Employing tactics reminiscent of the advance over the same ground a year before, the attack began on 21 January with Italian divisions being sent north to Benghazi while Rommel led the Afrika Korps inland. At first, this succeeded in forcing the British to retreat to a line running from Gazala southwards to the desert fort of Bir Hacheim, but by early February Rommel had reached the limit of his strength and as each side dug in, so began another period of stalemate which was to last until May. Meanwhile, on 25 January, II./JG 27 was involved in a major action when it intercepted a formation of RAF Blenheims escorted by Kittyhawks of 112Sqn. north-east of Antelat. Four Kittyhawks were claimed destroyed, two by Ofw. Otto Schulz and one each by Uffz. Alfred Schulze and Ogfr. Otto Monska.
There was little aerial activity during the first week of February due to four days of heavy rain during which the Luftwaffe reported that its aircraft were unable to take off because they were up to their axles in wet sand. Operations resumed on 8 February with Marseille of 3./JG 27 claiming four RAF fighters, Ofw. Otto Schulz of II./JG 27 claiming two and one each claimed by Oblt. Homuth, Oblt. Keller and Lt. Friedrich Korner, all from I. Gruppe. With this operation, Marseille became the highest scoring fighter pilot in the theatre with 40 victories, one more than Homuth. A week later, Ofw. Schulz took off alone and claimed the destruction of five Kittyhawks from 94 and 112Sqns. In fact, four RAF aircraft were lost as the fifth succeeded in limping home.
A less successful Luftwaffe pilot at this time was Lt. Hans-Arnold Stahlschmidt of 2./JG 27. On 21 February, after some soldiers had photographed him before take-off – always considered a bad omen – he was caught by a Kittyhawk of 112Sqn. and shot down. As he struggled to crash-land his Bf-109in no-man’s-land he heard his Kapitan, Homuth, exclaim over the radio: “Who is the damned idiot being shot down?” Stahlschmidt was rescued by an Axis patrol and taken back to Martuba, but six days later he was attacking a group of trucks near Bir el Gobi in company with his wingman, Fw. Gerhard Keppler, when his engine cut and he rammed one of the vehicles. After being dragged from the cockpit of his Messerschmitt by Polish troops, he was beaten with rifle butts, kicked, and his decorations were ripped off. He was then taken to an interrogation camp but managed to escape, eventually being rescued by German troops on 1 March.
The next day, four Bf-109s from I./JG 27 attacked 11 Hurricanes from 274Sqn. and shot down three, two by Homuth and one by Lt. Karl Kugelbauer. A total of 57 victories were claimed by JG27 in February with operations slightly reducing in March when both sides engaged mainly in fighter sweeps or fighter-bomber sorties. During this month, JG27 claimed a total of 35 victories and 43 in April. By May a period of relative calm on the ground was ending with both sides readying themselves for a big offensive, the only question being who would be the first to attack? At this time, the Luftwaffe day fighter force comprised I., II., III. and 10.(Jabo)/JG27 with 101 Bf-109Fs all based at Martuba, south-east of Derna, and 7./ZG26 with 12 Bf-110s at Derna. These were bolstered by the arrival of 30 more Bf-109s from III./JG 53, 15 Bf-110s from 8./ZG26 and 40 Ju-87 dive bombers from II. and III./St.G3.
On the British side, the first 8-24 Liberator bombers arrived in the desert at this time and also, at last, the first Spitfires. As previously mentioned, substantial numbers of Spitfires had been sent to defend Malta but, otherwise, while air commanders in the Mediterranean were crying out for them, the largest number of Spitfires was retained in Great Britain. When examined retrospectively, this policy is open to question as, in 1942, the key actions in the air war were being fought over Malta and the Western Desert. No comparable air actions were being fought in the West, yet a large force of Spitfires was nevertheless kept in Great Britain at a time when they were urgently required in other theatres of war, particularly the Mediterranean. It would appear that this degree of over-insurance was insisted upon by the Air Officer C-in-C Fighter Command in order that he might retain a force adequate in strength to meet all possible eventualities.
Rommel’s plan was to use his infantry to mount a frontal assault on the Gazala line while his armour drove around its southern edge, attempting to capture the old Italian desert fort at Bir Hacheim which, manned by Free French soldiers, marked the southernmost part of the British defences.
Rommel struck on 26 May, his first attack taking him up to the British lines but soft sand and minefields bogged down his two Italian armoured divisions. Next day, the British Eighth Army, the armoured components of which now included the American Grant tank with its 75 mm gun, halted the German Panzers. A savage tank battle now developed, concentrated around an area situated between Bir Hacheim and the coast known to the British as ‘Knightsbridge ‘.
On 28 May, Eighth Army requested that British fighters be ordered to cease virtually all their air superiority patrols and concentrate on ground strafing. During these intensive operations, eight British fighters were claimed by JG27, one by Fw. Gunther Steinhausen of I./JG 27, two by Oblt. Otto Schulz of II./JG 27, one each by Oblt. Ferdinand Vagi, Lt. Hans Doye, Ofw. Alfred Schulze and Obgefr. Heinrich Vanderweert of II./JG 27, and one by Uffz. Viktor Gruber of 7./JG 27. Early in the morning of the 29th, a large air battle developed between 13 Bf-109s from II./JG 27 and III./JG 53 and Hurricanes of 80Sqn. and Kittyhawks of 2(SAAF)Sqn., five Commonwealth pilots being lost. Shortly afterwards six Bf-109s from III./JG 27 escorting Ju-87s over Ancoma clashed with Kittyhawks from 450Sqn. (RAAF). Two Ju-87s and a Bf-109 (piloted by Lt. Erik von Fritsch) were shot down but Hptm. Ernst Maak, Lt. Stahlschmidt and Lt. Korner, all from 2./JG 27, each shot down a Kittyhawk.
Next day saw even more intensive combat, major strikes being carried out by Boston bombers and fighter-bombers against ‘Knightsbridge’, during which four Bf-109s from I./JG 27 clashed with Kittyhawks of 250Sqn., Oblt. Marseille shooting down one early in the morning. Soon afterwards, III./JG 53 escorted six Bf-110s on a reconnaissance sortie but Oblt. Wilfried Pufahl was shot down by mistake by a Ju-88. Four Bf-109s from I./JG 27 then attacked nine bombers escorted by 15 fighters. Fw. Gerhard Keppler shot down one of the latter but Uffz. Zimmermann was forced to crash-land north of Tmimi. During the afternoon, Messerschmitt’s from Stab I./JG 27 and 4./JG 53 clashed with more RAF Bostons with fighter escort, the German pilots claiming five P-40s, two by Fw. Emil Kaiser. Just after 16.00 hrs Oblt. Vagi of 4./JG 27 shot down a Hurricane and two more P-40s and Ofw. Karl-Heinz Bendert destroyed yet another P-40. About an hour later, three more RAF fighters were claimed by 2./JG 27 followed by a P-40 shot down during the evening by Oblt. Otto Schulz of II./JG 27.
The last day of May was marked by heavy sandstorms, although these did little to curtail operations, and very early in the morning an offensive sweep by Hurricanes and Tomahawks met Ju-87s escorted by 4./JG 27. Four P-40s were destroyed, two by Oblt. Vagl. Around 07.30 hours I./JG 27 and 8./JG 53 escorting Ju-87s clashed with 4(SAAF)Sqn. and claimed the destruction of no less than eight P-40s. During the early evening Oblt. Otto Schulz of Stab II./JG 27 bounced a mixed Tomahawk and Kittyhawk formation and shot down two (the latter his 50th victory). The final action of the day involved Stab III./JG 53 which claimed three Kittyhawks from 260Sqn. although only one was confirmed. During the day the Luftwaffe lost Oblt. Emmerich Fluder who failed to return, Fw. Fritz Gromotka who was reported missing and Ofw. Erich Krenzke taken prisoner.
By the end of the month, the situation on the ground was beginning to turn in the favour of the Axis forces. The one problem was that Bir Hacheim had failed to be taken by the Italians and supplies had run so low that Rommel himself went through the British minefields to guide a convoy carrying fuel, water and ammunition. If the Eighth Army could have found the means and the will at this time to exert maximum pressure against an Afrika Korps starved of supplies, the Axis forces might have been brought to their knees. Sadly for the British, however, they frittered away their armoured strength in a number of poorly coordinated attacks against the Afrika Korps in the north, and the Axis at last began to get the upper hand in the battle for ‘Knightsbridge’. After an epic stand of nine days when they were under almost constant attack from the Luftwaffe, the remaining Free French at last surrendered Sir Hacheim on 10 June 1942.
The air support requested by Panzer Army HQ for its last attack on Hacheim at 19.00 hrs was completed with a high degree of success by a force of 39 Ju-87s. Bombs were dropped on the chief centre of enemy resistance, namely artillery positions located 2 km north of Hacheim. I respectfully request that […] special commendations be included in an order of the day for both St.G3 and JG27, whose outstanding performance as a fighter escort enabled the dive bombers to accomplish their mission without a single loss. Furthermore, I should like to suggest that – if Hacheim ever surrenders – special official mention be made of the role played by the Luftwaffe. […]
Supplement to the day’s teletype message from Fliegerfuhrer Afrika to Kesselring, 9 June 1942
I am taking this opportunity to express my special appreciation and my deep gratitude for the performance of St.G3 and JG27 during the operations at Hacheim. The missions flown by these two units reveal an exemplary spirit of co-operation and selflessness on the part of all participants. Our attacks must succeed in defeating the British attacks in North Africa. This is our goal; all our thoughts and all our efforts must be directed to its attainment.
Commander in Chief, South.
Message from Kesselring to Fliegerfuhrer Afrika, 10 June 1942, in response to message above.
Three days later, the German 90 Light Division captured El Adem and the following day the Eighth Army began a general retreat from Gazala. Some units returned to the Tobruk perimeter while others escaped into the desert further south and made for the Egyptian frontier. Rommel wished to swing the Afrika Korps round in a great encircling manoeuvre to trap the fleeing Eighth Army, but his troops had reached the limits of their physical reserves. Later, at EI Alamein, New Zealand soldiers recovered the diaries of German soldiers who had fought through the Gazala battles. The entries showed the men had fought for days on end with only brief spells of sleep, one such dairy stating simply: ‘No sleep again’.
This period was marked by intense aerial battles in which British fighters inflicted heavy losses on the German Ju-87 dive-bombers. In turn, the British fighters suffered very badly from the Bf-109units, the experienced German pilots often awaiting an opportunity to sweep down and clear them from the skies. On 17 June, for example, Marseille claimed the destruction of five RAF fighters, bringing his total of victories to 101, but on the same day Oblt. Otto Schulz from II./JG 27 was shot down by a Kittyhawk near Sidi Rezegh after scoring his 51st victory. He was the first great desert ace to die.
By 18 June, Tobruk itself was besieged again, with Rommel launching an attack on the mainly South African garrison two days later. The assault was preceded by a massive air attack by Gefechtsverband Sigel (an ad hoc unit combining two Ju-87 Gruppen plus III./ZG 26 and 2.(H)/14) to soften up the defences, and then the German and Italian artillery opened up on the port. This time, in contrast to 1941, Rommel knew just what lay ahead of him and the pioneers bridged the first anti-tank ditches for the waiting tanks and lorry-borne infantry which stormed ahead and into the fortress. The plan worked and, late on 21 June, an elated Rommel accepted the surrender of the garrison commander, General Klopper.
The Luftwaffe units under your command have played a vital role in our glorious victory at Tobruk. During the past weeks they have fought the enemy with devastating success on land, at sea and in the air and have thereby provided most valuable support for Rommel’s Panzer Army in its heroic battle. I take this opportunity to express to you, and to your men, my gratitude and my sincere congratulations for the part played by the Luftwaffe in a decisive success in the Mediterranean and at Tobruk.
Reichsmarschall of Greater Germany and C-in-C of the German Luftwaffe.
Message from Goring to Kesselring dated 22 June 1942
Contrary to an earlier commitment to stop at Tobruk until Malta had been taken, Rommel now issued an order to prepare Panzerarmee Afrika to move off in pursuit of the disorganised columns of British survivors from the Gazala battles straggling into Egypt. Fearing he might never again have such an opportunity, and confident that Hitler would authorise his actions, Rommel decided to follow the Eighth Army and destroy it as soon as possible.
On 22 June, I. and III./JG 27 and II./JG 53 moved to airfields around Gambut and four days later a record number of sorties were flown by both sides. A total of 28 British aircraft were claimed by the four Luftwaffe fighter Gruppen, 13 by I./JG 27, eight each by II./JG 27, five by III./JG 27 and two by III./JG 53. Prominent among the successful pilots were Lt. Friedrich Korner with five, Lt. Stahlschmidt with four, and Lt. Werner Schroer with three victories.
Two problems now began to make themselves felt with both the German ground and air forces. The first was a serious lack of fuel so serious that on 27 June III./JG 53 was able to fly only one mission of four Bf-109s and the tanks of the Afrika Korps were also beginning to run out as they re-crossed the Egyptian border. The other problem was that while the Axis Forces had been behind the Gazala line, Luftwaffe units in Africa had been able to support German forces in North Africa and at the same time attack Malta and the convoys attempting to supply the island. Now, the rapid German advance had placed the convoys beyond their range and, at the same time, the strong Luftwaffe presence in Sicily was being withdrawn to support the drive to the Caucasus already under way in Russia. Again it was proved that the Italian Air Force and Navy were not strong enough to repeat the performance of the Luftwaffe the previous Spring which had neutralised Malta as a base for attacks against Axis convoys.