Luftwaffe in Barbarossa Part I


As the German forces were being assembled in the east slowly at first and then more rapidly from February 1941, when the real buildup began-the Luftwaffe was still engaged in fighting England. Its first move consisted of an attempt to destroy the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Fighter Command and gain air superiority in order to pave the way for a seaborne invasion. The Luftwaffe was unsuccessful, however, both because the Germans appear to have failed to realize the importance of sustained attacks on the opposing radar system and because the RAF, favored by geography that allowed it to withdraw its aircraft beyond the range of the German fighters, was able to dictate the pace of the battle as it saw fit.9 From the end of September 1940, the Germans, confronted by growing opposition, changed their tactics. First, they shifted to daytime bombardment of British “strategic” objectives. When that proved too expensive-again and again in World War II, it was shown that unaccompanied bombers stood little chance against modern fighters-they concentrated on nighttime attacks directed, insofar as any center of gravity can be detected, against aircraft factories and harbors. Britain’s cities, particularly London, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, Glasgow, and Coventry suffered heavily. Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe, its twin-engined light and medium bombers designed for participation in operativ warfare and not for waging an independent strategic campaign, never came close to forcing the British to their knees. Indeed, the realization of this fact was one of the factors that finally drove Hitler to decide to turn east.

The Luftwaffe received with mixed feelings the news that Germany was about to invade Russia. Many of its leaders, including Hermann Goering and his deputy, Eberhard Milch, tried to warn Hitler against waging a two-front war because of the inevitable dissipation of forces that would follow. Others, however, expressed relief at the anticipated return from independent “strategic” warfare to the more congenial operativ form of war to be waged in conjunction with the rest of the Wehrmacht. “Finally, a real campaign” was the comment of Chief of Staff Hans Jeschonnek. Directive No. 21 had charged the Wehrmacht with “destroying the Soviet forces in a rapid campaign” in order to prevent their withdrawal into the interior. Within this general framework, the task of the Luftwaffe was defined as (1) knocking out the Soviet air force in order to obtain and maintain air superiority over the theater of operations ; (2) supporting the operations of Army Group Center and, in a more selective form (Schwerpunktmaessig, literally “by way of forming centers of gravity”), those of the other army groups; (3) disrupting the Soviet railway net in order to prevent reinforcement on the one hand and withdrawal on the other; and (4) capturing important transportation bottlenecks such as bridges ahead of friendly forces by using parachutists and gliders. “In order to use all available forces in support of the Army,” the directive went on, “the enemy’s armaments industry should not be targeted during the main campaign,” meaning that the German forces would be directed against the regular Soviet forces rather than at whatever resistance would remain after the destruction of those forces. Only after the end of the mobile phase of operations would attacks on the Soviet armaments industry, chiefly in the Urals, get under way.

In preparation for the campaign, the Luftwaffe divided its forces into three Luftlotten. (The forces that operated in support of the Finns in the far north will not be considered here, since there was little opportunity for maneuver warfare there.) Each was clearly earmarked for the support of one army group, although from the command and control point of view, there was no question of subordinating air force units to ground headquarters-but rather only of cooperation between them. In the north, Luftflotte 1 was commanded by Gen Alfred Keller. His flying units, consisting merely of a single air corps, Fliegerkorps I, and a few smaller forces, possessed a total of 592 transport and combat aircraft (453 operational), plus 176 reconnaissance and liaison machines (143 operational). In the center, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring’s Luftlotte 2 was much stronger with two Fliegerkorps (II and VIII)-1,367 transport and combat aircraft (994 operational) and 224 reconnaissance and liaison machines (200 operational). Finally, Gen Alexander Loehr’s Luftlotte 4, with two air corps (Fliegerkorps IV and V), supported Army Group South. Its forces consisted of transport and combat aircraft (694 operational), plus 239 reconnaissance and liaison machines (208 operational). The total number of combat aircraft (bombers, fighters, and close support) was 2,713, of which 2,080 were operational. Thus, in spite of the huge task with which it was faced militarily as well as geographically, the German air force in the east had a strength no greater than it had been during the French campaign in the previous year. This reflected the fact that fully one-third of its forces had to be left to fight in the west, the north (Norway), or the Mediterranean; qualitatively, too, the forces on the eastern front were not the most modern since obsolescent aircraft no longer capable of serving against Britain were still considered fit to confront the Soviets .

Throughout the first half of 1941, the Luftwaffe was hard at work preparing for the campaign. The aircraft industry and training facilities were expanded until they were considered able to keep up with anticipated losses, but no more. Luftwaffe units flew numerous photoreconnaissance missions inside Soviet territory, and the list of targets within a 200-mile zone from the frontier had been completed by the end of April 1941. Meanwhile, many new airfields were built and existing ones improved, the necessary ground organization put in place, and the required reserves of POL, ammunition, and equipment assembled. The last stage, starting towards the end of May, was to bring in the flying units themselves under a heavy cloak of secrecy. In Hitler’s own words, the German ability to win this most ambitious of all campaigns rapidly and decisively depended on tanks and aircraft working together in order to “break the Russian.” Thus, the importance of a smooth system for air-to-ground cooperation was greater than ever; yet, when hostilities broke out, the organizational problems of securing it had by no means been solved in spite of many suggestions raised by Richthofen and other key Luftwaffe commanders.

The system that divided responsibility between the Kolufts on the one hand and the Flivos on the other remained in force. A process of decentralization took place as both types of officers were increased in numbers until, instead of there being one for each army and corps, one of each could be assigned to every division. Towards the end of 1941, the Flivos even started accompanying some individual regiments, although there were never enough of them to expand this system to the army as a whole. Each air corps (instead of air fleet, as formerly) headquarters now included a Nahkampfuehrer. His task was to coordinate all Luftwaffe support for the army, for which purpose he was given operational control over all units available for that mission. Some progress was also made in providing ground and air units with common radio apparatus to enable them to communicate directly with each other. At Fliegerkorps VIII, experienced Stuka pilots were now riding in Mark III tanks and acting as forward air controllers. Nevertheless, the German army as a whole still depended on various agreed-on, rather primitive, visual recognition signals to prevent attacks on friendly troops. Above all, Goering steadfastly refused any measures that would have assigned the army any control over the sorties flown by Luftwaffe combat units, and the Germans had to wait until 1944 for a real solution for that problem.

Like the Soviet Union in general, the Red Air Force at this time was something of a mystery to the Germans. The chief of intelligence at the Luftwaffe General Staff was Gen Joseph Schmidt, an opinionated officer whose estimates of the situation reflected his Nazi prejudices. He put total enemy strength at approximately 10,500 machines, including 7,500 in Europe. Supposedly the Soviets had 1,360 reconnaissance aircraft and bombers, plus perhaps 2,200 fighters (including those added during the first half of 1941). Most of the machines were supposed (correctly as it turned out) to be inferior to their German equivalents both in general flying characteristics and, to an even greater extent, in specialized instruments such as radio and navigational aids. The Germans assumed the mass of the Soviet air force personnel, including pilots, to be primitive and ill-trained by Western standards and their organization as a whole to be heavy-handed and inflexible. They believed that once the Germans occupied the industrial centers in European Russia, the Soviets would not be able to keep up their strength in aircraft and would be reduced to fighting in uncoordinated remnants-a belief that turned out to be grossly mistaken.