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