Luftwaffe Air Offensive in the Caucasus

Hitler gambled that the loss of Stalingrad would be a greater blow to Stalin than the loss of the oil supplies in the Caucasus. A sounder strategic decision would have been to take Maikop and then bomb the refineries at Grozny and Baku. This would have greatly disrupted vital fuel supplies to the Red Army at a time when it was trying to regenerate its battered forces. Bombing the oilfields in the Caspian would similarly have put great pressure on the Baku garrison as it was reliant on seaborne transport to keep it resupplied. Likewise it would have required the Red Air Force to divert many of its new aircraft. Instead, from the very start of the campaign in late July 1942 Hitler had tasked the Luftwaffe with very specific targeting in the Caucasus:

In view of the decisive importance of the Caucasus oilfields for the further prosecution of the war, air attacks against their refineries and storage tanks, and against ports used for oil shipments on the Black Sea, will only be carried out if the operations of the Army make them absolutely essential. But in order to block enemy supplies of oil from the Caucasus as soon as possible, it is especially important to cut the railways and pipelines still being used for this purpose and to harass shipping on the Caspian at an early date.

Initially Hitler did not want the oilfields bombed as he had planned to exploit them for his own ends. A number of German oil companies had been set up and awarded 99-year leases for the Caucasian oil wells. Oil industry equipment was gathered ready to be shipped to the region to make good any damage and a special economic inspection team was set up under Lieutenant General Nidenfuhr. To prevent Baibakov and Budyonny blowing anything up the Abwehr had formulated Operation Shamil and special SS security units were established.

As the fighting dragged on Hitler had a change of heart. Realizing he could not take the Caucasus oilfields before the end of the year he ordered the Luftwaffe to destroy them. If Hitler had acted sooner in the summer when the Red Air Force was still putting itself back together, he could have sent his bombers against Baku with relative impunity. By autumn, when Soviet air power and confidence in the region was growing, it was simply too late. The heavy fighting at Stalingrad meant that time was against the Luftwaffe in the Caucasus.

The Luftwaffe’s air offensive, as in the Crimea, was to be a strictly limited affair. Hitler instructed that the operation must be completed by mid-October because the Luftwaffe was then to concentrate all its efforts against Soviet forces at Stalingrad. The Luftwaffe though was stretched very thinly along the length and breadth of the entire Eastern Front.

During the second week of October 1942 General Richthofen’s 4th Air Corps was ordered to send its bombers against Grozny’s oilfields. His exhausted command, which had been involved in the reduction of Sevastopol, was in a poor condition, with its bomber fleet down from 480 bombers to just 129. Nonetheless, Richthofen’s planes were deployed to airfields near the Terek river. They and their fighter escorts could easily reach Grozny, but Baku was largely out of the fighters’ reach.

On 10 and 12 October 1942 he attacked as instructed. On the first day Grozny’s refineries were left ablaze and the second raid caused even greater damage. However, the Soviets had learned much from their air defence of Moscow and Leningrad. They knew the value of lighting decoy fires to distract and divert marauding bombers. In addition, the billowing smoke from deliberate oil fires made it difficult to assess the level of damaged inflicted. The Luftwaffe had very limited numbers of reconnaissance aircraft and those available had to run the gauntlet of Soviet fighters. Richthofen’s efforts were brought to a swift halt when his forces were summoned north to try and help stem the Red Army’s offensive at Stalingrad. The Luftwaffe would later be called on to maintain Army Group A in the Kuban bridgehead.

Now the fate of the German presence in the Caucasus hung on the outcome of the battle for Stalingrad. Manstein later wrote:

The German Supreme Command should really have been aware from the start that Army Group A could not stay in the Caucasus if the battle to free 6th Army did not immediately succeed – in other words, if there were no clear possibility of somehow establishing a reasonably secure situation within the large bend of the Don. But when the enemy tore a gap on the right wing of Army Group B which opened his way to Rostov, it should have been palpably evident to anyone that there could no longer be any question of holding the Caucasus front.

Once the German situation at Stalingrad had deteriorated in the winter of 1942, 4th Panzer Army tasked with going to the rescue had to be reinforced. To support the desperate attempt to cut through to the German 6th Army trapped in the city, three panzer divisions, one infantry division and three Luftwaffe field divisions were redeployed from the Caucasus and Orel. When Stalingrad turned into a disaster of epic proportions, General Zeitzler, Chief of the General Staff, tried to resign, but Hitler would not let him go. Zeitzer’s only achievements were to get Hitler to authorize withdrawals from two exposed salients in the north facing Moscow and Leningrad.

Although Hitler’s invasion of the Caucasus had ended in frustrating stalemate in November 1942, he insisted that Kleist and his troops remain in their exposed positions deep in the mountains. For the Red Army this offered a tempting opportunity to trap him. Massing at Elista, mid-way between Astrakhan and Rostov, the Soviets struck south-west past the southern tip of Lake Manych in early January 1943. This posed a far greater threat than their counter-attacks near Mozdok. This though was nothing compared to the Soviet advance down the Don from Stalingrad toward Rostov. If the Red Army liberated the city, Kleist’s only escape route would be via the Kuban and the Crimea.

Hitler dithered over what to do. He hated giving ground to the enemy, but common sense dictated Kleist and his men should be saved to fight another day. To keep his forces in the Caucasus risked another Stalingrad. For a time Hitler deluded himself that the situation on the Don could be retrieved. Then a miracle of sorts happened, according to Kleist:

When the Russians were only 70 kilometres from Rostov, and my armies were 650 kilometres east of Rostov, Hitler sent me an order that I was not to withdraw under any circumstances. That looked like a sentence of death. On the next day however, I received a fresh order – to retreat, and bring away everything with me in the way of equipment. That would have been difficult enough in any case, but became more so in the depths of the Russian winter.

While Hitler would not permit his troops to fight their way out of Stalingrad, for some reason he had changed his mind about the Caucasus.

To Kleist’s alarm, defence of his flank from Elistra to Rostov had been assigned to Marshal Antonescu’s Romanian army, the collapse of which had resulted in the defeat at Stalingrad. Instead Manstein rode to the rescue covering the retreat through the Rostov bottleneck. It was though touch and go. ‘Manstein was so hard pressed’, said Kleist, ‘that I had to send some of my own divisions to help him in holding off the Russians who were pushing down the Don towards Rostov. The most dangerous time of the retreat was the last half of January.’

Manstein recounted:

… thanks to the doggedness and dexterity with which 4th Panzer Army had been fighting in the area south of the Don, there was at least a chance that when the Caucasus went, Army Group A need not be lost with it. Its eastern wing, which had been in greatest danger of all, was now safely retracted. And even though 1st Panzer Army was still 190 miles from the river-crossing at Rostov, it was nonetheless out of the mountains and no longer threatened from the rear.

It seemed as if Hitler’s Caucasus adventure had come to an end, but he had other ideas. Much to Manstein’s irritation, not all of Kleist’s 1st Panzer Army was to be withdrawn.

Soviet Riposte

The German-held Kuban bridgehead, situated along the Taman peninsula, was an area of extreme importance to both sides. The Germans saw the region as essential to protecting the eastern approaches to the Crimea , whereas the Soviets viewed the bridgehead as a launch-point for another possible German offensive into the northern Caucasus . Unlike Stalingrad, Kursk or even Operation Bagration, the campaign is almost unknown in the West, probably due to the fact that there were no real breakthroughs on the ground, no encirclements, no capitulation of German armies. At best, it was a set of limited ground offensives during the boggy months of spring.

However, the air battles over the Kuban sector were pivotal to the growth of the VVS as the offensive long-arm of the Red Army, sending a clear message to the Luftwaffe: the VVS was about to return what it had received. In fact, Soviet historians hold this two-month air campaign in early 1943 to be as important to the war effort as the Americans do the battle of Midway. It was a battle fought with such intensity that General K. V. Vershinin, the main Soviet air commander of the sector, claimed on some days he could see an aircraft fall every ten minutes, and it was not unusual for as many as 100 air battles to take place in a day.

The German Fourth Luftflotte (Air Fleet), which included Fourth the elite Udet, Molders and Green Hearts JGs (Jagdgeschwader, equivalents of Groups), was responsible for this area, while its Soviet counterparts were primarily the and Fifth Air Armies, along with three air corps from STAVKA reserves. Both air forces were roughly equal in size at about 1000 combat aircraft each. The Luftwaffe fighter units were mainly equipped with Bf 109 G 2/-4’s and Fw 190 A’s, while the VVS possessed a mixture of the latest Yakovlev and Lavochkin fighters, along with large numbers of Il-2 Sturmoviks and Pe-2 bombers. In addition, there was a steady flow of lend-lease aircraft: P-39’s, A-20’s, P-40’s and even Spitfire V’s. Though Soviet pilots found the Spitfire a disappointment (it looked too much like a Bf 109 and was very vulnerable to groundfire), they flew the P-39 with great elan during the battle. In fact, two pilots of 16 GvIAP (Gvardeiskii Istrebitelnii Aviatsionnii Polk, or Guards Fighter Air Regiment), A. I. Pokryshkin and his squadron mate G. A.Rechkalov, were very successful flying the P-39-the former claiming 20 kills during the battle.

The major air campaign that marked the shift from German to Soviet air superiority on the Eastern Front during World War II. During April and May 1943, as the Germans struggled for their last North Caucasus foothold, Luftflotte 4 (Fourth Air Force) clashed with the Soviet 4 and 5 Air Armies, the Black Sea Fleet Aviation, and Long-Range Aviation. Air activity was intense, often seeing as many as 100 air combats a day.

German forces began with about 900 aircraft, including the latest models of the Bf 109G and the Hs 129, and featured some of their top units, including Jagdgeschwader 52 with Erich Hartmann. The Soviets began with about 600 aircraft, swelling to 1,150 in May. The Soviets also committed their newest aircraft, including the first use in the south of the Douglas A-20, as well as the Bell P-39D, flown by Aleksandr Pokryshkin’s air division.

The Soviets showed a new aggressiveness in flying offensive fighter sweeps, and they introduced new tactics, including German-style four-plane formations and Pokryshkin’s Kuban Ladder, a stacked formation. Also playing a distinguished role was the Soviet women’s night-bomber regiment. The campaign ended suddenly on 7 June, at which point the Soviets had claimed 1,100 German aircraft destroyed; the Germans claimed 2,280 victories, but the tide of the air war had turned against them.

References Hardesty, Von. Red Phoenix: The Rise of Soviet Air Power, 1941–1945. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982.