SKG 210 in flight during Operation Barbarossa.
Meanwhile, far to the south, Army Group South advanced from Poland. Its left wing was formed by Sixth Army, acting as a flank guard against possible counterattacks coming from the Pripet Marshes; next, from north to south, came 1st Panzer Group, Seventeenth Army, and, emerging from Rumania on 2 July, Eleventh Army operating in conjunction with some Rumanian forces. As usual, the planners at OKH had staked their main hopes for operativ warfare on 1st Panzer Group, though not to the extent of freeing it from subordination to Sixth Army. (Throughout the summer of 1941, German panzer groups continued to be under the orders of infantry armies in order to prevent them from wandering off on their own.) The 1st Panzer Group was expected to break through the frontier defenses and advance very fast, its mission being to outflank the Soviet forces on its right until, by turning southward to the Black Sea, it could crush them in a Kesselschlacht against Eleventh Army coming from its Rumanian “balcony.” This strategy in turn rendered the south flank of the panzer army open to attack. As always, there were wide gaps between the advancing German columns, and Fliegerkorps V had already been instrumental in beating back a corps-sized Soviet counterattack on 26 June in the area between Lutsk and Rovno.
It soon became clear that the Soviet forces in this area, which formed the Southwestern Front under Gen M. P. Kirponos, were better commanded than elsewhere. In the sector of Seventeenth Army, they slowed down the German advance, did not allow themselves to be disrupted, and, fighting for as long as the situation permitted, made what were on the whole well-ordered retreats. Some of Gen M. I. Potapov’s Fifth Army withdrew into the marshes to the north, where the Luftwaffe was unable to find them and from which they were to emerge later in the campaign. Others fell back on the Stalin line and, after that line was breached, tried to cross the Dnieper to safety. It was the task of Fliegerkorps V, attached to the left wing of the army group, to prevent the retreat. At first it did so with some success by attacking roads, railroads, and transportation centers in Lvov, Brody, Zlotuv, Zhitomir, Berdicev, Starokonstantinov, Belaya Tserkov, and Kazatin. Other than an occasional thunderstorm, the weather was good and the country completely open. Hence, these attacks, which went on day and night, were as successful as any that the Luftwaffe mounted in Russia throughout the campaign. A high point was reached on 30 June when two or three Soviet motorized columns, moving four abreast, were caught near Lvov and subjected to what amounted almost to a slaughter. However, Fliegerkorps V did not have dive-bombing units under its command. It was instrumental in keeping the air clear of Soviet aircraft, but its ability to offer direct support to First Panzer Army was limited. This was one factor that caused the advance of that unit to be considerably slower at first than had been planned.
Penetrating farther to the east, the Germans faced different problems. Whereas the nature of the terrain in the north had caused the advance to proceed along the forest tracks, the countryside in the Ukraine presented no limitations. Under such circumstances, it did not take long before Luftflotte 4, like Army Group South as a whole, found its forces threatened by lack of cohesion. The problem was made worse by the almost complete absence of roads. This caused the army and air force to compete for the few available roadways in order to bring supplies forward. At times it became necessary to supply the forward units of the Luftwaffe by air, always a very costly operation. As a result, the bombers were increasingly left behind, the fighters could not reach the front at all, and only the attack aircraft got proper logistic support. Although bridges on the Dnieper were repeatedly hit by sorties flown by Fliegerkorps V, traffic over them was never completely halted because they proved difficult to destroy. Attacks were also made on the railway network east of the river in the Konotop-Glukhov- Gorodishche-Priluki-Bakhmach region. Tactical results were very good, with some 1,000 railroad cars destroyed, but again the withdrawal of at least some Soviet forces in front of 1st Panzer Group could not be prevented.
Meanwhile, having reached the Dnieper on 10 July, 1st Panzer Group was forbidden by Hitler from crossing it. Thereupon the Germans turned their armored spearheads towards the southeast, keeping west of the river. This brought them into the rear of the Soviet armies that were slowly falling back in front of the German Seventeenth Army and led to the creation of the pocket at Uman. Here Fliegerkorps V was more successful than before in helping the ground forces seal off the pocket and prevent the escape of the Soviet forces, particularly since it was assisted by units of Fliegerkorps IV coming from Rumania in support of the German Eleventh Army. However, this meant that Sixth Army in the north had to be left completely unsupported. That army accordingly had to beat off the Soviet Fifth Army coming out of the Pripet Marshes and directing its attack against the exposed rear of 1st Panzer Group. It did so, but at the cost of slowing its own advance to a snail’s pace and thereby laying-even though unintentionally-the foundations for the subsequent vast Kesselschlacht of Kiev.
When Army Group South had finished clearing the Uman pocket and was preparing to cross the Dnieper on 7 August, it found itself exposed to a sudden counterattack by the Soviet Twenty-sixth Army on the right flank of the German Sixth Army. This, had it succeeded, might have cut the army group in two or at least driven a deep wedge between the widely separated German forces. As usual, the only force immediately available to hold off the threat was the Luftwaffe; and, as was often the case during this period, it did so quickly and effectively, though at the cost of switching to battlefield operations for which many of its aircraft were not really suitable. A week was to pass before the German forces coming from the north and the south simultaneously (one of 1st Panzer Group’s armored divisions had to turn around and retrace its previous movement) were able to halt the Soviets and throw them back across the river. During the first decisive days, Fliegerkorps V, throwing in every available unit and forced by unfavorable weather to fly at altitudes as low as 50-100 meters, fought on its own and later claimed to have destroyed 94 tanks and 184 motor vehicles.
By the middle of August, although isolated pockets of enemy resistance remained, the situation west of the Dnieper could be regarded as stabilized. From 17 August on, Luftflotte 4 accordingly moved its efforts farther to the east, hitting the communications center of Dnepropetrovsk day and night in the hope of preventing the Soviets from making further withdrawals and preparing for the Germans’ own forthcoming offensive. Owing partly to distance and partly to sheer wear and tear, the number of fighters available to Fliegerkorps V was down to 44. Although these fighters performed marvels (on 30 August, there was an announcement that 1,000 Soviet aircraft had been shot down in air-to-air combat), they could not be everywhere at once. Hence, a Soviet attack on the bridge across the Dnieper at Gornostaypol, which the Germans had taken in a coup de main, was successful in delaying the advance of Sixth Army once again. Fliegerkorps V was, however, able to protect the first bridgehead built by 1st Panzer Group across the Dnieper on 8 September against determined Soviet attempts to attack it from the air.
Throughout this period, Fliegerkorps IV, with its weaker forces, continued to fly missions in support of Eleventh Army, which was approaching the Crimea. It attacked the bridges across the Dniester to prevent Soviet reinforcements and to prevent the escape of Soviet forces from the Uman pocket. The center of gravity gradually shifted eastward until Odessa, used by the Soviets in an attempt to evacuate their forces by sea, became the most important target. When the Rumanians crossed the Dniester in the middle of July, Fliegerkorps IV typically switched back to close support. The same pattern was thus revealed in this somewhat separate theater as everywhere else. If only because not even Richthofen’s close support experts could respond to the army’s demands in less than two hours, the Luftwaffe’s normal preference was for what the Germans called operativ warfare and what we would call behind-the-front interdiction. At least during the early phases of the campaign, close support came into its own only when a clear geographical line divided the forces on both sides or else when a Soviet counterattack created an emergency.