Fw 190 Sturmbock
The Luftwaffe’s ‘Battering Rams’ against the USAAF’S heavy bombers
July 7, 1944
For the USAAF 8th Air Force crews it was just another mission in the continuing bombing campaign against the industrial heartland of Nazi Germany. For the Luftwaffe fighter pilots it was another day striving heroically against overwhelming numbers of enemy aircraft to stem a seemingly unstoppable tide of bombing raids against their homeland. Coasting out from England and crossing into the European mainland on the morning of Friday, July 7, 1944, was a huge aerial column of USAAF 8th Air Force heavy bombers, almost 100 miles long, consisting of 373 Consolidated B-24 Liberators and 956 Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses – a total of 1329 bombers. The fighter escort for this phalanx of bombers totalled 756 longrange fighters – P-38s, P-47s and P-51s – more than 2000 aircraft in all. What a daunting sight that must have been for any defender. The bombers’ targets were the synthetic oil plants at Böhlen, Leuna-merseburg and Lützkendorf, aircraft assembly plants and engine works in the Leipzig area, airfields, and railway marshalling yards, all of them deep in the German heartland. As the bomber formations droned towards their targets they were tracked by the Luftwaffe’s sophisticated and well-practised air defence command and control system. The USAAF bomber crews were used to mass fighter engagements, especially on these deep penetration missions, having recently been subjected to mass head-on attacks. They did not know though, that today the Luftwaffe was about to unleash a new tactic, utilising its new Gruppe of heavily armed and armoured Sturmbock Fw 190s in a large battle formation or ‘Gefechtsverband’. The plan was that IV.(STURM)/JG 3, a Sturmgruppe of about 36 Fw 190 Sturmbocke, led by the Gruppekommandeur, Hauptmann Wilhelm Moritz, would attack the bombers in a mass formation from the stern, their strength of numbers minimising the amount of return fire that each fighter could be subjected to by the bombers’ gunners. The heavy and relatively unmanoeuvrable Fw 190 Sturmbocke were easy prey for the USAAF P-47s and P-51 escort fighters, so they were to be protected by two similarly-sized Gruppen of Bf 109s of JG 300, led by Major Walther Dahl. As the USAAF bombers advanced into Germany these mass battle formations of Luftwaffe fighters were forming up and being vectored onto the USAAF bomber stream by the fighter controllers.
The Sturmbock Fw 190s were A-8/R2S modified with additional armour to allow the pilots to get close enough to the American bombers to deliver devastating close-range attacks with their heavy calibre cannon, while
surviving the cross fire from perhaps as many as 100 0.5in (12.7mm) heavy machine guns. These Fw 190s were fitted with 50mm of armoured glass on the front windscreen and 30mm on the cockpit quarter panels and both sides of the front portion of the sliding canopy (known as ‘Scheuklappen’ or ‘blinkers’). In addition, the cockpit sides were protected with 5mm bolt-on armour plates or ‘Panzerplatten’. The inboard pair of MG151 20mm cannon of the Fw 190A-8, with 250 rounds per gun, had been retained, while the outer pair were replaced with Mk 108 30mm cannons with 55 rounds per gun. The R2 modifications added some 400lb (180kg) to the weight of the aircraft. Some Sturmbock Fw 190s were also fitted with 21cm Werfergranate mortar tubes under the wings, which fired a 152kg (335lb) mortar shell intended to break up the bomber formations with blast effect alone. IV.(STURM)/JG 3 had been formed after a successful trial with a single Sturmstaffel during late 1943 and early 1944. All the pilots in the Sturmgruppe were volunteers who took a special oath and signed an affidavit, which included the words: “We undertake that, on every mission resulting in contact with fourengine bombers, we shall press home the attack to the shortest range and – if unsuccessful in shooting down the enemy by gunfire – we will destroy him by ramming.” In fact, the ramming part of the oath was largely superfluous due to the effectiveness of the Sturmbock’s cannon at close range, although there were some instances of deliberate ramming later in the war.
As the B-24s of the 492nd Bombardment Group (BG) – the ‘Hard Luck Group’ – approached Bernburg as part of the July 7 attack, they were flying on the edge of a larger formation of B24s from the 44th and 392nd Bombardment Groups. Suddenly the 44th BG formation was faced with a large number of other B-24s coming straight at them on a reciprocal course at the same altitude. These B-24s had just bombed the Halle oil plants and had now turned for home off track. The 44th swung wide to the right to avoid them, taking with them the few escort fighters present. The 492nd and 392nd formations were left in disarray and without fighter escorts, having taken their own avoiding action. It was at this exact moment that the Luftwaffe ‘Gefechtsverband’ reached the bomber stream and engaged the Liberators. The Sturmbock Fw 190s were led in to the stern attack by Hauptman Moritz, in two broad wedge-shaped ‘V’ formations, the second 1500m behind the first. They approached about 1000m (3000ft) above the altitude of the bombers, with the rear ‘V’ slightly higher than the front one. The sight confronting the American B-24 gunners must have been a chilling one as the disciplined and tight mass formation of Fw 190s surged relentlessly into firing range behind them. Moritz issued instructions on the radio assigning Staffeln (squadrons) to attack specific parts of the bomber formation and the pilots then picked their individual targets. One of the pilots who took part in the attack, Leutnant Walther Hagenah, described the ‘Gefechtsverband’ approach: “Once a Sturmstaffel was in position about 1000m behind ‘its’ squadron of bombers, the Staffel leader would order his aircraft into line abreast and, still in close formation, they would advance on the bombers. “At this stage our tactics were governed by the performance of our wing mounted 30mm cannon. Although the hexogen high explosive ammunition fired by this weapon was devastatingly effective, the gun’s relatively low muzzle velocity meant that its accuracy fell off rapidly with range – and since we carried only 55 rounds per gun, sufficient for about five seconds’ firing, we could not afford to waste ammunition in wild shooting from long range. “It was essential that we held our fire until we were right up close against the bombers. We were to advance like Frederick the Great’s infantrymen, holding our fire until we could see the whites of the enemy’s eyes. “During the advance each man picked a bomber and closed in on it. As our formation moved forwards the American bombers would, of course, let fly with everything they had. I remember the sky being almost alive with tracer.
“With strict orders to withhold our fire until the leader gave the order, we could only grit our teeth and press on ahead. In fact, with the extra armour, surprisingly few of our aircraft were knocked down by the return fire. Like the armoured knights in the Middle Ages, we were well protected. “A Staffel might lose one or two aircraft during the advance, but the rest continued relentlessly on. We positioned ourselves about 100m behind the bombers before opening fire. From such a range we could hardly miss, and as the 30mm explosive rounds struck home we could see the enemy bombers literally falling apart in front of us.” The B-24 was actually more vulnerable to this heavy calibre cannon fire than the B-17 due to its relatively light weight and weaker construction and the placement of its fuel tanks throughout the upper fuselage, which meant that it tended to catch fire easily. The fighters’ break-away, often from as close as 50m, was left to the individual Sturmbock pilots, depending on the exact circumstances. It usually involved a roll to inverted under the bomber formation and a pull down into a steep dive to escape. Although some of the Fw 190 pilots were able to target more than one bomber on a single pass, there was no attempt to re-attack after the first engagement. The Sturmbock ammunition was usually expended and in any case it would have been impossible to reform the ‘Gefechtsverband’.
The effect of this mass attack was devastating against the B-24s and the sky was suddenly filled with falling and exploding machines, pieces of debris and parachutes of baled out airmen. One of the first B-24s to be hit was the deputy lead pathfinder (PFF) Liberator of the 735th Squadron, 453rd BG, flown by Capt Walter ‘Mike’ Beckett. After a flurry of 30mm shells went into it, the aircraft immediately started to drift across the bomber formation, the pilots apparently having no control over it, then it veered sharply into the path of other B-24s. In his B24 ‘Irishman’s Shanty’ Lt David O’sullivan bunted into a sharp dive to get out of its path, but behind him Lieutenant John Cary was unable to avoid a violent collision, which sheared the wing off his B-24, ‘Bold Venture’. Both aircraft went down in pieces. Ten of Beckett’s large PFF crew were killed; only three, including himself, survived to become POWS. From Cary’s crew only the navigator lived to tell the tale. Within a few minutes, in the ensuing chaos, the Sturmbock Fw 190s destroyed 12 of the 492nd’s 21 B-24s. ‘Laura Jo’, piloted by Capt Ernest Pelkey, was sent into a spin and then exploded, killing all on board. The unnamed B-24 of Lt Frank Haag was hammered by cannon fire from the Fw 190s. Four of the crew were killed instantly and the aircraft was set on fire; the remaining six men bailed out as the aircraft exploded. One of them had to clip his parachute on as he was free-falling. Miraculously, he had it in his hand and managed to keep hold of it when he was blown out of the exploding bomber. ‘Dreamer’, being flown on only the third operation of Lt Ernest Watson and his crew, was savaged by Sturmbock cannon fire; only the radio operator was able to bail out. Both of the Liberators ‘Super Wolf’, piloted by Lt Elmer ‘Tug’ Smiley, and Lt Clayton Newman’s ‘Bo II’ exploded after being hit, exemplifying the effects of the Sturmbock cannon fire on a B-24. Only six men from both crews bailed out to become POWS. Lt Donald Kilpatrick’s B-24 ‘I’ll Be Around’ was not around for long after the Sturmbock attack, which killed at least two of the crew instantly. As the aircraft began to spin down out of control, five of the crew managed to bail out, but as they parachuted to safety German soldiers began firing at them from the ground. Kilpatrick was killed in his parachute. Four other B-24s of the 492nd were shot down; two more managed to struggle back as far as Holland before crashing. The total human cost of these few minutes of mayhem to the 492nd BG was 67 aircrew killed and 52 missing in action who became POWS. The 392nd BG lost five aircraft. One of those was ‘Rap ’Em Pappy’, which was hit after bombs away. The No 4 engine was knocked out and the No 3 propeller was windmilling, creating drag, the nose gear dropped, then most of the landing gear fell down. As the B-24 went down, flames were coming from the fuselage. Three of the crew were found dead by the Germans at the crash scene, the other
seven managed to escape by parachute to be taken as POWS; two of them were injured and one of those died two days later in a German hospital. In a few minutes, from about 9.38am to 9.42am, 15 more B-24s went down in flames between Halberstadt and Bernburg. Many were bombers that had been damaged and separated from their formations and their fighter escorts by the initial attacks. In total, 28 USAAF Liberator bombers were lost that day, the others being claimed by conventional Lufwaffe fighters. For the 492nd BG this was the beginning of the end. The unit continued flying missions for only another month, losing eight more B24s in the process. In August, with only 18 of the group’s establishment of 50 bombers operational and having lost 52 aircraft to enemy action in only 89 days of combat, with 588 men killed or missing, the 492nd ‘Hard Luck Group’ was disbanded.
The success, from the Luftwaffe point of view, of the aerial battle over Oschersleben on July 7, 1944, earned Wilhelm Moritz as the Sturmgruppe leader and Major Walter Dahl, the overall leader of the operation, the honour of a mention in the Wehrmachtbericht, the German military information bulletin. It was not all one-sided, however. As a result of return fire from the American bombers and subsequent engagements with USAAF escort fighters, IV. (Sturm) Gruppe lost nine of its Sturmbock Fw 190s, another three suffered damage which resulted in them crash landing, and five of the unit’s pilots were killed. By the standards of the time though, it had been a highly successful operation and following this success the ‘Gefechtsverband’ tactic was continued. Two new Sturmgruppen, II.(STURM)/JG 4 and II.(STURM)/JG 300, were formed and equipped with the Sturmbock versions of the Fw 190. There were other successful days for the Sturmgruppen, such as September 22, 1944, when JG 4 shot down 28 out of 37 B-24s of the 445th BG in three minutes. The following day the ‘Gefechtsverband’ of JG 3 shot down 18 B-17s before the arrival of the American escort fighters. Just over a week later, on October 6, a joint JG 4 and JG 300 Sturmbock operation destroyed 14 B-17s. On November 2 the Sturmbock Fw 190s of IV.(STURM)/JG 3 got through to the B-17s of the 91st BG and downed 13 of them, two of them by ramming, while II.(STURM)/JG 4 destroyed another nine B-17s. When the USAAF P-51 escorts arrived on the scene though, they claimed 31 of the 61 Sturmbock aircraft involved in the actions, with 17 of the Luftwaffe fighter pilots killed and seven wounded; the worst single day losses of the Luftwaffe fighter force so far, but only the portent of worse to come. As time wore on, many of the Sturmgruppen pilots removed much of the armour from their Fw 190s. The armoured glass ‘blinkers’ had a tendency to ice up and the weight of the armour plate compromised the performance of their aircraft too much when bounced by the USAAF escort fighters. In a bid for an overall increase in their chances of survival the Sturmbock pilots were prepared to take even greater risks in their close-range attacks on the USAAF bombers. On December 5, 1944, Major Moritz, who had led the first successful Sturmbock ‘Gefechtsverband’, was relieved from command of IV./JG 3 due to a complete mental and physical breakdown. He was the holder of the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, awarded in recognition of extreme battlefield bravery and successful military leadership; he was credited with 44 victories in over 500 missions, but the stresses and strains of leading numerous Sturmbock attacks had broken him. Nonetheless, he returned to combat duties in April 1945 as Gruppenkommandeur of II./JG 4; he survived the war and died in 2010, aged 97.
Too many losses
Although the successful Sturmbock attacks brought disaster to the individual 8th Air Force bomber units involved, their effect on the USAAF bomber offensive as a whole was miniscule. The USAAF P-51 Mustangs ruled the skies in central Germany during daylight, in massive numbers. If they could catch the unwieldy armoured Fw 190s before they reached the bombers, the Luftwaffe formations were almost impossible to reform and the Sturmbocke were easy targets for the fast and nimble Mustangs. In the course of 22 major USAAF raids on targets in Germany during August 1944 the Luftwaffe defenders claimed to have shot down 307 heavy bombers, an average of only 14 bombers for each incursion. This relatively mediocre and overall insignificant result cost the Luftwaffe 301 fighters destroyed and 270 pilots killed. To take the example of 5 Staffel of II.(STURM)/JG 300, 19 of its pilots were killed and six wounded between October 1944 and March 1945, so in that time its pilot cadre effectively had to be replaced twice over. At the turn of the year, three of its Staffelkommandeurs were killed within four weeks. In the end it was, as with so much else for the Germans as the war ground to an end, too little too late, and the sums simply did not add up. This situation was set against a background of political turmoil and high-level leadership incompetence, in which the Luftwaffe fighter pilots were accused of cowardice and threatened with court martial and worse, by Hitler and Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, head of the Luftwaffe. As we have seen there was no cowardice, indeed the Luftwaffe pilots were prepared to take huge personal risks in their attempts to bring down the heavy bombers and defend their homeland. Ultimately, the relatively short-lived Sturmbock concept had shown that, given the right circumstances, it could be a potent weapon against the bombers, but was it was too costly in terms of losses and was a failure overall. This was largely due to wider problems such as shortage of fuel and the inability to replace the fighter pilots who became casualties, as well as the effectiveness of the USAAF long-range fighter escorts. It was, however, a remarkable use of the sturdy Fw 190 and a credit to its courageous pilots.
Daylight bombing raids by huge formations of Consolidated B-24 Liberators, as seen here, and B-17 Flying Fortresses of the American 8th Air Force were steadily destroying German’s key manufacturing facilities in 1944. One of many attempted solutions was to send up Fw 190s armoured to weather their defensive fire and armed with high calibre cannon to blast them out of the sky.
An Fw 190A-8/R2 Sturmbock of IV.(STURM)/JG 3 ready for combat. Aircraft such as these were deadly when they could get close enough to enemy bombers to deal a killing blow. The extra armour they carried – extra plates within the fuselage as well as the ‘blinkers’ on the sides of the cockpit canopy – resulted in a significant performance penalty and meant Sturmbocke had to have a fighter escort of their own. Hauptmann Wilhelm Moritz seated on his Fw 190A-8/R2 Sturmbock (WNR. 681382) at Schongau in August 1944. The 30mm cannon carried by the Sturmbock in its outer wing positions each had just 55 rounds, which were easily expended within just a few seconds of opening fire.the cannon’s high explosive ammunition load was protected by a 20mm armoured plate within the wing’s leading edge with further 4mm plates above and below. Several different versions of the Fw 190A were converted for use as Sturmbocke and not all of them had these 30mm thick plates of armoured glass attached to their canopies. Even when ‘blinkers’ were part of the standard conversion kit, as with the Fw 190A8/R2, pilots often had them removed since they seriously restricted visibility from the cockpit.
B-24 ‘I’ll Be Around’ pictured over Magdeburg on June 29, 1944. Just eight days later, the aircraft was shot down over Bernburg, Germany, by Sturmbock fighters. Six of its crew were killed, four taken prisoner. This well known image shows a B-24 going down in flames after suffering a catastrophic hit from flak – the effect of being hit with high explosive 30mm shells was similarly devastating. Hauptmann Wilhelm Moritz led the Sturmbock attack on the B-24s of the 492nd Bomb Group on July 7, 1944. The mission was a great success and led to Moritz briefly achieving national fame in Germany. The crew of 492nd BG B-24 Liberator ‘Super Wolf’ with their aircraft.the pilot, Elmer ‘Tug’ Smiley, is in the front row on the far right. According to the account of Lt Lyle Day, the bombardier who is pictured front row second left, Smiley and co-pilot Leroy Ochs, front row third from left, were killed outright when ‘Super Wolf’s’ cockpit suffered a direct hit from a 30mm shell.the aircraft then span out of control and Day was blown clear when its fuel tanks exploded.
Wearing his unit’s ‘whites of their eyes’ insignia, Leutnant Hans Schafer of IV.(STURM)/JG 3 poses for a formal shot. He shot down two B-24s on July 7, 1944. Unteroffizier Gerhard Vivroux of II.(STURM)JG 3 is pictured wearing his unit’s unofficial ‘white of their eyes’ insignia on his jacket. He died on October 25, 1944, aged just 21. Footage from the gun camera of a Fw 190 Sturmbock shows a B-24 under close-range attack. A total of 28 B-24 Liberators were destroyed during the Sturmbock attack on July 7, 1944, including this wreck – pictured by an official German photographer after the battle.