During the early part of 1941, first in a trickle and then, in May, a flood, the bulk of the Luftwaffe – with the exception of a few combat units, notably Kampfgeschwader 40 with its Condors and two Jagdgeschwader left in France – moved east in preparation for the attack on Russia. The force was scheduled to return to France to renew the attack upon Britain about six weeks after the beginning of the offensive in the east – Hitler’s estimate of how long he expected the Russians to be able to hold out. In the event, when the bombers did return to France, it was as only a shadow of their former strength.
So ended the three-phased attack calculated to knock Britain out of the war. First, there had been the attempt to wipe out the Royal Air Force and so leave the nation defenceless to attack from the air. Then when that failed the Germans had tried by break the will of the British people by day (the second phase) and night (the third phase) attacks on centres of population. That failed too. And the whole time the Luftwaffe and the steadily expanding U-boat arm strove to sever Britain’s umbilical chord – the shipping which brought in her vitally needed foodstuffs, raw materials, and armaments from the USA and the Empire. The British had taken the measure of the Condors; it was to take somewhat longer to master the U-boat threat but this, too, was done.
To what extent can the Battle of Britain be considered to be a turning point of the war? Certainly it did not mark the beginning of the end of the Luftwaffe, for that force continued in being and was still to achieve triumphs as great as any it had gained during the first year of the war. But what was significant was that for the first time the main body of the Luftwaffe had been committed and had failed; the force was trained and equipped as a tactical air arm, and when it was used as a strategic weapon it was almost bound to fail. And in the process it suffered severe losses in aircraft and – far worse – trained men. The myth of the invincibility of the Luftwaffe had been exploded for ever.
The Germans, and Hitler in particular, had long regarded the Russians as a latent source of danger. And inspite of the non-aggression pact which existed between the two nations, there was little trust between them. The Russian advances westwards since 1939, when they had occupied the whole of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, and also parts of Poland, Rumania and Finland, served to confirm Hitler’s belief that sooner or later Germany was bound to find herself at war with Russia.
Between 1939 and May 1941 the strength of the Russian army had increased from sixty-five to 158 divisions, and the majority of these were located along her western frontier. Ostensibly these forces were manning defensive positions; nevertheless, they were regarded in Germany as an implied threat. Also during this period, the Russian armed forces had been undergoing an extensive reequipment programme, while the General Staff was at last recovering from the drastic thinning of its ranks suffered during Stalin’s savage purge in 1938.
Whether or not the Russians really did intend to invade Germany will not be known for certain. What matters is that Hitler thought that sooner or later they were going to attack, and thus resolved to get his blow in first.
It was at the end of July 1940, after the end of the campaign in France but well before the opening of the Battle of Britain, that Hitler had first ordered planning to begin for the attack on Russia. By the middle of November 1940 the operational planning staffs of the Luftwaffe had started on detailed studies. Meanwhile air force works units were engaged in bringing the relatively primitive airfields in occupied Poland up to German standards for all- weather operations.
At this time Göring tried his hardest to turn Hitler away from his chosen course. On one occasion the Luftwaffe commander is recorded as saying: `My Führer, the ultimate decision is yours to make. May God guide you and help you to prove that you are correct in the face of this opposition! I, myself, am forced to oppose your viewpoint on this matter. May God protect you! But please remember that it will not be my fault if I cannot carry out our plans for the expansion of the Luftwaffe.’ Hitler replied: `You will be able to continue operations against England in six weeks.’ Then Göring pointed out: `The Luftwaffe is the only branch of the German armed forces that has not had a breathing space since the beginning of the war. I said at the beginning of the war that I was going into battle with my training units, and now they have all been used . . . I am not at all certain that you can defeat Russia in six weeks. The ground forces cannot fight any more with¬ out Luftwaffe support. They are always screaming for the Luftwaffe. There is nothing that I should like better than that you are proven right. But, frankly, I doubt that you will be.’
Göring’s impassioned appeals were in vain; the Führer refused to be swayed. Had not a few brave but ill- equipped Finns come near to defeating the Russians during the Winter War of 1939?
At first the invasion of Russia was to have had the code-name `Fritz’; later this was changed to `Barbarossa’, after the crusading Germanic Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. The attack was to have opened early in May 1941, but the unusually late thaw that year resulted in a `mud season’ which lasted until the end of that month. As a result the operation had to be put back to the third week in June.
In order to maintain secrecy regarding the German intentions, most of the flying units assigned to the Barbarossa operation were kept back in the occupied territories in the west or in Germany until the beginning of June 1941. Then, within a space of three weeks, the various Gruppen moved swiftly into the bases previously prepared for them. As soon as they landed the aircraft were taxied to their dispersal areas, where they were carefully camouflaged.
When the German attack on Russia opened, shortly before dawn on the morning of 22nd June 1941, the strength of the Luftwaffe units engaged amounted to 2,770 aircraft.
LEVEL BOMBERS 775
DIVE BOMBERS 310
SINGLE-ENGINED FIGHTERS 830
TWIN-ENGINED FIGHTERS 90
COASTAL TYPES 55
The great pains the Germans had taken to maintain secrecy paid handsome dividends during the initial phase of the operations, and the Russians were taken by complete surprise. As always, the initial target for the Luftwaffe during this campaign was the opposing air force, and the Russian airfields along her western border were subjected to intensive air attacks.
For their attacks on the Russian airfields the Germans used for the first time a new type of fragmentation bomb, the 4-pound SD 2. These small cylindrical weapons, three inches in diameter, three and a half inches long, were carried in large numbers in special containers fitted to the attacking aircraft; a Ju 88 or a Do 17 could carry 360 SD 2s, a Bf 109 or a Ju 87 up to ninety-six. After being released in rapid succession the bombs’ casings opened up to form a pair of `wings’, and the individual weapons spun down to the ground rather like sycamore seeds. The bombs would scatter over the ground to cover a wide area, and the seven- ounce explosive charges would go off on impact. Against `soft’ targets like unprotected aircraft, these small shrapnel bombs proved to be very effective. Unhampered by the weak Russian defences, the Germans were able to make low-level attacks and plant the SD 2s accurately amongst the lines of parked aircraft.
The attacks on the airfields were successful beyond the wildest German dreams. Soviet combat aircraft were destroyed by the hundred as they sat out in the open in neat rows with no attempt at dispersal or concealment. The official Soviet postwar publication History of the Great Patriotic War of the Soviet Union records:
`During the first days of the war enemy bomber formations launched massive attacks on sixty-six air¬ fields in the frontier region, above all on those where the new types of Soviet fighters were based. The result of these raids and the violent air-to- air battles was a loss to us, as at noon on 22nd June, of some 1,200 aircraft, including more than 800 destroyed on the ground.’
But while the material damage inflicted on the Soviet air force was to be crippling in the short term, the losses in trained manpower were only light. As a result the long-term recuperative powers of the Russians were hardly affected. Moreover, the lack of a suitable German long-range bomber meant that the important Russian aircraft factories situated near or beyond the Ural Mountains were beyond reach.
With the Soviet air force out of the battle the Luftwaffe could revert to its usual task of supporting the army. The tried and tested methods of concentrating all available bombing aircraft – level as well as dive-bombers – against enemy communications, troop concentrations and even close support targets, was repeated after the pattern established in Poland, France and the Balkans. As in the past, the rapid advance of the German army through Soviet-occupied Poland and western Russia demanded the greatest mobility on the part of the short-range fighter and dive-bomber units; once again the Luftwaffe transport organisation proved equal to the task.
One of the outstanding features of the early part of this campaign was the lavish use the Germans made of aerial reconnaissance. As we have seen, more than a quarter of the entire Luftwaffe force committed at the opening of the offensive comprised reconnaissance types. Thus the German army commanders were able to get detailed and up-to-date information on enemy dispositions and movements in the rear areas, and generally in the fighting areas as well. The main problem in the actual combat zone was that of identifying friend from foe. Sometimes this was very difficult, especially when the Russians learnt not to leave their vehicles’ and run for cover at the approach of German aircraft. Reconnaissance aircraft were often lost to ground fire when their pilots brought them down to low altitude an an attempt to positively identify ground troops below. When they could the German ground units would mark their forward positions with swastika flags and coloured fabric panels laid out on the ground. This system was backed up by an elaborate and changing system of using coloured smoke and flare signals. For their part the Russians tried very hard to imitate the German identification signals, and sometimes succeeded. On several occasions attacks on Soviet troop concentrations had to be called off because the German aircrews were unable to make a positive identification in time.
Sometimes the situation on the ground was such that risks had to be taken, and inevitably air strikes did hit friendly forces on occasions. For example, on 1st August Luftwaffe bombers struck at troops of the German 23rd Division advancing on Kiev and caused `serious losses’. As long as army commanders demand close air support for their men there will be, in spite of all precautions, losses to friendly troops at times.
But if the reconnaissance picture the Luftwaffe presented to the German High Command was sometimes patchy, it was incomparably better than that available to their Soviet opposite numbers. In a campaign where the rapid movement of armoured forces was the order of the day, this advantage often proved to be decisive.
Over half of the operational strength of the Luftwaffe was concentrated in Russia during the initial stages of the attack, but because of the great length of the front – more than 1,000 miles – it was impossible to be strong everywhere. As a result the short- range fighter, bomber and reconnaissance units had often to switch their positions from one part of the line to another, in order to concentrate to support ground attacks wherever the army high command launched each successive offensive.
Throughout the summer and autumn of 1941, the Germans advanced deeper and deeper into Russia. In seven great encircling battles, at Minsk, Smolensk and Uman, at Gomel, Kiev. Vyasma and on the shores of the Sea of Azov, the Germans captured a total of two and a half million prisoners, more than 9,000 tanks and 16,000 guns. During these encircling operations the mouth of each pocket in turn was closed initially by only relatively weak German armoured formations, which had the difficult task of preventing the Russians from breaking out until the slower-moving German infantry divisions could get into position. At this time the Luftwaffe was able to play an important part by delaying the Russian attempts to break out, or to relieve their enveloped forces by means of attacks from, outside. However, these spectacular victories were not always bought cheaply, and the German method of employing all types of bomber for close support work had its own disadvantages. The Russian troops did not go to ground on the appearance of enemy aircraft, but instead opened fire on them with almost any weapon which came to hand. Over a period this policy caused the Luftwaffe very serious losses: between the beginning of the campaign and 27th September 1941 – just over three months – 1,603 German aircraft were shot down and a further 1,028 were damaged. Thus the total number of aircraft destroyed or damaged during this time, 2,631, was almost equal to the number committed to the campaign at its beginning. The losses of the cheaper aircraft – the dive bombers and the army co-operation types – were bad enough, but the steady drain on the more expensive He 111s and Ju 88s was such that replacements no longer kept pace with losses. Moreover, since most of the aircraft lost were over Russian-held territory at the time, losses in trained aircrew were severe; these were to prove the most difficult of all to replace. Gradually the fighting strength of the Luftwaffe was bleeding away.
For Generaloberst Ernst Udet, the head of the Luftwaffe aircraft development and production organisation, the magnitude of the losses over Russia proved to be the last straw. Throughout his tenure of this important office he had failed miserably to bring production up to the necessary levels: so long as the Luftwaffe maintained a strong reserve this was not so bad. but the heavy loss rates over Britain and then Russia changed all that. Moreover, the aircraft he had relied upon to replace the ageing He Ills. Ju 87s and Bf 110s. the He 177 bomber and the Me 210 fighter-bomber, were suffering serious teething troubles and both were close to failure. The mistakes made in the final two years of peace were now coming home to roost. The failure of Udet’s work to keep the Luftwaffe properly equipped. both in quality and in quantity, was now becoming clear to all. Udet’s health began to fail, and he suffered from haemorrhages and unbearable headaches. Finally, on the morning of 17th November 1941. he shot himself.
On Hitler’s orders the circumstances of Udet’s death were kept secret. That evening the German Information Bureau announced that;
‘The General in charge of Luftwaffe supplies. Generaloberst Ernst Udet. was killed on Monday the 17th November 1941. testing a new weapon. He died of his injuries on the way to hospital. The Führer has ordered a state funeral for this officer who died in so tragic a manner while in the performance of his duty. In recognition of his magnificent achievements in the First World War, of his sixty- two fighter victories and of the great services he rendered in building up the Luftwaffe, the Führer has perpetuated Generaloberst Udet’s name by bestowing it upon Jagdgeschwader 3.
Udet’s successor was Erhard Milch, who thus regained the position he had lost in 1938. Milch immediately began the thorough overhaul of the whole German aircraft industry, to cut out wasteful duplication and the inefficient use of manpower and resources. But such measures would not have much effect on the equipment situation in the short term.
There is an old Ukrainian proverb that runs `In the summer one bucketful of water will make one spoonful of mud; in the autumn one spoonful of water will make a bucketful of mud.’ When the autumn rains came in October 1941 the German troops advancing into Russia learnt the truth of the proverb. Previously firm ground turned into a morass, roads were covered in deep, sticky, mud. Movements by motorised fighting and supply units became possible only with the greatest difficulty. When their armoured thrusts slithered to a halt in axle-deep mud. the Germans were at the gates of Moscow and had almost surrounded Leningrad; they were never to take either of these cities.
Now the Germans were to pay a high price for the lateness of the spring thaw earlier in the year. For the Russians’ greatest ally, ‘General Winter’, struck soon after the autumn rains and before the Germans had gained the rapid and total victory so confidently predicted by Hitler. And, also in December 1941, the United States entered the war against Germany; this was to have far-reaching effects, but much later.
The severity of the Russian winter found the Luftwaffe ill-prepared. Apart from the lack of proper cold weather clothing, there was a sorely-felt lack of the equipment necessary to maintain aircraft under such conditions. Because the machines often had to be parked out in the open in temperatures as low as minus 20 F, aero engines and guns simply froze solid, and all manner of heating devices had to be improvised in the field to thaw them out.
Added to the unexpectedly harsh winter conditions and the heavy losses was the cumulative wear and tear of some of the most intensive air operations ever mounted. Most of the Luftwaffe combat units had been in action without a pause from June until the end of October. During this period the dive bomber Gruppen had maintained an average daily sortie rate of about seventy-five per cent of their establishment in aircraft, the fighters sixty per cent and the level bombers about forty per cent. Considering that this effort was kept up day in, day out, for more than four months, these figures are in each case quite remarkable; they go a long way towards explaining why the Luftwaffe was able to achieve so much during the initial stages of the Russian campaign.
By the end of 1941 the Luftwaffe had only about 1,700 aircraft of all types on the Eastern Front, thinly spread along the 2,000-mile long front which ran from the North Cape to the Black Sea. And, because of the difficulties of maintenance and supply, the serviceability in many of the already weakened flying units fell to as low as thirty per cent. The Germans desperately needed a short breathing space to recover from the previous months’ exertions. But they were not to get one, for early in December the Red Army launched its winter counteroffensive.
In the face of attacks by fresh Russian divisions specially trained and equipped for winter fighting, the exhausted German troops began to give ground. The spectre of what had befallen Napoleon’s Grand Army in 1812 hovered large and menacing. There can be little doubt that any German attempt to make a general withdrawal would have rapidly become a rout. In the face of this threat Hitler’s order to stand firm, whatever the cost, was undoubtedly correct. By the end of February 1942 the Germans had largely succeeded, in the face of powerful Russian pressure, in establishing a new defensive line, albeit a line critically thin in places.