Luftwaffe Maritime Operations in the Black Sea

The eastern winter of 1941-42 was severe, and Luftwaffe operational levels fell dramatically, even within the warmer climes of the Southern reaches of the Russian Front. At the end of November 1941 the command staff of V.Fliegerkorps, a component of Luftflotte 4, had begun relocating from Rostov to Brussels. The intention was to convert it to a dedicated minelaying corps, until its commander, General der Flieger Robert Ritter von Greim, received direct orders from Göring to establish an emergency Luftwaffe tactical operations staff to counter a growing Soviet threat against the eastern Crimea, where Red Army troops had made some haphazard, though successful, landings despite Luftwaffe minelaying around Kerch. On 26 December Soviet troops stormed ashore on the northern coast of the Kerch Peninsula, establishing five bridgeheads up to one battalion in strength each. While huge resources were still engaged in battering Sevastopol into submission, the Germans were momentarily thrown off balance by the Soviet ability to land troops in force, supported by naval artillery.

Greim’s hastily organised Sonderstab Krim, situated in Sarabuz Russkiy, north-west of Simferopol, was tasked with four chief responsibilities in support of General der Flieger Kurt Pflugbeil’s hard-pressed IV.Fliegerkorps. These were the maintenance of reconnaissance over the Black Sea and coastal areas of the Crimean Peninsula; interdiction of Soviet maritime supply and troop movements, as well as those using the ‘ice road’ over the frozen Kerch Strait; strikes on troop concentrations in the Parpach position and rear areas; and fighter attacks against front-line Soviet airfields. Alongside fighter and dive-bomber units, Greim controlled the bombers of III./KG 27, III./KG 51 and I./ KG 100, though the situation was complicated in terms of equipment and training standards. There was no established supply system by which to equip the units gathered under Greim’s command, and the few small forward Crimean airfields available to the Luftwaffe were unsuitable for major bomber operations. The supply situation was never resolved. Major Erich Thiel’s III./KG 27 had its He 111s repurposed to enable anti-shipping missions after previously supporting the Wehrmacht’s land advance, but the unit possessed neither bombs nor detonators suitable for anti-shipping strikes. A similar problem plagued III./KG 51, part of the only Kampfgeschwader equipped with Ju 88s in the Russian southern theatre. Furthermore, Maj. Ernst Freiherr von Bibra’s III./ KG 51 was shuttled between the hastily prepared airstrip at Saki and its previous location at Nikolayev to help counter a Soviet ground offensive. Finally, Maj. Helmut Küster’s I./KG 100, a specialised minelaying unit, possessed no aircrew trained in anti-shipping operations. Von Wild’s small Fliegerführer Süd command was also subordinated to Greim’s Sonderstab, possessing as it did the necessary trained reconnaissance and 6./KG 26 torpedo aircraft.

However, although the aircraft and crews available to Greim may have lacked equipment or the specific training required for their tasks, they were far from ineffective. During January Major Helmut Küster’s I./KG 100 began flying operations against shipping and troop concentrations from Focsani, Romania, before moving to the forward base in Saki, initially planned as a jumping-off point for anti-shipping strikes. From there they continued to mount repeated bombing raids despite frequent air attacks on the airfield. The Staffelkapitän of 8./KG 100, Hptm. Hansgeorg Bätcher, distinguished himself on 20 February by sinking a freighter headed for Sevastopol, estimated at 2,000GRT. Following demands from Luftflotte 4 that all supply ships be destroyed, on 6 February Bätcher attacked a sighted 7,500GRT tanker near Kerch Harbour, but encountered dense anti-aircraft fire. Circling out of visual range, he throttled back the engines to just above stalling speed to make as silent an approach as possible, and attacked once more, releasing his SC500 bombs manually, without bombardier control. A single bomb struck amidships, severely damaging the tanker, which Bätcher returned to finish off on 20 February, her cargo of fuel still trapped inside the stricken hull and sent to the bottom.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the existence of Sonderstab Krim was brief and fraught with problems, and it was disbanded by Göring on 11 February after being further hamstrung by an inefficient supply network, inadequate communications staff and a lack of preparation that highlighted the hastily assembled emergency nature of the Staff. Nonetheless, the Sonderstab claimed the destruction of 25,000 tons of enemy shipping, seventy-six enemy aircraft, and 335 vehicles and fourteen artillery batteries, as well as the trains and troop concentrations attacked during its brief existence. Greim moved onwards to the support of Army Group Centre facing Moscow, forming Luftwaffenkommando Ost after being reunited with the remainder of his staff. At midnight on 18 February Oberst von Wild’s Fliegerführer Süd assumed command over all Luftwaffe air units in the Crimea, and torpedo bombers of 4. and 5./ KG 26 flew in to Saki from Greece to join 6.Staffel during that month, reinforcing the available torpedo force. The first success of the reunited II./KG.26 came on the night of 1/2 March, when the 2,434-ton SS Fabritzius was torpedoed and severely damaged, being claimed as a ‘6,000-ton transport’. The stricken ship was grounded on the bleak shore near Bol’shoy Utrish, where it was further battered by gale-force winds and lay abandoned. On 23 March the 2,690GRT steamship Vasilii Chapaev departed from Poti under destroyer escort, carrying approximately 250 troops for Sevastopol. Forty miles from the Kherson lighthouse she was hit by a II./KG 26 torpedo and sank, with twenty-six crew members and eighty-six soldiers killed. The toll in Soviet shipping harvested by KG 26 over the following weeks was slow and steady, frequently involving heavy loss of life among Soviet troops being shuttled by any means into the inferno of Sevastopol.

Co-operation between von Wild’s staff and Admiral Black Sea (Admiral Schwarzes Meer; Vizeadmiral Friedrich-Wilhelm Fleischer until May 1942) was fast and efficient. However, it still bore the hallmarks of uneasy Kriegsmarine and Luftwaffe relations, and was considerably more difficult when liaising with the command of Luftflotte 4 as, once again, a relatively convoluted path was established for Kriegsmarine operational requests for maritime aircraft.

On 2 February 1942 Luftflotte 4 requested a naval liaison officer to be attached ‘in order to guarantee close co-operation between the Luftflotte, [Marine]Gruppe Süd and Admiral Schwarzes Meer’. S-boats, U-boats and minesweepers were about to become active within the Black Sea after being transferred laboriously from Germany by road, canal and waterway. Marinegruppenkommando Süd (MGK Süd) requested the posting of a fleet officer, the post temporarily filled by K.K. von Bothmer, Chief of Staff to Seekommandant Ukraine and a highly experienced man with proven logistical skills. By May Konteradmiral Robert Eyssen replaced him as the appointed liaison, Luftwaffe Maj. Werner Securius being among the officers alongside whom he worked. Following initial requests for aircraft to be made available for maritime reconnaissance, Fleischer’s staff received a firm rebuke from the Luftwaffe, who made it clear that Eyssen alone, as liaison officer, was responsible for such appeals. Direct requests to Lutflotte 4 or Fliegerführer Süd, Fleischer was informed, were only to be made ‘in urgent cases’. In return, following this reprimand, it was tartly remarked in the Admiral Black Sea War Diary that ‘naval operations must not be disclosed by careless use of the telephone by the Luftwaffe’.

Fortunately, von Wild not only fully appreciated naval requirements, but also possessed a temperament patently suitable to his role, and he established a convivial rapport with his naval counterparts. Von Wild, whose staff reported a strength of eighteen officers and 200 men on 18 March 1942, continued torpedo operations against Soviet convoy traffic around Sevastopol throughout March, but with limited success. Although a spirit of willing co-operation existed between von Wild, Fleischer and their respective staffs, the number of aircraft available to Fliegerführer Süd for maritime operations fluctuated wildly, being dependant upon the situation at other points of the southern Russian Front, although floatplanes and flying boats of Aufklärungsgruppe 125 (See) remained on strength permanently from November 1941. The lack of extra maritime reconnaissance aircraft available directly to the Kriegsmarine was reflected in a telephone message from Maj. Securius on 3 April, in which he reported that four Cant Z.501 Gabbiano floatplanes, one Dornier Do 24 and two Heinkel He 114s were likely to become operational during the following day. Additionally, six Blenheims could be added, if the Romanian Air Force made them available from their Craiova Airfield.

Furthermore, on 12 March, Luftwaffe Operations Staff issued Luftflotte 4 with instructions that the centres of gravity for Black Sea anti-shipping operations were to be the ports of Sevastopol, Kerch, and Kamysh-Burun and their approaching sea lanes; Sevastopol being the point of maximum effort. Anti-shipping missions in the wider expanse of the Black Sea were to be stopped, and aerial reconnaissance was only to be carried out in areas where bombers or torpedo bombers could reliably intercept sighted targets. Long-range reconnaissance was to be the very lowest rung of the Luftwaffe’s operational ladder.

Löhr’s Luftflotte 4, and by extension much of Fliegerführer Süd’s strength, was acting as flying artillery for land operations, and Fliegerführer Süd mounted anti-shipping operations that, though individually quite successful, General Hermann Plocher later described in his post-war study of the Luftwaffe in Russia as having the effect of mere ‘nuisance raids’, given the size of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet and its mercantile equivalent. Although this may somewhat understate the effectiveness of such anti-shipping strikes, which were ‘felt very strongly’ according to a 1943 Red Army General Staff study on the 1942 Crimean campaign, the offensive strength available to von Wild for dedicated maritime operations would never allow decisive operations. Nonetheless, between 19 February, when von Wild took over all Crimean air operations, and 9 August 1942 Fliegerführer Süd had flown 3,481 missions, claiming sixty-eight merchant ships sunk totalling an estimated 131,500GRT, as well as twenty-two military vessels. They also claimed damage inflicted on a further forty-three merchants, fifteen military vessels — including two heavy cruisers and a light cruiser — and a floating dry-dock in Sevastopol Harbour. Additionally, as well as ground operations against trains, wheeled transport columns, artillery emplacements and Soviet defensive positions, in fifty-six special nightly missions 351 aircraft had dropped 270 mines in the Kerch Strait, eighty-nine in Sevastopol Harbour and 279 in the Volga River near Stalingrad (predominantly laid by KG 100), as the Luftwaffe operated in support of the Sixth Army’s drive towards the city.

Von Wild’s command had been stripped bare during May, when Wolfram von Richthofen had transferred to Simferopol at the head of VIII.Fliegerkorps. The tempestuous Luftwaffe commander was to operate independent of Luftflotte 4’s command structure, answerable only to Göring, something that rankled deeply with Alexander Löhr and his staff. In command of all offensive Crimean Luftwaffe operations, von Richthofen immediately removed several of the all-purpose Staffeln that had been attached to Fliegerführer Süd. The effect of this was keenly felt by Admiral Black Sea:

1 May: Naval Liaison Officer to Fliegerführer Süd reported that from today the air forces in the Crimea were subordinated to VIII.Fliegerkorps. Only two bomber Gruppen were left to Fliegerführer Süd for attacks on ships and sea reconnaissance. This measure is only valid during the intended Kerch offensive, when sea reconnaissance must be restricted to the area off Sevastopol and the Crimea as far as Kerch Peninsula, the Sea of Azov and the north-east coast as far as Novorossisk. In view of the convoy assignments to be carried out, this reduction in air reconnaissance over the Black Sea is very regrettable, as aircraft taking off from Bulgarian and Romanian bases can fly only as far as 32° East. Moreover, only a few aircraft are available for that task, so that reconnaissance will by no means give a complete picture. For the time being, enemy movements and intentions must be deduced from the reports of Main Naval Direction-Finding Station, Constantza.

Von Richthofen’s military star was in the ascendant. He had earned the full trust and support of Adolf Hitler, thanks to his unswerving obedience to instructions (including Hitler’s infamous ‘no retreat order’ at the gates of Moscow in the winter of 1941) and his effectiveness as a military leader. His methods were direct, brutal and highly successful. To him was passed the task of reducing Sevastopol in support of Feldmarschall Erich von Manstein’s Eleventh Army and safeguarding the Crimean Peninsula from Soviet counterattack. What had once been a peripheral strategic objective was now assuming greater proportions than previously expected.

Von Richthofen immediately threw himself into his new task, and also promptly recorded his harsh observations of the Fliegerführer Süd’s state of readiness. On 27 May he recorded:

Nothing has been done in the last months and, despite orders to Fliegerführer Süd, still nothing has been done in the last weeks.

To compound matters, on the following day von Wild despatched Heinkel torpedo bombers to attack a sighted Soviet cruiser and destroyers carrying troops bound for Sevastopol, but failed to obtain any results. The Red Army reinforcements successfully offloaded into the besieged port city, and von Richthofen was furious:

Fliegerführer Süd attempted [to sink it] with the II./KG 26, the old group from Lüneburg. Absolutely pathetic. They fired off 29 torpedoes without any success!!

Despite von Richthofen’s harsh opinion, von Wild had established an excellent understanding with his naval opposites, including the establishment of a small naval-air command centre in Saki, set up under the joint leadership of von Wild, Kaptlt. Heinz Birnbacher, commander of the newly arrived 1.S-boat flotilla, and Capitano di Fregata Francesco Mimbelli, commander of the Italian 4th Flottiglia MAS, which had also recently arrived in the Black Sea. Relationships remained locally good between the services, MGK Süd remarking that ‘co-operation between naval and air forces in the operational zone exists, and without friction’. However, von Richthofen clearly underestimated the level to which the Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine and Regia Marina could successfully interact, and issued orders on 10 June that were swiftly passed on by Konteradmiral Eyssen to Admiral Black Sea:

As it is impossible always to be informed if and when submarines and light forces of the German and Italian navies are in Crimean waters, Commanding General, VIII.Fliegerkorps has given orders prohibiting his aircraft from making any attacks whatsoever on any submarines or light forces — including Russian vessels in the entire Black Sea.

Vizeadmiral Hans-Heinrich Wurmbach, who had taken over as Admiral Black Sea during May, was vexated by the heavy-handed Luftwaffe instructions.

There is no valid reason why these air attacks on submarines and light forces should be prohibited in the whole Black Sea area, as at present the German and Italian S-boats and submarines are only operating in the Crimean area.

Eyssen was asked to request the prohibitive instructions be applied only to the Crimean area (north of 43° 30’ N and west of 35° 40’ E), and that Aufkl.Gr. 125, operating from Constanta, be allowed to continue their regular anti-submarine operations even within this area, as they worked closely alongside the regional Naval Special Duties Detachment and were constantly provided detailed information about all Axis naval movements. Almost surprisingly, given von Richthofen’s bullish nature, within two days his request had been granted.

Elements of Oberst Gerhard Kolbe’s Aufkl.Gr. 125 had been moved to the Black Sea in November 1941, Stab/A.F.Gr. 125 being based in Constanta (equipped with He 114s, Ar 196s and BV 138s), and the BV 138s of 3./Aufkl.Gr. 125 being based at Varna. The floatplanes and flying boats operated rotating shifts of reconnaissance flights, and on 5 June BV 138 7R+DL crashed with engine failure. A rubber dinghy was sighted two days after the aircraft was listed as overdue, and Schnellboote S72 and S102 made their inaugural Black Sea sorties in an attempt to rescue the crew after an urgent request from Kolbe, as bad weather prevented an aerial search.

Fliegerführer Süd was heavily involved in adding every possible aircraft to the bombing of Sevastopol, particularly after von Richthofen was promoted and placed in command of Luftflotte 4 on 28 June. Austrian Alexander Löhr was moved to the Balkans, where he became commander of the Wehrmacht’s Twelfth Army. Ultimately, von Richthofen would not be present to oversee the final assault on the battered port city, as Hitler’s drive towards the Caucasian oil producing centres, Fall Blau, was about to begin, and VIII.Fliegerkorps headquarters had already relocated to Kharkov in preparation, von Wild once again being given command of all Crimean flying operations. Between 2 June and 3 July Fliegerführer Süd concentrated his attacks on oil storage, water and electricity works, artillery defences and enemy flak positions and airfields, ahead of the advancing Axis infantry, and also attacked shipping within the besieged harbour. During this period 23,751 sorties were flown, and in addition to inflicting considerable and extensive damage on ground installations and infrastructure, four destroyers, one submarine, three MTBs, six coastal ships and four freighters totalling 10,00GRT were claimed as sunk, for the loss of thirty-one Luftwaffe aircraft. Sevastopol finally fell on 4 July, as the final Soviet defensive land barrier was breached. Although sporadic fighting from isolated pockets of Red Army troops continued over the days that followed, the port city was finally in German hands.

The Black Sea remained a contested battleground, and on 1 August 1942 Fliegerführer Süd controlled III./LG 1 (thirty-two Ju 88s), II./KG 26 (20 He 111H-6 torpedo bombers, ten of 6./KG 26 having moved to Grossetto), Stab. and 2./Aufkl.Gr. 125 and, briefly, Oblt. Hans-Ulrich Rudel’s training Ergänzungsgruppe/StG. 2 (twenty Ju 87s). On the night of 2 August the most concentrated attack by Luftwaffe torpedo aircraft within the Black Sea took place, when between six and ten aircraft of II./ KG 26 attacked the Soviet cruiser Molotov, which was bombarding Axis forces in the Bay of Feodosia. Only a single Heinkel carried bombs, the remainder being armed with torpedoes, but skillful evasive manoeuvring foiled every torpedo launch. An aircraft of 4./KG 26 was hit by antiaircraft fire and crashed in flames, the wreckage continuing to burn for three minutes after hitting the water. The cruiser was shaken by the blast of a torpedo at 0127hrs, this frequently being attributed to the attacking Heinkels, not least of all by the after-action report compiled by the ship’s captain. However, no such claim was raised by the German aircrews, and it appears that a separate attack by Italian MAS torpedo boats was responsible for the hit that blew off approximately twenty metres of the ship’s stern. Sottotenente di Vascello Legnani’s MAS 568 had been alerted to the presence of the cruiser by other boats of the same flotilla, and hit its port side with a pair of torpedoes before making off into the darkness, sporadically dropping depth charges as Legnani erroneously believed that he was being pursued by destroyers engaged in covering the Molotov.

This foiled attack marked the last major torpedo action within the Black Sea, although the front line would remain contested until 1944. Small Axis naval units skirmished continually with the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, its major ships withdrawing east as the Wehrmacht overran the western ports. However, despite Fliegerführer Süd’s relative success and the firmly established inter-service co-operation with the Kriegsmarine, the post was abolished during August 1942, around the same time that von Wild was hospitalised by illness. He did not return to active service until November, as Lufttransportführer I (Südost), Athens. On 15 October the new post of Fliegerführer Krim was established in Kerch, given responsibility for air operations in support of Fall Blau, and headed by the returned General der Flieger Konrad Zander.

As Luftwaffe operations stretched over the Caucasus, an unusual ad hoc unit was formed during the second part of 1942. Oberleutnant Hans Klimmer was appointed Staffelkapitän of Küstenfliegerstaffel Krim, created from twenty-four crews in training using the Focke-Wulf Fw 58 Weihe. Based at Bagerovo air base on the Kerch Peninsula, this small unit helped fill the ranks of a severely overtaxed Luftwaffe, patrolling the Crimean coastline, mounting armed-reconnaissance and ASW missions over the Black Sea, and providing aerial escort for transport convoys from Odessa to the Crimea. Over time the unit would morph away from nautical missions, being tasked from October onwards with nocturnal bombing of Soviet troop concentrations near Tuapse.