Air Conflict – Stalingrad Part III

Stalin, meanwhile, also believed that the city would fall at any moment, unless he could organize an immediate counter-offensive. On 3 August, during the height of the Stalingrad blitz, he sent an urgent message to General Georgi Zhukov, who had arrived in the burning city only two days earlier to take over its seemingly-impossible defence. “The situation at Stalingrad has deteriorated further,” he told Zhukov, recently promoted to Soviet Deputy Supreme Commander. “The enemy stands two miles from the city. Stalingrad may fall today or tomorrow if the northern group of forces [First Guards, Twenty-Fourth and Sixty-Sixth Armies] does not give immediate assistance…. No delay can be tolerated. To delay now is tantamount to a crime. Throw all your airpower to the aid of Stalingrad.” Zhukov winced when he read his chief’s order, knowing that ammunition had not yet reached the armies ear-marked for the counter-offensive. He immediately telephoned Stalin, stating that he would indeed attack, but could not do so until 5 September, by which time sufficient ammunition should have arrived and effective inter service co-operation would be arranged. In the meantime, he added, he would order his air forces to pound the Axis troops with all their strength. Stalin reluctantly agreed, but insisted that “if the enemy begins a general offensive against the city, attack immediately. Do not wait for the troops to be completely ready. Your main job is to keep the Germans from taking Stalingrad and, if possible, to eliminate the German corridor separating the Stalingrad and Southeast fronts.”

After a day of small gains by Paulus’ army, Zhukov’s counter-offensive north of Stalingrad started at dawn on 5 September. First Guards, Twenty-Fourth and Sixty-Sixth Armies drove forward after a joint air and artillery barrage. The barrage was too weak to damage German forces substantially or even pin them down for long. Zhukov watched the action from an observation post at the front, and “could tell from the enemy’s counterfire that our artillery bombardment had not been effective and that no deep penetration by our forces was to be expected”. Indeed, within two hours the already-disappointed Soviet commander learned from combat reports that German troops had thrown back their advance and were themselves counter-attacking with infantry and armour. Zhukov’s only consolation was that he had forced Paulus to cancel a major thrust into the city planned for that day and divert forces north to hold back the Soviet advance. Although still disappointed by his army’s poor showing that day, Stalin was also consoled by this news. The diversion of German forces gave his armies time to strengthen the city’s inner defensive positions.

Throughout 5 September, Fliegerkorps VIII’s bombers and dive-bombers inflicted heavy losses on Soviet troops and armour. That night, Hauptmann Pabst described in his diary the operations of his Stuka squadron: “The Russians throw in everything. Always masses of huge tanks. Then we come, circle, search and dive. They camouflage their tanks fabulously, digging them in to protect them from blasts, sparing no effort. But we find and smash most of them.” The Luftwaffe certainly contributed significantly to Axis defensive battles that day, as the German Naval Staff’s war diary testifies: “Massed enemy attacks from the north, which were launched after an intensive artillery barrage, were dispersed with the assistance of strong air forces formations.” Similarly, Zhukov informed Stalin that when his troops attacked, “the enemy was able to stop them with his fire and counter-attacks. In addition, enemy planes had superiority in the air and bombed our positions all day.” That night, Soviet air units managed partially to restore their pride, bombing Axis positions along the front. Combat groups of the still-understrength Eighth and Sixteenth Air Armies carried out the bulk of these missions. They were joined on many attacks by bombers of Lieutenant-General Golovanov’s long-range bombing force, divisions of which had been operating in the Stalingrad region since mid-August.

For the next five days or so, intense fighting continued around Stalingrad, with both sides suffering heavy losses for slight Axis gains. Only on 10 September did Hoth’s Panzers manage to drive a wedge between Sixty-Second and Sixty-Fourth Armies, tighten the noose around the city and isolate Sixty-Second Army inside the suburbs. Hoth immediately ordered General der Panzertruppen Werner Kempf, commander of the Forty Eighth Panzer Corps, to bulldoze into the southern suburbs the following day, taking them “piece by piece”. Now disgusted again by the army’s failure to exploit recent opportunities or quicken the offensive’s tempo, the exasperated von Richthofen complained in his diary of the city’s “slow strangulation”. Even when German troops finally entered the city on 13 September and began clearing it street by street, the air chief remained unhappy. In the last days of August, he claimed (rightly so, in the present writer’s opinion), Fourth Panzer and Sixth Armies had blown their chance of encircling the Soviet Sixty-Second and Sixty-Fourth Armies in the city’s outer defensive zones; instead, they permitted those enemy formations to withdraw into the ruined suburbs, where the former had since fought fanatically for every street (having been isolated from the latter, the remnants of which fought south of the city). To capture Stalingrad was now going to take a great deal of time and cost many lives, and the inevitable close proximity of opposing forces was already making air attacks extremely difficult.

This appalling situation resulted from weak and indecisive army leadership, von Richthofen ranted to anyone who would listen. On 13 September, he even phoned Goring to demand that one single army commander take over the Stalingrad sector, and he did not mean the “uninspiring” Paulus. Three days later, by which time only a few small regions of the city had been cleared in bitter fighting for high losses, the fleet chief vented his anger in his diary: “The ‘combing’ of Stalingrad is progressing very slowly, despite the fact that the enemy is weak and in no shape for hard fighting. This is because our own troops are few in number, lack fighting spirit and their commanders’ thoughts are elsewhere.” Army leaders simply fail to drive their troops hard enough, even though the capture of a major objective is tantalizingly close. Doubtless comparing von Weichs’, Hoth’s and Paulus’ bland and cautious leadership styles to his own-aggressive and daring to the point of recklessness-he added harshly: “From the highest levels down, attempts at motivation are only theoretical and, as a result, totally ineffective. The generals merely issue orders, but lead neither by example nor by any rousing actions whatsoever.”

Believing that he had to practice what he preached, von Richthofen also demanded more aggression from Fliegerkorps VIII, telling Fiebig that he had not deployed his corps “actively or flexibly enough” in recent weeks. Not only had operations “lacked focus and zeal”, but the corps had yet to overcome several major supply difficulties.” The fleet chief then issued what he called “some really sharp orders,” and explained to Fiebig the reason for his unhappiness: the army’s poor performance at Stalingrad, which naturally influenced the Luftwaffe’s ability to make a decisive impact on the battle. “Because the army is a lame duck,” he said, “we can do little ourselves.” If everyone would only operate more aggressively, Stalingrad would fall in two days.

Fiebig’s corps-indeed, the entire fleet-had performed as well as could be expected in recent weeks, given its logistical difficulties, limited resources, mounting attrition rate, vast combat zone and wide range of tasks. Still, von Richthofen was right; the Luftwaffe’s performance had dropped. Between 5 and 12 September, for instance, Luftflotte IV conducted 7,507 sorties (an average of 938 per day). When Blau had commenced almost three months earlier, the fleet was conducting around 10,750 in the same number of days (a daily average of 1,343). The main reasons for this substantial operational decrease were a quicker-than-expected consumption of reserves stocks of spare parts and equipment, supply difficulties and high attrition rates. When Blau began, the fleet possessed approximately 1,600 aircraft, of which over 1,150 were operational. After 11 weeks of non-stop operations, with insufficient replacement aircraft and spare parts arriving at forward airfields, it now possessed about 950 planes, a mere 550 of them operational. That is, the fleet’s total strength had decreased by 40 per cent and its operational rate by 14 per cent (from 71 to 57). Its bomber fleet had been hardest hit, mainly due to VVS fighter attacks and a lack of engine parts (naturally, twin-engined aircraft need more spares than single-engined). Back in June, the air fleet had 480 bombers, 323 of which were operational. On 20 September, it had no more than 232, only 129 of them air worthy.

Despite Luftflotte IV’s plummeting strength and Hitler’s craving for victory at Stalingrad and in the Caucasus, the OKL made no large-scale aircraft transfers from the other, supposedly-“quiet” sectors of the eastern front (at least not before the Soviet counter offensive in November). When Blau began, Luftflotte IV possessed 60 per cent of all German aircraft in the Soviet Union. On 20 September, after 11 weeks of combat, its dramatic drop in strength left it operating in the “decisive” sector with only 38 per cent of all aircraft in the east. The OKL was unable to transfer units south to adjust the ratio in Luftflotte IV’s favour because strong air forces were also sorely needed in the “quiet’ central and northern sectors of the front. Constant Soviet probing attacks and attempted offensives in those sectors kept local Luftwaffe forces extremely busy. When critical situations arose, groups-sometimes whole wings-were hastily shifted between the commands in those regions. For example, when a Soviet attack in the far north threatened to hack off the German “bottle-neck” south of Leningrad late in August, Luftwaffenkommando Ost (operating in Army Group Centre’s combat zone) dispatched two bomber groups, a Stuka group and a fighter group to Luftflotte I. Accordingly, although the only major Axis offensive operations in the Soviet Union took place at Stalingrad and in the Caucasus, the OKL could not draw reinforcements for the rapidly shrinking Luftflotte IV from the other two combat sectors, where air commands were hard pressed to fulfil their defensive duties. Whereas the Luftwaffe’s strength in southern Russia was quickly decreasing, the VVS’s strength increased at a slow but steady pace. The Soviet improvements resulted from greater numbers of aircraft and crew replacements and diminishing kill levels by German fighters. (On General Rudenko’s wise instructions, Soviet fighter pilots avoided duelling with their German counterparts, attacking bombers and reconnaissance planes instead). According to German records, the VVS air armies in LuftfJotte IV’s immense combat zone carried out only 2,834 sorties between 5 and 12 September, or an average of 354 per day (compared to the German fleet’s poor total of 7,507 and daily average of 938). Between 16 and 25 September, though, those air armies carried out 4,589 sorties, or 458 per day. This operational increase of 30 per cent did not, of course, even remotely challenge the Luftwaffe’s air superiority. In the same period, the German fleet carried out twice as many sorties (9,746 in total). Yet it was the start of an operational increase that would continue steadily for several more months until the VVS was, in fact, able to challenge the Luftwaffe for its command of the skies over Stalingrad.