Closing the Korsun Pocket

Closing the Korsun Pocket, and the German attempt to rescue the forces trapped inside, resulted in intense combat in the air and on the ground.

On 27 January, 1944, Kravchenko’s 6th Tank Army crossed the Guiloy Tikich River at Lysyanka establishing a bridgehead on the eastern side of the river. On 28 January Rotmistrov’s 5th Guards Tank Army joined up with the 6th at Zvenigorodka closing the Kessel (cauldron) on the 28th, effectively sealing off the German forces trapped in the Dnieper River bend.

The German response was immediate. On the same day the 5th Panzer Regiment “Wiking” attacked at Olschana, striking north toward Kapitanovka. The next day the Germans expanded their offensive at Kirillovka, but a Soviet response from northeast of Olschana forced them back.

The Soviets endured small encirclements of their attacking forces. General Vatutin lost 513 tanks and 146 self-propelled guns during the last ten days of January.

At about this point the weather turned cold. Temperatures dropped to -5 degrees Celsius in blizzard conditions. von Manstein requested permission to have the units surrounded in the pocket, 7th and 42nd Army Corps, make an attempt to break out. Hitler, predictably, refused, leaving von Manstein to plan a rescue operation. In the meantime, three Transportgruppen were moved to the concrete airfield at Uman. Using the airfield at Korsun, they attempted to keep the surrounded units supplied. These operations were hampered by the heavy snow and low clouds.

General von Manstein pulled together the 3rd and 47th Panzer Corps and the SS Leibstandarte Adolph Hitler to assist in breaking the Soviet stranglehold. The attack was planned for 3 February.

The Russians continued to reduce the German defenses around the edges, attacking Bogluslav on 31 January, assisted by the Second and Fifth Air Armies. Fifth Air Army was assigned to support of the ground forces while the Second Air Army and the Tenth Fighter Air Corp blockaded the front against enemy attacks. From 29 January to 3 February these units flew 2,800 sorties, engaged in 120 air battles and downed 130 enemy aircraft.

A sudden thaw, with daytime highs at 5 degrees Celsius, on 1 February caused difficulty for German troops and equipment attempting to withdraw from the eastern edge of the cauldron. Observing the German retreat, the Soviets launched an attack and broke through the German line at Losovsk.

Outside the cauldron, the Germans concentrated their forces at Zvenigordka and attacked from the southwest over muddy roads. On 1 February, General von Vormann  advanced 31 kilometers over frozen ground to the Shpolka River at Iskrennoye approaching within 20 kilometers of Stemmermann’s surrounded forces. During this advance the First Guards Ground Attack Corps kept the column under constant attack. The bridge over the Shpolka River collapsed. Pioneers were called forward but their building materials could not provide a bridge allowing passage of 60 ton vehicles.

On 3 February General von Manstein’s attempt to relieve German units in the Kosun pocket began. The Soviet line was breached at Vesely Kut on the Guiloy Tikich River. At the same time, the Soviet Air Force began night and day operations to support and supply the Soviet troops moving to destroy the enemy forces inside the pocket, while repelling German counter attacks in the Tolmach and Lisyanka regions.

Sources: ‘Crucible at Cherkassy’, Pat McTaggart, WWII History Magazine, September 2005

Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1943-1945: Soviet Steamroller, Robert A. Foczyk, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, 2016

War Over the Steppes, the Air Campaign on the Eastern Front, 1941-1945, E. R. Hooton, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2016

”The Red Army’s Drive to Rumania’, A. N. Shimansky, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

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

 

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Development of the Korsun Pocket

Though Kirovograd was liberated by the Soviets on 8 January, 1944, the battle continued. General Beyerlein sent Deichen to re-take Mala Vyska airfield, now occupied by the 67 Tank Brigade. With the support of Colonel Rudel’s anti-tank kanone Ju-87 Stukas, Deichen’s forces pushed the 67 Tank Brigade back and occupied Griezkoye on 9 January. The next day SS Grossdeutschland took Karlivkha, again with Stuka support. When they were driven out, they retained control of the southern half of the village.

The luck of 67 Tank Brigade continued poor. They escaped from Mala Vyska only to run into German forces at Maryanovka 28 kilometers north of Kirovograd.

On the First Ukrainian Front the Germans launched two attacks. One near Vinnitsa where von Manstein maintained his headquarters, and the other northwest of Uman, a rail and road junction. By 10 January General Vatutin had lost 314 tanks. The Second Air Army struck tank concentrations and fought air battles completing 4,200 sorties from 10 January to 24 January

A thaw began on 10 January which, after a week, left roads muddy and difficult to travel. The thaw put many field airports out of action. With only one or two open airfields many different regiments, operating different types of aircraft, worked out of one field.

General Vatutin, commanding the First Ukrainian front, and General Konev, commanding the Second Ukrainian Front, received orders to surround the Korsun–Shevchenovsky salient. The air armies assisting these fronts in their tasks, the Second and the Fifth Air Armies, together commanded 768 aircraft. The Germans now possessed 1,000 machines. The two to one odds had been reduced.

General Konev’s attacks southwest of Kirovograd met the Third SS Panzer Division five kilometers northwest of Kanizh on 13 January. Moving through the mud the Third SS Panzer Division struggled to take Rymentarovka, but, separated from their Grenadiers, they couldn’t take the village until 16 January.  

By 20 January General Vatutin had formed an armored force of 160 tanks and 50 self-propelled guns.  At 0600 on 24 January General von Vormann attacked Gerneral Katukov’s right flank east of Vinnitsa. Soviet troops were thrown back 25 to 30 kilometers while the Fourth Fighter Air Corp fought off large groups of German aircraft. On the German side General Desloch’s forces were reduced to 849 combat aircraft.

General Konev’s forces southwest of Kirovograd gained four kilometers by 24 January. On January 25 Konev launched another attack north of Kirovograd.

General Vatutin’s strike began on 26 January attacking from southeast of Belkaya Tserkov over disintegrating roads. This attack forced the Germans to retreat. Rotmistrov’s Fifth Guards Tank Army moved west to meet up with General Kravchenko’s Sixth Tank Army.

During 25 and 26 January bad weather consisting of cloud decks at 100 to 150 meters above ground level with fog and snow required fighter units flying reconnaissance missions to send only the most experienced pilots in groups of four to eight.

Sources: ‘Escape from Kirovograd’, Pat McTaggart, WWII History Magazine, December 2015

‘Crucible at Cherkassy”, Pat McTaggart, WWII History Magazine, September 2005

‘The Red Army’s Drive to Rumania’, A. N. Shimansky, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1943-1945: Soviet Steamroller, Robert A. Forczyk, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, 2016

War Over the Steppes, the Air Campaign on the Eastern Front, 1941-45, E. R. Hooton, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2016

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

The Soviet Winter 1944 Offensive Begins

The First Ukrainian Front’s advances to Zhitomir and Fastov attracted German attention. They quickly moved troops and aircraft into the area, though the movements were confused and poorly planned. At the beginning of January, 1944, the Germans achieved nearly a two to one superiority in aircraft. These movements proved none to soon.

With the First Ukrainian Front at Zhitomir and Fastov and the Second Ukrainian Front threatening Kirovograd, the situation of German forces still holding Cherkassy on the Dnieper River, though not dire, looked perilous.

On 5 January Vatutin and Konev launched their attacks. Konev began with a heavy artillery bombardment of German forces protecting Kirovograd. Troops north and south of the city advanced westward, supported by the Fifth Air Army and Rotmistrov’s 5 Guards Tank Army. Rotmistrov’s advance in the south took him beyond the support of Soviet infantry.

On the first day of the attack the Germans claimed 120 tanks destroyed, however, communications between General Vormann’s headquarters and Kirovograd were cut.

The First Ukrainian Front, commanded by General Vatutin, captured Berdichev and Belaya Tserkov, and advanced toward Uman, assisted by the Second Air Army attacking railroad targets and airfields. Fog and low cloud hindered air support. Ice restricted telephone communications so most orders were given by radio. 

The German air force were particularly affected by poor airfields, frequent moves, and the transfer of infrastructure to Poland. They flew only 300 to 350 sorties per day.

The next day General Beyerlein attacked Konev’s forces north of Lelekova in an attempt to cut Soviet supply lines of the Soviet forces west of Kirovograd, but his movement was hindered by the deep snow.

By 7 January the Soviet main front was 10 kilometers east of Kirovograd, and the southern suburbs had been penetrated. The rail junction at Shepetovka was hammered by Il-2s. The Third Panzer Division  attempted to move northwest into the Kirovograd under heavy cloud cover. A withdrawal of German forces was scheduled to begin at 1600.

General Beyerlein reached Ivanivka by dawn of 8 January, still moving toward Lelekova. Fighting inside Kirovograd intensified though the Soviets now occupied most of the city. The Soviet 67th Tank Brigade destroyed the airfield at Mala Vyska northwest of Kirovograd.

General von Manstein felt confident that he could re-take Kirovograd. He had two Panzer divisions located north of the city and moved two SS Panzer Divisions (Totenkopf and Grossdeutschland) south of the city.

In the Korsun-Shevchenkovky area the Germans occupied the central position with nine Infantry Divisions, a Panzer division, and a Motorized Brigade. Soviet General Katukov’s First Tank Amy threatened Uman and Vinnitsa. General Hube, feeling the presence of the First and Second Ukrainian Fronts closing in on him, requested permission to evacuate the Korsun salient. In spite of the shattering of the German line, Berlin forbade any retreat.

Kirovograd was liberated by the Soviets on 8 January. As a reward for their support the First Guards Bomber Division, the 203rd and 302nd Fighter Air Divisions, and the First Ground Attack Air Corps were designated Kirovograd units.

Sources: ‘Escape from Kirovograd’, Pat McTaggart, WWII History Magazine, December 2015

‘Crucible at Cherkassy”, Pat McTaggart, WWII History Magazine, September 2005

Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1943-1945: Soviet Steamroller, Robert A. Forczyk, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, 2016

War Over the Steppes, the Air Campaign on the Eastern Front, 1941-45, E. R. Hooton, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2016

‘The Red Army’s Drive to Rumania, A. N. Shimansky, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

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

Zhitomir Redux

The first snows fell on 6 December, 1943. The ground hardened. The 48 Panzer Korps resumed its counteroffensive. 1 and 7 Panzer Divisions and Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler attempted to outflank the 60th Army from the west at Radomyschl. Das Reich and 8 and 19 Panzer Divisions attacked from the southeast. The terrain in this area is heavily forested and rugged. The objective was to surround three Soviet rifle divisions. von Manstein declared victory, though the small number of Soviet prisoners taken indicates the difficulty the Germans experienced. Additionally, Leibstandarte Adolph Hitler ran out of fuel for their tanks on the second day of the operation.

Improved weather during the period from 12 to 15 December allowed the Second Air Army to operate in large groups supporting Soviet forces.

von Manstein’s next objective was the surrounding of the Soviet 38th Army, dug in near Meleni. On 18 December Leibstandarte Adolph Hitler and the 1 Panzer Division attacked Meleni. Vatutin pulled Rybalko’s 3 Tank Army back and allowed von Manstein’s attack to spend itself on anti-tank mines and guns. By 20 December the attack was suspended, although the Panzer Korps continued attacking for six days. The attempted surrounding failed.

Das Reich returned to France to rebuild and prepare for the Second Front promised by the Western Allies. Rybalko’s 3 Tank Army, meanwhile, was also brought up to full strength. Katukov’s 1 Tank Army moved forward to cover 38 Army in the Fastov area. General Vatutin’s objective was to take on 42 Army Korps near Brusilov.

The weather on 24 December was overcast and raining as 38 Army began their artillery barrage at 0600 hours. The attack fell on the junction between the 19 and 25 Panzer Divisions, supported by the 5 Air Army flying from airfields in the Kiev area. The 19 Panzer Division fell back exposing the right flank of the 8 Panzer Division. By nightfall 42 Army Korps was retreating.

At that point Vatutin committed the 1 and 3 Tank Armies. The tank armies passed south of Zhitomir. By 30 December Zhitomir was surrounded and General Raus fell back to Berdichev. This operation split open the German defenses, creating a gap more than 300 kilometers wide and 95 kilometers deep. The Germans struck back fiercely with twelve divisions from southeast of Vinnitsa to northwest of Uman to restore a continuous front.

Luftwaffe strength on the Eastern Front at the end of 1943 was 1,732 aircraft. Of those, 966 flew with Army Group South. Soviet strength in Ukraine was 1,953. On 23 December the Soviet Air Force declared the battle for Kiev ended. Approximately 20,000 sorties had been flown.

Sources: Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1943–1945: Red Steamroller, Robert A. Forczyk, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, 2016

War Over the Steppes: The Air Campaigns on the Eastern Front, 1941–1945, E. R. Hooton, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2016

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

The Red Army’s Drive to Rumania, A. N. Shimansky, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s.

Fastov and Zhitomir

With Kiev captured by the Soviets and the Wotanstellung penetrated in at least four places, the Germans struck back fiercely. 1 Panzer Division, SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, 25 Panzer Division, Schutzenpanzer Wagen Abteilung 509, and remnants of SS Das Reich, under the leadership of General von Mantein attacked near Fastov and its rail station on 7 November 1943.

By this point in the war the Stuka Gruppen were being replaced by the Slacht Gruppen. The Ju-87 Stuka, too vulnerable to fighter attack, was replaced by Fw-190 fighter bombers. Faster, more rugged, and more maneuverable than the Stuka, the Fw-190 was able to defend itself after the bombs were dropped. Beginning their shallow dives at 1,800 meters, they effectively delivered anti-personnel and armor piercing bombs.

A newer Ju-87G Stuka, armed with one 37 mm cannon under each wing, fired armor piercing shells. With only six shells per gun, their usefulness was proved by Hans-Ulrich Rudel, credited with destroying 519 tanks during a career that included 2,530 ground attack missions. His example was exceptional.

As the German assault got organized, the Soviets launched simultaneous attacks towards Zhitomir and Korsten. Another attack was begun on 9 November south of Fastov. All operations at this time were hindered by the autumn rains which turned the roads to mud. The rain brought low clouds, and fog which also hindered air operations.

The German line, weakened by losses and the concentration for their assault of Fastov, broke west of Kiev under General Vatutin’s attack. Vatutin aimed toward Zhitomir assisted by the Soviet Air Force which carried out heavy raids from 12 through 15 November. Zhitomir was captured by the Soviets on 13 November, including the vital rail junction and supply base. The resulting disruption of German activity between Fastov and Zhitomir halted the German offensive.

Not everything went the Soviet way. Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler blocked Gerneral Ribalko’s 3 Guards Tank Army near Brusilov, an area where heavy woods and many ravines interfered with armored movement. The Panzer Grenadiers attacked Zhitomir on 20 November attempting to retake the rail junction, surrounding Rybalko’s tankers on 23-24 November. In the rainy weather the cauldron was not easily closed and most of Rybalko’s forces were able to escape the trap. By the time von Manstein tried to destroy them on 26 November, it was too late. Manstein was able to re-capture Zhitomir.

The Germans faced another issue which haunted them during this period. Hitler and Goering, working to form a strategic bomber force for use against the Western Allies, issued an order on 26 November, calling for withdrawals of bomber units from the Eastern Front. This was not to begin until December, but the threat interfered with the use of those bombers during the German offensives to follow.

War Over the Steppes, The Air Campaigns on the Eastern Front, 1941-45, E. R. Hooton, Osprey Publishing , Oxford, UK, 2016

Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1943-45: Red Steamroller, Robert A. Forczyk, Pen & Sword Military, South Yorkshire, England, 2016

Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, NY 1972

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

Meanwhile, Down in the South

The attempted breakout at the Bukryn bridgehead succeeded in enlarging the bridgehead. German artillery exacted a tremendous cost, and the Soviets halted the attack on 15 October. Further south, at Kremenchug, General Rotmistrov found a ten kilometer gap in the German line. On 16 October, supported, by the 17th Air Army, he crossed the Dnieper River capturing P’yatykatky on 18 October. The next day he made a clear breakthrough striking west for Kirovograd, assisted by the 5th Air Army, and south toward Krivoy Rog. On 22 October he took Novo Starodub and, on 27 October he entered the outskirts of Krivoi Rog. German General Mackensen, outflanked, abandoned Dnepropetrovsk on 25 October.

By now General Rotmistrov’s fuel was running low. His German opponent received an influx of tanks. An attack by Totenkopf plugged the gap and pushed Rotmistrov’s spearhead back out of Krivoy Rog.

General Rybalko, whose 3 Guards Tank Army had assisted with the first attempt to breakout of the Bukryn bridgehead, was ordered to move his army, through marshy terrain, to the smaller Lyutezh bridgehead 150 kilometers to the north. He withdrew from Bukryn on 25 October and crossed the river during three days of low clouds and rain. The move to Lyutezh took two days and by 2 November his entire tank army was relocated.

The Soviet attempt to breakout of the Bukryn bridgehead resumed on 1 November, distracting the Germans from the attempt taking place at Lyutezh. Bad weather restricted the 2nd Air Army’s attempts to assist the breakout to 640 sorties in two days.

The breakout from the Lyutezh bridgehead began on 3 November with an artillery barrage and assistance by Katyusha rockets. By 4 November Soviet troops entered the suburbs of Kiev. The Kiev-Zhitomir road was cut the next day. Rain, low clouds, and fog hindered operations on both sides. The Soviet Red flag was raised in the center of the city on 6 November, and Stalin was notified of its capture.

Sources: Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1943-1945: Red Steamroller, Robert A. Forczyk, Pen and Sword Military, Barnsley, South Yorkshire, 2016

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

War Over the Steppes: The Air Campaigns on the Eastern Front 1941-45, E. R. Hooton, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2016

Battles of the Bukryn and Lyutich Bridgeheads–October 1943

I mentioned these battles in previous blogs Drive to Kiev, Second Air Army: Kursk to the Dnieper River, and Second Air Army–Crossing the Dnieper River; however, these battles figure in my current novel tentatively titled Women Fighters Over the Ukraine. Consequently, this blog focuses more directly on the course of these battles on the ground and in the air.

As an introduction, for those who do not refer to my above mentioned blogs, I will begin with the taking of Kharkov by the Soviets on 23 August, 1943. Stalino fell to the Soviets on 8 September. General von Mantein requested a retreat to the Wotanstellung line along the Desna and Dnieper Rivers with Hitler, who finally authorized the withdrawal.

General Konev’s Steppe Front took Romny on 16 September. Poltava fell on 20-22 September. A bridgehead across the Dnieper River was established at Bukryn, south of Kiev, on 21 September with another north of Kiev near Lyutich on 26 September. German reaction was swift. Bombers sent to annihilate the bridgeheads met Soviet fighters operating from makeshift airfields.

General Vatutin could not get bridging equipment up to the river fast enough to take advantage of the German weakness in the area and a parachute attack on 24 September failed.

As the battle stalled near Kiev, two hundred kilometers to the north, General Rokossovskii crossed the Desna River.

The German Fourth Air Fleet with 867 aircraft and the Sixth Air Fleet with 960 aircraft attempted to eliminate the Bukryn bridgehead on 10 October. Numbers of aircraft on the opposing Soviet side matched those totals. Soviet forces were ordered to break out of the Bukryn bridgehead, beginning on 12 October. Second Air Army night bombers flew 272 sorties in preparation for the breakout, targeting infantry concentrations, strong points, and artillery.

The German bridgehead over the Dnieper River at Zaporozhye was eliminated during fight between the 10th and 14th of October during a three day period of poor weather and low cloud.

With the assistance of 16th Air Army, General Rokossovskii, to the north, managed to accomplish a crossing of the Dnieper River at Loyev, 55 kilometers south of Gomel on 15 October. The Germans were able to contain this bridgehead as well.

German artillery made the attempt to breakout of the Bukryn bridgehead so expensive the attempt was abandoned on 15 October. At this point the Soviets decided to try a breakthrough at the Lyutich bridgehead to take advantage of a weakness in the German lines.

Wotanstellung was pierced at Zaporozhye on 20 October. Twelve hundred Luftwaffe sorties per day saved Krivoy Rog from surrendering to the Soviets until February 1944.

Ferocious fighting continued all along the Dnieper River during the last eleven days of October. On 3 November, supported by artillery and the Second Air Army’s fighters and bombers, the Soviet infantry broke through and entered the city of Kiev on 5 November. On 6 November Stalin was advised the city was taken, though house to house fighting continued.

Sources: 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 Your, NY, 1968

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

‘Battle for the Dnieper,’ Grigory Utkin, World War II Magazine, 1970s

Tank Warfare on the Eastern Front 1943-1945, Robert A. Forczyk, Pen and Sword Military, South Yorkshire, England, 2016

War Over the Steppes: The air Campaigns on the Eastern Front 1941–45, E. R. Hooton, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2016

 

Womens’ Living Conditions: Soviet Air Force

Women served in nearly all of the combat squadrons in the Soviet Air Force during the Second World War in all capacities including maintenance of the aircraft, loading bombs on the aircraft, refueling, and rearming. They also served as pilots, bombardiers, navigators, and gunners. They flew in combat, not only in all women units, but also alongside their male counterparts. They suffered all of the shortages of food, equipment, shelter, clothing, and comforts as the men. Additionally, they suffered the indignities of male chauvinism and misogyny.

Upon joining the Soviet Air Force women received the same haircuts as the men. In at least one instance they were sent into a warehouse to find their own uniforms. They received the same uniforms as the men, which generally were too large and not tailored for women. They received men’s underwear, and foot cloths. They took some care in tailoring their own uniforms on their own time, of which they had little. Even with the belt cinched tight, the uniforms looked boxy. They stuffed crumpled newspaper in the toes of their boots to make the boots fit.

Makeup was prohibited on duty, not that there was much to be had. One woman used her red navigation pencil to enhance her lips.

Many male senior officers opposed the use of women in combat squadrons and some were notorious for pawning the women off on other units. Some men objected to women maintaining their aircraft. They objected to leading women in combat or flying on the wing of a woman in a flight pair. Interestingly enough, when the Soviet fighter corps abandoned the zveno, or three aircraft formation, and adopted the para, two aircraft formation, the leader was called the master and the wingman was called the slave.

With the exception of Lilyia Litvyak, women received little press coverage.

Like the men, women wrote and read letters, played chess, and musical instruments, during their off hours. They also did needle point, including decorating their uniforms, and the white, silk liner they wore under their helmet. Some leaders required visible decoration to be removed. Others allowed it.

By 1942 and 1943 treatment of women began to change. They were allowed to grow out their hair, and, in the summer of 1943 uniform skirts were issued, which one woman commented made getting into the cockpit somewhat difficult.

I found the exploits of these combat pioneers most fascinating, and I am currently working on a novel based on the experiences of women in combat.

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

Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II, Bruce Myles, Second Printing, Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago, IL, 1997

The Soviet Night Witches: Brave Women Bomber pilots of World War II, Pamela Dell, Capstone Press, North Mankato, MN, 2018

Living Conditions: Soviet Air Force in World War II

Living conditions for combatants in any war are marginal at best. Unlike the soldiers in the field, however, air force personnel experience better conditions, to a certain degree, especially when defending their homeland from foreign invaders.

Previously prepared airfields in the Soviet Union during the war provided the best accommodations. That being said, during the fallback in the summer and fall of 1941, prepared fields suffered dedicated attention from the Germans. Fuel dumps, ordnance storage areas, and lines of parked aircraft attracted level and dive bombers in abundance. Fortunately for the Soviets, their aircraft were designed for operation from primitive grass fields.

Prepared fields, generally co-located with moderately sized cities, were rare in early forties Russia. More common were runways formed by dragging a log behind a tractor to level the ground. Level areas were useful as long as the trees surrounding the area, especially from the typical approach and departure ends allowed relatively safe air operations.

Roads in the Soviet Union were also primitive. Most of them, unpaved, turned into muddy tracks during the summer and fall mud seasons. The Soviets frequently fell back on air supply during those periods, understanding the airfields were many times in the same shape as the roads, and less volume could be transported by air.

Make-shift paved airfields were laid by the local populace, along with air force personnel in a few days using octagonal slabs of concrete. Although my source doesn’t say where these fields were laid, I expect places like Stalingrad, and Moscow as well as other places intended to be held.

In summer maintenance and air crews lived in holes in the ground covered with tents. Bunkers were built if time permitted. Bunkers were holes in the ground covered with boards and surrounded by sandbags. Tents overhead deflected most of the rain. In winter maintenance and aircrew frequently used local villages for shelter. Farm buildings, such as barns, though smelly, got one out of the wind. Wood stoves provided localized but much needed heat. People who live in areas where the temperatures reach -40 degrees C/F will tell you the experience is indescribable.

Revetments became standard storage places for aircraft. Each aircraft had its own revetment to prevent one explosion from destroying more than one aircraft. Revetments were formed using available materials, including logs, dirt berms, sand bags, detritus from destroyed buildings. The Soviets became masters of camouflage, and built decoy airfields to encourage the Germans to waste their bombs.

Once the Russian offensives began and the Soviets retook airfields, they found the Germans plowed up the runways, laid hundreds of booby traps, and made the area as unusable as possible.

As with fuel and ordinance, spare parts, lubricants, tools, food, replacement clothing, and personal items were brought by rail as close as possible to operation centers. Transportation for short distances by road was used when possible, and by air if necessary.

Aircrew were allotted 3,450 calories per day, including .5 kilograms of meat. Maintenance people received a ration of 2,954 calories with less meat and sugar. According to E. R. Hooton, there was generally plenty of bread and soup.  Although sharing of food with the ground crews was not allowed, it frequently happened. Hooten also mentions Tushonka, a canned meat. Tushonka means ‘mystery meat’ because it could be pork, chicken, beef, or horse.

Conditions for women in the Soviet Air Force were similar, but different. I’ll explain that statement in my next post.

Sources: War Over the Steppes, E. R. Hooton, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2016

Night Witches, Bruce Myles, Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago, IL, 1997

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

Grigoriy Rechkalov and Aleksandr Pokryshkin

The second and third highest scoring Soviet aces in World War II were Grigoriy Rechkalov and Aleksandr Pokryshkin. Captain Rechkalov scored 56 individual and 5 shared victorirs and Colonel Pokryshkin scored 53 individual and 6 shared victories. These numbers are from E. R. Hooton’s War Over the Steppes. Other sources vary. Both flew large numbers of sorties. Rechkalov flew 415 plus and Pokryshkin 560.

Both pilots were trained in flying clubs and, during the war, received great amounts of publicity in Soviet newspapers and magazines. Captain Rechkalov received his second Hero of the Soviet Union gold star on 1 July, 1944. Neither of my sources give the date of the first award.

Aleksandr Pokryshkin joined the 55 Fighter Air Regiment flying MiG-3 fighters. He shot down his first kill on the day after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. On 20 July, 1941, he was shot down behind German lines by anti-aircraft fire, but he was able to return to his unit without being captured. Over the northern Caucasus he achieved 20 victories in 350 sorties.

As a leader Pokryshkin invented new techniques for air combat. He taught echeloned formations flying different altitudes within the group, and between the groups, and instructed pilots on tactical procedures.

Transferred to the 16 Guards Fighter Air Regiment flying P-39 Airacobras he received command of one of the squadrons. By July 1944 he commanded 9 Guards Fighter Air Division during the Lvov-Sandomir operation. Assigned to support ground forces near Radziejow, his flight of twelve fighters encountered a formation of forty bombers and eight fighters. First Lieutenant Trud and four aircraft kept the enemy fighters busy while Colonel Pokryshkin and Captain Rechkalov attacked the bombers. The bombers jettisoned their bombs and fled. The Soviets chased them until all of their ammunition was expended. Five German bombers and four German fighters were downed with the loss of one Soviet aircraft.

During the fighting over the San River Aleksandr Pokryshkin downed 28 enemy aircraft in four days in very bad weather and engaging much larger enemy forces.

In the fall of 1944 Colonel Pokryshkin received his third Hero of the Soviet Union gold star. He and Ivan Kozhedub were the only two Soviet pilots to win three of the coveted decorations.

Sources: War Over the Steppes, The Air Campaigns on the Eastern Fron 1941 – 45, E. R. Hooton, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2016

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