Chapter 7 – Storm in the East.

During the first few weeks of Operation “Barbarossa”, the German attach on Russia, the Luftwaffe achieved total air superiority. Thousands of Soviet aircraft were destroyed on the ground in a stunning story of success.

The Stukas strike! On the 22nd June 1941, as Operation “Barbarossa” begins, the Junkers Ju 87s carry out their usual tasks: seeking out enemy force concentrations and demoralising enemy troops.

Before Operation “Barbarossa” began as early as September 1940, while the Luftwaffe was still fighting the “Battle of Britain”, and precise operational directives were issued two months later. According to Hitler’s Directive No 21, dated the 18th December 1940, Luftwaffe roles in the invasion of the Soviet Union were to be familiar ones: “It will be the duty of the Air Force to paralyse and eliminate the effectiveness of the Russian Air Force as far as possible … it will also support the main operations of the Army.” Just as in Poland, Scandinavia and France, Goring’s airmen were to carry out pre-emptive air strikes against the enemy air force, gaining air superiority that would enable them to use their bombers and fighters to hit lines of communication and supply, isolating the battlefield and opening up enemy ground forces to direct air assault.

A Junkers Ju 87B of Stukageschwader 3 on an airfield in the Balkans in 1941. It is waiting to be “bombed-up” before taking part in the final stages of the short campaign to subdue Yugoslavia. The nose and tail fin would be bright yellow.

“Bombing up” Junkers Ju 87 Stuka’s ready for the onslaught.

A Luftwaffe armourer in typical black overalls carries a bomb. A Junkers Ju 87 Stuka is in the background.

In the case of the Soviet Union, however, this was a tall order. Hitler was insistent on a short, sharp, surgical campaign. He called for the capture of Leningrad in the north, Moscow in the centre and the Ukraine in the south before the winter weather curtailed operations. Hitler to undertake these objectives recognised the need to increase the size of his ground forces by raising 40 new divisions. The demands that such an increase made on German industry meant that the Luftwaffe had to take second place to the army. Aircraft losses incurred in the West were to be replaced, but no augmentation was authorised and, of significance for the future, the introduction of new aircraft designs was delayed. This meant that, by June 1941, Luftwaffe frontline strength was little more than it had been in early 1940: 3340 bombers and fighters. Moreover, the duties to be carried out by air units had escalated considerably: 780 aircraft had now to be maintained in the West, plus 370 in the Mediterranean and nearly 200 for the air defence of Germany itself, leaving less than 2000 combat aircraft for Operation “Barbarossa”. This figure did not include transports, liaison aircraft or reconnaissance machines, nor did it reflect the contribution that Germany’s allies could make, but even when every aircraft type was counted, the total in the East still came to only 3900. At a conservative estimate, the Soviets then had 7500 aircraft in their western theatre and a further 2500 in the Far East. Though many were obsolete designs, the numerical balance seemed to be tilted seriously against the Luftwaffe.

General Eduard Dietl (right, with parachute) waits to board a Junkers Ju 52 transport, May 1941. Dietl commanded the Gebirgsjäger (Mountain Troops) of the German Army (as denoted by the Edelweiss badge on his cap), elements of which took part in the invasion of Crete.

Combined Pilots and Observers Badge in Gold with Diamonds.

The Luftwaffe in the Balkans.

Nor were these the only problems facing the Luftwaffe in 1941, for as the preparations for Operation “Barbarossa” went ahead, Göring suddenly found himself ordered to support an attack in the Balkans. Italy’s failures in North Africa and Greece left the southern flank of any German assault into the Soviet Union potentially vulnerable, forcing Hitler to send assistance to his fascist ally. Rommel’s arrival in Libya undoubtedly saved the situation in North Africa, but the Balkans were a different matter. Not only were Greek forces threatening to push Mussolini’s troops back into Albania but, in late March 1941, a revolution in Yugoslavia removed the pro-Axis monarch, raising the spectre of Allied intervention. One of the first countermoves ordered by Hitler was the reinforcement of Luftwaffe units already in Bulgaria and Romania, raising the number of combat aircraft there to over 600.

A dramatic sequence of photographs shows the destruction of HMS Gloucester, a Royal Navy Southampton-class cruiser, sunk by air attack off Crete on the 22nd May 1941. The air-sea battle around Crete was a major success for the Luftwaffe: its bombers sank three cruisers and six destroyers in a series of furious engagements. In addition, the Royal Navy had a further five battleships and an aircraft carrier damaged. The British lost 25,000 men in the campaign in the Balkans.

Victory in the Balkans.

It was these aircraft, plus others flying out of Austria and Hungary, that spearheaded the assault on Yugoslavia and Greece, initiated on the 6th April 1941. They gained air superiority with commensurate ease: Luftflotte 4, comprising a total of 1090 German aircraft, with 660 Italian machines in support, faced no more than 400 Yugoslav and 80 Greek aircraft, many of them of obsolete design. Air strikes early on the 6th April caught most of the enemy aircraft on the ground and destroyed them, enabling Luftflotte 4 to concentrate immediately on providing close support to ground units. Duties included reconnaissance, ground attack and long-range interdiction, the latter involving the destruction of troop concentrations, bridges, roads and railways, and the bombing of Belgrade. The campaign was remarkably short and very successful. By the end of the month, Yugoslavia was firmly in German hands and mainland Greece had fallen, forcing the British to evacuate the units sent to aid their Balkan allies.

But the campaign was not quite over, particularly for the Luftwaffe. As early as the 15th April, General Alexander Löhr, commanding Luftflotte 4, had suggested that the vitally important island of Crete, which dominated routs in the eastern Mediterranean, should be sized by paratrooper and air-landing assault regiments belonging to the Luftwaffe. After hasty consolations with Mussolini, Hitler agreed, initiating the first and so far the only, strategic use of airborne forces. General Kurt Student’s Fliegerkorps XI, comprising an air-landing assault regiment of four battalions, three parachute regiments and an air-landing division, was immediately made ready to carry out Operation “Merkur” or “Mercury”. Some problems arose, the air-landing division did not arrive in time and had to be replaced at the last moment by the 5th Mountain Division, but by the 20th May the Luftwaffe had amassed over 700 Junkers Ju 52s and 80 gliders, supported by 650 fighters, bombers and reconnaissance machines.

Operation “Mercury”, the Map of Crete showing the attack zones and the Battle Groups.

High casualties on Crete.

The initial glider and parachute landing on the 20th May suffered high casualties and it was only through a mixture of tough fighting and British miscalculations that airfields at Maleme, Canea and Heraklion were finally secured. British survivors were evacuated 10 days latter; in the process the Luftwaffe imposed heavy casualties on the Royal Navy, sinking 3 cruisers and 6 destroyers in a major air-sea campaign. But the capture of Crete was costly. By the 1st June, the German airborne troops had suffered 5140 casualties out of a committed force of 13,000, while the Luftwaffe had lost 220 aircraft, including the rather sobering total of 119 Junkers Ju 52s, the destruction of which left the transport squadrons sorely depleted. It was a high price to pay, especially so close to Operation “Barbarossa”.

Men of the 5th Mountain Division wait to board the Junkers Ju 52 transports that will carry them to reinforce the parachute and glider landings on Crete, May 1941. The division took part in Operation “Mercury” at short notice, but was relatively easy to adapt to the role of airborne infantry.

German paratroopers climb aboard the Junkers Ju 52 transport that will carry them to Crete, May 1941. The distinctive paratrooper’s helmet is well illustrated, while the Feldwebel (Sergeant) in the centre shows his rank insignia clearly. Paratroopers such as these were all members of the Luftwaffe.

Many of the Luftwaffe units involved in the Balkans had less than three weeks in which to redeploy for Operation “Barbarossa”. They joined formations stretching from the Baltic coast to Hungary and Romania, divided into 3 Luftflotten, each assigned to support an Army Group in the forthcoming assault. In the north, Luftflotte 1, commanded by General Keller, deployed 430 combat aircraft and about 50 transports as part of Generalfeldmarschall Ritter von Leeb’s Army Group North, the main objective of which was the city of Leningrad. As they advanced, they would make contact with Finnish troops attacking out of Karelia, who were backed by 60 Luftwaffe aircraft under Colonel Neilsen.  Luftflotte 2, under the command of General Albert Kesselring, had 980 combat aircraft and 90 transports, reflecting its support for Generalfeldmarschall Fedor von Bock’s Army Group Centre, tasked with an attack through Minsk and Smolensk to threaten Moscow. Finally, Luftflotte 4, still under the command of General Alexander Löhr, had 600 combat aircraft and 90 transports with which to support Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army Group South, aiming for Kiev and Kharkov to secure the Ukraine.

The attack on Russia began early on the 22nd June. As always, the primary Luftwaffe task was the seizure of air superiority. Despite the disparity of numbers when compared to the Soviet Air Force, the operation was a remarkable success. Airfields had been identified by high-altitude reconnaissance machines in the weeks leading up to the campaign, enabling Luftwaffe units on the 22nd June to aim for precise targets. The results were dramatic. An estimated 1800 Soviet aircraft were lost on the first day; by the 29th June the Luftwaffe High Command was claiming, correctly, as it turned out to have destroyed over 4000 enemy machines, all for the loss to themselves of about 150 frontline aircraft. Luftflotte 2 alone claimed 2500 Soviet aircraft in the first week.

A Junkers Ju 52 transport flies in a perfect setting, to Operation “Mercury”.

A DFS-230 on its way to Crete loaded with 8 Fallschirmjäger. The DFS-230 was the first assault glider to be used in operations. In addition to the pilot, it could carry up to 8 riflemen, or an equivalent weight of weapons or supplies.

The cost of Operation “Mercury” were high: German airborne troops suffered 5140 casualties out of a committed force of 13000. Here, the twisted bodies of men killed in a badly landed DFS 230 glider await the burial parties. Losses such as these were difficult to replace.

Overall air superiority was not possible, with a frontline stretching nearly 1600km (1000 miles) from north to south, there were always going to be gaps. Many Soviet pilots lived to fight on with replacement aircraft, but the success of the pre-emptive strikes did mean that Luftwaffe units could shift to support of ground units almost straight away. Aircraft such as the Messerschmitt Bf 110 and Junkers Ju 87, which had proved vulnerable during the “Battle of Britain”, suddenly found that they could fly with impunity, and it was these aircraft, together with Henschel Hs 123s, that became familiar sights over the battlefield. Unlike in earlier campaigns, where the emphasis had been on interdiction, hitting troop concentrations and communications targets to weaken the enemy’s frontline capability, the Luftwaffe soon discovered that it could have a more immediate effect by attacking enemy forces on the frontline itself. In many ways, they had no choice. Army commanders, now fighting their fifth major campaign in 21 months, had grown used to the fruits of air superiority and their demands for close support were legion, while many of the traditional “indirect” targets, such as roads and railways, were less vital in the relatively primitive society of the Soviet Union. By late June, about 60 per cent of all air sorties were being flown in “direct” support of army groups.

General Hans Jurgen Stumpff (saluting), the commander of Luftflotte 5 in Norway, inspects Luftwaffe personnel who are about to be deployed to the East for Operation “Barbarossa”, June 1941. The men can have no idea of the nightmare that will ensue.

General Alexander Löhr (centre), the commander of Luftflotte 4 in support of von Rundstedt’s Army Group South during Operation “Barbarossa”, briefs General Hans Jeschonnek (right), Luftwaffe Chief of Staff. The problems with the Luftwaffe led to the suicide of Jeschonnek in August 1943.

Air-to-ground sorties.

As with the pre-emptive strikes, the results were dramatic. In the north, where von Leeb’s men advanced swiftly through the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, to approach Leningrad, the emphasis was more on transport then ground strafing. Both Junkers Ju 52s and Junkers Ju 88s were used to airlift fuel to the armoured spearheads, but elsewhere it was the Soviet Army that received the full brunt of Luftwaffe attacks. In Army Group Centre, Guderian’s Panzer Group 2 depended on Junkers Ju 87s to dive-bomb them across the River Bug and into Brest-Litovsk. Afterwards, Luftwaffe aircraft of all descriptions were used to ensure that the massive encirclements around Minsk and Smolensk did not develop “leaks”, bombing Soviet units that tried to escape and smashing attempted counterattacks before they could materialise. Similar actions in the south enabled von Rundstedt to thrust deep into the Ukraine, culminating in September in the giant encirclement around Kiev, aided by Guderian’s panzers diverted south from Smolensk. The Kiev “pocket” contained more than 665,000 Soviet men at arms, as well as 884 tanks and nearly 4000 artillery pieces, all of them captured

Fitters work on specialised equipment in the nose section of a Dornier Do 17P long-range reconnaissance aircraft before its flight over the Soviet Union in 1941. The Do 17P was designed specifically for such tasks: during Operation “Barbarossa”, enemy airfields and supply dumps were particular priorities.

The men in black: Ground crew load shells into the nose armament of a Messerschmitt Bf 110.

Armed and ready a lone Messerschmitt Bf 110 long-range day fighter goes hunting for prey.

Meanwhile, the Luftwaffe had been carrying out interdiction missions, and though these were not as frequent as in previous campaigns, they did have an impact. Junkers Ju 88s, Heinkel He 111s and Dornier Do 17s ranged far and wide behind Soviet lines, seeking out rail targets, bridges and supply depots. Hitler had insisted that they did not try to destroy Soviet industry, he realised that it was dispersed and thus hard to find, and was fully aware that the diversion of effort involved would weaken airpower elsewhere. But the record of success against other targets was high, Fligerkorps II, part of Kesselring’s Luftflotte 2, for example, destroyed 356 trains, 14 bridges and in calculable troop concentrations between the 22nd June and the 9th September 1941, and its achievement was by no means unique. As early as the 9th July, it was reported that traffic to the west of the River Dnieper was at a standstill, paralysing any Soviet attempts to recover the initiative.

In the light of these successes, the enormous advances made by German forces between June and October 1941, came as no surprise.  In the north, Leningrad was effectively besieged by late September; in the centre, Smolensk was captured before Hitler made the decision to divert Guderian south to effect the encirclement of Kiev; in the south, after Kiev von Rundstedt advanced to seize Kharkov and Rostov, which was held only temporarily. It seemed as if Operation “Barbarossa” would work.

A Junkers Ju 88’ of the 2nd Stuks Wing attack Bridges in the Wolchowo area early in Operation “Barbarossa”.

A bomb strike on the bridge is signalled by a plum of water.

Hitting Soviet supply lines was a major task of the Stukas during Operation “Barbarossa”. Here, a bomb explodes close to a pontoon bridge across the River Dnieper, the main bridge having been destroyed already. Note the Stuka peeling away in the top right-hand corner of the photograph.

But things started to go wrong in early October, just as Guderian and the other elements of Army Group Centre were advancing on Moscow. Massive encirclements were carried out around Vyazma and Bryansk, yielding a further 673,000 prisoners, but by the end of the month the advance had foundered in a sea of mud as the autumn rains began. Panzers suddenly found that they could not move, and Luftwaffe squadrons fared no better, having to cope with airstrips that simply disappeared overnight. A sharp frost hardened the ground in early November, sufficient to allow the panzers to advance to within 30km (19 miles) of Moscow, but as the temperature dropped to as low as minus 22 degrees Fahrenheit and snow storms swept the front, a whole series of new problems emerged. Luftwaffe ground crews found that they could not start aircraft engines, oil simply froze solid, and even when sorties could be flown, recognition of ground targets often proved impossible. By early December, even Hitler had to admit that further progress was unlikely. The campaign was closed down for the winter, just as the Soviets, more used to the conditions, mounted furious counterattacks around their capital. The Luftwaffe could do little to prevent a German withdrawal. It would be a long, hard winter.

A Junkers Ju 87 Stuka is photographed in the aftermath of a dive-bombing attack – note the shackle for the centre-line bomb hanging free. Although the Stuka was dangerously slow and vulnerable when it encountered enemy fighters, it was still a formidable weapon against unprotected ground forces. It would continue in use until 1945.

The destruction of Soviet railways was another way of cutting supplies to frontline units. This photograph shows the aftermath of a Luftwaffe bombing raid on a railway-yard in the Ukraine in 1941: storage sheds have been burnt out and vehicles wrecked. There is little left.

German troops advance past the burning outskirts of a Soviet industrial complex, summer 1941. Although the fires in the background could have been started by Luftwaffe bombers, it is equally possible that they were the work of retreating Soviet forces, intent on a policy of “scorched earth”.

Waffen-SS troops cross a Russian river, summer 1941. The destroyed bridge has interrupted enemy resupply, but it is now delaying the German advance.

A Fieseler Fi 156 Storch light observation aircraft uses a road as its landing strip, Ukraine, summer 1941.

Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe could look back on the 5 months of campaigning in the Soviet Union with some pride. Fielding an average of only 1400 serviceable combat aircraft at any time, Luftwaffe units had managed to fly over 180,000 sorties under a wide range of geographic and climatic conditions. In the process, they had destroyed at least 15,500 enemy aircraft, 3200 tanks, 57,600 vehicles, 2450 artillery pieces and 1200 locomotives, while making a major contribution to the advance of ground formations. Nor were the costs excessively high. Altogether, 2093 aircraft were lost, a fair proportion of these too accidents rather than through enemy action, and these losses could be replaced. Indeed, on the 27th December 1941, the Luftwaffe as a whole could still field 1332 level-bombers, 1472 fighters and 326 dive-bombers. This was a formidable force by any reckoning. However, one disconcerting aspect of the Russian campaign from the Luftwaffe’s perspective was the high losses suffered by German air units during ground-attack missions, when Russian troops tended to stand firm and open fire with everything to hand, rather than scatter and seek any available cover, aircraft were invariably always hit.

A Junkers Ju 88A runs up its engines on an airfield in the Soviet Union, 1941. With a maximum speed of 467kmph (292mph) and operational range of more than 1600km (1000 miles), the Ju 88 was a useful medium bomber, but its bomb carrying capacity was limited to 1818kg (4000lb).

A Dornier Do 17S high-speed reconnaissance aircraft. The Do 17S was powered by two Daimler-Benz DB 600G liquid-cooled engines, but did not enter squadron service. The engines were diverted to the fighter programme, leaving subsequent Do 17s to make do with BMW-Bramo 323 radials.

Mechanics crank the engine of a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka.

A mechanic works on a Messerschmitt Bf 109G/R2 of Jagdgeschwader 3 “Udet”, used on the Eastern Front for ground support tasks. The “bump” on the forward fuselage houses the breech-block of a 13mm Maschinengewehr (MG) 131.

But the fact that Operation “Barbarossa” had not led to the promised collapse of the Soviet Union, necessitating new campaigns in 1942, was worrying, particularly when operations were still continuing in the West and the Mediterranean. By the end of 1941, pilots and crews were tired, the introduction of new aircraft designs had been delayed and the Luftwaffe was in desperate need of time in which to rest and refit. That time was not available.

Junkers Ju 88As flying towards their allotted targets, Eastern Front 1941. During the early stages of Operation “Barbarossa” the Luftwaffe encountered little aerial opposition.

Ground crew manhandle a Junkers Ju 88A on an airfield in the Soviet Union that is beginning to show the effects of the autumn rains, 1941.

A fully laden Junkers Ju 87 Stuka taxis out for take-off, Eastern Front, winter 1941 – 42. The frozen ground could be exploited to create airstrips, but the low temperatures of a Russian winter played havoc in other ways, not least when engine oil froze. Special heat generators had to be used to keep engines operable, but at least take-off and landings were relatively trouble-free.

Smoke pouring from its port engine, a Henschel Hs 129 makes its final dive. The He 129 was a purpose-built ground-attack and anti-tank aircraft, heavily armed and armoured.

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