Thursday, March 26, 2015

Eastern Front Air War

In all this it is useful to recall that three-quarters of all Wehrmacht soldiers who were killed in World War II lost their lives on the Eastern Front. Compared to that, the Western one was almost a picnic. Until the autumn of 1942 the German Army and the Luftwaffe units supporting it, though weakened to the point where they were no longer able to attack all along it as they had done during the previous year, still enjoyed superiority over the Soviets. The outcome was a series of spectacular victories that brought it to Stalingrad and to the gates of the Caucasus. While the quality of Soviet aircraft was improving, German pilots and organization, including above all the critically important field of communications, remained superior. Concentrating its forces, the Luftwaffe was still able to obtain clear air superiority at the time and at the place it wanted. The problem was that, given the relatively low number of machines and the huge spaces to be overrun, there were never enough forces to do a really thorough job. This was reflected in the tremendous effort of the Luftwaffe transport command; during this period it flew 21,500 sorties, covered over ten million miles, and delivered 42,000–43,000 tons of supplies.

Determined to dislodge the last remaining Soviet forces still clinging to the right bank of the Volga at Stalingrad, in October the Luftwaffe concentrated 80 percent of all its combat power against that city. During that month the bombers and dive-bombers of Luftflotte 4 flew approximately 20,000 bomber and dive-bomber sorties to assist General Friedrich Paulus’s Sixth Army. Targets consisted of remaining pockets of resistance as well as Soviet traffic across the river. However, the Germans did not have a free hand. As enemy resistance stiffened, the number of serviceable machines dropped by almost half. By the time the Soviet counteroffensive got under way on November 20, the Red Air Force, constantly growing in numbers and operating from bases east of the Volga, was in control of the sky. Particularly important was the German pilots’ inability, made worse by the closeness of the fighting on the ground, to identify their targets at night. For just that reason, it was at night that the Soviets sent most of their reinforcements into the beleaguered city.

The Soviet counteroffensive quickly led to the encirclement of the German Sixth Army. Some months earlier, in February–May 1942, about 90,000 German troops had been cut off by the Red Army, forming two pockets south of Leningrad. During that period the Luftwaffe was able to keep the encircled forces alive by flying in supplies and replacement troops and taking out the wounded. In the end the encircled formations were able to break the siege, although doing so cost them much of their heavy equipment. Now Goering told Hitler that the Luftwaffe might repeat the performance. Yet conditions were entirely different. Whereas the battle for Demyansk took place toward the beginning of spring so that the weather could be expected to improve, that for Stalingrad got under way just when winter was setting in. Whereas the troops at Demyansk needed a minimum of 265 tons a day to survive, the 220,000 at Stalingrad needed at least twice as much. Flying in and out of the city, the distances the aircraft had to cover were also much longer.

Mobilizing every aircraft and every crew, braving nights that were becoming increasingly longer, atrocious weather conditions, and growing Soviet resistance in the air and from the ground, the Luftwaffe, still flying mostly obsolescent Ju-52s, did what it could. However, during the entire period when the air-bridge was in operation only once did it succeed in delivering as much as 280 tons, whereas the daily average stood at a mere 90 tons. Toward the end, as more and more airfields were lost to the advancing Soviet columns, the Germans were reduced to dropping supplies by parachute, with the result that many were lost or fell into enemy hands. None of this could save the doomed Sixth Army; by the time it surrendered, the Luftwaffe’s transport command, having lost almost 500 aircraft and many experienced crews, had received a blow from which it would never recover.

The last occasion when the Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front was able to intervene effectively in the ground battle was at Kursk in July 1943, when it saved the German Ninth Army from encirclement and possibly annihilation. From this point on, in the air as on the ground, the boot was clearly on the other foot. Already during 1942 the quality of Soviet airpower had begun to improve; aircraft received wireless—from early 1943 on, every new machine was equipped with a set—and modern navigation aids. Soviet ground radar had now developed to the point where it was able to provide 15 minutes’ advance warning against approaching German aircraft, greatly facilitating interception and enabling commanders to do away with the wasteful practice of mounting air patrols around the clock. Stalin’s Falcons finally got around to adopting the staggered four-finger formation, the outcome being a notable improvement in the scores of air-to-air combat.

By this time the Soviet aviation industry, much of which had been hastily evacuated to the territory east of the Ural Mountains in 1941, was back in full operation. Partly for that reason, partly because of the Luftwaffe’s decision to focus on the defense of the Reich, the Red Air Force also enjoyed a very great quantitative advantage. One result was that the number of air-to-air encounters actually declined, as was later to happen in the west too; there simply were no German planes or pilots left to carry on the fight.

This in turn meant that the Soviets, assured of air superiority at most times and places, were able to focus on air-to-ground attack. Like their enemies and their allies, they developed a system of forward air observers. They were fully motorized and used radio telephony to work with ground commanders down to the regimental level. Tactics, too, improved. At Stalingrad, deficient arrangements for air-to-ground cooperation made Soviet air support almost totally ineffective. Now, with the battle moving to and fro (but mostly to) over the enormous, almost featureless expanses, things became a lot easier. Smaller, more flexible formations numbering three or four aircraft were adopted. Pilots learned to launch their attacks from the west, especially during the late afternoon when the sun would blind the German defenders. While tactical bombers—the only ones the Soviets had—fighter-bombers, and ground attack aircraft flew both battlefield support and interdiction sorties, the Soviets continued to differ from the western Allies in that they always preferred the former to any other kind. By one calculation they devoted as many as 40–50 percent of all sorties to that task. This was almost as many as those devoted to air superiority (35–45 percent), interdiction (4–12 percent), and reconnaissance (2–13 percent) combined.

The number of Soviet combat aircraft grew from 1,327 at Stalingrad to no fewer than 7,496 during the climactic Battle of Berlin. The daily number of sorties went up from 500 at Stalingrad to 2,600 at Kursk to 4,157 at Berlin. Whereas at Stalingrad each aircraft flew 0.37 sorties per day on the average, two years later the figure stood at 0.55. Losses were heavy in proportion. Out of 33,700 ground-attack aircraft built, no fewer than 23,600, or 70 percent, were destroyed—12,400 by enemy action and 11,200 by accidents of every kind. All this fits in well with a report that, soon after the war, Stalin was shocked to learn that fully 47 percent of all losses had been due to accidents. As so often was the case, the discovery immediately led to an investigation into the nefarious activities of assorted so-called wreckers and enemies, though its results are not recorded. Yet in one respe ct the Soviets were fortunate. Given that almost all their aircraft were single- or twin-seaters, personnel losses were proportionally much smaller than those suffered by the western Allies in particular; in the long run, smaller losses translated into greater accumulated experience.

As so often was the case, just how much Soviet airpower affected ground operations is impossible to say. To be sure, we are told that “air cover and support from the tank armies that carried the burden of the major Soviet offensives after 1944 were critical to the overall success” and that “the [Frontal Air Force] was the most mobile, flexible, and powerful means for supporting tank armies during deep operations.” However, the question remains as to how critical “critical” really was. Whereas German records and memoirs pertaining to the West often stress the role of Allied airpower, when it comes to the Red Air Force they are of little help. To the very end, the German generals tended to look down on their Soviet enemies, attributing the latter’s victories, and their own defeats, to hammer-like blows delivered by overwhelming numbers rather than to any tactical and operational finesse. Always it was the supply system that broke down, or some neighboring unit that gave way, rather than they themselves who were defeated. For most of these generals, admitting that Soviet successes in the war in general, and in the air war in particular, might be due to qualitative superiority was little but heresy; during the Cold War, such an admission would cast doubt on Germany’s usefulness to its newly found NATO allies.

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