Aces over the Solent

A Messerschmitt Bf109 of JG53 is readied for action over the Solent

A Messerschmitt Bf109 of JG53 is readied for action over the Solent

The photo posted this morning is actually the view looking out towards the Isle of Wight when leaving the mainland behind. In the skies overhead, in the summer of 1940, a significant and surprising chapter in the Battle of Britain was written.

Going right back to World War 1, the German air forces had been happy for its fighter pilots and squadrons to become celebrities. In the Luftwaffe commanded by Hermann Göring, the fighter group JG53 was known as a ‘crack’ unit and identified by the ace of spades (Pik As in German) on the nose of its aircraft.

Due west: a JG53 Messerschmitt with 'Pik As' emblem

Due west: a JG53 Messerschmitt in early 1940 with ‘Pik As’ emblem

Like all fighter groups, JG53 was formed of four individual squadrons – I, II, III and Staff. This group was jointly commanded by Oberstleutnant Hans-Jurgen von Cramon-Taubadel, a member of Germany’s elite officer class and an old school soldier, rather than a Nazi party man.

After the Battle of France had been won in 1940, JG53 was based in the Channel Islands, which had been taken without any resistance on July 1-3. While Cramon-Taubadel and his men waited for what, they were sure, would be the inevitable surrender of the British mainland, they flew escort missions to the fearsome Stuka dive bombers as they savaged the enemy’s merchant shipping as it attempted to pass through the Solent.

Meanwhile JG53’s new home in the Channel Islands became part of the Départment de la Manche, (sub-district of German military government area A centred at St.Germain-en-Laye), and the first thing that the new military government set to work on was identifying Jews still resident in the islands and declaring anti-Jewish orders. Thus it was no doubt something of a blow to all and sundry in the government that the wife of the commanding officer of JG53, Cramon-Taubadel, was of Jewish stock in the eyes of the government’s Nuremburg laws.

When Viola von Kaufmann-Asse’s family history was revealed, it was felt that something had to be done, but given the long and illustrious military history of the Cramon-Taubadel family, this was not altogether easy for his political masters to achieve. He was a popular and successful combat leader, which meant that there might be trouble from within JG53 if the politicians were being seen to interfere in his life.

Thus a plan was hatched: JG53 would, with immediate effect, be forced to remove the prized ace of spades badge from its aircraft and replace it with a simple red stripe. While this was officially deemed to be a measure to convince the RAF that a new fighter group had been formed, it was nonetheless recognised by all as a snub to Cramon-Taubadel.

As a result of this, many of the pilots in JG53 decided to obliterate the swastikas that were painted on the tails of their aircraft. Often this was quite crudely done, while other aircraft were done rather nicely and the space used to notch up the pilots’ kill markings rather than putting them on the rudder.

Artist's impression of a JG53 aircraft shorn of its emblem and swastika

Artist’s impression of a JG53 aircraft shorn of its emblem and swastika

In August 1940 it became clear that the British were not going to try and negotiate for peace. The decision was taken to rotate and rest many of the senior pilots and officers who had led the charge through western Europe and among them was Cramon-Taubadel, who was brought back to a desk job in Berlin before being sent off to administrative roles in Norway and Finland where both he and his wife would be of little consequence to the authorities – and he also went down in history as the only fighter group commander not to be awarded the Knight’s Cross medal.

Interestingly, one of his cousins was executed as a member of the group of army officers who attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1944. In reprisal against the family another cousin by marriage was taken to Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he died soon afterwards. Cramon-Taubadel divorced Viola von Kaufmann-Asse after the war and remarried. He died in 1985 and she lived until 1997.

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