Monday, November 21, 2011

From the Pages - The German Aces Speak

Generalleutnant Walter Krupinski was one of those men destined to always tempt fate. His fatherly approach and genuine concern for the welfare of his pilots, as well as his respect for captured enemy pilots, illustrated his humanity in a world where savagery was the order of the day. He became a teacher to many pilots, the most notable being the future “Ace of Aces” Erich Hartmann, who learned well from “Krupi” and other experts in JG.52.

By the time Krupinski was awarded the Ritterkreuz (Knight’s Cross) on October 29, 1942, he had been credited with shooting down 53 Allied aircraft. His final score of 197 could have been much higher, but he never claimed a probable victory or argued over a disputed claim, always giving the victory to the other man. Krupinski probably gave away more than 30 potential victories in that manner.

In the following excerpt from The German Aces SpeakKrupinski recalls meeting, and eventually taking to the skies with, Hartmann.


Walter Krupinski (left) and Erich Hartmann.
I had just become commanding officer of 7th Staffel of III/JG.52 [7.III/JG.52] when in March 1943, I first met Erich Hartmann. He had been with JG.52 since about October with Paule Rossmann and had been groomed by him and Alfred Grislawski, as well as, later, Dieter Hrabak, who took over from Hubertus von Bonin. He was such a child! So young, and that was when I gave him the nickname of “Bubi,” or boy, and it stuck with him for the rest of his life.

He remembered me from about six months earlier, when I had a memorable crash landing in a burning Me-109 at Maikop. He had just arrived and was assigned to III/JG.52 under [Hubertus] von Bonin, although we did not formally meet. I was shot all up after a sortie against the Soviets, a very difficult mission, and I was blinded by smoke and slightly wounded.10 Later we heard the early reports that Hartmann had a bad habit of breaking formation, and losing his aircraft with little to show for the efforts. He learned eventually, after being grounded a couple of times.

Regarding this mission, we had flown eight of our Me-109s to look for a group of [Ilyushin] Il-2 Shturmovik bombers, and we found over a dozen of them with a like number of fighter escorts, mostly Yaks. These fighter pilots were not the usual suspects, and their markings indicated a Red Banner unit. These were the fighter units that contained the best and brightest Soviet pilots, real hot shots who knew how to fly and fight. They looked for a fight, unlike the average enemy pilot.

The Yak was also a fighter that you could not underestimate. It had great speed, could outdive us, outclimb us, and was just as good, if not better, in a turning fight. Unlike their brothers in the more traditional units, these men wanted to fight. Once you engaged, you had to keep your head. The Red Banner fighters would dogfight with you, and then ram you if they could once they were out of ammunition. I saw this happen on more than one occasion. It happened to me once, while I was flying with Dieter Hrabak as the element leader.

One of our guys called out “enemy aircraft” at nine o’clock low. We had the altitude advantage, about two thousand meters in fact, so I banked over and told my wingman, who I believe was Heinz Ewald, to follow me. I went into a shallow dive, pulled up and closed in quickly on the trailing Il-2, and when I was perhaps three hundred meters away I fired. I continued firing as I closed the distance, short bursts, cannon only.

The rear gunner was hit; I knew this as glass flew everywhere, it just exploded. Almost immediately afterward, the engine started smoking, so I continued on. I stepped on the left rudder and drifted into a really good firing position to engage another bomber. I scored some good hits on him and the aircraft’s engine exploded, the range was only one hundred meters, so I kicked more rudder to avoid a collision. The engine fire turned to black smoke and he dropped out of formation.

Ewald called out more “Indians” and we attacked, as they were below us, two Il-2 Shturmoviks. Ewald managed to shoot one down, and another pilot got the second, both using the standard method: close in and hit the oil cooler. This was really the only way to shoot down one of these airplanes. I had once wasted an entire inventory of ammunition, to include all of the ammunition in my 20mm cannon into just one Shturmovik to bring it down. These planes were built like tanks, and could withstand all but the heaviest 88mm and larger AA fire.

An [Ilyushin] Il-2 Shturmovik, the Soviet's preferred ground-attack aircraft.

I was once able to inspect a crash-landed Il-2 and I studied it closely, all of us did. We located the bomber’s Achilles’ heel. The radiator coolant system was centrally located, and if you could come up from below and attack, that was the place to aim for. I taught Hartmann this, as well as many others as I mentioned before.

I flew into a formation of eight Il-2s, and I followed them right through our flak screen. Now this was not the brightest thing to do, but I really wanted to get a couple of kills. Suddenly, one of the enemy bombers took a direct flak hit, and the entire plane was thrown up about a hundred feet straight up, above the others. It was still flying, streaming smoke. Never one to pass up an opportunity, I pulled the nose up and finished him off. Then I kicked left rudder and fired into the cockpit of the nearest Il-2. He started smoking and went down, both men bailing out.

I then knew I had enough ammunition for a third pass, when suddenly my fighter was hit by flak. I felt the engine dismount from the brackets forward of the firewall. Shrapnel had torn dozens of holes in the right wing. The canopy was blown off and smoke was coming into the cockpit. I smelled burning oil, and then decided to bail out. I looked up and released my straps to climb out, but when I looked up, I saw the ground. I was upside down and did not know it, so I moved the stick all the way to the left, but the plane would not respond. I looked at the altimeter, which had disappeared, as the instrument panel was gone.

Well, as I could see soldiers clearly on the ground, bailing out was not an option, and landing upside down was definitely not my first choice. As if by divine intervention, my 109 was rocked again by flak, which luckily righted the plane. I looked ahead, saw an open field, and then decided not to trust the landing gear. I plowed right into a smooth landing, perhaps the smoothest forced landing I ever had. I got out, walked away as my plane started to burn furiously. Three of my friends flew overhead and I waved that I was fine.

Once I had a similar situation, not too long after this event. We were flying a mission to support a Stuka strike, and the flight in was very uneventful. I had flown perhaps almost a dozen flights with no action at all, so I guess I was becoming complacent. Then we saw a flight of over twenty Il-2s and a like number of escort fighters, which woke me up. I heard Ewald call them out over the radio. We had, I think, seventeen Me-109s, the Gustav models, in this flight. We divided into two sections; the first flight attacked the fighters to keep them busy, while I led the flight to hit the bombers.

The bomber formation was slightly below us at our two o’clock, while the fighters were about five thousand feet higher. I called the attack, kicked the right rudder, and threw the stick hard right. I rolled over and glanced behind me, and saw my seven comrades following me. I remember that Rall had just returned to flight status again, but he was not on this mission, and neither was Hrabak. Graf was, and he had two kills, I think. I had two new pilots who were on their first war patrol, and that made me a little nervous. I also wished that Hartmann was with us, but he was not up there that day either.

I began closing on the bombers, and they definitely saw us. They seemed to try and take evasive action, but at the speed we had in closing on them, it was no use. I closed in on one, about the third from the right, and fired into him. I saw the cannon shells strike, but having little effect other than shattering a glass pane where the pilot sat in the cockpit. The plane was not smoking, but it did go straight down. I did not bother to see if it crashed, as I was rather busy. I heard “Horrido!” and knew someone had scored a kill.

I pulled up and then hauled back hard on the stick, kicked left rudder, and banked left to come around again. I immediately came up on the right rear seven o’clock position on another Il-2 and fired. He started smoking and lost altitude in a shallow dive, and then he started burning, leaving a thick black smoke trail. I knew I had enough ammunition for another attack and I was undamaged. I called out my status and learned that all of my flight were undamaged, and six kills were confirmed.

After hitting the second bomber, which I knew was a confirmed kill, I flew through the formation, losing altitude to gather airspeed, and then I pulled into a climb again. My wingman, the ever-present Ewald, called in a kill of his own, which I saw. As I pulled the nose up, I banked right in a shallow turn and could see four bombers going down and only three parachutes.

I also saw a Messerschmitt going down trailing smoke, followed by four Yaks, Red Banner boys that were followed in their dive by a single 109. I saw from the markings that it was Barkhorn firing, and one of the bombers just exploded and then careened into another Il-2, and both fell in flames. Then he pulled up to avoid the falling wreckage and almost collided with another Il-2. He would have clipped it with his wing if he had not rolled over to the right in his climb. His wingman killed that one, and the fourth and last one turned into me. I thought, “Damn, two kills for Gerd, maybe I can get this guy.”

Then I felt the “whump whump whump” as my fighter was hit. I looked at the instruments, and all seemed fine, although I then noticed a rather large hole in the left side of my canopy. Had I banked left instead of right, the force of banking would have placed my head right where the cannon shell had penetrated. That was the wake-up call I needed. The shell had continued and went through the left corner of my windscreen, so I now had the slipstream pouring in on me.

My wingman, Ewald, chopped his throttle and slid in behind my enemy, who was trying to kill me. He shot him down, which was his second kill, but then he radioed that he was also hit. Then I saw a Yak flash past me from above, and I tried to pull the nose up to shoot him down, but I was near stalling, so I rolled upside down and pulled the stick back. I decided to dive away and gather speed, allowing me to pull up and then have a better look.

Well, this one guy stayed with me through the maneuver, which was a reverse split-S by the time I was finished. I rolled upside right and level, gained more altitude, and then saw another Il-2 headed east, so I fire walled the throttle and closed the distance. I looked behind me and I was clear on my tail, and Ewald was smoking.

Again I had the bumpy aftereffect of enemy rounds hitting my fighter, and my wingman called out the problem: another Yak had caught me while it was in the dive, shooting me up pretty good. I radioed back that I was well aware of the problem, because I had a burning smell in my cockpit, but saw no flames or smoke.

Then out of nowhere, I heard a call sign, and a “Horrido!” I think it was Heinz Sachsenberg, who was also another outstanding fighter pilot. He joined the battle and made two kills in a row, and the irony of it was that he was not even assigned to fly on that mission. He was in the process of ferrying a repaired 109 from another unit, where the pilot had landed it after a fight a few weeks ago. He just happened to hear the fight over the radio, and decided to join in.

In 1943, many Germans on the Eastern Front, including Krupinski and Hartmann, strapped into the cockpits of the Me 109, one of the first true modern fighters of the era.

I decided that it was time to break off and go home. I heard over the radio that my comrades had called out nine kills, one loss to us, which must have been the 109 I saw going down. That was a bad feeling, because we all knew that nothing good could come of being captured by the Soviets. I found out it was one of the new men whose name I cannot remember. The other new pilot claimed a probable, but definitely damaged an Il-2, which was later confirmed as a kill by ground troops.

Barkhorn had also fired on the same bomber, which was the last one I saw and wanted to get, but when the new pilot fired and then finished it off, Gerd gave him the kill. That was the kind of guy he was. My fuel warning light was on, and I was losing fuel, as Ewald said he saw the vapor trail from my fuselage and wing. That sober reality was probably more influential in keeping me aware of my fuel than anything else. However, these Red Banner boys were not interested in breaking contact.13

Soon there were only the two of us and eight Yaks, all turning ever tighter to try and get an advantage. I did not see the other German fighters. I later learned that they had climbed for higher altitude, as another fighter group was being vectored in to pick up the very formation we were attacking. Again I felt this “whump whump” and noticed another good-sized hole in my left wing.

Ewald flew past me, and his fighter was scored with what appeared to be dozens of bullet holes. Then a pain flashed through my leg; an exploding shell had hit the fuselage, and a piece of the hot metal struck me in the thigh. I was bleeding, but it was not life threatening. I called that I was headed home, so I let the Shturmovik go, as I was still at least twenty to thirty minutes flying time from my base and low on fuel. I still had my wingman, and that was always the way I defined a successful mission. Even if you shot down a few airplanes, if you lost your wingman, the mission was a partial failure.

Well, I noticed that my fuel gauge was still dropping fast, so I assumed I was losing even more fuel. Soon I saw my air field loom into view. We had a standing rule: the aircraft that were the most badly damaged were to land adjacent to the landing strip. This was so that the air field would not be choked with debris, thus preventing undamaged fighters from landing. If the landing gear locked down, you could use the auxiliary strip. If they did not lock down, we were to belly into the field adjacent to the auxiliary airstrip.

The fighters in good shape would land first, and taxi off if possible. Then we damaged fighters, with solid gear down and locked, would set down. I tried to lower my landing gear, but something was wrong. Ewald told me that the entire undercarriage was shot full of holes, and the smoke I smelled was a small fire, as one of my tires was slowly burning up in the wheel well. Rather than bail out, which I hated, I wanted to save the fighter. I was really too low to safely bail out anyway. The thought of that fire touching off my streaming fuel and blowing me up, or turning me into a flying torch, preyed upon me.

Without my gear able to come down, I came in to land, engine switched off, fuel off, belly riding across the grass strip, taking two bounces and slamming into a pile of bombs that had been placed at the edge of this field, and I scraped right through all of it. I was lucky that my plane was not on fire and the bombs had no fuses. That event was written about by Raymond Toliver and Trevor Constable in Erich’s biography, The Blond Knight of Germany.

The reason I mention this is because this was the first day I met Erich Hartmann, which was October 1942. He had just arrived at the unit, and I was assigned as his temporary section leader. So, the first time Hartmann sees me is when I am climbing out of that shot-up fighter, stepping over a scattered collection of bombs, bleeding from a minor leg wound, my flying jacket also with tears in it from the cannon shot through the canopy as the glass shattered.

No comments:

Post a Comment