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

The Messerschmitt 109: Symbol of German WW II Airpower

The Messerschmitt 109 symbolizes German airpower in World War II for most Americans. This aircraft, designed by Willy Messerschmitt, was referred to, in German documents, as the Bf 109 after the company which built it: the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke or Bavarian Aircraft Factory.

The aircraft was first flown in September 1935 with a Rolls Royce Kestrel engine (the same engine that powered the Supermarine Spitfire prototype) because the proposed power plant, the Junkers Jumo 210 was not ready.

The Bf 109, powered by the Junkers Jumo 210, was first used in combat by the Condor Legion in Spain in 1938. Armament in the B model was three 7.9 mm machine guns mounted on the engine, one of them firing through the propeller boss. The C model carried two additional 7.9 mm machine guns, one in each wing.

The Daimler Benz engine was the definitive power plant for the Bf 109. The first aircraft to fly with the Daimler Benz engine in the nose was the Bf 109D. Daimler Benz was in the process of changing production from the unreliable DB 600 to the DB 601 so the engine change caused a change in designation to Bf 109E. Like any long lived aircraft the engine and the armament of the Bf 109 changed progressively. In most cases the changes improved the aircraft’s combat capability.

The Bf 109 performed well in every venue in which it was used from Norway to North Africa and from Great Britain to Russia. Its performance matched or exceeded any aircraft it met and, in the hands of the ‘experten’, the aces, it seldom disappointed. This was not an aircraft for the novice. At high speeds the control forces were so heavy both hands were needed on the stick, and the narrow undercarriage made it tricky to land. The forward positioning of the main wheels allowed for fast taxiing and aggressive braking.

The most famous ace to fly the Bf 109 was Erich Hartmann, veteran of 825 combat missions on the Eastern Front. Flying with Jagdgeschwader 52 he scored 352 victories.  As the Soviets drove the Luftwaffe back into the Balkans he included a number of Mustangs in this total. No other fighter pilot has ever matched this score.

The Bf 109G was the definitive example of this fighter, with more produced than any other variant. A total of nearly 35,000 Bf 109s of all variants were produced over 21 years. After the war they were flown by the Israelis in the 1948 war where they served alongside Spitfires. The final examples were Hispano and Merlin powered aircraft. The last were built in Spain in late 1956. The Spanish Air Force flew their Rolls Royce Merlin powered Hispano Ha1112s until they retired them in 1967.

Sources: Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, NY 1970. Augsburg Eagle, William Green, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, NY 1971. Combat Aircraft of World War II, Bill Gunston, Salamander Books, LTD., London, UK, 1978. The Messerschmitt Bf 109G, j. R. Smith and J. Primmer, Profile Publications, Surrey, England, No Date. The Blond Knight of Germany, Raymond F. Toliver and Trevor J. Constable, Ballantine Books, New York, 1970.

My Favorite Soviet WW II Fighter: the La-5

My favorite Soviet fighter of the World War II Era is the Lavochkin La-5.

Ivan Kozedub, leading Allied Ace of World War II, got all 62 of his kills flying Lavochkin fighters. Below 15,000 feet the La-5 could out climb and out maneuver both of the main German fighter aircraft: the Bf 109 and the Fw 190. Armed with two 20 mm cannon in the cowling and 200 rounds per gun, the La-5’s weight of fire was 3.88 pounds per second. The all around vision canopy provided the La-5 an advantage over its lineal predecessors.

The first example of the LaGG-1, designed by Lavochkin, Gorbunov, and Gudkov, was completed in March 1940. It was built of plywood with birch veneer and powered by a Klimov M-105 engine of 1,050 horsepower at altitude. The first production machine, the LaGG-3, went into service on the Baltic Front with the 19th Fighter Air Regiment and the 157th Fighter Air Regiment. It first saw action during the defense of the Baltic Fleet on 21 September, 1941. More than 6,000 LaGG-3s were built.

The Klimov M-105 engine, used in Yak and MiG fighters, was in high demand. The Yak-7B had a better performance than the LaGG-3 and production in Aircraft Plant 21 was about to be shifted to that aircraft. The surplus of Schvetsov M-82 engine, which powered only the Sukhoi Su-2 light bomber, made a conversion of the Lavochkin fighter to that power plant attractive. The redesign of the LaGG-3 to the new power plant was a complicated process requiring many changes to the fuselage to accommodate the larger diameter of the M-82 and the change in armament made necessary because the solid drive shaft of the M-82 would not accommodate an engine mounted cannon.

The first ten LaG-5 fighters assembled in June 1942 had numerous problems but the transition to full scale production was accomplished without a reduction in delivery rate to the VVS. Their first combats took place in August 1942 during the defense of Stalingrad. The new aircraft proved itself in combat. The 18 cylinder radial engine provided protection to the pilots in head-on attacks and sustained damage and continued to operate, unlike the in-line engine. Many pilots flew the aircraft with the canopy open, the cowling side flaps open, and the tailwheel extended reducing its speed by 30 to 40 kilometers per hour. Demands were made to reduce the weight of the aircraft with an eye to improving its performance. Lightening of the airframe increased maximum speed 18 to 20 kilometers per hour. Designer Semyon Lavochkin continued to improve the aircraft aerodynamically. Engine updating and weight reduction improved the maximum speed and combat capability.

The La-5 remained in production even after its replacement, the La-7, went into production. An excess of wooden wings at the factory in Gorkii caused the La-5 to remain in production until October 1944. The La-7 changes included a metal single spar wing as opposed to the wooden two spar wing of the La-5. Other changes included a redesigned propeller, and uprated M-82 engine, and an armament increase to three 20 mm cannon. La-7 production began in the Moscow plant in June 1944.

Sources: Soviet Combat Aircraft of the Second World War, Yefim Gordon and Dmitri Khazanov, Midland Publishing Limited, Leicester, England, 1998

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

Air Action over Prokhorovka

According to the official Soviet Air Force history bad weather over the battlefield on 12 July, 1943, forced the Soviets to operate in small groups. At approximately 0840 hours the Second Air Army began their preparatory operations with 200 aircraft.

Single engine Il-2 attack bombers approached the front at 1000 to 1500 meters altitude. Dropping down to altitudes of five to ten meters above ground level they directed nearly horizontal 20 mm cannon fire against their targets and fired RS82 rockets or dropped their 400 kilogram bomb loads. Executing a port turn after passing over their targets, they returned to their targets singly, forming what was called a circle of death. In such a manner they kept the Germans under constant attack for fifteen minutes to half an hour. Twin engine Pe-2 fast attack bombers carried a 7.62 mm machinegun and a 12.7 mm machinegun in the nose and 600 kilograms of bombs.

Fighter cover for the bombers included Yak-1, Yak-7, and Yak-9 fighters. These aircraft were able to out-climb as well as out-turn their opponents. Fully one quarter of all Soviet fighters engaged in this battle were La-5 and La-5F fighters. These machines conducted rocket and hollow charge bomb attacks on German armor before climbing to higher altitude to fly cover for their comrades. Under 4000 meters the La-5 fighters were not inferior to their opponents, using turns to get above the enemy. The Germans considered them the most dangerous threat on the Eastern Front. Ivan Kozhedub, the leading allied ace of the Second World War with 62 victories, flew an La-5 in this battle.

German fighter pilots excelled at high altitude combat so Soviet pilots made sure they lured the Germans down to a more suitable altitude.

The Battle for the Kursk Salient ended the career of the Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber. Large numbers of these aircraft were lost to fighters and anti-aircraft fire, but they were already being replaced by the Focke Wulf 190 single seat fighter-bomber. Organized in fast attack groups they made an impact on the combat by forcing the 29th Tank Corps to change the axis of their attack.

The storms of the afternoon called a temporary halt to battlefield action on 12 July, however, when the storms let up, the fighting resumed. At 2000 hours massive air support helped Totenkopf take Polezhaev.

Although this was the last major offensive operation conducted by the German army on the Eastern Front, for the Luftwaffe fighter pilots on the Eastern Front this was one of their brightest military accomplishments.

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

Soviet Combat Aircraft of the Second World War Volumes One and Two, Yefim Gordon and Dmitri Khazanov, Midland Publishing Ltd., Leicester, England, 1998

Jagdgeschwader 54 Gruenherz: Aces of the Eastern Front, Jerry Scutts, Airlife Publishing Ltd., Shrewsbury, England, 1992

Kursk: The Air Action Part 2

The Soviet changes to the conduct of the air battle were already being implemented on 6 July. Commanders of air units sent personnel forward into the combat zone to act as on-the-ground controllers tasked with directing fighters to areas where they were needed.

In the north 16th Air Army provided 140 aircraft for attacks against German forces located near Podolyan, Saborovka, and Butirki with good effect. Soviet fighters were able to intercept German bomber units before they reached their targets. This forced the Germans to reinforce their air units supporting the drive on Ponyri. By 7 July Soviet bomber units operated in groups of 30 to 40 aircraft which were easier to defend. By 9 July German air units in the northern sector were weakened to the point where the Soviet air force took control of the air.

The same techniques were being used in the southern sector. By 8 July senior Soviet commanders believed that the change in tactics was correct. The air army of the Voronezh Front was used against the German attack against Oboyan while the Southwest Front’s attached air army was used against German forces east of Belgorod.

As noted in previous blogs, the Luftwaffe successfully assisted Grossdeutschland’s entry into Syrtzewo on 8 July and, later in the day, Hs 129 anti-tank aircraft were instrumental in assisting II SS Panzer Corps’ repulsion of Vatutin’s attack down the Prokhorovka Road. On 9 July all available German air power in the southern sector supported the attack up the road to Oboyan and on 10 July a heavy Luftwaffe presence assisted Grossdeutschland’s attack on Werchopenye.

The fierceness of the struggle for control of the air is reflected in the records of the 2nd Air Army. From 5 July to 10 July the 2nd Air Army engaged in 205 air battles claiming 303 enemy aircraft shot down for a loss of 153 machines. It was not unusual for 200 to 300 interceptors to be over the battlefield.

During the night of 10/11 July, in an attempt to isolate the German drive on Prokhorovka, the long range AFLRO and night bomber units launched a series of raids against trains and troop columns on main and secondary roads.

In spite of these efforts the Luftwaffe gained tenuous control of the air over the drive up the road to Prokhorovka on 11 July. At 0630 on 12 July Luftwaffe fighters cleared the air of Soviet aircraft over the battlefield near Prokhorovka and, at 0700 German bombers began their attacks on the Soviet defenses.

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

The Battle of Kursk, David M. Glantz & Jonathan M. House, University Press of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, 1999

Author: Jack Kruse writes military historical fiction set in World War II. He is currently completing a novel, tentatively titled Cauldron, about the aerial battle of the Kursk Salient, a key confrontation on the Russian front in which German and Soviet fighters and bombers engaged in an intensive series of engagements over the steppes of the Ukraine.