Monday, March 2, 2015

Luftwaffe in Barbarossa Part V

Up to this point, the Luftwaffe's task in the east had consisted almost exclusively of operativ warfare in indirect or increasingly direct support of the army. Indeed, Hitler's Directive No. 21 had explicitly ordered attacks on Soviet "strategic" targets such as arms manufacturers to be postponed until after the Archangelsk-Volga-Astrakhan line would be reached. However, the need to consolidate the Smolensk pocket, as well as the inability of the German High Command to make up its mind concerning the next objective, created some breathing space. Working day and night, the Luftwaffe brought its ground organization forward, a task that was already being made difficult by the operations of scattered Red Army units as well as the first partisan forces . It was only about 250 miles from the Dnieper to Moscow, making it possible to mount a series of raids against the Soviet capital. The first and largest attack was launched on the night of 21-22 July and was carried out by 195 bombers; of these, 127 reached their targets and dropped 104 tons of high explosives as well as 46,000 small incendiary bombs. From then until 5 December-the day the final German attack on Moscow opened-75 more raids were mounted, all by night and the great majority by forces numbering fewer than 50 aircraft each. The 1,000 Soviet antiaircraft guns concentrated in the city, as well as opposition from Red Air Force fighters, forced the Luftwaffe to operate mainly by night. Even if their bombers had been capable of accurately hitting their targets, which they were not, this was not nearly enough to make an impression. The Soviets later put the total number of dead at 1,088, comparable to the figure killed at Rotterdam in the previous year but a small fraction of those destroyed by the vast Allied raids on German cities later in the war.

As for maneuver warfare, the raids on Moscow undoubtedly constituted a wasteful diversion of effort away from the main task, which was and remained the destruction of the Soviet armed forces. However, it should be remembered that, owing partly to logistic reasons and partly to the need to clear up the still-seething Smolensk pocket, ground operations on the central front were almost at a standstill at this time. While Luftflotte 2's attack aircraft took part in preventing the Soviets from breaking out of the pocket, its bombers were not very suitable for this task. They were therefore used on other missions even if the value of those missions proved disappointing in the end. When large-scale operativ warfare was resumed late in August, the raids on Moscow continued but were greatly reduced until they only represented a small fraction of the German effort. To the Soviets, they were never more than a nuisance, but they probably did tie down greater forces committed to defending the city than were ever committed to attacking it.

By the end of August, after almost a month of stationary fighting, Army Group Center had its supply situation improved to the extent that the railway supporting its southern flank now reached the city of Gomel.  This enabled Guderian's Panzer Group 2, supported by the newly created Second Army, to start its drive southward into the Ukraine, where it acted in conjunction with Gen Ewald von Kleist's Panzer Group 1 coming up from Kiev. The Germans thought they were operating against only the Soviet Fifth Army; however, the entire enemy force consisted of parts of several other armies as well, so that the operation took longer and yielded far more prisoners and booty than originally expected. As usual, the missions of Fliegerkorps II and Fliegerkorps V, supporting the two panzer groups, were to gain and maintain air superiority, isolate the pocket against counterattacks from the outside, and attack the encircled Soviet forces until they laid down their arms.

Beginning on 28 August, Fliegerkorps II supported Guderian's crossing of the river Desna by blasting away at the Soviet artillery positions on the other side.  It next flew missions against the Soviet railways on Guderian's exposed left flank while using its dive bombers to blast a way for the panzers on their way south, helping them to advance rapidly and preventing the bulk of the Soviet forces from withdrawing.  Simultaneously, Fliegerkorps V launched attacks on roads and railroads in the Romodan-Poltava area, prevented a counterattack by Soviet forces coming from the Lubny-Lokhvitsa-Priluki-Yagotin area, helped the army capture Kiev ("to be reduced to rubble and ashes," according to Hitler's order), and in general bombed the encircled Soviet forces, making them ready for surrender. The war diary of this corps for the period is one of the few documents to survive the war, making a quantitative analysis of these operations possible.  It shows that the forces of Fliegerkorps V flew 1,422 sorties between 12 and 21 September alone, losing 17 aircraft destroyed, 14 damaged, nine soldiers dead, 18 missing, and five wounded. In return, they dropped 577 tons of bombs and 96 cases of incendiaries (presumably over Kiev) and destroyed 65 enemy aircraft in the air and 42 on the ground. They also destroyed 23 tanks; 2,171 motor vehicles; six antiaircraft batteries; 52 trains; 28 locomotives (this apart from 335 motor vehicles and 36 trains damaged) ; demolished one bridge ; and interrupted 18 railway lines. To the extent that these figures mean anything at all, it seems that the Schwerpunkt during this, as during all German mobile operations, was on interdiction; this is indicated by the small number of tanks destroyed as well as the absence from the list of major weapons such as ground artillery.

Meanwhile, along the Dnieper on both sides of Smolensk, the rebuilding of the railways and their conversion to standard gauge was proceeding apace. Fliegerkorps VIII, its mission in the north only half accomplished, was brought back under the command of Luftflotte 2. Panzer Group 3 was taken from Army Group North and returned to its original position on the left of Army Group Center, where it was subordinated to the Ninth Army; these were thus the same forces that had formed the northern arm in the battles of Minsk and Smolensk. To compensate for the loss of Guderian, Hitler ordered Gen Erich Hoepner's Panzer Group 4 to be used as well. In this way, it operated under the command of Fourth Army at Roslavl on the south flank of Army Group Center, where Guderian had previously been. Meanwhile, Guderian himself was to create a third prong by driving due north-northwest through Bryansk towards Tula. The German forces now totaled 70 divisions, including four armored and eight motorized; average actual strength was probably around 70 percent, up from 50 percent five weeks earlier. Opposing them were 83 Soviet divisions of the western theater, commanded by Gen Georgi Zhukov. Its principal parts, from north to south, were the West Front, the Reserve Front and, facing Guderian, the Bryansk Front.

Guderian's offensive opened on 30 September, and the remaining German armies following two days later. At first, the new offensive promised to become as successful as anything in the past; on 10 October, forward units of Panzer Group 3 and Panzer Group 4 met at Vyazma, trapping some 300,000 Soviet troops. Meanwhile, Panzer Group 2 (now redesignated Second Panzer Army), operating in conjunction with Second Army on its left, came up from the south and succeeded in working its way behind Gen A. I. Eremenko's Bryansk Front. At this time, the weather broke and the autumn rains began. The entire countryside turned into a vast sea of mud that prevented wheeled vehicles from moving at all and caused tracked ones to move forward only slowly and at an enormous cost in fuel.

As the offensive began, the Luftwaffe's raids on Moscow were reduced in scale until they became of nuisance value only. Luftflotte 2 went back to its usual role of interdiction behind the front; on 4 and 5 October, it was able to achieve very good results against Soviet rail transport, including the destruction of no fewer than 10 trains loaded with tanks. However, when the weather broke, it too found itself reduced to flying isolated sorties against such targets as could still be identified. There were even days when the entire air fleet, its ground organization suffering grievously under the impossible conditions, was only able to get one or two reconnaissance aircraft into the air. Red Air Force resistance, favored by prepared airfields and short lines of communications, was stiffening and had to be held down. Under such circumstances, Fliegerkorps II was only able to achieve isolated successes, such as preventing a bridge over the river Snopot from being blown up until German armored units could arrive on the scene. Farther to the south, it was all it could do to keep the supply routes of Second Panzer Army open against the usual remnants of Soviet forces that, though outflanked on the map and supposedly defeated, had not been destroyed. In doing so, it suffered many losses due to the bad weather.

The tremendous German success in the autumn battles had left Hitler and the OKH in an optimistic mood. The double encirclement at Vyazma and Bryansk had yielded as many as 350,000 prisoners, though even this huge figure did not account for many Soviet forces that had made good their escape on the southern part of the front. The continuation of the offensive had originally been ordered for 17 November. However, a few days after this date, the weather brought snow and fog with temperatures sinking to below zero centigrade. Fliegerkorps II was taken out of the line and sent to the Mediterranean, where the British had driven Rommel back from Tobruk and were threatening Tripolitania. With them went the commander of Luftflotte 2, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, who was destined to spend the rest of his career commanding the German forces in the Mediterranean theater. All that was left in front of Moscow was Fliegerkorps VIII, whose commander, Gen Wolfram von Richthofen, took over from Kesselring on 30 November. By this time, the airfields used by the Germans were scarcely serviceable, and the few units that were still able to advance at all were being overwhelmed by the cold. On 8 December, faced by a massive Soviet counterattack that threatened the flanks of Army Group Center on both sides of Moscow, Hitler reluctantly ordered the offensive to be abandoned.

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