Beasts of the East
Focke-wulf Fw 190 on the Eastern Front
When the Luftwaffe’s fighter force set out in support of the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, it did so almost exclusively flying the Messerschmitt Bf 109F. A quick victor y failed to materialise, however, and a year later the rugged and powerful Fw 190 was badly needed in the east…
Soviet forces were caught completely off guard and off balance at the beginning of Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa and paid a heavy price for it. Three German army groups, North, Centre and South, and their Luftwaffe support punched through Soviet defences with ease – annihilating the enemy formations in their way – and drove east. Opposing the German Bf 109Fs were large numbers of obsolete fighters, such as Polikarpov I-15 biplanes and the I-16, which had been introduced in 1934. Advanced Soviet fighters had entered production, such as the MIG-3, LAGG-3 and Yak-1, but they were only available in small numbers and few pilots had been trained to fly them. Soviet pilots in general were inexperienced, poorly trained and had not been expecting an invasion. In fact, when German ground attack aircraft reached Soviet forward air bases, they often found the aircraft lined up in neat rows – and destroyed them one after the next on the ground. Those that did get airborne often had no radios and no fire control. As such, they were slaughtered by the Luftwaffe’s highly trained and well coordinated fighter forces. By the summer of 1942, the picture had changed dramatically. The advanced fighters were being churned out in huge numbers by the Soviet industrial machine and by the summer’s end they had been joined by another, perhaps the best yet – the Lavochkin La-5, essentially the LAGG-3 with a much more powerful engine. The heavily armoured Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik ground-attack aircraft had also been introduced and was appearing in worryingly large formations over the front line to attack German infantry and armour. They were given various nicknames by the Luftwaffe, including ‘zementers’ or ‘cementers’ because they were so tough it was as though they were made out of cement. Fearing the collapse of their ally in the east, the western powers had also sent over hundreds of aircraft to bolster the Soviet effort. The Luftwaffe on the ‘Ostfront’ therefore found itself fighting Supermarine Spitfires, Hawker Hurricanes, Bell P-39 Airacobras and Curtiss P-40s. It was inevitable, with the Western Front proving comparatively quieter and with adequate numbers now being produced, that the Fw 190 would be introduced in the east. The first unit to receive it was I./JG 51, which was withdrawn from its base in Orel, 200 miles southwest of Moscow, to Königsberg, East Prussia, at the beginning of August 1942. By the time a swift programme of training had been completed it was equipped with one Fw 190A-1, 10 A-2s and 32 A-3s. Before the month was out, JG 51 had begun moving back to Russia with its new charges, now based at Ljuban, near Leningrad, and the whole of I./JG 51 was in place by September 6. Deliveries of the new Fw 190A-4 to the front began in October 1942, just as the first La-5s were reaching Soviet air force units. II./JG 51 was withdrawn to East Prussia on October 7 so that it too could begin
converting to the Fw 190 but with training still under way most of the Gruppe was suddenly transferred to the Mediterranean. Only 6./JG 51 remained behind to complete its conversion. November 12 saw III./JG 51 also being moved back to East Prussia to begin working up on the Fw 190. While all this had been going on, Soviet forces had been grinding down their German opponents at Stalingrad and by November 22 the German 6th Army was completely surrounded and cut off within the devastated ruins of the city. The Soviets now marched north with the intention of wiping out Army Group Centre. German air forces in the area were I. and III./JG 51 with their new Fw 190s, plus IV./JG 51 and II./JG 3 with their Messerschmitt Bf 109s. The Luftwaffe’s key objective was to prevent Soviet bombers and ground-attack aircraft from weakening Army Group Centre still further – the first test of the Fw 190 in a major operation on the Eastern Front. The Russians deployed their usual large formations of Sturmoviks on December 4, 1942, and both the Stabstaffel and I. Gruppe of JG 51 flew to intercept them. It was a resounding success, with 31 Il-2s destroyed. The joint highest scoring German pilots were the unit commander, Hauptmann Heinrich ‘Gaudi’ Krafft, Oberleutnant Edwin Thiel and Oberleutnant Heinz Lange, who each shot down five. Just 10 days later, on December 14, the Russians had their revenge on ‘Gaudi’ Krafft. His Fw 190A-3 ‘Black <<’ was hit by flak near Kurkina and he crash-landed. It has been suggested that Krafft survived only to be stripped naked, apart from his Knight’s Cross, and beaten about the head by Soviet soldiers until he died. A unit of Panzer Grenadier Regiment 25 certainly recovered his body from the crash scene but the source of the ‘murdered’ story has never been verified. The same month, another Eastern Front Gruppe was re-equipped with the Fw 190 – I./JG 54, the Grünhertz or ‘Green Hearts’. It was withdrawn to East Prussia and began training on the A-4, this being completed by January 1943. It was just in time for the new Fw 190s to be used against Sturmoviks that were supporting an attempt to relieve the besieged Soviet forces in Leningrad. It was now decided that the highly experienced Fw 190 pilots of JG 26 would begin transferring from France to the Eastern Front. I./JG 26 led by Major Johannes Seifert and 7./JG 26 were the first to go and they were replaced in France by III./JG 54, which was still flying Bf 109s. Arriving at its new base at Rielbitzi in northern Russia on February 15, 1943, JG 26 had been re-equipped with the new Fw 190A5. It was now a part of Luftflotte 1, providing support and air cover for Army Group North. Its pilots soon found that battling the Russians was very different from fighting the RAF over Western Europe. The Soviets generally flew at lower altitudes so most battles against them tended to be below 10,000ft. In addition, the much larger areas and distances involved meant that smaller formations of Fw 190s had to be used. The standard combat formation was a Schwarm of four or just a Rotte of two. The certainty of safe haven in bases anywhere in temperate France, and even the ability to bail out and be relatively sure of landing among friends, was replaced with the worrying uncertainty of flying over not only hostile terrain but also over a constantly moving front line. It was often difficult for pilots, particularly those tr ying to land damaged machines, to work out whether they were likely to be picked up by friends or enemies on the ground. One of I./JG 26’s first tasks in this harsh new environment was to operate in a fighterbomber capacity against Russian ground forces attempting to crush the Demyansk salient – a pocket of German forces surrounded by the Red Army south of Leningrad. The salient had been formed during early 1942 but had lingered on for almost a year, with the Russians now close to victory. JG 26 mounted attacks every day, strafing supply columns, and attacking vehicles wherever they could be found.
When the German army finally abandoned the salient, JG 26 flew interception missions against Il-2s that were harrying the retreating German soldiers. From February 18 to March 18, I./JG 26 destroyed 75 Soviet aircraft while losing only three Fw 190s in return. Of the 75, 64 were claimed in a single day – March 7. Meanwhile, JG 54 and 7./JG 26 had been embroiled in efforts to prevent the Soviets from lifting the siege of Leningrad, flying daily patrols in an attempt to close a relief corridor that had been established for the beleaguered city. Further south, JG 51 was being stretched to help stave off a major new Russian offensive that was threatening to overwhelm Army Group Centre. On February 23 alone, the Gruppe destroyed 46 Russian aircraft. The next day it went one better by destroying another 47. Just one Fw 190 was lost but more followed over the coming weeks as the Russians continued to press Army Group Centre hard. IV./JG 51, led by Major Rudolf Resch, had withdrawn from the front line a month earlier to convert to the Fw 190 and by March all three Gruppen of JG 51 were flying the type and regularly fighting experienced Soviet front line fighter units flying the latest types. Unteroffizier Gerhard ‘Emmes’ Schwarz, a pilot of 2./JG 51, wrote in his diary of an encounter with one particularly surprising Russian pilot. He had set off at 9.30am on March 18 as wingman to Leutnant Joachim Brendel. “In my aircraft I felt very superior to the LAGG-3 which I was chasing. He was already in a steep turn on his wing-tip. Although my turn was matching his, my control stick had only moved a little. Then I thought I’d have some fun by slowly out-banking the Ivan to shake his nerves. “If one could have traced our flight course, they would have seen we were flying an ellipse. I could see him in his cockpit staring at me. ‘Boy, you’ve got long hair,’ I thought. I couldn’t see exactly but I thought the hair stuck out from under his helmet. Nevertheless, he flew quite smartly and banked cleanly. “Finally, I got in the right position with the crosshairs of my gunsight a little in front, and I pressed the firing buttons. My tracer bullets hit the side of his engine, but my ammunition was now exhausted, ‘Empty!’ I thought. ‘Damn.’ “But black smoke began to pour from his aircraft, so I stayed behind him. His engine must soon seize. We continued to bank with me very close behind him. Then the smoke cleared and I saw the Russian airfield about 5km away. I should have broken off the action, but the devil was riding with me. “I pulled closer to the Russian, but he must have realised that I was no longer a danger to him and he stopped banking. With the utmost shock I now realised that this Ivan was a rather pretty girl. I saluted her and her rather pale face nodded in return. “I pointed to the airfield, but she did not understand and shook her head, lifting her shoulders enquiringly. I lowered my undercarriage to show her that she could do the same and pointed again to the airfield. Now she understood, but she still looked at me doubtfully. “I pointed to my guns and crossed my arms. This was the international sign that I had no more ammunition. We saluted each other and I pulled away as she began her landing approach.
Aerial combat largely ceased across the Eastern Front during early April as torrential spring rains made flying hazardous. On April 15, 1943, however, Hitler ordered the commencement of preparations for Operation
Citadel – a pincer movement to be carried out by Army Group Centre and Army Group South to eliminate a Soviet salient around Kursk. Stalin’s intelligence services managed to find out about Citadel well beforehand however, by obtaining the details from Germans prisoners under interrogation, and the Soviet air force was galvanised to prevent the blow from landing by carrying out a series of strength-sapping raids and assaults on the Luftwaffe. Large-scale bombing raids were carried out on German-held airfields between May 6 and May 8. Citadel was scheduled to begin on May 10 but heavy damage had been suffered it was decided that it should be postponed until July while fresh reinforcements were gathered. During May, a new semi-autonomous Fw 190-equipped fighter-bomber unit was formed in Finland, 14.(Jabo)/jg 5. Equipped with somewhat outdated A-2s and A-3s, its mission was to attack Soviet shipping along the Barents Sea coast and provide close support for German and allied forces in the Lake Ladoga area. In addition, 4a Escuadrilla ‘Azul’ de Caza, a unit made up of Spanish volunteers which had spent some time in France undergoing training, returned to Russia in May equipped with Fw 190A-2s. During June, I./JG 26 began returning to France and JG 51 mounted a series of strikes on large formations of Il-2s while they were en route to bomb German airfields, causing heavy casualties for very few losses. By early July, the force prepared for Operation Citadel was still inadequate but time was running out and it was therefore decided to press ahead with it. Protecting the northern pincer as it swept down on to Kursk would be JG 51 and JG 54, both equipped with a mixture of Fw 190A-2s, A-3s, A-4s, A-5s and A-6s, plus some Bf 109s. From the south, the Bf 109Gs of JG 3 and JG 52, and the Fw 190A-5s and F-3s of Schl.g 1, would provide the necessary air cover. The attack was due to begin at 3am on July 5, 1943, but as before captured German prisoners gave away the date and time under interrogation and the Russians launched a massive artillery barrage on German positions just as Citadel was about to begin. With the ground offensive stalled, JG 51 and JG 54 nevertheless set off on fighter sweeps at 3.25am with the intention of seeking out enemy aircraft and destroying them before they too could be brought into play on the front line. This proved to be a very effective operation, with dozens of Soviet fighters being brought down. By the end of the day, 360 Soviet aircraft of all types were claimed destroyed, 159 of which had been reportedly brought down by units using the Fw 190. In return, German forces lost 98 aircraft. Just 12 of these were Fw 190s, however. The next day, 205 Soviet aircraft were claimed destroyed, 126 of which were by Fw 190s. On July 7, the third day of Citadel, the Fw 190 Gruppen downed 71 Soviet aircraft, and on July 8 this total dropped to 58. Fw 190 victories over Soviet machines rose again to 66 on July 9 – a very high rate of attrition for the Russians – but they had now changed their tactics to avoid making a direct assault, preferring instead to take a wide route around the German front line air defences and attack supply columns and airfields to the rear instead. On the ground, while large gains had been made on the first few days of Citadel, the advance had reached a virtual standstill by July 10. The Russians had prepared extensive fortifications around Kursk and the German tank armies were beginning to run out of fuel. The Luftwaffe too was experiencing fuel shortage which meant that Il-2s were increasingly able to strike at German front line units unopposed. As German strength bled away, the Russians only became stronger, as ever more supplies and reserves were moved up to the front. German armour losses had reached a staggering 50% by the end of the eighth day, July 12, and the Fw 190s of JG 51 and JG 54 were engaged in bitter battles overhead against Mig-3s, Yak-1s and La-5s as more Il-2s slipped through and destroyed German supplies to the rear. Still, the Luftwaffe poured reinforcements into its own front line units and on July 13 the Fw 190 units claimed 174 enemy aircraft destroyed. That night, German forces began a retreat at several points along the front. By July 15, 10 days into Operation Citadel, JG 51 alone had lost 63 Fw 190s. Hitler officially cancelled Citadel on July 16 but there was no let up for the Luftwaffe as the attack became a retreat, with the victorious Russians pursuing the battered German survivors westwards. A fortnight after the start of Citadel, IV./JG 51 had lost a full third of its pilots and every single one of its Fw 190s, being re-equipped with Bf 109G-4s and G-6s instead, since these were more readily available. By the end of July, the Luftwaffe’s Fw 190 strength in the east had been more than halved across the board. JG 51 and JG 54 had claimed a total of 1250 victories for the month, which even accounting for inaccuracies was substantial – but it wasn’t enough. The Soviet air force was easily able to make good these losses and now outnumbered the Luftwaffe in fighter strength by more than four to one.
Retreat from the east
Having been severely mauled by the ever growing Soviet tank armies, the Germans were forced to begin a general withdrawal during late August 1943. The Luftwaffe too had suffered losses of men and machines that it was struggling to replace. There were now simply too many Soviet tanks in the field for I./schl.g 1’s Fw 190 fighter-bombers to cope with. The unit was exhausted from flying constant sorties against advancing enemy ground forces and by early September it was being used to try and stem the tide of Soviet tanks that were breaking through around the Ukrainian capital Kiev. The leader of 1./Schl.g 1, Hauptmann Johannes Meinecke was shot down and killed by flak near Mutino on September 4. II./SCHL.G 1 was carrying out similar operations from Stalino, now known as Donetsk, in Ukraine but it too found that it just didn’t have enough aircraft to make any impression on the huge tank formations that were appearing in combat against German ground forces trying to defend the city. Stalino fell in early September. There was a lull in the offensive against Kiev during October but on November 3, 1943, the Soviets launched an all-out surprise assault on the Ukrainian capital. The defenders were overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers. The fighting around Kiev went on until late December when extremely cold weather and exhaustion on both sides brought a brief respite from further offensive action. It had been intended that every Junkers Ju 87 on the Eastern Front would be replaced with a Fw 190 by the end of 1943 but there was a critical shortage of Fw 190s due to the regular American and British bombing raids on production facilities. Those aircraft that were manufactured went straight to units charged with protecting the Reich from the bombers. As a result, the ponderous and vulnerable Stuka continued in front line service. From north to south, the units equipped with the Fw 190 on the Eastern Front at the beginning of 1944 were 14.(Jabo)/jg 5 on the Finnish front, which had by now flown more than 1000 sorties and sunk 39,000 tons of shipping; 4./JG 54 with Luftflotte 1 in north Russia, which only had 10 Fw 190s remaining. With Army Group Centre and Luftflotte 6 were the Stab, Stabstaffel, I. and III./JG 51 and the Stab of I./JG 54 plus the Spanish Staffel 15./JG 51. On the southern portion of the front, in Luftflotte 4, was II./JG 54, though not its 4. Staffel. There were also four recently established Schlachtgruppen, II./SG 2, I. and II./SG 10 and II./SG 77. While most of these units had a mixture of Fw 190A-4s, A-5s and A6s, the latter had Fw 190F-2s, F-3s and G-3s. Bad weather along the front meant very little flying was possible until January 10, 1944. There were a handful of skirmishes with Il-2s, LAGG-3S and Airacobras but it was the groundattack SG units that were the most active, with II./SG 2 flying 42 sorties against Soviet vehicles and infantry positions on January 12. The first significant offensive of the year began on January 14 when the Soviet 2nd Assault Army tried yet again to raise the siege of Leningrad – which had been in continuous effect for around 900 days by this point. Freezing temperatures and poor visibility kept Fw 190s in the sector grounded initially, but the following day 6./JG 54 was able to tackle a flight of Petlyakov Pe-2 dive bombers and their La-5 escorts en route to attack German ground forces. Then on January 24, the Russians launched a surprise offensive in Ukraine. Four days later, large armoured formations had successfully encircled 56,000 German soldiers and their vehicles at Cherkassy – forming the ‘KorsunCherkassy pocket’. II./JG 54 was swiftly called upon to prevent Soviet aircraft from shooting down the Junkers Ju 52 transports being used to airlift supplies to the encircled armies. Then, on January 30, the Soviets overran Siverskaya, which had served as JG 54’s base of operations for several months. By February 5, the Russians had advanced 200 miles westwards but a German
counterattack was mounted, which then became a counter encirclement on direct orders from Hitler. III Panzer Corps attacked northwards towards the pocket but its advance was halted by fuel shortages and constant harassment from Soviet forces on the evening of February 16. This solidified into a Soviet counterattack by the 5th Guards Tank Army, forcing III Panzer Corps onto the defensive – but it was just four miles from the pocket. The besieged force was told that it was now or never: it had to break out, starting at 11pm. That night, huge formations of Il-2s hit the pocket with incendiaries and the Luftwaffe was unable to challenge them. Rockets and artillery fire also poured in. Leaving behind 1450 wounded men who were unable to walk, the surviving Germans formed three assault columns and marched into the night, making for the relative safety of the III Panzer Corps’ positions, with bayonets fixed. Within 30 minutes, several battalions and regiments had broken through the encircling Russian forces, reaching III Panzer Corps by 4.10am. The leader of forces in the pocket, General Wilhelm Stemmermann, remained behind with a rearguard of 6500 men. When the Soviets realised what was happening, they reacted by employing overwhelming force. The 20th Tank Corps brought in a brigade of new Joseph Stalin 2 heavy tanks. These, along with dozens of T34s, rolled into columns of unprotected German support, headquarters and medical units that had been following the initial wave of assault troops. It was a massacre that proceeded without challenge from the Luftwaffe. At the end of February, the shortage of Fw 190s was so critical it was decided that JG 51 should convert to the Bf 109G-6, of which the supply was still plentiful. This began in April and had mostly been completed by May. The only Fw 190s now remaining on the Eastern Front were those employed by JG 54 and the Schlachtgruppen, of which there were now five with the redesignation of 14.(Jabo)/jg 5 as 4./SG 5. The latter were increasingly called upon to act as fighters against Soviet bombers, rather than ground-attack aircraft, as the German front line began to disintegrate under fresh offensives in March 1944. There was some respite for German ground forces in April when the spring thaws turned previously passable roads into muddy quagmires but there was no break in hostilities in the air, with JG 54 flying sorties around the clock. The SGS were also hardpressed. By the end of April, II./SG 2 had only three or four serviceable Fw 190s. Help was coming however. The newly formed III./SG 10 had just become operational in Poland with its first batch of Fw 190F-8s and on May 15, III./SG 3 was sent to Czechoslovakia to begin conversion to the Fw 190F-8. It was transferred to the Eastern Front, on the Russian-latvian border, on June 27. The arrival of the F-8 was thanks to a reorganisation of the German aircraft industry that negated the effects of the constant Allied bombing by dispersing manufacturing facilities far and wide across Germany. Hundreds more Fw 190s were now pouring off production lines, ending the crippling shortages seen on the Eastern Front and setting the stage for the final year of the Second World War.
A pair of Fw 190A-5s from I./JG 54 in flight over Russia bearing the Geschwader’s familiar grüne Herz or ‘green heart’ insignia.
One of the best photographs in existence of Fw 190s in active service on the Eastern Front, this image shows a trio of A-5s from 5./JG 54 being readied for operations in northern Russia. A Fw 190A-4 of 2./JG 54 on final approach to a snowy airfield in Russia. Left: A rare photograph from the same roll of film as the image on the opposite page shows the same two aircraft but without their fuselage numbers – presumably lost during colourisation.
Luftwaffe operations on the Eastern Front were frequently hampered by appalling weather conditions. Here a couple of Fw 190A-4s of I./JG 54 have been dug out of a snow drift at Krasnogvardeysk prior to a mission. A Fw 190A-4 of I./JG51 at Dvoevka Vyazma about 200km west of Moscow. Another scene from JG 54’s base at Krasnogvardeysk, where a Fw 190 has been covered with a sheet to prevent the guns over its engine cowling from icing up.
This Fw 190A-4 of I./JG 54 wears mottled winter camouflage. A Fw 190A-6 of 4./JG 54 undergoes servicing at Immola, Finland, during the summer of 1944. An unusual survivor, this early Fw 190A-3 is pictured in 1944 serving with 1./JG 5 at Immola airfield in Imatra, southern Finland.
From one extreme to another.with the winter snows a distant memory, the personnel of 4./JG 54 sweat in the heat as they work on a Fw 190A-6 in July 1944. Fourteen Ju 87s fly overhead – the type still in service long after it had been earmarked for replacement by the Fw 190.
A pair of Fw 190F-8s from II./SG 77 on the Eastern Front in 1944.The aircraft closest to the camera shows clear spaces under its wings where the bomb racks have been removed. By this stage of the war, the Schlachtgruppen were frequently called upon to flying fighter intercept missions against Soviet bombers. Heavily weathered Fw 190s of an unidentified Schlachtgruppe on the Eastern Front. Final preparations are made to a Fw 190 of II./SG 2 prior to a mission in the spring of 1944.