Aviation of World War II
Reflection of the offensive of Manstein
Aviation in the Battle of Kursk
According to the plans of the Soviet command of our aviation, it was necessary to preempt the enemy in the battle on the southern face of the Kursk salient. As a result, the very first day of the battle turned out to be unusual - not a single major defensive operation of the Soviet troops had ever begun with massive attacks on enemy airfields. As planned, at dawn, several groups of attack aircraft of the 2nd and 17th air armies rushed into the sky to attack German aircraft stands at seven large airfields. According to intelligence, some of them had up to 150 vehicles, and if successful, enemy aircraft would have been significantly weakened. <. . .>
The forces allocated for the strike were quite significant. From each of the air armies, 66 Il-2s were involved, not counting the large forces of escort fighters. The pilots of General S. A. Krasovsky were to attack the airfields in the vicinity of Belgorod (Sokolniki, Pomerki and Mikoyanovka), while the subordinates of V. A. Sudts were to attack the Kharkov air hub (Rogan and Osnova). Assuming that some enemy air groups could "sit out" at the airfields of Barvenkovo and Kramatorsk, the command of the 17th Air Army received an order to attack them with part of the forces. In total, 417 attack aircraft and fighters were planned to be used in the early morning. Of this number, at least 60 "Yakovlevs" and "Lavochkins" from the 2nd Air Army were allocated by the command to cut off German fighters, about which the corresponding order was received the day before.
It would seem that the operation plan was comprehensively developed and it was brought to the personnel in advance. The pilots managed to carefully study the route, as well as the location of anti-aircraft weapons in the airfield area, according to photographic reconnaissance. However, the results of the raids turned out to be much more modest than on May 6, 1943. At that time, an attack on the same enemy airfields and approximately the same forces brought more significant results. This can be explained by the fact that in the spring it was possible to ensure the surprise of the attack, but not in the summer.
The main stake was placed on the fact that the Luftwaffe would not have time to take the bulk of the fighter aircraft into the air, and small German patrols would be tied up in battle by a powerful escort escort. In addition, it was assumed that the strike groups of aircraft of the 2nd and 17th air armies would carry out an attack from the east, from the side of the rising sun, which would complicate the aiming of anti-aircraft gunners. And an attack simultaneously on several German airfields will disorganize enemy fighters when repelling a raid.
Perhaps there was a reason for such reasoning, but the latest German technology did not allow our crews to achieve surprise. Already on the way to the target of the Soviet attack aircraft, large groups of Messerschmitts were waiting in the sky. The commanders of the German units and formations received a timely warning from the crews of the Freya and Wurzburg radar stations, which since the end of spring have been on duty in the interests of front-line aviation, in particular in the areas of Belgorod and Kharkov. Each such installation could detect a single aircraft at a distance of 80-90 km, and large groups were clearly recorded on the locator screens when approaching 130-150 km. Soviet intelligence was aware that the enemy had radar stations, but the command of the air armies did not pay attention to this.
One cannot discount the high degree of readiness for the immediate departure of many units of the Luftwaffe, especially fighters. Here, they strictly followed the order of the command to increase vigilance to the maximum immediately before the start of Operation Citadel. Even before dawn, in most of the aviation squadrons of the 8th Air Corps, the crews arrived at the airfields, and the aircraft were equipped and refueled. Lieutenant General G. Plocher, who shortly before these events led the 4th Air Division as part of the 6th Air Fleet, in a report on the events that unfolded in the area of German airfields in the early morning of July 5, noted:
The Messerschmitts of squadrons JG3 and 52 were taxiing to the start without waiting for their bombers to approach, as was previously planned. In the gray haze of the morning dawn, they met the approaching squadrons of Soviet aircraft. In the course of the unfolding battle, many German pilots achieved exceptional results, significantly increasing their personal accounts.
The Russians acted in unchanged formations, stereotyped, but showed their usual stubbornness, selflessness, unshakably maintaining battle order. They lost most of the aircraft involved in the raid. The air battle, which unfolded at a relatively high altitude, could be clearly observed from the ground, aided by the absence of clouds. The German defense demonstrated undeniable superiority over the attackers. Such large air battles rarely took place in the East, and soon the nearby area was littered with the wreckage of Soviet bombers (in reality, the strike was carried out by Il-2 attack aircraft. - Approx. Aut.) And cover fighters. The chief of the General Staff of the Luftwaffe, General G. Jeschonnek, who was at the forward command post of the 8th Air Corps, personally observed the defeat of the Soviets.
Plocher was echoed by the commander of the 8th Air Corps, General G. Seidemann (N. Seidemann): “A rare sight unfolded before our eyes - burning and falling vehicles left traces everywhere in the sky. Within a short time, it was possible to do away with approximately 120 Russian aircraft. Our own losses were insignificant, which made it possible to speak of a complete victory in the air. At the same time, Seidemann admits that both he and General Eschonnek, and the officers accompanying them, experienced several anxious minutes when an armada of 400-500 enemy aircraft crossed the front line in dense rows.
VVS KA - Voyenno vozdushnyye Sily Krasnoy Armii - Air Force of the Red Army
AP - Aviatsionnyy polk - Aviation Regiment
IAP - Istrebitel'nyy aviatsionnyy polk - Fighter Aviation Regiment
GIAP - Gvardeyskiy istrebitel'nyy aviatsionnyy polk - Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment
IAD - Itsrebitel'naya aviatsionnaya diviziya - Fighter Aviation Division
ShAP - Shturmovoy avia polk - Attack Aircrat Regiment
ShAD - Shturmovaya avia diviziya - Attack Aircrat Division, (includes several regiments)
Soviet reports allow us to clarify some details of the raids. First of all, it should be noted that about 250 attack aircraft and fighters actually took part in the attacks on German airfields (excluding aircraft allocated for "cutting off"). In addition, not all groups in full strength reached the enemy airfields. So, for some unknown reason, only six “silts” out of 12 vehicles of the 735th ShAP 266th shard scheduled for departure took to the air. Soon, the strike unit turned into a four - one plane, when approaching the target, left the group northwest of Kharkov, the other made an emergency landing on its territory due to an engine malfunction. A dozen attack aircraft of the 66th ShAP, following at some distance, suffered losses even above the airfield of escort fighters - two Il-2s collided in the air. One of them crashed, and the other was forced to land immediately. Thus, out of 24 attack aircraft of the 266th ShAD, 18 took off, and only 14 aircraft reached the target.
At 04:27, they sequentially, one after another, bombed and fired at the central part of the Pomerki airfield. Captain Ermolaev's first four, who were walking, were attacked by a large group of "one hundred and ninths" and completely died. The pilots of the 66th ShAP saw a fierce air battle ahead of them and four opened parachute domes. According to other sources, one Il-2 still managed to break away from enemy fighters and attach itself to the group of the 66th ShAP, which, after bursts of Messerschmitts, lost three aircraft (one of them belonged to the 735th cap) that fell in the Shevchenkovo area. The total losses of the 266th division during the raid on the Pomerki airfield amounted to 11 aircraft, of which two damaged attack aircraft landed on their territory.
The 291st regiment, permanently led by Major General A.N. Vitruk, whose 18 crews operated at the Mikoyanovka airfield, suffered just as seriously. After a sudden attack by the Messerschmitts, escort fighters from the 737th IAP broke formation, leaving the "silts" from the 241st ShAP, in fact, to their fate. Only the leader of the group, the commander of the regiment, Major N.I. Varchuk, continued to cover the attack aircraft, but his selfless actions did not save the situation: seven Il-2s were shot down in a fierce air battle.
Severe trials fell on the share of the second nine under the command of Captain Avdeev. With the first attacks, the enemy knocked out the entire leading link. Slave Junior Lieutenants Vavilin and Kondratovich fell behind, and both young pilots did not return to their airfield. Later, their traces were found in front-line hospitals. The downed plane of Captain Avdeev caught fire. Lieutenants Kalachev and Sergeev, who hastened to the rescue of the commander, helped repulse the attacks of the Messers. Taking advantage of the support, Avdeev was able to bring down the flames by sliding. Then the "Messerschmitts" concentrated all attacks on the vehicle of Lieutenant Sergeev. Soon the silt gunner was killed, and the plane, shot from a minimum distance, began to fall. Sergeev managed to jump out of the doomed vehicle by parachute.
German fighters again attacked the leading IL-2. Already seriously damaged before, he, unable to withstand numerous hits, fell in the Krapivnoye area. Incredibly, Captain Avdeev survived, returning to the regiment the next day. Only three Il-2s reached their airfield. The heavily damaged attack aircraft of Lieutenant Vazin landed on one wheel. By evening, another plane flew from the emergency landing site.
The flight was most successful for the crews of the third assault air division of the 2nd Air Army - the 292nd battalion of Major General F.A. Agaltsov (later Hero of the Soviet Union, Air Marshal), who lost only two aircraft during the strike on Sokolniki. According to our data, a powerful cover, consisting of 23 Yak-1s of the 270th IAP, easily dealt with a couple of German fighters - Captain Lugansky (future twice Hero of the Soviet Union) shot down a plane identified as FW. 190. Over an enemy airfield, two Il-2s collided in the air, the pilot of one of which jumped out on a parachute. When moving away from the target, about two dozen Messerschmitts nevertheless broke through to the attack aircraft of the 820th cap. In the ensuing battle, air gunner Sergeant Radchenko and Lieutenant Nyutin shot down two fighters. The crews reported that as a result of the raid, they managed to destroy the aircraft hangar and up to 15 enemy aircraft, and damage another 8. The successes of other shock groups were more modest.
As a result of morning raids, the 2nd Air Army lost 20 attack aircraft, and the 17th Air Army - about 15. The fate of the 237th ShAP of the 305th ShAD from the formation of General Sudts, who attacked the Rogan and Kharkov-Osnova airfields, was the most tragic. According to the plan, the raid was assigned to the 295th IAD. It was supposed to block the airfields of enemy fighters with the forces of the 164th IAP, and the units of the 31st IAP would provide direct cover for the "silts". The combat report of the last part, drawn up on the same day at 2 p.m., paints a completely favorable picture of the beginning of the battle.
According to this document, at 04:20, 15 La-5s took off, led by the regiment commander, Major P.F. Mushtaev. To escort 8 IL-2s flying at an altitude of 1200 m, the fighters were divided into direct cover units and shock (in the report it was called the “main cover”), which went 500-1500 m higher. In the area of the front line, the planes met with a strong barrage - the pilots observed in the air up to a hundred explosions of anti-aircraft shells of various calibers. Even on the way to the target, the escort fighters entered into battle with the Messerschmitts three times, however, without suffering losses.
When approaching Kharkov, the fire from the ground intensified even more, and immediately one of the attack aircraft caught fire and fell 6 km west of Zaikin. The rest of the "silts" attacked the Kharkov-Osnova airfield from a gentle dive - the fighters observed three strong explosions and recorded three enemy aircraft burning on the ground. Attack aircraft left the target at low level. If you believe the combat report, then the fighters of the 31st IAP acted beyond praise. The regiment commander foresaw the possibility of non-compliance with the formation by the attack aircraft, therefore, even before the departure, he ordered sergeants Yakubovsky and Baryshnikov to cover the lagging behind, which was done. Junior Lieutenant Meshcheryakov defended another attack aircraft from enemy fighters, which lagged behind the group. In eight air battles, the Lavochkins used up 1,154 shells, shooting down four Messerschmitts, which were credited to the unit commander, Senior Lieutenant V. Kravtsov, Junior Lieutenant M. Tsykin and Lieutenant N. Gorbunov.
It is most likely that after three attacks by the latter at close range, the Messer from II/JG3 actually made an emergency landing southwest of Kharkov, during which it was defeated. Gorbunov's fighter also received serious damage (it had up to 40 holes from fragments and shells, several cylinder blocks were pierced), but the vehicle landed safely at the Budenovka airfield. The La-5 of the foreman Stepanenko, who landed with the retracted landing gear in the Veliky Burluk area at the disposition of his troops, was no less seriously injured.
According to the pilots of the 164th IAP, 15 La-5s, not seen by the enemy, left from the southeast to the Rogan airfield. While the "shops" of the strike group of Major A.D. Melentyev made two passes, dropping bombs and storming the aircraft stands, as well as firing at the eight Ju.88 taxiing for takeoff, the cover group entered into battle with FW.190, the number of which soon increased to 12 According to our data, we managed to destroy five enemy aircraft with one seriously damaged La-5.
The optimistic reports of the pilots of the 295th IAD contrast sharply with the documents of the 237th ShAP and the entire 305th sid, which depict the tragic situation in which the crews of the attack aircraft found themselves. From them, in particular, it followed that it was not possible to reliably block the Rogan airfield. First of all, the failure was due to the violation of the schedule developed at the headquarters: when the “shops” of the blocking group were approaching the enemy air base, the “silts” had just begun to take off from the Pokrovskoye airfield. Above the front line, the latter met large groups of German aircraft (fighters and bombers). Despite this, the group of the squadron commander, Captain G.Ya. Tsygankov and deputy regiment commander Major G.M. Karbinsky stubbornly continued to move towards the goal, although it was clear that it would certainly not be possible to take the enemy by surprise.
Even before the departure, the command of the 305th ShAD expressed serious concern for the fate of its subordinates. After all, most of the attack aircraft pilots of these units at dawn on July 5 had to perform their first sortie! Realizing what problems this could create, the divisional commander Lieutenant Colonel N. G. Mikhevichev reinforced the group of Major Karbinsky with experienced pilots from other units: the squadron commander of the 175th ShAP captain Silenberg and the flight commander of the 955th ShAP Junior Lieutenant Schmidt.
The worst fears were confirmed: met on the way to the airfield by large groups of Bf. 109, the attack aircraft suffered heavy losses. According to the report of Lieutenant K. Shakursky, the only one from the first nine who returned safely, there were about two dozen German fighters. After their first attack, burning Il-2 lieutenants Vorobyov and Truskov fell to the ground. In total, six attack aircraft were able to reach the Kharkiv-Osnova airfield, which went on the attack from a height of 600 m. The enemy concentrated anti-aircraft artillery fire on the vehicle of the leader of the group. Having received damage, Captain Tsygankov's plane glided to the edge of the airfield, which he and his comrades had just bombed and fired at. At this time, the Messerschmitts continued to pursue our aircraft, shooting down three more Ilyushins. Junior Lieutenant Bykov landed the plane in the Pechenegy region, barely pulling it over the front line.
A sad fate awaited the second nine, led by Major Karbinsky. Three attack aircraft, including the leader's aircraft, were shot down by anti-aircraft artillery, three more became victims of fighters. Subsequently, three pilots and one air gunner arrived at the unit. In particular, Captain Tsygankov was able to avoid capture, having made an emergency landing under the very nose of the German soldiers. In total, as a result of this raid, two-thirds of the attack aircraft that took part in the sortie did not return to their airfield. The remaining aircraft were either damaged or were on the ground for forced landings.
According to the Germans, attack aircraft of the 237th ShAP attacked the pilots of group II / JG3, who took off in advance from the Rogan airfield. Defending the Kharkov air hub, they reported 30 downed Soviet aircraft, of which about half fell before sunset. Five effective battles were held in the early morning by the commander of the 5th detachment, Ober-Lieutenant J. Kirchner (J. Kirschner) (the expert announced the destruction of three attack aircraft, Yak-1 and La-5 fighters), reaching the milestone of 153 victories. The rest of the raids by the crews of the 17th Air Army on the airfields of Barvenkovo and Kramatorsk were not accompanied by serious losses and did not bring much success. In some cases, the groups did not reach the target due to bad weather, dropping bombs on alternate targets, in other cases, the attack aircraft burned mock-ups, placed in advance by the Germans on the edges of the airfield.
In general, in German documents, including reports of the quartermaster general, it was not possible to find any mention of aircraft losses at airfields in the Belgorod and Kharkov area on July 5th. Probably, several Messerschmitts made forced landings as a result of combat damage, some hangars caught fire, and some other airfield buildings in the Belgorod and Kharkov regions were also damaged. It is known that non-commissioned officer G. Liebmann (N. Liebmann), who shot down an IL-2 in the early morning, which became his fifth victory, was himself wounded and was sent to the hospital.
Since the attack on German airfields at the very beginning of the battle was unsuccessful and led to heavy losses, the command of our air armies, trying to at least somehow smooth the picture of what had happened, and after analyzing the reports of the returning pilots, reported the destruction of 60 German aircraft. This number clearly did not correspond to reality, but then no one was going to double-check it.
In the documents of the 2nd Air Army, however, we managed to find a very sober assessment of what happened. So, in one of the reports, one can read that the attack on enemy airfields “did not go unpunished for our Air Force, the presence of enemy fighter aircraft in the air and the full readiness of anti-aircraft weapons brought significant losses, while previous raids at the same time (dawn) managed almost without loss.
Subsequently, the opinion was expressed that in the circumstances it was necessary to attack the airfields at dusk, so that in the morning it would be possible to use all aircraft, including night aircraft, to strike at the troops of the enemy who went on the offensive. However, it must be taken into account that the German command took all possible measures for operational camouflage. Separate groups of fighters were dispersed in squads across the field sites, others were repeatedly redeployed on the eve of the battle. It is known that the I / JG52 group on the way from the village of Gosta-gaevskaya (in the Kuban) had an intermediate landing in Melitopol, other units of this squadron flew from Dolbino to Bessonovka on July 2 and 3, and partially to Cossack Lopan (near Kharkov). On the night of July 5, the formation left the last airfield, relocated to Ugrim, Bessonovka and Mikoyanovka, from where it entered the battle.
At the same time, it is difficult to agree with General S.A. Krasovsky, who blamed the heavy losses of his army, in particular the 291st division, on the neighbors, whose planes, in his opinion, “because of bad weather, could not take to the air "and did not block the airfields of German fighters. Upon detailed analysis, it becomes clear that only the Rogan airfield, where the II / JG3 group was based, was in the zone of action of the aircraft of the 17th Air Army. The remaining fighter groups of the 8th Air Corps were located in the Belgorod area, for example, at the airfields of Bessonovka (I / JG52 and III / JG3), Mikoyanovka and Ugrim (III / JG52). Both assault groups of the SchG1 squadron, which could also be used as fighters, occupied Varvarovka on the eve of the battle. Thus, the task of blocking most of the airfields of German fighters should have fallen on the shoulders of the aviators of the 2nd Air Army, but they could not do this. A number of airfields, such as Bessonovka, remained completely without any influence from our strike aircraft.
Analysis of the results of the raid on German airfields was also assessed in the report of the senior officer of the General Staff on the Voronezh Front, Colonel M. N. Kostin. He concluded that the best course of action would be "to use all our aircraft on the first day of the battle against enemy tanks and manpower in their original position." Kostin believed: "The air strike of our Air Force on enemy airfields did not bring the desired results, since at that time the enemy aircraft was already in the air and the enemy had only damaged aircraft and several spare aircraft at the airfields to make up for losses."
If this hypothesis is correct and the victims of the raids were mainly aircraft that had not yet been commissioned into squadrons or prepared for repair, then this explains the lack of data on the losses of the 8th Air Corps on the ground for July 5 in the reports of the Quartermaster General of the Luftwaffe. After all, his reports indicated information about active units and formations (combat or training).
Meanwhile, returning from a mission to cut off enemy fighters from attack aircraft squadrons from the 27th IAP of the 205th IAD and the 40th Guards IAP of the 8th Guards. IAD unexpectedly discovered numerous German aircraft over the front line, in large groups going to the front line. They were the forerunners of the battle that began over the southern face of the Kursk salient.