Germany Army in the East, Late 1942-Mid 1943 Part IV

The Soviet position was further eroded by the fact that only their commanders’ tanks had radio transmitters. The rest had only receivers or nothing at all, so that if a commander’s tank was knocked out, his entire unit became leaderless. Their German counterparts mostly operated from ‘command tanks’ equipped with a wooden dummy gun, with the liberated space in the turret used to mount superior radio equipment; tank crews subordinate to them could receive and transmit, enabling the second-in-command to take over if the command tank was knocked out, and crews to inform their superiors quickly of any changes in the local situation. Soviet accounts noted that the Germans were well aware of the Soviet lack of transmitters, and tended to concentrate their fire on any tank seen to have a transmitting antenna.

Stalin had further muddied the waters; in an attempt to exploit the superior speed and manoeuvrability of the T-34 he had issued a directive on 19 September 1942 ordering tank units to begin engagements by a storm of fire from their main armament and machine guns while on the move, carrying additional shells and bullets for that purpose, and enhancing mobility by mounting extra fuel tanks on their rear decks. Tank gun stabilisers had not yet been invented, so firing on the move was inaccurate and wasteful, while the additional ammunition created storage problems in the cramped turret, and the unprotected fuel tanks were a serious fire hazard.

Although the claim that the T-34 was the best tank of the war in any army has cascaded from one post-war publication to another, that claim is tenable after mid-1943 only partially (once its mechanical problems were resolved, the Panther became a strong contender for the title) and in respect of the later version, the T-34–85, which did not start to arrive in units till March 1944. Apart from the inadequacy of its gun against the Tiger, Panther, Ferdinand or upgunned Mks III and IV, the T-34–76 as first manufactured had a number of other shortcomings, to which Timoshenko, when People’s Commissar for Defence, had drawn attention well before the war. In a letter to Voroshilov (then Chairman of the Defence Committee of the Council of People’s Commissars), dated 6 November 1940, he had recommended an increase in the crew from 4 to 5 to incorporate a gunner. The cramped nature of the turret meant the tank commander had also to be the gunlayer, and this distracted him from his command duties, creating serious problems, especially if he had to control other tanks beside his own (the Soviets did not follow the German use of ‘command tanks’ until well into 1944). Timoshenko also sought improvements to the view, especially from the turret, and to the communications system, and changes to the transmission and gearbox. Manufacture was temporarily suspended, while work began on a modified T-34M, due to begin deliveries on 1 January 1942, but the outbreak of war and the need to evacuate much of the production base and work force to the Urals or Central Asia delayed most of these improvements until they materialised in the shape of the T-34–85, seven months after Kursk, with an improved gun, a larger turret with room for an additional crew member, and frontal armour doubled in thickness.

Of all the shortcomings, the greatest in 1943 was the inadequacy of the 76.2mm gun, standard in the T-34-76 and KV-1, compared to those carried in the new and updated older German tanks. Clearly, all Soviet tanks would be completely outclassed unless more powerful guns could be provided. The most successful in the April tests was the 1939-pattern 52K 85mm anti-aircraft gun, shells from which penetrated the Tiger’s frontal armour at a distance of 1 kilometre, so Stalin ordered development of a new tank gun based on this (similar to the German experience – their 88mm tank gun was based on the 88mm anti-aircraft gun that had proved exceedingly effective against ground targets) and four design groups began work in May. There was, however, no possibility that any of them could do more than produce testable prototypes before the German summer offensive, which would inevitably be spearheaded by the new tanks. To counter those would need a combination of measures, and closer than hitherto co-ordination between infantry, artillery, tanks and aircraft – in fact copying the German methods as closely as possible.

Stalin’s initial reaction to Zhukov’s proposal for a defensive battle at Kursk was to ask if he was sure that Soviet troops could withstand a German summer offensive – a reasonable question, since they had singularly failed to do so in the two previous summers. Zhukov assured him that they could, but he sought the views of the two Front commanders in the salient. Rokossovsky, commanding the Central Front on the north face, considered that the Germans would be unable to mount an offensive before the end of the spring thaw and floods, in the second half of May, and argued for a pre-emptive attack by the Central Front and the two Fronts north of it, Western and Bryansk, provided additional air and anti-tank regiments could be made available for support. Vatutin, commanding the Voronezh Front further south, where the thaw would be over somewhat earlier, expected the Germans would be ready for an offensive ‘not before 20 April, but most likely in the first days of May’, but unlike Rokossovsky, he did not express a clear preference between pre-emptive attack and premeditated defence. One post-Soviet source claims that both Vatutin and Malinovsky (commanding the Southern Front, due to mount a counter-offensive in August) favoured preemption; this, however, appears to have been not in April but in June, when the successive postponements of ‘Citadel’ raised doubts among some Soviet generals over whether it was going to happen at all. In his April report, Vatutin also suggested that the German options might include a northward push to outflank Moscow, reflecting his past experience as Deputy Chief of General Staff, where, as previously noted, Stalin’s preoccupation with possible threats to the capital persisted long after they had vanished from the German agenda. References in his report to identification by ‘radio intelligence’ of locations to which the headquarters of two divisions had moved, may have come from the de ciphering of messages, but were more likely based on direction-finding and intercepted operator chatter – orders to observe radio silence were easier to issue than to enforce. The references nevertheless show that interception of enemy radio traffic had now become an important tool of Soviet Intelligence, perhaps aided by the 35,000 radio transceivers and large quantities of cable supplied by the USA under Lend-Lease.

On the evening of 12 April, after receiving the views of Rokossovsky and Vatutin, and three days before Hitler issued the Order for Operation ‘Citadel’, Stalin held a meeting with Zhukov, Vasilevsky and Deputy Chief of General Staff Antonov. They agreed that ‘the most probable aim of a German summer offensive would be to encircle and destroy the main forces of Central and Voronezh Fronts in the Kursk salient’, but did not exclude the possibility that success in that area would be followed by thrusts in east and north-east directions, including towards Moscow. Shtemenko noted that ‘on this matter Stalin displayed particular uneasiness’. However, he accepted Zhukov’s plan, and ordered both Fronts to prepare solid defences. The troops were to dig themselves in; no fewer than eight defence lines, one behind the other, were to be constructed, and an entire army group (first entitled Reserve Front, then Steppe Military District, and finally Steppe Front), with seven armies and eight tank or mechanised corps, would be positioned behind the two Fronts in the salient, to be used in the counter-offensive if the defensive battle went well, or to block any German advance if it did not.

Intriguing evidence suggesting Stalin knew about German intentions even earlier than mid-April is provided in the memoirs of Anastas Mikoyan, who was as much Stalin’s ace troubleshooter on supplying the army as Zhukov was on using it to fight, and to whom he entrusted the establishment of this huge new force. When he sent for Mikoyan he told him ‘according to data from our Intelligence the Hitlerites are concentrating major forces in the area of the Kursk salient’, and ‘a strong Reserve Front must be established urgently, capable of being brought into combat at the most acute and decisive moment of the battle, and for further transition to the counter-offensive’. It was to be formed of units that had fought in recent battles and were now in reserve for making up to strength in manpower and equipment. ‘You…must take on the organising of this Reserve Front yourself, because all the material resources are concentrated in your hands. The General Staff will engage as usual in choosing the commanders, but everything else is up to you.’

The intriguing element in Stalin’s remarks is that Mikoyan says the meeting at which he made them took place at 2 a.m. on 27 March, and, unlike with some other memoirists’ recollections of dates of long-past events, there is substantial confirmation that Mikoyan’s were correct. The task involved concentrating, equipping and supplying the largest reserve force Russia or the Soviet Union had ever yet put into the field and he set to work at once. First, on 29 March he met Colonel-General Shchadenko, head of the General Staff Directorate responsible for forming and manning units, and secured his agreement to constituting the new Front from units based in Moscow Military District. In those days it covered a large part of the European USSR and the conscripts it provided, one-third of the USSR’s total, had mostly received good general or technical education, which made them especially suitable for service in the mechanised forces that would bulk large in the new Front. Then Mikoyan directed every armed service chief to submit plans for providing the armies of the new Front with all they would need, and timetables for delivering everything on time to eight principal locations. An example of the pace he imposed is that only six days after Stalin had first set him his task, he received the first report from an arm of service on 1 April, when Major-General Kalyagin, head of Engineer Troops, reported that three-quarters of the Reserve Front’s needs for engineer equipment could be met from central resources, and the rest issued after deployment, from stocks held locally in Front or army depots.

Mikoyan decreed that the reinforcement and supply of the new Front’s armies were to be completed between 15 April and 10 May. On 30 March he met the arm of service heads: Khrulyov (logistics), Karponosov (organisation), Yakovlev (artillery), Fedorenko (tank and mechanised forces), Peresypkin (signals), and Drachev (chief quartermaster). Transport presented particular problems, since much of the new Front’s deployment area had been occupied until recently by the Germans, who had destroyed as much as they could of the rail and road infrastructure before leaving. In consequence transport of troops and equipment on the hastily and sketchily restored railways was frequently interrupted, and road transport could not be substituted for it because of the state of the roads and shortages of vehicles. Mikoyan dealt with this by frequent telephone calls to People’s Commissar for Railways Kaganovich, the heads of the two most involved railways, local military commanders and Communist Party officials. Despite the difficulties the timetable was fulfilled; between 1 April and 24 May the railways shifted 2,640 trainloads, totalling 178,900 wagons, to the Kursk area, half of them carrying reinforcements and supplies for units of the Central and Voronezh Fronts already deployed in the salient, the other half bringing the new Reserve Front’s forces and equipment to their positions directly behind it.

While well-educated young Muscovites were being trained to operate complex equipment in the Reserve Front, the mainly peasant infantrymen and civilian populations within the Kursk salient were preoccupied with the simpler but no less important task of digging. This was a mammoth undertaking in itself. Realisation of the superiority of the German tanks, while for the time being ending disputes between tankers and gunners as to whether the best antidote to a tank is another tank or an anti-tank gun, and concluding both would be needed, had brought on an acute awareness that success in the oncoming conflict would need maximum coordination between tanks, aircraft, artillery, engineers and infantry, and best use of terrain, exploiting natural and creating artificial obstacles. The new tanks were the main threat, so anti-tank defence must be the focus of the entire system. This must use guns, mortars, tanks, obstacles artificial (ditches and minefields) and natural (gullies, ravines, rivers, hills), and air support, all linked by a fire control and communications system capable of switching guns and aircraft quickly between different sectors. Trenches must be deep enough for troops to move without being exposed to enemy machine-gunners or snipers, machine-gun and artillery positions camouflaged to prevent the enemy picking them off by aimed fire or bombing, and anti-tank ditches be dug so wide and deep that no tank falling into one could climb out under its own unaided power. The combination of defensive measures would include infantry in foxholes, armed with anti-tank rifles to fire at tank tracks, bottles of explosive mixture (‘Molotov cocktails’) to throw onto the rear deck over the engine compartment, and anti-tank mines to be pushed under immobilised tanks and set off by throwing hand grenades at them.

Nor were the ‘osobisty’ (Special Sections of SMERSH, ‘Death to Spies’, of the NKVD) idle. Although morale had been raised by the winter’s victories, it was still by no means unshakeable; desertion and defection to the German side were still problems. At the end of June, when battle was known to be imminent, orders were issued to remove all Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians from combat units and send them to the rear. A few days later similar orders were issued concerning soldiers who had been prisoners until liberated by the winter counter-offensive. They were regarded with suspicion; it was well known that large numbers of captured soldiers were willingly serving in German units, and all liberated ones were suspected of having been indoctrinated while in captivity to serve as saboteurs or at least to infect their comrades with defeatism. An example of the action taken was an order issued by the headquarters of the 5th Guards Army of the Steppe Front on 8 July. The men affected, in all, were awakened and removed during the night of 9/10 July, immediately before the 5th Guards Army began moving to the salient.

Head of Red Army Artillery Voronov insisted that the barrage of gunfire against oncoming tanks must start early and maintain high rates of fire, but his attempt to include tank guns in the barrage was vetoed, officially not only as wasting ammunition but because it would create excessive wear on the gun barrels, and hence reduce accuracy. The real reason was, of course, the discovery in April that the tanks’ guns could penetrate the armour of the new German tanks only at close range, but to tell the crews that was not likely to improve their morale.

As to how these lines were to be manned and held, future Marshal of Artillery Kazakov wrote that ‘one day’ Voronov ordered his staff to do some hard thinking. He told them that the four SS motorised infantry divisions (Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, Das Reich, Totenkopf and Wiking) were being converted into panzer divisions. Most Tigers were assigned to Heavy Tank Battalions that were attached to other units for support as needed.  There were 2 of these at Kursk, as well as 4 Companies that were permanently part of their Division, for a total of 146 Tigers, a very small proportion of overall German tank strength. The elite Grossdeutschland army division had also received a battalion of Tigers, and that all these formations, plus the 10th Panzer Brigade, equipped with Panthers, were being concentrated against the south face of the Kursk salient. The outcome of the deliberations was that the 6th Guards Army, on the expected main line of attack, was reinforced by 14 anti-tank artillery regiments, and reserves were deployed so as to be able to reinforce threatened sectors quickly to a density of at least 20 anti-tank guns per kilometre of front.

Guderian’s reservations about the premature use of the new tanks would be proved right as regards the Panther – some formations equipped with them did not get into action at all, because every one broke down en route. The mechanical faults would be corrected, making it one of the war’s best tanks, but that all took time, and the only time available in 1943 was the few weeks of postponement decreed by Hitler. However, Guderian’s strictures on the Ferdinand as ‘unsuitable for close combat’ because it did not have a machine gun and was therefore vulnerable to the Soviet infantry are not borne out by combat evidence. At Kursk Ferdinands were used only against the Central Front, and about 90 of them saw combat. Examination by Soviet artillery specialists on 15 July of 21 knocked-out Ferdinands showed 11 disabled by mines, 8 by gunfire, 1 by an aerial bomb, and only 1 by an infantry weapon – and that not an anti-tank rifle or grenade but a ‘Molotov cocktail’.

The Red Army used the weeks of postponement at least as well as the Germans, constructing defence systems that took advantage of the experience of two years’ fighting to combine the various arms of service more closely than before, behind minefields both larger and more densely sown with anti-tank and anti-personnel mines than previously possible. Increases in the two sides’ deployments between 10 April and 5 July were as shown below in the table of strength in men and weapons on both dates. The Soviet data are for the Central and Voronezh Fronts for both dates, and for 5 July also the Steppe Front. The German figures are Soviet estimates for Army Groups Centre and South.

German and Soviet build-ups for ‘Citadel’, 1 April–5 July 1943

As the table shows, the Soviets already outnumbered the Germans in all but aircraft before mid-April, then up to the launch date of Citadel their troop numbers more than doubled, guns and aircraft almost trebled, and tanks quadrupled. The German increases were far smaller, so that by the time ‘Citadel’ was launched the Soviets outnumbered the Germans by over 2 to 1 in manpower, 3 to 1 in guns, almost 2 to 1 in tanks, and 1.6 to 1 in aircraft. The disparities became even greater as the battle progressed; between 5 July and 23 August, i.e. in the period covering the defensive battle and the two counter-offensives (Operations ‘Kutuzov’ and ‘Rumyantsev’), additions from reserve totalled on the Soviet side 38 division-equivalents, with 658,000 troops, 18,200 guns, 3,300 tanks and 563 aircraft, while German reinforcements comprised only 2 panzer and 1 mechanised corps, totalling 55,000 men, 550 guns, about 200 tanks and 300 aircraft.

For the Soviets to outnumber the Germans in weaponry was no novelty, but it had previously proved no guarantee of success. As mentioned earlier, in 1941 they had had numerical superiority of 3 to 1 in tanks, 2 to 1 in combat aircraft and about 5 to 4 in guns and mortars, but nevertheless suffered a series of disasters on a scale unparallelled in the previous history of warfare. The difference in 1943 was that the weapons-users and the generals who directed them had learned from the defeats, and had begun to match or even outdo the Germans in how they used their assets. On the most important sectors the five main and three intermediate defence lines in the salient stretched back to 190 kilometres (almost 120 miles) behind the front. During April–June troops and local civilians in the Central Front’s area alone dug 5,000 kilometres (about 3,125 miles) of trenches, laid 400,000 mines and over 200 kilometres (125 miles) of barbed wire, a few kilometres of it even electrified. These extensive preparations could not be concealed from the Germans, but the General Staff and NKVD utilised Agent Max and operatives sent to him who had been captured and ‘turned’, to inform the Abwehr that the Red Army intended to fight only a defensive battle, and credibility was added by making day and night rail deliveries of large quantities of cement, barbed wire, wood and metal beams on open flat trucks, while weapons and ammunition were moved in only at night and in covered wagons.

Against the 55 German divisions deployed in ‘Citadel’, the Central and Voronezh Fronts had between them 77 infantry divisions, 9 tank or mechanised corps, 14 brigades and 3 ‘fortified zones’ (garrison troops in fixed defences), the corps and brigades raising the total to about 110 division-equivalents, with 1,272,700 combat troops. The Steppe Front, behind both, had one tank army (5th Guards), plus six tank and two mechanised corps, and six armies of infantry. It was meant as a reserve for the counter offensive, but when the Germans appeared on the verge of breaking through the Voronezh Front, Stavka representative Vasilevsky on 9 July commandeered two of its armies (5th Guards and 5th Guards Tank) and parts of three others, totalling 19 divisions and one brigade of infantry, five tank and one mechanised corps. Manpower figures for them are not given, but they amounted to at least 30 additional division-equivalents, bringing the total to about 140, and the total Soviet manpower in the defensive battle to over 1.5 million. Granted that Soviet formations were smaller than their German counterparts, and that many of them were under strength, the defenders outnumbered the attackers in manpower by about 1.7 to 1. In equipment, numbers favoured the Soviet side even more, by 1.8 to 1 in guns and mortars, 2.3 to 1 in combat aircraft, and 1.6 to 1 in tanks and self-propelled guns. Compared to the defensive campaign at Stalingrad (37 divisions, 3 tank corps, 22 brigades, 547,000 men), the manpower and resources defending the Kursk salient had considerably more than doubled. Germany’s manpower, on the other hand, had fallen, and the contribution from its allies had dropped almost to nothing. The winter campaign of 1942/43 had involved Romanian, Hungarian and Italian as well as German armies, but at Kursk only German units saw action, though a Soviet listing of forces present included the two Hungarian divisions. Clearly the strategic balance had tilted substantially away from Germany even in the few months since Manstein’s February counter-offensive. Whether the tilt was decisive was still to be seen.

Both Zhukov and Vasilevsky later wrote that they (correctly) regarded the threat posed to the Voronezh Front as greater than that facing the Central Front,294 but the distribution of forces suggests the opposite; the Central Front had 738,000 troops, versus the Voronezh Front’s 534,000. This meant that for each mile of front line on the sectors where the main German thrusts were expected, the Central Front had 7,200 men, 72 tanks and 166 guns, the Voronezh Front only 4,000 men, 67 tanks and 94 guns. The discrepancy was never explained; it was partly due to Rokossovsky’s being more successful in identifying the main German lines of attack and concentrating his forces there by stripping less threatened sectors, whereas Vatutin had to distribute them more evenly; but the principal reason for giving Rokossovsky substantially more resources in the first place must have been the continued preoccupation with possible threats to Moscow mentioned in Vatutin’s April report and the ‘particular uneasiness’ in respect of it that Shtemenko mentioned Stalin as displaying at the meeting on the 12th. If such a threat were posed, it would obviously be posed by Army Group Centre, after destroying the Central Front on the salient’s northern face, not by the much more distant Army Group South.

The scene was now set for the biggest trial of strength yet seen.

Lend-Lease Soviet P-47

While it is commonly known among war bird enthusiasts that the Soviet Union received large numbers of P-39 Airacobras and P-40 Warhawks, planes that many American pilots deemed to be inferior to the P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs that were flown over the Western Front,  the VVS also received approximately 200 Republic P-47 Thunderbolts- heavy duty fighters armed with eight 50 caliber machine guns that were capable of flying more than 440 miles per hour at 29,000 feet. With a Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engine complete with a supercharger, the Thunderbolt was an extremely effective escort fighter and very capable of taking on any German aircraft both at high-altitude and low-altitude. Indeed, the USAAF’s top two aces in Europe, Francis “Gabby”Gabreski and Robert Johnson, flew P-47s.

In which role did the VVS use the P-47? Why weren’t more delivered? Unfortunately, very little is known about the Thunderbolts that arrived in the Soviet Union. Most of them were delivered to the 255th IAP of the Northern Fleet, where they were put into the high-altitude air defense role. While the Thunderbolt pilots of the US 8th Air Force did not have to look too hard to find a high-altitude dogfight, the aerial action over the entire Eastern Front was fought at a significantly lower altitude.

Whereas British and American bombers engaged in high-altitude bombing runs against German cities and industrial targets, requiring fighter escorts equipped with superchargers (P-47, P-51, P-38), the VVS focused more on low-level close air support, integrating the movements of their ground attack aircraft (IL-2 Sturmoviks) with ground forces. Consequently, while escorting the IL-2 “flying tanks”, Soviet escorts rarely found themselves in situations in which they would have to engage the enemy at high altitudes.

The Luftwaffe similarly used the Ju-87 and Ju-88 in close air support roles on the Eastern Front, meaning the VVS had little use for high-altitude interceptors.

Information from the archives of the General Staff of the Air Force of the Soviet Army does not differ much – 190 P-47 fighters were received in 1944 and five – in 1945. Apparently, the Soviet archive did not take into account one more aircraft – P-47D-10-RE Serial number 42-75202 Purchased with funds raised by US Senators, this aircraft received its own name “Knight of Pythias”. It was he who was tested in mid-1944 at the Air Force Research Institute and LII.

“Thunderbolt” disappointed Soviet test pilots. One of the best flight engineers at LII, Mark Lazarevich Gallay, recalled the flight on the P-47 this way:

– Already in the first minutes of the flight, I realized that this is not a fighter! Stable, with a comfortable spacious cockpit, comfortable, but not a fighter. “Thunderbolt” had unsatisfactory maneuverability in the horizontal and especially in the vertical plane. The plane accelerated slowly – the inertia of the heavy machine affected. The Thunderbolt was perfect for a simple en-route flight without harsh maneuvers. This is not enough for a fighter.

The opinion of the Soviet aviation engineers about the Thunderbolt was not much different from the pilots. Despite the sleek shape of the fuselage and the apparent perfection of aerodynamics, the Thunderbolt’s Cx coefficient turned out to be less than that of the main German Bf.109G and Fw-190A fighters. Interest was not aroused by the aircraft itself, but by the turbocharger (first of all!), the engine, and aviation equipment. The plane was disassembled to pieces and carefully examined at the Bureau of New Technology of the People’s Commissariat of the Aviation Industry (BNT NKAP). BNT specialists have published a complete technical description of the P-47 fighter in Russian. Engineers also drew conclusions regarding the quality and manufacturing methods of components and assemblies of the American fighter, noting that in terms of technology, the Soviet aviation industry lags behind the American one.

Combat pilots of the Red Army Air Force also did not appreciate the overseas miracle. The Soviet Union did not have the slightest need to escort heavy bombers in 1944 – the front-line aviation bore the entire burden of the war. Air battles on the Soviet-German front were fought at altitudes below 6,000 m, exactly at those altitudes where the Thunderbolt most resembled a flying target. At low altitudes, the P-47 lost in all respect to any Soviet or German fighter of the 1944 models. An interesting fact is that it is possible that the Americans tried to improve the maneuverability of the “Soviet” Thunderbolts by supplying them with removed external machine guns. In fact, the Thunderbolt repeated the story of the Soviet MiG-3 fighter – an excellent air fighter at high altitude and clumsy at the ground. Such an aircraft in the Red Army Air Force during the war years turned out to be unclaimed. Of course, it should be borne in mind that the opinion of Soviet pilots and engineers was formed on the basis of assessments of the P-47D-10-RE fighter. Under Lend-Lease, the P-47D-22-RE and P-47D-27-RE aircraft equipped with more powerful R-2800-59 engines were supplied.

In the West, it is widely believed that the Russians simply tested the wrong car, and the P-47D-22 and P-47D-27 arrived too late. That is unlikely. The entire course of the air war on the Eastern Front suggests that heavy high-altitude fighters did not take root here. Even the Fw-190, a fighter that was famous for its maneuverability on the Western front, turned out to be heavy and awkward. In the Red Army, all high-altitude fighters were “floated” into the air defense regiments. First, such a fate befell the MiG-3, then the Lend-Lease Spitfires, and finally the Thunderbolts. The only place where they appeared a year earlier, “Thunderbolts” could still show themselves, was in the aviation arm of the navy. Most of the Thunderbolts arrived in the Soviet Union via a 26,000 km southern route (the journey took 42 days) from New York to the Persian port of Abadan. In Abadan, the planes were assembled under the supervision of military representatives of the Red Army Air Force, then flew around, after which the pilots of the 6th Ferry Fighter Aviation Regiment drove Thunderbolts along the Abadan-Tehran-Kirovobad route. In Kirovabad, the 11th reserve bomber aviation regiment took over the aircraft. On the 1,450 km route, the pilots had to overcome two mountain ranges. With a stopover in Tehran, the length of the non-stop flight to Kirovobad from Iran was reduced to 754 km.

The first Thunderbolt fighters arrived at the airfield of the 11th ZBAP on August 24, 1944. On this day, the regiment received Order No. 30, which noted the adoption of the P-47D fighters equipped with R-2800-59 engines. -22-RE with serial numbers 42-25611 and 42-26633. Large-scale deliveries began a little later. According to orders No. 36, 38 and 39 of December 22, 1944, the unit entered service with P-47D-22-RE aircraft with serial numbers 42-25541, 543-7, 552, 553, 555, 557, 559, 560- 564, 566-568, 570, 574, 576-580, 582, 583, 586, 591, 594, 595,600-610, 612,614-617, 619-628, 631, 634, 636-638 – 62 aircraft in total. At the same time, 47 P-47D-27-RE fighters with serial numbers 42-27015, 018, 019, 021, 0222, 025-029, 031-033, 037, 038, 042-044, 050, 052-055 were adopted, 058, 061, 116, 117, 123, 129, 130-132, 134, 140, 141, 144, 149, 150, 154, 156, 157, 159, 160, 162 and 163. Thus, the 11th ZBAP received 111 Thunderbolts.

In 1945, the Thunderbolts arrived at the location of the 11th ZBAP in two batches, on April 21 – two P-47D-27s produced at the Fairmigdale plant (serial numbers 42-27136 and 42-27146) and on April 27 – four more similar fighters (serial numbers 42-25S51, 587, 590 and 593).

All stories about the delivery of “Thunderbolts” to the Soviet Union by northern convoys through Murmansk or along the Alaska-Siberia highway are pure fiction. The P-47 fighters arrived in the USSR only by the southern route through Iran. The technical specialists of the Red Army Air Force modified (or even changed) the Thunderbolt radio equipment to match the frequencies used in Soviet aviation; transponders of the “friend or foe” radar identification system were removed as unnecessary. The identification marks on the P-47D-22-RE were repainted in the Soviet Union – red stars with a white-red border were applied. On the P-47D-27-RE intended for delivery to the USSR, red stars were applied directly at the Ripablik plant. As a rule, they were applied in the same dreams and the same sizes as the US Air Force insignia, often a red star was painted in a white circle. The 11th ZBAP consisted of four squadrons – on the basis of the 1st and 2nd, training of bomber crews was conducted, on the basis of the 3rd and 4th – training of fighter pilots, mainly for P-39N / Q aircraft. In the official documentation of the 11th ZBAP, the P-47 fighter is called “Thunderbolt”. The number of pilots trained in the regiment for flights on “Thunderbolt” is small: 12 pilots in 1944 and 15 in 1945. In addition to the high-altitude air defense role, it has also been suggested that the Soviets used P-47s as reconnaissance aircraft, due to their range that was far superior to other aircraft available to the VVS.

While undoubtedly one of the finest American aircraft of World War Two, the P-47 simply did not fit into the conditions of the Eastern Front.

Revised Look at the Battle of Moscow 1941-2

Germany’s winter campaign of 1941–1942 has commonly been seen as the “first defeat” of the Wehrmacht in the Second World War. Indeed, two of the most recent books about the fighting near Moscow by Robert Forczyk (2006) and Michael Jones (2009) both share the subtitle Hitler’s First Defeat. The most thorough and comprehensive study of the period is actually an earlier work by Klaus Reinhardt, whose pioneering study has remained the standard work in spite of being first published in 1972. Rejecting the accepted view, which saw Stalingrad or Kursk as the classic turning points of Germany’s war, Reinhardt was among the first to argue that the battle of Moscow, especially in the winter of 1941–1942, constituted the decisive event of the war, which represented, as his subtitle claimed, “the failure of Hitler’s strategy.”

For those not familiar with my former studies of German operations in the east, the fighting at Moscow will not be portrayed in this book as Hitler’s “first defeat,” nor even the turning point of the war, because I argue that both already took place in the summer of 1941. Such a proposition may strike some as counterintuitive given that, at the most basic level, the story of Germany’s summer campaign is typically characterized by fast-moving panzer groups, calamitous cauldron battles, and staggering sums of Red Army losses. Perhaps even more conclusive is the fact that, at the end of it all, Hitler’s armies stood deep inside the Soviet Union, ultimately threatening Leningrad, Moscow, and Sevastopol. The logic here appears simple: Germany’s first defeat, whenever that might have been, certainly could not have come before the first winter of the war.

The problem with this logic is that it separates German operations from their strategic context. Battles do not exist in a vacuum, and they should not be seen as ends in themselves. The sheer accumulation of battlefield “victories” in 1941 clearly did not suffice to knock the Soviet Union out of the war, and it was this failure that ultimately proved so ruinous to Germany’s prospects. Heavily restricted access to raw materials, critical production bottlenecks, and bitter policy debates governing the allocation of resources to the armed forces were fundamental to the outcome of a large-scale industrialized war. Indeed, it was Germany’s grim long-term economic prospects that first directed Hitler’s attention toward an eastern campaign, but embarking on it came with huge risks. Either Hitler would secure his long-prophesied Lebensraum (living space) in the east and ensure limitless access to almost any resource Germany might require in its war against Great Britain, or the Wehrmacht’s air and sea war in the west would be disastrously undercut by a parallel, high-intensity land war in the east. Thus, it was absolutely essential for Germany to end any prospective war against the Soviet Union as quickly and as decisively as possible—there was simply no economic or military contingency for anything else. Under these circumstances, some authors have attempted to argue Germany’s dominance by pointing to the far greater problems in the Red Army during the summer campaign. Yet the contexts for the two forces were entirely different; the Wehrmacht had to win outright at all costs, while the Red Army had only to survive as a force in being.

What made German operations in the course of 1941 so important to the war’s ultimate outcome was not just their failure to secure Hitler’s all-important victory, but the cost of so many battles to the Wehrmacht’s panzer groups. In its ruthless pursuit of victory, the German Ostheer (eastern army) became a very blunt instrument, and there was simply no way of reconstituting this offensive power without a very long period of inactivity that the unrelenting warfare in the east would never permit. As the chief of the Army General Staff, Colonel-General Franz Halder, acknowledged in his diary on November 23: “An army, like that of June 1941, will henceforth no longer be available to us.” Accordingly, the summer and fall of 1941 saw the Wehrmacht achieve stunning successes, but from a strategic point of view it failed to do the one thing that really mattered—defeat the Soviet Union before its vital panzer groups were blunted. Once Operation Barbarossa (the code name for the German invasion of the Soviet Union) passed from being a blitzkrieg to a slogging war of matériel, which was already the case by the end of the summer, large-scale economic deficiencies spelled eventual doom for the Nazi state.

If Germany suffered its first and most significant setback in the summer of 1941, what then is the relevance of studying the 1941–1942 winter campaign? Is it simply one of the many stepping-stones in the long decline of Nazi Germany or is there something unique about this period? Indeed, if we no longer consider it Germany’s first defeat, then what kind of defeat was it? If battles need to be placed in a larger context to ascertain their significance, we should not assume that Germany’s winter retreat, any more than its summer advance, is the only indicator of “success,” or in this case “defeat.” If the war in the east was, since the end of the first summer, a battle of attrition, then the relative cost of German and Soviet operations determined their worth, and the outcome of any single encounter cannot be decided simply by asking who held the field at the end of the day. In the vast expanses of the east, ground mattered far less than resources, but both the Nazi and Soviet regimes struggled to understand this. Moreover, because of their shared obsession with prestige as well as their grandiloquent ideological worldviews, surrendering ground, even for a tactical/operational advantage, was consistently viewed as defeatist and cowardly. By the same token, offensive operations were consistently pursued by both sides to the detriment of the attacking forces, which were routinely overextended, lacked adequate supply, and became exposed to enemy counterattack.

By the beginning of December 1941 conditions at the front saw both armies suffering frightful shortages and living in desperate conditions across most of the line. Inevitably therefore the strategic calculus for the success of any operation was how much damage it could inflict upon the enemy and, by the same token, what the corresponding cost of that operation would necessitate. With armies stretched, resources typically inadequate, and mobility for most units limited, avoiding wasteful operations was more significant than the alternative of doing nothing at all. Yet for both the German and Soviet high commands there was little appreciation of this. Time and again positions were to be seized or defended “at any cost,” while success was measured by the acquisition of a set objective and not the sacrifices it entailed. While this remains a by-product of the inexorably ideological nature of the Nazi/Soviet view of war, it should not be accepted as our own standard for determining the value of events. Clearly, the ends did not always justify the means, so we should not simply assume that the most basic indicator of military success—seizing ground from the enemy—was in every instance vindicated.

In 1941 one of the central problems for the Red Army and the Wehrmacht was the lack of alignment between operational planning and strategic reality. Both sides were attempting far too much and expecting more of their forces than they could ever hope to deliver. During Operation Barbarossa, the Ostheer leadership pursued its advance with an almost obsessive determination, oblivious to the exhaustion of their men and the debilitating matériel losses within their mobile formations. This led directly to the dangerous position the Germans found themselves in near Moscow on December 5 when the first Soviet counterattacks began. Initially the Red Army’s offensive capitalized on the overextension of the central part of the German front, where multiple armies, under the direction of Army Group Center, were left dangerously exposed. Soviet success was also aided by the Wehrmacht’s unpreparedness for the cold, but each new Soviet advance encouraged ever more ambitious thinking until soon Stalin and the Stavka (the Soviet high command) were themselves undermining their own potential to strike a major blow.

Making matters worse, the Red Army on the offensive was in no way comparable to the Wehrmacht in 1941. Its hard-won professionalism, training, and experience enabled the German army to cope much better with excessive expectations than could the fledgling Red Army, whose ill-prepared officer corps was barely able to handle the more passive demands of defensive warfare, much less the skills required for a major offensive. Little experience in conducting forward operations and far too few qualified staff officers made functional command and control haphazard at best, leading in many instances to the infantry attacking in isolation without the support of heavy weapons or coordinated movements. A remarkable number of Soviet officers did not even attempt to “soften up” German positions and simply charged the enemy lines in senseless massed attacks. The German records are replete with such examples, and not surprisingly, soon after the offensive began, Soviet orders appeared expressly forbidding these kinds of wasteful charges.

On the other side, December 5 represented the exhaustion of Army Group Center’s own offensive and, at long last, the concentration of remaining resources on the much-neglected defense. While this counted for little in the immediate situation, over time remaining on the defensive wherever possible acted to conserve strength, while fieldworks such as bunkers or fortified villages acted as important force multipliers,7 which in a resource-poor environment greatly aided German forces. Where the front could no longer be held, retreat bought the German armies precious time and allowed them to fall back on their supply lines. This functioned remarkably well for the first two weeks of the offensive until Hitler’s halt order, which forbade any withdrawal unless approved by himself, came into effect. Hitler’s grasp of military principles was heavily colored by ideological precepts that undercut Germany’s defensive war just as Soviet forces were themselves being driven to excess. In this instance, the halt order was Hitler’s blanket solution that immensely complicated Army Group Center’s response.

Far from being the critical element that stiffened the backbone of the German army, Hitler’s halt order was a military disaster, which took no account of local circumstances and proved deeply unpopular among Army Group Center’s hard-pressed commanders. It assumed that the only requirement for holding a position was the requisite “will” to resist, which immediately cast doubt on any commander’s request for a retreat. Just how deeply the generals at the front resented the imposition of Hitler’s new order is one of the revelations of this study, which will demonstrate an orchestrated pattern of coordinated defiance that goes well beyond anything previously understood about the period. The oft-cited postwar claim, even by some former German officers, that the halt order somehow constituted “an immoveable barrier preventing … [the army] from pouring back in wild retreat” could not be further from the truth. From the commander of Army Group Center down, the halt order was typically viewed, like the Red Army, as something to be staunchly opposed and carefully outmaneuvered. Occasionally, this opposition was openly flaunted to the detriment of the protagonist, but more often than not it was carefully “managed” behind the scenes, so that the army high command and Hitler could not oppose what they did not know about—and there was a lot they did not know about.

Such bold “initiative” at the front reflects the fact that the German army’s hallmark system of “mission-oriented tactics” (Auftragstaktik), which historians have previously determined ended, or at the very least was seriously curtailed, from the first winter of the war in the east, was in fact alive and well.9 Commanders operated on their own terms to preserve their forces (and sometimes their own lives) by taking steps that purposely defied Hitler. This was not an act of resistance toward Hitler or his regime; it was motivated by self-preservation and professional instinct, which acted in the service of Nazi Germany, not in opposition to it. The army’s unadulterated support for Hitler and his war aims in the east was never in question, even when the dictator openly spoke of the coming war requiring a ruthless “war of annihilation.”

The real crisis period of the German winter campaign extended from mid-December to mid-January, when Hitler finally relaxed his halt order and allowed three German armies a last-minute withdrawal. Yet even in this period of strategic crisis, the Red Army operated as an unwieldy, blunt instrument smashing itself relentlessly against the German lines. In places this saw German positions being overrun and tactical breakthroughs of the line, but these were the exceptions, not the rule, and the cost to the Red Army was staggering.

This study will consider all six of Army Group Center’s constituent armies (Ninth, Third Panzer, Fourth Panzer, Fourth, Second Panzer, and Second) to present a complete picture of events, rather than one that simply follows the crisis points in the line and offers no comparative context across hundreds of kilometers of front. The idea of a crisis in Army Group Center was more often than not a localized phenomenon: every army experienced one, but at different times and to different degrees, and never all of them at the same time. Ninth and Fourth Armies, for example, were relatively quiet sectors with few retreats for the first two weeks of the Soviet offensive, while later the situation reversed with the panzer armies, especially the Second and Third, generally considered secure.

One method of assessing the winter fighting is to consider its raw cost, and the most basic indicator here is casualties. Grigorii Fedotovich Krivosheev’s landmark study of Soviet casualties estimated that the Red Army’s aggregate daily losses for the initial period of the Moscow counteroffensive (December 5, 1941, to January 7, 1942) were more costly than the Moscow defensive operations (September 30 to December 5, 1941). The former cost 10,910 men (dead and wounded) each day, while the latter exacted a daily average of 9,823 casualties. Even if we compare the Moscow counteroffensive to the Kiev defensive operation (July 7 to September 26, 1941), the average daily losses of the latter came to 8,543, substantially fewer again. This does not mean that the total losses for the Moscow counteroffensive were higher overall because its operational period was shorter, but that the casualties were more concentrated between December 5 and January 7, 1942. More recently, Lev Lopukhovsky and Boris Kavalerchik have persuasively argued that Krivosheev’s figures, which were made up of reports submitted to the Soviet high command, excluded large numbers of losses resulting from German encirclements or other wartime circumstances where no reports could be made. This demonstrates that earlier periods of the war were in fact much more costly to the Red Army, but the evidence provided by Lopukhovsky and Kavalerchik also revises upward the Soviet winter losses. Their detailed analysis of the wartime records reveals as many as 552,000 casualties for the month of December, 558,000 for January and a further 528,000 in February, equaling a winter total of 1,638,000 Soviet losses. This is a figure that surely questions the extent of Stalin’s “victorious” winter campaign, especially when one considers that total German casualties for a slightly longer period (November 26, 1941, to February 28, 1942) came to just 262,524. Soviet losses were more than six times those of the Germans in the winter of 1941–1942, making the argument for Germany’s “defeat” much more relative. The result vindicates John Erickson’s characterization of Soviet infantry in this period as little more than a “mob of riflemen,” which he argued was “thus inviting heavy casualties” until they were supported by more heavy weaponry.

For all the dramatic depictions of Army Group Center’s frozen soldiers and the often-exaggerated parallels with Napoleon’s disastrous retreat, the actual number of German dead compares favorably to the earlier periods of the war. In fact, there were fewer German deaths in December 1941 (40,198) than in the preceding months of July (63,099), August (46,066), September (51,033), and October (41,099). Only in the months of June (25,000 in just nine days of combat) and November (36,000) were fewer German deaths recorded. January (48,164) and February (44,099) 1942 were somewhat higher, but nothing like the death toll resulting from real German disasters, such as that seen in January and February 1943 following the loss of Stalingrad and the German Sixth Army. Here the German death toll for the same two months reached a staggering 248,640.

Finally, the winter of 1941–1942 is unique because it is one of the only times in the war that Germany successfully matched its strategy to its operations. When Hitler issued War Directive 39 on December 8, ordering the Ostheer to “abandon immediately all major offensive operations and go over to the defensive,” the gap between Army Group Center’s means and ends closed to something barely achievable, which was more than could be said of preceding war directives that overestimated Germany’s offensive capabilities and confidently predicted “military mastery of the European continent after the overthrow of Russia.” Such hubris, however, was much less evident by early December as Hitler’s new war directive explained: “The way in which these defensive operations are to be carried out will be decided in accordance with the purpose which they are intended to serve, viz.: To hold areas which are of great operational or economic importance to the enemy.”

Army Group Center held a string of important Russian cities, which facilitated supply, offered shelter, assisted rear area organization, and functioned as valuable transportation nodes. They could also be counted upon as rough indicators of where local Soviet offensives would be directed and thus channeling their forces on the approaches and, if reached, forcing them to assault German strongpoints. These included Kursk, Orel, Briansk, Kaluga, Viaz’ma, Rzhev, Kalinin, and behind them all Smolensk, where Army Group Center had its headquarters. By January 1942 the Stavka’s general offensive sought to execute two major envelopments, a smaller one to close at Viaz’ma and a larger one at Smolensk. Yet neither of these two cities would fall to the Red Army, just as neither of the two encirclements would succeed. German defensive operations, while sometimes desperate, successfully defended all of their major strategic locations except for Kalinin (which was on the front line when the Soviet offensive began) and Kaluga.

The Soviet plan was not just looking to capture population centers, but to encircle and destroy major sections of Army Group Center. In fact, the destruction of the whole army group was sometimes called for in Soviet plans. Yet Germany not only successfully maintained its chain of strategic locations, the army group also endured intact without losing an army, a corps, or even a single division. Of course, some of these formations became so worn down by the fighting that they hardly functioned as corps or divisions, but in spite of being occasionally cut off and subjected to all manner of punishment, no major German formations were lost. The same cannot be said of the Red Army, which became so overextended that, at its worst, one and a half Soviet armies—some 60,000 Soviet troops—became cut off and were mostly destroyed.

German operations, therefore, not only sufficed to preserve their formations and defend their strategic objectives, but also, by doing so, frustrated the Soviet offensive plan and exacted a tremendous toll on the Red Army. It was something of a role reversal from the summer and autumn, when the Red Army had successfully foiled Germany’s strategic intentions, but as already observed, both regimes habitually pursued wildly overblown plans. In the winter, however, Germany proved dominant tactically, operationally, and even strategically. Army Group Center, while terribly battered by the winter fighting, was not destroyed by it, and would go on to maintain a remarkably strong position in the center of the Eastern Front for another two and a half years.

If the present study seeks to reassess one aspect of the winter period, it is to question who benefited the most—or lost the least—from the 1941–1942 winter campaign. Marshal Georgi Zhukov, who commanded the Soviet Western Front during the winter fighting, wrote in a draft of his memoirs (which only came to light much later):

The History of the Great Fatherland War still comes to a generally positive conclusion about the [first] winter offensive of our forces, despite the lack of success. We do not agree with this evaluation. The embellishment of history, one could say, is a sad attempt to paint over failure. If you consider our losses and what results were achieved, it will be clear that it was a Pyrrhic victory.

Identifying the winter period as a Soviet Pyrrhic victory does not ameliorate Germany’s own dire circumstances or exonerate the decisions of Hitler and the Army High Command (Oberkommando des Heeres—OKH) in precipitating the circumstances that led to Army Group Center’s winter crisis. Even many of the leading commanders in the field contributed significantly to the awful state of affairs Germany confronted by early December, although in their subsequent writings they would choose to pin all of their woes on higher authorities. Most important, whatever measure of success Germany’s winter campaign had, it did not change the fundamental point that Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist made after the war: “Everything was based on the hope of a decisive result by the autumn of 1941.” That was not changed by the winter campaign, nor could it ever have been. But Germany certainly lost far fewer men in the fighting, frustrated the Soviet strategic plan, and emerged in the spring unbroken and best placed to recapture the initiative for another major summer offensive.

The need to understand the centrality of the Nazi-Soviet conflict to the outcome of the Second World War cannot be overstated. It was not just one more front in the war against Hitler’s Germany, it was the front. The Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union with almost 150 divisions (over 3 million men), while in North Africa the Western allies engaged Rommel’s famous Afrikakorps with just three German divisions (45,000 men). Even after D-Day, almost three years from the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the Western allies would never face more than 25 percent of the German army in their campaigns across Western Europe. The German army was battered to death in one campaign after another on the Eastern Front. Yet the Wehrmacht’s path to destruction was by no means devoid of major reversals, while Soviet “successes” were often won at a staggering cost, which sometimes hindered rather than helped the Red Army’s final victory. The winter of 1941–1942 is a case in point and a caution against oversimplified conclusions based on a superficial analysis of what was achieved. Stalin’s counteroffensive constitutes one of the clearest examples of Soviet strategic overreach, which underestimated Germany’s enduring tactical and operational dominance and led to horrendous losses. In the final analysis Army Group Center was far from defeated in the winter fighting, Auftragstaktik did not disappear as a result of Hitler’s halt order, and the Wehrmacht’s response was much more offensive than has previously been understood. Moreover, the prevailing historical narrative dominated by Germany’s “crisis and retreat,” while not always incorrect, ignores the fact that Army Group Center’s withdrawals were often operationally successful and strategically necessary. The new line Army Group Center occupied defended valuable Russian cities in highly favorable battles of attrition. As one summative report from the 7th Infantry Division stated two weeks into the Soviet offensive: “In this struggle, there is no armistice, there is only victory or defeat. The task of the German Eastern Army is to force a German victory with all means and under all circumstances.” This task was almost universally understood, and whatever the cost to the German troops and the occupied Russian population, it was Hitler—not Stalin—who achieved his strategic goals for the winter.

By David Stahel from ‘Retreat from Moscow: A New History of Germany’s Winter Campaign, 1941-1942’

Battle of Wołomin

Tiger I of SS-Division “Totenkopf”, stands ready in a forest assembly area to move up to the front to neutralize a Soviet armoured incursion near Warsaw.

After the Soviet reconnaissance units reached Warsaw in late July, on 1 August 1944 the Warsaw Uprising started. Starting from an area south of Mińsk Mazowiecki, Major General Nikolai Vedeneev’s 3rd Tank Corps (part of the Soviet 2nd Tank Army) thrust northwest through Okuniew and Wołomin to Radzymin, reaching an area only three miles (five kilometers) from the strategic bridge over the Narew River at Zegrze.

In response to Soviet General’s Vedeneev’s thrust, the Germans started a tactical counter-attack near Radzymin on 31 July. The offensive, carried out by 4 understrength Panzer divisions, was to secure the eastern approaches to Warsaw and Vistula crossings, and aimed to destroy the three tank corps of the Second Tank Army in detail. Under the leadership of German Field Marshal Model, the 4th, 19th, Hermann Göring, and 5th SS Panzer Divisions were concentrated from different areas with their arrival in the area of Wołomin occurring between 31 July and 1 August 1944. Although the 3rd Tank Corps gamely defended the initial assaults of the Hermann Göring and 19th Panzer Divisions, the arrival of the 4th Panzer and 5th SS Panzer Divisions spelled doom for the isolated and outnumbered unit.

Already on 1 August, the leading elements of the 19th and 5th SS Panzer Divisions, closing from the west and east respectively, met at Okuniew, cutting the 3rd Tank Corps off from the other units of the Second Tank Army. Pressed into the area of Wołomin, the 3rd Tank Corps was pocketed and destroyed on 3 August 1944. Attempts to reach the doomed tank corps by the 8th Guards Tank Corps and the 16th Tank Corps failed, with the 8th Guards Tank Corps taking serious losses in the attempt. Although Model had planned to attack the 8th Guards Tank Corps next, the withdrawal of the 19th and Hermann Göring Panzer Divisions to shore up the German defenses around the Magnuszew bridgehead forced the remaining German forces around Okuniew to go on the defensive.

On 1 August, the freedom fighters of the Polish Home Army rose in rebellion. All over the city guerrilla fighters attacked German-held buildings and started to fortify “liberated” zones in the city and along the western bank of the Vistula, which cut Warsaw in two. In a matter of days most of the city centre had been cleared of German units. Isolated German positions were quickly seized by the Polish forces, using a mixture of captured and improvised weapons. The fighting was brutal, with little quarter being shown by either side, and soon one of the biggest street battles in military history was about to reach its tragic end. The Polish leaders depended on the swift arrival of Soviet tanks on the western side of the Vistula. However, the Home Army had failed to read the flow of the battle on the eastern bank of the Vistula between the Germans and the Soviet Second Tank Army.

As Soviet tanks cautiously entered Praga during the morning of 31 July, the eastern suburb of Warsaw, the prospects for an early liberation of Poland’s capital seemed high. Unknown to the Russians, they were about to encounter a whirlwind. The Totenkopf, Wiking and Hermann Goring Divisions were attacking, as well as two army panzer divisions. The German panzers moved southwards into the flanks of the Russian tank columns. All day the battle raged, with German Panthers knocking out scores of Russian T-34s. German troops worked their way around the flanks of the Soviet III Tank Corps. The latter’s troops, tired after almost six weeks of constant fighting, could put up little resistance. The corps only just managed to escape the German pincers, and by the end of the day the Soviets had been evicted from Praga. The attack was decisive and sealed the fate of the Warsaw Rising, even before it had begun. With the Germans now entrenched In Praga in strength, there was now no hope that the Russians would be easily able to link up with the Polish Home Army.

The Soviets now tried a wide encircling move to the north of Warsaw. By 4 August IV SS Panzer Corps, now with the Totenkopf and Wiking Divisions under its command, had already been ordered by Model to set up a blocking position north of the city, and was ready and waiting when the Soviet storm burst on 14 August. For a week the Waffen-SS formation held off 15 Russian infantry divisions and two tank corps. Human-wave attacks were repulsed on a daily basis, with thousands of Russian troops being killed in front of the German lines. The Soviets now poured in extra infantry divisions and hundreds more tanks. Heavy attacks, supported by hundreds of Stormovik fighter-bombers, added to the pounding, and by 26 August the Totenkopf had to fall back towards Praga under the deluge of firepower. A Waffen-SS counterattack on 11 September drove the Soviets back, and again defeated a link-up with the Polish Home Army.

The Totenkopf and Wiking Divisions were the linchpins of the German operation to crush the Warsaw rising, even though they did not actually take part in the fighting against the Polish Home Army. By preventing a link-up with the Red Army, they consigned the population of the city to two months of siege. Hitler was infuriated that the Poles, whom he classed “sub-humans”, had dared to challenge German rule

One of The Biggest Tank Battles You Have Probably Never Heard About

The Abwehr and the RSHA against the NKVD, NKGB and ‘SMERSH’

‘SMERSH’ and counterintelligence personnel. Two of which are practicing choke holds.

The Russians, who had been waging total war since November 1941, immediately reacted to the increased activities of the Abwehr and the RSHA against the USSR. But this response was only to increase the number of agencies combatting German spies and saboteurs. On 14 April 1943, in addition to NKVD – the main Soviet security service – the People’s Commissariat of State Security (NKGB) was formed. The responsibilities of the new department included: intelligence against other countries, the fight against enemy intelligence, and the protection of the Communist authorities. Commissioner of State Security 1st Rank Vsevolod Merkulov was appointed its chief. He was a former officer of the Russian Imperial Army, who after the revolution joined the Bolsheviks. Merkulov worked for many years in the Soviet secret police and was a close associate of Lavrenti Beria – People’s Commissar (Minister) of Internal Affairs and Stalin’s chief executioner between 1938 and 1953.

However, Soviet paranoia did not end there. Stalin, who was terrified of German spies and doubted the quality of the work of his security services, continued to produce new, but equally ineffective, agencies. On 19 April 1943 the secret decree of the Soviet government on ‘The Basis of the Management of Special Departments of the NKVD’ established another special body of the Main Directorate of Counterintelligence to deal with agents and spies, ‘SMERSH’ (from smert schpionam – ‘death to spies’) of the people’s Commissariat of Defence of the USSR. Its chief was Commissioner of State Security 2nd Rank Viktor Abakumov. He began his career as a packer and worked for a long time in the Soviet trade system. However, soon his life changed dramatically and from knocking nails into wooden boxes, he moved on to knocking confessions out of all sorts of ‘spies’ and ‘traitors’. Joining the Communist Party, in 1932 Abakumov joined the OGPU (Main Political Administration) from where he went to work in the NKVD. But at first, his career in the secret police had gone badly. In 1934, Abakumov was discovered to have used the secret apartments of the NKVD to meet with his numerous mistresses. After that Abakumov was ‘exiled’ to work in the Main Directorate of Concentration Camps (GULAG). During the Great Terror of 1937–8 many vacancies were formed in the central office of the NKVD (most of Stalin’s executioners, responsible for the repression of millions of Soviet citizens, were also accused of treason and executed), after which Viktor Abakumov’s carreer abruptly took an upturn. The new chief of the NKVD, Lavrenti Beria, found in him a faithful companion and colleague. Beria also successfully combined the sadistic work of Stalin’s chief executioner with debauchery, using his post to flirt with numerous mistresses, preferring underage girls.

All these agencies (the NKVD, NKGB and SMERSH) did not have clearly defined areas of responsibility and, like the Abwehr and the RSHA, actively competed with each other. A consequence of strengthening the security services was even greater surveillance over the population. The Russian ‘leader’ Stalin, like all dictators, was very afraid of his own people, but he was also afraid of his own executioners. Therefore, he fully encouraged rivalry and enmity between them, thus ensuring his dominance and awareness of the tricks of the main executioners.

The Soviet security services sought to detain German agents ‘in hot pursuit’, that is, on the first day after landing. Every day of freedom increased chances of the saboteurs vanishing among the population, moving around the huge country. Rapid captures could be achieved only with the help of a properly-developed system of monitoring the terrain and airspace, and the rapid transmission of information. If the delivery of the next group remained unnoticed and its members could not be caught in the days that followed, some of the agents would manage to escape.

Next, we will give the most interesting examples of delivery of spies into the Soviet rear in 1943. Of course, the authors have information only about the German agents who were caught.

In January, in the Saratov region a group of soldiers who had undergone special training at the Breitenfurt intelligence school was neutralized. The members of the group, disguised as Soviet air force personnel, were to conduct reconnaissance of the aviation industry and energy facilities. Two radio sets, small arms, grenades, several sets of false documents and a large amount of money were captured with them. In the same region three months later, another specialized sabotage group was detained. Its participants had graduated from the Warsaw intelligence school and were assigned to collect information about the movement of military equipment by rail, paying special attention to the products of the Saratov aviation plant (where Yak-1 fighters were produced) and sabotage. From these two cases, the Russian security services concluded that German intelligence was showing great interest in aviation plant No. 292 in Saratov.

On 8 January a group of six Abwehr agents were delivered to the town of Novouzensk, 90km north-east of the Pallasovka railway station. They had a mission to monitor rail movements and to carry out sabotage. The next day one of the agents gave himself up to the local authorities and told them about his ‘colleagues’. The local istrebitelnij battalion conducted a mass round-up, during which all agents were arrested. Weapons, equipment and radio sets were seized.

It should also be noted that the German saboteurs had the indirect assistance of local thugs. In the midst of decisive battles on the Eastern Front, the social and criminal situation in the Volga region was difficult. The main focus of crime was the Stalingrad region. The ruined city and its environs were infested with criminals of all kinds, who armed themselves with weapons scavenged from the battlefields. In the first half of 1943 alone, in the Stalingrad region 18 gangs with a total of 916 members were eliminated, and more than 2,000 bandits and deserters were arrested, who had been responsible for terrorist acts, attacks on NKVD workers, soldiers and commanders of NKVD troops, and the looting of collective farms and state enterprises.

Another unexpected destabilizing factor was the German soldiers and their voluntary helpers (Ost Hilfswillige) trapped far behind Soviet lines without any help from the Abwehr or the SD. Although most of the soldiers of the German Sixth Army surrendered during the first days of February, some of them continued to hide out in Stalingrad and its suburbs in the following months. Despite regular raids, many of them managed to ‘live’ in the city for a long time, helped by the impassable rubble, piles of ruins and many surviving dugouts and shelters. In July 1943, six months after the surrender of Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus, a major operation carried out by the NKVD in the Stalingrad region resulted in the capture of a large number of German soldiers and officers and the usual criminals, from whom were confiscated almost 500 rifles, 25 machine guns, 14 assault rifles, 9 anti-tank guns and many other weapons. Some Wehrmacht soldiers and especially the Russian volunteers managed to avoid captivity by hiding in neighbouring regions. For example, in July, NKVD officers by chance arrested I.F. Shapkin, who previously served in the Wehrmacht (Sixth Army). He had lived for four months pretending to be deaf and dumb in the village of Ivanovka in the Saratov region.

In a letter of 17 June 1943 the Stalingrad regional office of the Communist Party announced to all the party organizations of the region that ‘the Enemy intensified its delivering to the Stalingrad region of parachutists, intelligence officers, radio operators, saboteurs and other agents for intelligence and subversive activities in our rear.’ In September, in the Ilovaysky district of the Stalingrad region, members of an enemy intelligence group voluntarily surrendered to the local authorities. The former saboteurs announced that another group that had been delivered together with them through the front line into the Balandinskaya district of the Saratov region also wanted to surrender.

Groups of agents were also delivered to neighbouring regions. The delivery of agents of different profiles to the neighbouring regions was actively carried out. In June, the istrebitelnij battalion of the Krasnoyarsk district in the Astrakhan region arrested five German agents who had been assigned to conduct reconnaissance of the movement of military units and equipment. During the arrest they seized machine guns, a radio set, maps and a large sum of Soviet money. In the same month in the Astrakhan region a group of five agents voluntarily handed over their weapons and reported another six-strong group near Lake Baskunchak. In October, in the vicinity of Astrakhan an intelligence group of five people was delivered, headed by a German military intelligence officer. They were to contact the bandits operating in the area. In addition, they were to collect intelligence on the deployment and movement of military units.

In June two agents landed near Penza oblast. In the morning, the drop of saboteurs from the plane was noticed by local residents and reported to the NKVD. Istrebitelnij battalions and militia officers were sent to the landing site. That morning a man in the uniform of a major of State Security entered the Kameshkirskijj District Office of the NKVD. He introduced himself to the duty officer as an employee of the ‘Regional Department’ and demanded a horse to search for parachutists. The attendant knew that the search was indeed underway. The arrival of such a senior figure of the ‘Regional Office’ in this backwater seemed suspicious to him. Came on foot all the way from Penza?! And only here, apparently tired after many kilometres of hiking, decided to continue the journey on horseback? This conversation also seemed suspicious to the duty officer. So he asked the major to wait, and then ran to fetch the militia.

In this episode, the police officer was taking a risk. If the stranger was indeed a major in State Security, it could have dangerous consequences. In the Soviet Union, ordinary citizens and rank-and-file militiamen were terrified of security personnel. The German intelligence services exploited this, putting agents in the frightening form of NKVD officers. On his arrest this ‘major’ was indignant and threatened trouble, but then admitted that he was a spy. On the third day after the delivery of the saboteurs, the local istrebitelnij battalion arrested a second agent, dressed in the uniform of a captain in the Red Army. As usual in such cases, the agent had a radio set with him, a large amount of Soviet money and false documents in the name of Rupasov.

Late on the night of 7 September, the VNOS post in the village of Bolschaya Dmitrovka in the Shiroko-Kurmyshsky district reported to the divisional area air defence headquarters in Saratov that a suspicious aircraft had been spotted. The headquarters of the istrebitelnij battalions immediately sent all his troops to search for the possible landing sites of parachutists in a 100km radius of the specified locality. Many hours of searching through forests and meadows soon yielded results, and several German agents were arrested. They were former soldiers of the Red Army, recruited after being captured. All of them were dressed in the uniform of Soviet pilots. When they were searched, several radio sets, large amounts of genuine money, and a wide range of fake stamps, seals, fake party and military documents, orders, medals and weapons were found.

Under interrogation, the spies confessed that they were to sabotage aircraft at airfields, and to identify the locations of reserve aviation regiments around Balanda, Rtischevo and Atkarsk. As it turned out, from March to September 1943 they had been trained at German intelligence schools near Warsaw and Königsberg. On 3 September they were taken to Zaporozhye, where on 7 September, the group took off in an He-111 in the direction of Saratov and at 23.00 were dropped near the village of Dmitrovka. According to the testimony of the agents, it was found that the same aircraft delivered two more agents near the village of Krasny Yar in the Stalingrad region, who were arrested on 9 September by the NKVD.

In November the Saratov NKVD district office received a report from the village of Talovsky in the Novouzenskiy district that a German agent had turned himself in at the collective farm office, saying that five other spies had been dropped from a plane in the area. Immediately the alarm was raised with the istrebitelnij battalion, which began to search the area, with the result that on the same day two German saboteurs were detained in the village of Kurilovka, and cargo parachutes were found in the fields. The next day two parachutists were arrested to the north-east of the town of Novouzensk, and another in the village of Novo-Repinskoy.

In the central regions of the Soviet Union, the struggle between Stalin’s security services and German spies was also in full swing. For example, on 14 May a German agent was arrested in the city of Yaroslavl. A former commander of a platoon in the Red Army, he had graduated from the Warsaw intelligence school. After his arrest he worked under the control of counterintelligence and regularly reported to the Germans about his alleged ‘work’. The next day another graduate of the Warsaw school was arrested in the neighbouring town of Rybinsk, and also worked for the NKVD. In October, in the Poshekhonsky district of Yaroslavl oblast two German agents, Kuthysov and Nikitin, were dropped, who were soon detained by the NKGB.

On 13 July, the German spy Alexander Kryzhanovsky was arrested in the Bogorodsky district, located south-west of Gorky. He was a typical double agent. Back in 1941, he was recruited by the Germans and sent to the city of Krasnodar (Kuban), where he surrendered to the NKVD. Russian counterintelligence turned Kryzhanovsky and sent him on a mission back to the Germans. But there he modestly kept silent about his ‘failure’, and reported on his mission. Throughout 1942, the agent remained in the German rear, then enrolled in the Warsaw intelligence school and graduated with honours. On 12 July Kryzhanovsky, with false documents in the name of Tkachenko, was delivered from Smolensk to the Gorky region. But the region at that time was not a ‘safe haven’. The Luftwaffe’s massive air attacks on Gorky had just ended, and the activities of the security services and istrebitelnij battalions had been greatly intensified. Kryzhanovsky was quickly caught shortly after landing, then convicted and shot.

On the night of 24/25 August 1943, a group of six agents was delivered to the area of Sergach, a large railway junction located 125km south-east of Gorky. One of them broke his leg during the landing. Four, S.M. Chechetkin, I.I. Anichin, V.T. Popov and B.M. Papushenko, surrendered to the NKVD. The fifth, by the name of Zabolotny, did not want to surrender to the authorities and managed to escape.

This delivery is interesting because after landing the members of the group were to split up and go to different regions of the huge country, which explains why they were landed near a major railway junction. The agents revealed that the group had several tasks. Yershov, Anichin and Zabolotny had to go to the Urals, and then to settle in the city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), to collect information about the local tank factories and other industries evacuated there from Moscow and Leningrad in 1941. The mission also included gathering information on the mood of the local population, the location of airfields and transport operations. Chechetkin and Popov were to go to Sarapul (a city in Udmurtia on the banks of the Kama river) to collect intelligence about local factories. Papushenko alone had to go to Gorky, where he had to collect information about tank production at the GAZ automobile plant and the Krasnoye Sormovo shipyard (which also produced T-34 tanks). The agent was instructed to find out whether specialists from England and the United States were working at these factories.

Another group of three agents was arrested in the Semenovsky district of the Gorky region on the night of 9/10 October. The two agents had a mission to settle in Gorky and collect information about the military factories, transportation by rail between Moscow and Gorky and fortifications in the region. The third agent was to go to Kirov and ‘work’ there.

Similarly, there was a ‘career’ resident of the Crimean city of Yevpatoria 21-year-old Vladimir Sidorenko. At the very beginning of the war, on 3 July 1941, he was captured and then sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. After about a year, in May 1942 he expressed a desire to serve the Germans and agreed to become a spy. After that Sidorenko was sent to Berlin, then to the Warsaw and Königsberg intelligence schools of the Abwehr, where he was extensively trained as a ‘scout-radio operator for industrial facilities’. October 1st 1943 was the turning-point for Sidorenko. Being a particularly capable agent, he received a whole range of responsible missions from his ‘handlers’. He had to collect information about what enterprises were in the Gorky region, paying special attention to aviation plant No. 21 (which produced LaGG-3 and La-5 fighters). He was also instructed to find out the extent of the damage caused to the Gorky plant by the Luftwaffe air raids, whether there was enough electric power for the population and the state of its morale. Other than that, the lone agent had a mission to find out whether there was an agreement for American aircraft to be manufactured in the Soviet Union.

To fulfil this complex mission, the agent was provided with a radio set, false documents and 45,000 roubles (equivalent to thirty-seven times the monthly salary of a professor or fifty times that of a worker in an armaments factory). On the night of 19/20 October Sidorenko was flown from Pleskau (Pskov) to the Gorokhovetsky district of the Ivanovo region. After landing, the agent hitchhiked to Gorky and found accommodation. But he didn’t manage to begin his mission because on 6 November he was arrested.

In this case, the reason for the failure was neither the unreliability of the agent (he was not going to give himself up to the NKVD), nor a bad cover story, nor that someone noticed the flight of a German aircraft. All this was carried out in perfect secrecy. The reason for Sidorenko’s capture turned out to be Soviet spies embedded in the Abwehr itself! They had passed on full information about the agent and his intended missions. Unlike most of his colleagues recruited by the Germans, Sidorenko lived up to the expectations of his ‘masters’. He refused to cooperate with Soviet intelligence. Soon the agent was transported to Moscow, where he was executed.

Antonov An-32

The Antonov An-32 (NATO reporting name: Cline) is a turboprop twin-engined military transport aircraft.

An-32 is a twin engine, tactical light transport aircraft designed and manufactured by Antonov Design Bureau of Ukraine for the Indian Air Force (IAF). Its Nato reporting name is Cline. The An-32 is derived from the An-26 transport aircraft.

The IAF awarded a $400m contract to Antonov in June 2009 to overhaul its existing 105 An-32 fleet with advance avionics, communication equipment, and landing aids. The upgrade will increase the lifespan of the aircraft by 15 to 40 years.

The first 45 An-32s were modernised before 2015 at the Military-Industrial Complex of Ukraine, while the remaining 60 are being overhauled at the BRD-1 aviation plant of the IAF in Kanpur. Ukrainian special export company SpetsTechnoExport (STE) was responsible for providing spares as part of the agreement.

The first batch of upgraded aircraft and the equipment required to establish aircraft repair facilities in India was delivered to the IAF in June 2011. The second batch of ten upgraded aircraft was also delivered by the end of 2011.

An IAF An-32 aircraft went off the radar after taking off from Jorhat Air Force Station on 3rd June 2019. The missing aircraft’s wreckage was found in Arunachal Pradesh and the remains of the 13 IAF personnel were recovered.

An-32 development details

The An-32 prototype took its maiden flight in July 1976. Its engine was replaced with AI-20DM engines and development of the three pre-series An-32 aircraft was completed in October 1982 at the Aviant Plant in Kiev.

The state acceptance tests started in 1983. The first production An-32 aircraft completed its maiden flight in June 1983 and entered into service with the IAF in July 1984.

The Soviet Air Force procured 25 An-32s in 1987. Four An-32s were delivered to Libya in 2005, while the Afghan Air Force also received four in 2008.

As of July 2019, the production of the An-32 has been suspended. Antonov is currently testing a demonstrator aircraft, An-132D, which is a prototype of the An-132. The An-132D will be the successor of the An-32. It has been designed for flights in hot climates and mountainous terrain.

An-32 design and features

Designed to suit both military and civil operations, the An-32 can take-off and land on rough airfields and dirt runways. The aircraft is designed to manoeuvre day and night in tropical and mountainous regions, even in hot climatic conditions (up to 55°C).

The aircraft features a high mounted wings design consisting of engine mounts over the wing. Its fuselage is tubular with a rounded nose section and stepped cockpit. The empennage is unequally tapered, featuring blunt tip and angular fairing.

The aircraft can transport either 7.5t of cargo, 50 passengers, 42 paratroopers, or 24 patients and three medical crew over domestic and international air routes.

An-32 features advanced cargo handling devices and a cargo door fitted with a ramp to ease the loading or unloading of freight. It is also incorporated with an upper cargo handling device to load and unload 3,000kg of payload.

The packed cargoes are placed on the pallet by a demountable roller.

Semi-automated locks fitted in the roller equipment detach the pallets and decrease the aircraft’s idle time. The pressurised cabin of the aircraft carries heavy cargoes, automotive wheeled vehicles, and cars.

Cockpit and avionics The air-conditioned glass cockpit can accommodate two pilots and a navigator. It has space to accommodate an additional seat and a flight engineer workstation when required.

An-32’s cockpit is equipped with a Garmin GMX-200 multifunctional display, a Chelton 4 Tube electronic flight instrumentation system, a Collins VHF-22C or CTL-22C communication system, a Collins VIR-32 or CTL-32 navigation system, a ART-2100 radar sensor, and a Bendix or King KHF-950 high- frequency system.

The avionics suite installed in the aircraft encompasses a Bendix or King KRA-405B radar altimeter system, a Bendix or King KDF-806 ADF system, an L3 Skywatch HP TCAS I system, a NAT N301A audio system, and an Artex C406 ELT with navigation interface.

Engine and performance

An-32 is powered by two Ivchenko Progress AI-20DM single shaft turboprop engines with each producing 3,864kW of output power. The engine was designed and manufactured by Ivchenko Progress.

The length and width of the engine are 3.09m and 8.42m respectively, while the height is 11.8m. The dry weight is 1,040kg and the engine’s lifespan is 8,000 hours.

An-32 can fly at a maximum speed of 530km/h and its cruise speed is 470km/h. The range and service ceiling of the aircraft are 2,500km and 9,500m, respectively. The aircraft weighs around 16,800kg and its maximum take-off weight is 27,000kg.


    An-32: Twin-engined transport aircraft

    An-32A: The first civil variant, the majority of the 36 aircraft built were delivered to various government factory enterprises, for use in transporting assemblies between plants.

    An-32B: Improved version

    An-32B-100: Modernised version of the An-32B. Maximum takeoff weight (MTOW) increased to 28.5 tons, payload increased to 7.5 tons.

    An-32B-110: New avionics allowing aircraft to be operated by two crew members. Metric (Russian) avionics variant.

    An-32B-120: Imperial (non-Russian) avionics variant of An-32B-110.

    An-32B-300: Version fitted with Rolls-Royce AE 2100 turboprop engines, providing 4,600 hp each.

    An-32LL (Letayushchaya Laboratoriya flying laboratory): The An-32 first prototype was equipped with a large SV-36P eight-bladed propeller and D-236 engine on the port side for testing, in place of the standard engine and propeller. The increased noise produced by the experimental installation (115-120 dB) outweighed the modest gains in performance.

    An-32MP: Marine Patrol version.

    An-32P Firekiller: Aerial firefighting version. Special category type certificate granted on 10 March 1995. A total of eight tons of liquid can be discharged from the two external tanks simultaneously or one after the other. Drops are conducted at 40–50 m above ground level and 240 to 260 km/h. Can be used as a cargo aircraft when not fighting fires.

    An-32V-200: A tactical transport/cargo aircraft outgrowth from the An-32B-100, with more modern avionics allowing two crew operation. Intended for export; despite reasonable interest few have been sold.

    An-32 RE: Modernised version of the An-32B. MTOW increased to 28.5 tons, payload increased to 7.5 tons. New avionics.

Specifications (An-32)

General characteristics

    Crew: 4

    Capacity: 42 paratroopers/50 passengers/24 Casualties on stretcher with three medical personnel / 6,700 kg (14,771 lb) max payload

    Length: 23.78 m (78 ft 0 in)

    Wingspan: 29.2 m (95 ft 10 in)

    Height: 8.75 m (28 ft 8 in)

    Wing area: 75 m2 (810 sq ft)

    Empty weight: 16,800 kg (37,038 lb)

    Max takeoff weight: 27,000 kg (59,525 lb)

    Powerplant: 2 × ZMKB Progress AI-20DM turboprop engines, 3,812 kW (5,112 hp) each

    Propellers: 4-bladed constant speed propellers


    Maximum speed: 530 km/h (330 mph, 290 kn)

    Cruise speed: 470 km/h (290 mph, 250 kn)

    Range: 2,500 km (1,600 mi, 1,300 nmi) with 3,700 kg (8,160 lb) payload, no reserves

    Service ceiling: 9,500 m (31,200 ft)

In the Northern Wastes

He 115C-1 ‘8L+IH’ from Ku.Fl.Gr.906. On 8 October 1942 it participated in the evacuation of Estonian saboteurs from Russian territory.

On 5 November 1942, two long-range Pe-3 fighters from the 2nd Squadron of the 95th Special Naval Aviation Group took off from the temporary airfield near the village of Pona to escort a Soviet convoy going to Arkhangelsk from Belushya Bay. Leading was Lieutenant A. Ustimenko and his wingman was Senior Sergeant W. Gorbuntsov. An hour and a half later the Pe-3s of Lieutenants Constantine Usenko and Sergei Nogtikov took off to relieve them, but one of Nogtikov’s engines failed and Usenko continued alone. His rendezvous with the first took place in the designated area, near the convoy, which was on its way to the entrance of the White Sea. Ustimenko and Gorbuntsov handed over to him and turned to the south-west. When Lieutenant Usenko completed the mission and landed back at base, it turned out that they never came back…

Forty-seven years later, in 1989, searchers have found in the tundra, in shallow swamp, the remains of a twin-engined aircraft. On closer inspection it turned out that this was one of the aircraft that disappeared in November 1942, the Pe-3 No. 40415 of Lieutenant Ustimenko. In the cockpit were the remains of three crew members. The most amazing thing was that both sides of the aircraft were riddled with cannon and machine-gun fire. Many of the holes of large diameter, not less than 30mm. It remains unknown what kind of plane it was that so effectively shot down a heavy Pe-3 fighter so far from the front.

Later, in the remote tundra to the east of Arkhangelsk another place was discovered, which amazed the searchers. Near Lake Okulov there was a large sandy area with a runway formed of densely-laid metal sheets on it. It was a secret German airfield deep behind Soviet lines! On the edge of the airfield were rotting wooden buildings, in which items of Luftwaffe equipment and radio spares were found. Then barrels of aviation fuel with German labels were found nearby.

But this was not the only one. Secret airfields were also found near the village of Megra on the White Sea coast, 76km north-east of the town of Upper Zolotitsa, near the village of Pogorelets (on the shore of Mezen Bay) and in the Leshukonsky district on the Mezen river, 250km east of Arkhangelsk.

This proved that during the war a network of secret Luftwaffe airfields was established in the deserted northern regions of the Soviet Union. It is clear that they were not intended specifically to intercept Soviet aircraft, which did not pose any threat to the Germans. Probably the twin-engined fighters just came across some secret mission by chance.

Secret German air bases existed not only in the far north, but also in the Vologda region. This area was also sparsely populated, being made up dense forests combined with impassable swamps and wastelands. Therefore, it was not difficult to hide an airfield there. All of them were established for the purposes of sabotage. Through the Vologda and Arkhangelsk regions passed the most important railways, which were delivering Lend-Lease supplies to the central regions of the USSR from the ports of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk, coal from the Vorkuta basin and the like. Therefore, in the second half of 1942 the Abwehr and RSHA began the large-scale deployment of sabotage groups in these areas.

In June 1942, in the deserted region of Vologda and Cherepovets groups of agents between four and twelve men strong were landed by Ju 52s. Among them were saboteurs from the ‘Brandenburg’ Regiment. They were deployed there to attack the railways. The Cherepovets-Vologda divisional air defence posts recorded thirty-eight flights of unidentified aircraft at night in that month alone. They were mostly planes carrying agents and saboteurs.

On the night of 28/29 August, two groups of saboteurs were landed near the railway lines to Murmansk. The tracks were simultaneously blown up in two places. In early September, the Luftwaffe delivered a sabotage group to an area 80km north-west of Syktyvkar, to blow up the railway bridge over the Vychegda river, which was the only link between Vorkuta and the central regions of the country. Initially the mission was successful, the saboteurs managing to kill the bridge guards without losses on their side. But they did not have time to blow up the bridge. Some prisoners from the nearby GULAG camp were working nearby. It would seem that the saboteurs had a wonderful opportunity to replenish their ranks with the released prisoners. However, something happened that the German agents did not expect. The exhausted ‘enemies of the Soviet people’, despite their resentment of the regime, not only did not help the saboteurs, but, on the contrary, attacked them and killed them with picks and crowbars!

From 24 August to 29 September 1942, Ju 88 bombers from KG 30 ‘Adler’ carried out six massive raids on the city of Arkhangelsk. As a result, businesses and residential areas were severely damaged, and port facilities were almost destroyed. This made it difficult to unload ships with American and British military equipment and to send it onwards. To finally knock out this Lend-Lease route, the Germans decided to deliver a sabotage group of thirteen Estonians serving in the Finnish army to the Arkhangelsk–Vologda railway.

The air drop was carried out on 1 September near Konosha station. The landing was successful, and all the saboteurs quickly disappeared into the woods. After that, for two months the Estonians, divided into small groups, blew up the railway tracks. Trains with American and British tanks, fuel, rations and other goods were regularly derailed. In parallel, the Estonians were destroying communications lines. After each mission, they always managed to escape. The saboteurs regularly transmitted radio reports of their successful missions.

Soon the Soviets concentrated army units stationed in the Arkhangelsk and Vologda regions in the Konosha area. Together with istrebitelnij battalions they combed the tundra, but to no avail. The only success by the NKVD was the interception of radio traffic between the saboteurs and their HQ. Radio direction-finding showed that the transmissions were from remote swampy areas. Russian intelligence was able to decipher some of the messages. From them it became known that the Germans had decided to evacuate the group. To do this, the Estonians were instructed to arrive at Lake Lacha, located 80km north-west of Konosha. The Russians accordingly set up several ambushes on the shores of this large lake.

The early autumn morning of 22 October at first did not promise anything interesting. Over the water was foggy, frozen soldiers of the NKVD and cadets from a military school nervously examined the beautiful surroundings, thinking about how to warm up. Suddenly the silence was broken by the faint roar of engines. Everyone grabbed for binoculars and weapons.

After a while, a seaplane appeared from the north-west, on which German crosses were clearly visible. It landed on the water and stopped near the shore. It was He 115C-1 ‘8L+IH’ of 1./Ku.Fl.Gr.906, flown by Karl Helf. This aircraft had already performed several missions for the delivery and evacuation of agents from Russian territory. After a while, the elusive Estonians appeared from the undergrowth along the bank. The inexperienced cadets were positioned in ambush here, and seeing the plane and the saboteurs moving towards it, the young men opened indiscriminate fire with rifles and machine guns. But the shooting was inaccurate. Five saboteurs were able to jump into the plane, while the rest again disappeared into the dense thickets on the shore.

Helf, seriously wounded in the course of the attack, was still able to start the engines. The He 115 went to take off and, despite the intense machine-gun fire from the shore, rose into the air. But it turned out that the oil tank of the left engine was punctured. Flying about 30km, the plane made an emergency landing on Lake Jung. After that, four Estonians and an aircraft mechanic disappeared into the woods. But they did not get far, and soon the group was surrounded by NKVD troops. The German airman did not want to surrender to the Russians and shot himself, but the Estonians preferred to raise their hands. Soon a few more saboteurs were caught heading west towards the front line. But some Estonians still managed to escape into the deep woods and evade their pursuers.

The Abwehr’s War in the Caucasus

The ‘Lenin’ oil refinery in the city of Grozny.

Even before the Second World War, the Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess formulated the Nazi concept of ‘total espionage’. It consisted of three fundamental precepts: ‘Everyone can be a spy’, ‘Everyone should be a spy’ and ‘There is no secret that cannot be known’. These ideas became particularly relevant in early 1942, when Hess himself was already in a British prison. After the failure of Operation ‘Barbarossa’, the Third Reich found itself in a total war. Now it was necessary not only to collect intelligence in the vast area from the Arctic to the Caucasus, but also to organize sabotage operations in the rear areas of the Soviet Union. The leadership of the Security Service of the Third Reich (RSHA) believed that the Abwehr could not cope with these missions and decided to take the matter into their own hands.

By order of the Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler a special intelligence agency code-named ‘Zeppelin’ was established on 15 February 1942. It was entrusted with the mission to weaken the military and economic potential of the USSR by organizing sabotage, acts of terror and uprisings behind Soviet lines. Its management was entrusted to Walter Schellenberg, the SD’s chief of foreign intelligence. Otto Skorzeny, the master of sabotage, was involved in planning specific operations and missions. The Abwehr was ordered to provide full support to the ‘Zeppelin’ project.

The initial manpower for this system of ‘total espionage’ was to be tens of thousands of volunteers from among Russian prisoners of war. In all camps there were offices and recruitment points for ‘Zeppelin’, whose employees closely studied the available personnel. As a result of vigorous work, according to German sources about 15,000 men had been recruited by the end of 1942. All of them were trained in the network of sabotage and intelligence schools established by ‘Zeppelin’ in that same year. There were sixty such schools in all, the largest being near Warsaw, Breslau, Yevpatoria (Crimea), Smolensk and Pskov.

‘The Age-Old Russian Yoke’

Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union was enthusiastically welcomed by many inhabitants of the Caucasus. This mountainous region had been ruled by the Russian Empire since the seventeenth century, but always remained rebellious. At the slightest weakening of Russian control, uprisings broke out. At the same time, the highland people themselves were constantly at war with each other, literally cutting each other’s throats with daggers. Both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union used this mutual hostility to govern the Caucasian provinces by ‘divide and rule’. Supporting one group against another, the Russians secured control over this breakaway region. The Soviet leader Joseph Stalin also came from the Caucasus. He knew the local ‘customs’ and brutally suppressed any opposition. But even the bloodthirsty Stalin failed to completely eliminate Caucasian separatism!

Operation ‘Barbarossa’ was seen by the Caucasian rebels as a chance to throw off the ‘age-old Russian yoke’. The centre of the ‘liberation struggle’ was Chechnya, where nationalist sentiments were particularly strong. The leader of the Chechen fighters, Hassan Israilov, was a legendary figure. He was born in 1903 in one of the mountain villages of Chechnya, and his family clan had an illustrious history. His grandfather Israilov was Naib (deputy) to the legendary Shamil, who led the uprising against Russia in the nineteenth century. Israilov’s father had ‘heroically’ died in the robbery of the Treasury Bank in Kizlyar. From his early youth, Israilov followed in the footsteps of his ancestors, continuing the ‘family business’. He was arrested four times and sentenced to 10 years in prison and even to death, but his relatives regularly paid bribes to have him released. All this did not prevent the proud Highlander from joining the Communist Party!

In 1933, Hassan Israilov suddenly ‘repented’ and promised to serve the Soviets from then on. For a short time he worked as a correspondent and party investigator (!), wrote poetry and studied at the Communist workers’ ‘Stalin’ University. At the same time, Israilov formed a gang and robbed a bank. The bandits killed two guards and, cutting off their hands, folded them in the form of two letters ‘M’. This meant ‘Mecca’ and ‘Medina’, the names of holy cities for Muslims.

Soon Israilov was arrested again and sent to prison in Siberia. The Soviets were lenient with bandits and thieves. While political prisoners and completely innocent citizens suspected of opposing views were brutally tortured and executed, bandits and murderers received soft sentences and were kept in normal conditions. Israilov fled the camp, killing a guard and two dogs. He cut ‘steaks’ from them, which he ate while wandering on the Siberian taiga. Returning home to Chechnya, Israilov organized terrorist attacks, sabotage and the destruction of collective farms (kolkhozes).

In 1940, Hassan Israilov headed the ‘Chechen National Liberation Movement’. The uprising was successful, and soon in the mountainous part of Chechnya Soviet power was virtually eliminated. Deserters and local residents joined the army of the ‘second Shamil’. The attack by Nazi Germany gave the rebels new strength, and on 23 June 1941 they even declared war on the Soviet Union.

In September 1941, Israilov together with his associate Basayev organized a major uprising in the Shatoy district. In November, in anticipation of the imminent arrival of the Germans, mass uprisings began in Kabardino-Balkaria, North Ossetia and Dagestan. The NKVD were powerless against the mountaineers, and a number of senior officers, particularly the head of the NKVD of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR Albogachiev and the head of Department on struggle against gangsterism Aliyev, went over to Israilov.

The Main Sponsor of the ‘Rebels’ Comes into Play

The German secret service soon became aware of the ‘liberation movement’ in the Caucasus. In 1941, theAbwehr did not have the resources to support the warlike highlanders, but things changed in 1942, when the Caucasus region with its rich oil fields became the target of a new Wehrmacht offensive. By supporting the rebels, the Germans hoped to undermine the rear of the Red Army, and ensure the rapid capture of the oil fields and refineries to prevent their destruction by the retreating Soviet troops.

Under the auspices of the RSHA and the Reichsministerium für die besetzten Ostgebiete (RMfdbO – Reich Ministry of the Eastern Territories), several ‘national committees’ were created, which played the role of ‘governments in exile’. Among them were Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Kalmyks and many other nationalities. They were instructed to recruit volunteers from among the prisoners, defectors and emigrants to conduct subversive activities behind Soviet lines.

In April 1942 under Einsatzgruppe ‘D’ special group ‘Zeppelin’ was formed in Simferopol (Crimea). Agents were recruited in the local PoW camps, with preference given to ‘persons of Caucasian nationality’. In neighbouring Yevpatoria, in the former NKVD children’s sanatorium, the Germans created a reconnaissance and sabotage school to train agents in two main roles: ‘scout-saboteurs’ and ‘organizers of rebel movements’. A total of 200 recruits in five classes were trained for a period of four months. The first graduations took place in August, and soon a group of six Ossetians flew to the North Caucasus.

With the help of Caucasian agents, the Wehrmacht seized an oil refinery in the Maikop area. German paratroops prevented its destruction. In the summer and autumn of 1942, an ‘air bridge’ operated for the delivery of agents into the Caucasus. From the airfield at Saki in the Crimea transport planes flew almost every day with new groups, loaded with radios, weapons and other equipment.

In August, the First Panzer Army launched a rapid offensive in the Caucasus. By 21 August, German mountain troops hoisted the Nazi flag on the top of Mount Elbrus, and the XL Panzer Corps, quickly crossing several rivers and capturing Voroshilovsk (now Stavropol), reached the banks of the Terek river. In Chechnya, the rebels were expecting massive Luftwaffe attacks and landings of airborne troops. But the sky over the Caucasus remained surprisingly calm. This was due to the fact that on 11 August, the commander of Luftflotte 4, Generaloberst Wolfram von Richthofen, reported that the ‘Russian southern army’ had been destroyed. Then he began to concentrate the main forces of the Luftwaffe against Stalingrad. On 23 August, the German Sixth Army reached the Volga, and the city itself, named after Stalin, was subjected to continuous heavy air raids. Originally only III./JG 52 under Major Gordon Gollob was sent to Terek. As of 20 August, the group had forty-three Bf 109s, of which twenty-eight were operational. On 23 August, the first flight of a Bf 109 was recorded near Grozny, the capital of Chechnya.

German tanks halted on the bank of the Terek not because they met strong Russian forces there. They just ran out of fuel. For a month, the XL Panzer Corps simply ‘rested’, while the Soviets feverishly constructed a new line of defence in the area of Grozny. Only 40km away from the German tanks were huge reserves of oil and gasoline. Ironically, the Germans could not reach them because of the lack of gasoline …

In mid-September, the First Panzer Army was going to continue the offensive (Hitler promised to deliver gasoline). On 25 September, a mixed German-Chechen sabotage group led by Oberleutnant Helmut was landed near Grozny. After a brutal battle with the VOHR (private security) and NKVD guarding the ‘Lenin’ oil refinery, the group managed to capture the huge facility! Soon Chechen rebels came to the rescue and organized the defence of the plant.

The ‘Lenin’ plant was located on the outskirts of Grozny on the left bank of the Sunzha river. It was a huge facility, which included twelve refineries and a huge tank which held a million tons of oil. Around the plant there were many Soviet troops and several military airfields. However, they did not dare to immediately attack Lange’s group and the Chechens who joined them, fearing that a large-scale battle would destroy the plant. The Russians had orders from Stalin only to blow the plant up when German tanks were close. A few days later aircraft of 2./ Aufkl.Gr.Ob.d.L. delivered another unit under the command of Unteroffizier Schwaiffer to help Lange. One of its participants later recalled the drop: ‘The side door opens. And so the Legionnaires one after another rush into the darkness … the plane makes a second pass and drops by parachute containers. They contain weapons, ammunition and equipment for the rebels. Aircraft flashing signal lights and with a roar rushes back. Quietly and smoothly parachutes descend to the ground.’ As they came down the saboteurs were fired at from the ground, and only some of them were able to land unharmed and then get to the oil plant.

The German command promised Lange and his men that in the near future the XL Panzer Corps would reach Grozny. If the German tanks could break through by 30 September, Hitler would get the important plant undamaged, ready to supply fuel to all German military units on the Eastern Front. But the fuel promised by the Führer had not arrived. As a result, the Russians besieged the plant and drove out the saboteurs. Group Lange managed to escape into the mountains and join the Chechen rebels. By radio, the saboteurs reported their new location, and soon aircraft from the Rowehl Group delivered cargo containers containing 300 small arms, five machine guns and ammunition to them. After completing the mission, Group Lange after a while returned to the German lines. Two Chechens who formed the group’s rearguard were awarded the Iron Cross.

The Luftwaffe Comes to the Rescue

The German command soon realized that the attempt to capture the oil refineries and huge fuel tanks was going to fail. At the same time, they wanted to deny those reserves to the Soviets. As a result, it was decided to destroy the plant. On 9 October 1942 reconnaissance aircraft flew over Grozny three times at high altitude. The next day, from 12.40 to 14.00 several scouts again flew at high altitude over the city, including an Fw 189A.

The air defence of the Grozny was in the hands of the 105th Fighter Aviation Division (105th IAD PVO). It had been formed in early 1942 to protect the cities of Rostov and Bataysk. In July, this unit withstood a brutal and unequal battle with the Luftwaffe, which repeatedly bombed railway junctions and crossings over the River Don. When the Wehrmacht captured Rostov, the 105th IAD PVO was evacuated to Chechnya. In early October, the division consisted of four fighter regiments, which were based at the Grozny-5 and Grozny-8 airfields. In these units, there were forty-two serviceable aircraft (nineteen LaGG-3s, eight Yak-1s, five I-153s, four I-16s, four MiG-3s and two YaK-7Bs). None of these fighters even tried to intercept the German reconnaissance aircraft. The Russians were careless and did not suspect that these flights were the harbinger of the apocalypse!

At 14.02 on 10 October, Russian air surveillance posts reported that several groups of bombers, accompanied by Bf 109 and Bf 110 fighters, were approaching Grozny from different directions. A few minutes later, an ‘Air alarm’ was declared in the city, and already at 14.05 over the outskirts the first group of twelve Ju 88As were over the outskirts of the city. The bombers approached the target from the south-western direction, following the Sunzha river. German fighters soon arrived, which loitered over the target and within a radius of 30km of it. Bf 109s immediately intercepted the fighters of the 105th IAD, which took off to attack the German bombers.

The attack was mainly carried out by dive-bombing and was extremely accurate. The Ju 88As dived on the target at an angle of 30– 60 degrees, and then escaped at low altitude. According to the Russian rescue service, of the 400 bombs dropped, only 25 fell on the city, the rest on the ‘Lenin’ Plant and other facilities in the Stalin district of Grozny. As a result, the refinery, pumping station, power station and eighty fuel tanks, 200 installations in total, caught fire! The biggest oil tank with a million tons of oil blazed. Like lava from a volcano, oil flowed into the Sunzha river and the city. Burning oil melted even the tram lines and burned everything in its path.

Against the attack twenty-six fighters took off, including eight LaGG-3s of the 822th IAP PVO. However, this was barely more than a demonstration. Even the command of the 105th IAD recognized that the actions of the interceptors were ineffective: ‘Due to the small number of our fighters, it was impossible to provide effective counteraction to all echelons of bombers. Our fighters attacked the 1st and 2nd echelons and, having started a fight with bombers and enemy fighters, were not able to effectively attack the subsequent echelons of the enemy.’ In addition, attacking bombers over the city would have hindered the anti-aircraft fire. And yet Russian pilots claimed aircraft shot down (ten Ju 88s and one He 111), six of them by the 822th IAP. ‘Hero of the day’ was Sergeant G.K. Martys, who first shot down one of the Ju 88s at close range, and then rammed another bomber with his LaGG-3. Troops on the ground witnessed this.

But, according to German information, during the massive raid on Grozny (it had involved all the available bombers of Luftflotte 4) only a single plane was lost, Ju 88A-5 W. Nr. 8282 ‘V4+BH’ of 1./KG 1. Probably, this was the aircraft rammed by Martys.

The second raid on Grozny began at 18.47, which lasted with pauses until 00.10 on 11 October. It was carried out by He 111H-6s from I./KG 100. This time the Russian interceptors did not take off ‘due to lack of night flying experience’. The attack was opposed only by the anti-aircraft gunners, who at the end of the day claimed six aircraft shot down.

At 11.05 on 11 October in Grozny, the sky over which was thick with the smog from the huge fires, a pair of YaK-7Bs piloted by Senior Sergeants Kuzmichev and Smirnov of the 182th IAP intercepted and shot down a Ju 88 at an altitude of 5,500m (18,000ft). It was a Ju 88D-5 W. Nr. 430044 of 2.(F)/Ob.d.L, which had been sent to photograph the results of the bomb attack. The plane was damaged and made an emergency landing near Mariupol. Three members of the crew were injured.

At 20.25 on the same day the Luftwaffe carried out a third raid on Grozny, dropping another 100 large high-explosive bombs on the refinery. At 20.30m Captain Kovalchuk of the 182th IAP took off from the Grozny-8 airfield. Soon, at an altitude of 3000m (10,000ft) above the southern outskirts of the city, he saw an He 111, illuminated by searchlights. Approaching it at a distance of 300m, Kovalchuk gave a prearranged signal – a sequence of tracer bullets, meaning ‘attack’. Anti-aircraft artillery ceased fire, Kovalchuk brought his LaGG-3 to within 50m of the bomber and shot it down. The Russians reported that the burning bomber crashed 17km north-west of Grozny. Major Batik, commander of the 182th IAP, who took off in an LaGG-3 after Kovalchuk, tried to attack a German plane over the north-eastern outskirts of the city, the opposite side to Kovalchuk. But he was illuminated by searchlights and fired on by the anti-aircraft guns. They did not react to the signal ‘I am a friendly aircraft’, so Batyuk had to carry out evasive manoeuvre instead of attacking and return to base. Kovalchuk’s victory is not confirmed by German sources.