he war on the Eastern Front in 1941, in the air as well as on the ground, has few rivals in terms of its sheer bitterness. It was fought between the two most motivated armies in the world at the time. Ideology played a central role in this conflict. Just as Hitler’s Germany was permeated with the Nazi ideology’, creating a chauvinist mentality that should not be underestimated, the traditions of early Bolshevism marked the entire Red Army down to the simple private, creating a determination described by some as fanaticism.
Much has been said and written about the objective circumstances that caused the defeat of the German invasion army in the winter of 1941-42. But it should not be forgotten that it was the bottomless stamina of the Soviet soldiers and airmen that had laid the foundation for this situation. The Red Army had been pushed backward step by step since June 22, 1941, suffering enormous losses, yet it was able to force the invaders to fight bitterly at every point on every day. The accumulated effects of this incessant fighting among the invaders finally bore fruit at the very gates of Moscow’.
Both sides put up a skillful and bold fight. Even if the Luftwaffe relied mainly on its technological and tactical superiority, the courage and vigor of the German airmen are indisputable. Facing an enemy with a tremendous numerical advantage during the opening days of the war and an unflagging resistance following the first onslaught, the airmen of the Luftwaffe never stopped attempting to fulfill the increasingly overinflated demands of the situation until they were either killed or completely worn dowm.
The bombers, Stukas, and Zerstorer displayed a high
efficiency in causing high material and personnel losses to the enemy. By neutralizing the potential threat from thousands of Soviet aircraft, providing the advancing armies with decisive close support, and disrupting communications on a grand scale in the rear of the Red Army, the crews of these aircraft played a key role to the by-then-unparalleled series of German victories in the summer of 1941. For instance, between June 22 and November 22, II./StG 77 recorded the destruction of 140 Soviet tanks, 45 artillery pieces and 43 antiaircraft artillery pieces, and its aircraft sank 10 ships.
Air reconnaissance provided the German commanders on all levels with detailed and frequently decisive tactical information.
The Jagdflieger achieved air supremacy’ and dominated the skies wherever they appeared and were accorded well-deserved respect from the Soviet airmen. The word for the Bf 109, Messer, spread as a nimbus throughout the entire VVS. The Jagdgeschwader deployed on the Eastern Front claimed more than 7,000 victories during Operation Barbarossa: JG 3 posted 1,287 victories; JG 27 had 270 victories; JG 51 had 1,820 victories; JG 52 had approximately 800 victories; JG 53 posted 775 victories; JG 54 posted 1,185 victories; and JG 77 (including l.(J)/LG 2) achieved approximately 1,250 victories
Two fighter pilots, Oberst Werner Molders of JG 51 and Major Gunther Liitzow of JG 3, each surpassed the hundred-victory mark during these combats. And both of these Jagdgeschwader could boast two other of the
top aces at that time, Hauptmann Gordon Gollob ofjG 3, with a total score of eighty-five kills at the end of 1941; and Oberleutnant Heinz Bar of JG 51, with eighty’ kills. Also, in JG 54, Oberleutnant Hans Philipp had a score of seventy-three as 1941 drew to a close.
Among thousands of Soviet airmen who fell prey to the superiority of the Bf 109 fighters in 1941 were experienced pilots such as the famous test pilot Podpolkovnik Stepan Suprun of 4011AP; the Zveno ace Kapitan Arseniy Shubikov; 127 lAP’s Starshiy Ley tenant Luka Muravitskiy, who had fourteen personal and collective kills; 154 IAP’s Starshiy Leytenant Aleksey Storozhakov, with eight personal and three collective kills; and 19 IAP’s Mladshiy Leytenant Yegor Novikov, with ten personal and five collective kills. Among the missing was the veteran female bomber pilot Starshiy Leytenant Yekaterina Zelyenko of 135 BAP.
According to Soviet statistics, at least 21,200 aircraft were lost, including 10,600 in combat, between June 22 and December 31, 1941.1 The combat losses included 5,100 fighters, 4,600 bombers, 600 ground-attack aircraft, and 300 other types. To these figures should be added the “unaccounted decrease” of 5,240 VVS aircraft between June 22 and July 31. The corresponding overall figure given by the Luftwaffe—17,745 Soviet aircraft destroyed by December 19—is thus not far from reality.
This was the inevitable outcome of a clash between the world’s most skillful and best-equipped air force on the one hand and an air force hobbled by Stalinism. If early Bolshevik traditions had revolutionized the combat
spirit of the Soviet soldiers, the autocratic Stalinist rule had created a numerically vast army with equally vast qualitative deficiencies. Command structures, doctrines, tactical thinking, the training standards, and equipment technology marked the Red Army with the fatal stamp of a conservative and ruthless bureaucracy.
The harsh lessons of the first six months of the war compelled the WS to carry out a complete reappraisal of most of its doctrines and theories. This new thinking particularly influenced the bomber fleet of the VVS, where inadequate equipment demonstrated that prewar strategic bombing doctrines had been a mere dream. During the course of the long war, the Luftwaffe would force the VVS to abandon all of its erroneous prewar tactics and doctrines and, indeed, to adopt Luftwaffe methods and structures.
Even if the Soviet airmen of 1941 wrere forced to fight from an inferior position regarding most qualitative aspects, they gave proof of an impressive courage and made enormous personal sacrifices. Western postwar accounts tend to underestimate the performance of the VVS airmen during these first difficult months of the war. But in reality, any German soldier fighting on the Eastern Front would be able to testify to the unremitting pressure from the air, from the first day of the war to the last. Any airman in the Luftwaffe would tell of how the Soviet fighter pilots forced their counterparts to wage a permanent fight for air supremacy.
There is a great disparity between Soviet claims and registered Luftwaffe losses. Even if the Luftwaffe loss lists have proved to suffer from gaps, it is indisputable that the Soviet airmen, on average, made higher overclaims than their German counterparts. This may be the result of several factors. The humiliating losses at the hands of a hated invader could be regarded as one of the main explanations.
Contradictory to the overall air-combat situation and its actual results, the combat records of most VVS fighter units show’ a good victory-to-loss ratio. For instance, the combat records for Kapitan Aleksandr Khalutin’s 249 1AP (equipped mainly with 1-16s, l-15bis, and I-153s) between June and October 1941, w’hen the unit was withdrawn from combat on the southern sector of the front, show claims of twenty-five enemy aircraft destroyed in the air. The same unit also was credited with the destruction of twenty enemy planes, more than fifty trucks, and about twenty tanks in ground attacks. The losses for all of this apparently did not exceed ten airplanes and six pilots.
The logbook of 158 LAP, now in the files of the Russian Central Military Archive TsAMO, shows sixty – nine victory claims against fifty-two aircraft lost between June 22 and October 22, 1941. These include forty-nine aircraft lost during combat missions and three on the ground.
For the period June 22 to December 15, 7 ІАК/ PVO claimed 313 aerial victories against a recorded combat loss of 307 aircraft—286 in the air and 21 on the ground.2
The pilots of VVS-Southem Front were credited w’ith 42 aerial victories against 89 combat losses, including 43 fighters in October; and 65 aerial victories against 92 combat losses, including 42 fighters, in November 1941.* Fifty-three single-engine German fighters (46 Bf 109s and 7 ‘‘He 113s,” a frequent misidentification of Bf 109F) were claimed destroyed in air combat, by AAA units, and on the ground by VVS-Southern Front units in October, and 54 were claimed in November 1941.4 The Luftwaffe registered only 15 Bf 109s lost in this sector during October and 16 in November.’ In fact, the total number of single-engine German fighters claimed destroyed by VVS-Southern Front alone between June 22 and December 22, 1941—450 of a total of 1,072 claims overall6—is about half the figure of all Bf 109s registered as lost or damaged on the entire Eastern Front.
The claims made by the most experienced pilots, how’ever—and naturally—display a better accounting. For example, of Kapitan Boris Safonov’s sixteen individual victory claims in 1941, only seven can definitely not be found in the far-from-comprehensive loss list of Generalquartiermeister der Luftwaffe.
As a comparison, RAF Fighter Command pilots did not come any closer to the truth regarding their claims during the Battle of Britain. Official VVS claims amount to 3,879 downed in aerial combat and 752 downed by ground fire in 1941. As several Axis aircraft listed as “severey damaged”—most having made forced landings – could justifiably be acknowledged as “shot down,” the overclaim ratio is nearly 2:1. On the other hand, regarding results of air-base raids, Soviet airmen proved to be most optimistiq they claimed 3,257 Axis aircraft destroyed on the ground in 1941.
There is no doubt that most VVS fighter units in
reality suffered more losses than successes in air combat during 1941. Starshiy Leytenant Aleksandr Pokryshkin of 55 LAP recalk “the hard times in 1941” characterized by “uneven combats with the Messerschmitts, which rarely led to results to our favor.”7 During 1941 the WS fighter units in reality managed to bring down perhaps fifteen hundred enemy aircraft of all types in aerial combat, at a cost of approximately three thousand fighters (excluding losses to ground fire and aircraft lost on the ground).
Despite inadequate equipment, several Soviet fighter pilots had shown considerable skill and had developed into aces. Oberleutnant Hansgeorg Batcher, who flew with l./KGr 100 on the Eastern Front from late July 1941, reflects the general view on the Soviet aviators held by the Luftwaffe airmen when he says, “They were very courageous. They were only handicapped from an obsolete equipment.” Top scorers in the WS during this stage of the war had been Kapitan Boris Safonov, with sixteen kills, and Kapitan Petr Brinko, with fifteen, most of which had been scored while flying the 1-16 Ishak. The evolution of such proficient individuals contradicted the Nazi propaganda relating to “Russian subhumans,” which had a widespread influence at all levels of the Wehrmacht.
Counted among the German airmen who had fallen prey to the WS airmen in 1941 were brilliant fighter pilots such as the seventy-victory-ace Hauptmann Hermann-Friedrich Joppien of JG 51, sixty-three-victory’ ace Oberfeldwebel Heinrich Hoffmann of JG 51, fifty – seven-victory ace Oberfeldwebel Edmund Wagner of JG 51, forty-three-victory ace Oberleutnant Hubert Mutherich of JG 54,thirty-eight-victory ace Oberleutnant Kurt Sochatzy of JG 3, and twenty-nine-victory ace Oberfeldwebel Franz Blazytko of JG 27.
The remarkable stamina of the soldiers and airmen of the Red Army and the efforts by Soviet industry were two further factors never anticipated by the planners and organizers of Operation Barbarossa. The fact that the WS survived disastrous losses in the summer of 1941 and was able to regain numerical superiority against the Luftwaffe by the end of 1941 is unparalleled in the history of war.
The shift in numerical balance in favor of the WS naturally depended both upon Soviet reinforcements and Luftwaffe losses. The successes by the Luftwaffe should not obscure the fact that it suffered higher losses during Operation Barbarossa than during any previous campaign.
According to the Luftwaffe’s own records, 2,093 German aircraft (758 bombers, 568 fighters, 170 dive-
bombers, 330 reconnaissance aircraft, and 267 miscellaneous types) were completely destroyed on the Eastern Front between June 22 and December 6, 1941. Another 1,362 aircraft (including 473 bombers and 413 fighters) received battle damage of varying degrees. Of 4,653 Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed or damaged in front-line sendee from June 22 to December 31, 3,827 were lost on the Eastern Front. As Hitler launched bis offensive against what he portrayed as “Russian subhumans,” no one on the German side could have anticipated such high losses. At the end of 1941 it was clear that neither aircraft production nor the flight training schools could keep pace with such heavy attrition.
If the material losses were hard to replace, the personnel losses were impossible to replace. From June to December 1941, the Luftwaffe lost 13,742 men, including ground personnel, on the Eastern Front. Of these, 3,231 were killed, 2,028 were missing, and 8,453 were injured.
In spite of all its material successes and the high price it paid, the Luftwaffe failed to fulfill its primary mission during Operation Barbarossa—providing the Wehrmacht with preconditions to completely bring down the USSR. The effects of the numerical achievements during the opening months of the war were considerably mitigated by the failure to stifle the reconstruction of the Red Army through the destruction of the Soviet war industry. The predominant tactical doctrine of the Luftwaffe and the lack of equipment to undertake a strategic-bomber offensive proved to be the fatal flaws of Operation Barbarossa. As a result, the air war against the Soviet Union developed into a situation similar to what Oberst Werner Molders’s successor as General der JagdfHeger, Oberst
Adolf Galland, described as “attempting to blot out an anthill by stamping on one ant at a time.”
As the front line grew’ increasingly extended at the same time as accumulated attrition was rapidly bringing down the number of serviceable Luftwaffe aircraft, the overall efficiency of the combat arm dropped successively. After less than a month of war, it stood clear that Hitler had launched an invasion with a totally inadequate number of combat aircraft. There was not only a lack of strategic bombers. Shortages in fighters enabled the Soviets to achieve air supremacy over the central combat zone in August, over the Crimea in September, and on the Moscow front in November. Inadequate numbers of close – support aircraft—Stukas and ground-attack planes—compelled the Germans to deploy their twin-engine medium bombers in costly close-support missions. Throughout the campaign, calling in strong concentrations of air forces repeatedly solved serious crises at the front. Within a short time, the thinly spread Luftwaffe units on the Eastern Front were turned into a pure fire brigade.
In reality, the Luftwaffe lost its independence on the Eastern Front, in practice involuntarily adopting the doctrine of its enemy. It was, as Oberst Hermann Plocher remarked, “the beginning of the death of the Luftwaffe.”-1 In December 1941 it was obvious to anyone who wished to see that the war with the USSR marked the beginning of the end of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Reich. But the road to the downfall of the Third Reich would prove long and lead to immense hardships. The Luftwaffe airmen had not yet said their last word. They would not only adopt the doctrine of the Soviet Air Force, they would also learn to fight with the same stamina as the Soviet airmen. The largest air war in history had merely begun.
o the south of the Pripyat Marshes, along the 750-
mile front entrusted to Generalfeldmarschall Gerd
von Rundstedt’s Army Group South, with air cover provided by Generalobcrst Alexander Lohr’s Luftflotte
4, the situation was completely different from that to the і north of the Marshes. Von Rundstedt opened his offen-
У sive by launching the German Sixth and Seventeenth armies, together with Panzergruppe 1 on the left flank, v between the Pripyat Marshes and the Hungarian- ! Slovakian border. These forces were intended to strike in an eastern and a southeastern direction, while the Romanian Third and Fourth armies and the German *, Eleventh Army were held back along the Soviet-Roma – nian border. The purpose of this operation was to en – R drcle and destroy most of the Red Army troops west of ; the Dnieper River.
The strongest opposition in the air during the first
 ers and managed to shoot down the precious LaGG-3— I his twenty-third personal victory. Kapitan Khalutin at – B tacked a Bf 109 w ith his 1-16, giving it a long burst with I his machine guns. The enemy fighter exploded violently, ■ spreading burning shrapnel over a large area. К Oberfeldwcbcl Heinrich Brenner, in the cockpit, had no і chance of survival. Less than two minutes later, the So – f viet fighters and fighter-bombers were gone.
According to the Soviet report, ten enemy aircraft і were destroyed on the ground,13 but 249 IAP failed to № put JG 3 out of commission. On the other hand, the air – І base raids by the Kampfgruppen of Luftflotte 4 in the 1 same operational area did not meet with better success. В Contrary to the German assessments, Soviet reports show і that only a limited number of VVS aircraft were В destroyed on the ground. At this point the Soviets I regularly dispersed and camouflaged their planes on the в airfields.
The Slovak 12 Letka (squadron), equipped with Avia B-534 single-engine biplane fighters, saw heavy action