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.

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