Tightening the Ring

Once First Ukrainian and Second Ukrainian Fronts completed the encirclement of Gruppe Stemmermann, the difficult task of reducing the Korsun Pocket began.

General Breith, commander of III Panzer Corps, began Operation Wanda, attacking northeast from Novaya Greblya with the 16 and 17 Panzer Divisions supported by two infantry divisions. Soviet General Vatutin, commander of First Ukrainian Front, blocked this attack with the 6 Tank Army. Between III Panzer Corps and 6 Tank Army ran the Gniloy Tikitch River, which, in normal times, was not a serious obstacle. During the thaw of mid-winter 1944, this river, augmented by rain and snow melt, formed an impressive barrier. A series of tank battles stopped Breith’s attack 35 to 40 kilometers short of the pocket and held him there for a week.

Mud closed airfields supplying the German forces in the pocket, so German engineers built a new hard surface runway in four days. During the period from 29 January to 4 February the Luftwaffe lost 40 transport aircraft.

The most serious of the German attacks to free Gruppe Stemmermann took place in the 53 Army area near Lysyanka. It drew the attention of the Soviet Air Force which laid on constant attacks. From 4 February and 18 February the Fifth Air Army flew more than 1,400 sorties.

The Soviets also had supply problems. They began using a Night Bomber Air Division to fly fuel, supplies, and rockets from airfields at Fursy and Yanushevk to rail stations for transportation to the air divisions by rail. Railroad beds became so soft supply trains could not exceed 2 to 4 kilometers per hour.

The Soviet forces occupied the eastern bank of the Gniloy Tikich River as the German forces reached Veselyi Kut on the river itself. On 6 February Hitler authorized Gruppe Stemmermann‘s attempt to escape from the pocket. By this time the thaw made troop movement nearly impossible. Soviet ground attack and bomber units forced the withdrawal of German forces from the area of Gorodishche, then invited Gruppe Stemmermann to surrender. This invitation was rejected.

The 10 Fighter Air Corp of the Home Defense Forces joined the Second Air Army in blockading the front over the pocket. By this time only 100 to 185 tons of supplies per day were being received inside the pocket due to freezing rain and fog, though, unlike the situation during the Stalingrad operation, the troops were never in danger of starvation.

On 9 February, the weather turned cold, freezing the ground. At 0630 hours the artillery barrage began. III Panzer Corps launched their attack taking Bushanka on the Gniloy Tikich River under Soviet fire from the surrounding hills. Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler and 1 Panzer Division reached Risino with 75 to 80 tanks. As the ground firmed up Stemmermann moved SS Wiking west toward III Panzer Corps in preparation for the breakout.

Marshal Zhukov, of Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad fame, took command of the outer ring surrounding the Korsun Pocket. General Konev commanded the forces of the inner ring squeezing Gruppe Stemmermann. Stemmermann continued movement of his forces to the west in preparation for the breakout, taking Novo Buda and Schenderovka. Konev counterattacked but was blocked by SS Wiking.

III Panzer Corps was able to take a bridge crossing the Gniloy Tikech and continued to probe for weak spots in the Soviet defenses, finally taking Lysyanka, but the relief force was running out of fuel.

Sources: ‘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

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

 

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

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

Second Air Army — Crossing the Dnieper River

Bad weather conditions over the Bukrino bridgehead on the first of November restricted Second Air Army’s operations, allowing only 640 sorties in two days. The failure to expand the bridgehead at Bukrino caused a switch of the Soviet offensive to the Lyutezh bridgehead about 100 kilometers to the northwest on 3 November. This break through succeeded, allowing Soviet liberation of Kiev on 6 November, the anniversary of the of the revolution.

During the following months the Second Air Army concentrated on the destruction of enemy tanks and motorized infantry. The improvement of the weather during the period of 12 to 15 December allowed Second Air Army’s commitment of assets in large groups. By the end of operations around Kiev on 23 December the Second Air Army completed 20,000 sorties destroying 300 enemy aircraft.

During the battles around Bukrino and Lyutezh bridgeheads Soviet and German aircraft operated in approximately equal numbers. At the end of operations in the Kursk area the Germans possessed 1,460 operational aircraft, while the Second, Fifth, Seventeenth and Eighth Air Armies operated 2,360 machines in the same area.

The offensive to liberate the west bank of the Dnieper began on 24 December, 1943. In three days the Soviet Army overran Radomishlem, a German strong point. By 30 December the First Ukrainian Front salient expanded into an area 300 kilometers wide and 100 kilometers deep. The Germans reacted by concentrating assets in the Vinitsa region. German reinforcements of aircraft allowed them to achieve a two to one advantage over Soviet aircraft.

The Second Air Army, now under the command of General S. A. Krasovsky, struck back, flying 4,200 sorties, including 2,500 against tanks. As January 1944 advanced, the First and Second Ukrainian Fronts moved to surround enemy forces in the Korsun-Shevchenkovsky area, coordinating attacks with the Third and Fourth Ukrainian Fronts to the south.

From 12 to 25 January the Second and Fifth Air Armies concentrated on enemy defensive points. Together the two air armies operated 768 aircraft and were opposed by a thousand enemy machines. The spring thaw brought bad weather putting many undeveloped airfields out of operation. Aerial operations took place in formations of four to eight aircraft under ceilings of 100 to 150 meters.

In spite of the mud and rain the Korsun pocket was closed on 28 January. Second and Fifth Air Armies flew 2,800 sorties from 29 January to 3 February assisting troops struggling to keep the pocket closed. The Germans attempted to supply their troops by air. Second Air Army and the AFLRO flew blockade operations while the Fifth Air Army supported Soviet front line troops. German counter attacks in the Tolmach and Lisyanka regions took place in frequent heavy rain which dissolved dirt roads to impassability. The enemy were forced back along much of the Dnieper.

Beginning 4 March Second Air Army supported the First Ukrainian Front in the area of Proskurov-Chevnovtsy. Weather restricted operations to single or pairs of aircraft striking resistance points, and artillery and mortar batteries. Over the next three days weather improved to the point where operations could take place using six to eight aircraft. When the First Ukrainian Front resumed the offensive on 21 March the Second Air Army assisted the First and Fourth Tank Armies in driving the Germans from their defensive positions.

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

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

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