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

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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

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

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

Luftwaffe vs. VVS

The German air force and the Soviet air force shared much in common. I failed to notice this fact prior to reading War Over the Steppes, by E. R. Hooten. This author points out the differences between the air forces of the United States and Great Britain and the air force of the Soviet Union. This contrast underlined the similarities between the Luftwaffe and the VVS.

Both governments rewarded high productivity of finished machines, so German and Soviet aircraft manufacturers produced more aircraft rather than setting aside sufficient spare parts for maintenance. The lack of spare parts led to cannibalizing combat damaged aircraft to keep combat worthy aircraft in the air. It also led to large numbers of unflyable aircraft falling into enemy hands during rapid retreats.

The common thread between these air forces also emerges when examining aircraft design and usage. Both Germany and Russia developed machines and tactics for assisting armored forces engaged in rapid advances. Dive bombers, strike bombers, and medium altitude level bombers were built in large numbers. Few long range, high altitude heavy bombers entered the inventory. Fighter design and tactics revolved around protecting bombers in the tactical arena, or carrying out ground attacks themselves.

Later in the war Germany built many high altitude interceptors and night fighters primarily for defense against American and British high altitude heavy bombers. These fighters lost their advantage against light, nimble Soviet aircraft at medium to low altitudes.

On the human side, both the Germans and the Soviets kept their pilots on the front and in the fight. A Soviet unit was withdrawn from combat only when it required re-equipment and additional personnel.  The Germans, according to Adolf Galland in his book The First and the Last, flew their pilots until they were killed. When a pilot was wounded the pilot was removed from the fighting unit for recuperation. The Soviets kept their pilots in the hospital until they were again fit for duty. Home leave was not granted. Famed Stuka pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel finished the war flying combat missions with one leg amputated and the other in a cast.

I found myself most interested in the vast difference between German and Soviet pilots’ victory scores and combat missions flown. Erich Hartmann, leading all time fighter ace, scored 350 victories and flew in excess of 800 sorties. Gerd Barkhorn, also a member of the 300 club, scored 301 victories in 1,104 sorties. Compare these statistics with those of Ivan Kozhedub, the leading Allied ace, with 62 victories and 330 sorties, or Grigoriy Rechkalov with 52 victories and 415 sorties.

E. R. Hooten explains the discrepancy resulted from a conjunction of factors, not lack of enthusiasm or courage on the part of Soviet pilots. Soviet pilots received little gunnery or navigation training. Poor basic flight training and a lack of flight time, as well as shortcuts taken during the manufacture of aircraft, caused high accident rates. To avoid accidents, Soviet commanders restricted flight hours, further reducing flight experience. Limited instrumentation in Soviet fighters made flying in marginal weather conditions hazardous. Lack of radios in the aircraft early in the war contributed to poor flight discipline. The Soviet Union’s primitive radar lacked a ranging capability preventing coordinated attacks on formations entering the combat zone. All of these failures, not under their control, limited the Soviet pilots’ effectiveness.

The treaty ending World War I prohibited Germany from building an air force.  The treaty allowed Germany to train pilots and fly air liners. In 1925 Germany built an airfield at Lipetsk, 220 miles from Moscow. At Lipetsk they trained pilots and tested the aircraft ultimately used in World War II. I can’t help feeling that this fact caused many of the similarities between the German and Soviet air forces.

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

Soviet Aces: Lilya Litvyak

Perhaps the most famous woman ace in the Soviet Air Force, Lilya Litvyak, began her career in fighters with the 586 Fighter Air Regiment defending Saratov during the battle of Stalingrad. The commander of the regiment, Tamara Kazarinova, reputed to be a martinet, was relieved of her command and replaced by a man, but not before one of the squadrons was broken up and the eight best pilots were sent to several all male units. On 10 September, 1942, Lilya and her friend, Katya Bodanova, were transferred to  the 437 Fighter Air Regiment, flying La-5s. Shortly afterward, they were sent to the 9 Guards Fighter Air Regiment flying Yak-1s, but the commander, Lev Shestakov, refused to accept them and forwarded them on to 296 Fighter Air Regiment.

Colonel Nikolai Baranov, commander of 296 Fighter Air Regiment, had already decided to foist the women off on another unit. Lilya, with the help of Captain Alexei Salomaten, convinced Colonel Baranov to allow the women to fly on Salomaten’s wing. Lilya had already proven her proficiency in aerial gunnery in training and she and Katya regularly flew wing for Colonel Baranov and Captain Salomaten. Although it was strongly forbidden, Lilya enjoyed beating up the airfield after scoring each victory.

The 296 Fighter Air Regiment’s duty was ‘free hunt’ in the area of Stalingrad. By Christmas 1942 Lilya had achieved six aerial victories. Although Lilya refused an interview with a Soviet war correspondent, he interviewed a number of her friends and published a feature article in his newspaper, making her famous.

On 15 March, 1943, Lilya was wounded in the leg during an attack on German bombers. Ignoring her wound, she downed two bombers before belly landing her machine. Upon returning to base, she passed out from loss of blood. While recovering from her wound her unit was transferred to Rostov on Don.

After a period off duty for healing, she returned to the 296 Fighter Air Regiment, which now had become 73 Guards Fighter Air Regiment. Upon the death of her squadron leader, Lilya was promoted to flight leader. She was wounded again on 16 July, 1943. One week later she was forced to parachute from her aircraft, again wounded. The pilot of her tenth victory, a German ace, parachuted to safety and was captured. He refused to believe Lilya had shot him down until she described the dogfight to him, maneuver by maneuver.

Lilya’s record shows 168 combat sorties flown with 11 victories, and one balloon. On 1 August, 1943, she shot down a Bf 109 fighter. Between clouds, squadron mates sighted her aircraft, closely pursued by several German machines. She did not return from that mission. Her body was recovered in 1989.  Michail Gorbachov awarded her the Hero of the Soviet Union decoration posthumously.

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

Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II, Bruce Myles, Presidio Press, 1981. Second Printing, Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago, IL, 1997

Yakovlev Aces of World War 2, George Mellinger, Osprey Aircraft of the Aces #64, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2005

Soviet Aces: Ivan Kozhedub

Ivan Kozhedub, the leading Allied ace with 62 victories, learned to fly in one of the many flying clubs and societies sponsored by the Volunteer Defense Society of the Soviet Union. He entered the military flying school in January 1940 and completed training in February 1941. Retained as a flying instructor he instructed student pilots until the fall of 1942. He arrived at 240 Fighter Air Regiment, equipped with LaG-5 fighters, in the spring of 1943.

Sergeant Kozhedub’s first combat sortie took place on 26 March, 1943, in the Kharkov area in the Ukraine. Promoted to Junior Lieutenant and deputy squadron commander in June 1943, he still had no combat victories. On his fortieth sortie, 6 July, 1943, the second day of the Battle for the Kursk Salient, he made his first kill, a Junkers 87 Stuka dive bomber. He nearly fell victim to a Bf 109 fighter, but his wingman drove the German fighter away.

On 7 July, 1943, when his squadron leader was wounded in combat, Lieutenant Kozhedub became the de facto squadron commander. The squadron leader, unable to fly due to his injuries, was not evacuated and led the squadron on the ground while Kozhedub led it in the air. Soon afterward he received his first decoration,

On 15 August, 1943, Kozhedub downed two Bf 109s and eight days later he destroyed a Focke Wulf 190 fighter. On 30 September, 1943, he destroyed another Ju 87. Separated from his formation during an attack by Bf 109 fighters, Kozhedub, alone, discovered and attacked a formation of eighteen Ju 87 dive bombers. When he downed one of the Stukas, the remainder jettisoned their bomb loads and fled.

During October 1943, in ten days, Ivan Kozhedub downed eleven enemy aircraft in 146 combat missions and 27 combats.

Bad weather interfered with operations during the first months of 1944. Snow and low clouds forced fighters to fly in smaller formations at treetop heights. It was at this time, February 1944, that Kozhedub was promoted to captain and awarded his first gold star, the Hero of the Soviet Union award.

The 240 Fighter Air Regiment relocated to Modavia in April 1944. There Captain Kozhedub downed two Hs 129 anti-tank aircraft. The squadron took on new La-5FN fighters.

In July 1944 Captain Kozhedub trained in the La-7. Awarded his second Hero of the Soviet Union gold star 18 August, 1944, Ivan Kozhedub, on 23 August, with 48 victories, was made deputy commander of 176 Guards Fighter Air Regiment. Days later he was promoted to major.

Weather, deteriorating with the arrival of another winter, provided few opportunities to fly. The unit relocated to Poland where the Soviet army’s Belorussian Front fought to liberate Warsaw. Their airfield, located so close to the front, barely gave them time to retract their undercarriage before they engaged ground forces.

On 19 February, 1945, Kozhedub and his wingman surprised a Messerschmidt 262 twin jet fighter near Frankfurt. Kozhedub shot down the 262 when his wingman’s cannon fire caused the German to turn toward Kozhedub and directly into the sights of the ace.

He made his 61st and 62nd kills, Fw 190s, on 19 April, 1945. He was awarded his third Hero of the Soviet Union, one of only two pilots so awarded, on 18 August, 1945. In the 1960s he was still on the active list as a Colonel-General.

Sources: LaGG and Lavochkin Aces of World War 2, George Mellinger, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2003

The Lavochkin La 5 & 7, Witold Liss, Profile Publications, Surrey England, 1967

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