The Yak-7B

The Yak-7 started as a trainer for the Yak-1 in January, 1940, and took to the air for the first time in July 1940. Changes in the Yak-1 and Yak-7 took place simultaneously. Movement of the center of gravity further aft avoided nose-overs on landing. Changes in air intakes addressed engine overheating. The re-designation from Yak-1UTI to Yak-7 occurred officially in February 1941.

With the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Air Force decided to turn the Yak-7 into a tactical fighter in August 1941. The rear cockpit was removed and covered over. New armament included a 20 mm cannon firing through the propeller boss, and two 7.62 mm machine guns. Six rocket launch rails were installed under the wings. Production began in September 1941, but factory movement to Siberia in October 1941 limited production numbers. The Yak-7 entered combat in defense of Moscow in December 1941.

The Yak-7A powered by the Klimov M-105PA completed acceptance trials with wheels or retractable skis in early 1942. This variant deployed to the Vokhov and Western Fronts in early summer 1942. Combat pilots complained about poor rearward visibility, inherent in both the Yak-1 and Yak-7 aircraft, due to the “razor-back” configuration. A “bubble” canopy was suggested.

The Yak-7B was equipped with increased armament: one 20 mm cannon and two 12.7 mm machine guns. Rocket rails were provided for six unguided rockets. An alternative underwing load was provision to carry two 25 to 100 kilogram bombs. The rocket rails were deleted in May 1942. One in ten aircraft carried a two-way radio.

The heavier armament added to the aircraft moved its center of gravity forward aggravating its inclination to nose over on landing. In compensation an 80 liter fuel tank was added in the rear cockpit. Combat pilots objected to the fuel tank in the cockpit and fighter units at the front tended to remove the tank.

Designers increased the boost pressure of the M-105PF increasing the horsepower from 1,050 to 1,180 hp. This required a modification of the fine pitch on the propeller to access the power. A Yak-7B weight reduction program included lightening the airframe, deleting the wiring for the rockets, and deleting the 80 liter fuel tank.

The Yak-7B entered combat in the summer of 1942, engaging in intense battles over Stalingrad. In one engagement on 20 August Soviet pilots claimed 29 German aircraft shot down for a loss of nine.

An Air Force study of the performance of the Yak-7B revealed that many pilots flew the aircraft with the canopy either open, or removed. Radiator and oil cooler shutters were open, and wheel doors and maintenance access panels were poorly fitted. Pilots operated the engine at a reduced setting of 2,700 rpm resulting in speed reductions of 40 to 50 km/hr.

Aircraft produced at the Moscow plant, as opposed to the plant at Novosibirsk, were of lower quality resulting in speed losses of 25 to 30 km/hr, higher stick forces, and more sluggish maneuverability. Poor production standards or faulty installation resulted in machine gun failures in the Yak-7B. Flawed design of shell ejection chutes and feed sleeves contributed. Cannon failures were caused by poor design of the case ejector chutes and the belt link collectors. Low grade substitutes of various chemicals in the bonding glue resulted in defective bonding of the wooden skin to the internal structure causing the skin to rip away in flight.

Later improvements to the Yak-7B included cutting down the upper rear fuselage and fitting a bubble canopy. Emergency canopy jettison devices were installed. A combined throttle and pitch control, introduced in 1943, reduced pilot work load in combat situations.

Production of the Yak-7B continued to July 1944 with 5,120 being built. The aircraft remained in service to the end of the war, and proved tough enough to take considerable damage in battle and still return safely.

Source: Yakovlev Fighters of World War Two, Yefim Gordon, Sergey Komissarov and Dmitriy Komissarov, Hikoki Publications, Manchester, England, 2015

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The Yak-1 in Combat

The Soviets and the Germans had very different ways of determining the effectiveness of a fighter in combat. The Germans, just like we in the United States, view the success of a fighter by the performance and the kill/loss ratio. For the Soviets in the Great Patriotic War, the effectiveness of a fighter was determined by its ability to assist the advance of the forces on the ground, and its ability to protect attack aircraft from enemy air attempts to disrupt Soviet air support effectiveness.

The Yak-1 entered service shortly before the German attack on the Soviet Union: Operation Barbarossa. It remained in service throughout the war. Even as late as December 1943 Yak-1s were still provided as replacement aircraft to units in active combat against German forces. Improvements of the aircraft continued throughout the production run, taking place on the assembly line, or in the field. Modifications of the aircraft tended to increase the weight of the aircraft, negatively affecting its performance so work continued to find ways to increase the power of the engine, improve the efficiency of the propeller, reduce the aircraft weight, and aerodynamic and parasitic drag.

Rocket tubes under the wings, 37 mm cannon, increased rate of fire in the 20 mm cannon were all tried. Self-sealing fuel tanks, inert gas pressurization systems for the fuel tanks, armored glass for the windscreen, dust filters to protect the engine, modified exhaust stubs to provide additional thrust, increased the safety and usefulness of the aircraft.

During the initial battles against German forces the majority of Yak-1s in the Western and Southwestern fronts were destroyed, primarily on the ground. The aircraft was new to the crews and the pilots had not yet learned how to use them. In spite of this, one unit in three days in June 1941, destroyed 26 enemy aircraft on the approaches to Kiev.

Yak-1s were used in the early days, primarily in the air defense of Moscow. Unusually, they were also used to strafe advancing German ground troops. Their numbers increased as the year advanced. By the end of 1941 the Yak-1s were being joined by Yak-7s. Production of the Yak-1 ended in July 1944.

During the battle for the Kursk Salient 659 Yak-1s and Yak-7Bs served with the Second and the Sixteen Air Armies. Yak-1s took part in the 1944 Belorussian Strategic Offensive Operation, which destroyed the German Army Group Center, by protecting ground attack aircraft supporting Soviet troops. By this time the Yak-9 began to replace the Yak-1s and Yak-7s, although these were still providing reconnaissance services.

Some of the greatest Russian aces began their careers flying Yak-1s, including Aleksandr I. Pokryshkin with 53 personal kills and six shared kills.

Source: Yakovlev Fighters of World War Two, Yefim Gordon, Sergey Komissarov, and Dmitriy Komissarov, Hikoki Publications Ltd, Manchester, England, 2015

THE YAKOVLEV FIGHTER SERIES

As the most produced fighter series in history, the significance of the Yakovlev fighters cannot be overestimated. As mentioned in one of my previous blogs, at the beginning of the Great Patriotic War in June, 1941, only one tenth of the Soviet fighter force consisted of Yak-1s, and the most numerous modern fighter in the Soviet inventory was the Mig-3.

The Yakovlev fighter series began as the I-26, entered in the fighter competition with three other Yak prototypes. The I-26 was presented as a low and mid-altitude tactical fighter of mixed aluminum, and wood and fabric construction. It performed well at the prototype trials, achieving a maximum speed at sea level of 490 kilometers per hour and 585 kilometers per hour at 4,800 meters. The pilots reviewing the prototype found it easy to handle, though aerobatics were limited because of g load restrictions. The aircraft failed its state trials because of a laundry list of design and manufacturing flaws.

Many of the flaws were corrected before five prototype aircraft began operational trials. Production began at a Moscow factory in autumn 1940. At the time of the German invasion the Moscow plant was producing three aircraft per day. These aircraft were initially based at airfields near Moscow.

In combat the Yak-1 proved to be the best of the Soviet fighters, but its main opposition, the Bf 109F-2 and F-4 variants, were superior. In particular the Bf 109F-4’s speed advantage allowed it to engage in or break off combat at will.

In an effort to improve the Yak-1’s performance it was equipped with a Klimov M-105 PA engine. Although this did not eliminate the Yak-1’s inferiority to the Messerschmitt fighter, the new engine allowed prolonged inverted flight as well as negative g dives.

The first 1,000 Yak-1s were not equipped with radios. Future machines were equipped at a ratio of one in ten.

With the onset of winter the Yak-1, like all other Soviet combat aircraft, were painted with a chalk like white coating for camouflage. Skis on the Yak-1s allowed operation from snow covered fields. Large motorized rollers were used to flatten the snow prior to takeoff.

It is my intention to provide a developmental history of the Yakovlev series fighters and an outline of their operations during the Great Patriotic War. I also intend to discuss the careers of a number of the aces who flew these machines, including the exploits of the women who flew this machine in combat.

Sources: Soviet Combat Aircraft of the Second World War, Volume One: Single-Engined Fighters, Yefim Gordon and Dmitri Khazanov, Midland Publishing Limited, Leicester, England, 1998

Yakovlev Fighters of World War Two, Yefim Gordon, Sergey Komissarov, and Dmitriy Komissarov, Hikoki Publications, Ltd., Manchester, England, 2015

Battle for Cherkassy and the Korsun Pocket

As the politically significant taking of Kiev unfolded, a more dramatic, militarily significant battle exploded near Cherkassy to the south. The Germans feared the result and the Soviets saw the benefit of sealing off two German corps in the Cherkassy bulge. The Soviet Air Force assisted by providing units of the Second and the Fifth Air Armies totaling 768 aircraft against 1,000 opposing German aircraft.

General Konev’s Second Ukrainian Front kicked off the battle against stubborn resistance on 24 January, 1944, with the support of the Fourth Fighter Air Corps. Low ceilings, fog and snow prevented air cover the next day.

General Vatutin’s First Ukrainian Front struck on 26 January opening a gap with the Sixth Tank Army. Rotmistrov’s Fifth Guards Tank Army, under General Konev, moved toward the Sixth Tank Army to enclose the Korsun pocket on 27 January, trapping the Fifth SS Panzer Division (Wiking) and SS Wallonian. Due to the poor weather conditions only experienced Soviet flight crews provided support in groups of four to eight aircraft.

The next day SS Wiking attacked Oschana, operating with little or no shelter from the weather. The Luftwaffe flew supplies in to the encircled troops and picked up the wounded, landing at two airfields within the pocket. The Soviets did what they could to eliminate the pocket under blizzard conditions and freezing temperatures. During the period from 29 January to 4 February the Luftwaffe lost forty aircraft to anti-aircraft fire or accidents. The Soviet Second and Fifth Air Armies flew 2,800 sorties during the same period. More than 120 air battles were fought and Soviet pilots claimed 130 German aircraft downed.

General von Manstein built up a relief force which included the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler SS Panzer Division. The relief attempt was scheduled for 3 February. On 1 February, just before the attack was to jump off, there was a sudden thaw, with temperatures dropping below freezing at night. On 2 February the aircraft of the First Guards Attack Corps of the Fifth Air Army attacked a column of tanks and other vehicles causing great damage to German forces. The German relief attempt started on schedule with the forces inside the pocket attempting to break out at the same time. The breakout forces were thrown back.

Konev and Vatutin rearranged their battle lines to further obstruct the relief attempt. By 5 February the mud caused by the thaw closed both airfields in the pocket and Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’s panzers became bogged down.

On 6 February Adolf Hitler authorized a breakout from the Korsun pocket to begin on 10 February. Just as the relief force resumed their attack, temperatures plunged again and the mud re-froze. At this point Field Marshal Georgi Zhukov of Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad fame, took command of the Soviet outer ring while Konev continued commanding the inner ring.

The breakout attempt began with Wiking, still trapped inside the pocket, taking Schenderovka on 11 February. SS Wallonian, in Novo Buda, attacked toward Komarovka on 12 February and took the village the next day, but Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, part of the relief force, was pushed out of Repki on the same day. German armor of the relief forces captured a bridge over the Gniloy Tikich River at Lisyanka, near Dzhurzhentsy, but a Soviet counter attack brought the relief attempt to a halt preventing contact with the surrounded forces.  The German forces trapped inside the pocket had to take Dzhurzhentsy themselves to break out.

By this time the pocket had been reduced to an area five by seven kilometers. Another breakout attempt was scheduled for 16 February. At dawn on 17 February the temperature dropped to -7 degrees Celsius in blizzard conditions. The engineers of the relief forces pushed two temporary bridges across the Gniloy Tickich River two kilometers upstream from the captured bridge but the escaping Germans could not reach them. Ice floes drifted down the river. Where the Germans attempted to cross, the river was two meters deep and several meters across. Under constant artillery and tank fire the Germans abandoned their equipment and swam to the other side. Only 35,000 of them were able to escape.

Two German corps had been destroyed. More than 3,000 Germans were captured near Schendorovka.

Sources: Crucible at Cherkassy, Pt McTaggart, WW II History Magazine, Volume 4, Number 5, September 2005

The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Translated by Leland Fetzer. Edited by Ray Wagner, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1973

Slugfest at Kirovograd

Confusion reigned during the battle for Kirovograd, a city located west of the Dnieper between Cherkassy and Krivoy Rog. At several points German and Soviet forces surrounded each other and battle lines ceased to exist.

At the beginning of January 1944 Major General Nikolaus von Vormann, commander of 47 Panzer Corps was assigned to defend Kirovograd. North of the city General Vatutin’s First Ukrainian Front was making progress against the 4th Panzer Army west of Kiev.

On 5 January, 1944, General Konev’s Second Ukrainian Front, to the south, launched its attack to liberate Kirvograd from the four German Divisions that held it. General Rotmistrov’s Fifth Guards Tank Army sped west, passing south of Kirovograd, supported by the Fifth Air Army which flew 1,100 sorties. Germany’s Second Parachute Division opposed the attack fiercely, claiming the destruction of 120 Russian tanks on this first day.

The following day General Bayerlein counter attacked north of Letakova with the Third Panzer Division but the supporting divisional artillery and armor units experienced a shortage of munitions. Separated from their supporting Tenth Panzer Grenadiers, both units were isolated in separate pockets, incidentally also allowing the surrounding of Kirovograd by the Soviets.

Midday, 7 January, the Germans scheduled a breakout of the Third Panzer Division to begin at 1600 hours that same day. By dawn of the 8th the Panzers succeeded in breaking out of the pocket, reaching Ivanivka. The Tenth Panzer Grenadiers remained surrounded.

Fighting continued within the surrounded city of Kirovograd. The Second Parachute Division, holding the southern part of the city in 13 decree C weather, suffered 60 to 70% casualties. In spite of efforts by anti-tank Ju 87G Stukas commanded by Hans Ulrich Rudel, the Soviets took the airfield south of Mala Vyska.

Field Marshal von Manstein ordered 3 SS Panzer Division “Totenkopf” and Grossdeutschland SS Panzer Division to attack south of Kirovograd to join up with 2nd Parachute Division while Third Panzer Division and Tenth Panzer Grenadier Division attacked north of Kirovograd in an attempt to encircle Soviet forces who now held most of the city. Third Panzer Division took Ossikowata north of Kirovograd which allowed the German Tenth Panzer Grenadier Division to escape their pocket at Letekovka.

At first light on 10 January Grossdeutschland, supported by Stukas, attacked toward Karlivkha, providing relief for the 2nd Parachute Division and trapping Soviets in a pocket west of Kirovograd. The entrapped Soviets attacked west in the vicinity of Mala Vyska supported by another Soviet attack launched the next day north of Gruzkoye.

This attack was confronted by Grossdeutschland and the 2nd Parachute Division, accompanied by the Third SS Panzer Division, inserted between them on 12 January. The unexpected appearance of the Third Panzer Division brought the Soviet assault to a stop, succeeded in driving them out of Maryanrovka, and temporarily stabilizing the front line. Fighting continued in the neighborhood of Kirovograd until the 16th. The Russians held Kirovograd, but they paid a high price. Soviet losses included 490 tanks, 100 artillery pieces, 15 anti-aircraft guns, dozens of anti-tank guns and 3,871 prisoners.

The German losses were also severe. Regiments reported in at battalion strength and the panzers needed repairs.

Meanwhile, to the north-east, a bulge had developed in the German line in the Korson-Cherkassy area. Generals Vatutin and Konev received orders to encircle those German units.

Escape from Kirovograd, Pat McTaggart, WW II History Magazine, December 2015, Volume 15, Number 1

Crucible at Cherkassy, Pat McTaggart, WW II History Magazine, September 2005, Volume 4, Number 5

The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Edited by Ray Wagner, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1973

Battle for the Dnieper River

As the politically significant taking of Kiev unfolded, more dramatic, militarily significant battles erupted in the south. The Germans feared the result and the Soviets saw the benefit of sealing off large numbers of German units in the Crimea.

General Malinovsky, commander of the Third Ukrainian Front, attacked in the direction of Zaporozhye on 1 October, 1943. General Tolbukhin, commander of the Fourth Ukrainian front smashed the German Sixth Army and struck along the north coast of the Sea of Azov toward Melitopol. By the end of October the Fourth Ukrainian Army succeeded in sealing off the Crimea. As the Soviet armies moved forward they drafted all males of military age into the army.

In mid-November the rainy season began turning the Ukrainian Steppes into a sea of mud. This weather change slowed the Soviet advance, but did not stop it. First Ukrainian Front under General Vatutin, forced the Dnieper River line again south of Kanev, north of Cherkassy, at the end of November. General Konev with the Second Ukrainian Front engaged in a war of attrition west to the Dnieper River as they advanced on Kirovograd. Their goal was to encircle the German defenders, Erhard Raus’s Fourth Panzer Army and Otto Wohler’s Eighth Army in the vicinity of Korsun.

At the same time, General Tolbukin pushed the German Sixth Army away from the coast of the Sea of Azov.

By this time the German infantry units had been reduced to 50 to 75% of combat strength and their tanks were worn out. The rain hampered German aerial reconnaissance.

By the first week of December the Germans brought the Russian breakthrough to a halt near Dykivka, 53 kilometers northeast of Kirovograd. The Soviets used the weather to bring up supplies. Early in December the snow began falling, driven by gale force winds. General Konev moveed toward Kirovograd while Vatutin headed for the Bug River. They hoped to meet near Pervoinaysk. Konev knew there was good tank country east of Kirovograd and he hoped to take advantage of it. He positioned the General Rotmistrov’s Fifth Guards Tank Army and the Fifth Guards Army there.

General von Manstein received reinforcements in the second week of December. The second Parachute Division arrived in Kirovograd and the 11th Panzer Division positioned itself near Novhordivka. On 18 December the 11th Panzer Division attacked Norhordivka and took it.

At the beginning of January Major General Nikolaus von Vormann, commander of the 47th Panzer Corps, was assigned to defend Kirovograd. Adolf Hitler’s orders were to defend the city to the last man. General Rotmistrov’s Fifth Guards Tank Army possessed 500 tanks on 5 January, 1943, when Konev launched his attack, knowing the Germans were preoccupied with Vatutin’s  attack to the south, and hoping to catch them off balance.

Sources: Battle for the Dniepr, Grigory Utkin, History of the Second World War Magazine

Crucible at Cherkassy, Pat McTaggart, WW II History Magazine, Volume 4 Number 5, September 2005

Escape from Kirovograd, Pat McTaggart, WW II History Magazine, Volume 15, Number 10, December 2015

The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday and Company Inc., Garden City, NY, 1973

 

Drive to Kiev

The drive to Kiev began as a result of the Soviet victory at Kursk. Soon after the taking of Kharkov on 23 August, 1943, the Soviet attack severed the Konotop-Bryansk rail line, breaking the connection between the German Army Group Center and Army Group South. Things were no better for the Germans in the south. Malinovsky’s South-west Front and Tolbukin’s South Front swept forward toward Zaporozhye on the lower Dnieper River. Stalino fell on 8 September and Mariupol on 10 September. von Manstein advised Hitler on 15 September, 1943, that Army Group South had to fall back to the Dnieper- Desna River lines to prevent the collapse of the Wehrmacht’s right flank. After much argument Hitler finally gave the order.

Soviet General Konev’s Steppe Front took Romny on the 16th September. Five days later Lt. General Pavel Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army reached the Dnieper River.  Soviet fighters protected the troops on the right bank and supported the crossings of the Dnieper. A bridgehead was established in the Bukryn area south of Kiev on 21 September, and another north of Kiev near Lyutich on 26 September. German assaults against the Bukryn bridgehead threatened to eliminate it. An attempt to drop Soviet paratroops into the Bukryn bridgehead on 24 September resulted in disaster.

Two hundred kilometers to the north, the Soviet Central Front under General Rokossovskii crossed the Desna River and headed south toward Gomel, another  key communications link between Army Group Center and Army Group South. On 6 October the 16th Air Army attacked this important railway and road center with 250 aircraft. The German resistance stymied Rokossovski’s advance, but, on 15 October Rokossovski’s men were able to cross the Dnieper River at Loyev, 55 kilometers south of Gomel. The Germans succeeded in containing this bridgehead as well.

Although there were now numerous leaks in the Dnieper River line, General Vatutin, commander of the Voronezh Front, could not get his bridging units up fast enough to take advantage of them. The German Fourth Air Fleet committed 867 aircraft while the Sixth Air Fleet committed another 960 aircraft in an effort to eliminate the Bukryn bridgehead, on 10 October. Orders were given for a breakout from the Bukryn bridgehead on 12 October. The night before the breakout attempt the Soviet Second Air Army bombers flew 272 sorties in preparation. German artillery fire made this breakout attempt very expensive and it was called off on 15 October. As a result, on the night of 24/25 October, Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army left the Bukryn bridgehead en route to the Lyutich bridgehead 150 kilometers to the north where the German forces were thinner. The marshy terrain made the transit difficult and resulted in the loss of a number of tanks.

On 29 October Stavka renamed the fronts. Voronezh front, commanded by Vatutin, became the 1st Ukrainian Front. Konev’s Steppe Front became the 2nd Ukrainian Front, and the Central front commanded by Rokosovskii became the Belorussian Front. Meanwhile, Stalin informed the commanders involved with the attempt to capture Kiev, that he wanted the city taken by 7 November, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

During this period another bridgehead was established 15 kilometers north of Lyutich at Yasnohorodka. On 1 November Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army reached the Lyutich bridgehead. The attack out of the Lyutich bridgehead began on 3 November with a huge artillery attack. Supported by the 2nd Air Army’s fighters and bombers, the Soviet Forces broke out. A simultaneous attack at Yasnohorodka struck west toward Zhytomyr. German counterattacks proved insufficient to stem the Soviet onslaught. Soviet infantry entered Kiev on 5 November and Stalin was informed that Kiev had been taken on 6 November though house to house fighting reminiscent of Stalingrad was still going on within the city.

Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army took Fastiv, 60 kilometers southwest of Kiev on 7 November threatening the rear of Army Group South.

Sources: ‘The Battle of Kiev: Ending the Nazi Terror’, Pat McTaggart, Warfare History Network, December 27, 2016

The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, NY 1973

Kursk: The Clash of Armour, Geoffrey Jukes, Ballantine Books, Inc., New York, NY, 1968

 

Women at War in the Soviet Air Force

Marina Roskova, frequently referred to as the Soviet Union’s Amelia Earhart, talked to Stalin about women being in the fight after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. One third of all trained pilots in the Soviet Union in 1940 were women. Receiving the approval of Stalin, Roskova called for volunteers for all-woman flying units in the summer of 1941. She recruited 200 volunteers, ages 18 to 22, from flying clubs or the civil air fleet, and training began at Engles near Stalingrad on 15 October, 1941.

Eight already trained women pilots joined an all male fighter regiment in September 1941 and engaged in seeking and destroying enemy aircraft.

The 122nd Composite Air Division was composed of the 586th Fighter Air Regiment, the 587th Bomber Air Regiment, and the 588th Night Bomber Air Regiment (the famous Night Witches).

The 586th Fighter Air Regiment was the first to fight. These women flew Yak-1s, Yak-7Bs, Yak-9s, and Yak-3s and engaged in 125 separate air battles. In one instance two lone women attacked a bomber formation of 42 aircraft and destroyed four before their aircraft were too badly damaged to continue the fight. This regiment was credited with 38 kills, 17 of them scored by one of the squadron commanders, Olga Yamashchikova. Later she was the first woman to fly a jet aircraft as a test pilot.

The 587th Bomber Air Unit flew the Pe-2, nicknamed the Pawn. This aircraft was notoriously difficult to fly and the controls were so stiff that frequently the navigator, seated beside and behind the pilot, assisted in pulling back the stick on takeoff. By the fall of 1943 this regiment was designated a Guards unit becoming the 125th Guards Bomber Regiment.

The 588th Night Bomber Regiment flew the Po-2 wood and fabric biplane bomber on night harassment raids. This unit served in Ukraine, North Caucasus, the Taman Peninsula, Crimea, Stalingrad and Berlin. Even on the shortest nights, in mid-summer, they would fly three to four missions per night. Commanded by Yevdokia Bershanskaya, this unit completed 24,000 combat missions dropping 23,000 tons of bombs. Twenty-three women in this unit were awarded the coveted Hero of the Soviet Union medal. In 1943 this unit was also designated a Guards unit, becoming the 46th “Tamar” Guards Night Bomber Regiment.

More than 1,000 women flew combat in every type of Soviet aircraft. Many women flew with largely male units. Lilya Litvyak destroyed 12 German planes in one year. Lieutenant Ekaterina Budanova scored 11 victories. Valenina Grizodubova commanded a long-range night bomber squadron which included 300 male pilots and technicians.

By the end of World War II 18 per cent of personnel in the Soviet Air Force were women.

Sources: Red Air Force Heroines, George Tipton Wilson, World War II History Magazine, September 2007, Vol. 6 Number 5

Women Aloft, Valery Moolman, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, VA, 1981

Soviet Air Force at War, Russell Miller, Time-Life Books, Alexandria Virginia, 1983

The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday, Garden City, NY 1973

After Kursk: The Soviet Riposte

Before the German army’s assault on the Kursk Salient ran out of steam, the Soviet army struck back. Southwest Front launched its counteroffensive on 17 July, 1943. The Steppe Front jumped off on 19 July. Army Group Center’s gains in the northern part of the Kursk bulge evaporated quickly and the German High Command ordered the withdrawal from Orel on 26 July. Army Group South’s gains provided the Soviets with a tougher nut to crack. Soviet forces, weakened in the battles before Oboyan and Prokhorovka, struggled to push back.

Nonetheless, the Soviet Armies took Orel in the north and Belgorod in the south by 5 August. These actions threatened Kharkov. Eventually, the Soviets forced the German evacuation of Kharkov and it fell on 23 August. This development endangered the entire southern wing of the German front.

During the summer offensive of 1942, as the German army attacked Stalingrad, the main reason for taking Stalingrad was to protect the German thrust into the Caucasus. History’s concentration on the struggle for Stalingrad minimizes Hitler’s main objective: the Caucasus oil fields. Army Group A was within forty kilometers of Grozny at it’s farthest extent. At the end of December 1942 the Soviet attacks began. Stalingrad Front and Transcaucasus Front drove Army Group A, back to Krasnodar, halting on the lower Donets River on 17 January, 1943. On 4 February the Soviets landed units on the Black Sea coast near Novorossiysk, behind German lines, attempting to cut off Army Group A. This move hastened the withdrawal of the Germans into the Kuban Peninsula. A thrust at Rostov cut off the German withdrawal north of the Sea of Azov. Krasnodar fell to the Soviets on 12 February and Rostov on 14 February. Although the battle for the Kuban Peninsula continued, the Soviets made few gains during the summer. If the Germans could be forced out of the bend of the Dnieper River, Army Group A would be trapped in the Crimea.

Meanwhile, to the north, a great battle force gathered for the liberation of Smolensk. Army Group Center possessed 850,000 officers and men, 8,800 guns and mortars, 500 tanks and assault guns, and 700 aircraft. Their defensive positions, 130 kilometers deep, consisted of up to six defensive belts occupied by German forces experienced in defending against Red Army attacks. Soviet forces included 1,253,000 officers and men, 20,600 guns and mortars, 1,400 tanks, and 900 aircraft.

On 7 August, even as the battle for Kharkov developed, the West Front attacked Army Group Center. Kalinin Front launched its attack on 13 August in support. West Front took Yelnya on 30 August and Dorogobuzh on 1 September. Bryansk Front’s 50th Army struck toward Bryansk, hoping to outflank it on the north and south. But the Germans surrendered ground reluctantly, and forced a pause in the Soviet attack. The Soviets used this time to re-provision and reorganize.

On 14 September the attack resumed. In days the Kalinin Front and the West Front swept forward across a 250 kilometer front penetrating the German defenses to a depth of forty kilometers. Kalinin Front took Dukhovshchina on 19 September and Demidov on the 21st. West front took Yartsevo on the 16th and overran the Smolensk/Roslavl railway on the 23rd. Bypassed on the north and the south the Germans had no choice but to evacuate Smolensk, which was taken on 25 September, with Roslavl falling on the same day.

Sources: Kursk: The Clash of Armor, Geoffrey Jukes, Ballantine Books, Inc., New York, New York

Forgotten Campaign: The Caucasus, Ivan Zhabkin, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

The Liberation of Smolensk, Colonel Vasily Istomin, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

Hitler’s Airborne Anti-tank Guns-Part Two

The Henschel Hs 129 also played a part in the Battle for the Kursk Salient. Built in fewer numbers than the Junkers Ju 87G this twin-engine close support aircraft’s role was not insignificant. Its rocky career began with totally inadequate engines. The Argus A-1 twelve cylinder inverted-vee, air-cooled engine developed only 465 horsepower for take-off. The fuselage was built around the armored cockpit made up of armor plate six to twelve millimeters thick and weighing in at nearly 500 kilograms. In the nose was a pair of 20 mm cannon and a pair of 7.9 mm machine guns. Underwing racks carried either two 50 kg bombs or twenty-four 2 kg anti-personnel bombs.

The prototype made its first flight in early 1939 and the machine was criticized for being seriously under powered and for providing limited visibility for the pilot. The priority for this machine remained low initially, so the redesign received more support only when the need for more close support aircraft became more apparent during the campaigns in Poland and France. The conquest of France made available the Gnome-Rhone 14 M radial engine. This engine developed 700 horsepower for take-off. Even these engines allowed only a 400 kilometer per hour maximum speed. A limited time was allowed for redesign, so, when the aircraft entered service in North Africa in March 1942 and the eastern front in May 1942, front line units learned that the engines were vulnerable to dust and could absorb only minimal combat damage. Additionally, the armament was totally inadequate for anti-armor work.

Field modifications provided for Hs 129Bs included an increase in armament to include a 30 mm cannon with 30 rounds in a detachable ventral pack. This weapon was proved to be unable to penetrate the 45 mm armor plate of the T-34 tank or the 75 mm plate of the KV-1 tank. This compelled the Luftwaffe to provide Hs 129 units with updates allowing installation of the 30 mm MK 103 cannon which possessed a higher muzzle velocity and a flatter shell trajectory than that provided by the MK 101. Some aircraft were also fitted with a 37 mm BK 3.7. Use of this larger weapon required the removal of the 7.9 mm machineguns. Both of these cannon were found to be effective against the softer sides and rear of the Russian tanks.

On 8 July, 1943, four squadrons of Hs 129s disrupted a Soviet surprise attack against II SS Panzer Corps near Belgorod. The anti-tank aircraft succeeded in scattering the Soviet tank brigade.

By the middle of 1944 the Luftwaffe realized the Hs 129’s performance was inadequate, as proved by excessive combat losses. Several experiments with higher power engines and different armaments proved unsuccessful. By the beginning of 1945 the Luftwaffe removed the aircraft from service.

Sources: Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1972

The Henschel Hs 129, Profile Publication Number 69, J. R. Smith, Profile Publications Ltd., Leatherhead, Surrey, UK