Battle for the Dnieper River

As the politically significant taking of Kiev unfolded, more dramatic, militarily significant battles erupted in the south. The Germans feared the result and the Soviets saw the benefit of sealing off large numbers of German units in the Crimea.

General Malinovsky, commander of the Third Ukrainian Front, attacked in the direction of Zaporozhye on 1 October, 1943. General Tolbukhin, commander of the Fourth Ukrainian front smashed the German Sixth Army and struck along the north coast of the Sea of Azov toward Melitopol. By the end of October the Fourth Ukrainian Army succeeded in sealing off the Crimea. As the Soviet armies moved forward they drafted all males of military age into the army.

In mid-November the rainy season began turning the Ukrainian Steppes into a sea of mud. This weather change slowed the Soviet advance, but did not stop it. First Ukrainian Front under General Vatutin, forced the Dnieper River line again south of Kanev, north of Cherkassy, at the end of November. General Konev with the Second Ukrainian Front engaged in a war of attrition west to the Dnieper River as they advanced on Kirovograd. Their goal was to encircle the German defenders, Erhard Raus’s Fourth Panzer Army and Otto Wohler’s Eighth Army in the vicinity of Korsun.

At the same time, General Tolbukin pushed the German Sixth Army away from the coast of the Sea of Azov.

By this time the German infantry units had been reduced to 50 to 75% of combat strength and their tanks were worn out. The rain hampered German aerial reconnaissance.

By the first week of December the Germans brought the Russian breakthrough to a halt near Dykivka, 53 kilometers northeast of Kirovograd. The Soviets used the weather to bring up supplies. Early in December the snow began falling, driven by gale force winds. General Konev moveed toward Kirovograd while Vatutin headed for the Bug River. They hoped to meet near Pervoinaysk. Konev knew there was good tank country east of Kirovograd and he hoped to take advantage of it. He positioned the General Rotmistrov’s Fifth Guards Tank Army and the Fifth Guards Army there.

General von Manstein received reinforcements in the second week of December. The second Parachute Division arrived in Kirovograd and the 11th Panzer Division positioned itself near Novhordivka. On 18 December the 11th Panzer Division attacked Norhordivka and took it.

At the beginning of January Major General Nikolaus von Vormann, commander of the 47th Panzer Corps, was assigned to defend Kirovograd. Adolf Hitler’s orders were to defend the city to the last man. General Rotmistrov’s Fifth Guards Tank Army possessed 500 tanks on 5 January, 1943, when Konev launched his attack, knowing the Germans were preoccupied with Vatutin’s  attack to the south, and hoping to catch them off balance.

Sources: Battle for the Dniepr, Grigory Utkin, History of the Second World War Magazine

Crucible at Cherkassy, Pat McTaggart, WW II History Magazine, Volume 4 Number 5, September 2005

Escape from Kirovograd, Pat McTaggart, WW II History Magazine, Volume 15, Number 10, December 2015

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

 

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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

 

Women at War in the Soviet Air Force

Marina Roskova, frequently referred to as the Soviet Union’s Amelia Earhart, talked to Stalin about women being in the fight after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. One third of all trained pilots in the Soviet Union in 1940 were women. Receiving the approval of Stalin, Roskova called for volunteers for all-woman flying units in the summer of 1941. She recruited 200 volunteers, ages 18 to 22, from flying clubs or the civil air fleet, and training began at Engles near Stalingrad on 15 October, 1941.

Eight already trained women pilots joined an all male fighter regiment in September 1941 and engaged in seeking and destroying enemy aircraft.

The 122nd Composite Air Division was composed of the 586th Fighter Air Regiment, the 587th Bomber Air Regiment, and the 588th Night Bomber Air Regiment (the famous Night Witches).

The 586th Fighter Air Regiment was the first to fight. These women flew Yak-1s, Yak-7Bs, Yak-9s, and Yak-3s and engaged in 125 separate air battles. In one instance two lone women attacked a bomber formation of 42 aircraft and destroyed four before their aircraft were too badly damaged to continue the fight. This regiment was credited with 38 kills, 17 of them scored by one of the squadron commanders, Olga Yamashchikova. Later she was the first woman to fly a jet aircraft as a test pilot.

The 587th Bomber Air Unit flew the Pe-2, nicknamed the Pawn. This aircraft was notoriously difficult to fly and the controls were so stiff that frequently the navigator, seated beside and behind the pilot, assisted in pulling back the stick on takeoff. By the fall of 1943 this regiment was designated a Guards unit becoming the 125th Guards Bomber Regiment.

The 588th Night Bomber Regiment flew the Po-2 wood and fabric biplane bomber on night harassment raids. This unit served in Ukraine, North Caucasus, the Taman Peninsula, Crimea, Stalingrad and Berlin. Even on the shortest nights, in mid-summer, they would fly three to four missions per night. Commanded by Yevdokia Bershanskaya, this unit completed 24,000 combat missions dropping 23,000 tons of bombs. Twenty-three women in this unit were awarded the coveted Hero of the Soviet Union medal. In 1943 this unit was also designated a Guards unit, becoming the 46th “Tamar” Guards Night Bomber Regiment.

More than 1,000 women flew combat in every type of Soviet aircraft. Many women flew with largely male units. Lilya Litvyak destroyed 12 German planes in one year. Lieutenant Ekaterina Budanova scored 11 victories. Valenina Grizodubova commanded a long-range night bomber squadron which included 300 male pilots and technicians.

By the end of World War II 18 per cent of personnel in the Soviet Air Force were women.

Sources: Red Air Force Heroines, George Tipton Wilson, World War II History Magazine, September 2007, Vol. 6 Number 5

Women Aloft, Valery Moolman, Time-Life Books, Alexandria, VA, 1981

Soviet Air Force at War, Russell Miller, Time-Life Books, Alexandria Virginia, 1983

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

After Kursk: The Soviet Riposte

Before the German army’s assault on the Kursk Salient ran out of steam, the Soviet army struck back. Southwest Front launched its counteroffensive on 17 July, 1943. The Steppe Front jumped off on 19 July. Army Group Center’s gains in the northern part of the Kursk bulge evaporated quickly and the German High Command ordered the withdrawal from Orel on 26 July. Army Group South’s gains provided the Soviets with a tougher nut to crack. Soviet forces, weakened in the battles before Oboyan and Prokhorovka, struggled to push back.

Nonetheless, the Soviet Armies took Orel in the north and Belgorod in the south by 5 August. These actions threatened Kharkov. Eventually, the Soviets forced the German evacuation of Kharkov and it fell on 23 August. This development endangered the entire southern wing of the German front.

During the summer offensive of 1942, as the German army attacked Stalingrad, the main reason for taking Stalingrad was to protect the German thrust into the Caucasus. History’s concentration on the struggle for Stalingrad minimizes Hitler’s main objective: the Caucasus oil fields. Army Group A was within forty kilometers of Grozny at it’s farthest extent. At the end of December 1942 the Soviet attacks began. Stalingrad Front and Transcaucasus Front drove Army Group A, back to Krasnodar, halting on the lower Donets River on 17 January, 1943. On 4 February the Soviets landed units on the Black Sea coast near Novorossiysk, behind German lines, attempting to cut off Army Group A. This move hastened the withdrawal of the Germans into the Kuban Peninsula. A thrust at Rostov cut off the German withdrawal north of the Sea of Azov. Krasnodar fell to the Soviets on 12 February and Rostov on 14 February. Although the battle for the Kuban Peninsula continued, the Soviets made few gains during the summer. If the Germans could be forced out of the bend of the Dnieper River, Army Group A would be trapped in the Crimea.

Meanwhile, to the north, a great battle force gathered for the liberation of Smolensk. Army Group Center possessed 850,000 officers and men, 8,800 guns and mortars, 500 tanks and assault guns, and 700 aircraft. Their defensive positions, 130 kilometers deep, consisted of up to six defensive belts occupied by German forces experienced in defending against Red Army attacks. Soviet forces included 1,253,000 officers and men, 20,600 guns and mortars, 1,400 tanks, and 900 aircraft.

On 7 August, even as the battle for Kharkov developed, the West Front attacked Army Group Center. Kalinin Front launched its attack on 13 August in support. West Front took Yelnya on 30 August and Dorogobuzh on 1 September. Bryansk Front’s 50th Army struck toward Bryansk, hoping to outflank it on the north and south. But the Germans surrendered ground reluctantly, and forced a pause in the Soviet attack. The Soviets used this time to re-provision and reorganize.

On 14 September the attack resumed. In days the Kalinin Front and the West Front swept forward across a 250 kilometer front penetrating the German defenses to a depth of forty kilometers. Kalinin Front took Dukhovshchina on 19 September and Demidov on the 21st. West front took Yartsevo on the 16th and overran the Smolensk/Roslavl railway on the 23rd. Bypassed on the north and the south the Germans had no choice but to evacuate Smolensk, which was taken on 25 September, with Roslavl falling on the same day.

Sources: Kursk: The Clash of Armor, Geoffrey Jukes, Ballantine Books, Inc., New York, New York

Forgotten Campaign: The Caucasus, Ivan Zhabkin, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

The Liberation of Smolensk, Colonel Vasily Istomin, History of the Second World War Magazine, 1970s

Hitler’s Airborne Anti-tank Guns-Part Two

The Henschel Hs 129 also played a part in the Battle for the Kursk Salient. Built in fewer numbers than the Junkers Ju 87G this twin-engine close support aircraft’s role was not insignificant. Its rocky career began with totally inadequate engines. The Argus A-1 twelve cylinder inverted-vee, air-cooled engine developed only 465 horsepower for take-off. The fuselage was built around the armored cockpit made up of armor plate six to twelve millimeters thick and weighing in at nearly 500 kilograms. In the nose was a pair of 20 mm cannon and a pair of 7.9 mm machine guns. Underwing racks carried either two 50 kg bombs or twenty-four 2 kg anti-personnel bombs.

The prototype made its first flight in early 1939 and the machine was criticized for being seriously under powered and for providing limited visibility for the pilot. The priority for this machine remained low initially, so the redesign received more support only when the need for more close support aircraft became more apparent during the campaigns in Poland and France. The conquest of France made available the Gnome-Rhone 14 M radial engine. This engine developed 700 horsepower for take-off. Even these engines allowed only a 400 kilometer per hour maximum speed. A limited time was allowed for redesign, so, when the aircraft entered service in North Africa in March 1942 and the eastern front in May 1942, front line units learned that the engines were vulnerable to dust and could absorb only minimal combat damage. Additionally, the armament was totally inadequate for anti-armor work.

Field modifications provided for Hs 129Bs included an increase in armament to include a 30 mm cannon with 30 rounds in a detachable ventral pack. This weapon was proved to be unable to penetrate the 45 mm armor plate of the T-34 tank or the 75 mm plate of the KV-1 tank. This compelled the Luftwaffe to provide Hs 129 units with updates allowing installation of the 30 mm MK 103 cannon which possessed a higher muzzle velocity and a flatter shell trajectory than that provided by the MK 101. Some aircraft were also fitted with a 37 mm BK 3.7. Use of this larger weapon required the removal of the 7.9 mm machineguns. Both of these cannon were found to be effective against the softer sides and rear of the Russian tanks.

On 8 July, 1943, four squadrons of Hs 129s disrupted a Soviet surprise attack against II SS Panzer Corps near Belgorod. The anti-tank aircraft succeeded in scattering the Soviet tank brigade.

By the middle of 1944 the Luftwaffe realized the Hs 129’s performance was inadequate, as proved by excessive combat losses. Several experiments with higher power engines and different armaments proved unsuccessful. By the beginning of 1945 the Luftwaffe removed the aircraft from service.

Sources: Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1972

The Henschel Hs 129, Profile Publication Number 69, J. R. Smith, Profile Publications Ltd., Leatherhead, Surrey, UK

Hitler’s Airborne Anti-tank Guns

Two Luftwaffe aircraft were specifically modified for anti-armor work: the Hs-129 and the Ju-87. Except for the Messerschmitt Bf-109, the Ju-87, popularly known as the
Stuka, is perhaps the most familiar German aircraft of the Second World War. Photographs of this crank-winged dive bomber in operation over Poland, the Netherlands, and England are common. Also well known is that the aircraft was removed from bomber operations over England in early September 1940 during the Battle of Britain. Its later history is less well known.

The Ju-87B was used extensively on the Eastern Front during Operation Barbarossa, the attack against the Soviet Union in June 1941, although it was acknowledged to be obsolescent at this time. Work had already begun on an updated version of the venerable aircraft, but problems with the replacement engine delayed its introduction into service.

The Ju-87D entered service on the northern, Leningrad, sector of the Russian Front and, by the spring of 1942 increased numbers of the model arrived. This aircraft was capable of dropping a 1,000 kilogram armor piercing bomb, which also experienced teething problems. A modification of the Ju-87 D resulted in the Ju-87G. Armed with a 37mm cannon under each outer wing panel just outboard of the bend in the inverted gull wing, this aircraft was first tested operationally in the summer of 1942 by Oberleutnant Hans-Ulrich Rudel, author of Stuka Pilot. Rudel became a tank busting specialist, eventually credited with destroying 519 Soviet tanks.

During the Battle for the Kursk Salient small numbers of the Ju-87G were used alongside the Ju-87D against Soviet massed armor. On July 5, 1943, the first day of the battle, Rudel destroyed 12 Soviet tanks near Belgorod. As the battle progressed over the next week casualties among the Stuka units accumulated and, as a result, the career of the Ju-87 as a daylight dive bomber was ended. It was eventually relegated to glider towing, night bombing, and the duties of a unit hack.

Sources: Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1970

Profile 211: Junkers Ju 87D, Richard P. Bateson, Profile Publications Ltd., Windsor, England

Pawn of the Soviet Air Force–the Pe-2

The Soviet Union’s premier twin-engine attack bomber was the Pe-2, also known as Peshka, the Pawn. Designed by Vladimir Petlyakov, the Pe-2 was put in production in 1940. More than 450 had been produced by the time of the German attack on Russia in the summer of 1941, however, only only a few dozen aircraft were operational.

Originally powered by a pair of Klimov M-105-R engines the aircraft had a top speed of 445 kilometers per hour at sea level. Initial offensive armament was a 12.7 mm machine gun on the starboard and a 7.62 mm machine gun on the port side of the nose. Initial defensive armament was a rearward firing 7.62 mm flexible machine gun fired by the navigator from the rear of the cockpit canopy. The ventral gun, also a 7.62 mm weapon, was aimed by the gunner, alone in the middle of the fuselage, using a periscopic mechanism attached to the gun mount. In the field some units installed flexible 7.62 mm machine guns firing through portholes in the sides of the fuselage just behind the wing root.

Maximum bomb load was 1,000 kilograms. Normal bomb load was 600 kilograms. Four 100 kg bombs could be carried on mounts in the internal bomb bay. Initially a 100 kilogram bomb could be carried in each engine nacelle behind the landing gear. These were ultimately closed off. The external bomb load was carried under the wing center section between the engines: four 250 kilogram bombs, or two 500 kilogram bombs.

In 1942 experiments were conducted using the Pe-2 as a dive bomber. Using the extendible slatted speed brakes outboard of the engines the Pe-2s would dive at a 70 degree angle in line astern, spaced at 500 to 600 meters. After each aircraft dropped its bombs the attackers would form a ‘carousel’ keeping the target under constant attack. Fighters established a high cover over the bombers with two or three fighters diving with the bombers to provide support.

German pilots flying the Bf 109E found it difficult to catch the speedy little dive bomber. Later German fighters, with higher powered engines and greater speed potential could catch and down the Pe-2. As a result, aircrews complained about weak armament and insufficient armor plate protection for the ventral gunner. The 7.62 mm defensive guns were replaced with heavier caliber 12.7 mm weapons and armor protection for the navigator/rear gunner and the ventral gunner was extended. This change affected the speed of the aircraft which required a power plant change to the M-105-PF. The 130 horsepower increase allowed the Pe-2 to reach 460 kilometers per hour at sea level in a clean condition. The increased weight of the weaponry, armor, and external mounting of the bombs compromised the speed under operational conditions. and the pilots of the Bf 109Fs and Gs took notice of the increased caliber of the defensive weapons.

The Pe-2 had a reputation for difficult handling and inexperienced pilots found it impossible to land with one engine out. It proved demanding but not impossible to fly.

Sources: Soviet Combat Aircraft of the Second World War: Volume Two: Twin-Engined Fighters, Attack Aircraft and Bombers, Yefin Gordon and Dmitri Khazanov with Alexander Medved, Midland Publishing Ltd., Leicester, England, 1999

Profile 216: Petlyakov Pe-2, Malcolm Passingham and Waclaw Klepacki, Profile Publications Ltd., Windsor, England, 1971

Kurt Tank’s Butcher-bird–The Fw 190

The fate of the Focke-Wulf 190 on the Russian front perfectly summarizes the problems faced by the Luftwaffe itself. The Luftwaffe specialized in focusing numeric and qualitative advantage at a number of key points on the battlefield. In Russia the battlefield constantly expanded as the German Army forced itself east. Distances between key points increased with that expansion. The key points shifted from one part of the front to the next and the number of key points increased as the campaign progressed. The Luftwaffe broke up into smaller units in answer to the army’s calls for support, thus expending themselves in ‘penny packets’ and reducing their effectiveness. The primitive conditions existing on the airfields on the Russian front, together with the lengthening of supply lines stressed the sophisticated and sensitive structure of the Luftwaffe.

The Focke-Wulf 190, with its armament of four 20 mm cannon and two 7.92 mm machine guns arrived on the eastern front in late 1942 with the mission of combating the Il-2 armored ground attack aircraft. The legendary Fighter Wing 54, Green Heart, proved the machine’s usefulness on the Russian Front in the Leningrad sector.

At about that time the Luftwaffe learned the suitability of the Focke-Wulf 190 for fighter-bomber operations. Thus began a constant competition for the insufficient supplies of this aircraft. The aging Ju 87D found itself increasingly unable to defend itself against the swarms of Soviet fighters. So the Luftwaffe converted Stuka Wings to Attack Wings by replacing the Stukas with Fw 190 fighter-bombers. By late summer 1943 the Luftwaffe was re-equipping ground attack units at a rate of two every six weeks. Even the veteran interceptor wing, Fighter Wing 54, was converted to fighter-bomber duty.

The Focke-Wulf 190 was a sophisticated beast. Demand for this aircraft by increasing numbers of units, all with different requirements, resulted in a plethora of variants. The high demand and the number of variants complicated production and supply. The primitive conditions on the airfields challenged the maintenance crews on the front lines laboring to keep these sophisticated aircraft in combat capable condition.

I will touch on only a few of the many variants of this aircraft, stressing the mid-war fighter-bombers featured in the novel Cauldron. Please refer to my sources below for a complete list.

In 1942 production shifted from the Fw 190 A-3 to the A-4. Fighter-bomber variants coming out of the factories included the A-4/U-3 with additional armor plating for the engine and the cockpit and fittings for a 551 pound bomb or a 66 Imperial gallon drop tank under the fuselage. In the field the crews generally removed the outer two of the wing mounted 20 mm cannon to save weight. The A-4/U8 could retain the full gun armament and carry the drop tank under the fuselage and four 110 pound bombs on wing racks. If the two outer 20 mm guns were removed the aircraft could carry the drop tank under the fuselage and two 551 pound bombs on the racks under the wings. If the fuselage mounted machine guns were also removed and only the tw0 20 mm cannon in the wing roots were retained, the aircraft could carry the 551 pound bomb under the fuselage and two drop tanks under the wings. Variants only got more complicated from there.

The Focke-Wulf 190, like the Bf 109, served on all fronts. Its capabilities are well documented and make fascinating reading. Only a few sources are listed below.

Sources: Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1972

The Focke-Wulf Fw 190A, Profile Publications #3, M.C. Windrow, Profile Publications, LTD., London, UK

Focke-Wulf Fw 190 Described, Geoffrey Pentland & Anthony Shennan, Kookaburra Technical Publications, Victoria, Australia

AIRCAM/AIRWAR 11 Luftwaffe Fighter Units Russia 1941-45, Christopher Shores, Sky Books Press LTD., New York, New York, 1978

JG 54, Jagdgeschwader 54 Grunherz: Aces of the Eastern Front, Jerry Scutts, Airlife Publishing LTD. Shrewsbury, England 1992

The Il-2: Russia’s “Flying Infantryman”

“Our army needs Il-2s as much as it needs bread, as much as it needs the air it breathes.” Joseph Stalin.

As the world’s first practical armored attack aircraft, Ilyushin’s Il-2 Shturmoviki made up a third of the USSR’s combat aircraft fleet during the Great Patriotic War–known to the West as World War II. Central to its construction was the one-piece armored bath with integrally pressed engine bearers and cooler nests. This thirteen mm thick armor plate extended from the nose to the rear of the cockpit and was augmented by armored glass for the canopy and 55 to 65 millimeter armored glass windscreen. It could not be penetrated from below by low caliber projectiles. Main undercarriage wheels were semi-exposed when the gear was retracted to allow gear up landings with minimal structural damage to the aircraft.

In a study done by the Soviet Union during the war, this aircraft’s only weak points were the wooden rear fuselage, the wooden outer wing panels, and the oil radiators. Metal outer wing panels proved to be more survivable.

Powered by an AM 38 engine of 1,680 horsepower and armed with two Shkas 7.62 mm machine guns, two Shvak 20 mm cannon, rails for eight 82-mm RS 82 rockets and a bomb capacity of 400 kg, 249 single-seat Il-2s were in service at the time of the German attack. With a fighter escort flying at 1000 to 1500 meters altitude and the Il-2s gliding down to attack at 10 meters altitude, Soviet pilots complained that the aircraft was vulnerable to attack from behind by fighters firing at ranges of 10 to 15 meters. By the summer of 1942 pilots frequently carried only half a bomb load, if they carried bombs at all. Their attacks were frequently made with guns and rockets alone. They recommended the addition of a rear gunner.

Two-seat Il-2s began to appear at the front in the spring of 1942, and the Il-2m3 made its appearance in August 1942. The armor plating was lengthened to include the rear gunner with minimal structural changes. Initially the rear gunner was provided with a pair of 7.62 mm machineguns. This was altered to a 12.7 mm machinegun. The pilot’s armament was increased to two 23 mm cannon in the wings. The Soviet Air Force now mandated a minimum 400 kilogram bomb load.

Experiments with 37 mm cannon were also conducted and small numbers were available at Kursk. The powerful recoil of these cannon made aiming difficult.

In January 1943 the AM 38F engine was introduced. This engine was uprated to 1,750 horsepower and was able to use low octane fuel. At the Battle for Stalingrad in the winter of 1942/43, 1,644 Il-2s were available. By the time of the Battle for the Kursk Salient, in July 1943, that number increased to 2,817 Il-2s.

German fighter pilots quickly learned that the Il-2 pilot’s standard attack procedure was to glide from 1,000 to 1,500 meters altitude to their attack altitude of 10 meters and then to turn to port to set up the Circle of Death. This technique allowed the Shturmoviki to have aircraft over the target continuously for an extended period. During the Battle for Kursk the 9th Panzer Division lost 70 tanks in 20 minutes on 7 July, 1943. German pilots took advantage of the knowledge of the port turn to set up their attacks. Even so, the Germans found the Il-2 difficult to down when it was evading at 10 meters altitude and 400 kilometers per hour.

Although we have no knowledge of all women Il-2 units, we do know that many of the units had mixed aircrews.

Sources: Soviet Combat Aircraft of the Second World War Volume Two: Twin-Engined Fighters, Attack Aircraft, and Bombers, Yefim Gordon and Dmitri Khazanov with Alexander Medved’, Midland Publishing Ltd., Leicester, England, 1999

The Ilyushin Il-2, Number 88, Witold Liss, Profile Publications Ltd. Leatherhead, England.

The Yak–The Soviet Union’s Premier Fighter

Prior to the Second World War most Soviet fighters were biplanes. The sole exception before 1940 was the Polikarpov I-16, the first cantilever wing monoplane fighter with retractable landing gear in the world. As the war in Europe began the Soviet government realized that their air force equipment lagged behind that of Germany and the aircraft designers were encouraged to develop new designs. New engines such as Vladimir Klimov’s M-105 inspired Aleksandr Yakovlev’s design of the I-26, prototype of the Yak series of aircraft. The M-105 had a hollow drive-shaft which allowed the fitting of a 20 mm cannon mounted on the engine which could fire through the propeller hub, unrestricted by the rpm of the engine.

Designed with a steel truss forward fuselage and a wood and fabric rear fuselage and a one piece wooden wing, the Yak-1 entered service with test squadrons in 1940. By the time of the German blitzkrieg into Russia, Operation Barbarossa, only 100 Yak-1s were in service on the western frontier. The majority of fighters in the Soviet Air Force were I-15 biplanes and the I-16 mentioned above. Of the modern fighters absorbing the initial German assault, the most numerous was the MiG-3 – 886 of the 980 modern fighters on the front. The remainder were Yak-1s and LaGG-3s. By 1 May, 1942, there were 134 MiG-3s in inventory of which 3/4 were combat capable. The MiG-3 was a difficult aircraft for new pilots to fly, in part due to the aft center of gravity. Additionally, the Germans targeted these modern aircraft. Due to poor performance in combat production of the MiG-3 ended in December 1941.

When the Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 only one tenth of the Soviet fighter force were Yak-1s. Initially pilots considered the Yak-1 to be too delicate for combat, but the Luftwaffe pilots considered the Yak the best Soviet fighter at the time. Constant improvement of the aircraft over the first six months of the Soviet involvement of the war caused the Soviets to conclude that, in spite of the many defects in the Yak-1, the defects were not as damaging as those in the MiG-3 or the LaGG-3. Development of winterized Yak-1s began in autumn of 1941 allowing more than 800 to be available in February 1942.

The Yak-1B, with improved pilot vision, armament and armor, was available in June 1942. The development of the Yak-7 began in August 1941, and the first combat action took place during the Soviet offensive at Moscow in the winter of 1941/42. Production of the Yak-9, the definitive aircraft of the series, began in October 1942 and was first used in combat during the counter-attack at Stalingrad in December 1942.

All three variants of the Yak fighter engaged in combat during the battle for the Kursk Salient. Although less sophisticated than the P-51 Mustang and less combat damage resistant than the Bf 109 or the Fw 190, they were perfect for the use to which they were put: close support of the ground forces. In combat at medium and low altitudes these aircraft were a match for any opponent. By the end of the war more than 35,000 of these machines of all variants had been produced and their service record was outstanding.

Sources: Yakovlev Fighters of World War Two, Yefim Gordon, Sergey Kosissarov, Dmitriy Komissarov, Hikoki Publications, Manchester, England, 2015; Soviet Combat Aircraft of the Second World War: Single Engine Fighters, Yefim Gordon and Dmitri Khazanov, Midland Publishing Limited, Leicester, England, 1998; The Soviet Air Force in World War II: The Official History, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, NY, 1973