German fighter pilots in the Phoney War 1940

The Phoney War, the period labelled by the British press the Sitzkrieg, covers the period from the British and French declarations of war on 3 September 1939 till 9 May 1940, the day preceding the unleashing of the Blitzkrieg against neutral Holland, Belgium and belligerent France. This period overlapped with the brief Polish campaign of September 1939 and the early part of the Norwegian campaign, and involved German fighter defence of the Western Front with France and the north German coastal areas and naval bases, as well as Luftwaffe bomber attacks on the British naval base at Scapa Flow. Reconnaissance activities by both sides in all these areas were ongoing and subject to interception by fighters from French, British and German air forces. Both RAF and Luftwaffe raids on each other’s naval bases were far beyond fighter escort range, as were long-range reconnaissance operations, and all suffered heavy casualties; short-range reconnaissance missions were generally escorted and sometimes led to intense actions over the Western Front with France. Other reconnaissance missions were performed by fighter aircraft and remained relatively unmolested, as experienced by Unteroffizier Alois Dierkes, Me 110 radio operator/rear gunner, V/LG 1: ‘From Wiesbaden-Erbenheim we were transferred in about February 1940 to Mannheim-Sandhofen, from where we flew our operations over France. Partly, we were employed as reconnaissance aircraft, with a large built-in camera and the two cannons removed to compensate for the weight; we flew along the front lines to be able to recognise new defensive works.’ German fighters claimed three Spitfire reconnaissance aircraft in this period, of which two can be confirmed, one flying from France and the other from the UK.

Combat in general was limited for most fighter pilots and for the ground forces also, hence the description of this period as the Sitzkrieg or Phoney War. Many pilots, such as Feldwebel Fritz Oeltjen with I/JG 21, spent long hours at various readiness states. ‘After the Polish campaign I/JG 21 (later III/JG 54) was stationed at Rheine airfield, to protect the Emsland area. I was posted to the 2nd Staffel, Staffelkapitän Oberleutnant Eggers. The readiness system consisted of one Rotte (pair of aircraft) with pilots in the Me 109 cockpits (Sitzbereitschaft) and one Rotte waiting beside their planes (Alarmstart-Rotte).’ Oberfeldwebel Artur Dau experienced a similarly boring period: ‘At the beginning of the war our unit (III/JG 51) moved to Böningstedt near Wesel on the Rhine. Our night quarters were residences in the town area. During the day we were all on the airfield so as to be rapidly employed if needed. On the airfield, tents served as our quarters.’ There were also humorous moments in the air, which Leutnant Hans-Theodor Grisebach still remembered: ‘In early 1940 I was transferred to a front-line unit (I/JG 2) in Bassenheim in the region of Koblenz. The first operations against France took place soon after. The French we only heard over the radio; we hardly saw anything of them although some combats did apparently occur elsewhere. The missions took place at very high altitudes. Strangely enough we had the same radio frequency as a French fighter unit. One of our Staffelkapitäns spoke very good French, and had also hosted a French officers’ delegation that visited Germany in 1938 and made friends with a number of them. He maintained a particularly good friendship with one of these officers and greeted these French fighter pilots at the first such radio contact with “Bonjour and Guten Morgen”.’

One of the most experienced and well-trained pilots in the whole Luftwaffe, never mind the fighter arm, was Hauptmann Hanns Trübenbach, Gruppenkommandeur of I/LG 2, who had begun his flying career in 1926. His comments provide a wide-ranging perspective at the beginning of the war.

We members of the old guard who had already received a long peacetime training already also had good flying experience and were equipped with the best aircraft material. In September 1939, the German Luftwaffe was the best and strongest air force in Europe in terms of quantity and technology. The ranking order of the European air forces could be given as follows, based on a qualitative and quantitative evaluation: Germany had 4,300 operational aircraft, England 3,600, Italy 2,800, France 2,500, and Poland 900 operational machines. The unknown factor was Soviet Russia at that time. No nation had much experience of war at the beginning of World War Two, from which admittedly arose the fact that we were superior in shooting ability due to our outstanding reflector gun sight. One should also not forget the assistance provided by the experience which the German armed forces had picked up in the Spanish Civil War and particularly the fighter tactics, which were conceptualised by Mölders during his time in the Condor Legion. The preferred fighter squadron formation from the First World War, based on vics of three aircraft, was changed to the modern fighter squadron formation of three times four aircraft, wherein the smallest unit was no longer the vic of three aircraft, but the Rotte comprising two aircraft, that hunted as grouped pairs in a Schwarm of four machines. In this tactic, the pair-leader did the shooting while enjoying the fundamental protection of the wingman.

In spite of the inherent advantages enjoyed by the German fighter pilots and indeed the entire air force alluded to above, even at this very early stage of the war, and disregarding the shattering impact of the first Blitzkrieg on Poland, Göring, the commander of the Luftwaffe (who was also in charge of the German economy among several other high offices) was remarkably pessimistic about Germany’s chances following the declarations of war by Britain and France. Hauptmann Hanns Trübenbach, later Kommodore of JG 52 in the Battle of Britain, was a direct witness to this. ‘I was already informed exactly about the true war situation shortly after the Polish campaign, by one of the best friends of Göring, Hauptmann der Reserve Phillipp Remtsma. And thus a few of us knew already that the war could not be won any more. A few months later, after the Battle of Britain, I heard this also directly from Göring himself, when I was permitted to attend a supper in Holland, as the only Kommodore of the entire Luftwaffe to be present amongst the Reichsmarschall’s guests.’

Although action on the Western Front remained limited during the Phoney War, the effects on the individual could be significant, as Leutnant Josef Bürschgens, I/JG 26 experienced himself: ‘On 28 September 1939, I got my first aerial victory, which was also JG 26’s first victory of the war, over or near Metz, Alsace-Lorraine, against 11 French fighter planes, American-built P-36 Curtiss machines. Because I was seriously wounded during this fight, I only came back into action again on 9 June 1940, in the last days of the war in France.’ A few German fighter pilots suffered mishaps and were taken prisoner by the French, with treatment being generally harsh. One who recalled such treatment was Feldwebel Georg Pavenzinger, I/JG 51 who became a prisoner in the first month of the war.

On 25 August 1939 we in I/JG 51 moved westwards to a field base near Horb am Neckar. That we were actually going to war as a consequence of this relocation, hardly any of us believed. Even at the outbreak of the war on 1 September 1939 against Poland we did not yet think about a larger-scale war. We were generally of the opinion that the western powers would not take up arms and that negotiations would continue and another option be found. However, on 2 September 1939, General Sperrle visited us, and he gave a short talk during which he said, amongst other things: ‘The Führer is of the opinion that the western powers will not join in the war, but we generals are of a different opinion.’ On the next day, 3 September 1939, England (sic) and France declared war against us. Immediately thereafter began the so-called Sitzkrieg. The pilots sat strapped in and ready for action in the machines, the mechanics also ready next to the aircraft. In the following few days border patrols were flown, and in between there were alarms and scrambles, when enemy reconnaissance aircraft were reported. About 20 September 1939 we moved to Speyer, where we again flew border patrols, but further over the lines into France. On 28 September 1939 at about 11h30 our 2nd Staffel was in the air with eight machines, when my engine stopped and I had to force-land in French territory – directly on the Maginot Line. What happened thereafter, from my capture till my return after the French campaign was over, is a story all to itself; to tell it fully would take much too long. I was taken into custody at great effort and expense, even motorised units were involved in this, and with arms bound and a great swirl of drums I was brought to the fortress at Dijon, where I was kept in perpetual darkness for seven weeks. I was sentenced to seven years of forced labour and there followed a further charge of a death sentence. However, this second charge never resulted in a trial before the French fortress tribunal, as the German armoured troops were too close.

Action against the few incursions of British bombers attacking north German naval targets led to intense air battles, particularly that of 18 December 1939, described below by Rudolf Petzold, Me 110 radio operator/rear gunner in I/ZG 76. Very soon, these battles showed the British that unescorted bomber formations were not capable of effective defence against fighter attack during daylight raids. Major actions were as follows: 4 September 1939, 15 Blenheims made low-level attacks against ships in Wilhelmshaven, five being lost, mainly to anti-aircraft fire; 4 September 1939, 14 Wellingtons flying against ships in Brunsbüttel lost two bombers to fighters; 29 September 1939, 11 Hampdens lost five aircraft to fighters while operating against ships at Heligoland; 3 December 1939, 24 four Wellingtons bombing ships at Heligoland got off scot-free and one German fighter was lost; 14 December 1939, 12 Wellingtons operating against a convoy north of Wilhelmshaven suffered five losses to fighters, one German fighter being lost in return. The climax that finally drove the lesson home came on 18 December 1939 when 24 Wellingtons went out to attack ships off Wilhelmshaven, with 12 lost to German fighters who suffered two casualties themselves. Thereafter such raids kept away from the coast, only attacking ships on the open sea, and losses in the few resultant fighter actions were much reduced. Unteroffizier Rudolf Petzold of I/ZG 76 was among the Me 110 crewmen who were stationed along the North German coast to intercept such raids and was an eyewitness to the combat on the big Wilhelmshaven raid.

After we had survived our baptism of fire in the Polish campaign well, with several victories in aerial combat, we moved with our Me 110s temporarily to Bönninghardt – a small grass field near Geldern – and on to the North Sea coast to Jever in Oldenburg. Here one expected incursions of British bombers into the German Bight from across the sea. Every day we flew patrols with two aircraft along the coast at Wilhelmshaven. The days passed and of English aircraft there was nothing to be seen. The crews who were not immediately at readiness passed the time playing cards or with snowball fights, which as an equalization sport provided much fun. As Christmas was approaching we had much to do to prepare for the first war Christmas. On 18 December 1939 the order for a number of crews to come to readiness and sit in the aircraft came like a bolt from the blue into the midst of these happy preparations. We did not really believe in an English attack at all, as we had experienced nothing more in the air since the end of the Polish campaign. Suddenly at 15h00 came the radioed order for a mission, course to the north. My pilot, Oberfeldwebel Fleischmann, an experienced flier from Spain, and I started at 15h09 and immediately took up our course towards the North Sea. In the distance we could already see the flak bursts in the sky and knew immediately that something was brewing! Right, throttles forward and off we go! We arrived at exactly the right time and saw an estimated 50 English bombers at about 2500 m altitude approaching above the coast near Wilhelmshaven. We closed in on the bomber formation – everything seemed to happen much too slowly – and recognised them as twin-engined Vickers-Wellington machines and realised that here caution was needed. These machines were equipped with 2 cm cannons and machine guns to defend them that could be aimed to all sides. My pilot Fleischmann, who had already registered victories in Spain and who had gained more experience together with me in Poland, was known as a reckless daredevil and immediately went over to the attack. He placed himself behind the Wellington flying closest to him. From the rear quarter he fired several bursts from all his guns into the engine and fuselage of the Englishman. The effect was not long in coming. A smoke trail showed us that the right-hand engine was on fire and the machine flew irregularly. The pilot was probably hit. As we turned away – we had to be careful and avoid ramming the Englishman – we were able to observe how the machine spun away below and hit the sea. That was our first downing of an English bomber. This victory really got Fleischmann going and I had my hands full to change the ammunition drums of our cannons so that we could tackle the next opponent. We did not have to search; today there were enough English bombers flying all around us. I reported over the microphone: ‘everything ready to shoot!’ Fleischmann went into his next attack straight away. He put himself behind a Wellington and shot – like the previous attack – several bursts, exactly from behind through the rear turret into the fuselage of the enemy machine. We received strong return fire from the rear gunner. The battle swung to and fro. Our cabin was shot through by the opponent’s shots and I had to report: ‘no more ammunition in the drums’. So, turn away from the enemy, reload and attempt a second attack. Fleischmann turned and hung behind the Englishman, who had in the meantime dived steeply, to fly just above the water on a course homewards. But Fleischmann, the old fox, did not let himself be shaken off. Now we flew very low close behind the English machine. Around us was nothing except water and sky! There where it had bubbled and boiled in the air a few minutes ago, where friend and foe were curving amongst each other and violent aerial combats took place, now there was peace and nothing more to be seen. Only this bomber and ourselves! We now thought we would be able to do for the English aircraft at our leisure! However, when Fleischmann pressed the firing buttons for the cannons, nothing came out, absolutely nothing! Our guns had jammed. Despite all our efforts, we could not remedy this. It is beyond possibility to describe what one feels in such a moment. In a fury over this mishap Fleischmann pulled up left of the Englishman and threatened him with a clenched fist – we could see him very well. It seemed as if the entire English crew, except for the pilot, were no longer alive. This all played itself out far out over the North Sea. We flew back to our base in Jever at nought feet. At 17h15 we returned waggling our wings, to show our success, and landed as the last aircraft, with uncountable holes in the fuselage and cabin. Our ground crew received us joyously and with many macabre remarks removed the many, many small flexiglass splinters from our faces. We had gotten away with our lives! Thus ended the air battle over the German Bight of the 18 December 1939 for us. When the next incursion into the German Bight by three Wellington bombers occurred, on 2 January 1940, all three Englishmen were shot down and I unfortunately seriously wounded. I was in hospital for eight months. During this time the Gruppe moved to Stavanger in Norway and my pilot, with whom I had experienced so much, got a new radio operator, Oberfähnrich Mirke. Both were killed after an operation from Stavanger when they hit a rock while landing.

In this combat of 2 January 1940, described in detail in an overstated newspaper article, Fleischmann had again charged in to the attack without hesitation and as a result received the combined return fire of all three Wellingtons, hitting the Me 110 20 times, mostly around the cabin, and wounding his radio operator/air-gunner Rudolf Petzold with a bullet in the leg as well as metal splinters in the upper jaw, chin, nose and mouth. Fleischmann fired back and the Wellington exploded, for his seventh victory. He returned to base on one engine, as did the Schwarmführer of the four attacking Me 110s of I/ZG 76, whose aircraft was hit eight times.

German fighter pilot claims during the Phoney War period, as identified from the web-published lists of Tony Wood, total 135 over the French front (Western Front) with a further 65 over the North German coast against British bomber incursions. The latter encompassed 47 Wellingtons, six Hudsons, two Hampdens and 10 Blenheims; of the 65 thus claimed over the German coast at least 36 can be confirmed from British bomber unit records, but some or all of the Hudsons were likely Coastal Command aircraft rather than Bomber Command losses. Of the 135 claims over the Western Front, approximately 99 can be confirmed by careful post-war research, an overall rate of 73 per cent. This is relatively high, as will be seen in later chapters from much more intense conflicts and air battles, and will have been strongly influenced by the limited aerial combat and relatively small individual actions of the Phoney War period. As is well known, larger numbers of aircraft in a battle always leads to higher over-claiming, for all air forces; the relevant example is of the action of German fighters versus 24 RAF Wellingtons over the German Bight on 18 December 1939 discussed earlier, with 12 RAF losses against 32 confirmed German claims in total. The over-claiming resulting from larger numbers is also often greater when multi-engined aircraft losses are involved, as multiple pilots often attack the same aircraft. This sort of thing is no reflection on the pilots involved but a natural outcome of rapid and intense fighting. In addition, any measure of losses is always clouded by damaged aircraft, especially those which force-land but are repairable. Interestingly, in the claims over the Western Front, one Geschwader stands out: JG 53, which made 76 of the 135 claims. For one Gruppe thereof, I/JG 53, all 27 claims can be confirmed from French and British records; II/JG 53 also made 27 claims but only 13 can be confirmed with some certainty, and for III/JG 53 the figures are 16 out of 22 claims. German fighter losses during the Phoney War period amounted to 36 Me 109s in aerial combat (16 pilots killed, 10 POW, four wounded) and six Me 110s (seven crew killed, one POW, four wounded). In addition, one Me 109 and pilot were lost to anti-aircraft fire.

The top-scoring Luftwaffe fighter pilot of the Phoney War period was Hauptmann Werner Mölders, Staffelkapitän 1/JG 53 until 30 September 1939, when he was promoted to Gruppenkommandeur III/JG 53. He made 10 claims; of these two appear to have no confirmation in Allied records, five do, and the other three were all hit, damaged (force- or crash-landed; one pilot lightly wounded, one seriously) but were repairable. This illustrates the difficulties in judging a victory – if an aircraft is hit, crash-lands and has a wounded pilot, this can be equated as a shot-down victory (in German, an Abschuss), but if the aircraft is later repaired, and the pilot recovers, both can serve again. The German term Luftsieg (literally ‘air victory’) implies a fully destroyed aircraft and reflects what might be termed a total victory, irrespective of whether the pilot survives or not. Mölders was acknowledged at the time, and even more so since, as one of the Luftwaffe’s most outstanding pilots and aces, and certainly a very honest man, but still even he was subject, like all fighter pilots of all nations, to the inevitable over-claiming bogey. On the Western Front, German claims against the Morane 406 fighter showed the highest overestimation of actual successes, with 41 claims against 22 losses to fighters. This is not unusual, with fighter-versus-fighter claims often being thus overestimated. Interestingly, Mölders is credited with four of the nine British Hurricanes actually lost, and appears to have twice shot down the earliest famous ace of the RAF, F/O ‘Cobber’ Kain, with one forced-landing (Hurricane repairable) and one total destruction (Kain bailed out successfully, slightly wounded).