Air Conflict – Stalingrad Part II

This appalling situation resulted from weak and indecisive army leadership, von Richthofen ranted to anyone who would listen. On 13 September, he even phoned Goring to demand that one single army commander take over the Stalingrad sector, and he did not mean the “uninspiring” Paulus. Three days later, by which time only a few small regions of the city had been cleared in bitter fighting for high losses, the fleet chief vented his anger in his diary: “The ‘combing’ of Stalingrad is progressing very slowly, despite the fact that the enemy is weak and in no shape for hard fighting. This is because our own troops are few in number, lack fighting spirit and their commanders’ thoughts are elsewhere.” Army leaders simply fail to drive their troops hard enough, even though the capture of a major objective is tantalizingly close. Doubtless comparing von Weichs’, Hoth’s and Paulus’ bland and cautious leadership styles to his own-aggressive and daring to the point of recklessness-he added harshly: “From the highest levels down, attempts at motivation are only theoretical and, as a result, totally ineffective. The generals merely issue orders, but lead neither by example nor by any rousing actions whatsoever.”

Believing that he had to practice what he preached, von Richthofen also demanded more aggression from Fliegerkorps VIII, telling Fiebig that he had not deployed his corps “actively or flexibly enough” in recent weeks. Not only had operations “lacked focus and zeal”, but the corps had yet to overcome several major supply difficulties.” The fleet chief then issued what he called “some really sharp orders,” and explained to Fiebig the reason for his unhappiness: the army’s poor performance at Stalingrad, which naturally influenced the Luftwaffe’s ability to make a decisive impact on the battle. “Because the army is a lame duck,” he said, “we can do little ourselves.” If everyone would only operate more aggressively, Stalingrad would fall in two days.

Fiebig’s corps-indeed, the entire fleet-had performed as well as could be expected in recent weeks, given its logistical difficulties, limited resources, mounting attrition rate, vast combat zone and wide range of tasks. Still, von Richthofen was right; the Luftwaffe’s performance had dropped. Between 5 and 12 September, for instance, Luftflotte IV conducted 7,507 sorties (an average of 938 per day). When Blau had commenced almost three months earlier, the fleet was conducting around 10,750 in the same number of days (a daily average of 1,343). The main reasons for this substantial operational decrease were a quicker-than-expected consumption of reserves stocks of spare parts and equipment, supply difficulties and high attrition rates. When Blau began, the fleet possessed approximately 1,600 aircraft, of which over 1,150 were operational. After 11 weeks of non-stop operations, with insufficient replacement aircraft and spare parts arriving at forward airfields, it now possessed about 950 planes, a mere 550 of them operational. That is, the fleet’s total strength had decreased by 40 per cent and its operational rate by 14 per cent (from 71 to 57). Its bomber fleet had been hardest hit, mainly due to VVS fighter attacks and a lack of engine parts (naturally, twil1-engined aircraft need more spares than single-engined). Back in June, the air fleet had 480 bombers, 323 of which were operational. On 20 September, it had no more than 232, only 129 of them air worthy. 59

Despite Luftflotte IV’s plummeting strength and Hitler’s craving for victory at Stalingrad and in the Caucasus, the OKL made no large-scale aircraft transfers from the other, supposedly-“quiet” sectors of the eastern front (at least not before the Soviet counter offensive in November). When Blau began, Luftflotte IV possessed 60 per cent of all German aircraft in the Soviet Union. On 20 September, after 11 weeks of combat, its dramatic drop in strength left it operating in the “decisive” sector with only 38 per cent of all aircraft in the east. The OKL was unable to transfer units south to adjust the ratio in Luftflotte IV’s favour because strong air forces were also sorely needed in the “quiet’ central and northern sectors of the front. Constant Soviet probing attacks and attempted offensives in those sectors kept local Luftwaffe forces extremely busy. When critical situations arose, groups-sometimes whole wings-were hastily shifted between the commands in those regions. For example, when a Soviet attack in the far north threatened to hack off the German “bottle-neck” south of Leningrad late in August, Luftwaffenkommando Ost (operating in Army Group Centre’s combat zone) dispatched two bomber groups, a Stuka group and a fighter group to Luftflotte I. Accordingly, although the only major Axis offensive operations in the Soviet Union took place at Stalingrad and in the Caucasus, the OKL could not draw reinforcements for the rapidly shrinking Luftflotte IV from the other two combat sectors, where air commands were hard pressed to fulfil their defensive duties. Whereas the Luftwaffe’s strength in southern Russia was quickly decreasing, the VVS’s strength increased at a slow but steady pace. The Soviet improvements resulted from greater numbers of aircraft and crew replacements and diminishing kill levels by German fighters. (On General Rudenko’s wise instructions, Soviet fighter pilots avoided duelling with their German counterparts, attacking bombers and reconnaissance planes instead). According to German records, the VVS air armies in LuftfJotte IV’s immense combat zone carried out only 2,834 sorties between 5 and 12 September, or an average of 354 per day (compared to the German fleet’s poor total of 7,507 and daily average of 938). Between 16 and 25 September, though, those air armies carried out 4,589 sorties, or 458 per day. This operational increase of 30 per cent did not, of course, even remotely challenge the Luftwaffe’s air superiority. In the same period, the German fleet carried out twice as many sorties (9,746 in total). Yet it was the start of an operational increase that would continue steadily for several more months until the VVS was, in fact, able to challenge the Luftwaffe for its command of the skies over Stalingrad.

Throughout September, Fiebig’s corps directed most of its attacks against Stalingrad itself, the main targets being the Lazur chemical factory inside the “tennis racket” (a huge rail loop), the Krasnyi Oktyabr (Red October) metallurgical works, the Barrikady (Barricade) gun factory and the Dzherzhinski tractor factory. The corps pounded those targets most days, except when aircraft were urgently needed to support an Axis advance or stem a Soviet counter-attack in the region north of the city. On 18 September, for example, Lieutenant-General Chuikov noticed that the German aircraft crowding the sky above Stalingrad suddenly departed, giving Sixty-Second Army a much-needed “breathing space”. Fiebig had hastily called them away, he realized, in order to deploy them in the region north of the city, where they were urgently needed to counter a surprise attack by the Stalingrad Front. Six hours later, Chuikov noted with disappointment, “it was clear that the [Soviet] attack was over: hundreds of Junkers had reappeared.”

Chuikov quickly noticed that the Luftwaffe carried out surprisingly few raids at night. He could not work out, therefore, why the Stalingrad Front attempted its attacks during the day, “when we had no way of neutralizing or compensating for the enemy’s superiority in the air, and not at night (when the Luftwaffe did not operate with any strength).” The city’s defenders did not make the same mistake, he added later in his memoirs: “The enemy could not fight at night, but we learned to do so out of bitter necessity; by day the enemy’s planes hung over our troops, preventing them from raising their heads. At night we need have no fear of the Luftwaffe”. This was certainly true: at Stalingrad, as at Sevastopol, the Luftwaffe conducted almost no night missions to speak of. Its aircraft lacked the specialized night navigation and bomb-aiming equipment necessary for situations like this, when opposing forces battled in close proximity. Also, its airfields, with a few exceptions, were poorly equipped for night operations.

Fiebig’s air corps also bombed and strafed any Soviet forces seen among the broken buildings and piles of rubble. Chuikov recalled that “the Luftwaffe literally hammered anything they saw in the streets into the ground”. In his detailed memoirs, he also quotes the situation report of a young lieutenant, whose company came under severe air attacks on 18 September. “From morning till noon,” Lieutenant A. Kuzmich Dragan wrote,

clusters of German planes hung in the sky over the city. Some of them would break away from their formations, dive and riddle the streets and ruins of houses with bullets from ground level; others would fly over the city with sirens wailing, in an attempt to sow panic. They dropped high explosives and incendiaries. The city was in flames.

Determined to support German troops now fighting for every house and building by stopping the steady trickle of Soviet reinforcements entering the city from the eastern bank of the kilometre-wide Volga river, Fiebig’s corps also directed attacks against the river crossing facilities. Rear-Admiral Rogachev’s Volga Fleet used numerous crossing points, but mainly “Crossing 62”, its moorings at the Krasnyi Oktyabr and Barrikady factories. The small fleet ferried substantial numbers of men and large quantities of rations and ammunition across the river to the desperate Sixty-Second Army. These courageous sailors, Chuikov maintained, “rendered an incalculable service…. Every trip across the Volga involved a tremendous risk, but no boat or steamer ever lingered with its cargo on the other bank.” Had it not been for them, he concluded, the Sixty-Second Army would almost certainly have perished in September.

Alan Clark, British author of a now-outdated popular account of the war in Russia, maintained that, if the Luftwaffe “had been employed with single-minded persistence in an “interdiction” role … the Volga ferries might have been knocked out.” Clark was clearly unaware of Luftflotte IV’s poor state when he wrote these words. Von Richthofen had no aircraft available for a proper interdiction campaign against the Volga crossings. As noted above, by 20 September his air fleet had already lost half its total strength and, because of a drop in serviceability levels, had a mere 516 air-worthy planes (when Blau began, it had 1,155). Moreover, 120 of those were reconnaissance and sea planes, leaving him with only 396 operational combat aircraft. With this small force, he was already extremely hard-pressed to fulfil his army-support obligations. Having stripped Pflugbeil’s Fliegerkorps IV to the bones in order to concentrate an acceptable number of aircraft at Stalingrad, he had left the two German armies in the Caucasus with very little air support and could only increase it during times of crisis by returning units temporarily from the Stalingrad region. Thus, he could spare no aircraft for a systematic interdiction campaign against Volga crossings.

Fliegerkorps VIII did not ignore the crossings, of course. Both Fiebig and von Richthofen realized that, if Paulus’ men were going to destroy the enemy troops fighting fanatically in the ruined city, they had to sever their supply and reinforcement lines. Although they lacked aircraft for a proper interdiction campaign, they continually threw as many bombers and dive-bombers as they could spare each day against the railway lines carrying men and materiel to the eastern bank of the Volga, against the exposed and poorly-defended loading and landing platforms and against any barges and steamers seen crossing the river. Fiebig often managed to keep aircraft continuously above the crossing points. As Chuikov remembered: “From dawn till dusk enemy dive-bombers circled over the Volga” Likewise, Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimirov noted in 1943:

The enemy bombers, operating in groups of 10 to 50, ceaselessly bombed our troops, the eastern part of the city and the crossings on the Volga…. The Germans relied on their aircraft to crush the fire system of our defence [that is, the artillery], paralyze our organization, prevent the arrival of reinforcements, and disrupt the movements of supplies.

 German aircraft hunted down each boat and barge, but, as the discussion of air attacks on Black Sea shipping revealed, sinking ships from the air was extremely difficult. The relatively small size of Volga barges and ferries made them difficult targets. As a result, Fiebig’s dive-bombers proved far more successful against rail-heads and ferry landing platforms than they did against the vessels themselves.

German troops penetrated the city to the Volga in the middle of September and brought the central crossings under the sweep of their artillery guns and the weapons of Generalleutnant Pickert’s flak teams. Their gunfire greatly added to the destructive power of Fiebig’s Stukas. As a result, the Volga Flotilla had to decrease its daylight crossings substantially. Crossing at night was also risky, Chuikov explained, because “the enemy knew where our ferries crossed and throughout the night lit up the Volga by dropping ‘flares suspended by parachutes.” When most ferries began crossing at night, Fliegerkorps VII/lost the ability to inflict substantial damage on them. It continued its raids on the loading and landing platforms, however, often wrecking or damaging them or moored boats.

In the first days of October, three 280-metre-long footbridges were constructed near the Krasnyi Oktyabr and Barrikady factories in order to supplement the over-worked ferries. These wooden footbridges, mainly made of barrels and rafts lashed together by rope and linked by iron bars, joined the city with Zaitsevski Island across the Volga’s Denezhnaya Volozhka branch. To the amazement of German observers, several thousand men crossed these flimsy bridges. Both the Luftwaffe and the army directed attacks against them, without causing more than minor damage to two. The third bridge lasted only three days. A lucky dive-bomber broke its hawser with a well-placed bomb, allowing the swirling current to drag it away.

Fiebig’s units encountered weak opposition as they carried out these attacks on the Volga Flotilla and its loading and landing points. VVS fighters increased missions over the river and the road and rail routes from the Russian hinterland to the eastern bank, but they were few in number and generally no match for the German fighters escorting Stukas. Flak protection was especially weak, although it strengthened significantly in October. “The city’s anti-aircraft defences had already been substantially weakened,” Chuikov explained, referring to the situation in September. “Part of the anti-aircraft artillery had been destroyed by the enemy, and what remained of it had been moved to the left bank of the Volga.” From there, the remaining flak batteries could cover only “the river and a narrow strip along the right bank. From dawn to dusk, therefore, German planes were over the city, over our military units and over the Volga.”

German artillery gunners and dive-bomber pilots succeeded in making life difficult for the Volga Flotilla, causing it to switch to night crossings only. However, despite this achievement and the minor damage they inflicted on vessels and landing platforms, they failed to sever the city’s vital life-line. The importance of the Volga Flotilla can be shown by mentioning a few remarkable statistics; between 13 and 16 September, around 10,000 reinforcements from the 13th Guards Division, a crack Soviet unit, crossed the. river and entered the battle for the ruined city. They were the forerunners of almost 60,000 others who crossed the river during the next two weeks in a desperate attempt to deny Hitler the prize he now wanted most: the city bearing the name of their leader. The flotilla carried across not only these troops, but large quantities of small-arms ammunition, mortar bombs and rations (including thousands of bottles of Vodka, considered essential to the maintenance of troop morale). Serving as floating ambulances, the flotilla also evacuated hundreds of wounded soldiers each night. The failure of both Luftwaffe and army to stop these magnificent river crossing operations contributed substantially to their failure to capture the city completely before the Soviets launched their massive November counter-offensive.

In the second half of September, Paulus’ men made very slow progress as they fought their way street-by-street through the city from west to east. Noting on 22 September that the army “barely advanced,” the self-righteous von Richthofen accused it of “constipation”. His criticism of the army’s vacillation and over-cautious deployment back in August may have been justified, but his accusation that German divisions now in Stalingrad fought half-heartedly were certainly not. In bitter and bloody street fighting, usually in smashed houses, rubble-filled factory yards and even sewers, they attacked constantly and courageously, suffering shocking losses. In his study of the Stalingrad campaign, Generalmajor Hans Doerr revealed the character of combat within the ruins:

In the middle of September began the battle for Stalingrad’s industrial area, which can be described as “trench” or “fortress” warfare. The time for conducting “operations” was over for good. From the wide expanses of the steppes, fighting had moved into the jagged gullies of the Volga bank, with its copses and ravines, into the city and factory areas of Stalingrad, spread out over uneven, pitted, rugged land, covered with iron, concrete and stone buildings. The kilometre was replaced as a measure of distance by the metre. GHQ’s map was the map of the city.

A bitter battle for every house, factory, water-tower, railway embankment, wall, cellar and every pile of rubble was waged, without equal even in the first world war…. The distance between the enemy’s forces and ours was as small as it could possibly be. Despite the concentrated activity of aircraft and artillery, it was impossible to break out of the area of close fighting. The Russians surpassed the Germans in their use of the terrain and in camouflage and were more experienced in barricade warfare for individual buildings; they defended firmly.

The tenacity of the city’s defenders, many units of which were reduced to one-tenth of strength and had no weapons heavier than tommy-guns, won them respect from many German observers still bent on their destruction. Hauptmann Pabst, for instance, pounded them every day with his Stuka squadron, yet noted in his journal with mild admiration that they “tenaciously defend every pile of rubble”. “The Russians,” he wrote in another entry, “remain in their burning city and won’t budge. There’s hardly a house left, just an atrocious chaos of ruins and fire, into which we drop our bombs…. But the Russians won’t budge.”

Despite the Soviets’ tenacity, however, the waves of German troops thrown in by Paulus, constantly supported by tanks and aircraft, gradually overpowered them. On 26 September, the German commander was finally able to declare the city centre secured, after his men took the central landing area, the last government buildings and the large bunker that had been Chuikov’s headquarters. “Since noon,” Paulus reported, winning even von Richthofen’s grudging approval for a change, “the German war flag has been flying over the party buildings.” Half the city lay in German hands. Hoth’s Panzers, now under Sixth’s Army’s operational control, held the suburbs south of the Tsaritsa river. Sixth Army’s own troops occupied the central districts. Yet Paulus had suffered severe losses-7,700 dead and 31,000 wounded in the last six weeks-and still had to capture the strongly-defended northern industrial district.

Temporarily buoyed by the penetration of central Stalingrad, Hitler was apparently less concerned (or less well-informed) about the high losses and looming difficulties than his army commander. On 30 September, he opened his drive for the winter relief with a rousing speech to the German people from the Berlin Sportspalast. Referring to a string of dismal British failures, including Dunkirk and the hopeless Dieppe fiasco, he ridiculed something he privately admired: the way the British managed to turn humiliating defeats into propaganda victories. “Obviously we cannot even begin to compare our own modest successes with them!,” he jeered, boldly adding: “If we advance to the Don, finally reach the Volga, overrun Stalingrad and capture it-and of that they can be certain-in their eyes this is all nothing.” Stalingrad would soon fall, he emphasized to his audience, assuring them (in a manner he doubtless later came to regret) that “you can be certain no-one will get us away from there.”

Fliegerkorps VIII contributed significantly to the army’s progress within the city, conducting massive attacks on Soviet pockets of resistance. The corps’ strength fluctuated widely, dropping substantially when von Richthofen temporarily (but frequently, throughout September and October) diverted units to assist First Panzer and Seventeenth Armies in the Caucasus or to protect Axis troops in the Voronezh region. Usually, though, the corps operated two or three bomber wings from airfields at Morozovskaya and Tatsinskaya, as well as five or six Stuka groups, three or four fighter groups and a “destroyer” group from airfields closer to the target area. Despite their low serviceability levels, these units were still sufficient for attacks on Stalingrad, Volga shipping in the vicinity of the city as well as in the stretch between there and Astrakhan, and rail and road logistics routes east of the Volga. In keeping with von Richthofen’s “proven” army support formula, attacks on the city itself took precedence.

Stuka crews exhausted themselves flying multiple missions against Stalingrad each day. On 15 September, Hauptmann Pabst climbed down from his cockpit after seven hours, during which time he had carried out five missions against the city. That was probably a typical day for him. Major Paul-Werner Hozzel, commander of the Immelmann Stuka Wing (St. G. 2) and one of the most successful and acclaimed Stuka pilots of the war, describes how his wing was able to carry out so many missions each day. His units operated from airfields within 40 kilometres from the city. “This meant,” he explained,

that we needed for each sortie a chock-to-chock time of not more than 45 minutes, which included taxiing to the start, takeoff, approach flight, the climb to an altitude of 4,000 meters, target pickup, dive bombing attack, low level flight departure, landing, taxiing to the apron. Each turnaround-a new loading, a short technical overhaul, checkout-took us another 15 minutes. We were consistently able to fly with each plane about eight sorties from sunrise to sunset.

Because of the close proximity of opposing forces, attacks on enemy pockets were always difficult. Detailed aerial photographic maps identified almost every building (those that still stood, anyway), so Flivos were able to direct Stuka pilots, who also carried aerial maps, to their targets. 89 Desperate not to hit their own troops, often huddling in buildings or behind walls tens of metres from the targets, pilots were far more careful than usual to place their bombs precisely on their targets and always sought to ascertain the position of German troops. Of course, not even the best Stuka pilots could consistently place their bombs precisely on targets. As a result, “Friendly fire” incidents occurred with disappointing (or, from the Soviet viewpoint, pleasing) frequency.

Chuikov’s memoirs clearly reveal the considerable impact of Fliegerkorps VII/’s “incessant attacks”. Following a half-hour artillery barrage, the Soviet commander’s worn-out troops launched a localized counter-attack before dawn on 14 September. However, although the attack initially made satisfactory progress, “as soon as day broke the enemy brought the Luftwaffe into action; groups of fifty to sixty aircraft flew in, bombing and machine-gunning our counter-attacking units, pinning them to the ground. The counterattack petered out.” Events in Stalingrad followed this pattern on numerous occasions. Early on 27 September, for instance, Chuikov’s forces launched another small counter-attack. “To begin with,” he said, “we had some success, but at 8 a. m. hundreds of dive-bombers swooped on our formations. The attacking troops took cover.” Two German infantry divisions advanced with strong tank support behind the Luftwaffe’s hail of bombs, intent on occupying the Krasnyi Oktyabr workers’ settlement and Mamayev Kurgan (a hill-actually an ancient burial mound-dividing the city in two). “The Luftwaffe bombed and strafed our units from our forward positions right to the Volga,” Chuikov stated. “The strongpoint organized by the troops of Gorishny’s division at the Mamayev Kurgan was utterly destroyed by aircraft and artillery. The Army HQ command post was under attack from the air the whole time.”

The VVS did all it could to defend Chuikov’s army and logistical routes from the German air onslaught. It launched nightly bombing raids against German flak positions and airfields, destroying a few aircraft and, just as importantly, depriving exhausted Luftwaffe personnel of precious sleep. Hauptmann Pabst described these attacks in his journal. “In the night,” he wrote on 27 September, “the Ivans were very busy. The tremendous noise woke me up. Sand fell from the walls of my sleeping pit [a small dirt bunker]. Again and again, we heard the drone of incoming aircraft and pressed ourselves a little flatter against our straw mattresses, hoping to block out the noise of falling bombs.” Pabst’s rudimentary (and doubtless uncomfortable) sleeping arrangements may sound strange, but they were common amongst the Axis forces assailing Stalingrad. Even Generalmajor Wolfgang Pickert, commander of the 9th Flak Division, moved out of his trailer and into a tent-covered hollow, hoping it afforded him better protection from bomb blasts.

VVS fighters and ground attack aircraft conducted defensive operations against German forces in and around Stalingrad, suffering high losses to more experienced and numerically superior Luftwaffe fighter units. A typical mid-September entry in the war diary of the 3rd Group of the Third Fighter Wing states: “During the entire day, the Russians undertook defensive air operations above Stalingrad. [There were also] Shturmovik attacks on the 16th Panzer Division and German forces breaking into the city centre.” The German group clearly outclassed its opponents, according to that entry: it claimed 11 Soviet aircraft destroyed (five of them Shturmoviks) for no losses.

Soviet fighters also threw themselves wildly at German aircraft, especially the vulnerable Stukas and bombers, bringing down a small but steady number, yet losing far more themselves. Pabst described how Soviet fighter pilots aggressively attacked his squadron, occasionally shooting down Stukas or, when their ammunition ran out, trying to ram them. On 25 September, by way of illustration, his squadron was returning from missions against logistical targets east of the Volga when “Russian fighters suddenly turned up. For 20 minutes they attacked us, uninterrupted, from all sides, from above, from below.” His aircraft climbed, dove and weaved as they raced home, pursued by Soviet planes. “One can’t express it on paper. It would take too long and lose its immediacy. Yet in practice, it took a high toll on our nerves.” He was extremely lucky that day, suffering only seven damaged aircraft and one wounded pilot. Yet, although the VVS scored a few aerial victories each day (far fewer than the Luftwaffe, though, which claimed 22 destroyed for no reported losses on 27 September alone), it proved incapable of clearing the skies above the city of German aircraft. It still lacked sufficient aircraft and suffered from the same logistical problems that plagued the Luftwaffe. On 26 September, von Richthofen recorded in his diary: “Over Stalingrad there was not even a single Russian aircraft in the sky until late in the day, although around 900 [a huge exaggeration] sat on airfields. No fuel?”

On 27 September, Chuikov urgently appealed to Nikita Khrushchev, Stalingrad Front’s commissar, for increased VVS protection. “I make no complaint about our air force, which is fighting heroically,” he said, “but the enemy has mastery in the air. His air force is his unbeatable trump card in attack. I therefore ask for increased help in this sphere-to give us cover from the air, if only for a few hours a day.” Khrushchev replied that the Front was already giving Sixty-Second Army all the help it could, but agreed to pass on Chuikov’s request and “press for increased air cover for the city.”

The “increased” air protection had not arrived, however, before the Luftwaffe launched fresh attacks next day, keeping up what Chuikov called “a constant, concentrated air attack on our troops, on the ferries and on the Army H.Q. command post.” German aircraft, he claimed, “dropped not only bombs, but also pieces of metal, ploughs, tractor wheels, harrows and empty casks, which whistled about the heads of our troops.” However fascinating this story is, it is almost certainly apocryphal. Fiebig’s units constantly suffered bomb shortages, but at no time in September were they so acute that bomber groups resorted to dropping ploughs, tractor wheels and the like.