Monday, May 18, 2015

Luftwaffe Squadrons in Italy



German Luftwaffe Major General Adolf Galland speaking to another officer while inspecting an airfield in southern Italy, 1943.





THE LUFTWAFFE'S ARRIVAL IN THE MEDITERRANEAN

Initial successes of Italy in Southern France and North Africa convinced Hitler of the reliability of his Latin ally. The Italian Army, even if ill-equipped, seemed to have the numbers to subdue any enemy forces in Egypt. The Italian Navy had a pretty modern fleet which, on paper, appeared to be more than a match for the British Mediterranean Fleet. Finally, the Regia Aeronautica was a sizeable force and, although mostly equipped with obsolescent machines, British aircraft in the theater, while overall marginally better in quality (there were no Spitfires in the Mediterranean in mid-1940), were clearly outnumbered.

Very soon however things turned sour for Mussolini and, after a mere four months in the desert war, not only his offensive had been halted by the British but a series of humiliating defeats had been inflicted on the Italians and even worse ones would be suffered well into the spring of 1941, with the resulting loss of the entire Eastern Libya. As things got desperate, Mussolini had to swallow his pride and beg for German help. This materialized in Rommel's Deutsche Afrika-Korps (DAK) which more than supported the Italian Army: although a relatively small force, the DAK was largely responsible for the incredible counteroffensive which regained the entire lost territory and by 1942 would push Axis forces deep into Egypt, as far as El Alamein.

The Luftwaffe started co-operating with the Regia Aeronautica as early as June 1940. A small liason unit was formed under General Ritter von Pohl, though this was mainly made of advisors. Since Italy lacked a competent dive-bomber (prototypes were built by Savoia Marchetti with their SM 85/86 and by Caproni with their CA 335, but none proved reliable), arrangements had been made by von Pohl for the transfer of a number of Junkers Ju 87's to the Regia Aeronautica and the training of Italian crews at the Stukaschule of Graz, Austria.

The first elements of Generalmajor Hans Geisler's Fliegerkorps X arrived in Sicily in December 1940. This 350-strong force was mainly intended for the submission of Malta and was made of two Stuka Gruppen (I./St.G.1 and II./St.G.2 with long-range Ju87R-1's), one bomber Gruppe (II./KG26 with He 111H-3's) plus an attached Staffel (4./KG4, still with He 111H-3's), two Lehrgeschwader (*) Gruppen (II./LG1, III./LG1, both with Ju 88 D-1's), one Zerstörergeschwader (heavy fighter) Gruppe (III./ZG 26 with Me 110C's, later re-equipped with long-range Me 110 D-3's.) Further units included four Aufklärungsgruppen (reconnaissance groups), mostly equipped with Me 110's and Ju 88's and miscellaneous Ju 52 transports (later organized into Kampfgruppe zbV9.)

It wasn't until February 1941 that the first Bf 109 unit arrived in the theater. The decision to move Joachim Muncheberg's 7./JG26 from France to Sicily was taken as Axis bombers were finding increasing trouble over the skies of Malta, where the Me 110's could do little against the nimble Hurricanes of No.249 Sqn. Even if limited to Staffel strength (the standard complement was nine machines), Müncheberg's 109's made all the difference in the world!

As Fliegerkorps X prepared to support the newly arrived DAK in Libya, the entire first Gruppe of Jagdgeschwader 27 (I./JG27) was dispatched to Ain-el-Gazala. Initially under the guidance of Eduard Neumann, this Gruppe would quickly become a most fertile ground for Luftwaffe aces in the Mediterranean such as Hans-Joachim Marseille (101 kills), Erbo von Kageneck (67 kills, though most of them achieved in the Battle of Britain), Werner Schrör (61 kills), Hans-Arnold Stahlschmidt (59 kills), Günther Steinhausen (40 kills), Ludwig Franzisket (37 kills) and Friedrich Körner (36 kills.) More Bf 109 units would be sent to Sicily later in 1941: the entire JG53 and JG77, II./JG51 and II./JG2.


1940/41

The Luftwaffe had been helping Mussolini since June 1940 (when Italy declared war on the Allies), but only with a force of Ju 52 transports (under the overall command of General Ritter von Pohl) that greatly improved the poor airborne logistic of the country. By December 1940, however, Italy had already suffered defeats in North Africa and Greece and Il Duce was forced to swallow his pride and beg Hitler for help. At the time the Führer was planning his attack on Russia and therefore considered the protection of the Mediterranean flank of the utmost importance. For this reason, he quickly dispatched a sizeable force to the theater, in the form of Generalmajor Hans Geisler's Fliegerkorps X (Tenth Air Division.) This unit could count on no less than 350 serviceable warplanes. Even more importantly, Fliegerkorps X was the only Luftwaffe division to have received a thorough maritime reconnaissance and attack training, which would soon pay very big.

1942

1942 was a crucial year for the Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean theater, the year began with a dazzling advance of Rommel's troops in the desert, progressed into the near-annihilation of Malta and finally culminated in the battle of El Alamein. But as winter came, the pivotal land battle had been lost and the mighty armada of Operation Torch had put thousands of Allied troops ashore, thus trapping Axis forces in Tunisia for a last, desperate stand.

Throughout 1942, the commitment of the Luftwaffe to the Mediterranean theater had grown, but not as  much as German military headquarters in the area had hoped for. The Führer considered the Mediterranean no more than a necessary "police operation" (in his own words) to secure the southern flank of the Russian campaign. He was therefore very ticked off when in late 1940 Mussolini was forced to admit that Italy alone would not be able to assure dominance in the theater and that he had to divert precious assets from the impending invasion of Russia.

By the spring of 1942, the (relatively) small German air and land forces shipped south a little over a year before had halted the Allies in north Africa and in the Balkans and rapidly gained territory and ascendancy over the enemy. This had convinced Hitler that a victory in the entire Mediterranean was merely a question of months. In the summer of that year, he was almost proven right: Malta had been virtually annihilated, Fliegerkorps X had won major naval battles and sunk a great number of British warships, thus preventing the Royal Navy from doing any major damage. More importantly, Rommel was about to cross the Suez Canal, driving the British out of north Africa for good.

What Hitler seemingly was unable to see is the huge Allied land and air force buildup that had started in the spring and which would eventually crush the Afrika Korps. Moreover, a highly efficient network of spies had warned him of US plans to land on the northwest coast of Africa, but once again the Führer downplayed these reports on grounds that America was not yet prepared and too busy fighting the Japanese in the Pacific. Ironically, 1942 was a less intense year on the eastern front and the diversion of air and land assets to the Mediterranean would not have affected operations in Russia too much while it would have certainly made a difference in north Africa.

***

In 1942, the combat strength of the Luftwaffe in the Mediterranean consisted of 5 2/3 Jagdgruppen (Bf 109), 1 1/3 Zerstörergruppen (Bf 110), 11 Kampfgruppen (Ju 88 and He 111) and 3 Stukagruppen (Ju 87.) These formations were distributed over three main area airfields: Italy/Sicily, Libya/Egypt and Greece/Crete. Units constantly rotated between these three locations, depending on events in the theater. For example, right before Britain carried out the disastrous Operation Pedestal, most Ju88 Gruppen of Lehrgeschwader 1 had been quickly transferred from Eleusis (Crete) to airfields in Sardinia and Sicily, from which they could easily strike at enemy convoys. By the same token, Rommel's drive through Egypt in the spring/summer 1942 was supported by almost all Stuka Gruppen in the theater while a large number of twin-engine bombers concentrated in airfields in southern Sicily for the all-out assault on the island of Malta. For this reason, it's nearly impossible to give a permanent "home" to Luftwaffe units in the MTO, at least not in the pivotal year 1942.

1943
By early 1943 it was very clear that the whole North Africa would be lost in a matter of months and that the Allies would then attack fortress Europe from the south, the likely targets being Sicily, Sardinia and Greece.

The first part of the year saw the struggle to keep a foothold in Tunisia and most of Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica's assets were concentrated there in a hopeless effort against overwhelming enemy forces. Airfields in Sicily were never that busy. The Italian island is very close to Tunisia, in fact it's the second shortest Mediterranean crossing after Gibraltar-Morocco, a mere 160 Km (100 statute miles) from coast to coast. Such a short stretch convinced the Axis powers that a massive airborne supply effort could be mounted and a large number of transports (trusty Ju 52's and about 60-70 Me 323's, the huge but sluggish "Gigant") were mustered for the purpose. Obviously such massive preparations for the task were not overlooked by the Allies, who studied and carried out plans to ambush the hapless German transports. The valor and sacrifice of those transport crews, killed by the hundreds, is something too often aviation historians forget.

After the loss of North Africa (9 May), the Luftwaffe could not enjoy any respite as exactly two months later, the Allies would land in Sicily. To make matters worse, Hitler had completely lost faith in the "southern front" and was now preparing for his gigantic offensive in the Ukraine. Over the two weeks before the start of "Zitadelle" (5 July), a large number of Luftwaffe aircraft were suddenly transferred to Russia and by the time US and British troops stormed ashore in Sicily (9 July), only one fighter Gruppe and two bomber Staffeln were left on the island, facing over a thousand enemy aircraft. Very few of the units withdrawn for the Kursk offensive would ever return to the Mediterranean, most of them either permanently assigned to the eastern front or recalled to Germany to fend off an increasingly aggressive US/British strategic bombing effort.

From August 1943, things got progressively worse for the Luftwaffe in Italy. Deprived of a large number of crack units, the German airmen could only play a delaying action against enemy forces which increased by the hundreds every month. In autumn 1943, for the first time Luftwaffe fighter units in Italy claimed more losses than victories.

1944-45

Because of the growing needs of the eastern front, throughout 1943 the strength of Luftflotte 2 had been cut in half and its area of operations reduced from the whole Mediterranean to the Italian peninsula only. From  late 1943 on, operations in the western Mediterranean were covered by Luftflotte 3 units based in southern France while air activity in the eastern Mediterranean fell under the responsibility of the newly formed Luftwaffe Kommando Süd Ost (South-east Luftwaffe Command.)

As strategic bombing raids over Italy intensified and Allied troops gradually advanced in the southern part of the country, fighters and reconnaissance aircraft became much more important than bombers. Unfortunately fighters were also increasingly needed for the protection of the fatherland and therefore by the end of 1944 all fighter units had been recalled, leaving two fighter groups of the Aeronautica Nazionale Republicana (ANR) as the only defensive asset in the country.
In May 1944 Luftflotte 2 consisted of:

    JG 4 - I. Gruppe (15 Bf 109G's)
    JG 53 - III. Gruppe (18 Bf 109G's)
    JG 77 - Stab, I./II. Gruppen (78 Bf 109G's)
    NJG 6 - II. Gruppe (13 Bf 110G night-fighters)
    LG 1 - Stab, I./II. Gruppen (44 Ju 88A's)
    KG 76 - II. Gruppe (26 Ju 88A's)
    SG 4 - Stab, I./II. Gruppen (45 Fw 190F fighter-bombers)
    Nachtschlachtgruppe 9 (night-attack unit, about 45 Ju87D's and CR.42's)
    Aufklärungsgruppe 122 (reconnaissance unit, about 10 Ju 88A's and Me 410's)
    Aufklärungsgruppe 123 (about 6 Ju 88A's and Me 410's)
    Nahaufklärungsgruppe 11 (short-range reconnaissance unit, 14 Bf109G-8's)
    Bordfliegergruppe 196 - 2. Staffel (6 Ar 196 maritime reconnaissance aircraft)
    Transportgeschwader 1 - II. Gruppe (45 SM.82's)

The fighters were complemented by two groups of Fiat G.55's, Macchi 205's and Bf 109G's of the ANR, for a nominal strength of about 70 machines (of which some 70% serviceable.) The ANR also incorporated a torpedo-bomber unit, the "Gruppo Buscaglia" (some 30 SM.79/II's), later renamed "Primo Gruppo Aerosiluranti" (1st torpedo-bombing group) when the CO Major Buscaglia opted to fight with the co-belligerent air force.

By the year's end, all Luftwaffe fighter units had been transferred and less than 50 serviceable aircraft remained in two reconnaissance Gruppen, a night attack Gruppe and an experimental Ju 188 unit (Kommando Carmen) of half a dozen bombers which rarely saw service. By contrast, the strength of the ANR had remained about the same, although all Italian-made fighters had been retired (mostly for lack of spare parts) and replaced by the Bf 109G's left by Luftwaffe units recalled to Germany to fly on newer models.

In the first four months of 1945, the ANR continued flying anti-bomber missions right until the day of the armistice, facing impossible odds. A handful of these brave pilots would often attack a formation of up to 500 enemy bombers, escorted by some 300-400 fighters. Needless to say, casualties mounted rapidly, and when these men were not shot down in the air, their aircraft were blown on the ground by tactical bomber raids on an almost daily basis. Despite all of this, the ANR would receive replacements on a monthly basis until the end of the war. In April 1945, Mussolini's fighter force consisted of modern Bf109G-10's and Bf109K-4's and arrangements had been made for the shipment of a dozen Me 262 jet fighters to Italy by June. The end of the war, however, came first.

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I've not got much on the Luftwaffe in Italy, the only book I have, "Air War Over Italy" by Andrew Brookes only gives brief descriptions of units involved. With the help of "Eagles in Flames", this could be a start...

Luftflotte 2 - Order of Battle, 1st June 1944

LG1 - Stab, I & II./LG1 - bases & aircraft
KG76 - II./KG76, bases & aircraft
FAGr.122 - 2(F)./122, 1(F)./123 & Wekusta 26
BordFlGr.196 - 2./BordFlGr.196, bases & aircraft
TG1 - II./TG1
JG77 - Stab, I & II./JG77, bases & aircraft
JG4 - I. Gruppe JG4, bases & aircraft
JG53 - III./JG53, bases & aircraft
NJG6 - II./NJG6, bases & aircraft
SG4 - Stab, I & II./SG4, bases and aircraft
NSGr.9 - NSGr.9, bases & aircraft
NAGr.11 - 1, 2 & 3 NAGr.11, bases & aircraft

Italian Units
Italian Torpedo Bomber Group - Savoia S.79
Italian Transport Group/ 1.TG10 - Savoia S.81
1st Italian Fighter Group - Fiat G.55 & Macchi MC.205
2nd Italian Fighter Group - Bf109 & Fiat G.55
Montefusco Squadron - Fiat G.55 & Macchi MC.205

I've also found this in "Eagles in Flames", which details the units under command of Luftflotte 2 during "Operation Husky" (The Allied Invasion of Sicily) on 10th July 1943:

Units/Aircraft
III./TG1 - Ju52
III./TG2 - Ju52
IV./TG3 - Ju52
I./TG5 - Me323
- Fliegerkorps II

II./JG27 - Bf109
I./JG53 - Bf109
II./ZG1 - Bf110
Stab, III & 10./ZG26 - Bf110
II & III./SKG10 - Fw190
Stab, I & II./KG1 - Ju88
Stab, I & III./KG6 - Ju88
Stab, I & III./KG26 - He111
Stab, I & II./KG76 - Ju88
III./KG30 - Ju88
III./KG54 - Ju88
II./KG77 - Ju88
I./LG1 - Ju88
1.(F)/123 - Ju88

- Sicily
Stab, II & III./JG53 - Bf109
Stab, I & II./JG77 - Bf109
IV./JG3 - Bf109
II./NJG2 - Ju88
Stab & II./SKG10 - Fw190
2.(F)/122 - Ju88, Me210 & Me410

- Fliegerfuhrer Sardinien
II./JG51 - Bf109
III./JG77 - Bf109
Stab, I & II./SchGr2 - Fw190 & Hs129
3.(F)/33 - Ju88
4.(H)/12 - Fw189

- Fliegerdivsion 2
Stab, II & III./KG100 - Do217

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