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.
One sad incident occurred on 21 September. When flying an escort for Ju 87 dive-bombers followed by a freelance sweep in the Shum area, my 7. Staffel lost its acting Staffelführer, Oberleutnant Walter Lucke. Hit by anti-aircraft fire west of the Volchov, near Shum, he was forced to make a wheels-up landing.
After he had come down smoothly we saw Lucke clamber out of the cockpit of his G-2 White 5 and wave goodbye to us while standing on the aircraft's wing. Seconds later we watched in black dismay as he shot himself It was clear to him that he would not have had the slightest chance of survival, for the Russians on the Leningrad front took no prisoners and he would probably have been killed most cruelly.
Fw.Johann Pichler, 7./JG 77.
Some Myths Dispelled
Several myths surround the German defeat at the gates of Moscow in December 1941. One concerns the Soviets' supposed vast numerical superiority, but after the heavy losses it had suffered in the Summer and Autumn of 1941, the Soviet Army was actually numerically inferior to the Wehrmacht in troops, tanks, and artillery pieces. Only in the air was the Soviet Air Force - the VVS able to maintain a marked numerical superiority, and when the Soviets launched their Moscow counter offensive against Army Group Centre on 6 December 1941, the VVS possessed 1,376 aircraft against less than half that number in the Luftwaffe.
Another, perhaps more widespread myth regarding the Soviet counter-offensive, is that it was the arctic cold which paralysed German Army Group Centre. There had indeed been a cold spell in late November and early December 1941, but from 8 December milder temperatures thawed the snow so that when the German Army's offensive against Moscow collapsed, it occurred in mild weather and rain. Although the temperature again fell below minus 20°C around Christmas, Army Group Centre had by that time managed to rebuild its defence positions. That this was possible was largely due to the efforts made by new Luftwaffe units which had been rushed in but, nevertheless, by the end of 1941, German forces all along the Eastern Front had been forced onto the defensive.
Army Group South under Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt was the first to suffer defeat in the battle against the Soviet Army. In late November it had been expelled from Rostov and, under strong attack, Rundstedt ordered a general retreat. The withdrawal was already in progress on 30 November when Rundstedt received the first of the FCthrer's "hold at all costs" orders. This Rundstedt was unable to do, and he was relieved of his command.
In the north, Feldmarschall Ritter Wilhelm von Leeb's Army Group North had been forced to retreat from its advanced position at Tikhvin, which then allowed the Soviets to rebuild their supply route to Leningrad via Lake Ladoga. Further north, General Dietl's German troops and their Finnish allies had proved unable either to capture the important port of Murmansk or to sever the lifeline of the Kirov railway.
But an incomparably worse blow had been dealt Army Group Centre which, while the Soviets effectively removed the threat against Moscow, was brought to the verge of collapse only a few weeks after it had proudly announced the annihilation of almost all Soviet forces before the capital. What failed at Moscow was German combat morale. Their previously unimaginable defeat against the Soviet Army - which German propaganda had portrayed as a force not to be taken seriously - shook the confidence of many German soldiers during those days in December 1941.
However, as German ground troops abandoned their positions and started to withdraw, the Luftwaffe was called in as a 'fire brigade'. In the air, the Germans still held a convincing qualitative superiority, particularly in fighters. Although the new Focke-Wulf Fw 190 A had started reaching first-line units in the West in the Autumn of 1941, on the Eastern Front the Messerschmitt Bf 109 would remain the standard German fighter type. Indeed, it remained the only German fighter in operational use in the East until well into 1942 for, apart from the Yak-l - which in early 1942 was not yet available in any numbers - there was no Soviet fighter which could compete with it on equal terms. Thus, aerial engagements involving Bf 109s on the Eastern Front in 1941 invariably ended in favour of the Luftwaffe, a fact confirmed by German victory claims and by Soviet records.
Another misconception concerning the quality of Soviet aircraft and the notion that the WS was technically inferior also deserves close examination, for while the Luftwaffe's overall aircraft inventory was indeed technically superior to that of the VVS, it should be remembered that the Luftwaffe in 1941 had better aircraft than any other air force, and even the RAF with its Spitfire V - itself an outstanding aircraft - was suffering a disproportional number of losses. In the VVS, even older types, notably the I-16 Ishak fighter, or Rata, were at least equal to prevailing average world standards, whereas the most modern types produced by the Soviet aircraft industry in 1941 - the MiG-3, LaGG-3 and Yak-1 fighters, the Pe-2 dive-bomber and the ground-attack IL-2 Shturmovik - were of highest world standards.
However, the decisive German qualitative superiority in the air was due not only to the excellence of the Bf 109 F. An additional factor was that Luftwaffe aircrew were better trained and were more experienced. They also employed superior tactics which called for Luftwaffe fighter pilots to operate in close teams in which the Rottenführer was the sword and the wingman, or Rottenflieger, served as a shield. With good, reliable radio receivers and transmitters installed in all German fighters, this tactic could not be beaten, certainly not by Soviet fighter pilots, whose aircraft in most cases had no transmitters installed. Furthermore, VVS fighter pilots still clung to the inflexible three-aircraft Vee formation which originated during the First World War when the doctrine was to fight individually.
The high victory scores attained by German fighter pilots, was the emphasis placed on freie Jagd, or free hunting missions. Inspired by Baron Manfred von Richthofen during the First World War, this not only allowed ambitious fighter pilots to search out their prey but it also permitted them to choose whether to accept or avoid combat. Conversely, Soviet fighter pilots operated under completely different conditions; their mission was simply to beat the enemy wherever they encountered him, whether in the air or on the ground. While the German word for fighters was Jager, or hunter, the Soviets adopted Istrebitel, or destroyer, and when carrying out pure fighter missions were bound either to provide close escort for slower aircraft - which deprived them of both speed and freedom of action - or to fly fighter patrols within strict territorial boundaries. If an enemy aircraft crossed the boundary, pursuit was abandoned, an important reason why the number of Luftwaffe aircraft returning to base with battle damage, compared with those totally destroyed, was higher on the Eastern Front than elsewhere.
Even before the outbreak of hostilities, Soviet aircrew were less well trained than their Luftwaffe opponents, but after the German invasion of June 1941, the Soviets' huge losses compelled them to shorten aircrew training from already inadequate levels to a standard where novice pilots barely were able to land their aircraft. Additionally, more than two years of war had produced a core of elite German airmen, the best of which were unequalled anywhere in the world. Needless to say, a Bf 109 pilot such as, for example, 9./JG 54's Oblt. Hans-Ekkehard Bob - who by the end of 1941 had logged 1,541 flights, 437 combat missions and had 39 confirmed victories - already possessed a tremendous advantage over almost any Soviet airman he encountered.
General Winter Paralysed the Luftwaffe
The events during the Soviet Winter offensive of 1941/42 serve to confirm the Luftwaffe's important role in the East, for when rain and low clouds prevented the Luftwaffe from interfering decisively during the first half of December 1941, the Soviet Army's counteroffensive achieved success. Then, when a ridge of high pressure cleared the skies and new Luftwaffe units arrived, the first stage of the Soviet offensive was immediately halted. But the real cold spell of the Winter - the one which made meteorological history - arrived in the new year. On 4 January 1942, temperatures of minus 42°C were measured in the Moscow area and caused the Wehrmacht tremendous technical difficulties. Not only did aero engines refuse to start, but an already chaotic supply system collapsed as locomotives froze and, almost instantly, the Luftwaffe practically vanished from the skies over the Moscow area. Meanwhile, Soviet aircraft were stationed on well-equipped peacetime air bases around Moscow.
"The railway situation was chaotic. German locomotives were not designed to operate in temperatures of minus 30° C and were to be found on railway tracks almost everywhere, frozen and immobile. "
Nicolaus von Below, Hitler's Luftwaffe adjutant.
"Huddled close together, we sat in a Heinkel bomber converted to a passenger aircraft. Beneath us the dreary, snow-covered plains of southern Russia flowed by. [...J To keep our direction, we flew along the railway line. Scarcely a train could be seen; the stations were burned out and the servicing sheds destroyed."
Albert Speer, later Armaments Minister.
After the withdrawal of Luftflotte 2 and II. Fliegerkorps to the Mediterranean area, air support for Army Group Centre was entrusted to General Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen's VIII. Fliegerkorps. In early January 1942, the fighter units available to von Richthofen were Stab, II., III., and IV./JG 51, plus I. and II./JG 52. On 10 January, these units had available a total of 69 serviceable Sf 109s, but when sub-zero temperatures arrived, the greater part of the available aircraft became forcibly grounded. Under these circumstances, many soldiers of Army Group Centre lost all hope, and after a few weeks of renewed Soviet attacks, resolutely supported by the VVS, resulted in a situation where Army Group Centre was brought close to complete collapse. Utilising the surprise factor, Soviet mobile units infiltrated weakly held sectors and grounded Luftwaffe air units frequently had to man trenches in order to fight off such attacks. On one occasion, II./JG 52 lost its adjutant, Oblt. Carl Willi Hartmann, in such ground fighting.
Whenever conditions did permit any of VIII. Fliegerkorps fighter aircraft to take off, the situation on the ground was so desperate that they were mainly used to fly fighter-bomber missions. These were not popular because all Soviet soldiers were encouraged to open fire on low-flying German aircraft and the fighter pilots knew only too well that a single small-arms round in the vulnerable cooling system of the Sf 109's liquid-cooled engine was all that was required to bring them down.
All of this had a severe impact on the morale of the German air units and the Gruppenkommandeur of II./JG 52, Hptm. Erich Woitke, was removed from his command and court-martialled for displaying obvious symptoms of demoralisation. Similarly, combat spirits in 7./ JG 51 were found to be so low that it had to be disbanded, its pilots being dispersed among other units. Some airmen who were found to have lost their fighting spirit reportedly were transferred to the Luftwaffe field divisions, then being established for front-line service on the orders of Reichsmarschall Hermann Goring, where they served as ground troops.
While III./ JG 51 was almost exclusively flying fighter-bomber missions and filed no claims for aerial victories in January 1942, II./JG 51 was achieving more favourable results and accounted for most of VIII. Fliegerkorps aerial victories during the Soviet winter offensive. Particularly successful was a team from 5./JG 51 comprising Lt. Hans Strelow and Ofw. Wilhelm Mink. They opened their 1942 successes by claiming five MiG-3s on 4 January - probably in an engagement with 16 IAP - in which Mink claimed three. Nine days later - when JG 51 lost 28-victory ace Fw. Egon Grosse in a weather-related flight accident - Mink claimed a Pe-2 while Strelow destroyed two R-Z biplanes as his 30th and 31st victories. However, these achievements had no influence on the general situation and, on 24 January, Strelow's and Mink's commander, Oblt. Hartmann Grasser, was shot down and injured.
With their morale considerably boosted, the VVS airmen now offered more resistance than previously, and the statistics of WS Western Front for January 1942 show that 4,175 combat sorties were flown that month. At the same time, VVS Western Front recorded a loss of 74 aircraft and claimed to have shot down 34.
The Situation is saved by the Luftwaffe
The use of 'Alert Boxes' - portable heated shacks erected to prevent aircraft engines from freezing together with a policy of rotating units between Germany and the East, were two dominant factors in the German revival west of Moscow in February 1942, and VIII. FIiegerkorps was able to quadruple the number of sorties it carried out in the first two months of the year.
At the same time, WS regiments moved forward to airstrips abandoned by the Germans, only to find that they were now confronted with extended lines of supply and primitive airfield conditions, exactly as their Luftwaffe counterparts previously. It was in February 1942 that 5./JG 51's Lt. Hans Strelow rose to real fame. Born on 26 March 1922, Strelow was only 19 years of age when he achieved his first victory on 25 June 1941. By the turn of the year, Strelow had amassed 27 victories and had earned himself the profound respect of his Geschwader, which had now adopted the honour-title 'Jagdgeschwader Molders'. On 4 February, Strelow increased his victories to 36 by shooting down four Russian aircraft in one day. From then on, his reputation started to spread beyond Jagdgeschwader 'Molders '.
Strelow claimed his 40th victory on 28 February and claimed 4 victories on 6 March, repeating this feat on 17 March. The next day he was awarded the Ritterkreuz and also shot down seven Soviet aircraft, after which the Wehrmachtsbericht mentioned him by name, an honour that previously had been bestowed only upon a few of JG 51's airmen. When he was awarded the Eichenlaub on 24 March, his victory score stood at 66.
Shortly afterwards, Strelow left for a home leave, by which time Army Group Centre's situation had been stabilised. However, it had sustained tremendous losses in personnel and material from which it would never completely recover, and although irrevocably placed in a defensive position, it had been saved from complete annihilation due mainly to the efforts of the Luftwaffe. When the Winter battle ended, JG 52's two Jagdgruppen were withdrawn from first-line service, but the remaining fighter units of VIII. Fliegerkorps - Stab, II., III. and IV./JG 51 - were in a more favourable situation than three months previously. On 8 April 1942, JG 51 became the first Jagdgeschwaderto reach 3,000 victories.
Geschwader Trautloft's First Winter in the East On Army Group Centre's left flank stood Army Group North. Positioned between Lake Ladoga and the area around Lake limen, it was supported from the air by Luftflotte 1 with its only air corps, I. Fliegerkorps. The fighters in this area were united under the command of Kommodore Major Hannes Trautloft, Geschwaderkommodore of JG 54 and undoubtedly one of the Jagdwaffe's best unit commanders. Although JG 54 took the name 'GrCmherz', or 'Green Heart', after Trautloft's home in Thuringia, the 'Green Heart of Germany', it became known to both friend and foe mainly as Geschwader Trautloft.
Trautloft, who took great care to attend to the well-being of every man in his Geschwader, arranged for his unit to be billeted in the old palace of the Czar at Krasnogvardeisk (now known as Gatchina). Based on such well-equipped aerodromes as Siverskaya, which had large, heated hangars, JG 54 was not as affected by the cold as JG 51. The VVS units in the area were unable to challenge the convincing air superiority of JG 54's pilots, although a bold attempt was made on 2 January 1942 when five Pe-2s escorted by eight I-16s succeeded in destroying ten aircraft on the ground at Siverskaya. But in the air, Trautloft's men were without peer. That day, 7./JG 54's Ofw. Karl-Heinz Kempf shot down five Soviet aircraft in a single mission, including one of the Pe-2s that had raided Siverskaya.
Opposing Luftflotte 1 were the air forces of the Volkhov, North-Western and Leningrad Fronts, plus VVS KBF (the Red Banner Baltic Fleet) and Leningrad's air defence unit 7 IAKjPVO, but these were in a sorrowful state because the best units had been withdrawn to the defence of Moscow. The heavy losses inflicted by JG 54 in 1941 were replaced largely with such obsolete biplane trainers and reconnaissance aircraft as U-2s, R-5s and R-Zs converted into bombers. In January 1942, more than half of the approximately 200 serviceable aircraft with VVS Volkhov Front were of these three types.
In the sector immediately to the south of Lake limen, the strength of VVS North-Western Front had plummeted from 1,211 aircraft on the eve of the German attack on 22 June 1941 to an astounding 79 exactly six months later. Nevertheless, the indefatigability of the city of Leningrad was a real nuisance to the Germans and their Finnish ally. A source of embarrassment to Generaloberst Alfred Keller - Luftflotte 1's commander - was that the powerful Soviet air defence of Leningrad, in particular anti-aircraft artillery, rendered his air fleet incapable of carrying out any effective air attacks against the surrounded city. Instead, he ordered his units to attack the ice road the Soviets had opened over the frozen surface of Lake Ladoga and which allowed lorries to bring supplies to Leningrad. This however changed from 7 January, when the Soviet Volkhov Front launched an offensive against the German lines to the north of Lake limen while the North-Western Front attacked to the south of the lake. These offensives were intensified on 13 January, leading to a narrow but deep penetration into German 18th Army's lines north of Lake limen.
During the upsurge in air fighting that followed, VVS Volkhov Front, VVS Leningrad Front and VVS KBF all took heavy losses from JG 54, and among Trautloft's experts the exploits of 3./ JG 54's Oblt. Max-Hellmuth Ostermann were particularly prominent. Ostermann had already received the Ritterkreuz in September 1941, and by the end of the year his score stood at 46. On New Year's Day 1942, a Yak-l fell as Ostermann's 47th kill, and then another two on 8 January, one on the 9th, and a MiG-3 on the 11th. In the last ten days of January, Ostermann's next victories followed in quick succession: a Yak-l on 20 January, an I-16 and an IL-2 on 23 January, and another I-16 the next day. On 25 January an MP-l hydroplane from VVS KBF took off from Priyutino for a courier flight to Novaya Ladoga escorted by two 1-153 biplane fighters from 711APjVVS KBF. None of these aircraft reached its destination and all fell prey to Oblt. Ostermann's skills. The next day, Ostermann destroyed a Pe-2 and, by adding an 1-15 and a MiG-3 to his tally on 28 January, surpassed his 60-victory mark. On the latter date, Hptm. Franz Eckerle, Ostermann's Gruppenkommandeur, attained his 50th victory and, in total, JG 54 claimed 99 victories against eight combat losses during the first month of 1942.
JG 54's most successful pilot was Hptm. Hans Philipp, who returned to 4./JG 54 after home leave in late January 1942. Philipp was already credited with 72 victories, and he opened a new series of successes by shooting up a forced-landed MiG-3 on 2 February. His probable victim was St.Lt. Ivan Chulkov, an ace in 41 IAP with nine personal and two shared victories, who was reported missing after a sortie over the Volkhov battlegrounds on that date.
However, the relentless quest for new victories also led many Jagdflieger to recklessness. On 13 February, while Major Trautloft was away on home leave, JG 54 attained its 1,699th victory. Eager to become the pilot responsible for the Geschwader's 1,700th victory, Hptm. Franz Eckerle bounced a formation of four I-16s and four 1-15bis from 71 IAP in the region south of Lake Ladoga on 14 February. In his second attack, at 14.25 hrs, Eckerle managed to shoot down Serzhant Aleksey Baranovskiy's 1-15bis - recorded as the German ace's 59th victory. Immediately afterward, Eckerle's Bf 109F-2, W.Nr. 9728, CH+OP, was hit by bursts of fire from three Soviet aircraft and crashed to the ground. The victory was shared between M.Lt. Petrukhin, M.Lt. Markov, and Serzhant Savosin. Eckerle reportedly baled out but was killed on the ground by Soviet troops. His place as I./JG 54's Gruppenkommandeur was taken over by Hptm. Hans Philipp.
To the north of Lake limen, the German 18th Army managed to contain Soviet 2nd Assault Army, which eventually became isolated in the so-called Lyuban Pocket, but south of the lake, the North Western Front succeeded in isolating two German army garrisons, at Demyansk and Kholm.
Protecting the Demyansk and Kholm Airlifts
Holding Demyansk and Kholm was a cornerstone of German 16th Army's strategy in the sector south of Lake limen, for once the Spring thaw set in, the Soviet Army would encounter severe supply problems in this area all the while these two communications centres remained in German hands. Hence, the Germans hastily organised an air bridge to provide these two strongholds with supplies, but with most of JG 54 concentrated north of Lake limen, Major Trautloft stationed only 9./ JG 54 and I./JG 51 - the latter subordinated to JG 54 - to the south. Although these two units had a mere eight serviceable Bf 109s apiece, they were more than sufficient because of the weakness of VVS North-Western Front: in January 1942, 32 of the 79 aircraft available to the Soviets were lost in combat, and in the period between 20 January and 16 February, although ObIt. Hans-Ekkehard Bob, Staffelkapitan of 9./JG 54, logged 23 combat missions in this area, only once did he encounter any Soviet aircraft.
However, in mid-February, this period of relative quiet ended, and at approximately the same time III./ JG 3 arrived in the sector after resting and refitting in Germany. The men of this Jagdgruppe, the first of JG 3 to return to the Eastern Front after this Geschwader had received the honour- title Jagdgeschwader 'Udet', soon found that they had little use for the briefing they received from 9./JG 54, which they replaced. Being unable to crush the Demyansk and Kholm strongholds, the Soviets decided to concentrate on severing their airborne flow of supplies. To complete this task, WS NorthWestern Front received substantial reinforcements, although the pilots of III./JG 3 'Udet' and I./JG 51 'Molders'thought that the Soviets had built up their battered WS Front with only inadequately trained novice pilots with poor flying skills, for between 18 February and 18 March, III./JG 3 alone was able to chalk up 81 victories for only three combat losses. In the same period, I./JG 51 lost not a single aircraft but, nevertheless, between 22 February and 10 March some 39 Ju 52s were destroyed.
On 20 March, Stab and II./JG 54 moved to Relbitsy aerodrome to complete the task of supporting the German Army's attempt to relieve the Demyansk garrison, known as Operation 'Bruckenkopf'.
The Soviets in turn countered by bringing to the area a number of more-experienced airmen and flying units, and German pilots soon noticed an improvement in Soviet aerial opposition. Oblt. Wolfgang Spate, one of II./JG 54's best aces, shot down a MiG-3 and a lend-lease Curtiss PAO on 26 March, but in return the Soviet fighters shot down one of II./JG 54's Bf 109s. Two days later, III./JG 3 lost 47-victory ace Lt. Eckhardt Hubner and his wingman, 17-victory ace Fw. Rudolf Berg, during a freie Jagd mission near Demyansk.
"We engage a group of 1-1.8s that intercept our dive-bombers. Other Me 1.09s join in the fight, and a stiff turning combat develops. Twice I tried to attack an 1-1.8 from behind, but on both occasions I am myself attacked by another Russian who forces me to disengage. Suddenly I hear the voice of our Geschwader Adjutant, Hptm. Otto Kath, over the R/T: 'Oil temperature 1.20 degrees, "11 have to make a forced-landing!'''
Major Traut/oft's description of an engagement, 28 March, 1942.
More successful were I. and III./JG 54, operating to the north of Lake limen, and on 29 March, Hptm. Hans Philipp reported his 98th victory and Oblt. Ostermann his 80th. The next day, Trautloft and his wingman were forced to flee into a layer of clouds in order to escape an attack by six MiG-3s. One consolation for Trautloft was the report that Hptm. Hans Philipp - I./JG 54's Gruppenkommandeur achieved his 99th and 100th victories on the last day of March. In all, the fighter units under Trautloft's command claimed 359 aerial victories in March 1942 for the loss of 15 Bf 109s in combat.
In April, the fighting over the sector immediately to the south of Lake limen intensified. By this time, German transport aircraft flying in supplies to Demyansk and Kholm operated only in tight formations protected by Bf 109s, and this dramatically reduced their losses. In addition, the Germans obtained further good results by means of their freie Jagd tactics. While VVS North-Western Front registered 168 combat losses (including 114 fighters) in April 1942, III./JG 3, I./JG 51 and II./JG 54 lost only eight Bf 109s in combat. After attaining the Gruppe's 700th victory on 6 April, III./ JG 3 returned to Germany.
Further north, in the Leningrad area, Ofw. Rudolf Klemm scored JG 54's 2,000th victory by destroying a Pe-2 at 10.42 hrs on 4 April and the next JG 54 pilot to reach the 100-victory mark was Oblt. Max-Hellmuth Ostermann, who completed this feat on 12 May. By that time, a land corridor to the Demyansk garrison had been opened and the bulk of both the Jagdgruppen and the transport units could be transferred to other sectors.
A Jagdgruppe in Trouble
Due to a combination of heavy losses in 1941 and the need to concentrate the best equipment in the defence of the capital, Soviet air opposition to German Army Group South and Luftflotte 4 in the eastern Ukraine - VVS South-Western and VVS Southern Fronts, each with around 200 aircraft - was made up mainly of older aircraft types such as the I-16 fighter. Interestingly, this is in complete contrast to the situation prior to the German attack in June 1941, when this region possessed a larger proportion of modern aircraft than any other sector.
Genera/oberst Alexander Lohr, commander of Luftflotte 4, had three fighter units at his disposal: III./JG 52 at Kharkov-Rogan in the north, I.(J)/LG 2 (later redesignated I./JG 77) at Mariupol, west of Rostov, and III./JG 77 on the Crimean Peninsula. Because of adverse weather and the numerical weakness of the VVS in the region, these Jagdgruppen had little contact with the enemy, but when they were encountered, the Germans noted that compared to those in the Ukraine, those in the Crimea showed greater skill and combat spirit, so that in January, III./JG 77 recorded only 2.7 victories per combat loss in the air, a ratio far below the average for the Jagdgruppen in the East.
The war in the Crimea flared up in late February when the new Soviet Crimean Front - which had established a foothold after landing in the Peninsula's eastern region in late December 1941 - launched an offensive aimed at relieving the surrounded Sevastopol and ousting the Germans from the Crimea. Again the results of air action between III./JG 77 and the Soviet airmen show that III./JG 77 recorded three Bf 109s crash-landed or shot down against a single victory on 4 March, and when they compared their own hard-earned victories with those of other Luftwaffe fighter units in the East, the pilots of III./JG 77 felt all but encouraged. Typically, when Oblt. Wolfdieter Huy achieved the Gruppe's 600th victory on 11 March, he was himself badly injured, and although a series of air combats on 16 March resulted in 10 victory claims for III./JG 77, again three of its Bf 109s were shot down. After this, III./JG 77 was relieved of first-line service and returned to Germany for a period of rest.
A Reversal of Fortunes
Replacing III./JG 77 was II./JG 77 which had exchanged its Bf 109 Es for new Bf 109 F-4s during a three-month period of rest and refit in Germany. Led by Hptm. Anton Mader, an extremely able unit commander, the pilots of this Jagdgruppe immediately set about striking a more favourable balance and indeed made an impressive start, shooting down 21 Soviet aircraft for no losses on 19 March. Four days later, a group of Mader's pilots pounced on a formation of 247 IAP Yak-1s and shot down two, killing 21-victory ace Mayor Mikhail Fedoseyev, at that time one of the top-scoring Soviet aces. For some reason, II./JG 77 managed to achieve a far better victory-to-Ioss ratio than the Geschwader's III. Gruppe, attaining in a ten-day period 60 victories against four combat losses.
Together with the failure of the Crimean Front to achieve any breakthrough, the loss of such a legendary ace as Fedoseyev was a hard blow for the Soviets in the Crimea, but instead of having a demoralising effect, this seemed to spur their airmen to even greater efforts. This was noticed by II./JG 77, which sustained two Bf 109s shot down in air combat against only one victory on 30 March, and another two Bf 109s shot down on 3 April, this time without any successes of their own. A strong Soviet bomber attack against Sarabuz aerodrome on the night of 4/5 April also dealt II./JG 77 some material losses, but the worst setback occurred on 6 April, when 42-victory ace Ofw. Rudolf Schmidt was shot down and killed by a Naval 40 BAP Pe-2.
Meanwhile, Spring arrived in the Ukraine and all became quiet along the Ukrainian front for now came the thaws and the infamous rasputitza, the seemingly bottomless slush and mud created by the melting snow. Thus, for III./JG 52, operating against VVS South-Western Front, most of April went by without many encounters with the enemy and in a four-week period in April, the entire III./JG 52 achieved no more than ten victories. On their base at Kharkov-Rogan, the men of this unit were amazed to hear totally contrary reports about the air war further south in the Mius sector. Operating there was I./JG 77, commanded by Hptm. Herbert Ihlefeld, a veteran of the Legion Condor in Spain, and already holder of the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves. During these Spring weeks, Ihlefeld's name was mentioned repeatedly in the Wehrmachtsbericht, the daily Wehrmacht radio bulletins:
"Hauptmann Ihlefeld achieved his eighty-second victory by shooting down seven enemy aircraft in one day." Wehrmachtsbericht, 31 March 1942
"Yesterday, Hauptmann Ihlefeld achieved his eighty-ninth to ninety-fifth victories on the Eastern Front." Wehrmachtsbericht, 21 April 1942
"Yesterday, Hauptmann Ihlefeld achieved his ninety-eighth to one hundred and first victories on the Eastern Front." Wehrmachtsbericht, 23 Apri/1942
Of the 62 victories claimed by I./JG 77 in April 1942, remarkably without any losses, no fewer than 43 were claimed by Hptm. Ihlefeld and his wingman, Oblt. Friedrich Geisshardt. On 22 April, Ihlefeld crowned these remarkable successes by surpassing his 100-victory mark while Geisshardt attained his personal 60th. Two days later Ihlefeld was awarded the Swords and at the same time was promoted to the rank of Major. Shortly afterwards he was selected to be trained as a Geschwaderkommodore.
A study of I./JG 77 provides a picture of a typical Jagdgruppe, where over 90 per cent of the victories accumulated in March 1942 were attained by the unit's officers. III./JG 52 appears to have had a slightly different character, since some of its best aces were NCOs, the most famous being Fw. Leopold Steinbatz, Fw. Gerhard Koppen, and Fw. Alfred Grislawski. Steinbatz achieved his 40th to 42nd victories on 8 January, for which he was awarded the Ritterkreuz. Koppen had attained these feats already in December 1941, and following his 69th to 72nd victories on 24 February, he was awarded the Oak Leaves. Grislawski flew as wingman to Lt. Herman Graf, 9./JG 52's Staffe/kapitan, and had amassed a total of 17 victories in March 1942.
In late April, III./JG 52 was transferred southwards to the Crimea as part of the build-up of Luftwaffe forces supporting a counter-attack against the Soviet Crimean Front. Genera/oberst von Richthofen established the staff of his VIII. Fliegerkorps in the Crimea, and III./JG 52 was one of several fighter units brought under his command. The other Jagdgruppen were I./JG 3, II./JG 52, 15. (Kroat)/JG 52, and I. and II./JG 77 which were mostly stationed at lurichtal.
The arrival of III./JG 52 immediately plunged VVS Crimean Front into severe difficulties. On 30 April, Graf shot down six of its aircraft while Grislawski bagged two, followed by another four on 1 May. Next day, seven Soviet aircraft fell to Graf's Bf 109 F-4, his 70th to 76th victories, while Gerhard Koppen (in the meantime promoted to Leutnant) attained his 80th to 84th. Competition between Koppen and Graf was brought to a fatal conclusion on 5 May, when Koppen was shot down while carrying out a reckless attack against a Pe-2. The German pilot ditched in the Sea of Azov and was never seen again.
The German attack against the Crimean Front opened on 8 May. Superior in both numbers and technical equipment, VIII. Fliegerkorps was able to eliminate VVS Crimean Front in only a few days and, after two weeks in the Crimea, III./JG 52 was moved back to Kharkov-Rogan on the 12th. Lt. Graf's 9./JG 52 had attained 90 victories without a single loss, Graf himself scoring his 90th personal victory during the transfer flight from lurichtal to Kharkov-Rogan.
While the final battle was fought over the city of Kerch in eastern Crimea, German fighters dealt harshly with Soviet air units that flew in from the north-western Caucasus. Two new names appeared here: Hptm. Gordon Gollob and Hptm. Heinz Bar. Gollob, who had earned fame with JG 3 in 1941, arrived to assume command of JG 77 on 16 May 1942. Five days earlier, Bar, who had been one of the greatest aces in JG 51, had been appointed Major Ihlefeld's successor as 1./ JG 77's
Gruppenkommandeur. While Gollob refrained from reporting four of his victories, thus avoiding the usual grounding order bestowed on any pilot reaching 100 victories, Bar shot down his 99th to 103rd victims on 19 May. That day too, JG 77 celebrated its 2,000th aerial victory.
Meanwhile, at Kharkov-Rogan, the pilots of III./JG 52 found they had returned to a hornet's nest. On 12 May, Soviet South-Western Front had launched a major offensive against German Army Group South's positions to the south and north of Kharkov. This drive was strongly supported from the air and on the first day III./JG 52 made its mark on the attacking VVS formations. Of 65 Soviet aircraft claimed shot down over the Kharkov battlefields on 13 May, the greatest number - 42 - was achieved by III./JG 52, including six by Lt. Herman Graf (victories 91 - 96) and the Jagdgruppe's 1,000th in total. The next day Graf claimed another eight victories, bringing his tally to 104, while his wingman, Grislawski, claimed two and Lt. Adolf Dickfeld claimed nine bringing his total to 90.
These aces continued to reap a deadly harvest among the inadequately trained Soviet airmen while, on the ground, troops of South-Western Front succumbed to a German pincer movement. On 18 May Dickfeld surpassed all previous records by claiming 11 kills in a single day, reaching a total of 100 in the process. He was awarded the Oak Leaves the following day. Meanwhile, Lt. Herman Graf had been awarded the Oak Leaves on 17 May and, just two days later, the Swords. His wingman, Grislawski achieved 22 confirmed victories plus one unconfirmed during May alone, and his friend, Ofw. Leopold Steinbatz, shot down 34 during the same period.
By the time the Battle of Kharkov reached its bloody conclusion, Herman Graf's 9./JG 52 had become famous among even the most humble German ground troops in the Kharkov area as the 'Karayastaffel'. The 'Karayastaffef' was characterised by its relaxed relationship between the Staffelkapitan Graf, and his subordinates, and its extraordinarily high combat spirit. On these grounds, it would develop into the war's most successful Jagdstaffel, eventually including in its ranks the 352-victory ace Erich Hartmann.
Controlling all German military operations in Norway and Northern Finland was Genera/oberst Hans Jurgen Stumpff's Luftflotte 5. This air fleet was tactically divided into three parts, of which Fliegerführer Nord-Ost was charged with the daily contest for air superiority along the German - Soviet front in north-eastern Laponia. Early 1942 saw the formation under Luftflotte 5 of JG 5, a new Jagdgeschwader under the command of Obst/t. Gotthard Handrick, the modern pentathlon gold medal winner in the 1936 Olympic Games. The II./JG 5 had been formed by redesignating the old Jagdgruppe zur besonderen Verwendung and, in early 1942, this was to be the only Bf 109 unit to confront the air forces of Soviet Northern Fleet (VVS SF), 14th Army, and 122 IADjPVO. Its main task was to provide fighter escort for the Ju 88s of KG 30 and the Ju 87s of I./St.G 5 (formerly IV./LG 1), both of which raided the port of Murmansk and the Kirov railway, two important strategic goals which German and Finnish troops had been unable to seize. II./JG 5 reported a strength of 18 serviceable Bf 109 Es on 10 January 1942. These were supported by the Bf 110s of 6.(Z)/JG 5 (redesignated 10./JG 5 on 16 March).
In the Far North - the area comprising northern Finland and the extreme north-western corner of the USSR - German fighter pilots met with a situation similar to that in the Crimea, for the enemy in the air was more formidable than in most other places in the East. This was despite the fact that the Hurricanes and Curtiss P-40s which constituted the main equipment of VVS fighter forces in the area were much inferior to the Bf 109 E, and the benefit to the Germans of being aided by reports from a Freya radar station, in itself a unique phenomenon on the Eastern Front.
Air operations in the Far North were strictly limited by the long Polar Winter, during which the sun never rises above the horizon. Therefore, in the first two months of the year, only rarely was there any air fighting and in March 1942, Fliegerführer Nord-Ost logged 20 victories against the loss of 11 aircraft, five of them from JG 5. Only in April did activity increase, starting on the 4th when three of II./JG 5's Bf 109s intercepted a formation of VVS SF Hurricanes. In the ensuing engagement, Soviet fighters managed to injure two of the German pilots while the third German shot down a Hurricane. Five days later, six of II./JG 5's Bf 109s were bounced by Tomahawks and Hurricanes of 769 IAP with the result that two Bf 109s were shot down for no Soviet losses. Both German airmen, one of them being Lt. Alfred Jakobi with ten victories, were captured on the ground by Soviet troops.
Reinforced to a strength of over 30 Bf 109s by mid-April, II./JG 5 set about regaining the initiative. One morale-boosting event occurred on 23 April when a single pilot from 6./JG 5, Uffz. Rudolf Muller, destroyed four Hurricanes and an SB bomber during one and the same mission, all being verified in Soviet loss files. Five days later, 2 GSAP, which had lost two aircraft to Uffz. Muller on the 23rd, lost another five Hurricanes, including two to Muller.
The size of Fliegerführer Nord-Ost's fighter force was doubled in May through the arrival of another Jagdgruppe, IIl./JG 5. This unit was led by Hptm. Gunther Scholz, a veteran who had flown previously with 7./ JG 54 where he had attained 26 kills. Now the German airmen were gradually able to improve their position and in May 1942, JG 5 recorded 149 victory claims against 11 pilots shot down.
Not even the arrival of newer and better Kittyhawk and Airacobra fighters could break the new German dominance and JG 5 was now re-equipping with Bf 109 F-4s, a type superior to anything in VVS service. On 12 June II./JG 5 could report its 500th victory - not surprisingly scored by Rudolf Muller, now promoted to Feldwebel. By now, the Gruppe was being led by Hptm. Horst Carganico, who had attained 23 kills between late May and late June 1942 and thus surpassed the 50-victory mark.
Aces over Sevastopol
Although the Wehrmacht would never completely recover from the immense losses, particularly in heavy equipment such as artillery, that the Soviet Army had inflicted in the Winter of 1941/42, the Soviets had been even more weakened. Moreover, the successful defensive battles of May 1942 had resulted in the Wehrmacht being in a position to regain the initiative on the Eastern Front and, albeit at the expense of all other areas, Hitler was able to rebuild an offensive force on at least one sector of the front.
At the same time, German industry was beginning to overcome many production bottlenecks, and aircraft output figures increased from below 900 (including 232 fighters) in November 1941 to 1,400 (456 fighters) in March 1942. Nevertheless, by April 1942, although Germany controlled the bulk of Europe's workforce and industrial capacity, the USSR - even with most of its natural resources in German hands - started out-producing Germany. That month, 1,321 German and 1,515 Soviet combat aircraft left the assembly lines. Hence, it was logical that Hitler should direct all available means against the most critical point of Soviet industry, the concentration of oil fields in the Caucasus. For this purpose, more than 50 per cent of all serviceable combat aircraft available to the entire Luftwaffe for day operations (i.e. excluding night fighters) were concentrated under Luftflotte 4 which was supporting Army Group South on the Eastern Front.
Before the new Summer offensive - Operation 'B/au' - could begin, it was necessary to eliminate the threat posed by powerful Soviet forces still holding the port of Sevastopol in western Crimea. To complete the task of air support for this attack, Genera/oberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen's VIII. Fliegerkorps was reinforced with units brought in from the Mediterranean area and eventually mustered 600 aircraft, a tremendous force to be mounted against a single city. The fighter units which were directed against Sevastopol - III./JG 3, plus Stab, II. and III./JG 77 - were led by Hptm. Gordon Gollob. Although their opponent's air resources were limited to around 50 serviceable aircraft, German fighters met with formidable resistance whenever they encountered any enemy aircraft; indeed, some of the Soviet fighter pilots were the same aces who had put up such stiff resistance against III./JG 77 earlier that year.
The attack on Sevastopol opened with large-scale aerial bombardments on 2 June, and as early as the next day Hptm. Gollob found it necessary to instruct his fighter pilots to avoid turning combat with the Soviet fighter pilots who flew from Sevastopol. On 7 June, Gollob's fighters claimed nine victories but lost ll-victory ace Lt. Wolfgang Werhagen, and Gollob himself barely managed to reach friendly territory after a Soviet fighter damaged his radiator. Ultimately, the Soviet Sevastopol airmen were defeated because they were so hopelessly outnumbered, but they never ceased to impress their German opponents.
Conversely, the Soviet airmen also learned to respect their foe, and naval fighter ace Kapitan Mikhail Avdeyev later dedicated a chapter in his memoirs to one of the Bf 109 aces over Sevastopol, positively identified as II./JG 77's Oblt. Anton Hackl. When Sevastopol fell after a month's battle, the Germans counted a total of 123 Soviet aircraft shot down against 30 of their own destroyed or severely damaged.
The first stage of Operation 'B/au' opened on 28 June 1942 when three armies were launched eastward from the Kursk region with the aim of capturing the important communication centre of Voronezh. By that time, Luftflotte 4 had been brought up to a strength of about 1,700 German combat aircraft, of which approximately 1,200 were operational. A total of 211 operational Bf 109s was divided between JG 3 with Stab and all three Gruppen; JG 52 with Stab and all three Gruppen plus the 15. Croatian Staffe/, I./JG 53 and JG 77 with Stab plus II. and III. Gruppen (l./JG 77 had been sent to the Mediterranean area to counter renewed RAF activity around Malta.)
These Luftwaffe forces enjoyed a numerical superiority of around 1:0.7 against WS forces in the area, but the Soviets had drawn many important lessons from their setbacks in the past Winter and Spring, and their air force had undergone several qualitative improvements. Among other things, the structure of their front-line units had been modernised and organised into more independent air armies, three of which (2 VA, 8 VA and 4 VA) met the first onslaught of Operation 'B/au'. These air armies could count on support from an increasing pool of reserves and, moreover, the Soviet fighter pilots began adopting the German tactic of teamwork in air combat. In addition, their technical equipment was also updated, most fighter units being equipped with modern, improved Yak-ls, Yak-7s and LaGG-3s. The newall-metal Pe-2 dive-bomber became more common in front-line service, and the heavily armoured IL-2 Shturmovik ground-attack aircraft appeared in larger numbers than ever. Perhaps the most decisive factor, however, was that a number of truly elite air units were assigned from the Stavka reserve to 2 VA and 8 VA.
The Jagdwaffe, however, was able to deal decisively with all of this, for due to the need to shorten pilot training schemes, the flight skills of the average novice airman posted to VVS units in mid-1942 was at the lowest level of the war. Moreover, the Jagdgruppen assigned to Luftflotte 4 included many of the most experienced fighter pilots of the war, most notably JG 52's Obstlt. Herbert Ihlefeld, JG 77's Major Gordon Gollob, and 9./JG 52's Oblt. Herman Graf, each of whom had shot down over 100 enemy aircraft. Nevertheless, already during the weeks preceding Operation 'B/au', even these Jagdwaffe aces noticed a surprising increase in the quality of Soviet aerial activity. JG 52's Geschwaderkommodore, Major Wilhelm Otto Lessmann, was killed in combat on 2 June, as was Hermann Grat's new wingman in 9./JG 52, StFw. Alfred Emberger (credited with 25 kills), ten days later. On the 15th, 9./JG 52's Ofw. Leopold Steinbatz perished when his aircraft sustained a direct hit from anti-aircraft fire. With 99 kills to his credit, Steinbatz was the most successful fighter pilot lost to enemy action at that time. Posthumously, he became the first and only NCO to be awarded the Swords. On 21 June, after less than a week, JG 52's next Geschwaderkommodore, Obst/t. Friedrich Beckh, was shot down by four 2 VA MiG-3s and was killed near Valuyki. Beckh was credited with 48 aerial victories and had been awarded the Knight's Cross.
Even though the Germans had built up a local numerical superiority of at least two to one in the area east of Kursk, both sides suffered about equal losses in the air during the first days of Operation 'B/au'. Among the German casualties on the last day of June was I./JG 53's Lt. Joachim Louis, who was shot down and captured shortly after scoring his 22nd victory, but these sacrifices were not in vain; the numerically weaker 2 VA proved unable to take such losses, particularly as theirs included a number of experienced unit leaders.
By the time the German ground troops began penetrating into Voronezh in the first week of July, a radical change in the character of air fighting took place. Suddenly, the skilful Soviet airmen of the first days seemed to have disappeared, to be replaced by apparently new pilots who, in some cases, seemed so inexperienced they hardly knew how to fly. These mainly came from the newly formed Soviet 1st Fighter Army (1 IA), prematurely rushed to the Voronezh sector with the task of hallenging the air superiority of the Bf 109s. The first air battle between 1 IA and the German fighter pilots occurred on 5 July and resulted in a Soviet disaster, the Jagdflieger claiming 48 victories against only two losses. Oblt. Viktor Bauer, the Staffe/kapitan of 9./ JG 3, added four victories to his tally to reach a total of 74. Hptm. Georg Michalek, commanding I./JG 3, surpassed his 50-victory mark, also by destroying four, and in II./JG 77 - which had arrived straight from the Crimea the same day - the four kills claimed by Oblt. Erwin Clausen brought his total to 62. Altogether, between 28 June and 9 July, Luftflotte 4 claimed to have shot down 540 Soviet aircraft in the Kursk - Voronezh area.
In the forefront of these battles was Hptm. Wolf-Dietrich Wilcke who served in Stab/ JG 3 where Obstlt. Gunther Lutzow was to familiarise him with the duties of a Geschwaderkommodore. Wilcke appears to have specialised in destroying lend-lease aircraft, claiming a Hurricane on 30 June, three Bostons on 3 July, and another Boston plus two LaGG-3s on 4 July. Of Wilcke's six claims on 5 July, three were Hurricanes and one a Boston, and after shooting down two IL-2s on the 9th, Wilcke again destroyed four Bostons on 10 July.
Thereafter, when the bulk of the German ground forces at Voronezh veered south with the aim of surrounding the Soviet South-Western and Southern Fronts between the rivers Donets and Don, II./JG 77 was left as the only Jagdgruppe at Voronezh but, under the leadership of acting Gruppenkommandeur Hptm. Heinrich Setz, it performed splendidly. During July alone, Hptm. Setz scored 50 victories, Oblt. Anton Hackl 37, Lt. Lutz-Wilhelm Burkhardt 24, and - before he was wounded in a flying accident on 26 July - Fw. Ernst Wilhelm Reinert 26. This was quite sufficient to secure a convincing German air superiority in the region.
Meanwhile, the Soviets had to rob their reserves in order to be able to maintain their presence in the air. On 16 July, III./JG 3 tore apart a formation of Pe-2s which attempted to attack the air base at Millerovo, and the same evening, 9./JG 3's Experten team of Oblt. Viktor Bauer and Ofw. Eberhard von Boremski encountered a formation of Curtiss P-40s. Bauer claimed three, including his 90th victory, and von Boremski one, and on their way home the two Germans spotted a formation of IL-2s escorted by fighters. Bauer bagged one IL-2 and his wingman sent a MiG-3 burning to the ground.
However, neither the German means nor system of bringing forward supplies had been improved since the previous Summer. With too few lorries and transport aircraft available, and with inadequate roads and railways in the area, the supply organisation more or less disintegrated as soon as the troops moved forward. Frequently, it was only the level of personal contact between first-line units and supply store which proved to be the decisive factor in obtaining spare parts, ammunition or fuel. Therefore, while the numerical achievements of the Jagdgruppen were indeed astonishing, in view of the chaotic supply situation their own losses cannot be considered as particularly light. Just as during 'Barbarossa', the same discouraging situation arose and the acute lack of spare parts rendered aircraft unserviceable after they had sustained only minor damage or technical faults. Only by cannibalising their own aircraft - normally strictly prohibited - and other such measures, collectively known as "organising", could operational levels be maintained. Inevitably, however, the level of serviceability dropped, as for example in JG 3 where a figure of 78 per cent on 20 June had reduced to 44 per cent one month later resulting in the actual number of serviceable Bf 109s in Jagdgeschwader Udet plummeting from 72 to 33.
It can be attributed only to the German fighter pilots' superior quality that the situation in the VVS was even worse. When German troops captured Rostov and started moving across the lower Don in late July, there were two VVS air armies, 4 VA and 5 VA, available to meet the German onslaught against the Caucasus in the air, but together, they could field no more than 220 serviceable aircraft by 28 July.
Stopped in the Caucasus When Hitler split his 1942 Summer offensive and ordered the new Army Group A to push south towards the Caucasus while Army Group B turned east towards the Don Bend and Stalingrad, Luftflotte 4 was also operationally divided. The air fleet was now under the command of Generaloberst von Richthofen, and he directed the bulk of his fighter forces to support Army Group B in the east, leaving Army Group A with Stab, III., and 15. (Kroat)/JG 52 as the only fighter units to support the important drive against the Caucasus oil fields. On 20 July, these units fielded a total of only 28 serviceable Bf 109s.
However, von Richthofen knew what he was doing. Not only were these units among the first in the East to be fully equipped with the new Bf 109 G-2, but among the pilots were to be found the two leading fighter aces of the entire Luftwaffe at that time; Major Gordon Gollob and Oblt. Herman Graf. While Gollob maintained his position as Kommodore of JG 77, at the same time he also assumed command of JG 52 - its fourth Geschwaderkommodore in a period of less than two months - due to a take-off accident which injured JG 52's previous commander, Major Herbert Ihlefeld. Moreover, while the Panzer troops crossed the lower Don on their way into the Caucasus, I./JG 52 was training on Bf 109 G-2s in the rear and would soon arrive to support the Geschwader's III. Gruppe.
III./JG 52 was commanded by Major Hubertus von Bonin, and apart from its two lOa-pius aces, Oblt. Herman Graf and Lt. Adolf Dickfeld, it counted a large number of very experienced pilots each with around 40 or more victories, namely Oblt. Otto Decker, Ofw. Heinrich Fullgrabe, Ofw. Ernst Suss, Ofw. Josef Zwernemann, Ofw. Kurt Ratzlaff, Fw. Edmund Rossmann, Fw. Friedrich Wachowiak, and Fw. Hans Dammers. Fw. Alfred Grislawski, who previously had served as Graf's wingman, was on home leave after being awarded the Knight's Cross on 1 July 1942 after 42 victories. The dominance of NCO aces was a particular feature within III./JG 52, and this was especially noted by Oberleutnant Gunther Rail. Rail had advanced to become the Geschwader's most successful pilot before being shot down and injured in November 1941 and, returning to his unit in late July 1942 to resume command of 8./JG 52, he was shocked to find that his 36 victories were overshadowed by the achievements of many ordinary sergeants.
Although Rail still suffered from a back injury and had to be lifted in and out of his aircraft, he was eager to catch up. On 2 August he claimed an 1-153 and a 'MiG-l' (probably a Yak-l), but he had a long way to go. When Oblt. Herman Graf shot down an IL-2 on 3 August, it was his 112th, and the next day Major Gollob claimed a Yak-l as his ll1th. During Army Group A's sweep south through the steppe in the northern Caucasus, German fighter activity in the area was marked by the competition between Major Gollob, Oblt. Graf and Oblt. Rail. When Gollob transferred Graf and one third of III./JG 52 to the Stalingrad region, as demanded by von Richthofen on 18 August, Gollob' score stood at 130, Graf's at 127, and Rail's at 55. However, Gollob did not select Graf to command the detachment as he nurtured a professional officer's scepticism towards the Kriegsoffizier Graf, and instead Oblt. Decker was assigned to lead the detachment.
During the period from the 14th to 29 August, Major Gollob claimed 33 victories and became the first pilot to reach 150, the last being a Pe-2 on 29 August. Meanwhile, III./J JG 52 was credited with 32 victories (against three losses), and the pilots of 15.(Kroat)/JG 52 claimed nine kills.
On 30 August, Gollob became the third Wehrmacht soldier (after the two fighter pilots Oberst Werner Molders and Oberst Adolf Galland) to receive the highest of Germany's military awards, the Diamonds to the Knight's Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords. Gollob was withdrawn from first-line service for the remainder of the war and posted to various staff positions, commencing with Luftflotte 1. His place as JG 52's Geschwaderkommodore was taken by Major Dietrich Hrabak, former commander of III JG 54.
As Gollob left JG 52, the German offensive in the Caucasus was faltering in the face of increasing Soviet defence all along the front-line. I./JG 52 had only stayed a short while in the Caucasus operational area, and was already operating on the Central Front. Simultaneously with the departure of ObIt. Decker's III./JG 52 detachment, the bulk of the Luftwaffe's bomber forces had also left the Caucasus to be deployed against Stalingrad. The fact that immediately afterwards Army Group A was halted short of its objectives, the Grozny and Baku oil fields, is testimony to the German Army's dependence on air support.
JG 51 'Molders' in Trouble
As the fierce Winter battles on the Central Front died down and Spring arrived, German and Soviet forces had each fought to the point of exhaustion. Both sides then sought to rebuild their strength, and the period April to June 1942 was calm with comparatively little fighting in the air. It was, therefore, bad luck rather than enemy activity which deprived JG 51 of three of its greatest aces in less than ten days. Lt. Hans Strelow, with 68 victories, was lost when he was shot down over Soviet territory on 22 May; 2./JG 51's Oblt. Erwin Fleig, once wingman to the legendary Werner Molders, baled out over Soviet territory on 29 May and was captured immediately after achieving his 66th victory; and two days later, Hptm. Josef Fozo, the 27-victory veteran Kommandeur of I./JG 51, was severely injured in a landing accident and would never return to first-line service.
In the Spring of 1942, the Luftwaffe units on the Central Front were, following the departure of VIII. Fliegerkorps staff, organized into Luftwaffenkommando Ost, commanded by General der Flieger Robert Ritter von Greim. While several German air units that previously had operated on the Central Front now served under Luftflotte 4 - including I. and II./JG 52 - the Germans attempted to delude the Soviets into believing that their Summer offensive would be launched by Army Group Centre, and not by Army Group South. This succeeded, with the result that Luftwaffenkommando Ost had to face increasing Soviet numerical superiority.
By 20 June, Luftwaffenkommando Ost reported a total strength of 155 serviceable combat aircraft, including 73 Bf 109 fighters. The latter were grouped into Stab, II., III. and IV./JG 51 'Molders' (I./JG 51 served under Luftflotte 1 in the Demyansk area), plus 15.(Span)/JG 51. A feature of JG 51 'Molders' at this time was that it was the only Jagdgeschwader in the East to retain the old Bf 109 F-2 as its standard aircraft. Also, JG 51 did not have the same concentration of top aces as other Jagdgeschwader in the East. This is due mainly to the fact that its best pilots of 1941 - Molders, Joppien, Bar and Hoffmann - had either been killed or, in Bar's case, been posted elsewhere while, as already mentioned, in May 1942 three other great JG 51 aces - Strelow, Fleig and Fozo - had been lost. Certainly, Soviet airmen transferred from another sector noted that the weakest German fighter opposition was provided on the Central Front, i.e. by the pilots of JG 51.
The appearance of the Spanish volunteer fighter unit 15.(Span)/JG 51, as mentioned above, perhaps requires a word or two of explanation. During Operation Barbarossa, the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco had supplied the Luftwaffe with a Bf 109-equipped fighter squadron, la Escuadrilla de Caza, which was incorporated into VIII. Fliegerkorps as 15.(Span.)/JG 27. After a poor performance - ten victory claims against five pilots killed and one injured - this unit was pulled back to Spain in January 1942. In the Summer of 1942, Franco decided to despatch a second Escuadrilla to support Hitler's crusade against "The Red Menace" in the East. This time, however, one of the most able Spanish fighter pilots was picked to lead the unit; Comandante Julio Salvador Diaz-Benjumea, an ace with 24 kills in the Spanish Civil War. 2a Escuadrilla, or Escuadrilla Azul (Blue Squadron) as it was called, duly arrived at Orel where, in order to reinforce Luftwaffenkommando Ost's fighter force, it was decided to deploy the Staffel under JG 51's command as 15.(Span.)/JG 51. The first victories of the Escuadrilla Azul occurred on 1 July 1942, when Capitan Provicional Juan Frutos Rubio and Teniente Ramon Escude Gisbert each accounted for a LaGG-3.
A few days after Rubio's and Gisbert's initial success, the war on the Central Front flared up again as each side launched powerful offensives against the other. The ADD - the reorganised Soviet strategic bomber force - made a number of successful night attacks against German rail junctions. These could be carried out without encountering any opposition other than Flak, for one of the Luftwaffe's weaknesses on the Eastern Front was the lack of a night-fighter force. In the Leningrad sector, this could be overcome temporarily by taking advantage of the bright mid-Summer nights in the north. Carrying out freie Jagd missions over the area where Soviet transport aircraft regularly flew supplies to surrounded Soviet troops near Lyuban, a handful of JG 54's pilots developed into 'night fighter aces', the most famous among them being III./JG 54's Lt. Erwin Leykauf, who once knocked down six Soviet transport aircraft during a single mission, while II./JG 54's Hptm. Joachim Wandel achieved a total of 16 night victories that Summer, half of which were achieved on the nights of 6/7 and 7/8 July. But on the Central and Southern Fronts, where there were no night fighters available whatsoever, the ADD was carrying out its attacks with increasing success. In June 1942, it managed to put a large part of JG 51's aircraft out of commission on the airfields at Orel, Bryansk and Dugino.
Nevertheless, when the Soviets despatched their bombers and ground-attack aircraft en masse in daylight against the same targets on 5 July, it proved to be a huge mistake. II./JG 51 was scrambled, and as the Bf 109s hurled themselves against the large Soviet formations, the scenes from the previous Summer were repeated. By the end of the day, the Gruppenkommandeur, Hptm. Hartmann Grasser, calculated that 46 Soviet aircraft had been shot down against only two Bf 109 F-2s which received severe battle damage. Fw. Anton Hafner was credited with seven kills, bringing his total past 40; Oblt. Karl-Heinz Schnell also bagged seven, repeating the day in June 1941 when he had destroyed four bombers in four minutes; Oblt. Karl Rammelt shot down five (three IL-2s and two Pe-2s), and Hptm. Grasser himself accounted for eight victories. The Spanish pilots of Escuadrilla Azul contributed with another four victories – two Pe-2s, one 11-4, and one LaGG-3. On 17 July, the commander of Soviet 1 VA who had ordered the operation, General-Leytenant Timofey Kutsevalov, was replaced by General Mayor Sergey Khudyakov. Subsequently, and whether due to Khudyakov or not, it is a fact that the Soviet units opposed to Luftwaffenkommando Ost were substantially strengthened during the latter half of July. At the same time, the Kalinin and Western Fronts started to prepare a powerful offensive against German 9th Army in the so-called Rzhev Bulge, with the intention of diverting Wehrmacht forces from the Southern Front. General-Mayor Aleksandr Novikov, the new C-in-C of WS KA, personally supervised the task of reinforcing 1 VA and 3 VA, which were to support the offensive.
When the Soviet offensive began on 30 July, heavy rain grounded the German aircraft and large scale air battles did not develop until the next day. Massive formations of IL-2 Shturmoviks, appearing in larger numbers than ever before, helped the Soviet Army to split the front between German 87th and 256th Infantry divisions. Major Karl-Gottfried Nordmann, Geschwaderkommodore of JG 51, instructed his pilots to concentrate on the IL-2s and this was not without success, for on 1 August, 20 of the 26 aircraft JG 51 claimed to have shot down were IL-2s. More than one-third of this achievement was made by Ofw. Franz-Josef Beerenbrock of Stab IV./JG 51, who shot down no fewer than nine aircraft in three separate engagements. Beerenbrock's performance was of great significance, for these victories pushed his total tally to 102, for which he was awarded the Oak Leaves. In accordance with usual practice, Beerenbrock was then sent home on leave, and JG 51 therefore lost an outstanding fighter pilot at a very serious time.
The air battle reached a climax on 2 August, when Stab, II., III. and IV./JG 51 recorded 45 victories, again mainly against IL-2s, but when confronted with the fighters of 1 VA and 3 VA, events took a different turn and during the first three days of August no fewer than 20 pilots of JG 51 were shot down. On 2 August, the Gruppenkommandeur of IIl./JG 51, Hptm. Richard Leppla, was shot down and was seriously injured, almost losing the sight of one eye, as a result of which Leppla, Ritterkreuztrager and victor in 68 aerial combats, spent most of the remainder of the war in staff positions and schools. The next day, 11./JG 51's Staffelkapitan, Oblt. Georg Seelmann was shot down by a Soviet fighter near Rzhev at 15.25 hrs. Seelmann, another Ritterkreuztrager credited with 39 victories, baled out with injuries. Two other Staffelkapitane in JG 51 were injured during the air fighting on August 3; Oblt. Harald Jung of 4./JG 51, and Lt. Gottfried Schlitzer of 9./JG 51. The latter, an ace with 25 victories to his credit, died from his wounds three days later. The 16 victories claimed by JG 51 on 3 August was a poor consolation. As JG 51 was losing aircraft and, particularly, one experienced veteran pilot after another, it became clear that the Soviet fighter pilots were gaining the upper hand. It therefore meant much to Jagdgeschwader Molders when Major Joachim Muncheberg arrived to be groomed under Major Nordmann's supervision for the role of Geschwaderkommodore. Muncheberg had served with JG 26 'Schlageter' for four years. In 1941, his 7./JG 26 had earned fame for its feats against the RAF in the Mediterranean area when it shot down 52 British fighters, 25 by Muncheberg, without losing a single pilot. Two of the 16 victories filed by JG 51 on 3 August 1942 became Major Muncheberg's 84th and 85th kills. Muncheberg arrived with the same preconception of the air war in the East as held by most German fighter pilots on other fronts, namely that it was something of an "easy game." After Soviet fighters twice shot him down within four weeks, he modified his opinion.
Major Hannes Trautloft, commanding JG 54 in Luftflotte 1, received an urgent call to transfer parts of his Jagdgeschwader to Luftwaffenkommando Ost in order to assist JG 51. This indicates the situation was indeed desperate, for by that time Luftflotte 1 and Army Group North were assembling forces for Hitler's intended 'final blow' against Leningrad. At the same time, the German 11th Army was moving northwards from Sevastopol to the Leningrad area, and now Luftflotte 1 had to divert large parts of its forces to save the situation to the south.
Accordingly, on 6 August, Stab and II./JG 54 together with I./JG 51 arrived at Dugino aerodrome, 40 miles south of Rzhev, where almost the entire JG 51 was concentrated. Major Nordmann received Major Hannes Trautloft with the words, "All hell is loose in the air!" The previous day, Lt. Herbert Puschmann had achieved II./JG 51's 1,000th aerial victory by downing two Pe-2s, a MiG-3, and an IL-2, but on 6 August, JG 51 lost another of its most formidable pilots in 19-victory ace Lt. Benno Gantz.
JG 54 was also suffering severe setbacks of its own. On 9 August, Oblt. Max-Hellmuth Ostermann, now appointed Staffelkapitan of 8./JG 54, perished when he was shot down by a LaGG-3 east of Lake limen. Ostermann had just returned to the front after a long home leave following his 100th victory and subsequent award of the Swords in May. He had striven to become the first fighter pilot to reach the 150-victory mark (this was before JG 52's Major Gollob had achieved that feat), but the constant rivalry between the top aces in the Luftwaffe eventually compelled some among them to push themselves too far or to become careless, often with fatal results. Upon receiving the news of Ostermann's death, Major Trautloft wrote in his diary: "We often, and sometimes somewhat carelessly, speak about an 'irreplaceable loss,' where perhaps some less strong expression could be used, but in this case 'irreplaceable' felt inadequate." With 102 victories to his credit, Ostermann was the Luftwaffe's first ace with more than 100 victories to be killed in action.
On this 9 August, II./JG 54 claimed 21 Soviet aircraft shot down including four Yak-ls destroyed by 6. Staffel's Lt. Hans Beisswenger in a single combat. The next day, however, Beisswenger's Staffelkapitan, Hptm. Karl Sattig - credited with 53 victories - went missing during an engagement. The following night, a devastatingly successful Soviet bombing attack on Dugino aerodrome put 25 German aircraft out of commission, including 16 Bf 109s from JG 51 and II./JG 54.
With both sides launching huge forces in futile attempts to achieve a major breakthrough, the situation along the Central Front had many similarities with the trench warfare on the Western Front during the First World War. Meanwhile, overhead, large-scale dogfights took place and on 13 August, when JG 51 recorded 18 victory claims, the top ace in 12./JG 51, Oblt. Ernst Weismann, with 69 victories, was lost in combat with Soviet fighters. On 14 August, Jagdgeschwader Molders lost another ace when Fw. Richard Quante, credited with 49 victories, was shot down and killed ~ Soviet fighter.
The units of Luftwaffenkommando Ost, as well as those of the Soviet 1 VA and 3 VA, rapidly became worn down. In JG 51, 73 Bf 109s were destroyed or severely damaged due to various causes between 30 July and 13 August. On the Soviet side, 201 lAD lost 17 Yak-ls and four MiG-3s in combat operations during the same period, with another nine fighters receiving severe battle damage.
On 15 August, a sixth Jagdgruppe, I./JG 52, equipped with the new Bf 109 G-2, arrived to strengthen Luftwaffe forces on the Central Front. On 23rd, this Gruppe lost its top scorer, Ofw. Heinz-Wilhelm Ahnert, shortly after he had downed his 57th enemy aircraft. On the other hand, between the 15th and 23 August, 1./ JG 52 was credited with 43 victories. Also on the 23rd, 1./ JG 54 - also equipped with Bf 109 G-2s - arrived to further bolster Luftwaffenkommando Ost, which was thereby provided with the strongest Luftwaffe fighter force in any single sector. Mustering 226 Bf 109s, of which 174 were serviceable, these Jagdgruppen tipped the balance in the air to the German advantage, and on 27 August, I./JG 54 achieved its 800th victory while, the next day, I./JG 52 bounced a formation of 15 Soviet aircraft and claimed seven shot down.
"Five IL-2s were sent [against Dugino aerodrome). Only Dol'nikov returned. . . Why are people being sent to be slaughtered?"
Lt. Lyadskiy of Soviet 687 ShAp, 26 August 1942.
On 28 August, Major Hannes Trautloft wrote in his diary: "There are only a few enemy aircraft in the air." After claiming to have shot down 547 Soviet aircraft during the Battle of Rzhev between 30 July and 29 August, the units of Luftwaffenkommando Ost had decided the struggle for air superiority on the Central Front in their favour. JG 51 alone was credited with a total of 391 victories in August 1942 and, due mainly to the considerable reinforcement of Luftwaffenkommando Ost's fighter force, its bomber and Stuka units suffered lower losses than their Soviet counterparts.
It would take the Soviet 1 VA and 3 VA several months to replace the immense aircraft losses, quite apart from the experienced pilot losses, inflicted by Luftwaffenkommando Ost's fighter force during the Summer of 1942, but the price for these achievements had been terrible. Although the accumulated rate of attrition had been a serious problem since the opening of 'Barbarossa', with few exceptions the Jagdgruppen on the Eastern Front were accustomed to achieving high scores in return for relatively light losses. This changed abruptly on the Central Front in August 1942, and it was JG 51, the most successful Jagdgeschwader of 'Barbarossa', which took the first really heavy beating at the hands of Soviet fighter pilots. JG 51 recorded 101 Bf 109s destroyed or severely damaged due to all causes in August 1942, plus 17 pilots killed, missing, or injured. One possible explanation for JG 51's exceptionally high losses compared to other Jagdgeschwader in the East, is that it still operated old, and in many cases pretty worn-out, Bf 109 F-2s.
Aces Over Stalingrad
When Adolf Hitler issued his Order No. 45 directing Army Group B against Stalingrad on 23 July 1942, the VVS units available to meet this advance were meagre and all that could be assembled against von Richthofen's mighty VIII. Fliegerkorps was 8 VA. On 22 July, this air army had been reduced to 337 serviceable aircraft, of which one third were obsolescent biplane night bombers. Nevertheless, 8 VA's remaining 85 fighters, 48 Shturmoviks, and 88 day bombers were utilised to the maximum.
The majority of the Soviet airmen were inexperienced and ill-trained youngsters, but there were also a few experienced veterans, most notably in Mayor Ivan Kleshchyov's 434 IAP, which dealt the German Stukas and the Italian Macchi C. 200 escort fighters of 21 Gruppo Autonomo C. T. a series of severe losses. However, even the best VVS units suffered dearly at the hands of the Jagdwaffe's Experten, the best of whom had reached a level of experience incomparable with any other air force. The Gruppenkommandeur of II./JG 52, for example, Hptm. Johannes Steinhoff, logged his 600th combat flight during this period, and on 26 July, the II./ JG 3 Rotte of Lt. Joachim Kirschner and Ofw. Alfred Heckmann shot down three Yak fighters apiece in only four minutes. Also that day, their Gruppenkommandeur, Hptm. Kurt Brandle, claimed two Pe-2s and a Yak fighter, bringing his score to 77 victories. 434 IAP registered three Yak-1s, and 512 IAP three Yak-1s and one Yak-7 lost on 26 July, in addition to ten of 8 VA's IL-2s, seven Pe-2s, two Hurricanes, and a U-2.
On the last day of July, Hitler declared "the battle of the Caucasus would be decided at Stalingrad" and instructed the 4th Panzer Army to veer to the east from its position south of the River Don in the northern Caucasus, and head towards Stalingrad. Thus the focus of the entire war in the East shifted toward this single city. Stalin's reaction demanded that the troops of the new Stalingrad Front, which had been created in mid-July, should defend Stalingrad "to the last man." In the intensified air fighting which developed, Lt. Hans Roehrig, one of the aces in I./JG 53 'Pik As', was shot down on 6 August in combat with a Soviet fighter pilot, probably StLt. Mikhail Baranov of 183 IAP, who claimed four victories in a single battle. Four days later, on 10 August, I./JG 53 lost Lt. Helmut Macher and Ofw. Heinrich Leschert, each with a personal score of 23 victories. An even worse setback was when 9./JG 3's Staffe/kapitan, Oblt. Viktor Bauer, was so badly injured that he was rendered unfit for first-line service for the remainder of the war. The loss of this 106-victory ace naturally affected the Staffe/'s combat spirit, and this was not improved when Bauer's successor, 30-victory ace Lt. Leutnant Rolf Diergardt, was also shot down in air combat the following day and listed as missing.
However, regardless of the fact that these large-scale air battles inevitably resulted in significant overclaiming, these Jagdgeschwader losses are limited compared with the huge victory claims that were made. For example, up until 13 August, units under the command of VIII. Fliegerkorps claimed to have shot down 606 Soviet aircraft and destroyed another 107 on the ground during the battle of the Don Bend, but between 20 July and 10 August 8 VA recorded 230 aircraft losses (114 fighters, 70 Shturmoviks, 29 Pe-2s, four Su-2s, and 13 night bombers). Similarly, the 315 victory claims filed by 8 VA between 20 July and l 10 August were far beyond the actual total, for against 187 Bf 109s or "He 113s" claimed, in the same period Luftflotte 4 recorded 62 Bf 109s shot down, destroyed or forced-landed due to battle damage. In other words, whereas the Luftwaffe was claiming three aircraft for everyone destroyed, the Soviets claimed five. Some 447 replacement aircraft were delivered to 8 VA between 20 July and 17 August, and these made it possible for the VVS to maintain a steady pressure on Army Group B. During five weeks of bloody fighting, the Soviets succeeded in halting Army Group B inside the Don Bend, west of Stalingrad. During this period, the IL-2 Shturmoviks played a crucial role in disrupting German movements on the ground and von Richthofen's headquarters received daily requests from the Army for improved protection. In order to deal more effectively with these heavy-armoured ground-attack aircraft, Bf 109s were equipped with an extra pair of wing-mounted MG 151/20 automatic cannon, the so-called 'Gondo/waffen'.
Between the 11th and 22 August, 8 VA recorded a further 152 operational losses (100 bombers and 52 fighters), as a result of which when Luftflotte 4 was deployed against Stalingrad en masse to support the ground attack against this city, Soviet air opposition was so weak that only a single Ju 87 and an He 111 were lost to VVS fighters. Everything launched into the air by the Soviets was effectively eliminated by the fighters of JG 3, II./JG 52, Oblt. Decker's III./JG 52 detachment and I./JG 53 'Pik As', the three latter units being equipped with the new and improved Bf 109 G-2. On 23 August, Hptm. Kurt Brandle, Kommandeurof II./JG 3 'Udet', destroyed three WS aircraft to become the 17th German fighter pilot to exceed the 100-victory mark. Meanwhile, the Gruppenadjutant of III./JG 3, Lt. Heinrich Graf von Einsiedel, shot down a Yak bringing his total to 33, 23 of which had been achieved during the past five weeks. II./JG 52's Gruppenkommandeur, Hptm. Johannes Steinhoff, surpassed all of this by shooting down five Soviet fighters, raising his tally to 85 victories, and Lt. Walter Zellot contributed four of the 17 claimed that day by I./JG 53.
But by displaying an incredible determination, the Soviet pilots day after day continued not only to rise against these hopeless odds, but to strike back. On 25 August, Lt. Heinrich Graf von Einsiedel barely evaded being shot down by a Soviet fighter and was lucky to escape with light injuries.
Two days later, 40-victory ace Oblt. Otto Decker was shot down and captured by the Soviets who brought him to 41 IAP's air base where he was interrogated by VVS pilots. His place was taken by Oblt. Herman Graf, who in the meantime had increased his tally to 137. On 30 August Lt. Heinrich Graf von Einsiedel was shot down by Soviet fighters and was captured, a fact which more than pleased the Soviets when they learned that he was not only one of the leading aces in III./JG 3 but also the great grandson of the 'Iron Chancellor', Prinz Otto von Bismarck, the first Chancellor of the German Reich.
The fight between the numerically and qualitatively superior VIII. Fliegerkorps and the battered VVS was immensely unequal, and by 1 September 8 VA had only 57 serviceable fighters and 32 serviceable IL-2s remaining. On 2 September, 1.1 JG 53 'Pik As' claimed 16 of these aircraft shot down, including four by Hptm. Friedrich-Karl Muller who thereby reached his 70th victory. In 9./JG 52, the Staffelkapitan of the 'Karayastaffe/', Oblt. Herman Graf, scored his 145th kill by bringing down five Soviet aircraft one of them a lone four-engined Pe-8 - in three separate engagements. Unavoidably, even the renowned Soviet tenacity, which endured throughout most of the Russo-German war, sometimes suffered from such blows and, on 2 September, a demoralised Soviet Leytenant defected and landed his MiG-3 on the German aerodrome at Tuzov.
The names of the Jagdgeschwader in action over Stalingrad, JG 3 'Udet' and JG 53 'Pik As', became well-known to all VVS airmen in this area and Soviets even occupied themselves with the single most successful individual ace at Stalingrad, Oblt. Graf who, on numerous occasions in September 1942 was personally addressed by Soviet radio operators. Various VVS documents from the time also name Graf, who on 3 September increased his score to 149 victories when he shot down a LaGG-3 and three Yak-ls.
On 4 September, a new air army, 16 VA, was hurriedly made operational at Stalingrad but the reports after its first day of operations were gloomy. Twenty aircraft were reported lost, including 17 Yak-ls from 220 lAD alone, one of them being Graf's 150th victory.
On 6 September, JG 3's Wolf-Dietrich Wilcke who, although only holding the rank of Hauptmann, commanded the German fighters at Stalingrad, accounted for his 100th victory, for which he was awarded the Oak Leaves, and in I./JG 53, Hptm. Friedrich-Karl Muller increased his tally to 75 when he shot down three Soviet aircraft on this date. 16 VA recorded another 24 aircraft lost on 8 September, a large part of them to I./JG 53, which reported a total of 30 victories that day, four of them being credited to Fw. Wilhelm Crinius. In return, I./JG 53 lost three Bf 109s and two of its greatest aces; Ofw. Alfred Franke, with 59 victories, perished when he was shot down by an IL-2, the pilot of which was awarded the Order of Lenin, and Ofw. Hans Kornatz with 36 victories, who survived with injuries.
Meanwhile, the ground troops of 6th Army and 4th Panzer Army were unable to break Soviet resistance at Stalingrad, and a contributing factor to the Soviets' defensive success was the relentless attacks carried out by IL-2s against all German troop movements on the ground. Combating the IL-2s therefore remained the German fighter pilots' main task and, on 9 September, 'Pik As' ace Hptm. Friedrich-Karl Muller broke all his previous records by claiming six IL-2s shot down with his 'Gondola' armed Bf 109 in a single combat.
Only 12 miles west of Stalingrad, III./JG 3, I./JG 53 and Graf's III./JG 52 detachment were brought forward to Pitomnik aerodrome, and on 10 September I./JG 53 'Pik As' scored 22 victories, including four by Fw. Wilhelm Crinius, who thus ran up his tally to 69. Uffz. Heinrich W6hrle also brought down four Soviet aircraft on this day, but it ended with W6hrle being shot down and injured. Also on 10 September, Fw. Franz Hagedorn, who previously had served as Crinius's wingman, was killed in combat with IL-2s shortly after scoring his 37th victory and another serious loss to I./JG 53 occurred when Lt. Walter Zellot was shot down and killed over Stalingrad. With 85 victories to his credit, Zellot was the top-scorer in I./JG 53 at that time.
To describe fully the huge air battles which took place over Stalingrad would require more space than available here, but it should be emphasised that the German aces had to fight hard to maintain their superiority against an enemy which defied losses and continuously sent new air units into the skies over the city. This is best illustrated by figures relating to just one Jagdgruppe, I./JG 53, which although claiming 230 Soviet aircraft destroyed in the three weeks following the opening of the offensive across the River Don, also reported that in the same period 25 per cent of its pilots had been killed, missing or injured.
On 11 September, 9./JG 52's Oblt. Graf spotted a formation of 270 BAD Pe-2s at 9,000 feet over Stalingrad's industrial area. A group of Bf 109s from another unit intercepted the bombers, and before he was able to intervene, Graf saw two Bf 109s being shot down by the Soviet rear gunners. Graf then attacked and managed to shoot down a Pe-2 before he found himself under attack by a formation of Soviet fighters, and the German ace was himself almost shot down before he finally destroyed one of his adversaries. Thus Graf, by this time the leading fighter ace of the war, achieved his 164th victory. Another pilot with great achievements over Stalingrad was I./JG 53's FW.Wilhelm Crinius. Of 29 Soviet aircraft shot down by I./JG 53 between 12th and 14 September, ten fell to the guns of Crinius's Bf 109 G-2.
The losses sustained by the Soviet airmen, mainly due to a handful of Jagdwaffe Experten, is clearly displayed by the statistics of 220 lAD which comprised four regiments of Yaks; 43 IAP, 237 IAP, 581 IAP, and 867 IAP. On 4 September, this unit had 42 aircraft available but between the 1st and 15 September lost 58, a loss rate of 138 per cent in two weeks.
Worse was to follow, for the Soviet airmen in the Stalingrad area were opposed by probably the strongest concentration of fighter aces ever assembled in such a limited area. By this time, only about 40 serviceable German fighters remained for action over Stalingrad but, according to the British and US practice of considering a pilot with five or more victories an ace, the majority of the German fighter pilots who flew over Stalingrad were aces. This was not the result of any deliberate policy, but was due mainly to the large-scale air fighting of the past weeks. The Geschwaderstab of JG 3, with only two operational Bf-109s, was led by Hptm. Wolf-Dietrich Wilcke, victor in more than 100 aerial combats. Wilcke frequently flew his missions with Hptm. Walther Dahl, who would score his 20th victory on 19 September.
III./JG 3, which had only ten operational Bf 109s available, was commanded by 35-victory ace Hptm. Wolfgang Ewald. In this Gruppe, Lt. Wilhelm Lemke achieved his 61st kill on 16 September. On the same day, Fw. Siegfried Engfer reached his 48th by knocking down three IL-2s, and Fw. Heinz Kemethmuller achieved his 49th victory.
I./JG 53 'Pik As', the most powerful Jagdgruppe at Pitomnik, was now down to 14 operational Bf 109s. On 16 September, this Gruppe's Oblt. Wolfgang Tonne claimed five kills to bring his total to 86 victories, while Hptm. Friedrich-Karl Muller and Fw. Wilhelm Crinius downed four each, both reaching a total of 87. At the same time, Lt. Hans Roehrig achieved his 46th, and Uffz. Heinz Golinski scored his 37th and 38th. In the III./JG 52 detachment, Ofw. Heinrich Fullgrabe and Lt. Ernst Suss both had around fifty victories, Uffz. Johann Kalb had achieved 32, and Uffz. Hermann Wolf scored his 23rd by shooting down a Yak-l on 15 September. The commander of this formation, Oblt. Graf, was the war's top-scoring fighter ace by that time and at 07.35 hrs on 16 September, he destroyed an Su-2 as his 173rd victory, followed four minutes later by a Kittyhawk from 731 IAP. Afterwards, as Graf landed, he received the news that he had been awarded the Diamonds, Germany's highest military award.
And still the relentless fighting continued. Concentrated at Stalingrad was a large proportion of the best WS pilots, including female fighter pilots such as Lidiya Litvyak, and also its best fighter aircraft; Yak-ls, Yak-7Bs and La-5s. On 16 September, the crack Soviet fighter unit 434 IAP attacked a group of Ju 87s escorted by Bf 109s and claimed two Ju 87s and two Bf 109s shot down, one of each being claimed by the unit commander, Mayor Ivan Kleshchyov. In this engagement, Uffz. Johann Kalb, the 32-victory ace who served as Grat's wingman, was shot down but baled out of his blazing Bf 109 G-2 coded 'Black <4' and landed in the Volga. He swam to the river bank where Soviet soldiers were waiting to take him prisoner.
Never before had there been such vast air fighting over such a small area as the ruined city of Stalingrad. On 18 September, all available aircraft on both sides clashed violently as the Soviets made a fruitless attempt to counter attack north of Stalingrad. German fighters claimed 77 victories for a single loss, and 9./ JG 52's Herman Graf, newly promoted to Hauptmann, achieved his 180th victory by destroying in a single sortie two LaGG-3s and an IL-2. In I./JG 53, Hptm. Muller exceeded the five Abschusse per day he had twice claimed previously and shot down seven, thus reaching a tally of 99.
ObIt. Tonne and Fw. Crinius of the same unit, and JG 3's Hptm. Wolf-Dietrich Wilcke and Fw. Heinz Kemethmuller, each shot down four aircraft on 18 September. Counted among the Soviet losses on this day alone were several aces and Heroes of the Soviet Union, as well as StLt. Vladimir Mikoyan, the son of the Prime Minister of the USSR, Anastas Mikoyan.
Despite the bloodletting of 18 September, the survivors of the Soviet air forces were despatched to provide air support for yet another fruitless counter-attack on 19 September. Two tarans - air-to-air rammings were recorded over Stalingrad that day, but over a dozen cases of such acts of self-sacrifice were carried out by young VVS pilots over the city in September 1942 alone.
On 22 September, I./JG 53's ObIt. Tonne and Fw. Wilhelm Crinius both became the next pilots to claim 100 victories. The three leading aces in I./JG 53 'Pik As' - Muller, Tonne, and Crinius were all awarded the Oak Leaves on the 23rd and 24 September, Crinius receiving the Knight's Cross and Oak Leaves simultaneously. The achievements of these three 'Pik As' aces were indeed outstanding, for since the opening of the offensive against Stalingrad one month previously, Hptm. Muller had increased his victory tally from 60 to 101, and Tonne from 68 to 101. Perhaps most remarkable of all was the career of 21 year-old Wilhelm Crinius who had flown his first combat sortie as a Gefreiterwith I./JG 53 just seven months previously and had only claimed his first two victories on 9 June 1942. In little over three months, he had then increased his tally to 101, of which 57 were claimed within the last four weeks.
Towards the end of September, I./JG 53 'Pik As' left Pitomnik for a badly needed period of rest and refitting in Germany. The impact of this Gruppe over Stalingrad had been so great that, for many years after the war, it was mentioned in various Soviet accounts, including the memoirs of aircraft designer Aleksandr Yakovlev, who specifically referred to the "renowned 'Ace of Spades' Wing."
Only the achievements of Hptm. Herman Graf, commander of the 'Karayastaffel', surpassed those of the 'Pik As' Experten. Graf's most successful day occurred on 23 September when, on his first mission early in the morning, he and Fw. Heinrich Fullgrabe engaged two IL-2s and five Soviet fighters 30 miles behind the Volga. In a 20-minute combat, the two German aces despatched six of the Soviet aircraft in flames, four by Graf, and two by Fullgrabe. During his fourth sortie that day, in three minutes Graf also shot down a Yak-l and two Su-2s, Finally, during a mission two hours later, the German ace managed to shoot down two Yak-ls and a LaGG-3, thereby having accounted for ten aircraft in the one day. With this, Herman Graf's total tally stood at 197.
Needless, to say, the intense air operations over Stalingrad began to take its toll and after six weeks of fighting, pilots of Graf's detachment from III./JG 52 began to show signs of mental and physical exhaustion. Fw. Fullgrabe, Graf's wingman, who had just reached his 50th victory, suffered a nervous breakdown and was grounded. About this time, Graf himself noted in his diary, "I had to take a day's rest," adding, "I just couldn't take any more." Nevertheless, Graf would not leave before he had become the first pilot to reach the magical 200-victory mark. This he did on 26 September, and he and his detachment left Stalingrad. Herman Graf, the most successful fighter pilot in the world, was sent home to Germany - with strict orders to avoid air combat - and I./JG 3 and I./JG 52 arrived at Pitomnik to take the place of the departing fighter units.
In only five weeks over Stalingrad, the Jagdfliegerclaimed almost 1,000 victories against true Soviet losses in September of 503 recorded by 8 VA, 163 by 16 VA and 36 by 102 IAD/PVO. From the Soviet viewpoint, these figures were discouraging enough, but since average aircraft strength at that time was only slightly above 300 aircraft, the total of these losses, 702 aircraft, represents a loss rate in five weeks of 234 per cent. Little wonder that Soviet ace Mayor Boris Yeryomin later wrote, "Throughout the entire war, I never saw more fierce and stiff air combats than those in the skies above Stalingrad."
By early October, the VVS had virtually disappeared from the skies over Stalingrad.
Over the High Mountains
Meanwhile, 4 VA and 5 VA, the Soviet air armies in the Caucasus, were advocating increasing the pressure on German Army Group A. It is obvious that the weak Luftwaffe forces which remained in the Caucasus in early September were inadequate to meet this challenge, but the extent of the sometimes alleged Soviet numerical superiority in this area in the Autumn of 1942 is a misconception. In fact, in September 1942, each side mustered between 200 and 250 operational aircraft in the Caucasus. With bombers forming the main part of VVS forces, most notably lend-lease Bostons grouped into 219 BAD, 4 VA was able to gain the initiative. To counter this, in early September, II./JG 52 was transferred to the Caucasus from the Stalingrad area. The air fighting on 6 September is indicative of the entire situation: 4 VA conducted 460 sorties and claimed the destruction of 14 German tanks, plus a direct bomb hit on the German assault bridge across the Terek at Mozdok, and sank seven troop ferries. In return, 219 BAD alone lost three Boston bombers and three LaGG-3 escort fighters. Two of the latter fell prey to 8./JG 52's Staffelkapitan, Oblt. Günther Rall, at 09.55 and 10.35 hrs. 7./ JG 52's Ofw. Alfred Grislawski destroyed a LaGG-3 and a Boston, while his wingman Fw. Edmund Rossmann shot down two I-16s and one LaGG-3. Hptm. Rudolf Resch, Staffelkapitan of 6./JG 52, claimed II./ JG 52's first victory in this sector by scoring his 50th victory.
On 8 September, the team of Grislawski and Rossmann encountered a formation of 219 BAD Bostons escorted by a large number of Soviet fighters. While Rossmann attracted the attention of the escort fighters, Grislawski attacked the Bostons and shot down four within two minutes - his 47th to 50th victories.
Throughout September 1942, 4 VA lost a total of 149 aircraft in combat, with 88 pilots killed or missing in action. The bulk of these losses were due to II. and IIl./JG 52, at a cost of 11 Bf 109s shot down in the southern Caucasus. IIl./JG 52 had received its worst loss on the 29th, when 68-victory ace Ofw. Kurt Ratzlaff was shot down by an La-5 from the 131 IAP, Kapitan Dmitriy Sigov and Kapitan Dmitriy Nazarenko each claiming a Bf 109 destroyed in this engagement.
The most successful German fighter pilot in the Caucasus in September 1942 was Oblt. Rail, who during the month added another 28 victories to his tally bringing his total to 90. Rail achieved his 100th victory on 22 October and was awarded the Oak Leaves, but the relentless fight in the air continued, with 6./JG 52's Lt. Walter Krupinski being rammed by an I-16 on 25 October, shortly after the German ace had achieved his 53rd victory. Krupinski nevertheless survived whereas his opponent perished. Four days later Krupinski was awarded the Ritterkreuz while the Soviet pilot who had rammed him posthumously received the Order of the Red Banner.
JG 52's aces definitely had the upper hand during the aerial combats over the Caucasus throughout the Autumn of 1942. On 26 October, 131 IAP's Kapitan Dmitriy Sigov (15 victories, including six shared) was shot down and killed when his La-5 was attacked from above by two Bf 109s. On 29 October, when II./JG 52 attained its 1,00Oth victory, 236 lAD's ace Podpolkovnik Dmitriy Kalarash (17 victories, including six shared) was killed in combat with Bf 109s. He probably fell victim to either 15.(Kroat)/JG 52's pilots Natporucnik Ljudevit Bencetic or Zastavnik Slavko Boskic, each of whom claimed a LaGG-3, or 4./JG 52's Oblt. Gerhard Barkhorn, who claimed a "Yak-l" as his 75th victory. Incidentally, cases of misidentification frequently arose as such Soviet in-line engined fighter types as the Yak-l, Yak-7, Yak-9, LaGG-3 and MiG-3 all had appearances so similar that accurate identification in air combat was very difficult.
On the last day of October, 7./JG 52's Ofw. Josef Zwernemann surpassed his 100-victory mark, but one of the toughest Jagdwaffe Experten in the Caucasus during this period was the young Oberfeldwebel Alfred Grislawski. On 2 November, his 23rd birthday, Grislawski became involved in an air battle with some 1-153s, during which he shot down one in flames. The pilot of the blazing aircraft, Aleksandr Klubov, managed to crash-land and, although badly burned, survived later to become one of the war's most famous VVS aces with 31 personal and 19 shared victories. Three days later Grislawski achieved his 66th victory after shooting down four IL-2s, one of which was flown by a leading ace of the Guards unit 7 GShAP.
Although Grislawski was not as concerned about personal victory scores as several other Luftwaffe aces, IIl./JG 52's Gruppenkommandeur, Major Hubertus von Bonin regarded him as one of the unit's most important pilots and a cornerstone in the Gruppe. Von Bonin even placed Grislawski as his own Rottenführer on some occasions, and when a young and talented Leutnant by the name of Erich Hartmann joined III./JG 52 from an Erganzungsgruppe, von Bonin instructed the team of Grislawski and Rossmann to teach Hartmann the necessities of air combat. Hartmann not only absorbed what was required but, using the knowledge gained as a basis, later developed into the war's most successful fighter ace. As an interesting aside, it was Grislawski who also gave Hartmann his famous nickname "Bubi", or "Little Boy".
The VVS Routed
When, in the Spring of 1942, Hitler realised his mistake in not capturing Leningrad in the Autumn of 1941, he decided to correct it. A plan of attack was drawn up but, on 27 August 1942, while German forces were still deploying, the Soviet Army launched a powerful attack of its own to sever the German held corridor on the southern shore of Lake Ladoga. All the reserves that the Germans had assembled for the attack on Leningrad therefore became involved in a defensive, rather than offensive battle.
In the event, although its attack was spoiled, Army Group North, and in particular 18th Army, was able to hold its positions, largely due to operations by Luftflotte 1. This in turn was because, despite a numerical disadvantage, the fighters of JG 54 were able to master the situation in the air. In early September, there were about 550 aircraft of VVS-KBF, VVS-Leningrad Front and 14 VA in the area, and although this gave the VVS a two-fold numerical superiority over the Luftwaffe, the Soviets still managed to lose their air superiority. During the first two days of September, JG 54 recorded 42 Soviet aircraft shot down, after which a decrease in Soviet air activity in the sector south of Lake Ladoga was noted.
Meanwhile, southwards on the Central Front, Soviet 1 VA and 3 VA were in no position to regain their air superiority and the units from JG 54 which had arrived to bolster Luftwaffenkommando Ost could return to Luftflotte 1. Luftwaffenkommando Ost's remaining fighter units - Stab, II., III., IV. and 15.(Span)/JG 51, plus I./JG 52, with a total of over 100 serviceable Bf 109s - were in firm control of the air. On 5 September, Major Joachim Muncheberg, JG 51's acting Geschwaderkommodore, achieved his 100th victory.
When I./JG 52 returned to Luftflotte 4 in the south, Major Kurt Brandle's II./JG 3 'Udet' was allocated to Luftwaffenkommando Ost and arrived just in time to help counter a Soviet assault against the German positions at Zubtsov, southeast of Rzhev. On 14 September, both 1 VA and 3 VA were concentrated to attack the German ground troops in this area, but at around 10.00 hrs on 14 September, Hptm. Hartmann Grasser's II./JG 51 engaged numerous IL-2s with fighter escort and claimed 12 shot down against a single loss of their own. In total, JG 51 accounted for 21, including five shot down by II./JG 51's Ofw. Otto Tange, which brought his score to 68, and three by Major Muncheberg.
In the area immediately south of Lake Ladoga, Major Gordon Gollob, the top-scoring fighter ace who had recently been grounded following the award of the Diamonds, arrived from the Caucasus to assume command of Luftflotte l's fighter units. Two Jagdgruppen also brought in from Germany to strengthen Gollob's force were Hptm. Kurt Ubben's Bf 109 G-2-equipped III./JG 77, and Hptm. Heinrich Krafft's I./JG 51 with its new Fw 190 A fighters. Thus the Fw 190 A, which had first been introduced to front-line units in France a year earlier, finally arrived on the Eastern Front, although at first neither of these units saw much combat.
The lack of opposition by the VVS is indicated by the fact that JG 54 achieved an average of no more than six aerial victories each day during the period from the 9th to 20 September and in this period lost only six Bf 109s destroyed or severely damaged due to hostile action. Among these casualties was 9./JG 54's Ofw. Wilhelm Schilling, who was awarded the German Cross in Gold on 13 September. Three days later, shortly after achieving his 46th victory, Schilling was pursuing a formation of IL-2s which had attacked Tosno railway station when anti-aircraft fire scored a direct hit on his aircraft and shattered one of his legs. Despite great pain and loss of blood, the 25 year-old Oberfeldwebel managed to nurse his Bf 109 to the advanced airstrip at Mga and was immediately taken to hospital. Another casualty in one the few aerial encounters on the Northern Front was 49-victory ace Fw. Peter Siegler of 3./JG 54 who was killed on 24 September.
Largely due to the support from the air, German troops were able to encircle the Soviet 6th Guards Corps west of Gaytolovo on 25 September. On 26 September, the Leningrad Front made a last attempt to cross the Neva River at Dubrovka and push across the German corridor. There is some evidence to suggest that VVS airmen were not giving of their best at this time, as Josef Stalin personally intervened and sent a harshly-worded telegram to 14 VA threatening to court-martial any Soviet fighter pilot who avoided combat with German fighters. It is reported that this apparently had some effect, although 6th Guards' attack was unsuccessful.
On 26 September, II./ JG 54's Oblt. Hans Beisswenger achieved his 100th victory and on the 29th, Major Gollob's fighters shot down more than 20 VVS aircraft, one of which, a LaGG-3, was the 50th victory for Oblt. Hans-Ekkehard Bob of 9./JG 54. The only loss sustained by JG 54 'Griinherz' on that date was a Bf 109 piloted by the Technical Officer of III. Gruppe, Lt. Erwin Leykauf, credited with 25 victories, who was pursuing an 1/-2 over Dubrovka when his aircraft was severely hit by enemy fire and Leykauf's arm was injured by a machine-gun bullet. He succeeded in baling out and was rescued from no-man's-land by German soldiers of the 227th Infantry Division.
On 30 September, pilots of JG 54 claimed another 15 victories and while I./JG 51's Gruppenkommandeur, Hptm. Krafft, achieved his 60th victory, III./JG 77's Hptm. Kurt Ubben increased his score to 92 by downing a Yak-l.
By now, Army Groups North and Centre had lost the initiative and were being forced onto the defensive. Moreover, during the Autumn of 1942, and despite its previous losses, the VVS again started to rebuild its strength. On the German side, however, fighter Gruppen were being transferred, some to other theatres. Three of the Jagdgruppen which had been deployed on the Northern and Central Fronts, II./JG 3, II./JG 51 and III./JG 77, had to be transferred elsewhere, the latter two Gruppen going to the Mediterranean area. With the departure of II./JG 51, Luftwaffenkommando Ost lost its most successful Jagdgruppe. Of the 11 Ritterkreuztrager serving with JG 51 at that time, six belonged to II. Gruppe and included such formidable fighter pilots as Hptm. Hartmann Grasser with 92 victories, Fw. Anton Hafner with 62 and Uffz.' Kurt Knappe, who scored his 51st and last victory on the Eastern Front on 4 October 1942.
On 7 October, JG 54 lost another of its Ritterkreuztrager, Oblt. Joachim Wandel, the Staffelkapitan of 5./ JG 54, when he and his wingman, Uffz. Ransmeyer, engaged two Yak-ls near Ostashkov. Wandel claimed one of the Soviet fighters shot down, but was then himself shot down by the other. This was Wandel's 75th and last victory.
Worse was to come, and on 9 November, 3 VA's fighter pilots managed to deal their enemy two heavy blows, both in the Velikiye Luki - Vitebsk sector, where Kalinin Front held its western-most positions. The first occurred over German-held territory near Gorodok, slightly north of Vitebsk, when a Soviet fighter sweep resulted in a combat during which III./JG 54's 53-victory ace Lt. Hans-Joachim Heyer was killed. In return, Hptm. Hans Knauth, Kommandeur of IV./JG 51 sent some of the Bf 109s under his command on fighter sweeps from the airfield at Vitebsk. One of the flights was led by the Staffelkapitan of 10./JG 51, Lt. Franz-Josef Beerenbrock, by that time the leading ace in JG 51 'Molders '. During the past eight days, Beerenbrock had increased his victory score by ten, reaching'a total of 114. Beerenbrock's formation had just crossed the frontline at Velizh, 40 miles north-east of Vitebsk, when they encountered a formation of 3 VA fighters and a stiff combat ensued Lt. Beerenbrock once again displayed his superior skills by shooting down three Soviet aircraft in quick succession but was suddenly heard calling over the R/T, "I'm hit in the radiator! Attempting a Bauchlandung1" His Bf 109 F-2, 'White 12', was then seen skidding along on the ground, after which the pilot was observed climbing from the cockpit and preparing himself for the inevitable capture.
In November 1942, 1 VA and 3 VA had gathered almost 1,400 aircraft - more than, 1,000 in 3 VA alone - and were preparing to support the pending Winter offensive planned to destroy Army Group Centre.
The Turn of the Tide
Despite the German fighter pilots' impressive victories, it was obvious that the VVS remained unbeaten and, in fact, was continuing to gain in strength. Nowhere was this tendency more clear than in the Far North.
By the beginning of the unusually hot and dry Polar Summer of 1942, Luftflotte 5 had been considerably reinforced, and on 1 July 1942 possessed a total of approximately 250 serviceable aircraft. Operationally, these were controlled by Fliegerführer Nord-Ost, Obstlt. Walter Lehwess Litzmann, and by Fliegerführer Lofoten, Oberst Ernst-August Roth, the former responsible for operations over the front-line and the latter mainly for anti-shipping operations. At first, due to the dominance established by II. and III./JG 5 in the Spring, Luftflotte 5 enjoyed a numerical and considerable qualitative superiority, for the opposition amounted only to 173 serviceable Soviet aircraft. Moreover, Fliegerführer Nord-Ost benefited from a Freya early-warning radar station.
During the Summer, however, this situation began to change, mainly due to the Soviets' ability to bring in new forces. However, one of the new units to arrive was 20 IAP jVVS SF equipped with the first Yak-ls to appear in the Far North and the first Soviet type which could compete effectively with the Bf 109 F. 20 IAP mounted its first operation on 19 July when, together with 2 GSAP, 19 GIAP and 769 IAP, it took off to attack seven Ju 87s and five Ju 88s, escorted by 12 Bf 109s from II. and III./JG 5, which were dispatched to attack Murmansk. Once intercepted, the Bf 109s immediately split up and engaged the Soviet fighters, allowing the bombers to slip away unscathed. In the following fighter versus fighter battle, 7./JG 5's Lt. Bodo Helms and Ofw. Franz D6rr claimed one Yak -1 each, and Uffz. Werner Schumacher claimed two Soviet fighters shot down. Actual Soviet losses amounted to five aircraft: a MiG-3 of 2 GSAP, three aircraft from 19 GIAP, equipped with Airacobras and Kittyhawks, and a 769 IAP Hurricane. In return, 6./JG 5's Fw. Leopold Knier was shot down by 20 IAP's Kapitan Krylov, while Uffz. Hans Döbrich, credited with 14 victories, was shot down by Lt. Yevgeniy Petrenko and Krasnoflotets Vladimir Burmatov of the same regiment. Both German pilots baled out. Knier was seized by Soviet troops, while D6brich - who landed 12 miles east of Murmashi - was able to evade capture and walked back to his own lines.
The ability of pilots to return to their unit after trekking through the dry Karelian wilds was, in fact, quite common. On 22 July, the Gruppenkommandeur of II./JG 5, Hptm. Horst Garganico, was obliged to start walking after his Bf 109 FA, WNr. 10256, developed engine trouble and he crash-landed near Zimnaya Motovka. His aircraft was recovered by the Soviets but Garganico evaded capture and succeeded in returning to the Finnish-German front-line on 25 July.
In total, Luftflotte 5 recorded 26 combat losses in July 1942, while VVS SF registered 32 of its own aircraft shot down or missing.
In early August, the fighting in the Far North moved southwards as a Waffen-SS unit attempted to capture an area in the hills in the Kestenga-Loukhi sector, south of Kandalaksha Bay and more than 200 miles south of Murmansk. The Soviet air force in this area, VVS 26th Army, had experienced a prolonged period of calm, but the first engagement between the Luftwaffe and VVS 26th Army in August 1942 was a good indication that the Germans would meet stiff opposition in this sector. On 2 August, two Bf 109s of 4./JG 5 escorted an Hs 126 of 1.(H)j32 which set out on a reconnaissance mission over the lines near Kestenga, but they were intercepted by Hurricanes from 760 IAP jVVS 26th Army. The Soviet fighter pilots destroyed all three German aircraft for the loss of one Hurricane.
A few days later, three Bf 109 pilots on a transfer flight to the same area became disorientated and landed in Soviet-occupied territory where they were all captured. One of them was Uffz. Werner Schumacher who had claimed at least ten victories and was the highest-scoring pilot of 7./ JG 5.
On 12 August, Hptm. Horst Garganico's Schwarm from Stab II./JG 5 was involved in combat with Soviet fighters while escorting an Fw189 over the Litsa Front and Murmansk. The outcome was a single MiG-3 claimed, while a Soviet fighter pilot from 19 GIAP shot down Garganico, who came down behind enemy lines for the second time in only a few weeks. This time, he was rescued by an Fi 156 Storch after one day.
On 21 August, pilots from the Expertenstaffe 6./JG 5 claimed to have shot down 14 Soviet fighters out of 35 which intercepted the Zerstorer Staffe 13.(Z)/JG 5. According to Soviet files, 12 Soviet fighters took part in this clash, and two LaGG-3s from 1 AE/255 IAP and two I-16s from 3 AE of 27 IAP/VVS SF were shot down near Vayenga. Another I-16 from 27 IAP/VV SF and one Kittyhawk from 2 GSAP jVVS-SF made forced landings at the airfield. The Germans lost two Bf 109s, one of which was flown by the new Staffelkapitan of 6./JG 5, ObIt. Hans Dieter Hartwein, victor of 16 combats, who was posted missing. Furthermore, 'Rudi' Muller returned with a hole through the canopy of his Bf 109 where a bullet had missed his head by only a few inches.
During this period, overclaims were made by both sides, and it is indicative of the character of fighter pilots in general that both Germans and Soviets felt that they each enjoyed a convincing superiority. The pilots of JG 5 were certain that they were inflicting crippling losses on the enemy, claiming a total of 72 victories in August, but Soviet statistics show only 24 Soviet aircraft lost with another seven damaged and 13 aircraft missing. Another four were shot down by ground fire.
Contrary to the general assessment of the air war on the Eastern Front, Soviet fighter pilots in the Murmansk area were more successful against the Bf 109 at this time than RAF Fighter Command. According to the loss statistics of both sides, in 1942, Fighter Command lost on average of 3.5 aircraft for every German fighter destroyed in combat over Western Europe, and in North Africa the ratio was even higher. In comparison, and including aircraft shot down by Finnish fighters, the Soviets lost 34 fighters and the Germans ten in the Karelia - Murmansk area during the same period, a ratio of 3.4 Soviet aircraft destroyed to each one lost. However, discounting the Finnish pilots' successes, Soviet losses due only to action by Luftflotte 5 amounted to no more than six fighters, indicating that the Germans were losing approximately two of their own fighters for every Soviet one destroyed. From the Autumn of 1942, the initiative in the air in the Far North slipped gradually and irreversibly further in favour of the Soviets.
Some of the numerical successes attained by German fighter pilots in 1942, particularly during the Summer, were unparalleled, surpassing even the astronomical achievements of the previous year. Before the German 1942 Summer offensive opened on the Eastern Front, 11 Luftwaffe fighter pilots had each surpassed the 100-victory mark, but between July and October 1942, another 18 pilots in the East achieved the same feat. Moreover, in August 1942, JG 52's Geschwaderkommodore, Major Gordon Gollob, became the first pilot to achieve 150 victories, and the next month Hptm. Herman Graf of 9./JG 52 exceeded 200. The important contribution of the Jagdwaffe is evident, too, in the comparatively low losses in the Kampf- and Stukagruppen which in turn allowed these units to provide air support vital to the survival of the Wehrmacht's ground forces.
Between January and October 1942, the Luftwaffe claimed to have shot down in aerial combat more than 12,000 Soviet aircraft. Although Soviet sources indicate that this amounts to an overclaim rate of 2:1, it still represents a tremendous achievement, and yet the VVS forced the Jagdwaffe to fight bitterly and many Experten lost their lives or were captured. Three of these had exceeded 100 victories; Lt. Franz-Josef Beerenbrock (117 victories, PoW), Oblt. Max-Hellmuth Ostermann (102 victories, killed) and Oblt. Viktor Bauer (106 victories, severely injured). All three were shot down by Soviet fighter pilots. It is noteworthy that in August 1942, JG 51 - the Luftwaffe's most successful Jagdgeschwader by that time - suffered heavier losses than ever previously in the war. And in the Far North, JG 5 lost its air superiority in the Autumn of 1942.
True, in 1942, the Jagdwaffe had succeeded in achieving what it had been unable to do in 1941 - namely to break the famous Soviet stamina. However, the Soviets' ability to revive remained unaffected and Stalingrad, the scene of the VVS's most humiliating defeat, would also witness its most dramatic revival.
This webpage was updated 16th September 2012
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