Short Excerpt from the Book
Graf & Grislawski: A Pair of Aces
"Do You Know Graf?"
Once again the dreamt-of final victory seemed to be imminent. In late July 1942, the city of Rostov was seized and the German troops swarmed into the Caucasus, heading for the oil fields at Maykop and Baku. It was an incredibly hot summer-the temperature occasionally exceeded 50 degrees Celsius-and the marching Panzer columns drove up huge dust clouds that were visible for a hundred of miles from the sky. The Bf 109s of JG 52 flew across the seemingly endless steppe, in full control of the airspace. Only rarely did they encounter any Soviet aircraft. Two Soviet air armies, 4 VA and 5 VA, were assigned to provide the defense of the Caucasus with air cover, but the past months of difficult fighting had left them in a miserable state. By late July, 4 VA could muster no more than 126 serviceable aircraft--including about fifty U-2s and R-5s for night missions-and 5 VA was able to mount only 94 serviceable aircraft by the same time.
Major Gordon Gollob, a highly successful fighter pilot, commanded JG 52 since late July. As the German troops spread fan-shaped over the immense Caucasian space, he allocated Graf's Karayastaffel to take charge of the southwestern flank. Here Graf again made the acquaintance of the Il-2s of 4 ShAP, which in the meantime had been renumbered into 7 GShAP.
On 12 August Graf's Staffel was shifted from Armavir in the southeast to Plastunovskaya to provide the crossing of the Kuban River, which constituted a natural obstacle for the advance toward the large Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. Two days later, all available Bf 109s were brought into the air to support the opening of the river crossing. The German pilots could see that the Soviets were dealing the German troops that were crossing the river a true hell. Artillery shells rained down on the forces that had managed to get a foothold on the southern riverside, and small groups of Il-2s buzzed down on the pontoons that German engineer troops had brought forward in an attempt to construct a bridge. General-Leytenant Sergey Goryunov, commanding 5 VA, dispatched the entire 238 ShAD against the German attack-and with success. The Shturmoviks managed to sink several pontoons, and thus prevented the Germans from constructing a bridge. Graf and his men attacked the Soviet aircraft violently, and when the day was over, Graf had brought down two I-16s, a Yak-1, a Lend-Lease Hurricane, and a LaGG-3.
By this time, Graf was competing with Major Gollob, who had advanced to the top-scoring place among the German fighter pilots during the past summer weeks. On 14 August both Graf and Gollob reached victory totals of 120 each. But it was close that Graf's 121st would have become his last. During an air combat south of the Kuban River on 15 August, he approached a Yak-1 very close from behind before he opened fire. The 20mm shells immediately tore off one of the Yak's wings, and a large piece of shrapnel hit the wingroot of Graf's Bf 109. Although the wing threatened to break off any moment, Graf carefully nursed his plane all the way back to base, and managed to land safely.
A crashed Bf 109 F-4 from III./JG 52.
Meanwhile, the German V Army Corps successfully made its way across the Kuban and pushed the Soviets toward the coast of the Black Sea. On 17 August Graf and Füllgrabe took off in the Staffel's Fieseler Storch to search for a place suitable for a new airfield. The found a broad grassfield near Yelisavetinskaya and landed to take a close look. As they were walking around to check the ground, a group of armed Cossacs suddenly appeared. For the second time in two days, it appeared as though the war was over as far as Hermann Graf was concerned. But instead of capturing the two scared German pilots, the Cossacs demanded that they should sign a paper, confirming that the Cossacs had surrendered to members of the German Army! That evening, the men of the Karayastaffel had reason to celebrate more than their Staffelkapitän's 125th victory. . .
It definitely appeared as though the Soviets were on the verge of collapse. On 18 August the Soviets launched mainly obsolescent biplanes against the advancing German troops. Graf shot down an I-153 and an R-5, his 126th and 127th victories. Next day, the Karayastaffel was ordered back to Armavir. Flying from that base again, Graf and his men noted that the German troops in this region had pushed the Soviets far into the Caucasus forests on the road to the Black Sea port of Tuapse.
That evening, 8. Staffel's Oberleutnant Otto Decker contacted Graf. Generaloberst von Richthofen, commanding Luftflotte 4, was of the opinion that the Soviets were virtually "finished" in the Caucasus, but at the same time he noted an increasingly stronger and more determined opposition in the Don bend area far to the northeast. Thus, Hitler had instructed him to shift most of the aviation in the Caucasus to the Don bend. Major Gollob received instructions to dispatch a detachment of III./JG 52 to the same area, and he decided to place Decker in charge of this detachment. Decker was free to pick the men he wanted for this detachment, and it was natural for him to include Graf. That Decker and not Graf had been selected to lead the Stalingrad detachment caused Graf some concern. But Graf knew that both his humble background-he still only was a "war officer" (Kriegsoffizier), which differed him from the professional and educated officers-and his relaxed relations to his superiors made several officers and unit commanders look at him with suspicion. Nevertheless, Graf managed to pursuade Decker to also include Graf's close friends Heinrich Füllgrabe and Ernst Süss. By this time, both of them were credited with almost forty victories each. Since Graf's wingman, Unteroffizier Johann Kalb-who also was included into Decker's groupment-could chalk up over twenty kills, and Oberleutnant Decker himself was approaching the forty-victory-mark, III./JG 52's Stalingrad detachment was a virtual élite.
The German summer offensive had become split into two separate directions-toward the Caucasian oil fields in the south, and toward the east, against the city with Josef Stalin's name, Stalingrad on the Volga River. In mid-August 1942, German Sixth Army was lined up on the western side of the Don bend, ready for the final march against Stalingrad. This was Graf's new operational area, and it was intended that Decker's provisional detachment would stay there for five days. . .
The first stop on the way to the Don bend was a grass field near the small town of Tatsinskaya on the completely flat land. There, Graf was unfortunate to veer into a stone wall during take-off, bending the propeller blades of his Messerschmitt. So Graf had to make his flight alone to the final destination, Tuzov air base in the Don bend, alone on 21 August. Tuzov looked much the same as Tatsinskaya. A wide-open field, and there were no houses, no inhabitants, and not even any water springs in the vicinity-only aircraft of various types, tents, and Luftwaffe motor vehicles.
"Welcome to the desert," Füllgrabe said as he received Graf.
Graf was briefed by Hauptmann "Fürst" Wilcke, the Geschwaderkommodore of JG 3 Udet, to which the III./JG 52 detachment was assigned. Wilcke was most happy to receive Graf, and he told him that there had been relentless heavy air fighting with large formations of Soviet bombers and Shturmoviks that attempted to destroy the bridges across the Don River. Wilcke's units--JG 3 Udet, Hauptmann Johannes Steinhoff's II./JG 52, and I./JG 53 Pik As--had chalked up more than one hundred victories in the past two days alone.
"It is just as last summer," Wilcke said. "We shoot down scores of Russians, but each day Ivan is back again."
In reality, 8 VA--the Soviet air army in Stalingrad--recorded 152 operational losses (100 bombers and 52 fighters) between 11 and 22 August.
At 1308 hours on 22 August Hermann Graf took off together with the pilots of his detachment for his first combat sortie in the Stalingrad sector. They came across a formation of Il-2s escorted by Yak-1s, and Graf blew one each of the Soviet planes out of the sky. No one knew it by then, but this would be the opening of the most remarkable victory row ever achieved by a single fighter pilot.
(. . .)
The text above is a short excerpt from Chapter 17 in Christer Bergström's and Vlad Antipov's book "Graf & Grislawski: A Pair of Aces". After the text presented above follows, in the book, a close description of Hermann Graf's unequalled victory row during the Air Battle of Stalingrad in August - September 1942, when Graf became the first fighter pilot to reach 200 confirmed aerial victories. At the same time, the human aspect of Graf's everyday life, and his feelings and relations to his friends and superiors, is mirrored. Please note that the excerpt above is from the manuscript "raw material," i.e. in an unedited shape; the book as such has been scrupulously edited by an American WW II aviation author.
The book "Graf & Grislawski: A Pair of Aces" is out now and can be ordered for immediate delivery
More by Christer Bergström -
the detailed history of the air war on the Eastern Front 1941 - 1945:
Black Cross/Red Star: Air War Over the Eastern Front
© Christer Bergström, Vlad Antipov 2002