By the end of the First World War, fighter aircraft and bombers were a common part of the military vocabulary and a vital part of military operations. Air-to-air combat had a new generation of “knights” that took to the air and engaged in single combat.
Manfred von Richthofen set a high bar, scoring 80 kills before his luck ran out. The exploits of his “Flying Circus” – Jagdgeschwader (Fighter Wing) 1 – became the inspiration for a new generation of would-be fighter pilots.
The Second World War saw air power reach new and decisive heights of destructive power and the evolution of the Jagdgeschwader reached its peak. By the end of that war, there was one unit – Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG 52) – that held the title of the deadliest fighter unit ever.
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In numerical terms, JG 52 destroyed over 10,000 aircraft and boasted amongst its ranks the three highest-scoring aces, including Günther Rall (275 kills), Gerhard Barkhorn (301 kills) and Erich Hartmann (352 kills) the highest-scoring ace of all time.
Many other members of JG 52 boasted 50+, 100+ or 200+ kills. Their names, and the achievements of JG 52, may not be particularly well known to you.
There was no showy “flying circus”. They were focused on the business of the destruction of the enemy. And they fought almost exclusively on the Russian Front.
Let’s dig into this a little.
Formation of JG 52
JG 52 was officially formed in May 1939 in a Luftwaffe reorganisation, from a previous unit formation, JG 433. Several of the early leaders were veterans of Spain, including Adolf Galland. A Jagdgeschwader comprised 150 aircraft divided into three “Gruppe” of 40 – 50 aircraft.
Gruppe was split into three “Staffel” – essentially squadrons – of approximately 12 aircraft. JG 52 was formed of I, II and III Gruppe.
JG 52 operated the Bf 109, one of the most famous fighter aircraft of the Second World War. It was designed by Willi Messerschmitt and Robert Lusser in the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke (the “Bf” in the Bf 109) in the early 1930s.
It ended up being the most-produced fighter aircraft in history. A distinctive feature of its armament, in addition to wing-mounted machine guns, was a powerful 20mm cannon mounted in the nose. This potent weapon, even though the number of rounds was limited, was absolutely devastating at close range.
The Western Front
JG 52 played a primarily peripheral and largely undistinguished part in the invasion of France and the Battle of Britain. Its three “Gruppe” were used in an ad hoc fashion: sometimes homeland defence, and other times in France.
There was certainly no hint of things to come. In twenty-four hours in late July 1940, III Gruppe managed to lose eight aircraft – and four squadron leaders – for only two Spitfires. Chastened, the Gruppe was withdrawn to Germany. When I Gruppe returned to Germany to refit, only four of the original thirty-six pilots remained.
The Russian Front
By Barbarossa, the Luftwaffe was a highly advanced, confident and powerful weapon of war, not yet ground down by endless combat, attrition or retreats. It had men with real combat experience – Spain, Poland, France and the Battle of Britain.
Pilots that arrived at a frontline Staffel in 41-42 were perhaps in the “sweet spot” of the Luftwaffe’s training programme: Erich Hartmann started fighter training in October 1940 and did not deploy operationally until October 1942.
On 22 June 1941, the assault on the Soviet Union began. The panzergruppe plunged forwards, Luftwaffe in close support: many early JG 52 victims were lined up neatly on Soviet airfields.
The blitzkrieg initially seemed as devastatingly effective as the attacks against Poland and France. The three Gruppe of JG 52 fought in the north, centre and south, moving rapidly, hopping from muddy field to grassy airstrip to keep pace with the advances.
III Gruppe, in the Ukraine, met less opposition for a brief period, attracting a telegram rant from Göring:
“Your unit continues to distinguish itself by its failure to shoot down the enemy. Just how much longer are the Russians to be allowed to enter your airspace unmolested?”
Attrition and casualties began to impact. Advances slowed. The Russian winter threw mud, snow and sub-zero temperatures into the mix. In bitter fighting around Moscow, I and II Gruppe provided support as best they could.
In November, Sepp Deitrich, commander of the SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, sent a truck of alcohol and cigarettes to Leutnant Hermann Graf (a future commander of JG 52) for shooting down Soviet aircraft attacking SS positions.
JG 52 suffered the bitterness of the 1941-42 winter as much as any other unit. And the new year started off badly, thanks to poor weather. The spring of 1942 saw overly-confident Soviet counter-attacks, causing significant reverses for the Soviet Army.
It allowed the Wehrmacht to regain a measure of its former confidence, taking time to refit and replenish. JG 52 was upgraded with the Bf 109G model, which it would use more or less for the rest of the war.
By summer, Hitler and his generals were ready to take the blitzkrieg eastwards. The object was twofold: Stalingrad and the Caucasus. Army Group South was divided in two. Army Group South (A) would drive south to the Caucasus.
Army Group South (B) would push east towards Stalingrad. The Geschwader was divided – I Gruppe served as a “fire brigade” operating across the eastern front. II and III Gruppe were in the south.
In June 1942, JG 52 claimed its 2,000th victory. In October 1942, Army Group South had made good progress: von Paulus’ troops had reached Stalingrad and Army Group South (A) had pushed into the Caucasus mountains.
Let’s briefly take stock of what was happening at the tactical level. JG 52 now had many veterans amongst its ranks and new arrivals were able to benefit directly from their experience.
Although, after two years of training, newly arrived pilots might have thought they were ready for combat, the veterans knew differently. The smallest tactical aerial combat formations employed by the Luftwaffe were the “Schwarm” of four aircraft and the “Rotte”, of two aircraft.
Two Rotte made up a Schwarm. In a Rotte, one pilot was lead and the other was a wingman, flying slightly above and behind in order to protect the senior pilot. As standard, inexperienced pilots were assigned as wingmen to a veteran.
Early combat flights focused on survival and gaining experience. Pre-flight briefings revolved around “stay on my tail and do exactly what I do.” Close one-on-one attention by an experienced pilot was recognised as the best way to train a new guy.
Rank counted for nothing in the air. Flying skill mattered more: the man with the most kills was the default commander during combat.
The scale of defeat at Stalingrad placed Army Group South (A) at risk of encirclement. In early January, German forces began to withdraw west. The pilots and crew of JG 52 did similarly, with III/JG 52 establishing an airbase at Kerch to support the fighting over the Kuban bridgehead.
A veteran pilot joined them at Taman – Walter Krupinski. He could make a dramatic entrance.
Erich Hartmann recounted that he and a group of pilots were at the airfield watching a damaged 109 limp in to land. It crashed and exploded, all witnesses were certain the pilot was dead. But the pilot – Krupinski – emerged, completely unscathed, from the smoke and flames.
On another occasion, Krupinski is said to have taken off on a combat mission, got shot down, returned to the airbase in a car, and promptly took off again, to claim two kills.
In April, Gunther Rall claimed JG 52’s 5,000th kill. Conditions on the Russian front were unique, in terms of environment and opposition. JG 52 operated on muddy, grassy, frozen or hard-baked dusty airstrips, combating disease, bitter winters and blistering summers – and the fear of being captured by the Soviets.
Hitler was set on a summer offensive to reverse the westward momentum – or at least stabilise the front. The bulge in the front line around Kursk seemed to offer this opportunity. Hammer blows from the north and south might pinch off the Soviet salient, bagging men and materiel.
On 2 July, under the command of Luftflotte 4, III/JG 52 transferred north in order to support this offensive, dubbed Operation Zitadelle – Citadel.
The offensive began on 5 July and saw the largest amount of aerial combat ever seen on the Russian front. That day, the Luftwaffe claimed to have shot down 432 Soviet aircraft. JG 52 worked to protect the panzers from Sturmovik ground attack aircraft.
The 7th of July was particularly intense. Hartmann became an “ace in a day” – i.e. shooting down at least five aircraft in one day.
In August, with Kursk’s failure, the Gruppe fell back on Kharkiv. But the kill rate increased. Hartmann started August with 42 kills and ended the month with 90, including two “ace in a day” achievements. His reputation spread.
The Soviets nicknamed him the “Black Devil of the South” and Stalin put a bounty on his head of 10,000 roubles. He had a black tulip painted on his nose cone, until he realised Soviet pilots avoided him and his kill rate dropped. He removed the artwork.
In January III Gruppe relocated again – ever westwards – to central Ukraine. The high kill rate provoked scepticism within the Luftwaffe leadership. Questions were asked about the accuracy of the claims. At one point an observer was assigned to accompany operations, to monitor performance and claims.
A Soviet spring offensive made rapid gains. The staffel of I and III Gruppe was in the thick of the action, in the air and on the ground: a dozen times they changed airfields, often at very short notice.
On 21 March, JG 52 recorded the 3,500th combat victory for JG 52. Four JG 52 combat veterans – Hartmann, Barkhorn, Krupinski and Wiese – were sent to receive awards from Hitler. They had been drinking non-stop and were very drunk when they met the Fuhrer.
“All of us except Gerd were getting the Oak Leaves, he was getting the Swords. By the time we got there, we were trying to sober up. Walter always stated years later that we had to hold each other up.
We had been drinking cognac and champagne, a deadly combination when you have not eaten in a couple of days. The first person we met off the train was Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant, Major von Below, who was I think in a state of shock at our condition. We were to meet Hitler in a couple of hours, and we could hardly stand.”
The Wehrmacht continued retreating. By May, JG 52 were in Romania and encountered American fighters for the first time – P-51s, the legendary “Mustang” – escorting B-17 bombers over Ploesti. They were less of a pushover.
Two new Allied military operations were struck with decisive impact. The D-Day amphibious landings secured a lodgement in Normandy. Two weeks later, and of most immediate relevance to JG 52, the Soviet operation “Bagration” destroyed Army Group Centre.
On 15 August, with Soviet tanks closing on Warsaw, III Gruppe moved to southern Poland to shore up defences.
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On 2 September, the 118th kill for Hauptmann Borchers brought JG 52’s collective total to 10,000, the last 1,000 achieved in only four months when the formation was down to only six operational Staffel.
1945 – The End of the Road
Things became more fluid and more desperate in the closing months, the Soviet and Anglo-American front lines squeezing the Germans like toothpaste in a tube. It was not uncommon for American and Soviet pilots to encounter each other in the air over the remains of the German Reich.
On more than one occasion, JG 52 pilots witnessed “friendly fire” dogfights between the Allies, both sides confused, as they chased German planes in a swirling melee.
The remnants of JG 52 were gathered in Czechoslovakia as the end came. Hartman shot down a Yak-9 on the 17 April for his 350th combat victory. On 30 April, Hitler committed suicide. On 4 May, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery accepted the unconditional surrender of German forces in the Netherlands, northwest Germany and Denmark.
But some units were still resisting. The last JG 52 mission occurred on 8 May, perhaps inevitably by Hartman, from an improvised airstrip hosting the remnants of I and III Gruppe. Over Brunn (modern-day Brno), he encountered a group of Yak-9 fighters. When one looped too close, Hartmann pounced and sent it spinning to the ground.
The victory was meaningless. Destroying their aircraft, the men of JG 52 marched into Soviet captivity. The pilots and crew of JG 52 spent traumatic years in Soviet prison camps, the survivors only returning years later.
Post War Legacy
Several JG 52 veterans joined the West German Air Force, bringing extensive experience to a new generation of young pilots and a new era of jet aircraft technology. Hartmann became a squadron leader, commanding the first German all-jet fighter unit, equipped with F-86 Sabres.
His new outfit was JG 71. In 1961, the squadron received the honorary title “Richthofen”, in honour of the highest-scoring German ace of another war.
It seems incredible that they could have downed so many aircraft in such a short space of time. Thousands of Luftwaffe pilots perished during the war. Training levels, tactics, the skill of the opponent and luck all played important roles.
Luftwaffe pilots never “completed” a tour of duty, but were on duty seven days a week and compelled to take to the air – sometimes three or four times in a day – against ever more numerous and competent enemies.
The Russian Front in the Second World War offered a very unique set of circumstances. You should never say “never again”, but it does seem unlikely that human-to-human aerial combat will ever yield such statistics again.
As to the issue of accurate claims, it is fair to say that recording victims and victors in the midst of an intense, brief, confusing, stressful and three-dimensional combat is inevitably problematic. But there are no realistic alternative contenders to JG 52’s position as the most deadly fighter unit ever.
But perhaps we could leave the last word to Erich Hartmann, talking to us in an interview from 1986, in his retirement:
“I hope nobody ever beats my record…I hope nobody ever has to beat my record.”