Kursk: The Air Action Part 1

World War II, Eastern Front, Russian and German Battle for the Kursk Salient.

Activity in the air continued throughout the months prior to the German offensive in July 1943. As military and civilian personnel worked to build the defenses to block German operations on the ground, they also built or renovated 154 airfields for use by the Soviet Air Force. Soviet bombers and fighters hammered German held airfields, transportation networks, communications lines, staff headquarters, and warehouses while the Germans continued their activity against the rail lines near Kursk.

The Soviet 16th Air Army was assigned to the Central Front, the 2nd Air Army to the Voronezh Front, and the 17th Air Army to the Southwestern Front. The 2nd Air Army assisted both the 16th and the 17th Air Armies on both the north pincer and the south pincer as needed. More than 2900 aircraft were available. The Soviets had twice as many fighters as the Germans, but the Germans had 2.4 times the number of day bombers.

The Germans concentrated about half of their first line strength on the Eastern Front for the summer 1943 attack against the Kursk bulge. Their combat aircraft numbered approximately 2,500. The 6th Air Fleet was positioned to attack from Orel. This air fleet included six fighter groups equipped with Fw 190As, two night fighter groups equipped with Bf 110Fs, three bomber groups equipped with Ju 88As, four with He 111Hs, three dive bomber groups with Ju 87Ds, and one squadron each of Hs 129Bs, Ju 87Gs, and Bf 110Gs, all anti-tank aircraft.

The 4th Air Fleet, based at Kharkov and Belgorod, included six groups of Bf 109G fighters, two groups of Ju 88A, and six groups of He 111H bombers. Additionally there were six Ju 87D dive bomber groups,  and four Hs 129B and one Ju 87D anti-tank squadrons. The 4th Air Fleet was assisted by the Hungarian Air Division which included one group each of Bf 109s and Ju 87s, and two squadrons of Ju 88s.

As the German offensive got underway on the north side of the Kursk bulge, driving on Olkovatka, Luftwaffe support missions included 100 to 150 bombers escorted by 60 fighters. Soviet missions flew in groups of six to eight aircraft. Soviet fighters engaged in 76 mass air battles in protection of units on the ground.

In the south the Soviets attempted a pre-emptive attack on German airfields using 132 attack aircraft escorted by 285 fighters. Most of the German aircraft were already in the air. This limited the effect of the Soviet mission. By 0900 hours the Soviet aircraft had landed, rearmed, refueled and were back in the air working over the German ground forces in the Oboyan area. Initially, as in the north, their forces consisted of 6 to 8 aircraft.

That evening the Soviet command reviewed their tactics and a number of suggestions implemented in the days that followed changed the complexion of the air action.

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