The Race for the Soviet Industrial Plants
ven as the main focus of the war in the USSR once again had been shifted to the central combat zone, Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt’s Army
Group South was engaged in a wide-scale campaign over a huge area to the east of the Dnieper River. Following the Battle of Kiev, von Rundstedt was compelled to disperse his forces against three main targets: the Crimea; ‘ Rostov; and the Soviet industrial center in Kharkov and. the Donets Basin, in the eastern Ukraine. Seizure of the latter was one of Operation Barbarossa’s main strategic objectives.
1 Here the Soviets defended their position with bitter
tenacity and with strong air support. Even before resistance in Kiev was overcome, most of VVS-Southwestern Front had been shifted to this area. Reinforced with 1 RAG and 4 RAG from the Bryansk Front, WS-South-
western Front had doubled in strength since early September and had launched heavy attacks against the advancing German troops. In the absence of its commander, General Leytenant Fyodor Astakhov, who had been entrapped in the Kiev encirclement and who would make it back to Soviet lines only in November, VVS – Southwestern Front was headed by the able General – Mayor Fyodor Falaleyev.
On September 22 an 1-153 piloted by Leytenant Grigoriy Kotseba from Kapitan Farit Fatkullin’s famous Staff Eskadrilya of 44 IAD managed to set fire to the construction equipment and pontoons intended for the German engineer bridge over the Orel River, a tributary to the Dnieper. This delayed a crossing by considerable German army forces.
Since Flicgerkorps V had to give up most of its fighter units to Luftflotte 2 at the prospect of the final offensive against Moscow, the task of clearing the skies of Soviet aircraft in this area was given to only one Jagdgruppc, Ill./JG 52. This unit included skillful young men such as Feldwebel “Ede” Duhn, Oberleutnant Giinther Rail, Leutnant Hermann Graf, Leutnant Adolf Dickfeld, Unteroffizier Gerhard Koppen, Unteroffizier Heinrich Fullgrabe, Unteroffizier Leopold Steinbatz, and Unteroffizier Alfred Grislawski, all of whom would start their real “Experten” careers during the fight for air supremacy over the Kharkov area. Any Soviet airman who came across the Messerschmitts piloted by these hotspurs was lucky if he survived.
On September 24, the_Rotte composed of Oberleutnant Rail and Unteroffizier Koppen scrambled against an incoming Soviet bomber formation, nine SBs escorted by four MiG-3s. Afterward, Unteroffizier Koppen filed the following report on his eighteenth and nineteenth victories: “I immediately attacked the MiG-3 section that flew astern of the formation and opened fire against a fighter that flew with its undercarriage down. The MiG pulled up, caught fire, and fell down over its right wing, descending vertically with a black plume of smoke. It crashed to the ground, exploding on impact. As the second MiG climbed away, 1 charged an SB positioned on the right flank of the bomber formation. My first burst turned the SB into a ball of fire. It went down and crashed five kilometers east of Chudovo."31
In response to the menace from the air, between Sep
tember 25 and September 27, General Robert Ritter von Greim, the commander of Fliegerkorps V, dispatched his medium bombers against the bases of WS-Southwest – ern Front. According to German figures, forty-three aircraft were destroyed on the ground. Moreover, by September 28, Ill./JG 52 claimed to have shot down fifty-eight Soviet planes in the Kharkov area, against only one loss.
On October 2 four pilots of 9./JG 52 conducted a surprise low-level attack against a Soviet fighter base east of Kharkov. Two I-I6s were claimed destroyed on the ground, both by Leutnant Graf. On the return flight, the German fighters spotted a formation of twenty enemy fighters. Leutnant Graf and Unteroffizier Grislawski blew two 1-16s out of the sky, and all the German fighters returned to their base without having suffered any damage.
On the Soviet side, Mladshiy Leytenant Vladimir Garanin, a six-victory’ ace in the 1-16-equipped 254 IAP, was severely wounded in a combat during which he claimed to have downed two Bf 109s, including one through ramming. Nevertheless, between October 3 and October 14, 1941, Ill./JG 52 was credited with more than fifty’ aerial victories without suffering any losses.
Signed by Alfred Grislawski. this photo shows the inner circle of aces of 9./JG 52. From left to right: Alfred Grislawski (133 victories), Hermann Graf (212 plus 40 unconfirmed), Ernst Siiss (70), and Heinrich Fullgrabe (65). Later in the war Hermann Graf brought his three friends with him to the special "Mosquito-hunting unit1′ JG 50, where this photo was taken in late 1943 by a photographer from Joseph Goebbel s Propaganda Ministry. (Photo: Grislawski.)
On one occasion, ten of Ill./JG 52’s Bf 109s caught a squadron of 1-153 fighter-bombers and blew all but one of the Soviets out of the sky. The 1-153 that was left from this carnage managed to get off only due to the supreme flying skills of its pilot. Even if no corresponding Soviet accounts have been found, it is possible that
was the first one there, and right away he got onto the tail of an Ivan. However the Russian shot past him, only to be caught by Hauptmann | Franz| Hornig. The enemy biplane caught fire and crashed in a bright red ball of fire not far from the German trenches. 1 was unable to take part in the action, as my guns had jammed. Damned mess! The air was filled with tracers.
A bullet whistled through the cockpit behind me, in the left side and out the right. Plexiglas splinters struck my neck and blood trickled down my collar. Close call! After what couldn’t have been more than ten minutes, there were about a dozen of our comrades from the other side burning on the ground. Only one Ivan was left. Obviously an outstanding pilot, he simply refused to go down. Six Messerschmitts swirled around him, but he escaped every attack by elegantly half-rolling and diving away.
I had to admire the fellow. Not quite sure of what drove me to it, I pressed the transmit button and called to the others, “Don’t shoot him down, don’t shoot him down. Let him live, we’ll escort him home.”
Seconds later the air battle ended. The Ivan immediately dropped down to just above the ground and turned east. Remaining above and behind followed the Russian. Repeatedly, he turned his head to look at us, not believing his “freedom." However, his machine was just too slow; even with landing gear and flaps down, we were still too fast to stay with him. So we waved farewell and left him to return in peace, home to his airfield.”*2
The dogfights in the air over Kharkov during these days are quite illustrative of the air war over the entire Eastern Front during 1941. Even if Kapitan Farit Fatkullin and the experts of his Staff Squadron of 44 IAD probably were of the same caliber as the aces of IIl./JG 52,
their frail and slow 1-153s did not allow them to meet the enemy fighters on equal terms.
Meanwhile, the Soviets started dismantling the factories in this area and opened a huge operation to transfer them farther to the east. A race developed between the advancing German armies and Soviet workers and technicians dismantling the production facilities and sending them eastward. Since the bad condition of the Russian roads made them unsuitable for the large-scale evacuation of an entire industrial area, these transports came to rely totally on the rail lines.
To halt these movements, the bomber forces of Fliegerkorps V were committed to their interdiction. But an astounding Soviet capacity to repair and improvise frustrated these efforts. The almost complete isolation of the battlefront created by the same German bomber units during the Battle of Kiev could not be repeated. Frequently, a rail line that had been completely destroyed was operational again in no more than a few hours. According to Soviet sources, the railway lines in the vicinity of the front were subjected to 5,939 air attacks between June and December 1941. On average it took no more than five hours and forty-eight minutes to put a severed railway back in operation.
As a consequence, Fliegerkorps V turned the attention of its bombers to destroying the rolling stock, particularly railway engines. KG 55 Greif was selected for this task. From its airfield at Kirovograd, west of the Dnieper Basin, the He-11 Is of this unit w’ere assigned to individual “free hunting” against Soviet rolling stock all across the huge area between Kursk in the North and Stalino in the South. Since the He-llls lacked equipment for successful attacks at night, only day missions were flown. The “rail hunting” missions were flown at treetop level. The only device for target-finding was eyesight. Any train spotted was attacked with 50-, 250-, and 500-kilogram bombs, dropped from only sixty feet. Two extra nose-mounted 20mm automatic cannon also were employed by the He Ills.
During the first weeks of the effort, considerable successes were achieved.
Within a short time, however, the Sovi
ets shifted all raihvay movements in this area to nights, j or to days with adverse weather. In addition, strong. AAA j concentrations were deployed at key points such as Kupyansk (sixty miles east of Kharkov), Valuyki (forty j miles to the northeast on the same railroad line), and Svoboda (farther to the northeast). The German pilots learned to avoid these areas, which known as “the death zones” to the airmen of KG 55. Soviet fighters were only a minor problem, since most WS aircraft in this area < were committed to low-level attacks against the advanc – j ing German ground forces. Thus German losses during j the rail-hunting missions were very limited; KG 55 lost no more than two aircraft on railway attacks during! October 1941.
Although severe losses were inflicted on the Soviet j rolling stock around Kharkov—KG 55 was credited with the destruction of 222 trains, including 64 locomotives53-! the evacuation of industrial goods, machines, and even j goods from Kharkov and the Donets Basin could not be prevented.
During this period of intense rail interdiction, other і tasks assigned to the Luftwaffe were neglected. This enabled the aircraft in VVS-Southwestern Front to be j launched in “increasing attacks that often severely inter – j fered with the maneuverability of German ground:]
forces.”34 The exhausted German troops could make only slow progress.
On October 5, the bombers and ground-attack planes of WS-Southwestern Front were in action all along the German Seventeenth Army’s front. Against the LV Army Corps alone, forty-two air raids involving about 250 aircraft were made. The next day, five I-153 Chaykas, led by Levtenant Boris Biryukov from the Staff Squadron/ 44 IAD, attacked crossings at the Berestovaya River. While Biryukov managed to destroy the bridge by a direct bomb hit during the first attack, his wingmen strafed the enemy troops on the bank, putting one truck and an antiaircraft gun out of commission/
Contrary to the aim of seizing, the industries in Kharkov and the Donets Basin, the Luftwaffe resorted to some of their rare strategic bombing missions on the Eastern Front. On the night of October 6, 1941, three He II Is of 9./KG 55 Greif were launched against the large tank factory at Kramatorskaya, between Stalino and Slavyansk in the northern Donets Basin. One of the He 11 Ls was badly hit by antiaircraft fire over the target area, and the flight engineer lay helplessly bleeding to death on the return flight. But the bombs were dropped with utmost precision, completely wiping out the plant and killing or maiming hundreds of workers. Two weeks later, the same Staffel raided Aircraft Factory 18 Znamia Truda at Voronezh, where ll-2s were manufactured. The results were devastating.
On October 9, the 195th Infantry Division of the German Seventeenth Army was hit by forty-three aerial attacks along the front lines, nearly eighty miles southwest of Kharkov, The Soviet air attacks were so intense that the entire Seventeenth Army was forced to take cover and could not continue advancing for the entire day. On October 12, the Seventeenth Army reported 200 soldiers and 238 horses killed in air raids.36 Step by step, the Soviets in this sector were improving their position in the air.
On October 14, Unteroffizicrc Alfred Grislawski and Heinrich Fiillgrabe of 9./JG 52 encountered two of the heavily armored 11-2 Shturmovik ground-attack planes north of Poltava.
Grislawski recalls that it took five attacks, in which he fired almost all of his 20mm ammunition, to bring down one 11-2, confirmed as his sixth victory. That af ternoon, Leutnant Hermann Graf and Unteroffizier
Fiillgrabe ran into four Yak-1 fighters, which were something completely different from the Chayka biplanes the two were used to engaging. During an exhausting thirty – minute combat, the two German pilots had to fly for their lives, only narrowly escaping being shot down by the Soviet flight leader. Turning head-on at the onset of the combat, the Mcsserschmitts managed to destroy two Yakovlevs; then all hell seemed to break loose, as Graf later described in his diary:
Fiillgrabe is in deep trouble. The Russian flight leader proves to be most skillful. 1 rush to my wingman’s assistance. The second Russian has had enough and disengages. I order Heinrich to get out of my way. And then the nicest and most dangerous air combat I have ever encountered starts. We wrung the most possible of man and machine: wide loopings with a radius of more than three thousand meters, and sharp, 180-degree turns, time after time. My body soaks with sw’eat. My adversary is at least as good as 1 am. It’s amazing how he repeatedly tries to outwit me. One sharp turn follows another. Over and over again, we meet nose-to-nose. Both fire their guns. He jumps over me in the last moment, and then he comes after me again. On one occasion we almost rammed each other.
Suddenly the second Russian fighter reappeared. I just had a few free seconds and was able to fend off his attack. The Soviet wingman tries to escape in a dive. A quick glance backward tells me that my main enemy is sitting on my tail, although at a distance of more than four hundred meters.
So I aim and open fire against his wingman. The Russian fighter is thrown upward, then it starts falling—and doesn’t stop until it hits the ground. I must have hit him in the head.
Fiillgrabe informs me of this over the radio. I had no time to watch. Seeking revenge, the expert is clinging on to me. In the meantime, he has approached to a distance of two hundred meters.
I dive to the deck. I quickly glance at the speedometer: six hundred kilometers per hour! That’s enough. Now—“rise with the Daimler-Benz”—and I reach 1,200 meters altitude. Behind me, the Russian is at 1,000. It’s a climbing race! W’e reach 3,000 meters. Then we start circling again.
Another ten minutes have passed. Each attack made by the enemy fills me with respect. This lias to be their top ace. Fortunately, 1 have practiced this kind of flying for years; had it not been for this, 1 would already have been dead.
Heinrich Fullgrahe reports that he must leave. His aircraft is running out of fuel.
Another five minutes, then my red warning lamp starts twinkling. That means I’ve got no more than twenty minutes’ flight time left. And we are fifty kilometers behind the front line. I ought to disengage. But my pride doesn’t permit me to do so. That would give my adversary at least a symbolic victory. And, anyway, he still is on my tail, hunting me toward our own lines.
We start turning on each other again and come rushing head-on. During one of these nose-to-nose encounters, 1 try to turn past him instead of climbing above. By coincidence, he undertakes the same maneuver. We pass by each other with only a few meters left between us. Now what will he do? Will he let me pass by, and then turn around and give me the final hit? I never let him out of my eyes.
Then the incredible occurs: He continues flying to the east—and 1 to the west. 1 return literally on the last drops of fuel. During the landing, my propeller stops.
My whole body is shivering as I climb out ( the cockpit. What an enemy! I am hardly aware c the congratulations to my two victories. My hea is filled with thoughts of the Russian fighter pilo I would have liked to sit down and chat with hiir He must be a nice fellow. I wonder what he migh be thinking of me.”57
Hermann Graf was one of the most skillful Gerr fighter pilots. Less than a year after this aerial duel, was the highest-scoring ace in the Luftwaffe, with m than two hundred kills to his credit.
Generalfeldmarschall Walter von Reichenau’s C man Sixth Army finally seized Kharkov on October. but the Germans found the industrial area in the Don Basin filled with empty factories. Between July and i" vember 1941, 1.5 million wagonloads of industrial n chinery, tools, material, and personnel were carried ea ward on the Soviet railway system. No few’er than 1,5! factories, installations, and research establishmeni including 85 percent of Soviet airframe and acroengii production facilities, were evacuated.
Kapitan Farit Fatkullin’s Staff Eskadrilya of 44 1A1 was one of the main contributors to delaying the Germa offensive against the Donets Basin. Since the mountin
crisis in the Crimean sector had forced the Germans to transfer lll./JG 52 to this area on October 22, the field was left open to Kapitan Fatkullin’s daring pilots.
On October 25, as the German Sixth Army was crossing the Donets River, three 1-153s, led by Mladshiy Leytenant Yevgeniy Chistyakov, struck a German troop column in the vicinity of Kirovo and destroyed one tank and eight trucks. Three days later, Chistyakov destroyed six trucks and four pontoons in the same area.38
On October 30 Leytenant Petr Kudar and Serzhant Ivan Zinchenko of Staff/44 LAD fell upon a column of German motorized infantry in the Sakhnovshchina area. This time they were confronted with heavy antiaircraft fire. Serzhant Zinchenko, who was out on his second combat mission, had his 1-153 hit, so he broke off and returned to base. Left alone on this, his 155th combat mission, Kudar decided to defy the German AAA. Mak
ing one run after another against the ground targets, his Chayka was hit again and again. Finally Petr Kudar turned toward his own airfield. He managed to cross the front line, but eight miles from the airfield, the engine stopped. The 1-153 crashed during an attempted forced landing, and Kudar was killed. On November 20 he was posthumously appointed Hero of the Soviet Union. Indeed, as an acknowledgment of the important role played by the pilots of this unit (which on November 4 was redesignated 92 IAP), seven of its pilots, including the commander, Kapitan Farit Fatkullin, also received this honorary title on November 20.
Among the most successful pilots in Fatkullin’s unit during the air campaign to delay the German advance into the Donets Basin, were: Leytenant Boris Biryukov, who was credited with the destruction of 6 tanks and 112 trucks between August 6 and October 31, 1941;
Leytenant Arseniy Stepanov, credited with the destruction of 3 tanks, five trucks, and 8 motorcycles between September 8 and November 3; Mlaclshiy Leytenant Yevgeniy Chistyakov, credited with the destruction of 3 ranks, 60 trucks, and 4 artillery pieces (Chistyakov’s Eskadrilya, 2/92 1AP, carried out 4.32 combat sorties in two months, claiming 17 tanks, 24 artillery’ pieces, and 730 trucks); and Mladshiy Leytenant Aleksandr Perepelitsa, who was born in the area, and who reportedly put 6 tanks, 4 artillery pieces, and 32 trucks out of commission from August 6 to October 31, while the flight he commanded destroyed 8 tanks, 5 artillery pieces, and 98 trucks in two months.
The race for the Soviet industrial area is illustrative of the entire war situation on the Eastern Front from the fall of 1941 onward. Even if the Luftwaffe crews scored impressive individual achievements, the resources of the attackers were by far insufficient for the enor
mous and growing tasks. The Red Army, on the other hand, showed an astounding ability to sustain almost any military disaster without losing its ability to perform a still and effective defense. The entire foundation to this lasting ability was laid during the impressive shift of the nation’s main industrial area from the Kharkov and the Donets Basin area to the east during this period.
“1 remember these days with pride,” wrote Soviet aircraft designer Aleksandr Yakovlev. “Only three weeks after the arrival of the transported goods, we were able to relaunch serial production. After another three months we were producing more than before in Moscow. Eleven months went bv, and our production % ures were two and a half times greater than prior to the evacuation.”
The preconditions of these large-scale operations were created only through the will to fight to the last—at any cost—displayed by the ground troops and the airmen of
UnterofRzier Alfred Grislawski (r.), shown next to his Bf 109F, Yellow 9, was one of the up and coming aces of 9,/JG 52 who roamed the skies over the Ukraine in the fall of 1941. Grislawski, the son of a miner, is regarded as one of the toughest fighter pilots of the Luftwaffe. During most of his missions in 1941 he flew as the wingman of the famous Leutnant Hermann Graf. Grislawski would survive the war with a total of 133 victories. (Photo: Grislawski.)
the Southwestern Front, immediately after the annihilation of the core of this army group at Kiev. Another important factor was the immense performance made in the production lines in the midst of the evacuation. In fact, the production of Yak-1 and LaGG-3 fighters rose from 335 and 322, respectively, during the first six months of 1941 to 1,019 and 1,149, respectively, during the June- to-December period of 1941. Of 1,549 11-2s delivered in 1941, 1,293 were produced after June.
This stamina on the Soviet side had not been anticipated by Hitler and his generals as they prepared Operation Barbarossa. Of this, historian Heinz A. F. Schmidt wrote: “This fantastic technical performance, which had not been anticipated by the Fascist leadership, was made possible by the massive heroism displayed by Soviet industrial workers. They struggled under grim circum
stances, with poor food rations, in cold and snow under the open sky, working twelve to fifteen hours each day to resume aircraft production.”39
Total output figures from the Soviet aircraft industry during the last six months of 1941 reached 9,780. However impressive this was, losses exceeded output during the first six months of the war with Germany. Even if reinforcements poured in from other parts of the USSR, the number of VVS front-line aircraft dropped considerably from midsummer to fall 1941. Nevertheless, eventually it would be the Soviet stamina and industrial output that finally put an end to the Third Reich. Thus the battle for the eastern Ukraine, fought with relatively small forces on both sides during the fall of 1941, would prove to be one of the most decisive military campaigns of World War II.