Assistance from The West
ven if Winston Churchill always had been a stubborn anti-Communist, organizing the British intervention in the Russian Civil War two decades previously, his instinct of national self-preservation convinced the British prime minister to come to the Soviet Union’s support shortly after the German invasion. U. S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt would follow in due course.
On July 25,1941, the London government earmarked 200 Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk single-engine fighters to be delivered to the Soviet Union. Before the shipping could commence, Churchill decided to intervene actively in the war in the Far North.
At the end of July, the Royal Navy aircraft carriers Victorious and Furious were dispatched to the northern waters. The aim was to launch an air attack against the
German main supply line to General Eduard Dietl’s mountain troops, as well as the seaborne transports off the coast. The attack would be mounted in cooperation with a simultaneous Soviet counterattack at Ozerko Bay.
On July 30 thirty Fairey Albacore torpedo planes of the Royal Navy’s 827 and 828 squadrons and nine Fairey Fulmar fighters of 817 Squadron took off from the carriers to undertake an antishipping strike against Kirkenes. The British ran into a fully alerted Luftwaffenkommando Kirkenes. Threatened with the envelopment of the entire XIX Mountain Corps by a Soviet force that had landed in Dietl’s rear, Generaloberst Hans-Jurgen Stumpff had dispatched all available aircraft of Luftflotte 5 to the area.
The entire Soviet-British undertaking ended in disaster. The British airmen were intercepted by Bf 109s and Bf 110s of I./JG 77, which completely broke up the attack formations and claimed seventeen British planes shot down. British Fleet Air Arm statistics show a loss of twelve Albacores and four Fulmars. As a further result of the “Air Battle of Kirkenes,” nineteen British airmen ended up in German captivity. All of this was achieved against only two German losses in the air, one Bf 110 of l.(Z)/JG 77 and a Ju 87 from 12.(St)/LG 1.
Four days later, the Soviet troops were forced to abandon their positions at Ozerko Bay. The entire force was evacuated.
Another fighter sweep over 145 IAP’s base at Shonguy on August 4 finally settled the fate for Hauptmann Gerhard Schaschke. Led by Kapitan Aleksandr Zaytsev, four of the new LaGG-3s with which 145 LAP had been equipped scrambled against incoming enemy aircraft. The blood in the veins of the Soviet pilots froze as they recognized the leading enemy plane as “Ryzhyy’s” Bf 110. Escorted by four Bf 109s and three Bf 110s, Hauptmann Schaschke attacked the enemy “in a head-on pass and scored a number of machine-gun and cannon hits on the LaGG-3 piloted by [Leytenant] M. P. Starkov, who crashed almost immediately. Schaschke then got IStarshiy Leytenant N. V.] Piskaryov.”18 Piskaryov was killed, but Starkov survived with severe bums.
In the middle of the clash, three l-16s that were returning from a mission over Murmansk arrived to the support their comrades. Kapitan Zaytsev took advantage of the surprise attack by the I-16s and directed his LaGG against “Ryzhyy’s” Bf 110. The first burst passed to the left of the Zerstorer. Zaytsev corrected his aim and opened fire. With its starboard engine smoking, the Bf 110 banked sharply to the right and turned to the west while losing altitude. As Schaschke disengaged, the combat continued for another thirty minutes, costing 145 LAP the loss of another LaGG-3 and an 1-16.
Shortly after the duel, the maintenance staff of 145 LAP found “Ryzhyy’s” Bf 110 near Shonguy. Schaschke’s body hung lifeless in the cockpit harness; he had been killed when he hit the dashboard during the crash landing. Unteroffizier Michael Widtmann, his gunner, was mortally injured during an exchange of fire with the Soviet maintenance personnel.
Gerhard Schaschke was buried close to the crash site. His flight pistol was handed over to Kapitan Zaytsev by Polkovnik Ivan Turkel’, the C. O. of VVS-Fourteenth
Army.1* One of the side rudders of Schaschke’s Bf 110, displaying nineteen victory marks, was put on display in Murmansk.
Attempting to break the stiff resistance in front of Murmansk, the Germans launched a raid with three destroyers into Kola Bay on August 10. The Soviets dispatched their bombers against the intrusion and managed to hit and damage the destroyer Richard Beitzen. With the aim of holding the VVS down, Luftflotte 5 organized two strong raids against the air base at Vayenga. The pilots of 72 SAP/SF took off and fought vigorously against both raids.
The first attack came at 0345 hours on Saturday, August 9. The attack force was composed of twelve Ju 88s, five Ju 87s, and eight Bf 110s. One DB-3 bomber was destroyed on the ground and another four were damaged. Five I-16s engaged the Junkers, and Kapitan Timofey Razdobudko and Mladshiy Leytenants Vasiliy Doroshin and Konstantin Babiy each claimed one. In return, an 1-153 was shot down and one of the new MiG-3s was damaged.
Three hours later, the second raid, composed of twenty-five medium bombers escorted by nine Bf 109s and three Bf 110s organized in three waves, went in against the air base and shipping in Kola Bay, where the icebreaker Lenin sustained bomb hits. Countering the intercepting 72 SAP, Leutnant Horst Wolter of 14./JG 77 shot down Starshiy Leytenant Viktor Alagurov’s 1- 16. A few seconds later, Mladshiy Leytenant Vladimir Pokrovskiy managed to blast Wolter’s Bf 109 out of the sky, killing the pilot. Downing a Ju 88 from 3./KG 30, gave Kapitan Boris Safonov his eighth personal kill.
According to German loss statistics, four Ju 88s, one Ju 87, and one Bf 109 were shot down in the Arctic combat zone this day, while another Bf 109 was severely damaged. (The pilot later died of his wounds.) According to Soviet sources, only two Soviet fighters were shot down.
Without any doubt, Boris Safonov and his 5 Eskadrilya/72 SAP saved the situation in the air for the Soviets during the first difficult stage of the war. Starshiy Leytenant Sergey Kurzenkov dedicated a chapter to this formidable fighter in his war memoirs: “The first months of the year were a very hard time for the fliers of the Northern Fleet. The enemy was numerically superior. Without any regard to losses, [the Germansl attempted
to break through to Murmansk. Safonov and his comrades flew five, six, and even ten sorties daily. They hardly got any sleep. Using their parachutes as pillows, they slept during short intervals, literally under the wings of their planes, while the ground crews were busy refueling and [reloading the guns]. This took no more than fifteen to twenty minutes. And then they sat in their cockpits again and were in the air, attacking the enemy."20
Intercepting yet another enemy raid on August 23, Kapitan Safonov was credited with the destruction of a Ju 88, his ninth kill. This time there are no German records to support the claim, but Luftwaffe records support the daim for a Bf 109 by 72 SAP’s Leytenant Leonid Zhdanov on this day. The pilot of the Bf 109 was Leutnant Hans Mahlkuch (14./JG 77), a sixteen-victory’ ace.
On the last day of August, 14./JG 77 managed to pay back by shooting down five VVS fighters—four 1-16s and one 1-153. On September 7, one of the most daring Soviet fighter pilots in this area, Leytenant Ivan Belov from 147 1AP, was killed in aerial combat. Having participated in the Winter War with Finland, Belov was
among the first to be appointed a Hero of the Soviet Union in World War II; the Golden Star was awarded to him on February’ 5, 1940.
At this point the Soviets started receiving badly needed reinforcements from the West. With the first Soviet-bound shipping convoy arriving off Murmansk late in August, thirty-nine Hawker Hurricane ІЇВ fighters arrived with pilots from the RAF 81 and 134 squadrons. The Hurricane was hardly the best fighter at that time, having been outclassed by the Bf 109 during the Battle of Britain. An evaluation of New Zealand pilots flying an 1-16 replica in the 1990s in fact has come up with a rather astonishing revelation: “How do [the 1-16s] compare with other World War II fighters? Well, 1 believe, very favourably with some of the other aeroplanes. I had just flown a Hurricane for the first time, a week before the Rata, and sorry to Hurricane afficionados, but I was really surprised and disappointed in the aeroplane’s handling and performance. … I felt that you would be better off fighting in a Rata.”21
Contrary to the picture given in several British
accounts, the Soviet pilots were far from impressed with the Hurricane fighters. Many of them simply loathed this aircraft, feeling that it gave them no chance whatsoever against the Bf 109s. But it brought a new advantage to the Soviet pilots who were to take over these planes—air-to-air radio equipment. Ironically, the Hurricane took part on both sides, because the Finns had purchased tw elve from the United Kingdom early in 1940, and the Romanians also had a contingent in service on the Eastern Front.
On September 12, 1941, five RAF pilots of 81 Squadron flew a combat mission over the front lines. They bounced five Bf 109s of I./JG 77, which were escorting an Hs 126 of l.(H)/32. In the ensuing action, the Messerschmitt pilot, Leutnant Eckhard von der Liihe, and the Hurricane pilot, Sergeant N. Smith, were both shot down and killed. Nevertheless, Squadron Leader Tony Rook and Sergeants P. Sims and A. Anson claimed to have shot dow-n three Bf 109s and damaged the Hs 126.
The RAF pilots were greatly impressed by the skills of Kapitan Boris Safonov. Starshiy Leytenant Sergey Kurzenkov tells of how on one occasion the British, having witnessed Safonov’s flying abilities, took the young Soviet pilot on their shoulders after he had landed and shouted with enthusiasm: “All right, Safon! Very good, Safon!”22 On September 15, 1941, right before the eyes of RAF pilots, Safonov had his most successful day. A Schwarm of Bf 110s from l.(Z)/JG 77 was out on an escort mission for Hauptmann Blasig’s Stukas, which w’ere supporting Dietl’s XIX Mountain Corps. Leutnant Heinz – Horst Hoffmann, the pilot in one of the Bf 110s, spotted a lone 1-16 below. Hoffmann, a veteran pilot, put the nose of his tw in-engine fighter down to make an attack.
He didn’t realize the trap until it was too late. A dark green 1-16 with the bold inscription Smert fashizmu! (Death to Fascism!) painted in two-feet-high w’hite letters on the side of the fuselage arrowed down from above. It was Boris Safonov’s White 51. Leutnant Hoffmann’s Bf 110 was hit in an engine; the plane made a roll, and fell steeply from a low altitude, exploding on impact three miles west of Zapadnaya Litsa.
Having scored his twelfth victory, Safonov now turned against the Ju 87s. One of them went down in flames, Safonov’s thirteenth victim. Shortly afterward, the Soviet ace caught a third German plane, an Hs 126, and was reported to have shot this down as welL23 In this fight with the l-16s of 72 SAP/VVS-SF, the
Luftwaffe recorded the loss of one Bf 110 and three Ju 87s but no Hs 126. The next day, Boris Safonov received the highest Soviet award, the Golden Star of a Hero of the Soviet Union.
During the first three months of the war, Safonov’s Eskadrilya was credited with forty-nine victories, fifteen of them by Boris Safonov alone. The squadron suffered: no losses. Approximately seventy Luftflotte 5 aircraft were registered as shot down during the same period. In all, 72 SAP/SF was credited with a total of 140 enemy aircraft shot down during 1941.24 While the crack l./JG 77 amassed an impressive victory record, claiming 100; victories during the first three months of the war with the USSR, it had ten of its Bf 109s (almost its total complement outfit at the outbreak of hostilities) shot down and three pilots killed between June and September 1941.
Also in action on September 15 was Kapitan Leonid Galchenko’s Eskadrilya of 145 IAP, which claimed four victories. Galchenko’s unit was the most successful squad – j ron of WS-Fourteenth Army. By October 1941 it was credited with the destruction of sixteen enemy aircraft | in the air, including seven by the squadron commander and five by Leytenant Viktor Mironov, both of whom I were eventually made Heroes of the Soviet Union.
Whether it was in an effort to show off against the: Soviets or in good faith is unclear, but it appears that the RAF pilots made unusually high overclaims during their two-month stay in the Murmansk area. Unteroffizier Josef Stiglmair of l./JG 77 actually fell victim to Squad-; ron Leader Rook on September 17, but none of the three Bf 109s reported shot down by the British Hurricane pilots on September 26 can be found in the German loss lists.
Flying I-16s, the Soviet pilots of 72 SAP/VVS-SF in fact achieved far better results than the British Hurricane pilots. The most successful mission by 72 SAP/ VVS-SF, and one of the most effective missions by a single aviation unit during the entire war, was carried out on September 28. Between 1705 and 1830 hours, all available aircraft of that unit, twenty-six fighters and nine bombers, were dispatched against the bridge spanning the Petsamojoki River near Petsamo and other targets nearby.25 Close hits by two 250-kilogram bombs near the vital river crossing resulted in a landslide, and three million cubic meters of earth destroyed the ninety-foot span. This created a flood that drowned complete birch forests
і and swept away all crossings along the entire river. The whole invasion force heading for Murmansk on the east – j Ї em side of the river was isolated for ten days. This single 1f air raid, in fact, dealt a decisive death blow against German hopes for capturing the vital port of Murmansk. Paul Carell wrote: “Military history has never seen an – I other case like this, that so spectacularly and dramatist cally cut off the supply lines of an entire front with two Щ divisions.”26
During one of the last major air combats on the Arcs’ tic Front in 1941, on October 6, the Soviets claimed I eight of twenty-five Ju 88s heading for Murmansk. К According to the loss files of I./KG 30, three Ju 88s were in fact downed, two to enemy fighters and one to f. AAA. Both 72 SAP/VVS-SF and the British pilots of Г 134 RAF Squadron claimed successes during this combat.
During five weeks of “active training” of the 72 SAP/ к WS-SF airmen, the RAF pilots took part in several com – I bats. 81 Squadron claimed a total of twelve confirmed № victories, fourteen probable victories, and seven enemy [: aircraft damaged for the loss of only two Hurricanes,
t Another four victories went to 134 Squadron.
Heavy snowfall and the successively shortened days } prevented much in the way of air operations during the f remainder of the year. The last major air operations in ; this combat zone were flown by lV.(St)/LG 1 on the I Kandalaksha front, in the southwestern part of the Kola I Peninsula, in October. Billets, troop positions, supply I columns, shelters, and rail facilities were subjected to successful dive-bombing raids. But the Red Army held |v, out and prevented the Germans from reaching the |; Murman railway. On October 10, Hitler changed the I; mission for the German Army in the Far North to a J strictly defensive stance.
On October 12 a British-American convoy arrived at Arkhangelsk with 195 Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters. From then on, three Murmansk-bound convoys—with the code name “PQ”—would arrive every month. Due to the demands at the front and the unfavorable weather conditions during the Arctic winter, the Luftwaffe was unable to counteract these important shipments until
Meanwhile, the air war in this area took on a character similar to the air battles over the Western Front in
World War 1—small dogfights over a literally frozen front line. It is probable that two emerging top aces clashed during one of the few air combats on the Arctic Front in October. On October 24, 1941, at the onset of the long polar night, a young Feldwebel of the Zerstorerstaffel l.(Z)/JG 77 scored his first aerial victory. During a free – hunt mission over the small frozen lakes west of the Litsa River on the Murmansk front, several Bf 110s led by Leutnant Felix-Maria Brandis spotted a formation of Polikarpov fighters. Feldwebel Theodor Weissenberger got on an 147 1AP 1-153 with his twin-engine Messerschmitt, and a burst from the four machine guns and two cannon in the nose of his 110 literally tore the small and fragile biplane apart.27
The next day, two MiG-3s of 72 SAP/SF, piloted by Leytenant Zakhar Sorokin and Leytenant Dmitriy Sokolov, clashed with four Bf 110s in the vicinity of
Twenty-four-year-old Leytenant Zakhar Sorokin was transferred to 72 SAP/ WS-SF in July 1941 and quickly distinguished himself through his aggressiveness in the air. Sorokin spent six days in the arctic cold after being shot down in October 1941, and both of his frostbitten legs had to be amputated. This tragedy did nothing to break Sorokin’s determination, and one year later he returned to front-line service with two artificial legs. Zakhar Sorokin achieved a total of thirteen victories, survived the war, and retired from the service in 1955 with the rank of Kapitan. He passed away in Moscow on March 19,1978. (Photo: Seidl.)
Theodor Weissenberger climbs out of his Bf 110 following a successful sortie on the Arctic Front. Weissenberger was posted to the Zerstorerstafel of JG 77 in September 1941, where he proved to be a most talented fighter pilot; he achieved his first 23 victories piloting a Bf 110 and survived the war with a total of 208 victories—only to be killed in a car race on the Niirburgring on June 10,1950. (Photo: Schmidt via Sundin.)
Severomorsk. Severely hit by the 20mm cannon of a Bf 110, Zakhar Sorokin made an emergency landing on the frozen surface of a lake. The victorious German pilot was either the commander of l.(Z)/JG 77, Oberleutnant Felix-Maria Brandis (already a fourteen-victory ace), or Theodor Weissenberger. Both claimed a Hurricane shot down, but the Staffel did not accept Feldwebel Weissenberger’s claim.28 According to a widespread version, Sorokin made a belly landing close to a Bf 110, which he had hit w’ith such good effect that this plane also bellied. Following this, Sorokin was reported to have clashed with the two German crewmen on the ground, killing both while sustaining wounds himself. There are no German records of any operational losses of Bf 110s of Luftflotte 5 during the entire period from October through December 1941, nor do Soviet documents mention any claims made by Leytenant Sorokin of a kill this day.29 In any case, Sorokin spent six days in the cold wilderness before he was found by a Soviet rescue team.30 By that time he was suffering from gangrene, and both of his legs were amputated. In spite of this, he went on fighting w’ith two artificial legs and subsequently scored thirteen kills.31
Theodor Weissenberger, who may have been Leytenant Sorokin’s opponent in the air, was remarkable in a different way. This young NCO had one of the most nonmilitary attitudes in the fighter unit to which he belonged. He would probably have become a gardener, like his father, and taken up flying only as a hobby, had the war not intervened. He was a constant nuisance to his superiors, frequently getting into trouble due to his defective military discipline. But in the air he had no vices. In the coming years, Theodor Weissenberger would develop into perhaps the most skillful German fighter ace on this front. Between September 1941 and May 1944 he flew 350 combat sorties on the Arctic Front and scored 175 victories. In the summer of 1944 he flew a further twenty-six sorties over Normandy, in France, leading to twenty-five victories. During the last weeks of the war, Weissenberger achieved his last eight kills flying an Me 262 jet.
A severe lapse occurred on November 8, 1941. Knight’s Cross holder Oberst Carl Schumacher, a forty – five-year-old fighter pilot, had been assigned to take command of the German fighter force in Norway. Piloting a Bf 109 with an escort of two other German fighters close to the front, Oberst Schumacher sighted what he assumed was an enemy SB bomber. With a burst from his guns, the fighter leader sent the twin-engine aircraft down to a crash landing. But the joy over his third victory would soon change to fear: the “SB” was in fact a Finnish De Havilland Dragon ambulance plane. Schumacher was quickly removed from his command position.
Another dramatic air combat took place on November 29, w’hen the Bf 109-Rotte composed of Oberfeldwebel Gerhard Hornig and Unteroffizier Erich Kersten, of 13./JG 77, attempted to bounce a group of 1-153s that had been reported strafing ground troops in the Kandalaksha sector. A prolonged dogfight ensued. After ten minutes Kersten managed to hit an 1-153 decisively, but suddenly another Chayka came head-on against him.
Having run out of ammunition, Leytenant Pavel Kaykov decided to charge one of the Messerschmitts nose – to-nose. Unteroffizier Kersten’s tracer bullets whistled past Kaykov’s Chayka. The Soviet Leytenant was unable to shoot back, but the 1-153 held its course, forcing Kersten’s Bf 109 to break off in a steep dive. Kay kov immediately flung his agile little fighter after his enemy. The German Unteroffizier suddenly found himself hunted by a most determined adversary. Pavel Kaykov overtook Kersten as the latter leveled out at treetop level, and he splintered the tail fin of the 109 with the propeller of his biplane. No doubt, Kersten’s Bf 109 was also hit by
ground-fire immediately afterward. Oberfeldwebd Hornig saw his wingman’s Bf 109 go down almost vertically and hit the ground. Meanwhile, Ixytcnant Kaykov tried to bail out of his damaged 1-153, bur he failed and was killed in the violent crash. He was buried in Murmansk. Six months later, Pavel Kaykov was posthumously named a Hero of the Soviet Union. Having scored his first – and final-victory, Erich Kersten was listed by the Germans as missing.
On December 17, seven Bf 109s met five Soviet Hurricanes in an engagement that ended with Lcutnant Alfred Jakobi being shot down by Boris Safonov—the latter’s fifteenth personal victory. Jakobi was lucky to survive.
To mark the end of 1941, Safonov brought down a K(i 26 He 111 on December 31.
Even if the air war over the Arctic front never involved more than limited forces on both sides, the last six months of 1941 had seen a heavy bloodletting among all the air units taking part. According to historian Rune Rail tip, the VVS of the Northern Fleet and the Fourteenth Army lost 221 aircraft (107 in air combat) by November, 1941.“ Meanwhile, 89 planes of Lu ft (lotto 5 were registered as destroyed or severely damaged due to enemy action in the air (at least 44 by Soviet fighters, 11 by AAA. and 23 to unspecified causes). I timing to the claims made by the lighter pilots on both sides, German pilots w ere credited with 215" aerial victories, while VVS – SF pilots were credited with 206.14 VVS-Karelian Front, composed of the armies responsible for the Soviet l inn ish front, after the division of the Northern Front into the Leningrad and Karelian fronts in August 1941, filed 125 victory claims (105 against German aircraft, 14
against the Finns, and 6 “unidentified”) against 153 combat losses in the air during 1941.35
Without exaggeration, it can be said that it was the Soviet Air Force that saved Murmansk. This would prove to be of immense importance. Even if the forces under command of Luftflotte 5 had produced impressive results, it was clear that the Luftwaffe units deployed to this area were too weak to accomplish the tasks assigned. Probably only two or three more Stukagruppen would have been sufficient to open the road to Murmansk to the German Army. The general lack of a planned long-term strategy against the Soviet Union, deriving from the false assumption that the USSR would collapse after a few weeks of war, would prove fatal to the German cause.
From October 1, 1941, until the end of the war, the Western Allies delivered about five thousand combat aircraft, along with thousands of trucks, tanks, and armored vehicles, and large amounts of war equipment and provisions to the USSR with the Barents Sea convoys.
Another interesting aspect of the air war in the Arctic area during 1941 is that the British airmen, particularly those carrying out the carrier-launched raid against Kirkcnes at the end of July, fared worse than many of their Soviet colleagues against the fighters of 1./JG 77. This revelation challenges the perspective of the air war on the Eastern Front appearing in most Western accounts.
As the British pilots left for home, their Hurricanes were handed over to Boris Safonov’s unit. In October 1941 the WS-SF formed a new crack aviation regiment, 78 1AP, around Safonov’s Eskadrilya. Apart from the Hurricanes, the pilots of Safonov’s 78 1AP were able to exchange some of their I-16s for the much faster MiG-3 and U. S.-built P-40 fighters. At the same time, the Komsomol raised funds and purchased equipment to completely outfit an Eskadrilya of MiG-3s for 147 1АР/ VVS-Fourteenth Army. W’ith an improved organization, the Soviet fighter pilots were able to inflict growing losses on the small Luftwaffe forces on the Arctic front. W’erner Girbig notes that “the Germans soon were confronted with an intensified antiaircraft and fighter defense.”3*