Air War – East – 1942 Part I

General Aleksandr Novikov faced challenges as the spring rasputitsa ended the winter campaign and everyone looked towards Kharkov as the fulcrum for 1942’s operations. Stalin was delighted by his successes, yet he recognised his forces needed to remain on the defensive due to material shortages. Nevertheless, he demanded an active defence.

Stalin wished to shield Moscow while simultaneously eroding enemy strength and expanding reserves for a strategic offensive at a later date. To improve the line Stalin wanted pre-emptive strikes, and received two plans from Marshal Semon Timoshenko and Marshal Georgii Zhukov. Timoshenko proposed advancing from the Izyum Salient upon Kharkov, the lynchpin of the Ukrainian rail network, while Zhukov preferred eliminating the German Rzhev Salient. Stalin accepted both, together with a number of smaller operations, despite Stavka’s fears this would disperse the country’s scarce resources, such as Soviet air power.

On 1 May the VVS-KA had 3,700 aircraft on the main battle front, although 70.5 per cent of them were assigned to army and front headquarters. But it had only 3,146 pilots, which meant 16 per cent of the aircraft could not be flown, while less than 35 per cent of its pilots were qualified to fly at night. Augmenting the VVS were 329 ADD bombers, 1,051 PVO fighters and 448 VVS-KBF/ChF naval aircraft. The situation posed serious problems for Novikov, who was a short, 41-year-old widower with a surviving son. He had joined the VVS in 1933, and during the Purges of 1937 he was cashiered. Reinstated in June of the following year, Novikov was rapidly promoted.

He had studied air power, and especially the theories of Aleksandr Lapchinskii about the importance of gaining air superiority and using air power to support the army. This, together with his administrative skills, ensured he had played a significant role during the Winter War, while in 1941 he would concentrate his forces for greater effect. However, the strain of command under Stalin meant that Novikov, like many Soviet military leaders except Zhukov, was a heavy drinker, and by the end of the war he was an alcoholic.

Probably building on Zhigarev’s foundations, Novikov reformed not only the front but also the training and supply organisations, while strengthening Stavka’s reserve. His efforts to improve communications for command and control were aided by the Director of Signals Directorate, General-maior (General-leitenant from 30 April 1943) Georgii Gvozdkov. Beginning in the Stalingrad sector, from September 1942 they would establish radio networks at all levels down to regimental, and would introduce GCI into the VVS based upon command posts, initially manned by 25 reserve regiment commanders, some two to three kilometres from FEBA and at eight- to ten-kilometre intervals. These could call up fighters by radio, or telephone, in response to reports from a screen of forward observation posts.

Novikov sought to concentrate his limited air power rather than disperse it in penny packets. To shield Moscow, on 5 May 1942, he ordered the formation of the first Air Armies (VA) containing a fifth of the VVS, and he also planned reserve Fighter Armies (Istrebitelyenaya Aviatsionnaya Armii, IAA) and Bomber Armies (Bombardirovochnaya Aviatsionnaya Armiya, BAA). The first air armies were created from 10 to 16 May under former frontal air commanders General-leitenant Kutsevalov (West) and General-maiors Krasovskii (Bryansk) and Mikhail Gromov (Kalinin).

The air armies were multi-role commands consisting of air divisions, each of which were roughly equivalent to a Geschwader with three or four regiments – usually dedicated fighter, bomber, night bomber and assault formations, although some were mixed. They were created by stripping regiments from fronts and armies, although to allay Red Army fears about air support, many army commands were left with the comfort blanket of a Mixed Regiment (Smeshannaya Aviatsionnaya Polk, SAP), which included a fighter squadron, or NBAP regiment. The creation of air armies was extended into the southern fronts between 22 May and 15 November and into the northern fronts between 14 June and 1 December, when 14 VA was created to support the Karelian Front – the tenth formed in the West, while four more were created in the Far East.

The disruption of the training organisation and its shortages of resources hindered the flow of replacements, leaving Novikov to continue Zhigarev’s policy of using NBAPs both for replacements and as the cadres for new units. During 1942 the VVS disbanded 39 and converted 58 to new roles – 28 as ShAPs and 22 as SAPs, while the remainder became transport units. The migration of NBAPs continued over the next two years, most becoming ShAPs, but one became an IAP, four became BAPs (including 970th NBAP with Bostons), while others became transport or liaison units.

Meanwhile, the Wehrmacht, including the Luftwaffe, also prepared for the summer campaign. Railways had been converted to the European gauge, and while roads remained rutted cart tracks, they could now be used to distribute fuel, food, ammunition and spares for the forthcoming offensive. Heavy losses forced Hitler to cut his coat to suit his cloth, and while he planned to smooth out the front line to economise in manpower, he hoped the Wehrmacht would quickly regain its old vigour, and this was reflected in OKW Weisung Nr 41 published on 5 April.

In the Crimean Peninsula Manstein’s 11 Armee was to eliminate the Kerch bridgehead (Unternehmen Trappenjagd) then take Sevastopol (Unternehmen Störfang). Bock’s Heeresgruppe Süd was then to eliminate the Russian Izyum Salient (Unternehmen Fridericus) using General Friedrich Paulus’s 6 Armee and Armeegruppe Kleist (17 Armee and 1 Panzer Armee). This would set the stage for the main campaign, Unternehmen Fall Blau – a series of envelopments to take the Wehrmacht to Stalingrad and Rostov, which would open the way for the occupation of the Caucasian oilfields. Once this was achieved Manstein would join Heeresgruppe Nord to take Leningrad.

 Oil remained the Wehrmacht’s Achilles’ heel, with Romania and, to a lesser degree, Hungary the prime natural sources augmented by synthetic production in Germany. Luftwaffe consumption during 1941 outstripped supply to force ObdL to cut back non-operational flying times, but this ensured that during 1942 production exceeded total Luftwaffe consumption by 156,000 tonnes; yet the training organisation’s allocation was further reduced, with adverse effects upon the students. By contrast Soviet air power consumed 2.75 times more than the Luftwaffe at 3,965,382 tonnes, even when the Caucasian oilfields were threatened.

Weisung Nr 41 assigned the Luftwaffe its usual range of Tactical and Operational Level tasks, although noting, ‘The possibility of a hasty transfer of Luftwaffe units to the central and northern fronts must be borne in mind, and the necessary ground organisation for this must be maintained as far as possible.’ General Wolfram von Richthofen’s Smolensk-based Fliegerkorps VIII, which had supported Heeresgruppe Mitte during the winter, was to play a major role in the new offensive, but it needed a rest. Greim’s Fliegerkorps V was reformed at Smolensk on 1 April and, after a brief handover, Richthofen and his staff returned to Germany on 10 April for four weeks’ well-earned leave, while Greim’s command was upgraded to Luftwaffenkommando Ost. Two days later Greim split the front into Generalleutnant Fiebig’s Fliegerdivision 1 at Dugino in the north and former Flfü Afrika Generalleutnant Stefan Fröhlich’s Fliegerdivision 2 in the south at Bryansk.

Richthofen had little time to enjoy his leave, for Jeschonnek telephoned on 18 April to inform him that, at Hitler’s behest, he would be deployed autonomously to the Crimea – a move that angered Löhr. When Richthofen was briefed by Jeschonnek at Luftflotte 4 headquarters in Nikolayev, Löhr demanded that Fliegerkorps VIII should join Pflugbeil’s Fliegerkorps IV supporting the main operation. Jeschonnek rebuffed him, and on 28 April Richthofen arrived in the Crimea, set up headquarters near Feodosia and assumed command of Wild on 30 April.

The Luftwaffe squadrons in the East required major reorganisation and re-equipment. Between 7 December 1941 and 8 April 1942, 859 aircraft were destroyed and 636 damaged, and by 30 March first-line strength was only 1,766 aeroplanes. The Gruppen had to be reorganised, their lost aircraft and crews replaced and the exhausted survivors given leave. First-line strength continued to drop to 1,746 combat aircraft by May Day, but in succeeding weeks units flooded back, and by 1 June strength had reached 2,324. There were few new aircraft apart from the Bf 109G fighter, the Ju 87D dive-bomber and the underpowered, twin-engined Hs 129 armoured ground-attack aircraft.

Geschwader stripped their Ergänzungsgruppen to provide extra crews, although some were not fully trained. Tactical air support was strengthened through the creation on 13 January of Schlachtgeschwader 1 under Oberstleutnant Otto Weiss, this unit being equipped with fighter-bombers (Jabos) and Hs 129s. The ground infrastructure was not neglected, especially in the south, where all-weather airfields were built, maintenance facilities improved and signal networks extended.

The reconnaissance arm needed the most urgent reforms because the Heeresflieger had withered on the vine, so administrative necessity drove changes. A third of the 55 Nahaufklärungsstaffeln were disbanded and the remainder, largely re-equipped with the Fw 189A, were grouped in May 1942 into Nahaufklärungsgruppen raised from Koluft and Gruppenfliegerstäbe to provide tactical reconnaissance. The army also lost its Fern- and Nachtaufklärungsstaffeln, which were grouped with Luftwaffe Fernaufklärungsstaffeln in July to form Fernaufklärungsgruppen.

As the ground dried out Trappenjagd (Bustard Hunt) began in the Crimea on 8 May, influenced by Richthofen’s earlier lecture to Hitler on the value of air power in ground operations. Richthofen expanded the airfield system to reduce bomber sortie times and, because he was fascinated by the SD 2 anti-personnel bombs known as ‘Devil’s Eggs’, he had more than 6,000 canisters of them delivered by the end of April. Manstein was delighted at the prospect of what the XXX Armeekorps war diary would describe as ‘concentrated air support, the like of which has never existed’, but shocked to be informed on 16 April by Hitler that he would personally oversee the air campaign. Manstein’s first meeting with Richthofen on 22 April proved reassuring, and they began a close working relationship, despite the latter’s propensity to play armchair general.

The slow return of Gruppen from Germany delayed Trappenjagd for three days, but when it began Richthofen had 20 Gruppen with 740 aircraft, plus some seaplanes, while Pflugbeil provided an extra two Kampfgruppen. Facing them on 1 May were 404 aircraft under General-maior Evgenii Nikolaenko, who had become Crimea Front air commander on 28 January, only to discover that most of his regiments were under army command. His few airfields were overcrowded and some aircraft were based on the Taman Peninsula.

Sitting in the front command post and terrifying everyone was Red Army political chief Lev Mekhlis, who micromanaged operations and demanded fighters scramble to meet every Luftwaffe intrusion. This exhausted pilots and left many aircraft unserviceable. Between 12 February and 7 May, 44th Army’s 743rd IAP flew 2,160 sorties and lost 11 I-153s and six pilots, including the commander. It was duly left to face Trappenjagd with just a single serviceable fighter. The front and VVS-ChF lost 50 aircraft during April, while the latter had its commander, Nikolai Ostryakov, killed on 24 April when his visit to a repair facility coincided with that of Stukas. He was replaced on May Day by Ermachenkov, who would remain in this position until the end of the war.

From the first day the Luftwaffe dominated the air, with ‘Messers’ orbiting Russian airfields, yet the Russian air commanders initially failed to recognise the scale of the impending disaster. Torrential rain proved a greater obstacle to Richthofen than the Russians, and with his Stuka airfields turned to swamps, he had to use KG 55’s He 111s on low-level missions to scatter SD 2s and wreak havoc, but this cost the Geschwader eight bombers. The Russians were destroyed by 20 May, by which time Richthofen’s units had flown some 5,500 sorties and lost 37 aircraft – the Russians lost 417. Nikolaenko, who alone lost 315, was dismissed on 12 May and never again held a front line command. He was replaced by ADD Deputy Commander Skripko.

Support for Trappenjagd severely dropped from 12 May because Timoshenko launched his offensive from the Izyum Salient towards Kharkov. For Novikov it was bad timing because his reforms had barely begun. Indeed, Vershinin, commander of the South Front’s 308 aircraft, learned on 7 May that his forces would become 4th VA on 22 May. While preparing for this change he would have to support the secondary attack as Southwest Front launched the main blow, supported by 618 aircraft still under General-leitenant Falaleev’s command. All the regiments were severely under-strength with total establishments of 600 and 680 aircraft, respectively.

Falaleev, who would celebrate an unhappy 43rd birthday on 31 May, was a former deputy commander of Far Eastern air forces, VVS Inspector General and then VVS Main Directorate’s First Deputy. He had distinguished himself at the front by concentrating his forces, but for this offensive 285 aircraft, including 153 fighters and 57 night bombers, were in task forces under army command, leaving 333 aeroplanes, including 117 fighters and 121 night bombers, under his authority.

The Russian attack on 12 May surprised General Friedrich Paulus’s 6 Armee, which planned to launch Fridericus in the same area a week later. The ADD began to strike rail communications and airfields from the night of 9/10 May, Russian intelligence having estimated Pflugbeil’s strength at 330 combat aircraft. On 1 May Pflugbeil had 507 aeroplanes, but then surrendered 360 to Richthofen, leaving him only 147 aircraft, including a Stukagruppe, to meet the threat. Paulus was pushed back as Falaleev flew 563 sorties and Vershinin 100 on the opening day, the ‘Ilyushas’ proving especially effective against enemy morale.

Once Hitler recognised the seriousness of the situation he ordered Richthofen to return Pflugbeil’s Gruppen and also to dispatch 150 of his own aircraft. The arrival of 15 Gruppen from 13 May gave Pflugbeil 650 aircraft to interdict the battlefield, as Kleist prepared to lance into the Izyum Salient from the south. From 14 May the pendulum began to swing in the Germans’ favour as their fighters savaged poorly escorted bomber and attack missions.

Luftwaffe strike forces hit troop concentrations and communications with such effect that Russian fighters were ordered on 15 May ‘to clear the skies of German bombers’. That day, a noon conference completed details for the German riposte, and two days later, under clear, bright, skies, Kleist began driving north with massive Luftwaffe support from Gefechtsverband Süd, created the previous day with 11 Gruppen. The Luftwaffe provided air support ‘most effectively’ as the 1 Panzer Armee war diary observed, and within 20 minutes of a request for air support the troops would hear the sound of German aircraft. By now VVS strength had been slashed, with many regiments down to six aircraft, yet commanders demanded more missions, which exhausted and demoralised the men.

The Luftwaffe established air superiority, and on a hot, humid 17 May Kampfgruppe crews flew up to seven sorties. Falaleev lacked day bombers, his ‘Ilyushas’ suffered poor serviceability and in desperation he ordered fighters to be fitted with RS-82 unguided rockets for ground-attack missions, making them vulnerable to the Jagdgruppen. Intensified ADD attacks on rail and airfield targets from 18 May failed to slow down the German advance, and Timoshenko later reported, ‘From the second day of our offensive the enemy achieved air superiority, and by means of continuous strikes by a large quantity of aircraft our forces were deprived of freedom of manoeuvre on the battlefield.’

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