|Zerstörergeschwader 26 "Horst Wessel"|
|Size||Air Force Wing|
Messerschmitt Bf 110|
Messerschmitt Me 410
World War II
|Fighter||Bf 109, Bf 110, Me 410|
Zerstörergeschwader 26 was formed in early 1936 from the Jagdgeschwader 134 "Horst Wessel". The Geschwaderstab and I. Gruppe was located in Dortmund, II. Gruppe in Werl and III. Gruppe in Lippstadt. The Geschwader was subordinated to Luftflotte 2. The Geschwader was re-equipped with the Messerschmitt Bf 110 shortly before the outbreak of World War II.
Early war years, 1940–41
On 29 September 1939 ZG 26 achieved their first victories when 3. Staffel shot down five Royal Air Force (RAF) Hampden twin-engine bombers of No. 144 Squadron, Leutnant Günther Specht claiming two. On 3 December 1939, Specht shot down a No. 38 Squadron Wellington bomber over the North Sea. However, return fire seriously wounding him in the left eye and he ditched safely in the sea. Although Specht lost the sight in his left eye he continued operational flying.
Battle of France 1940
The unit took part in the Battle of France from May–June 1940. 12 May saw III./ZG 26 in action and the Gruppe claimed eight enemy aircraft shot down for no loss. On 14 May the Allied Air Forces launched a series of desperate attacks against the bridges around Sedan at a heavy cost. ZG 26 helped provide air cover. The next day conflicts with fighters caused two aircraft of 2./ZG 26 to be shot down and two more returned damaged with wounded on board. Among the ZG 26 losses was that of I. Gruppe Gruppenadjutant Oblt. Hans-Gunther Koch, who was killed in action. Both Hptm. Herbert Kaminski, the Staffelkapitän of 2./ZG 26 and his Bordfunker returned to base wounded. On 18 May further heavy combat resulted in losses for ZG 26, among these being 5 Staffel CO Hptm. Eberhard d'Elsa, who was taken prisoner and returned later from captivity, though such were his injuries that he did not return to flying duties.
By 19 May 5./ZG 26 had only three serviceable Bf-110’s available. Led by their new Staffelkapitän, Oblt. Theodor Rossiwall, they were soon engaged in combat with Allied fighters, and III./ZG 26 claimed some 19 victories for the day. Nine more victories followed the next day, although 7./ZG 26 had Staffelkapitän Oblt. Kurt-Wilhelm Heinrich wounded, dying of his injuries on 24 May. The Geschwader was now encountering more and more RAF fighters as the German advance moved towards the beleaguered B.E.F. around Dunkirk. On 23 May Lt. Günther Specht shot down three Spitfires of No. 92 Squadron (two were lost, one of which was flown by S/L. Roger Bushell who was made prisoner). However, his aircraft was damaged in the dogfight, Specht forced-landing with serious wounds, which would keep him from combat duty for some time. Six more RAF fighter were claimed on 27 May, while on 31 May 5./ZG 26 'bounced' a formation of unsuspecting Spitfires and claimed five victories for no loss. Following the successful Dunkirk evacuation, the Luftwaffe turned to the drive south and west into France. ZG 26 claimed numerous more victories over RAF and French Air Force aircraft, with eight victories on 3 June,and nine more on 14 June.
Battle of Britain 1940
III./ZG26 flew its first mission against the UK on 9 July, losing one Bf-110. ZG 26 was heavily engaged on 10 July when escorting Do 17s attacking the channel convoy codenamed 'Bread'. The defending RAF fighters were drawn up to protect the merchantmen and the ZG 26 crews claimed 12 Spitfires and Hurricanes (although RAF losses were 1 shot down,1 crash-landed). III./ZG26 in turn lost 3 Bf-110’s and another damaged.
On 11 August convoy 'Booty' was the target for fighter-bomber unit Erpr.Gr.210, with escort provided by I./ZG 26. 1.Staffel lost 2 aircraft, with 2 Bf-110’s from 2.Staffel, returning to France with heavy damage. 1./ZG 26 Staffelkapitän Hptm. Johann Kogler, spent several days adrift in the North Sea before being rescued by the German air-sea rescue service.
'Adlertag' on 13 August, got off to the bad start when, due to poor weather all morning attacks were cancelled. However, although the recall order reached the Bf-110 of ZG 26, the Do 17s of KG 2 they were escorting did not receive the order. Frantic attempts by the Zerstörer crews to alert the Do-17s to turn back proved fruitless and the Dorniers continued to their target. ZG 26 returned to base, leaving KG 2 to press on alone. Later in the day Erpr.Gr.210 took off to attack on Rochford airfield, escorted by I./ZG 26. Weather conditions at this time of day were no better than in the morning and the mission was aborted, Erpr.Gr.210 releasing its bombs over Canterbury and returning to base. I./ZG 26 ran into the Hurricanes of No. 56 Squadron and, for the loss of one Bf-110, claimed 4 shot down.
On 18 August the Bf-110s of ZG 26 escorted bombers to the airfields of Biggin Hill and Kenley. ZG 26 took heavy losses from the RAF fighters, and 9 Bf-110’s were shot down, including those of I.Gruppe Adjutant, Oblt. Rudiger Proske (taken prisoner), and the 3.Staffel Staffelkapitän Oblt. Hans-Jurgen Kirchoff (killed). In late afternoon ZG 26 escorted a force of bombers to attack Hornchurch and North Weald and again, the Zerstörer suffered losses. The Staffelkapitän of 2./ZG 26 Hptm. Herbert Kaminski ditched into the North Sea and, with his Bordfunker spent four days in a dinghy before being rescued. ZG 26 had 13 Bf-110’s shot down, 6 crash landing back in France, with 2 'write-offs' while claiming 25 RAF fighters shot down. ZG 26 lost another 3 on 26 August.
On 2 September I. and II. Gruppen escorted a raid targeted at airfields near the Thames. The bomber force reached its objectives with only one bomber was shot down, and ZG 26 lost 2 shot down, with another returning with combat damage. On 6 September ZG 26 also lost Oblt. Friedrich Viertel, the Geschwader Technical Officer, who survived as a prisoner after being shot down into the Channel, with 3. and 7. Staffeln each losing a Bf-110. On 11 September, in further raids against London, the main Zerstörer escort force was ZG 26, with elements of V.(Z)/LG 1, and II. and III./ZG 76 also taking part. ZG 26 took most losses, losing 5 aircraft.
On 25 September ZG 26 provided fighter cover for KG 55 attacking the Bristol Aeroplane works at Filton. The bombers reached their objective while the ZG 26 tangled with defending fighters. III Gruppe lost 2 Bf-110’s, while Staffelkapitain 7.Staffel, Oblt. Ernst Matthes force-landed. During an escort mission with Erpr.Gr.210, the next day ZG 26 suffered the loss of 2 more Bf-110’s.
On 7 October III./ZG 26 provided escort for the Ju-88s of 11./ KG 51 attacking the Westland aircraft works at Yeovil. Strong RAF resistance hit ZG 26 hard, with II Gruppe losing 3 aircraft shot down and III Gruppe losing 4.
Overall, operations against the UK during the Battle of Britain had showed up the vulnerability of the Bf 110 to a well organised, modern single-seat fighter force, ZG 26 losing some 95 aircraft during the July–December 1940 period, with over 118 aircrew killed or prisoner.
Despite the heavy losses the unit did produce some successful Experten, with Fw. Walter Scherer of III Gruppe claiming 10 victories and Lt. Sophus Baagoe claiming 9. Major Johann Schalk and Lt. Botho Sommer also reached 'ace' status. In 7. Staffel Lt. Kuno-Adalbert Konopka and Fw. Helmut Haugk both had over 5 claims, while 8. Staffel's Lt. Siegfried Kuhrke scored 5.
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 Experte, 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 Fliegerführer 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.
Soviet Union 1941–42
On 22 May 1941, Hauptmann Herbert Kaminski was appointed Gruppenkommandeur I./ZG 26. He led the Gruppe during the invasion of Soviet Union, flying ground attack missions on North Russian airfields. I and II. Gruppen of ZG 26 were initially allocated to the central front, with an initial role of attacking Soviet airfields to destroy enemy aircraft and render the airfields unserviceable. They would also carry out a multiplicity of tasks supporting ground forces.
During this initial period the I. Gruppe claimed 51 aircraft destroyed on the ground and 11 aircraft shot down in aerial combat. Kaminski was awarded the Ritterkreuz on 6 August for 5 victories.
ZG 26 were soon transferred North to support the drive towards Leningrad. By August I. and II./ZG 26 were operating from Sarudinye, and later Smolensk. Their role was again multi-functional- to attack enemy forces, airfields, tank and artillery concentrations, communications networks, and the rail and river network bringing supplies to the beleaguered city.
Through the winter of 1941–42 the two Gruppen were rotated between the Eastern Front and Germany, and on 27 January 1942 that 1./ZG 26 lost its commander Hptm. Wilhelm Spies, who was shot down on a low-level attack south-west of Suchinitschi. Another was Ritterkreuz holder Lt. Eduard Meyer, killed in a mid-air collision on 31 March 1942.
Shortly afterwards, both Gruppen returned to Germany where the Gruppen were disbanded.
On the far northern Russian Front, in July 1944 13.(Z) Jagdgeschwader 5 (JG 5) was redesignated 10./ZG 26, part of the new IV. Gruppe of ZG 26, retaining its base as Herdla. The new 12 Staffel was also equipped with the Bf-110, being based at Oerlandet. By November, the Staffel was based at Trondheim. A further re-designation took place in February 1945 when the 10 and 12 Staffeln of ZG 26 were incorporated into 7./JG 5, part of the new 11./ JG 5.
The Geschwader was disbanded in April 1942. The Geschwaderstab formed the Geschwaderstab of Nachtjagdgeschwader 3. III. Gruppe remained the sole autonomous Gruppe while the other Gruppen were integrated into Zerstörergeschwader 2 and Zerstörergeschwader 3.
Reformation and Reich defence 1943
The Geschwader was reformed in 1943 from the old III. Gruppe and the I. Gruppe and III. Gruppe of Zerstörergeschwader 1.
The II. Gruppe was re-equipped with the Messerschmitt Me 410 Hornisse. In October 1943, Hauptmann Eduard Tratt was appointed Gruppenkommandeur II./ZG 26. On 29 November, he shot down a USAAF B-17 as his 30th victory. ZG 26 meanwhile was soon in action against the bombers of the USAAF Eighth Air Force. ZG 26 claimed some 19 bombers downed on 8 October, while intercepting a raid against Münster on 10 October, II. and III. Gruppen suffered moderate losses but claimed 18 bombers in return, on the day that the American 100th Bomb Group only had one bomber return intact to Thorpe Abbotts from their unit on the Münster raid. Four days later, ZG 26 took part in inflicting heavy losses on American bombers during the raid on Schweinfurt, claiming 10 victories. ZG 26's conflict against the USAAF day bombers was infrequent, although on 29 November 1943 6 bombers of the 95th Bomb Group were downed over Bremen by a frontal Werfer-Granate 21 rocket attack by six Me 410's (9 were claimed) and on 16 March 1944 18 bombers were downed over Augsburg.
III./ZG 26 under Major Johann Kogler, was based in Wunstorf during early 1944, with Bf 110's armed with two 30mm and four 20mm cannon ( two in a ventral fuselage gun pod), and four underwing-mount Werfer-Granate 21 210mm rocket launchers, designed to break up the massed bomber formations from long range. ZG 26's Me 410s also gradually took on added weight with extra cannon and rockets, culminating in the fitting of a bomb-bay mount 50 mm Bordkanone BK 5 cannon ( with 21 rounds) on the Me 410A-1/U4 aircraft on duty.
Burdened by so much heavy ordnance on each aircraft, the over-arming of Zerstörer heavy fighters to operate better as diurnal bomber destroyers compromised high altitude performance and rendered the aircraft highly vulnerable when caught by the Allied fighter escorts. On 20 February, 16 Bf 110G's of III Gruppe were intercepted by the P-47 Thunderbolts of the 56th Fighter Group, losing 11 aircraft shot down. Two more were lost on 22 February in addition to Hauptmann Tratt, who was shot down and killed in combat over Nordhausen flying a Me 410 A-1. He was posthumously awarded the Eichenlaub on 26 March and promoted to Major. Tratt was the highest scoring Zerstörer pilot of the war.
Berlin was the target of the American 'heavies' for the first time on 6 March, and interception was made by ZG 26 who claimed 8 bombers destroyed. However, II. and III./ZG 26 lost 11 out of the 17 aircraft deployed, a crippling loss rate; I. and III.Gruppen of ZG 26 were withdrawn to Königsberg, where they began conversion to the Me 410. On 11 April II./ZG 26 downed ten B-17s without any losses, although their second sortie of the day ZG 26 was intercepted by strong formations of escorting P-51s, flying well ahead of the USAAF bombers' combat boxes, that shot down 8 Me 410s and 3 Bf 110s; 16 crewman were killed, and 3 wounded.
I and II./ZG 26 claimed another 16 bombers down over the North Baltic coast on 29 May 1944.
By June 1944 the 35 operational Me 410B-2s of Stab, I and II./ZG 26 were based at Königsburg-Neumark, while 7. ZG 26 (still flying Bf 110-G) were at Fels am Wagram. The Geschwader was disbanded in late July 1944, with II. Gruppe and III. Gruppe remustered to II. Gruppe and III. Gruppe of Jagdgeschwader 6 during the summer of 1944. The IV. Gruppe was created on 5 September 1944 in Norway.
The pilots integrated into Jagdgeschwader 6 took heavy casualties through 1944 during operations against the Allied day bomber offensive.
- Oberst Kurt-Bertram von Döring, 1 May 1939 – 14 December 1939
- Oberstleutnant Joachim-Friedrich Huth, 14 December 1939 – 1 November 1940
- Oberst Johann Schalk, 1 November 1940 – 29 September 1941
- Oberstleutnant Karl Boehm-Tettelbach, October 1943 – June 1944
- Oberstleutnant Johann Kogler, June 1944 – July 1944
- Hauptmann Karl Kaschka, 1 May 1939 – January 1940
- Hauptmann Wilhelm Makrocki, 27 January 1940 – 21 May 1941
- Hauptmann Herbert Kaminski, May 1941 – 1941
- Hauptmann Wilhelm Spies, 27 January 1942
- Major Friedrich Vollbracht, 1 May 1939 – April 1940
- Hauptmann Ralph von Rettberg, April 1940 – April 1942
- Hauptmann Eduard Tratt, 11 October 1943 – 22 February 1944
- Hauptmann Johann Schalk, 1 May 1939 – 1 September 1940
- Major Karl Kaschka, 1 September 1940 – 4 December 1941
- Hauptmann Thomas Steinberger, 4 December 1941 – 24 December 1941
- Hauptmann Georg Christl, 25 December 1941 – 12 July 1943
- Major Fritz Schulze-Dickow, 12 July 1943 – 11 February 1944
- Major Johann Kogler, 11 February 1944 – 2 June 1944
- Hauptmann Werner Thierfelder, 2 June 1944 – 18 July 1944