Under new management

An airfield somewhere on the Eastern Front during Operation Barbarossa, summer of 1941. Some Junkers Ju 88s are parked on the edge of the field, most likely getting prepared for the next mission. There’s a placename scrawled on the back of the photo, but it was hard to see what it said. Luckily, some of the members of the Axis History Forum (nichte, history1, and GregSingh) could help me, and it appears like the airfield is one of the nine outside Minsk in Belarus which were used by the Germans. The previous owners have been evicted, leaving just the mangled wrecks of biplanes, probably destroyed on the ground on the first day of the offensive. The Soviets lost about 2,000 planes on that first day, a devastating blow to the USSR’s airforce.

The Germans captured Minsk four days later, so it’s possible the photo is from the end of June 1941. Both Soviets and Germans usually operated from grass airfields, bases with concrete runways being somewhat of a luxury. A Ju 88 needed at least 530 meters for take off, so the field above appears to be sufficient. The periods of mud in autumn and spring presented a problem, though, making it harder for take off and landing. Many planes were lost because of the mud, adding yet another danger for the aircrews on the Eastern Front.


Gone to ground

A German cavalry unit has come across the wreck of a Soviet Tupolev SB 2M light bomber, its landing gear and engines ripped off in the crash landing. The location is somewhere in the Soviet Union, most likely during the first weeks of Operation Barbarossa. The Red Army Air Force suffered heavy losses, and it took the Soviets a couple of years before they had wrested air superiority from the Germans.

The Tupolev ANT-40, also known by its service name Tupolev SB (Russian: Skorostnoi Bombardirovschik – high speed bomber), was a twin-engined three-seat light bomber, first flown in 1934. More than 6,600 were built in different versions between 1936 and 1941. The rapid development of fighter planes made the design, which was considered successful in the mid-30s, in need of replacement by the early 1940’s. Still, 94 % of the Soviet bomber force was made up from SB 2Ms by the time of the German invasion in June, 1941, some 1,500-2,000 deployed near the border, where they fell victim to German attacks on airfields. Those that survived the initial onslaught were poorly used, and within a few days, losses forced most of the remaining SBs to switch to night attacks.

SBs continued to be used, in the defense of Leningrad and Moscow, mainly at night by attacking German artillery. By December 1941 almost all of the SBs had either been replaced by more modern bombers like Pe-2s or lost, although it remained in large-scale use until March 1942 in the North against Finland. The Finns used captured SBs against their previous owners. SBs continued in use for non-combat roles such as supply dropping, glider towing and training, and continued in use in the Far East until 1945.

Black men

Three Schwarzer Männer (“black men”) atop the starboard Junkers Jumo 211 engine of a Heinkel He 111 medium bomber. Luftwaffe ground crews serviced the aircraft between missions, and were usually wearing the black overalls that earned them their nickname. Just like their colleagues in other airforces, they worked hard to keep their designated aircraft in flying condition. Given the deteriorating supply situation and the use of provisional airfields on the Eastern Front, they had to work wonders. Each Geschwader (equivalent to a wing or group) had a Fliegerhorstkompanie (air station company) divided into three platoons of about 30 men each. Those were airframe, engine and safety equipment fitters, armorers (ordnance and small arms), and instrument and radio mechanics. A fourth platoon with engine fitters, sheet metal workers, painters, harness repairers, carpenters, and electricians formed the Werkstattzug – the workshop platoon.

The pilots and aircrews and ground crews often developed close relationships, and there are many examples of pilots cramming ground crew into every available space when forced to evacuate an airfield in the face of an advancing enemy. Some ground crew volunteered as air crew, serving as gunners or flight engineers. As the war progressed and the Luftwaffe had more personnel than there were planes to take care of, excess ground crew were transferred to ground combat units, like the Luftwaffe Field Divisions. With just basic infantry training, the soldiers didn’t fare well in contact with the enemy. Still, being picked to serve as a “black man” offered a greater chance of surviving the war than many other branches of service.

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.