Chapter 8 – The Faltering Grip – Russia 1942 - 43.

During the Stalingrad and Kursk battles the Luftwaffe suffered horrendous losses in both aircraft and crews. New aircraft were slow coming into service, and the Soviet Air Force was growing in strength and effectiveness.

A pre-production Heinkel He 177A Greif (Griffin) heavy bomber. The He 177 was a big disappointment to the Luftwaffe, taking from 1939 until late 1942 to enter squadron service.

The winter of 1941-42 on the Eastern Front was exceptionally harsh and taxing for those German soldiers and airmen called upon to endure it. Not only were they physical conditions worse than anyone had expected, with temperatures plummeting to as low as minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit which invariably felt colder because of the icy winds blowing from Siberia. But the Soviets soon proved that they could adapt much more readily to the conditions than their enemies. The counterattacks around Moscow, which began in early December 1941, may have led to heavy Soviet casualties, but individual Russian soldiers did not seem to be affected by the weather.

Junkers Ju 88A medium bombers on a frozen airfield on the Eastern Front, winter 1942 – 43. The ground has been swept to produce a runway, but the cold has necessitated covering the engines with tarpaulins. The machine gun mounted to the rear of the cockpit implies that an operation is imminent.

With temperatures so low on the Eastern Front that engine oil could freeze solid, methods had to be found to keep aircraft flying. Here, heaters have been mounted around the engines of a Ju 88A, while all Perspex surfaces have been covered.

The desolation of a winter airfield on the Eastern Front is clearly indicated in this photograph of Junkers Ju 87D Stukas. The snowdrifts and poor visibility make operational flying impossible; all that can be done is to protect the aircraft from the elements and wait for better times.

A Junkers Ju 52 transport flies over the snowy wastes of the Russian Steppes, winter 1942 – 43. It was aircraft such as this that tried in vain to keep the encircled soldiers at Stalingrad supplied with essentials. However, the Ju 52 was too slow and vulnerable to survive in a hostile air environment.

It took until February 1942 for the attacks to be contained. By then, two German strongholds had been surrounded, one at Demyansk and the other at Kholm, both to the northwest of Moscow. Goring was given the task of keeping the isolated pockets resupplied by air and, against the odds, he succeeded. At Demyansk, about 100,000 men belonging to the Sixteenth Army had been cut off. Starting on the 20th February, Junkers Ju 52s drawn from all theatres, which included training establishments in Germany, flew as many missions as they could to deliver supplies sufficient to keep the soldiers alive. Despite having to fly 160km (100 miles) over Soviet-occupied territory, the fleet of nearly 600 Junkers Ju 52s managed to deliver about 305 tonnes (300 tons) of supplies a day, meeting little opposition from an enemy air force that was still reeling from the attacks of the previous June. The siege was lifted by ground troops on the 18th May, at about the same time as the much smaller Kholm pocket was also relieved. It contained about 3500 men and supplies were air-dropped or, in an emergency, delivered by one-way glider missions using DFS 230s and Gotha Go 242s. In both cases, Demyansk and Kholm, Luftwaffe aircrews had carried out a dangerous and difficult task, but their success was soon to return to haunt them. The loss of nearly 300 Junkers Ju 52s meant that multi-engine pilot training had to be curtailed; more crucially, Hitler now believed that surrounded armies could be kept supplied by air, regardless of the circumstances.

Cholm Shield:

On the 1st July 1942 this shield was introduced and consists of a white metal shield with flat top and pointed bottom.  The central design is an open winged eagle, clutching an Iron Cross in its talons, the centre of which has a disproportionately large swastika relative to the size of the Iron Cross.  Beneath this is the word, ‘CHOLM’ and then the date of award, ‘1942’.  Polizei Rottwachtmeister Schlimmer, an NCO of the Police Reserve Battalion who had been encouraged by Generalmajor Scherer, drew up a design for this arm shield which consisted of a shield slightly longer than the adopted form, with the eagle’s head facing to the right.  This design was submitted for approval and only after minor changes by Professor Klein of München, was approved by Hitler for production.  This measured 65 mm high by 40 mm wide.

It was to reward the garrison that had held the defensive pocket that had been created at Cholm, a small town on the Lovat river in the Kalinin region of Russia.  During the winter of 1941/1942 the Soviet Union launched a counter offensive that led the Russian 11th Army to trap several thousand Germans at this point.  These included army grenadiers, artillery, mounted units and Gebirgsjäger, a police reserve battalion and elements of a naval transport unit.  The commander was Majorgeneral Scherer.  Hitler made one of his famous fortress orders, stating that the pocket be defended to the last man, no retreat would be countenanced.  Despite cold, hunger and typhus, the garrison held out against overwhelming odds.  This Russian fortress town of Cholm was held between the 21st January and the 5th May 1942.  The Soviets launched over one hundred mass infantry attacks and forty-two tank assaults against the small, beleaguered German forces but they stood their ground until relieved.

To reward this achievement, the oak leaves to the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross were bestowed upon Majorgeneral Scherer and it was he who made the awards to 5,500 assorted men from various units which comprised the defenders of the pocket.  The awards were bestowed for the periods the 21st January 1942 to the 5th May 1942.  The last award period for this shield was 1st April 1943.

There was an improvised air strip measuring 70 x 25 metres which the Luftwaffe used for bringing in supplies.  This practise had to be reorganised because of the dangerous nature of these flights and freight gliders and parachute drops were later employed.  For the crews that actually landed on the air strip, the award of the shield was rendered. It was worn on the arm, on a cloth backing piece of the colour of the branch of service.

An Arado Ar 196A reconnaissance and coastal patrol floatplane prepares for take-off, 1942. This particular aircraft probably belongs to See Aufklärungsgruppe 131, based in Norway. Its task is to locate Allied convoys.

Demjansk Shield:

On the 25th April 1943 this shield was introduced, produced in silver washed zinc.  It comprises a shield with a pointed bottom and undulating sides.  On the top is a box with the name in raised capitals, ‘DEMJANSK’.  Above the box, at either edge, are two pill boxes with a gun port in each.  Between these pill boxes is an eagle with downspread wings, clutching a swastika surrounded by a wreath in its talons.  In the main body of the shield, at the top, is a single engined observation plane, with a single bladed propeller, which is straight across the shield in line with the wings of the plane. Surmounting this aeroplane are large, crossed, double-edged swords, with down swept cross guards.  Beneath these is the date, ‘1942’.  The badge was placed on a backing cloth of the colour of the service to which the recipient belonged.

This shield was to commemorate the defence of the town of Demjansk by the Second Army Corps who were under the command of General Graf Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt and were surrounded by Soviet units.  Demjansk is situated some hundred miles north-east of Cholm, between Cholm and Lake Illmen on the northern sector of the Russian front.  Amongst the German units were 12, 30, 32, 223 and 290 Infantry Divisions.  Also serving with this corps were several non-army units, including personnel of the Reichsarbeitsdienst, organisation Todt, police, Russian auxiliary volunteers and the third SS Panzer division, ‘Totenkopf’.  They broke out of the encirclement on the 21st April but fighting in the area continued until mid October that year.  Stiff resistance from the German units, especially Battle Groups Eicke and Simon of the SS Totenkopf Division, committed three entire Soviet armies which the Soviet high command desperately needed elsewhere.  SS- Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Theodor Eicke was awarded the Oak Leaves to the Knights Cross of the Iron Cross, becoming the 88th recipient, on the 20th April 1942 for continued heavy fighting on the Russian front, especially in the area of Demjansk.

The defence of Demjansk tied down eighteen Russian divisions for over fourteen months, for the loss of 3,335 German personnel killed and in excess of 10,000 being wounded from a garrison strength of 100,000 men.  General Walter Graf Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt returned from the Demjansk pocket a broken man and died on the 9th May 1943. The defenders were supplied by air and the Luftwaffe crews who were engaged in these operations were eligible for the award. Each recipient was entitled to up to five examples of the shield.  In the case of posthumous awards, one example of the shield, together with the permission certificate, was sent to the next of kin.  Regulations stated that this was the responsibility of the fallen soldier’s company commander.

The Criteria for the Award were;

Ground Forces

1) To have served for 60 days in the garrison.

2) To have been wounded whilst serving there.

3) To have gained a bravery award whilst serving in the garrison.

Luftwaffe Personnel

1) To have flown 50 combat missions over the garrison and surrounding area.

2) To have flown and landed in the garrison 50 supply missions.

Company commanders were responsible for submitting lists of those in their units who qualified for the award by the 31st December 1943.  Awards ceased on the 1st April 1944.  Approximately 100,000 awards of this shield were made and these were rendered by the garrison commander, General der Infanterie Graf Brockdorff-Ahlefeldt.

The Luftwaffe in the Crimea.

Once the spring thaw began in April 1942, German planners turned their attention to the next campaign. Hitler had already decided that the priority lay in the southern sector of the Eastern Front, calling for an advance to the River Don to shield the flank of a major attack into the oil-rich Caucasus, to be codenamed Operation “Blau”, or “Blue”. However, before that could be carried out, the front as a whole needed to be stabilised. In May, attacks were carried out in the north to eliminate Soviet-held salient, while farther south the Crimea had to be cleared. The Luftwaffe was called upon to support all such operations, devoting more and more of its effort to close support rather than its pre-war preference for longer-range interdiction. Air superiority could never be guaranteed, but by concentrating resources in key sectors, the Luftwaffe could still overwhelm the enemy. This was shown to good effect in the Crimea, where Generalmajor Wolfram Frhr von Richthofen’s Fliegerkorps VIII made a decisive contribution to the seizure of Sevastopol, dropping more than 20,321 tonnes (20,000 tons) of bombs and destroying 140 Soviet aircraft between the 2nd June and the 4th July.

By then Operation “Blau”, or “Blue” had begun, but the Luftwaffe was finding it increasingly difficult to provide the aircraft and aircrews needed, particularly now that campaigns were being fought in so many different locations. Indeed, one more unforeseen duty was the Luftwaffe’s contribution to the naval war, as units were transferred to Norway to carry out attacks on Allied convoys shipping supplies to Murmansk and Archangel. By June 1942, over 100 Junkers Ju 88s and 40 torpedo-carrying Heinkel He 111s, plus Junkers Ju 87s, Focke-Wulf Fw 200s and Blohm und Voss Bv 138 seaplanes, had been devoted to the task of interdicting the convoys, with some success. In May 1942 Convoy PQ16 was badly hit, losing 7 merchant ships; two months, later the ill-fated Convoy PQ17 lost 24 out of its total of 34 merchantmen, 7 of them to air attack alone. It was a good return on the Luftwaffe’s investment, but it meant that even fewer aircraft were available on the Eastern Front.

A Dornier Do 24T air-sea rescue and transport flying boat is brought ashore for maintenance in a harbour in northern Norway, 1942. They also tracked Allied convoys.

A Heinkel He 111 H-6 is loaded with practice LT F5b torpedoes, the aim being to create a medium bomber that could be used against Allied convoys in the Arctic.

A Messerschmitt Bf 110 surveys a convoy ready for an attack: this was the Luftwaffe’s contribution to the naval war. Units were transferred to Norway to carry out attacks on Allied convoys shipping supplies to Murmansk and Archangel.

The drive to Stalingrad.

When Operation “Blau”, or “Blue”, began on the 28th June, therefore, Göring’s units were stretched. Squadrons were stripped from elsewhere on the Eastern Front to create a respectable force of nearly 1600 bombers and fighters, but there were few reserves if any, and many of the crews, fresh from Demyansk, Kholm pockets and the Crimea, were desperately tired. Even so, the initial German attacks enjoyed success, not least because the Luftwaffe was constantly on call to ground forces which now expected close support at the drop of a hat. The roles carried out were the familiar ones of creating and maintaining air superiority over the battlefield, enabling bombers and dive-bombers to locate and hit enemy force targets. By the 6th July, Army Group South had crossed the Don opposite Voronezh, encircling and destroying most of the Soviet forces to the west of the river. The Germans should then have halted and transferred the bulk of their effort to take Rostov and push into the Caucasus. Unfortunately, Hitler intervened, splitting Army Group South into Army Group A and B, with the former moving into the Caucasus while the later advanced south along the Don to mask a perceived Soviet build-up around Stalingrad.

“The Blond Knight of Germany”, Luftwaffe fighter “ace” Major Erich Hartmann, photographed in 1944 after the award of the Oakleaves to his Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. When the Second World War ended Erich Hartman was only 23 years old. Erich “Bubi” (Boy) Hartman became an “ace” among “aces”, being officially credited with 352 enemy aircraft, downed in a total of over 800 dogfights in more than 1400 combat missions on both the Eastern and Western Fronts and only being shot down twice. No fighter pilot ever has been able to excel the number of victories accomplished by “Bubi” Hartman. His accomplishments are all the more meaningful when one considers that they were achieved in a span of slightly more than two years. In October 1942 he joined Jagdgeschwader 52, and in the following month scored his first “kill”. Within a year he scored a total of 200 victories. During a four-week period in the summer of 1944 he downed 78 aircraft of which 8 were shot down on the 23rd August and another 11 the following day, bringing him to a total of 301 victories at that point. During the early period of his fighting career, Hartmann had his individual score of air victories recorded on the rudder of his aircraft. In addition, representations of the Knight’s Cross and its progressive grades were shown on his award and subsequent victories added. When his score reached 300, for example, stylised Oakleaves and Swords were over painted with the number 300. Hartmann was a genius in the air, a fighter pilot who could judge deflection and score a “kill” with only a few rounds of ammunition. He attributed his skill as a fighter pilot to his ability to fly close to his prey before firing his guns. In February 1945 he was assigned as Commander, 1st Group, Jagdgeschwader 52. He was only 22 years old, and a Major. He scored all of his victories while flying a Messerschmitt Bf 109 with Jagdgeschwader 52, he scored his last victory, number 352, on the last day of the war while engaged in combat over Brünn, Germany.

Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross: Awarded on the 29th October 1943 for scoring 148 victories while a Leutnant serving with Jagdgeschwader 52 on the Eastern Front.

Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves: Awarded on the 2nd March 1944 for accumulating 200 victories on the Eastern Front. He was the 420th Recipient.

Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves and Swords: Awarded on the 4th July 1944 for downing 239 aircraft. He was the 75th Recipient.

Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves, Swords and Diamonds: Awarded on the 25th August 1944 for downing 301 aircraft. He was the 18th recipient.

The situation was made worse on the 30th July when Hitler intervened once again, this time to insist that Army Group B, spearheaded by the Fourth Panzer and Sixth Armies, had to capture rather than merely mask the city of Stalingrad. Stalingrad was now the focal point of the summer offensive of 1942. It was a city of 500,000 people, the third largest industrial city in the Soviet Union. It produced more than 25 per cent of the Red Army’s tanks and armoured vehicles, as well as significant quantise of small arms and ammunition. The City of Stalin was constructed along the western bank of the River Volga. It was twelve miles long but only two and a half miles wide. It was a fatal decision: instead of a concerted attack with a single operational objective, the Germans were now split, trying to carry out two diverging advances which stretched available resources to breaking point.

As the Soviets recover from the defeats of 1941 and begin to fight for control of the sky, Luftwaffe aircraft have to be protected while on the ground. Here, a Messerschmitt Bf 109F with clipped wings is parked within an earthen revetment. The fuselage chevron is the marking for a Gruppen-Adjutant.

The Luftwaffe stretched to the limits

This was keenly felt by the Luftwaffe, the local strength of which had declined to little than 1300 aircraft by mid-July. The crews of these machines were now expected to maintain the existing levels of close support over a frontline that was over 4320km (2700 miles) long, while also satisfying Hitler’s additional call for raids on Soviet supply lines as far away as Astrakhan on the Caspian Sea. Some success was achieved, by the 9th August elements of Army Group A, with Luftwaffe support, had pushed nearly 320km (200 miles) into the Caucasus, while 2 weeks later, also with air backing, General Friedrich Paulus’ 6th Army reached the River Volga to the north of Stalingrad. But it could not last. As aircraft were lost to enemy action and, more often at this stage, to operational accident, they were not replaced quickly enough, while lack of maintenance facilities and airbases meant that quite simple repairs were taking far too long to effect. In addition, Luftwaffe crews were being asked to do too much, often flying four or five missions a day against an enemy who was gradually recovering air strength both from his own industrial output, from factories safely ensconced beyond the Ural Mountains, together with supplies of aircraft, crated up in some cases from Anglo-American aid convoys. The balance was perceivably beginning to shift.

Oberleutnant Herman Graf.  He was born in Engen in 1919 to parents of a poor, blacksmith background. Even though his interest in flying started as early as 1933 when he took up gliding, he did not enter the Luftwaffe until after the outbreak of the Second World War at the age of 26. After successful completion of his pilot training, he was commissioned. He did not score his first victory until the 4th August 1941 on the Western Front. After his transfer to Jagdgeschwader 52 on the Eastern Front, his success as a fighter pilot began to rocket. Some of his more notable successes were; 47 victories in 17 days, 7 victories in a single day the 14th May 1941, 75 victories in four weeks. He was the first Luftwaffe pilot to achieve 200 victories. He ended the war with a total of 212 victories of which 202 were on the Eastern Front. Towards the war’s end, he succeeded in downing a total of 10 heavy bombers over Germany. Graf won four of Germany’s highest decorations in but an eight-month period.

Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross: Awarded on the 24th January 1942 for scoring 42 victories while a Leutnant serving on the Eastern Front.

Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves: Awarded on the 17th May 1942 for accumulating 104 victories while a Leutnant serving on the Eastern Front. He was the 93rd Recipient.

Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves and Swords: Awarded on the 19th May 1942 for downing 106 aircraft while a Leutnant serving on the Eastern Front. He was the 11th Recipient.

Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves, Swords and Diamonds: Awarded on the 16th September 1942 for downing 172 aircraft while an Oberleutnant serving on the Eastern Front, for air combat in the vicinity of Stalingrad.  He was the 5th Recipient.

Combined Pilots and Observers Badge in Gold with Diamonds.

A pair of Messerschmitt Bf 109F fighters flying over the Eastern Front, summer 1943. By this stage, the Messerschmitt Bf 109F is beginning to show its age; although still a capable fighter, particularly in the hands of men like Hartmann, it is now encountering superior Soviet machines. After 1942, the dominant version of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 was the Messerschmitt Bf 109G, which made up over 70 per cent of the total received by the Luftwaffe. Though heavily armed and equipped, the “Gustav” was not as good a machine as the lighter E and F versions.

A Heinkel He 111H, possibly of Kampfgeschwader 4 “General Wever”, is heavily camouflaged against surprise Soviet air attack, 1943. Once air superiority could no longer be guaranteed, aircraft had to be dispersed and carefully disguised while on the ground. It curtailed operational freedom and response times.

Attempts to relieve Stalingrad.

The siege of Stalingrad began on the 2nd September when the Soviet General Chuikov withdrew into the city with his 62nd Army, General  Shumilov’s 64th Army, which was also under Chuikov’s command, withdrew to positions on his adjacent southern flank, opposing the northern wing of 4th Panzer Army.

Weichs felt it was essential to attack immediately, before the Soviets had time to build up their defences, but Paulus was tied down for several days by hastily launched counterattacks from the Stalingrad Front on his northern flank. Under such circumstances Paulus hesitated to launch an assault on the city. This hesitation cost him thousands of casualties later on, and perhaps the battle itself, for Stalin used the respite to pour thousands of reinforcements into his city.

This was made apparent as the Battle for Stalingrad developed. As Paulus tried to take the city in September 1942, his forces were held, despite herculean efforts by available Luftwaffe squadrons.

The battle deteriorated into a series of local actions against individual positions under the most savage conditions. Few prisoners were taken by either side. The German infantry called it “Rattenkrieg”: a “War of the Rats”. The battle degenerated into a nightmare of urban fighting, to which the Luftwaffe could contribute little: enemy positions were just too close to German lines and too much bombing merely produced additional rubble for Soviet infantrymen to hide in.

Hitler staked his reputation on taking Stalingrad. “You may rest assured,” he said in a broadcast to the German people, “that nobody will ever drive us out of Stalingrad.” From that moment on, there would be no retreating from the Volga.

A Junkers Ju 52 hospital transport is off-loaded, summer 1943. Casualty evacuation was a major task for the Ju 52s, particularly on the Eastern Front where vast distances made any alternative process too lengthy for the wounded.

Lightly wounded soldiers wait to board a Junkers Ju 52 hospital transport, Eastern Front, summer 1943. Red Cross markings are an attempt to gain immunity from attack, though there are no guarantees that the Soviets will honour such niceties.

By October, Paulus was firmly fixed in place; a month later the Soviets struck his weakly held flanks and, in a brilliant manoeuvre, surrounded him in the city. Nearly 300,000 German troops occupied a pocket that measured 48 square kilometres (30 square miles), just as the winter weather closed in. Hitler refused to sanction a breakout, even when a German counterattack from outside the city got to within 56km (35 miles) of the trapped men. Instead, remembering the successes at Demyansk and Kholm, he ordered Göring to keep Paulus supplied by air.  The Reichsmarschall des Grossdeutschen Reiches Hermann Göring, the head of the Luftwaffe, assured Hitler that his air force could and would supply the trapped Sixth Army at Stalingrad.

Stalingrad – the impossible task.

It was an impossible task. Paulus’ army required an estimated 762 tonnes (750 tons) of supplies a day if it was to survive as a fighting force, and even when this figure was reduced to 508 tonnes (500 tons) just to ensure bare survival, this also took into account the slaughter of all the horses and their carcasses to be issued as part of the meat ration, it was way beyond Luftwaffe capability to satisfy. A Junkers Ju 52 could carry about two tonnes (two tons) of supplies in a single mission, but the apparently simple arithmetic of providing between 375 and 250 aircraft did not work in practical terms. But the Reichsmarschall des Grossdeutschen Reiches, needed to pleasure the Führer, his personal influence and standing with him was flagging.

A Heinkel He 111H of Kampfgeschwader 53 “Legion Condor” waits to be bomb-up, Leningrad Front, spring 1943. The aircraft is parked on a specially created packed-earth and tree log standing, probably to avoid mud.

The scourge of Europe for the first half of the Second World War, Heinkel He 111 bombers in formation on its way to bombard Stalingrad.

The city of Stalingrad. Hit by bomber wave after bomber wave. But the ruined city did not give in. The German infantry called it Rattenkrieg: a “War of the Rats”. The battle degenerated into a nightmare of urban fighting, to which the Luftwaffe could contribute little.

Generalmajor Wolfram Frhr von Richthofen, Commander of 4th Air Fleet, was already highly critical of Paulus’s handling of the Stalingrad battle. He also reported a lag in 6th Army’s previously exemplary morale. He even called on General Kurt Zeitzler, the Chief of the General Staff of the Army, to replace Paulus with a more energetic leader. Nothing was done however.

Most transport units on the Eastern Front found it difficult to maintain more than 35 per cent operational capability in the winter months. Thus, although Fliegerkorps VIII, given the unenviable task of coordinating the airlift, initially fielded 320 Junkers Ju 52s, so few of them were fully serviceable that Generalmajor Wolfram Frhr von Richthofen had to use converted Heinkel He 111s and any other large aircraft that happened to be available. These included Focke-Wulf Fw 200s, Junkers Ju 90 and Junkers Ju 290s and Heinkel He 177s, few of which proved suitable for transport tasks and none of which survived the winter conditions.

The Stalingrad airlift failed, just as Richthofen and the other experts said it would. The 4th Air Fleet, without enough aircraft and hampered by bad weather and the Soviet Air Force could deliver an average of only 70 tons of supplies a day as of the 11th December. Sixth Army demanded 750 tons a day, and needed a minimum of 300 tones. On that day Paulus and Schmidt again met with Fiebig. The troops, they said, had been on one-third rations since the 23rd November. They would have to issue their last food reserves on the 16th December and would be out of food by the 18th January 1942. Almost all the horses had been eaten. The soldiers’ general physical condition had deteriorated to a dangerous level. Of the 270,000 men in the pocket, the effective infantry strength was down to 40,000. Soviet troops in the siege line were walking about freely because the German soldiers would not shoot at them; they were saving what little ammunition they had left for beating off attacks. As of the 7th December 6th Army was living on one loaf of stale bread for every five men. Paulus reported more than 12,000 unattended wounded, many of whom were lying in the streets. Shortly after, Paulus ordered that the wounded no longer be fed. Only those who could still fight would be given food. He signalled Hitler: “Your orders are being executed. Long live Germany”.

Moreover, as the airlift progressed, Soviet ground attacks gradually pushed German airbases farther away from Stalingrad, so that by early January 1943 some of the transports were having to fly round trips of nearly 800kn (500 miles) in appalling conditions against a rapidly recovering Soviet Air Force. On a good day, the Luftwaffe managed to deliver 304 tonnes (300 tons), but the average was nearer 203 tonnes (200 tons), and on some days nothing at all could be carried. It was clearly not enough.

General der Flakartillerie Wolfgang Pickert. He was born in Posen on the 3rd February 1897. Became a field artillery officer and s served on the eastern and western fronts in the First World War. A career army officer he transferred in 1935 to the flak artillery arm of the Luftwaffe and became inspector of flak forces, Reich Air Ministry, 1937, until 1938 when he was made chief of staff of the XIII Air District Command.  He was commander of the Rhine-Ruhr Air Defence District, 1939 to April 1940 and chief of staff, I Flak Corps in France.  Until May 1942 he was chief of staff, Air Fleet Reich. In June 1942 he was commander of the 9th Flak Division, in France. Pickert led the 9th Flak Division in Russia, May 1942 to 1944, His division was positioned in the southern portion of the Eastern Front, and fought its way towards Stalingrad where it was encircled and decimated. Pickert was flown out, however, and reformed the division which later fought in the Crimea and the Kuban area. On the 28th May 1944 he was made commanding general of the IIIrd Flak Corps, and from 20th March 1945 was the general of flak attached to the air ministry in Berlin.

Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross: Awarded on the 11th January 1943 as Generalmajor and commander of 9. Flak-Division (mot.)

Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves: Awarded on the 5th June 1944 as Generalmajor and commander of III. Flak-Korps . He was the 489th Recipient.

The Knight’s Cross award Document given to General der Flakartillerie Wolfgang Pickert. Awarded on the 11th January 1943 as Generalmajor and commander of 9. Flak-Division (mot.) for the defence of Stalingrad. The document was housed in a red leather binder with gold national emblem embossed in the centre.

A supreme effort wasted.

Meanwhile, Paulus’ men suffered from constant Soviet attacks in addition to the cold and starvation. On the 16th January they lost control of the airfield at Pitomnik inside the pocket, leaving the much smaller strip at Gumrak as the only location where transports could land. When that too fell on the 21st January, there was little the Luftwaffe could continue to do. Some supplies were parachuted in, but the pocket was by then so small that most of the canisters fell behind Soviet lines. By the 25th January there were 20,000 unattended wounded in the streets.

On the 30th January Paulus signalled Hitler: “on the anniversary of your assumption of power, the 6th Army sends greetings to the Führer. The swastika still flutters over Stalingrad. May our struggle stand as an example to generations yet unborn never to surrender, no matter how desperate the odds. Then Germany will be victorious. Heil, Mein Führer!” That night, on General Zeitler’s recommendation, but not without misgivings, Hitler promoted Paulus to Generalfeldmarschall and sent him a message reminding him that no German Generalfeldmarschall had ever been captured. Hitler was clearly putting a pistol in Paulus’s hands, inviting him to commit suicide.

At 06:15 hours on the morning of the 31st January the radio operator at 6th Army Headquarters signalled that there were Russians outside the door. The last transmission came at 07:15 hours announcing to OKH that they were destroying their radio equipment. Shortly thereafter, Field Marshal Paulus surrendered the remnants of his army; isolated groups held out for a further 48 hours. Hitler never forgave him for this, commenting that he had done an about-face on the threshold of history.

The airlift therefore lasted officially for 70 days, from the 25th November 1942 until the 2nd February 1943, during which 3500 transport sorties had managed to deliver just over 6604 tonnes (6500 tons) of supplies and evacuate about 34,000 wounded. The cost to the Luftwaffe was crippling. Fliegerkorps VIII lost a total of 488 aircraft, of which 266 were Ju 52s.

Numbers begin to tell.

Even before von Paulus surrendered, Soviet armies were taking the opportunity to advance, pushing other German forces back beyond Kharkov. Counterattacks managed to stabilise the situation for the Germans by March, but for the first time Luftwaffe support could not be guaranteed. The losses of the winter had not been fully replaced and conditions on the ground were so bad, particularly during the spring thaw, that airbases were incapable of sustaining the squadrons. More worryingly, the Soviet Air Force was beginning to impose itself on the battlefield, fielding new and much more effective aircraft in potentially overwhelming numbers. One of the results was that the Junkers Ju 87, upon which so much of the close air support depended, became extremely vulnerable. As had been shown during the “Battle of Britain”, a slow-moving, obsolescent dive-bomber could not survive for long in an air environment dominated by fast interceptor fighters. This was not helped by the fact that the replacement for the Stuka had been delayed. The Henschel Hs 129B had still to be proved in battle, just at a time when the Soviets were perfecting their ground-attack techniques using the purpose-built Ilyushin IL-2 Shturmovik.

An Arado Ar 232B-0 four-engined general purpose transport aircraft, 1943. Only four such aircraft were built, seeing service in the Ergänzungs-Transport Gruppe (Replacement Transport Wing) in Russia in 1943-44, where they seem to have been involved in clandestine operations.

The Luftwaffe at Kursk.

The gradually shifting balance of air capability on the Eastern Front was shown during Operation Zitadelle “Citadel”, when Hitler ordered two of his armies, the 9th and 4th Panzer, to attack both flanks of a salient jutting into German lines around the city of Kursk. If this had been done when the salient first materialised in March 1943, the chances of victory might have been good, but the Germans were in no condition to carry out a hasty offensive. Ground forces needed to be re-equipped, not least with the new Panther and Tiger tanks, and the Luftwaffe was crying out for time to refit. The offensive did not begin, therefore, until the 5th July, giving the Soviets ample time in which to prepare formidable defences.

A Junkers Ju 52 comes in to land on a grass airstrip on the Eastern Front, summer 1943. The immense flatness of the Stepps can be appreciated; such terrain seemed endless to those who fought over it and aircraft were often the only way of ensuring fast movement.

Men of a German cyclist unit deplane from a Junkers Ju 52 transport, Eastern Front 1943. Such a combination of air transport and pedal-power was one answer to the vast open spaces of Russia, but both means of movement were potentially very vulnerable to Soviet weapons.

By 1943, after enormous losses in the East, Germany is beginning to run short of manpower and is spreading its recruitment into the occupied countries of Western Europe. These are Flemish volunteers in N.S.K.K. Motorgruppe Luftwaffe. This was formed in May 1942 and consisted of two brigades each of three regiments, sub-divided into two Abteilungen. Most of the Flemish N.S.K.K. volunteers were in the 4th and 6th regiments of the 2nd Brigade. In May 1943 there were around 6000 Belgian volunteers in the N.S.K.K. and of these 3267 were Flemings. Note the Luftwaffe flying Eagle on the steel helmet.

As it was, Hitler had managed to amass a considerable force of over 900,000 men, 10,000 guns and 2700 armoured fighting vehicles. Supporting them were 1800 Luftwaffe combat aircraft: Luftflotta IV had 1100 machines in the south, backing Fourth Panzer Army. And the Luftwaffe brought a new aircraft to the battle: the Henschel 129B tank-buster. Organised into a unit commanded by Hauptmann Bruno Meyer, the Henschel Hs 129Bs showed themselves to be very effective against Soviet tanks, their tungsten-cored 30mm shells stopping a Russian armoured brigade and forcing it to retreat on the 9th July.

A Heinkel He 111H bomber on an airfield on the Eastern Front, 1943. The proximity of the bomb-dump implies that the aircraft is about to be loaded before an operation. Without fighter protection, the He 111 was very vulnerable.

A Henschel Hs 129 close-support aircraft, photographed post-war while being evaluated by the United States Army Air force – hence the rather spurious fuselage markings. Some Henschel Hs 129s were fitted with 75mm anti-tank cannon.

It was not enough. Despite heavy Luftwaffe commitment, with some pilots flying six or seven sorties a day during the first week of the battle, the Soviet defences proved to be a trap’ enmeshing pound forces in line after line of well-laid defences. After the battle the Soviets resumed their offensives, and the Luftwaffe was forced to provide air support for ground units as the Germans desperately tried to reform its defensive lines. This was achieved, but in the process the Luftwaffe started to run short of fuel. By the 23rd July the Germans were back at their start positions.

Following the failure of the Kursk offensive the Luftwaffe concentrated the majority of its strength in support of army units trying to hold the line of the River Donetz. However, the air force was overstretched, and units had to be switched from one end of the line to the other in response to Russian moves. An inevitable result was that Soviet territorial gains in late 1943 were substantial, pushing the Germans back beyond the River Dnieper, little more than 320km (200 miles) from the pre-war boarder. If this had been the only battleground, the Germans might yet have recovered, but by the end of 1943 the strategic nightmare of war on more than one front simultaneously had become reality. Many fighter squadrons were being withdrawn to defend German skies against the Allied bombers.

Luftwaffe General Gunther Korten. He was born in Köln on the 26th July 1898, enlisted in the army in 1914, and transferred to the Luftwaffe in 1934. He was a general staff officer in the air ministry until becoming commander of the 122nd Reconnaissance Wing and air base commander at Prenzlau in October 1936. In 1938 he was on the staff of the commanding general of the Luftwaffe in Austria and in March 1939 was chief of the general staff of the 4th Air Fleet. During the war he continued to serve in command positions. Korten finished his career as Chief of the general staff of the Luftwaffe replacing Jeschonnek after his suicide in August 1943. From 4th September 1943, when he took up the post until the 22nd July 1944 when he died at the Rastenburg hospital as a result of his wounds received from the 20th July 1944 bomb attempt on Hitler, like his predecessor, Korten, found Göring impossible to work for.

Awards and Decorations:

Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross: Awarded on the 3RD May 1941 as Generalmajor and Chief of the General Staff of Luftflotte 4.

Combined Pilots-Observation Badge in Gold with Diamonds.

Iron Cross (1914) 2nd Class, Iron Cross (1914) 1st Class, Wound Badge (1914) in Black, Honour Cross of the World War 1914/1918, Iron Cross (1939) 2nd Class – Bar, Iron Cross (1939) 1st Class – Bar, German Cross in Gold – 29th December 1942, Wehrmacht Long Service Award 4th to 1st Class, Anschluss Medal, Sudetenland Medal, Luftwaffe Front Flying Clasp for Fighters in Gold, Crimea  Shield, “Crete” Cuff band, Wound Badge 20th July 1944 in Gold.

Order of Michael the Brave 3rd Class, Rumänischer Orden Aeronautische Tugend, Kommandeurkreuz mit Schwertern, Order of the Cross of Liberty 1st Class with Star and Swords.

A Junkers Ju 87G, equipped with a 37mm Flak 18 cannon under its starboard wing. The decision to fit Stukas with cannon for anti-tank purposes was made in 1942.

As Russian troops advance against German positions in the summer of 1943, they undergo artillery and air attack. The soldier in the foreground has just been hit by shrapnel.

A well camouflaged German 75mm Pk 40 anti-tank gun at Kursk. Overhead, the Luftwaffe hammers Soviet positions mercilessly to try to breach the Russian defences.

An RAF Avro Lancaster bomber, one of 288, is caught on camera during a daylight raid on oil-storage depots at Bec-d’Ambes and Pauillac near Bordeaux, the 4th August 1944.

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