On 19 May the rest of Pflugbeil’s squadrons supported Paulus’s counter-offensive against the northern face of the salient, while the next day Stukas struck the Donets crossings to destroy five bridges and damage another four in order to prevent the enemy retreat. On 21 May Löhr ordered Pflugbeil to support Kleist, adding, ‘The objective is to wear down enemy forces by ceaseless attacks, to cause him heavy losses by bombing and strafing and thus hasten his final destruction.’ The previous day, with the arrival of II./SchG 1 with 24 Hs 129s and two Hs 123s, ObdL asked Löhr to report on the effectiveness of Hs 129Bs armed with 30mm MK 101 cannon against tanks – during the battle they were credited with 25 destroyed.
By 24 May the two spearheads had met, and within four days the flames of Russian resistance were extinguished in a battle that cost Löhr some 150 aircraft. Pflugbeil had flown 15,648 sorties and dropped 7,700 tonnes of bombs, together with 383 supply canisters, for the loss of 49 aircraft and 110 aircrew, while transport aircraft flew 1,545 tonnes of supplies to forward airfields and isolated troops. A typical Kampfgruppe, III./KG 55, which joined him from Fliegerkorps VIII on 13 May, averaged 49 sorties a day and dropped 77.75 tonnes of bombs between 14 and 17 May.
The Russians, who lost 542 aircraft, failed due to a combination of decentralised control, aircraft shortages, inexperienced pilots and poor communications and tactics. Falaleev, described by Rudenko as ‘thoughtful and considerate’, was the scapegoat, being severely criticised for burdening his fighters with rockets. In June he was relieved by General-maior Timofei Khryukin, a veteran of air combat in both Spain and China. However, Novikov recognised Falaleev’s strengths and in July appointed him VVS Chief-of-Staff, where he remained until April 1946. Promoted to Marshal in August 1944, by which time he was Deputy Commander, Falaleev became commandant of the VVS Academy post-war, before retiring due to ill health in 1950 and dying five years later.
Pflugbeil now supported Unternehmen Wilhelm and Fridericus II so as to secure jump-off lines for Blau. Richthofen was originally scheduled for the latter mission but Jeschonnek decided to allow him to complete Unternehmen Störfang (Sturgeon Trap). Operations from 10 to 25 June were hindered by rain, which frequently grounded the Luftwaffe, and on 23 June a staff officer carrying plans for Blau I ignored security regulations and flew to the front, landed behind enemy lines and was killed. The plans fell into Russian hands, but Stalin dismissed them as a hoax and continued to believe the main blow would again be towards Moscow. The Germans encouraged this with a deception operation, Kreml (Kremlin), but Blau I was renamed Braunschweig, Blau II became Clausewitz and Blau III became Dampfhammer.
The blow fell on Khryukin, who was informed on 9 June that his command was to become 8th VA, although it was not established until 13 June. Nevertheless, he and Vershinin’s 4th VA destroyed or badly damaged 20 of Pflugbeil’s aircraft on the first day of the offensive, half of them Zerstörer, although Khryukin’s own losses were also heavy. The completion of Fridericus II on 25 June brought few prisoners for the Germans in a disappointing swansong for Löhr.
Meanwhile, preparations for Störfang, the assault upon Sevastopol, were hastily completed. Returning units gave Richthofen a dozen Gruppen with 449 aircraft on 1 June, with the Fliegerkorps providing tactical air support while Wild, with 70 aircraft plus seaplanes, interdicted Soviet shipping. Sevastopol was defended by Polkovnik Georgii Deyuva’s newly formed 3rd Special Air Group (Osobaya Aviagruppa, OAG) VVS-ChF, which had 98 aircraft on 20 May but only limited support from former teacher General-leitenant Sergei Goryunov’s 5th VA in the North Caucasus and the VVS-ChF.
The German airmen acted as siege gunners when preparations began on 2 June with 723 sorties to drop 570 tonnes of bombs on the port, while Deyuva could fly only 70 sorties. By 7 June Richthofen had flown 3,069 sorties, some bomber crews flying 18 times a day, to deliver 2,264 tonnes of bombs excluding incendiaries but including SC 1400, SC 1800 and SC 2500 heavy bombs. The supply system, especially with fuel, could not keep pace with such intense operations and the sortie tempo declined with a daily average of 1,000 for 8–11 June and 780 for 13–17 June. Deyuva received 28 Yak-1 fighters during 10–11 June, but the pilots flying these new aircraft were inexperienced and contributed little to the port’s defence. On 20 June his bombers and flying boats were withdrawn, leaving him with just 31 aircraft by 4 June.
The Russians continued to bring in men by sea, but it was becoming increasingly hazardous, and Wild accounted for two destroyers, two minor warships, 11 merchantmen (22,591grt) and a salvage vessel from May to July, while a destroyer and a merchantman (2,787grt) were lost to Luftwaffe-laid mines.1 The Russians stopped sending large vessels on 27 June, while the GVF flew 288 Li-2 night supply flights from 21 June to 1 July, Black Sea Fleet commander Vitse-Admiral Filipp Oktyabrskii taking one of the last flights out.
With German bomb stocks running low, precision delivery was vital, with some targets facing 30 attacks daily. On 23 June Fliegerkorps VIII departed, leaving Wild in command, and the pace declined to 400 sorties a day. Wild toured the airfields cajoling unit commanders and raising the average daily sortie rate in the last five days of the campaign to 961, including 1,329 on 29 June. The following day Deyuva’s surviving aircraft departed, leaving the skies open to the enemy, having flown 3,144 sorties from 25 May to 1 July, including 1,621 ground attack, for the loss of 69 aeroplanes.
The last defender fell on 4 July, by which time the Luftwaffe had flown 23,751 sorties, lost only 31 aircraft and dropped 28,528 tonnes of bombs at a time when the monthly average expenditure for ordnance during 1942–43 was 27,100 tonnes. The level of effort owed much to the dedication of the Schwarzmänner, who ensured a serviceability rate of 64 per cent. Yet the success would prove a poisoned chalice for, like Demyansk, it raised army expectations, which the Luftwaffe failed to match, exacerbating future relations between the two services.
Richthofen was transferred to Kursk to support the main campaign, but he would not lead Fliegerkorps VIII for much longer. Sevastopol demonstrated he was overdue for promotion, and on 28 June – the day Braunschweig began – he formally relieved Löhr as commander of Luftflotte 4 while also leading the Fliegerkorps. There was a week of intense activity as Richthofen provided Tactical Level support to clear the passage of tanks while Stalino-based Pflugbeil flew Operational Level missions to strike enemy headquarters, reserves and communications – the long days allowed even bomber crews to fly five sorties a day. Richthofen coped thanks to Löhr’s capable chief-of-staff, General Günther Korten, and on 4 July Fiebig replaced him at Fliegerkorps VIII.
For Braunschweig the Luftwaffe assembled 2,690 combat aircraft (including Spanish and Croatian Staffeln) on the main front – its largest concentration in the East since Barbarossa and never later equalled, with Richthofen having 59 per cent (1,582 aircraft). He received 20 Gruppen from the West and the Mediterranean and three from his northern neighbours, which were augmented by 265 Hungarian, Italian, Romanian and Slovak combat aircraft, while Greim, with 496 aircraft, would support the Kreml deception from mid-June by increasing reconnaissance flights around Moscow.
The VVS had 3,613 combat aircraft on the main front by 1 July, supported by 377 ADD bombers, 1,190 PVO fighters and 452 naval aircraft. Stavka’s reserve had dropped since May to 377 in 51 regiments, which, on establishment, should have had 1,122 aircraft. Neither industry nor the training organisation could match the losses, and between 1 July and 1 November 1942, an average of 118 regiments a month were resting, re-equipping or forming – a loss to VVS strength of nearly 2,600 aircraft.2 Opposite Luftflotte 4, which had 1,758 combat aircraft and 250 Allied, were Timofei Khryukin’s 8th VA, Krasovskii’s 2nd VA, Vershinin’s 4th VA and Goryunov’s 5th VA, with Ermachenkov’s VVS-ChF – a total of 1,856 combat aircraft. In addition the fronts could call upon the PVO, notably 65 fighters of General-maior Ivan Yevsevyev’s 101st IAD PVO behind Bryansk Front, and the ADD to give a slight numerical superiority over the Germans. The VVS was extremely active striking enemy airfields while the PVO intercepted as many reconnaissance flights as possible, bringing down two aircraft with Taran tactics.
Low clouds and heavy rain delayed the launch of Braunschweig by 24 hours, but it opened on 28 June with a Luftwaffe assault upon communications for the loss of 15 aircraft, while the Russians lost 23. In a 17-hour period on the first day there was the usual intense activity, with crews flying up to six sorties. Gefechtsverband Nord, based upon KG 76, was created here under Generalmajor Alfred Bülowius, an ‘Old Eagle’ who had been in the ‘England Geschwader’ and then served in the army until he transferred to the Luftwaffe in 1934. However, he had been running training units for the past two years.
The Russians hastily pulled back behind the Don river and tried to rally around Voronezh, which Pflugbeil struck with every available bomber despite the efforts of Yevsevyev’s fighters. Krasovskii was apparently made a scapegoat and replaced at 2nd VA on 4 July by General-maior Konstantin Smirnov, the former Volga District VVS commander. To stabilise the Voronezh situation General-maior Yevgeniyy Beletskii’s new 1st IAA was committed on 5 July with 231 fighters, including American P-39 Airacobras dubbed Kobras by the Russians. The VVS constantly struck the German troops, but ‘Ilyusha’ losses were heavy and local commanders ignored Novikov’s instructions to use their fighters only against bombers. Made into fighter-bombers with 250kg bombs, the aeroplanes roamed up to 30 kilometres behind enemy lines, sometimes on armed reconnaissance missions.
On 4 July Paulus established a bridgehead across the Don, and this forced back Khryukin’s 8th VA, with just 342 sorties during the next three days. In mid-June Moscow demanded that the ‘Ilyusha’ fly with full bomb loads, but 4th VA had only nine Il-2s and numerous ‘horseless’ pilots, so regiments sought to raise bomb loads by 200kg.
On 7 July the Voronezh Front was created from part of Bryansk Front, retaining Smirnov’s 2nd VA. However, a shortage of officers meant General-maior Ivan Pyatykhin’s 15th VA joined Bryansk Front as late as 22 July. The fighting cost the Russians dear. Khryukin flew 3,546 sorties between 1 and 11 July and lost 91 aircraft, while in six days Beletskii lost half his command – 93 fighters destroyed and 23 badly damaged. From 28 June to 31 July Yevsevyev’s aircrew flew 2,413 sorties and claimed 47 victories, while the ADD flew 3,125 sorties and dropped more than 4,000 tonnes of bombs to support the Voronezh defenders. A further 1,246 sorties were flown against communications links from 5 to 31 July.
With the front line now anchored in the north at Voronezh, Hitler sent troops, including five Kampfgruppen, south to support Clausewitz, leaving German and Hungarian troops supported by Bülowius with two Gruppen and Colonel Sándor András’s 2nd Hungarian Air Brigade. Still convinced that Moscow was the objective, Stalin demanded a counter-offensive around Voronezh, which was launched on 20 July without success, although bridgeheads were established along the Don. In response five Kampfgruppen returned to Bülowius, with crews flying up to four sorties a day. The lone Jagdgruppe lost eight fighters from 28 June to 31 July, but helped destroy 283 of Smirnov’s aircraft, halving his command and bringing total Russian losses between 28 June and 24 July to 783.
To contain the threat around Voronezh Richthofen despatched Fliegerkorps I headquarters, which had arrived from Luftflotte 1 on 19 July. He wanted Pflugbeil to command it but was persuaded to give it to Korten on 24 August, despite regarding him as ‘too young’. The headquarters was redesignated Luftwaffekommando Don on 26 August and arrived in Kharkov two days later, initially with eight Gruppen and a few Allied squadrons. Korten’s Luftwaffe element was soon halved, and by 1 September he had only 151 aircraft augmented by 110 Hungarian and Italian aeroplanes, the latter under General Enrico Pezzi. Korten was forced to rely upon brains rather than brawn, and established headquarters at each end of his sector, switching forces to meet crises.
Meanwhile, Fiebig supported Clausewitz, which proved an anticlimax because three days before the Germans struck, on 9 July, Stalin ordered a withdrawal to avoid envelopment. Yet there was still aerial fighting, and in this, and earlier operations, Fiebig had lost 110 Stukas and Schlachtflieger by 10 July. Just as Clausewitz began, Hitler split Bock’s Heeresgruppe Süd, which was supported by both of Richthofen’s Fliegerkorps – Bock’s Heeresgruppe B, supported by Fiebig would advance on Stalingrad, while Heeresgruppe A, under Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List and supported by Pflugbeil, would drive into the Caucasus. The Russian withdrawal caused Hitler to abandon Blau III/Dampfhammer on 13 July and order the two Heeresgruppen to strike across the lower Don in a bid to envelop the enemy, while 6 Armee, still supported by Fiebig, advanced on the northern flank as Bock was replaced by Weichs.
To take Rostov, the gateway to the Caucasus, Hoth’s 4 Panzerarmee joined List, with Fiebig briefly joining his comrade for this operation before thunderstorms washed away Clausewitz. The squadrons, especially those controlled by Fiebig who had most of the single-engined units, moved forward so rapidly that their new airfields were sometimes still under artillery fire. Most of Fiebig’s twin-engined aircraft went to Pflugbeil, who could support them more effectively from his established bases. The Luftwaffe was very active operationally, striking airfields and communications (especially bridges), although the usual combination of extreme activity and lengthening supply lines reduced sortie levels – III./KG 55 flew an average of 23 per day to drop 29 tonnes of bombs between 24 and 31 July.
Khryukin’s aircrew flew 3,546 sorties between 1 and 11 July, most lasting 30 minutes, and dropped nearly 263 tonnes of bombs. Nevertheless, on 14 July he was ordered back across the Don; but retreat caused all the air armies serious problems. They had few vehicles, most of which were worn out and kept breaking down, so it was difficult to supply airfields, while there were serious shortages of low-loaders and tractors. Khryukin dropped from 217 to 138 serviceable aircraft between 2 and 11 July, stores could not be evacuated and as personnel marched eastwards Khryukin had to use 272nd Night Bomber Aviation Division (Nochnoy Bombardirovochnyy Aviatsionnaya Diviziya, NBAD) to keep track of squadrons. His headquarters moved every day between 4 and 8 July, with his 235th IAD moving three times in five days. Vehicles and dumps were destroyed, including most of Khryukin’s tyres, but heavy rain slowed the German advance and made it difficult to supply its spearheads. III./ KG 4 was forced to fly supply runs, while on 12 July, Ju 52/3ms flew in 200 tonnes of fuel.
Paulus reached the Chir, a subsidiary of the Don, on 17 July, and two days later he was ordered to take Stalingrad. To defend the city Khryukin, on 22 July, had 337 serviceable aircraft augmented by Stalingrad’s 102nd IAD PVO, under Podpolkovnik Ivan Krasnoyuchenko to 15 October then Polkovnik Ivan Puntus. This had 50 to 60 fighters, mostly ‘Ishaks’ and ‘Chaikas’, supported by three Permatit radars. Fiebig had some 250 aircraft augmented by 33 Italian fighters. The ‘Ilyushas’ proved so troublesome, picking off trucks during late July, that Lützow’s JG 3 made them a priority target. Supply shortages brought the German advance to a stop north of Kalach, some 75 kilometres west of Stalingrad, as the Russians averaged 550–600 sorties a day.
On 30 July a major Soviet counter-attack around Kalach briefly isolated XIV Panzerkorps headquarters, which was soon relieved, after major air battles in which Khryukin’s aircrews flew more than 1,000 sorties but his bombers tended to operate in poorly escorted penny-packet formations. The new Bf 109G, with its twin 20mm cannon, proved to be very effective against ‘Ilyushas’, which accounted for 18 of Khryukin’s 27 losses on 31 July. The battles also saw the front deputy air commander General-maior Rudenko directing GCI from the 8th VA command post using visual observation reports. Although this form of control showed potential, fighter pilots were reluctant to accept instructions from the ground, preferring to patrol the FEBA, where targets were plentiful.
Meanwhile, Pflugbeil supported an advance into the Donets Bend to secure jump-off points for a thrust into the Caucasus, nearing Rostov by 20 July. The Luftwaffe’s prime opponent was Vershinin’s 4th VA, whose headquarters moved 11 times between 11 July and 10 August, and flew only 630 sorties between 9 and 12 July due to the disrupted infrastructure and loss of material – one pilot managed to save his damaged fighter by commandeering a team of oxen to tow it to the airfield in a four-day Odyssey! By 20 July Richthofen had 718 serviceable aircraft, including 36 with ShG 1 and 86 Zerstörer, while to shield the Caucasus Vershinin and Goryunov had a total of 160 aircraft. Rostov fell on 23 July in a battle that saw Wild’s torpedo-bombers drop SC 1800 bombs, the aerial battle bringing VVS losses on this front to 783 between 28 June and 4 July. To prevent the enemy exploiting their success the VVS and VVS-ChF harassed every German attempt to cross the Don around Rostov with 2,431 sorties between 20 and 28 July, some being made by MBR-2 flying boats.