Müncheberg’s Staffel was joined briefly by the Bf 109Es of I./JG 27, led by Hauptmann Eduard Neumann, which stopped off in Sicily on the way to Libya to support the Afrika Korps. During their brief stay in Sicily, Neumann’s 109s twice joined Müncheberg’s on operations over Malta. The first occasion was during the late afternoon of 5 March when the Bf 109Es escorted sixty bombers.18 Once overhead the island the 109s engaged the defending Hurricanes and also carried out strafing attacks against targets of opportunity. During the raid Müncheberg added another Hurricane to his total, and another Hurricane was claimed by Leutnant Willi Kothmann of JG 27; the unit’s only claim over Malta during its stay. With the Luftwaffe continuing to build up its forces in Libya, most of its units had left Sicily by the middle of March, leaving only Müncheberg’s Bf 109Es to carry out nuisance raids against Malta.
Hitler’s planning for the invasion of the Soviet Union was further interrupted when a change of government in Yugoslavia meant that the country abandoned proposals to side with Germany. Fearing an Allied presence in Yugoslavia or Greece would threaten his attack on the Soviet Union, Hitler decided to secure the Balkans.
Alexander Löhr’s Luftflotte 4 was tasked to support the German invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece, and so VIII. Fliegerkorps, under the command of Wolfram von Richthofen, a cousin of the famous Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, gradually assembled in Romania and Bulgaria. As a long believer in close air support, Richthofen had much to prove as the Ju 87 Stukas had suffered badly over southern England. By early April 1941 he had under his command some 600 aircraft within 200 miles of Belgrade, the Yugoslav capital, of which over half were bombers and dive bombers located in Bulgaria. The rest, a mix of fighter and reconnaissance aircraft, were located in western Romania.
The Balkans campaign began on 6 April when a force of 150 bombers and dive bombers, mainly He 111s and Ju 87s, escorted by fighters, bombed Belgrade. Fighter units assigned to support the campaign included Bf 109Es of two Gruppen from JG 54 and a single Gruppe from each of JG 27 and JG 77. While the Yugoslav Air Force tried to intervene, its relatively modest force of 400 inferior aircraft was immediately overwhelmed. Many Yugoslav aircraft were destroyed on the ground and there was only ever brief fighter-to-fighter air combat over Yugoslavia.
With the air threat neutralized, Richthofen’s units provided support to the German ground forces attacking Yugoslav defensive positions. The campaign was over within days and by 18 April the last pockets of Yugoslav resistance had disappeared. Müncheberg’s 7./JG 26 was one of the fighter units involved in the brief campaign, having temporarily left Sicily on the opening day of the campaign for a new base at Taranto to operate over southern Yugoslavia.
Müncheberg had again proved to be a great leader and was inspirational to the other young men of his Staffel. Many learned from him, including one young pilot, 22-year-old Leutnant Klaus Mietusch, who had flown alongside Müncheberg as his deputy. Mietusch had joined 7./JG 26 at the outbreak of war and had served with the unit during the campaign against France. His first victory, a Hurricane over Dunkirk, came at the end of May 1940 and he added a second victory before the end of the year. While operating from Sicily he added three more to his total before claiming his sixth victory, a Hawker Fury biplane of the Royal Yugoslav Air Force over Podriga during the opening day of the campaign. Müncheberg was also credited with a Fury over Yugoslavia during the brief campaign before his Staffel returned to Sicily to resume its battle against Malta.
While the campaign in Yugoslavia had been quick and straightforward, the campaign in Greece would prove much harder. Codenamed Operation Marita, the German invasion of Greece also started on 6 April to coincide with the attack on Yugoslavia. Greece had already been at war for some time and its mountainous terrain made close air support much harder. There was also the fact that Britain had provided support to Greece – mainly Hurricanes, Blenheims and Gladiators – and so the attacking German forces came up against a more capable opposition.
The bulk of the Greek Army was on the Albanian border in action with Italian forces and the German invasion through Bulgaria now provided a second front. The Greek Army was soon overrun and the British reinforcements retreated towards the Isthmus of Corinth as the decision was made to abandon mainland Greece. Despite some resistance by the small number of Hurricanes, the Jagdwaffe soon enjoyed air supremacy over the region. One to achieve much success during the campaign was Oberleutnant Gustav Rödel, Kapitän of 4./JG 27, who achieved six victories over Greece; three Greek fighters on 15 April and three RAF Hurricanes five days later. German forces reached the city of Athens on 27 April and by 1 May the last Allied units had evacuated the Greek mainland. Although the Luftwaffe had not had it all its own way in the Balkans, more than a hundred Yugoslav, Greek and British aircraft were destroyed, twice its own losses.
Many Jagdgruppen involved in the Balkans campaign were now transferred to the Eastern Front but III./JG 27, led by Hauptmann Max Dobislav, moved to Sicily to provide some welcome support for Müncheberg’s Staffel who had now been operating alone for nearly three months without a rest. On 6 May Dobislav’s 109s joined Müncheberg’s in a substantial attack against Malta during which III./JG 27 made its first claim over the island. The successful pilot was 23-year-old Oberleutnant Erbo Graf von Kageneck, Kapitän of 9. Staffel, and the Hurricane he claimed over Malta was his fifteenth success of the war. Kageneck added three more victories before III./JG 27 left Sicily later in the month for the Eastern Front but he would later be killed in North Africa after sixty-seven victories for which he was awarded the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross.
The successful campaign in the Balkans had coincided with gains in North Africa and so the stage was now set for the invasion of Crete, which, like Malta, occupied a position of strategic importance. While an island of barren and mountainous terrain with limited lines of communication might not appear to be of any great value, the side occupying Crete could control the eastern Mediterranean by sea and from the air. As long as Crete was held by the British, the Allies were in a position to mount raids against the Balkan countries and the vitally important Romanian oilfields at Ploesti, Germany’s main source of petroleum.
All Luftwaffe assets in Greece were made available for the invasion of Crete and with two air corps under his command – Richthofen’s VIII. Fliegerkorps and XI. Fliegerkorps under the command of Kurt Student – Löhr had available to him an aerial force of 650 aircraft: nearly 450 bombers and dive bombers, a hundred Bf 109Es and a hundred Bf 110Cs. It was a formidable force against which the Allies on Crete could deploy fewer than thirty defensive fighters.
The German invasion of Crete, codenamed Operation Mercury, commenced on 20 May with an airborne assault consisting of gliderborne and parachute troops. Richthofen’s task was to establish air supremacy over Crete as soon as possible and, although the Allied pilots enjoyed considerable success against the vulnerable Ju 52 transport aircraft, the 109s soon overwhelmed the defenders.
But on the ground the situation was quite different. The British fully intended to hold the island for as long as possible and so fighting soon developed into several small and uncoordinated actions as the Germans found the Allies well and truly dug-in. As more German reinforcements arrived, the Allies were eventually forced to fight a series of rearguard actions as they retreated south across the island from where an evacuation commenced.
While the battle on the ground raged, Richthofen turned his attention to attacking the British Mediterranean Fleet and to clearing the sea lanes to Crete. An example was on 22 May when the 109s of 7./JG 77, including Leutnant Wolf-Dietrich Huy, attacked British warships off Crete and during the course of the day inflicted serious and fatal damage to a number of ships. Huy would later be awarded the Knight’s Cross, principally for his exploits during the Crete campaign, and was eventually credited with forty victories.
Crete was ultimately a lost cause for the Allies and on 1 June the remaining Allied troops on the island surrendered. While the battle for Crete did not overly delay Hitler’s planned invasion of the Soviet Union, the campaign had proved costly and put an end to any idea of a similar airborne assault against Malta.
By now, most Luftwaffe units had already left Sicily for the Eastern Front and finally it was the turn of Müncheberg’s 7./JG 26 to leave but unlike other units destined for the east, the Staffel moved to North Africa instead. While operating from Sicily, Müncheberg’s small force had claimed nearly fifty victories, twenty of which had been credited to him to bring his overall total to forty-three, without a single loss, bringing Müncheberg a well earned Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross.
It had been a monumental effort by the pilots of 7./JG 26, although many would not survive the war. Klaus Mietusch would be killed during the final defence of the Reich in September 1944 and others to later fall in combat included Hans Johannsen (killed in March 1942 with eight victories), Karl-Heinz Ehlen (killed in April 1942 with seven victories), Melchior Kestel (also with seven victories and killed in June 1943) and Karl Laub (seven victories and killed in December 1944).
The Luftwaffe’s departure from Sicily left the Mediterranean air war temporarily in the hands of the Italian Regia Aeronautica and coincided with changes in command on the island of Malta, as well as the arrival of reinforcements. The RAF was now able to assume a more offensive campaign against Axis supply shipping operating between Europe and North Africa and by November 1941 the Allies operating from Malta were sinking three-quarters of supplies destined for Rommel’s Afrika Korps.