Luftwaffe over the Eastern Front 1941-42

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The first week of Barbarossa had been a great success for the Luftwaffe. Although the Soviet Air Force had not been completely annihilated, as had perhaps been naively hoped, it had been wounded enough to allow the Luftwaffe to dominate the sky over the Eastern Front for some time. However, while thousands of Soviet aircraft had been destroyed on the ground the pilots were safe and this would make the task of forming new units much easier once aircraft had been replaced.

The Eastern Front soon stretched nearly 3,000 miles with conditions varying enormously from the cold Arctic wastes of the Barents Sea at the northern extremities to the warmer, almost subtropical shores, of the Black Sea in the south. With air superiority effectively in hand, the Luftwaffe was now able to turn its attention to providing air support to the advancing troops on the ground. The German army groups had made gains, although the Red Army was still occupying a vast pocket around Bialystok, which eventually fell on 1 July, and Minsk, which did not fall until 9 July. As German forces squeezed the Soviet troops within the pockets, many managed to escape but, nonetheless, some 600,000 Soviet troops were killed, missing, wounded or taken prisoner. This success was soon followed by victory at Smolensk, resulting in another 300,000 Soviet prisoners, leaving the door to Moscow, the key to victory in the east, seemingly wide open.

With little evidence of Russian resistance in the air, the 109s were able to enjoy freier Jagd sorties, giving them freedom to roam over the Eastern Front and to carry out attacks against targets of opportunity. When there were encounters in the air, much of the aerial combat took place at medium and lower levels where the Bf 109 enjoyed an advantage over its Soviet adversaries. The early battles had taken their toll on the Red Air Force and many Russians were thrown into the air war with barely adequate training.

The Luftwaffe also benefitted from mobile radar and a basic reporting system, which gave the Jagdgeschwader an advantage over the Soviet fighters. Confidence was understandably high as scores started to mount. By mid-July, JG 51 had destroyed 500 Soviet aircraft since the opening day of Barbarossa for the loss of just three 109s. Mölders personally passed a century of successes since the start of the war when, on 15 July, he claimed two victories during the day. Mölders had accounted for a staggering thirty-three Soviet aircraft in just over three weeks since the opening day of Barbarossa and later that day came the announcement of his award of the coveted Diamonds, the citation stating that the Führer had chosen this exemplar, the world’s most successful fighter pilot, to be the first recipient of Germany’s highest award.

The Eastern Front was proving to be a target-rich environment, almost a shooting gallery. In addition to Mölders, another to achieve great success was Leutnant Heinz Bär of 1./JG 51 who claimed fourteen Russian aircraft in the first two weeks of the campaign to add to his thirteen earlier in the war and earning him the Knight’s Cross in early July; Bär would add thirty-three more to his total during the next month for which he would be awarded the Oak Leaves.

JG 3 had also enjoyed much success, with three of its pilots standing out. One was Major Günther Lützow, Kommodore of JG 3, who had scored his first success on the Eastern Front during the opening day of Barbarossa before he was awarded the Oak Leaves on 20 July after achieving his twenty-fourth success of the campaign and with his overall total on forty-seven. Lützow then went on to score at a high rate. Three weeks later his total was sixty-one and by early October he would become the second to pass eighty victories. The second member of JG 3 to distinguish himself was Walter Oesau, Kommandeur of III./JG 3. On 15 July Oesau became only the third recipient of the Swords to the Knight’s Cross for his eightieth victory of the war, including forty-four Soviet aircraft in just five weeks, seven of which were claimed in one sortie on 12 July. The third was Gordon Gollob, Kapitän of 4./JG 3, who had also scored his first victory on the Eastern Front during the opening day of Barbarossa. Now promoted to Hauptmann and appointed as Kommandeur of II./JG 3, Gollob would add a further eighteen victories during August to bring his overall total to forty-two and earn him the Knight’s Cross.

As German forces advanced on the ground, Mölders was able to move his JG 51 forward to airfields in the vicinity of the city of Bobruysk and then handed over command to Oberstleutnant Friedrich Beckh as Mölders was to be prevented from flying further combat missions for propaganda reasons. Mölders had proved to be a great leader and had earned the nickname Vati (‘Daddy’) from his men in recognition of his paternal attitude towards them and the care he had always shown towards their welfare. A devoutly religious person, he was always insistent that any Allied aviators captured by those under his command should be treated well. He was even known to have dined with some.

Göring appointed Mölders as his first General der Jagdflieger (Inspector-General of Fighters) but Mölders’s life would soon come to an end, not in air combat but in a flying accident. On 22 November he was travelling to Berlin as a passenger in an He 111 when the aircraft encountered bad weather and suffered engine problems. As the pilot attempted to make an emergency landing the aircraft crashed and amongst those killed on board was Mölders; he was just twenty-eight years old. Werner Mölders was given a state funeral in Berlin the following week and buried at the Invalidenfriedhof, the traditional burial ground for distinguished Prussian military personnel, alongside Ernst Udet and Manfred von Richthofen. Göring gave the eulogy and amongst the guard of honour were some of the Luftwaffe’s finest, including Günther Lützow, Walter Oesau, Joachim Müncheberg and Adolf Galland, who would now succeed Mölders.

By the beginning of September 1941 the German Army was within touching distance of Kiev and was preparing for its supposed final assault on Leningrad, which commenced on 9 September. Within ten days the German forces were within a few miles of the city but progress thereafter was slow. Hitler ordered Leningrad to be placed under siege so that he could divert vital resources, particularly Panzers, to support his central push towards the strategic target of Moscow, which commenced on 2 October. The Red Army had been heavily depleted but still had 800,000 troops to defend Moscow and occupied a series of elaborate defence lines, which advancing German forces would first have to overcome.

Supporting the advancing troops on the ground had created problems in the air. Not only were the Jagdgeschwader at the end of a lengthening supply line, making it harder for the provision of fuel, ammunition and spares, but the amount of ground gained now meant the Luftwaffe had become thinly spread. There had also been an increasing number of 109s damaged or written off through accidents on the ground as a result of operating from poorly prepared airstrips or through pilot fatigue, and these losses were not always being replaced. Furthermore, resources were needed elsewhere, such as in the Mediterranean and North Africa, and this resulted in a dilution of effort for the Jagdwaffe at a time when the Red Air Force was becoming stronger by the day.

The Luftwaffe had now become overstretched and Hitler was racing against time. If his forces could not conquer the Soviet Union before the onset of winter then the Red war machine would be able to recover. It was also becoming evident how much the Luftwaffe lacked a strategic heavy bomber as its medium bombers did not have the range or capability to inflict significant damage further to the east. Soviet industry had been hit hard but it had not been destroyed. Too much time had been spent supporting the army groups on the ground instead of taking the opportunity to attack Soviet aircraft and tank factories within range of its twin-engine bombers, and so the Soviet engineers had been able to continue moving industrial machinery further east where it could be reassembled behind the safety of the Ural Mountains.

Nonetheless, the Luftwaffe had performed magnificently during Barbarossa. Many were recognized for their achievements during the campaign, including Günther Lützow, who, on 11 October, became only the fourth recipient of the Swords for his leadership of JG 3 and for his ninety-seven victories. He would become a centurion the following day with his final twenty-two victories up to that point coming in just seven days.

By December 1941 the campaign was already in its sixth month. The combination of conducting operations over a long period, often from inadequate Soviet airfields, and deteriorating weather conditions, with all the associated aircraft maintenance and logistical problems, was taking its toll. Temperatures had plummeted to –40 degrees and ground crew were having quickly to learn how to improvise cold-weather techniques, such as adding fuel to engine oil to thin the mixture so that it would not freeze and to light fires beneath aircraft engines at night to prevent them from freezing up.

Those units operating from former Soviet airfields were able to make best use of any hangar space available but, unlike the Russians, the Luftwaffe was neither equipped nor prepared for a winter campaign. The Jagdwaffe had lost 2,000 aircraft with many losses occurring as a result of the harsh operating conditions rather than due to the Soviet Air Force. While replacements were getting through in high numbers, serviceability was now proving a significant problem with less than 50 per cent of fighters being available at any one time.

As the winter weather set in, the ground offensive against Moscow slowed. The German Army was not equipped for a harsh winter campaign either and a Soviet counter-attack along the entire front during early December pushed the invaders back 200 miles. The situation was particularly desperate in the central region where the onset of winter had coincided with Kesselring’s Luftflotte 2 being transferred to the Mediterranean, leaving only Wolfram von Richthofen’s VIII. Fliegerkorps along the central part of the Eastern Front.

Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 cost its Army over 200,000 killed and missing with a further 600,000 wounded. Operation Barbarossa had been the largest military operation in history in both manpower and casualties but with Germany having suffered its heaviest losses of the war, it signalled the beginning of the end of the Third Reich. For its part, the Luftwaffe had fought and won the tactical air battle but it would now be engaged in a prolonged campaign on the Eastern Front that had become increasingly more strategic in nature. The Luftwaffe was unable to fight such a campaign.

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