The Nazi Drive: From Minsk to Smolensk

In the first weeks of Operation Barbarossa the Soviet Air Force lost thousands of aircraft. Any repairable aircraft damaged either in the air or on the ground had to be left behind as the Germans overran Soviet airfields.

German forces crossed the Bug River on 26 June, 1941. Soviet Army units were encircled at Bialystok, Novogrudok, and Volkovysk. With possession of air superiority Army Group North crossed the Dvina River, Army Group Center crossed the Berezina River, and concentrated on crossing the Dnieper River near Rogachev. Army Group South burst through the Stalin Line. By 11 July the Panzer divisions of Army Group South were 16 kilometers from Kiev.

However, from June 29 onward the Germans observed Soviet reinforcements moving westward by road and rail from Smolensk toward the front lines.

Western Front Air Forces launched attacks on 40 airfields and destroyed or damaged 54 German aircraft on 8 July. Stavka ordered all air forces to target tanks, troops, fuel supplies, air bases, and concentrations of enemy forces. Many attacks by heavy bombers took place at high altitudes with strong fighter escort, or at night.

In response to the German air superiority, the Soviet Air Force instructed air fields to house only nine to twelve aircraft. Upon landing the aircraft were to be dispersed, camouflaged, and put under cover.

On 10 July Stalin appointed new commanders for the various fronts. Marshal Semen Budenny took command of South and Southwest Front. Marshal Semyon Timoshenko received command of the Central West Front, while Marshal Kliment Voroshilov was assigned the North West Front.

To combat complacency and carelessness among air crew and support staff, the Communist Party sent officials to air units to assist the commanding officers. This encouraged many pilots and support personnel to join the party.

The German Air Force attacked Moscow for the first time on 12 July.

As II Panzer Gruppe advanced toward Rogachev, Soviet forces began attacking its right flank from the Pripet Marshes beginning 15 July. The Soviet Fifth Army was also attacking Army Group South in its drive toward Kiev. General Heinz Guderian, commander of II Panzer Gruppe, received orders to attack the Fifth Soviet Army to stop those attacks. Army Group Center’s remaining Panzer unit, 3rd Panzer Gruppe, was assigned to assist Army Group North in its drive toward Leningrad, leaving Army Group Center with no Panzer units This loss brought the drive to Moscow to a the halt.

Finally the Soviet Air Force had the strength to attack German airfields. On 19 July Intensive air attacks took place against enemy forces at Vitebsk. The Western Front Air Force was so weakened it could no longer launch attacks. It possessed a mere 370 machines compared to the German 2nd Air Fleet’s 1000 aircraft.

Smolensk fell to the Germans on 19 July. After that time, due to diversion of 50% of their tanks to Army Groups North and South, and the reduction of motorized vehicles to 20% due to wear and tear, Army Group Center took a defensive stance.

In response, the Soviets formed a line before Army Group Center using the 22nd, 19th, and 13th Armies. Soviet aviators attacked river crossings, tank columns, troops, and enemy aircraft on the ground.

From 23 to 25 July the Soviet Western Front counter-attacked near Roslavl, Beloye, and Yartsevo, with support from the air, pinning down large German Forces.

Barbarossa: Drive to Smolensk, Generalmajor Alfred Philippi, 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 & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1973

World War II: Day by Day, Anthony Shaw, MBI Publishing Company, Osceola, WI, 2001

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