Photos: R. Michulec "Elita Luftwaffe", Armagedon 1999
Above - loughing Hptm. Muencheberg and Karol Hoehn, actress visiting Sicily with Front Theatre. In opossite of this 'living' photo, in text is placed nazis soc-real portrait: Muencheberg as a 'stone faced hero'... (photos describe from Dariusz Tyminski).
There are several versions of this event. First, in the combat reports of Ralph Keyes and of Norman McDonald. Then in the stories in FIGHTERS OVER TUNISIA (1975), McDonald's recollections in THE AMERICAN BEAGLE SQUADRON (1987), Keyes recollections, during a recent telephone interview (Nov.'94), and the recollections of a German pilot in GESCHICHTE DES JAGDGESCHWADERS 77 (1994).
Here are these versions:
KEYES: "At approximately 0950 hours 23 March, 1943 thirteen Spitfires on a reconnaissance mission near Y-6560 (GSGS 4175, Sheet N.I. 32 N.E.) were jumped by four or five ME 109s coming from out of the sun. I was flying Yellow 5 when someone called "break", whereupon I immediately broke to the right. A moment later I saw an ME 109 open up on a Spitfire from about 250 yards. Smoke began streaming from the Spitfire which continues on for a second or two, then turned sharply upward and to the left directly into the path of the oncoming ME 109. A crash occurred and both planes went down in flames from about 2,000 feet. Though I followed the descent of neither plane to the ground, I did see two flaming spots on the ground where the two planes had obviously just crashed. I saw these spots before the crash of Capt. Williamson's Spitfire, which had been hit and from which he had just bailed out. Whether the crash of Capt. Sweetland's plane -- I learned later that this Spitfire was Capt. Sweetland's -- with the ME 109 was owing to a deliberate action or a reflex action resulting from being hit, I do not know, but, knowing Capt. Sweetland, I believe he deliberately crashed into the ME 109 after having been, perhaps, fatally shot."
Theodore Sweetland, at Thelepte, in March 1943. Thelepte is in western central Tunisia and the 2nd Fighter Sq. operated from an airstrip there from 10 March until 9 April 1943.
MCDONALD: "Captain Sweetland was my #4 man in Yellow Section on a reconnaissance of Sened-Maknassy area taking off at 0915. We were traveling east in enemy territory into the sun at approximately 1,000 feet when the Squadron Commander called a 90 degree left turn in the area of T9505 and our section crossed over and became Blue Section. We were now flying with the sun at our backs, we had just straightened out when I heard over the R/T "Break". I broke violently to the left and up. On looking back I saw Capt. Sweetland's plane pull up and crash into an enemy fighter. Both planes exploded and fell in pieces to the ground."
FIGHTERS OVER TUNISIA by Chris Shores, Hans Ring and William Hess. London 1975. p. 261.: "Tuesday, 23 March 1943: Around 0930 Maj. Muencheberg of Stab/JG 77 took off from La Fauconnerie [a landing ground 36 miles northwest of Sfax, Tunisia] with his wingman, Lt. Strasen, and headed for the Mareth area to see "if there was something to shoot down". Strasen saw below some Spitfires of the 52nd Fighter Group near Sened, and both dived to attack, Muencheberg attacking Capt. Theodore Sweetland, whose aircraft began to pour smoke as it was hit in the engine. Muencheberg's speed was so great that he got too near to his 135th victim, and what happened next is not very clear. Strasen reported that Sweetland's Spitfire exploded and that debris fell on Muencheberg's wings, one of which snapped off; Capt. Hugh L. Williamson reported however, that Sweetland deliberately rammed the Messerschmitt with his burning Spitfire. Whatever the truth was, both aircraft fell to the ground in flames; at this moment Strasen shot down Williamson, who bailed out, all three aircraft crashing near kilometre stone No. 82 on the Gabes-Gafsa road, the wreckage of the Messerschmitt flanked by that of the two Spitfires. So died one of the Luftwaffe's most outstanding fighter pilots and leaders."
McDonald's recollections, pages 53-55
in THE AMERICAN BEAGLE SQUADRON, Lexington, MA 1987:
"This action occurred during a fighter sweep over the front
lines by twelve planes flying in the British box formation. It
was a 5th Squadron mission but they were short of planes and
pilots, so my flight from the 2nd Squadron joined them to make
the necessary twelve planes.
Sweetland, known as "Sweetie", was flying number four in my flight. How come a Captain is flying number four position? He and I had flown together and raised a little hell together when we were both assigned to the 20th Pursuit Group in North Carolina during the spring of 1942.
After I was transferred back to the 52nd Group, I lost track of him. Then sometime in early March 1943, when sent to Algiers with other pilots to pick up new Spitfires, I bumped into him while walking down the street. He was a Captain and an Aide to some General in 12th Air Force HQ., a job he hated - safe but dullsville. He asked me to get him into the 2nd Squadron. I talked to "Windy" West, who remembered him very well, and we put the wheels into motion.
Sweetie was an excellent pilot, but had trouble in the beginning because he was a left-hander all the way. Nevertheless he really could handle a fighter plane. Back in the States, in P 40s, he and I and Jerry Simpson used to practise all our maneuvers to the right. We would do turns, rolls, including the roll at the top of the Immelman turn, to the right.
We thought that these unconventional maneuvers, opposite to the easier, engine-torque-assisted turns and rolls to the left might be a life saver some day. I'm sure they were for me, but in this particular encounter they may have cost Sweetie his.
Anyway, after he joined us and got some transition hours in the Spitfire, I took him on a couple of missions as my wingman. After these two missions he insisted that he fly tail-end-Charlie just like any other newcomer. During an engagement with enemy aircraft a day or so before this ill-fated mission he had gotten some strikes on an ME 109.
On this mission we were flying at four to five thousand feet, with the sun high and behind us. My flight was to the left of the leader's flight and Hugh "Wee Willie" Williamson was leading the flight on the right. Then we were jumped by a flight of four 109s.
They came in from above and slightly to our right, assuming, I'm sure, that if we saw them we would break to the left. Sweetie saw them at the last moment and yelled "break". I broke right and up and also saw Sweetie break right and hit the incoming 109 head on; perhaps he was trying to get a shot at it. The entangled planes fell quite close to me, and out of the corner of my eye I saw Willie's plane get hit by fire from the wingman of the 109 that collided with Sweetie's plane.
At this point I was so enraged because I knew Sweetie had bought it, that I lost my cool and took off after the 3rd and 4th planes of the German flight without checking on where the number two plane had gone. These two planes were climbing away, presumably after having fired and missed.
I immediately realized that this would be a futile chase and made an angry, abrupt right turn for home - only to see the number two plane zoom by me. I had turned just in time, or he had waited just a little too long before firing - and, perhaps, blowing me out of the sky. He kept right on going and so did I - in opposite directions.
What surprises me about the results of this attack is that they only hit two of the twelve planes, one of them the hard way, by collision. I think that they may have been thrown off when Sweetie and I did the unexpected - broke right, up and over the other flights. The flights in the box formation were quite close and we usually all broke left together, which these experienced German fighter pilots may have been expecting."
McDonald recollections (reconstructions?) about himself and Sweetland breaking to the right are not corroborated by his, or by Keyes, combat report. Keyes recalled that there were 12 planes flying the British box of three 4-plane flights. He was flying on the mission as a spare and although his report states he was Yellow 5, he had by that time filled in as #4 in the right-hand flight when another Spitfire had to drop out for some reason. He recalls, contrary to McDonald, that Williamson was leading the formation, at the head of the middle flight. He also recalls that there were six ME 109s vs McDonald's recollection of four, and remembers being fired on, hearing and seeing the projectiles go by him. He also recalled that he broke to the right, away from the formation. He also recalls that there was a ball of fire when the two planes collided.
recollections of the surviving German pilot, as given in
GESCHICHTE DES JAGDGESCHWADERS 77, Teil 3. Eutin, Germany. 1994.
Page 1484. Dienstag, 23 Marz 1943 (translation):
"Tuesday, 23 March 1943
Hq. Gruppe 77 In the morning an element [two planes] of the Wing Hq., Maj. Muencheberg and Lt Strasen, flew a "free hunt" and front-reconnaissance in the Sened/El Guettar area; 50 Kilometer eastsoutheast of Gafsa the two Messerschmitts encountered several American Spitfires, who were forthwith attacked. On the further course of the air battle Gerhard Strasen recalls:
We flew at about 3 to 4,000 meters altitude over the frontal area, when we sighted, below us close to the ground, several Spitfires and Curtiss[es, P 40s]. Maj. Muencheberg leading, we attacked the enemy fighters from above; Muencheberg opened fire at close range and got direct hits on the Spitfire ahead of him. The machine became covered by his fire and simply exploded - the pilot of the Spitfire probably had not even noticed, until he was hit, that he was under attack. Through his pass Maj. Muencheberg had nevertheless become so close to the Spitfire that I am forced to conclude that his machine went through the "dirt" left behind by the disintegrating Spitfire. Also Muencheberg had no chance - critically damaged by the debris, his Messerschmitt crashed without his having any possibility of bailing out.
After separating from the remaining Spitfires, Lt. Strasen flew toward Fatnassa, where he landed at the I Gruppe field; on this matter Karl-Heinz Rentrop recalls:
One day Lt. Strasen from Wing Hq.landed at our field in Fatnassa and, with a stony face, climbed out of his Messerschmitt; zu Capt. Baer he said only: "Captain, Jochen is dead!" Immediately a Storch [Fiesler "Storch", observation plane] was on the way to the crash site; there the remains of Muencheberg's Me 109 were found - it had crashed just behind the Spitfire."
The differences in these recollections, both short term and long term, illustrate the difficulty of determining exactly what happened. Although McDonald recalls, forty-three years later, that the formation was flying at 4 to 5,000 feet, his combat report puts them at 1,000 feet when attacked. This lower altitude is corroborated by Keyes' statement that after Sweetland`s plane made a climbing turn and collided with Muncheberg's, the planes went down from about 2,000 feet, and by Strasen's recollection that the Spitfires were close to the ground when sighted.
Both Keyes and McDonald state in their combat reports that a break (a sharp turn to avoid being a good target) was called, without identifying the caller. Forty-three years later McDonald states that Sweetland called the break. According to Strasen's recollections, however, Sweetland's plane was fired on while it was flying straight ahead, and Strasen felt its pilot, before his plane was hit, was not aware that he was under attack. Keyes also states that Sweetland's plane did not turn until after it was hit.
It seems clear that, even if a break was called, the planes of both Sweetland and Williamson, were hit before they turned; first Sweetland's, then, a few seconds later, Williamson's. If, as McDonald remembered, Sweetland called the break, then his plane must have been hit simultaneously, and the shock of being hit may have delayed his turn a bit. Then he turned into the path of Muencheberg's 109, and either crashed into it, or was hit by it. McDonald recalls that Sweetland's plane hit the Messerschmitt "head on", which means that it turned about 180 degrees before the collision.
Strasen, who must have been looking primarily at his target, nevertheless had his attention diverted by the ball of fire accompanying the collision, and then apparently assumed that the Spitfire had exploded when hit by the projectiles from Muencheberg's guns, and that Muencheberg then flew through the resulting debris. According to Keyes, however, the Spitfire, was only smoking after being hit, and did not explode until the collision that was observed by both Keyes and McDonald.
It seems to me, based on this information and my experience as a fighter pilot, that Muencheberg's plane, after diving from 10 or 12,000 feet to around 3,000 feet, was moving at such high speed that it closed on his target very rapidly and, therefore, he had to fire at close range. Then he was unable to pull his plane up soon enough, and sharply enough, to avoid overrunning his target. He might have gotten away with this misjudgement if his plane had not passed so close to Sweetland's that, when it turned, by chance or design, into the path of his plane, a collision was unavoidable. Muencheberg, despite his long experience and many victories, made a basic mistake, and his luck ran out when Sweetland's plane turned. In his combat report Keyes states that Sweetland's plane "turned sharply upward and to the left, directly into the path of the oncoming ME 109". This seems to imply that Muencheberg's plane crashed into Sweetland's. But later Keyes speculates that Sweetland "deliberately crashed into the ME 109". McDonald, on the other hand, states that he saw Sweetland's plane "pull up and crash into an enemy fighter". His recollection, forty-three years later was that he "saw Sweetie break right and hit the incoming 109 head on", which means they crashed into each other.
The statement attributed to Williamson, that Sweetland "deliberately rammed the Messerschmitt" is just a guess on his part, because there is no way he, or anyone else, could have known that this was done. But it cannot be ruled out, and is very appealing.
Keyes combat report states that four or 5 ME 109s were involved in the attack, then increased the number to six in his recent recollections. McDonald says four, in his combat report, and in his later recollections. Strasen reports only on the actions of Muencheberg and himself. Apparently ME 109s from some other German squadron saw and attacked these Spitfires.
Prien's history of JG77, reports that I Gruppe
JG77 based at Fatnassa, (see map) about 30 miles NE of Maknassy,
flew a bomber escort mission toward Maknassy, which is about 30
miles NE of the collision site. This mission encountered and
attacked 20 B 25s, escorted by 30-40 P 40s and P 39s, from 10:00
to 10:40. Strasen's mention of Curtiss[es], P 40s, is puzzling,
but they might have been on the way to a rendezvous with the B
25s, or just passing by on some other mission.
Prien reports that in the morning II/JG77 flew from La Fauconnerie, about 80 miles NE of the crash site, south to Gabes, about 50 miles SE of the crash site, and throughout the day flew numerous escort and "free-hunt" missions over the southern frontal region. Some of its planes, therefore, might have been in the El Guettar area at the time of the Muencheberg/Strasen attack. If so, these other attacks were not reported, perhaps because no claims were made.
The details about Muencheberg's biography please check in another story: Joachim Muncheberg - "Spitfire" Hunter. Written by Dariusz Tyminski.
2000.02.20, (c) WW II Ace Stories.