Jagdgeschwader 27 ‘Afrika’ Part I

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Eduard Neumann (right) with Adolf Galland in North Africa, 22 September 1942. A veteran of the Spanish Campaign, Edward Neumann, at the start of the war, was leading 4./JG26 in France, later promoted Adjutant of I./JG27. He took part in the Balkan Campaign before moving in 1941 to North Africa, where I./JG27 was the only German fighter unit for the first nine months. In 1942 he became Kommodore of JG27, a position which he held throughout the remainder of the Desert Campaign. He was credited with moulding the careers of many outstanding pilots, the best known being the young Hauptmann Marseille. Following the defeat of Rommel’s Afrika Korps at El Alamein JG27 covered their retreat back to Tunisia. When his wing left the desert, ‘Edu’ Neumann was transferred to the Staff of General of the Fighter Arm, where he remained until 1944. Promoted to Oberst in the autumn of that year, he took over as Fighter Commander of Northern Italy. Edu Neumann ended the war as one of the Luftwaffe’s most highly respected Commanders. Died 9th August 2004.

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Eduard Neumann in Messerschmitt Bf 109 F-4 “Trop”

A JG 27 Stab was first raised in 1939 and used to form that of JG 77, a new Stab/JG 27 being stood up at Krefeld on 1 October 1939 when I.Gruppe also formed with the standard three Staffeln. Oberst Max Ibel was Kommandeur of the Stab, whilst I.Gruppe was led by Hptm Adolf Galland. A II.Gruppe Stab was organised in January 1940, although the component 4., 5. and 6.Staffeln did not adopt the Geschwader’s numerical designation until July of that year. The ‘Sitzkrieg’ war period was marked by training and patrols along the Franco-German border until 10 May 1940 when Germany invaded France and the Low Countries. I.Gruppe was then under the command of Major Eduard Neumann, and whilst flying support missions for Operation Weserubung, scored its first victory during this initial week of fighting – tasked with helping subdue the Belgian Air Force, the Gruppe’s Heino Becher destroyed a solitary Gladiator near Tirlemont in this brief operation. Covering the 6th Army’s drive using airfields at Munchen-Gladbach and Gymnich, near Cologne, I./JG 27 had I./JG l and I./JG 21 under its operational control throughout this lightning campaign. These units had a memorable 12 May, flying 340 sorties and destroying 28 enemy aircraft for the loss of four Bf 109Es.

Having fought in the Battle of France, JG 27 suffered substantial losses, along with other units of the Jagdwaffe, whilst trying to subdue RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain. For a combined victory total of 146, the Geschwader lost 56 pilots killed or missing, including the Kommandeur of III. Gruppe, Hptm Joachim Schlichting, who was seriously injured after being shot down by Spitfires on 6 September.

One small compensation was that by the end of 1940, JG 27’s surviving pilots had acquired considerable experience of British tactics. While the assault on England had been a sobering, tough, lesson in flawed strategy, Jagdwaffe fighter tactics had often proved basically superior to those of the RAF. Such knowledge was to stand the ‘old heads’ in good stead when Gruppe transferred to North Africa in April 1941.

On 14 April 1941 the first German single-engined fighter unit arrived in North Africa when a Staffel of I./JG 27 flew into EI Gazala airfield to the west of Tobruk. As will be remembered, the unit had previously operated for a short time against Malta in March and then in the Balkans early in April. By tHe-18th of the month, the Gruppe had been brought up to full strength of three Staffeln, each of which used Gambut airfield at various times. The unit’s Kommandeur, Hptm. Eduard ‘Edu’ Neumann, brought with him a circus caravan which had been captured in France and which he now used as his headquarters. This became a familiar sight on North African airfields and soon became known as Neumann’s ‘Bunte Buhne’ (Chequered Stage). The Staffelkapitane of I./JG 27 were Oblt. Karl-Heinz Redlich (1. StaffeD, Hptm. Erich Gerlitz (2. StaffeD and Oblt. Gerhard Homuth (3. Staffel, while other famous pilots included Oblt. Ludwig Franzisket (14 victories), Lt. Willi Kothmann (7), Of hr. Hans-Joachim Marseille (7) and Ofvv. Hermann Forster (6).

I./JG 27 flew its first operational sortie in North Africa on the morning of 19 April 1941 when it clashed with Hurricanes and claimed to have shot down four, two by Oblt. Redlich. During the afternoon, Lt. Werner Schroer was shot down by P/O Spence of 274Sqn., but he crash-landed and was unhurt. Two days later, Uffz. Hans Sippel was killed and Schroer shot down a second time, possibly again by P/0 Spence. Although he managed to crash-land once more, this time he was wounded.

The final big air battle over Tobruk came on 23 April and resulted in severe RAF losses. Six Hurricanes and two Blenheims were claimed destroyed by the pilots of I./JG 27 with the only German pilot killed being Fw. Werner Lange. Of hr. Marseille had a lucky escape when he was shot up and crashed behind Axis lines. RAF losses on the 23 April were such that most of its remaining Hurricanes withdrew from the fortress to Sidi Haneish two days later. On the 30th, Rommel launched another attack on Tobruk, the RAF flying many ground-strafing missions in its defence. Next day seven Hurricanes from 274Sqn. attacked two Schwarme of Bf-109s from 3./JG 27 led by Marseille and Homuth. Such was the superiority of the German fighters that six Hurricanes were claimed shot down for the loss of two Bf-109s, one of them piloted by Gefr. Hermann Kohne who was injured.

Following this action, both sides began to regroup, British forces launching their first offensive against the Afrika Korps on 15 May. During the day British armour reached a point 20 miles south-west of Bardia, but a counter attack by the 5. Light and 15. Panzer divisions quickly regained all ground lost by the Germans with the exception of the Halfaya Pass. Sporadic air operations continued, I./JG 27 being mainly concerned with protecting Afrika Korps troops from RAF ground-attack missions. For example, on 21 May, I./JG 27 intercepted Blenheims of 14Sqn. attacking the Capuzzo-Tobruk road and shot down five of the bombers. The only German fighter pilot to be lost during this period was Lt. Erich Schroder of 2./JG 27 who was taken prisoner after crashing into the sea north of Bardia following an anti-shipping strike.

On 15 June 1941 the British launched a major offensive in North Africa known as ‘Battleaxe’. The aim was to relieve Tobruk but the offensive quickly ended in failure. Of the three columns sent forward, the advance on the Halfaya Pass by Matilda tanks was beaten back by German 88 mm guns and the one on the Hafid Ridge ground to a halt because of the unreliability of the British light cruiser tanks, so that only a third attack at Capuzzo achieved some success. After ‘Battleaxe’ the ground situation in the Western Desert remained quiet for five months. The investment of Tobruk continued and each side maintained a wary eye on the other and settled into a daily routine.

At this time, the Bf-109 fighter force in North Africa, still comprising the three Staffel of I./JG 27 under Major Eduard Neumann, was joined by 7./JG 26 which flew from Molaoi to Libya on this day. Neumann was to say of his visitors: The 7./JG 26 played a “guest role” in Cyrenaica for a short period in mid-1941. At that time my I./JG 27 was the only German fighter unit in North Africa. Its Kapitan, Oblt. Muncheberg, was allowed to plan and carry out his Staffel’s missions without hindrance from me. I believe I am right in saying that the Staffel did not enjoy a lot of success in Africa, since the British advance was halted very quickly. But Muncheberg was an energetic leader; he was one of the great leaders of the Luftwaffe.’

The first operation flown by the combined units was on 15 June when they engaged Hurricanes of 73 and 274Sqns. near Sidi Barrani and shot down five, one of them claimed by Fw. Karl-Heinz Ehlen of 7./JG 26. Two Bf-109s from I./JG 27 were lost, the pilot of one, Uffz. Heinz Greuel of the-1. Staffel, being killed. Two days later, Lt. Heinz Schmidt of 3./JG 27 claimed four Hurricanes, Marseille two more and Fw. Karl Mentnich a seventh. Oblt. Klaus Mietusch from 7./JG 26 also destroyed a Hurricane while Ofw. Hermann Forster of 3./JG 27 claimed a ‘Brewster’, in fact probably one of the newly-arrived Tomahawks. On the 18 June, the first casualty reported by the 3./JG 27 occurred when a Bf-109E-7 crashed near Gambut and was 40% damaged but I./JG 27 claimed three Tomahawks of 250Sqn. Two days later Oblt. Muncheberg claimed his first victory in the theatre, a Hurricane east of Buq Buq.

On 23 June, I./JG 27 was reported as having 35 Bf-109E-4 Traps of which 26 were serviceable. All six Bf-109E-7s from 7./JG 26 were available but they were operating without tropical equipment. Successes for the German fighter units continued, but on 28 June, Lt. Heinz Schmidt of 3./JG 27 was killed in combat. On the last day of the month, Tomahawks of 250 Sqn. intercepted a formation of Ju-87s escorted by 12 Italian G.50s, ten Bf-109s from I./JG 27 and five Bf-110s from III./ZG26. Two G.50s, two Ju-87s and two Bf-110s were shot down, but Oblt. Ludwig Franzisket of I./JG 27 destroyed one of the RAF fighters and another was lost to the same unit. In a later action that day Bf-109s from 7./JG 26 clashed with Hurricanes of 1 (SAAF)Sqn. and Uffz. Georg Mondry claimed the destruction of one, the pilot of which was killed. A Bf-109 was claimed damaged by the South African unit.

Previously, on 14 June, Oblt. Gerhard Homuth, Staffelkapitan of 3./JG 27, had become the first pilot in North Africa to be awarded the Ritterkreuz. At this time he had 22 aerial victories. On 1 July, 7./JG 26 reported a strength of 14 Bf-109s of which eight were serviceable. Eight days later Oblt. Karl-Wolfgang Redlich, Staffelkapitan of I./JG 27 was awarded the Ritterkreuz after claiming 21 victories.

On 15 July, a major operation took place when Hurricanes of 73 and 229Sqns. attacked a formation of II./St.G2’s Ju-87s escorted by Bf-109s of 7./JG 26 and Bf-110s of III./ZG26. In the ensuing action the RAF pilots claimed six Ju-87s (three crews being killed) and a Bf-110. South-west of Ras Asaz, Oblt. Muncheberg shot down one of the Hurricanes which was chasing Ofw. Heller’s Bf-110. Two days later a Bf-109E-7 from 7./JG 26 was destroyed in a crash-landing at Derna, the cause listed as a maintenance failure. On 20 July Oblt. Ludwig Franzisket of I./JG 27 became the third Bf-109 pilot to be awarded the Ritterkreuz in North Africa with 22 victory claims. Nine days later the destruction of five Tomahawks was claimed by 7./JG 26, the RAF losing one pilot killed, one taken prisoner and three more aircraft severely damaged.

As operations by the Bf-109 units in Africa continued into August, 7./JG 26 reported on the fourth that it had only four aircraft operational from a strength of eleven. The main problem was that the DB601N engines which powered most of this Staffel’s Messerschmitt’s proved unsuitable and very susceptible to damage in tropical conditions, The fine desert sand found its way into everything and the heat was so intense – daytime temperatures were often in the region of 500C (1200F) – that engines run-up for too long on the ground would often boil and petrol vaporise. It was therefore decided that aircraft powered by these engines should no longer be sent to the North African theatre.

On 21 August, three Maryland bombers from 12 and 24 (SAAF) Sqns. were shot down by Bf-109s from I./JG 27 and two by 7./JG 26, the former Gruppe also claiming three Hurricanes and two Tomahawks. This was the last known mission flown by 7./JG 26 in North Africa and when it returned to France at the end of the month, it had scored at least eight victories in North Africa, five of them by Muncheberg.

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