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Black day for the Luftwaffe 'Gigants'
22 April 1943: This week's excerpt considers the role of the Me 323 transport plane in keeping Hitler's Army in North Africa supplied
An as the Allies began the Torch landings in North Africa Hitler moved to bring in reinforcements - by sea and air. The Allied navies soon made the sea route very hazardous - Italian merchant shipping captains learnt to develop ‘engine trouble’ that prevented them from making the trip if they had any sense. But the Luftwaffe proved to be remarkably capable of bringing in supplies. A very significant contribution was made by the extraordinary Me 323 Gigant.
hough the Me 323 has acquired a reputation as being a slow, lumbering defenceless aircraft, a new study suggests this was not the case. It was capable of absorbing a lot of damage. However when carrying gasoline it suddenly became very vulnerable.
‘Giants’ delivered 15,000 tons of cargo to the bridgehead, including ninety-six self-propelled artillery guns and armored personnel carriers, 616 guns, 360 trucks and tractors, and forty-two radio stations.
The following account comes from Hitler's Air Bridges: The Luftwaffe's Supply Operations of the Second World War:
Until early April, despite some aircraft losses, the air bridge across the Mediterranean continued to operate successfully. Meanwhile, the Allies were preparing for a decisive offensive against the German-Italian bridgehead. In parallel, they were thinking of additional ways to undermine the resistance of Axis powers. The Americans and British carefully studied the traffic of German air transport and belatedly realized what an important role this intercontinental air bridge played.
It was decided to focus the aviation efforts on destroying the Luftwaffe transport planes in the air, and on the ground, during attacks on its airfields in Africa and Italy. This Allied operation was codenamed ‘Flaks’.
For its implementation, long-range fighters (P-38 and others) were transferred to air bases in Algeria and in the part of Tunisia that had been recaptured from the Germans.
The air operation started on 5 April simultaneously with the beginning of the offensive of British troops on the position of Wadi Akarit and American troops in the sectors of Gafsa and Fonduk. The efforts of the RAF and USAF immediately produced significant results. On the first day, Lightnings (twenty P-38s from 96.FS, 82.FG and twenty- six P-38s from l.FG) managed to intercept a large group of thirty-one Ju 52/3m. After the attack, the Americans recorded seventeen downed transport planes on their combat account...
On 22 April, sixteen Me 323 from I. and II./KGzbV 323 went on another flight to Tunisia with a cargo of gasoline. The huge planes were flying in free formation at some distance from each other and low over the water. Traditionally, in the first half of the route, ‘Giants’ were accompanied by Italian Macchi C.202 Folgore fighters, then Bf 109s from II./JG 27, based in Tunisia, took over the watch for protection from Allied fighters. The flight went according to plan and nothing indicated impending trouble.
The pilots of the Bf 109 did not immediately understand the situation and slightly moved away from the ‘Giants’. And it was at this most unfortunate moment that a large group of British, South African and American fighters suddenly appeared in the sky.
However, on the approach to the African coast near the island ofZembra, the course of transport planes unexpectedly crossed with a large group of friendly Ju 52s flying in the opposite direction. To avoid a collision, the pilots ofthe Me 323 began to maneuver and had to break the battle formation (given the size of the aircraft, it was quite large!).
The pilots of the Bf 109 did not immediately understand the situation and slightly moved away from the ‘Giants’. And it was at this most unfortunate moment that a large group of British, South African and American fighters suddenly appeared in the sky. These were P-40K from the 1st, 4th and 5th Sqdn. SAAF7 and Spitfire from the 250th, 260th Sqdn. RAF and 31st FS.
In the ensuing air battle, fourteen giant transport planes were shot down...
Aerial victories were recorded on the combat account of Allied pilots as follows: Major Peterson of the 5th Sqdn. SAAF and Lieutenant Green of the 4th Sqdn. SAAF were recorded to the combat account of 2.5 downed Me 323; Lieutenant Marshall of the 4th Sqdn. SAAF was recorded on the combat account with two Me 323 shot down and Lieutenant Weingartz of the 5th Sqdn. SAAF also with two Me 323s shot down. All of the above pilots flew the P-40K.
In addition, two downed Me 323s were recorded on the combat accounts of Lieutenant Gilson and Lieutenant van der Veen of the 1st Sqdn. SAAF who flew the Spitfire. Pilots from the 250th Sqdn. and the 260th Sqdn. RAF recorded one downed Me 323 as a group victory, and the pilots of the American Spitfire from the 31st FS downed two Me 323s in the group. Note that by this point, the Allies were already aware of the existence of ‘Giants’.
According to the pilots of the escort fighters, because of the cargo of gasoline, huge planes simply exploded and flared up like torches. One ‘Giant’ immediately landed on the water; 119 crew members out of 138 were killed (only nineteen managed to escape). Among the dead was commander II./KGzbV 323 Oberstleutnant Werner Stefan, who was flying in one of the planes as a passenger, as well as two of the three Staffcis commanders — Hauptmann Kube and Hauptmann Ruge. As a result, only two ‘Giants’ reached their destination.
Only one Me 323 managed to return to the Trapani airfield on the same day. At the same time, the plane took an incredible number of soldiers out of Tunisia - 340. Of these, 120 were placed lying between the engines inside the wings.
However, one of them for some reason (perhaps because of the damage) stayed in Africa for some time. Only one Me 323 managed to return to the Trapani airfield on the same day. At the same time, the plane took an incredible number of soldiers out of Tunisia - 340. Of these, 120 were placed lying between the engines inside the wings.
The day after the battle at Zembra island, General Eisenhower’s headquarters published a special message, which read:
Allied tactical aircraft patrolling part of the sea between Sicily and Africa, found a German compound of 20 large six - engine transport planes Me 323, accompanied by 40-50 fighters. Allied planes, without hesitation, attacked the enemy and within ten minutes destroyed all transport planes, and of the accompanying fighters shot down 8 German Me 109 and 2 Italian aircraft. Large transport planes transported troops and fuel from Sicily to Tunisia.
In total, between 18 and 24 April, while servicing the air bridge to Africa transport aircraft, the Luftwaffe lost sixty-four aircraft (fourteen Me 323 and fifty Ju 52) and 320 pilots. Along with it, 240 tons of supplies were lost.
As for the massacre of the Giants’, it is often cited as an example of the absolute defenselessness of these transport planes. However, it should be recalled that these aircraft flew between Europe and Africa from November 1942, that is five months, while incurring minimal losses.
‘Giants’ delivered 15,000 tons of cargo to the bridgehead, including ninety-six self-propelled artillery guns and armored personnel carriers, 616 guns, 360 trucks and tractors, and forty-two radio stations. It was largely thanks to KGzbV 323, which made 1,200 sorties (600 flights), that the Wehrmacht was able to quickly establish a line of defense there and hold it for a long time.
The 22 April was a ‘black day’ for Luftwaffe transport aircraft due to a difficult set of circumstances, but each such disaster approximated the imminent collapse of the Third Reich.
The first months of operation showed that the combat survivability of the Me 323 was significantly higher than that of the Ju 52. The plane was very difficult to set on fire. Even after receiving numerous hits, it continued to fly. Suffice it to say that during one of the battles, the B-26 Marauder bomber fired all the ammunition (4,250 rounds!) from their own nine 12.7 mm machine guns (and the Americans fired incendiary and explosive bullets).
Even after such a crushing attack, the Me 323 D still escaped heavy damage. ‘Giant’ was also generally more maintainable than ‘Aunt Ju’, although previously it had seemed that the Ju 52 had no equal in the speed of recovery from severe damage. Due to all these features, the Me 323, already in Africa, was nicknamed ‘Leukoplast-Bomber’ [band-aid bomber] by the Germans.
The total losses of transport aircraft by the Luftwaffe and Regia Aeronautica as a result of Operation Flaks from 5 to 24 April were 141 aircraft, including 123 Ju 52, fourteen Me 323 and four SM.82. Another sixteen aircraft were retired during the same period due to accidents and catastrophes. As a result, on 25 April, Reichsmarschall Goring ordered all transport flights to Tunisia to be conducted only at night. This led to a reduction in losses, but at the same time reduced the amount of cargo delivered to the bridgehead.
Hitler’s Air Bridges is a comprehensive study of all the different air bridge operations mounted by the Luftwaffe during the war. Partly as a consequence of Hitler’s ‘Never Retreat’ approach, there were many occasions during the war when German troops found themselves in isolated pockets, dependent on the transport aircraft to bring them the bulk or even all of their supplies - food, fuel and ammunition. The evacuation of the wounded during the same operations was almost as important - certainly to the Wehrmacht if rather less so to the Nazi regime.
This is a remarkably detailed study, often with day-by-day accounts of operations and aircraft losses. The operation to supply Stalingrad is covered extensively, including several personal accounts from the aircrew involved. It begins with the improvisation of an ‘air-bridge’ to supply the ‘Demyansk Pocket’ in early 1942 and continues right through to the desperate battle for ‘Festung Breslau’ in Germany (now Wrocław in Poland) which saw its last supply flight on the 30th April 1945. For air war enthusiasts this volume fills in much detail that is not covered in more conventional Luftwaffe histories.
This excerpt from Hitler's Air Bridges: The Luftwaffe's Supply Operations of the Second World War appears by kind permission of Pen & Sword Books Ltd. Copyright remains with the author.