Normandie Groupe Air War: Kursk II

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The battle for Kursk had taken a massive toll of German men and armour. With the best part of 3,000 tanks destroyed and reserves now depleted, Hitler was forced to order a halt to the offensive. The enemy started pulling troops and equipment out of the salient. It appeared that the Wehrmacht needed to redeploy troops and tanks to Italy. As the Allies had just landed in Sicily, Italy was going to become another front, forcing Hitler to deploy his extended forces. During the last days of the battle a train-load of German reserve tanks including some Tigers arrived straight from the factories to reinforce the crumbling front line, but this much-needed delivery was caught while it was being unloaded from flat railway wagons. Soviet bombers found and destroyed them before they could even leave the railhead.

Hitler’s gamble of a pincer movement around the Soviet forces at Orel and Kursk had failed and, with his dwindling reserves of heavy armour now further depleted, Hitler had no option but to end the battle and withdraw. This failed operation had lost so many tanks that factory production, suffering from Allied bombing and material shortages, would never again be able to catch up with operational needs. Although the Soviets lost about the same number of T-34 tanks, the Soviet factories were in full production and, not suffering from air attacks, made up the losses within six weeks. The destruction of German tanks had become such an important objective for Red Army tank crews that drastic measures were taken to achieve this end. Some individual tank crews, out of ammunition or with guns disabled, would ram the tracks off German panzers; they would do anything to stop the German tanks advancing. Here again Red Army foot soldiers took heroic risks to destroy the advancing enemy tanks. At the Anniversary Victory celebrations in Red Square in June 1985, Viktor Kanoyev reminisced, his story reflecting the heroic determination of the ordinary Red Army soldier during those crucial days. While Kanoyev was serving in the defence of Stalingrad, he used a desperate method of dealing with advancing German tanks when anti-tank guns or ammunition were not available. Placing himself squarely in front of an approaching tank in a crouching position, at the last moment he threw himself on his back between the two massive tracks, and as the tank passed over he attached a heavy limpet mine to the underside; a few yards further on the tank blew up. He repeated the same procedure on a second tank. His commander awarded Kanoyev the Order of the Patriotic War 1st class. He was wearing that same decoration forty years later at the soldiers’ tomb beside the walls of the Kremlin.

On 14 July at 7.30 a.m. a parade took place on the base in honour of the national day. French and Soviet personnel were gathered together in a clearing beside the landing strip. Paul de Forges read a fine order of the day from Commander Tulasne. Because of Normandie’s busy activity during the Orel offensive, the simple ceremony lasted only 10 minutes; on this day the tricolour flew over this little corner of French soil. The new dining room was inaugurated and, thanks to Aspirant Corot, the menu was varied and copious. In the afternoon seven Yaks commanded by Pouyade left to fly escort protection for Stormoviks that were going to attack enemy troop concentrations in the Balkov region. Four Bf-110s that were covering the enemy positions were immediately attacked by Pouyade, Préziosi, Béguin, de Tedesco and Albert. As a result two Bf-110s were shot down, one jointly by Pouyade and Béguin, the other by Albert; these two victories were confirmed by Red Army troops on the ground. Lieutenant de Tedesco did not return from the mission. A Yak-9 was seen by Albert to dive towards the ground trailing smoke, but searches in the area have so far not had any positive results. All the Stormoviks returned safely to base.

Castelain (Littolff’s winger) was attacked by three Fw-190s and was separated from his patrol chief. He assaulted an Fw-190 that spiralled upwards into the tail of an unknown Yak, whereupon it was fired on and exploded in a ball of flames. Castelain also attacked a Ju-87, part of a formation that was bombing Soviet troops. Castelain had to break off the engagement as he was very low on fuel, and was forced to land some distance away from the strip. He was collected and returned to base in the much-used U-2 liaison aircraft. Thus on 14 July Normandie honoured France with three certain victories and twenty-five combat sorties. Unfortunately, on this festive evening Lieutenant de Tedesco was not among his comrades; his gaiety and spirit were missed. General Zakharov, Commander of 303rd Air Division, together with about twenty Soviet officers were invited to dinner. During the evening Zakharov read a telegram of congratulations from General Gromoff, Commander of the Soviet First Aerial Army, addressed to the Normandie Groupe.

The next day, during late afternoon, eight Yaks commanded by Durand flew protecting escort with six Il-2s in the Krasnikovo region. The Stormoviks attacked convoys of armour and mixed vehicles travelling along roads heading for the Orel front, also hitting some that were returning. There was no sign of any enemy aircraft. At 7 p.m. eight Yaks commanded by Tulasne accompanied Stormoviks to the Balkov region, north of Krasnikovo. On arrival at the target the Stormoviks were attacked by two Bf-110s coming in from the front at low altitude. Tulasne and de Forges dived at them and opened fire. The Bf-110 attacked by de Forges left his mate while trailing smoke; the commandant pursued the second, which was hedge-hopping, for about 10 minutes until finally it landed on its belly in a cloud of smoke and dust some 4km north-east of Orel. All the Yaks and Il-2s returned safely to base.

At 10 a.m. on 16 July, twelve Yaks left on a covering mission for troops on the ground in the Krasnikovo region. Three Bf-110s were spotted and attacked by Littolff and Castelain; Littolff shot down one, which landed on its belly. Castelain assaulted the second several times; the Bf-110 was hit and crashed to the ground in multiple pieces. During this time Pouyade, Préziosi, Béguin, Durand, Risso and Vermeil attacked a Fw-189 as it bombed Soviet troops. The assault of the six Yaks continued for quite a while and finally the Fw-189 was shot down, as confirmed by the troops in the area. All the fighters returned without having been hit. At 2 p.m. eight Yaks commanded by Tulasne left on a covering mission in the Krasnikovo area. On arrival in the region they noticed a group of fifteen Ju-87s heading for Krasnikovo. The Littolff, Castelain and Léon patrol, with the sun behind it in a classic attack mode, fired into the last group of the Ju-87s; the Pouyade and Bernavon patrol also attacked the Ju-87s; the Tulasne and Albert patrol stayed alert as protection at a higher altitude. The Littolff and Castelain patrol was attacked by three Fw-190s and three others made a strike on Léon, who turned in time and brought one down in a shower of sparks and flames. Léon was drawn upwards by the two remaining Fw-190s and found four Fw-190s awaiting him. He escaped by diving and returned towards Soviet lines by hedge-hopping, pursued closely by the four enemy fighters, which attacked him in turn. In the course of these assaults Léon succeeded in shooting down his second Fw-190 in the same sortie and returned safely to ground. On landing the groundcrew pronounced his aircraft a real mess, having been hit by so many bullets.

In his strike on the Ju-87s Pouyade shot one down in flames and was in turn attacked by an Fw-190, but although damaged he escaped by diving and was forced to make a heavy landing. At the moment when the Littolff– Pouyade and Tulasne–Albert patrols attacked the Ju-87s, they were in turn attacked by two Fw-190s coming from below. Tulasne climbed fast towards the sun and shot one of the Fw-190s down in flames. Attacked once again, he dived towards the ground and assaulted another Fw-189, without obvious results. Finally on his return he met four Fw-190s, attacked one without observing any results, and returned to the ground. In the course of these battles de Forges, now isolated, met two Bf-109s; he fired on one of them, which seemed to have sustained damaged. Littolff, Castelain and Bernavon did not return. Searches the next day did not disclose to the Groupe its comrades’ fate. The battle for Orel was increasing Normandie’s total of victories and also its casualties, which mounted day by day.

At 5 a.m. the following day, 17 July, nineteen Yaks took off to escort and protect nine Pe-2 bombers, which were part of a group of thirty-six bombers and thirty-eight fighters whose target was the railway station at Biela–Berega on the railway line from Briansk to Orel. The bombing of heavy armour moving along the railway to the Orel front was very successful; the bombs hit the loaded flat railway wagons. During this mission fifteen Bf-110s were spotted but for some reason did not intervene. Tulasne attacked one of them without obvious results. The anti-aircraft fire defending the rail target area was very heavy, but all the aircraft returned safely. At 8.40 a.m. ten Yaks left on a covering mission for troops in the Iagodnaia and Krasnikovo region. An engagement took place with some Fw-190s. Albert fired on three and shot one down in a ball of flames. All the fighters returned safely. At 1 p.m. ten Yaks executed a new sorties to protect heavily pressed Soviet ground forces. No enemy aircraft were encountered during this action.

At 5.10 p.m. nine Yaks took off to accompany Stormoviks in the Znamenskaia sector; these ground assault aircraft were ordered to attack lines of vehicles on the road from Boloto to Orel. Léon was attacked by two Fw-190s that he succeeded in escaping. Albert and Préziosi came to his aid, shooting down one Fw-190; Aspirant Bon attacked an Fw-190 without apparent results. At the moment when the Fw-190 appeared, Tulasne was seen for the last time gaining altitude; thereafter no information reached the Groupe about his fate. The patrol of Béguin and Vermeil, providing protection of the rear, was attacked by six Fw-190s. At the first burst of gunfire Béguin’s plane received a shell in a wing near the fuselage and another in the horizontal tail fin. Wounded by a shell splinter in his thigh, Béguin manoeuvred and succeeded in firing a burst of gunfire for two seconds at an Fw-190 from 50m behind. He was attacked again and, despite receiving a shell in the engine, returned by hedge-hopping. As he made his way back, in pain from the shell splinter, he was amazed at the sight of the massive Orel tank engagement taking place below him. Because of severe damage to his aircraft he was forced to fly at only 40 feet above the battlefield. His mind was briefly taken off the pain of his injury as he became aware that the ground below him was covered as far as the eye could see with the black shapes of endless German tanks, each followed by clouds of smoke and dust, yet not one of the many enemy guns only feet beneath seemed interested in his failing Yak. As he made his way further forward another spectacular sight presented itself: the German tanks were being engaged head-on by what seemed like several hundred Soviet T-34 tanks, all moving forward at speed through a blue haze of smoke, heading for the advancing enemy panzers. With his aircraft badly damaged and losing height, Béguin at last gained friendly lines but was forced to land his Yak just behind the Soviet advance. His damaged engine had forced him to fly so low over the battlefield that he probably had one of the best close-up sightings of this massive historic tank battle ever recorded.

Vermeil, lost from sight at the start of the battle, did not return and there was no news of him. At the time of these hectic aerial battles, Normandie was facing about thirty Fw-190s in this sector.

Commandant Pierre Pouyade, known in the Regiment as ‘Pepito’, had luck on his side when he survived a crash landing on the evening of 16 July 1943. After his aircraft had been badly damaged in the engagement he was forced to put down on very rough land. In the five days of furious action at Orel and Kursk, with 112 sorties carried out, six of the Groupe had been lost or killed: Commandant Tulasne, Capitaine Littolff, Lieutenant de Tedesco, Sous-lieutenant Castelain, Sous-lieutenant Bernavon and Aspirant Vermeil. Every day the Groupe hoped to hear news of them but, alas, no information about what had happened to the missing pilots was forthcoming. The Normandie victories included 9 Bf-110s, 6 Fw-190s, 1 Fw-189, and 1 Ju-87; of the 109 enemy aircraft entered in the log as damaged some would later be confirmed by Soviet ground forces as destroyed. These victories cost the Groupe dear, with six Normandie pilots missing in action during the first five days of the Orel–Kursk battle.

At 7.50 a.m. on 19 July seven Yaks commanded by Pouyade executed a covering mission for advancing troops in the Krasnikovo region; no enemy aircraft were encountered. At 12.30 p.m. six Yaks commanded by Albert once again left on a covering mission. Two Ju-88s were encountered; immediately Léon, de Forges. Albert, Risso and Bon attacked, one twin-engine Ju-88 burst into a cloud of smoke and flames before diving towards the ground, and crashed in a dramatic fireball. Troops watching the engagement from their positions confirmed the result. This was entered in the diary as the thirtieth victory for the Normandie Groupe on the Eastern Front. The next day General Zakharov, Commander of the 303rd Division, ordered Pouyade not to execute any battle missions without his direct authorisation for a period that was to be dedicated to rest and training.

Everyone was pleased to see Roland de La Poype return to the Groupe on 28 July. At 1 p.m. seven Yaks commanded by Albert took off to cover troops on the ground some 20km north-east of Karachev; no enemy aircraft were encountered. At 3.45 p.m. six Yaks once again commanded by Albert executed a similar mission, but this time a group of 30 Ju-87s protected by about six Fw-190s was encountered. A whirling battle began, in the course of which Albert, Durand, Risso and Mathis fired on the Fw-190s. No obvious results were confirmed. Préziosi was lost from view in the battle and did not return; there was no news of his fate. In the afternoon Lefèvre returned from Moscow, bringing with him Aspirant Largeau, a new pilot for the Groupe.

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