Aviation of World War II

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Examination of captured Luftwaffe aircraft during WW2

D.A. Sobolev, D.B. Khazanov

Following Germany's attack on the Soviet Union, interest towards German aircraft increased considerably. Many theoretical questions evolved into questions vital for the successful defense of the country. It was hard to successfully fight the enemy in the air without exact and detailed data about Luftwaffe combat aircraft and the tactics German pilots employed.

At the beginning of hostilities, the Soviet command element placed the focus on test results obtained during trials of the German airplanes bought in 1940. However, Soviet commanders of units at the operational and strategic level wondered whether the flight performance of airplanes in service with the German Air Force in June 1941 were the same as those of the aircraft that previously had been purchased and the extent to which Germany had succeeded in modernizing its aircraft fleet.

Therefore, from the first days of the war, aircraft captured undamaged became valuable trophies. Already on 23 June 1941, Ju 88A-5 No. 8260 from III/KG1 Group was hit by flak and landed near the Gulf of Riga coast. Logistics unit personnel had inspected the bomber and then several pictures of the aircraft and its components were taken for an album that was quickly published for use in Red Army Air Forces units.1 In describing the Junkers, special attention was paid to its defensive armament and the thickness of the armor plates protecting the crew.

One day later, a Ju 88 belonging to II/KG54 Group made a forced landing near Kiev. According to Soviet official information, the crew comprising warrant officers H. Hermann, H. Kratz, W. Schmidt, and Corporal A. Appel decided to go over to the Red Army. The Soviet Information Bureau broadcast the following: "Having no desire to fight against the Soviet people, the fliers first dropped their bombs into the Dnepr River and then landed not far from the city7 and surrendered to local peasants. The pilots wrote an appeal called 'To German Fliers and Soldiers' in which they said: 'Fliers and soldiers, brothers, follow our example. Abandon the killer Hitler and come over here, to Russia'".

From the Combat Action Journal of the KG54 Group Death's Head, it followed that Ju 88A-6 No. 2428 had attacked Brovary Airfield, but was hit, could not continue the sortie, and had to make a forced landing. From other Junkers, it was noticed that all four crewmembers of the downed bomber left their machine safely and then were arrested by a Soviet patrol' The German version seems to be more credible.

But, even when Junkers planes in good working order fell into Russian hands, the success was ordinarily used just for propaganda. As an example, on 8 July, Ju 88A-5 No. 4341 from the KG1 Squadron Hindenburg, with the engine slightly damaged by shrapnel and shells, landed 120 kilometers from Lake Chudskoye, but again no attempts were made to examine the captured aircraft. As a rule, the examination of enemy bombers and reconnaissance aircraft that fell into Soviet hands simply was confined to defining the caliber and number of their defensive guns, their elevation and depression angles, and levels of crew armor protection.

Sometimes, staff officers in rear areas went to the probable downed aircraft sites. Thus, on 25 July 1941. commanders confirmed the successful actions of Moscowt air defense fighters. They had intercepted two of three Ju 88 reconnaissance planes from the 122nd Group over the town of Istra. The plane with code F6+AO crashed, but the one with code F6+AK made a forced landing. Five days later, it was set up on Sverdlov Square in Moscow, which allowed Muscovites to see a downed enemy.

At that time, Air Forces Scientific Research Institute specialists mainly concentrated their attention on refining new types of domestic aircraft being delivered in large quantities to the army in the field despite numerous defects that had not been corrected before the war. Air Forces Scientific Research Institute engineers and pilots had to wrork not only within the walls of the institute, at its airfield and testing ground, but also with line units and at series-production plants. Due attention to captured aircraft began to be paid only after 29 July, when an institute special order to establish a permanent commission to receive captured equipment was promulgated. General M. V. Shishkin, Deputy Chief of the Air Forces Scientific Research Institute, chaired the commission.

From the first days of combat, hostile fighters—the bitterest enemies of Soviet aircraft—drew the greatest attention of our aviators. They managed to inflict enormous damage on the Red Army Air Forces. In the summer and autumn of 1941, front-line pilots, navigators, and radio operator-gunners knew very little about enemy aircraft, or, unfortunately, enemy tactics very well. They did not get the appropriate information from staffs. But, even without information about Messerschmitts, bomber crews understood that the former were much faster and had cannon and heavy machine guns allowing enemy pilots to set fire to Soviet aircraft from long range, while themselves remaining essentially out of range of ShKAS machine gun fire.

The first attempt to analyze in detail the flying characteristics of German fighters came in late June 1941 following a study of the combat actions of the Pe-2 bombers assigned to the 410th Aviation Regiment operating on the Western Front. This regiment comprised the flight and maintenance personnel of the Air Forces Scientific Research Institute Bomber Aircraft Department. From 5 to 22 July, the unit flew 235 sorties and lost 33 Pe-2s, including 22 due to fire from enemy fighters. Crew debriefings gave little hope: the Messerschmitts were noticeably faster than the newest Soviet bombers. In theory, based on test flights made in 1940. Bf 109E maximum level speed should not have been much more than that of the Pe-2. The difference did not exceed 15-20 km/h at an altitude of 4000-5000 meters. But, in practice, as regimental commander Colonel A. I. Kabanov pointed out, "The German fighters easily caught up with our Pe-2s and had time to earn' out three-five attacks while pursuing them".

This and other documents indicated that Bf 109. Bf 110 and He 113 fighters were flying much faster than all types of our bombers, those both obsolete and quite modern such as the Yak-4 and Pe-2. The Red Army command element came to this conclusion: "Using superiority in speed as a defense is no longer relevant".0 Russian specialists concluded that the Germans apparently had mounted more powerful engines in the Messerschmitts, thus making them faster. He 113 fighters showed up in reports almost as often as did the Bf 109. According to Soviet data, this airplane was a modification of the He 100 bought before the war (evaporative cooling replaced by a water-cooling system in series-produced aircraft) and became the fastest Luftwaffe fighter."

In reality, the Germans did not employ any new Heinkel aircraft on the Eastern Front. We used the designation He 112 for the much improved Bf 109E widely employed beginning in spring 1941. It apparently had undergone drastic changes during its development. The wings, cowling, engine, oil system, armament, equipment and much more had been redesigned. In appearance, the Bf 109F (Friedrich) differed from the Bf 109E (Emil) in its unbraced tail unit, rounded rather than square wing tips, flatter canopy top, and engine-mounted cannon instead of two wing guns.

Evidently, the first Bf 109E-2 (No. 12766) was captured in comparatively good condition near the town of Tosno on 20 July 1941 after its pilot failed to make it across the front line in his damaged aircraft. It must be said that Luftwaffe fighter pilots in 1941-1942 preferred to engage in combat, especially in "free lancing," above areas where our troops were operating, where Soviet crews were less vigilant. In the above case, Lieutenant H. Raub of I/JG54 Group made a forced landing and was killed in an exchange of fire with Red Army soldiers. The captured Messerschmitt was featured in an exhibition of trophies in Leningrad.

Among the two-engine Messerschmitts that were shot down, a reconnaissance plane from 3(F)/31 Detachment captured on the Bryansk Front on 13 September was examined most carefully. Bf 110C-5 No. 2290 differed from the C-2 version we had tested before the war. The aircraft cockpit wras additionally armored, both MG-FF cannon had been removed, and an automatic long-focal length Pb5O/3O camera was mounted in a "downward-forward" position. It is quite probable that the idea of modifying the airplane was borrowed later when our Pe-2 reconnaissance version was designed.

Then it became known that a similar Bf 110C-5, No. 2177, from 4(F)/14 Detachment was shot down by British fighters 21 July 1940, restored, and tried out in Farnborough. From October 1940 to August 1941, British pilots flew 45 sorties, spending 23 hours and 30 minutes in the air. The aircraft then was maintained in flying condition for a number of years after the end of the Second World War. The "Soviet" two-engine Messerschmitt never took to the air. It was immediately sent for examination to the TsAGI New Equipment Bureau.

As far as it is known, "captured equipment exhibits" were held not only in Moscow, but also in Kiev and Khar'kov in 1941. Of course, it was useful for soldiers and commanders, especially those from the Air Forces and Air Defense, to see the fearsome enemy in detail. However, the study of enemy aircraft in the air, evaluation of their strong and weak points, and working out recommendations on how to combat them, were more important. It proved impossible to achieve this until late 1941, although, during the second half of November that year, our troops captured two more of the latest Messerschmitts (Bf 109F-2, Nos. 12811 and 12913) and one pilot from 6/JG52 Detachment northwest of Moscow. From identification plates removed from the aircraft, it was learned that the Aro plant had built these fighters that summer. Because the front was very near Moscow and the Air Defense Front banned non-combat flights, the testing did not even begin. This was understandable, since it is not hard to imagine the reaction of Soviet pilots suddenly seeing a Messerschmitt. even one with red stars, near their airfield.

By late 1941, specialists from the Air Forces Scientific Research Institute and from other scientific centers had an opportunity to go to various fronts and examine the main German aircraft on the ground. Military engineers noticed the main trend in developing the German aircraft at that time - the increase in engine power. The fighters wTere fitted with bomb racks; bombers and reconnaissance aircraft had more guns and better armor protection for crews compared to the models bought before the war. Some special technical features were also noticed. Among them there were a fuel jettisoning system on the Ju 88 reconnaissance version, a fixed remotely controlled machine gun fitted in the tail cone and semi-fixed pivot gun mount on the He 111, a device for releasing toxic agents from Hs 126 spotter aircraft, and other "sparks".

The successful Soviet winter counteroffensive led to a significant increase in the amount of captured equipment, including German aircraft. During the period from 5-31 December 34 aircraft were captured in the Moscow area alone. Most of them were damaged or blown up by retreating Germans. The command element of Red Army operational units managed to obtain several Bf 109, Bf 110, Hs 126. Ju 52, He 111. and Bui 31 aircraft. Most of them, as well as aviation equipment and armament, were transported to Moscow for transfer to Tsx\GI, aviation design bureaus, and repair bases. Attention was even paid to instrument panels, distribution panels, oxygen bottles, and other less important components.

Engineers from the N.Ye. Zhukovskiy Air Force Academy who performed a special assignment from the Red Army Air Forces Staff on the Kalinin Front, made a significant contribution to the collection and examination of the captured equipment. The team of specialists that Brigade Engineer V.A. Semenov led selected the most interesting German innovations and defined that they could be employed under our conditions. Special attention was paid to measures the Germans took to operate aircraft in winter. It turned out that electrical heaters, devices for local heating of engine parts, and heating lamps were similar to those employed by our Air Forces. The engineers noticed new versions of the Erlikon aircraft cannon. MG 81 turret machine guns, small bombs with rapid-fire fuses, and delayed action bombs, which the enemy began using in winter.

As was the previous case, German fighters aroused the greatest interest. Military Engineer 1st Rank A N. Frolov Chief of the Soviet Air Forces Scientific Research Institute Fighter Department, carefully analyzed and evaluated all available information on the Bf 109F. He compared the Messerschmitt with new types of Soviet fighters beginning to be widely employed in August-September 1941. In a report signed 14 February 1942. the statement was made that the Yak-1 was most suitable for employment against the Bf 109F. although its speed and rate of climb were worse at low altitudes than those of the Messerschmitt. The Yakovlev aircraft lacked reliable self-sealing fuel tanks, radios (they were found in only 10 percent of the aircraft), and their rollout was considered intolerably long.

The Soviet LaGG-3 faced even more difficulties battling the Bf 109F since it compared unfavorably in the main flying qualities: it was better only where armament was concerned. Besides that, the Lavochkin-Gorbunov-Gudkov fighter remained hard to handle, especially when transitioning from one maneuver to another. As for the MiG-1. it had leading-edge flaps that improved flight safety at minimum control speeds and was good at altitudes of 5000 meters and more. But, combat occurred very rarely at such altitudes and it lost to the lighter Messerschmitt near the ground. The weight of a MiG-3 salvo proved inadequate to hit and destroy enemy aircraft, especially bombers.

In his conclusions. Frolov wrote: "The enemy outperforms all types of our new fighters in the main flight performance categories to an altitude of 2000 meters... A Ju 88A-5 (4D+RN) from 5/KG30 Detachment after an emergency landing on the shore of Motovskiy Gulf, 16 September 1941

A Ju 88A-5 (4D+RN) from 5/KG30 Detachment after an emergency landing on the shore of Motovskiy Gulf, 16 September 1941


  • "The German Imprint on the History of Russian Aviation " /D.A. Sobolev, D.B. Khazanov/