Top Gun, World War II Style: The Shocking Dogfight between Russia and Nazi Germany
In June 1942, the Black Sea port of Sevastopol on the Crimea was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of World War II. Commanded by Generaloberst Erich von Manstein, the German Eleventh Army was dispatched in a powerful attack to seize this important stronghold. Throughout the battle, a stiff but uneven air war raged between German Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters and a handful of determined Soviet airmen based inside Sevastopol. Due to the limited geographic area, the same fighter aces on both sides met in combat each day. Hauptmann Gordon Gollob, Oberleutnants Anton Hackl, Heinrich Setz, and Feldwebel Ernst-Wilhelm Reinert were among the most prominent protagonists in German Fighter Wing 77 (JG 77), as were Kapitans Mikhail Avdeyev, Konstantin Alekseyev, and Boris Babayev in the Soviet naval 6th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment—6 GIAP/VVS-ChF.
A Mutual Respect
Both sides learned to pay great respect to their adversaries. Heinrich Setz, commanding the fourth Staffel (squadron) of JG 77, described the air combat with “most experienced” Soviet fighter pilots over Sevastopol as “extremely hard,” and Hauptmann Gollob was compelled to instruct his fighter pilots to avoid “turning combats at low flight altitude.”
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And Kapitan Mikhail Avdeyev, commanding the first squadron (1 AE) of 6 GIAP/VVS-ChF, dedicated much space in his memoirs to honor a most feared German ace over Sevastopol, whom the Soviet pilots called “Z”—their interpretation of the call sign on the fuselage of this Me-109 F as a black Latin character “Z.” Avdeyev wrote: “‘Z’ appeared every day, always with his back protected by other fighters. Usually, he picked his victims carefully, and only rarely were his attacks without success. More than once, I tried to pursue this Fascist, but this proved to be a most difficult undertaking.…
“It was clear that ‘Z’ was an outstanding pilot, definitely somebody from von Richthofen’s inner circle or maybe even von Richthofen himself.…[Von Richthofen was cousin to the famous WWI ace and, at age 47 in 1942, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe 4th Air Fleet fighting at Sevastopol.]
“That damned ‘Z’ deprived us of our sleep and never left us in peace. It was as if he jeered at us. A hundred times I examined my mind to find out different ways of attacking him—from above, from below, from the clouds or from the sun. But these fine theories always were shattered by the realities. ‘Z’ wasn’t someone whom you could lure into a trap, or who could be made to lose his nerves through a frontal attack. He was a worthy opponent, and he definitely gave us a lot of headache.”
“Z” was Anton Hackl, the Staffelkapitän of 5./JG 77. “Toni” Hackl would remain in frontline service during the entire war. He was among the few who survived more than a thousand combat sorties, achieving a total of 192 confirmed and 24 unconfirmed aerial victories. Roaming the skies above Sevastopol with his Me-109 F-4, “Black 5,” in June 1942, “Toni” Hackl would bring down 11 Soviet aircraft during this battle, making him the most successful German fighter pilot during the campaign. Mikhail Avdeyev was a stunned witness of how swiftly “Z” shot down an Il-2 of 18 ShAP/VVS-ChF in early June: “The fighters of the 1st Eskadrilya took off first. Three or four minutes later, a dozen Messerschmitts appeared. In that moment, Mayor Gubriy’s Stormoviks were taking off.
“Eight Yakovlevs met the Messerschmitts over the sea. Our fast, sudden attack and precise gauge maneuvers drew the Messerschmitts into combat and prevented them from engaging the Stormoviks. Then, from somewhere high above, beyond the dogfight, one Messerschmitt, which no one had detected, came rushing downward like a vulture. It set one of the Stormoviks on fire and disappeared at treetop level. Together with Danilko, I tried to pursue him as he leveled out from the dive, but we were intercepted by four Messerschmitts. We caught a quick glimpse of a black ‘Z’ on the hunter’s fuselage side.”
Nevertheless, both Soviet and German accounts indicate that the Soviet naval airmen based inside Sevastopol in general were tougher than their German counterparts. Several statements by Luftwaffefliers that flew against Sevastopol reveal how impressed the Germans were with the stamina displayed by these Soviet pilots.
Duels in the Skies
In early June 1942, the airmen of both sides had been involved in a prolonged and intense campaign over the eastern part of the Crimea, the Kerch Peninsula (which was completely overrun by the Germans in May 1942), and were in desperate need of a rest.
Leutnant Armin Köhler of I./JG 77 wrote in his diary: “Each day there is an uninterrupted row of combat sorties. We are unable to sleep at night. If this carries on much longer, our nerves will soon be worn down.”