The Luftwaffe that was flung against the massive Soviet military machine in July 1941 was not, fundamentally, all that different from the one that had been used some successfully against Poland, France, and the Low Countries. More than 2/3 of the entire Luftwaffe was thrown into the battle, 2,700 aircraft in total. In sheer numbers, it wasn’t a much larger force than the one which had crushed the earlier countries, and, at least at the onset, the success was just as total.
Striking Soviet airbases, the Luftwaffe destroyed more than 1,800 Soviet aircraft, all but about 300 as they sat on the ground. Those that did manage to take off were piloted by crews from the VVS (Soviet Air Force), which had seen its ranks gutted by Stalin. The German air to air kill ratio was astounding. Some pilots quickly racked up over 100 kills, and Erich Hartmann ended the war with an astounding 352, most on the Russian front.
In the realm of close air support, the success was also growing beyond the expectations of even airpower theorists. Stukas rolled in ahead of advancing Panzer units as they sliced their way through the vast space of the Soviet empire. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops were cut off, defeated, and surrendered. Even aircraft not designed for the rigors of low level combat, like the He111 and Ju88 bombers, were used to strafe and attack Soviets where they could.
Many refinements were made to the tactics of the attackers, learned from their campaigns in France and Poland. Many more of the UHF teams that had so effectively coordinated strikes were sent into Russia, formed mostly of Luftwaffe Signal Corps troops, but also some with actual Stuka pilots on rotation. Although it is hard to find specific references to such, it is inferred in many text that they operated closer to the front lines as well, becoming more forward air controllers than coordinators with the Panzer Generals. In the fast-moving war, it was soon found that close communication with ground commanders was key to success, and as the attack wore on, more and more of the Stuka pilots were rotated back to flying positions, leaving the task at the hands of the Signal Corps UHF operators, who often were better at the communication task anyway. There were never enough of these units to meet the needs of the army, but they stayed close to the Stuka units as they were shifted up and down to the many battles of the Eastern Front.
As August rolled around, some troubling new developments began to be noticed by German commanders…..the Soviets kept coming. No matter how successful their attacks, their opponent never seemed to run out of men or material. One pre-invasion German intelligence estimate put the Soviet army at a strength of about 200 divisions…by August, they had already counted 360, with no end in sight.
There were some troubling new developments for the Luftwaffe, too. The Soviet “scorched earth” policy left little in the way of shelter as they retreated. German Luftwaffe commanders, used to deploying right with their Wehrmacht counterparts, often found no shelter adequate to set up shop and coordinate attacks. Stuka pilots who had so successfully struck fixed French and Polish sites, and who destroyed the soft targets in the West, now found Soviet armor a tougher nut to crack. Not all of the existing weapons worked anymore; even early in the campaign, some new weapons were obviously needed. On the fourth day of the initial invasion, for instance, a force of 36 Stukas tried divebombing a large formation of Soviet armor, scoring only one kill…the fragmentation bombs that had worked so well in France proved too weak for the tougher Soviet tanks.
The weather started to play a larger factor as well…Stuka dive bombing attacks needed about a minimum of 2,800 feet cloud ceiling…the weather often forced the attackers lower than they would have liked, and losses mounted. New ground attack variations of aircraft, such as the FW190 fighter, were used to supplement the Stukas with shallow diving attacks, but did not have the same accuracy dropping bombs as their dive-bombing counterparts. They were, however, faster and more capable of defending themselves, which became more and more important, because the VVS and its infrastructure was starting to show its teeth. The Soviet dismantled much of their aviation industry, more than 1,500 production facilities, ahead of the German advance and moved it brick by brick beyond reach of German airpower (the Germans never developed an effective long range bomber). So while the Germans were continuing a wide victory over the Soviets, the Soviet aircraft industry could produce more aircraft faster. The German air units were essentially being bled dry. There was no rotation policy…pilots flew until they died or the war ended. Even at the loss rate of 16 aircraft a day, the Germans were being slowly ground to a halt the deeper and deeper they pressed east.
This became evident in the use of CAS airpower as well as the supports to make it work. Dive bomber pilots routinely flew over a dozen sorties per day, often only a half-hour a duration. Ground crews (called “blackbirds”) salvaged what they could, but a lack of spare parts often meant aircraft were simply left behind as units and their crews moved to a new forward operating base. The German philosophy of Schwerpunkt started to fail because there were dozens, if not hundreds, of ‘Schwerpunkten’ along the 1,000 mile-long front.
In October, Hitler decided to launch an all-out push for the prize: Moscow. The initial attacks, called Operation Typhoon, were a large success. Resupplied during a six-week period, German Stukas and Panzers raced forward throughout October and November with the same success seen time and time before.
Then “General Mud” struck, and Hitler made a costly mistake. Torrential rains in November turned the land into a sea of mud, slowing the advance to a crawl. New demands for airpower in the Mediterranean theater caused Hitler to transfer Luftflotte 2 and its 1,300 aircraft to Italy to support that front. Those units had been providing support to Operation Typhoon, and faced with an early, harsher than normal winter, the German army that was within 19 miles of Moscow was finally ground to a halt.
At the same time, the VVS regained its momentum. In the battle for Moscow’s suburbs, the Soviets flew more than 50,000 sorties, the vast majority of them CAS missions. This was five times what the Germans could put forward. Of the Luftwaffe’s 100,000 vehicles in Russia, only about 15 percent were operational. Operational strength of Luftwaffe combat units plunged…aircraft wouldn’t start in the cold and exposed forward bases, equipment froze, and the limited number of hot air blowers were used to keep tools from freezing to mechanics’ hands. By January, there were less than 500 operational German aircraft in the entire Russian front…the Soviets had 1,000 in the Moscow area alone.
As the Germans retreated and winter came and went, the Luftwaffe was slowly built back up to a strength of around 2,700 planes. Hitler’s decision to launch a southern counterattack in the summer of 1942 saw the Luftwaffe again being pressed into action to provide CAS to advancing German troops. Again, the pairing worked well, and the Germans found themselves sweeping through large amounts of Russian land. However, this time the Germans found Soviet resistance fairly weak…ground attack and dive bomber units often had no CAS work to do, and were sent into the enemy’s rear to attack targets behind enemy lines.
The Russians let them come and when the Germans became bogged down in Stalingrad, the Russians closed the noose and cut off the German troops. Despite massive Luftwaffe attempts at resupply, it was a losing battle for the Germans. When they finally surrendered in January, 1943, the Germans and their allies had suffered more than 500,000 casualties.
However, in some ways the defeat at Stalingrad had helped the Luftwaffe. Now freed from the single-minded duty of supporting their trapped army, they rebuilt their strength, incorporated new units and aircraft types, and re-allocated their ground attack pilots. General von Richthofen, who had opposed the massive airlift into Stalingrad, consolidated and reorganized Luftwaffe operations in the south under one command. As part of the reorganization, units performing below par had their personnel shipped back to Germany for more training, while more battle-experienced crews took their place.
Although the final outcome of the larger air war was essentially decided by this time in the war, the Luftwaffe was not done yet. A new German offensive in February 1943 flew right into the face of the much larger Soviet Air Force and quickly recaptured several key cities. Using tried and true Blitzkrieg tactics, the Stukas, and increasingly, ground attack versions of the FW-190, rolled in ahead of advancing German forces, responding to threats on command and also interdicting supply lines behind the front.
But time was not on the German’s side. Although the Luftwaffe reached its peak size in June of 1943 (6,000 aircraft), only about one third of those could be allocated for the Eastern Front. The Russians just had to focus on one front, and their numerical superiority soon also was bolstered by more and more tactical superiority.
Viewing the dire situation at hand, Hitler pressed for one final strike. The final straw between the two armies came at a small city named Kursk.
It was Hitler’s hope that a surprise offensive, led by the army’s new Panther tanks, would cut off a large section of the Russian army and pre-empt any planes they had at mounting a large summer offensive.
Aviation historian Walter Boyne called Kursk “a titanic struggle,” and it’s hard to argue with him. The battle involved more than 2 million men, 5,000 aircraft, and 6,000 tanks from the two sides. Both air forces threw their best and brightest new designs and theories into the mix. And it was here that the two sides unveiled some new weapons that, at least in function, are still cornerstones of anti-armor CAS today.
On the German side, one innovation came in the form of a new aircraft, the Hs129, a twin-engine, armored ground attack plane that could mount up to a 75mm cannon and which would close to within 500 meters of an enemy tank before firing the massive round at the target. Although it could only carry 12 rounds for the cannon, pilots were instructed to fire four-round bursts at the target, with each 25 lb. shell offering a devastating punch if it hit. Only about 25 of the 75mm Hs129s were built, however; the vast majority of the fleet was equipped with 20mm, 30mm, or 37mm cannon. And the Hs129 never lived up to its billing; it was barely faster than the Stuka, was not maneuverable, and suffered from poor engines that really limited the operational effectiveness of the aircraft. In the end, only a handful of Hs129s were in service at any one time. In one of the larger Hs129 attacks, 16 aircraft, supported by ground attack FW-190F, attacked a large formation of Soviet armor near Belgordo. As the -190s dropped cluster munitions on the soft targets, the -129s rolled onto the tanks and fired their 30mm cannon into the targets. An hour later, more than 50 tanks had been destroyed.
The Luftwaffe placed great hope in the Hs129, but at Kursk, the old standby…the Stuka…really was the plane to show its ability to adapt to yet another role. First Lieutenant Hans-Ulrich Rudel, already famous for sinking the Soviet battleship Marat with a Stuka in 1941, made an even bigger reputation for himself at Kursk flying an experimental variant of the Stuka carrying twin 37mm cannon in underwing pods. He had been involved in the development of the weapon system and tactics at a German research facility, and put it to first use in the Black Sea, shooting at Russian landing craft (he is credited with 70 landing craft kills). Over Russia, Rudel knocked out scores of enemy tanks, including 12 T-34 tanks in one day. With their dive brakes removed, the cannon-armed Stukas would swoop in from behind attacking Soviet armor, attacking at near ground level (15-25 ft AGL) and firing their tungsten-tipped 37mm rounds into the rear and top of the tanks. As the G model Stukas pressed home their low level anti-armor missions, older D model Stuka would divebomb anti-aircraft units threatening the tank killers. Rudel describes one such attack by adding “…[my rear gunner] said that the tank exploded like a bomb and he had seen bits of it crashing down behind us.”
An aside on Rudel….by the end of the war, he had amassed an astounding reputation as the top Stuka pilot, finishing the war with more than 2,500 sorties, and credit for the destruction of 519 tanks, one battleship, one cruiser, one destroyer, 70 landing craft, four armored trains, and nine enemy aircraft…all in an aircraft judged by some to be obsolete by the start of the war. He was shot down 30 times by ground fire (never by another aircraft) and was wounded five times, including one instance where he lost his leg…and continued flying with an artificial one! The Soviets put a 100,000 ruble bounty on his head, dead or alive.
However, for all of Rudel’s (and the other Luftwaffe pilots’) effort, the battle for Kursk proved a bitter defeat for the Germans. Tipped off to the attack, the Russians planned multi-level defenses, heavily mined the area, and wore the German army down to a breaking point. When it was all said and done on July 11, the world had seen the largest armor battle in history, and the ultimate end of German offensive operations in World War Two.
From Kursk on, the focus of the Luftwaffe was to play defense, attempting to beat back the attacking swarms of Russian units that lunged deeper and deeper into German territory.