Aces Over the Tundra
he war in the Arctic area, on the border between the USSR and German-occupied Norway and, from June 25, in Soviet and Finnish Laponia, was fought with very limited resources on both sides. Nevertheless, the little-known air war in this area is one of the most interesting chapters in the history of air conflict. Here, true dogfights of the same character as over the Western Front in 1917-18 were fought between some of the greatest fighter aces of both sides.
As the only ice-free port in northern Russia, the small town of Murmansk has been of vital strategic importance to the Russians for at least the past two centuries. During World War 11, Murmansk would play a vital role in the shipping of American and British military equipment to the USSR. Prior to the German invasion in 1941, the Soviet leadership, however, was caught in the same dilemma as the Germans would encounter later in the war: Even if gigantic military resources were at hand, the dimensions of the huge country and the long borders along which an enemy invasion could be expected forced a prioritization. Before the war started, the bulk of the Red Army was deployed in the area between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, where the most powerful Axis forces were situated. Apart from this, French plans to launch an attack against the oil fields in the Caucasus in the spring of 1940 called for the concentration of considerable Red Army forces in this area. On top of this, there remained a permanent threat of yet another Japanese invasion in the Far East. The weakest hostile forces, in fact, were in Finland and Norway, where Hitler’s main preoccupation was the fear of a British invasion. Thus only limited Soviet forces were deployed along the Soviet borders with Norway and Finland. The entire Karelian sector from Lake Ladoga, northeast of Leningrad,
to the south shore of the Barents Sea, in the far north— a front of about 600 miles—was covered by only two Soviet armies, the Seventh and the Fourteenth. The bulk of these forces, the Fourteenth Army, was concentrated in the 180-mile border zone to the west of the Kola Peninsula, with the protection of Murmansk as its main task.
The VVS of the Fourteenth Army, supplemented by the VVS of the Soviet Northern Fleet (WS-Sevemyy Flot, SF), was commanded by an able fighter pilot, General-Mayor Aleksandr Kuznetsov. On June 22, 1941, the Soviet air units deployed in defense of the Kola Peninsula in the Arctic area were:
VVS-Fourteenth Army: 1 SAD, consisting three regiments (137 BAP at Afrikanda Airdrome with thirty – eight SBs (reinforced with eighteen SBs on June 29); 145 1AP at Shonguy Airdrome with fifty-six I-16s; and 147 IAP at Murmashi Airdrome with thirty-four I-153s and nineteen I-15bis.
WS-SF: 72 SAP at Vayenga Airdrome, with four 1-16s, seventeen 1-153s, twenty-eight I-15bis, and eleven SBs (reinforced on June 26 with twelve I- 16s); 118 RAP at the hydro airfield at Guba Gryaznaya, with thirty-seven MBR-2s and seven GSTs; 49 ORAE with ten MBR-2s; and 24 Aviazveno Svyazi with two MBR-2s.
This left the Soviet Seventh Army to protect almost the entire Soviet-Finnish border, between Lake Ladoga and the southern part of the Kola Peninsula. At the outbreak of the war, the VVS of the Seventh Army had only one aviation regiment, 72 SBAP/55 SAD.
The invaders possessed equally weak forces in this area, and their troops were badly hampered by huge logistical distances. It was only when the Swedish government, following the invasion of the USSR, agreed to allow military equipment to be transferred through their country that these logistical problems could be overcome and any serious attempt to occupy Murmansk could be made. At the opening of Operation Barbarossa, the main task of the German troops in Norway was to secure the long Norwegian coast against any British invasion attempt. Only limited ground and air forces were assigned to the offensive aimed at capturing Murmansk. Having failed in the latter mission, the main task of the Luftwaffe in this area became the permanent interdiction of the Kirov railroad line, connecting Murmansk with the Soviet mainland.
On June 22, 1941, Generaloberst Hans-Jiirgen
StumpfPs Luftflotte 5 comprised a total of 240 aircraft in Norway and a small detachment in Finland. The main units were KG 30,1./KG 26, parts of JG 77, and IV.(St)A LG 1. The units brought up against the Soviet Union before the outbreak of the war were organized in Luftwaffenkommando Kirkenes under Oberst Andreas Nielsen.
On June 22 1941, the following units stood at Oberst Nielsen’s disposal: 5./KG 30 at Banak (northern Nor-! way) with ten Ju 88s; IV.(St)/LG 1 at Kirkenes (north-| em Norway), with thirty-six Ju 87s; 13./JG 77 at Kirkenes; with ten Bf 109s; Stab/ZG 76 at Kirkenes with six Bf 110s; I.(F)/124 at Kirkenes with three Ju 88s; l.(H)/j 32 at Kemijarvi and Rovaniemi (northern Finland) with seven Hs 126s and three Do 17Ps; l./KuFIGr 406at Banak with Нс 115s and Do 18s. Also, two He 11 Is and two Ju 88s of a weather reconnaissance Schwarm and eleven Ju 52s of a Transportstaffel were attached to Luftwaffekommando Kirkenes.
The buildup of the German military forces in this area had been carried out with the support of the Finnish government. According to the German-Finnish agreement of September 12, 1940, the Wehrmacht was permitted to establish strongholds in northern Finland.; During the months preceding Operation Barbarossa, several thousand German troops were stationed in northern Finland. Between June 7 and June 21, 1941, large quantities of German military equipment, vehicles, and troops disembarked in Finnish ports and were deployed to Laponia. Aircraft of Luftflotte 5 were stationed at Finnish airfields.
In fact, the air war in the Far North area started before the official outbreak of the war. On June 17,1941, a lone Ju 88 sweeping over Kola Bay, the entrance to Murmansk, was pursued by two flights of 1-153s and I-16s. Only the superior speed of the German aircraft obviated an exchange of fire. Later that day, more Ju 88s appeared over Ozerko Bay, between the Rybachiy Peninsula and the mainland northwest of Murmansk. This time they were fired on by AAA. After that, there were daily intrusions by Luftwaffe aircraft. The next day, a Ju 88 of l.(F)/124 was hit by Soviet ground fire over the Rybachiy Peninsula. The flight engineer, Unteroffizier Josef Hausenblas, was killed, probably the first German victim in the conflict with the USSR. On June 19, Starshiy Leytenant Vasiliy Volovikov of 72 SAP/SF attempted to attack an He 111 and a Bf 110 with his 1-153 in the
same area. He was in turn bounced by four Bf 109s. The Soviet pilot managed to escape in a cloudbank.
The mission of Luftwaffen – kommando Kirkenes was to establish control of the air (i. e.. to wipe out the entire Soviet Air Force in this area) and give air cover to the ground troops aiming at the capture of the port of Murmansk and the Kola Peninsula. But while the Luftwaffe struck with tremendous impact on the “main Eastern Front,” most aircraft of Luftwaffenkommando Kirkenes were grounded due to bad weather during the first days of the war. Only small raids were conducted against Ura-Guba and Kola near Murmansk on June 22.
Unlike their colleagues elsewhere along the front, and contrary to German reports promulgated in histories of the conflict, the VVS and Red Fleet commanders in the North had dispersed and camouflaged their aircraft on the airfields.
No doubt influenced by wartime German propaganda material, the German historian Paul Carell incorrectly stated, “The Russians left their hundred Ratas unprotected and uncamouflaged on the two airfields at Murmansk even after June 22. An attacking German Kampfgeschwader destroyed the majority of the Soviet fight er force."1 In fact, and notwithstanding strong efforts by the Luftwaffe, no more than nineteen Soviet aircraft in this region were destroyed on the ground during the first eighteen days of the war.2
The standard among Soviet airmen in this area was far above the average. Nearly half the pilots had been in active service in Karelia and the Far North for more than two years, and several had experienced combat in the skies of Spain and Khalkhin-Gol, or during the Winter War. Among the Soviet fighter pilots on the airfields around Murmansk was a young and rather self-made officer named Boris Feoktistovich Safonov. Royal Air Force fighter pilots who met Safonov later that year remember him as “a high-profile, photogenic figure.”3 Safonov was the equivalent of the Luftwaffe’s Werner ‘Vati’ Molders, a most talented and aggressive fighter pilot who educated and inspired his proteges. Several of the pilots under his command went on to become aces
themselves. Safonov taught them all a very simple and straightforward maxim: “The main thing is to have faith in yourself and the will to defeat your enemy!” Boris Safonov had both; during the following eleven months he wrould score at least twenty’ personal and six shared victories, thus becoming the first great Soviet fighter ace of the war.
On Tuesday, June 24, the sighting of a lone Ju 88 alerted the airmen at Vayenga Airdrome, northeast of Murmansk. Boris Safonov, at that time starshiy leytenant and commander of a Zveno in 5 Eskadrilya/72 SAP, immediately took off in an 1-16 armed with RS-82 rockets. Climbing in the bright sunlight, he caught sight of the twin-engine enemy aircraft at an altitude of 18,000 feet on the approaches to Vayenga. This was a Ju 88 of 6../KG 30, sent out to the area on a reconnaissance mission.
Safonov placed himself up-sun and cocked his weapons. The pilot of the Ju 88, Unteroffizier Reinhard Schellern, had no chance of escaping before Safonov had damaged the aircraft with one of his RS-82 rockets.
Unteroffizier Schellern tried to get away in a dive out over the sea, but the Soviet fighter pilot mercilessly followed the damaged Ju 88. The radio operator in the
Junkers warplane, Gefreiter Georg Crecki, opened a desperate and ill-aimed fire with his two 7.92mm aft machine guns. Without looking back or caring about the badly aimed fire from the twin-engine enemy bomber, Safonov finished it off over Zalentsa Bay with a few precise bursts of his machine guns. The entire crew was killed. The victorious Soviet pilot returned to his base, where he received an enthusiastic welcome. One of the officers under Safonov’s command, Starshiy Leytenant Sergey Kurzenkov, wrote: “He had showed that it was possible to beat the fascists.”4
From the first day of the war, the Ju 88s of KG 30 Adler were committed to incessant raids against Soviet coastal shipping, the Murman railway, and, most difficult, Murmansk itself. The single bomber Staffel attached to Luftwaffenkommando Kirkenes, 5./KG 30, was supplemented by the two other Staffeln of II./KG 30. At Murmansk, the threat from the Soviet concentration
of antiaircraft artillery was added to that of the defending fighters. In 6./KG 30, only one Ju 88 remained undamaged by AAA after the two first missions against Murmansk, on June 23 and 24.5 Murmansk soon earned the reputation among German bomber crews as one of the four major antiaircraft concentrations of the war – the so-called “two L’s” (London and Leningrad) and “two M’s” (Malta and Murmansk). A Ju 88 airman even said, “I’d rather fly three times over London than once over Murmansk!”
On June 25, the bombers of the Red Army’s Northern Front and VVS-SF went into action against airfields across a huge area between the Gulf of Finland and the Barents Sea, attempting to wipe out the forces available to Luftflotte 5 and the Finnish Air Force.
This Soviet air-base offensive, which would last six days, was due to an order from the staff of the Northern Front. With this followed the inevitable renewed out-
break of hostilities between the USSR and Finland. Although this work is limited to a description of the air war between Germany and the Soviet Union and does not embrace the operations by the Finnish Air Force, this operation deserves to be mentioned.
Both the qualities (obsolete aircraft models and inaccurate bomb aiming) and the size of the attacking force were inadequate to achieve any successes. And the price paid was high. On just the first day of the air offensive, twenty-three bombers were lost (the major part over Finland).6 Mladshiy Leytenant Nikolay Gapeyonok of 202 SBAP (based near Leningrad as a part of WS-North – em Front, which was guarding almost the entire Finnish border area until August 23) had a startling experience on his first combat mission of the day. Flying as as the number three with two other SBs, piloted by Starshiy Leytenant Rudenskiy and Leytenant Kuznetsov, men with experience from the Spanish Civil War and the Winter War, Gapeyonok suddenly found himself alone: “An antiaircraft shell directly hit the bomb hatch of the leading SB, seriously wounding Starshiy Leytenant Rudenskiy, who barely managed to reach friendly territory. He was hospitalized and never returned to the regiment again. Kuznetsov’s aircraft also was seriously damaged and one of the engines was put out of order. Nevertheless, the pilot managed to make an emergency landing in friendly territory.”
Having lost orientation over enemy territory, Mladshiy Leytenant Gapeyonok finally returned to base on the last drops of fuel. During the landing approach, both engines of his SB stopped:
“1 received a stormy welcoming. The fire engine came rushing, it was overtaken by the ambulance car, and people came running to meet me, including the CO, Polkovnik Yefimov. 1 climbed out of the cockpit, soaking as after a Russian sauna, anxious because I had lost two of my commanders. I reported to the CO that the Mladshiy Leytenant had returned. I couldn’t think of anything clever to say.”
”In seven days of raids, the Russians partially succeeded in their objective,” wrote the British historian Jerry Scutts.7 But this is a reverse account to that of Paul Carell, above, here based entirely on Soviet sources. It demonstrates the distorted picture if the version of only one of the belligerent sides is given. This is particularly the case with the Eastern Front. In reality, the Soviets did not succeed in destroying a single Luftwaffe airplane during these rather limited raids, while the Finns counted no more than two slightly damaged aircraft.
Following the costly air-base raids during these first days, the Soviet air units were compelled to turn to the defensive. Soviet bombers and ground-attack planes were
mostly assigned to nuisance raids during the remainder of the year, nonetheless achieving some spectacular successes.
The drive by General Eduard Dietl’s 2nd and 3rd Mountain divisions against Murmansk, heavily supported by the Stukas of IV.(St)/LG 1, provoked the main attention of the Soviet fighters in this sector. These Soviet fighters rose on a large scale on June 27, when the Luftwaffe attacked the air base at Murmashi, southwest of Murmansk. Starshiy Leytenant Leonid Ivanov, who had been credited with his first aerial victory the previous day, led his Eskadrilya of 147 IAP toward the Ju 87s. While several I-15bis fighters under Ivanov managed to break up the German dive-bomber formation, claiming three victories, the 1-16 Ishaks of 145 IAP fought with the escorting Bf 110s.
Meanwhile, some Bf 109s of l./JG 77 set out for a free-hunting mission in the same area. Approaching Murmashi, they saw a group of Soviet fighters landing at the airfield. This was Starshiy Leytenant Ivanov’s Eskadrilya, returning from the hard combat described above. The Messerschmitt pilots immediately fell upon the helpless I-15bis fighters. Three were claimed shot down, and in one of them, Leonid Ivanov w’as killed.
During another encounter that day, Oberfeldwebel Herbert Kern from l.(H)/32, piloting an Hs 126 reconnaissance plane over the front lines, was spotted by two I-16s. Minutes later, the Henschel lay a burning wreck on the ground, the victim of Starshiy Leytenant Boris Safonov and Mayor Georgiy Gubanov, the commander of 72 SAP/VVS-SF.
According to Soviet sources, ten German aircraft were shot down for the loss of six VVS fighters and two bombers on the Arctic front on June 27, 1941. But the only operational losses recorded by Luftflotte 5 on this day were two Hs 126s.8
The limited air forces on both sides continued to do their utmost to influence the war on the ground. General Dietl’s XIX Mountain Corps encountered severe problems and met with stiff Red Army resistance during its advance in a wilderness almost without any roads. It was mainly due to the pinpoint attacks by the German dive-bombers against the bunker system on the way to Murmansk that any advance at all was possible during the first days.
Meanwhile, the Ju 88s of II./KG 30 continued to defy the antiaircraft and fighter defenses of Murmansk.
On June 29, considerable damage was wrought upon the shipyards in the port, and the central power plant of the town was destroyed.
But the Soviets also made clever use of their air units, displaying the skills of many of the VVS airmen in this sector. On June 29 and 30, small formations of SB bombers managed to inflict heavy damage on the wharf area and oil storage tanks in German-occupied Petsamo, where a steamer was sunk.
Another mission that had to be carried out by the Ju 88s of II./KG 30 was the severance of the Kirov railroad, the main route for the transportation of war equipment to and from Murmansk. This route was breached more than a hundred times in 1941, but with repair materials stockpiled by the tracks at various points, the Soviets were always able to facilitate quick repairs. While carrying out these sorties, the German bomber crews were taught a healthy respect toward the intercepting enemy fighter pilots. Oberfeldwebel Peter Stahl, a pilot in 6./ KG 30 during this time, recalls: “The Ratas followed us like a bee swarm. They fired against us even if the distance w’as hopeless. Those poor guys that lagged behind stood no chance of escaping unscathed.”9
On July 3, 1941, Starshiy Leytenant Vasiliy Volovikov of 72 SAP/SF shot down a Ju 88 flown by the Gruppenkommandeur of II./KG 30, Hauptmann Eberhard Roeger, who was killed. According to Hauptmann Roeger’s successor, Major Horst von Riesen, II./KG 30, starting with a normal complement of forty aircraft, lost twenty Ju 88s from June to December 1941,10 Based on official Luftwaffe loss statistics, the Finnish historian Hannu Valtonen gives the figure as seven Ju 88s of I1./KG 30 shot down (destroyed or severely damaged) between June and December 1941," but the German fighter escort paid the Soviets back in kind.
A taran reported on July 4 is rather dubious. : According to the Soviet version, Mladshiy Leytenant Sergey Tkachev of 145 IAP sacrified his life by smashing his 1-16 into the leading bomber in a Ju 88 formation heading for a Soviet air base on the Kola Peninsula.12 A comparison with German records reveals that Tkachev probably was shot down by a Bf 110 flown by Hauptmann Gerhard Schaschke of Stab/ZG 76, who was credited w’ith twelve kills (numbers two through thirteen) during this period. Historian Werner Girbig describes the particular method behind Schaschke’s successes: “He developed a personal fighting tactic. Covered by a Bf 109,
he circled above the Russian air bases and struck down on the scrambling fighter flights.”15
A typical “Schaschke mission” was carried out on July 13. Three Bf 109s brazenly flew low over 145 lAP’s base at Shonguy. This was the bait. As a Zveno of three 4th Eskadrilya I-16s, commanded by Ley tenant Ishakov, scrambled after the three 109s, Hauptmann Schaschke’s undetected Bf 110 appeared at treetop level behind the Soviet fighters. Flying at a slow speed, Schaschke had plenty of time to place a burst from his 20mm cannon and 7.92mm machine guns into the belly of the nearest Ishak. As this plane burst into flames, Schaschke gave full throttle, passed beneath Ishakov’s second wingman, and allowed his rear gunner to shoot this Ishak down. Still unaware of what was taking place behind him, Leytenant Ishakov continued to climb straight ahead. Men on the ground saw Ishakov start to turn, but it was too late; the 1-16 caught a full burst from the Zerstorer’s nose cannon. Ishakov bailed out, but he was too low, and his parachute failed to open in time. Schaschke’s twin – engine Messerschmitt executed an outrageous victory roll and turned west, mission accomplished.
Hauptmann Schaschke soon became well known and earned a special hatred among his adversaries. They even
gave him a nickname, “Ryzhyy” (“Red-Hair,” or more correctly, “Carrots”).1”
An important advantage held by the German fighters in this area was the assembling of a Freya early – warning radar station. This was quite exceptional, since the main part of the Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front operated almost entirely without radar assistance during most of the war. Operating on a 2.4-meter wavelength, the Freya equipment had a range of eighty to a hundred miles. The outcome is clearly mirrored by the fearsome losses suffered on the Soviet side. Of fifty-three Polikarpov biplanes on hand with 147 IAP on June 22, thirty-three had been lost three weeks later.1’
The Zerstorer ace Hauptmann Gerhard Schaschke w’as closely followed by the Bf 109 pilots Oberfeldwebel Hugo Dahmer and Oberleutnant Horst Carganico, both of l./JG 77, who claimed eleven and seven kills, respectively, during the first three weeks of the war.
Oberfeldwebel Dahmer developed a fighter tactic, the “wild boar hunting tactic,” w’hich was quite similar to that of Schaschke’s. Flying under guidance of radar at high altitude, he managed to bounce Soviet air formations from above time after time, picking off one plane after another. Having scored his twenty-fifth kill,
on August 1, he became the first pilot of Luftflotte 5 to be awarded the Knight’s Cross.
Dahmer’s Staffelkapitan, Oberleutnant Horst Carganico, a hard-core Nazi, was described by one of his young pilots as unsympathetic and ambitious: “Stubborn, never admits his own mistakes, and in this way as a commander he often becomes unjust.”16
The Messerschmitts never managed to put an end to the Soviet fighter-bombers that continously harassed the XIX Mountain Corps. As the German XXXVI Army Corps got involved in a difficult battle at Salla, about two hundred miles south of General Dietl’s Mountain Corps, most of IV.(St)/LG 1 had to be rushed to this area. Deprived of its close support from the air and with inadequate supplies due to bad communications and Soviet air attacks,1′ the offensive against Murmansk bogged down to a snail’s pace.
The diversion of the attack force against two objectives—seizure of Murmansk by General Dietl, and the severing of the Kirov railway by the XXXVT Army Corps—proved to be fatal. The Battle of Salla lasted more than a week. Finally the German dive-bombers managed to break up the Soviet defense lines. Later in July, the dive-bomber unit was deployed a hundred miles to the southeast of Salla, where it successfully supported the combined German-Finnish drive, resulting in the capture of Kestenga. These missions took a terrible toll of lV.(St)/LG 1. Before the end of the year, twenty-two of its originally thirty-six Ju 87s had been shot down. The unit commander, Hauptmann Arnulf “Blasmich” Blasig, was awarded the Knight’s Cross on September 4 after personally executing 130 dive-bombing missions. But isolated triumphs did not alter the situation. The rising losses inevitably weakened the striking capacity of the
Hauptmann Arnulf Blasig receives congratulations upon his return from 1 his hundredth dive-bombing mission of the Barbarossa campaign—an | attack against Rovaniemi Airdrome in northern Finland in late summer of j 1941. “Blasmich" Blasig was one of the Luftwaffe’s Stuka pioneers, with j dive-bomber experience dating from 1936. Following action over Poland, I France, and the English Channel, Blasig was appointed commander of IV.(St)/LG 1 in the Far North on July 1,1941. He was posted to a star1 j position in 1942 and survived the war. (Photos: Taghon.)
Stukagruppe. The German offensive against the Kirov ] railway never succeeded in achieving any major breakthrough. The Soviets managed to halt the invaders at ] Alakurtti, forty miles from the Kirov railroad. With this, j three years of positional warfare commenced.
A few months later, the Kirov railway would be the main supply line on which British and American mili – і tary goods unloaded in Murmansk reached the Red Army. ]