The opening of year 1943 saw the Red Army taking advantage of the massive Wehrmacht concentration in the Stalingrad sector, and going over to the offensive along the entire Eastern Front. The siege of Leningrad was raised on 18 January 1943; in the centre the Soviet armies on the Moscow Front recaptured Rzhev and Vyasma before the completion of their winter campaign, while further south, on the Upper Don, Voronezh was recaptured on 26 January.
It was in the south that the progress of the Soviet Army was most rapid. Bypassing Stalingrad, the southern Soviet thrust reached the Donetz river, taking Rostov, Voroshilovgrad and Kharkov by mid-February, at the same time covering the northern flank by recapturing Kursk on 8 February. Meanwhile, the Wehrmacht was forced to make a precipitate retreat from the Caucasus. Mozdok, three-quarters of the way between the Caspian and the Sea of Azov, was retaken by the Russians at the beginning of January and only five weeks later Krasnodar changed hands, leaving the Germans to defend the narrow bridgehead in the Kuban peninsula.
Throughout this period the Luftwaffe concentrated on Stalingrad, continuously transferring units to that sector at the expense of others, so that by January 1943, out of a total front-line strength of 1,715 aircraft, 900 were concentrated in the Don sector under Luftflotte 4 (FlKps VIII) and Luftwaffenkommando Don (FlKps I); 240 were under Fliegerkorps IV in the Crimea and Caucasus; 380 were on the Moscow Front under Luftwaffenkommando Ost (FlKps V) and 195 were on the Leningrad Front under Luftflotte 1.
These forces consisted of the following units as of 20 February 1943: Single-engined fighters (Fw 190A-4 and Bf 109G-4): II and III/JG 3, Stab, II and III/JG 5, I/JG 26, Stab, I, III and 15.(Span)/JG 51, Stab, I and II/JG 52, Stab, I and II/JG 54; ground-attack (Fw 190A-4, Bf 110G-2, Hs 129B-1): II/ZG 1, 13.(Zerst)/JG 5, Pz. Jäger Staffel JG 51, I and II/SchG 1; dive-bombers (Ju 87D-3): Stab I, II and III/StG 1, Stab, I, II and III/StG 2, I/StG 5, Stab and I/StG 77; long-range bombers (He 111H-16 and Ju 88A-4): Stab, I and III/KG 1, Stab, I and III/KG 3, Stab, II and III/KG 4, I and III/KG 27, I/KG 30, Stab, I and III/KG 51, Stab, II, III and 15./KG 53, and Stab, I and III/KG 55. The preponderance of Soviet tank and troop concentrations called for an increase in the number of specialised close-support and ground-attack aircraft and by way of expedience, the Luftwaffe formed Störkampfstaffeln (Harassing bomber units) and Nachtschlachtgruppen (Night ground-attack units) in the spring of 1943, equipped with obsolescent He 46C, He 45C and Ar 66 aircraft. The anti-tank element was now under a Führer der Panzerjäger, who conducted combat operations for I and II/SchG 1 (Bf 109, Hs 123 and Hs 129), Pz. Jäger St./JG 51, Pz. Jäger St. Ju 87, I/ZG 1 (Bf 110) and later Staffel 92 equipped with the Ju 88P-1. With the exception of the Ju 88P- 1, which carried a 75-mm cannon, the heaviest tank-busting weapon was the Rheinmetall Flak 18 (BK 3.7) 37-mm cannon installed in the Ju 87G-1 and the Hs 129B-2/R3. While incapable of piercing the armour of the T-34 and KV-1 tanks, the 37mm weapon was capable of immobilising the T-34 by blowing off a track. A further expedient taken at this time was the formation of specialised train-busting units equipped with Ju 88C-6 heavy fighters, and these consisted initially of 9./KG 3, 14./KG 27, 9./KG 55 and 4./KG 76.
None of these measures, however, could do anything to stem the tide of the Soviet advance which had been carried across the Donetz by mid- February. But by now the momentum of the Soviet Army’s offensive had slowed in order to consolidate its position; lines of supply and communication were fully stretched and a number of Soviet Air Force units were grounded due to lack of fuel. It was in these circumstances that the Wehrmacht was able to launch a counteroffensive, on 20 February, that culminated in Manstein’s capture of Kharkov and Belgorod between 15–18 March 1943. The offensive saw the reappearance of the classical Blitzkrieg advance, with the armoured spearheads of 2nd SS ‘Das Reich’ Panzer Division advancing under overwhelming air support from von Richthofen’s Luftflotte 4. Fliegerkorps IV bore the main weight of the assault in support of I and IV Panzer Armies in the drive to the Donetz and onwards to the south and south- eastern sectors of Kharkov. At the same time, Fliegerkorps I supported the assault on the north and north-western sectors, while Fliegerdivision Donetz was assigned a defensive battle on the eastern flank of I Panzer Army, where it was essential to hold the Russians back while the Kharkov attack was in progress. As soon as its task was completed Fl. Div. Donetz took its powerful ground-attack forces away from the Stalino area to support Fliegerkorps IV.
Combat sorties by Richthofen’s pilots averaged 1,000 per day, rising to a crescendo, on 23 February, with 1,250 and maintaining the pace until the capture of Belgorod, which effectively re-established the German hold on the Donetz line. By the end of March, the Spring thaw slowed the advance and saw a slackening in Luftwaffe activity, but the limited aims of Manstein’s offensive had been achieved. This remarkable recovery undoubtedly saved the Wehrmacht from being overwhelmed after the Stalingrad disaster, and now the dominant feature on the Soviet Front was the huge Orel-Kursk salient that was destined to be the graveyard for either the Wehrmacht or the Soviet Army in the summer of 1943. When, at the beginning of April 1943, weather conditions made a continuation of intensive operations on the Donetz front impossible, renewed Soviet pressure in the Kuban, to the East of the Crimea, compelled the Luftwaffe to redispose its forces in this new theatre. Some 550–600 strike aircraft, under FlKps VIII, were sent to bases in the Crimea and commenced intensive operations from 17 April onwards. The Russians did not allow the Luftwaffe to relax its effort, and a daily rate of 400 sorties was perforce, maintained at the very time that rest and re-equipment was required. This concentration was reduced, however, at the beginning of May, and redistributed fairly evenly over all sectors from Smolensk southwards. By June, the preparations for the Kursk offensive were in progress, and Fliegerkorps VIII was posted to the Kharkov-Belgorod sector facing the southern Kursk salient, while a new command, Luftflotte 6, formed from Luftwaffenkommando Ost, took up position in the Smolensk-Orel sector in the north. This command was led by Generaloberst Robert Ritter von Greim. Another important change, which met with violent opposition from von Manstein, the Army commander, was the transfer of Wolfram von Richthofen from Luftflotte 4 to officer-commanding Luftflotte 2 in the Mediterranean. After the disaster at Tunis, there had been an increasing tendency to reinforce the Mediterranean at the expense of the Soviet Front. General Dessloch succeeded Richthofen as commander of Luftflotte 4. Luftwaffe first-line strength in the Soviet Union rose from 2,100 aircraft after the abortive Kuban offensive to approximately 2,500 in June 1943; this figure was achieved by bringing back units from rest and re-equipment. The Luftwaffe’s ability to mount a force of this size for the third consecutive summer’s operations in the Soviet Union, despite its increased commitments in the Mediterranean and over the Reich, was possible as a result of the remarkable recovery in total first-line strength which took place in the first six months of 1943. At the end of 1942, the total Luftwaffe strength hovered below 4,000, but by June 1943 this figure had increased to almost exactly 6,000 aircraft – a total never again to be achieved throughout the remained of the war.
Operation Zitadelle – the battle for Kursk, 1943
Aimed at wresting the strategic initiative from the Russians and ultimately turning the course of the war, the planning and preparation of Operation Zitadelle were carried out with unparalleled thoroughness by the Germans. The offensive called for two simultaneous assaults on the northern and southern sectors of the Kursk salient to destroy the Soviet armies, straighten the frontline and, in the event of success, exploit the situation by a plunging advance to the Don river. No effort was to be spared, and among the 2,700 German tanks assembled for the offensive were the latest PzKw V Panthers and PzKw VI Tigers which were to spearhead the assault. The Soviet Army had, however, had adequate time in which to prepare its defences and build up its resources. Anti-tank ditches had been dug along the entire perimeter of the salient and in depth, while 1,300,000 troops supported by 3,600 tanks and 2,400 aircraft, including the latest La-5 and Yak-9 fighters, were deployed to counter the German attacks.
The Luftwaffe fielded at least 1,000 aircraft in direct support of Zitadelle, representing 50 per cent of the total forces available for the whole Soviet Front, from Murmansk to the Sea of Azov. While including several Kampfgruppen with He 111s and Ju 88s, these forces comprised primarily II and III/JG 3, I, III and IV/JG 51, I and III/JG 52 and II/JG 54 with Fw 190A- 5 and Bf 109G-6 fighters; the ground-attack units were Stab, I and II/SchG 1 and 4./SchG 2, Stab and I/ZG 1. and Pz. Jäg/JG 51, and the Stukagruppen available were I, II and III/StG 1, I, II and III/StG 2, III/StG 3, and I, II and III/StG 77 equipped with Ju 87D-5s.
At 04.30hrs on 5 July 1943, after a preliminary bombardment, III Panzer Corps and IV Panzer Army of Manstein’s Army Group South struck northwards from Belgorod, while IX Army and II Panzer Army under Mödel’s Army Group Centre attacked the northern flank of the Kursk salient from Orel. Both assaults quickly became bogged down in bitter fire-fights with dug-in Soviet troops and armour. Such was the strength of Soviet resistance that Mödel had committed all his reserves to the battle by 9 July, but to no avail. The greatest tank battle in history took place on 12 July, when IV Pz. Army, III Pz. Corps and Einsatzgruppe Kempff lost 350 tanks in combat around Prokhorovka, some 25 miles north of Belgorod. On this day, while the Soviet Army fought the Wehrmacht to a standstill in the Kursk salient, the Russians opened an offensive in the north, threatening the German rear at Orel. Other Soviet counteroffensives followed, and by 23 July both Army Group South and Army Group Centre had been pushed back to their starting lines, thus committing Zitadelle to crushing defeat.
During the opening phases of Zitadelle, the Luftwaffe flew over 3,000 sorties a day, with each serviceable Ju 87D flying up to 5–6 missions per day. This effort decreased to around 1,500 sorties per day after the first week, and then averaged 1,000 per day for the remainder of July. The Jagdgruppen claimed 432 ‘kills’ on the first day, of which II/JG 3 claimed 77 ‘kills’, including 62 bombers, and III/JG 52 shot down 38 Soviet aircraft. German losses on the first day of Zitadelle amounted to only 26 aircraft. In total, the Luftwaffe flew 37,421 sorties throughout the battle, destroying 1,735 enemy aircraft for the loss of 64. Twenty thousand tons of bombs were dropped and Fliegerkorps I alone claimed 1,100 tanks and 1,300 vehicles.
While these impressive figures applied to the battles in the Kursk salient, elsewhere the situation gave cause for concern. German aircraft losses, which in June had totalled 487, rose to 911 in July, and in August were 785 over the entire Eastern Front. By 5 August, the Soviet Army had captured Orel and Belgorod, opening the way for the great autumn offensive, while the entire German position in the south was put at risk by the Soviet re-capture of Kharkov on 23 August.
For the Luftwaffe, the failure of Operation Zitadelle was to have widespread repercussions. Generaloberst Hans Jeschonnek, the Chief of Air Staff, had been the apostle of tactical air power in support of the Army, and had staked his reputation on a decisive and quick victory in the Soviet Union. The failure at Kursk, allied with the inability of the Luftwaffe to alter the disastrous situation first in North Africa and now in Sicily, rendered his policies bankrupt. He committed suicide. The Soviet Front, the cornerstone of his policies, was no longer afforded top priority by the Luftwaffe.