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, i.e. those of the central Army Group and of the vital flank of the Southern Army Group. Russian railways will either be destroyed or, in accordance with operational requirements, captured at their most important points (river crossings) by the bold employment of parachute and airborne troops.
In order that we may concentrate all our strength against the enemy Air Force and for the immediate support of land operations, the Russian armaments industry will not be attacked during the main operations. Such attacks will be made only after the conclusion of mobile warfare, and they will be concentrated first on the Urals area.
Extract from Hitler's War Directive No 21: Operation 'Barbarossa'
18 December 1940
Operation Barbarossa 1941 – 1943
Timeline of the German Invasion of the Soviet Union - Up to the Defeat at Stalingrad
German tanks roll into the USSR
Operation Barbarossa: Was the German codename for the invasion of the USSR which took place on 22 June 1941. Launched by Hitler in violation of the existing non-aggression treaty with Stalin, it was designed to provide the Reich with 'living space in the East'.
The German dictator had advocated the conquest of the USSR as early as 1924 in his book, Mein Kampf. At the same time, the campaign was to lay the foundations for the expected conflict with the two Anglo-Saxon powers for primacy as a world power and to free Germany of the economic warfare the Allies were waging against it.
The German invasion marked the beginning of a rapacious war of annihilation and conquest in which a scorched earth policy was employed by both sides. Hitler intended a 'ruthless Germanization' of the occupied eastern territories, conducted with great severity.
Orders violating international law, such as the Kommissarbefehl, the order to execute all Red Army political commissars, and the 'Barbarossa jurisdiction Decree', which exempted German soldiers from prosecution if they committed a crime against any Soviet civilian, meant a departure from traditional military conduct for the Wehrmacht. At the same time, Einsatzgruppen were to carry out the murder of Jewish and Slav elements of the population.
1941 The Southern and Central Thrusts
- June 22 1941 Operation Barbarossa begins:
- Army Group North – Wilhem Ritter von Leeb
- Army Group Centre – Feodor Von Bock
- Army Group South – Gerd von Runstedt
Invade Soviet Territory and head for Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev respectively. Easy progress is made in the North and Centre but Runstedt meets desperate Soviet resistance in the South.
June 22 1941 Drive in the North, Army Group North invades the USSR heading for Leningrad.
June 25 1941 Finland entered the war against the Soviet Union
June 26 1941 Army Group North captures Dugavpils and the Dvina river-crossings.
June 29 1941 Dietl's force advances on Murmansk from Finland, but it is finally halted on the Litsa River.
July 10 1941 Mannerheim's Karelian Army invades the USSR from Finland heading South-East to clear the Karelian Isthmus.
July 13/16 1941 Army Group North spearheads reach the Luga River, 60 miles short of Leningrad. Mannerheim's army reaches the Northern shore of Lake Ladoga.
June 24 – 30 1941Army Group Centre seals off Soviet resistance into pockets at Bialystok, Novogrudok and Volkovysk
June 26 1941 In the centre, Brest Litovsk falls after a four day siege. Manstein's panzers of Army Group North enter Daugavpils
July 1 1941 In the centre, Heinz Guderian's panzers cross the Berezina. Panzer spearheads of Army Group North cross the Dvina and advance on Pskov.
July 4 1941 Army Group North captures Ostrov and reaches the pre-1939 Russian frontier.
July 9 1941 Army Group Centre ends Soviet resistance in the Minsk pocket and captures Vitebsk
July 10 -11 Panzers of Army Group Centre cross the Dniepr. In the South, a Soviet counter-offensive by 5th and 6th Armies fails. Kleist's Panzers approach to within ten miles of Kiev.
July 15 1941 A breakthrough in the Centre leads to the encirclement and fall of Smolensk, cutting off a Soviet concentration of 300,000 men between Orsha and Smolensk.
July 20 1941 In the Centre, Bock orders Guderian to close the ring at Smolensk before any further advance to the East.
July 22 1941 After a month's scorching advance Army Group North is checked West of Lake Ilmen by the exhaustion of the troops.
July 30 1941 In the South Kleist begins to seal off the Soviet concentration at Uman
August 1941 In August 1941 the Regia Aeronautica sent an Air Corps of 1,900 personnel to the Eastern Front as an attachment to the "Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia" (Corpo di Spedizione Italiano in Russia, or CSIR) and then the "Italian Army in Russia" (Armata Italiana in Russia, or ARMIR) were known as the "Italian Air Force Expeditionary Corps in Russia" (Corpo Aereo Spedizione in Russia). These squadrons, initially consisting of 22° Gruppo CT with 51 Macchi C.200 fighters and 61° Gruppo with the Caproni Ca.311 bomber, supported the Italian armed forces from 1941 to 1943. They were initially based in the Ukraine and ultimately supported operations in the Stalingrad area. In mid 1942 the more modern Macchi C. 202 was introduced to operations in Russia. The CSIR was subsumed by the ARMIR in 1942 and the ARMIR was disbanded in early 1943 after disaster during the Battle of Stalingrad. The Air Corps pulled out of operations in January 1943, transferring to Odessa.
August 3 1941 In the South, Kleist and Stulpnagel seal off the Uman pocket: the inner pincers close.
August 3 - 4 1941 Mannerheim begins his drive to recover the Karelian Isthmus for Finland.
August 5 1941 End of Soviet resistance in the Smolensk pocket: Army Group Centre has succeeded in breaking out of the Smolensk land-bridge but is still faced with determined Soviet counterattacks in the South. Rumanian troops begin the 73 day siege of Odessa.
August 8 1941 Army Group North advances from the Luga bridgeheads.
August 12 1941 Hitler insists on the destruction of the Soviet South-West Front before resuming the advance in the Centre, as Guderian heads South towards Gomel and Starodub. Army Group North advances on Leningrad from the Luga bridgehead.
August 16 1941 Army Group North reaches Novgorod and crosses the Volkhov River.
August 23 – 30 1941 Guderian heads South belatedly, the Soviet front commander Yeremenko prepares to forestall the threat to Kiev from the rear.
August 25 1941 Panzers of Army Group South consolidates the Dniepr crossing at Dnepropetrovsk: path cleared for the Southern arm of the German pincer movement to engulf the Uman/ Kiev concentration.
August 27 1941 Despite successes Mannerheim refuses to act in direct co-operation with Army Group North.
August 30 / September 2 1941 Failure of Yeremenko's counter-offensive against Guderian's flank.
September 1 1941 German long-range artillery begins to bombard Leningrad.
September 12 1941 Kleist heads North from the Cherkassy/ Kremenchug beach-heads.
September 15 1941 Army Group North completes the encirclement of Leningrad – the siege begins. The outer pincers close: Panzer spearheads of Kleist and Guderian meet at Lokhvitsa, trapping four Soviet armies in the Kiev area.
September 17 1941 STAVKA belatedly orders a Soviet withdrawal from Kiev
September 18 – 27 1941 In the South, slaughter and surrenders inside the Kiev pocket. Nearly two thirds of the Red Army's strength on the outbreak of war has already been eliminated.
October 23 -24 1941 Army Group South enters Kharkov
November 28 1941 Army Group South is forced to retire from Rostov by heavy Soviet counter-attacks, after an occupation of eight days.
October 23 – 24 1941 Finnish Southern front stabilised.
November 7 1941 Finnish advance halted on all fronts.
November 9 1941 The vital railhead at Tikhvin falls into German hands.
December 6 1941 A 200 mile –long roadway from Leningrad to Zaborie built in 27 days at a cost of thousands of lives, begins operation. But as a lifeline it is almost useless, the greatest distance any lorry manages to cover in a single day is 20 miles.
December 9 1941 Soviet forces led by General Meretskov recapture Tikhvin. The railway resumes operation, bringing desperately needed supplies to Leningrad.
The Germans attack Leningrad
December 25 1941 Despite increased supplies from the outside some 3700 Leningraders starve to death on Christmas Day, bringing the total for the month to 52,000. In Moscow the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet institutes a medal for the defence of Leningrad.
The Attack on Moscow
September 26 1941 "Operation Typhoon" – the German offensive for the capture of Moscow is ordered.
October 2 1941 The offensive to capture Moscow begins in ideal weather conditions.
October 7 1941 Panzer spearheads seal off the Soviet forces in the Vyazma and Bryansk pockets.
October 8 1941 Heavy rains set in. The "mud season" begins to strangle the German mobile units, except for tanks.
October 14 1941 Resistance ends in the Vyazma pocket.
October 19 1941 Stalin proclaims a state of siege in Moscow.
October 20 1941 Resistance ends in the Bryansk pocket, but many Soviet troops manage to escape the net.
October 20 – 25 1941 Stiffening Soviet resistance and struggling supply lines halt the original "Typhoon" offensive. New orders are issued for advances on more limited objectives to safeguard the German front line.
November 15 1941 After initial success, the second phase of the Moscow offensive is paralysed by 20 degree of frost and ever –strengthening Soviet forces.
November 27 1941 Panzer spearheads struggle to within 19 miles of the northern outskirts of Moscow, but are halted by fierce counter-attacks. South of Moscow, the advance German units reach Kashira, but are also halted.
December 5 1941 After obstinate argument, Hitler agrees to abandon the Moscow offensive for the winter. Army Group Centre begins to retreat to safer defensive positions.
December 5- 6 1941 The Soviet counter-offensive begins, at first the Kalinin / West Fronts to relieve the threat to Moscow.
December 13 1941 Moscow has been saved from the attack of Army Group Centre, but Stalin determines to extend the offensive to the entire Soviet / German front.
December 17 – 18 1941 Stalin orders Volkhov and North –Western Fronts to take the offensive against Army Group North.
December 26 – 30 1941 Red Army units land on the Kerch Peninsula to relieve Sebastopol
January 9 - 25 1942
North – Western Volkhov, and Kalinin Fronts drive deep into the Whermacht's rear but find their efforts too dissipated and their objectives too distant. German resistance stiffens.
January / February 1942 The Soviet offensive continues to win small victories in the Centre and North but fails in the South. By March 1942 all Soviet fronts have run out of resources – the offensive is over.
January 18 1942 Southern wing of the general Soviet winter offensive begins.
January 24 1942 Barvenkovo captured.
March 1942 Soviet winter offensive halts.
May 8 1942 German XI Army launches its attack against the Crimean Front.
May 12 1942 Russian South –West Front launches an offensive to break out of the Barvenkovo salient, thus forestalling a German offensive to liquidate it.
May 15 1942 German forces break through on the Crimean Front and occupy the town of Kerch, forcing the Russians to evacuate the Kerch peninsula. The Crimean Front has collapsed.
May 17 1942 German counter-offensive against the Barvenkovo salient . Army Group Kleist attacks from the North and the VI Army from the South.
May 19 1942 Soviet offensive is called off, but the German pincers cannot be halted.
May 23 1942 German forces link up, thus cutting off all Soviet troops in the salient.
June 2 1942 The Germans open up a five day barrage of Sevastopol with "super power" artillery, including 800-mm mortars.
June 7 1942 The German infantry assault on Sebastopol begins, supported by as many as 1,000 Luftwaffe sorties a day. But the Russians hold on.
June 10 – 26 1942 German offensives on the Volchansk and Kupyansk axes force the left wing of South –West Front back to the River Oskol.
June 30 1942 After 24 days of bitter fighting the Russians begin to evacuate Sebastopol. To commemorate the prolonged struggle the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet awards a special medal to the city's defenders.
June 28 1942 The German summer offensive begins with a breakthrough at Kursk.
July 5 1942 Army Group B reaches the Don River on either side of Voronezh.
July 12 1942 STAVKA sets up a new "Stalingrad" Front.
July 23 1942 Bock is dismissed. IV Panzer Army under Hoth is ordered to swing away from Stalingrad and assist I Panzer Army under Kleist to cross the Don.
July 25 1942 Kleist gets his light forces across the Don River. VI Army continues its advance toward Stalingrad, but fails to liquidate Russian bridgeheads on the West bank.
July 29 1942 Hoth's Panzers cross the Don at Tsimlyanskaya. Kleist captures Proletarskaya.
August 10 1942 Von Paulus troops reach the outskirts of Stalingrad, while Hoth moves up to rejoin them.
August 19 1942 First German attempts to storm Stalingrad.
August 22 1942 XIV Panzer Corps force a narrow breach in the Russian perimeter at Vertyachi.
August 23 1942 Germans reach the bank of the Volga.
German troops storm Stalingrad
August 23 -24 Luftwaffe makes a terror raid on Stalingrad.
August 25 State of Emergency declared in Stalingrad. Heavy fighting halts the German advance.
September 13 1942 "Final" German attack on Stalingrad begins. A breakthrough in the Centre forces General Chuikov to commit his last reserves. But the German attack is halted.
September 24 1942 Franz Halder, Chief of the OKW is dismissed by Hitler.
October 4 1942 The fourth German attack at Stalingrad, directed at the Tractor Factory, the Barrikady and the Krasny Oktyabr, begins nearly three weeks of bitter fighting.
October 14 1942 Hitler orders all forces to take the defensive and stand fast except for those in the Stalingrad area and some small sectors in the Caucasus.
Early November 1942 The Red Army prepares a plan (Plan Uranus) for the relief of Stalingrad, a large scale operation to be carried out along a front of 250 miles.
November 19 1942 At exactly 07:30 hours, some 3,500 Soviet guns and mortars open fire on the breakthrough sectors. The Soviet blow to free Stalingrad has begun. By the second day of the attack, mobile forces of South-West Front have advanced up to 25 miles.
November 20 1942 Stalingrad Front takes up the offensive.
November 21 1942 The onrush of Soviet armour forces General Paulus to move his headquarters from Golubinsky to Nizhne- Chirskaya. Hitler then orders Paulus to relocate his headquarters again near Gumrak.
November 23 1942 On the fifth day of the counter-attack, South –West and Stalingrad Fronts link up, closing the ring around 22 German divisions, a total of about 330,000 men.
November 24 1942 The Red Army launches operations to annihilate the encircled German forces. But although the Red Army forces halve the territory held by Paulus, their numbers are insufficient to destroy his army.
December 12 1942 General Manstein launches Operation Winter Storm, a counter-strike with 13 divisions to relieve the trapped VI Army. Fighting rages for 11 days but the operation fails. Hoth's "storm group" is halted 25 miles from the beleagured Germans at Stalingrad. Meanwhile, Soviet South –West Front handed the Germans a crushing blow, on the middle Don, North-West of Stalingrad.
Field Marshal von Paulus surrenders at Stalingrad
December 24 1942 Soviet forces now attack Hoth's relief group. The Germans withdraw, and by December 31 it is clear that the Red Army has fresh opportunities for a strategic offensive in the whole Southern sector.
January 4 1943 STAVKA approves the plan for "Operation Ring" – the methodical dissection, of the trapped German forces and their destruction, unit by unit.
January 8 1943 STAVKA proposes to Paulus that he capitulate, otherwise his forces will be annihilated. Paulus rejects the ultimatum.
January 10 1943 Operation Ring begins at 08:00 hours, the Red Army opens its final assault on von Paulus' forces with a massive artillery bombardment. At 09:00 hours Don Front takes the offensive.
January 31 1943 Field- Marshall Paulus trapped in Stalingrad, surrenders the Southern group of his army. Two days later General Schreck surrenders the Northern group. The VI Army is no more.
When Adolf Hitler launched Operation 'Barbarossa', his attack against the Soviet Union, he took the first steps towards achieving what he regarded as two of his life's main goals: the destruction of the "cradle of Communism" and the creation of Lebensraum; living space in the East for the German people.
Preparations for the launching of 'Barbarossa' were immense. Assembled against the Soviet Union's western frontiers were 3.6 million German and other Axis soldiers, 600,000 vehicles, 3,600 tanks and more than 3,000 first-line aircraft, the total might of which formed the largest invasion force the world had ever seen. When the invasion began, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring's Luftwaffe was undoubtedly the most effective air force in the world. Combining modern aircraft with new tactics and a high standard of aircrew training, Germany's air force was without parallel and the Spanish Civil War, the Blitzkrieg, and the Battle of Britain had created a core of immensely experienced airmen. In the fighter force, the Bf-109F-4, the latest version of Professor Willy Messerschmitt's single-engined fighter, was without peer.
Opposing the German forces, the Red Army was numerically superior but had been debilitated by Josef Stalin's autocratic rule. On the day of the German invasion, the Soviet Union possessed a total of approximately 20,000 combat aircraft, including 11,500 fighters, but the vast majority of these aircraft, especially the vulnerable twin-engined SB bomber, the I-153 biplane fighters and the slow Polikarpov I-16 Ishak (known to the Germans as the Rata), were technically inferior. Although in June 1941 a new generation of Soviet fighter types was about to enter service with first-line units, only the Yak-1 could compete on relatively equal terms with the Bf-109E or F-2, while the MiG-3 and the LaGG-3 were both slower and less manoeuvrable. In addition, most Soviet aircraft had no radio transmitters installed, whereas this was standard equipment in all Jagdwaffe's air combat units.
However, the technical inferiority of Soviet aircraft in mid-1941 should not be exaggerated as the situation was more a question of high proficiency on the part of the Germans than low Soviet standards. Indeed, the performance of the majority of Soviet-designed aircraft in 1941 was generally higher than in most other air forces and the Il-2 Shturmovik, just beginning to reach front-line units in June 1941, was probably the best ground-attack aircraft anywhere. Far worse for the Soviet armed forces was that they still suffered from the effects of Stalin's Great Purge of 1937/38 when the intelligentsia and tens of thousands of officers were liquidated. In the wake of these persecutions, the Soviet government decided to shorten pilot training with the result that thousands of newly trained pilots, barely able to take off and land their aircraft, were forced to meet the best airmen in the world. Moreover, 91 per cent of all commanders of larger Soviet Air Force units had held their posts for less than six months.
The Soviet airmen were further impaired by outmoded tactics. As in all but the German and Finnish air forces, they continued to fly in outdated, inflexible three-aircraft V-formations, and their general doctrine was defensive rather than offensive. Furthermore, they were frequently instructed to patrol a specific territorial area and were not allowed to pursue even damaged enemy aircraft beyond the borders of that area. Later, many Luftwaffe crews on the Eastern Front were saved due to this practise, which also resulted in the proportion of repairable Luftwaffe aircraft being higher on the Eastern Front in 1941 than anywhere else. In contrast, the pilots of the Jagdwaffe were encouraged to fly aggressively and experience during the Battle of Britain had shown that the best way to protect bombers was not to keep the fighters in slow-flying close escort missions, but to employ them in freie Jagd missions in which they hunted for potential opposition in the target area.
On 21 June 1941, the air forces of the Soviet Army and Navy, collectively known as the VVS (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Si/y, Military Air Force), had less than half the country's total number of combat aircraft stationed in the western regions. The Army Air Forces in the western regions were divided into five military districts which, after the German attack, were reformed into Army Groups, or Fronts, as follows:
VVS Northern Front and VVS North-Western Front, both positioned along the Finnish border and in the Soviet-occupied Baltic states.
VVS Western Front positioned in the Soviet-occupied parts of Poland.
VVS South-Western Front in north-western Ukraine.
VVS Southern Front in south-western Ukraine.
In addition, there were the Naval Air Forces of the Northern Fleet in the Far North (VVS SF), the Red Banner Baltic Fleet (VVS KBF), the Black Sea Fleet (VVS ChF) and the long-range (strategic) bombers, the DBA.
22 June 1941
Operation 'Barbarossa' opened in the early hours of 22 June 1941 with massive Luftwaffe attacks against 31 major Soviet airfields from the Baltic Sea in the north to the shore of the Black Sea in the south. Not only were the Soviets caught totally by surprise, but the Soviet Army Air Forces in eastern Poland and the Baltic states were in the middle of a re-equipment programme which resulted in the airfields in the western parts of the USSR being completely overcrowded. Hundreds of aircraft were therefore destroyed in the first attack wave alone, during which the Bf-109s of the Jagdgeschwadern mainly carried out low-level attacks in which they strafed the rows of parked aircraft and dropped SD-2 bombs. Four Bf-109s led by the Staffelkapitim of 4./JG27, Oblt. Gustav Radel, managed to put no fewer than 45 Soviet aircraft out of commission with their SD-2s during a single raid and JG51, commanded by Obstlt. Werner Molders, claimed to have destroyed a total of 129 Soviet aircraft on the ground. Later, the fighters flew as escort for bomber and Stuka formations as well as flying freiejagd sorties.
The initial Soviet response to the German attack was sporadic and lacked any central co-ordination, but the first aerial encounters nevertheless revealed several surprises. Not only did the Soviets display a stiff determination to fight, but Jagdwaffe pilots were alarmed when the Polikarpov fighters they were pursuing suddenly made a snap lS0-degree turn and counter-attacked head-on. Moreover, several German aircraft were brought down by deliberate air-to-air ramming, the so-called tarans, one early victim of this tactic being Major Wolfgang Schellmann, Geschwaderkommodore of JG27, who was captured and shot by the NKVD.
Despite the destruction of hundreds of their aircraft on the ground, the Soviets immediately began sending waves of SB and DB-3 medium bombers against the invaders. In some cases, these bombers succeeded in inflicting severe casualties among German ground troops but, in the main, their efforts resulted only in a series of losses. Lacking radio equipment, the Soviet bombers flew in open echelon formations so that each pilot could remain in visual contact with the formation leader, even though this made concentrated defensive fire against Luftwaffe fighters impossible. In addition, due to the general chaos, almost all bomber missions had to be flown without fighter escort and scores of bombers were lost. Thus, while German bombers and Stukas continued to pound Soviet airfields, the Bf-109s attacked the relentless waves of Soviet bombers. These astonished the Luftwaffe fighter pilots with their tactics, for even when attacked the bomber pilots took no evasive action whatsoever but maintained their course, often until all were shot down. Such a fate met Soviet Bomber Regiment 39 BAP, which lost all 18 SBs despatched against German forces crossing the River Bug. Similarly, II./JG53 shot down eight of 40 SBAP's SBs but, in this engagement, the Gruppenkommandeur, Hptm. Heinz Bretnutz, was obliged to make a forced landing in Soviet-controlled Lithuania. Badly injured and requiring urgent hospital treatment, Bretnutz was hidden by friendly locals until rescued four days later by advancing German troops. He was then taken for immediate medical treatment and although his left leg was amputated in an attempt to save his life, Bretnutz, a Knight's Cross holder credited with 37 aerial victories, died soon afterwards.
The repeated clashes between German fighters and Soviet bombers continued, and at about 09.30 hrs, I./JG51's Lt. Heinz Bar and his wingman, Ofw. Heinrich Hofemeier, were escorting a damaged He 111 back over German-controlled territory. In the Siedlce area, they spotted a formation of 25 to 30 SB bombers without any fighter escort. The two German pilots immediately attacked, at the same time calling for reinforcements. Hofemeier succeeded in shooting down four of the bombers, his first victories in the war, before he was forced to break off because of a bullet wound in his left arm. Bar shot down another two, his 19th and 20th victories, and when other JG51 pilots arrived on the scene they destroyed six more SBs. JG51's Geschwaderkommodore, Obstlt. Molders, also claimed four victories which increased his total number of victories to 72.
Without doubt, the Luftwaffe played a key role during the onslaught on 22 June and, had it not been for its successful actions, the VVS would have inflicted severe blows against the German forces. On 22 June, the Germans claimed to have destroyed 1,489 Soviet aircraft on the ground and 322 in the air. According to Soviet figures, more than 800 aircraft were destroyed on the ground and 336 were shot down in the air. These figures underline the vast technological and tactical superiority enjoyed by the Luftwaffe, quite apart from its superior training and combat experience. Conversely, the stiff Soviet resistance can be seen in Luftwaffe losses in the East on 22 June, which were by no means light: 111 aircraft lost due to enemy action on this day alone, including 61 totally destroyed or written off.
The Fight for Air Superiority
After 22 June 1941, Luftflotten 1 and 2 continued attacking Soviet airfields, reportedly destroying another 1,357 Soviet aircraft on 23 and 24 June. Meanwhile, devastating strikes were flown against Soviet troop positions, marching columns and headquarters in the rear area. The German 2., 3. and 4. Panzergruppen charged through Soviet defence positions which were in increasing disorder and surrounded large parts of Soviet Army Group Western Front. In view of the weak aerial opposition by the VVS in this sector on 23 June, Luftflotte 2's fighter units were able to carry out low-level attacks against airfields and retreating Soviet columns.
To the north, Luftflotte l's fighter units, JG54 and 4. and 5./JG53, were in action against VVS Baltic Military District which had suffered heavily from the first day's attack but was still able to maintain continuous air activity throughout 23 June, on which date is was redesignated VVS North-Western Front. Before dawn on 23 June, ten Soviet bombers raided the East Prussian city of Konigsberg and at 10.00 hrs, 16 SBs were despatched against Gumbinnen aerodrome in East Prussia. They were intercepted by Stab and II./JG54, and not a single Soviet aircraft returned to its base. Less than two hours later, nine 7./JG54 pilots commanded by 9./JG54's Staffelkapitan, Oblt. Hans-Ekkehard Bob, bounced ten SBs to the north of Kaunas. All ten SBs were shot down, two of them by Lt. Max-Hellmuth Ostermann. The last SB, piloted by the Soviet formation leader, was shot down by Oblt. Bob, but in the process, Bob's own Bf-109 was hit by the bomber's defensive fire. He forced-landed in Soviet-controlled territory but returned to the German lines two days later.
In total, JG54 claimed 39 victories on the second day of 'Barbarossa' but, owing to the confused situation, German fighter pilots frequently attacked their own bombers by mistake and at least five of the Ju-88s lost by KG 76 and KG 77 on 23 June were shot down by friendly fighters. During the late afternoon a Ju-88 returned fire, shooting down and killing 5./JG54's Uffz. Walter Puregger.
With new reinforcements arriving, VVS Western Front was able to increase its activity on 24 June. Its fighters, mainly from fighter division 43 lAD, which had been spared the destruction of 22 June, were assigned to air defence tasks in the Minsk region. Here, six I-16s from 43 lAD's fighter regiment 163 lAP, led by StLt. (Starshiy Leytenant, Senior Lieutenant) Zakhar Plotnikov, fell upon 27 Ju-87s from II. and Ill.jSt.G 1 and shot down six within a matter of minutes. Meanwhile, the Jagdgruppen were fully occupied dealing with the re-appearing Soviet bombers from both the DBA and VVS Western Front. These flew without any fighter escort and attacked the advancing German Panzer columns. On one occasion, III./JG27's Bf-109E pilots observed 27 DB-3s from Long-Range Bomber Regiment 53 DBAP which were intent on attacking advance elements of 4. Panzergruppe. III./JG27 claimed seven of the bombers shot down in this engagement, while 53 DBAP's records show that in fact nine were lost, eight of them to Bf-109s. There were similar scenes over the advance columns of 2. Panzergruppe advancing further to the south, where Oblt. Karl-Heinz Schnell, Staffelkapitfm of 9./JG51, destroyed seven SBs, four of them in only four minutes, while Lt. Ottmar Maurer of the same Gruppe shot down another six. JG51's score for the day was 57 victories, all against SB bombers.
On 25 June, as the Soviet Western Front collapsed in the face of Army Group Centre's armoured spearheads, General der Flieger Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen brought forward many units of VIII. Fliegerkorps in order to render air support, including Stab, II. and III./JG27 and III./JG53, which moved up to the large aerodrome at Vilnius which had been captured on the 24th. As soon as Soviet aerial reconnaissance established that the Germans were using Vilnius aerodrome, all available bombers were despatched to neutralise the Germans on the ground. In fierce air fighting against repeated attacks by formations each of ten to 20 SBs and DB-3s throughout the day, the Bf-109 pilots at Vilnius claimed 54 Soviet bombers shot down for the loss of a single Bf-109. Stab and III./JG53 claimed 30 of these kills, including four by JG53's Geschwaderkommodore, Major Gunther Freiherr von Maltzahn, while II./JG27 contributed 24, seven of them by Lt. Gustav Langanke, which brought his total claims to eight. To the south, JG51 brought down another 68 SBs, six of them by Oblt. Hans Kolbow. These few examples illustrate perfectly the Soviets' determination and also how helpless were the SBs against intercepting German fighters. Nevertheless, the German victories were not easily achieved, and every interception was met by frantic defensive fire from the bombers' gunners who were equipped with extremely rapid-firing machine-guns. Frequently it was reported that Soviet gunners refused to bale out of their stricken machines and kept firing at the Bf-109s until their aircraft crashed. However, only a few Bf-109s were totally destroyed in air combat although many others were severely damaged as, for example, in JG51, where a total of 18 Bf-109s were put out of commission on 24 and 25 June.
Because of insufficient deliveries of spare parts, an increasing number of the German combat aircraft were grounded, often as a result of only minor damage or technical faults which could not be rectified due a lack of spare parts. After a week of fighting in the East, the number of serviceable German aircraft in Luftflotten 1, 2 and 4 had dropped from 1,939 to 960. Nor was German fighter production significantly increased, but built up only slowly from an average of 156 machines per month during the second half of 1941 to only 243 during the first half of 1941, after which production actually dropped below even this relatively low level. These facts indicate that not only were German preparations for Operation 'Barbarossa' insufficient, but also that they had not properly prepared for war on more than one front.
The situation, however, was infinitely worse for the Soviets. On 26 June, Soviet long-range bomber division 40 DBAD, to which 53 DBAP belonged, was unable to carry out any operations. On the same day, other DBA units recorded 43 DB-3s lost in efforts to halt the invaders. When 2. and 3. Panzergruppen completed their pincer movement at Minsk and surrounded approximately 400,000 troops of the Soviet Western Front, the VVS in the area had virtually bled to death. In their desperation, the Soviet commanders brought together their last reserves and, on 30 June, launched them against the German Berezina River bridgehead at Bobruysk. First the Soviet aircraft ran into the concentrated fire from the Luftwaffe's Flakregiment 10. The dispersed bombers were then attacked by the Bf-109s of JG51 which within six minutes also completely annihilated another group of 22 Soviet bombers that attempted to attack one of JG51's airfields. Thus, when the day was over, JG51 had claimed 113 victories against five combat losses. The Geschwaderkommodore, Obstlt. Werner Molders, as well as Hptm. Hermann-Friedrich Joppien and Lt. Heinz Bar, each scored five victories, bringing Molders' total score to 82 and Joppien's to 52. With this, JG51's victory tally surpassed the 1,000 mark, about 400 of which had been attained since 22 June 1941.
Similar scenes occurred in the skies over Army Group North on the last day of June, when the Soviets made fruitless attempts to prevent 4. Panzergruppe from crossing the Daugava River at Daugavpils. The DBA and Army bomber forces in this area had been so weakened that VVS KBF, the Red Banner Baltic Fleet, had to be called in for this task. Approaching without fighter escort at altitudes of up to 7,000 feet, the DB-3s and SBs of bomber brigade 8 BAB were attacked by JG54 which claimed to have shot down 65 bombers before they could fulfil their task but in fact destroyed 43. JG54's losses amounted to five Bf-109s and two pilots.
According to Soviet figures, 1,669 Soviet aircraft were lost in the air alone between 22 and 30 June 1941 so that on 1 July, VVS Western Front could muster no more than 500 aircraft. In view of the weakening Soviet resistance in the air over the German Centre Front, the Luftwaffe could afford to re-allocate its units and while parts of VIII. Fliegerkorps were transferred north to support the drive by 4. Panzergruppe towards Leningrad, II./JG27 left the Eastern Front entirely and moved to the Mediterranean area of operations.
While the VVS adopted more defensive tactics, concentrating on fighter interception or strafing missions in daylight and bombing at night, the huge salients between Bialystok and Minsk were compressed. Up to 9 July, Army Group Centre took more than 300,000 Soviet troops as prisoners and captured 3,332 tanks and 1,809 artillery pieces. By that time, too, the Germans estimated, probably without exaggeration, total Soviet aircraft losses to be 6,223, of which 1,900 had been shot down in aerial combat.
The Advance Through the Baltic States
By 30 June 1941, VVS North-Western Front, responsible for air cover in the Baltic states, had lost almost 900 aircraft to enemy activity, including 425 lost in the air. In addition, VVS KBF had been dealt a heavy blow during its failed attempt to halt the German advance at the Daugava River in south-east Latvia. With air support reinforced by parts of VIII. Fliegerkorps, 4. Panzergruppe swarmed across the Daugava on 2 July and continued its advance to the north-west. VVS Northern Front, the only Soviet air fleet in the western territories to escape the devastation of the first days of the war, was immediately brought forward to help counter this threat. Between 4 and 6 July, following a brief lull caused by adverse weather, VVS Northern Front carried out a series of large-scale operations against 4. Panzergruppe but failed even to slow the German advance. Instead, in these three days, the Russian formations were met by fully alerted German fighter units which claimed 121 victories, most being destroyed over Latvia by Hptm. Dietrich Hrabak's II./JG54 which, on 5 July, exceeded its 300th victory. On the Soviet side, VVS Northern Front's composite air divisions 2 SAD and 41 SAD alone registered 60 combat losses during operations against German advance columns between 4 and 9 July.
As the SB and DB-3 bombers started to disappear due to their enormous losses, so larger numbers of fighters from WS Northern Front and WS KBF started confronting the German fighters and Soviet opposition grew stronger. Thus, when 7./JG54's Lt. Max-Hellmuth Ostermann claimed his 19th and 20th victories on 6 July, he saw two of his fellow pilots shot down while three I-16 pilots of 154 lAP claimed to have shot down three Bf-109s without loss to themselves. On 7 July, 11 of JG54's Bf-109s were destroyed or severely damaged, and six of the Geschwader's best pilots, all from III./JG54 and including the Gruppenkommandeur, Hptm. Arnold Lignitz, were posted missing as a result of missions on 6 and 7 July. On 6 July, Oblt. Heinz Lange had just shot down one of the WS's new Pe-2 bombers when his Bf-109F-2 'Black 5', WNr. 6781, was severely damaged and forced landed close to a German Flak battery. At the same time, Lt. Erwin Leykauf's Bf-109F-2, 'Black 3', WNr. 6788, was damaged by a 202 SBAP SB's rear gunner over enemy-held territory and came down in marshland where Leykauf managed to evade detection. Hptm. Lignitz was the first of these pilots to return and immediately set out in a Bf-108 liaison aircraft to search for his missing comrades. He found Leykauf, stark naked, trying to dry his wet clothes. Much to the relief of Major Hannes Trautloft, Geschwaderkommodore of JG54, it was later reported that the Bf-108 had returned to Ostrov aerodrome with another four of the six missing men.
Although I. Fliegerkorps reportedly shot down 487 Soviet aircraft and destroyed another 1,698 on the ground between 22 June and 13 July, the Luftwaffe's numerical superiority was in fact deteriorating. Indeed, on 9 July, Hptm. Dietrich Hrabak's II./JG54 reported that only five of its 40 Bf-109s were serviceable and the strength of Luftflotte 1 was reduced to 350 aircraft. Facing Luftflotte 1 were some 1,300  Soviet aircraft comprising most of the combined forces of VVS North-Western Front, VVS Northern Front and VVS KBF.
By mid-July, German Army Group North had driven the Soviets from Lithuania and Latvia and was advancing into Estonia and towards Leningrad in Russia itself, but the German motorised units had been severely depleted and their supply lines stretched. On 14 July, the Soviet 11th Army counter-attacked 4. Panzergruppe at Soltsy, west of Lake limen. The powerful Soviet strike was supported by an ad hoc force of 235 aircraft commanded by General-Mayor Aleksandr Novikov, the new commander of the united air forces of the former North-Western and Northern fronts, now known as WS Northern District. The German Panzer troops were thrown back, parts of 8. Panzerdivision were surrounded, and a Staffel of II./JG54 was forced to abandon the advanced airfield at Porkhov. Meanwhile, other German airfields in the area were subjected to small but surprisingly effective raids by modern Pe-2 bombers. In one such attack at Pskov, a single Pe-2 caused a number of casualties and injured several of II./JG53's personnel.
Even though 8. Panzerdivision was eventually saved, it was clear that the Blitzkrieg in the north had ended. Even more apparent, especially to the ground troops of Army Group North, strafed relentlessly from mid-July 1941 by Soviet fighter-bombers, was that the VVS was far from defeated.
Between 22 June and 19 July 1941, the Luftwaffe recorded 774 of its own aircraft destroyed (including 216 fighters) and 510 (including 187 fighters) severely damaged on the Eastern Front.
Into the Ukraine
As in the north, it was important that the Wehrmacht should destroy Soviet forces before they could withdraw into the interior. However, Army Group Centre, which was to advance in the direction of Moscow, was separated from Army Group South, which was to advance into the Ukraine, by the Pripet Marshes, a huge natural barrier running in an east-west direction through eastern Poland. Furthermore, Army Group South was split geographically from Luftflotte 4 by neutral Hungary. From its positions in southern Poland, 1. Panzergruppe, supported by V. Fliegerkorps, attacked south of the Pripet Marshes and advanced towards the city of Kiev. Further south, the German 11th Army and Rumanian forces remained waiting along the Rumanian-Soviet border. These forces were supported by IV. Fliegerkorps, the fighter component of which consisted of Stab, II. and III./JG77, plus I.(J)/LG2 and certain Rumanian fighter units.
As in the north, VVS units opposing Army Group South and Luftflotte 4 were very active during the first days of the invasion. This was particularly the case in south-eastern Poland, where VVS South-Western Front (formerly VVS Kiev Special Military District) and DBA units went into action against the advancing German Panzer spearheads. The main task of Major Gunther Lutzow's JG3, the Jagdgeschwader available to V. Fliegerkorps, was to clear the skies of Soviet aircraft through freie Jagd missions over the advancing Panzer columns and, on 23 June, this unit claimed 38 victories, mostly SB and DB-3 bombers. The offensive operations by V. Fliegerkorps' bomber units operating in support of the ground troops had to be carried out mainly without fighter escort, but few Soviet fighters were encountered in the air and German losses were very limited. To the south, Stab, II. and III./JG77 and I.(J)/LG2 carried out bomber escort missions and also flew freie Jagd and ground-strafing sorties against airfields, claiming 16 victories on 23 June against a single combat loss.
The most effective Soviet resistance in the air during the early days of 'Barbarossa' was that which met Luftflotte 4, and on 24 June Soviet bombers succeeded in inflicting severe losses on 1. Panzergruppe while II./JG3 claimed only three victories but lost two of its own pilots. Over Bessarabia, II./JG77's Fw. Otto Kohler was killed, possibly shot down by St.Lt. Aleksandr Pokryshkin of Fighter Regiment 55.
In Rumania, the task of III./JG52, part of the Deutsche Luftwaffenmission Rumanien, was to protect the Rumanian oilfields. This units had recently exchanged its old Bf-109Es for the latest Bf-109F-4 which was fitted with the powerful 1,350 hp DB 601N engine and armed with the very effective MG 151/20 automatic cannon. As a result of the Gruppe's defensive duties, it did not participate in operations over the frontline for several weeks, but on 24 June, 36 Soviet bombers of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet attacked the Rumanian oilfields and airfield at Constanta. In their first attack, the Soviet aircraft succeeded in returning without loss, but when the bombers attempted a second raid later that day, III./JG52 was scrambled to intercept and the Bf-109F-4s shot down a total of 32 SBs and DB-3s, ten being destroyed in the first few minutes. It was during this engagement that Uffz. Gerhard Koppen of 7./JG52, later to become one of the Gruppe's top scorers, achieved his first victory.
By this time, V. Fliegerkorps had been reinforced by the arrival of I.(J)/LG2 and Stab and I./JG53, and for the next few days these units and the original JG3 flew in defence of the airspace over 1. Panzergruppe. On 25 June, the Soviet bomber crews flew a total of 780 sorties against 1. Panzergruppe in the Brody area, claiming the destruction of 30 tanks, 60 other vehicles and 16 artillery pieces, but the bombers were unprotected and so many formations of SBs and DB-3s were destroyed that soon there was almost none left. During these attacks, a Schwarm from II./JG77 led by Oblt. Walter Hoeckner reportedly destroyed ten out of a force of 12 SBs, eight being claimed by Hoeckner alone. On 25 and 26 June, hundreds of Soviet aircraft were destroyed and by 30 June, the fighter units of Luftflotte 4 had claimed approximately 380 victories. German combat losses in this period were just 15, but the level of serviceability was steadily declining and in II./JG3, for example, after one week of war in the East, the number of serviceable Bf-109s had been reduced from 32 to 20.
One of the most skilful Jagdwaffe pilots serving with Luftflotte 4 during this period was Hptm. Walter Oesau, Gruppenkommandeurof III./JG3. Already a holder of the Knight's Cross and Oak Leaves awarded during the Battle of Britain, Oesau increased his victory tally from 42 to 50 between 22 and 30 June 1941, and on 1 July he destroyed three Soviet bombers, followed by another three on 6 July and four'on the 8th. In Oesau's Gruppe, Oblt. Kurt Sochatzy, Staffelkapitan of 7./JG3, also emerged as a successful pilot. Claiming only his second aerial victory on 26 June, by 9 July, on which date he shot down five Soviet bombers, he had increased his tally to 18.
Between 22 June and 5 July 1941, Soviet units opposed to Luftflotte 4 lost a total of 1,218 aircraft. However, they were soon replaced and from around 10 July, Soviet air activity against Army Group South started to mount. That day, two pilots of II./JG3 spotted 12 18-3s flying in formation without any fighter escort. The two Bf-109 pilots, Oblt. Franz Beyer and Uffz. Werner Lucas, attacked and claimed to have shot down five of the huge four-engined bombers although the records of the bomber unit in question, Heavy Bomber Regiment 14 18AP, show that in fact seven were lost. Meanwhile, in III./JG3, only six serviceable Bf-109F-2s remained on 11 July, but these were flown by the best pilots including Hptm. Oesau, who achieved another five victories on 10 July, a further seven on the 12th and three days later received the Swords for 80 victories. On 15 July, 9./JG3's Ofw. Hans Stechmann brought JG3's victory total to over 1,000 by shooting down three 1-153s.
In mid-July, the Soviets' situation in the Ukraine deteriorated considerably when, on the 16th, 1. Panzergruppe seized Biyala Tserkov, south-west of Kiev, and wheeled southwards towards Pervomaisk. The next day, the German and Rumanian armies in Rumania started their main offensive across the Dniestr River and advanced northwards to meet 1. Panzergruppe and encircle Soviet forces at Uman in a giant pincer movement. Since the entire railway system in the rear area had been destroyed by Luftflotte 4's bombers in one of history's most effective air interdiction operations, Soviet troops in the area were deprived both of supplies and much of their freedom to manoeuvre. Furthermore, the four weeks of air action against WS forces in the area had been so effective, that in 282 sorties flown by JG77 and 1.(J)jLG2 on 17 and 18 July in support of the drive from the south, they met virtually no Soviet opposition.
To the north, large parts of V. Fliegerkorps were concentrated on a huge airfield near Biyala Tserkov, from where operations to support the continued drives against both Uman and Kiev were flown. Biyala Tserkov was typical of the kind of airfield soon to become familiar to German forces on the Eastern Front, being virtually nothing but a huge, flat field where the personnel usually were billeted in tents.
During this period, Major Gunther Lutzow's JG3, operating on Army Group South's northern flank, played a particularly important role, being ordered to cover the north, where the German 6th Army was advancing eastwards towards Kiev, and also to support the drive in the south aimed at surrounding the Soviet troops at Uman. JG3 carried out fighter sweeps over the area of the German advance and escorted the dive-bomber unit St.G77, which had been transferred from Luftflotte 2 to support Army Group South's battle of encirclement. During this time, Major Lutzow achieved his 42nd victory on 20 July and was awarded the Oak Leaves. Oblt. Robert Olejnik, I./JG3's most successful pilot, received the Knight's Cross on 30 July for 32 victories and three days later, Oblt. Viktor Bauer, Staffelkapitan of 9./JG3, also received the Knight's Cross for 34 victories. Operating in the same area as JG3 were Stab and I./JG53, which had also been brought in from Luftflotte 2. JG53's Kommodore, Major Gunther Freiherrvon Maltzahn, was awarded the Oak Leaves on 24 July when he claimed his 42nd victory. Meanwhile, one of the Luftwaffe's most famous pilots, the escaper Hptm. Franz von Werra, Gruppenkommandeur of I./JG53, increased his victory total from eight to 21 in slightly more than three weeks. Owing much to the air support provided by such experienced pilots, the German armies linked up at Pervomaisk on 3 August and trapped the Soviet armies in the Uman area.
The effectiveness of the earlier Luftwaffe attacks on the Russian railway system now worked to the detriment of the German forces and resulted in severe supply difficulties. Aircraft serviceability in Luftflotte 4's units was badly affected and dropped rapidly during the second half of July so that by the 31st, I./JG3 was down to only seven serviceable Bf-109s. At the same time, while the strength of the WS Southern Front had dwindled from 671 aircraft on 1 July to 258 on 1 August, the surviving Soviet airmen nevertheless continued to put up a determined esistance.III./JG3 was dealt a severe loss on 3 August, when 37-victory ace Oblt. Kurt Sochatzy was brought down in a Soviet air-to-air ramming, a taran, and taken prisoner. Awarded the Ritterkreuz on 12 August, Sochatzy remained in Soviet captivity until released in September 1947.
In early August, Stab and I./JG53 were withdrawn from the Eastern Front, leaving their aircraft to JG3, but at the same time, III./JG52 arrived from Rumania. Stationed at Belaya Tserkov, III./JG52 fought its first combats over the Kiev area on 4 August when the names of two men, later to become among the best-known of the Luftwaffe's pilots, first began to appear on III./JG52's victory board. Oblt. Gunther Rail, Staffelkapitan of 8./JG52 achieved his fifth, six and seventh victories when he shot down three I-16s on the first mission of the day and during the same flight, Lt. Hermann Graf of 9./JG52 achieved his first victory, also an I-16. Three days later, III./JG52 reached its 100th victory, one of the main contributors to this success being Ofw. Josef Fernsebner of 8./JG52 who was himself shot down and killed shortly after scoring his 15th victory on 9 August. By that time, the battle of encirclement at Uman had ended with a German victory and more than 103,000 Soviet soldiers marched into German confinement. Now the emphasis was on Kiev, where the Red Army would be dealt its greatest single defeat in history.
Messerschmitt's Over Smolensk
By the end of June, Army Group Centre had pinched off a Soviet salient at Bialystok and by 9 July had put an end to Soviet resistance in the Minsk pocket, capturing nearly 300,000 prisoners, 2,500 tanks and 1,400 artillery pieces. German forces continued their advance and by 16 July had broken through to Smolensk, but Soviet counter-attacks temporarily prevented German forces from completing another encirclement. There then followed almost three months of bitter fighting as the Soviets launched wave after wave of new air and ground forces against Army Group Centre's drive towards Moscow. These Soviet attempts were strategically successful, but the cost to themselves was extremely high.
Operating over this area of the front was one of the Luftwaffe's most successful Jagdgeschwader, JG51, led by Obstlt. Werner Molders, the Luftwaffe's highest-scoring ace. On 5 July, Molders brought his victory tally to 86  by shooting down two SBs and two MiG-3s. The MiGs are believed to have belonged to 401 lAP, an elite unit of test pilots posted to the Smolensk area on 1 July and commanded by Hero of the Soviet Union Podpolkovnik (Colonel) Stepan Suprun. Suprun declared he wanted to "test the German aces", but in fact the unit's MiG-3s proved inferior to the Bf-109F-2 and the hardened veterans in JG51 were more than a match even for the skilled fliers of 401 lAP. Indeed, on 4 July, Suprun himself was killed in combat with JG51.
In their attempts to stop the German advance, all types of Soviet aircraft were committed against Luftflotte 2 and Army Group Centre, from modern Yak-ls, 11-2s and Pe-2s to the most obsolete types. On 6 July, IV./JG51's Lt. Heinz Bar, one of Molders' most promising pilots, claimed two "Severskys" which were probably 11-2s from Ground-Attack Regiment 4 ShAP, the first unit to bring this formidable ground-attack aircraft into combat. On 9 July, Molders' claimed two elderly I-153 biplane fighters as his 87th and 88th victories and, next day, encountered two of the even older, very slow and weakly armed R-Z reconnaissance biplanes which now served as light bombers. On 11 July, when JG51 claimed 34 kills against fouraircraft lost, Lt. Bar reached his 40th victory when he destroyed two DB-3s. Meanwhile, Ofw. Heinrich Hoffmann of IV./JG51 shot down two Pe-2s as his 16th and 17th victories.
In total, JG51 achieved more than 200 victories during the first 12 days of July, and on the 12th, III./JG51's Gruppenkommandeur, Hptm. Richard Leppla, was credited with bringing down the Geschwader's 1,200th victory, of which 509 had been achieved on the Eastern Front. Since the beginning of the Russian campaign, JG51's combat losses were 24 Bf-109s destroyed, 22 severely damaged and eight pilots lost, but this Geschwader, too, was affected by the inadequate German supply system on the Eastern Front. During the first four weeks of the war in the East, the number of serviceable Bf-109s available to JG51 dropped from 121 to 58, of which, Molders noted, 26 were unserviceable simply because they lacked spare parts. In this situation, the veteran pilots became even more important and the serviceable Bf-109s were flown mainly by the most successful pilots. It was, therefore, a bitter blow when Oblt. Hermann Staiger, Staffelkapitan of 7./JG51, was severely injured on 14 July and, two days later, the Bf-109F-2 flown by Oblt. Hans Kolbow, Staffelkapitan of 5./JG51, received a direct hit by anti-aircraft fire during a strafing mission. Kolbow attempted to bail out from an altitude of less than 60 feet but fell to his death. These men were two of JG51's best officers, Staiger having 25 victories and Kolbow 27.
Meanwhile, on the 15th, Molders had become the first Luftwaffe pilot to exceed a total of 100 victories but was immediately grounded by Hitler who feared that his loss would be a severe blow to German morale. At the same time, Molders became the first recipient of the Diamonds to the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords, and he was assigned to the post of General der Jagdflieger.
The situation on the ground was now frequently extremely confusing as there were no clearly defined frontlines over a huge area. JG51's main mission, however, was clearly defined and called for it to fly freie Jagd sweeps to secure air superiority and provide air cover for the ground troops. In this role its pilots continued to find opportunities to achieve higher personal successes than ever before. One example was Lt. Georg Seelmann of II./JG51, who had flown since the beginning of the war but up until the opening of the Eastern Front had two victories. However, in the first four weeks in the East he increased his victory tally to 20 as JG51 continued to eliminate one after another the WS units thrown into this area. A Pe-2 squadron from Bomber Regiment 411 BAP arrived at the front on 22 July and the next day despatched half its force against JG51's airbase at Shatalovo. All were shot down. Later that day, three of the five remaining 411 BAP bombers were shot down during a second attempt to raid Shatalovo, two of them being Lt. Bar's 43rd and 44th victories. In the evening of 23 July, one of 4 ShAP's new IL2s fell as Bar's 45th kill, this Soviet unit recording a total of 55 11-2s lost on operations by the end of July. Similarly, 411 BAP's last two Pe-2s were sacrificed on 24 July, one of them claimed as the 23rd victory of IV./JG51's Ofw. Heinrich Hoffmann, the other being 4./JG51's Lt. Georg-Peter Eder's tenth victory. A similar fate met 410 BAP which arrived at the Smolensk sector on 5 July with 38 Pe-2s but which by 26 July had lost 33 of them including 22 shot down by German fighters. Even though WS Western Front received 900 aircraft as replacements during July, the VVS opposed to Luftflotte 2 was unable to carry out more than an average of 240 combat sorties per day during the period 10 to 31 July, during which time Luftflotte 2's combat sortie rate averaged 575 per day.
Unable to close the ring around Smolensk, Army Group Centre was ordered to stop its drive north-eastwards towards Moscow until the city had been completely surrounded. The main emphasis of the advance now became Army Group North, which had advanced further than either Army Group Centre or Army Group South, and the seizure of Leningrad. To secure this goal, in late July the entire VIII. Fliegerkorps was temporarily detached from Luftflotte 2 and was transferred to Luftflotte 1. Thus, III./JG27 and II./JG52 were transferred northward. On 5 August, after being aided by Army Group North, the Germans announced the encirclement of Smolensk and the capture of 310,000 prisoners, 3,205 tanks and 3,120 artillery pieces. By that time, total Soviet aircraft losses since the opening of hostilities was estimated by the Germans to be 9,082. In the intense air fighting during the period between 10 July and 6 August alone, the Luftwaffe claimed to have destroyed almost 3,000 Soviet aircraft - 771 by Luftflotte 1, 1,098 by Luftflotte 2, and 980 by Luftflotte 4. But, up to 2 August, the Luftwaffe also recorded 1,023 of its own aircraft destroyed and 657 severely damaged on operations on the Eastern Front.
Meanwhile, throughout most of August, Army Group Centre and Luftflotte 2 concentrated on clearing the confused battle situation in the Smolensk-Gomel area, where JG51 and III./JG53 warded off increased VVS activity, not least over the German 2nd Army's bulge at Yelnya. Between 1 and 16 August, these units were credited with the destruction of 169 Soviet aircraft against 11 combat losses, and on the 16th also, Oblt. Karl-Gottfried Nordmann, Kommandeur of IV./JG51, attained his 40th victory.
Despite their enormous losses, the Soviets still possessed a tremendous will to resist and a relentless stream of reinforcements allowed the strength of the VVS to increase. On 18 August, I. Fliegerkorps' bombers and the troops of 2nd Army noted intense Soviet air activity. At this time, III./JG53 was obliged to cease all operations because it simply had no serviceable aircraft left, and the few fighters remaining to II. Fliegerkorps succeeded only in destroying eight Soviet aircraft and lost two of its own. Two days later, Soviet 129 lAP reported a major success by claiming nine victories for no losses over the Yelnya Bulge.
Before launching the final assault against Leningrad, it became necessary for Army Group North to check its flanks. Strong forces of Soviet troops still remained in northern Estonia where there was also a strong presence of Soviet fighters which made German aerial reconnaissance in particular very hazardous. To combat the Soviet fighters, JG54 carried out freie Jagd missions over Estonia and the Gulf of Riga, and during one such mission on 19 July, Lt. Walter Nowotny of Erg.Gr./JG54 was shot down by a Yak-l and came down in the sea south of the Soviet-occupied Isle of Osel. Climbing into his one-man dinghy, Nowotny paddled away from the island and continued to do so for 52 hours. In that time, he covered a distance of 60 km and reached the coast of Estonia where he was rescued. For more than three years afterwards, Nowotny always flew wearing the same trousers he had on that day, considering them a lucky charm. On the one occasion he flew without them, on 8 November 1944, he was killed.
Meanwhile, in preparation for the forthcoming offensive against Leningrad, the bombers of I. Fliegerkorps were concentrated against the flow of Soviet supplies on the railways. These operations were also supported by JG54 and on 20 July, five pilots from III./JG54 succeeded in destroying six locomotives on the Dno-Staraya Russa section of the line and completely blocked it. Nevertheless, the problem of supply was greater for the Germans than for their opponents and by 22 July, II./JG53 reported only six serviceable aircraft. Five days later, the Gruppe transferred to Germany to refit with new Bf-109F-4s and was non-operational for three weeks. It was at this time that VIII. Fliegerkorps was attached to Luftflotte 1 from Luftflotte 2, bringing with it the fighter units III./JG27 and II./JG52.
On 27 July, Major Hannes Trautloft, Geschwaderkommodore of JG54 and also commander of the fighter units in I. Fliegerkorps, was awarded the Knight's Cross. Three days previously he had scored his 20th victory against an 58 bomber. On 30 July, Oblt. Hans Philipp, Staffelkapitan of 4./JG52 achieved his 50th victory by downing five Soviet aircraft and on 1 August, 7./JG54's Lt. Max-Hellmuth Ostermann shot down a D8-3 as JG54's 1,000th victory. However, immediately following this success, the Staffel was attacked by two Soviet fighters which set Ostermann's Bf-109 on fire and shot down Oblt. Gunther Scholz, both pilots being lucky to escape alive.
On 6 August, Oblt. Reinhardt Hein, Staffelkapitan of 2./JG54, was shot down and captured by Soviet troops but, on the same day, Oblt. Hubert Mutherich and Oblt. Josef P6hs, both of 5./JG54, were awarded the Knight's Cross for 31 and 28 victories respectively.
The intended final offensive against Leningrad opened on 8 August, but heavy rain and reinforced Soviet defence forces slowed the German advance. When the skies cleared on 10 August, large-scale air fighting took place above the slowly advancing Panzer columns with Luftflotte 1 carrying out 1,126 sorties while the VVS flew 908 in the same sector. II./JG52 lost four Bf-109s on 10 and 11 August but, generally, it was the German fighters that were the masters of the air, destroying most of the 54 Soviet aircraft claimed by Luftflotte 1 on 10 August. On 12 and 13 August, Major Trautloft's fighters were credited with 35 victories for no losses of their own and, on the 14th, Oblt. Erbo Graf von Kageneck of III./JG27 shot down five Soviet aircraft. Two days later, as the strategically important city of Novgorod fell into German hands, Grafvon Kageneck increased his total score to 45.
JG54's first ace killed on the Eastern Front was Ofw. Georg Braunshirn with 13 victories, shot down and killed on 16 August. Three days later, Luftflotte l's fighter force was again strengthened when II./JG53 returned from Germany after re-equipping with Bf-109F-4s and started flying operations in the Lake limen area. That day, Oblt. Hans Philipp's 4./JG54 achieved its 200th victory, a higher number than any other Jagdstaffel. A few days later, Oblt. Philipp himself brought down his 62nd enemy aircraft and was awarded the Oak Leaves.
To the north of Lake limen, a fierce battle raged as the Soviets fought to defend their main supply line from Moscow to Leningrad. II./JG52 was in the forefront of these battles and lost two Bf-109s on 19 August. On the 22nd, Lt. Gerhard Barkhorn of 4./JG52, later to become the second-most successful pilot in history with 301 confirmed victories, shot down what was recorded as a "Vultee 11", probably an 11-2, as his fifth victory. On the 26th, Barkhorn's Staffelkapitan, Oblt. Johannes Steinhoff, shot down two aircraft and two more on the 27th, receiving his Knight's Cross shortly afterwards.
On 27 August, II./JG54 and III./JG53 each attained their 500th victories and about this time, IV./JG51 was transferred to Luftflotte 1, increasing further the pressure on the VVS. Oblt. Karl-Gottfried Nordmann, Kommandeur of IV./JG51, achieved his 50th victory on 28 August and his wingman, Uffz. Franz-Josef Beerenbrock, reached his 40th kill by downing three Soviet aircraft on 30 August, the same day that Oblt. Heinz Bar of 12./JG51 shot down six. Between 20 and 30 August, Soviet fighter corps 7 IAK of Leningrad's air defence lost 52 of its 150 fighters, yet still the Soviets resisted strongly and inflicted losses. Lt. Georg Seelmann of II./JG51 shot down a DB-3 as his 36th victory on 30 August, but was rammed later the same day by a Soviet bomber. Seelmann baled out over Soviet-controlled territory but managed to evade capture and returned to the German lines. Bar had a similar experience after scoring his 79th and 80th victories against two Pe-2s on 31 August. His 'Black 1' was shot down behind enemy lines but despite two sprained ankles, Bar also returned to the German lines. III./JG53's -Lt. Erich Schmidt was less fortunate. With 47 victories, Schmidt was the most successful pilot in III./JG53 but when his 'Yellow 6' was shot down by ground fire on the 31st, Schmidt baled out over Soviet-controlled territory and was never seen again. Three days later, III./JG53 was moved south to participate in the offensive against Kiev.
Among the last successes achieved by IV./JG51 on the Northern Front were two SBs brought down on 8 September by Ofw. Heinrich Hoffmann as his 54th and 55th victories. Soon afterwards, the Gruppe transferred to Army Group Centre to help suppress the increasing Soviet air activity in that sector of the front.
As the German Panzer troops closed in on Leningrad in early September, the ground fighting grew even harder. At the same time, the Luftwaffe was forced to re-locate some units to other sectors of the front at the very time the Soviets transferred new units, including seven fresh fighter regiments, to the Leningrad sector. The inevitable result was that Luftflotte 1 received a series of severe personnel losses. On the 6th, II./JG52 lost the 30-victory ace Oblt. August-Wilhelm Schumann when his 'Black 1' crashed near Lyuban.
On 9 September, 5./JG54's Staffelkapitan, 43-victory ace Oblt. Hubert Mutherich, was shot down by Soviet fighters and was killed when he attempted to belly-land his badly damaged 'Black 10'. When the Germans made a fruitless attempt to break through Leningrad's defence perimeters on 11 September, there were severe losses on both sides. Although JG54 recorded 17 victories against three losses and II./JG53 claimed nine, this latter Gruppe lost Ofw. Stefan Litjens (24 victories) when he was shot down and severely injured. III./JG27 also claimed nine kills on 11 September but lost Lt. Hans Richter (21 victories) when he was shot down by an I-16; and on 19 September, III./JG27 lost Fw. Ernst Riepe (six victories) who went missing in his 'Yellow 11' after an aerial combat. Six days later, Ofw. Franz Blazytko (30 victories) of III./JG27 was captured after being shot down, possibly by M.Lt. (Junior Lieutenant) Dmitriy Tatarenko of the independent fighter squadron 13 OIAE/VVS KBF. Finally, on 30 September, III./JG54's Gruppenkommandeur, Hptm. Arnold Lignitz, was shot down over Leningrad by an 1-153. Lignitz, a Ritterkreuztrager credited with 25 victories was held by Soviet troops in Leningrad where he died.
Despite the loss of many of Luftflotte l's best fighter pilots, however, the Luftwaffe fighter arm remained superior in airmen and aircraft. The Soviet situation was incomparably worse, and of the 445 pilots available to 7 IAK on 1 July 1941, this number had dropped to 88 three months later. Nevertheless, the stiff Soviet defence and the German Army's inability to bring forward replacements and spare parts to its first-line units made it impossible for the Germans to achieve their goal of capturing Leningrad. Eventually, they decided not to assault Leningrad but to besiege it and starve it into surrender. Thus, from late September, when VIII. Fliegerkorps returned to Luftflotte 2, JG54 remained as the only fighter unit in Luftflotte 1.
Annihilation at Kiev
After the successful conclusion of the battle of encirclement at Uman in the Ukraine during the first half of August 1941, German Army Group South concentrated its forces against the mighty Dnieper River in the east, and by 23 August had seized its first bridgeheads at Zaporozhye, Cherkassy and Gornostaypol. This drive was supported from the air by Luftflotte 4, which mustered the fighter units Stab, I., II. and III./JG3; Stab and III./JG52; Stab, II. and III./JG77; and I.(J)/LG2.
Meanwhile, Army Group Centre's 2. Panzergruppe, commanded by Generaloberst Heinz Guderian, opened a major offensive to the south from its positions in the Gomel area, 130 miles north of Kiev, with the aim of meeting up with Army Group South and trapping the entire Soviet South-Western Front in a huge pincer manoeuvre. Initially, Soviet opposition against Guderian's attack was weak and the heavy losses in the air during the past weeks had reduced the strength of the VVS to less than one hundred aircraft.
Control of the air cover over Guderian's troops was the responsibility of II. Fliegerkorps, but JG51 achieved only two aerial victories in the first two days of the offensive. Soviet reinforcements in the form of a complete army group, General-Leytenant Andrey Yeremenko's new Bryansk Front, were rushed in to meet Guderian's offensive with an air force mustering 464 aircraft, but the bulk of WS Bryansk Front's airmen lacked combat experience, were inadequately trained, and relatively few of the aircraft they manned were of the latest models. The VVS units of the Bryansk Front first went into action on 25 August and during a battle with MiG-3s and bombers, Hptm. Hermann-Friedrich Joppien, Kommandeurof I./JG51, was killed. With 70 victories to his credit, Joppien was the Luftwaffe's fourth-ranking ace at the time of his death. Despite this loss and the numerical superiority of the VVS Bryansk Front, the quality of the Jagdwaffe pilots compared with their Soviet opponents was such that JG51 soon established air superiority and on 27 August claimed 35 victories for no losses. Thus VVS Bryansk Front was already crushed when, on 3 September, III./JG53 arrived from Luftflotte 1. On 8 September, the Kommodore of JG51, Major Friedrich Beckh, was credited with the Geschwader's 2,000th victory, more than 1,300 of which had been achieved since 22 June 1941.
Further south, the air fighting over Army Group South increased in intensity as the Soviets attempted to suppress the increasing number of German bridgeheads on the Dnieper's eastern bank, but again the main result was further losses in the Soviet air units. The 13 September was a particularly dramatic day, JG3 claiming 25 Soviet aircraft shot down including 13 "V-l1s", probably 11-2s, for the loss of one Bf-109 over the bridgehead at Kremenchug. Twenty of these kills were claimed by II./JG3 and the Geschwaderkommodore, Major Gunther Lutzow, contributed by bringing down two DB-3s for his 69th and 70th victories. Also on this day, I./JG3's last three serviceable Bf-109s carried out their final combat sorties before the Gruppe was withdrawn to Germany where it was eventually redesignated II./JG1.
As the Panzer groups from Army Groups South and Centre converged, forming the jaws of the war's greatest pincer movement, the lines of retreat where Soviet troops tried to escape entrapment were attacked by hundreds of German bombers from Luftflotte 2 and Luftflotte 4 while Bf-109s from five Jagdgeschwader kept the skies clear of opposition. On 16 September, 1. and 2. Panzergruppen met at Lokhvitsa, 130 miles east of Kiev, and closed the ring around five Soviet armies. The final stage of the Kiev battle was characterised by complete German control of the air and between 17 and 26 September, JG51 recorded a total of 41 victories, with JG3 claiming 35 and III./JG53 claiming 14. When the battle was over, 440,000 Soviet soldiers had been taken prisoner in the collapsed Kiev pocket.
Beckh is Appointed Kommandeur
It was under these circumstances that Major i. G Friedrich Beckh proposed that he should himself become Kommandeur. He had the requested rank, had for a long time been seeking action and, despite already being 33 years of age, felt he had the skills of a 20 year old. Moreover, as a staff officer, he possessed all the theoretical knowledge necessary to lead a Gruppe. However, besides his age and physical size, Beckh's eyesight had deteriorated since he had joined the Luftwaffe in 1935 and by 1941 he had to wear spectacles. Although Molders finally accepted the solution and officially named Beckh as Kommandeur of lY./JG51, he certainly had his doubts about Beckh's abilities and ensured that he would always be escorted by an excellent Rottenflieger with sufficiently good eyesight to serve both the Kommandeur and himself.
Accordingly, on 5 March 1941, when IY./JG51 became involved in its first action since the loss of Keitel, Major Beckh was escorted by the former Legion Condor member and later Ritterkreuztriiger, Ofw.Adolf Borchers, who flew as his wingman. In this action, Beckh was able to claim his first victory, a Spitfire shot down from an altitude of 8,200 metres in combat off Boulogne, while Borchers also claimed a Spitfire. A few days later, on 10 March, Beckh claimed his second victory north of Le Touquet and, on 6 May, with the excellent Oblt. Karl-Gottfried Nordmann as his wingman, he claimed another Spitfire as his third victory. His fourth, a Hurricane, fell on 21May.
During the first months of Operation 'Barbarossa', Major Beckh became very successful and, on 21 July 1941, was finally chosen by Molders to succeed him as Kommodore of JG51. Beckh's place as Kommandeur of IV./JG51 was taken by Oblt. Karl-Gottfried Nordmann and the new Kommodore also attracted to his Stab another famous pilot, the Austrian Lt. Bernd Gallowitsch of 12./JG51, who at that time was credited with about 20 victories and who flew as Beckh's wingman. Soon, the Beckh-Gallowitsch team proved most successful and on 8 September 1941, Beckh claimed JG51's 2,000th victory.
Beckh's luck turned for the first time on 16 September when, during a low-level mission, his Bf-109F- 2 was hit by flak.Although badly wounded in his left foot, Beckh survived and, two days later, he was awarded the Ritterkreuz. By this time, he had been successful in 27 combats, including his four in the West, and had also destroyed about 20 Russian aircraft on the ground.Although his wound temporarily prevented him from flying further missions, he continued to lead his Geschwader from the ground until, on 3 October, he finally had to resign himself to enter hospital in order to avoid the risk of infection in his wounded foot Jagdgeschwader 51 then came under the command of Major Gunther Lutzow who, for a while, led his own JG3 as well as JG51. Having temporally lost his Rottenfuhrer, 'Gallomir' Gallowitsch returned to 12./JG51 where he soon claimed his 40th victory.
Apparently, in early 1942, Beckh was again able to fly missions and claimed approximately 20 more victories before he was posted back to the Reichsluftfahrtministerium. His successor as Kommodore of JG51 was, once again, the same Major Nordmann who, six months earlier, had succeeded Beckh as Kommandeur of IV./JG51. However, Beckh's new position in the RLM certainly did not please him and soon he was pressing to be returned to the front. He was granted his wishes when, on 3 June, following the death in action of Major Wilhelm Lessmann, he was named Kommodore of JG52.
Beckh, however, scored no more victories. On 21 June 1942, he took off in a Bf-109F-4 coded 'Black 4' for a fighter sweep against enemy airfields, the kind off mission he particularly liked. He was accompanied on this occasion by the experienced Ofw. Berthold Grassmuck who subsequently wrote the following report:
Grassmuck Oberfeldwebel, l./JG52
In the field, 2SJune 1942,
At 0935 on 21.642, I took off as wingman to Major Beckh in order to carry out a fighter sweep in the area of Isjum-Kupjansk-Waluiki.1 observed a Russian air base east of Waluiki. With Major Beckh, I circled over the landing field three times at an altitude of 3,000 metres.
Afterwards, Major Beckh headed down to 1,000 metres toward another enemy landingfield which was covered with Russian fighters. Then nine LaGG-3s came towards us. Immediately Major Beckh attacked the aircraft in front and shot it down. The pilot baled out. During the dogfight other LaGG-3s took off so that there were about 20 Russian fighters in the air. During the air battle the flak discharged a heavy concentration of fire. After the first kill Major Beckh attacked another aircraft. During the air combat, numerous LaGG-3s attacked Major Beckh from the rear. I was able to shoot down one of these aircraft. When it was no longer possible for me to cover Major Beckh, I called out on the radio, "Ten enemy fighters behind us." Major Beckh pulled up at a shallow angle and was able to shake off the Russian fighters. As we were pulling up, I saw the detonations of four flak bursts directly under Major Beckh's aircraft. Afterward it trailed white smoke. I called out over the radio, "Head for own lines, aircraft emits white trail of smoke." Since I received no answer from Major Beckh, I repeated this message. The aircraft continued to fly in the same direction for about 50 seconds and then nosed down and dived into the ground at a steep angle. The aircraft burst into flames upon impact. I could not circle over the crash site since there were six LaGG-3s behind me. I could not determine if Major Beckh had taken to his parachute. The crash site is about 3-4 km. SW' of Waluiki...
(Signed) Ofw. Grassmuck
A Mystery Solved
On the evening of 21 June, Beckh's family listened to a radio broadcast announcing the Heldentod, or Hero's Death of Friedrich. The next day the family received from the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe an official written confirmation of his death and, for a while, there seemed little doubt concerning the certainty of his fate.
Beckh's reported death was a severe blow to JG52 as he was the Geschwader's second Kommodore lost in three weeks. However, in view of Grassmuck's doubt about whether or not the Major had baled out, rumours quickly began to circulate that perhaps Beckh had after all survived the crash and had been taken prisoner. Indeed, about a week later, interrogation of a captured Russian pilot revealed that an injured German officer with the red stripes of the Generalstab on his trousers had been taken prisoner a few days earlier. When shown several photographs of Beckh, the Russian confirmed that indeed he recognised him as the officer captured earlier. This information clearly introduced an element of doubt over Beckh's fate and his loss was amended in official records from 'killed' to 'missing' in action.
Thus began the hope that Beckh may have survived and, for several years after the war, Beckh's father contacted many former pilots and made enquiries about his son. Although nothing conclusive emerged, hope that he may have survived was maintained by such letters as the following, written in 1951 by the ace Adolf Borchers:
'[Although] I did not participate in your son's last mission, the statement of the German pilot regarding the crash of your son's aircraft cannot however be entirely accurate. Among us pilots of JG51 'Molders', the official version at that time was that your son received hits during a low-level attack on a Russian aiifield, had to carry out a crash landing, and was taken alive into Russian captivity. This report was later supported by a statement made by a captured Russian pilot who claimed that, a few days earlier, a German Major'with red stripes on his trousers had crash-landed near his airfield and had become a prisoner of war. This is consistent with the fact that your son, as a member of the General Staff, flew while wearing his staff trousers. Unfortunately, during my own period of captivity in Russia, I heard nothing further about your son.'
Eventually, as the years passed and all hope faded, Beckh was tin ally declared "Gefallen".' Then, in early 2002, the author of this biography was contacted by Russian aircraft enthusiast Evgenij Be1ogurov who asked if the name Major i.G. Friedrich Beckh was known to him. The enthusiast then explained that in 1976 he had visited the site of a crashed Bf-109 which, according to an eye-witness, had been pursued by four Russian aircraft, one of which had shot it down. The German machine had then plunged into a marsh near Waluiki, in the Belgorod province, and there, at a depth of three metres, the enthusiast had found a well-preserved body, a number of personal documents in which the name Beckh appeared several times, and a diary in which the last entry was dated 19 June 1942.
At last it was possible to inform Beckh's family and the German War Graves Service of these facts and, at the time of writing, it is hoped that Friedrich Beckh may finally receive a decent burial.
1. Killed in action.
When the assault against Moscow was launched under the code-name Unternehmen Taifun', or Operation 'Typhoon', it marked the decisive stage of 'Barbarossa'. By 30 September 1941, the Luftwaffe had claimed a total of 14,500 Soviet aircraft destroyed, including approximately 5,000 in aerial combat, whereas its own total losses on the Eastern Front between 22 June and 27 September 1941 amounted to 1,603 aircraft destroyed and 1,028 severely damaged. The strength of Luftflotte 2 which had II. and VIII. Fliegerkorps under its command and which was assigned to provide air support, had dwindled from 1,200 to 549 aircraft. The fighter units participating were Stab, II. and III./JG3; III./JG27; the entire JG51; I. and II./JG52; and III./JG53. Included in III./JG27 was the first Spanish fighter unit to participate in the war, 1/0 Escuadrilla Azu/, which was designated 15.(Span.)/JG27. By 27-28 September, the total strength of the whole of JG3 amounted to just 30 serviceable Bf-109s, III./JG27 possessed only 11 while the entire JG51 had no more than some 50 serviceable fighter aircraft.
Operation 'Typhoon' commenced on 30 September with an attack launched by Generaloberst Guderian's 2. Panzergruppe, later redesignated a Panzer Armee. On the first day of the offensive there was virtually no Soviet aerial opposition, but strong reinforcements were soon allocated to the contested area and as early as 1 October the Soviets were able to assemble 301 serviceable bombers and 201 fighters against Luftflotte 2, followed shortly afterwards by the fighters of Moscow Air Defence's 6 IAK which were also brought into action. A relatively large number of these aircraft were of the latest types; MiG-3, LaGG-3 and Yak-l fighters, 11-2 ground-attack aircraft and twin-engined Pe-2 bombers. Meanwhile, more Luftwaffe units were withdrawn to rest and refit, II. and III./JG53 leaving in early October. Despite the diminishing number of serviceable aircraft, this may have been quite a sound decision since, at that time, there were more pilots available at the front than aircraft. All aircraft and technical stocks belonging to the units that left for Germany were handed over to those that remained.
On 2 October, Oblt. Karl-Heinz Leesmann's I./JG52, which had transferred to the Eastern Front from Holland prior to 'Typhoon', made a conspicuous debut by shooting down four Soviet aircraft. The next day, JG51 reported two victories against two losses, one of which was IV. Gruppe's Ofw. Heinrich Hoffmann, credited with 63 victories, who went missing in his 'Brown 2' after an air combat near Shatalovo aerodrome, possibly shot down by 233 lAP's St.Lt. Sergeyev. The next day, Spanish Gomandante (Lieutenant-Colonel) Angel Salas Larrazabal achieved 15.(Span.)/JG27's first two victories when he destroyed an I-16 and a Pe-2.
The air war during Operation 'Typhoon' reached a climax on 5 October, when JG51 claimed 20 victories without suffering any losses. Meanwhile, in JG3, the Geschwaderkommodore, Major Gunther Lutzow, shot down four DB-3s, and II. Gruppe's Kommandeur, Hptm. Gordon Gollob, reached his 51st victory by downing two fighters. Lutzow scored another four victories on 9 October, two on 10 October, and one on 11 October. On the latter date he became the fourth serviceman of the Wehrmacht, all of whom were fighter pilots, to be awarded the Swords to the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves. The largest contribution by any single Jagdgruppe was that given by Hptm'. Karl-Heinz Leesmann's I./JG52 which, between 2 and 10 October, was credited with 58 victories against seven losses.
The Soviets now sent further reinforcements to the endangered sector, four bomber regiments arriving from the Central Asian Military District on 10 October, and all available aircraft took part in an offensive against Luftflotte 2's air bases. However, this operation, which commenced on 11 October and lasted for eight days, was a total failure. During this period, Oblt. Erbo Grafvon Kageneck of JG27 shot down three 11-2s on the 11th followed by a MiG-3 on the 12th, bringing his Eastern Front victories to 47 and his total victory tally to 65, for which he was awarded the Oak Leaves on 26 October 1941. Also on the 12th, III./JG27, less 15.(Span.)/JG27, left the Eastern Front and II./JG3 left Luftflotte 2 and transferred south to reinforce Luftflotte 4 in the Crimea. On 13 October, JG51 claimed ten victories for the loss of 7. Staffel's Lt. Joachim Hacker, credited with 32 kills. Next day, Soviet 10 SAD, 12 SAD and 450 ShAP attacked German columns in the Yukhnov-Spas Demensk area; 15.(Span.)/JG27 reported three DB-3s shot down, two of them by Gte. Angel Salas Larrazabal. JG3's Major LCitzow claimed a MiG-3 and a DB-3 for his 96th and 97th victories.
By 7 October, large pockets of Soviet troops had been cut off around Vyasma and Bryansk, but the next day, the Autumn weather began to have an effect as heavy rains and mud began to slow German units pushing towards Moscow from the north and south. The effect on aerial operations, however, was more gradual and spasmodic, so that while Luftflotte 2 mounted only 51 sorties on 19 October and hardly any the next day, an improvement in the weather between 22 and 23 October allowed 939 sorties to be flown. However, the subsequent air battles also showed that the VVS was improving and in those two days, although JG51 claimed 17 victories, it sufferred five losses including 7. Staffel's Ofw. Robert Fuchs, credited with 23 victories, and 1. Staffel's 12-victory ace Ofw. Heinz Schawaller.
The next day, JG3's Major Gunther Lutzow carried out two missions. Shortly after 10.30 hrs, he engaged a small group of MiG-3s and shot down one, his 99th victory, in his first attack. There then followed a ten-minute turning combat before Lutzow was able to shoot down his next MiG-3, making him the second pilot to achieve 100 confirmed victories in the Second World War. On his second mission, at 14.23 hrs that day, Lutzow shot down a third MiG-3, following which he was ordered not to fly any further combat missions.
By this time, both sides had become almost bogged down in the mud some hundred miles west of Moscow. Luftflotte 2 did its utmost to intervene against counter-attacking Red Army units but suffered from a rapidly diminishing number of serviceable aircraft. In addition to this, conditions on the improvised frontline airstrips were frightful, and aircraft which did manage to take off were confronted by steadily mounting opposition from the VVS. The 15.(Span.)/JG27 was dealt its first combat loss on 25 October when Teniente (Lieutenant) Abundio Cesteros Garcia was wounded in action. Two days later, 7./JG51's Oblt. Herbert Wehnelt was shot down by an 11-2 shortly after achieving his 19th victory and was seriously injured.
The first five weeks of 'Typhoon' had indeed resulted in enormous Soviet losses, the Red Army facing Army Group Centre suffering more than 650,000 casualties between 30 September and 5 November 1941. In the air war, JG51 claimed a total of 289 victories in October against 13 Bf-109s lost due to enemy action. Actual VVS losses during the defence operations to the west of Moscow between 30 September and 5 November 1941 were 293 aircraft and many Soviet air units were badly depleted. On 29 October, 29 lAP and 187 lAP reported only two serviceable fighters apiece, while 198 ShAP was down to a single serviceable 11-2.
Between 1 October and 8 November, the Luftwaffe claimed to have destroyed a total of 2,174 enemy aircraft on the entire Eastern Front; 1,293 in aerial combat, 412 by Flak, and 469 on the ground. Although these figures reveal a considerable drop in the intensity of the air fighting, the daily average of Soviet aircraft claimed shot down in air combat now being 33 compared to 100 during the first weeks of the war in the East, they also indicate that the Soviets had learned from their previous mistakes and were taking greater care in dispersing and camouflaging their aircraft on the ground.
Over Kharkov and the Crimea
Meanwhile, Army Group South had launched attacks to capture Kharkov and secure the Ukraine. After the Battle of Kiev in mid-September 1941, Luftflotte 4's forces were dispersed between three main targets; the Soviet industrial centre in Kharkov and the Donets Basin; the Crimea; and Rostov. Since JG3 had been transferred to Luftflotte 4 to participate in Operation 'Typhoon', Luftflotte 4 could muster only four Jagdgruppen for these tasks, namely III./JG52, which was transferred to Poltava in the eastern Ukraine to support the drive against Kharkov, and II. and III./JG77 with I.(J)/LG2 which were in action on the right flank of Army Group South.
Despite its numerical inferiority, after about ten days of intense aerial activity, III./JG52 managed at least to achieve local air superiority. During this period, Uffz. Gerhard Koppen of 8./JG52, who had scored his first victory only on 24 June 1941, achieved his 18th and 19th victories on 24 September when he destroyed a MiG-3 and an SB; and on 4 October, Koppen's Staffelkapitan, Oblt. Gunther Rail, shot down his 19th and 20th victories which were claimed as "Severskys" but which were probably 11-2s. Between 3 and 14 October, III./JG52 was credited with more than 50 aerial victories without losing one of its own aircraft to hostile action and by 17 October, Oblt. Rail had already claimed his 25th victim, a Yak-l.
Nevertheless, Soviet bomber and ground-attack aircraft continued to attack the German advance columns with considerable effect and on 9 October, German 17th Army complained about "incessant enemy aerial attacks which are most troublesome to our advance". Two days later, an Armee Korps under 17th Army reported 196 casualties as a result of the day's Soviet air attacks. This contributed largely towards slowing down Army Group South's advance. Meanwhile, in an unparalleled evacuation operation, the Soviets succeeded in dismantling and transferring eastwards 1,523 factories, installations and research establishments. This included 85 per cent of their airframe and aero-engine production facilities and was a feat which German bomber operations against rail lines in the area failed to prevent.
Farther south, an attempt in mid-September by the German 11th Army to seize the Crimean Peninsula had failed due to stiff Soviet resistance. Supported by 200 fighters and 130 bombers of VVS ChF, the Soviets managed to hold their positions on the Perekop Isthmus connecting the Crimea with the mainland. In a further attack by 11th Army on 26 September, although JG77 and I.(J)/LG2 claimed 29 Soviet aircraft shot down against two combat losses, the Soviet airmen succeeded in providing their ground troops with decisive support and this second German attack also failed to achieve a decisive breakthrough.
Most of the Soviet aircraft shot down over the Perekop Isthmus on 26 September were bombers or ground-attack aircraft, some of them biplanes, which became easy prey to Bf-109s which bounced them from above, but the situation was greatly different in pure fighter versus fighter combat. Among the Soviet fighter units in the Crimea was Kapitan (Captain) Ivan Lyubimov's 5 Eskadrilya (Squadron) of VVS ChF's 32 lAP, equipped with Yak-1s. On 30 September, Kapitan Lyubimov and St.Lt. Mikhail Avdeyev, one of his best pilots, intercepted a pair of Bf-109s from 4./JG77 and shot one down. The Bf-109's pilot, Uffz. Julius Dite, baled out and although he was taken prisoner, Dite later perished in captivity. However, his pistol, which he reportedly handed over to Lyubimov and Avdeyev, is today on display in St. Petersburg's Central Navy Museum.
On 1 October, III./JG77 claimed three I-16s shot down but lost two Bf-109s. Two days later, LlV Armee Korps under the German 11th Army described the air situation at the Perekop Isthmus thus:
"The enemy air force was very active throughout the day, attacking villages, artillery positions and troop quarters in relentless waves (up to 27 aircraft participating in a single attack) to such an extent that [the situation] can only be described as [the enemy] having total control of the air."
A severe loss was inflicted on III./JG77 on 8 October when 38-victory ace Oblt. Kurt Lasse, the Staffelkapitan of 9./JG77, was killed during air combat with two MiG-3s. According to a German report, Lasse collided with his wingman, Fw. Robert Helmer.
Meanwhile, a new front was opened as German 1. Panzergruppe wheeled from the area east of Kiev and advanced south-eastwards to the Sea of Azov, enveloping the Soviet 18th and 9th Armies. On 9 October, VVS Southern Front, which was left with only 134 serviceable aircraft on 1 October, made strong attempts to relieve the entrapped forces, but 4 ShAP and 210 ShAP, despatched to attack 1. Panzergruppe, were met by II./JG77 which claimed eight 11-2s shot down during repeated clashes during the day. Other Soviet units suffered even worse during attacks on the German air base at Chaplinka, north of the Perekop Isthmus, and when the day was over, III./JG77 had claimed 14 of the raiders, four being awarded to Oblt. Kurt Ubben who thus achieved his 45th victory.
Nevertheless, the pressure exerted by the VVS on 11th Army in the Perekop Isthmus could not be broken and General Erich von Manstein, commanding 11th Army, pointed out that even the German anti-aircraft batteries hesitated to open fire for fear of revealing their positions. To help resolve this situation, II./JG3 was withdrawn from Operation 'Typhoon'. This Gruppe, commanded by Knight's Cross holder Hptm. Gordon Gollob, was at that time one of the most successful Jagdgruppen and had been credited with more than 400 victories in the East since 22 June 1941. Arriving at Chaplinka on 16 October, II./JG3 carried out its first mission over the Crimea the next day. This involved escorting bombers to Yevpatoria and during this mission, Hptm. Gollob claimed his 59th and 60th victories. Confident that Gollob's fighters would provide his troops with sufficient air cover, General von Manstein launched his next attack against the Crimea on 18 October. Gollob did what he could to break the Soviet air superiority, noting in his diary that day: "Nine victories, all against I-16s [actually MiG-3s]. First take-off at 06.47 hrs: two victories; second take-off at 09.45 hrs: five victories; third take-off at 1430 hours: two victories. "
On the ground, German troops did indeed note a certain relief, but it was far from sufficient and, once again, the German attack broke down under the weight of Soviet air attacks, one of which, a surprise attack carried out the following night by Pe-2s of 40 BAP /VVS ChF, succeeded in neutralising Chaplinka aerodrome. Eventually, German fighter forces were further reinforced by the arrival of III./JG52 and this proved to be the key to German victory in this sector. On 23 October, II./JG3, III./JG52 and III./JG77, led by the inspector of the Luftwaffe fighter arm, Oberst Werner Molders, then acting as Nahkampffuhrer Krim, were launched en masse against Soviet aircraft swarming over the Perekop Isthmus. By the end of the day, 34 Soviet aircraft had been claimed shot down, and 11th Army had achieved a decisive breakthrough. The next day, II./JG3 and III./JG52 dealt harshly with the weak Soviet fighter units that arrived on the scene and tried to regain what had been lost in the air on the 23rd. In III./JG52, Oblt. Gunther Rail shot down an I-153 and an I-16 for his 27th and 28th victories, Lt. Hermann Graf knocked down two "I-61s" for his 15th and 16th victories, and Lt. Adolf Dickfeld claimed five victories, bringing his total to 20. Meanwhile, Hptm. Gollob destroyed an I-153 for his 85th victory and on 26 October he was awarded the Oak Leaves to his Knight's Cross.
During the next few days 11th Army was able to occupy almost the entire Crimea, the exceptions being the Kerch peninsula, which was not cleared until May 1942, and the heavily fortified strategic port at Sevastopol which held out until July 1942. In early November, II./JG3 left the Eastern Front and was transferred to Germany for a period of badly needed rest. Its aircraft were handed over to III./JG77 which remained based in the Crimea, Hptm. Gollob's personal aircraft being taken over by Oberst Molders, the General der Jagdflieger, who preferred to stay with III./JG77 rather than to return to his office in Berlin. Albeit grounded on Hitler's orders, Molders continued to fly unofficial combat missions with III./JG77 in November 1941 and even achieved a number of unofficial aerial victories.
In the Far North
On the extreme north flank of Germany's war against the Soviet Union, Wehrmacht forces marched from German-occupied northern Norway to seize the town of Murmansk, the Soviet Union's only port which remained ice-free throughout the year and had direct access to the open seas. At the outbreak of hostilities, the operation against Murmansk was supported by Luftwaffenkommando Kirkenes, a detachment from Luftflotte 5 which mustered some 100 aircraft including about 20 Bf-109Es from 1. and 14./JG77. This force was opposed by 263 Soviet aircraft, none of which included the most modern types.
In contrast to the other sectors of the Eastern Front, there was almost no flying on 22 June 1941 due to thick fog and one of the Luftwaffe's first operations in the Far North was carried out on a later date when a Rotte composed of Oblt. Horst Carganico, Staffelkapitan of I./JG77, and Ofw. Hugo Dahmer, strafed the large Soviet lighthouse at the mouth of Kola Bay, the entrance to Murmansk. The two Jagdwaffe pilots were later strongly rebuked for this action, since German U-boats operating in this area used the lighthouse as an orientation point.
Carganico and Dahmer would soon earn fame as the deadliest Luftwaffe duo in the Far North. When the war against the USSR opened, Carganico had six victories, whereas Dahmer's score already stood at 11, reached while serving with JG26 in the West. In fact, Dahmer, who had better eyesight than Carganico, also developed the so-called Sauhaufen, or "hog wild" tactics, that led him and his Staffelkapitan to great success. According to these tactics, Carganico and Dahmer attacked Soviet bomber formations singly, relentlessly and irregularly, each from various directions, confusing the Soviet bombers' gunners by creating the impression that there were more than two German fighters attacking.
The progress of Luftwaffe operations in the Far North was assisted when Finland joined the war on Germany's side and, after a while, a Freya early warning radar was installed to support Luftwaffenkommando Kirkenes. This was quite unique, being the only case on the Eastern Front in 1941 when the Luftwaffe could make any use of radar, but despite this technical advantage the airmen had to fight hard. There were several highly experienced Soviet pilots serving in this sector, and one of them, St.Lt. Boris Safonov of the Northern Fleet's (SF) 72 SAP, would develop into the most successful Soviet fighter ace of 1941. Although Hptm. Alfred von Lojewski, Staffelkapitan of 14./JG77, was shot down on 29 June and was captured, on most occasions the German fighters had the upper hand against the Soviet Polikarpov fighters and SB bombers.
By 12 July, Dahmer's victory tally had reached 22 while Oblt. Carganico's stood at 13. At this time, Carganico and Dahmer were stationed at Petsamo, the Finnish town that had been annexed by the Soviets in 1940, and when the German Army's advance against Murmansk failed and both sides became bogged down in static warfare, wild dogfights took place in the air over the frontline. This was the period of the Polar Summer, when the sun shone for 24 hours and rendered air operations possible around the clock. Oblt. Carganico achieved an unusual victory on 25 July when he shot down an MBR-2 seaplane, but his air combat five days later would be even more spectacular. At this time the British aircraft carriers HMS Victorious and Furious were operating in northern waters, and on 30 July, 30 Fairey Albacore torpedo aircraft and nine Fairey Fulmar fighters from the Royal Navy's 827, 828 and 817 Squadrons, took off from these vessels to attack German ships at Kirkenes. The British formations were intercepted by nine Bf-109s from Hptm. Carganico's I./JG77 and four Bf-110s from the neighboring 1.(Z)/JG77. A total of 12 Albacores and four Fulmars were shot down (the Germans claimed 28) for the loss of a Bf-110 and a Ju-87. Although Ofw. Dahmer did not participate in this action, two days later he achieved his 25th victory against a Soviet aircraft and became the first pilot in the Far North to be awarded the Knight's Cross.
Another successful pilot in I./JG77 was Lt. Heinz Mahlkuch, who had a total of 16 victories before being posted missing in action on 23 August 1941. Shortly afterward, a 20 year-old Unteroffizier was posted to I./JG77 from the Erganzungsgruppe. His name was Rudolf Muller, and on only his third combat flight, on 12 September 1941, he scored his first victory against an I-16 followed by a DB-3 and an I-153 on 17 September. Muller would eventually become one of the highest scoring Luftwaffe pilots in the Far North.
By this time Soviet air forces in the Far North were being reinforced. MiG-3s and LaGG-3s arrived to replace the Polikarpov fighters, and Western lend-lease war equipment started arriving by sea aboard convoys sailing into Murmansk. The first convoy brought the RAF's 81 and 134 Squadrons with a total of 39 Hurricane fighters, and the British pilots carried out their first combat in this sector on 12 September when a Bf-109E was shot down for the loss of a Hurricane. However, contrary to various British accounts, the Hurricanes, whether flown by British or Soviet pilots, did not bring any decisive qualitative improvement to the Soviet side, and of the three Bf-109s claimed shot down by the British Hurricane pilots on 26 September, for example, not one can be confirmed by German loss records. In contrast, however, the new pilot Uffz. Rudolf Muller shot down one of these Hurricanes on the 27th as his fourth victory.
During the first three months of operations against the Soviets, I./JG77 was credited with about 100 victories for the loss of 10 Bf-109s and three pilots. On 25 September, two days before his 24th birthday, Oblt. Carganico became the Staffef's second Knight's Cross holder with a victory tally of 27. By that time, the Jagdstaffeln in the Far North had been united under the command of Major Hennig Strumpell to form the Jagdgruppe zur besonderen Verwendung, or Fighter Group for Special Duties.
From October 1941 the approaching Polar winter with its greatly reduced hours of daylight and adverse weather severely curtailed flying in the Far North. A Schwarm commanded by Dahmer was transferred to an airfield near Alakurtti, 175 miles south-west of Murmansk, to support the Finnish III. Army Corps' attack in this area. On 25 October, Dahmer's Schwarm took off to attack a Soviet army patrol of about 150-200 men which had penetrated the Finnish lines during the night and had surrounded Alakurtti aerodrome. During two strafing missions, the four Bf-109s managed to almost completely wipe out the Soviet unit.
Uffz. Muller shot down his next Soviet aircraft, two SBs and an I-16, on 2 and 4 November, and a few days later, I./JG77 was withdrawn from first-line service. During the last weeks of 1941, it became apparent even from the relatively few encounters in the air, that Soviet aerial opposition had improved. When Lt. Alfred Jakobi of Jagdgruppe z.b. V. was shot down and wounded in his shoulder by a Soviet Hurricane near Zapadnaya Litsa, his aircraft became number 15 on Boris Safonov's list of shot-down German aircraft; 20 if Safonov's shared victories are included.
A troublesome incident took place on 8 November, when the newly appointed Jagdfliegerfuhrer Norwegen, Oberst Carl Schumacher, flying a mission in a Bf-109, misidentified a Finnish De Havilland Dragon Rapide ambulance aircraft. Believing it was a Soviet SB bomber, Schumacher attacked and shot down the Finnish aircraft. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, and to avoid an awkward incident, the Germans awarded the Finnish crew with Iron Crosses and rapidly transferred Schumacher to another position.
A comparison between German and Soviet loss files show that whereas Luftflotte 5 registered 89 aircraft destroyed or severely damaged due to enemy action in the air between June and November 1941, the Soviets lost 221 aircraft in combat with both Luftflotte 5 and the Finnish Air Force.
In late October and early November 1941, the notorious Russian rasputitsa - the deep mud created by the heavy autumnal rainfall - almost brought the German offensive along the entire Eastern Front to a complete standstill. The VVS tried to exploit this situation by attacking the columns of stranded German vehicles, and whenever conditions permitted, the Bf-109s of the Jagdgeschwader in the East carried out freie Jagd standing patrols over the front area. On the Northern Front, JG54 reported eleven kills on 6 November, thus bringing the Geschwader's total number of victories to over 1,500, and to the south, over the road to Rostov, I. (J)jLG2, III./JG52 and II./JG77 dealt the VVS airmen grievous losses. Of these Jagdgruppen, III./JG52, which had transferred to Taganrog on the northern shore of the Sea of Azov on 2 November, was particularly successful. Fw. Gerhard Koppen achieved the Gruppe's 400th victory in early November, the Staffelkapitan of 8./JG52, Oblt. Rail, achieved his 30th victory when he shot down a MiG-3 on 8 November, and throughout the month the Gruppe's victory-to-loss ratio was 20:1.
The most effective resistance in the air was encountered by Luftflotte 2 near Moscow where the Soviets gave the defence of the city the highest priority and, indeed, the proportion of modern Soviet aircraft was larger here than anywhere else along the front. Nor was the situation helped when the whole of II. Fliegerkorps left Luftflotte 2 and transferred to the Mediterranean where it was require9 to attack Malta, the British base which threatened German convoys to North Africa. After the departure of the last elements of JG3, JG27 and JG53, the only Jagdwaffe units left to provide Army Group Centre with air cover were JG51 and I. and II./JG52. During November, JG51 registered an average of ten victories for every loss and on 4 November recorded 18 Soviet aircraft shot down against two losses. Between the 4th and 15th, I./JG52 achieved 35 victories against four losses, but included among its casualties was the Gruppenkommandeur, Oblt. Karl-Heinz Leesmann, who was seriously injured in air combat on the 6th; Leesmann had 32 victories and had been awarded the Knight's Cross. On 13 November, the 57-victory ace Ofw. Edmund Wagner of 9./JG51 had just shot down a Pe-2 bomber when his Bf-109F-2, 'Yellow 1', was hit by defensive fire from a Soviet bomber and crashed near Pafmutovka.
With the arrival of the Russian winter in mid-November, the roads froze and the German advance could be resumed, 1. Panzer Army renewing its offensive against Rostov on 17 November. Here the Soviets tried to block the advance by launching heavy air strikes and, on 17 November alone, the VVS carried out a total of 400 sorties but was stalled by III./JG52 and II./JG77. That day, 9./JG52's StaffelfCthrer, Lt. Hermann Graf, achieved his 25th victory by shooting down an I-16. When the first German troops reached Rostov on 20 November, III./JG52 still had 18 serviceable Bf-109s to hand and was in firm control of the air in this sector.
Nevertheless, the Wehrmacht was inevitably losing its strength as battle fatigue, over-extended supply lines and a chronic lack of spares and replacements made it increasingly difficult to fulfil demands. Indeed, it was largely due to the deteriorating supply situation in the East that Ernst Udet, the Luftwaffe's chief of supply and procurement, was driven to commit suicide on 17 November. Five days later, the General der Jagdflieger, Oberst Werner Molders, boarded an He 111 of KG 27 at Chaplinka in order to fly to Udet's state funeral, but the Heinkel crashed in bad weather during an intermediate stop at Breslau, killing the popular fighter leader. To preserve his memory, JG51 was awarded the honour-title Jagdgeschwader Molders on 24 November and, similarly, the honour-title Jagdgeschwader Udet was later bestowed upon JG3.
On 27 November, a sharp drop in temperature added to the Germans' problems and in the Moscow area a temperature was measured of -40°C The Wehrmacht was totally ill-prepared to meet such harsh conditions and found itself with troops that lacked suitable clothing and had technical equipment not designed to operate at such low temperatures. The Luftwaffe, too, was frequently paralysed by the cold as most first-line units were based largely on primitive front airstrips where there were no heated hangars available.
Conversely, the Red Army and VVS proved far better prepared to meet such harsh conditions and on 28 November incessant Soviet air attacks succeeded in halting the 10th Motorised Division of Guderian's 2. Panzer Army. Only a few of JG51's Bf-109s could take off that day, and although they shot down a total of five Soviet aircraft, this was hardly sufficient to block the Soviet air attacks. Also on 28 November, 8./JG52's Oblt. Gunther Rail was severely injured when his Bf-109F-4 was shot down by a Yak-l near Rostov. Two days later, a Soviet flank attack against the 1. Panzer Army succeeded in forcing the Germans to withdraw from Rostov.
On 2 December, a clear day with temperatures of around -15°C, Army Group Centre made a final effort to seize Moscow and actually managed to penetrate the Moscow suburb of Khimki before its forces were halted by tenacious Soviet resistance. On account of the favourable weather, both Luftflotte 2 and the VVS could send all available forces to support the ground fighting and JG51 claimed a total of 18 Soviet aircraft destroyed, the Gruppenkommandeurof II./JG51, Hptm. Hartmann Grasser, achieving his 40th victory while the Staffelkapitan of 4./JG52, Oblt. Johannes Steinhoff, claimed his 50th.
Despite these successes, however, Luftflotte 2 was gradually losing the battle for air superiority in the skies above Army Group Centre and by 6 December, when the Soviets counter-attacked in the Moscow area, it could commit less than 600 aircraft against the Soviets' 1,376. During the first days of the Soviet counter-offensive, air operations were complicated by a low-pressure system which brought mild air to the Moscow area and created a thick fog. As the German ground troops fell back in increasing disorder, the German fighters flew low-level ground-strafing sorties against the Soviet advance columns and, as a result, JG51 achieved no more than a dozen victories between 6 and 10 December.
To the north of Moscow, with clear skies and sinking temperatures, the Soviets retook Tikhvin on 9 December and, on 13 December, the VVS Kalinin Front carried out a devastating raid against Klin aerodrome north-west of Moscow, knocking out half of II./JG52's aircraft park before the airfield was evacuated due to the Soviet advance. Luftwaffe statistics show that between 13 and 19 December, the amount of air activity declined sharply and that in this period only 45 aerial victories were claimed along the entire Eastern Front. Aided by reinforcements, a greatly strengthened Luftflotte 2 then ordered all available aircraft against the advancing Soviet troops and helped Army Group Centre to bring the Soviet offensive to a halt during the last week of the year. But by that time, German forces all along the Eastern Front had been forced onto the defensive.
The importance of the role played by the Jagdwaffe during Operation 'Barbarossa' cannot be underestimated, for whenever the Bf-109s appeared in any strength they dominated the skies, often even when vastly outnumbered. In their first six months on the Eastern Front between June and December 1941, the Jagdflieger achieved previously unparalleled numerical successes and claimed a total of more than 7,000 aerial victories, a number which accords with Soviet loss statistics. These high Soviet losses were due to a combination of factors but mainly to the purging of the Red Army in the late 1930s and the Luftwaffe '5 superiority in combat experience, tactics and equipment. The most successful Jagdgeschwader during Operation 'Barbarossa' was JG51, which accounted for 1,820 victories in the East in 1941 against 240 of its aircraft destroyed or severely damaged. In the same period, JG54 reported 1,185 victories against slightly more than 200 of its own aircraft destroyed or severely damaged.
Between 22 June and 6 December 1941, total Luftwaffe aircraft losses including aircraft damaged on the Eastern Front are recorded at 3,422, of which 2,093 were completely destroyed or written off. Total fighter losses amounted to 981, of which 568 were completely destroyed or written off. Compared with the number of Soviet aircraft destroyed, these German losses are surprisingly low but cannot be regarded as insignificant because of the inadequate supply system which made losses, however small, difficult to replace. For this reason, the attrition sustained by the Luftwaffe in the East in 1941 is one of the main reasons for the Wehrmacht's failure at the gates of Moscow in December.
After action in the Balkans, II.(Schlacht)/LG2 prepared for action in the East and provided valuable support for the ground forces. As with I(Jagd) Gruppe, II. Gruppe was still equipped with the Bf109E and was in action from the first day of ' Barbarossa'. Its activities are summarized below.
22-24 June: Supported the breakthrough of 9. Army and 3. Panzergruppe from the border fortifications east and south-east of Suwalki in East Prussia.
25 June-1 July: Took part in the encircling battles of Grodno, Bialystok and Minsk and participated in the advance of 3. Panzergruppe via Vitebsk to Smolensk.
2-20 July: Supported 2. Panzergruppe in the Dnieper River crossing.
21-29 July: In action against Russian forces defending Smolensk and took part in the battle of encirclement at Smolensk.
7-26 August: In support of 16.Army in drive to reach Novgorod.
27 August-8 September: Advanced with Panzergruppe Schmidt on Schliisselburg.
9-28 September: Operated in support of 4. Panzergruppe in the attack on Leningrad and fought Russian counter-attacks near Lake Ladoga.
2- 7 October: Participated in the battle of encirclement at Vyazma.
8-14 October: Supported the push on Kalinin with 3.Panzergruppe and AOK 9.
28 October-28 November: Took part in the battles to isolate Moscow from Tula to the south and from Klin to the north of the city.
29 November: Returned to home base in Germany for refitting. Later redesignated and formed part of Schlachtgeschwader 1, returning to the front in May 1942.
Pilots I./JG54 Gerhard Proske
Through forest, marsh and swamp
GERHARD PROSKE, I./JG 54
At around 10.15 hrs on 27 October 1941, the l./JG 54 engaged a number of Soviet]-26s (1-26s) in combat. After I had shot down one of them in the vicinity of Tichwin, my aircraft was attacked by another Russian fighter and sustained numerous hits. With a seized engine and a coolant temperature of 160°, I was forced to crash-land my Me 109 on its belly in a snow-covered marsh near a tall, dense forest in Soviet territory, approximately 30 km. south-east of the bridgehead. As I climbed out of the cockpit, I saw in the distance numerous Russian soldiers with rifles advancing rapidly in my direction. Because I had to escape to safety immediately, I therefore had no time in which to retrieve the emergency rations from the fuselage of my Me 109.The Russians fired at me and, crouching to make myself as small a target as possible, I hurried towards the cover of the trees and concealed myself so that the Russian soldiers were unable to discover me. Later, under the protection of darkness and with the assistance of my compass, I headed west through forest, marsh and swamp.
Even during the night, because the snow and trees formed a strong contrast, I was able to maintain a straight course, but my pilot's fur-lined boots were heavy and wet due to wading through the snow and my feet were stiff. During the day I hid and rested, but I did not sleep for fear of freezing to death. It was very cold and, from time to time, I performed all kinds of exercises to keep warm. On the second day, my pilot's fur-lined boots were heavy and wet due to wading through the snow and my feet were stiff and very painful. By the third and fourth days I had lost all feeling in them.
To add to all this misery I suffered from hunger and thirst. I had nothing to eat, nothing to drink and nothing to smoke, so I had to sustain myself for four days without food, liquid and tobacco. On the first day I had felt little hunger and cold, but on the second and third days I thought I would collapse. Occasionally I ate some snow to satisfy my thirst, but the march through the snow tested me severely and due to my exhaustion I was able to make only slow progress. I began to feel an indifference which reached its height on the fourth day. Oddly, this feeling came on at night when everything was quiet, but as soon as I heard the sound of combat, new courage and hope reappeared and I wanted to return to my comrades!
During the fourth night, I reached a forest near the village of Petrowskoja. I waited there until dawn approached, since I did not know for certain if I was within German or Russian lines. That morning, under cover of the trees, I crawled toward the sound of a firing artillery piece. When I was about 100 metres from this gun, I recognized a Russian guard, and as I pulled back, I noticed two more Russian soldiers behind their machine- gun. I crawled along this machine-gun's line of fire and thus toward the German lines.At the same time, I heard the firing of the German machine-guns but I could not make out the German troops as they were well-camouflaged in their white coats. I moved toward the explosions of the Russian shells and finally, on the evening of the fifth day, reached a German battery. At last I was safe.
Two German infantrymen brought me to Petrowskoja where my frozen feet were bandaged and I finally received something to eat and drink. That night, I slept on a plank bed, but it seemed like heaven. On the following day, I was brought to Tschudowa in a army personnel vehicle and ten days after my emergency landing I was reunited with my comrades of the 1. Staffel. I was home!*
* On 30 January 1944, by which time Proske had been promoted to Feldwebel, he was again forced to land on the other side of the lines due to engine failure. On this occasion, however, he fell into Russian captivity and it was not until September 1949, after five years of harsh conditions as a prisoner of war in the Urals, that Proske returned home to Germany.
Pilot 4./JG51 Friedrich Beckh
Friedrich Beckh was born in Niirnberg on 17 January 1908. Although his early years, and also those of his brother, Wilhelm, were marred by the premature death of their mother, they were fortunate to find in their father's second wife a good stepmother who also gave them a stepbrother. After completing his Abitur, or school leaving examination, Friedrich Beckh entered the then 100,000-man strong German Army in 1926 and joined the cavalry. There, in spite of his height and weight (he was nearly two metres tall, weighed almost 100kg and wore size 47/48 shoes) he succeeded in becoming one of the best riders in his unit and participated in many riding competitions. Beckh, however, had always been attracted by the thrills and risks associated with speed and, shortly after the official creation of the Luftwaffe, he asked for a transfer to the still-expanding German Air Force. Officially integrated into the Luftwaffe with the rank of Oberleutnant in 1935, he started flying training and, simultaneously, began to enter air rallies and races where soon he again became well known for his skill. Later, he also developed an attraction for elegant sports cars and his men became accustomed to see him arrive at his airfield in these splendid vehicles.
Naturally, in view of his character, Beckh opted to fly fighter aircraft and, despite his unusual height and weight, was posted toJG 134 in 1936. Nevertheless, at the beginning of the war, because he was then over 30 years of age, he did not take part in any war flights and was sent instead to the Luftkriegsschule where he occupied different positions in the General Staff. It was probably there that he met Werner Molders, with whom he became a close friend and whose operational experience in the Spanish Civil War was often cited in the different levels of authority within thejagdwaffe.
On 27 July 1940, Major Molders became Kommodore ofJG 51 and, shortly afterwards, he arranged for Hptm. Beckh to transfer to that Geschwader, Beckh arriving in October as an officer detached from the General Staff. At the year's end, Beckh was promoted Major i.G. and, at the same time, I./JG 77, which had for several weeks been under the command ofJG 51, officially became IV/JG 51, so makingJG 51 the first jagdgeschwader to possess four full Gruppen. On 16 February 1941, the Kommandeur of IV/JG 51, Hptm. Johannes Janke, left the unit to take over a position in the Stab of a Nachtjagddivision and, while awaiting a new, official Gruppenkommandeur, Obit. Hans-Karl Keitel, formerly Staffelkapitan of 10./JG 51, was meanwhile selected to lead the Gruppe. Although it was unusual to have an Oberleutnant in a position normally occupied by a Major, or at the very least by a Hauptmann, Molders had chosen to appoint Keitel, who then had eight victories, in accordance with Goring's wish to have only experienced and successful pilots in positions of command. However, Keitel's tenure as acting Kommandeur was brief as he was killed in action on 26 February 1941 and Molders was again faced with the problem of appointing a successor.
- ISBN Luffewafe in Color Jagdwaffe Vol 3 Section 2 - Barbarossa Jun-Dec 1941
- History of the Second World War published by Purnell & Sons 1966.
- The World at War by Richard Holmes published by Ebury Press 2007.
- The Field Men by French L MacLean published by Schiffer Military History Atglen PA 1999.
- Moscow to Stalingrad: Decision in the East. Ziemke, Earl F. Washington DC: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1987
- Holocaust Historical Society
- Named after a medieval crusader.
- The Germans erroneously referred to the 8B as the Martin bomber, 8B-2 or 8B-3, while the I-153 Chayka was frequently misidentified by the Germans as a Curtiss.
- This figure does not include victories in Spain.
- A loss indicates the number of machines lost to front-line service due to enemy action. Thus, in this instance, of the 111 aircraft lost to front-line service, 61 were totally destroyed or otherwise written off.
- Includes a few hundred aircraft based along the Soviet-Finnish border.
- One hundred victories, if Molders' 14 victories in the Spanish Civil War are included.
- Fighter losses in this period amounted to 466 destroyed and 333 severely damaged.
Editor for Asisbiz: Matthew Laird Acred
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