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He-177 - Combat Use

He-177 BN "Greif" in flight

The first production He 177 A-3s were delivered to I. Gruppe Fernkampfgeschwader 50 (I./FKG 50 - 1st group of the 50th long-range bomber squadron) in November 1942. The unit was formed in July at the Brandenburg-Brest airfield and was originally equipped with the "Vulture" of the first modification - He 177 A-1. The group was commanded by Major Karl Schede.

At the end of 1942, the primary task of the Luftwaffe on the eastern front was the supply by air of the 6th Army of Paulus, surrounded in Stalingrad. For this purpose, all more or less suitable machines were involved. Not escaped a similar fate and "Vulture". Despite the fact that the planes were not intended for the transport of goods, they had to work as transport workers. In January 1943, 20 He 177 A-1 and A-3 from the Schede group moved from Brandenburg to the airfield in Zaporozhye.

In the very first flight to Stalingrad, the aircraft of the group commander, Major Shede, was lost. Nothing concrete was reported about the reasons for his death. Captain Schlosser became the new commander. Under his command, the Vultures made several flights to the Stalingrad "cauldron", and if other vehicles (Ju-52, He-111) took out the wounded on the way back, the Vulture could not do this, because it did not have a cargo-passenger cabin.

The effect of using He 177 as a transport vehicle was extremely low, and soon it was decided to use the aircraft for its intended purpose. Starting on 18 January, I./FKG 50 began to be involved in bombing flights. On January 20, for an unknown reason, another crew died, nevertheless, over the next four days, the Vulture group made 13 sorties. The last one took place on January 25th. On that day, seven aircraft set off to bomb the Pitomnik airfield, which had just been occupied by Soviet troops. Returned five. The Germans claim that two "Vulture" crashed due to engine failures.

On February 2, Paulus' army capitulated. Among the numerous trophies, ours got one faulty "Vulture", abandoned by the Germans at the front-line airfield. Thus, the total losses of I. / FKG 50 in the Stalingrad operation amounted to five vehicles according to German data (the English historian William Green wrote that the Germans lost seven Vultures near Stalingrad). The combat debut of the He 177 was not very successful. The surviving aircraft were soon evacuated back to Germany.

During the fighting on the Volga, the Germans for the first time experienced an urgent need for a special anti-tank aircraft capable of hitting Soviet KVs and "thirty-fours" with their rather powerful armor. In this regard, in the spring of 1943, a special modification of the Vulture appeared, equipped with a 75-mm VK 7.5 anti-tank gun in the ventral gondola and designated He 177 A3 / R5. The car also received the name "Stalingradtip". However, tests have shown that the gun has too strong a return, threatening the destruction of the aircraft structure. In total, five "Stalingrad Vulture" were released, nothing is known about their combat use.

In early November, I./FKG 50, which by that time had received the new designation 2./KG 40 and the name "Holzhammer", was transferred to the French airfield of Bordeaux-Merignac. Over the summer, the aircraft of this air group were equipped with mounts for Henschel Hs 293 anti-ship guided missiles, and the crews were trained in handling new weapons. The group was reassigned to the Atlantic Naval Aviation Administration (Fliegerfuhrer Atlantic).


The group's baptism of fire in a new capacity took place on November 21, 1943. The Vultures were to attack the American convoy SLI 39 / MKS 30, discovered by air reconnaissance 420 miles northeast of Cape Finistere. 25 aircraft took off for the mission. Each of them carried two Hs 293 missiles. But the weather that day was on the side of the Americans. Low clouds made it very difficult to detect targets and guide missiles. The crews were able to see only two convoy ships - the steamer "Mars" and the motor ship "Delius". All missiles were fired at them. As a result of a direct hit, the Mars sank, and the Delius, which was seriously damaged, still managed to reach the port on its own. Needless to say, most of the missiles did not hit the target, and two aircraft could not be dropped at all due to the failure of the launchers.

During the attack, several Vultures engaged in an unusual dogfight with a four-engine Consolidated B-24D Liberator aircraft from the 224th British Coastal Command squadron. Although the Liberator was escorting a convoy to protect against submarines, its crew, noticing an air enemy, immediately rushed into battle with the Heinkels. Two bombers were damaged by fire from the gunners of the anti-submarine vehicle. They had to emergency drop missiles and hastily return to base. On the way back, one of them fell into the waters of the Bay of Biscay (the crew escaped by parachuting), and the other sat on its belly, barely reaching the shore. Another "Vulture" went missing.

In general, the first experience of using guided missiles ended in failure. The commander of the crew of one of the Heinkels, Captain Peter Huss, announced the sinking of two ships, so it seems that he is the only one who managed to get hits.

The second sortie of the missile carriers was not much more successful, although this time the Germans managed to inflict very serious damage on the enemy. November 26, 1943 21 "Vulture" launched to attack the convoy KMF 26 at Cape Buzhi in Algeria. One of the cars crashed on takeoff due to an engine fire. Approaching the convoy, the Heinkels came under concentrated anti-aircraft fire from escort ships and fighter attacks. The French Spitfires, the American Airacobras, and, finally, the twin-engine English Beaufighters attacked the Vultures in turn. In this battle, six Heinkels were killed, including the planes of the group commander, Major Rudolf Mons and Captain Peter Huss. Two more damaged cars crashed during a night landing in Bordeaux. But the Germans still managed to hit the Rhone, a large transport ship, with which about a thousand American soldiers went to the bottom.

Captain Dochtermann took command of the unit. First of all, he banned too risky daytime raids. During night attacks, missile guidance was to be carried out by moonlight or by illumination with lighting bombs. In January 1944, the Vultures carried out several such attacks on allied ships in the Italian harbor of Anzio. During one of them, on January 23, a cargo ship with a displacement of 3000 tons was sunk.

Towards the end of 1943, in response to massive bombardments of German cities, the OKL ordered a series of night bombing attacks on targets in the UK. The operation, which received the code name "Steinbock" (mountain goat), was given great importance. Hitler ordered even to attract part of the forces from the eastern and Italian fronts for her. On November 3, Marshal Milch ordered the detachment of units intended for raids on England, including the I. / KG 100 and I. / KG 40 air groups, re-equipped with He 177 aircraft. In December 1943, at the French Chateaudun airfield, where the KG squadron was based 100, the head of the operation, Major General Dieter Peltz, arrived.

For the first time, "Vulture" had to participate in a strategic bombing operation. It was envisaged that each aircraft would carry 2,500 kg of bombs, including the new AB 1000 cluster munitions containing 700 small incendiary bombs. As of January 20, 1944, the 40th squadron had 15 Heinkels, of which 12 were serviceable, and the 100th squadron had 31 vehicles, including 27 serviceable ones.

The first blow to London struck on the night of January 21-22. 227 Luftwaffe aircraft attacked in two waves: from 20.40 to 22.09 and from 4.19 to 5.45. Bombed the northern parts of the city. As a result of the raid, 31 houses were destroyed and 94 fires broke out. Human casualties - 14 dead and 74 wounded. I./KG 40 lost one He 177 A-3 shot down by a Mosquito night fighter. Two crew members were killed, the rest were captured. The He 177 A-3 of 2./KG 40 flying in the second wave also fell victim to the Mosquito and fell into the waters of the English Channel northeast of Hastings. Of the entire crew, only one person survived.

On January 29, 1944, I./KG 40 was removed from participation in the operation and returned to the Fassberg airfield. On February 3, 1944, six planes from 3./KG 100 bombed London. This time, all the Heinkels returned safely to base.

In raids on England, the Vultures used a new tactic that made them less vulnerable to anti-aircraft guns and night fighters. They went to the target at an altitude of over 7 kilometers, then accelerated in a gentle dive to a speed of 680 km / h, freed themselves from bombs and quickly went back. The main problem was still the technical condition of the machines. So, during the next raid on the night of February 12-13, out of the 14 Vultures participating in it, only three reached the target. One plane blew a tire on takeoff, eight more immediately returned with overheated or burning engines. One crew lost their bearings and bombed across Holland. Finally, of the four remaining, one was shot down by interceptors.

Nevertheless, the attacks continued. On the nights of 19 and 21 February, I./KG 100 planes bombed London. There were no combat losses. Two Vulture did not return from the raids on February 23 and 24. The crews of the English Mosquito night interceptors chalked up victories over them. Another Heinkel was lost on March 2 in a night air battle over Sussex. From the cannon burst of the Mosquito, the bomber exploded with such force that its fragments seriously damaged the attacking fighter.

In early March, Operation Steinbock was terminated. This was explained not so much by losses (by the way, very low), but by the growing shortage of aviation fuel, which was needed primarily on the eastern front. The operation did not achieve its strategic goal - to morally suppress the population of Great Britain and force it to abandon the bombing of the Reich. The allocated forces were clearly not enough for this, and the Germans underestimated the traditional British stubbornness. Unless Hitler's propaganda minister, Goebbels, could now shout over the radio that the evil British had suffered a fitting punishment for the "terrorist bombing" of German cities.

Despite the official end of Operation Steinbock, occasional harassment raids on England continued. Bombed not only London, but also other cities, such as Bristol and Hull. In one of these raids on the night of March 20, a Mosquito with a Polish crew shot down another Vulture over the sea. None of the bomber crew survived.

The next victim of the interceptors was He 177 A-3, shot down on the night of April 18-19 over London. Another Vulture went missing five days later, having not returned from a raid on Plymouth. Finally, on April 27, He 177 A-5 from 2./KG 100 crashed during a forced landing, damaged in a night air battle over England.

The experience of combat use of the He 177 as a long-range night bomber can be considered successful. For three months, combat losses amounted to just over a dozen vehicles, and the rather numerous and well-equipped anti-aircraft artillery of Great Britain, despite the use of radars, could not bring down a single Vulture. To "dazzle" enemy locators, the Germans successfully used passive radio interference in the form of chaff dropped from aircraft - strips of thin aluminum foil.

After the Allied landings in Normandy, KG 40 aircraft were hastily redirected to the ships of the Anglo-American fleet. In a few days (more precisely, nights), they managed to sink five ships with Hs 293 missiles at the cost of losing five aircraft shot down by night fighters. By the end of June 1944, 25 combat-ready He 177s remained at the French airfields of Bordeaux and Toulouse. Soon they were transferred to Germany.

Meanwhile, on the eastern front, the largest Vulture unit of the entire war was formed, called Kampfgeschwader 1 Hindenburg (First Hindenburg Bomber Squadron). The squadron was led by Lieutenant Colonel Karl von Riesen. By the end of May 1944, three groups belonging to this squadron were concentrated at the Provegen and Seerappen airfields near Koenigsberg. From the beginning of June, the squadron began night bombing of Soviet cities, using the tactics developed during the raids on London. "Vultures" bombed in particular Pskov, Smolensk and Nevel. The largest raid took place on June 16, when 87 aircraft simultaneously attacked Velikiye Luki. According to German data, losses were minimal.

At the end of June, after the start of a large-scale Soviet offensive in Belarus (Operation Bagration), KG 1 aircraft began to strike at the tank groups of the Red Army. Fearing fighters, the crews operated from high altitudes, which greatly reduced the effectiveness of bombing. This period of combat activity of the "Vultures" is most poorly reflected in both foreign and Russian sources. In particular, nothing is known about the losses suffered by the Hindenburg squadron during the fierce battles in Belarus.

The raids continued until 28 July. Later, due to lack of fuel and the approach of the Red Army units to the borders of East Prussia, the strikes stopped. Aircraft KG 1 was taken to the rear and concentrated on bases in northern Germany.

Since the autumn of 1944, the units that fought on the "Vultures" essentially ceased combat activities. The reason for this was an acute shortage of fuel and lubricating oils (Soviet troops captured the Romanian oil fields, and the allies bombed synthetic gasoline plants in Germany). There was not enough fuel even for fighters, not to mention the huge and extremely "gluttonous" Vultures. In addition, the air supremacy of Soviet and Anglo-American aviation made the Vulture raids behind enemy lines too risky. Only the crews of the hundredth squadron continued to make patrol flights over the North Sea, and even some machines were used for meteorological reconnaissance. The rest until the end of the war froze at the airfields, turning into targets for American bombers.

Summing up, we can say that the He 177 "Vulture" was certainly an advanced and in many ways revolutionary design, breaking out of the usual stereotypes of aircraft construction. But it took many years to fine-tune it, and when it finally reached the proper level of reliability, the situation for the Germans was such that the plane was actually not needed.

Gennady Volosko

Bibliography

  • magazine   AviAMaster No. 1 2000    /Gennady Volosko/