The Waffen-SS and Hungary

From 14 April 1944, based on the third agreement on SS recruitment in Hungary, signed by Minister Csatay and plenipotentiary Veesenmayer, the Waffen-SS could freely recruit Hungarian citizens, who considered themselves as ethnic German, into its ranks from the territory of occupied Hungary. Those draftees who previously had lost their Hungarian citizenship now had it restored. The Germans sought the recruitment of up to 80,000 men, hoping to raise several Hungarian SS divisions. Service in Waffen-SS units, instead of in the Honvédség, became mandatory for all men over seventeen years of age for Hungarian citizens of German ethnic background – the so-called Volksdeutsche. Those who did not show up for recruitment were taken by force by members of the local Volksbund organization. By 25 August, some 42,000 young men had been incorporated into the Waffen-SS. However, this number was deemed by SS-Obergruppenführer Berger, Chief of the Waffen-SS Main Office, as inadequate. Therefore, the recruiting drive was intensified, often taking young men by force. Indeed, many of these ethnic Germans did not wish to serve under a foreign flag and chose instead to enrol into the Honvédség. Eventually, only three such Waffen-SS divisions were actually formed – the 18. SS-Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Horst Wessel’, the 22. SS- Kavalleriedivision ‘Ungarn’ (later ‘Maria Theresia’) and the 31. SS-Grenadierdivision (unnamed). These main units joined the already existing 8. SS-Kavalleriedivision ‘Florian Greyer’, 2. SS-Panzerdivision ‘Das Reich’ and 16. SS-Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Reichsführer SS’, made up also by Hungarian volunteers of various ethnic backgrounds, among other ethnics. Finally, from 19 February 1945, a newly created 37. SS-Kavalleriedivision ‘Lützow’ located in the Bratislava area, incorporated the surviving elements of the 8. and 22. Kavalleriedivisionen. In total, approximately 122,000 Hungarian citizens of German ethnic origin served in the Waffen-SS until the war’s end.

Parallel with the recruitment of Volksdeutsche from Hungary for the Waffen-SS, under the auspices of what the Germans from late 1944 called Totaler Krieg (Total War), plans were drawn to establish four foreign Waffen-SS divisions to be manned by ethnic Hungarian soldiers. The manpower would be drawn primarily from Honvédség troops within the Third Reich, both volunteers and recruits. These high units were to be equipped exclusively with German weapons and would be trained by German officers, according to German war doctrine. The uniforms would also be German, with a distinctive unit patch being worn on the right sleeve. However, the divisions’ proper names would be Hungarian, the commanding officers would be also Hungarian and the command language Hungarian as well.

The first such unit – the 25. Waffen-Grenadierdivision der SS ‘Hunyadi’ (ung. Nr. 1) (after the great Hungarian medieval commander from Transylvania, John Hunyadi) – was formed in late October 1944 following an order signed by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the chief SS leader. It was followed by the 26. Waffen-Grenadierdivision der SS ‘Hungária’ (ung. Nr. 2), formed in late December. Honvédség Lieutenant General, SS-Brigadenführer and Waffen-SS Major General József Grassy (born Grasch) and Honvédség Colonel and SS-Standartenführer Zoltán Pisky were selected as commanding officers of the two new SS divisions. To co-ordinate the forming and training of these high SS units, the XVII. Waffen-Armeekorps der SS was established at Neuhammer, in Silesia, on 1 January 1945, under the command of Honvédség General, SS-Obergruppenführer and Waffen-SS General, Ferenc Feketehalmi-Czeydner (born Zeidner), one of the perpetrators of the Újvidék (Novi Sad) massacre of January 1942, who escaped the death penalty by fleeing to Germany. On 4 February, he was replaced by Honvédség General, SS-Obergruppenführer and Waffen-SS General Jenő Ruszkay (born Ranzenberger). On 15 January, Ruszkay was promoted Chief Inspector of all Hungarian Waffen-SS units. The forming of two other planned Hungarian Waffen-SS divisions, tentatively called ‘Gömbös’ and ‘Görgey’, did not actually take place.

The first combat assignment of these Hungarian Waffen-SS divisions was against Soviet troops advancing into Silesia in March 1945. Their combat record was mixed: some units fought bravely, while others seemed to be less motivated.

Besides the ‘Hunyadi’ and ‘Hungária’ SS divisions, there was another Waffen-SS unit formed by Hungarian volunteers. It was the 61. SS-Grenadierregiment, led by Honvédség Colonel and SS-Standartenführer László Deák. Another ad hoc unit was the so-called Ney-Regiment, under the command of Honvédség Major in Reserve and SS-Obersturmbannführer Dr Károly Ney, a lawyer in civilian life. Finally, there were two other SS units worthy of mention – the SS-Schi-Battalion 25 and the 1st Hungarian Assault Battalion, both subordinated to higher SS units. These units took part in combat against Soviet units in western Hungary, Silesia and southern Germany until Victory in Europe (VE) Day. It has to be noted that none of these Hungarian manned Waffen-SS units were actually part of the Honvédség, their existence and activity being merely tolerated by the Hungarian government. Therefore, their activity will not be detailed in this volume.

Apart from the Hungarian SS units, there were two obscure and minor right-wing military organizations formed close to the war’s end and active until VE Day and beyond. The first one was the so-called Hungaristic Legion (Hungarista Légió), while the second the Kopjás Movement, the latter being formed as a Hungarian version of the subversive German ‘Werewolf ’ guerrilla bands, with the task of harassing the occupying Soviet forces. Neither formation saw any notable activity, however.

The Last Months of the War

The territory taken over by the Soviet Army and the so-called Ideiglenes Nemzeti Kormány (INK, Interim National Government), was formed on 22 December in Debrecen, eastern Hungary. The members of the new pro-Soviet government were chosen from leftist politicians, high-ranking officers who had earlier defected to the Soviet side or had been sent by Horthy to negotiate the failed armistice, as well as respected local personalities who were willing to deal with the Soviets. Initially, the communists – some in exile in Moscow for many years – received only second-ranking portfolios. However, they had the real power behind the scenes. General Béla Miklós became the prime minister, General János Vörös the Minister of Defence with Colonel Kálmán Kéri the Chief of Staff, General Gábor Faragho the Minister of Public Affairs, and Ferenc Erdei the Minister of the Interior. In its first public declaration, the INK ascertained legal continuity with Horthy’s deposed old government. The next major step was to declare war on Germany. This bold declaration – most probably made under Soviet pressure – was, in fact, hollow, as the INK did not possess any troops. Moreover, even the so-called ‘democratic Hungary’ was technically still in a state of war with the Allies for a short while, as the official armistice between Moscow and Debrecen was signed only on 20 January 1945. The actual forming of the envisaged new Hungarian armed force, officially known as Magyar Honvédség (thus devoid of the royal appellation) – what the left-wing press called ‘Democratic Honvédség’ – could thus only be started after the armistice became official.

Building, training, arming and then engaging in combat, the new army took high priority for the Interim National Government. The Hungarians hoped that by taking an active part in the closing stages of the anti-German war they could obtain favours from the Soviets, and could thus influence the final outcome of the Hungary’s post-war status – particularly her borders. However, Stalin was not interested in a rapid building of a ‘democratic’ Hungarian Army, so the efforts by members of the INK were in vain. Unaware of the Soviet dictator’s intentions, the Hungarian delegations signed the armistice, which stipulated, among other things, the forming of eight heavily equipped infantry divisions. However, this was quite unrealistic, as the chance of enlisting approximately 150,000 men in a war-ravaged country – half of which was still in Axis hands – was virtually impossible. Nevertheless, Vörös, Kéri and other high-ranking officers in charge started fervently to raise the first two divisions (the 1st and the 6th) in early February 1945. Both new divisions were formed at Jászberény, some 120 kilometres west of Debrecen and 70 kilometres east of Budapest. The 1st Infantry Division was placed under command of Colonel Tibor Szalay, while the 6th Infantry Division was commanded by Colonel László Székely. The soldiers came from various prisoner of war camps and local volunteers. Soon, more than 50,000 men had been assembled under the flag of the new Magyar Honvédség. Therefore, the INK started to form two additional divisions. The main problem now was not the manpower, but the armament, supposed to be delivered exclusively by the Red Army. However, deliveries did not arrive, being delayed for various reasons. When some armament finally arrived in March, with further time necessary for training, the first combat-ready units started to deploy to the front, already located in Austria, only in mid-April. By the time the Hungarian soldiers arrived in the actual front zone, the war was over. Therefore, they saw no combat, and thus could not achieve any war merits on behalf of the new ‘democratic’ Hungary.

Parallel to the forming of the new ‘democratic’ Honvédség, the old Royal Honvédség still held under its control the western part of Hungary and kept fighting the intruders. Of the three armies, only two existed in mid-February: the First Army under the command of General Dezső László, deployed in the area north of Danube, in the Felvidék region, and the Third Army, under the command of General József Heszlényi, controlling parts of the Transdanubia (western Hungary). At this stage, the total manpower of the Honvédség stood at less than 210,000 men, down from the over one million soldiers available prior to Horthy’s proclamation of armistice.

Following the fall of Budapest, the increasingly irrelevant Hungarian Parliament sought refuge in Sopron, the last major city in western Hungary, located just a few kilometres from the Third Reich’s borders. The office of the prime minister and the Ministry of Defence relocated to Kőszeg, while the Ministries of the Interior, External Affairs and Finance moved to Szombathely, also close to the German borders. Szálasi set up his quarters at a villa close to Velem village. From there, he regularly toured the remaining areas of Hungary still under Axis control, trying to persuade the soldiers and civilians for continued resistance to the ‘Soviet menace’. Despite these desperate measures, defections among the rank and file were commonplace. Many soldiers, mostly from the First Army, tired of the war, believed the Soviet propaganda and crossed the frontline, in hope of a quick return to their homes. However, despite the Soviets’ promise, most found themselves in closed railway cattle cars on the way to the USSR as prisoners of war.

In the meantime, Hitler decided on a last stand in south-western Hungary in early March. The Axis counter-attack between Lake Velence and Lake Balaton, known as ‘Operation Spring Awakening’, was to be the last large Axis offensive and the last major tank battle of the war. The goal was to secure the vital oilfields in Zala County and cut the Soviet frontline in two. A total of 140,000 German and Hungarian soldiers, supported by an impressive one thousand tanks and assault guns, 3,200 guns and mortars, as well as around 850 aircraft, were amassed for Hitler’s last large-scale offensive. The attack, launched on 6 March, initially surprised the Red Army. However, after a promising start for the Axis, the operation proved to be a failure in less than two weeks. Although an armoured spearhead did reach River Danube at Dunapentele, one of the offensive’s main goals, it could not keep this achievement due to lack of sizeable supporting infantry. After only eleven days, the Germans were driven back to the positions they held initially.

The failed offensive was followed by a hasty retreat beyond the Reich’s borders, into Austria (Ostmark). Hungary’s second largest city, Győr, fell on 28 March. A day earlier, the last Crown Council was held on Hungarian soil. The Minister of Home Defence, Beregfy, was still optimistic, although his troops controlled only a fraction of the country. Next day, Szálasi and his government abandoned the headquarters and moved it into German-held Austria. On 12 April 1945, the last shots were fired in Hungary proper. Hungary was completely overrun by the Red Army.

Rommel arrives to Africa I

Panzer IIF
Panzer IIIJ

It is a military truism that supply services must be established, lines of communication laid out, and depots set up before combat operations can begin, for without these fundamentals a fighting force is restricted either to that which it can carry or to being forced to live off the land. The first German troops which debarked in Tripoli on 11 February 1941, were, therefore, supply specialists and water purifying teams who immediately set about establishing store depots, ration, fuel, and ammunition points, and generally preparing the area for the arrival of the fighting troops.

The German combat units which were despatched to Africa were the only Axis soldiers which could be considered as ready for battle and because the original task of the force had been foreseen as a blocking operation the group consisted principally of a number of machine gun battalions and anti-tank units. Artillery support was afforded by .a single motorised artillery battalion and the services detachments were a signals and an engineer company. At a later date 5th Panzer Regiment was to come under command and this addition of light and medium tanks increased the force’s potency. A battalion of self-propelled (SP) anti-tank guns which arrived during March at the port of Tripoli was not taken on strength of 5th Light Division but had an independent role.

From 13 February onwards the combat troops began to arrive regularly; at first elements of 3rd Motorised Reconnaissance Battalion and 39th Anti-tank Battalion and then, during the first weeks of March the artillery and armoured fighting vehicles were unloaded. Although Hitler’s name for the new unit was Africa Corps, it was not organised as such until a much later date and for a long time there were neither Corps troops nor supply columns and the second German division, 15th Panzer Division, which would have raised the group to Corps level was not expected to arrive in Tripoli until the beginning of May.

The military situation in those anxious February days was that the British had reached El Agheila and their armoured reconnaissance units had appeared to the west of that place. The Axis command had to anticipate the British intention. Would Wavell go on to capture Tripoli and to destroy not only the Italian Army but also a major part of the Italian Colonial Empire, or would time be given to Rommel and his battle-ready troops to establish a defensive line in the desert south of the gulf of Sirte? The Italians anticipated an early resumption of the offensive by Wavell’s army, which they estimated to contain two armoured and three motorised divisions. The German commanders were less inclined to this appreciation for they reasoned that any advance by the British from El Agheila to Tripoli would require that Army to cover a distance of over 400 miles, the greatest part of which advance would be through a waterless and empty wasteland.

The British offensive, which had just smashed Graziani, had covered more than 800 miles and the losses of men and material which would have been incurred during that operation would have to be made good before the offensive could roll again. Then, too, there would be supply problems; for Wavell’s lines of communication had been extended and any attempt to use the ports along the coast, in particular Benghasi, would be interrupted by the Luftwaffe whose Xth Afrika Corps was now operating in Africa against British targets and which had begun to bomb Benghasi as early as 12 February.

Rommel first sent his troops to positions in the empty desert of the Sirte where they gave backbone to the Italians in that area and prepared to delay any British advance. On 16 February, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion travelled 360 miles along the Via Balbia, took up position east of Sirte, and sent out patrols which made contact and drove off the British reconnaissance detachments near En Nofilia. This successful clash showed that the British had still not reached that area in any strength. The reconnaissance battalion then advanced to reconnoitre at Arco dei Fileni, some 100 miles to the east, where the tactical headquarters of 5th Light Division was established and to which the divisional units were directed to advance, once they had debarked in Tripoli.

The Brescia and Pavia Divisions were set to build defences in the Sirte around which Rommel formed a blocking line, set along the high ground approximately 20 miles west of El Agheila. The right wing of these positions was touching a salt marsh but, to guard the wide open, deep southern flank, patrols were sent to occupy the Marada Oasis, 80 miles south of El Agheila and Ariete Division was also positioned to give greater strength to the southern flank.

At the beginning of March, 5th Panzer Regiment arrived in Tripoli, held a ceremonial parade to show the flag, and moved up to the temporarily stagnant front. The Africa Corps was now strong enough to act offensively and could plan for the recapture of Cyrenaica. Rommel’s original intention, to wait for the arrival of 15th Panzer Division before going over to the offensive, was discarded and now he urged Gariboldi, his superior officer, to bring the Italian divisions forward. Reluctantly Gariboldi agreed and released Ariete, the armoured division and the partly-motorised Brescia. Rommel then took this latter formation and put it into the line to relieve his German units.

On 23 March, after discussions with both Hitler and Mussolini, Rommel grouped his Corps and on the following day sent a battle group in to attack 8th Army reconnaissance troops in El Agheila. There was a short, fierce fire fight and the British withdrew closely pursued by the Germans. The next objective was the Marsa el Brega gap between the sea and the difficult country to the south. Even at this early stage in his new command Rommel had shown an independence in the conduct of his operations which often conflicted with the intentions and even the orders of his superiors -particularly those of General Gariboldi, a militarily timid man. He had intended the Marsa el Brega operation to be only a reconnaissance to establish British strength in that area. The attack, he had told Rommel, must not go in without his approval and even OKH had stressed caution for it did not anticipate that the Axis forces would have sufficient strength to reach Agedabia, the principal objective, before May. Africa Corps commander had other ideas and planned to capture Marsa el Brega by a pincer operation. The stronger of two columns, containing the panzer regiment, 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, 8th Machine Gun Battalion, and elements from the anti-tank gun detachment, was to advance along the Via Balbia supported by artillery. The second column, made up of anti-tank guns mounted as SPs, together with 2nd Machine Gun Battalion was to outflank the British positions from the south and through this threat speed the assault of the main column.

In the event only the main column came into action and when the attack opened on 30 March, it ran up against strong British defences manned by 3rd Armoured Brigade lying behind extensive mine-fields and supported by an aggressive Royal Air Force, which attacked and delayed the German advance. Not until the second day of the offensive, and in daytime temperatures of over 80°F, did the infantry and the panzer regiment, supported by 8.8cm guns firing over open sight and with Stukas dive-bombing ahead of them, break through and by pursuing the British closely allow them no time to form fresh defence lines. The southern column, meanwhile, had failed to reach the battlefield at all due to a combination of navigational errors and bad going.

The results of this minor affair were all positive: the British had been driven from the last good position blocking the south-western passage into Cyrenaica, German troops had proved themselves capable of fighting a desert campaign, and 8th Army was not as strong as Italian intelligence officers had believed it to be. Rommel began to consider whether he might not open an offensive, using the forces at his disposal rather than wait until the panzer division arrived from Germany. He knew that to carry out this scheme would flout the authority of his Italian superior, that he would be acting without Hitler’s consent or knowledge, and that he would be ignoring the advance of OKH. He made the decision and ordered 5th Light Division to resume the advance upon Agedabia. On 2 April it drove up the Via Balbia, in a compact group with the reconnaissance battalion in the van followed by the machine gun battalion. The panzers were out guarding the flanks and from horizon to horizon the sky was filled with pillars of dust as the vehicles ploughed their way forward. British artillery fire forced the reconnaissance unit to deploy and to take up battle formation but no sooner had the unit shaken itself out for battle than the rearguard withdrew – a wearying tactic which the British used throughout the morning. Tanks from 8th Army were reported to be in position south east of Agedabia and Streich commanding 5th Light ordered the panzer regiment, the anti-tank detachment, and the machine gun battalion to move east of the road. The machine gunners began to move into position but were halted south of the town. Rommel, up with the forward troops in his usual fashion, swung the reconnaissance battalion round the left flank; a move which brought it floundering in a salt marsh. The panzer regiment then struck at the British forces, feinting and withdrawing, and enticing the British armour on to the screen of 8.8 cm guns which stood waiting. The 5th Royal Tank Regiment, true to cavalry tradition, charged the enemy and were brought under fire by the 8.8s at almost point-blank range. Twenty-five of the British vehicles lay broken or burning in front of the gun line and then the 2nd Battalion of 5th Panzer Regiment swung back and drove the RTR, off the field and pursued them northwards. Meanwhile the Tower Hamlets Rifles, a London territorial unit, had come under attack and had lost a company. Only another tank charge brought the hard-pressed British infantry relief from the German panzers.

This pressure against the British southern flank reacted upon the stubborn defence which was being put up against the machine gun battalion on the central sector. Thus, by midday the machine gunners had advanced across an area dotted with the palls of black and acrid smoke rising from tanks which 5th Panzer Regiment had ‘brewed up’ and vast clouds hanging in the sky above depots which 8th Army had destroyed before their withdrawal.

The reconnaissance battalion having dragged itself from the salt marsh pushed on to the town and joined forces with the machine gun battalion. Their combined strength brought the advance across the Tripoli-Cyrenaica frontier and onward to Zuetina. Nightfall brought a halt to the fighting and the divisional units, having laagered, made preparations to maintain the advance during the following day and to pursue closely the enemy who was withdrawing upon Benghasi. Rommel’s firm order was to keep contact with the British forces. They must not be allowed to shake off the German advanced units. During the night the Italian divisions and the Santa Maria detachment closed up on the German spearhead.

The battle was proceeding to that date in the manner in which Rommel had planned that it should go. The Agedabia wells had been taken, the way into Cyrenaica was open, and air reconnaissance as well as ground observation indicated that the British were abandoning the province in some disorder and were withdrawing upon Benghasi leaving behind them huge masses of stores. The immediate threat to Tripoli had been averted and the objective which OKH had hoped might be accomplished during May was in German hands by April.

It was on the battlefield at Agedabia that Rommel decided upon his next and very controversial move. He realised that it was useless to drive the British before the German armour; the 8th Army must be smashed in open battle. It will be seen from the map that, starting at El Agheila, Cyrenaica projects as a huge bulge, the Bight of Bomba, into the Mediterranean and that the Via Balbia follows this coastline. Rommel reasoned that the British retreat would be by road and, if this were so, then a swift advance along native tracks and via Msus and Mechili to Derna, that is across the chord of the bulge, would bring his forces to the eastern border of Cyrenaica behind the British and thus cut them off from their bases. He expressed this intention to his allies and to his staff; most of them were horrified for he was suggesting that a major military grouping of limited desert experience should cross a 400-mile expanse of waterless desert. The Italians said that such an operation was out of the question.

It required months of preparation; the danger that columns might become separated and lost in the almost trackless expanse was too great and, in any case, the sand seas and the mountainous djebel were both impassable. Rommel who had personally reconnoitred the routes from the air declared them to be passable. In any case the British had traversed the desert and what they could do the Axis troops could also accomplish. His own quartermaster’s department pointed out that there would be problems with both water and fuel and that tyres would be cut to shreds in the rough, cross-country going. Rommel proposed the most draconian measures to overcome the fuel and water crises. The forward movement of all German and Italian fighting units was halted. Every available truck which could be taken, commandeered, or requisitioned was assembled and soon there was a lorried force of more than 800 vehicles.

Each lorry was to ferry fuel and water to the front-line troops and when sufficient had been brought forward the trucks would be prepared for the trans-desert trip. With the fighting column’s lorries would be 6 days fuel, 5 days water ration, 5 days food including two days hard tack, and only sufficient ammunition for one day’s battle, for it was not considered that there would be any fighting during the approach march to Derna. In the supply columns whatever was the lorry’s normal load would be halved and the balance made up of petrol. Rommel’s intention was that his whole force would be a self-contained combat group. Within two days the whole scheme had been worked out and the fuel supplies had been brought forward. The great desert trek could begin. The battle plan was straightforward. There were to be several columns. Those of the left flank – a German reconnaissance battalion and Brescia Division — who were to hold the British and slow down the pace of their withdrawal, were to advance along the Via Balbia and go on to capture Benghasi. This column would then divide and the main body would thrust towards the strategically important cross-roads at Mechili, while the second and weaker column from Brescia Division would continue up the road exerting pressure upon the British before going on to capture Derna.

All the trans-desert columns were to head, by various tracks, towards Mechili. One of the major columns would be divided to form a pincer movement aimed at the objective. One main group would form the outer left wing and 2nd Machine Gun Battalion, forming the inner wing of these two columns, was to advance to Solluch at which point a column of empty oil drums pointed due east marking the desert track to the objective and along which the machine gunners were to advance. The main, southern pincer led by the commander of 5th Light Division, was to move towards Mechili along the Trigh el Abd. This column was headed by 8th Machine Gun Battalion and followed by an anti-tank company, a panzer company, the Italian Santa Maria detachment, a motor cycle company, and a motorised artillery battalion from Ariete Division. Rommel’s intention was two-fold: he was trying to create the impression that the Axis forces were stronger than in fact they were and, that the German objective was a tactical one — Benghasi — and not a strategic one, the destruction of 8th Army’s field force.

A report written after the operation and dealing with the column of soft-skinned vehicles which followed the machine gun battalion is revealing for the details it gives of the difficulties of desert driving. As the convoys of trucks headed across the desert in pursuit of the tank columns, pillars of dust rose high into the air and obscured the column. Shrouded by the thick blanket of hot dust and with the vision impaired even more by the khamsin which was blowing, drivers moved their trucks out of line to avoid the dust of the main in front. Thus the convoy extended in width as the drivers moved almost in line abreast and the dust cloud which hung above it stretched for miles, giving the appearance of a whole armoured division on the move. Daylight navigation was by compass for no reliance could be placed on the Italian maps which had inaccuracies up to 20 miles. The most prized possession was a set of British maps which were not only accurately marked but also showed such vital information as whether the going was good or bad.

Radiators boiled as the trucks struggled up the steep slopes of the djebel, a high stony escarpment, and during the following day the going worsened as the column struggled forwards through seas of loose sand which bogged down the vehicles. That day, 4 April, was a day of despair at the slow going but three broken down tanks, abandoned en route were put into running order and taken on strength. The column commander drove through a fierce sandstorm which had halted his group and reached Mechili where he reported the arrival of his convoy. By evening the trucks had rolled in and a petrol point had been set up. There was sufficient food, water, and ammunition; only lack of petrol, the life blood of panzer operations, had caused some worry.

Rommel arrives to Africa II

Meanwhile the divisional commander’s column was still struggling towards Mechili. It had been delayed by adverse conditions – bad going, sand storms, and seas of shifting sand – and did not reach the objective until the morning of the 5 April.

Mechili was a trigh cross-roads settlement in which 8th Army had set up a dump and a strong point into which had been brought 3rd Indian Lorried Brigade. This unit had orders to halt the German advance upon Msus and presently added to its strength was the headquarters of 2nd Armoured Division, ‘M’ Battery Royal Horse Artillery, 3rd Australian Anti-tank Regiment, and a small number of miscellaneous units. These had fled into the box for the protection of the major units. On the German side there was anxiety in the columns pressing towards the place for they were running low on fuel. Rommel had to seize Mechili before he could swing his Corps northwards to Derna and ordered that the objective be seized without delay. He had flown over his columns following their progress through the desert and landing where necessary to give them detailed orders. Other Fieseler Storch aeroplanes from the command went out to locate and to direct the widespread columns on to their target. During the night, guided by Verey pistol flares, by searchlights shone into the air, and by a number of similar devices the Panzer company was brought up to Mechili.

The most northerly column of the trans-desert group was made up of the panzer regiment (minus the company with the southern column), a motorised artillery battalion, the anti-tank companies, and parts of Ariete Division. At Bir e! Gerrari the column turned on to the Benghasi-Mechili track but as a result of map error found that it was confronted by an impassable salt lake. Confusion piled upon confusion as the original error was compounded by poor navigation and, as a result of this, the whole column drove round in wide circles for some time and then ran out of fuel leaving the panzer regiment stranded in the desert.

On the Via Balbia the reconnaissance battalion fighting against Australian infantry and artillery rearguards captured Benghasi in the bright moonlit pre-dawn of 4 April. The town and its airfield were handed over to the advanced guard of Brescia Division and the battalion then swung towards Mechili to add strength to the panzer ring which was beginning to surround the ‘box’ there. Other small units which had been separated from the columns came in and Rommel led in 8th Machine Gun Battalion and then directed it to advance upon Derna and to cut the Via Balbia. Parts of the British force encircled at Mechili were ordered to break out towards Derna and by unlucky fate they encountered the machine gun battalion also heading for that town who flung them back into the Mechili box. But there were other delays to the machine gun battalion advance particularly around the Derna airfield and not until the reconnaissance battalion arrived during 7 April, to reinforce the attack and to bring it forward again, was it possible to cut the road. The town and the aerodrome fell quickly and more than 1000 prisoners were taken including two generals, Neame and O’Connor, and much equipment including several tanks.

The 8th Army reacted and established a series of blocking points. At nightfall on 7 April the 9th Australian Division supported % tanks had taken up position astride and thus blocking the Via Balbia. The Australian left flank was at Acroma, a town 15 miles west of Tobruk, and there was a small British force garrisoning the important box at El Adem to the south of the town.

The fighting around Mechili rose to a climax. Even though the Panzer regiment from the northern column was still stranded for lack of fuel other units of other columns had arrived to strengthen the encircling forces. During the night of 7/8 April the main attack went in. The Santa Maria detachment stormed from the east, the machine gun battalion from the north, and a group of 10 tanks of the southern column drove up to strike at the southern side of the box. Part of the British garrison thrust along the western track mounted on vehicles and armoured cars, but this escape attempt was brought under fire and was turned back by anti-tank guns and the machine guns of an Italian motor cycle company. Isolated small groups of British soldiers, which then struck to the south-east, broke through the ring but the main garrison stood fast and fought it out. The British and the Imperial troops battled on until the panzer company broke into the box and beat down all resistance. Five generals were among the prisoners but of more use to the Germans were the supplies and fuel which they seized, for these enabled their drive to continue. The 2000 prisoners brought problems for the northern column had still not arrived in force and the remaining German troops were thin on the ground. Not until the evening of the 8th had sufficient forces been gathered to renew the advance northwards to reach the coastal road and by the time that the Axis troops arrived at Tmimi the British had already evacuated it. The advanced guard of Brescia Division, whose task it had been to hold the British while the outflanking movement was carried out, had failed in this and did not arrive at the objective until 8 April.

With the seizure of Tmimi the province of Cyrenaica had been recaptured, the British had been thrown back, some of their principal commanders captured, and their armour beaten in battle. But the Australian Division had withdrawn in good order towards Tobruk and thus, although the Axis forces had gained a tactical victory, they had not defeated the British in the field.

There were other gains both in strategy and morale. Strategically the British Army fighting in Greece was now aware that its rear communications were threatened by the German victory in the desert. In the matter of morale Axis prestige rose, not only in the Arab countries but also among the people of Italy and in the Italian Army, for that force began to regain much of the confidence which it had lost as a result of earlier defeats.

All this had been accomplished with only a small loss of men and, although the fall-out of armoured vehicles was quite considerable, due to the long and exhausting march through the desert, the German recovery service was able to return most tanks to their units. Losses in soft-skinned trucks were made good from stocks captured from the British.

The greatest praise must go to Rommel for his incredible ability, energy, and resource. He seemed to be at every part of the front, leading an attack here, guiding a column there, and it was due to his fierce drive that the offensive succeeded. He was now supremely confident. He had grasped the secrets and the tactics of desert warfare. Not only did he have the measure of the terrain but also that of his enemies. Now with adequate supplies he could advance and he made no secret of the fact that he planned the final objective to be the Suez canal.

On 9 April orders were issued to continue the pursuit of the British towards Tobruk with all possible speed, and 5th Light Division, with the reconnaissance battalion in the van, stormed eastwards leaving the Italians to carry out security duties around Mechili.


Tactics are defined as the art of handling troops in the field to gain a desired end easily and smoothly. Weapons determine tactics and to a very great degree it is the ability to recognise the potential of a new weapon which shapes the course and the outcome of battles. It was Rommel’s flair for combining the new weapons of blitzkrieg, the tank and the dive-bomber with the classic foot and guns, which brought him tactical victories on so many occasions and, although his ability had been demonstrated as early as the French campaign of 1940, it was in North Africa that this military genius truly flowered.

He had come to Africa with tactical doctrines based on European experiences and then found that some of these had little or no relevance to the new theatre of operations. Faced by new problems the Germans applied themselves with their customary vigour and in the lulls between the summer and autumn fighting of 1941 produced tactics in which at first only the men of 15th Panzer Division were trained and these innovations having proved themselves in the winter campaign of 1941 and the spring campaign of 1942, they were developed as a battle drill and introduced into other panzer units.

Rommel’s doctrine was that all arms — infantry, guns, and tanks — should fight as fully integrated parts of a whole and that thereby they would be able to bring down a maximum concentration of effort upon any chosen target within the shortest possible time. In the desert this chosen target was the British armour whose destruction was the key to tactical success. One of the first discoveries made by panzer men in the desert was that the force did not need to move in column, which had been the practice in Europe, for given firm going the advance could be made in line abreast. Out of this knowledge evolved the tactic of a panzer unit advancing to contact already formed for battle and not having to waste time in deployment manoeuvring. A whole panzer division could move forward as a series of ‘boxes’ or ‘handkerchiefs’, each box forming an individual battle group and echeloned with a depth four times that of its front. The various components of the division were usually located within the box in the same position. The armoured brow made up of a tank battalion with artillery support. Then followed the second panzer battalion with heavier artillery and engineers, all forming another box. On the ‘enemy’ side of the divisional ‘box’ ranged the reconnaissance detachments and the anti-tank guns while located in the centre of the box were the soft-skinned vehicles and divisional headquarters. Behind this mass of trucks there were the heaviest guns of the divisional artillery and at the rear the infantry component, the remainder of the artillery, and the tank recovery details.

The course of the desert war was marked by short but intense bursts of furious activity followed by longer periods during which the winning side consolidated its gains and built up its strength for a further advance while the losing army constructed defence lines and brought up fresh supplies of men and materials to replace the losses which had been suffered. Thus the fighting, when it took place, was of a fluid nature and it was the cut and thrust of armoured conflict which characterised it; actions in which the fortunes of war changed almost hourly. Nevertheless, the idea of tank versus tank battles was considered by the Germans to be a wrong application of armoured power. Rommel chose to use instead the ‘bait’ tactic which he had applied with such success during the fighting in France. In this the panzer force would advance to contact and then retire ‘baiting’ the British whose standard reaction was always to mount a charge. When this happened the tank men of 8th Army, their vision obscured by clouds of dust and sand thrown up by the withdrawing panzers, would thrust towards and then be impaled upon the fire of a screen of guns. This simple tactic seldom failed until Montgomery arrived in the desert and halted these heroic but futile assaults.

This gun-line tactic was effective only given certain conditions; and in North Africa these conditions obtained for many years. The first of these was that the British ‘attacking front’ did not exceed the ‘gun density’. It must be appreciated that the most effective German tank destroyer was the 8.8cm gun and that this weapon could outrange every British tank gun. Thus one single gun could fight a battle with a squadron of tanks engaging the first tank at distances greater than a mile and would have had time to smash the other vehicles of an attacking wave before they could bring fire to bear. The British tank commanders unwittingly aided the German gunners by committing their forces piecemeal. Most tank attacks went as single regiments and it was rare that the ‘attacking front’ covered a two-regimental width. Thus the 8.8s could select their targets at leisure in the certain knowledge that their shot could penetrate 8.3cm of armour plate at a range of 2000 yards.

The second condition which made the gun line effective was that the British tank gun had a shorter range than the German gun which it was fighting. Until this situation changed the gun line remained the standard and most successful tactic used by the Panzer Army, for theirs was a concept of guns versus tanks.

The inclusion of the 8.8cm in their armoury ensured that the outcome of such a battle was nearly always victory for the artillery and so effective was that gun that it may be claimed with some accuracy that the German success at Gazala was built upon the forty-eight 8.8cm pieces which Rommel had under command. There were two other first-class anti-tank guns on the German establishment, the 5cm and the Russian 7.6cm, the latter considered to be the best anti-tank gun in the world.

Another of the advantages enjoyed by the Germans was that their anti-tank guns and their tank guns could fire high explosive as well as solid shot. Thus their guns could bring fire to bear upon the British anti-tank gun line and by high explosive shells destroy it or at least neutralise it. It was not until the summer of 1942 with the introduction of the 6-pounder anti-tank gun and the Grant tank gun, both of which pieces fired high explosive in addition to armour piercing shot, that 8th Army was able to deal effectively with the Axis anti-tank gun lines.

Against the three first-class German anti-tank guns the British could oppose at first only with the 2-pounder, a weapon of such poor performance that it could only be fired with hope of penetration against the thinner side plates of enemy armour at ranges below 200 yards. Being thus almost totally ineffective this weapon could neither support a British tank assault nor could it defend infantry against panzer attack. To act as an anti-tank gun the 25-pounder was pressed into service and weapons were taken from their main task, that of supplying protection for the foot soldiers. Being therefore without proper artillery support the British infantry relied for protection upon the armour and this restriction bred among the tank units the feeling that they were being prevented from achieving their prime purpose — manoeuvre — by being tied down to the foot troops. The infantry, on the other hand, was convinced that the armour deserted it in time of need.

The German armour depended upon the two main types Panzer III and IV and during the years of campaigning these were up-gunned and up-armoured so that their already great capabilities were enhanced and their effectiveness increased. Both of these types were capable of subduing any tank which the British could put into the field. On the British side the Matilda was a slow vehicle with a maximum speed of 16mph and a main armament of the 2-pounder gun; the Matilda was to all intents and purposes defenceless. The Grant tank which came into the battle at Gazala, during the summer of 1942, helped in part to restore the imbalance through its 7.5cm gun, but this weapon had only a limited traverse and was set too low in the hull. Thus the Grant could not take a ‘hull down’ position but had to expose itself almost completely in order to fire its main armament.

German attacks against British positions followed a battle drill. A preliminary reconnaissance would determine the sector to be attacked and an armoured thrust would be made to divert attention from the main thrust. This main effort would be made by several ‘boxes’ of tanks which would advance at a given speed with carefully regulated intervals between the individual tanks and the individual ‘boxes’. The assault would roll forward and by a combination of fire and movement the position would be taken. Once this had happened a gun line would be formed to protect the flank while the panzers pressed the attack forward.

Reconnaissance was of the pattern common on European battlefields and in the early months Panzer II vehicles were used to screen the front and flanks of a battle formation. These lightly armoured and undergunned, obsolete vehicles were pushed forward of the main body about 8 miles, that is to the extreme range of their wireless sets. Up with the forward reconnaissance detachments was also a small but highly specialised group whose task it was to listen to wireless messages which passed between the British armour and its commanders, and to lay this intelligence before the divisional commander so that the direction and size of British thrusts could be countered.

The movement of Axis supply columns was made difficult by British patrols; one German report warned that not even the tracks behind their own lines could be considered as absolutely safe from enemy attack, and for a short time a convoy system was introduced. A continual problem had been the delay which occurred while the fighting group waited for its supplies of fuel and ammunition to catch up, and to overcome this a number of soft-skinned vehicles loaded with these essential supplies travelled with the battle group and were protected from attack by being held in the middle of the divisional box. An officer of the quartermaster’s department was attached to tactical headquarters, forward with the battle group, and was linked by radio to the main quartermaster’s department back at Corps.

In the fast-moving fighting on the desert battlefields the problems which usually confronted a military commander were increased and the difficulties of fighting a modern battle from the rear, which had been encountered even in the slow-moving days of the early campaigns in Europe, proved impossible to resolve in Africa. Situations arose which demanded immediate solutions. It was, therefore, essential that not only the divisional commander but the whole of his tactical headquarters, the forward observation officer for the artillery, and the panzer regiment’s commander be well forward to control and to direct operations. The whole command echelon was carried in special armoured vehicles. It was also essential that the elaborate communications procedures which had obtained in Europe be simplified and for this purpose the divisional commander’s vehicle was fitted with an ultra short-wave radio so that he could both listen in to the orders being given to the panzer regiment and give his own instructions direct, without going through the standard but time-wasting practices. The remainder of the leading group as well as all the other boxes listened in on the medium-wave band and were directly linked with the divisional commander. Thus he could deploy his forward units and coordinate the panzer assault with that of the supporting arms in the rear boxes. Between the divisional reconnaissance groups and headquarters there was a signals link mounted in an armoured vehicle. A simple system of set pattern orders made the transmission and execution of battlefield manoeuvres a speedier process than had been the case in Europe and constant practice of the manoeuvres as well as of other battle drills reduced time-wasting and in the artillery units enabled these to go into action with surprising speed.

The presence of generals, even of the Corps commander himself, upon the battlefield not only speeded up decision making but improved the morale of the fighting soldier for he could see for himself that the commanders were undergoing the same privations and sharing the dangers of battle with him. To the German front line soldier in Africa the generals were not shadowy figures in a headquarters miles removed from the fighting but were physically present upon the field of battle. This personal presence helped to produce a good esprit de corps. By contrast the Italian and British High Commands were remote and their decisions arrived at usually after staff conferences had often been overtaken by events leaving new crises to be resolved. It was not uncommon for Rommel or indeed any senior commander to take over the direction of a battalion in battle, a situation which may not have been very comfortable for regimental officers but did produce results. It is recorded that once, at Mechili, while flying over his advancing columns Rommel saw a unit halted for no apparent reason and radioed to the officer commanding that unless the advance was renewed he would land his Fieseler Storch and take over command. The unit moved on.

Erwin Rommel

The personality of Erwin Rommel dominated not only the Axis armies but, indeed, the whole African campaign. As a young officer during the First World War he had been awarded the highest German decoration for bravery, the Pour le Merite, for an action on the Italian Front and in the inter-war years he had produced a number of textbooks on infantry tactics. After serving as commander of Hitler’s Escort Battalion in Poland Rommel had taken over command of 7th Panzer Division and in a most determined way had converted the minor role of his division into the spearhead of the panzer force which defeated the western Allies during 1940. Hitler had personally chosen Rommel to command the Africa Corps and was to have his faith justified.

If only Rommel’s faith in Hitler had met with the same loyalty then, there is no doubt that the Axis powers would have been strategically successful in the fighting in Africa but Rommel was the victim of his superiors. The supplies which they promised him either never arrived at all or were reduced in number before they reached Africa. He was to see artillery pieces of new and startling power, which had been promised to him, sent to the 5th Panzer Army in Tunisia. His armies were halted when the flow of petrol stopped, the artillery ceased firing for lack of ammunition, the tanks he asked for were diverted to other fronts, and against all these breaches of faith he could make no protest for he was entangled in an extraordinary hierarchy of command.

Africa was an Italian theatre of operations and Rommel as commander of only the mobile forces of the desert army was subordinate to an Italian general. Then the person of Kesselring, the German Supreme Commander South was interposed and the Commando Supremo in Rome was often in accord with Kesselring’s points of view. Between Rommel and Hitler there also stood the OKH and the OKW, not to mention Benito Mussolini who was not only the de facto Head of the Italian State but also a personal friend of Hitler.

Each and all of these layers of obstruction prevented Rommel from achieving the objectives which he had set himself and his men. He was a tireless soldier and demanded of his troops the same indifference to hard conditions and to privations that he himself had. He drove his men hard and his vehicles to the limits of their endurance, allowing his soldiers little tune for rest and his panzers less than adequate time for maintenance. His whole attention was concentrated upon the objectives of righting and winning the desert war. Not for him the problems of logistics and the difficulties of supply. His attitude to his desert quartermasters can be best summed up in the plea which Churchill made on another occasion, ‘Give us the tools and we shall finish the job’. But for the greater part of his service in Africa Rommel was bedevilled by two factors which negated the victories which he won and prevented him exploiting the successes which had been achieved. The first of these was a lack of supplies and the second was the over elaborate command structure which allowed him no freedom of action or of manoeuvre.

Rommel led his men from the front and the charge that he neglected staff duties to direct operations personally is a valid one but the peculiar conditions of desert warfare demanded the presence of a taskmaster on the battlefield.

He was a poor subordinate and like Nelson preferred not to see — or in his case hear – the orders, warnings, and injunctions which his superiors at every level of command gave him on the conduct of operations. With the ebb of the Axis tide at El Alamein in October 1942 the Commando Supremo had its revenge upon the man who had come to the desert and had made it an area which bore the imprint of his military genius. Demands for his resignation were made each time his understrength armies were forced from one untenable position to another. And always he had to face the lack of supplies, the unkept promises, the demands to carry out some other task above the capabilities of his armies until at last he returned to Hitler to make one more desperate plea for supplies that would enable a bridgehead in Tunisia to be held. Flamboyantly, Hitler promised Rommel that he would lead an Axis army against Casablanca — so little knowledge of the true situation did the German leader have — and with that Rommel had to be content. He never returned to Africa and thus avoided seeing the Army which he had so often led into victories pass into the bitterness of final defeat.

“Brandenburg” Commandos: June 1941 Army Group North

Conquest: The bridge over the Daugava river in Daugavpils, Lithuania, is seen from the river bank with the city in the background on fire. The city, called Dünaburg by the Germans, was captured and secured at dawn on June 26, 1941 in a camouflage operation by the half-company Knaak, of the 8th Company of the Brandenburg special forces. The Nazis occupied it until 1944 when it was liberated but Latvia was re-absorbed into the Soviet Union.

Devastation: The remains of a captured vehicle in which the Brandenburger special forces, dressed in Russian uniform, had crossed a bridge in Daugavpils, Latvia. The vehicle overturned and fell over the embankment.

Oberleutnant Hans Wolfram Knaak, commander of the 8th Company of the Brandenburg Regiment . On June 26th, 1941, Knaak and 30 of his men, dressed in Soviet uniforms and driving captured trucks, drove through the Soviet lines and seized the Dunaberg Bridges over the River Dvina. They held the bridge against Soviet counterattacks, but by the time reinforcements arrived 20 minutes later, Knaak and 4 of his men were dead and 20 others had been wounded. He was posthumously awarded the Knight’s Cross.

By June 24 General Erich von Manstein’s LVI Motorized Corps had reached the Daugavpils highway near Ukmerge, about 170 kilometers inside Lithuania.

Von Manstein was now within striking distance of the bridges over the Daugava, about 130 kilometers away. Disregarding the fact that he had outpaced his neighbors, he kept his units moving, ignoring flank protection. Short, sharp engagements were fought against reserve Soviet tank units sent to intercept him, but his orders were simple-“Keep going at all costs.”

With the spearhead of the 8th Panzer Division was a special unit commanded by 1st Lt. Hans-Wolfram Knaak. In the early hours of June 26, the 26-year-old Knaak detached his men from the spearhead and sped toward Daugavpils in two captured Soviet trucks. Knaak and his troops were members of the Lehr (Training) Regiment “Brandenburg”-commandos trained in sabotage and subterfuge that were part of Admiral Wilhelm Canaris’s Abwehr (Intelligence Service).

Many of Knaak’s men were fluent in Russian, and the two trucks were able to make it through the Soviet defenses unmolested. The drivers, in Red Army uniforms, joked with sentries and disseminated false information concerning the German positions. Driving into Daugavpils, the trucks headed for the precious bridges. The first truck almost made it to the eastern side before sentries fired on it. Driving down an embankment, the men in the rear of the truck jumped out with weapons firing.

The second truck, caught in the middle of the bridge, came under heavy fire that resulted in several casualties. The survivors pushed forward to link up with their comrades on the other side, and their combined fire forced the Soviets back before engineers could arrive to blow the bridge. Some of them were then able to make it to the nearby railroad bridge and succeeded in cutting the detonation wires on that structure. Holding off attempts to recapture the eastern side of the bridge, the Branden- burgers were soon reinforced by the 8th Panzer spearhead, which had sliced through the Russian lines. Following units took control of the city, and armor was soon massing to meet the main body of Maj. Gen. Dmitri Danilovich Leliushenko’s 21st Mechanized Corps, which was on its way to help the Russian defenses.

Knaak’s unit had won the day, but Knaak himself did not live to see it. He had been killed during the fight for the crossing. For his actions that day, he was posthumously awarded the coveted Knight’s Cross on November 3, 1942.

As the German armor crossed at Daugavpils, the foot units of von Wrede’s division followed in its wake. Although the 290th could not possibly hope to keep up with the panzers, its advance served to widen the hole punched through the Russian lines and guaranteed relative safety for von Manstein’s supply lines. Hearing of von Manstein’s success, Hitler began meddling in the affairs of Army Group North. In his war diary, General Franz Halder, the chief of the General Staff of the Army, wrote, “Führer wants to throw the whole weight of Armored Group Hoepner on Dvinsk. Possibilities of a crossing at Jakobstadt

(Jekabpils) problematic.”

Von Leeb would have none of it. Reinhardt had defeated the bulk of Kuznetsov’s armored forces, leaving the way open to the bridge at Jekabpils. The movement to von Manstein’s sector would entail traveling through wooded areas where few roads existed and would take days to accomplish. He simply ignored any suggestions to change the original plan, giving Reinhardt free rein to continue.

On June 27 the XLI Corps moved forward again. With a battle group under the command of Brig. Gen. Walter Krüger, the 1st Panzer smashed the remnants of the 12th Mechanized Corps, which were desperately trying to form a line on the Musa River. At the same time, Stavka Chairman Marshal Semen Konstantinovich Timoshenko ordered Kuznetsov to pull his remaining forces back to join up with Berazin’s 27th Army, which was occupying positions along the Daugava.

Battle Group Krüger moved on, spearheaded by the I/113th Rifle Regiment under the command of Major Josef-Franz Eckinger. By 2300, the battalion was 10 kilometers south- west of Jekabpils. At 0415 on the 28th, the fight for the crossing began.

As at Daugavpils, a unit of Brandenburgers tried to take the bridge by deception. This time the plan did not work, and the commandos found themselves involved in heavy fighting. Soon the main elements of Colonel Hans-Christoph von Heydebrand und der Lasa’s 113th Rifle Regiment joined the fray. The Soviets were slowly pushed back, but Red Army engineers stood at the ready. As the Germans advanced toward the Daugava, a series of explosions shook the area. The bridges had been destroyed.

The Pursuit of the Afrika Korps

The battle of El Alamein had been comprehensively won. The pursuit was bungled, at least in the vital few days after the break-out.

This was not the fault of the staff. For some time Freddie [Francis Wilfred de Guingand], Montgomery’s chief of staff, had been thinking about how to cut off the retreating Germans – the Italian infantry divisions were immobile and abandoned, surrendering in tens of thousands, whilst the two Italian Armoured Divisions were also effectively sacrificed – and had asked Richardson to put together a force which would be sufficiently strong and provided with enough fuel to carry out the job. To meet the requirements of Operation GRAPESHOT, as this venture was called, Richardson assembled 96 tanks, to be brought forward by transporters, 45 armoured cars, two batteries of 25-pounders and three of light anti-aircraft guns, two battalions of infantry and soft transport carrying enough fuel and other supplies to be self-sufficient for at least a week. The units came largely from what remained of 8 Armoured Division and the force was to be commanded by the latter’s GOC, Charles Gairdner, whom Freddie met almost daily, and controlled by its HQ, to which was added the necessary RAF and RN liaison staff.

Monty was having none of it, preferring to use all the divisions which had participated in the break-out. These were the same as those which had comprised the corps de chasse put together on paper by John Harding on 12 August, except that 7 Armoured Division, now commanded by Harding himself, replaced 8 Armoured Division. These four divisions were now all sent forward simultaneously on 5 November to cut off the enemy at different points between El Alamein and Fuka, but 1 and 10 Armoured Divisions only arrived on the coast road after the enemy rearguard had passed through, whilst 7 Armoured and 2 New Zealand Divisions were delayed by a dummy minefield, allowing the Germans to withdraw with minimal contact.

Monty now ordered the four divisions to envelop the next objective, Mersa Matruh, but both 1 and 7 Armoured Divisions ran out of fuel, whilst late on 6 November it began to rain heavily and by the following morning all the pursuers were bogged down, leaving Rommel to withdraw once again in good order. To cap it all, the RAF was largely ineffective, preferring to offer ground support to the advancing British rather than strafe the German columns, whilst at the same time being hampered by confusion as to which friendly formation was where. Little training had been carried out in low-level ground attack, and such attacks as were made were largely high-level bombing, which made little impact. To avoid anti-aircraft fire, bomb runs were made across rather than along the road, and only one or two vehicles at most would be hit by each pattern. When they followed up, the pursuers were astonished by the lack of damaged Axis vehicles on the road, although there were many abandoned for lack of fuel.

The problems were twofold. First, too many divisions had been committed to the pursuit, resulting in both confusion in command and control and a temporary supply problem. Kirkman was to say many years later that a single division, as long as it was highly mobile, could have done the job, suggesting that it could have been either 7 Armoured, the freshest of the lot, or 2 New Zealand, with its own brigades rested and restored to it, or 4 Indian Division, of which only one brigade had been involved in the battle and then only briefly in the closing stages. At the last of these the GOC, ‘Gertie’ Tuker, believing that his three brigades could be on the Egyptian frontier by the morning of 6 November, issued orders to them to be ready to move, with a flying column of all arms organized to lead the advance. To his dismay, the division was instead ordered to hand over its troop-carrying transport to the Greek Brigade and to begin work on clearing up the battlefield.

The second problem was that Lumsden appeared unable to exercise control over the corps de chasse and, worse still, failed to remain in close communication with Monty. Both to Monty and to those around the two commanders, this silence seemed to be intentional. Bill Mather, attached to Lumsden as a Liaison Officer, spent much of his time trying to persuade the X Corps commander to contact his superior. Whenever they stopped, Mather would begin the lengthy business of erecting the cumbersome Wyndham aerial necessary for his wireless to function, only to have Lumsden say, ‘Whips out! We’re off’ – and he would have to dismantle the apparatus again.

Mather’s brother Carol accompanied Monty for much of this period and was asked to navigate to a pre-agreed map reference in the desert for a meeting. There was no sign of Lumsden and Monty was predictably livid. In the end he summoned Lumsden to Main HQ, where a furious row ensued. Bill Williams, listening outside, communicated this to the Ops Room, where a board had been set up showing the odds on all the generals for future advancement. ‘Sell Lumsdens’ was Williams’s advice and the price was duly marked down, only for Lumsden himself to come in, pull away the cloth hiding the board and leave without saying a word, but clearly seething with anger.

Main HQ had been very quick to move forward behind the advance; indeed, at one time it found itself ahead of Tac. With confusion reigning as to which formation was where and even where the front was, but in the belief that the Germans had withdrawn from Mersa Matruh, Mainwaring went forward to look for a new Main HQ site, taking with him Dick Carver, Monty’s stepson, who was serving as a GSO2 (Ops). Belchem followed in a second jeep, accompanied by a puppy which he had recently adopted and which suddenly became carsick. Whilst he halted briefly to look after it, a German anti-tank round struck his jeep and he was forced to take cover in a ditch. Mainwaring and Carver drove on, only to be taken prisoner by a German unit forming part of the rearguard.

Richardson was immediately made GSO1 (Ops). His replacement, together with Carver’s as a GSO2, arrived shortly afterwards, both fresh from the Staff College at Haifa. Geoffrey Baker was a gunner who had served in 4 Indian Division in the East African campaign against the Italians, where he had been wounded and won the MC, before being posted to Haifa as an Instructor. Tall and fair, he had acquired the nickname of ‘George the Swede’ whilst a cadet at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and was thereafter always called George. Harry Llewellyn, like Bill Mather, had arrived in the Middle East with 1 Cavalry Division, in his case with the Warwickshire Yeomanry, and had been a student at Haifa. Together with Andy Anderson of the Royal Signals, a fellow student who had been posted as an assistant to ‘Slap’ White, they paraded in front of Monty, who told them that if he liked them and they did a good job, they could stay; on the other hand, if they did not like him, they were free to go!

Llewellyn was immediately identified by Freddie for a role which he had not needed whilst Eighth Army was stationary behind the Alamein Line, but would become vital as it became highly mobile and Tac HQ moved out of regular physical contact. Together with Peter Paget, he was made a GSO2 (Liaison), carrying out a role akin to that which Carol Mather was performing at Tac HQ, but responsible directly to Freddie. The ‘Freddie Boys’, as the Main HQ LOs became known to differentiate them from the ‘Monty Boys’, were there, in Llewellyn’s words, ‘to see that Freddie did not get caught out by receiving information later than Monty did.’ When the distances between Main HQ and the leading formations lengthened so much that daily visits proved impractical, Freddie had his LOs located at the corps HQs, whence they would report back daily.

In early November another officer joined Tac HQ who would spend almost every day in Monty’s company from then until well after the end of the war. Whilst John Poston had more than proved his worth as an ADC, Spooner was unfamiliar with the desert and had gone astray on occasion when taking Monty on visits. Monty now asked Poston if he knew anyone who would suit the role and Poston immediately proposed Johnny Henderson, a lieutenant in an armoured car regiment, the 12th Lancers, whom he had known before the war. Monty consulted Henderson’s CO, who told him that the young subaltern had a remarkable facility for navigating around the desert, having successfully crossed the Qattara Depression to see if it could be used by a large outflanking force.

Henderson was summoned to Tac, by then established near Mersa Matruh, where he had a brief interview with Monty. He was then invited to dine in Monty’s mess, where they were joined by Poston and also by Freddie and Williams, who were both visiting. During dinner he was subjected to an interrogation on his family, school and interests. Afterwards Poston gave him an invaluable piece of advice, which was that he should always tell Monty the truth, regardless of any potential consequences.

Ten days later, Henderson went to Monty to request a return to his regiment, where he might see some real action. Monty asked him to stay on until a replacement had been found and, shortly afterwards, the two men flew back to Cairo to attend the Thanksgiving Service for the victory at El Alamein. After the service Henderson was given the rest of the day and the evening off, during which he and a friend went to the zoo. Whilst there, the friend grabbed Henderson’s military cap and offered it to an elephant, which duly began to eat it. With no chance of rescuing the item and no time to replace it, the improperly dressed Henderson was unable to attend the Guard of Honour at the airfield, as he had been instructed to do by Monty. Quizzed as to why his explicit order had not been obeyed, Henderson told the truth. Monty ordered him to board the aircraft and then spoke not a word on the return journey. However, he raised it at dinner and the amusement generated so softened his reaction that Henderson decided to stay on, as it turned out for nearly four years.

With the immediate opportunity to cut off the Germans now lost and Rommel conducting a skilful withdrawal, offering Monty no immediate opportunity to outflank him, the focus was turned fully on to the longstanding problem of desert warfare for both sides – how to sustain an advancing army which was moving rapidly away from its supply base. The distances were very quickly too great for the large dumps behind the Alamein Line to suffice alone, and mobility became of the essence. The options available were road, rail and sea, as air despatch was in its infancy at this stage of the war and there were in any event few suitable aircraft in the area. Although Eighth Army prided itself on its ability to move across open desert, the single metalled road would remain the main supply artery throughout the campaign, but it very quickly became cluttered with traffic of all descriptions and major jams built up, especially at the Halfaya Pass between Sollum and Bardia. The ports along the coast offered good possibilities, but other than Tobruk and Benghazi they were mostly small and it seemed certain that the Axis would block the channels and demolish port installations, causing inevitable delays to the landing of significant tonnages.

It was hardly surprising, therefore, that in the Eighth Army Administrative Instruction No. 140, issued shortly before the beginning of Operation LIGHTFOOT and setting out the policy for the Q branch in the event of a withdrawal by Rommel, Brian Robertson laid heavy emphasis on the third alternative, rail. In the aftermath of Operation CRUSADER, the Western Desert Railway had been extended from the railhead at Misheifa, first to Capuzzo on the Libyan frontier and then to Belhamed, about 20 miles south-east of Tobruk, where a railhead opened on 26 May 1942, the very day of Rommel’s attack round the end of the Gazala line. In the subsequent retreat the railway played a major part in backloading stores, and only one locomotive was lost. During their occupation of the territory west of El Alamein, the Axis forces used the railway for their own supplies, but did nothing to increase its capacity. They did, however, extend the line from Belhamed to the harbour at Tobruk, which was to prove valuable to the Allies.

Robertson spelt out in his instruction where successive railheads would be opened and what supplies they would each cater for. The Movements and Transportation branch of the Q staff was responsible for ensuring that reconnaissance parties moved up immediately behind the forward troops to assess the damage caused by the retreating Germans and that repair material, railway construction units and labour companies would follow as required. A complete construction train was held ready at Alexandria and another two at Suez, ready to be called forward.

Q (Mov & Tn) was also responsible for coordinating joint military and naval parties to take control of the ports, with recce parties placed on standby to move in as soon as each was captured, in order to make an immediate assessment of the requirements and to define the docks area, the entrances to and exits from which were to be closely controlled. Arrangements were also made for the landing of limited quantities of supplies over beaches, to be used on the occasions when the forward troops could not be adequately maintained overland. At this stage of the campaign there were few specialized landing craft in the theatre, so cumbersome lighters had to be used.

Robertson set up 86 Sub Area to provide the necessary structure around the Army railheads and later the roadheads as it moved forward. In addition to all the supply depots, the sub area included a Prisoner of War cage, a Transit Camp for reinforcements and a Main Traffic Control Post to manage the motor transport convoys. One of the main problems was the supply of POL, and Robertson directed that, in addition to the fuel tankers, every single vehicle proceeding westwards, from staff cars and jeeps to huge recovery vehicles, should carry more cans than it needed for its own purposes, to be offloaded as far forward as possible.

Another problem endemic to the desert was the supply of water. Kisch was made responsible for the development and repair of water points at suitable places in the line of communications, with 86 Sub Area taking responsibility for them as soon as they were ready. The ration was one gallon per man per day, including an allowance for vehicle radiators, with additional allowances for medical facilities and workshops and for certain vehicles which required large quantities of water, such as tank transporters.

In order to get supplies to the forward divisions, Robertson and Miles Graham created a new organization, the Field Maintenance Centre (‘FMC’), which would provide the link between corps transport, which lifted supplies from the railheads, roadheads and ports, and divisional transport, which distributed them to the forward troops. In the desert, where space was not a problem, each FMC was laid out identically and became in essence a huge shopping centre. There were specified areas for POL, general supplies, water, engineering stores, ordnance stores and ammunition, together with a POW cage and a Field Post Office. Corps third line transport would approach from one direction to unload and divisional second line transport from the opposite direction to pick up, with clearly defined entrance and exit routes from each area. Each FMC held between one and two days stock of all commodities. Under the previous system, divisions had to notify their requirements three days in advance, but this was now not necessary, so switches in formations or units from one corps to another were no longer a logistical problem.

Every single item of supply, other than water, originated from Egypt, and Robertson thus had to rely on Middle East Command to provide Eighth Army with all its requirements. It was fortunate that the Chief Administrative Officer at GHQ was one of the most experienced in the business. Lieutenant General Sir Wilfred Lindsell had been a fellow instructor of Monty’s at Camberley, where he had taught Q&A to Robertson among others. He had been Quartermaster-General of the BEF and then CAO of Home Forces before being posted to the Middle East. There was nothing he did not know about supply and he could be relied upon to deliver whatever was required.

Whilst Eighth Army retained responsibility for its immediate lines of communication, this became impracticable once the distances became too great. At such times GHQ took over the rear areas, so that Eighth Army could always focus on the task ahead. Once the Army had progressed as far as Benghazi, the responsibility for the LOC up to the frontier was devolved to British Troops in Egypt, whilst in due course Cyrenaica District and then Tripolitania District were set up as static organizations within Middle East Command.

After the setbacks at Fuka and Mersa Matruh, the advance gathered pace. Sidi Barrani was taken on 9 November, and the Libyan frontier crossed on 11 November. Tobruk fell on 13 November and the first ships were unloaded three days later. The railway was slower to reopen, but the railhead at Capuzzo, just across the frontier, received its first train on 20 November and the one at Tobruk on 1 December. Robertson had persuaded Monty to use fighting troops to provide the initial working parties at both ports and railheads, as bringing up Pioneer and Labour companies would use precious transportation resources.

That troops would be available for labour duties was an anticipated consequence of a fast advance, with divisions stalled for lack of supplies, even after the measures taken by Robertson. X Corps still controlled the leading formations, but only 1 and 7 Armoured Divisions remained in the field, and it was the latter which led the advance. Monty was cautious, excessively so in the eyes of a number of his critics, notably Tedder and Coningham. He refused initially to follow the example of O’Connor in 1940 by cutting across the desert to trap the enemy retreating from Benghazi, believing that he risked an upset that he could not afford. Instead, he sent only armoured cars on that route, whilst the bulk of 7 Armoured Division followed up methodically behind Rommel, reaching Benghazi on 19 November. A belated attempt by 22 Armoured Brigade, using tanks borrowed from 1 Armoured Division, failed to get behind Rommel at Agedabia, and the Germans established themselves on a well-prepared defensive line at El Agheila. The RAF was mollified to some extent by the capture intact of the key group of airfields around Martuba, in the bulge of Cyrenaica, just in time to provide cover to a vital convoy for Malta.

Monty had by now run out of patience with Lumsden. He was sent home to the UK, his place in command of X Corps assumed by Horrocks, who was ordered to take the corps into reserve and train it for future operations. Miles Dempsey, one of Monty’s protégés, was summoned from the UK to relieve Horrocks at XIII Corps, which played no further part in the North African campaign. The front facing the Germans at El Agheila was taken over by Leese’s XXX Corps, now comprising 7 Armoured, 2 New Zealand and 51 Highland Divisions.

Whilst Monty built up his supplies, there was a pause in operations, during which Main and Tac HQs were briefly co-located. A number of changes in key personnel took place, the most important of which was the Chief of Staff. Shortly after his own arrival in Benghazi, Freddie experienced acute stomach pains. Evacuated to Cairo, his chronic complaint of gallstones was diagnosed. The treatment was effective, but the subsequent Medical Board recommended three months leave, which he realized would mean the end of his time at Eighth Army. On Monty’s return to Cairo for the Thanksgiving Service, he visited Freddie in hospital and heard the news. He asked his Chief of Staff how long he would need to recuperate and was told only three weeks. Monty immediately persuaded the doctors to change their minds and Freddie went off to Palestine to convalesce, getting married before his return! In the meantime, his place was taken temporarily by Bobby Erskine, who had been BGS at XIII Corps since Gott’s time and was highly experienced, although he lacked Freddie’s unique ability in handling Monty.

David Belchem was also taken ill, in his case with appendicitis, and his job as GSO1 (Staff Duties) was taken over by George Baker. Likewise evacuated to Cairo, after his recovery Belchem was initially posted as Brigade Major of 2 Armoured Brigade before being given command of 1st Royal Tank Regiment, which was serving with 7 Armoured Division. The posting came with the express approval of Monty, who was a strong believer in his staff having battlefield experience so that they could appreciate better what was happening on the front line. Other examples of this policy at much the same time were Carol and Bill Mather. Carol rejoined the SAS, having been persuaded to do so by David Stirling, who came on a visit to Tac HQ to discuss his plans with Monty; a month later he was captured during an operation and sent to a POW camp in Italy. Bill left on a posting as Brigade Major of 9 Armoured Brigade, which was reforming after the terrible losses incurred during Operation SUPERCHARGE.

Monty now wished to attack the German position at El Agheila with all speed. Both the attack and the subsequent drive on Tripoli required the efficient functioning of the port of Benghazi, but it had turned out to be in far worse shape than Tobruk. There were a number of ships sunk in the harbour and the Royal Navy were moving too slowly to remove them in time. This meant that the Army was still being supplied from the port and railhead at Tobruk, whilst the build-up of the RAF had also put huge demands on the whole logistic apparatus. Robertson’s solution was to commandeer all the transport of X Corps and use it to move supplies up as quickly as possible, thereby enabling Monty’s deadline to be met.

Monty moved Tac HQ up to XXX Corps on 5 December and the battle kicked off nine days later, when 7 Armoured and 51 Divisions began to advance through the minefields between Mersa Brega and El Agheila, the Highlanders in particular taking heavy casualties. Even before this, the New Zealanders had, on the night of 11 December, set off on a 200-mile left hook. By the evening of 15 December they were in sight of the sea and poised to cut off the Germans and Italians, but Rommel, plagued as always by lack of fuel, had already decided to withdraw. The New Zealanders were unable to close the net, and most of the enemy managed to break through the gaps. It was, nevertheless, a satisfying victory in terms of morale. O’Connor and Ritchie had both reached El Agheila, only to be thrown back again soon afterwards. The Army had come 760 miles and this time there was to be no reverse.

The next defensive position was at Buerat. Once again Monty was forced to pause for nearly a month for logistical reasons, not the least of which was the continued slow progress by the Royal Navy in clearing Benghazi harbour. Robertson was authorized by Monty to give the officer in command a rocket, after which the situation improved considerably, only for a major setback to occur when a violent storm hit the coast on 3–5 January, breaching the mole and causing a number of ships to come adrift from their moorings. X Corps transport was once again pressed into service to remedy the deficiency.

The attack on Buerat, launched on 15 January, was so successful that the Axis forces retreated in some confusion both along the coast road and into the more hilly country on the approach to Tripoli. There was a natural defensive line between Homs and Tarhuna, but Eighth Army was by then moving with such momentum that, to the surprise of both Monty and Leese, it bounced the line on the run and broke clear through towards Tripoli, which was entered on 23 January.

During the advance from Buerat to Tripoli, Tac HQ briefly became an operational headquarters. The left of XXX Corps, comprising 2 New Zealand Division and most of 7 Armoured Division and directed on Tarhuna, and the right, with 51 Highland Division and 22 Armoured Brigade moving along the coast road to Homs, were well separated. With Tac following closely behind 22 Armoured Brigade, Monty effectively became a corps commander, controlling the right-hand thrust directly and giving Douglas Wimberley, the Highlanders’ GOC, a very hard time. He was quite evidently enjoying himself enormously, as was John Oswald, who had sometimes wondered if he had been doing a very useful job in charge of Tac. Clearly Tac lacked the full apparatus of a corps HQ, not least Ground/Air wireless tentacles, which inevitably limited cooperation with the RAF, but in the relatively short time – just over a week – that this situation existed, it hardly mattered. At Main HQ Freddie had by then returned, but for the first time Monty was so far ahead and so involved in day-to-day operations, that the COS found it difficult to keep fully in touch with what ‘Master’ was doing. This was to become a recurring problem.

Eighth Army’s supply problems had become so severe that a temporary halt to major operations became a necessity, although 7 Armoured Division, now commanded by Bobby Erskine as John Harding had been seriously wounded in the final stages of the battle, pushed forward to the west. The port of Tripoli was initially unusable, the entrance blocked by sunken ships and the installations demolished. It was 3 February before the first ship could enter the harbour and three days later before a full convoy was able to unload. Serious restocking now needed to take place before the Army could take on the challenges ahead.

As Cairo was now over 1,000 miles away, it was decided to create a permanent base and lines of communication area in Tripoli. Robertson was given command, with promotion to major general, whilst Miles Graham stepped into his position as DA&QMG Eighth Army and was himself succeeded as AQMG by Rim Lymer, who now ran the Q activities at Rear HQ. Robertson was occasionally irked to be given orders by Graham, but took such firm control of the supply situation that it was not to be a problem for the remainder of the campaign. Graham, for his part, established a particularly close relationship with Freddie, which endured until the end of the war. He enjoyed many of the same interests, particularly gambling, and provided something of a safety valve for the Chief of Staff at moments of stress.

Main and Tac HQ were again briefly co-located, which was convenient for two significant events which took place in Tripoli. The first of these was the visit on 3 and 4 February of Churchill and Brooke. There was a minor hiccup in the arrangements when Monty’s Humber car, which was to be used by the visitors, was stolen whilst Poston and Henderson were in nightclub on the evening before the victory parade. After a momentary panic, the situation was restored when the Military Police reclaimed it from a drunken soldier. The parade on the following day was led by the pipes and drums of the Highland Division, wearing their kilts, causing both the Prime Minister and the CIGS to become quite emotional. This was followed by a church parade at Main HQ, at which Padre Hughes gave an ‘inspired sermon’. Both parades were a propaganda gift for Geoffrey Keating, whose films received widespread distribution in both Britain and the Empire, and Warwick Charlton, who used them as a morale booster in his newspapers, which now included a new title, The Tripoli Times. Charlton was later to fall foul of Robertson, whose somewhat puritanical character disapproved of the newspaper’s more risqué articles. He attempted to sack Charlton, which Monty refused to countenance.

The second event was a four-day conference from 14 to 17 February, presided over by Monty, during which he conveyed Eighth Army’s experiences over the previous three months to an audience which arrived from Home Forces, Allied Forces (the name given to First Army and other formations now fighting in Tunisia and also based in Algeria and Morocco), Persia and Iraq Command and Middle East Command. The delegation from Home Forces was led by the C-in-C, Bernard Paget, and included a number of senior officers, including Henry Crerar from the Canadian Army and Gerald Templer, now GOC of a corps in the UK. Air Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, AOC-in-C of Fighter Command, represented the RAF. Monty was less pleased by the lack of high-level representation from First Army in Tunisia: neither the Commander, Kenneth Anderson, nor any of his corps or divisional commanders attended, although Anderson sent a number of staff officers. On the other hand, there was one senior American General in the shape of George Patton.

The conference was held in a cinema in Tripoli and at some outdoor locations for physical demonstrations, which included a simulated attack by an armoured regiment. Monty opened with a two-hour exposition of the whole campaign to date and was followed by Freyberg and Wimberley on specific aspects. Richardson and McNeill, together with the Wing Commander (Ops), staged a very realistic presentation on Army/Air Cooperation and Kisch dealt with the problems of and solutions to mine clearance. Overall the staff worked hard to prepare and rehearse for the conference, an unusual activity for them in mid-campaign.

One of the staff officers to attend from First Army was Kit Dawnay, now the GSO1 (Intelligence) at Anderson’s HQ. Seeing that he was present, Monty invited Dawnay to dinner in his mess and sat him next to himself:

Then occurred one of those appalling indiscretions to which Monty had always been prone, but usually not in front of so large a number of people. In a sudden lull in the conversation, he asked me a loud and highly rhetorical question: ‘Who are you with now, Kit?’

‘General Anderson, sir, 1st Army.’

‘H’m – good plain cook.’

Observations such as this, gleefully repeated by his supporters, were calculated to make him more popular in some quarters than in others. To make matters worse, the more outrageous they were, the more he enjoyed them.

Monty’s aphorism soon spread round Eighth Army and reached First Army as well, doing little for the relationship between two formations which would have to cooperate before very long.

Croatian Air Force WWII Part I

Of the several Frankenstein monsters created by the mad political scientists of Versailles after World War I, Yugoslavia was among the most horrific. A hopeless mishmash of ethnically, culturally, spiritually, even linguistically disparate populations, they agonized under a facade of “the self-determination of peoples:” By its 10th anniversary, Yugoslavia had degenerated into an open tyranny, when the Serb monarch dissolved and replaced parliament with a centralized, highly repressive dictatorship under the motto, jedan narod, jedan kralj, jedan drzava, or “One Nation, one King, one Country.”

Nothing could have been further from reality. Instead, this pressure-cooker of mutually antagonistic minorities-Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians, Montegrins, Macedonians, Hungarians, Germans, Austrians, and Albanians, with Catholics, Orthodox Serb Christians and Muslims thrown into an incandescent brew-seemed guaranteed to ignite another European conflict in the same region. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, as various folkish and religious groups jostled one another to maintain their identity and bare survival, Yugoslavia was torn by the same kind of violence that characterized the Balkans until at least the last decade of the 20th century.

None of these much-abused peoples yearned more than the Croats to break free from Belgrade’s iron heel. Their moment finally arose with the sun on April 6, 1941, when Hitler’s Wehrmacht invaded Yugoslavia. His troops were not opposed as conquerors but more often welcomed as liberators. The Royal Yugoslav Air Force’s 3rd Bomber Regiment (Bombarderski Puk) had been obliterated on the ground by attacking Messerschmitt fighters and Stuka dive-bombers, because the Croatian commanding officer deliberately allowed his aircraft to sit in the open as inviting, unprotected targets.

At the same time, another commanding officer, Major Mato Culinovic, defied orders by refusing to fly his 205. Bombarderska Eskadrilal63.BGI3. BP en masse to Greece. Three days prior to the invasion, it was importantly aided by a Croatian defector, Colonel Vladimir Kren, who landed his Potez Po.25-a French single-engine reconnaissance biplane-in Austria, where he turned over sensitive intelligence information about the Royal Yugoslav Air Force to the Luftwaffe. Before German forces reached Zagreb, its residents proclaimed the Nezavisna Drava Hrvatska, the Independent State of Croatia (NDH), on April 10.

Almost simultaneously, the Zrakoplovstvo Nezavisna Drava Hrvatska, or “Air Force of the Independent State of Croatia” (ZNDH), was formed and became operational almost at once. On the afternoon of that same day, Cvitan Galic, a narednik voclnikll klase (flight instructor) in the Royal Yugoslav Air Force, landed his biplane trainer at an airfield that had been just seized by the rebels. They hastily replaced the Bucker Jungmeister’s despised red-white-blue roundels with the ZNDH insignia-a black-leaf trefoil in a white cross-and Galic took off before the engine could cool to complete the new air arm’s first sorties, a few reconnaissance missions over territory still held by the Jugoslovensko Armija.

His single-place Bucker Bü.133 had never been intended for military operations of any kind. Its fabric-covered wood and tubular steel frame mounted a Siemens Sh 14A-4 radial piston engine rated at 160 hp to give the “Young Master” a 311-mile range at 124 mph, hardly performance enough to save itself from even the mostly obsolete fighters of the Royal Yugoslav Air Force. With that polyglot country’s collapse after 11 days of resistance, a few pilots fled to the Soviet Union or the Middle East, but most joined the ZNDH, headed by the same Colonel Kren who had defected to the Germans prior to their invasion.

His first task was collecting all aircraft, spare parts, machinery, and support equipment from the defeated Royal Yugoslav Air Force that had survived the recent Blitzkrieg. These comprised British handme-downs, such as a few dozen Bristol Blenheim light-bombers and worn-out Hawker Hurricane fighters, plus Yugoslavia’s own Rogozarski IK-3 and Ikarus IK-2 fighters. The former was a relatively modern, low-wing monoplane with retractable landing gear, but the Ikarus was a synthesis of Poland’s gull-wing PZL P.8 and Czechoslovakia’s Avia B.534 biplane, both superior warplanes. The reliable, stable, if slower Ikarus actually proved itself more useful for antipartisan missions than the five faster but outdated Rogozarski IK-3s. The original four IK-2s soldiered on against knots of homegrown insurgents into late 1944, when the last Ikarus was destroyed by Allied interceptors.

Other indigenous aircraft included more than 200 Zmaj Fizir light aircraft manufactured before and during World War II. Variants of the rugged, 85-hp biplane served a multitude of roles, from trainer, reconnaissance, and liaison, to amphibian ambulance and guerilla fighter. Italian contributions to Croatia’s new air force included the CANT Z.1007, Fiat BR.20, and Caproni Ca.310. The Z.1007 Alcione (“Kingfisher”) suffered from poor directional stability that rendered it a marginally effective medium-bomber at best. Its three Piaggio P.XI RC 40 radial engines were maintenance-plagued and resulted in poor power-to-weight ratio, providing just 1,100 hp each, for an unimpressive maximum speed of just 285 mph. Although defended by three 12.7-mm Isotta-Fraschini Scotti and two Breda-SAFAT 7.7-mm machine-guns, and crew positions were protected with five- to eight-mm armor shields, the Z.1007’s all-wood construction was prone to catch fire. Not for nothing was the Acione known nonaffectionately by both Italian and Croat pilots as “the flying barn door.”

More popular was the Fiat BR.20. Obsolete before the war began, it was an under-powered, under-defended medium-bomber that nonetheless served admirably in anti-insurgency operations, where enemy interceptors were infrequently met. A more stable bombing platform than the larger Alcione, a pair of Fiat A.80 RC.41 18-cylinder, radial engines enabled a pleasant-to-fly Cicogna, or “Stork;’ to cruise at 211 mph-adequately fast to spoil groundfire but slow enough to carry out the kind of pinpoint accuracy required by attacks against mobile partisans.

A lone Caproni Ca.310 operated by the Croats likewise excelled against “Communist bandits;’ due to its slow-flight characteristics, cruising at just 177 mph, and lack of aerial opposition. The sleek, twin-engine Libeccio, or “Southwest Wind;’ was valued for its reconnaissance capabilities. More ancient were several dozen Fokker F.VII and IX passenger planes from Holland. These part wood/part fabric-covered, high-wing tri-motors could barely top 100 mph, but in their time, they achieved historic results. Richard E. Byrd was the first to fly over the North Pole in a F.VII on May 9, 1926, beating Roald Amundsen aboard his airship Norge by just a few days. In June 1927, a Fokker made the first flight from California to Hawaii. The following year, another F.VII was the first airplane to cross the Pacific Ocean from the United States to Australia.

Although used by the ZNDH as transports throughout 1941, some Dutch tail-draggers were assigned to the 1 Padobaranski Lovacki Sat, or Croatia’s 1st Light Infantry Parachute Company, in January 1942. Forty-five men equipped with rifles, submachine guns, light-machine guns, and light mortars made their first mass-jump from three F.VIIs to demonstrate their completed training on July 6, 1943, at Zagreb’s Borongaj airfield. Four months later to the day, three brigades of the 1 Padobaranski Lovacki Sat-10 paratroopers per Fokker-staged a surprise attack on a partisan stronghold near the border with Hungary.

Supported by artillery, the paratroopers took Koprivnica after three days of bitter fighting. They were redeployed in June 1944 to Zagreb’s Borongaj airfield, where an additional three companies resulted in their expansion and redesignation as the 1 Padobranska Lovacka Bojna, or 1st Light Infantry Parachute Battalion. They continued to jump from Fokker F.VIls and IXs against insurgents, but also took over Borongaj’s ground defense. Outstanding paratroopers were honored with ceremonial guard duties for government officials at the Croatian capital.

During 1941, Colonel Kren’s top priority was modernizing the ZNDH in anticipation of up-to-date machines due to arrive from the Reich. Beginning in July, the German Luftwaffe began training Croat volunteers at a flight school opened in Zagreb. Graduates were sent to Furth, outside Nuremberg, for advanced instruction. In October, the first 21 airmen left directly from Furth for the Ukraine, where they were formed into a pair of air force fighter squadrons, the 10th and 11th Zrakoplovno Lovacko Jato (ZLJ).

At Poltava, the 10th ZLJ was redesignated the 15th Koatische.I JG (Croatian Jagdgeschwader, “fighter squadron”) 52, under the Luftwaffe command of Major Hubertus von Bonin. Since radio equipment was scarce, Luftwaffe Chief Hermann Goering sent the Croats 25 Benes-Mraz Be-50 Beta-Minors-nimble Czech two-seater, low-wing, prewar monoplanes with transmitters/receivers-to liaison between squadrons. Fighters, too, were in short supply, and until more became available, the new pilots had to make do with only 10 Messerschmitt Bf.109Es and a single Bf.109F.

Although the former was no longer the world’s leading fighter by late 1941, it was still superior at the time to anything in the arsenal of the Red Air Force. The Bf.109F, or “Friedrich;’ however, was then regarded as the most formidable warplane in the sky, a significant improvement over its immediate predecessor. Armed with a pair of 7.92-mm MG 17 machine-guns above the engine and two MG 17s in the wings, “Emil” had a maximum speed of 348 mph, thanks to its 1,159-hp Daimler-Benz 601Aa engine. It was with this slightly elder version of the most famous Messerschmitt that the Croats achieved their first “kills” on November 2, when Hauptmann (Captain) Ferencina and Leutnant Baumgarten each destroyed a Polikarpov 1-16 fighter near Rostov.

Two weeks after the Croats scored their first aerial victories, Baumgarten, Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Starc and Stabsfeldwebel (Sergeant Major) Boskic shot down a trio of Rata fighters. On November 20, Baumgarten claimed a fifth 1-16 to become an ace, dying in a mid-air collision with his victim. Twelve days later, an R-10 was downed by Cvitan Galic, the same former flight instructor (now likewise a Stabsfeldwebel), who carried out the ZNDH’s first operations eight months before.

The R-10 was the Soviets’ standard light-bomber and observation aircraft (“R” stood for razvyedchik, “reconnaissance”), a low-wing monoplane with retractable landing gear and a respectable range of 802 miles. It was armed with a 660-pound payload, two 7.62-mm ShKAS machine-guns in the wings, and a single ShKAS in a rear turret. The airplane’s designer, Josef Neman, had been arrested by the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police, on December 11, 1938, because more difficulties, for which he was held criminally liable, were encountered with the early design than had been anticipated. The R-10’s plywood-covered construction combined with a maximum speed of just 240 mph provided by a 730-hp Shvetsov M-25 radial engine made it an easy target when undefended by fighters.

In Galic’s case, he was able to dispatch a pair of protective Ratas, claiming two more three days later, when his squadron comrade, Feldwebel (Warrant Officer) Jure Lasta, destroyed an 1-16 during the same mission. The Red Air Force was markedly inferior to its opponents in terms of tactics and quality equipment, to say nothing of the low morale and worse training of air crews. With few exceptions, all the Soviets had going for them was the sheer weight of numbers, against which the Croats and every other Axis ally scored notable successes.

A case in point was something that began as routine escort duty undertaken on October 25, 1941, by Oberstleutnant (Lieutenant Colonel) Franjo Dzal and Feldwebel Veca Mikovic. They were assigned to rendezvous with a Henschel Hs.126 flying reconnaissance near Matveyev Kurgan, but, unbeknownst to them, bad weather had grounded the parasol-wing observation plane. While patrolling on station, they encountered a formation of three Ratas and five Chaikas, or “Seagulls.” Another Polikarpov design, the 1-153, was among history’s worst military aircraft; a deeply flawed biplane issued to operational units on June 16, 1939, long after the close of the Double-Decker Age, but in time to be massacred by Japanese fighters later that summer during the Nomohan Incident.

Among the Chaika’s long catalog of unresolved deficiencies was the absence of any firewall separating the fuel tank mounted between the cockpit and engine. In the event of an onboard fire, a powerful draft blasted the interior of the fuselage through the wheel wells, instantaneously incinerating the pilot and engulfing the entire machine. It was not for nothing that aircrews descriptively referred to the “Seagull” as the Kometi, the “Comet” Additionally given to chronic instability, exceptionally poor visibility, and powered by an 800-hp Shvestov M-62 radial engine with just a 60-hour service life, the 1-153 was nevertheless pushed through production to become one of the most numerically significant warplanes in the Red Air Force, which was equipped with 3,437 examples.

Soviet officers rarely pointed out the obvious to their superiors. In a justifiably paranoid system where constructive criticism was regarded as treason, according to aviation historians Dragan Savic and Boris Ciglic, “any attempt to show initiative or criticize how the air war was being run could lead to immediate transfer to punishment squadrons, the first rows of infantry trenches or, worse still, NKVD death-squads:”

The Croatian Messerschmitts were more than 80 mph faster than the stubby Chaikas, which dumped their payload in fright on Soviet territory after Oberstleutnant Dzal set one of them alight. Red Air Force policy forbade returning to base with unused bombs or ammunition. Pilots were required to expend their entire ordinance at the enemy, even at the risk of repeated, sometimes unnecessary passes over a target area, thereby increasing the Russians’ already prodigious attrition.

The Soviet “Seagull” did not usually carry bombs, but Dzal’s encounter revealed that his opponents perhaps represented a ground-attack version, the I-153Sh, equipped with 5.5-pound anti-personnel fragmentation bombs. In any case, they and their Rata companions fled from the outnumbered Croats, until the sudden arrival of 10 more 1-16s. In the resulting melee with 18 enemy fighters, both Dzal and Mikovic were able to fight their way out and return with minimal damage to base.

The following April, Mikovic tangled with a more modern enemy in the skies over Dyakovo village. With a maximum speed of 398 mph and an outstanding service ceiling of 37,700 feet, the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-3 was faster than any Axis counterpart and the best fighter available to the Red Air Force, despite its numerous faults, especially oil and fuel pressure inadequacies that spoiled its performance at altitude. Feldwebel Mikovic had little difficulty shooting down his first MiG.

Another aircraft widely employed by the Soviets was the Il-2 Shturmovik Notwithstanding its unique claim to fame as the single most produced military aircraft design in all aviation history-with 36,163 examples constructed between 1941 and 1945-the Ilyushin was a preposterous monstrosity. Standing empty, the single-engine, two-seat ground-attack plane weighed just under 10,000 pounds. More than 15 percent of its gross weight-some 1,540 pounds-was made up of armor protection for crew, radiators, and a fuel tank. The pilot sat in a kind of tub 5-12 millimeters thick that additionally surrounded the 1,720-hp Mikulin AM-38F, liquid-cooled V-12 engine. Naturally, the aircraft could absorb a phenomenal amount of punishment and was not easy to shoot down.

But a ponderous performance executed at very low altitudes rendered the “Flying Tank” or “Cement Bomber,” as the Germans called it, more vulnerable than Stalin believed to ground fire, while Luftwaffe fighter pilots learned early to aim down into the cockpit and wing roots of the less-than-impenetrable Zementbomber. Its underside, non-retractable oil cooler was yet another Achilles’ heel exploited by Axis interceptors. The Luftwaffe’s Otto Kittel specialized in hunting Ilyushins, so much so, he was renowned as “the Annihilator of Shturmoviks;’ accounting for 94 of the ground-attack warplanes. South of Shadishemskaya, the 15th Koatische./Jagdgeschwader’s own Cvitan Galic shot down an Il-2 piloted by Lieutenant Grigoriy K. Kochergin, later a “Hero of the Soviet Union:”

While the Ilyushin’s steel envelope could deflect small arms’ fire and even glancing blows from larger-caliber rounds, rear gunners were not equally protected, and suffered about four times as many casualties than pilots. Nor were they provided with parachutes. These unfortunate crew members usually came from penal companies composed of politically unreliable “enemies of socialism” or “enemies of the people” who were attached to every Soviet airfield on probation. They were required to serve nine consecutive missions. Should they survive-an unlikely prospect-they were supposed to be granted their freedom, but were, in fact, transferred indefinitely to mine clearing or similarly hazardous duty. Attrition among Ilyushin gunners was so high, Marshal of the Air Forces A. E. Golovanov had installed in the cockpit rear of each Shturmovik a special, spring-driven device that kept the 12.7-mm Berezin UBT machine-gun pointing downward after its operator was killed, as a ruse to convince attacking Axis fighter pilots that the dead gunner was still alive.

The Shturmovik’s RS-82 anti-tank rockets were, moreover, so wildly inaccurate, they were usually fired only in the general direction of a target, rarely hitting it, and then entirely by chance. To compound matters for the Il-2s, Soviet flak gunners often mistook them for German aircraft, and many were brought down by friendly fire, although precise figures for these misidentification incidents do not appear to have been kept.

Stalin was so taken with his “Flying Tank;’ he was convinced it alone could crush any Nazi attempt to attack the USSR. Over the objections of Ilyushin engineers, who pointed out that their new aircraft had not yet been produced in sufficient numbers for squadron strength, and pilot training was virtually non-existent, he rushed the first few machines to Western bases, where the Axis invasion was expected to begin. The first Il-2s were stationed with the Red Air Force in Poland, but ground personnel were unable to service or rearm them for lack of instruction, while insufficiently trained flight crews, who had never fired their machine-guns, could only take off and land.

When Hitler’s Operation Barbarossa broke over the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, most of the 249 Il-2s at the front were wiped out in a matter of days. One squadron, ShAP, lost 55 of its 65 Shturmoviks by July 10. Stalin’s love affair with the Cement Bomber was undiminished, however, although he failed to understand that the burdensome armor provisions did not lend themselves well to rapid mass production. In a personal telegram he sent to the aircraft manufacturers, Shenkman and Tretyakov, the Premier raged, “You have let down our country and our Red Army! You have the nerve not to manufacture Il-2s until now! Our Red Army now needs Il-2 aircraft like the air it breathes, like the bread it eats. Shenkman produces one Il-2 a day, and Tretyakov builds one or two MiG-3s daily. It is a mockery of our country and the Red Army! I ask you not to try the government’s patience, and demand that you manufacture more Ils. This is my final warning!!!”‘

When deployed in large numbers, nonintercepted by Axis fighters, or opposed by anti-aircraft artillery under 20 millimeters, the Shturmovik could be devastating. It often attacked when lighting conditions were dim, especially after sundown, at low altitude, confounding German flak gunners, and carried 1,320 pounds of armor-piercing bombs quite capable of demolishing Panther and Tiger I tanks. A Soviet staff publication reported that during 1943’s Battle of Kursk, `on 7 July, enemy tank attacks were disrupted in the Kashara region (13th Army). Here, our assault aircraft delivered three powerful attacks in groups of twenty to thirty aircraft, which resulted in the destruction and disabling of thirty-four tanks. The enemy was forced to halt further attacks and to withdraw the remnants of his force north of Kashara.”

On that same day, Il-2s surpassed this score byknocking out 70 tanks from the German 9th Panzer Division in just 20 minutes. Outstanding Shturmovik pilots were Senior Lieutenant Anna Yegorova (260 missions), decorated posthumously, presumed killed in action, when she had actually survived the destruction of her “Flying Tank” to become an inmate of a prisoner-of-war camp; and Georgi Beregovoi (185 missions), who went on long after the war to become a cosmonaut aboard the Soyuz 3 spacecraft in 1968. But the DB-3F (or the Ilyushin Il-4, as it was known from 1942) was ponderously weighed down by its plates of heavy armor protection surrounding the gunners, which availed them naught against the 20-mm cannon fire of Zlatko Stipcic’s Bf.109 on May 20, 1942.

A month later to the day, Croats on the Eastern Front completed their 1,000th combat mission, with 52 confirmed kills for the loss of three pilots wounded and, by the end of July, two killed; one of them, Veca Mikovic. He was shot while attacking a Petlyakov Pe-2. The Petlyakov’s rearward defense combined twin 7.62-mm Berezin UB machine-guns in the dorsal turret with another in a ventral hatch and a single ShKAS machine-gun able to alternate between port and starboard mountings in under a minute. It was this formidable return fire from a Pe-2 that holed Mikovic’s Messerschmitt. Lacking sufficient fuel to reach the safety of his lines, he crashed near Rostov in no-man’s-land. He was flying one of the new Bf.109Gs, replacements for the doughty Emits.

With this improved version, Axis pilots substantially widened the technological gap between themselves and their Red Air Force opponents. The Gustav’s 1,475-hp Daimler-Benz DB 605 AM, 12-cylinder inverted Vee piston engine gave it a maximum speed of 385 mph at 22,640 feet. Armament was upgraded to twin 13-mm MG 131 machine-guns installed above the engine, and a single MK 108 cannon firing 30-mm rounds through the propeller shaft. Pilots of the 15th Koatische. /JG soon put their new mounts to good use, shooting up enemy shipping in the Black Sea and downing 13 Reds on July 9 and 10 with no losses to themselves.

Early the next month, Galic and Oberleutnant Albin Starc destroyed one each of five aircraft engaged over Novo Pokrovskoye. Both victims were LaGG-3s, like MiG-3s, among the better fighters available to the Soviets. While its design was fundamentally sound and capable of improvements, the LaGG-3 was badly underpowered, a dilemma designers sought to alleviate by drastically lightening the airframe and installing less heavy armament. Instead, they succeeded only in weakening the warplane and pulling its teeth. Poor-quality wood-laminate construction led pilots to observe that “LaGG” was less appropriate as an acronym for the design team of Lavochkin, Gorbunov, and Goudkov, than a match for the aircraft’s description as lakirovannygarantirovanny grob, a “guaranteed varnished coffin:” Indeed, the wood frame shattered under high explosive rounds fired from a Gustav’s nose cannon.

To execute a complete circle, LaGG-3s needed a full 20 seconds, by which time, however, they were more often shot down. The two destroyed by Galic and Starc were followed on August 8 by the unit’s 100th victory, when machine-gun fire from Hauptmann Josip Helebrant’s Messerschmitt roasted a DB-3 bomber in the vicinity of Armavir. But a few weeks later, the Croats lost their youngest pilot after an Ilyushin Il-2 fell to the guns of Stjepan Radic. Hit by flak, the Gustav’s ruptured glycol tank lost too much fuel, and the 20-year-old Feldwebel was forced to crash-land in enemy territory, where his aircraft hit some treetops and exploded. A few hours later, Helebrant claimed another Shturmovik.

Croatian Air Force WWII Part II

Messerschmitt Bf.109G-14 Unit: 2. Lovacko Jato, 1. Zrakoplovna Skupina Zagreb-Lucko, April 1945. On 16th April 1945 Josip Cekovic defected to Falconara region (Italy) 12 kilometers westward of Ancona. This airplane was captured by Americans.

Dornier Do.17Z-2 Unit: 19. Bombardersko Jato, 1. Zrakoplovna Skupina Zagreb, spring 1945.

Breguet Br.19-8 Unit: 6 Sqn ‘Anti-guerilla’, 2 Group Circa 1943.

Macchi MC.202 Serie XII Unit: 2./Kro.JGr 1 Pilot – CO of 2./Kro.JGr 1 Capt (later Maj.) Josip Helebrant.

From late August through early September 1942, bitter fighting along the Novorossiysk front involved the 15th Koatische. /JG as never before, with its pilots averaging 20 escort missions every day. On September 3, Starc and Oberfelclwebel (Sergeant Major) Stjepan Martinasevic were flying cover for an Fw.189, when they were bounced by eight Ratas. Two of the attackers were damaged and the rest driven off. The twin-engine, twin-boom, three-place Focke-Wulf-189 was the war’s finest reconnaissance aircraft, able to execute a circle so tight that Allied interceptors could not follow it. Although armed with five 7.92mm MG 17 machine-guns, more often than not, the Uhu, or “Owl; simply out-ran its pursuer. The Fw.189 was also extraordinarily rugged, sometimes returning to base from the thick of combat minus an entire tail.

Three days after escorting this “Flying Eye” of the German Army, Starc and Helebrant were assigned anti-shipping duty over the Black Sea. There, they strafed a 100-ton tanker, blasting it with concerted cannon fire, until the vessel erupted into a flaming inferno, capsized, and sank in minutes. On September 8, Helebrant was back over the Novorossiysk front with Martinasevic, when they intercepted a reconnaissance aircraft escorted by 11 Chaika fighters. Martinasevic dispatched a Soviet “Seagull;’ then joined Helebrant in destroying the Polikarpov R-5. As some indication of Soviet military obsolescence, this 680-hp, wood double-decker from 1930 was the standard reconnaissance model of the Red Air Force, which equipped over 100 of its regiments with the antique airplane into 1944.

What the Russians lacked in quality, they strove to compensate with quantity, as four Croatian pilots observed while patrolling the road between Gelendzhik and Novorossiysk. During their clash with 5 Chaikas and 14 Ratas, Oberstleutnant Dzal destroyed one of either type, while Fähnrich (Officer Candidate) Tomislav Kauzlaric shot down an 1-16. On October 24, Helebrant and Starc each brought down a pair of Lavochkin fighters over the Tuapse area, raising their unit’s score to 150 confirmed “kills:” In November, the pilots were returned to Croatia for extended rest after a full year of virtually non-stop flight operations. These comprised 3,698 sorties-2,460 of them combat missions-for the confirmed destruction of 178 enemy aircraft, plus 33 “probables.” Six Croatian pilots had been lost in action, together with five ground crew men in Soviet raids.

During mid-February, the men of 15th Kroatische./Jagclgeschwacler 52 returned to the Eastern Front in the company of fresh recruits and new planes. But the situation had changed dramatically over the previous three months. The Axis initiative that had rolled irrepressibly across Russia since the first day of Operation Barbarossa had stopped at Stalingrad, where Croatian casualties were very heavy. And U.S. aid to the Soviets was now apparent in the appearance of American aircraft. On April 15, 1943, Oberleutnant Mato Dukovac fired on a Bell P-39 fighter that “flamed like a torch before abruptly falling away.”

The Aircobra’s streamlined, aerodynamically efficient design had been occasioned by placement of a 1,200-hp Allison V-1710-85, liquid-cooled, V-12 engine behind the cockpit. This peculiar arrangement enabled a 37-mm M4 cannon to fire 30 rounds of high-explosive ammo through the propeller hub at the rate of 140 rounds per minute. It was supplemented by a 12.7-mm machine-gun installed in each wing; two more were mounted in the upper engine cowl. Regardless of this formidable armament, the rear-mounted engine proved to be vulnerable to attacks from above and behind. Almost any hit on the fuselage from an attacking enemy fighter was virtually guaranteed to disable the cooling system, destroying the engine. In crash-landings, the pilot was liable to be crushed by the hot, heavy engine falling forward on his back.

The all-metal fighter’s unconventional layout allowed no space in the fuselage for a fuel tank, which was transferred to a necessarily smaller tank in either wing, thereby restricting the P-39’s operational radius. Moreover, its single-speed supercharger confined optimal performance to beneath 12,000 feet, a serious limitation, as modern aerial combat took place at increasingly higher altitudes. By 1942, virtually all bombers carried out their runs far beyond the Aircobra’s reach. Performance was further compromised by 265 pounds of armor plating, which was appropriate for a ground-attack role, but detracted from Bell’s original fighter conception. An innovative tricycle undercarriage and hinged “automobile doors” on either side of the cockpit contributed to the aircraft’s unorthodox design.

Despite its numerous drawbacks, the P-39 was just 10 mph slower than the Messerschmitt-109, handled very well, and was the best fighter available to Soviet pilots, who referred to it affectionately as Kobrastochka, “dear little cobra:” Aleksandr Pokryshkin, the Allies’ second highest-scoring ace, accounted for 58 Axis aircraft in a P-39, the highest score ever gained by any pilot with a U.S.-built aircraft. The 4,773 Aircobras President Roosevelt sent to beleaguered Soviet pilots critically helped them make up the severe losses they suffered since June 1941.

Five days after Dukovac’s first encounter with an American Kobrastochka, he was escorting German Stuka dive-bombers and Ju.88 medium-bombers in the company of three other Gustavs, one piloted by the redoubtable Cvitan Galic, when they ran into 25 Soviet fighters and gigantic flying boats. In the engagement that ensued, Dukovac downed a LaGG-3, as Galic went after a Chyetverikov MDR-6, with its 63-foot, 7.75-inch wingspan. Only 27 of the big, twin-engine, highwing flying boats had ever been built, so Galic felt privileged to claim this rara avis, which disintegrated in flames toward Novorossiysk. Continuing escort duty produced more residual “kills” on May 8, when Dukovac and his wingman, Felclwebel Bozidar Bartulovic, each destroyed a LaGG-3 while protecting a Fieseler Storch.

The Fi.156 was famous for its unprecedented STOL characteristics, making it the war’s outstanding liaison and medivac aircraft. Its very low landing speed combined with a long-legged undercarriage containing oil and spring shock absorbers that compressed about 18 inches on landing enabled the “Stork” to set down in a variety of otherwise impossible terrain. It could hover in place, almost like a helicopter, or even fly backwards against a head wind. Under normal conditions, the Fi.156 took off in less than 150 feet and landed in 60. Wings could be folded back along the fuselage, allowing it to be transported by trailer, aboard covered trains, or towed behind a vehicle. Flying their high-performance Messerschmitts, the Croatian pilots found escorting the 100-mph Storch a challenging, but rewarding experience.

Despite the debacle at Stalingrad, Axis morale held firm. There was no rout, and the Eastern Front stood badly dented, but unbroken. Positions from the vicinity of Leningrad in the north, down through Smolensk and Taganrog to the Sea of Asov in the south stiffened, frustrating all Soviet attempts to break through, while the Red Air Force lost more than 2,000 warplanes in combat above Kuban. These defensive successes were generally regarded as prelude to a renewed Wehrmacht offensive that would regain the initiative in summer. But news of the Italo-German loss of North Africa in early May struck some observers as the Axis death knell. On the 14th, two pilots of the 15th Koatische.I JG 52 defected to the Soviets, setting down their Bf.109s behind enemy lines at Byelaya Glina airfield, northeast of Krasnar.

A month and one day later, another Croatian pilot landed at Byelaya Glina. Over the next two years, defections took place in direct ratio to the decline of Axis fortunes. While much has been made of them by Allied historians, the actual number of deserters from the unit represented a small fraction of its total strength. Most who defected simply wanted to end the war on the winning side, and were largely indifferent to ideological concerns. Those who did give political consequences any thought had been deceived by Communist propaganda promises of a free Croatia or, in the case of Slovenian airmen, an independent Slovenia. These trusting souls were to be sadly disappointed with the postwar fate of Eastern Europe, and many fled to the West after the Iron Curtain fell on their respective homelands.

A case in point was the first Balkan airman, Nikola Vucina, who flew over to the Soviets on May 4,1942. Horrified by the bloodshed and slavery visited upon Yugoslavia by the Red Army, he fled in an ancient Polikarpov Po-2 Kukuruznik (“Corn”) trainer to Italy in 1946.

Mato Dukovac, Croatia’s top-scoring ace with 45 kills, lived to regret his defection by flying to Italy in another biplane, a stolen British De Havilland “Tiger Moth;’ less than a year after his September 20, 1944 desertion. Dukovac became increasingly anti-Jewish after his wartime experiences, so much so, he volunteered to fight the newly created state of Israel as a captain in the Syrian Air Force, flying American T-6 Texan trainers outfitted with ground-attack rockets and 110-pound bombs during the Arab-Israeli Conflict of 1948.

The attitude of most Croatian pilots was summarized in June 1944, when one of their officers, Oberst Franjo Dzal, offered them the alternatives of fighting on, going to Germany for advanced training, or joining the partisans. According to Savic and Ciglic, “His words were greeted by whistles and shouts of disapproval’s”

The Croatian airmen continued to enjoy the clear-cut superiority of their Bf.109Gs throughout most of 1943. In early November, however, they began encountering growing numbers of an opponent with serious claims on the Messerschmitt’s predominance. This was the Lavochkin La-5, the Soviets’ first and only up-to-date fighter. While its performance fell off above 12,000 feet, the La-5 excelled at lower altitudes. It executed a smaller turning radius and higher roll rate than the German Gustav. Ivan Kozhedub, the leading Red Air Force ace, scored most of his 62 kills flying the La-5. With more of these dangerous machines filling Russian skies, outnumbered pilots of the 15th Kroatische. /JG 52 were hard pressed.

On November 7, Unteroffizier (Senior Corporal) Vladimir Salomon was shot down by a combination of Aircobras and La-5s. Successfully bailing out of his stricken Bf.109, he froze to death after parachuting into the Sea of Azov. Two weeks later, Felclwebel Zdendo Avdic and Dukovac were battling six LaGG-3s, when Avdic received a particularly painful wound in the right arm. He was horrified to observe that his severed hand still gripped the control column, which he manipulated with his left to make a perfect landing, albeit barely conscious from a prodigious loss of blood, five miles inside friendly territory. German grenadiers carried Avdic to a field hospital, where he eventually recovered.

By then, the unit had been stationed at Karankhut airfield, where adverse weather conditions grounded its pilots until early 1944, save on rare occasions. When conditions cleared in February, they faced greater numbers of enemy aircraft-many of them La-5s and P-39s-than ever before encountered. Flying against impossible odds, the squadron was decimated, and the 15th Kroatische./JG 52 disbanded, its survivors returning to Croatia in mid-March. During the previous five months, flying through foul weather and against overwhelming adversaries, five of the airmen were killed, and four had been seriously wounded. But between them they scored 77 confirmed “kills” and 8 “probables.”

In July, survivors joined the newly formed Hrvatska Zrakoplovna Skupina, the Croatian Air Force Group, for homeland defense against increasing incursions by Anglo-American bombers. The HZS was also no less preoccupied with quashing the various Communist and nationalist insurgent groups running rampant through the countryside. Fighting these rebels was nothing new. As long before as June 26, 1941, pilots of its predecessor, the Air Force of the Independent State of Croatia (Zrakoplovstvo Nezavisna Drava Hrvatska), had carried out the earliest anti-partisan raids in Herzegovina and suffered its first loss the following day, when an aged Potez Po-25 biplane was brought down by rebel ground-fire.

Increasingly fortified with Soviet arms, supplies, and propaganda, the Yugoslav underground movement grew steadily throughout 1941, when 15 aircraft were lost to the partisans. In June 1942, they absconded with a pair of French bombers-a Brequet-19 and Potez Po-25-from the Zegreb headquarters. The Yugoslav Royal Air Force had purchased its first Breguet-19s as far back as 1924, thereafter license building another 300 examples. Most of these were destroyed during the German Blitzkrieg of April 1941, but enough survived to flesh out the new Croatian Air Force. While randomly machine-gunning the residents of Banja Luka, the bandit Breguet was brought down by flak outside the village of Kadinjani. Its pilot committed suicide, while his gunner was shot trying to escape.

ZNDH commanders were deeply alarmed by the brazen theft of this World War I-style sesquiplane with cloth-covered wings and open cockpits, and spent all their energies searching for its companion. Meanwhile, the elderly Po-25 raided four towns in as many days, successfully eluding all efforts to intercept it, until the pokey Potez was finally spotted by the Luftwaffe pilot of a Focke-Wulf Fw.58. On July 7, his twin-engine Weihe (“Harrier”) trainer doubling as a reconnaissance-attack plane used its two MG 15 machine-guns to shred the stolen aircraft while parked near Lusci Palanka.

In summer, the ZNDH mounted its first, concerted offensive against the burgeoning insurgency with warplanes left over from the defeated Royal Yugoslav Air Force. All were antiquated and worn out, but the most useful among them were 7 Avia BH-33Es remaining from 38 destroyed while resisting the invading Germans, back in 1941. The 1927 Czech biplane’s physical appearance was somewhat strange for its upper wing, being shorter, for reasons never entirely understood, than the lower. An otherwise reliable, if entirely mediocre fighter, the Vickers machine-guns and low speed provided by its 580-hp Skoda L engine made it ideal for strafing partisans. They were themselves hamstrung by conflict between the Soviet-backed Narodnooslobodilacka Vojska Jugoslavije (“People’s Liberation Army of Yugoslavia”) and royalist-nationalist Chetniks, from the Serbian word seta for a “military company.”

According to Savic and Ciglic, “Often, groups of insurgents were at each others’ throats, rather than attacking their common enemy. There was even collaboration with the Axis on both sides.”

Shortly after the Wehrmacht conquest, the several resistance movements began to coalesce into a general insurgency until the Chetnik leader, Draza Mihailovic, realized that Josip Tito’s NVJ only wanted to “burn the country and the old order to the ground to better prepare it for Communism. This is the fight that the Communists wage, a fight which is directed by foreign propaganda with the aim of systematically annihilating our nation:” He was likewise mistrustful of the Anglo-Americans, whose “sole aim was to win the war at the expense of others:”‘ Favorably impressed by Germany’s invasion of the USSR, Mihailovic hoped to create a Greater Serbia in the manner of the Independent State of Croatia, when he learned that Hitler’s postwar intentions for the former Yugoslavia was its division along ethnic lines into various, similarly autonomous states. In the resulting civil war between Communists and Chetniks, the Croatian airmen sought to annihilate them both.

Mussolini sent their ZNDH its first modern aircraft in the form of 10 Fiat G.50 fighters, during late June 1943. Although eclipsed by other designs by then, the Freccia, or “Arrow,” could still intercept enemy bombers or ground-attack insurgent forces with success. Following the Duce’s overthrow in September, the ZNDH received something of a windfall when 60 Italian aircraft of various types were found at Mostar and Zadar airfields. They included three “Arrows” and six Fiat CR.42 biplanes no longer fit for aerial combat, but very effective in anti-partisan warfare.

While the rebels lacked any aircraft of their own, they took their toll on ZNDH men and machines through ground-fire and espionage. On October 7, the Commanding Officer of 1. Air Group, Mato Culinovic, an ace with a dozen “kills” to his credit, perished with his crew aboard a Dornier Do.17K medium-bomber that exploded while attacking insurgent forces west of Zagreb; saboteurs had installed a detonator activated when the bay doors were opened.

Shortly thereafter, 38 Morane-Saulnier M.S. 406c-1s from France’s defeated Armee de /Air arrived from Germany. It was with this inadequate fighter that ZNDH pilots were expected to intercept growing numbers of U.S. heavy-bombers protected by huge swarms of P-51 and P-47 escorts. Croat airmen were additionally hampered by a wholly inadequate early warning system and usually scrambled only as the enemy was overhead. Whenever the defenders did get airborne, they invariably found themselves hideously out-numbered by mostly superior aircraft.

From the close of 1943, USAAF and RAF bombers repeatedly violated Croatian airspace with impunity, as they overflew the Balkans on their way to targets in Austria. The ZNDH lacked sufficient strength to oppose these Allied intruders, until interceptor units of the Hrvatska Zrakoplovna Legija (Croatian Air Force Legion) were formed with Luftwaffe assistance on December 23. A month later, Mussolini’s Salo Republic contributed 12 new specimens of the Macchi M.C.202 Folgore. At 372 mph, the sleek “Lightning” lived up to its name. Croat pilots loved the Macchi for its superb handling characteristics and 3,563-feetper-minute rate of climb, but found that the two 7.7-mm Breda-SAFAT wing guns lacked punch. Only its twin 12.7-mm machine-guns in the engine cowling were effective by contemporary standards.

But HZL crews had little immediate opportunity to put the Folgore through its paces, because Allied raids on Austria by way of the Balkans fell off for the first quarter of 1944. They used the lull to gain additional training experience until April 1, when the unit was redesignated 1./Jagdgruppe Kroatien. The next day, an immense bomber stream of the 15th U.S. Air Force passed over Croatia on its way to attack the Austrian industrial city of Steyr. The ZNDH’s early raid alert system had not improved during the previous four months, and only two interceptors could be scrambled in time to confront the Americans returning from their mission. With hundreds of 12.7-mm M2 Browning machine-guns firing at them, the Folgore pilots dashed unscathed among the flight of B-24 heavy-bombers, one of which fell burning out of the sky.

In hopes of better positioning themselves to meet the foe, several dozen Croatian fighters were relocated from the unit’s base at Lucko to Zaluzani airfield outside Banja Luka. British intelligence learned of the move, and Numbers 1, 2, and 4 Squadrons in the South African Air Force’s Number 7 Wing were alerted. Their Spitfire Mk.IXs, some carrying a pair of 250-pound bombs apiece, appeared without warning over Zaluzani in a low-level attack that overtook the defenders on April 6. Twenty one ZNDH aircraft were destroyed on the ground, including a Folgore and all save 1 Morane-Saulnier, together with 16 Luftwaffe warplanes.

Of greater loss was the death of Cvitan Galic, who perished when the M.S.406, under which he took shelter during the raid, exploded and collapsed on him in full view of his horrified comrades. With 38 confirmed and 5 unconfirmed aerial victories, he was Croatia’s second-highest scoring ace. Yet another 21 ZNDH machines were caught parked in the open and destroyed by bomb-laden Spitfires six days later.

Despite these appalling losses, the 1./Jagdgruppe Kroatien dispatched two pairs of Morane-Saulniers and Fiat Freccias to patrol for damaged or separated B-24s. Instead, they were attacked by two Mustangs 6,500 feet above Zagreb. The decidedly inferior MS.406s and G.50s were no match for state-of-the-art P-51s, which shot down one each of the older French and Italian fighters in short order. If anything, it is to their credit that the other two pilots were able to successfully elude their technologically superior pursuers.

When provided with better aircraft, the Croatians went over eagerly to the offensive. They had always been outnumbered by their enemies, so a numerical advantage possessed by the Anglo-Americans meant little to them. Before the end of April, Unterofizier Leopold Hrastovcan flew his Macchi past escorting Mustangs to blast a four-engine Liberator that crashed outside the village of Zapresic. Several days later, Unterofizier Jakob Petrovic’s Folgore closed in on a British de Havilland DH.98 Mosquito fighter-bomber famous for its laminated plywood construction. “The Timber Terror;” as it was also known, fell trailing thick smoke toward the sea.

Petrovic and another comrade were evenly matched against two USAAF P-38s on May 1, when one of the “Fork-Tail Devils” was shot down and the other driven off, badly damaged. While pilots of the 1./Jagdgruppe Kroatien continued to score against Anglo-American intruders for the rest of spring and throughout summer, war on the homefront was spreading across the Balkans.

In mid-summer, 15 long-distance R-series Stukas were dispatched to Croatia, where they pounded Red Army columns at the southeastern border. They joined eight Ju.87D-5 dive-bombers delivered to the Antiteroristicka jedinica Lucko, an antiterrorist unit based near Zagreb, at Lucko, the previous January. In an unexpected assault on September 20, partisans captured Banja Luka, over-running the airbase at Zaluzani airfield. Thinking fast, many ZNDH crews jumped into their Dornier bombers, engines started just after propellers cleared hangar doors, to machine-gun waves of partisans, and got away at the last, possible moment. Once airborne, they circled back around to provide suppressive fire, enabling their comrades’ escape. A few days later, the city and airbase were recaptured in a powerful counterattack launched by Croat and German troops.

Further Croatian requests for specialized aircraft from the Luftwaffe were answered in mid-September with the arrival of a dozen Fieseler Fi.167A-0s. They were indeed purpose-built, but not for any antipartisan role. The big biplane had been originally designed in 1938 to serve aboard the German Navy’s projected aircraft carrier for reconnaissance and torpedo bombing. Graf Zeppelin was never completed, however, and the few examples already produced were put to use flying coastal patrols in Denmark before being transferred to the ZNDH. Like its more famous Fieseler, the Storch, the Fi.167 was endowed with extraordinary STOL characteristics, capable of landing almost vertically anywhere. With a maximum take-off weight of 10,690 pounds, its short-field and outstanding load-carrying capabilities made it an ideal transport flying ammunition, food, medical supplies, or evacuating wounded to and from Croatian Army garrisons besieged by Tito’s insurgent armies.

On October 10, while on a mission to a Croatian position near Sisak, a lone Fi.167 flown by eight-kill ace, Bozidar “Bosko” Bartulovic, was jumped by five P-51 Mk IIIs of the RAF’s 213 Squadron. Bartulovic’s rear gunner, Mate Jurkovic, used his 7.92-mm MG 17 machine-gun to score a lethal hit on one of the attacking Mustangs before the Fieseler, too, was destroyed by the other four, thereby achieving perhaps the last and certainly most remarkable aerial victory in biplane history. Both Bartulovic and Jurkovic parachuted to safety. Some of the remaining Fi.167s were installed with a single 2,200-pound bomb used effectively against otherwise impenetrable rebel positions.

Beginning in December 1944, things began looking up for the Croats. As a measure of the high regard with which he held them, Goering equipped two ZNDH squadrons with the Luftwaffe’s best piston-driven fighter. The Kurfurst, or “Elector Prince;’ was the last and fastest in a long operational line of the Messerschmitt Bf. 109 series, which had begun 10 years earlier. Optimized for high altitudes, a nine-foot-wide chord, three-bladed VDM 9-12159 propeller converted the 1850/2000 PS output of the new Messerschmitt’s DB 605DB/DC power plant into thrust. As such, the fully loaded aircraft was able to top 445 mph at 22,500 feet, while enjoying an extraordinary rate of climb at 4,820 feet per minute. Armament comprised twin, 13-mm MG 131 machine-guns in the nose with 300 rounds each, plus a single, engine-mounted MK 108 cannon firing 65 30-mm rounds.

Thus equipped with the Kurfurst, ZNDH pilots evened the playing field against their Western opponents. What the Croat interceptors still lacked in numbers, they made up for with a fighter at least the equal of the American Mustang or British Spitfire, and a highly effective bomber-buster, the K-4’s real function. Both German and Croat fliers took advantage of the airplane’s high performance to avoid enemy escorts and go after the USAAF B-17s and B-24s.

The ZNDH also made do with much older machines. On December 31, a Dornier Do.17E paid a surprise New Year’s Eve visit to the RAF’s 148 Squadron base at Grabovnica near Cazma, where the old medium bomber dropped its 1,100-pound payload on the airfield, causing numerous casualties among partisan defenders. Supply dumps were wrecked, and a four-engine Handley-Page Halifax heavy-bomber was destroyed.

On March 24, 1945, ZNDH aircraft grounded at Lucko airfield, for lack of petrol, were incinerated during a napalm attack delivered by RAF Mustangs of Numbers 213 and 249 Squadrons. Defensive flak shot down a P-51 from the former Squadron, but three Messerschmitts, one Morane-Saulnier, and a Focke-Wulf 190 were ruined. Several other aircraft were damaged. The day before, the Croats won their last aerial victories, when Mihajlo Jelak and 15-“kill” ace, Ljudevit Bencetic, flying Bf-109G-10s, claimed two British P-51s between them. Jelak was hit by enemy fire but managed to safely crash-land his wounded Gustav. With Communist forces overrunning Zagreb, Bencetic addressed his crews at Lucko airfield for the last time. They had performed their duties splendidly, he said, and flying with them was the greatest personal honor he had ever known, but they were released now from their loyalty oath and at liberty to return to their homes.’

As Bencetic returned the final salute of his men, a pair of aged Rogozarski R-100 trainers flown by Lieutenants Mihajlo Jelak and Leopold Hrastovcan were attacking a railway bridge spanning the Kupa River with 50-pound bombs. Destroying it would delay the enemy’s advance toward Karlovac, allowing time for the city to be evacuated. As Hrastovcan’s biplane circled for another pass, it was hit by ground fire and crashed near the foot of the bridge, where he was dragged from the wreckage and shot to death.

Fighting against 12-to-1 odds, Croat airmen continued to score hits on the enemy. Their final flight operation occurred on April 15, 1945, when a Dornier Do.17Z medium-bomber, covered by a pair of Messerschmitt-109Gs, raided the partisan airfield at Sanski Most, destroying two Communist warplanes, damaging several others on the airfield, and machine-gunning ground personnel to escape with damage.

The last ZNDH remnants in the 1st Light Infantry Parachute Battalion had joined up with the Croatian Army’s Motorized Brigade as early as the previous January, from which time they were in constant action south of Zagreb against an advancing partisan army. The few surviving paratroopers were still fighting in Austria a week after the German surrender, refusing to lay down their arms until May 14, 1945.

During the immediate postwar period, Tito assumed a magnanimous pose, extending “general amnesty” to all opponents. But his apparent generosity was a ruse luring war-weary servicemen to their doom. Every ZNDH airman the Communists could lay their hands on was imprisoned and tortured, often for many years. Bozidar Bartulovic, the Fieseler biplane pilot, whose rear gunner shot down an attacking Mustang, had bailed out when a 0.50-caliber bullet partially shattered his skull and shot away his right eye. After long-term recovery at a Zagreb hospital and later graduation from officers’ training school, he was arrested and sent to a POW camp until his release in 1946, then rearrested and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment. Upon his release, Bartulovic fled to Munich, Germany.

Many of his comrades fared far worse. All high-ranking ZNDH officers were rounded up and shot.

Slovakian Air Force WWII Part I

Avia B.534-I There exist only a few photos of B.534-I series. On one of them we can see this B-534 with number 7 on the fuselage, but this marking is not complete.

Letov S-328 of rising air force during Slovak National Rising (against Germans in 1944). Czechoslovak national insignia, completed with silhouettes of three mountains with Slovak cross.

The 2.8 million Sudeten Germans freed by Czechoslovakia’s disintegration, beginning in September 1938, triggered the liberation of other minorities stranded for nearly 20 years behind the borders of that artificial state. Teschen, with its predominantly Polish population, went back to Poland; and Hungarians in Ruthenia, at Czechoslovakia’s extreme eastern section, declared independence on March 14,1939. During the afternoon of that same day, the Slovak people proclaimed their own state, which the Romanian government in Budapest officially recognized 24 hours later.

The Hungarians were likewise determined to reclaim the rest of their fellow countrymen, who made up a majority population in northeastern Slovakia, where they had been stranded since passage of the Versailles Treaty following World War I. On March 23, Honvedseg troops stormed across a border as ill-defined as it was ill-defended. Unprepared troops of the Slovak Army were routed, then rallied, but were ultimately unable to contain the invaders. Hardly less auspicious was the fledgling Slovenske vzdušné zbrane, the Slovak Air Force, really nothing more than the former 3rd Czech Air Regiment. Although the Letecky pluk 3 still possessed 230 aircraft, there were only 80 pilots and observers to man them.

They nonetheless seized the initiative on the opening day of hostilities, when their open-cockpit biplanes struck the Hungarian-occupied cities of Mukacheve, Roznava, and Uzhorod. One of the Letov bombers was brought down by flak, which additionally destroyed two fighters and inflicted damage on four more, plus another bomber. Undaunted, the Slovaks returned 24 hours later for their first aerial combat. They flew the Czech-designed and -manufactured Avia B-534, among the last of the great biplane fighters, such as Britain’s Gloster Gladiator, Italy’s Falco, and Russia’s Chaika.

Powered by an 850-hp Hispano-Suiza HS 12Y drs 112-cylinder, Vee piston engine, the Avia could achieve a maximum speed of 245 mph at 12,435 feet, with a service ceiling of 34,775 feet, and a 360mile range. These qualities won laurels for the rugged aircraft at 1937’s International Flying Meet in Zurich, where it proved at least equal to all competition and out-performed Germany’s own biplane fighter, the Heinkel-51. The B-534 was not envisioned strictly as a fighter, however, and made to serve a ground-attack role. As such, four Model 30, 7.92-mm machine-guns installed in the sides of the fuselage were synchronized to fire through the propeller, or, alternately (as the Bk 534), a single, 20-mm cannon firing from the nose was supplemented by a pair of 7.92-mm machine-guns at the sides. Provision was also made for six 44-pound bombs. It was in this mode that three Avias tangled with an equal number of Hungarian-flown Italian fighters in the early morning of March 23.

The Avia owned a 12-mph speed advantage over the Fiat CR.32, but better-trained Magyar Legier pilots prevailed. The 264-pound payload aboard CO podporučík (second lieutenant) Jan Prhacek’s aircraft was hit and exploded, atomizing his aircraft and killing him instantly, but desiatnik (corporal) Cyril Martis dropped his bombs before crash-landing upside down in a swamp. With the sudden loss of his commanding officer and comrade, and faced by three-to-one odds, slobodnik (lance corporal) Michal Karas out-maneuvered his opponents, escaping unscathed to the base at Spisska Nova Ves. Shortly after his escape, two of three Avias attempting to attack enemy tanks advancing on Tibava a Sobrance were brought down by ground-fire.

Three more B-534s returned to the same general area escorting a trio of Letovs, but were met this time by nine Fiats. Although the observer, podporučík Ferdinand Svento, parachuted from a bomber falling in flames, his body was riddled with 18 rounds of machine-gun fire, as he hung helpless in his harness. Another Letov was shot down outside the village of Strazske, but one survived the carnage to return to base. All three Avias were destroyed without cost to the Hungarians. Later that same day, 10 Junkers Ju. 86K-2 bombers purchased by the Hungarians from Germany before the advent of hostilities struck Spisska Nova Ves in the first raid of its kind on Slovakian soil. A dozen soldiers and civilians perished, with almost 100 injured, but the base did not suffer crippling damage.

A flight of seven Avias attempted retaliation by diving on advancing enemy troop concentrations in the vicinity of Paloc, but nine defending Fiat CR.32s claimed all the Slovak fighters at no loss to themselves. By then, the Hungarians had achieved limited objectives on the ground and sued for peace. In what the Slovaks referred to as Mali Vojn, “The Little War,” they lost 58 dead (22 soldiers and 36 civilians) against 23 Hungarian fatalities (8 soldiers and 15 civilians) during a week and a day of fighting. They were determined to learn from this premature baptism of fire, however, and initiated a serious reorganization of their armed forces, with special attention given to pilot training in the SVZ.

The Slovaks inherited a broad variety of aircraft from the Czechs, but many were worn out or hopelessly obsolete. These were either scrapped or consigned to student pilot squadrons, while frontline machines were refurbished almost entirely by innovative mechanics, because Slovakia did not possess a modern aviation industry. The already small SVZ was downsized still further, but its organizational structure tightened up, and a parachute brigade established. Just five months after the conclusion of the Little War, the Slovakian Air Force was a noticeably improved, although far from perfected service, when a much larger war broke out on September 1, 1939.

Joining Hitler’s Blitzkrieg against Poland were 35,000 Slovak troops set in motion by their Prime Minister, Jozef Tiso. Their limited objectives were recovery of original Slovak territories in Javorina, Orava, and Spis seized by the Poles during 1920, 1924, and 1938. Slovak participation in the Campaign was not entirely self-serving, however, because Tiso was himself a convinced Fascist and trusted friend of the Germans. They had informed him of the up-coming invasion as early as August 28, when he arranged for part of the their attack to be launched from Slovak areas bordering Poland. Beyond the recapture of former regions, he put his air force at the disposal of the Wehrmacht.

To the SVZ warplanes’ national insignia (a red disc with blue twin-cross outlined in white) were added black-and-white Luftwaffe Balkenkreuzen (“Balkan Crosses;’ Iron Crosses) on either side of fuselages and wing surfaces. Tiso dispatched 20 Letov S.328s and as many Avias to scout for his advancing troops, but even after they took Javorina, Orava, and Spis, the fighters stayed on in Poland to escort German Stukas dive-bombing enemy railroad yards around Drogobytch and Lvov. During one of these attacks, on September 9, anti-aircraft fire brought down an Avia flown by čatár (sergeant) Viliam Grun. He was captured and became a prisoner of war, but shortly thereafter made good his escape to rejoin his unit, Number 12 Squadron.

Three days earlier, a lone, unidentified aircraft flew over military installations inside Slovakia. A trio of Avias scrambled to investigate and intercepted a Lublin R-XIII (not a RWD-XVII aerobatic trainer, as sometimes reported),’ the Polish Army’s standard liaison-spotter. Forty-nine of the Polish parasol observation and liaison planes had been organized into eskadra obserwacyjna, or special observation squadrons, for long-range photographic missions. The Lublin was a versatile workhorse. Its tough construction and remarkably short takeoff run of just 204 feet were likewise ideally suited to field operations of all kinds, including courier and ambulance duties.

One R-XIII had tried to attack an enemy vessel on when the elderly Schleswig-Holstein-a pre-dreadnought battleship from 1908-was mercilessly pounding Polish defenders at Danzig with an unremitting, hours-long fusillade of 11-inch shells fired at virtually point-blank range. Unable to find his target, the pilot dropped a stick of 55-pound bombs on a German residential neighborhood instead. But a single 7.7.-mm Lewis machine-gun operated by the observer was inadequate defense against the three Avias, which handily shot down the reconnaissance plane in flames. Its destruction signified the young SVZ’s only kill of the Campaign and its first-ever aerial victory.

These were not the only Slovakian warplanes operating over Poland, however. When the brunt of Luftwaffe aircraft was thrown into the siege of Warsaw, and Wehrmacht ground forces in the south suddenly lost their eyes in the sky, the Slovaks volunteered their open cockpit, two-place biplanes. The Czech-built Hispano-Suiza Vr-36 engine could only provide 740 hp for a maximum speed of 170 mph, but when the Aero A.100 was not shooting photographs of enemy troop movements, it fired four 7.92-mm wz.29 machine-guns or dropped 1,300 pounds of bombs, thereby offering German ground forces much-needed air cover they would have otherwise missed.

The territories Tiso’s soldiers reclaimed during 1939s conquest of Poland more than compensated for regional losses to the Hungarians earlier that year and brought closer ties with the Third Reich. Yet, less than two years later, Hitler did not include the Slovaks in his original plan to invade the USSR, and even tried to dissuade them from participating, because he believed too many of Tiso’s people would side with their fellow Slavs in Russia. But the President argued persuasively on behalf of his fellow countrymen’s loyalty, and Slovakia was eventually allowed to join Germany’s other allies in their combined assault on the citadel of Communism.

However, he was disappointed to learn from the SVZ commander in chief, General Anton Pulanich, that just 33 Avias and 30 Letovs were in fully operable condition. Moreover, they could only be fueled with a unique alcohol-benzene-gasoline mixture not employed by any other aircraft on the Eastern Front. Supplies of this singular concoction needed to be constantly brought up from Slovakia, a process made increasingly difficult, as operations moved further away into the East. Despite these drawbacks, three fighter squadrons (the 11th, 12th, and 13th Letky) joined as many bomber-reconnaissance squadrons (the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Letky) in western Ukraine by July 7, 1941.

Only then did General Pulanich realize that the homeland had been left without enough interceptors to defend against attack and re-assigned the 11th Letky to Piestany. His already small armada was now down to only 20 fighters. These were inadequately supplemented by 10 former Czech elementary trainers pressed into service for reconnaissance duties, for which the Praga E-39-with its 150-hp, nine-cylinder Walter Gemma, air-cooled, radial engine-had never been designed.

With a top peed of just 106 mph, the rugged little biplanes were surprisingly effective, flying cover and observation for Slovakian ground forces in the conquest of Lvov, Kiev, and Rostov. Fortunately for the defenseless Pragas, skies above these cities had already been mostly swept clear of Soviet machines by the Luftwaffe, making aerial combat unlikely. But Red Army anti-aircraft fire remained dangerous, and čatár Frantisek Brezina’s Avia B-534 was the first Slovak to fall to Russian flak on July 25, while in the act of flying escort for a German Henschel Hs.126 observation plane.

Forced into an emergency landing far behind enemy lines, he came under fire from approaching troops. These were strafed by his squadron comrade, čatár Stefan Martis, who then landed as close as possible to Brezina, enabling him to jump aboard the lower, port wing. More Russian soldiers fired on the Avia, as it took off with the rescued pilot clinging to a strut for dear life. Although Martis was shot in the leg and his fuel tank holed by gunfire, he managed to safely reach the SVZ airfield at Tulczyn with a badly wind-blown, but otherwise sound Brezina.

The incident was important, because it for the first time won the favorable attention of Luftwaffe brass, who awarded Martis the Iron Cross Second Class, in addition to the Silver Medal for Heroism he received from his own country. When, merely five days later, another downed flyer was rescued in an identical fashion by a SVZ pilot, Slovak courage featured prominently in the German press.

Still, more than a month was to pass before General Pulanich’s airmen finally confronted the Red Army Air Force on July 29, with inconclusive results, neither side claiming any “kills:” In August, however, fighters of the 12th Letky destroyed three Polikarpov I-16s near Kiev without loss to themselves. While these numbers are not high, the Slovak achievement was nonetheless significant, because the Soviets’ low-wing monoplane Rata was more than 80 mph faster than the Avia double-deckers.

The fighting around Kiev spilled into early September, when 10 B234s attacked 9 of the markedly superior Polikarpovs, shooting down two of them without suffering casualties. A third Rata was destroyed 24 hours later, during a patrol of three Avias above the Dniepr bridge. While no Slovaks had been killed yet on the Eastern Front, their equipment was so badly worn out, continued operations were no longer feasible, and all squadrons were reassigned to the homeland before the close of 1941. Thus ended the purely Slovakian phase of the SVZ’s involvement in World War II. But Hermann Goering had been impressed by these doughty crews, winning victories with patently obsolete aircraft, and offered to provide them pilot instruction for an all-Slovak squadron. Designated 13 (slow)/JG 52, it would be attached to a Luftwaffe unit (II. JG 52) with its own Messerschmitt-109s.

Accordingly, 19 Slovakian students arrived at Karup airfield in occupied Denmark on February 25, 1942, to complete their conversion training some four months later, when they were transferred on behalf of advanced combat instruction in Piestany. They finally left during October for their new operational base at Maikop, where they awaited the arrival of their fighters. The aircraft were something of a disappointment: outdated Messerschmitt-109Es, scarred veterans of the Battle of Britain. Some, in fact, were repaired crash victims. Undeterred, the Slovaks were committed to proving themselves and dressed their seasoned Emits in the new national insignia of a dark blue cross outlined in white with a red disc at the center.

On November 29, just two 13 (slow)IJG 52 Messerschmitts took on nine Polikarpov Chaikas, shooting down three of them, suffering no losses of their own. During the weeks that followed, the Slovaks escorted Luftwaffe Junkers-88 and Heinkel-111 bombers, and undertook ground attacks against enemy transportation. They were rewarded by Goering in mid-December when he replaced their used-up Emits with the much-improved Messerschmitt Me-109F-4. The Slovak pilots immediately took to this more up-to-date model, as evidenced by their escalating number of kills. The Friedrichs came just in time, because the Soviets were replacing their out-moded Chaikas and Ratas with far better Yaks, Migs, and Lavochkins. It was at the controls of 109Fs that the first Slovakian aces began to make their impact on the Eastern Front during early 1943.

While flying Avia biplanes, they were fortunate to get a crack at the enemy. Now, pilots such as Jan Reznak, Jan Gerthofer, and Jozef Jancovic were competing among themselves for the position of Top Gun. As testimony to the desperate measures undertaken by Red flyers to destroy their Slovak opponents, Jancovic returned to base after a memorable encounter on January 20, when a Polikarpov 1-16 left part of its wing embedded in his own aircraft! The Rata pilot had attempted to ram Jancovic head on.

A rapidly growing tally of successful sorties collected by the Slovaks yet again caught Hermann Goering’s eye, and he re-equipped their squadron with the latest Messerschmitt Me-109G-4s. These state-of-the-art warplanes and their crews were soon put to the test when they were moved from Maikop to an airfield on the Taman Peninsula. According to CO stotnik (captain) Jozef Palenicek, “In the sector to which the squadron has been assigned, enemy air activity has increased to such an extent that pilots-mainly on escort flights-have to engage with forces up to nine times more numerous”‘

The Red Army Air Force mounted a maximum effort for undisputed ascendancy over the Kuban, a region of southern Russia surrounding the Kuban River on the Black Sea between the Don Steppe, Volga Delta, and Caucasus. It was here that Stavka, the Soviet high command, intended to break the Axis on the Eastern Front. Never before had the Slovak airmen been caught up in such ferocious and relentless engagements, which intensified throughout March, when one of their leading aces, čatár “Jozo” Jancovic, was killed. Reznak likened him to “a bird of prey, who never took any account of his own safety in air combat;’ a recklessness that prevented him from noticing a Lavochkin interceptor while attacking Shturmovik bombers.’ Although pulled from his crashed landing, Jancovic died of his injuries soon after at a Zaporoshskaya field hospital.

He had at least lived long enough to celebrate his squadron’s 50th confirmed victory on March 21, when podporučík Gerthofer splashed a Petlyakov Pe-2 into the Black Sea. This victory was also the first Peshka dive-bomber claimed by 13 a success that drew widespread congratulations, including a personal telegram from Reichsmarshal Goering. His chief of the air department at the Deutsche Luftwaffenmission in der Slowakei, Oberleutnant Ignacius Weh, reported after inspecting the Taman base, “the Slovak fighter squadron is delighted to fight:”