Hitler’s Airborne Anti-tank Guns-Part Two

The Henschel Hs 129 also played a part in the Battle for the Kursk Salient. Built in fewer numbers than the Junkers Ju 87G this twin-engine close support aircraft’s role was not insignificant. Its rocky career began with totally inadequate engines. The Argus A-1 twelve cylinder inverted-vee, air-cooled engine developed only 465 horsepower for take-off. The fuselage was built around the armored cockpit made up of armor plate six to twelve millimeters thick and weighing in at nearly 500 kilograms. In the nose was a pair of 20 mm cannon and a pair of 7.9 mm machine guns. Underwing racks carried either two 50 kg bombs or twenty-four 2 kg anti-personnel bombs.

The prototype made its first flight in early 1939 and the machine was criticized for being seriously under powered and for providing limited visibility for the pilot. The priority for this machine remained low initially, so the redesign received more support only when the need for more close support aircraft became more apparent during the campaigns in Poland and France. The conquest of France made available the Gnome-Rhone 14 M radial engine. This engine developed 700 horsepower for take-off. Even these engines allowed only a 400 kilometer per hour maximum speed. A limited time was allowed for redesign, so, when the aircraft entered service in North Africa in March 1942 and the eastern front in May 1942, front line units learned that the engines were vulnerable to dust and could absorb only minimal combat damage. Additionally, the armament was totally inadequate for anti-armor work.

Field modifications provided for Hs 129Bs included an increase in armament to include a 30 mm cannon with 30 rounds in a detachable ventral pack. This weapon was proved to be unable to penetrate the 45 mm armor plate of the T-34 tank or the 75 mm plate of the KV-1 tank. This compelled the Luftwaffe to provide Hs 129 units with updates allowing installation of the 30 mm MK 103 cannon which possessed a higher muzzle velocity and a flatter shell trajectory than that provided by the MK 101. Some aircraft were also fitted with a 37 mm BK 3.7. Use of this larger weapon required the removal of the 7.9 mm machineguns. Both of these cannon were found to be effective against the softer sides and rear of the Russian tanks.

On 8 July, 1943, four squadrons of Hs 129s disrupted a Soviet surprise attack against II SS Panzer Corps near Belgorod. The anti-tank aircraft succeeded in scattering the Soviet tank brigade.

By the middle of 1944 the Luftwaffe realized the Hs 129’s performance was inadequate, as proved by excessive combat losses. Several experiments with higher power engines and different armaments proved unsuccessful. By the beginning of 1945 the Luftwaffe removed the aircraft from service.

Sources: Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1972

The Henschel Hs 129, Profile Publication Number 69, J. R. Smith, Profile Publications Ltd., Leatherhead, Surrey, UK

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Hitler’s Airborne Anti-tank Guns

Two Luftwaffe aircraft were specifically modified for anti-armor work: the Hs-129 and the Ju-87. Except for the Messerschmitt Bf-109, the Ju-87, popularly known as the
Stuka, is perhaps the most familiar German aircraft of the Second World War. Photographs of this crank-winged dive bomber in operation over Poland, the Netherlands, and England are common. Also well known is that the aircraft was removed from bomber operations over England in early September 1940 during the Battle of Britain. Its later history is less well known.

The Ju-87B was used extensively on the Eastern Front during Operation Barbarossa, the attack against the Soviet Union in June 1941, although it was acknowledged to be obsolescent at this time. Work had already begun on an updated version of the venerable aircraft, but problems with the replacement engine delayed its introduction into service.

The Ju-87D entered service on the northern, Leningrad, sector of the Russian Front and, by the spring of 1942 increased numbers of the model arrived. This aircraft was capable of dropping a 1,000 kilogram armor piercing bomb, which also experienced teething problems. A modification of the Ju-87 D resulted in the Ju-87G. Armed with a 37mm cannon under each outer wing panel just outboard of the bend in the inverted gull wing, this aircraft was first tested operationally in the summer of 1942 by Oberleutnant Hans-Ulrich Rudel, author of Stuka Pilot. Rudel became a tank busting specialist, eventually credited with destroying 519 Soviet tanks.

During the Battle for the Kursk Salient small numbers of the Ju-87G were used alongside the Ju-87D against Soviet massed armor. On July 5, 1943, the first day of the battle, Rudel destroyed 12 Soviet tanks near Belgorod. As the battle progressed over the next week casualties among the Stuka units accumulated and, as a result, the career of the Ju-87 as a daylight dive bomber was ended. It was eventually relegated to glider towing, night bombing, and the duties of a unit hack.

Sources: Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1970

Profile 211: Junkers Ju 87D, Richard P. Bateson, Profile Publications Ltd., Windsor, England

Kurt Tank’s Butcher-bird–The Fw 190

The fate of the Focke-Wulf 190 on the Russian front perfectly summarizes the problems faced by the Luftwaffe itself. The Luftwaffe specialized in focusing numeric and qualitative advantage at a number of key points on the battlefield. In Russia the battlefield constantly expanded as the German Army forced itself east. Distances between key points increased with that expansion. The key points shifted from one part of the front to the next and the number of key points increased as the campaign progressed. The Luftwaffe broke up into smaller units in answer to the army’s calls for support, thus expending themselves in ‘penny packets’ and reducing their effectiveness. The primitive conditions existing on the airfields on the Russian front, together with the lengthening of supply lines stressed the sophisticated and sensitive structure of the Luftwaffe.

The Focke-Wulf 190, with its armament of four 20 mm cannon and two 7.92 mm machine guns arrived on the eastern front in late 1942 with the mission of combating the Il-2 armored ground attack aircraft. The legendary Fighter Wing 54, Green Heart, proved the machine’s usefulness on the Russian Front in the Leningrad sector.

At about that time the Luftwaffe learned the suitability of the Focke-Wulf 190 for fighter-bomber operations. Thus began a constant competition for the insufficient supplies of this aircraft. The aging Ju 87D found itself increasingly unable to defend itself against the swarms of Soviet fighters. So the Luftwaffe converted Stuka Wings to Attack Wings by replacing the Stukas with Fw 190 fighter-bombers. By late summer 1943 the Luftwaffe was re-equipping ground attack units at a rate of two every six weeks. Even the veteran interceptor wing, Fighter Wing 54, was converted to fighter-bomber duty.

The Focke-Wulf 190 was a sophisticated beast. Demand for this aircraft by increasing numbers of units, all with different requirements, resulted in a plethora of variants. The high demand and the number of variants complicated production and supply. The primitive conditions on the airfields challenged the maintenance crews on the front lines laboring to keep these sophisticated aircraft in combat capable condition.

I will touch on only a few of the many variants of this aircraft, stressing the mid-war fighter-bombers featured in the novel Cauldron. Please refer to my sources below for a complete list.

In 1942 production shifted from the Fw 190 A-3 to the A-4. Fighter-bomber variants coming out of the factories included the A-4/U-3 with additional armor plating for the engine and the cockpit and fittings for a 551 pound bomb or a 66 Imperial gallon drop tank under the fuselage. In the field the crews generally removed the outer two of the wing mounted 20 mm cannon to save weight. The A-4/U8 could retain the full gun armament and carry the drop tank under the fuselage and four 110 pound bombs on wing racks. If the two outer 20 mm guns were removed the aircraft could carry the drop tank under the fuselage and two 551 pound bombs on the racks under the wings. If the fuselage mounted machine guns were also removed and only the tw0 20 mm cannon in the wing roots were retained, the aircraft could carry the 551 pound bomb under the fuselage and two drop tanks under the wings. Variants only got more complicated from there.

The Focke-Wulf 190, like the Bf 109, served on all fronts. Its capabilities are well documented and make fascinating reading. Only a few sources are listed below.

Sources: Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1972

The Focke-Wulf Fw 190A, Profile Publications #3, M.C. Windrow, Profile Publications, LTD., London, UK

Focke-Wulf Fw 190 Described, Geoffrey Pentland & Anthony Shennan, Kookaburra Technical Publications, Victoria, Australia

AIRCAM/AIRWAR 11 Luftwaffe Fighter Units Russia 1941-45, Christopher Shores, Sky Books Press LTD., New York, New York, 1978

JG 54, Jagdgeschwader 54 Grunherz: Aces of the Eastern Front, Jerry Scutts, Airlife Publishing LTD. Shrewsbury, England 1992