Air Conflict – Stalingrad Part I

August began poorly for the powerful Sixth Army, heading across flat steppes in scorching heat towards Stalingrad. On the first of the month, Generaloberst Halder bitterly complained in his diary (as he had several times in the last two weeks): “Our attack can’t proceed because of fuel and ammunition shortages”. The following day, von Richthofen, whose air transport units relieved some of those shortages, noted in his own diary that Sixth Army sat “bogged down” in front of Stalingrad, partly because of stiff opposition but mainly because of acute logistical problems. Unlike the ever-pessimistic army chief, the latter remained confident, adding light-heartedly that “the enemy attempts to fling troops from every point of the compass into the Stalingrad sector. He’s hell-bent on holding the city. This means that, when the city falls, Stalin will have to sue for peace. Well, well!” He was not the only senior commander to believe that the fali of the city was the key to German success in the east. Three days earlier, Jodi had trumpeted (with a prophetic resonance that would later haunt him): “the fate of the Caucasus will be decided at Stalingrad”.

During the first weeks of August, Sixth Army advanced fitfully, frequently crippled by fuel and ammunition shortages. As noted earlier, von Richthofen did everything possible to improve the army’s supply situation. He requested the OKL to send additional Ju 52 groups, transferred north most of Pflugbeil’s (and his road transport companies), created a special Stalingrad “transport region”, and ordered immediate increases in transportation levels through intensified effort and improved procedures. The army undertook its own measures to improve its supply situation. The efforts of both service branches bore fruit, particularly those of the Luftwaffe, which continued flying forward large amounts of ammunition and provisions and smaller amounts of fuel (dangerous and difficult to airlift because of its flammability and huge volume). By the third week of August, Sixth Army began receiving sufficient supplies for it to carry out most of its missions without hardship.

Generalleutnant Fiebig’s Fliegerkorps VIII, meanwhile, provided the army with effective air support. It struck enemy troops, vehicles, guns and fortified positions on the battlefield, as well as logistics and mobilization centres and road, rail and river traffic behind the front. The guns of Genera/major Pickert’s 9th Flak Division smashed field fortifications and enemy vehicles and generally kept the airspace above Sixth Army free of the enemy fighters and Shturmoviks that frequently eluded Fiebig’s own fighters. The division’s actions did not pass unnoticed.

On 8 August Pickert personally received Paulus’ “praise … for the close co-operation between the army and the flak teams”. On 6 August, Hitler ordered von Richthofen to support Sixth Army’s renewed attack across the Don at Kalach, due to start the following day. The air chief immediately flew to Paulus’ command post, where he found the army commander “confident”, and then to Army Group B’s headquarters, where he found an equally-optimistic von Weichs furiously raging about the lethargic efforts of his Italian and Hungarian components. They discussed their plans for the coming weeks and carefully co-ordinated a joint Schwerpunkt at Kalach, which, the air leader noted in his diary, “we’re going to hit tomorrow with all our forces”.

Schwerpunktbildung-the creation of individual points of maximum effort-had not been possible throughout most of July, when widely-dispersed army formations advanced at different rates in different directions with different objectives. Moreover, von Richthofen lacked sufficient aircraft to concentrate substantial numbers in support of all those formations. Instead, he had to dissipate his forces by deploying smaller numbers alternately in support of various army efforts, sometimes in two or three separate regions at a time. Things were now different. His fleet was still divided-one air corps supported the drive to Stalingrad, the other the drive to the Caucasus oilfields-but at least he could create a single Schwerpunkt at the Kalach bridgehead for Fiebig’s entire close-support force.

Early on 7 August, Paulus’ Fourteenth and Twenty-Fourth Panzer Corps sliced into that bridgehead from north and south, their armoured vanguards receiving massive support from Fiebig’s air corps and elements of Pflugbeil’s, Late in the afternoon, the pincers clamped tight near the west bank of the Don, opposite Kalach, trapping the main body of the Soviet Sixty-Second Army. Joined by the Fifty-First Army Corps, the Panzer corps began methodically cleaning out the pocket. Hitler was ecstatic; he had envisaged a series of classic double envelopments like this when planning Blau, but this was the first encirclement of any significance actually accomplished so far. His booty was impressive, as von Richthofen privately noted on 10 August: “Fliegerkorps VIII finally clears out the Kalach pocket in conjunction with Sixth Army, capturing 50,000 prisoners and 1,100 tanks.”

Throughout this period, Fiebig’s dive bombers and ground attack units encountered steady, but rarely powerful, VVS opposition as they smashed troops, vehicles and field positions in the pocket. Bombers, escorted by fighters, also encountered little air opposition as they pounded trains and railway installations south of Stalingrad and airfields south” west of the city (claiming the destruction of 20 enemy aircraft on the ground on 10 August alone). General T. T. Khriukin’s Eighth Air Army had done all it could in recent weeks to stem the German advance, but its strength had been drastically reduced in savage air combat and its valiant efforts against Fiebig’s technically and numerically superior force achieved nothing. The Stavka dispatched a constant stream of reinforcements to Khriukin’s force-447 aircraft between 20 July and 17 August-but the vastly “outclassed and still” outnumbered Eighth Air Army failed to prevent a steady deterioration of the situation around beleaguered Stalingrad. In fact, the air army’s attrition rate ran almost as high as the reinforcement rate, so little improvement in strength occurred.

On 5 August, the Stavka substantially bolstered the VVS’s local strength when it split the Stalingrad Front into two separate commands: the Southeastern Front, supported by Eighth Air Army, and a new Stalingrad Front, supported by General P. S. Stepanov’s hastily formed Sixteenth Air Army. Both air armies received a steady flow of reinforcements, including Yak-1s, Yak 7-bs, Il-2s, Pe-2s and other newer models. However, most units arrived at the front well below strength. The 228th Shturmovik Air Division, for example, commenced combat operations with only one-third of its prescribed complement. Most units also arrived with inexperienced aircrew-no match for their German counterparts as well as poor logistical networks and dismal army-air communication and liaison systems. Prematurely assigned to frontline airfields, these units began reconnaissance and combat operations immediately. As a result, they suffered severe losses and failed to rob the Luftwaffe of its overwhelming air supremacy. For instance, if its daily reports are accurate, Fliegerkorps VIII suffered no losses as it destroyed 25 of the 26 Soviet aircraft that attacked German airfields on 12 August It destroyed 35 out of 45 the following day, again for no losses.

With much of the Soviet Sixty-Second Army now marching westwards into captivity, Paulus struck for Stalingrad. He did not choose the most direct route, due east from Kalach. That route was criss-crossed by deep gullies that would provide the enemy splendid defensive opportunities and frequently force tanks to make lengthy detours. Instead, the army commander decided to send his two Panzer corps to the “northeast corner” of the great Don bend, where they would establish bridgeheads for the advance on Stalingrad.

The loss of 50,000 troops and a thousand tanks, coupled with the collapse of the Kalach bulwark, which he prayed would hold back the rising Axis tide, threw Stalin into panic. He cast more reserves into the region and, on 13 August, placed both the Stalingrad and the Southeastern Fronts under the authority of one of his most trusted field commanders, Colonel-General Yeremenko. Directing the actions of two Fronts was, the latter once remarked, “an extremely heavy burden”, especially as it involved conducting operations through two deputies, two chiefs of staff and two staffs.

Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army, meanwhile, had made excellent progress in the last two weeks. Its drive northwards from the Caucasus brought its right-flank vanguards up to Abganerovo Station on the railway 70 kilometres south of Stalingrad. The VVS had unsuccessfully tried to blunt its advance by diverting the bulk of its combat forces south, but ‘frantically had to rush it back to the Don bend when Sixth Army began its attack across the Kletskaya-Peskovatka line on 15 August. In two days, Fourteenth and Twenty-Fourth Panzer Corps cleared the entire Don bend and Eighth Army Corps captured two small bridgeheads near Trekhostrovskaya, at the bend’s easternmost point. Unfortunately for Paulus, the marshy terrain in this sector proved unsuitable for tanks and Yeremenko threw First Guards Army into the battle. By 18 August, it had pushed divisions westwards across the Don and re-established a 35-kilometre-long bridgehead from Kremenskaya to Sirotinskaya.

Unwilling to waste time and suffer unnecessary losses in a prolonged contest for the Don bend, an uncharacteristically-daring Paulus thrust Fifty-First Army Corps across the Don towards Vertyachiy on 21 August. Although this attack left his left flank dangerously exposed, it succeeded brilliantly. Surprised by their enemy’s daring, the Soviet defenders fell back helplessly. By next morning, Fourteenth Panzer Corps’ tanks were rolling over two massive bridges thrown across the Don by German engineers.

These were favourable days for Fiebig’s Fliegerkorps VIII. It deployed most of its bombers against Black Sea ports and shipping and its powerful ground attack and dive bomber groups against the Soviet formations resisting both Paulus’ advance across the Don and Hoth’s drive on Stalingrad from the south. The air corps notched up excellent tallies of enemy aircraft: it claimed 139 victims in 3 days. It also inflicted heavy damage on enemy troops and armour contesting the battlefield. On 21 August, for instance, von Richthofen flew over the Don bend north of Kalach and found himself staring down at “extraordinarily many knocked-out tanks and dead [Russians]”. Later that day, Ju 88s of K. G. 76 massacred two reserve divisions caught in the open 150 kilometres east of Stalingrad, prompting the delighted air fleet commander to scrawl excitedly in his diary: “Blood flowed!” (Von Richthofen’s original text says “Blut gerühlt!’, not “beautiful bloodbath!” (toiles Blutbad) as both Williamson Murray and Richard Muller assert, basing their statements on the few subjectively-edited and frequently-inaccurate diary extracts found in the “Karlsruhe Collection”. Two days later-while Hoth’s Fourth Panzer Army barely moved in the south because of acute shortages of fuel and ammunition-General der Panzeltruppen von Wietersheim’s Fourteenth Panzer Corps surged across the land bridge between the Don and Volga rivers, reaching the latter in Stalingrad’s northern suburbs at 1600 hours. Generalleutnant Hans Hube’s 16th Panzer Division, the corps’ mailed fist, smashed more than thirty artillery batteries in those suburbs. The enemy gunfire was woefully inaccurate. After the one-armed Hube’s men closed in on the wrecked batteries, they learned why: the guns had been “manned” by hastily-deployed and totally-untrained civilians, mostly women, now lying dead in their blood-stained cotton dresses.

Von Wietersheim’s corps accomplished its remarkable advance (which deeply shocked the Soviet leadership) by moving up closely behind a deluge of shrapnel and high explosives rained down on enemy positions by Fliegerkorps VIII, now permanently reinforced by units stripped from Fliegerkorps IV. “Since early morning we were constantly over the Panzer Spearheads, helping them forward with our bombs and machine-guns,” recalled Hauptmann Herbert Pabst, commander of a Stuka squadron. “We landed, refuelled, received bombs and ammunition, and immediately took off again. It was ‘all go’ and splendid advances. As we took off, others landed. And so it went.” During 1,600 nonstop sorties, Fiebig’s units dropped 1,000 tons of bombs on the enemy troops and defensive positions in the corps’ advance path, destroying all opposition (as von Richthofen wrote, “totally paralyzing the Russians”). Apparently suffering only three losses the entire day (certainly not 90, as several post-war Soviet accounts absurdly maintain), they also ravaged VVS forces desperately trying to destroy Don crossings and halt von Wietersheim’s advance. They claimed 91 aircraft destroyed in what even the Soviets acknowledged were “fierce battles”.