Top Gun Meets Hell: When The Nazi And Russian Air Forces Went to War

November 1, 2019 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IINaziSovietStalinHitlerMilitaryHistory

Top Gun Meets Hell: When The Nazi And Russian Air Forces Went to War

Locked in combat and mutual respect.

On June 7, Gordon Gollob wrote in his diary: “My fighters achieved nine victories, while one officer and an Unteroffizier went missing. The Russians are putting up a desperate—and quite skillful—fight. I shot down a LaGG-3, which fell straight into the ground at Sevastopol IV Airdrome and burst into flames. But I also was a close call from getting shot down myself. I barely managed to reach our own lines with a shot-up radiator.” Leutnant Wolfgang Werhagen, an 11-victory ace in 4./JG 77, was captured after being shot down.

Mikhail Avdeyev describes how the Yak-1s of 6 GIAP/VVS-ChF tied up the Me-109s that attempted to escort a formation of Il-2s:”Suddenly one of the Messerschmitts broke away from the fighter tussle and headed for the Il-2s, but Kapitan Konstantin Alekseyev saw it in time and shot down the German. A second Me-109 was shot down by me, and one more Me-109 fell burning toward the mountains.”

But the overwhelming German superiority in the air was too much even to the determined and experienced veterans of 6 GIAP. “For several hours the whole scene was buzzing, howling and thundering; there was no way for us to repulse the masses of enemy aircraft that kept arriving in wave after wave,” recalls Avdeyev. “There was not enough fighters or antiaircraft artillery.”

Against a loss of three Yak-1s, 6 GIAP/VVS-ChF chalked up nine kills on June 8. At the same time, 12 Soviet aircraft were claimed by the pilots of JG 77, three of them by “Toni” Hackl. Of the three top aces in 6 GIAP/VVS-ChF, only one would escape unscathed from the following week’s stiff air combats. On June 8, Kapitan Alekseyev was shot down and bailed out with severe wounds. “Kostya” Alekseyev had a total score of 11 personal and six group victories, which made him the top ace of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet Air Force at that time.

Mikhail Avdeyev recalls the fateful mistake committed by Kapitan Alekseyev’s wingman: “Together with his wingman, Katrov, he carried out a prolonged dogfight with six Messerschmitts, who attempted to break through to our Stormoviks. Here the main task was holding the enemy at bay, not shooting down. But Katrov couldn’t stand it and went after a Messerschmitt that appeared in front of him. This was exactly what the Germans had been waiting for. A pair of Messerschmitts came rushing to attack Katrov. Alekseyev tried to overtake them but was himself squeezed between two other fighters, one from each side, who set his aircraft on fire.”

Oberleutnant Heinrich Setz described this combat : “I managed to position myself behind one of these guys several times. My cannon wouldn’t fire, and left with only the machine guns I didn’t have the sufficient fire power. The Russians proved to be very skilful fliers, and I found myself attacked over and over again. After a prolonged dogfight, I suddenly saw a Yak climbing after a Messerschmitt. I went after him. While turning, I came so close that I almost rammed him. The burst from my machine-guns hit his engine and cockpit. He went down and crashed right next to his own airfield.”

Mounting Soviet Losses

On June 9—when 11 of the Soviet navy aircraft in Sevastopol were shot down—the time had come for Boris Babayev. That morning, the three Yak-1 sections that remained in Mikhail Avdeyev’s 1 AE of 6 GIAP/VVS-ChF took off to pave the way through the Me-109s for the Il-2s of Mayor Gubriy’s 18 ShAP/VVS-ChF. Because the German forward command kept the Soviet airfields inside the fortress under constant surveillance, von Richthofen could personally direct the JG 77 fighters against the Yak-1s as he saw the dust blown up when the Soviet pilots started their engines. Avdeyev and his wingman Katrov were first to race across the runway, and as soon as the undercarriage of his fighter left the ground he was charged from above by two Me-109 pilots. Both Soviet pilots engaged the enemy while Boris Babayev and three other Yak pilots took to the air. But soon German reinforcements were called in. The Yak-1 pilots were locked into a severe combat with a large number of German fighter pilots, including Anton Hackl, Heinrich Setz, and Ernst-Wilhelm Reinert.

The Il-2s and three I-16s of 6 GIAP/VVS-ChF took off just as a formation of Ju 88s was approaching with the obvious intent of bombing the airfield. With the Me-109s occupied attacking the Yak-1s, the Shturmoviks and Ishaks managed to slip away to carry out a swift low-level attack against the German troops not many miles away. Boris Babayev bailed out of his blazing Yakovlev; he got entangled with the rigging lines of his parachute and fell with his face downward, breaking his front teeth and fracturing his face as he hit the ground. By comparing Soviet sources with corresponding German sources, it is obvious that Babayev’s Yak-1 fell prey to “Toni” Hackl—registered as his 59th kill.

The combat was still raging as one of the German pilots caught sight of the Il-2s and I-16s that were returning from their strafing. Several Me-109s turned to intercept them, and the Yak-1s duly followed to protect their comrades—but in vain. “I dived against a ‘bird’ which had large areas painted red,” Heinrich Setz recalled. “I gave him a burst from my cannon and he exploded in a huge cascade of fire immediately in front of me.” Avdeyev’s wingman Katrov fell to a certain death—ending up as Heinrich Setz’s 74th victory.

From his observation tower, von Richthofen saw the Soviet aircraft go down in flames. “It’s great fun!” he chuckled. Next, two I-16s were knocked down, by Setz and Reinert (the latter’s 49th victory). The stiffness of the combat is indicated by the entry in Gordon Gollob’s diary for that day which reads: “We fought at altitudes between 1,500 feet and the deck. I shot down an I-153, but I was also hit myself and landed close behind our own lines with a burning tire.”

Following this, 6 GIAP/VVS-ChF was left with only four Yak-1s remaining. On June 10, Soviet Fifth Air Army sent 20 Yak-1s of 45th Fighter Aviation Regiment (45 IAP) from northwestern Caucasus as reinforcements to Sevastopol. Next day, another group of eight Yak-1s arrived from the units of VVS-ChF that were based in the same area. While the army fighters managed to reach their destination without incidents, the naval Yakovlevs were spotted by Heinrich Setz. Climbing with the sun at his back, Setz put a well-aimed burst into one of the Yaks, which fell to the ground —the German ace’s 76th kill.

The mainly inexperienced Soviet airmen could not outweigh the loss of Babayev and Alekseyev, and the air-combat situation grew more and more difficult for the Soviets. On June 12, Avdeyev had to make good an escape by flying down a Sevastopol street. When he returned to base, he learned that only three of the “new” navy Yakovlev pilots—the unit’s political commissar and two inexperienced Serzhants—had survived that day’s air fighting. In his memoirs, Avdeyev wrote laconically: “And next day, the Commissar and his wingmen were no more.”

On June 13, the Soviet navy pilots in Sevastopol registered seven aircraft lost against two victory claims. In addition, the 45 IAP pilots Ivan Shmatko, Serzhant Vaz’yan, and Leytenant Ushakov were shot down. After a few days, 45 IAP had lost nine Yak-1s, and most of its novice pilots were killed.

A Chance to Kill “Z”

In response to the relentless German fighter attacks from above, the Soviet airmen adopted a new tactic. Taking off as fast as they could, they raced out over the sea at low level. Once out of sight of Sevastopol, they climbed high and turned back. “Three attacks were made by strong Il-2 formations,” an astounded Gordon Gollob wrote in his diary on June 14. “These guys have some nerves,” Heinrich Setz noted in his diary: “Each day they see their friends go down in flames, and yet they’re back in the air with the same enthusiasm the next day.”

During one of the air combats on June 15, Avdeyev finally managed to get the feared “Z” in his gunsight:“The sun was already sinking below the horizon. Suddenly I spotted the hated reddish-brown (‘carrot-colored’) plane over the airfield. I called upon all gods to ensure that my engine and guns would not fail, that my speed wouldn’t decrease, so that nothing would go wrong. The matter had become personal: ‘Z’ had become my nightmare, my idée fixe, the symbol of everything that I hated ferociously … I still don’t know the reason for this—either ‘Z’ made a blunder, or my swift attack caught him by surprise—but finally, and not without sensing a fiendish pleasure, I saw ‘my’ ryzhiy (‘carrot’) cross the threads of my gunsight. I fired one burst. A second. A third. The plane passed by. I turned my head and looked back: Trailing smoke, ‘Z’ rushed toward friendly territory. I turned to follow him, but too late—a pack of Messerschmitts intercepted me.…