Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Battle of Kursk - the Air Battle

Battle of Kursk by Nicolas Trudgian. (B)

On 5 July, 1943 over 6000 German and Russian tanks clashed near the town of Kursk, just 300 miles south of Moscow. It was the beginning of what became the greatest tank battle in history. In the skies above this conflagration, an air battle of monumental proportions raged, with the German and Russian air forces locked in combat. This was war on a scale hitherto never imagined. A full week later the Battle was still raging, reaching a crescendo on 12 July when Hoths 4th Panzer Army met head-on with Rotmistrovs 5th Guards Tank Army near the village of Prokhorovka. With the Russian T34s electing to fight at close quarters, so desperate was the fighting that opposing tanks resorted to ramming each other. As the battle moved across the landscape all became utter confusion. Playing a major role in the air were the Luftwaffes Ju-87 Stukas, equipped with massive 37mm cannons slung under their wings. Led by Hans-Ulrich Rudel, the legendary Stuka pilot, these formidable tank-busters made a significant contribution to the Battle of Kursk. Nicolas Trudgians painting records the dramatic events at Kursk in a spectacular rendition that captures the very essence of this mighty land and air battle. Dominating the scene are a pair of Ju-87s. Having knocked out two T34s, they weave over the landscape as they try to avoid the attentions of Russian Yak 9s, the gunner of Rudels aircraft - in the foreground - blazing away with his machine gun. A pair of Fw190s have entered the fray, and the air is filled with smoke and cordite. In a typically detailed Nicolas Trudgian landscape, below the aerial contest Russian and Panzer tanks are seen in close combat, desperately maneuvering to gain some advantage. The old farm buildings show the ravages of war; tank tracks crisscross the fields, stretching into the distance where the battle extends to the horizon. A masterpiece in military art.

Though the Battle of Kursk is rightly considered a tank engagement, the struggle in the skies was no less important. The Luftwaffe gave the panzer divisions excellent aerial support, but the Red Air Force was to prove the eventual master in the air.

The Luftwaffe commitment at the beginning of Operation Citadel was 1800 aircraft. This figure represented some two-thirds of the machines deployed on the entire Eastern Front. The bulk of this force was concentrated to support the southern pincer under VIII Air Corps commanded by General Otto Dessloch. A squadron commander during World War I, Dessloch had vast experience, having led various Luftwaffe units prior to the Kursk operation. Under Dessloch's leadership, VIII Air Corps controlled the flying units of 4th Air Fleet, 1st Hungarian Air Division and I FlaK (antiaircraft artillery) Corps, disposing a total of 1100 aircraft. Included amongst these flying formations were seven units of dive-bombers, the infamous Ju 87D Stuka.

The Stukas were expected to carry out their classic role, established during four years of war, as flying artillery plunging out of the skies to bomb and strafe the enemy immediately ahead of the panzer wedges. The near-vertical dive that preceded bomb release was accompanied by a howling wail, as the pilot aimed his aircraft at the target, a wail that froze the blood of the men on the ground, convincing them that they as individuals had been specially chosen for death.

Operation Citadel was the last time the Stuka would be employed in this manner, as its performance no longer matched the demands of the Eastern Front. When their dive-bomber role was rescinded, all the remaining Stukas were transferred to low-level ground-attack duties, and it was during the Kursk operation that Stuka "tank busters" were employed on a wide scale for the first time. A 37mm antitank gun was fitted under each wing, and this weight of fire in the hands of an expert such as Flight-Lieutenant Hans-Ulrich Rudel was to wreak havoc in the Soviet tank fleets. It is claimed that Rudel destroyed 12 tanks on the first day of Citadel alone.

Another first for the Luftwaffe at Kursk was the employment of Schlactsgeschwaders (ground-attack wings) utilizing Focke-Wulf Fw 190 A-4s and Henschel Hs 129 B-2/R2s in large numbers. The Henschel Hs 129 had been designed specifically as a "tank buster". In its nose were two 7.92mm machine guns and two 20mm cannons, but its real power was in its main armament, a single 30mm Mark 101 or 103 cannon housed in a gondola beneath the fuselage. When brought to bear on the thin engine housing at the real of a tank, unarmoured lorries or the timber-built Soviet bunkers, this weight of fire was usually fatal. The Fw 190s operated closely with the Hs 129s, dropping SD1 and SD2 fragmentation bombs to disrupt the Soviet infantry attack lines.

The slow speed of the ground-attack aircraft such as the Hs 129 and the Stuka necessitated close fighter cooperation to allow their crews to concentrate on the job in hand, and this was to be provided by the Messerschmitt Bf 109 G-6 and Focke-Wulf Fw 190 A-5s. The armament of the Fw 190 — four 20mm cannon in the wings and two 7.92mm machine guns in the forward fuselage — coupled with a speed of 605km/h (382mph), made it a fighter to be reckoned with. The weaponry and performance of the Bf 109 was similar. Heavier bombing operations were to be conducted by other tried and trusted aircraft, such as the Heinkel He III and the Junkers Ju 88.

The Luftwaffe supported the northern pincer with Colonel-General Ritter von Greim's 6th Air Fleet, which consisted of the 1st Air Division, the 12th FlaK Division and the 10th FlaK Brigade. The mixed bag of antitank fighter and bomber aircraft numbered 730. Amongst these were three Stuka groups. The guns of the FlaK units were highly effective weapons, particularly the 88mm. However, such was the effectiveness of the 88 against Soviet tanks that many FlaK batteries were assigned to the Wehrmacht to bolster the antitank gun formations which had less effective weapons. The consequence was that the protection available to Axis airfields was severely curtailed.

The Luftwaffe that now geared up for Operation Citadel was not the one that had dominated the Russian skies for almost two years. Commander of the Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring, had promised that no bombs would fall on the Reich. By early 1943 the emptiness of his words was proven daily by the Anglo-American bomber offensive that damaged Germany's industrial output and chiselled away at the people's morale. To counter this, Göring had withdrawn many fighter squadrons from the Eastern Front and diverted aircraft output to the West, with the consequence that the Eastern Front fought with diminished assets. To further compound this difficult situation, the Western air war was given priority in the allocation of fuel, so that the fuel allowance for the Battle of Kursk was 30 percent below its actual requirement.

However, the experience of the aircrews, the efficiency of the ground crews and the superiority of the machines were all factors that the ordinary German soldier took for granted; after all, had not the Wehrmacht enjoyed almost total air superiority over the Red Air force since the first hours of Operation Barbarossa? What the Landser in their trenches were unaware of was that the Red Air Force was now not, as it had been for so long, mere target practice for the Red Baron's proteges, but a real force to be reckoned with, and one to be taken very seriously indeed.


On 5 July the day dawned bright and warm. On the dusty runways of Belgorod, Kharkov, Poltava and Dnepropetrovsk the Ju 88 and He 111 bombers of VIII Air Corps lined up for take-off as the first waves of the Citadel air offensive, when the wireless monitoring service reported a considerable increase in Soviet air traffic, and soon afterwards the "Freya" radar at Kharkov detected the approach of large air formations from the east. These formations contained 132 Shturmoviks and 285 fighters of the Second and Seventeenth Air Armies, detailed to destroy the German bombers on the ground when their fighter escorts were not yet airborne. But this pre-emptive strike was not to succeed. The Soviet regiments were intercepted by the Bf 109 Gs of Jagdgeschwader (hunting formations) 3 "Udet" and JG 52 scrambled from Kharkov East and Mikoyanovka, which claimed 120 air victories in the opening air battle.

In the northern sector, the Germans reported that Soviet fighter reaction to 1st Airborne Division operations began only in the late afternoon, and the Fw 190 fighters of JG 51 and JG 54 had claimed 115 Soviet aircraft by nightfall. The committal of fighters to the abortive pre-emptive strike in the early morning left the VVS unable to contest Luftwaffe air supremacy on the southern flank of the salient, and in the north, Soviet replies to the Luftwaffe attacks were tardy and ineffectual. The two fighter corps designated to give frontline cover, Yumashev's VI Fighter Corps over the Central Front and Klimov's V Fighter Corps over the Voronezh Front, were unable to cope. Without adequate air cover, the Soviet ground forces lost confidence and the Wehrmacht began to make headway. Novikov had to give his attention first to the failings of his fighters and, as a result of his investigations, Yumashev and Klimov were both replaced, VI Fighter Corps being taken over by Major-General Yerlykin and V Fighter Corps by Major-General Galunov.

Nor were the Soviet attacks on German armour initially successful. Despite new antitank bombs, their RS-82 rockets and more formidable 37mm cannon, the Il-2 Shturmoviks failed to get through and stop the panzers rolling forward. Flying in small groups, the Il-2s and Pe-2s often lacked fighter escort or they were abandoned when the very first sign of trouble appeared.

On Khudyakov's orders, the Shturmoviks began to fly in much larger formations of regimental size to make escort easier, and to enable the Il-2s to break through and suppress ground fire by sheer weight of numbers and the persistence of attack. Flying in pelang formation - staggered line abreast — the Il-2s no longer made hasty passes at low level under favourable conditions, but carried out calculated dive approaches from under 1000m (3280ft) at angles of 30-40 degrees, releasing their bombs and rockets when 200-300m (656-984ft) from their target, and making repeated passes with cannon and machine guns.

At the end of the second day, in the north of the salient, the VVS had overcome its problems and was able to contain the German fighters, if not the bombers. But from 7 July the Sixteenth Air Army got into its stride and began to wear down the Luftwaffe. By 8 July Khudyakov was able to report on the improvement in Shturmovik potency, and the Luftwaffes power to control air space over the battle areas declined. The Luftwaffe was running out of replacements to maintain its squadrons at full strength, and the RAF began to range more freely over the German lines.

Although the Germans could still mount effective ground-support missions, in specific areas if not along the entire combat zone, their superiority was being eroded at an alarming rate. By the end of effective ground-offensive operations in the northern sector, the power of the Luftwaffe was much reduced.

The picture to the south was much the same. Soviet weight of numbers and the increasingly efficient use of machines whittled away at the numerically inferior Germans, and by 11 July the Luftwaffe was only able to achieve success in narrow areas such as supporting the thrust of II SS Panzer Corps towards Prokhorovka. As Rotmistrov described the scene over the battlefield of Prokhorovka from his command post: 

"At the same time, furious aerial combats developed over the battlefield. Soviet as well as German airmen tried to help their ground forces to win the battle. The bombers, ground-support aircraft and fighters seemed to be permanently suspended in the sky over Prokhorovka. One aerial combat followed another. Soon the whole sky was shrouded by the thick smoke of the burning wrecks."

If Prokhorovka was, as Konev described it, "the swansong of the German armour", then Operation Citadel would mark the coming of age of the Red Air Force. For the first time since the outbreak of war, the VVS had met the Luftwaffe on almost equal terms, and although there was a long way to go before they reached the final victory, the Soviet air fleets had clipped the wings of Hitler's Luftwaffe and had gained control of their own skies once more.

No comments:

Post a Comment