The first Hungarian produced Me109 – still Ga-4 – was
finished on November 21, 1942. Its first flight was on December 30, 1942.
In October 1942, Germany gave Hungary 50 Bf109F-4s, which
were used to re-equip Re.2000 units. 40 Ju87D-1s, 30 Ju87D-5s, 6 Bf110G-4s, and
160 Me210s (which the Germans were happy to get rid of) were added to the
Hungarian Air Group to be used on the Russian Front.
By May 1943, 50 Bf109G-2s re-equipped 2 squadrons armed with
F-4s. By May 1944, 4 squadrons on the Russian Front and 6 for home defense
(against British and American bombers based in Italy) were armed with G-6s. By
December 1944, The Russians were at the door step of Budapest; all 9 remaining
squadrons were armed with G-6s. a few surviving squadrons retreated with the
Germans and continued to fly G-6s until May, 1945.
Hungarian produced Bf
If I understand correctly many of the components were
manufactured in Germany and major parts like the fuselage where built in
Hungary. Of course late war (dispersed) manufacturing techniques might give
reason to believe that perhaps aircraft produced in the latter part of the war
of Hungarian origin had a higher quality finish, giving them some advantage. On
the other hand German aircraft were designed with mass production in mind, and
the component concept was highly developed – the penalty could not have been
According to an Franz A. Vajda article Mr. Fritz Wendel
visited the MWG (and Dunai Repülõgépgyár Rt.) factories in January 1944 and
after some test flights he wrote in his report that the Hungarian produced
Messerschmitts (both the Bf 109G and Me-210Ca) had better quality than the
German produced ones.
There are two possible reason for this:
First, main components for Hungarian produced Bf 109Gs were
made in Hungary except canopy frame and armament (and partially the radio
equipment and instruments) delivered from Germany. Although the German industry
was very well organized, the Hungarians had some advantage, because the Allied
bombing raids started “only” on April 3, 1944 against Hungarian
Industry. Between 12-1942 and 03-04-1944 approx. 140 Bf 109G-4/G-6s were
produced in MWG Gyõr and until 31-03-1944 some 820 DB605A/B engines were
produced in Weiss Manfred factories at Budapest / Csepel in peace conditions.
After this date Hungarian factories were damaged by MASAF which caused problems
in production / assembly and I’m sure in quality too.
Second, in Hungarian aircraft factories most of the
employees had some years of experience in aircraft industry and there were no
POW’s, only Hungarian workers by profession. (For contrast just think about
German V-2 production in Nordhausen / Mittelwerk underground tunnels with slave
However I think there were no any major differences in
quality and performances between the German and Hungarian / Romanian produced
Hungarian Bf 109G-14s
Most of the Hungarian G-14 and G-10 appear to have been
G-14/U4 and G-10/U4, at least their WkNr appear on WNF/Gyor production lists as
The Me-109G was the most numerous of the Messerschmitts,
with production reaching 725 a month by July 1943, and that year’s total
reaching 6,418 aircraft. In spite of Allied bombing raids against German
industry, Me-109 production for 1944 reached 14,212. In addition to the
Messerschmitts produced in Germany, Hungary built about 700 Me-109Gs under
license at Budapest and Györ until September 1944. Romania also began licensed
production in the IAR plant at Brasov, but completed only 16 Me-109G-6s and assembled
30 others from German-delivered components before its facilities were destroyed
by bombers of the U.S. Fifteenth Air Force on May 6, 1944.
In March, 1939, Hungary
joined in the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia,
supplying air support to its ground units. The air contingent carried out
bombing, recon, and patrol missions, but met no aerial opponents.
1/I Group (sqdn 1,2,3)
3/II Group (sqdn 3,4,5)
1 LR group
By December, 1939, Hungary had grown the Royal Hungarian Air Force into
1/I Group (sqdn 1,2)
1/II Group (sqdn 3,4)
2/I Group (sqdn 1,2)
2/II Group (sqdn 3,4)
3/I Group (sqdn 1,2,3)
3/II Group (sqdn 3,4,5)
4/I Group (sqdn 1,2,3)
4/II Group (sqdn 3,4,5)
34 He46 biplanes
51 WM21 biplanes
1 LR group (sqnd 1,2)
5 SM.75 (nationalized from airline)
By April, 1941, the RHAF had upgraded to:
1/I Group (sqdn 1,2)
1/II Group (sqdn 3,4)
2/I Group (sqdn 1,2)
2/II Group (sqdn 3,4)
3/I Group (sqdn 1,2,3)
3/II Group (sqdn 4,5)
4/I Group (sqdn 1,2,3)
4/II Group (sqdn 4,5)
42+14 He46 biplanes
24+8 WM21 biplanes
1 LR group (sqnd 1,2)
5 SM.75 (nationalized from airline)
In June, 1941, Hungary
sent a field army to Operation Barbarossa. Hungary’s Air Force was composed as
1/I Group (sqdn 1,2)
18+6 CR.32 (+ field test unit of 9 Re.2000s)
2/II Group (sqdn 3,4)
18+6 CR.42 (in process of changing to Re.2000s)
4/I Group (sqdn 1,2,3)
4/II Group (sqdn 3,4)
24+8 He46 biplanes
18+6 WM21 biplanes
1 LR group (sqnd 1,2)
Predictably enough, Operation Barbarossa took a big bite out of these
aircraft. They were replace by German aircraft, and Germany began to set up aircraft
factories in Hungary
to produce components and assemble aircraft.
In October, 1942, Germany gave Hungary 50 Bf109F-4s, which were used to
re-equip Re.2000 units. 40 Ju87D-1s, 30 Ju87D-5s, 6 Bf110G-4s, and 160 Me210s
(which the Germans were happy to get rid of) were added to the Hungarian Air
Group to be used on the Russian Front.
By May, 1943, 50 Bf109G-2s re-equipped 2 squadrons armed with F-4s. By
May, 1944, 4 squadrons on the Russian Front and 6 for home defense (against
British and American bombers based in Italy) were armed with G-6s. By
December, 1944, The Russians were at the door step of Budapest; all 9 remaining squadrons were
armed with G-6s. a few surviving squadrons retreated with the Germans and
continued to fly G-6s until May, 1945.
After World War I, the Allied victors at Versailles met to
parcel out 74,971 square miles of Hungarian territory to foreign enemies,
stranding nearly half of the Hungarian people under hostile, foreign
domination. The Hungarian armed forces were dismantled and military aviation
forbidden. Only civilian “aero clubs” were allowed, but they at least
preserved some measure of flight instruction over the next two decades.
Hungary began slowly, quietly building an air force in the late
1930s in contravention of the Treaty of Versailles, which forbade Hungary (and
Germany) an air force.
Hungary’s right to self-defense was not restored until 1938,
when Franco-British politicians planned to enlist Hungary against Germany in
the event of war. To be sure, the arch-conservative, anti-Fascist regent,
Admiral Miklos Horthy, was inclined to favor the Western Allies, but popular
demands loudly voiced by his subjects to reclaim severed territories and
displaced fellow countrymen were additionally fueled by dread of neighboring
Soviet Russia. Hitler and Mussolini, meanwhile, courted Horthy by selling him
military aircraft at discounted prices, and gave him a slice of the dismantled
Czechoslovak state inhabited by Hungarians.
On September 1, 1938, the Magyar Kirdlyi Honved Legiero, or
Magyar Legiero, the Royal Hungarian Air Force, unfurled its red-white-green
chevron insignia for the first time. Its crews did not have to wait very long
for their baptism of fire, however. The following March, they flew cover for
Hungarian troops occupying Ruthenia, formerly part of eastern Czechoslovakia, where
clashes with elements of the Slovenske vzdusne zbrane, the Slovak Air Force,
took place. Although the Slovaks’ Avia B.534 biplane was equal to Fiat CR.32s
operated by the Magyar Legiero, Hungarian pilots benefited from superior
training, shooting down 10 SVZ aircraft at no loss to themselves in what they
referred to as the eight-day-long Kis haboru, or “Little War:”
By then, a much larger European conflagration seemed
imminent, and Horthy ordered a radical strengthening of his entire armed
forces. Impressed by close cooperation exhibited between the German Army and
Luftwaffe in their Blitzkrieg conquests of Poland and France, he subordinated
the formerly independent Royal Hungarian Air Force to the army high command.
Most of the Magyar Legierd’s new aircraft were purchased from Italy. These
included 69 Fiat CR.32s, 68 Fiat CR.42s (more antiquated biplanes), and 34
specimens of the Reggiane Re.2000, which Hungarian pilots referred to as the
Heja, or “Hawk:” It was a poor copy of the American P-35 produced by
the Seversky Aircraft Corporation, structurally deficient and plagued by a
temperamental 870-hp Piaggio P.XI RC.40 radial engine.
The Magyar Legiero possessed just 3 examples of the German
Heinkel He.112, its only relatively modern fighter, although 34 Junkers Ju86s
rejected by the Luftwaffe made up a bomber wing, together with 36 Caproni Bergamaschi
Ca.135s more yet substandard Italian aircraft. Hungary’s only indigenous
warplanes were the Weiss WM 21 S6lyom and Repiilogepgyar Levente II.
A thoroughly obsolete, open-cockpit biplane design based on
that of a 1928 Dutch Fokker, 48 Weiss Falcons equipped Magyar Legiero
reconnaissance units, where they were joined by 38 no less doddering, if still
rugged German Heinkel He.46 parasol monoplanes and 37 Italian Meridionali Ro.37
Lynxes, which had been already retired from production. These were supplemented
by another 13 Luftwaffe castoffs, Heinkel He.111B medium-bombers.
The fragile Repiildgepgyar Levente II was never intended for
anything more than the primary training duties for which it had been designed.
But the growing exigencies of war on the Eastern Front pressed the spindly
little biplane-with its 105-hp Hirth HM 504A-two four cylinder inverted inline
piston engine and top speed of 112 mph-into service as a much-needed liaison
and communications aircraft. The rest of the Hungarian Air Force was fleshed
out by four Savoia-Marchetti SM.75 trimotors used as paratroop transports, plus
a variety of German and Italian trainers, which brought Magyar Legiero strength
up to 536 aircraft when Horthy permitted German forces to assemble on Hungarian
territory for their invasion of Yugoslavia in March 1941.
He belatedly joined the fight on April 11 to recover the
Banat and Batschka areas separated from Hungary more than 20 years earlier for
the loss of six Fiat fighters and one S6lyom. Two months later, Operation
Barbarossa exploded. Hitler had not invited the Hungarians to take part in his
crusade against the Soviet Union, because their animosity for his oil-rich Romanian
ally jeopardized the campaign. Hungarians themselves went wild for war with the
USSR. They regarded the invasion as a historically unique opportunity to
simultaneously destroy the Communist colossus towering over their eastern
frontier and reclaim all those territories lost after World War I.
Horthy nonetheless hung back, as he had in Yugoslavia, until
his hand was forced on June 26, when Red Air Force Tupolev SB-2 bombers struck
Kaschau, Muncas, and Raho, towns in northern Hungary, where several dozen
civilians were killed and injured. Magyar Legiero retribution was swift and far
ahead of the Hungarian army, as a mixed formation of 51 Junkers and Caproni
bombers protected by 9 Fiat CR.32s raided Stanislav, Strij, and other targets
east of the Carpathian Mountains over the next three days. Seven Tupolevs
returned on the 29th to strike the Csap railroad station, but three were shot
down by Fiat CR.32s in this first aerial confrontation over Hungary.
By mid-summer, the German Xlth Army laid siege to Nikolayev,
a strategic Black Sea port that received supplies across a
mile-and-a-quarter-long bridge spanning the Bug River. The vital structure,
heavily defended by massed anti-aircraft guns and a squadron of Polykarpov
I-16s, was targeted on August 10 by six Hungarian Capronis escorted by as many
Fiat CR.32s, plus five Hejas. One of the bombers scored repeated hits on the
bridge, which collapsed along its entire length, and additionally claimed an
attacking Rata. Although the formation commander’s Ca.135 lost its port engine
to ground fire, Senior Lieutenant Istvan Szakonyi’s skilled gunners succeeded
in shooting down three enemy interceptors. Another five were destroyed by the
Fiats, for the loss of a single Reggiane.
Six days later, Nikolayev fell with the capture of 60,000
Soviet troops, and Luftwaffe Colonel-General Alexander Lohr presented the Hungarian
flight crews with their decorations at Sutyska airfield. By the following
month, however, after having flown 1,454 sorties, the Magyar Legier6 on the
Eastern Front was exhausted and needed to be withdrawn. Most of its equipment
was older and patently inferior to enemy aircraft, suffering disproportionate
attrition. Thirty Soviet warplanes had been shot down, but the Hungarians lost
56 of their own. The aircrews would not return until July 13, 1942, after
extensive training and re-equipping, with the arrival of the 1/1 Fighter
Squadron at Ilovskoje airfield outside the Don River. An obvious change was
replacement of the old tricolor chevron insignia on wings and fuselage with a
white cross in a black square, while vertical stabilizers were covered in red,
white, and green bands.
Although their Fiat biplanes had been left at home to more
properly serve as trainers, MKHL pilots were still saddled with the disappointing
Re.2000. Only a superior maneuverability enabled the Heja to overcome its
deficiencies in speed and fire power against better Migs and Lavochkins. The
Hungarians got off to a prestigious start on August 4, however, when their
first success was achieved by the heir to the throne, now First Lieutenant
Istvan Horthy. His Reggiane hit a LaGG-3 that caught fire and disappeared into
a cloud. It was not a confirmed “kill;’ but seemed to foreshadow greater
things to come. Indeed, that same day, two Polikarpov Ratas were downed by a
single Heja pilot.
Over the next several days, misfortune dogged the 1/1
Fighter Squadron. Major Kalman Csukas mistook a German Heinkel bomber for a
Russian Petlyakov and shot it down, injuring two crew members, to whom he later
made a personal apology. Ongoing mechanical difficulties grounded all but three
Reggianes, and one of these was forced to abort its mission shortly after
take-off with engine trouble. The other two survived an unsuccessful attack
against Soviet bombers. More Re.2000s arrived with 2/1 Fighter Squadron, but
their machineguns jammed during another fruitless encounter, and the humiliated
commander of the First Air Division admitted he was unable to protect Hungarian
ground forces by asking the Germans for help. Mechanics, referred to by their
pilots as “the black men” for their dirty job, worked furiously night
and day to get six Hejas airborne on August 9.
The two lead pilots breezed passed a formation of
Shturmoviks and LaGG-3s, assuming they were Luftwaffe fighters, and the
remaining 4 Reggianes were left to confront more than 30 enemy warplanes. Outnumbered,
the Hungarians destroyed four of the superior LaGG-3s for a single wounded Heja
pilot, who survived by crash-landing behind his own lines.
Thanks to the untiring ministrations of the “black
men;’ their Re.2000s were kept flying, mostly on patrols over the Don River,
where Red armored vehicles were observed and reported to Wehrmacht
headquarters. Luftwaffe dive-bombers obliterated the tanks, while the Hungarians
On August 11, 1st Lieutenant Pal Iranyi shot his way out of
an ambush by five LaGG-3s, downing one of them and escaping to Ilovskoje. Then,
just when Magyar Legiero luck appeared to be changing for the better, Istvan
Horthy died at the controls of his aircraft when it stalled and crashed shortly
after takeoff on August 18, as he set out with a pair of fellow Hejas assigned
to escort a reconnaissance mission. All Hungary went into mourning, and an
elaborate state funeral for the royal heir attracted international attention.
Shortly thereafter, pilots of the Magyar Legierd on the
Eastern Front began to make a name for themselves as effective hunters of the
Red Air Force’s formidable ground-attack plane, the Ilyushin 11-2, by aiming
for its vulnerable radiator mounted above the engine. While such an approach
promised the best prospects for success, it was the most dangerous, exposing
the attacker to concentrated fire from every rear gunner in a formation. An
alternative tactic called for closing in on the target from beneath, as the
Shturmovik’s oversized radiator was also vulnerable from this angle. Other
Hungarian pilots followed the German preference for aiming directly at the
enemy pilot during a steep dive.
The skilled Iranyi and his wingman, Sergeant Zoltan Raposa,
each brought down a Shturmovik on September 2, when a 20-mm round tore off two
fingers on the right hand of Cadet Lajos Molnar, who was flying cover for the
attack. But the 11-2 “expert” was 1st Lieutenant Imre Panczel, who
knocked out three “Flying Tanks” in the last three days of October.
He and Ensign Kovas-Nagy shot down a pair of Ilyushins out of a flight of 22 on
Earlier that same month, Panczel revealed himself as one the
most aggressive airmen on the Eastern Front, when he and three other Heja
pilots intercepted three times as many enemy bombers and fighters targeting the
railway line between Podgarnoje and Kemenka. He promptly destroyed three
warplanes, plus two more shot down by his comrades, all within 22 minutes, at
no loss to themselves. The surviving Soviet pilots aborted their attack and
fled back into the East.
In early fall 1942, the overworked, outdated Italian-made
machines finally made way for the Magyar Legierd’s first modern aircraft.
Goering had been impressed by the Hungarians’ achievements with substandard
equipment, and believed they could do better with German aircraft. Accordingly,
he replaced the Capronis with a squadron each of 51 Junkers Ju-88
medium-bombers and Junkers Ju-87 dive-bombers. He then ordered the formation of
1 Ungarishe Jabostaffel, the “1st Hungarian Fighter-Bomber Squadron;’
composed entirely of Messerschmitt Me109 F-4/13s, fitted with 550-pound bombs.
These Friedrichs initially operated out of Urasovo, blasting Red Army tanks,
supply convoys, and trains in the fighting against the Italian 8th Army. In
fact, the Hungarians flew a joint mission with Italian and German fighter units
hunting enemy armor concealed in forested regions between Buturlinovka and
Koslovka on October 29, the 20th anniversary of the March on Rome that brought
Benito Mussolini to power in 1922.
Adverse weather grounded most flights throughout the
following month and into the first half of next, until the Shturmovik
“expert;’ Lieutenant Panczel-now the 1 Ungarishe Jabostafel’s commanding
officer single-handedly knocked out a Red Army flak battery, destroyed 17 trucks,
and blew up 3 locomotives with cannon shells and bombs during just 4 days in
early December. On the morning of the 16th, he shot down two IL-2s and another
pair that afternoon to become World War II’s first Hungarian ace. Panczel was prevented
from committing further mayhem only by the return of white-out conditions that
rendered flying impossible for the rest of 1942.
The year concluded with 140 sorties undertaken by the 1st
Hungarian Fighter-Bomber Squadron, mostly against ground targets. So far, remarkably,
none of its crews had been lost to the enemy. All that was to change after the
New Year, however. As the debacle at Stalingrad reached its climax, air combat
intensified, and Imra Panczel, the Hungarians’ own Achilles, fell on January
11, 1943. Three days later, the Squadron’s base at Urasovo stood in the way of
a Red Army offensive sweeping all before it. After every airplane that could
fly was evacuated to Novy-Oskol, the airfield’s defense consisted only of
several 40-mm flak guns, together with various small arms carried by 750 pilots
and ground personnel. Lieutenant-Colonel Kalman Csukas ordered all cannons and
machineguns stripped from the remaining aircraft and remounted on flatbed
trucks or artillery stands to confront whatever was to come.
Not the enemy, but some 3,000 routed German, Italian, and
Hungarian troops showed up with more than 800 wounded and frostbitten men on
January 17. Their arrival had been preceded by the incessant thunder of heavy
artillery growing ever louder in the East. Before nightfall, overcrowded
Urasovo was completely surrounded by Soviet forces, and Csukas was ordered by
radio to hold them off until outside relief could be dispatched. It appeared
during the 19th in the form of the German 26th Westfalen Infantry Division, the
rear guard of which broke through to Urasovo and rescued its haggard defenders,
who trudged into Novy-Oskol four days later.
The 1 Ungarishe jabostafel, re-equipped with the latest
Messerschmitt Me-109Gs, was now based in Kiev, with airfields at Ilovskoje and
Poltava. After a brief period of recuperation, the Hungarians were patrolling
over the battlefield again, carrying out numerous, low-level strafing runs
against transport convoys and troop concentrations in support of Wehrmacht
counter-attacks aimed at recapturing Kharkov. It was here that the unit was
based in late February, when German forces took the city once more.
With spring 1943 came the first appearance in large numbers
of American-made aircraft wearing Red Star insignia. Sergeant Tarnay made the
first kill of a Douglas A-20 light-bomber on the morning of April 29, when six
of the rugged, agile Bostons escorted by a much larger force of fighters
attacked Kharkov-Osnava airfield. U.S. aid was also evident on the ground, as
more Ford trucks and Grant tanks joined a growing inventory of enemy equipment
destroyed by the 1st Hungarian Fighter-Bomber Squadron.
The greatest air armadas in military history clashed from
early to late July over the pivotal struggle for Kursk, during which the
“Pumas;’ as the Magyar Legier6 fighter pilots were now known, flew up to
five missions each day. They shot down only 33 enemy aircraft, because the
Hungarians were assigned mostly ground-attack duties, as one may gather from
the 153 vehicles of all types they destroyed, unknown thousands of Red Army
troops strafed, and eight pieces of field artillery knocked out. All to no
avail. In early August, soon after the Soviets’ victory at Kursk, they over-ran
all opposition, taking Belgorod and threatening Kharkov. Aerial encounters
reached unparalleled levels of ferocity, as the Pumas flew in excess of 20
missions per day.
They were joined by 13 Hungarian-flown Stukas of the 102/2
Dive bomber Squadron, also known as the “Coconut Squadron:” More
Ju.87 Doras, led by Captain Gyozo Levay, soon after arrived. Although both
fighters and bombers excelled at their tasks, they were re-stationed at Poltava
when Kharkov could no longer be held. They had by then established a particular
reputation among their opponents, as Lieutenant Kalman Szeverenyi learned, when
he was tailing a Lavochkin on October 7. Before Szeverenyi could open fire, the
Russian pilot bailed out, parachuting near the wreckage of his own fighter.
The next day was an occasion for celebration at the 102/2nd,
whose airmen had just completed their 1,000th mission. Before relocating back
to Kolozsvar two weeks later, they would execute another 200 sorties, having
dropped more than 800 tons of bombs on the enemy since their debut on the
Eastern Front three months earlier. The Hungarian Stuka crews additionally
accounted for a P-39 Aircobra.
“We form up and I set a homebound course;’ recalled
Lieutenant Tibor Tobak. “Suddenly, a lone Cobra appears and heads toward
the point of our formation. According to Russian custom, he tries to attack the
leader. I am not excited a bit. As soon as he enters our field of fire, he is a
dead man. When he comes into range, eight twin-barreled MGs open up on him.
Sixteen tubes pour deadly eight-mm slugs at him. As I glance back, I can see that
the tracers end up exactly in the Cobra’s fuselage. Sarkady pumps it right
behind the cockpit, where the engine is. `Well done, Lali!’ I shout `I think
you got him!”‘
“Ivan miscalculated his move. He came in too steep to
get under our formation, but he had to pass through our field of fire … The
Cobra is now ahead of me by some one hundred meters, and I can see its engine
smoking. I can see the pilot bailing out. The abandoned aircraft topples and
begins its final spiral descent towards the ground. The parachute blossoms into
a big, white flower. We did it, we got the guy! I feel satisfied; we can
finally paint our first Red Star on the tail of our airplane:’
According to Tobak, “The 37-mm gun of the Cobra is a
killer. A single hit can disable the venerable Stuka. Our 151/twenty-mm is just
a popgun compared to that, but my boys have practiced formation flying a bit in
Kolozsvar. If jumped, German staffels usually break formation and disperse, but
we keep a close formation to concentrate our firepower instead”‘
Two Lavochkin La-5 fighters were also shot down by Tobak’s
men, remarkable achievements for the sluggish, under-defended dive-bomber they
flew. In fact, no Coconut Squadron Stukas were lost to enemy interceptors. The
Squadron had not gone unscathed, however, and its surviving machines-either
four or six not claimed by flak-were transferred to the Luftwaffe after the
Hungarians returned to their homeland for training new crews and rebuilding the
Meanwhile, German counter-attacks failed to retake Kiev but
did push the Soviets out of Zhitomir, where the 1 Ungarishe Jabostafel found a
new base and celebrated its 100th kill in December 1943. Through long months of
intense combat, it had suffered the loss of just 6 pilots (plus 2 missing) from
an original 37 airmen, as proof of their great skill and good luck. After New
Year’s 1944, they relocated yet again, this time to Khalinovka. During the
transfer, Lieutenant Lasl6 Molnar and his wingman, Corporal Erno Kiss, encountered
30 Shturmoviks covered by 10 Lavochkins. Laughing at the 20-to-1 odds against
them, the Hungarians dove amid the enemy bombers, shooting down four of them,
plus two Red fighters, before completing their flight to Khalinovka.
While battles such as these showcased the Hungarians’ superb
combat performance, they nonetheless demonstrated the awful numerical edge
overshadowing the Eastern Front in lengthening shades of doom. The sheer mass
of man power and materiel now at Stalin’s disposal was sufficient to usually
drown any technological superiority the Axis might have possessed, as evidenced
by the 2,600 warplanes he assembled for his conquest of Vinnitsa, the
Wehrmacht’s own headquarters in Russia, defended by 1,460 Luftwaffe aircraft.
The Soviets were nevertheless stymied for more than three months, during which
the entire Eastern Front was stabilized, and the Pumas were in the thick of the
fighting, scoring more than 50 “kills” in January and February alone.
On March 17,1944, the USAAF for the first time attacked
Budapest with 70 B-24s. The Liberators were undeterred by just four Hungarian flown
Messerschmitts, all of which were damaged and two shot down by the unescorted
heavy-bombers’ defensive fire. The encounter illustrated not only the pitifully
inadequate numbers of aircraft available for home defense but lack of proper
pilot training. The Americans returned on April 3 to bomb a hospital and other
civilian targets as punishment, it was generally believed, for the recent
establishment of a new government closer aligned with Germany. In any case, the
attack left 1,073 dead and 526 wounded.
During the 13-day interval between these raids, the 1/1 and
2/1 Fighter Squadrons had been reassigned to the capital, and its crews
provided a crash course in interception tactics. Even so, 170 P-38 Lightnings
and P-51 Mustangs prevented most of the two dozen Pumas from approaching their
targets. A few that penetrated the escorts’ protective ring destroyed 11
heavy-bombers at the cost of 1 Hungarian flyer. Six more Liberators were
brought down by Budapest flak. In another USAAF raid 10 days later, the
Mustangs were replaced by Republic P-47s, which failed to score against the
Messerschmitts. Instead, two Thunderbolts fell to ground fire, along with four
B-17 Flying Fortresses.
Meanwhile, the Hungarian pilots were getting the hang of
interception, suffering no casualties for downing eight B-24s and six
Lightnings. These losses combined with the mistaken American belief that
aircraft manufacturing throughout Hungary had been brought to a halt. In fact,
just a small Experimental Institute lost its hangars and workshops, and a
Messerschmitt factory was damaged, although soon after restored to full
production capacity. USAAF warplanes continued to appear in Hungarian skies
over the next two months, but only on their way to targets in Austria or
ferrying supplies to the Soviet Union. The Magyar Legierd took full advantage
of this lull in enemy raids to upgrade and re-train three, full-strength
fighter squadrons, while Budapest’s already formidable anti-aircraft defenses
When the 101. Honi Legvedelmi Vadkszrepiild Osztkly, or
101st “Puma” Fighter Group, was formed on May 1, 1944, Cadet Dezsd
Szentgyorgyi transferred to the 101/2 Retek, “Radish” Fighter Squadron,
where he would soon become Flight Leader, then, on November 16, Ensign. These
rapid promotions were generated by his rapidly rising number of enemy
heavy-bombers shot down during the “American Season;’ as the period was
referred to by his fellow pilots. Placed in charge of the Home Defense Fighter
Wing was Major Aladar Heppes. At 40 years of age, he was the Magyar Legierd’s
eldest pilot, known as “the Old Puma;’ a seasoned Eastern Front veteran.
For practice, his airmen confronted several hundred USAAF heavy bombers and
their escorts droning toward Vienna on May 24. Although four Liberators, a
Flying Fortress and one Mustang were destroyed, Major Heppes lost one man
killed, and six Messerschmitts were damaged. But the Home Defense Fighter Wing
crews learned from their experience, and vowed to do better when the Yanks
returned in earnest.
Meanwhile, in preparation for imminent Soviet invasion of
their country, the “Coconut” Stuka crews were recalled from Eastern
Front duty to serve on Hungarian soil. Their 102/2nd dive-bomber squadron was
redesignated the 102/1st fighter-bomber squadron, indicating the transition
training they undertook to Focke-Wulf FW-190F-8s at Borgond airfield.
On the morning of June 14, 600 USAAF heavy-bombers and 200
escorts went after nitrogen plants and oil refineries outside Budapest, while
P-38 Lightnings made low-level strafing runs on a Luftwaffe squadron of
Messerschmitt Me.323 Gigant transports at Kecskemet airfield. The defenders
were joined by a quartet of German fighters, which made two “kills:’ Eight
more were claimed by the 32 Hungarian pilots, who lost one of their own. The
city’s anti-aircraft defenses once again proved their worth, shooting down 11
Only 28 Home Defense interceptors were serviceable 48 hours
later to oppose 650 heavy-bombers ringed by 290 Lightnings and Mustangs that
filled the skies over Lake Balaton. Despite the excessive odds confronting
them, the Pumas broke through the thick ranks of protective American fighters,
claiming a dozen of them to destroy four Liberators. A remarkable set of
“kills” was accomplished by Corporal Matyas Lorincz during this, his
first operational flight. Hot in pursuit of four P-38s, he was unable to
prevent them from shooting down Lieutenant Kohalmy. A moment later, Lorincz was
in firing range, and the two Lightnings he set afire collided with and brought
down a third. Lieutenant Lajos Toth, Hungary’s third highest-ranking ace with
26 “kills, was forced to take to his parachute, landing not far from the
U.S. pilot he had himself shot down a few minutes before. Aviation engineer
Gyorgy Punka, recorded how “they chatted until the American was picked up
by a Hungarian Army patrol”‘
Relations between opponents were not invariably cordial,
however, “with the American pilots deliberately firing on Hungarian airmen
who had saved themselves by parachute, or strafing crash-landed aircraft;’
according to Neulen. “One of the victims was Senior Lieutenant Jozef
Bognar, who was killed by an American pilot while hanging helplessly beneath
The June 16 air battle had cost the Home Defense Fighter
Wing the lives of five pilots, including two more wounded. Six Gustav
Messerschmitts were destroyed, and seven damaged. These losses were immediately
made good by fresh recruits and replacement planes, as the struggle against the
bombers began to reach a crescendo on the 30th. This time, the Pumas were aided
by 12 Messerschmitt Me-110 Destroyers and Me-410 Hornets, plus 5 Gustavs from
the Luftwaffe’s 8th Jagddivision. The Germans and Hungarians claimed 11
“kills” between them, while the ferocity of their interception forced
a formation of 27 bombers to turn back short of the capital; the remaining 412
diverted into the northwest.
The next USAAF attempt to strike Budapest’s area oil
refineries on July 2 was similarly spoiled by just 18 Pumas, together with a
like number of Luftwaffe Messerschmitts. As their colleagues in Germany had
already learned, it was not necessary to destroy an entire flight of enemy bombers
to make them miss their target. Among the most successful interceptions
undertaken by the Magyar Legier6 fighters was carried out against 800 U.S.
warplanes on July 7. A mere 10 Messerschmitts led by Major Heppes, the Old Puma
himself, accounted for as many Liberators falling in flames from the sky,
together with another 15 brought down by flak. One Gustav was lost, its pilot
parachuting safely to earth.
The American aerial offensive pressed on throughout the
summer and into fall of 1944 on an almost daily basis and in growing numbers.
The Home Defense Fighter Wing continued to score “kills” and deflect
bomber missions, until its men and machines were withdrawn from around Budapest
in mid-October on more immediately pressing business: the invasion of their
country. The previous six months of stiff Axis resistance had slowed, but could
not halt the Red Army juggernaut, which now reached the foot of the Carpathian
Mountains at the Hungarian frontier.
In the midst of this crisis, Admiral Horthy lost his nerve
and attempted to capitulate to the Soviets. But the Germans learned of it in
time, and placed him in protective custody for the rest of the war. News of his
dethronement was met with a mix of indifference and acclaim, because the
Hungarian people, who remembered all too well the Communist tyranny and terror
they experienced during the 1920s, preferred resistance to submission. The Red
Army was stopped at the Eastern Carpathian Mountains by German-Hungarian
forces, but they could not simultaneously contain a veritable deluge of Red
Army troops that overran Transylvania.
Their attack on Budapest began in early December, although
the capital was not easily taken. Russian losses over the previous
three-anda-half years were becoming apparent in the declining quality of
personnel on the ground and in the air. When, for example, a formation of
Heinkel He.111 medium-bombers escorted by Hungarian pilots of the 101/2 Fighter
Squadron was about to sortie against Soviet troops crossing the Danube on
December 21, an out-numbering group of Lavochkins scattered and fled without a
fight. Clearly, Stalin was relying on the dead weight of numbers more than ever
before to achieve his objectives.
On January 2,1945, a joint German-Hungarian effort known as
Operation Konrad I was launched to break the siege of Budapest. Although
significant gains were made early and the Pumas wracked up more “kills;’
high winds kept flying to a frustrating minimum and destroyed more of their
aircraft than Soviet pilots. After three days, the attempt to liberate the
capital bogged down. Undaunted, reserves pushed onward with Operation Konrad
II. During a rare stretch of clear weather on the 8th, Hungarian crews of the
102 Fast Bomber Group celebrated their 2,000th sortie by pummeling Red Army
positions. The return of dense fog grounded further flights, however, and
Operation Konrad II was abandoned the next day, mostly for lack of air support.
A third and final Operation Konrad appeared to succeed where
its predecessors had failed. The Vlth German Army kicked it off on January 18,
and 35 miles of territory were recaptured in the first 48 hours of the attack.
The mighty Soviet 17th Air Army stumbled backward across the Danube, which
advancing Axis troops reached on the 20th. Two days later, the Russians
evacuated Szakesfehervar. These successes on the ground were importantly aided
by airmen such as Ensign Dezso Szentgyorgyi, the Magyar Legier’s leading ace,
who scored 14 victories alone in the fighting for Budapest. His and the rest of
the Pumas’s chief targets were Shturmovik ground-attack planes, together with
enemy armored vehicles and troops.
A few survivors of the 102/2 Dive-bomber “Coconut”
Squadron most of its Ju-87Ds had been destroyed on the ground at Bdrgond the
previous October 12 by low-flying P-51s of the American 15th Air Force-pounded
Red Army positions and knocked out T-34 tanks. Their vital sorties were
abruptly curtailed from January 23 by heavy snowfall, just when Soviet reserves
began entering the battle area, and more than 300 German tanks were destroyed.
Three days later, Operation Konrad III had to be canceled. During these
repeated, all-out efforts to liberate Budapest, the three participating Magyar
Legiero squadrons had flown some 150 combined missions to win 69 aerial
victories for the loss of 6 pilots during 20 days of flight allowed by the
weather. The “Coconut” Squadron was finished, having flown 1,500
sorties, dropped 750 tons of bombs, for the loss of half of their commissioned
officer pilots and 40 percent of noncommissioned pilots.
An even-more ambitious attempt than Operation Konrad to
regain the initiative got underway on March 6 with Operation Fruhlingserwachsen
(“Spring Awakening”) in the Lake Balaton area of Transdanubia. Forces
included the German 6th SS Panzer Army, the 1.SS Division Leibstandarte Adolf
Hitler, German 2nd Panzer Army, Army Group Balck, elements of German Army Group
E, and the Hungarian Third Army. Objectives included saving the last oil
reserves still available to the Axis and routing the Red Army long enough to
recapture Budapest. Combined Luftwaffe and Magyar Legiero forces amounted to
850 aircraft opposed by 965 Soviet warplanes.
Odds against the Axis on the ground were far more loaded in
their opponents’ favor, with seven infantry armies and a tank army. The
combined 101/1 and 101/3 Fighter Squadrons strove to stave off massed flights
of Bostons and Shturmoviks savaging Axis armored units and troop
concentrations. High numbers of either type were shot down, together with
several Yak-9s, on March 9, when the Pumas completed 56 sorties, to gain
temporary air superiority above the German 6th SS Panzer Army, enabling it to
advance. Despite early, impressive gains such as these, Germany’s last
offensive could not prevail against the enemy’s overwhelming numerical
advantage, and Axis troops were compelled to fall back to their prepared
positions in Hungary, where they were soon overrun.
When the Soviets began their drive across the Austrian
border, Magyar Legiero-flown Gustavs shot up infantry columns, cavalry corps,
truck convoys, and horse-drawn wagons clogging the roads to Vienna in low-level
runs throughout April 3. Fierce ground fire claimed 8 Pumas and destroyed 10 of
their aircraft. Replacements of both men and machines arrived almost
immediately, but their operations were restricted by a serious fuel shortage.
In spite of this crisis, they continued to shoot down both Soviet Lavochkins
and American Mustangs, although their primary focus was strafing and bombing
the endless torrent of Soviet troops and equipment flooding into Austria. A
Yak-9 Lieutenant Kiss, already an ace with five “kills;’ shot down on
April 17, 1945, was the Hungarians’ final aerial victory. They went on to fly
throughout the month, blasting Soviet vehicles, troops, and supplies.
On May 4, as American soldiers approached the airfield at
Raffelding, remaining warplanes of the Magyar Legier6, sabotaged by their own
crews, exploded into flames. Their self-immolation represented the undefeated
Pumas’s ultimate act of defiance.
Long before these climactic events, in early 1938, the first
Hungarian airborne unit had been formed at Szent Endre, an island in the Danube
River, near the capital city of Budapest. The Ejtoernyos (paratroopers)
attracted many volunteers, although their equipment was at first entirely
foreign made. The cadets jumped with Italian Salvadore, German Schrodor, and
American Irving parachutes from Italian Caproni 101 transport aircraft. Powered
by three Alfa Romeo, license-built Armstrong Siddeley Lynx engines rated at 200
hp apiece, the reliable, sturdy, high-wing monoplanes could accommodate eight
By the following year, the Hungarian Army had developed its
own, locally manufactured airborne equipment, including knee and elbow pads,
jump smock, and H-39M parachute. The doughty Caproni veterans of the Ethiopian
War were replaced by the much-larger SavoiaMarchetti SM-75. The huge
Marsupiale, “Marsupial;’ with its 1,276.14 square feet of wing area, was
capable of carrying 25 paratroopers. After relocating to the Papa Airport, the
Ejtoernyos consisted of 30 officers, 120 NCOs, and 250 enlisted men in one
battalion of three companies.
Their baptism of fire was a limited invasion of Yugoslavia
to reclaim territories severed from Hungary after World War I by Allied framers
of the Versailles Treaty. The Ejtoernyos made their first combat jump on April
12, 1941, over the northern Yugoslavian district of Delidek. From there, they
marched more than 18 miles under cover of darkness to surprise the defenders of
several bridges, which were swiftly taken after brief fighting. That same day,
the paratroopers suffered a grievous loss in an accident that took the lives of
22 comrades and their first commander, Major Arpad Bertalan, when the
overloaded Marsupiale in which they were flying crashed at Veszprem airfield.
Thereafter, the unit was known as the “Bertalan Battalion;’ led by Colonel
The Ejtoernyos participated in numerous actions on the
Eastern Front, most notably in the relief of Hungarian troops during the
struggle for Stalingrad. During March 1944, the paratroopers were part of Axis
efforts to shore up the southeastern flank in danger of collapse caused by
Romania’s defection to Stalin. Colonel Szugyi and his men established a strong
defensive perimeter in the Carpathian Mountains, the last natural emplacement
of its kind in the East. Warriors of the hard-pressed Bertalan Battalion held
their positions against 10-to-1 odds, suffering many casualties, but repeatedly
frustrated the combined Russian-Romanian offensive long enough for regular
German and Hungarian troops to withdraw with their weapons and equipment in
Ejtoernyos survivors re-grouped on October 20 with two other
light infantry battalions in the understrength St. Laszlo Division, named after
the victorious medieval king, Saint Ladislas I. It was commanded by Zoltan
Szugyi, who had been promoted to General for his exemplary defense of the
Carpathian Mountains. In November, the St. Laszlo Division transferred to the
Lake Balaton area, where, after fruitlessly trying to stem the Red Army tide
for 10 days, the paratroopers and their comrades pulled back to defend the
Hungarian capital. By December 1, they were surrounded in Budapest by the
Soviets, but broke through enemy lines before the city capitulated on February
Ejtoernyos remnants still fought cohesively as a unit,
retreating into Austria, until the last day of the war, when General Szugyi
surrendered with a handful of survivors to the British Army on May 10 to escape
capture by the Russians. Instead, they were all placed under arrest and
transported to the East. Lieutenant-General Szombathelyi, Commander in Chief of
the Hungarian Army during 1941, had been similarly turned over to Communist
authorities in Belgrade, where, after a well-publicized show trial, was
executed by impalement. General Sziigyi’s death sentence was commuted to life
imprisonment only after he had been sufficiently tortured into a fulsome
confession. Meanwhile, his paratroopers disappeared behind the Iron Curtain
that fell over Hungary for the next 43 years.
On April 16, 1945, two weeks before the close of
hostilities, Dezsd Szentgyorgyi destroyed the last of his 32 confirmed
victims-an Ilyushin 11-4 bomber-making him Hungary’s leading ace. Such skills were
not only reflected in his aerial victories: during the course of more than 220
sorties, he was never shot down, nor ever crashed under any circumstances.
After the war, he flew as a commercial pilot for MASZOVLET, Hungarian-Soviet
Airlines, from 1946 until 1949, but was arrested the following year for his
past association with the criminalized Magyar Legiero.
His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but he
was freed during the Budapest Uprising of 1956. Following its blood-stained
suppression, the new Soviet authorities, not wishing to further antagonize
their restive subjects, dismissed all charges against Szentgyorgyi and allowed
him to resume his aviation career with the renamed Malev Hungarian Airlines.
Over the next 15 years, he logged 12,334 flight hours over more than three
million miles, dying on August 28, 1971, in his one and only crash near
Copenhagen, less than three weeks short of his retirement. The aircraft in
which he died had been built by the same company that made his final victim of
World War II-Ilyushin.
Today, the Hungarian armed forces at Kecskemet operate the
59th “Szentgyorgyi Dezso” Air Base.
The Luftwaffe fights
today on many fronts-from the Arctic Circle to the Bay of Biscay and the North
African desert; from far out over the Atlantic Ocean to the Volga. But we are
not alone. The skies are illuminated by the different national colors of other
peoples who share our epic struggle for the common defense of European
-Hermann Goering, February 2, 79431
Although countless books and magazine articles describe
virtually every aspect of German air power in World War II, their millions of
readers are mostly unaware that the Luftwaffe fought in concert with a broad
variety of foreign air forces across Europe and Asia. Benito Mussolini’s
partnership with the Third Reich is well known, but his Regis Aeronautics is
usually dismissed as having been too weak and ineffectual for interest. So too,
Japan’s contribution to the Axis is popularly understood, although beyond
common familiarity with the carrier-based attack on Pearl Harbor; and the Zero
fighter plane’s enduring reputation, little is known, even to serious students
of the Pacific War, about the Imperial Japanese Army or Naval Air Forces.
A general lack of appreciation for their significance stems
from the pitifully few books devoted to the air arms of either Fascist Italy or
Imperial Japan. Far fewer books even go so far as to mention the
contemporaneous air forces of Spain, Vichy France, or Hungary, to say nothing
of Slovakia, Thailand, and Manchuria. Nor were the air forces operated by these
and other Axis nations the miniscule, insignificant military services readers
may assume. Close examination of their histories uncovers a hitherto
undisclosed, unsuspected panorama of World War II that throws a whole new light
on the conflict.
We learn, for example, that the Romanians developed and flew
their own interceptor, which capably defended the vital Ploie~ti oil fields
against Anglo-American heavy-bombers. Finnish pilots, invariably outnumbered in
the air by their Soviet opponents, ranked among the highest-scoring aces of all
time. Far from having been saddled with an obsolete air force, the Italians
made the world’s first cross-country jet flight in 1941, and their Macchi
Greyhounds and Centaurs bested both British Spitfires and U.S. Mustangs.
Contrary to Allied wartime portrayals, not every nation
fighting at the side of the Third Reich was headed by a Nazi regime, nor even
sympathetic to National Socialism. Croatia, Italy, and Slovakia had Fascist or
Fascist-style states aligned with Germany. Hungary went Fascist in late 1944,
but had been preceded for most of the war by the regency of an
arch-conservative anti-Fascist, Miklos Horthy. Monarchies reigned over Bulgaria,
Romania, Manchuria, and Japan, while an authoritarian republic ruled Thailand.
The parliamentarians of Finland’s constitutional democracy wanted as little to
do with Adolf Hitler as possible, and rejected his plea to advance their armed
forces beyond reclaimed Finnish soil previously annexed by the Soviets, thereby
losing the Battle of Leningrad for both Germany and Finland. Rightist
governments in France and Spain under Philippe Petain and Francisco Franco,
respectively, allowed volunteers to join the Wehrmacht, but refrained from
formally allying themselves with the Axis.
These and many thousands of volunteers from the occupied and
neutral countries made up the German Luftwaffe’s foreign comradesin-arms. Not
all shared the same dream. Idealists saw Operation Barbarossa-the code name for
Adolf Hitler’s June 22, 1941, invasion of Russia-as the most historically
significant, unique opportunity for defending all Europeans from otherwise
certain destruction and slavery, a struggle that would make possible a new
Golden Age of racial unity and cultural greatness. Blinkered nationalists cared
not a fig for their fellow Europeans but fought on the Eastern Front entirely
for their own particular lands, and were absolutely blind to the necessity of
continental cooperation. Others regarded the conflict only as a means to regain
lost territories and/or obtaining new ones. Conquest in the East would
simultaneously eliminate Stalin and create Lebensraum (“living
space”) for continental over-population, while providing Europe’s new
For all their disparate motivations and agendas, what these
strange bedfellows shared in common was the will to extirpate the Soviet
colossus growing ever more powerfully next door. Some had first-hand experience
with Communism in practice, when Bela Kuhn seized power in post-World War I
Hungary, or Lenin sparked a bloody civil war throughout Finland during the
1920s, followed the next decade by another civil war that tore Spain in half.
Since then, the Red Army had mushroomed into the largest military phenomenon on
Earth, and was universally perceived as a common threat to every European
people. Tens of thousands of them-from Iberia to the Balkans-had already died
in Soviet-sponsored upheavals long before Operation Barbarossa was launched.
Like the Regia Aeronautica, most Axis air forces operated
independently from, but in concert with, the Luftwaffe, although all of them
were more or less indebted to Germany for training and, at least partially,
leadership and equipment. The distant Manchurians flew Junkers-86
medium-bombers, and the Imperial Japanese Army Air Force’s Kawasaki Tony
interceptor began as a Heinkel-100. Particularly surprising were the numerous
crucial roles undertaken by the crews of these relatively obscure air forces
during the war, and how that global struggle sometimes hinged on their
To be sure, influence on the development and even the
outcome of World War II was all out of proportion to their low numbers and
outdated aircraft. Operating cast-off Brewster Buffalo fighters, sometimes
against 12-to-1 opposition in the skies over Leningrad, Finland’s Eino
Juutilainen claimed 94 confirmed “kills;’ though his actual score was well
over 100. Even little Slovakia produced world-class aces, such as Jan Reznak,
who downed 32 enemy aircraft and destroyed dozens more on the ground.
Meanwhile, Hungary’s Laszlo Molnar and Bulgaria’s Petar
Botchev accounted between themselves for literally thousands of Red Army
troops, armored vehicles, and supply trucks. Their victories are no less
unacknowledged than those scored by France’s Vichy Air Force, which turned back
an Allied invasion of West Africa and effectively defended Madagascar against
overwhelming odds for half a year. Estonians, Latvians, and even anti-Communist
Russians operated their own squadrons on the Eastern Front, where they
regularly spoiled Soviet initiatives. During the struggle for Stalingrad,
Croatian pilots averaged more than 20 missions per day, until they were the
last Axis pilots still flying over the embattled city. While Manchurian airmen
rammed their planes into some of the first American B-29s lost during World War
II, Japanese interceptors defeated America’s early strategic bombing offensive
against their country, and USAAF P-38 Lightnings fell under the guns of Thai
In addition to those nations operating their own air forces
on behalf of the Axis, volunteers from every land occupied by the Wehrmacht,
Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan-and beyond-joined their respective services,
as individuals or in groups. Most did not become aircrews but served throughout
military hierarchies according to their ages and abilities. For example, 1,112
Lithuanian youngsters participated in the Luftwaffe as helpers in flak,
searchlight, and transport formations.’ Although Estonian and Latvian air force
units freely and fully cooperated with the Germans, as Chapter 6 describes,
Lithuanian authorities refused direct cooperation with the Axis, unless their
nation’s independence was first recognized. Their fellow Balts failed to
convince them that political discussions had been rendered premature by the
exigencies of war, and could not be properly entertained until after the
Soviets had been completely defeated.
Despite the adamantine insistence of their leaders, numerous
Lithuanians volunteered for duty in various Waffen-SS divisions-mostly
Allgemeine, Volksdeutsche, Estonian, or Latvian. Fewer served in the Luftwaffe,
and not always on the Eastern Front. Among the aircraft collected for early
1944s Operation Steinbock planned disruption of Anglo-American materiel
stockpiling in Britain preparatory to the Normandy Invasion-several Junkers
Ju.88 mediumbombers were manned by Lithuanian crews with German flight
officers. They were joined by Belgian volunteers, such as Joseph Christian, a
radio operator-rear-dorsal gunner with Kampfgeschwader 54, the famous Totenkopf
(“Death’s Head”) squadron, which participated on every front wherever
the Wehrmacht was engaged. On April 18, Christian was aboard a Ju.88 over the
London docks, which it had successfully attacked, when his Junkers was set upon
by several Spitfires and destroyed with the loss of all hands.
Steinbock’s 447 inadequately escorted bombers were
intercepted by more than 500 radar-guided RAF fighters, which claimed 329
“kills” over the course of the five-month-long Operation. From late
February to early March, Christian’s Totenkopf squadron alone lost 18
warplanes. The British had been additionally and vitally assisted by their
complete mastery of all Luftwaffe codes, which warned them prior to each attack
of the number and type of enemy aircraft, their target destination, estimated
time of arrival, speed, and altitude-even squadron identification, including
the individual names of enemy commanders. Given such advance notice, together
with their numerical superiority, the British could have hardly missed.
A former pilot of Belgium’s disbanded Militair Vliegwezen,
Alfons Labeau, became a Luftwaffe color sergeant (Oberscharfuhrer) in June
1944. Thereafter, he flew mostly transport and liaison aircraft for the
duration. His compatriot, Guido Rombart, was a Waffen-SS-Langemarck veteran,
who transferred to the Luftwaffe in 1943. After completing his flight
instruction at Nenndorf and Gumpersdorf, then posting with a fighter training
unit, JG 102, in early April, he was transferred to fully operational
interceptors with jagclgeschwacler 1 Oesau the early following autumn. His
mount was a Focke-Wulf FW-190 A-8, arguably the best all-around piston-driven
fighter plane of World War II. The Wurger’s BMW 801 D-2 radial engine, rated at
2,000 hp, enabled it to climb 2,560 feet per minute and turn inside the Allies’
top competitors. Living up to its name, the “Butcher-Bird” was armed
with two, 13-mm MG 131 machine-guns and four 20-mm MG 151.20 E cannons.
On September 27, Rombart and 55 other pilots of I./JG 1 and II./JG 1 were ordered to intercept more than 300 B-17 Flying Fortresses escorted by 262 fighter-escorts of VIII Fighter Command including Thunderbolts of the USAAF 63rd Fighter Squadron raiding the German city of Emden. During the melee that ensued, the Belgian airman’s Focke-Wulf crashed into the sea near the island of Borkum. His body was never recovered.
Like the Lithuanian flak helpers, 2,000 volunteers served in
the Flaemische Flakbrigade as gunnery personnel and munition handlers from
early 1944 until the Allied occupation of Belgium. A similar unit was
Flak-Regiment 159, where Belgians such as Joseph Justin, a 20-year-old
laboratory assistant from Malmedy and former gunner aboard a Junkers Ju.88
medium-bomber with 9./KG 6, was assigned in December that same year.
A Danish Ju.88 pilot was A. T. Harild, who rose to the rank
of Luftwaffe major while fighting in the skies above Orel, in 1943. Denmark’s
aces in the Luftwaffe included Lieutenant Peter Horn and Captain Poul Sommer.
Both were Iron Cross recipients-second and first class-for their 11 and 6
aerial victories, respectively. Sommer returned from frontline service in Italy
to his homeland, where he formed the Vagtkorpset de Tyske Luftvaaben
(“Guard Corps of the German Luftwaffe”), comprising 1,200 personnel
in five companies to improve airfield security, particularly against resistance
movement saboteurs. So successful were his organizational efforts in this
direction, Heinrich Himmler personally promoted Sommer to the rank of reserve
SS-Hauptsturmfuehrer on January 11, 1945.
Turkey stayed out of the war and traded with Germany until very near the end, when it made a token declaration.
Case I: Turkey as a German victim. Idea is for Germany to directly threaten the Caucasus. It also gives the axis control of the Bosphorus-Dardanelles but I’m not sure that’s important. I’m not sure I really believe this idea.
Case II: Turkey as a German ally: As above, but no need for an invasion and the Turkish army as an ally. Turkey can influence events in the Caucasus, Syria, Iraq, maybe Greece.
Even after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, he might have gained a partial victory if he had not possessed two more lethal defects— insistence on offensive solutions to military problems when his strength was inadequate, and attempting to keep all the territory he had seized when retreat would have preserved his forces. These failings led to disastrous offensives—Stalingrad, Tunisia, Kursk, the Bulge—and “no retreat” orders that destroyed huge portions of his army.
The way to victory was not through a frontal attack on the Soviet Union but an indirect approach through North Africa. This route was so obvious that all the British leaders saw it, as did a number of the German leaders, including Alfred Jodl, chief of operations of the armed forces; Erich Raeder, commander of the German Navy, and Erwin Rommel, destined to gain fame in North Africa as the Desert Fox.
After the destruction of France’s military power in 1940, Britain was left with only a single armored division to protect Egypt and the Suez Canal. Germany had twenty armored divisions, none being used. If the Axis— Germany and its ally Italy—had used only four of these divisions to seize the Suez Canal, the British Royal Navy would have been compelled to abandon the Mediterranean Sea, turning it into an Axis lake. French North Africa—Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia—could have been occupied, and German forces could have seized Dakar in Senegal on the west coast of Africa, from which submarines and aircraft could have dominated the main South Atlantic sea routes.
With no hope of aid, Yugoslavia and Greece would have been forced to come to terms. Since Hitler gained the support of Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, Germany would have achieved control of all southeastern Europe without committing a single German soldier.
Once the Suez Canal was taken, the way would have been open to German armored columns to overrun Palestine, Transjordan, the Arabian peninsula, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. This would have given Germany unlimited supplies of the single commodity it needed most: oil.
As important as oil was for the conduct of modern war, the greatest advantages of German occupation of the Arab lands and Iran would have been to isolate Turkey, threaten British control of India, and place German tanks and guns within striking distance of Soviet oil fields in the Caucasus and along the shores of the Caspian Sea. Turkey would have been forced to become an ally or grant transit rights to German forces, Britain would have had to exert all its strength to protect India, and the Soviet Union would have gone to any lengths to preserve peace with Germany because of its perilous position.
The Atlantic islands idea was more absurd than the Gibraltar plan. Only Admiral Raeder dared to tell Hitler so, and even he couched his objections in discreet terms. The German navy could actually seize the islands in surprise moves, Raeder assured Hitler, but it could not protect the sea lanes to them thereafter. The Royal Navy would erect an iron blockade in days. German garrisons would be cut off from supplies, except driblets that might be flown in. Few attacks on British convoys— much less air attacks on the United States—could be mounted, because the Germans could get little fuel to the islands.
Raeder’s logic was overwhelming and should have ended the matter right there. But it didn’t. Hitler continued to agitate for capture of the Atlantic islands on into the fall and beyond.
Since the army generals had been unable to sway the Fuehrer to carry out a Mediterranean strategy, Admiral Raeder weighed in on September 6 and September 26, 1940. At the second conference Raeder cornered Hitler alone and showed him step by step how Germany could defeat Britain elsewhere than over the English Channel. Doing so would put Germany in a commanding position against the Soviet Union.
Raeder, bowing to Hitler’s passions, said the Germans should take Gibraltar and secure the Canary Islands. But his main concern in that part of the world was the great northwestern bulge of Africa, largely controlled by France.
An imponderable regarding Hitler’s thinking is why, when he was negotiating France’s surrender, he did not demand admission of German troops into French North Africa—Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco. If the French refused, he could have threatened to occupy all of France and deny the French a government at Vichy. Besides, the French had so few troops in North Africa they couldn’t have prevented a German occupation.
The importance of the region was forced upon him only three days before the September 26 conference: a joint operation of British and Free French forces under Charles de Gaulle had tried to seize Dakar, but had been beaten off by Vichy French guns. This reinforced Raeder’s conviction that the British, supported by the United States, would try to get a foothold in northwest Africa in order to move against the Axis. He urged Germany to team up with Vichy France to secure the region.
But Raeder’s main argument was that the Axis should capture the Suez Canal. After Suez, German panzers could advance quickly through Palestine and Syria as far as Turkey.
“If we reach that point, Turkey will be in our power,” Raeder emphasized. “The Russian problem will then appear in a different light. It is doubtful whether an advance against Russia from the north [that is, Poland and Romania] will be necessary.”
No one realized this truth better than Winston Churchill. In a message to President Roosevelt a few months later, he asserted that if Egypt and the Middle East were lost, continuation of the war “would be a hard, long, and bleak proposition,” even if the United States entered.
But Adolf Hitler had a much more difficult time seeing what was clear to Churchill. According to Raeder, Hitler agreed with his “general trend of thought” but had to talk things over with Mussolini, Franco, and Pétain. This shows Hitler was seeking limited tactical gains in the Mediterranean. Although a drive through Suez would call for an agreement with Mussolini, it would not require concurrence of Franco or Pétain. This indicates Hitler did not grasp that the victory over France had transformed the entire strategic outlook for Germany.
Raeder felt the senior army generals had a “purely continental outlook,” did not understand the war-winning opportunities that had opened up on the south shore of the Mediterranean, and would never counsel Hitler correctly. Although the OKH, the army high command, and the OKW, the armed forces high command, did advise Hitler to send troops to North Africa, their proposals lacked Raeder’s urgency. Never did Brauchitsch, Halder, Jodl, or Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, chief of staff of the OKW, express the conviction that the war could be won in the Mediterranean, although Keitel told Benito Mussolini that capture of Cairo was more important than capture of London. Part of their hesitancy lay in the knowledge that Hitler had been fixed for a long time on destroying the Soviet Union and gaining Lebensraum in the east. Their careers depended upon not rocking that boat. However, they never stressed to Hitler, as did Raeder, that victory in the Mediterranean would make it easier to achieve victory over the Soviet Union.
Once Axis forces overran Egypt and the Suez Canal, they would close the eastern Mediterranean to the Royal Navy. The British fleet would immediately retreat into the Red Sea, because it could not be adequately supplied by convoys through the western Mediterranean. Whether or not the Germans seized Gibraltar, Britain would be strategically paralyzed.
The Axis would be able to move at will into the Middle East, for the British had no substantial forces there. This region produced much of the world’s oil, and its capture would provide ample amounts of Germany’s single most-needed strategic material.
An advance on the southern frontier of Turkey would put the Turks in an impossible position. Hitler was already gaining Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria as allies. Therefore, Turkey could be approached both by way of Bulgaria at Istanbul and from northern Iraq and Syria. Turkey would be forced to join the Axis or grant passage for Axis forces and supplies. A defiant stance would result in the swift defeat of the Turkish army and disaster.
Passage through Turkey would reduce the importance of Malta and Gibraltar. This way, both could be eliminated without the active support of Franco and without direct assault.
German forces could occupy French North Africa with or without Vichy France’s cooperation. From French Morocco, they could approach from the south the small strip of Morocco along the Strait of Gibraltar ruled by Spain. Spain would be forced to grant transit rights, or stand aside if German forces occupied the strip without permission. Spain could not resist for fear of a German attack into the heart of Spain from France. Consequently, German airfields and batteries could be set up along the south shore of the strait. This would close it to Britain—without an expensive military assault on the rock of Gibraltar.
Sealing the Strait of Gibraltar would force the British to abandon Malta, because they could not supply it.
With the Royal Navy out of the Mediterranean, it would become an Axis lake. This would permit German forces to occupy all of western Africa, including the French base at Dakar in Senegal. Aircraft, ships, and submarines from Dakar could close down much of Britain’s convoy traffic through the South Atlantic, even without seizure of the Cape Verde islands.
In the Middle East the strategic payoff would be much greater. German forces in Iran would block that country as a route for supplies to the Soviet Union from Britain and the United States. Russia would be left with only the ports of Murmansk on the Barents Sea and Archangel on the White Sea through which goods from the west could be funneled. This would require dangerous passages in atrocious weather, with constant danger of attacks by German ships and aircraft stationed in Norway.
Even more important, the Soviet Union’s major oil fields were in the Caucasus and along the western shore of the Caspian Sea, just north of Iran. Germany could threaten not only an attack directly from Poland and Romania in the west but also from the south through the Caucasus to the Soviet oil fields. This danger of envelopment and quick loss of oil would immobilize Stalin, and obligate him to provide Germany with whatever grain and raw materials it might need. In other words, Germany—without loss of a single soldier—would have the benefits of the Soviet Union’s vast materials storehouse, as well as delivery of tin, rubber, and other goods from Southeast Asia by way of the Trans-Siberian Railway.
A German position in Iran would also pose a huge threat to British control of India, which was agitating for independence under Mohandas K. Gandhi and other leaders. From Iran Germany could reach India through the Khyber and other passes, invasion routes used long before and long after Alexander the Great made the passage in 326 B.C. Germany would not actually have to do a thing. The threat alone would force Britain to commit every possible soldier to defend its crown jewel. Germany, again without the expenditure of a single man, could immobilize Britain.
In possession of the Middle East, all of North and West Africa, and Europe west of Russia, its armed forces virtually intact, its economy able to exploit the resources of three continents, Germany would be virtually invincible. Britain’s defiance on the periphery of Europe would become increasingly irrelevant. Germany would not have to inaugurate an all-out U-boat war against its shipping. Britain’s remaining strength would have to be expended in protecting its empire and the convoys to and from the home islands.
The United States would have no hope of launching an invasion of mainland Europe against an undefeated and waiting German army until it had spent years building a vast navy, army, and air force, not to speak of the transports, landing craft, vehicles, and weapons necessary for such a giant undertaking. It is possible that the United States would take on this task, but the chances for its success would be extremely small. Far more likely, the American people would turn first to counter the expansion of Japan in the Pacific.
Meanwhile Germany could consolidate its empire, bring subject nations into an economic union, and grow more powerful economically, militarily, and politically every day. Before long, the world would become accustomed to the new German Empire and insist on a return to normal international trade.
This at last would give Hitler the opportunity he had dreamed of since the 1920s—seizure of all the Soviet Union west of the Urals. Once a de facto cease-fire had been achieved, Hitler could strike at European Russia from south and west, drive Stalin and the surviving Soviets into Siberia, and get the Lebensraum he coveted.
Soviet and German deployments near Prokhorovka on the eve of the engagement of 12 July. The blue dashed line shows the frontline positions of the divisions of the II SS-Panzer Corps in the evening of 11 July, and the red dashed line shows the position of Soviet forces directly opposing the II SS-Panzer Corps. The black dashed line shows the railway running from Prokhorovka southwest through the Psel corridor (the strip of land between the Psel River and a tributary of the Northern Donets River).
Observing the artillery’s work from his observation post, the army commander, Lieutenant General P. A. Rotmistrov, could easily envision the conditions in the corps. A professional tanker with great combat experience, he understood better than anyone else the situation of the corps and brigade commanders in the situation that was taking shape. They were forced, as they say, to attack from scratch against an adversary that was plainly strong, judging from the course of combat operations over the preceding days.
Even Lieutenant General P. A. Rotmistrov himself was not in an enviable position. He had no possibility (because of terrain conditions) to employ the full potential of his combat equipment. He had been deprived of a reserve (Trufanov’s detachment), a unit of the first echelon, and half the second echelon (two mechanized brigades of the 5th Guards Mechanized Corps and one tank brigade of the 2nd Guards Tank Corps). He had also not received the necessary support from the front’s artillery and aviation (having at his disposal only one howitzer regiment). In spite of all this, the commander was supposed to strike the strongest formation of the Fourth Panzer Army (which was fully-prepared to receive the attack), split it, and drive 30 kilometers deep into enemyheld territory. All this, while periodically repelling attacks from his own air force (about this, a little later).
A significant number of problems arose within the corps themselves. For example, the 29th Tank Corps commander Major General I. F. Kirichenko was not a novice in military affairs; as a brigade commander he had taken part in the fighting for Moscow, demonstrating not only personal courage, but also professionalism in a difficult situation. However, Kirichenko had never commanded such a major formation as a corps before, and the battle at Prokhorovka would be his first in his role as corps commander. In addition, the headquarters of the 29th Tank Corps had just been organized. While the staff had passed through an intensive four-month training course, the main test of the quality of combat training remained genuine battle itself. It is precisely combat that developed the professionalism of commanders and staff, initiated and honed the work routines in headquarters, and forged the ability to work together smoothly in the midst of battle.
The 18th Tank Corps had been added to the 5th Guards Tank Army just before the march to Prokhorovka. P. A. Rotmistrov had been previously acquainted with the 18th Tank Corps commander, General B. S. Bakharov, but this would be the first time they would be working together in a combat situation. The army commander had been dissatisfied with how Boris Sergeevich Bakharov had handled the corps march from Ostrogozhsk. His formation had lost a lot of vehicles en route; the corps commander and headquarters staff had plainly underestimated the difficulty of the assignment. Although by the morning of 12 July the brigades’ repair teams and crews had managed to restore most of the disabled vehicles to good working order and the corps was fully combat ready, Rotmistrov decided to send his chief of staff Major General V. N. Baskakov to the 18th Tank Corps, in order to assess the corps commander, to prevent mistakes on his part in the extremely complex situation, and to assist him in coordinating the work of his staff with the army units.
Tank combat is characterized by its highly dynamic nature and by sharp changes in the situation. Therefore, strict control over the tank formations, stable and efficient communications with the brigades, and the rapid processing of orders and instructions are extremely important. However, there were no conditions for fulfilling these demands, and problems arose in securing communications between the corps and the brigades, and especially between the brigades and their subordinate battalions. Furthermore, the command and control in several of the brigades were as yet untested by combat.
In short, the 5th Guards Tank Army was entering its first battle. Therefore, the army commander and the subordinate commanders at all levels strove to spend time in the forward units before the start of the battle. On the evening of 11 July General I. F. Kirichenko, leaving behind his chief of staff Colonel E. I. Fominykh at the command post, journeyed to Colonel S. F. Moiseev’s 31st Tank Brigade; his deputy Colonel A. V. Egorov went to A. A. Linev’s 32nd Tank Brigade.
At 0830, the Katiushas of the 76th Guards Mortar Regiment fired its final volley from their position southwest of Prokhorovka. At the instant the explosions died away, a relative calm fell over the field. As eyewitnesses later recalled, for the next several minutes, a rustling wave passed across the field, like a heavy, but short summer squall. The dust raised by the explosions settled to the earth. For a few brief moments, everything fell silent. They were only seconds, followed immediately by the sound of a powerful, rising rumble. The tanks of the 5th Guards Tank Army were moving out of their jumping-off positions and accelerating into the attack.
The army commander attentively watched the departure of the tank brigades. He had been waiting for this moment for several months. Pavel Alekseevich Rotmistrov had been appointed to command an army that did not yet exist at the time. He had spent four months forming it, equipping it, and organizing the training of its staff and combat troops. Now the moment of its first trial by fire had arrived. For us, who did not travel that hard path, it is difficult today to understand the thoughts and feelings of a man, who was witnessing the combat baptism of his progeny.
Rotmistrov recalled after the war:
Our artillery’s squall of fire had not yet subsided, when the volleys of our Guards mortar regiments rang out. This signified the start of the attack, which my radio set duplicated. ‘Steel,’ ‘Steel,’ ‘Steel’ – the chief of my radio apparatus Junior Technician-Lieutenant V. P. Konstantinov sent out over the radio. Immediately there followed the signals to attack from the commanders of the tank corps, the brigades, the battalions, the companies and the platoons.
I look through my binoculars and watch, as our glorious ‘Thirty-fours’ move out from under their cover and, accelerating, rush ahead. At the same instant, I spot a mass of enemy armor. It turned out that both we and the Germans went on the attack simultaneously. I’m surprised by how quickly our tanks and the hostile tanks are closing the distance to each other. Two enormous avalanches of tanks were moving towards a collision. The morning sun rising in the east blinded the eyes of the German tankers and brightly illuminated the contours of the fascist tanks for us.
Within several minutes, the tanks of the first echelon of our 29th and 18th Tank Corps, firing on the move, sliced head-on into the combat formations of the German fascist forces, having literally pierced the enemy’s formation with an impetuous, penetrating attack. The Hitlerites, apparently, had not expected to encounter such a large mass of our combat vehicles and such a decisive attack by them.
Unfortunately, Rotmistrov’s account is highly misleading. The actual course of the battle, as set forth in the documents of the brigades of the tank army’s first echelon, does not correspond with the army commander’s words. Incidentally, the sunrise on 12 July was at 0502. Therefore at 0830 it could not have blinded the eyes of the German tankers. However, the morning sun’s rays might have illuminated the contours of their tanks – if they had moved out on the attack, and were not staying concealed behind the positions of their anti-tank guns. At 0920, N. F. Vatutin reported to I. V. Stalin:
After a 30-minute artillery preparation, at 0830 the forces of Voronezh Front’s center (6th Guards Army, 1st Tank Army, 5th Guards Army, 5th Guards Tank Army) went on the offensive according to plan. The forces of the 7th Guards Army are completing preparations to go over onto the offensive – the artillery preparation from 0900, the offensive at 0940.
The 5th Guards Tank Army command rested its plans on an impetuous lunge into the depth of the enemy’s from the first minutes of the attack. The area of Oktiabr’skii State Farm – the main fulcrum of the German positions, which indeed Zhadov’s Guardsmen proved unable to crack in the morning – was supposed to be enveloped on two sides: on one side, by the 18th Tank Corps’ 181st Tank Brigade, 170th Tank Brigade and the 36th Guards Separate Heavy Tank Regiment; on the other side, by the 29th Tank Corps’ 32nd Tank Brigade with three batteries of the 1446th Self-propelled Artillery Regiment. Infantry of the 5th Guards Army’s 33rd Guards Rifle Corps would follow behind the armor. It was assumed that the 181st Tank Brigade, attacking through the villages along the river would not encounter any heavy enemy resistance, since they (Andreevka and Vasil’evka) had only been abandoned by the tankers of the 2nd Tank Corps that morning; thus, its advance would be more rapid. Along the railway, the shock 32nd Tank Brigade was to clear a path for the main forces of the 29th Tank Corps. The 9th Guards Airborne Division and two regiments of the 42nd Guards Rifle Division were to consolidate the success of the 32nd, 170th and 181st Tank Brigades by mopping up the areas of Hill 252.2 and the villages along the river of any remaining enemy.
The second echelon of Kirichenko’s 29th and Bakharov’s 18th Tank Corps (the 31st Tank Brigade and the 32nd Motorized Rifle Brigade with an artillery group) had the assignment to bolster the strength of the assault and to replenish the tank losses of the first echelon, suffered during the breakthrough of the defenses on Oktiabr’skii State Farm and Hill 252.2. However, this plan collapsed in the first minutes of the attack.
The 29th Tank Corps went on the offensive in the sector Oktiabr’skii State Farm (incl.) – Iamki – Sazhinskii ravine (1.5 kilometers south of Iamki). Its attack formation had the 32nd Tank Brigade (63 tanks) and the 25th Tank Brigade (69 tanks) in the first echelon, and the 31st Tank Brigade (67 tanks) in the second echelon. To the right, between Oktiabr’skii State Farm and the Psel River, the 18th Tank Corps was to advance. Its combat formation was arranged in three echelons: in the first – the 181st Tank Brigade (44 tanks) and the 170th Tank Brigade (39 tanks), supported by the 36th Guards Separate Heavy Tank Regiment (19 Churchill tanks); in the second – the 32nd Motorized Rifle Brigade (which had no tanks); in the third – the tank brigade of the corps’ forward detachment (38 tanks). Thus, in the first attacking echelon of the two corps in a sector approximately 7 kilometers wide, four tank brigades and one tank regiment were attacking with a total of 234 tanks.
Immediately after the attack start, the field was covered by dozens of mushroom clouds of erupting earth from exploding bombs and shells, and dozens of tanks blazed up like torches. The battlefield became enveloped in a bluish-gray shroud of smoke and the exhaust gases of hundreds of armored vehicles, lit up by the fiery discharges from tank guns. The guide brigade in the 29th Tank Corps was Colonel A. A. Linev’s 32nd Tank Brigade. Colonel S. F. Moiseev’s 31st Tank Brigade was supposed to follow it, but Moiseev’s battalions were slow in moving into their jumping-off positions, so Linev’s tanks in the first minutes of the attack were greeted by a hurricane of anti-tank fire from Oktiabr’skii State Farm and Hill 252.2. Quickly, more than twenty tanks (almost one third of the brigade’s complement) blazed up like torches or began to emit thick plumes of dark smoke. The brigade’s combat formation was shattered, and the surviving tanks began to maneuver on the battlefield and to crawl away in different directions, trying to use any folds in the terrain in order to escape the ruinous fire. However, the sector was narrow, and approximately 100 armored vehicles had crowded into it, not including the self-propelled artillery, the artillery and the infantry of the 42nd Guards Rifle Division.
The commander of Leibstandarte’s 1st SS Panzer Regiment’s 6th Company, Obersturmführer R. von Ribbentrop, described the scene from the German lines:
… I spotted the section leader of the company headquarters personnel, whom I had left at the infantry battalion’s command post. Shrouded in a gigantic cloud of dust, he was racing down the slope on his motorcycle, all the while extending his fist into the air: Move out at once!”
With that the company set itself in motion and deployed on the slope as if on the exercise field. It deployed with a precision that made my twenty-two-year-old heart beat faster. It was an especially uplifting feeling for me to lead these young but experienced soldiers into battle.
On reaching the crest of the slope we saw another low rise about 200 meters away on the other side of a small valley, on which our infantry positions were obviously located.
By radio I ordered my company to move into position on the slope ahead of us and take up the battle from there.
The small valley extended to our left and, as we moved down the forward slope, we spotted the first T-34s. They were attempting to outflank us from the left.
We halted on the slope and opened fire, hitting several of the enemy. A number of Russian tanks were left burning. For a good gunner, 800 meters was the ideal range.
As we waited to see if further enemy tanks were going to appear, I looked all around, as was my habit. What I saw left me speechless. From beyond the shallow rise about 150 to 200 meters in front of me appeared fifteen, then thirty, then forty tanks. Finally there was too many to count. The T-34s were rolling toward us at high speed, carrying mounted infantry.
My driver, Schueler, called over the intercom: ‘Sir, to the right, right! They’re coming! Do you see them?’
I saw them only too well. At that second I said to myself: ‘It’s all over now!’ My driver thought I had said ‘Get out!’ and began to open his hatch. I grabbed him rather roughly and hauled him back into the tank. Meanwhile, I had poked the gunner in the right side with my foot. This was the signal for him to traverse right.
Soon the first round was on its way and, with its impact the T-34 began to burn. It was only fifty to seventy meters from us. At the same instant the tank next to me took a direct hit and went up in flames. I saw SS Sergeant Papke jump clear, but that was the last we ever saw of him. His neighbor to the right was also hit and soon it was also in flames.
The avalanche of enemy tanks rolled straight towards us: Tank after tank! Wave after wave! It was a simply unimaginable assembly, and it was moving at very high speed.
We had no time to take up defensive positions. All we could do was fire. From this range every round was a hit, but when would a direct hit end it for us? Somewhere in my subconscious I realized that there was no chance to escape. As always in such hopeless situations, all we could do was take care of what was at hand. So we knocked out a third, then a fourth T-34, from distances of less than thirty meters.
The Panzer IV we were using carried about eighteen to twenty rounds of ammunition within immediate reach of the loader, of which the majority was high explosive. The rest were armor-piercing.
Soon my loader shouted: ‘No AP left!’
All of our immediately available armor-piercing ammunition had been expended. Further ammunition had to be passed to the loader by the gunner, radio operator and driver. At this point remaining stationary was the surest means of being spotted and destroyed by the Russian tanks. Our only hope was to get back behind the slope again, even though the Russians had already crossed it. Our chances of escaping there were better than in our present exposed position.
We turned in the midst of a mass of Russian tanks, rolled back about fifty meters and reached the reverse slope of the first rise. There we turned to face the enemy again, now in somewhat better cover.
Just then a T-34 halted about thirty meters off to our right. I saw the tank rock slightly on its suspension and traverse its turret in our direction. I was looking right down the muzzle of its gun. We were unable to fire immediately, as the gunner had just passed the loader a fresh round.
‘Step on it, now!’ I shouted into the microphone. My driver Schueler was the best driver in the battalion. He had already put the tank in gear, and the lumbering Panzer IV set itself in motion. We moved past the T-34 at a distance of about five meters. The Russian tried to turn his turret to follow us, but was unable to do so. We halted ten meters behind the stationary T-34 and turned. My gunner scored a direct hit on the Russian’s turret. The T-34 exploded, and its turret flew about three meters through the air, almost striking my tank’s gun. While all this was going on, other T-34s with mounted infantry were rolling past us.
In the meantime, I tried to pull in the Swastika flag that was lying across the box on the rear of the tank. The flag’s purpose was to let our pilots know where we were. I only half succeeded in this, with the result that the flag then fluttered in the wind. One of the Russian commanders or gunners would have to notice it sometime. It was only a question of time until we received the fatal hit.
We had only slim chance: We had to remain constantly in motion. A stationary tank would immediately be recognized by the foe as an enemy and fired upon, because all the Russian tanks were rolling at high speed across the terrain.
We then faced the additional challenge of being destroyed by one of our own tanks, which were sitting below at the anti-tank ditch by the railway embankment in a wide line. They had begun firing at the approaching enemy tanks. On the smoke- and dust-shrouded battlefield, looking into the sun, it would be impossible for our crews to distinguish us from a Russian tank. I repeatedly broadcast our code-name: ‘All stations: This is Kunibert! We are in the middle of the Russian tanks! Don’t fire at us!’
I received no answer. In the meantime, the Russians had set several vehicles on fire as they rolled through Peiper’s battalion and our artillery battalion. But by then the fire of our two remaining tank companies was beginning to have an effect. The artillery’s battalion of self-propelled guns and Peiper’s Panzergrenadiers – the latter with close-range weapons – were also taking a toll of the Russian tanks and pinning down the Russian infantry, which had jumped down from the T-34s and were attempting to advance on foot.
The entire battlefield lay under a thick pall of smoke and dust. Fresh groups of Russian tanks continued to roll out of this inferno. They were knocked out on the broad slope by our tanks.
It was an indescribable jumble of wrecked tanks and vehicles. This undoubtedly contributed to our salvation, in that the Russians did not recognize us.
The first to encounter the Germans’ anti-tank defenses on the outskirts of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm and on Hill 252.2 were two companies from the 32nd Tank Brigade’s 2nd Tank Battalion, commanded by Captain A. E. Vakulenko. Under their covering fire, the commander of this tank brigade’s 1st Tank Battalion, Major P. S. Ivanov, directed his tanks across the railway embankment, in order to bypass the State Farm. The 15 T-34s, concealed by a belt of woods, found a seam in the German line, dashed at full speed past the most dangerous points of Hills 242.5 and Hill 241.6, where German anti-tank gun batteries and self-propelled guns were positioned, and broke into the southern outskirts of the Komsomolets State Farm from the rear, some 5 kilometers into the depth of the enemy’s defenses. Motorized riflemen of the 53rd Motorized Rifle Brigade, which managed to slip through the enemy’s defenses in the wake of the tanks, reinforced the tankers’ sudden and unexpected advance. However, this local breakthrough had no effect on the tenacity of the defense at the Oktiabr’skii State Farm, which was SS Leibstandarte’s focal point of resistance. Even an hour after the start of the 5th Guards Army’s follow-on attack, the State Farm remained in the hands of Obersturmbannführer H. Krass’ 2nd Panzergrenadier Regiment, although individual T-34 tanks, having broken through to the crest of Hill 252.2, were already battling its anti-tank defenses and the tanks of SS Sturmbannführer M. Gross’ II/1st SS Panzer Regiment, positioned behind the anti-tank ditch.
It was becoming clear that the offensive was not going according to plan. Observing the battlefield and listening over the radio to the transmissions and reports from the corps commanders, Rotmistrov understood that his army had collided with a strong, well-organized enemy anti-tank defense, bristling with a significant quantity of artillery.
It is impossible for one person to see the entire course of such a massive event as this clash between two powerful groupings, the Prokhorovka tank engagement. Each person views it as he saw it from the place where he was at that time. However, the recollections of eyewitnesses are invaluable, since this is a piece of the events, refracted through the consciousness and disposition of a real person. The greater the number of such pieces, the more clear and distinct is the resulting picture of what occurred. The excerpt of the army commander’s [Rotmistrov’s] memoirs, cited above, is the impression of a man who was standing on the pinnacle of an army’s pyramid and observing everything as if from this summit. But what was happening inside the battle? Here are the stories of two participants, who were directly located in the first ranks of the attackers. All the events that they describe occurred in the epicenter of the engagement – in the vicinity of Hill 252.2 –within the first hour of the attack.
Gunner-radio operator Sergeant Savelii Baase of the 29th Tank Corps’ 32nd Tank Brigade remembers:
I recall that from our jumping-off positions, which were in a shallow depression in the area of the brick factory, we drove onto a hillock, from which point a level field spread before us, covered with either ripened wheat or barley. On our left were a railroad and a planted forest; on the right, in the distance beyond the field, was a cluster of buildings. I was told that the Oktiabr’skii State Farm was over there. Soon shells exploded nearby, and in front of us there were flashes, tanks and dust. Even though our tank was not in the first line, we were also firing our main guns at clusters of tanks and individual targets, which were moving toward us. The range closed quickly. Soon tanks began to burn, both ours and the Germans’. I remember how we were firing at a Tiger, but our shells were ricocheting off its thick armor, until someone managed first to knock off a track, and then to plant a shell in its flank. But the tank didn’t blaze up, and its crew began to leap out of opened hatches. We shot them up with our machine gun. The combat formations of the two sides became intermingled …
Lieutenant I. M. Fomichev, the commander of the 1st Rifle Company’s 1st Rifle Platoon in the 23rd Guards Airborne Rifle Regiment’s 1st Battalion, remembers:
At dawn on 12 July, we rose and went into the attack without artillery preparation. My platoon and I were moving to the right of the railway. Two Messerschmitts appeared from the enemy’s direction, which flew along the combat formation of our regiment, strafing as they went, before disappearing in the distance. We emerged onto an open field, and the Germans immediately blanketed us with artillery fire. Killed and wounded appeared. Without much understanding of what was going on amid the continuous crash of explosions and the cries of the wounded, I crawled along the platoon’s line and bandaged the wounded. The fingers of my hands were sticky with blood.
After some time (I wasn’t wearing a watch), I watched as a wave of our tanks passed through the regiment’s positions. I prepared to move out after them, but the order ‘Forward!’ never came. A second wave of our tanks passed through our lines, and still there was no order to advance. A third wave of tanks passed through, carrying mounted submachine gunners, and only after this did they give the order: ‘Forward!’
Later I learned that before our tank attack, there had been an artillery barrage and a salvo of Guards’ mortars [Katiusha rockets] on the enemy positions, but I didn’t see or hear them. Perhaps they coincided with an enemy artillery barrage on our forces.
My platoon and I were running behind the tanks. We reached a trench and leaped into it. At the entrance to a bunker, I saw the body of a senior lieutenant, whose uniform had been mostly burned off (only the collar with three bars on the shoulder boards remained), lying on top of an anti-tank rifle. I glanced into the bunker and spotted an ammunition drum for a PPSh submachine gun, so I grabbed it. It was fully loaded with cartridges.
We ran on ahead. In the dense smoke and dust, we could not see our neighbors on the right or the left … As they had trained us in the specialist school, we tried to take cover from enemy fire behind the hulls of the tanks. Moving along the platoon’s line, I took cover behind one of the knocked-out tanks, and when I raised my head to take a look around, I saw crosses on the armor. I realized that my platoon and I were in the thick of a tank battle. This was between the railroad and the Oktiabr’skii State Farm.
Moving on, we ran up to another trench. I hopped into it and almost collided with a German. His hand were upraised. I was stunned by the surprise and lost my head, because this was the first living German soldier I’d ever seen. One of the men from my platoon, who leaped into the trench right behind me, shouted: ‘Lieutenant, shoot him, what are you looking at!’ At that moment, a burning tank nearby suddenly exploded; the German flinched and turned his head, and in my fright I squeezed my trigger and fired a long burst into the back of his head.
Just beyond the trench, I met a colonel who had been wounded in the shoulder. He said he was the deputy commander of our division, Grachev, and ordered me to escort him to the nearest aid station. While we moved toward an aid station, Messerschmitts dove on us three times and strafed us with their machine guns. On the third pass, the plane flew so low that I couldn’t stand it and I fired at it with my submachine gun; of course, I didn’t do it any damage. Colonel Grachev, apparently from the loss of blood, seemed indifferent to what was happening all around him, and leaned on me heavily. I supported him with difficulty.
My platoon was accompanying us. We crossed the rail line in the area of Hill 252.2, and found ourselves in the middle of the 26th Regiment’s offensive.
Here, to the left of the railway, we spotted a group of soldiers lying in the field, apparently without any commanding officers. Grachev told me he could reach the aid station by himself, and ordered me to take command of these soldiers and get them moving forward. The soldiers responded to my order and started moving, but once we had passed through a wheat field and emerged into an open area, I saw that a few of the soldiers had lagged behind. Apparently, they didn’t want to follow an unknown commander.
Reaching the trench line where I had bumped into the colonel, I first saw a senior lieutenant, who said he was the commander of a machine gun company. He had nine Maxim heavy machine guns. I decided to reinforce the machine gun company’s defensive position. Here in the trench I ran into Junior Lieutenant Gerasimenko, with whom I had trained together back at the specialist school. We exchanged impressions. The Germans began to outflank our position on both sides. The company commander made the decision to fall back through the wheat field. My platoon and I pulled back together with him. While retreating, my messenger Private Odintsov was wounded. The bullet entered his shoulder from behind and buried itself there. We pulled back beyond the wheat field and occupied the first trench line we had passed, where we dug-in again.
The combat that took place on Hill 252.2 had no equal in its drama and intensity. Immediately after 1000, at the moment when the second echelon of Kirichenko’s 29th Tank Corps (the 31st Tank Brigade) entered the battle, the Germans began an intensified bombardment of the assault wedges of both our tank corps east of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm. The VIII Air Corps headquarters sent the following message to the II SS Panzer Corps: “Two gruppen of dive bombers have been assigned to operate against the enemy group, [and are] moving from Petrovka to the southwest.”
The situation in the 31st Tank Brigade at the start of the attack received only a brief description in combat documents: “The pace of the offensive has slackened; the brigade has begun to mark time in place.” The tankers didn’t succeed in giving fresh impetus to the attack. Chronologically, the start of the attack began as follows.
The movement of the 32nd Tank Brigade from its line of deployment (in the area of the brick factory) began at approximately 0840-0845; approximately an hour later, the battalions of the 31st Tank Brigade moved out, and tanks from both brigades neared the borders of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm at approximately 1030. I repeat: they didn’t break into the State Farm at that time – this didn’t occur until 1300 – but they closed to within firing range of the State Farm, approximately 500 meters from its outskirts, where antitank guns of Leibstandarte’s 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Regiment were dug-in. Moreover, this division’s panzer regiment had already deployed at a distance approximately 0.5 to 1 kilometer from the State Farm, and behind it – east of Hill 241.6 – its artillery regiment, consisting of 105mm and 155mm howitzers, Nebelwerfers, and Hummel, Wespe and Brummbär self-propelled artillery vehicles. Thus, the first echelon of the 18th and 29th Tank Corps ran into a wall of fire. For the next two hours of the attack, the 31st and 32nd Tank Brigades advanced approximately 1.2 to 1.5 kilometers. How can one speak of any “pace of the offensive” here!
The foe’s artillerymen took advantage of the moment, and fired their guns both intensively and with deadly accuracy. This beaten zone east of Hill 252.2 and Oktiabr’skii State Farm, bordered on the north and east with gullies, and on the south by the railroad embankment, became a genuine graveyard for the tank battalions of these brigades. They suffered their greatest losses here, at the start of the attack.
Reports from the corps headquarters and the brigades of the 29th Tank Corps speak to the nature and intensity of the fighting:
… Despite the heavy fire put up by the enemy, the 32nd Tank Brigade, maintaining the organization in its combat formations in cooperation with the 25th Tank Brigade, moved forward, while opening a concentrated fire from its tanks. Upon the approach to the borders of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm and the Stalinskoe Branch of the [Oktiabr’skii] State Farm, they came under artillery and mortar fire and were compelled to dig in on the line they had reached, gather strength for a resumption of the offensive, and prepare to repulse enemy attacks.
Separate elements, penetrating even as far as the Komsomolets State Farm and suffering heavy losses from artillery fire and fire from tanks in ambush positions, fell back to the line occupied by the fire support forces [author’s note: as stated in the text].
… a) The 32nd Tank Brigade: At 0830 12.07.43 without working over the enemy’s forward edge of defense with artillery and aviation [author’s emphasis], lacking accurate information about the enemy’s fire means, the brigade in two echelons attacked the enemy in the direction … along the railroad line in a sector up to 900 meters wide. On this (main) axis, the enemy concentrated a large number of Panzer VI tanks, Ferdinand self-propelled guns [there were no Ferdinands with the Fourth Panzer Army], and other anti-tank means.
… The attack of the 32nd Tank Brigade flowed at an exclusively rapid pace. All the tanks went into the attack, and there was not a single case of indecisiveness or refusal to fight. By 1200 12.07.43 the tank battalions reached the area of the enemy’s artillery positions. [Enemy] Infantry began to run away in panic. … The enemy hurled up to 150 aircraft at the forward edge of defense, which suppressed the infantry of the 53rd Motorized Rifle Brigade (following behind the tanks) and knocked out several tanks. The 32nd Tank Brigade began to falter …. The adversary noticed that the pace of the attack had slackened, and brought up fresh tank reserves and infantry. By this time the brigade had lost up to 40 tanks and 350 men and was compelled to stop.
b) The 31st Tank Brigade: At 0830 following the signal (the rocket artillery salvo), the attack of the tanks and infantry began without artillery preparation or air cover [author’s emphasis]. Groups of 8 to 37 Me 110 and Ju 87 were conducting attacks.
The tanks suffered heavy losses from the enemy’s artillery fire and aviation. … At 1030 the tanks reached the border of the Oktiabr’skii State Farm. Further advance was stopped by the ceaseless influence [author: as in text] of the enemy’s aviation.
Air cover for the attacking tanks was absent until 1300. At 1300, cover was provided by groups of 2 to 10 fighters.
The 31st Tank Brigade’s chief of the political department Colonel Povolotsky reported:
The large losses, especially in equipment, and the insufficiently active advance of our brigade are explained by the strong influence of the enemy’s aviation given our aviation’s lack of support for the offensive, and the enemy’s strong artillery and mortar fire, in contrast to our very weak artillery preparation at the moment of attack. The long presence of the tanks and personnel in their starting positions (eight hours) allowed the enemy to reorganize his defense in order to repulse the attack [author’s emphasis].
As we see, there is little resemblance here to a meeting engagement involving hundreds of tanks. Moreover, there is also nothing that corroborates the assertion that “on 12 July of this year occurred the greatest tank battle in the history of the Great Patriotic War, in which up to 1500 tanks of both sides met in a head-on attack” (from the 5th Guards Tank Army’s summary of combat operations at Prokhorovka).
In the 29th Tank Corps, 199 tanks took part in the attack, in the 18th Tank Corps – 149 tanks; altogether 348 tanks, which moreover were echeloned in depth. On the enemy’s side (SS Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte’s 1st Panzer Regiment, and elements of Totenkopf ’s and Das Reich’s panzer regiments), approximately 140 to 150 tanks participated in this battle. Altogether on 12 July 1943, a combined maximum of up to 500 tanks from both sides could have participated in the battle southwest of Prokhorovka.
The battle of several hundred armored vehicles disintegrated into separate duels between groups of tanks, over which unified command and control was lost. The combat formations of the two sides became intermingled. Radio became the only possible means of communication in the companies and platoons. However, while all the German tanks were equipped with two-way radios, the Soviet T-34 tanks, not to mention the T-70 tanks, lacked radio communications in all but the commanders’ tanks.
According to the testimony of veteran tankers, the 5th Guards Tank Army, which from the beginning had been formed as a Guards army, was in a more advantageous situation in this respect than other formations. Down to the platoon level, commanders’ tanks were equipped with radios, while even some non-command tanks had radio receivers, in order to receive orders from the commander. In other formations, even these were entirely lacking. Only commanders at the company level and higher had full communications in their tanks. All other tanks operated following the example of the commander’s tank, according to the principle “Do whatever I’m doing.” Under the conditions of limited visibility and given the concentration of a large number of armored vehicles on a relatively narrow sector, this left the crews practically without any communications.
Knowing this detail, the Germans took advantage of it in full measure. German tanks, assault guns and anti-tank guns concentrated all their fire first of all on those Red Army tanks with antennas. In addition, our radio sets were not reliable. As M. Dovbysh, a veteran of the 18th Tank Corps told me that only one or two solid hits on a tank that failed to penetrate were enough to cause the radio to quit working due to the concussive impact. The summary report of the 29th Tank Corps command also testifies to this; in it there is a statement that radios on the Su-152 would stop operating after five to eight shots from its own gun. All of this prevented the company or platoon commander from smoothly directing the tanks under his command in battle, concentrating their fire or strength in a certain direction (or on specific targets).
In such circumstances, the training and experience of the crew commander and the driver-mechanic played a special role. In the battle on the fields of Prokhorovka, the “birth defect” of the T-34 manifested itself in full measure. In the years before the war, trying to decrease the size of the tank, designers had removed the position of the fifth crew member, the gun layer, and turned his functions over to the commander. This meant that with the start of a battle, the tank crew was practically left without a commander, since he could not physically carry out two duties at the same time. All his attention was concentrated on gunnery. That is why the actions of the crew were fettered, and its attention focused more on self-preservation than common action. These problems substantially increased tank losses.
The 5th Guards Tank Army’s summary of the battle points to the critical problems caused by the failures in intelligence, information and communication: “The enemy aviation reigned supreme in the sky – up to 200 individual sorties. The absence of reconnaissance, as well as the lack of fire direction, had an immediate effect on the process of the fighting, and choked the attack.”