Zerstörergeschwader 26 - Mediterranean and Africa 1941–42

Mediterranean and Africa 1941–42

Following the Battle of Britain, the three Gruppen of ZG 26 remained intact and were withdrawn to Germany to rest and re-equip in November and December 1940. The Geschwader would see service on all fronts in the years to come.

Many of the Zerstörergeschwadern previously employed on day operations were now converted into the night fighter role for home defence. However, the proposed re-designation of I. and II./ZG 26 as I. and II./NJG 4 was suspended, and these two Gruppen formed part of the aerial support provided by the Luftwaffe for the forthcoming Balkans campaign.

VIII. Fliegerkorps assembled the attacking force, including ZG 26 for the offensive to begin on 6 April, I./ZG 26 escorting to bombers attacking Belgrade. Encountering Bf-109Es of the Yugoslavian Air Force, 2 enemy machines were claimed shot down, but the Zerstörer lost 5 in return. In the south, II./ZG 26 lost two Bf-110s while III./ZG 26 also claimed 2 Yugoslavian Air Force Bf-109s.

The end of the first day broke the resistance of the Yugoslavian air force and the Zerstörers switched to attacking ground targets in support of the advancing German troops.

On 31 January, III./ZG 26 became the first Luftwaffe unit to go to North Africa. Under Major Karl Kaschka, the unit transferred to Castel Benito, Sirte, and Arco Philaenorum. A Bf-110 from the Gruppe which became the first German aircraft to be lost in North Africa when it forced-landed behind British lines on 14 February.

III gruppe then took part in the successful invasion of Greece. On 20 April a force from II./ZG 26 tangled with Hurricanes over Piraus. II. Gruppe lost two Bf-110s, but made 5 victory claims over the Hurricanes, including Squadron Leader 'Pat' Pattle of No. 33 Squadron, arguably the top scoring RAF pilot of the War, with a score of 40–50. As the Luftwaffe gained air superiority, strafing attacks on airfields increased and losses increased to AA and small arms fire. On 27 April Bf-110s of I./ZG 26 caught a large body of troops in the open and were able to carry out a devastating attack in return for 2 Bf-110s crash-landed.

With the closing of the campaign in Greece, attention now turned in support of the invasion of Crete On 14 May 1941, Oberleutnant Baagoe (14 kills) was strafing the airfield at Heraklion when his Bf 110 D-3 was shot down into the sea. He was to be awarded the Ritterkreuz posthumously a month later. On 21 May, another irreplaceable experten, the Gruppenkommandeur of I./ZG 26, Hptm. Wilhelm Makrocki was killed when his Bf 110 D-3 was hit by exploding debris from a small ship he was attacking, and he crashed into the sea.

Parallel to this activity 7./ZG 26 was posted to Sicily early 1941 in order to protect supply routes from Italy to North Africa, and to attack enemy shipping, reconnaissance missions and convoy patrols, in addition to supporting the ground forces in North Africa. The unit also participated in the invasion of Yugoslavia and flew missions over Malta.

By June 1941 III./ZG 26 were based at Derna in North Africa and part of Fliegerfuhrer Afrika, supporting the Axis ground forces. In December 1941, 7./ZG 26 joined the rest of III gruppe at Derna to counter the Allied ground offensive codenamed "Operation Crusader".

Given its harbour facilities, the Axis siege of the Allied port of Tobruk was vital to the African theatre of operations as 1941 wore on. 7. and 9. Staffeln of ZG 26 were based in Sicily and Crete during the summer, and 8. Staffel claimed the most air kills, with most of the aerial action over Sidi Barrani. Ofw. Richard Heller (8./ZG 26) was awarded the Ritterkreuz on 21 August with his tally at 11, having claimed III. Gruppe’s 200th victory earlier in the month.

The counter-attack from Allied ground forces took place in November under the code name "Operation Crusader". Aerial combat was intense, and on 4 December Gruppenkommandeur Major Karl Kaschka was shot down. His successor Hptm. Thomas Steinberger lasted until 24 December he was lost on a ferry flight. Hptm. Georg Christl became the third Gruppenkommandeur of III./ZG 26 in weeks.

Hauptmann Georg Christl was awarded the Ritterkreuz for his leadership during the desert campaign on 18 March 1942. on 23 October the Third Battle of El Alamein commenced a major Allied advances occurred into November. III./ZG 26 carried out bombing and strafing attacks. A heavy loss occurred on 4 December when a Ju 52 carrying essential ground personnel was shot down.

By late 1942 III./ZG 26 was based in Sicily. Leutnant Paul Bley was posted to 8./ZG 26, and was particularly successful against the United States Army Air Forces's (USAAF) P-38 Lightning twin-engine fighters, claiming at least five of the type in early 1943. Bley was appointed Staffelkapitän of 9./ZG 26 in 1943.

Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria in November 1942 saw American forces entering combat, for the first time. III./ZG 26, saw losses increase as modern Allied fighters in increasing numbers were encountered. Convoy cover and transport escort duties continued, with III gruppe where possible attacking American bombers seeking out the German convoys. On 3 February 4 Bf-110s attacking a formation of B-26s were bounced by the P-38 escort. Only Fw. Wegmann managed to escape. On 5 April, a formation of Ju 52/3ms attempting to take supplies to the Afrika Korps was intercepted by P-38s. The 18 Luftwaffe escort was overwhelmed when a further force of 26 P-38s entered the fray. 2 Bf110s were lost in addition to 14 Ju52s . 18 April saw a Ju 52/3m force attacked by British and American fighters, resulting in a loss of 24 Ju52s and 10 escorts. The air war was being lost by the Luftwaffe, and the likes of the Bf-110s of III./ZG 26 were taking unsustainable losses.

The gruppe moved to Rome before being transferred back to the Reich in July 1943.

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