The sleek silhouettes of eight Messerschmitt Bf 110s of I./ZG 76 ploughed on through the murky, billowing fog high over the Skagerrak Strait. It was early-morning on 9th April 1940.
The German pilots were flying through a thick mist that obscured all obvious landmarks. The glow of the gauges reflected on their faces as they nervously scanned the yellow and green dials in their cockpits. An all-enveloping haze blocked their view of the white-capped waves of the North Sea below them.
The airmen piloting these Zerstörern were the vanguard of the force that had been selected to carry out the operation code-named “Weserübung” by the Wehrmacht High Command. As they flew over the rocky fjords, emerging here and there through breaks in the haze, an armada of German Kriegsmarine battleships and troop carriers approached the main Norwegian ports.
One of the Messerschmitt pilots was Lt. Helmut Lent, born on 13th June 1918 in Pyrehne, Landsberg/Warthe district (at present Gorzow Wielkopolski). Lent was an experienced pilot; he had scored his first victory over Poland on the second day of the war. His participation in combats over Heligoland had brought him the unofficial title of “King of the Hunt of Heligoland Bight”.
As he looked once more at the cockpit instruments, the words of the Geschwader commander still rang in his ears: …everything depends on precise timing. You’ll have just enough fuel to reach the target area and engage in a half-hour combat over Oslo-Fornebu airfield. Your primary task is to silence the ground defences. Once our paratrooper force has taken the airfield, you will help defend it until relieved…
The fog seemed to thicken all the time. Oslo-Fornebu… They had learned to recognise the airfield from photographs obtained by German air-reconnaissance units. Four intersecting strips surrounded by hills. Somewhere nearby, the tri-motored Junkers Ju 52/3m transports, carrying paratroopers of I./Fallschirmjägerregiment 1 were converging on the airfield. Those men were to capture the all-important landing ground. As soon as they had secured the area, reinforcements from II./Infanterieregiment 324 would land there.
The planners of “Weserübung” had taken everything into account… except for the fog!
Brilliant sunlight began to penetrate the grey, billowing fog ahead of the fast-moving Messerschmitts. Lt. Lent, momentarily blinded by the glare of the sun, squinted his eyes. As he looked again through the windshield, he caught sight of Oslo-Fornebu airfield.
Oblt. Hannsen, the leader of the formation, broke radio silence. A few moments later, the ‘destroyers’ swooped down upon the gun emplacements dispersed around the Norwegian airfield. Streams of tracer climbed up to greet them as they dived straight down at the enemy anti-aircraft positions, pulling up just a few meters above the gunners’ heads. Skimming over the airfield, they strafed the defences, criss-crossing the air with their cannon fire.
When the first attack was over, the German pilots climbed back up to gain altitude. They could no longer worry about the adverse weather conditions and the fog, or whether it would hamper the whole operation. Nor could they ponder the absence of the paratroop-laden Junkers 52s. The only thing that mattered was to suppress the persistent AA defences.
Lt. Lent was the third in line to veer around and commence the second attack. Again, the Messerschmitts had to pass through a formidable crossfire from the ground. Hunched down in his cockpit, Lent saw tracers flash past his machine. He looked through the illuminated circle of his gun sight and, at the right moment, he opened fire; a long burst from his onboard guns tore straight into one of the anti-aircraft gun emplacements. He released the trigger and hauled back on the stick, pulling his ship up into a steep climb. His earphones were filled with the voices of the other crews. None was missing, as yet.
Suddenly, some other aircraft appeared, approaching from out of the sun. They were Gloster Gladiator bi-planes. Before the leader could issue an order, the formation of eight Messerschmitts had scattered about the sky. Lent swerved his Bf 110 sharply to starboard. One of the Norwegian fighters flew past him. Then another. Down below, he could clearly see the airfield’s landing strips and aircraft buzzing over them. Above the nearby fjord, a solid, grey wall of fog dominated the landscape. The Messerschmitt’s engines screamed at full power. Unconsciously, he shoved the throttle knob to the firewall. Both Norwegians were now advancing head-on. Just as one of them became lined up in his gun sight, Lent instinctively thumbed down the trigger. Bursts of fire raked his adversary, sealing his fate in a matter of seconds.
Lent swung his Messerschmitt into a climbing turn and peered anxiously into the wall of fog. Where on earth were those transports? The paratroopers should be dropping now.
Unknown to Lent and his comrades, the Junkers Ju 52s complete with their cargoes of ‘paras’ had already given up and returned to base. The heavy overcast clouds had made it impossible for them to continue.
The Norwegian fighters suddenly broke off from the fight and dived away. Were they withdrawing?
Fearing a ruse, Lent cautiously circled above. A fuel warning light lit up on his instrument panel, as he scanned the silent and indifferent wall of fog. It wouldn’t be long now before all his fuel lights began to glow. All the Bf 110s were desperately low on fuel. They would shortly run out– what then?
The leader ordered another attack. Lent headed for the deck and opened his throttle wide. The Norwegian aircraft batteries opened up again and this time their rounds rattled on his Messerschmitt’s starboard wing. The Zerstörer pilots pressed on, making firing passes one after another – but as time wore on, they faced a crisis situation; they could not continue to ignore the warnings being flashed by their instruments. Most of them had already witnessed their entire set of fuel warning lights come on. They began to glance ever more frequently towards the ridge of the fjord, hoping to see the Junkers transports emerge from the gloom. Then, someone called out over R/T: “Here they come!”
Lent looked over and indeed, the first Ju 52 appeared from out of the mist, followed by another. As the startled Messerschmitt pilots looked on, the Junkers transports dropped down and began to form up in a landing pattern. As the first of them, laden with troopers, came in to land, the Bf 110s raced down to assist. At that moment, the Norwegian gunners sent up a tremendous fusillade of antiaircraft fire. The pilot of the first Junkers 52 immediately hit full throttle and heaved the heavy machine up, aborting the landing attempt. However, the next Junkers in line, seemingly oblivious to the mortal danger, slid down onto the landing strip. Lent heard his commander addressing him: “Lent, get down there– we will cover you!”
The Leutnant acknowledged the order and banked his machine to port. He was fully aware that the massive AAA fire would now be directed at him. Was this to be the end of the “King of the Hunt of Heligoland Bight”?
Nevertheless, a soldier has to obey his superiors. Lent quickly came to terms with the idea that this could well be his last mission and pushed the control column forward. Suddenly something whacked into his aircraft with great force – a burst from a machine gun had knocked out his starboard engine.
The Messerschmitt dropped to starboard, still some 50 metres above the ground. Lent reacted immediately, kicking hard left rudder. Drops of sweat trickled down his face as he lowered his undercarriage. The ground raced toward him. Then, another hit shook the machine. At that moment his wheels touched the ground and the aircraft rolled across the airfield in a forced landing, straight towards the gun emplacements. Suddenly, a miracle – the Norwegian guns stopped blazing away.
As he skidded across the airstrip, Lent caught sight of another Junkers transport touching down on the adjacent strip. The three-engined monster was rolling along on a collision course with him.
“That’s it!” thought Lent, “it’s all over!” He forgot about the anti-aircraft artillery, and stared, hypnotized, at the Ju 52 bearing down on him from the port side. Painfully slowly, the Junkers’ brakes began to take effect and the giant machine slowed to a halt, just in time. He had been spared – but that transport was only one of many which were trying to get on the ground as quickly as possible. Lent’s Messerschmitt rolled on until it ran off the end of the landing strip and approached the border of the airfield. Still, the Norwegian batteries remained silent. How come?
He activated the brakes. A ditch running round the airfield loomed ahead of his machine. With no time to lose, he tightened his harness and pressed his back hard against the seat. Without warning the aircraft lurched and its tail was flung up into the air with an awful, cracking sound. The Messerschmitt shuddered violently as its undercarriage sheared off, before finally coming to a grinding halt. Lent was struck by the sudden silence.
Oberleutnant Hannsen, the commander of the Messerschmitt detachment, landed shortly afterwards. He looked at the wrecked Bf 110 lying nearby, but there was no time for compassion. He had to clear the way for the landing Ju 52s. As he revved the engines of his machine to pass Lent’s wreck, he saw one of the Junkers transports disembarking paratroopers of the II./Infanterieregiment 324. Looking to the rear, he noticed the remaining Bf 110s queuing up behind him on the landing strip.
Hannsen opened his canopy and jumped to the ground. On seeing him, the German infantrymen gathered around him. Their faces had a somewhat baffled look.
Two other men walked quickly towards him: it was Lt. Lent and his radio operator, Kubisch. Kubisch was carrying a machine-gun over his shoulder that he had retrieved from the damaged Me 110’s gunner position.
Before the commander could utter a word, the roar of more Ju 52s coming in to land drowned out every other sound. The airfield AA defences did not react.
Somewhat breathless from his ordeal, Lent reported to his commander, grinning happily.
“Lent, man!” Hannsen said, finally. “Quite a stunt we have pulled here, haven’t we?”
The troopers scattered about, taking positions around the perimeter. The airfield at Oslo-Fornebu was in German hands.
The baptism of fire over Poland
The Messerschmitt Bf 110 had its first taste
of combat over Poland, in September 1939. Three Zerstörer Gruppen were deployed at the front for what became known as the “September Campaign”:
I./ZG 1, stationed at Mühlen airfield, was equipped with 34 Bf 110 B/Cs, under Maj. Joachim Friedrich Huth. Its three component Staffeln were commanded by: Maj. Karl Hammes (1.), Hptm. Horst Lehrmann (2.) and Hptm. Wendelin von Müllenheim-Rehberg (3.),
I./ZG 76, based at Ohlau airfield, fielded 33 Bf 110 B/Cs, under the command of Hptm. Günther Reinecke. His subordinate Staffel commanders were: Hptm. Horst Pape (1.), Oblt. Wolfgang Falck (2.) and Oblt. Josef Gutmann (3.). I.(Z)/LG 1 set up shop at Jesau, with 36 Bf 110 B/Cs on strength. Maj. Walter Grabmann was its commander, and his three Staffelkapitäne were: Oblt. Helmut Müller (1.), Hptm. Fritz Schleif (2.) and Oblt. Walter Clausen (3.).
The aircraft of I./ZG 76 were the first to take to the air at dawn on 1st September 1939, as recalled by Wolfgang Falck, the commander of 2./ZG 76:
We had been briefed to take off at 06.00 and escort He 111s of KG 4 to Krakow . In our enthusiasm someone suggested that maybe we should take off early in order to steal an hour of combat on the other Zerstörer. Unfortunately, we did not find our bombers until we got over Krakow; happily there was nothing to protect them from, not even flak – just a few little white clouds. After the bombers unloaded we escorted them back to the frontier. As I neared the frontier I could see villages burning and I finally felt that a war had begun. Since our fuel was getting low we turned toward our airfield leaving the bombers behind. As we banked away from the Heinkels (Dorniers – author’s note) I looked down and there was a Heinkel 46 army reconnaissance aircraft looking lonely down there with no protection. I dived down to escort him saying aloud to myself, ‘look, we are here, you can do your job under our wings!’ All of a sudden he saw me and started to twist and turn like crazy and the gunner blazed away at me. Pulling away I realized I had just gotten my baptism of fire from one of our own aircraft. A few minutes later I saw another aircraft flying. ‘Ha! A PZL 23, I can start my score.’ As I tried to gain some height he curved into the sun and as he did I caught a glimpse of red on his wing – I was sure he was Polish then. We had been briefed that the normal red and white box insignia had the white overpainted with camouflage leaving only the red visible. As I turned into him I opened fire: but fortunately, my marksmanship was no better than the reconaissance gunner’s had been, because as he banked away I saw it was a Stuka. I then realized that what I had thought was a red Polish insignia was actually a red E. I reported this immediately after landing and before long the coloured letters on the wings of our aircraft were overpainted in black.
A couple of minutes before 09.00 hrs, some Messerschmitt Bf 110s of I.(Z)/LG 1– which were flying cover for Heinkel He 111s of II.(K)/LG 1 as they approached Warsaw – tangled with Polish fighters of the Pursuit Brigade in the area of Zegrz (unlike other fighter units of the PAF, subordinated to particular armies, the Pursuit Brigade, which could field five fighter squadrons grouped in two Wings, was a semi-autonomous unit – translator’s note). It was precisely nine o’clock when Oblt. Helmut Müller scored the first-ever aerial victory of a Bf 110, shooting down the PZL P-11c flown by Airman Boleslaw Olewinski of 114. Fighter Squadron. Three minutes later, Fw. Herbert Schob knocked down another assailant, but not before the Polish fighter had managed to injure Maj. Walter Grabmann, CO of I.(Z)/LG 1, and inflict 25% damage on his machine.
At around 1700 hrs the Bf 110s of I.(Z)/LG 1 again ventured over Warsaw, this time providing protective cover for He 111s of KG 27. Hptm. Fritz Schleif, who led the heavy-fighter formation on that mission, recalled:
When our Schwarm reached Warsaw, I saw two or three flights of Polish PZL 24 fighters climbing below us. I ordered an attack. I picked out a target for myself and opened fire from a distance of 80 metres. My salvo hit home and the enemy aircraft immediately began to disintegrate. Its pilot managed to bail out. I saw him floating gently down. A firing pass on another opponent was equally successful. I closed in up to 20 metres and set the aicraft ablaze with one burst. Meanwhile, one of my Unteroffiziers shot another PZL off my tail as it manoeuvred into a firing position from the rear. Then I forced my third adversary to dive towards the ground, whereupon I hammered away at him from point-blank range. His machine spouted flame and suddenly exploded, showering debris over the wings of my machine. In this way we scored six victories in less than ten minutes.
Hptm. Fritz Schleif claimed three victories, whilst Uffz. Alfred Sturm, Uffz. Peter Laufs and Oblt. Walter Fenske scored one apiece, for no loss of their own.
On 2nd September, at 10:00 hrs, an aerial battle took place near the city of Lodz. The combatants were ten Bf 110Cs of 2./ZG 76 – which were flying escort to some Dornier Do 17s of KG 77 – and PZL P-7s of 162. Fighter Squadron. The Germans filed three victory claims (Lt. Heinz Ihrcke, his rear gunner Ogefr. Walter Held, and Lt. Helmut Woltersdorf each claimed one). The latter gave this account of the mission:
One of the ‘destroyer’ Staffeln was to take off and join a group of bombers it was tasked to escort. The three bomber formations were briefed to knock out the Lodz radio station. The commander of the Zerstörern instructed the young pilots and rear gunners on the rules of engagement, as we were expected to be involved shortly. Then the Staffel took off and rendezvoused over one of the Silesian towns with the bombers, which were flying at the previously agreed altitude. Visibility was limited due to drifting banks of fog and single clouds at various heights, so the bombers were flying in loose formation. We split up accordingly, so that we could guard our charges from any enemy fighter threat. Two Zerstörern positioned themselves above and to the rear of the last bomber formation. Flying at 4000 metres, they kept an eye on the last of the three bomber Staffeln 1000 metres below them.
The weather conditions deteriorated to the point where the two leading bomber Staffeln, along with seven escorting fighters, disappeared in the haze. Forests, meadows and ploughed fields passed beneath us, only rarely interrupted by some buildings, single farms, or the occasional mansion. A persistent veil of fog blurred the view and the landscape became a little monotonous. North of Lask our aircraft came under fire from flak, which did not scrimp on ammunition, but was ineffective. In the meantime, the fog had vanished completely and the sky had cleared up. The Laubfrosch had accurately predicted partial overcast with substantial breaks and some cumulus clouds. The bomber formation, secured at the rear by the ‘destroyers’, passed the city of Lodz to the south and then turned north on a heading of 330°, which carried them straight to their target area. To the south of the city an airfield came into view, almost rectangular in shape. One could see its hangars glistening in the sun, although any aircraft on the ground were hard to spot from this altitude.
Suddenly we were bounced by five Polish fighters, which had sneaked up on us using cloud cover.
I saw one of our machines, engaged in a turning fight with a Pole, disappearing into a cloud. I had lost sight of both bombers below me, which at that moment were probably busy aiming their “eggs” at the Polish radio station.
After four tight turns I almost lined up one of the Polish fighters in my gunsight but he ducked into clouds; so did another. A third fighter banked to the left and ended up in a position that allowed me to perform a head-on attack. He flew right through the line of fire, fell away to port and plummeted vertically to the ground. I went after him but in that instant a fourth fighter set upon me from the left and above. I saw tracers go whizzing by on either side of my aircraft as he centred me in his gunsight. I immediately veered into a cloud.
When I finally popped out on the other side of the cloud, at a height of 300 metres, neither friend nor foe could be seen, only some smouldering debris on the ground. I turned towards four dots in the sky, which I spotted in the distance. They turned out to be puffs of anti-aircraft shell bursts. The sky appeared to be completely empty, all the bombers and ‘destroyers’ had disappeared somewhere. For a few seconds a Polish high-wing aircraft came into sight, but when I turned in that direction, it quickly ducked back into the clouds. Since I had been airborne for an hour and a half already, I set course towards the German border. As I was skimming the ground heading for home, I saw long columns of refugees on the roads to Lodz, but no troop movements. I climbed through layers of cloud and fog up to 2000 metres. Shortly afterwards I left behind the overcast and saw my home base down below.
Since I didn’t know to what extent my machine had suffered battle damage, I touched down with the utmost care. Everything seemed to work as it was supposed to. I taxied towards my parking place, realizing that I was the first from my Staffel to return. The remaining machines came back after a quarter of an hour – every one of them – and all in fine condition. However, close examination revealed that my own aircraft was far from “fine”. Two bullet holes were found in its fuselage, two more in the port flap, and another in the exhaust manifold. A phosphorous, incendiary projectile had punched through the external skin of the wing and lodged itself right next to the fuel tank.
All three victory claims filed by German pilots on that occasion were recorded as ‘probables’.
Around 15:30 hrs, the Luftwaffe lost its first Messerchmitt Bf 110C in combat, when the pilots of 3./ZG 1 were bounced during an attack on a train near Kornatow by a pair of PZL P-11c fighters of 142. Fighter Squadron. The CO of 142. Squadron, Cpt. Miroslaw Lesniewski shot down the machine flown by the commander of 3./ZG 1, Hptm. Wendelin von Müllenheim-Rehberg. The German pilot was killed; his gunner, Ofw. Hans Weng bailed out and was taken prisoner.
The Bf 110s of I./ZG 76 mixed it up with Polish fighters several times between 16:15 and 17:10 hrs. The Germans claimed the destruction of four enemy aircraft (Hptm. Günther Reinecke, Lt. Hans Jäger, Oblt. Christoph Nagel and Lt. Helmut Lent all claiming one apiece) for the loss of two of 2./ZG 76’s machines.
On the third day of the war, during the early morning hours, Messerschmitt Bf 110s of I.(Z)/LG 1, were again very active, clashing with fighters of the Pursuit Brigade over Warsaw. The Germans claimed five victories (Oblt. Werner Methfessel, Oblt. Walter Fenske, Uffz. Gerhard Jecke, Uffz. Rudolf Kober and Uffz. Josef Groten one each) for the loss of two aircraft. Uffz. Friedrich Lindemann (pilot) and Uffz. Kurt Radek (gunner) were forced to make an emergency landing when their aircraft came under fire from por. (Lt.) Arsen Cebrzynski. Lt. Wojciech Januszewski from 111. Squadron shot down another Bf 110, which crashed in the vicinity of Zielonka. Its crew, Uffz. Sigismund Mazurowski and Uffz. Günther Lother, perished.
The Polish pilot recalled this mission: Scramble! I had climbed to 600 metres when one of Me 110s swooped down over the airfield and opened fire. I had no alternative but to half-roll and attack. I looked down the gunsight, with Rembertow firing-range in the distance. I loosed off one burst from a distance of 150 metres. The German pulled his ship up and swerved to the left. That’s more like it. I turned into him and from 50 metres my guns ripped out another burst, ahead and into the pilot’s cockpit. The Me 110 veered violently to the right, its pilot hit the throttle and put his machine into a shallow dive. The Messerschmitt wobbled a little – surely the scared pilot shaking his machine – and raced towards East Prussia. Before I could follow his turn, I heard a familiar sound coming from behind and off to my left, and a white sheet of enemy tracers flashed in front of my propeller. Reflexes came before decision – my crate snapped into a spin and hurtled towards the ground. During the first coil of the spin I saw my “companion” above me. I slipped out of the second spiral just 100 metres above the ground – which would have got me ten days in prison during peacetime – and pulled up.
In the meantime, a third Me blasted away at me. I froze a little but kept on turning. The Number Two also turned and I had a go at him, firing from quite a distance. The rear gunner sent me a hail of return fire, forcing me to seek cover out of his range. While circling, I saw their Number Four, high above, manoeuvring for a bounce. I kept an eye on him. Then I saw the Me 110’s “snout” dive towards me. I skidded slighty to the left and his burst came slashing by off to my right. The Number Two’s gunner seized his opportunity and raked me with bullets. The Numbers Three and Four broke off the attack, leaving only me and the Number Two at the scene.
Our duel began. I latched onto his tail and tried to close in. No way. The Me 110’s pilot kept pulling up to give his gunner a field of fire. Every time he raised the nose of his machine, the gunner snapped out a burst at me. I kept ducking under his tail as much as I could. When the Me 110 orbited to the left, I turned inside him. The gunner sprayed me with bullets and I slowly gained on the Messerschmitt, surrounded by his tracers flashing by.
From the distance of 10-15 metres, flying in a curve and shielding myself from the gunner with one wing (as if it could do me any good), I fired at the pilot’s cockpit. I could clearly see the gunner’s face, his machine gun and my rounds, flashing like sparks on impact against the Messerschmitt’s fuselage. The pilot lost his nerve, broke the turn and sped off. As I pulled up, I saw his right engine erupt in flames. Suddenly the fire went out and the propeller of his right engine froze motionless. A serious advantage of diesel fuel.
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