Thursday, September 24, 2015

Heinkels against Railways

He 111H-16 `1G+LY' of 14.(Eis.)/KG 27 `Boelcke', Kemenetz, November 1944 While I./KG 27's strategic bombing campaign against the Soviet railway system was short-lived, the anti-railway specialists of 14.(Eis.)/KG 27 spent their entire two-year operational career (from February 1943 to early 1945) flying train-busting missions deep behind enemy lines. Operating alone at night, this Staffel's aircraft wore a variety of appropriate nocturnal finishes, such as that shown here, and eschewed yellow theatre markings altogether. Each was heavily armed (including ventral gun packs), but the jury is still out as to whether the device shown here on the tail of `LY' is a grenade-launcher or (as one source suggests) a glider tug attachment.

KGr. 100 spent the latter half of August 1941 attacking a broader range of targets. Its missions included a night raid on Gomel, a dusk attack on the Dorogobush heavy flak batteries, a night harassment raid on Moscow and the bombing of a Soviet airfield near Vyazma. In addition, crews also went after traffic on the enemy's rear-area roads and railways, seriously disrupting the delivery of supplies to the front. On 23 August one crew put a large Russian railway gun out of action by plastering it with their full load of 32 SD 50 semi-armour piercing bombs.

September 1941, while the ground forces of Army Group Centre prepared to resume the offensive that it was hoped would take them all the way to Moscow, the He 111s of Luftflotte 2 continued their attacks on the enemy's railway network. Returning from one such mission in the Orel region on 28 September, a machine of 1./KGr. 100 was badly damaged by a `taran' attack and forced to make an emergency landing with two of its crew severely wounded.

The Heinkels of KG 53 were heavily involved in Taifun from the outset, at first flying in direct support of the ground forces by attacking Red Army troop and tank concentrations immediately in their path, and then ranging further afield to bomb railway supply lines in the Kaluga and Tula areas to the south of Moscow. But they too were caught completely unawares by the unusually early onset of the harsh Russian winter of 1941/42. On 11 October the temperature suddenly plummeted to minus 22 degrees Celsius overnight; 

`Shatalovka, which had been a sea of muddy puddles yesterday, was today a sheet of ice. The aircraft engines didn't have sufficient anti-freeze. Radiators and coolant pumps froze solid. The crews froze too - their feet, noses, ears and fingers. It was risky to fly for any length of time at high altitudes, as the machines' heating systems could not compete with the intense cold. Oxygen masks froze. Altitude sickness and frostbite were the results.' 

For the first week of Taifun KGr. 100 attacked a wide range of targets, including traffic on the main Smolensk-Moscow highway, Orel airfield and the enemy rail network as far south as Kursk.
The departure of KGr. 100 left KG 53 as the sole He 111 bomber presence in the central sector. From Shatalovka its crews were doing all they could to support the ground forces' drive on Moscow, but they were not finding it easy. The worsening weather - heavy snow showers and low clouds - was forcing them to operate at ever-lower altitudes as they attacked enemy troop positions and the railway supply lines. This inevitably led to an increase in casualties. On 23 October the Geschwader lost five machines, four of them from III./KG 53 alone, including the Kapitäne of both 7. and 9. Staffeln.
After their brief sojourn at Bojary under the temporary command of Luftflotte 2, the Heinkels of I. and II./KG 55 had returned to the southern sector in July and August, respectively. Based initially at Zhitomir, the two Gruppen had first operated in support of Panzergruppe 1's advance on Kiev. They had then transferred down to Kirovograd at the end of August/beginning of September. From here they continued to participate in the developing `cauldron' battle of Kiev by patrolling the roads and railways to the east of the Ukrainian capital and bringing much of the enemy's supply traffic to a virtual standstill. One 3. Staffel crew alone claimed the destruction of seven railway trains in the course of a single mission.

The two Gruppen continued their campaign against the Soviet rail network, as there was more than 2500 kilometres of track within their radius of operations. Such was the efficiency of the Red Army's engineers that no sooner had one stretch of line been destroyed than it was repaired and traffic was soon flowing again. II. and III./KG 55 were therefore ordered to direct their attacks against the rolling stock itself. This paid better dividends. It is estimated that the two Gruppen accounted for no fewer than 222 trains, including 21 ammunition trains and 13 fuel trains, and that 64 locomotives were totally destroyed. The discrepancy between the number of trains and locomotives claimed is partly explained by the fact that, at the first signs of aerial attack, the Soviets would often uncouple the valuable locomotive, which would then make off at full steam, leaving the train to its fate!

In the northern sector there had been no He 111 bomber units at all for the opening six weeks of Barbarossa. The first to arrive in the area were the three Gruppen of KG 4, which had touched down at Koroye Selo, south of Lake Peipus, on 6 August. They flew their first mission in the north two days later - a daylight attack on Soviet troops in the Slepino region - before embarking upon a succession of nightly missions against the Russian rail network stretching from the Estonian border eastwards to Leningrad.

Staffel, 14.(Eis.)/KG 27
Operation Zitadelle was designed to `pinch off ' this bulge by launching simultaneous attacks on its northern and southern edges and then destroy the Soviet forces trapped inside it. The Luftwaffe gathered close on 2000 combat aircraft in preparation for the forthcoming operation. This represented nearly three-quarters of its entire available strength on the Russian front and included all ten Heinkel Kampfgruppen currently operational in the east. Under the newly established Luftflotte 6 to the north of the bulge were II. and III./KG 4 which, together with I. and III./KG 53, were based on fields around Karachev and Bryansk (I./KG 4 and II./KG 53 were both in Germany refitting and re-equipping). South of the bulge, as part of Luftflotte 4, were ranged all three Gruppen of KG 27, plus the eight machines of that Geschwader's specialised train-busting Staffel, 14.(Eis.)/KG 27. First entering service in February 1943, the `Eis.' in this unit's designation was an abbreviation of Eisenbahn, meaning `railway'. KG 27 was concentrated at Dnepropetrovsk and Zaporozhe.

Specialised anti-railway Staffeln, 14.(Eis.)/KG 27 and 14.(Eis.)/KG 55, the latter having been created in June 1943 by the redesignation of 9./KG 53. Rarely more than a dozen aircraft strong - and frequently reduced to as few as three or four serviceable machines each - they were to continue their train-busting activities throughout 1944 and into 1945, the former under Luftflotte 4 in the south and the latter under Luftflotte 1 (and subsequently Luftflotte 6) to the north.

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