Fw 190 Sturm­bock

The Luft­waffe’s ‘Bat­ter­ing Rams’ against the USAAF’S heavy bombers

Aviation Classics - - CONTENTS -

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.

Sturm­bock mod­i­fi­ca­tions

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.

At­tack­ing bombers

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’.

HARD LUCK

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.

sturm­bock suc­cess

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.

Via Clive Rowley

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.

Via Clive Rowley via Clive Rowley Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion via Clive Rowley

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.

Via Clive Rowley Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion Edi­tor’s col­lec­tion Rowley via Clive

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.

Via Clive Rowley via Clive Rowley Bun­de­sarchiv

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.

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