Air War – East – 1942 Part III

These were dark days for the Soviet Union, and they placed great strain on the political officers or commissars who headed the Party organisation and who had a separate code of conduct. Until ‘unitary command’ was established on 9 October 1942, the commissar was also the deputy unit commander. Not only did he have to counter-sign all orders, he also had to perform the roles of evangelical priest, guard dog and welfare officer.

Relations with officers and men varied from unit to unit, often depending upon whether or not he was an airman – one artillery observation pilot noted he had never met a decent commissar during the war. A commissar would exhort pilots to ever greater feats and berate them if he deemed they had failed, which could be particularly galling. When one ‘flightless’ commissar called a fighter pilot a coward for not taking off when ‘Messers’ strafed his airfield, the pilot retorted, ‘Fuck you. If you want to fight take the aeroplane up yourself ’, and the regimental commander backed him. Yet many flying commissars were respected or even liked, although all remained wary of them for they were the eyes and ears of the Party, ready to denounce ‘cowards’ and ‘defeatists’. Newcomers were warned to be careful what they said when the commissar was around.

The commissar organised Party lectures – officially ‘meetings’ to ‘discuss’ the military or political situation, but even Party members found them boring. He would exhort airmen before offensives to new peaks of endeavour, often through public pledges, and sometimes organised unit parades. He also controlled access to the Party, one assault regiment pilot putting in his application before take-off and having it endorsed by the time he had landed. Many aircrew, even those who had suffered from Party decisions, were anxious to join it, and membership certainly helped win the commissar’s recommendations for honours or awards.

A GvIAP commander was killed in July 1944 when the regimental commissar, his ‘slave’, abandoned him. He was punished by being sent to a penal battalion for cowardice. This was a common punishment for infractions of the military code, with such units having a high mortality rate. Sometimes men were sent to a penal battalion for mission failure, such as providing inadequate fighter escort or bombing their own troops, yet it did provide official redemption to survivors, or for those who distinguished themselves with the reinstatement of rank and honours. From 9 September 1942, penal squadrons were formed in the Stalingrad Front’s 8th VA, with another on 22 September in 5th VA. These were fighter, attack and night bomber units that were used to maintain both discipline and air strength. They apparently withered away by early 1943.

Meanwhile, the day Rostov fell, Hitler again demonstrated his strategic incoherence with Weisung Nr 43, which assumed the Russians in the south had been annihilated and that the Donets was secure. List was ordered to complete the destruction of enemy forces in the north Caucasus then seize the eastern coast of the Black Sea to neutralise the Soviet Black Sea Fleet, while simultaneously taking the oilfields in Unternehmen Edelweiss. However, he lost Hoth to Weichs, who was to continue his advance on the Don, take Stalingrad then advance down the Volga to Astrakhan. While providing the strongest support for List, Richthofen was also to help Weichs, although ‘the early destruction of the city of Stalingrad is especially important’. He was to interdict enemy oil transport but not bomb the oilfields unless List’s operations made this ‘absolutely essential’. From 25 July Pflugbeil began to interdict traffic on the Volga and by the end of the month he had virtually cut oil traffic. From 26 October to 15 November his attacks in the Caspian sank two tankers, a large tug and two barges (total 6,709grt) to create major problems for Soviet oil distribution into the summer of 1943.

Richthofen bitterly complained to ObdL about supporting diverging Heeresgruppen with inadequate resources. In June and July he lost 740 combat aircraft destroyed or badly damaged, 391 of them to enemy action, while 177 aircraft were sent back for overhauls. Only 668 replacements were received, leaving him with barely 1,500 aircraft because the Luftwaffe was already overstretched. This forced Richthofen to juggle his limited assets over the next five months.3 At first he focused upon the advance to Stalingrad, probably because it was easier to support, leaving Pflugbeil as the poor relation supporting List and Wild, who also sank seven merchantmen (21,541grt) between 1 July, 1942, and 2 July, 1943. On 20 August Richthofen regretfully informed List that he was transferring most of his aircraft to Stalingrad on Hitler’s orders, and when List’s chief-of-staff, Generalleutnant Hans von Greiffenberg, asked OKH on 28 August when the Heeresgruppe would receive air support, he was told tersely, ‘When Stalingrad is taken, or given up as impossible.’

The Wehrmacht advance on Stalingrad was bitterly opposed, Stalin having issued his ‘Not one step backwards’ order on 28 July. Three days later Pflugbeil’s bombers were ordered to bomb the city while Paulus and Hoth renewed their advance in early August to force the Russians to divide their forces. Novikov planned to create 16th VA, authorised on 6 August, from 8th VA to defend Stalingrad’s southern approaches, but it was difficult to find enough men for the new headquarters. Eventually most of 1st IAA’s staff were assigned to the new air army, but in the meantime Khryukin had to cover both fronts. Rudenko established an air group within 8th VA to support the southern approaches, and when 16th VA was formed on 4 September he became operational commander, although the nominal commander was former commissar and gifted administrator General-leitenant Pavel Stepanov. He had just organised Khryukin’s infrastructure, building 19 airfields east of the Volga to bring the total to 50 and providing 3,100 tonnes of fuel. The new air army would reflect the two officers’ strengths, but even before its formation Stepanov knew his roles were purely administrative and temporary.

These were hard times for Khryukin, who lost 230 aircraft from 20 July to 10 August, with serviceable aircraft grouped under experienced commanders. From 20 July to 17 August he received 21 full-strength regiments (447 aircraft), of which 75 per cent had modern combat aircraft and from mid-August another 30 from training centres, although in the 220th IAD only a third of the pilots were trained in formation flying. The reinforcements included 287th IAD on 20 August with 57 new La-5 fighters, which suffered teething troubles and initially proved inferior to the Bf 109F/Gs. Nevertheless, Russian airmen, flying 300– 350 sorties a day and 100–150 at night, inflicted a steady trickle of losses upon the Luftwaffe, while ‘Ilyushas’ eroded truck strength. However, they could not stop the next onslaught on 21 August, supported by Fiebig’s 600 aircraft.

‘Ilyusha’ losses were high partly because the aircraft had no tail gunner, the average pilot at Stalingrad lasting three sorties. From early August Khryukin augmented them with LaGG-3-37 fitted with 37mm cannon and deployed fighter-bombers. Moscow was reluctant to develop a two-seat version of the ‘Ilyusha’ for fear of disrupting production or reducing performance, but regiments began to convert aircraft with a crude tail-gunner position, often using a leather belt as a seat. This reduced losses to fighters, and production of the two-seater Il-2m3 began in the summer of 1942. The aircraft debuted on 30 October, at a time when regiments were developing shallow dive-bombing tactics to compensate for poor bombsights.

On 23 August Richthofen assembled 1,200 aircraft to support an advance through Stalingrad to the banks of the Volga as the Kampfgruppen began a 24-hour bombardment with 1,600 sorties. Khryukin and Krasnoyuchenko had 260 serviceable aircraft, as well as 100 ADD bombers. They could not prevent 1,000 tonnes of German bombs, including incendiaries, falling from as low as 2,000 metres to turn Stalingrad’s log-cabin suburbs into a forest of stone chimneys, leaving the city centre under a thick pall of smoke. Only three bombers were lost because Krasnoyuchenko lacked experienced pilots capable of defending Stalingrad from such attacks.

Things began to improve from late August when two radars were assigned to provide Russian fighters with GCI, initially from the division command post and then from the bases of 572nd (Yak-1) and 629th (Kittyhawk) IAPs. They operated 18–20 hours a day and could detect aircraft at 3,000 metres some 120 kilometres away and at 5,000 metres up to 150 kilometres away. Nevertheless, the system failed to gain pilot confidence until November. During July–December 102nd IAD would fly 68,813 sorties and be credited with 647 victories.

The bombing helped Paulus’s spearheads reach the banks of the Volga, where they were briefly isolated and sustained by fuel and ammunition brought in by 300 Ju 52/3ms and He 111s. There was then a brief pause to bring up supplies and to concentrate the Wehrmacht for the assault upon Stalingrad. Hungarian and Italian troops, followed by 3rd Romanian Army, were now holding the 500-kilometre Don line south of Voronezh, and added some 150 aircraft to Korten’s strength. The Romanians then sent General Ermil Gheorghiue’s Gruparea Aerianã de Luptã (GAL) with 180 combat aircraft, which deployed from 6 September.

Khryukin’s headquarters had been forced across the Volga but continued its dynamic, although ineffective, defence at the cost of 201 aircraft between 23 and 31 August to leave it with 192 serviceable machines, including 57 fighters. The situation was so serious that as Stalingrad burned, Novikov arrived to coordinate air operations. The following day Golovanov sent him five more bomber divisions to join the DBs and Il-4s of 50th AD in a task force under his deputy Skripko, who had 143 bombers, including TB-3s and Li-2s, by 25 August, and immediately began to strike the Don crossings.4 During the pause Fiebig received most of Pflugbeil’s bombers for another 24-hour aerial bombardment of Stalingrad from 3 September to support Paulus’s advance into the city. He established a command post with a panorama of the battlefield, while an army observation battalion provided an up-to-the-minute picture of the situation. Stukas flew four sorties a day in Staffel-size missions against targets selected from small-scale maps. Indeed, Richthofen was to comment in his diary on 1 November that his aircraft were dropping bombs within grenade-throwing range. During this period Hs 129s largely removed their cannon and were used as light bombers because pilots were sceptical about the effectiveness of the MK 101 cannon against tanks.

Gruppe-size attacks were only for Paulus’s major thrusts, and he agreed in late September that Kampfgruppen should be confined to striking artillery on the Volga’s eastern bank and to interdicting river traffic. Yet Richthofen seized every opportunity to criticise Paulus’s leadership, even persuading OKH to despatch five combat engineer battalions in a vain effort to turn the tide of battle. As late as 16 November he was complaining about Paulus to Army Chief-of-Staff Generaloberst Zeitzler, who replaced Halder on 25 September.

The open steppes made it easy for Fiebig to build airstrips for his squadrons, with Stuka- and Schlachtgruppen established between the Don and the Chir within sound of the battle, Jagd- and Zerstörergruppen within the Don Bend itself and Kampfgruppen operating from Morozovskaya and Tatsinskaya, 200–250 kilometres from Stalingrad. A typical Kampfgruppe, III./KG 55 flew 288 day missions between 28 September and 24 October, these being largely short-range sorties with maximum loads to deliver 2490.25 tonnes of bombs. A further ten long-range night sorties delivered 12.5 tonnes.

On 4 September the VVS and PVO had 738 aircraft, including 313 fighters and 241 ‘Ilyushas’, to defend Stalingrad, augmented by 150–200 ADD bombers. Khryukin’s men resisted as best they could, flying 22,691 sorties from 13 September to 18 November and dropping 5,063 tonnes of bombs. On 1 September he had only 97 serviceable fighters, and from the next day had priority for Yak-1 production, augmented during September by the first Yak-7Bs. To make the best use of them, on 5 September Polkovnik Boris Sidnev, commander of 268th IAD, directed pairs of fighters orbiting at 5,500 metres, with bombers, their priority.

Fighter and ‘Ilyusha’ units shared airfields for closer cooperation, with the former ordered to tighten their formations and remain with the Il-2s until the end of the mission, rather than flying home individually. Day bombers now struck from below 5,500 metres, while night bombers would approach with idling engines, then attack from 400–500 metres, often dropping flares to illuminate the target. Russian losses were heavy – 556 in September alone, 36 of them Krasnoyuchenko’s aircraft and the remainder evenly split between Khryukin and Rudenko – yet by 1 October Khryukin had 437 combat aircraft, of which 246 were serviceable, although his airmen were exhausted. Richthofen’s position was little better for he had lost 103 aircraft in September. From 5 to 12 September his units flew 7,507 sorties, a daily average of 938, but after 11 weeks of operations he was down to 950 aircraft, and by 20 September he had only 232 bombers.

Rudenko had to hammer the small and inexperienced core of 1st IAA into 16th VA, but he was an extremely experienced front-line commander. He did not formally assume command until 28 September, starting with only 152 serviceable aircraft including 31 night bombers, and there was an inauspicious debut from 4 September. He lost 50 aircraft in the first four days – one ‘Ilyusha’ every 20 sorties. His fighter divisions lost 157 aircraft and 83 pilots during September in a month when his airmen flew 5,225 sorties, of which 992 were strike, and he was steadily reinforced to have 232 aircraft, including 13 night bombers, by 1 October. Rudenko also tried to introduce GCI but was handicapped by a shortage of both transceivers and experienced fighter pilots to act as controllers.

Skripko’s men were also active and flew 6,523 sorties in September, striking targets within and without the city, crews sometimes flying up to three sorties a night. Such attacks over the city itself soon became almost impossible due to smoke, so the bombers switched to rail targets, although experienced crews made occasional low-level afternoon attacks on Stalingrad, where, by 6 October, the central and southern parts were in German hands. Paulus’s men were exhausted and awaited reinforcements, while Luftwaffe strength in the East had now dropped by almost 11 per cent after four months of continuous operations. During October seven Gruppen, including three transport, and several Staffeln either returned to the Reich or were transferred to the Mediterranean theatre.

The autumn evenings were growing chillier and rain showers became more common as Paulus renewed his attempt to take Stalingrad from 14 October. Richthofen recalled most Gruppen from the Caucasus but faced Soviet pressure along the whole front, thus depriving them of rest. Nevertheless, Luftwaffe support helped to ensure that by 7 November the Russians were left with their legs dangling in the Volga in a tiny bridgehead against which StG 2 flew 1,208 sorties during 23–26 October. The VVS did what it could, Khryukin extending GCI and making occasional attacks upon airfields, aided by Skripko from the end of October, but with little effect despite high claims. The weather disrupted both sides’ operations, although Rudenko flew 5,718 sorties during October and lost 61 aircraft.

Russian night bombers were especially active during October, with Khryukin’s crews flying up to ten sorties a night, each delivering 350kg of bombs leading an OKH liaison officer to note on 15 October that their night air superiority was assuming ‘intolerable proportions’. They were also used to supply the remaining Stalingrad bridgeheads, flying 1,008 sorties between September and December and dropping 200 tonnes of food and ammunition in bags.

Each air army was supported by transport aircraft, 65 from the GVF for Khryukin, but they were banned from approaching within 50 kilometres of the FEBA during the day. The ADD flew 5,634 sorties in October and 3,334 to mid-November, bringing the total for the Stalingrad campaign (17 July–19 November) to 11,317, or almost half of ADD sorties, to drop 12,025 tonnes of bombs. Russian historians state that from 14 September to 19 November their airmen flew 45,325 sorties and dropped 15,440 tonnes of bombs around Stalingrad, but the cost was high. From 17 July to 19 November, 2,063 aircraft were lost, but it had bought Stalin time and, ominously, VVS activity was growing as Luftwaffe reconnaissance began to provide evidence of preparations for a major offensive.

During the late summer and autumn of 1942 Novikov and Golovanov continued reforming and reorganising their forces. With many fronts relatively quiet, it was also possible to expand both, although VVS casualties during 1942 were high – 8,168 combat aircraft to enemy action, 3,888 fighters (47 per cent), 1,145 day (14 per cent) and 1,307 (16 per cent) night bombers and 1,676 (20.5 per cent) attack. The losses of aircraft, infrastructure and production facilities prevented Russian air power from recovering until late in 1942, although until mid-1943 it conducted an active defence largely with Tactical Level air support and limited Operational Level capability. Factories were now producing aircraft that could match, or exceed, their enemies’ performance, including La-5, Yak-7B and, from December, Yak-9 fighters, the two-seat Il-2 and the new Tu-2 medium bomber. Russia’s Western allies were also supplying growing numbers of aircraft, and while the Hurricane, Spitfire, Kittyhawk and Airacobra fighters received mixed reviews, the American Boston and Mitchell bombers were highly regarded.

During the latter part of the year fighter regiment establishments were raised to three squadrons with a total of 32 aircraft. Novikov believed in concentrated air power and he began to pair divisions into fighter, bomber, assault and mixed air corps (aviatsionnyy korpus), with the first three formed on 10 September. Soon eight would be at the heart of a powerful Stavka strategic reserve, which by the beginning of November had 20 divisions and 71 combat regiments and would soon be committed to a mighty riposte.

Novikov joined the evening briefings and planning meetings usually held in Stalin’s Kremlin office, presenting analyses of the previous day’s operations prepared by General-maior (General-leitenant from 7 August 1943) Nikolai Zhuravlev, his operations head. During one such review on 12 September there was talk of threatening Paulus’s communications. As they looked at the maps Zhukov and General-polkovnik Aleksandr Vasilevskii, Chief of the General Staff since June 1942, murmured that ‘another solution’ might be found, implying something on a larger scale. Stalin overheard them and asked, ‘And what does “another solution” mean?’

This question was like a pebble landing in a pond to send out ripples. The options produced the following day saw Vasilevskii preferring to strike the Stalingrad Salient – Operatsiya Uran (Uranus) – while Zhukov advocated a complementary attack, Operatsiya Mars, upon the Rzhev Salient to end the threat to Moscow. Again Stalin accepted both plans on 26 September, starting with Mars in mid-October to confuse the enemy. But preparations were disrupted by weather, and at the end of October it was decided to reverse the schedule, with Uran beginning in mid-November followed by Mars about 24–25 November. Uran envisaged the envelopment of the Stalingrad Salient followed by Operatsiya Saturn to destroy the 8th Italian and 3rd Romanian Armies, then drive towards the Donets to isolate Heeresgruppe A in the Caucasus. As preparations began Stalin conserved his strength, feeding the fire within the city that bore his name with just enough resources to continue pinning down the enemy.

Stalin regarded air support as vital and insisted the offensives be postponed if it could not be guaranteed, but Zhukov and Novikov informed him the air armies would be fully ready by 15 November. They were over-optimistic, for an acute shortage of trucks made the transport of supplies extremely difficult. By the second week of November the VVS was down to two rations of fuel, with severe shortages of ammunition and spares.

A front was created in the north under General-leitenant Nikolai Vatutin supported by the new 17th VA under Krasovskii, who was now restored to favour. He had to create his new command from almost nothing, Novikov making frequent visits to assist him. However, with the Volga icing up, he and his neighbour, Rudenko, had difficulty building up supplies at airfields – a problem exacerbated by the lack of local railways and vehicle shortages. Stavka reserves raised Krasovskii’s strength to 477 combat aircraft, including 66 Il-2s converted by 1st Mixed Air Corps (Smeshannyy Aviatsionnyy Korpus, SAK) workshops into two-seaters, but there were too many new pilots within 17th VA who needed training. His squadrons also required new airfields and 982 tonnes of fuel.

Despite these shortages, Rudenko was excited and elated when front commander General-leitenant Konstantin Rokossovskii informed him of Uran. He continued to augment his ‘Ilyushas’ with LaGG-3-37s, but received few new regiments and had to build only six airfields. By 19 November he had 342 aircraft, including 93 night bombers and 14 liaison aircraft. He also faced a unique problem with mice that gnawed wiring in aircraft then contaminated food and water, leading to an outbreak of mouse cholera or tularemia on 9 November that gave many of his staff officers high fevers, killed two and at one point left only Rudenko and an Operations Department lieutenant on their feet. The sick were soon nursed back to health and the aircrews remained unaffected.

Khryukin had the hardest task supporting General-polkovnik Andrei Eremenko’s defence of Stalingrad while planning missions to aid the offensive. Fighter cover was provided for barges bringing fuel from Astrakhan and two transport regiments aided his build-up, although few of the new airfields were ready when the offensive began.

By 19 November the VVS had 5,014 combat aircraft on the main battle front, but there were only 4,819 aircrew of whom just 958 were fully trained. The Navy had 439 aircraft while the ADD had 479 bombers, all supported by 837 PVO fighters. Although Uran was the prime theatre, it received only nine Stavka reserve regiments together with 1 SAK headquarters and two divisions, while Mars received 28 air regiments together with five air corps headquarters and nine divisions. Some 1,714 aircraft were assigned to the offensive, facing 877 Axis aeroplanes.

Between May and October the Luftwaffe in the East lost 1,757 aircraft to enemy action and 1,356 to accidents, while its strength steadily declined from 2,142 at the beginning of September to 2,034 two months later partly due to overstretched supply lines associated with the offensive against Stalingrad. There, the Luftwaffe received four trains a day to the Chir railhead, 100 kilometres from Stalingrad, and had priority over Army traffic. On 1 November Richthofen proposed to Weichs and Paulus that some of his railway space be allocated for Army ammunition because with fighting at such close quarters ‘the Luftwaffe cannot be very effective any more’. Since 10 August he could also call upon up to ten Transportgruppen, with 506 aircraft on 1 September, initially under Morzik’s LTF Ost, established on 11 June. On 20 October three (some 135 aircraft) were transferred to the Mediterranean, and it would appear Morzik’s command was then broken up and the remaining Gruppen scattered, with Fiebig receiving four under Stab KG zbV 1.

By mid-November these aircraft had brought in 42,630 tonnes of supplies and 27,044 personnel, while evacuating 51,018 casualties. Most of these supplies were for the Luftwaffe, including 20,173 tonnes of fuel, which allowed Richthofen to build up what proved to be a very valuable reserve. The distribution of this manna was eased by Richthofen’s early rationalisation of his motor-transport resources, which not only allowed him to create a reserve but also increased the ‘lift’ of supplies from 2,000 tonnes to 5,000 tonnes.