Luftwaffe in Barbarossa Part II

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Luftwaffe Dive Bombers, Sink the Marat at Kronshtadt Barbarossa.

At 0300, 22 June 1941, the Luftwaffe opened the campaign by the now-standard method of a surprise strike at the enemy’s airfields. The weather that day was almost perfect-warm and sunny with a slight haze that cleared up later during the day. For reasons that remain inexplicable to this day, the Soviets had made no preparations to oppose the aggressors. The German pilots found Red aircraft by the hundreds lined up wingtip-to-wingtip on the aprons, and they reported very little opposition on the ground or in the air. According to whether they consisted of bombers, fighters, or dive bombers, German units flew as many as four, five, six, or even eight missions per day-astonishing figures attributable to the simplicity of the machines, the often short distances that had to be covered, the excellence of the ground organization (including a specially developed apparatus that allowed nine aircraft to be refueled simultaneously), and the unparalleled determination of the crews. The first attack was carried out by 637 bombers (including dive bombers) and 231 fighters . Reportedly it hit 31 airfields, three suspected billets of high-level staffs, two barracks, two artillery positions, a bunker system, and an oil depot, all at the cost of two fighters missing. By the evening of the first day, some 1,800 Soviet aircraft were reported destroyed, the great majority on the ground but 322 of them shot down as they rose to meet the German machines. (This disproportion was to prove important later on because Soviet aircrews had not been affected and would survive to fight another day.)

Meanwhile, photoreconnaissance was being conducted on a grand scale. It disclosed the existence of numerous additional airfields, 130 of which were identified and attacked during the next few days. By the end of the first week, the Armed Forces High Command was able to report the destruction of 4,017 Soviet aircraft against a loss of only 150 German ones. By 12 July Soviet losses had risen to about 6,850. This included entire bomber squadrons flying obsolescent machines without fighter cover that were shot down like turkeys as they hurled themselves at the invading German columns. After the first few days, Soviet air operations were reduced to scattered attacks by small numbers of aircraft that appeared out of nowhere, dropped or fired their ordnance, and made off as best they could. Having achieved air superiority to the point that they could command the sky whenever and wherever they wanted, the Germans on 25 June felt that the time had come to shift the center of gravity to support their own ground forces. In so doing, they soon discovered that the number of aircraft available was never really sufficient to cover the vast theater of operations; this in itself made a coordinated system of operativ warfare difficult since the constant demands for air support tended to disrupt planning, dissipate the available forces, and hinder the creation of Schwerpunkte. Russian roads, often consisting of mere tracks, were difficult to attack because they were usually easy to repair or bypass. Attacks on Russian villages, designed to reduce houses to rubble and thus block the communications passing between them, seldom led to lasting results owing to the wide distances separating the houses and to the wood used in their construction. In the north, as well as on the fringes of the Pripet Marshes, extensive forests enabled even large units, particularly those consisting of infantry or cavalry, to escape observation from the air.

Still, in other ways the Russian countryside offered advantages to the attacker from the air. The density of the railway network was relatively low, there being only 52,000 miles of track (many of them single) in the entire gigantic country. Hence, the task of disrupting the lines and bringing traffic to a standstill did not appear as insoluble as it would have been if the USSR had been a developed Western country with many intersecting, parallel, and redundant lines of communication and numerous technically advanced facilities for repair and maintenance. In the center and south, the open, flat, almost treeless terrain-much like the American Midwest-made it nearly impossible for ground units to find cover against air attack except by utilizing the occasional ravines. A well-planned campaign should have exploited these advantages and avoided the obstacles. However, this was something that the Germans, operating with only relatively small forces and trying to achieve too many things at once, were never really able to do.

The Luftwaffe’s central archives were destroyed at the end of the war, and no good information is forthcoming from the Soviet side. Therefore, what little quantitative data can be found on the impact of the German air attacks on the Soviet ground forces, transportation system, and logistics have to be put together from the scattered surviving records of individual Luftwaffe units. These show that Ju-88 light bombers of a single Kampfgeschwader (bomber group) belonging to Fliegerkorps II claimed to have destroyed 356 trains and 14 bridges, interrupted railway traffic 322 times, and flown 200 sorties against troop concentrations, barracks, and supply depots in support of Army Group Center in “indirect” operations between 22 June and 9 September. During the same period, and acting in “direct” support of the army, the same unit claimed to have destroyed 30 tanks and 488 motor vehicles in addition to flying some 90 sorties against artillery positions. The Me-110s (twin-engined fighters) of another group claimed to have destroyed only 50 trains and 4 bridges between 22 June and 27 September but compensated by scoring 148 tanks, 166 guns, and 3,280 vehicles of all kinds.

As the records of many ground units show, Soviet opposition in the air during this period was so weak as to be almost negligible. This permitted even single-engined fighters to be diverted away from the escort role to attacking ground targets, and so one Jagdgeschwader (fighter group) flying in support of Army Group Center was able to report 142 tanks and armored cars, 16 guns, 34 locomotives, 432 trucks and one train destroyed. Certain entries in the diary of the chief of the German Army General Staff-who himself relied on information originating in the Luftwaffeshow that these attacks were not without effect on ground operations. On individual occasions, they deprived the Soviet armies of supplies, blocked reinforcements, and created congestion on the Ukrainian railroads in particular. However, the available evidence does not permit a detailed reconstruction of the impact of these operations on the campaign as a whole.

In the north, the German ground operations had three aims. They were to surround and cut off the Soviet forces in the Baltic countries (Eighteenth Army on the left), advance on the shortest line to Leningrad (4th Panzer Group in the center), and cover the right flank while keeping in touch with Army Group Center (Sixteenth Army on the right). These diverging objectives, imposed on Army Group North by Hitler himself, are open to criticism; however, because the terrain in this theater, as in Russia as a whole, became more open as the attacking army advanced further toward the east, gaps were bound to appear on the flanks of the advancing spearheads.

The German system of maneuver warfare was by now fully developed. Its consistent aim was to drive deep wedges into the enemy and to encircle his forces (consisting, as of 10 July, of 31 divisions and six independent mechanized brigades grouped together under Soviet Field Marshal Kliment Voroshilov’s Northwestern Front). The speed of the advance was spectacular, reaching 40 miles per day during the first few days. Nevertheless, Army Group North never really succeeded in cutting off the main Soviet forces as it had planned to do. Nor did it have the infantry needed to seal what pockets that were formed; many Red Army units, though isolated from each other, remained intact or, at any rate, sufficiently cohesive to continue fighting, especially since the dense forests afforded plenty of room for them to hide. It fell to the Luftwaffe to leap into the breach and to identify and prevent counterattacks from developing into dangerous threats. This caused its independence to be gradually eroded until finally it was reduced to the role of a mobile fire brigade, just the kind of thing Luftwaffe leaders had always wanted to avoid.

For example, on 27 June units of Fliegerkorps I were instrumental in beating back a Soviet counteroffensive near Shaulyai (Schaulen), Latvia, where approximately 200 enemy tanks were destroyed. 24 On 2 and 3 July the same units first helped breach the fortifications along the old border and then, switching back to operativ warfare, attacked the bridges over the Dvina River in order to prevent the Soviets from making good their escape to the northeast. In this they were only partly successful. On 6 July it was the turn of the Red Air Force to try and wreck the bridges over the Dvina in order to slow down the German pursuit. This enabled General Keller’s Luftflotte 1 fighters to shoot down 65 out of 73 attacking aircraft, thus putting an end to large-scale enemy attempts to interfere with ground operations in this sector. Units of Luftflotte 1 also assisted in supplying Sixteenth Army during its advance, given the single road (in reality, little better than a forest track) leading from Pskov toward Narva had not yet been cleared and was dominated by isolated Red Army units.

Thus, during the first two weeks of the campaign, all the ways in which an air force might assist maneuver warfare were displayed to the fullest. As flying units were moved forward onto newly captured Soviet airfields, the distances between them and their targets diminished. Beginning in the second week of July, this permitted the Luftwaffe to mount repeated attacks on the Moscow-Leningrad railway with the aim of severing communications between Russia’s two most important cities .28 Like others after them, however, the Germans were to learn that railways, while not difficult to disrupt, were not difficult to repair. Though traffic suffered, the line could not be completely cut until the ground forces had advanced sufficiently to throw a ring around the city.

Beginning in the last week of July, Luftflotte 1 was reinforced by Gen Wolfram von Richthofen’s Fliegerkorps VIII, which was detached from its original assignment to Army Group Center and brought up to the newly occupied Baltic airfields. Acting in his favorite role as a close-support expert, Richthofen repeatedly massed his forces to deliver concentrated blows at key targets. On 15 August they assisted Sixteenth Army in the capture of Novgorod. On 24 August their intervention was decisive in beating back a Soviet counteroffensive against the left wing of Army Group North at Staraya Russa. On 28 August they helped bring the attack on Tallinn (Reval) to a successful conclusion. However, despite repeated attempts and many hits on both warships and freighters, Luftflotte 1 was unable to prevent the bulk of the Red Fleet from retreating to Kronstadt and Leningrad. In a sort of mini-Dunkirk, the Soviets succeeded in evacuating some of their troops in the Baltic, and these were later instrumental in the defense of Leningrad.

Fliegerkorps VIII was still available when the offensive against Leningrad got under way on 26 September. Against strong antiaircraft fire, it helped the units of Fliegerkorps I attack targets within the city as well as ships in the harbor; a Soviet counterattack in the direction of Lake Ladoga was beaten off, and the ring around “the capital of Bolshevism” closed. However, only a few days later, Richthofen’s units were taken away and sent back to support the offensive of Army Group Center against Moscow. Army Group North itself had now been deprived of the bulk of Fourth Panzer Army, which was also sent to the Moscow area. Relying on a single motorized corps (XXXIX), it was still able to carry out a last offensive effort, crossing the Volkhov River in the direction of Tikhvin, where it hoped to link up with the Finns on the river Svir. Though its aircraft (Ju-88s) were not really suited to the task, especially in view of the densely wooded nature of the terrain, Fliegerkorps I flew missions directly supporting the operation as well as attacking railway lines leading into the area. After bitter fighting, Tikhvin fell on 9 November. However, the battle was by no means at an end, and the Germans, finding themselves counterattacked by three Soviet armies under Gen K. A. Meretskov, were forced to evacuate it a month later. By this time, bad weather, including persistent winter fog, affected the operations of Luftflotte 1 to the point where it was unable to reconnoiter effectively, let alone mount coordinated attacks on what targets could still be identified. The operations of Army Group North became essentially static and were destined to remain so until the siege of the city was lifted in January 1944.

In this siege, Luftflotte 1, its forces much reduced by losses and by the limited availability of aircraft, was assigned the task of attacking military targets within the city as well as the supply routes leading to it. In spite of the reported destruction (by 23 August) of 2,541 enemy aircraft plus 433 probable kills, Soviet opposition began reviving in the autumn, and by the end of the year the city was defended by several hundred fighters, 300 balloons, and 600 antiaircraft artillery barrels. Although the Germans never lost the ability to gain air superiority where and when they wanted, they were unable to make much headway in capturing Leningrad. From September through December 1941, the Luftwaffe dropped a total of 1,500 tons of bombs on targets in and around Leningrad; this was less than the amount dropped by Allied air forces on a single German city in a single night in 1944-45. As a result, the lifeline to Leningrad, which as of 18 November consisted of motor convoys (later a railway as well) crossing over frozen Lake Ladoga, could never be completely severed for any length of time.

As 1941 drew to an end, the troops of Luftlotte 1, living under impossible conditions and prevented by the weather from flying much of the time, were drowning their sorrows in alcohol.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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