Second Air Army: Build up to Kursk

Of the period between 2 February, 1943, and 6 May, 1943, The Soviet Air Force in World War II says nothing about the Second Air Army. During this period the Soviet Army was certainly not inactive. Readers of my first blog, Formation of the Kursk Salient, can see that not only did the offensives continue, both the Soviet Army and the Wehrmacht engaged in advances and retreats forming the Kursk bulge. Vicious combats took place up until the spring thaw began 26 March, 1943, when operations subsided.

During this “quiet period” the Second and the Sixteenth Air Armies built or renovated 154 airfields. This activity included camouflaging not only active airfields, but fifty “false” airfields built to divert German activity. Supplies were laid in for ten to fifteen days of operational activity.

Soviet air operations continued as well. From 6 May to 8 May Soviet aircraft attacked German airfields. Special groups, assigned to anti-aircraft suppression, encountered increased enemy resistance. During encounters with enemy aircraft 285 enemy machines were destroyed, of which 53 were shot down. German aircraft were moved to the rear, dispersed and camouflaged. The Germans set up radar stations and small numbers of aircraft maintained standing patrols.

By this point in the war 70% of the Luftwaffe operated on the Eastern Front. In the area surrounding the Kursk battle line the Germans employed 2.4 times more day bombers than the Soviets, but the Soviets possessed twice as many fighters. The Second, Seventeenth, and Sixteenth Air Armies were concentrated around the Kursk battlefield. Here the Soviet Air Force outnumbered the Luftwaffe by 1.5 to 1.

On 2 June, 1943, the German bombers attacked the Kursk railroad junctions. The raid was intercepted by the Sixteenth and the Second Air Armies and the 101st Fighter Air Division. Of 287 German bombers only 160 broke through and put the railroad junction out of service for twelve  hours for a loss of 145 German aircraft.

A second Soviet operation ran three days from 8 June to 10 June. Units taking part were the First, Fifteenth, and Second Air Armies and the AFLRO (Air Force for Long Range Operations). Twenty-eight airfields were attacked. Night raids pounded airfields at Gorki, Saratov, and Yaroslavl.

The Second and Sixteenth Air Armies made raids against the German transportation network flying 1,909 sorties and destroying seven locomotives and 260 railroad cars. They started 220 fires and made 90 hits on railroad stations.

Soviet Air Force staff planned to coordinate operations between the Second Air Army and the Sixteenth Air Army on the northern front of the Kursk Salient and between the Second Air Army and the Seventeenth Air Army on the southern front.

The commander of the Second Air Army at this time was General S. A. Krasovsky. The Second Air Army’s main duty consisted of ground attack and bomber missions against tank concentrations in the area of the 6th Guards Army. By this time the Soviets had learned that attack groups of thirty to forty bombers were easier to defend than groups of six to eight and changed their tactics accordingly.

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

Advertisements

Second Air Army–Early History

For this blog I used The Soviet Air Force in World War 2, translated by Leland Fetzer and edited by Ray Wagner. Of the nearly 400 pages only 122 deal with the first six months of the war and no mention is made of the Second Air Army in those pages. That the first six months consisted of a string of disasters no one denies. Losses on the ground far exceeded losses in the air. Fighter units flying the I-16, I-15, I-15bis, and I-153 fared poorly when confronting the Bf 109E and F, the Heinkel 111 and the Junkers 88. Even the vulnerable Junkers 87 Stuka succeeded in its mission of supporting infantry and armored units of the Wehrmacht and harassing retreating Soviet military units and terrifying civilians fleeing the battle.

The first mention of the Second Air Army takes place in the discussion of the 19 November, 1942, counteroffensive at Stalingrad. By that time modern aircraft such as the MiG-3, Yak-1, and the LaGG-3 had begun to replace the ’30s era fighters.

In the winter of 1942-43 the Soviet Supreme Command began moving air assets into the Volga area around Stalingrad. The Second Air Army, commanded by General K. N. Smirnov, was transferred from the Voronezh Front to the Southwest Front. Few airfields existed in the area and those were not fully equipped. Three air divisions of the Second Air Army took up positions on the right wing of the Southwest Front. One to two days prior to the opening of the counter offensive these divisions moved forward to the advanced airfields. Their operations consisted of supporting the Southwest Front as it moved forward to encircle von Paulus’s Sixth Army in Stalingrad.

Ordering von Paulus to hold his position, surrounded in Stalingrad, the Germans built up a rescue force in the neighborhood of Kotelnikovo and went on the offensive to relieve the 6th Army on 12 December, 1942. These forces were supported by 450 German aircraft. The Second and the Seventeenth Air Armies possessed 455 machines. Soviet troops took the offensive on 16 December in weather that restricted air activity. By the afternoon of the 16 December the weather improved and 200 sorties were flown in support of the Soviet attack.

Soviet air attacks on German forces assisted the Soviet forces in their breakthrough on 18 December. In the first five days 2,067 sorties were flown, of which 407 took place at night. On 24 December Tatsinskaya airfield was taken and 350 enemy aircraft were destroyed.

During the period from 16 December to 31 December, 1942, the Second and Seventeen Air Armies flew 4,177 sorties, 80% in support of ground forces. From 19 November to 2 February, 1943, the Second, Seventeenth, Sixteenth and Eighth Air Armies and the long range bomber force (AFLRO) flew 35,929 sorties while the enemy flew only 18,500, and lost 3,000 machines.

Radio communications facilitated coordinated operations in the air and on the ground. During the rapid movement of the front aerial transport transferred air units and equipment and supplies, keeping air units within striking distance of the battlefield.

Source: The Soviet Air Force in World War 2, translated by Leland Fetzer and edited by Ray Wagner, 1973, Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, NY

The Yak-9 in Combat

The original iteration of the Yak-9 was not produced in large numbers. Subsequent models defined the variant. The Yak-9D, long range fighter, quickly replaced the basic aircraft. The long range of the Yak-9D was the result of putting two additional fuel tanks in the wings. These additional fuel tanks were not well protected, so the aircraft were frequently assigned to junior pilots. Due to its greater all-up weight, the long range version possessed poorer maneuverability than previous Yak models. Even so, the D model had the advantage in horizontal maneuverability against enemy fighters up to 3,500 meters. It also proved more durable than earlier Yakovlev fighters being able to absorb heavy damage from enemy anti-aircraft fire while providing top cover for Il-2 strike aircraft flying at 200 to 400 meters altitude.

Used primarily for long range escort of bombers, it also provided cover for armor and infantry penetrating deep behind German lines. In case of bad weather this aircraft had the range to divert to more distant airfields, though its poor instrumentation did not allow poor-weather navigation. An additional drawback was the radio’s 60 km range.

Pilots complained about the slow speed of the Yak-9D. During the winter of 1944, improvement of the sealing of fuselage and engine cowling joints increased the fighter’s speed by 60 km/hour at 3,650 meters altitude. The modification did not improve climb rate or maneuverability.

Units frequently used a variety of Yak models. Additional range was not needed for many missions, so the outer wing tanks were not always filled.

Combat evaluation of the Yak-9T anti-tank aircraft, equipped with the NS-37 cannon, took place during the Battle of Kursk. Of 110 enemy aircraft destroyed by Yaks almost half were shot down by Yak-9Ts. The NS-37 cannon was effective against twin engine aircraft at 500 to 600 meters range, and against single engine machines at 400 meters. Accuracy deteriorated during long bursts so pilots used their machine guns for sighting before using the cannon in one to three round bursts. The Yak-9T was assigned to the flight leaders while regular Yaks were used by wingmen providing protection for the leaders.

Some of the most famous Soviet pilots flew Yak-9s, including Alexandr Pokryshin, three times Hero of the Soviet Union with 59 kills. Major Luganski, double Hero of the Soviet Union, achieved 34 kills. Also famous were the Glinka brothers. Boris, two times Hero of the Soviet Union, downed ten enemy aircraft in 1943 alone, while Dmitri, also a double winner of the Hero of the Soviet Union, achieved 50 victories during his career. Grigori Rechkalov achieved 56 victories in addition to many shared kills, in 122 sorties.

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

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

The Yak-9 Series, Witold Liss, Profile Publications Number 185, Profile Publications ltd., Surry England, 1967

The Yak-9

With nearly 17,000 Yak-9s produced, the Yak-9 defined the Yakovlev fighter. Initially, the Yak-9 retained the razor-back cockpit of the Yak-1 and Yak-7. The fighter proved easily modified for a number of combat roles including: low altitude, light tactical fighter, fighter-bomber, long-range escort, and high altitude reconnaissance. Modifications included a variety of armament choices, different engines, and two or four fuel tanks. The aircraft variant used depended on the mission.

Early Yak-9s suffered a variety of production deficiencies including wing warping, and skin pealing due to breaches in bonding techniques and materials. This problem occasionally led to loss of the aircraft and/or pilot.

The Yak-9 first flew on 6 July, 1942, with production beginning in October 1942. These aircraft went to reserve regiments and training centers under the supreme command reserve. They first saw combat in the second half of December 1942.

The Yak-9D, long range fighter, saw an increase in fuel tanks from two to four located in the wings between the wing spars. More than 3,000 Yak-9Ds were built from March 1943 to June 1946, and first saw combat on 12 July, 1943, in the Orel area during the Soviet counter-offensive in the Kursk bulge. Although slower than enemy fighters, the Yak-9D held an advantage over the Fw 190A-4 and the Bf 109G-6 in horizontal maneuverability.

Closely following the Yak-9D came the Yak-9T, tank buster. Built between March 1943 and June 1945, this aircraft earned high praise from the pilots who flew it. Initially it carried a 37 mm cannon firing through the propeller boss. Engineers moved the cockpit of the production model aft because the weight of the cannon affected the machine’s center of gravity. The longer nose did not affect visibility on landing. The aircraft carried only thirty to thirty-two rounds for the 37 mm so pilots limited a burst to one to three rounds. Later variants carried a 45 mm cannon.

Thirty-five Yak-9Ts were used for combat evaluation during the battle of the Kursk Salient from 5 July to 6 August, 1943. Assigned to the 16th Air Army, these machines broke up bomber formations and then destroyed the bombers individually. Pilots flying the Focke Wulf 190, itself equipped with a formidable armament, avoided head on attacks with Yak-9Ts. Production of the Yak-9T ran from March 1943 to June 1945 and totaled 2,748 machines.

Yak-9s replaced Yak-1s, Yak-7s, LaGG-3s, and Polikarpov as production allowed. By mid-1944 the Yak-9 outnumbered all other fighters in the Soviet Air Force inventory.

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

The Yak-7 in Combat

During a Soviet Air Force flight test, the Yak-7 emerged among the best in stability and controllability when compared with German, Soviet, British, and American fighters. According to Major Ivan S. Morozov, the Yak-7 A out performed the German Bf 109F in battle.

The Yak-7B achieved notice on the Stalingrad Front on 26 July, 1942, when the 434th Fighter Regiment claimed 34 kills. The 288th Fighter Division, flying Yak-7Bs, destroyed two Ju-88 bombers and four Bf 109 fighters while losing only three of their own.

Bubble canopy equipped Yak-7Bs engaged German aircraft on the Kalinin Front in November and December 1942. Many units flew the ‘bubble canopy’ aircraft with the ‘razor back’ machines finding that such a mix provided noticeably enhanced visibility in combat.

During the battle for the Kursk Salient the 1st Guards Fighter Regiment, flying Yak-7Bs, operated in the Orel area as part of the 7th Fighter Division. In this battle, the 2nd and the 16th Air Armies together operated 659 Yak-1s and Yak-7s. The Luftwaffe, operating Fw 190A-5s and Bf 109G-6s, held air superiority over the northern flank of the Kursk Salient for only a few days. After that the air belonged to the Soviets.

Notables among Yak fighter aces include Vasilii Petrovich Babkov who scored 23 individual and 11 shared victories, two thirds of them in Yaks. Sergei Fyodorovich Dogushin downed 17 enemy aircraft individually and shared 11. Ten of these were achieved in Yakovlev fighters.

The following example indicates the intensity of the fighting on the Soviet front. Pavel Ignat’evich Murav’yov took part in the March 1943 offensive near Demyansk and Velikie Luki against the Lorat River crossing. His formation of six Yak-7s was attacked by eight Focke Wulf 190s. In the ensuing combat, Murav’yov’s formation shot down six enemy aircraft for no loss. At mid-day Murav’yov, with eight Yak-7s, encountered eighteen Ju-88s escorted by ten Fw 190s and four Bf 109s. Six German aircraft went down, again without Soviet loss. That evening Murav’yov’s formation of eight Yaks fought six Fw 190s, shooting down three for no loss. This action earned the unit the coveted Guards status.

During the battle for Kiev, capital of Ukraine, Arsenii Valil’evich Vorozheikin and his wingman painted their aircraft red from the nose back to the cockpit in honor of the November revolution. On 4 November, 1943, they engaged a formation of Fw 190s. Vorozheikin achieved his thirteenth kill of the war. He scored all of these victories in four months – ten during the battle for Kiev alone.

Most inspiring of all is the 586th Fighter Regiment, composed entirely of women, including the ground crew. First seeing action during the battle for Stalingrad in 1942, this unit flew 4,419 sorties in Yakovlev aircraft and claimed 38 victories over German aircraft of all types. Olga Yamshchikova flew 93 sorties and achieved three kills.

Women also flew combat missions in Yak fighter units made up primarily of men. Ekaterina Budanova achieved eleven victories. Lydia Litvak, whose commander had to be persuaded to accept her into his unit, scored twelve.

The Yak-7 remained in combat until 1944.

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

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

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

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

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