Flying the Bf 109 in combat – Luftwaffe ace Hans-Ekkehard Bob recounts his experiences
Between 1938 AND 1945, Hans-Ekkehard Bob flew more than 2,000 missions in Messerschmitt 109s, at least half of them in combat. He served in almost every major campaign from the invasion of Poland and the Battle of Britain to the Russian campaign and the final defense of Germany. He notched up an impressive 60 aerial victories, including one by ramming. He was shot down behind Russian lines, awarded the Knight’s Cross by Hermann Göring and capped his impressive military service by joining the small group of élite pilots who flew the world’s first jet aircraft, the Me 262, in the waning days of the War. It is sobering to think that when he returned to civilian life he was only 28.
The start of the War
While Bob and his classmates were busy training, the political situation in Europe steadily worsened. Making good on his promise to tear up the Treaty of Versailles, Adolf Hitler had re-militarized the Rhineland, forced the Czechoslovakian government to surrender the Sudetenland and was making bellicose noises toward Poland. This time, however, the international community at last seemed ready to call his bluff.
In the spring of 1939, Bob was transferred to East Prussia to help set up a new fighter group, I/JG21, equipped with Bf 109Cs and Ds. He accepted the posting with a heavy heart; his new home at Gutenfeld, near the former royal city of Königsberg, was a world away from his native Black Forest. Later, however, when his former unit was decimated during the campaign against Britain, he regarded the move as having saved his life.
In July, I/JG21 began to prepare for an unspecified mission. On August 31, his Staffel (squadron) was transferred to an advanced airfield at Rostken. At the mission briefing that evening, they were ordered to enter Polish airspace at 0335 on September 1 and destroy any Polish air forces they met. What proved to be the opening of WW II was an anticlimax, as they encountered none.
Bob, however, had his first taste of aerial combat later that day. Escorting a force of He 111s to Warsaw, his Group—some 30 109s—encountered 20 to 30 Polish PZL 43s. The resulting dogfight scattered the German planes and forced them to return individually and low on fuel. Bob just managed to reach Rostken. Others were not as lucky: the Group registered six losses that day owing to Verfranzen—loss of orientation. It made little difference: the Polish Air Force was quickly subdued and Poland itself capitulated within 16 days.
War in the West and the defeat of France
Following the defeat of Poland, Bob’s unit was transferred to Mönchengladbach in western Germany, where they were given brand-new Bf 109Es and were officially redesignated “III/JG54”—part of the legendary Green Hearts (Grünherzgeschwader). On May 10, 1940, the “Phoney War” with France and Britain came to an end. At 10:33 a.m. on that day, Bob scored his first victory—against a Belgian Gloster Gladiator. Then, on May 26, came a memorable encounter with a French Curtiss P-36. While his 109 was faster, the P-36 was more maneuverable. The clash began at around 12,000 feet, and after 20 minutes of relentless curving, they were almost down to ground level. Bob then tried a ruse. Pretending to abandon the pursuit, he flew away and the P-36 headed in the oppositedirection.
After a few minutes, Bob turned around, quickly caught up with the unsuspecting fighter and shot it down:
“I then did something completely forbidden and landed [near the crashed P-36]. I pulled [the pilot] out of the machine; he’d been hit in the knee. Then, along came some German soldiers. I ordered them to take him first to the airfield and then to the military hospital. When you have a victory, you have to have a witness, you see. When I got back to base, I reported to the CO, ‘I scored a victory.’ ‘Do you have a witness?’ I said, ‘Sir, the witness is on the way now. The guy I shot down can report himself that I shot him down!’ It was very funny.”
Afterward, Bob kept a promise he had made to the P-36 pilot—a French sergeant—and sent a postcard to his family to inform them of his whereabouts. Although he never knew whether it arrived, after the War, he did find out that the sergeant had managed to return home safely.
During this campaign, the 109 pilots took advantage of their superior speed to mount surprise attacks on the enemy. The tactic proved highly successful, and within a short time, the French Air Force had been wiped out. The Luftwaffe turned next to the remaining British forces, now in a headlong retreat to the Channel port of Dunkirk. There were fierce encounters with the RAF, and Bob describes them as being a “trial by fire.” But German military might was dominant,
and before long, the British were beaten back to their side of the Channel.
The Battle of Britain
With everyone in Britain now awaiting an invasion, the Luftwaffe was ordered to destroy the RAF. Bob’s unit moved to an airfield at Guines-South, near Calais, from where they conducted fighter sweeps and escorted bombing raids on strategic targets in southern England. The raids quickly brought British aircraft production to its knees and caused the RAF to suffer potentially crippling shortages. At one point, unbeknown to the Germans, RAF Fighter Command had committed every available pilot and plane and had nothing in reserve.
It was a grueling campaign, nonetheless. The pilots were kept in a constant state of readiness, in full flight gear from dawn until dusk, and stand-down days were very seldom. In the air, the frequently atrocious weather meant a great deal of flight time and, more important, fuel was expended simply trying to rendezvous with the bomber formations. At this stage, the 109s had sufficient fuel for only 1.2 hours of flying—barely enough for a roundtrip on longer escort missions. This left them vulnerable to any delay, especially in combat when their engines were at maximum performance and fuel tanks quickly emptied. On the return trip, pilots were often forced to ditch in the Channel or make a belly-landing near the French coast.
Although the Luftwaffe mounted wave after wave of attacks, Bob is quick to dispute the significance of August 13, 1940, or Eagle Day (Adlertag), when they flew more than 1,800 sorties. Regarded by many as the high-water mark for the German air offensive, he recalls that it was a day like any other. He is proud, though, that
the fighter pilots made a distinction between man and machine:
“While over the Channel during the Battle of Britain, I knew that we were not fighting the pilots, only their planes. One time, when a British pilot was shot down, we gave him a big welcome and took him to our canteen and ate and drank with him.” The British were still able to spring some surprises, however. One day, while escorting a bombing mission, Bob’s group was flying between two thick layers of cloud, which was supposedly ideal cover. Suddenly, a large force of Spitfires ambushed them from behind. The Germans could not understand how the enemy had been able to sneak up undetected. Only later did they discover that they had been intercepted using a new device: radar. Crucially, it allowed Fighter Command to pick and choose its battles and to prevent their forces from being bled dry.
On one occasion, Bob’s luck came close to running out. It is a testament to his skill that his response was adopted as a standard tactic. Attacked by Hurricanes at 12,000 feet above England and 60 miles from France, his cooling system was hit and his engine threatened to burn out. At that distance, he was too far to try to glide back: the 109 could manage only 7.4 miles for every 3,000feet of altitude, so he would wind up in the Channel. Instead, he allowed the engine to cool off in idle before switching it back to full power and climbing as high as he could before it again overheated. Repeating this “stepped flying” procedure, he made it as far as Calais, where he crash-landed safely on the beach. Thereafter, this was known as “bobbing.”
The birth of the “Jabos”
On September 7, 1940, after the RAF had bombed Berlin, Hermann Göring made the fateful decision to refocus the bombing campaign on London. This allowed the RAF vital breathing space to regroup and regenerate. The German fighters were free to roam over southern England, but pickings were frugal, as the RAF had almost ceased
to go up unless bombers were detected. Bob and his fellow fighter pilots interpreted this as a sure sign that their enemy was on the
ropes; they didn’t understand the significant defeat that was being steadily inflicted on their bomber force.
Determined to draw the enemy out, they tried a new tactic. The 109s in Bob’s Staffeln were equipped with bomb-discharge equipment that allowed a 250kg bomb to be strapped to them. He flew the test flight in what may have been the first Jagdbomber, or fighter bomber, action. As he taxied off, many considered it a suicide mission. He was soon in the air, however, and heading for London’s Tilbury Docks. The tactics paid off. Ground observers reported bombers, but the responding fighters found only 109s.
The missions continued and forced the RAF fighters to resume combat against their German counterparts.
On November 11, 1940, Bob downed a Spitfire over Margate. It was his final victory over England and his 19th in total, and it earned him his Knight’s Cross. Early in the New Year, he and his unit were transferred east as attention turned to Russia. At the same time, the German High Command permanently shelved plans for the invasion of Britain. To this day, Bob maintains that the final outcome of the Battle of Britain was a stalemate with both sides ultimately defeated by the weather. Whatever the merits of his argument, he ignores the strategic reality: this stalemate savedBritain from invasion, and it was the first time that the German military had been held back in battle.
The Russian campaign
On June 22, 1941, German forces launched Operation Barbarossa—the massive assault on the Soviet Union. Re-equipped with brand new Bf 109Fs, Bob and his fellow Green Hearts flew in support of Army Group North as it advanced on Leningrad and covered a 230-mile stretch of the front from the Gulf of Finland in the north to Dem’yansk in the south. The experienced German pilots decimated the squadrons of Soviet SB2 and SB3 bombers that attempted to stave off the German advance. On June 30 alone, the pilots of JG54 scored 65 victories; from July 4 to 7, they scored another 109. On August 1, 1941, Leutnant Helmut Ostermann scored the Green Hearts 1,000th kill.
For Bob, however, his first victory in the campaign could have been his last. On just the second day, June 23, he led his Staffel against a force of nine Russian SB2s around Kedainiai. In short order, his pilots dealt with eight of the nine Russian planes, leaving the leader to try to escape eastward. Giving chase, Bob and his flight attacked repeatedly from behind and above but without success.
Running low on fuel, he pursued the bomber down to about 60 feet above a wood and managed to set the Russian on fire with some carefully aimed shots. Then, as he accelerated past the bomber and prepared to pull away, his cockpit suddenly went silent. His engine had been knocked out by a direct hit.
Knowing that he had to land fast, Bob couldn’t see anything around him except forest. With seconds to spare, he eventually
spotted a clearing that was just large enough for a belly-landing. Unhurt, he extracted himself from his plane and found himself alone and with a feeling he had never experienced before—fear.
“You are now completely alone. And when they capture you, they are going to kill you. It was believed that the Russians would torture and then kill downed pilots. And with this fear, you find yourself 114 miles behind the Russian lines. That was my worst moment—worse even than the collision.”
It was not long before he heard dogs. Retrieving his emergency rations from the plane, he disappeared into the forest where he dug a hole and lay down in it, covering himself with leaves and branches to throw his pursuers off. It was quite literally an agonizing wait; no sooner had he hidden himself than he was attacked by thousands of mosquitoes. Late that afternoon, he heard aero engines. Four 109s were escorting a slower reconnaissance aircraft as it tried to rescue him. It even attempted to land in the clearing. Bob faced an agonizing choice: risk capture by showing himself when there was no certainty that the rescue plane would even be able to take off again, or stay under cover and try to reach safety on foot. In the end, he stayed hidden.
When night fell, Bob headed west and continued his lonely march for the next few days until he heard gunfire in the distance
and realized that he was near the front. He emerged from the forest—filthy, unshaven, his skin badly bitten by insects—and immediately encountered a German convoy. Amazed soldiers gawked as this shambling figure implored them not to shoot. He was taken to the convoy’s commander who, on seeing his Knight’s Cross, declared, “It seems we have rescued a brave holder of the Knight’s Cross and a famous pilot.” After the strain of the previous days’ adventures, Bob wept with relief. That night, he returned to his unit, which arranged a celebration for his escape. He hadn’t any time to dwell on his experiences, though. He was back in the air the next day, and on June 30, he scored four victories over Duenburg.
Bob served on the Eastern Front for another 18 months and took part in air operations as far afield as Leningrad and Sebastopol in the Crimea. He had to cope with appalling weather, including winter temperatures as low as -52 degrees Celsius. Despite this and even though many preferred the more robust Fw 190, he never
once lost faith in the 109. For Bob, comparing the two was like comparing a stallion to a farm horse:
“When you are in Russia with these conditions—everything was mud and dirt and stuff—naturally, you can do more with a farm horse than a racehorse. Yes, the Focke-Wulf was ideal in this dirt. But nevertheless….”
His faith and skill were rewarded. By the time he and his unit were transferred to the West at the beginning of 1943, he had a tally of 56 victories.
The rest of the War
Bob’s remaining wartime service deserves an article in its own right. In 1944, he joined the élite Replacement Fighter Squadron 2.
There, he was initially tasked with testing the Me 163, the world’s first rocket-powered plane. Shortages of fuel forced his reassignment; he was to test the Me 262, the first jet-powered plane. His delight with the new aircraft was as great as the frustration all the pilots felt at the ineptitude and disorganization that prevented the jet’s effective production and use:
“We had about 50 [Me 262s]; for the Americans, that was nothing, but for us, it was a lot. But just compare them: the Americans were sending 1,000-plane bombing missions, and then along came four Me 262s. They must have laughed. If we managed to shoot three or four bombers down, we were happy. We attacked 1,000
bombers with four planes!”
Bob fought with distinction and is proud of his service, but he is scathing of the German High Command and its approach to the War. Even now, his words strike a chord:
“It was a real pig’s ear. And from the start, this war was nothing but improvisation. When I don’t have enough [of what I need], I
don’t start a war. And we junior officers were left in the shit.”
Hans-Ekkehard Bob was born on January 24, 1917, in Freiburg, in the Black Forest region of southwest Germany. He first flew in 1927, when famous stunt flier Erich Haal visited his hometown and agreed to take him and one of his sisters up for a ride. He took off that day in Haal’s Raab-Katzenstein biplane with three cushions stuffed under him to prevent him from falling out of the safety harness. It was a pivotal experience for the young Bob. From that moment, he could think only of becoming a pilot.INTO THE LUFTWAFFE
He began his career with the Luftwaffe on December 1, 1936, and quickly distinguished himself by becoming the first in his year to fly solo after just 17 training flights. Not all his fellow cadets were so successful. One was the future Oberst Hans-Ulrich Rudel, who later destroyed more than 500 tanks and earned Germany’s highest wartime decoration, the Knight’s Cross with Golden Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. At the time, however, Bob recalls the trouble Rudel had simply completing his flight training:
“…He just couldn’t do it. They wanted to send him to a flak unit. They thought he wouldn’t be able to manage it. And, finally, after he had completed about 100 training flights, he was able to fly solo. In the end, he was probably the most famous flier in the world!”
After earning his military pilot’s license, Bob started his fighter-pilot training in the middle of 1938 under the command of Hubertus von Bonin, who had recently returned from service with the Condor Legion in Spain and who went on to command the JG 54 Green Hearts squadron during the War. Flying Arado 68 biplanes, students mastered the skills required of a fighter pilot: formation flying and the art of curving without losing height. The latter was essential in combat, for he who lost height wouldn’t stand a chance. But for Bob, the most important lesson was what made a true combat flier: “The fighter pilot needed a special disposition, I mean, ‘fighting spirit.’ They are temperamental, fly tremendously fast and have really mastered their machine.”
This was the secret to his later success. He did not simply fly well.
During the years that followed, he totally mastered his aircraft and made it an extension of himself. And he is in no doubt as to its superiority over all rivals, including the Spitfire:
“I flew the 109 almost 2,000 times. For me, there’s nothing better, and of course, there’s always this rivalry between the 109 and the Spitfire. And I am often asked: which plane I think is better. I tell them I shot down 10 Spitfires, and that’s my answer.”
by Nicholas Wright | photo by john dibbs/plane picture.com
To read more free articles like this and get exclusive insider access to Flight Journal, sign up here.