A chip off the old Bloch

“Wir fliegen gegen Engelland mit einem abgeschossenen Franzose.” “We fly to England with a downed Frenchie.” German soldiers have fun with a grounded Bloch MB.210 bomber, summer of 1940. The prototype of the boxy and unappealing MB.210 first flew in 1934, and the first production aircraft in 1936. It was underpowered, the engines prone to overheating, and had to have the engines exchanged. Less than 300 were built, ten of them sold to Romania. When the Germans invaded France in 1940, the twelve bomber squadrons equipped with the MB.210 were in the middle of reorganization, where outdated aircraft were to be retired. The slow aircraft saw some action, primarily as a night bomber, but by the armistice there were only 119 flyable aircraft left. The Romanian air force used it on the Eastern Front, but appears to have retired the surviving aircraft in 1942. The Bloch MB.210 is a testament to the rapid development of aircraft in the 1930s. Planes that were state of the art in the beginning of the decade were obsolete by the end of it, and when the war broke out, the development was sped up even more. World War 2 was a period of rapid technological advances.

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Eye of the Army

Somewhere on the Eastern Front, probably in 1941. A Henschel Hs 126 reconnaissance aircraft stands on the harvested field used as a temporary airfield for take off and landing. The aircraft first saw action during the Spanish Civil War, and subsequently in most campaigns until 1942, where it operated in reconnaissance squadrons. Because of mounting losses, it was retired from frontline use and replaced by the more durable Focke-Wulf Fw 189. It had a crew of two, and could carry cameras or up to 150 kg of bombs. A total of 605 aircraft were built, and used for training and as glider tugs for the remainder of the war.

At the controls

This photo is rather blurry, but it’s one of the few I have of a Luftwaffe pilot while flying. He is piloting a Heinkel He 111, a medium bomber that was one of the most common German bombers. It had a couple of weaknesses, like low speed and inadequate defensive armament. During the Battle of Britain, 242 He 111s were lost despite often being escorted by Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighters. Still, the aircraft was relatively versatile, and saw service on all fronts throughout the war.

heinkel

This is another photo from my collection. What we see is the view from the pilot’s seat, the port engine closest to the camera and three He 111s making up part of a bomber formation. The aircraft offered at least a pretty good field of view, as can be seen in the picture below, which is a screen capture from the computer game War Thunder.

cockpit

The instruments are placed overhead, while the glazed “greenhouse” nose offers a good view of the ground. The navigator/bomb aimer is to the right, where he could also fire a machine gun at enemy airplanes or ground targets. Other crew were two machine gunners and the radio operator. The least popular position was that of the gunner in the tub-like gondola on the underside of the plane, which was sometimes referred to as the “death bed”. As mentioned, the defensive armament was inadequate, a drawback of most German bombers. A single British fighter plane could carry eight machine guns, while the bomber could train just one or at best two MGs on the attacking enemy.

Bomber pilots were regarded as better trained than fighter pilots, but that didn’t help when they became more or less sitting ducks. It took nerves of steel to go on mission after mission, knowing that it could be your last, but as with all other branches of service in the Wehrmacht, one served until killed, incapacitated, or captured.

Stukas im Visier

Schwarm (“swarm”, equivalent to a flight) of Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive-bombers flies over Luftwaffe anti-aircraft gun positions. The photo is probably from the summer of 1942, somewhere on the southern part of the Eastern Front. I haven’t been able to identify the AA gun unit, but the album with photos from 1942-43 I own indicates that the unit made it all the way down to Kislovodsk in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains in 1943, making it one of the units that penetrated the furthest into the USSR. The unit had to retreat later in the summer that year, a retreat that went on until the Red Army captured Berlin.

The Stuka bombers were organized slightly different from fighters. Three bombers made up a Kette (“chain”) and two Ketten a Schwarm. Three Schwärme became a Staffel, the equivalent of a squadron, with a total of 18 bombers. For fighters, it was two Rotten of two fighters each in a Schwarm, and a fighter Staffel with three Schwärme had twelwe fighters, making it smaller than an Allied squadron.

The Junkers Ju 87 Stuka (short for “Sturzkampfflugzeug” – “dive combat aircraft”) was used for tactical bombing, and sometimes called “flying artillery” when attacking bridges, railway marshalling yards, ships and other relatively small targets. The Ju 87 was slow, and had usually to be escorted by fighters in areas where the Germans didn’t have supremacy in the air. The “G” version of the Stuka was armed with two 3.7 cm antitank guns, and was a devastating weapon when handled by aces like Hans-Ulrich Rudel (credited with 519 tank kills). Some 6,500 Ju 87 were built, but only two have survived intact.

Below is a short montage of Stukas in action, taken from newsreels and propaganda movies.

 

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.