Day Fighter Aces: East
In this chapter we look at the careers of eight Luftwaffe day fighter aces who achieved, in several cases, their mammoth victory tallies on what is broadly defined as the Eastern Front. Some 45,000 Soviet aircraft were shot down during the course of the war; overall, on all fronts, 103 German pilots achieved personal victory tallies of over 100 enemy aircraft, amounting to some 15,400 planes.
We study five pilots who achieved victories of over 100: Kurt Ubben scored 111 victories, mainly on the Eastern Front but with several in the North African theater. Max-Hellmuth Ostermann achieved 102 kills, all on the Eastern Front. Herman Graf topped 200 (211) in the Rostov, Sevastopol, Stalingrad, Kharkov, and Kerch Peninsula areas. Hans Philipp, with 206 victories, just behind Graf, claimed some victories in the West, but the bulk in the Demyansk, Leningrad, Shlisselburg, and Poutilovo sectors, and Franz-Josef Beerenbrock (112) registered his victories on the Kalinin Front, and the Rjev, Viazma, and Mamonovo sectors. Two pilots in his chapter achieved scores of between 50 and 99: Walther Ohlrogge (77) and Gerhard Köppen (85) in the Kiev, Rostov, Kharkov, and Belgorod areas. We will also study Johannes Gentzen (9 kills) who claimed his victories in the opening campaign of the war during the invasion of Poland, thus becoming one of the earliest aces.
Major Johannes Gentzen
Little is known about Johannes Gentzen, who was born on April 4, 1903, in Neubrandenburg. Having initially joined the navy, he later became a pilot with the civilian company HAPAG. His first military flights were at the secret Soviet base in Lipetsk in 1932 and he joined the Luftwaffe at its inception. In April 1936, he was in charge of 1. Staffel of I./JG 232 when this Gruppe was established, flying the He 51 at Bernburg. Two years later, he commanded the unit, which was redesignated I./JG 137 on July 1, 1938, and then I./JG 231 on November 1. On May 1, 1939, the Gruppe was renamed I./ZG 2 and although it was conceived as a Zerstörer (twin-engined heavy fighter) formation, it still flew Bf 109C/Ds like the other ZGs of the time.
Bf 109s of I./ZG 2 at Gross-Stein in late August 1939, shortly before the Polish campaign. Most of the aircraft are Bf 109D-1s, but “Yellow 11” on the right is a Bf 109C-3 equipped with 20mm guns in the wings.
The Bf 109D-1 flown by the Kommandeur of I./ZG 2 photographed on September 10, 1939, a week after his first two victories.
Hptm. Gentzen at the controls of his Bf 109D-1 “double chevron” on his return from Poland. His chief mechanic Uffz. Lösche is standing on the wing. Temporarily renamed JGr. 102, the unit adopted the “Bernburg Fighter” as its official insignia, in honor of Jagdgruppe 102’s hometown. The unit was founded as I./JG 232 on April 1, 1936, in Bernburg. The badge of the Gruppe was retained on the Bf 110s of I./ZG 2.
Hptm. Johannes Gentzen is flanked, on the left, by Oblt. Josef Kellner-Steinmetz (Staka 3./ZG 2) and, on the right, by Oblt. Waldemar von Roon (Staka 1./ZG 2). Both Staffelkapitäne were killed in combat with French H-75s on November 6, 1939, while the Kommandeur was killed on May 26, 1940.
On August 6, 1939, I./ZG 2 moved to Gross-Stein in Silesia to prepare to take part in the Polish campaign. On September 1, 1939, under the leadership of its Kommandeur, this unit operated in support of the H.Gr. Süd (Army Group South) in various roles: Ju 87 escort, ground strafing, etc. Despite his advanced age for a fighter pilot, the almost-40-year-old Gentzen was to be credited with seven victories from 2 to 14 September at the controls of a “Dora,” thus becoming the most talented fighter pilot (and the only ace) of the Polish campaign. Propaganda could not let the opportunity pass and did not fail to elevate Hptm. Gentzen into the limelight, his name being regularly mentioned in the publications of the time.
On September 17, I./ZG 2 returned to Germany after having pushed on to Krakow. On the 22nd of that month, the Gruppe moved to Lachen-Speyerdorf in anticipation of an imminent confrontation with the Western Allies on the Westwall. But the Allied forces kept a low profile and the only combat during this period only took place in the air. Probably for the purposes of deception, I./ZG 2 was then renamed JGr 102.
Lachen-Speyerdorf, October 1939. Close-up of the Bf 109D-1 W.Nr. 2621, decorated with seven victory bars achieved by Gentzen.
Initially, the Luftwaffe was content to repel enemy intrusions from German skies. But with the mass return to the West of the units engaged in Poland, the German fighters and reconnaissance aircraft would increasingly venture over France. Gentzen’s star faded somewhat on November 6, 1939, as a result of the famous “nine versus twenty-seven” confrontation between J.Gr. 102 and the Curtiss H-75 fighters of GC II/5 near Metz. In this battle, J.Gr. 102 did not claim a single victory but lost no fewer than five aircraft while suffering two fatalities and one prisoner, the fatalities being two of the Staffelkapitäne, Oblt. Waldemar von Roon (1./102) and Josef KellnerSteinmetz (3./102). Although he was credited two days later with a Morane 406 near Edenkoben, Gentzen was called to Berlin to be reprimanded. But it became clear during this disastrous battle for German arms that the now obsolete Bf 109Ds had to be replaced as soon as possible by the latest “Emils.” On November 12, J.Gr. 102 was withdrawn from the front.
On January 30, 1940, the Gruppe reverted to its I./ZG 2 designation and received Bf 110Cs, which the pilots were to convert to as quickly as possible (while crewing with a radio gunner) in preparation for the coming campaign.
On April 7, Gentzen won a ninth and final victor...