In Italy, I./JG 2 had a reputation with both the Allies and other Luftwaffe fighter units as a crack formation. Indeed, one RAF squadron diarist was already talking in those terms when the Gruppe had been at the front for only a week, so an impression was clearly made early on. The nickname "eager beavers" spread around RAF fighter squadrons in Italy.
Pilots of the US 12th Air Force were impressed as well. Writing in 2004, Brigadier General Mike McCarthy, in 1944 a Lieutenant with the "Black Scorpions" (64th FS, 57th FG), recalled:
"… the appearance in Italy of the famous Yellownose squadron with Fw 190s … Their nickname was the Abbeville boys, after their airfield in France. We could tell the difference."
In action for five weeks and with about 18 aircraft serviceable at any given time, I./JG 2's pilots claimed 52 enemy machines destroyed. Performances of the individual elements of the Gruppe were:
On those figures, 1./JG 2 would seem to have been the most effective part of the Gruppe, scoring highly and incurring no combat casualties. The Bf 109-equipped 4. Staffel made the fewest claims and suffered the heaviest losses but we do not know for example whether it was in action more often or given more dangerous assignments. It is however notable that no fewer than nine of its Messerschmitts were lost to enemy action during March 1944 while the other three Staffeln lost the same number of Focke-Wulfs in aggregate.
The temptation is to conclude that the Fw 190 A-6 was the better fighter in this context (in standard configuration it had significantly greater firepower, for example) but look at III./JG 53 which also flew the Bf 109 G-6 over Central Italy. In March, this Gruppe put up 391 sorties and lost 10 aircraft to enemy action; it reported one pilot killed, one missing, two prisoners of war and two wounded. Given that it was only around one third the size, 4./JG 2 seems to have fared very badly in comparison with III./JG 53.
As well as the claims of the Staffeln as whole, those of the individual pilots also merit examination. Eighteen made claims, out of around 40 who served with the Gruppe in Italy, and these break down as shown in the attached table. It must of course be borne in mind that only 40–50% of these claims represent Allied aircraft actually shot down (see below).
MATAF's daily intelligence/operations summaries, RAF Operations Record Books and USAAF Missing Air Crew Reports suggest that in the engagements in which I./JG 2 made claims, the Allies in fact lost 20–25 aircraft to Luftwaffe fighters and fighter bombers.
Overclaiming was not unique to I./JG 2 nor to the Luftwaffe, it was an inherent feature of aerial combat. As this account has shown, the Allies could be similarly optimistic although this was perhaps moderated somewhat by the wider availability of gun-cameras and by accreditation of probables and possibles as well as outright kills.
Ostensibly rigorous wartime victory confirmation procedures were far from infallible, as the comparison of both sides' records shows. Many of the "confirmed victories" in the league tables so dear to some enthusiasts did not represent an aircraft shot down but rather gaining the upper hand in combat, perhaps by achieving a good position and opening fire. Some victories were "on points" rather than a "knockout."
American Missing Air Crew Reports mostly relate I./JG 2 operations in defence of their own airspace and especially their base area. They give an insight into tactics that is not available from from the RAF reports of action over the front lines.
On escorts or sweeps to Anzio-Nettuno and Cassino, the Germans had little choice but to fly right into whatever reception was waiting for them. They could vary times and approach routes but once in the vicinity of the target they were not generally able to set the terms of engagement. When defending their own territory, however, I./JG 2 could choose whether, when and how to fight. From the USAAF reports we can see that the Gruppe preferred to go for stragglers, detached elements or aircraft on the edge of a formation. They were often successful in achieving surprise, sometimes bringing down an opponent without being seen. There are also cases where they claimed aircraft that were either severely damaged or perhaps even destroyed by Flak. They seem to have concentrated on destroying enemy aircraft rather than on protecting targets, as on 13 March when the entire Gruppe went for Blue Flight of the 526th FBS, leaving the other eight A-36s to bomb their target and get away unmolested.
Any piece of research is only as good as the latest item of information and more work on I./JG 2's Italian interlude may well change the picture. Most of my research was done at the British National Archives and so the original version of this account did not have the benefit of detailed claim and loss data nor combat reports from the USAAF units concerned. It is always more satisfying to be be able to put names to the statistics and Christopher Shores' subsequent contributions of information on American involvement in these actions have been invaluable in that respect, as has the availability online of Missing Air Crew Reports at www.footnote.com.
© Nick Beale (2004–2021)