Normandie Groupe Air War: Kursk I

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Wishing to avenge the defeat at Stalingrad and at the same time show the German nation that its armies could triumph over the Communist hordes, Hitler ordered the German High Command (OKW) to prepare an attack against the Kursk salient, an operation that would carry the code name ‘Citadel’. With orders to go back on the offensive the German Army started a massive build-up of men and matériel in the Kursk region in preparation for a major pincer attack against Soviet positions in the Kursk and Orel salient. Soviet intelligence had already gained information from its ‘Lucy’ spy ring, a group of Soviet spies operating from Switzerland. They had informed Stalin that the Kursk operation Citadel was planned to take place between 3 and 6 July. Then on 4 July 1943 a reluctant Yugoslav draftee from the German Army deserted to the Russian lines and informed his Russian interrogators that a massive German attack was due for the next day (5 July) at 2 a.m. He also identified the location where the main armoured force was gathering for the big thrust forward. The Soviet Army, already well prepared, now knew the actual time and place where the main enemy attack would start.

The German offensive in the Kursk salient would be the last major tank battle of the Second World War. It was to be the largest clash of armour ever to take place; it has been described as the biggest land battle in history. At the start of the battle the German forces consisted of 900,000 men, 2,700 tanks and 1,800 aircraft. The Soviets had over 1 million men, 3,300 tanks and over 2,000 aircraft. Both sides would send in heavy reinforcements as the battle progressed; in one instance a German train full of new factory-delivered tanks was caught by the Soviet Air Force and destroyed before its cargo could be unloaded. It was here the new Ferdinands, heavy-calibre guns mounted on massive tank chassis, would be given their baptism of fire. As well, the updated Tiger tanks would be deployed for the first time in large numbers; over 100 would go into action at Kursk. The Soviets deployed the new Yak-9T attack aircraft, which were to prove that the Red Air Force had yet another superb aircraft, this time with a heavy-hitting 37mm cannon firing through the aircraft’s nose cone.

By 7 July the Germans had penetrated about 7 miles. Then after a long dry period the rain started to fall during the battle fought at Prokhorovka, where the Germans lost 400 tanks and 10,000 men in one day. Guderian, the German general, watching from his command vehicle, remarked that he could see the Soviet T-34 tanks streaming like rats over the battlefield in numbers that were simply overwhelming. Another black day for the enemy was 10 July, when the Germans lost 200 tanks and over 25,000 infantry killed. The Kursk battle continued with unabated ferocity. On 12 July the Soviets launched a counter-offensive in the north on the right flank against Orel where they were facing Model’s 9th Army with 3rd Panzer Corps and numerous infantry divisions. To the south of Kursk, Hoth’s 4th Panzer Army, which included Hausser’s SS Panzer Corps, was heavily engaged. It was near the town of Prokhorovka that a further 400 German tanks were destroyed during this desperate and determined clash with Soviet armour. Overhead the battle for control of the sky had become an important part of the overall conflict. Just as the ground battle below was being determined by the numerical might of the Soviet’s heavy armour, so the aerial combat strength of the Soviet Air Force was proving to be a decisive factor as the Soviets sent in mission after mission of bombers against the German tanks and massed infantry forces. Soviet covering fighters stormed in against the attacking Bf-109s and Fw-190s; the enemy had put up a massive aerial protective shield to assist their advancing ground forces. It has been estimated that 65 per cent of the Luftwaffe in Russia were involved in the Kursk battle, but what turned out to be the real disaster for the enemy was that 70 per cent of his tank forces on the Eastern Front were now engaged in this greatest of all land battles.

The Soviet Air Force was determined to defeat the enemy and win control of the sky over the battle area of Kursk and Orel. This it did, in the process destroying over 200 Luftwaffe aircraft on 10 July alone. During combat missions flown over the battle region, Normandie was constantly involved in escorting and protecting Pe-2 and Il-2 bombers. These heavily armoured aircraft had orders to attack the German forces around the Orel salient, where Model’s 9th Army was leading the attack in this northern sector. In the course of these covering missions Normandie was continually in combat with large groups of German fighters over the whole Northern Front. Normandie’s aggressive and successful fighting abilities were to prove second to none, although the price paid was high, with six pilots lost in combat during the Orel campaign. Kursk was a terrible and wasteful defeat for the Germans; their entire tank reserves were spent in this futile battle. Their tank production was never to make good these massive losses. The Soviets claimed 70,000 German dead and the destruction of 3,000 enemy tanks. The Soviet tank losses were equally heavy, but Soviet factory production was geared to replace them. The Germans claimed they had destroyed 1,800 Russian tanks in the southern sector alone.

At the end of the battle the Soviet forces had captured more ground and were poised to advance into the Ukraine. By 6 August they had liberated Bielgorod. On the 23rd the city of Kharkov was liberated. The Normandie Groupe was mentioned in the Soviet ‘Orders of the Day’ for its successful part in this momentous battle. For its contribution to the victory, Normandie gained the battle honour orel, an honour title that would now appear on its regimental colours.

AERIAL RAMMING OF ENEMY AIRCRAFT

It was at this time that the French pilots started to hear of startlingly heroic actions undertaken by individual Soviet pilots during the air battles above Kursk. A new form of ferocious aerial combat was taking place that involved ramming enemy aircraft. The main aim was to slice the tail off the German aircraft with the propeller, a procedure that was to be known as the ‘falcon or taran attack’ (sokolnyjudar). All Soviet air regiments kept a record of these heroic and drastic events. During the Kursk campaign, which lasted eight weeks, aerial ramming of German aircraft was successfully carried out on forty-seven occasions. If the ‘falcon’ ramming attack was executed at sufficient altitude, there was always a chance for the Soviet pilot to parachute to safety. Of the forty-seven successful falcon attacks during the Kursk campaign, fifteen of the pilots did actually get their aircraft back or made forced landings, and nine managed to parachute to safety, but records show that twenty-three pilots were killed after these dramatic engagements. This form of aerial attack was not new to Russian aviation; in 1915 Kapitan Pyotr Nesterov rammed the German aircraft flown by Baron von Rosenthal, both pilots dying in this falcon attack.

The Soviet statistics for these heroic attacks are quite staggering: 595 confirmed falcon attacks took place during the Second World War: 558 by fighters, 19 by Il-2s (Stormoviks) and 18 by Pe-2 bombers. One Soviet ace of twenty-eight victories, pilot B. Kovzan, was the leading exponent of this feat; he had accomplished no fewer than four successful taran attacks. On his last ramming he lost his left eye, but after surgery and recovery he went back on combat missions to claim a further six German aircraft destroyed, shooting them down in traditional combat. Records confirm that two pilots each performed three successful taran attacks, and thirty-four pilots accomplished this form of deadly attack twice. Some of these rammings took place after guns had jammed or ammunition had run out; the frustration caused in the heat of the moment could lead to these heroic last-ditch actions. Eventually this form of suicidal attack was forbidden by direct orders from Stalin. In 1994 the Russian Federation struck a Nesterov medal to be awarded to Air Force personnel for exceptional service; on the obverse of the medal is the portrait of Kapitan Nesterov.

NORMANDIE’S INVOLVEMENT IN THE OREL OFFENSIVE

The Normandie Squadron Diary written at the time tells that from 10 July, starting at 10 p.m., an artillery bombardment of great violence was unleashed on the Orel front; bombers passed over all night long and the sky was illuminated by large explosions and flares. Artillery bombardments lasted all the next day and the following night; explosions formed a continuous rumbling. A truly big offensive was under way. At 8 a.m. on 12 July Normandie sent up fourteen Yaks; they were split into two groups and accompanied eighteen Pe-2 bombers, while a further 28 Pe-2s joined the mission, which was to bomb positions just a few kilometres behind enemy lines. The pilots reported that the anti-aircraft fire was still very heavy and German lines were hidden under a cloud of smoke. From the Soviet side of the lines Normandie pilots saw dozens of artillery blasts occurring at the same time. At the first passage of the bombers the anti-aircraft fire was very violent as the armoured Stormoviks, which were flying at low altitude, attacked the enemy batteries; at the second passage the Pe-2s found that the anti-aircraft fire was now much weaker. All the aircraft returned without having been hit. Enemy fighters did not intervene. Towards noon, shortly after the Pe-2s’ attack, artillery fire ceased and the Soviet counter-attack with tanks and infantry was unleashed. As the tanks rolled forward they were covered with Red Army soldiers, who clung to any hand grip available around the tanks’ turrets.

During the Orel offensive on 12 July, a German fighter pilot, who appeared to be suffering from exhaustion and combat fatigue, came in to land and surrendered his Fw-190, which was in perfect condition. This small drama took place on the landing strip immediately next to Normandie, whose French pilots on the strip at the time were amazed by the unexpected visitor. Later, those who were interested in the German Fw-190 went over to examine the enemy aircraft closely. Early that evening the same Fw-190 was taken up and flown by an experienced Soviet pilot, who executed combat exercises in company with two Yak-9s flown by pilots of the 18th Guards Air Regiment serving on the strip next to Normandie. On 31 July this same German Fw-190 was extensively comparison-tested against a Yak-9 at Katiounka.

In the evening Normandie sent up fifteen more Yaks to accompany ten Il-2s that were heading for the bridge at Tsin, which was being used by scores of German tanks and heavy equipment moving into action. This important objective was covered and defended by about twenty-four Bf-110s forming two defensive circles, one above the other, and circling in opposite directions. The Bf-110s got ready to attack the Stormoviks but the Yaks attacked first and forced the enemy to break the circle, after which the Bf-110s became vulnerable. And so it was that Littolff, Castelain and Durand each shot down a Bf-110. The Normandie pilots observed the Stormoviks successfully attacking enemy troop concentrations in and on the edge of the woods. All the Il-2s and Yaks returned to base safely. On 12 July the Red Army claimed that more than 300 German tanks had been destroyed during the day, and Normandie was told the Soviet counter-attack was going to continue throughout the night.

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