The German invasion of the USSR, Operation Barbarossa, began on 22 June 1941. Supporting the invasion were a number of Bf 109 units, including II./JG 53 and I. to III./JG 54 (Luftflotte 1 operating on the northern front), II. and III./JG 27, I. to IV./JG 51, II./JG 52, I. and III./JG 53 (Luftflotte 2 operating on the central front), I. to III./JG 3, I./JG 52, II., III. and Ergänzung JG 77, as well as the dedicated ground-attack unit I.(Jabo) LG 2 (Luftflotte 4 operating on the southern front). Although a number of these units, including JG 77, were operating Bf 109Es, most had been re-equipped with the Bf 109F.
The Soviet forces appeared completely unprepared for the German onslaught. One 7./JG 54 pilot, Lt Max-Hellmut Ostermann, recalled the moments before strafing the Soviet airfields: ‘As we flew above the enemy’s country, everything below seemed to be asleep. No anti-aircraft fire, no movement, and no enemy aircraft were present to confront us.’
The first Luftwaffe victory over a Voyenno-Vosdushnye Sily (Soviet Military Air Force, V-VS) aircraft was scored by Oblt Robert Olejnik of II./JG 3. Post-war, Olejnik recalled the initial moments of Operation Barbarossa:
On 19 June, the complete II./JG 3 left with all its Bf 109F-2s for the airstrip at Dub, some 8 km from the Polish town of Zamosc, which lay 80 km south-east of Lublin, and about 50 km from the nearest Russian soil. On the occasion of the Midsummer Night celebrations, we lit a huge bonfire and had the usual cold drinks. Then around midnight there came a telephone call from the Geschwader: ‘All unit commanders immediately to the command post.’There each received an envelope with a mission order, but it was only to be opened when the code word ‘Barbarossa’ was given. It was impossible to think about sleep; though we all lay down in our tents to rest, we were excited and full of tension. On 22 June 1941, at about 02.30, the password came through. I opened my envelope and found that an attack against the Soviet Union was about to begin.
Everybody in the Geschwader knew that I was an early riser and that I liked the first missions at dawn, so I made the first take-off. About 03.30, I took off with my Rottenflieger to reconnoitre Russian airfields near the border, watching for enemy fighters. In doing so I discovered that on every enemy airfield two or three Russian fighters were stood at the ready. After flying over several airfields, and on the way back, I again flew over the first airfield I’d seen. As I got nearer I saw that two aircraft were already manned by pilots. At a height of 700–800 metres I flew a wide turn round the airfield and watched closely. After one and a half circuits, I saw the Russians start their engines and taxi out, then take off immediately. As they were obviously looking for a fight, I attacked the first ‘Rata’ with a height advantage of 300–400 metres, and succeeded in shooting it down with only a few rounds in my first attack. Comparing times with my Rottenflieger later, this happened at 03.58 on 22 June 1941. The second fighter was probably shocked by seeing one of his unit going down burning and flew away, because I could no longer find him. Returning over our own airfield, I waggled my wings three times. Unbelieving, my comrades shook their heads—most of them had only just woken [up] and were peering sleepily from their tents.
Although modern fighters such as the LaGG-3, MiG-3, and Yak-1 were beginning to enter service, the V-VS was still operating huge numbers of Polikarpov I-153 and I-16 fighters. Similarly to the Luftwaffe, the V-VS was essentially a tactical air arm, with operations being concentrated to supporting army units. This meant that most air combat took place below an altitude of 3,000 metres. Interestingly, much effort had been devoted during the 1930s in establishing a strategic bomber force, with a limited strategic bombing capacity remaining throughout the war.
During the first day, a staggering 1,489 aircraft were claimed destroyed during strafing attacks, with another 322 being shot down by fighters and flak. An incredulous Göring, prone to grand exaggeration, ordered a recount. In the event, on the airfields captured by the advancing German panzer columns, in excess of 2,000 destroyed aircraft were located. According to Soviet sources, nearly 4,000 aircraft were lost during the first three days of the invasion. As had been the case in Poland and France, the Jägdwaffe Bf 109 units transferred between different airfields with the aid of Ju 52/3ms, which hauled mechanics and ground support equipment.
The battle was not entirely one-sided, though. Even if the Polikarpov I-153 and I-16s equipping the majority of the V-VS fighter units lacked the overall performance of the Bf 109, the Soviet fighters were more manoeuvrable in a turning dogfight. One of the Luftwaffe pilots lost on the first day of the invasion was the Geschwaderkommodore of JG 27, Maj. Wolfgang Schellmann. While attacking an I-16 Rata, Schellmann’s Bf 109 was hit by shrapnel, forcing him to bale out over Soviet-held territory. It is presumed that Schellmann was executed by the Russians, who treated all German troops as war criminals. By mid-July, the Luftwaffe had lost nearly 1,300 aircraft destroyed or damaged, resulting in many units being severely decimated.
On 15 July 1941, Werner Mölders achieved his 100th and 101st victories, having earlier been the first Luftwaffe pilot to reach and surpass the score of the famed Great War ace Manfred von Richthofen. Mölders was also the first Luftwaffe fighter pilot to reach 100 victories during the war. As related earlier, Mölders had accumulated fourteen victories during the Spanish Civil War. Mölders was awarded the Knight’s Cross with Swords and Diamonds and was immediately grounded as he was deemed far too valuable to lose in combat. Mölders was promoted to Oberst, being appointed General der Flieger (Inspector General for Fighters). Upon returning to Germany to attend Erich Udet’s funeral in October 1941, his He 111 crashed near Breslau, killing him and the crew. In his honour, JG 51 would become known as Jägdgeschwader Mölders. Soon after Mölders death, rumours appeared claiming that he had, in fact, been killed because of his severe criticism of the Nazi regime.
Little more than two-and-a-half months into Operation Barbarossa, the number of victories accumulated by individual Jägdwaffe pilots had risen considerably. Indeed, JG 51 pilots reached 2,000 victories during late August, with JG 3 pilots reaching 1,000 victories on 30 August. It seemed as if the Blitzkrieg tactics would once again tip the scale in the German’s favour. German forces were fast approaching Moscow, St Petersburg, and other Russian cities, with millions of Soviet troops becoming prisoners of war.
Having scored relatively few victories on the Western Front, the JG 52 pilots began to find success over Russia in June 1941. On 2 December 1941, Oblt Johannes Steinhoff of 4./JG 52 became the first JG 52 pilot to reach fifty victories. In the event, JG 52 would end the war as the most successful fighter unit of all time, scoring in excess of 10,000 victories.
By December 1941, roughly two-thirds of the Luftwaffe’s combat strength was serving on the Eastern Front. The arrival of the Russian winter resulted in severe difficulties for Luftwaffe operations. With temperatures reaching below minus-40° Celsius, the Bf 109 engines seized, resulting in barely operational units. In January 1942, the pilots of one Bf 109F unit, II./JG 52, were ordered to fight as regular ground troops when Russian forces approached their base at Klin. When Klin was captured, six unserviceable Bf 109Fs were found.
The problem of having engines seizing due to the freezing temperature was eventually solved by diluting the engine lubricating oil with petrol. Although this increased the risk of fire when starting up the engine, it worked well enough, with any remaining petrol quickly evaporating. Apparently this method was introduced follow the interrogations of captured V-VS pilots and mechanics. Another high-risk method of starting the engine was to place a tray of petrol underneath the engine and then set the petrol alight; the heat generated by the burning petrol assisted in getting the engine running. Machine-gun mechanisms were equally affected by the Russian winter, with the lubricating oil or grease having to be wiped clean using either petrol or boiling water. It is highly likely that these methods increased the wear and tear on both engines and armament.
Other Jägdwaffe units were more fortunate. Based in the Leningrad area, I./JG 54 claimed ninety-nine Soviet aircraft shot down during 1,152 sorties in January 1942. Protecting the Ju 52/3m airlift into the Demyansk pocket was assigned to I./JG 51, which flew countless escort and ground-support sorties between January and April 1942.
A new tactic was introduced during the spring of 1942, which involved catching V-VS fighters during take-offs or landings. As recalled by a LaGG-3 pilot:
The Germans blocked our airfields … They flew in pairs, particularly near the fighter regiment’s airdromes at Gremyachevo, Serebrennitsa, and Budogoschch … It’s hard to talk about this today, but our commander took no counteractive measures to counter the blockade of our airfields … Our passivity encouraged the German pilots, and they became most impudent … We paid a high price for poor command planning… On one of those days I witnessed the death of Kapitan Thikomirov (of the 41 IAP Fighter Squadron) over the airfield at Gremyachevo. He was returning to base after completing a mission and was out of ammunition when the hunters fell upon him. Thikomirov was a very skilful and experienced pilot, but without any ammunition there wasn’t much he could do against the Me 109 hunters.
This Luftwaffe tactic was similar to that employed by the RAF in early 1945 to catch Me 262 jet fighters during the landing phase. The spring of 1942 brought with it severe operational difficulties both for the Luftwaffe and the V-VS. The airfields became muddy strips, reducing operational effectiveness considerably. In spite of Soviet counter-offensives along the 3,000-km front line, the German High Command were planning to advance into Caucasus, where a large percentage of the Soviet oil fields were located, as well as the industrial city of Stalingrad on the banks of the Volga River. Reaching the latter objective was deemed of utmost importance both for strategic and psychological reasons. By this time, new Soviet fighters such as the La-5 and Yak-9 were reaching the V-VS fighter squadrons. The performance of both the La-5 and Yak-9 largely matched that of the Bf 109F-4 and Bf 109G-2 variants. One of the most dangerous of all Soviet aircraft however, was the Polikarpov U-2. A low-powered two-seat biplane dating back from the late 1920s, the U-2 was used in night-harassment raids. Often flown by female crews, dubbed Nachthexen (‘night witches’) by II./JG 52 pilots, the U-2s caused comparatively little material damage. However, being unable to light fires to stay warm and the inability to fall asleep comfortably affected the morale of the German troops.
On 8 October 1942, a new replacement pilot joined 7./JG 52, based in the Stalingrad area. Following an inauspicious beginning, the pilot, Lt Erich Hartmann, scored his first victory, an Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik, on 5 November. Hartmann would finish the war with 352 victories, all while flying successive variants of the Bf 109G.
Having occupied parts of Stalingrad, German troops were unable to reach the Volga and stop Soviet reinforcements from arriving. On 17 November, a Soviet counter-offensive resulted in the German 6th Army inside the Stalingrad pocket becoming encircled. Supplying the troops required many tons of materiel airlifted into Stalingrad by Ju 52/3ms and other transport aircraft. For the protection of the airlift, a small detachment of Bf 109s, led by Hptm Rudolf Germeroth, was based at Pitomnik. This was named Platzschutzstaffel Pitomnik (Local Protection Squadron Pitomnik) and consisted of aircraft drawn from JG 3. Other units were committed to escorting and clearing the way for the Ju 52/3m transports. One II./JG 52 pilot later recalled that the Ju 52/3m crews seemed unable to trust the Bf 109 escorts, claiming that the Ju 52/3m pilots preferred to fly at extreme low level, literally hugging the ground, and then climbing to an altitude of 1,000 metres upon reaching the front line.
On 15 January, seventeen Soviet aircraft, including five Lisunov Li-2s, were claimed as shot down over Stalingrad. The following day, five Bf 109s were flown from Pitomnik to Gumrak ahead of Soviet tanks. A dozen unserviceable aircraft had to be left behind. Upon reaching Gumrak, four of the five Bf 109s crashed when attempting to land on the unprepared runway.
On 2 February 1943, the German 6th Army surrendered; the seemingly invincible German forces suffering a humiliating defeat. The outcome of the battles of Stalingrad and El Alamein a few months earlier finally saw the tide turn in favour of the Allies. Even with the introduction of the improved Bf 109G-6, the Jägdwaffe units on the Eastern Front found themselves unable to contain the increasing number of V-VS fighters and bombers.
The Kuban peninsula was where German forces attempted to stem the Soviet push westwards. Intense Soviet air attacks resulted in many Jägdwaffe pilots adding to their scores. However, there was a price to pay. The crack Jägdwaffe unit JG 52 lost twenty-three pilots killed or missing, and fourteen wounded, between April and June 1943. The, final, major German offensive (as it turned out) on the Eastern Front, Operation Zitadelle, resulted in the largest tank battle in history. Aerial activity was great, with some 400 Soviet aircraft being claimed as destroyed in the air on 5 July, the first day of Operation Zitadelle. The top-scorer was the Gruppenkommandeur of I./JG 52, Hptm Johannes Wiese, who claimed no less than twelve V-VS aircraft shot down. Nevertheless, with North Africa abandoned and Allied troops wading ashore on Sicily, Hitler reluctantly ordered the end of Operation Zitadelle. From then on, the Red Army would be continuously on the offensive toward Germany.
During fierce air battles over the Crimean peninsula in April 1944, no less than 1,010 Soviet aircraft were claimed destroyed. On 8 May, German forces began withdrawing from Crimea. With the increasing air raids on Germany, many Jägdgeschwader became part of the Reichsverteidigung, i.e. Defence of the Reich. Despite the urgent needs on the Eastern Front, by late 1944, the only remaining Bf 109 unit remaining was JG 52. For JG 52, the war came to an end at Deutsch Brod in present-day Czech Republic on 8 May 1945. Prior to the end of hostilities, Hptm Erich Hartmann claimed a Yak-11 (most likely a Yak-3) shot down for his 352nd victory. Having accumulated approximately 10,600 air-to-air victories between 8 September 1939 and 8 May 1945, JG 52 was the most successful fighter unit in history, with thirty-two of its pilots scoring more than 100 victories. However, JG 52 had lost 679 pilots, including 262 killed in combat, 142 wounded in combat, 142 missing and forty-one taken PoW.