Friday, June 3, 2022

Encounter in the Sky

Junkers Ju-88 Bombers
Oberleutnant Johannes Boden kept a light hand on the controls, the Ju-88 practically flew itself in the smooth air they encountered as they crossed the coast of France. He glanced back over each shoulder in turn to make sure that his wingmen were still in place.

Leutnant Max Stern, off Boden's left wing, held his aircraft precisely in position. Boden felt that if he suddenly maneuvered, Stern would follow as if the two aircraft were welded together. Leutnant Horst Winkel, on the other hand, was a fairly new pilot. The losses of the campaign in France and the early stages of the attack on England had caused the Luftwaffe to send men to the front who might have had the luxury of more time in training than was the case. And Winkel didn't seem to be a particularly gifted pilot to begin with.

Major Ernst Schwarzenegger had assigned Winkel to Boden's Kette¹ as Boden was the best pilot in the II. Gruppe of Kampfgeschwader 54² and handled much of the training for the group. Schwarzenegger had hoped that Boden could get Winkel up to speed quickly. While Winkel was improving, he wasn't a pilot you wanted flying too close to one's own aircraft. So the formation was perhaps looser than Boden would have liked.

When air currents would cause Boden's aircraft to lift or drop slightly, again Stern's aircraft held position precisely to the left quarter of Boden's Ju-88, Winkel always took a hair longer to regain his position off the right quarter. Boden wasn't worried, this was a quick run in at fairly low altitude to hit an English base just on the coast. All Winkel had to do was keep up. As long as his bombardier dropped when his own bombardier, Leutnant Philip Scholl, dropped, they'd be fine.

Straight in, under the radar, bomb the base, a gentle turn back to France, and they should be back at Coulommiers-Voisins Aerodrome, roughly 45 kilometers east of Paris, in time for lunch.

As long as the Tommies had nobody up on patrol that is.

Flying Officer Reginald Morley and his Vic were just landing as a flight of three Ju-88s overflew the base at low altitude. Morley nearly lost control of his aircraft just before the wheels touched down. His exhaustion and the fact that the three German aircraft had flashed past perpendicular to his own flight path less than two hundred yards away made him nearly jump out of his skin.

"Damn me, Red Lead! Are you all right?" came the squawk over the R/T, "Your left wingtip nearly hit the ground."

As his Hurricane began its roll out, Morley got control of himself. He had recognized the voice of young Wilkins over the R/T, "Red Two, I'm fine. Red Flight let's taxi over to the other side of the field, looks like Jerry wants to play and we're out of gas."

Boden brought his flight in at just above tree top level. The Tommy airfield was just ahead, he could see three Hurricanes landing as what he assumed was von Büchler's Kette overflew the landing strip and headed for the hangars and other buildings which were their main target. Boden climbed to put his Kette above the burst radius of their own bombs.

"Hold her steady Johannes, we're nearly there." announced Scholl from his position in the nose.

Things happened quickly then, off to his right front he could see the bombs from von Büchler's Kette exploding in the midst of a dispersal area, then his aircraft got appreciably lighter as his bombardier pickled their own bomb load. A flash to his left distracted him for just a moment, which was followed by Max Stern's laconic announcement over the radio, "Lead, we're hit, left engine, a lot of flames coming from under the cowling. We need to get out of here."

As they turned east, Boden scanned the skies for enemy fighters, seeing nothing he was startled again when his aircraft rocked slightly. His bombardier turned and looked anxiously at him, "What was that?"

"Light flak I think." Boden answered as he looked at both wings of his aircraft, sure enough, there were holes near the tip of the left wing, ragged metal vibrating in the slipstream.

"Lion Flight, spread out, start varying altitude and course, we've got light flak from what appears to be a warship anchored off the coast." Boden announced over the radio, followed by, "Lion Two, can you make France?"

Boden had noticed that Stern had feathered the prop on his left engine and had started to lag behind. There was no fire evident, at least nothing more than a thin stream of smoke from Stern's left engine. He realized that they had gotten lucky, there were no British fighters aloft.

As they passed farther out into the Channel, he ordered the flight to reduce power to allow Stern to keep up. Beyond the reach of anti-aircraft fire now and with no opposition after them, he figured that to keep formation with Stern a lower speed was in order. If Stern had to ditch, Boden could report his position.

"Lion Three, report." Boden had been keeping an eye on the youngster, so far Leutnant Winkel had been silent.

"Alles in Ordnung hier³." Winkel answered, in a surprisingly steady voice.

Feldwebel Leo Habicht, Boden's navigator/ventral gunner, nudged Boden and pointed to the rear, "Trouble. We've got company."

Imperial War Museum
"Tally ho Blue Leader. Looks like Ju-88s at your two o'clock. Probably the bastards who hit our airfield!" Pilot Officer Geoff Mansfield had great eyesight, better than his lead who was always riled when he didn't spot the enemy first.

"Got 'em Blue Two, I don't see any escorts. Let's bounce these Huns!"

Opening their throttles the two Spitfires rapidly gained on the three Ju-88s, one of which was trailing a thin wisp of smoke from his left engine. Flight Lieutenant Michael Gibson now understood how they were able to catch these raiders.

"Leave the cripple for now Two, take the leader, I'll take the chap on the right!"

With those words, the two pilots charged in, closing the range rapidly.

"Lion Leader, run for home, I'll hold these fellows off, you've got a chance, I won't make it, neither will you if you wait." Max Stern's heart sank at the thought of never seeing his Elsa again, but they had very little hope of escaping the British fighters.

Boden hesitated, then radioed, "Three pitch up and roll hard to your left, I'll go under you."

Stern's voice came over the radio, "Johannes! Run!"

But he watched in horror as young Winkel's aircraft pitched up, then rolled hard to the left. At the same time Boden went into a shallow dive to the right while using his rudder to cause his bird to skid crazily across the sky.

Stern heard his rear gunner shout at the same time his machine gun began to fire. Then Stern banked hard left, fighting the drag of the left wing and trying desperately not to stall the aircraft.

"What in God's name ..." Mansfield hesitated as the the aircraft he was aiming at broke to the right while at the same time the damaged Ju-88 crossed his path. He pulled up and narrowly avoided colliding with the German.

As he began to roll to his right, he felt the sickening thud of machine gun rounds striking his aircraft. One of the German front gunners had hit him, from the sounds of the engine, his aircraft didn't have long to live.

Gibson saw the whole thing, he had been startled by the abrupt maneuvering by the three German aircraft. He had managed to fire a burst at the aircraft which Mansfield had nearly collided with, he wasn't sure if he had hit him or not.

As he began to maneuver, he spotted something which made his blood run cold, German fighters, at least four of them, headed his way.

" Incoming Huns! Two, break for home, I'll cover. There's four of the bastards."

"Lead, my engine is starting to misfire, something's broken. I might have to switch it off. Maybe I can make the coast, but I doubt it. Might have to ditch this kite and swim home." Mansfield was watching his oil temperature rising, the engine seemed to run rougher by the second. He had no choice but to climb and hope.

A little prayer might be in order as well.

Hauptmann Kurt Riesling spotted the Ju-88s first, what the Hell were they doing? Then he spotted the two aircraft harassing them, Spitfires!

"Horst, Willi, get on those Tommies! Jürgen, let's cover the bombers! Execute!"

Stern pulled hard on his control column as the bird seemed intent on diving into the Channel. His dead engine had nearly killed them, but as he recovered the aircraft, he saw two familiar shapes flash past. Messerschmitts, probably from Schlageter, JG-26⁴

"Max ..." his bombardier shook Stern's knee, then nodded to the rear of the cramped crew compartment.

"Scheiße ..." was all Stern could manage as he turned and saw that his young radio operator, Fritz Fritsch was slumped over his gun, blood covering the entire rear of the compartment. The Tommy he had nearly collided with had missed, but his wingman had not.⁵

All four Messerschmitts rejoined on the bombers, the Spitfires had run for home and the Bf-109s were low on fuel.

As they neared the coast, the three surviving members of Stern's crew jumped from their dying aircraft within sight of the coast of France. They were quickly rescued by the Seenotdienst. They were back at their base the next day.

Boden and Winkel made it home in time for lunch. Boden was still amazed at how deftly Winkel had maneuvered when the British had attacked.

"Where on earth did you learn that?" he had asked the young pilot.

"It seemed like the only option we had, so ..." Winkel blushed, "I also pay attention when you're trying to teach me, Herr Oberleutnant."

"We might make a competent pilot of you yet, Horst. Just maybe ..."

Morley's D for Dog was a complete loss. Though he had managed to land and taxi safely off of the landing ground, after he had switched off his engine and sought cover in a nearby slit trench, a German bomb had landed not far from his aircraft. As the raid continued for another fifteen minutes, he had watched with great sadness as his beloved Hurricane burned.

He was also miffed that he'd lost her, not in combat, but on the ground. Poor thing should have had the chance to go down fighting. Not for a moment did Morley consider that he might have gone down with her. Still, she was a fighting machine and deserved better than burning to a crisp on the ground.

He was also quite sure that O'Donnell would never forgive him for losing D for Dog.

¹ A Kette was a unit of three bombers flying in a V-formation. (Kette literally translates to "chain" in English.)
² II. Gruppe of Kampfgeschwader 54 = 2nd Group of Bomber Wing 54. (Kampfgeschwader literally means "fighting wing," the terms "Geschwader" and "Staffel" aren't precise translations of Wing and Squadron in English. They're close enough and functionally very similar. Bomber Staffeln consisted of nine aircraft, fighter Staffeln had twelve aircraft.
³ Everything's ok here. (German)
⁴ JG-26 was named for Albert Leo Schlageter, a hero of the Nazis. JG = Jagdgeschwader, a fighter wing. (Literally "Hunting Wing.")
⁵ Stern confused the lead and the wingman, as the wingman had attacked first, he thought that Mansfield, and not Gibson, was the lead.


  1. I hope Gibson made it close enough to shore to survive. It's June 1940, and he will be needed.

  2. A tense encounter today, kudos to your Muse Sarge!

  3. The pic of the Spitfires is of the Griffon engined Mk XII which entered service in the fall of 1942. During the Battle, the RAF had Mk II and IIA Spitfires which lacked cannons and the clipped wings as seen in the pic.

    1. Indeed, you are correct. I claim artistic license. I liked the picture of two Spitfires flying in concert, it matches the story. Never let a technical detail stand in the way of advancing the story, that's my motto. Well, in the world of fiction anyway.

  4. Sarge - You made realize the contradiction of flying: the sky wide open yet completely confined to a cockpit. I never really thought of that before.

    Excellent writing as always.

    1. Which is probably why the pilots from the First World War scoffed at the idea of an enclosed cockpit.

      Thanks TB!

  5. That did not go as I expected. (Which happens so frequently in war ....) Well imagined, and well told. Thank you.

    I'm imagining a sequel to these, in various pubs, long, long after, as various pilots and crews encounter each other as survivors.

    1. It happened in reality, old warriors gathering and telling their tales to someone else who had been there. Even if it was a former enemy.

    2. It's governments who want to fight wars; warriors hope to survive them, and most are happy to join in rejoicing their shared success.

  6. For someone who's never flown Air to Air, not bad, not bad at all!

  7. Hate to seem flippant but it wi!l be easier to replace O'Donnell's aircraft than to replace Morely
    Boat Guy

    1. Oh yes, the Brits managed to have enough aircraft that a loss in the morning was replaced in the afternoon.

      I saw a very bad analysis the other day (can't remember where) that said the RAF never came close to running out of pilots. The study ignored the fact that many pilots in the late summer/early fall of 1940 came to their operational units with very little time in the type of aircraft they were to fly. Many could take off, fly in formation, then land. And not much else.

      Morley would be tough to replace.

    2. The Germans will learn that lesson the hard way in a few years.

  8. I think this may be one of your first specific air to air engagements, although lots of air to ground in previous installments.
    You had me there in each of the cockpits.

    Lex would be damn proud of your writing, especially not being a pilot yourself.
    John Blackshoe

    1. I'm blushing over here ...

      Thanks JB.

    2. JB, Sarge and I had this conversation off line after I read this post. The maneuver is called a Cross Turn and is used against a two ship attacking. In a two ship of fighters on the attack, the lead is the attacker, his wingman is watching his six. Very rarely is he allowed to attack another aircraft. Since the Germans executed a cross turn and turned into each other, the Brits had to choose which one to attack. The reason for the cross turn is so that they would be in different parts of the airspace and hopefully the one not being attacked is able to come around and bring guns to bear on the attackers.
      Obviously, it was more effective in a guns only environment. Missiles change a lot of things, especially launch and leave ones.
      I recognized the maneuver at once. Texted Sarge to see if he'd been "Schooled" on it somehow. He said it just came to him.
      Hence my earlier comment. Not Bad At All!

    3. A subspecies of the Thatch Weave?

    4. Yeah, except it generally went at least 180 degrees 270 for the free one. The weave was used to go somewhere while keeping people off your flight's six.

    5. juvat the First - I may have read it somewhere, my head is chock full of information from books read, simulations participated in, movies seen, and just plain thinking about "stuff."

      Again I am humbled to get a "Not Bad At All" from an actual fighter pilot.

    6. StB - See juvat the First (comment that is).

    7. juvat the Second - The slower and less nimble Wildcat needed an advantage against the Zero, the brilliant Jimmy Thach gave them an edge with this maneuver. Least ways that's how I remember it.

  9. If you feel like stepping back one major war, I recommend “Open Cockpit” by Arthur G. Lee.

    Hard to imagine that during the Great War, RFC pilots showed up at front-line squadrons with fifteen hours of flying time. No wonder they died like flies.

    1. Thanks for the tip CM, I shall look for that one!

      I see Amazon has it, I'll have to order it after I get back from vacation.

      Yes, folks, the Sarge actually takes vacations. The Nuke assures me that our destination has WiFi, so dinnae panic.


    2. Another good WW1 book (fictional) is "Goshawk Squadron" by Derek Robinson. It has its moments describing the reality that new Brit pilots faced.

    3. I got it for Kindle for $.0.99. Looking forward to reading it.

    4. Thanks Don, I'll check it out.

    5. juvat - Can we expect a report?


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