fighter es­corts, but he was also taught to avoid un­nec­es­sary risks and to get home in one piece, to take the safer op­tion and to avoid ill-con­sid­ered tac­tics. He learned not to risk him­self for an un­cer­tain kill. Across the sum­mer of 1942 aerial vic­to­ries were hard to come by for JG 54 op­er­at­ing in the north­ern sec­tor of the Eastern Front, as the ma­jor­ity of the Soviet air ac­tiv­ity was com­bat­ing the Ger­man Army’s sum­mer of­fen­sive in the south. By the end of 1942 Kittel had only 21 kills, hav­ing been fly­ing on op­er­a­tions for 18 months in the Bf 109.

Fly­ing the Fw 190

In early 1943, by which time Kittel had scored well over 30 vic­to­ries in Bf 109s, his unit was briefly with­drawn from the front to con­vert to the Fw 190. With a stronger un­der­car­riage ide­ally suited to the harsh air­field con­di­tions on the Eastern Front, good fire­power and greater speed and agility than the Bf 109, Kittel and his col­leagues were pleased with their new fighter. Re­turn­ing to the front line, now fly­ing the Fw 190, Kittel’s score be­gan to rise rapidly. On Fe­bru­ary 19 he claimed his 39th victory, which was also JG 54’s 4000th of the war. The pub­lic­ity as­so­ci­ated with this event brought him to the at­ten­tion of his su­pe­ri­ors and to the public in Ger­many. Sub­se­quently he was al­lowed more ‘free rein’ and had more op­por­tu­ni­ties to in­crease his score. By mid-march 1943, fly­ing from one of the for­ward air­fields near Staraya, Rus­sia, Kittel had fought sev­eral en­gage­ments and his to­tal num­ber of vic­to­ries had risen to 47.

Down in en­emy ter­ri­tory

On March 15, 1943, Kittel flew as part of a Sch­warm of four Fw 190s led by Ober­leut­nant Hans Götz on a mission over the Dem­vansk Pocket. In a dog­fight with about 20 mixed type Soviet fighters, pos­si­bly MIG 3s, LAGG-3S and some lease-lend Bell P-39 Aira­co­bras, Kittel dam­aged one of the en­emy fighters, but his Fw 190 took some hits which ini­tially did not seem to be crit­i­cal. How­ever, on the way home, his en­gine failed and he had to force-land in a snow cov­ered field some 60km (al­most 40 miles) in­side Soviet oc­cu­pied ter­ri­tory. For­tu­nately, his wheels-up land­ing was suc­cess­ful and Kittel’s Fw 190 slid to halt on its belly with­out catch­ing fire. His col­leagues saw Kittel leap from the cock­pit and dis­ap­pear into a for­est. In an epic and coura­geous es­cape-an­deva­sion trek, de­spite be­ing in­ad­e­quately clothed and bit­terly cold, and with vir­tu­ally no food, Kittel made his way west­wards. Dis­guised as a Rus­sian peas­ant, with some old clothes he found in an aban­doned hut, he passed through sev­eral Soviet check­points, us­ing his Czech and Rus­sian lan­guage skills to evade de­tec­tion. He crossed the frozen Lake Ilmen, waded a freez­ing river and af­ter walk­ing 80km (50 miles) in three days he made it back to the Ger­man lines. He was re­turned to his unit and then granted leave.

Fighter v Fighter com­bat

On his re­turn to op­er­a­tions, Kittel started scor­ing freely. Many of his vic­to­ries were against the Il-2 ‘Stur­moviks’, but many were also against fighters, in­clud­ing the newer and more ca­pa­ble Soviet fighter types, such as the Lav­ochkin La-5 (a re­fine­ment of the LAGG-3), one of the Soviet’s most ca­pa­ble fighters, es­pe­cially at lower al­ti­tudes where it was vir­tu­ally on a par with the Fw 190. Although it was never his in­tent, Kittel did oc­ca­sion­ally be­come em­broiled in danger­ous and pro­longed dog­fights with the Soviet ma­chines. He proved just as ca­pa­ble in the art of fighter v fighter aerial com­bat as he was at down­ing ‘Stur­moviks’. Af­ter one par­tic­u­lar pro­longed dog­fight against an un­known Soviet op­po­nent, Kittel de­scribed how he and his ad­ver­sary had been locked in com­bat for some 20 min­utes and both had fired at the other with­out suc­cess. Even util­is­ing the strengths of the Fw 190 to the full – higher top speed and su­pe­rior climb and zoom ca­pa­bil­ity – while avoid­ing a flat turn­ing fight where the Soviet fighters had a turn rate ad­van­tage, Kittel could not shake off the determined and ca­pa­ble Soviet pi­lot. Each at­tempt to es­cape at high speed only built Kittel some brief breath­ing space be­fore he had to pitch back ver­ti­cally into the fight, us­ing the climb­ing per­for­mance of the Fw 190 to try to gain a height ad­van­tage over his op­po­nent. When Kittel’s red low fuel warn­ing light il­lu­mi­nated in his cock­pit he knew that he was in a kill or be killed sit­u­a­tion. He said that he thought the Soviet pi­lot wanted, “to send him to hell” and he needed an “un­shake­able will” to over­come him. He dived at high speed once again and then pulled up into a loop which placed him above and be­hind his op­po­nent who broke to the right. Kittel had an­tic­i­pated this re­ac­tion and was al­ready pulling lead on his tar­get in that di­rec­tion. Us­ing his re­mark­able abil­ity to judge the cor­rect amount of de­flec­tion, Kittel fired his can­nons. As the rounds smashed home, both the en­gine and the canopy broke off the Soviet

air­craft; it spun down in a steep spi­ral and crashed into the ground. Kittel made for home and had just enough fuel to reach his base and land. He never cel­e­brated his vic­to­ries joy­fully and on this oc­ca­sion he said: “I thought of my op­po­nent and, some­how, felt sorry. Af­ter all he was only an avi­a­tor as well; it was just that he was on the other side of the fence.”

Swords for brav­ery

Kittel’s victory score con­tin­ued to in­crease at a re­mark­able rate, with mul­ti­ple kills on many days. On Au­gust 4, 1943, the high-scor­ing ace claimed seven kills in one day, on three sep­a­rate sor­ties, shoot­ing down three Il-2 ‘Stur­moviks’, three LAGG-3S and one La-5, all at low level. Ten days later his score reached 100. He claimed 18 vic­to­ries dur­ing Oc­to­ber 1943, in­clud­ing his 110th on Oc­to­ber 12; he shot down an­other four en­emy air­craft on Oc­to­ber 15 and made his 120th kill four days later, af­ter which he was awarded the ‘Rit­terkreuz’, the Knight’s Cross, on Oc­to­ber 26. In Jan­uary 1944, Kittel was rested from op­er­a­tions and trans­ferred to be the chief in­struc­tor of the Ergänzungs-jagdgruppe Ost (Train­ing Group East) at Biar­ritz, France, so that he could pass on his knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence to the new gen­er­a­tion of Luft­waffe pi­lots. He was pro­moted to Leut­nant, but he was very un­happy in a teach­ing role and yearned for front­line ac­tion. He filed sev­eral ap­pli­ca­tions to re­turn to com­bat fly­ing and his re­quest was granted in March 1944 when he re­turned to JG 54 on the Eastern Front to take up the ap­point­ment of Staffelka­p­i­tan of the 3rd Staffel of II./JG 54. His killing spree took off again im­me­di­ately. On April 4, 1944, Kittel shot down five en­emy air­craft, rais­ing his to­tal score to 151. In recog­ni­tion of this he re­ceived the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross, pre­sented to him per­son­ally by Adolf Hitler at the ‘Wolf’s Lair’ in East Prus­sia on May 5. It was also a brief chance for some leave with his wife and fam­ily. Kittel’s 200th victory, against a Lav­ochkin La-5, was reached on Au­gust 26, 1944. On Oc­to­ber 27, Kittel re­peated his seven-in-one-day feat with claims against three Il-2 ‘Stur­moviks’, two Petlyakov Pe-2 twin-en­gine bombers and two Yak-9 fighters, bring­ing his score to a to­tal of 254. A month later, on Novem­ber 25, now with 264 vic­to­ries, he was awarded ‘the Sch­w­erten’ (swords) for brav­ery in the face of the en­emy, be­com­ing only the 113th Ger­man ser­vice­man to re­ceive the award. Kittel, who was now an Ober­leut­nant, flew to Hitler’s head­quar­ters to re­ceive the award and from there he went straight home for some more leave with his fam­ily in Ger­many. When he re­turned to the Eastern Front in Jan­uary 1945 he took over com­mand of the 2nd Staffel of II./JG 54 with whom he added his fi­nal three kills to his re­mark­able to­tal.

‘Stur­movik’ re­venge

On Fe­bru­ary 14, 1945, Staffelka­p­i­tan Kittel took off from an air­field in Latvia, lead­ing his squadron and fly­ing Fw 190A-8 ‘Black 1’, to en­gage a group of about 14 Il-2 ‘Stur­moviks’ over the Cour­land Pocket. At 12.13pm he made con­tact with the en­emy for­ma­tion, which was fly­ing at low altitude, no more than 100-150m (300-500ft). His com­rades re­ported that he dived into the Il-2s, opened fire and hit one of the ‘Stur­moviks’ which dis­ap­peared over the Soviet lines on fire and in trou­ble. To the dis­may of his col­leagues, Kittel seemed to be sur­rounded by ‘Stur­moviks’, his Fw 190 was hit hard and went down trail­ing smoke and flames. The air­craft tore into the ground near Dzuk­ste, and came apart; Kittel had no chance what­so­ever of sur­viv­ing. Kittel had flown 583 com­bat mis­sions, dur­ing which he de­stroyed 267 Soviet air­craft, mak­ing him the fourth high­est scor­ing fighter ace of all time. He was the most suc­cess­ful Ger­man fighter pi­lot to be killed in ac­tion. Otto Kittel died only 12 weeks be­fore the end of the war in Europe, leav­ing be­hind his wife Edith and a baby son, Manfred Kittel, born in 1945.

Via Clive Rowley

The fourth high­est scor­ing fighter ace of all time, Otto Kittel, sit­ting atop Fw 190 ‘Black 1’.

Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion via Clive Rowley Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion

The air­craft of Otto Kittel’s fel­low II./JG 54 pi­lot Uffz Hel­mut Brandt on the Eastern Front in 1943. An Fw 190A-4 of JG 54 ‘Grün­herz’ fires up its BMW 801D-2. JG 54 pi­lots take a break, with Otto Kittel seated at the head of the ta­ble.

Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion Right: via Clive Rowley

The weak spot of the ‘fly­ing tank’ Il-2 was the vul­ner­a­ble oil cooler on its belly – vis­i­ble here as a dark ‘box’ be­tween the wings. Ger­man pi­lots at­tempt­ing to de­stroy ‘Stur­moviks’ ap­proached from be­hind and be­low. Kittel with his wife Edith. He mar­ried her while they were apart us­ing ‘Fern­trau­ung’ – an of­fi­cial cer­e­mony which re­sulted in the new wife re­ceiv­ing a pen­sion if her hus­band was killed in ac­tion at the front be­fore they could be re­united.

Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion Via Clive Rowley

The air­craft of Wal­ter Nowotny – an­other mem­ber of JG 54 and the fifth high­est scor­ing fighter ace of all time, be­hind Kittel. The Ilyushin Il-2 ‘Stur­movik’ was Kittel’s most fre­quently prey as JG 54 fought to de­fend Ger­man front line troops from aerial as­sault.

Via Clive Rowley via Clive Rowley

JG 54’s finest – Ma­jor Wal­ter Nowotny, cen­tre, and Otto Kittel, right. A party was held to cel­e­brate JG 54’s 4000th aerial victory of the war – which was also Kittel’s 39th. He is pic­tured seated on the left.

Above: Right: via Clive Rowley via Clive Rowley via Clive Rowley

Stand­ing in the fore­ground, fac­ing right, Otto Kittel speaks to his fel­low pi­lots.the im­age was taken on June 23, 1944, while Kittel’s unit was based at Riga-skulte in Latvia. He shot down 94 of them, each with a crew of two, but in the end it was an Il-2 ‘Stur­movik’ which shot down and killed Kittel on St Valen­tine’s Day 1945. Small, qui­etly spo­ken and se­ri­ous, Kittel was an atyp­i­cal fighter ace. He is pic­tured here as a Feld­webel of 2./JG 54 wear­ing his Iron Cross, first class.

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