Wing Commander J E Johnnie Johnson, Spitfire XIV, and Major Gunther Rall, Messerschmitt Bf109K-4, over the Western Front in May 1945. A tribute to the fighter pilots of the RAF and Luftwaffe on the 50th anniversary of Peace in Europe, 1945
Since their defeat of the Luftwaffe’s fighters over Normandy, the majority of the Spitfires’ missions had been air-to-ground or reconnaissance while fighting jets, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and ever-present flak. To this was added another round in the decade-long duel between the Spitfire and the Bf 109. Against the Bf 109K, the Spitfire XIV was able to increase the Spitfire IX’s margin of superiority over the Bf 109G. Numbers and pilot quality decided many of the Spitfire’s victories. The Spitfire XIV and Bf 109K, deployed within range of each other, had both been designed as high-altitude fighters but fought usually at low altitude. Bf 109Ks constituted a quarter of Bf109 strength at the end of 1944. Spitfire XIVs, deployed to 2 TAF bases in northern Europe, flew high-speed tactical reconnaissance missions. Spitfire FR (fighter reconnaissance) XIV versions had an oblique camera in the rear fuselage but retained four 20mm cannon. After finding that high-g manoeuvres led to the wrinkling of skin on the wings, Supermarine strengthened the Spitfire XIV’s structure.
III/JG 27 had been running on desperation and high-octane fuel for months by 2 March 1945; too much of one and too little of the other. The unit’s mixture of green replacements and former bomber pilots had been committed to the defence of Me 262s as they took off and landed from airstrips. They had been receiving new Bf109K-4s since October, but were still flying some Bf 109G-10/14s. Because they were tasked with engaging enemy fighters, the unit did not carry under wing mounted cannon. Another Gruppe nearby was flying the new Fw 190D-9, ‘long nose’ versions with DB 603 engines.
To catch Me 262s just outside the flak range of their airfields and before they could get to the bombers that morning, the RAF’s 125 Wing of Spitfire XIVs, based at Eindhoven, launched a fighter sweep over their airfield. The Bf 109Ks and Fw 190Ds were scrambled to block them, at about 7.30 on a cloudy morning with a high overcast. The day started badly: one experienced pilot lost control of his Bf 109K-4 on take-off and fatally collided with a Bf 109G-14.
Allied radar spotted the climbing German fighters and ground controllers used radio to direct the Spitfires against them. The RAF saw the Fw 190D-9s first, climbing up from their field at Hesepe. 130 Squadron dived down to attack them at low altitude, leaving as top cover the seven Spitfire XIVs of 350 (Belgian) Squadron. The Belgians, alerted by fighter controllers, were vectored to intercept III/JG 27’s Bf 109Ks, trying to join the fight. While the Luftwaffe had the advantage of numbers, some of the pilots were apparently barely able to keep formation among the overcast clouds.
This made 350 Squadron’s day. Ron Ashman, who had flown with 350, described the Belgians as ‘an absolute rabble of fliers, very tenacious and excitable. They acquitted themselves with glory, but discipline wasn’t in their vocabulary … But what I liked about them was their devil may care attitude and no respect for rank.’ They were about to have an opportunity to extend this disrespect to the Luftwaffe.
Flight Sergeant Jacques ‘Pichon’ Greenensteen saw, between the towns of Tecklenburg and Saerbeck, ‘a gaggle of enemy aircraft at about seven or eight thousand feet’. The Belgians attacked. Greenensteen ‘picked out a Me 109 which was flying at an angle of about 90 degrees to me. I turned and got on to his tail and the enemy aircraft began to turn.’
A turning fight with a Spitfire was never a good idea. ‘I kept on his tail and I opened fire from 400 yards closing to about 100 yards.’ The German did not have a chance.
‘I was dead astern and I fired with cannon and machine guns. I had closed to what I estimate was about 50 yards when the pilot jettisoned his [canopy] hood, turned the aircraft on its back and baled out.’ His parachute did not open.
Leading the Belgians that day was Flight Lieutenant Roger Hoornaert. He waded into the middle of III/JG 27’s beleaguered Bf 109Ks, which were being chased in and out of the overcast by the aggressive Belgians.
‘I joined in the dogfight and there were aircraft turning everywhere. I started to turn in the middle of them. I found that there was a Me 109 trying to get on my tail and there began a game of hide and seek in and out of the clouds. Finally I stayed underneath the clouds and I saw the enemy aircraft quite a long way away. So I opened up to full throttle and went after him. I caught him up and closed in to between 50 and 100 yards. I gave him everything I had. There was a big explosion. My windscreen became covered with oil and muck from the explosion. The enemy aircraft pulled up and I went underneath him. The enemy aircraft, after pul1ing up, dived down out of control. I saw it crash into a wood.’
Flight Sergeant Emile Pauwels was flying as Blue 4, wingman to Blue 3, Pilot Officer Louis ‘Bourn’ Lambrechts. They dived together into the swirling dogfight. Lambrechts’ Spitfire XIV demonstrated its excellent turning ability. ‘I picked out a Me 109 that was turning very steeply. After two or three turns I got in behind the enemy aircraft. It then dived for the deck. I followed him. At about 2,000 feet I managed to get about 150 yards behind the enemy aircraft. I opened fire with all guns at a 10 degree angle-off. I saw strikes all over the engine and cockpit. The enemy aircraft immediately dived away, out of control. I followed as it crashed to the ground.’
Pauwels reported, ‘My number 3 was chasing one Me 109 and I was following him when another Me 109 opened fire on me.’
Pauwels ‘had to break away and I lost sight of my number 3. I climbed up and I found another 109 just in front of me. I opened fire with all my guns from about 200 yards dead astern and pieces flew off the enemy aircraft, including one very large piece. I was firing again when another 109 attacked me and I had to break off.’
All seven Belgians later enjoyed breakfast at Eindhoven. 350 Squadron claimed three Bf 109s shot down and a fourth (that hit by Pauwels) damaged. III/JG 27 had three Bf 109K-4 pilots shot down and killed: Fähnreich Unteroffizer Karl-Heinz Eidam, Feldwebel Karl Schaffhauser and Unteroffizer Erich Schulz. 130 Squadron’s Spitfires, fighting Bf 109K-4s of lII/JG 27 and seventeen Fw 190D-9s of III/JG 26, claimed four in return for two Spitfires shot down. Even though 350 Squadron’s Spitfires were not fitted with the gyroscopic gunsight, the superior performance of the Spitfire XIV and the skills of RAF-trained pilots meant that, even on occasions, such as this one, when the Luftwaffe had numerical superiority in the air, they were nowhere near the force they had been even the previous year.
Surviving Bf 109 pilots faced one more challenge: landing. This had always been difficult, even for experienced pilots. Major Willi Batz was a leading ace with JG 52 on the eastern front. ‘In Austria, near the end of the war, we were operating from a base that had a bitumen runway. Such luxury! For years we had been operating from grass strips near the front. The unaccustomed experience of using the bitumen strip played havoc with our group. Out of 42 aircraft, 39 cracked up on landing due to the sensitivity of the Bf 109 to its brakes and the strange feel and response of a solid runway.’
That day, the Bf 109s’ pilots were lucky, even the pilot who had been shot up by Pauwels’ 20mm cannon and whose plane was probably held together only by its control cables and shards of aluminium. The Spitfires, ammunition expended, were on their way home, rather than waiting for them outside flak range. There were no fresh bomb craters on the grass runway. The surviving Bf 109s, approaching their airfield at Hesepe, throttled down to some 290 km/h (180 mph).
As each Bf 109K’s airspeed came down, its pilot lowered the undercarriage, checking that it was down and locked and the fixed tailwheel unlocked for landing, then, with his left hand, adjusted the trim wheel for final approach. Each Bf 109 slowed to 250 km/h (155 mph), and turned on to final approach, extended full flaps (40 degrees), lined up with the grass runway at about 225 km/h (140 mph). Inexperienced pilots ‘chased’ the airspeed indicator, trying to fly the right speed they had memorised, eyes on the instrument panel rather than the grass that loomed closer every instant.
The Bf 109K came over the trees at the edge of the grass runway at 180 km/h (112 mph). As the speed dropped through 160 km/h (100 mph), the left wing started to feel heavy and approaching a stall. Experienced pilots knew to keep the nose down, making a steep approach and giving a good view of the field; but, at this point, pilots with too little Bf 109 experience, watching the ground rushing towards them and fearing a stall, gunned the engine to full power and tried to go around again. A sudden burst of power would cause the left wing to drop even further. Even with the strength of desperation on the control stick and rudder pedals, the Bf 109 would fall into a left roll. Next, for many pilots, was a horrifyingly brief inverted dive, culminating with fighter and pilot alike burying themselves, in an instant, deep in a smoking crater in the green earth at the runway threshold.
But none of that would happen to III/JG 27 today. Perhaps the still burning wrecks of the two 109s destroyed on take-off focused the minds of the pilots who had survived that morning’s battle with the Spitfire XIVs. The blurred grass appeared to slow as the pilot cut the throttle, then gently pulled back on the control stick. Most pilots were able to put their Bf 109Ks on the runway at about 135 km/h (85 mph), all three wheels touching together with a creak as the undercarriage’s long legs compressed under the weight of the plane. Rolling from the touchdown, each pilot in turn felt the rapid jar and bouncing from the grass field. Then the pilot applied the foot brakes. These could bring the landing roll to a quick halt.
Even then, the pilot’s problems were not over. With poor forward vision from the huge engine and the upraised nose, he had to taxi to where he could be directed to a camouflaged dispersal parking spot. The flaps were raised again, to keep them from damage from stones thrown up by the propeller.
Turning into a dispersal site, the pilot carried out the shut-down checklist – radiators closed, mixture and throttle leaned back until the engine stopped, then cut the ignition switch, turn off the electrical power, and unstrap the shoulder and lap belts. The propeller slowly rotated to a stop. Quickly, tree branches and camouflage netting were thrown over the Bf 109K. A ground crewman jumped up on the left-wing root and opened the ‘Erla hood’ canopy, much less confining than that on earlier versions. The ground crew drained any remaining fuel from the tanks, making it available to other aircraft and decreasing vulnerability to strafing attacks.
When all the surviving Bf 109s had landed, ground crew manually pushed Bf 109 hulks, stripped of spare parts, out of the woods where they had been camouflaged and left them in plain sight. These were decoys, each covered by concealed flak guns. With little fuel, teams of horses or spans of oxen moved Bf 109s into position for the next mission.
The Bf 109Ks had little chance in the air. Spitfire XIVs were estimated to have made some fourteen claims in air combat for every plane they lost. Galland said: ‘The improved Spitfire was definitely superior. When we had the greater quantity and better training of your pilots to contend with, the feeling of technical inferiority on the part of our fighters was much greater than was warranted by the difference in performance.’