Bf 109s fitted with an external bomb rack were used as fighter-bombers over southern England. Organised within the VIII. Fliegerkorps, II.(Schl)/LG 2 played an important role during the invasion with its bomb carrying Bf 109Es and Hs 123s. Based at Praschnitz (Przasnysz in present-day Poland) on 22 June 1941, II.(Schl)/LG 2 flew a large number close air support sorties, following closely on the heels of the advancing Panzer columns. Carrying one SC 250 bomb or four SC 50 bombs, the tactic was to arrive at low altitude, attempting to hit armoured vehicles by dropping the bomb(s) on them. Shortly after the Germans reached Smolensk in August, II.(Schl)/LG 2 was transferred to the northern front, flying in support of German forces during the conquest of Novgorod, with a pair of Bf 109Es being destroyed in a Russian air raid. On 29 August, II.(Schl)/LG 2 transferred to Lyuban near Leningrad. Conditions at Lyuban were less than ideal, resulting in a number of accidents. In late September, II.(Schl)/LG 2 moved south again, supporting the advance towards Moscow. During the intense air operations in the second half of 1941, the Bf 109E’s had proved themselves rather troublesome, with the engine and undercarriage in particular being the source of many problems. Even though II.(Schl)/LG 2 had a nominal strength of thirty-six Bf 109s, barely a dozen were usually available at any one time. In contrast, the aging Hs 123 seemed able to accommodate any kind of environment.
On 13 January 1942, II.(Schl)/LG 2 was redesignated as I. Gruppe Schlachtgeschwader 1 (I./Schl. G 1), becoming the first dedicated close air support unit of the Luftwaffe. At the time the unit was based at Dugino, eventually being withdrawn from the front in March for rest and recuperation. A second Gruppe, II./Schl. G 1, had also been formed on 13 January, receiving Hs 129s. Transferring to Gramatikovo in Crimea in early May, I./Schl. G 1 had a nominal strength of 120 Bf 109Es and fifteen Hs 123s. The first operational sortie was flown on 7 May. When a Soviet counter-offensive in southern Ukraine began on 25 May, I./Schl. G 1 was hurriedly transferred to Kharkov-Rogan. Flying multiple daily sorties, the pilots of SchlG 1 managed to stop the offensive in its tracks.
Although the primary role of I./SchlG 1 was close air support for the troops, an increasing number of Soviet fighters were encountered. A few of the pilots, including Obfw Otto Dommeratzky, did not mind such challenges. According to Dommeratzky’s Rottenflieger, this could lead to trouble.
The Kommandeur was not at all happy at Otto’s insatiable appetite for dogfighting; that he simply dumped his bombs. Our role, after all, was to attack ground targets and support our own ground forces. Despite the chief’s instructions, Otto never passed up an opportunity. He just couldn’t do otherwise.
One day, Otto and I headed north out of Slavyansk on an infantry-support mission. We bombed an enemy mortar position as ordered and were on our way back when we bumped into a gaggle of Soviet LaGG-3 fighters—fifteen or twenty of them. We were at about 1,500 metres, but Otto had already waded in. Utter confusion: we were not only in the minority, but this time at a real disadvantage. We had spotted them too late—more correctly, I should say that I had not spotted them at all!
Otto was weaving in and out like a madman. It was all I could do not to lose him, my machine surrounded by nothing but Red Stars. The dogfight had lasted five or six minutes when suddenly Otto’s machine took some hits and burst into flames. He baled out but I didn’t see what happened after that as I was concentrating on escaping southwards at low level.
Somehow I made it back to base. I had learned another hard lesson. We’d been taken completely by surprise by the sudden appearance of the LaGGs—eyes open, always keep your eyes open!
The chief was not exactly overjoyed at my reporting Otto missing. Division was informed. And the army unit we had been supporting. About an hour later they got back to us: Otto had come down unhurt in the lines of a mountain regiment 40 km to the north of us and could we please send someone to pick him up!
Otto Dommeratzky eventually accumulated some 600 operational sorties and approximately thirty-eight victories before being killed in action on 13 October 1944.
By 1 September, I./Schl. G 1 was based at Tuzov, about 100 km west of Stalingrad, with thirty-seven Bf 109s. Operations continued until 19 November when the Soviet army initiated a counter-offensive, resulting in a move to Oblivskaya. Despite atrocious weather conditions, I./Schl. G 1 continued to fly support missions. Soviet fighters were occasionally encountered, with the unit claiming six aircraft shot down during December.
During the first weeks of 1943, operations over Stalingrad continued until the surrender of the German 6th Army. By mid-February, Soviet forces entered Kharkov before German forces eventually recaptured the city two weeks later, with I./Schl. G 1 being heavily involved in support operations.
In the end, the Bf 109 was not the ideal aircraft for ground-attack and close air-support duties. It was too delicate, and its narrow undercarriage was the source of many accidents. Additionally, its DB 601 inline engine was susceptible to damage from small-arms fire. Following some deliberation, a replacement was found in the Fw 190. I./Schl. G 1 initiated conversion training in the spring of 1943. In the event, the Fw 190 was to prove far more suited, with dedicated ground-attack variants entering production.
Apart from II.(Schl)/LG 2 and I./Schl. G 1, Bf 109s were also operated in the ground-attack role by the Sonderstaffel Gamringer and Einsatzkommando Liedtke, both on the Eastern Front.
Soviet Union capture Bf 109s
On 4 December 1937, during the Spanish Civil war, a Bf 109 A-0, marked 6–15, made an emergency landing behind Republican lines. The aircraft was recovered and tested. In January 1938 the aircraft was also evaluated by a French delegation. This aircraft was later sent to the Soviet Union and also tested. During the war this aircraft served with a special Soviet reconnaissance unit equipped with captured German aircraft, before it was captured back by JG 27.
On 22 February 1942 Oberleutnant A. Niss, of 8./JG 51 got lost and was fired on from a machine gun near Tushino Airfield. His radiator and fuel tank were damaged and he was forced to land his Bf 109 F-2, WNr. 9209, within Soviet positions. It was handed over to the Air Forces Scientific Research Institute for comprehensive testing.
On May 29, 1942, a pair of German Bf 109 F-4 of III./JG3 ran out of fuel and made a forced landing behind the front lines. They were prepared for flight tests at the Red Army Air Force Research Institute. Later one transferred to the US, where it became EB 1 (Evaluation Branch).
Bf 109 G-2, WNr. 13903 from I./JG 3, was captured near Stalingrad in late autumn 1942. It was used to compare its performance with Soviet experimental and series-produced fighters.
In 1992, one of Robert Taylor’s most iconic paintings – Knights of the Eastern Front was published. It was a landmark in his long career and became a benchmark for every aviation artist to aspire to. The painting, with its trademark ‘Taylor skyscape’, featured the Bf109s from JG-52 – the most successful fighter wing of the Luftwaffe during World War II – in combat with Russian Yak9s.
The pilots of JG-52 notched up an incredible 10,000 victories with sixty-seven of them awarded the Knight’s Cross or higher decorations. The wing boasted the three highest-scoring Aces in history of which two, Erich Hartmann and Gerhard Barkhorn, were the only Pilots ever to down more than 300 enemy aircraft.