German Luftwaffe propaganda air image of the Belgrade Bombardment 4/6/1941, appeared in the German propaganda magazine, Der Adler, No. 9, Apr. 29. 1941
German campaigns in the Balkans resulted from Benito Mussolini’s botched invasion of Greece in October 1940 and from the overthrow of the Yugoslav government in March 1941. The Luftwaffe buildup began in November 1940, and by March 1941 490 aircraft were based in Romania and Bulgaria. In early April, 600 additional aircraft were rushed to the Balkans. VIII Fliegerkorps executed air operations under the command of General der Flieger Wolfram von Richthofen.
The attack began on 6 April, with an air strike on Belgrade (Operation PUNISHMENT). The target was the city center; industrial and transportation targets were excluded so the Germans could exploit the economy after conquering Yugoslavia. The Luftwaffe attacked in the morning primarily with high explosives and in the afternoon primarily with incendiaries, starting fires that guided the subsequent night attack. The Yugoslav air force was quickly destroyed, and the Germans lost only two fighters. The attack killed some 17,000 people and cut nearly all communications between the Yugoslav high command and the armed forces. The Yugoslav army was paralyzed and easily crushed by the Wehrmacht.
GenObst Lohr’s Luftflotte 4 commenced the second most important role allocated to the German forces by Hitler in his Directive No. 25 – punishment of the Belgrade government. While the Führer himself spent the night in his special train in a tunnel on the Wiener Neustadt-Fürstenfeld railway, and Goring followed operations from a headquarters at Semmering, Austria, the Luftwaffe prepared a massive strike on the capital which was to follow Fliegerkorps Vlll’s initial actions by about one hour. When the first alarms were sounded in the city at 0645, 74 Ju87s from StG77 were approaching between 8000-10000 feet, with 160 He 111s of II/KG 4 and Do 17Zs from KG 2 and 3, with escorting Bf 110s at 11000-12 000 feet. 100 Bf 109Es (including 56 aircraft from Stab, II and III/JG 77) providing top cover at 15 000 feet.
The Yugoslavs were in no way taken by surprise. Indeed the AA defences had already reported the approach of one raid from Rumania at 0300, leading to a false alarm, while listening posts on the frontier had heard the engines of Fliegerführer Arad’s aircraft warming up well before takeoff. At Zemun 51 Grupa had been brought to alert well before daylight. By the time news of the attacks on Rezanovacka Kosa and Petrovac were received, and of German reconnaissance aircraft over areas near Belgrade, the first patrol was already in the air, although nothing was to be seen.
When the first big Luftwaffe raid approached, 51 Grupa had its third patrol of the morning in the air, while a second formation from 32 Grupa was also airborne. The German aircraft began to approach in Gruppe strength at intervals of 15 minutes, and as the first small dots appeared in the sky to the north, all 51 Grupa’s fighters scrambled in two parallel columns from the grassy surface of Zemun airfield. Twenty-five miles to the north-west at Prnjavor the Me 109s of 32 Grupa also took to the air in three flights. One of the 51 Grupa’s IK-Zs was obliged to turn back with engine trouble, but 34 Yugoslav interceptors headed for the first intruders.
The five IK-Zs made the first contact with the bombers, but within moments the Bf 109Es of JG77 were upon them and a fierce series of fights commenced. Ten claims were to be made for the defenders, five by the Messerschmitts of 102 Eskadrila and five by the IK-Zs, but three of the Yugoslav fighters were shot down, six more being badly hit and subsequently destroyed or damaged in force landings; two pilots were killed, while five more were wounded. The dead were Capt Milos Zunjic, commander of 102 Eskadrila, and 2/Lt Dusan Borcic of 161 Eskadrila, whose aircraft, carrying the number “10′, crashed on the banks of the Danube, 12 miles north of the city. 2/Lt Eduard Banfic of 162 Esk baled out, wounded, while Capt. Mihailo Nikolic of 102 Eskadrila crash-landed after suffering wounds in an attack by a Bfl09E, claiming to have first shot down a Ju87. Sgt Djordje Stojanovic of 102 Eskadrila force-landed his Mel09 when it was hit and set on fire by the rear gunner of a doomed twin-engined bomber; he was badly burned as his aircraft was totally engulfed in flames. Capt Sava Poljanec, commander of 161 Eskadrila, claimed an He 111 (or Do. 17) and a Bf 109E shot down, returning with no ammunition and with his IK-Z badly damaged by another German Messerschmitt which he avoided in a spin. As he landed his aircraft was strafed by a Bf 110, suffering severe damage while the pilot suffered wounds also.
Meanwhile Capt Milan Zunic and Sgt Vladimir Puzic of 102 Eskadrila claimed a further twin-engined bomber shot down between them, and Sgt Milisav Semiz a Ju87. Lt Dragoslav Krstic and Sgt Vukadin Jelic from the same unit dived out of the sun on a large formation of bombers, Jelic claiming one in flames while Krstic was hit by return fire and crash-landed on Zemun airfield. As 51 Grupa’s survivors returned, the unit found it had only five Me 109s and three IK-Zs still airworthy.
Following this initial attack came the Messerschmitts of 32 Grupa, the pilots of which claimed four more bombers shot down for the loss of two of their own number, 1/Lt Vasa Kolarov and F/Sgt Dragoljub Milosevic both baling out safely; several more Me 109s were hit and damaged, one crash-landing. As the last formation of Ju87s withdrew at about 0800, Hurricanes of 52 Grupa from the 2nd Puk at Knic appeared on the scene, three NCO pilots of 163 Eskadrila engaging one of the Stukas which they believed they had shot down. During this initial attack the pilots of JG77 claimed ten victories, one pilot of the Stabsschwarm claiming a Bf 109, unidentified pilots of II Gruppe making six more claims, while Obit Armin Schmidt and Lt Emil Omert of III Gruppe each claimed Messerschmitts. Ofw Riehl of this unit claimed a fighter identified as a ‘Dewoitine’ – almost certainly one of the IK-Zs. Six more aircraft were claimed destroyed on the ground, two each by the Stab and the two Gruppen.
During this raid it had not been easy for the Yugoslavs to gain a clear account of what had in fact happened. Several 51 Grupa pilots, having lost their wingmen and run out of ammunition, had landed at Zemun to rearm, then taking off and returning to the fray. AA batteries had fired at all and sundry – not surprisingly finding that they could not distinguish between friendly and hostile Messerschmitts! When the first indication of the approach of the raiders had been received a training unit (201 Grupa) at Lazarevac, 25 miles to the south had put seven old Potez 25s into the air, led by Capt Ivanovic of 602 Eskadrila to see if they could help. Arriving over the city after the attack had ended, they were able only to take a few photos of the carnage below. Next day Ivanovic was removed from his post…
The next attack occurred at about 1000 and lasted about an hour, 57 Ju87s and 30 Messerschmitts appearing overhead. Nine Me 109s of 32 Grupa. with six IK-Zs. and Me 109s of 51 Grupa took off, the latter now commanded by Capt Gogic, since the previous commander, Maj Adum Romeo had at once been removed by the Brigade Commander due to his lack of activity during the first attack. This time the interceptors claimed two Ju87s forced to land and a Bfl09E shot down, but Sgt Strbenk’s Me 109 was hit by another escorting Bfl09E and he broke away to land. Shortly afterwards he was killed in a 102 Eskadrila Messerschmitt; two more 32 Grupa Messerschmitts were damaged, 2/Lt Lajh crash-landing one of these on the airfield. One patrol of 101 Eskadrila Messerschmitts from 31 Grupa at Kragujevac followed the Stukas as they departed, Capt Zivica Mitrovic reportedly shooting down two of them before he was shot down and killed by the escort: his wingman was also shot down, but managed to bale out. They had joined the fight over Belgrade without the orders of their grupa commander. Two more attacks followed during the afternoon, one at 1400 by 94 twin-engined bombers from the airfields around Vienna, escorted by 60 fighters, and one at 1600 made by 90 Ju87s and 60 fighters. The first of these was met by six 51 Grupa and 12 32 Grupa fighters, these units claiming one and three victories respectively (one bomber was claimed by Capt Gogic and 1/Lt Vujicic of 162 Eskadrila jointly). Three 32 Grupa Messerschmitts were shot down; 1/Lt Bogdan Presecnik baled out with severe burns, while 1/Lt Dobrica Novakovic and Presecnik’s wingman. F/Sgt Petrov, were both killed. During these afternoon raids JG77 made two more claims, one for an aircraft on the ground by III Gruppe, and one shot down by II Gruppe. III/JG 54 also claimed successes over three Yugoslav Messerschmitts, credited to Obit. Hans-Ekkehard Bob, Kapitiin of 9 Staffel for his 20th victory; to Lt Max-Hellmuth Oslermann for his ninth, and to Obit Gerhard Koall as his first. During the day’s actions a number of victories were also claimed by the Bf 110s of I/ZG 26, two Messerschmitts being credited to Uffz Stiegleder of this unit. Total Luftwaffe claims over Belgrade amounted to 19 Me 109s and four unidentified types.