A rare bird

I got this photo in an auction lot, but couldn’t identify the airplane. At first, I thought it was a British biplane, perhaps something from Hawker. The lack of any lower wing threw me a bit, though… While researching the previous post, I found a mention about the Belgian Air Force, illustrated with a biplane. I checked the Wikipedia article on the BAF in WW2, and the types of planes that were flown. I checked one, and – bingo! The plane in the photo is a Renard R.31! Further searches yielded a photo that was most likely of the same wreck. This is what makes this kind of research fun.

As for the Renard R.31, it was a Belgian reconnaissance aircraft which first flew in 1932. It was the only military WW2 aircraft entirely designed and built in Belgium. The R.31 entered service with the Belgian Air Force in 1935, but it wasn’t popular with its pilots, as it had poor handling and was vulnerable to entering flat spins. Only 34 R.31s were built. It was obsolete when Belgium was invaded in 1940, and those that were not destroyed on the ground in the early hours of the German invasion were savaged by German fighter planes as they attempted to gather information on the invading forces.

Following the German occupation of Belgium, the Luftwaffe showed no interest in the R.31s, and those that had survived were unused or destroyed. Overall, these machines had no significant impact on the Battle of Belgium.


Forced landing

A Messerschmitt Bf 110 has ended up at the edge of a field, damaged but repairable. The starboard wing has a deep gouge (left edge of photo, probably caused by hitting a tree), but the aircraft stopped mere centimeters before the starboard propeller hit the tree to the left. The pilot likely picked the field for an emergency landing, and found out the hard way that it was too short. There must’ve been some harrowing seconds before he managed to stop the plane before running into that tree. The three-man crew could walk away from the plane with no injuries other than perhaps to their dignity.

Some soldiers – two of them Kradmelder (motorcycle dispatch riders) – pose by the plane. The single-decal helmets help date the photo to no earlier than March 1940, and I’m fairly sure that this photo is from the campaign in the West that year.

One lesser-known fact about the Bf 110 is that many of the men reassigned to become Messerschmitt Me 262 pilots – the first jet pilots – were previous Bf 110 pilots. The rationale behind that was probably that they were trained on twin-engine planes, and that the Me 262 was initially intended to be used as a fighter-bomber.

“Ich glaube es ist Französisch.”

In my ever-expanding series “Luftwaffe bombers that have met an ignominious end”, the turn has come to the Heinkel He 111. This is an He 111 P-2, as far as I can tell. This photo is from June 1940, somewhere in northern France. On the back, someone wrote “Abgeschossenes Französischer Bomber” – “downed French bomber” – which it definitely isn’t. The only explanation I can think of is that the person who wrote that remembered wrong when going through a bunch of photos with destroyed military hardware. The photographer was a member of Propagandakompanie 612, which was one of several such units tasked with producing propaganda in the form of leaflets, posters, etc.

Propagandakompanie 612 mobilized in 1939 in Wiesbaden, and was attached to 1st Army. It spent late 1939 and early 1940 during the “Phony War” at the Westwall. It followed the advance during the Battle of France in 1940, ending up in Le Havre. In 1941, it was transferred to the 9th Army and the Eastern Front, where it remained for the rest of the war. It recorded the battles in central Russia, like Vitebsk, Rzhev, and Kaluga. In 1944, it relocated to Warsaw, then Frankfurt and der Oder in 1945, and finally Berlin.

Normally a PK Propagandatrupp or Kriegsberichtertrupp at divisional or regimental level consisted of a war reporter (Kriegsberichter), cameraman (Bildberichter) and a driver. Several Truppen formed a propaganda platoon (Propagandazug or Kriegsberichterzug) at corps level, while several propaganda platoons constituted a propaganda company (Propagandakompanie) at Army level.

The cameramen, translators, reporters, censors, sound operators and other technical staff of a Propagandakompanie were often specialists, some being civilians recruited by the army in this role due to their individual skills and therefore often holding the special rank of Sonderführer (special director).

And what about the poor Heinkel? It was one of a total of 6,508 built, the first prototype flying in 1935. The project masqueraded as civilian at first, as Germany was prohibited to develop bombers by the Versailles Treaty. The “passenger planes” were eminently suited to serve as medium bombers, though… It first saw action in the Spanish Civil War, and went on to become the main bomber of the Luftwaffe, dropping bombs over Warszaw, Rotterdam, London, Belgrade… During the battle for Stalingrad, it was used as a transport, but the Luftwaffe managed to deliver only 10 % of what the encircled 6th Army needed. Weak defensive armament made it vulnerable to enemy fighters, though, and by 1943 it was edged out by the Junkers Ju 88 and Dornier Do 217. Still, it served to the last days of the war.

Royal visit

Orléans, France, late June 1940. The wreck of a French Potez 63.11, the reconnaisance version in the Potez family of twin-engined heavy fighters and light bombers, has ended up on the Pont Royal bridge. The bridge was renamed “Pont George V” after the war as recognition of Britain’s role in the war. The city of Orléans was a transport hub for the German occupation forces, and became the target of extensive bombing.

The Potez 630 family was the French equivalent of the German Messerschmitt Bf 110. While reportedly pleasant to fly, it was somewhat underpowered and not heavily armed. Its performance wasn’t impressive, and it suffered if faster enemy fighters were present.

Your tax money at work

Curious German civilians crowd around a Messerschmitt Bf 109, probably an E-1, patiently waiting in line to get a chance to take a look in the cockpit. It’s apparently a publicity stunt, showing the people that Germany possessed some of the finest fighter aircraft in the world. The all-metal construction, powerful engine, and, starting with the E-3, improved armament made it a respected adversary on all fronts.

The Bf 109 was the mainstay of the Luftwaffe, serving in different versions during the entire war. 33,984 were built between 1936 and 1945, making it the most numerous fighter aircraft in history. It was the mount of aces like Adolf Galland, Hans-Joachim Marseille, Gerhard Barkhorn, Günther Rall, and the ace of all aces: Erich Hartmann, who with his 352 aerial victories will probably never be bested.

Today, just a few original Bf 109’s are in flying condition. The roar of their Daimler-Benz engines can still be heard at some airshows, and I hope to see one in the air sometime before I die.


Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines

In the skies above Paris… Not really. An army Unteroffizier and his navy buddy have their photo taken in a studio in Paris, 1940. I have seen this very set used in at least one more photo, so I guess it was a rather popular souvenir back then.

Those were the happy days being a German soldier. Sure, at least 27,000 of them had been killed in the Battle of France, but the campaign was short and triumphant, and the humiliation of the defeat in 1918 paid back. The war against the Soviet Union was a year off in the future, and instead the German soldiers could enjoy occupation duty in France. There were plans and preparations for the invasion of Britain, Operation Seelöwe, but while the Luftwaffe fought in the skies over England, soldiers on leave had a fun time in Paris. A year and a half later, many of them would be freezing to death on the Eastern Front…

Junked Junkers

A crash-landed Junkers Ju 88, probably an A-4. The Ju 88 was a twin-engined multirole combat aircraft, which turned out to be one of the most versatile and successful airplane designs of WW2. This one didn’t enjoy much success, though, but at least the crew had a decent chance of walking away from the wreck.

The Ju 88 saw service in many different version, like a bomber, dive bomber, radar-equipped night fighter, torpedo bomber, reconnaissance aircraft, heavy fighter, and even flying bomb. In 1943, 105 Ju 88 A-4s were used in the attack on the port of Bari, one of the most succesful Luftwaffe attacks of the war, resulting in the sinking of 28 Allied ships. The Germans lost just one aircraft in the raid. One covered up effect of the attack was the release of mustard gas, which was carried on one of the sunk US ships, injuring hundreds of sailors, medical personnel and civilians, killing at least 83. One of the reasons the presence of chemical weapons was hushed down was that the Allies didn’t want the Germans to consider using gas on the battlefield. Hitler, who had been a victim of a gas attack during WW1, opposed its use (one of the few moral things he did), and if it had become known that the Allies had a ship full of artillery gas grenades, he might have reconsidered that decision.

Only two complete Ju 88s have survived the war. I’ve seen one of them, which is kept at the RAF Museum in Hendon, just north of London. The museum is a must to visit if one has an interest in combat aircraft of the 20th century.