FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX: THE RED AIR FORCE DURING THE BATTLE OF STALINGRAD
WRITTEN BY MICHAEL A. BALIS WITH RESEARCH HELP FROM VLADIMIR
In Portuguese language here
Note the clickable links to pictures!
The Red Air Force, like the ancient Egyptian bird, rose from the dead at the Battle of Stalingrad. After the terrible beatings of 1941, Germany mistakenly assumed Russia's guardians of the air would not play an important role in the 1942 campaign. The Soviet Air Force helped wear down the Luftwaffe and cut her supply of the besieged German troops during the Stalingrad Campaign.
The dawn of June 22, 1941. German fighters, bombers, and dive bombers fanned out over western Russia and struck Soviet airfields. Soviet pilots, despite the damage the purges has done to aircraft design and tactics, bravely flew their outdated aircraft, some of which were the I-15 and I-53 biplanes as well as the I-16 monoplanes designed by N.N. Polikarpov against the battle-tested Luftwaffe. They lost 1,200 planes that first day. Over the coming months, Red Air Force formations were too unwieldy to stop dogfighting German pilots who cleared the skies at will over the columns of tanks that streaked across Russia.
REBIRTH OVER THE DYING CITY
Some of the foundation for the eventual Soviet victory in the air was laid in the factories in Siberia. During the summer of 1941, hundreds of factories in western Russia were dismantled and moved by train beyond the Ural Mountains. There, people toiled in below zero temperatures reconstructing buildings from tough Siberian pine trees and reassembling heavy machinery inside the shelters. In 1942, teenage and female workers, who worked in arctic conditions often without roofs, produced modern aircraft from high quality local materials. Much of the material, including steel tubing and instrument panels, were made locally. Tough Siberian pine trees supplied the wood for the framework of the aircraft. It took one month to organize the production of rubber tires for the landing gear; so, producing these planes took time. They later appeared during the Battle of Stalingrad.
Meanwhile in April 1942, Colonel General A.A. Novikov took command of the Air Force and was soon engulfed by the next German offensive. That summer, the Germans launched the campaign against Stalingrad and the Caucuses oilfields giving the Soviet forces little time to absorb the lessons of 1941. German pilots, some of which had three years of combat experience, used their flexible formations and dogfighting skills to disrupt Soviet air attacks. At first, Novikov could do little but send pilots whose training was drastically shortened to fill the losses of 1941. Men who had never "smelled gunpowder" did their best to take the pressure off the ground troops below. Lieutenant General Vasili Chuikov, who commanded the defenders of Stalingrad, respected the bravery Soviet pilots displayed as they constantly tried to attack German formations. He used every minute the Luftwaffe was diverted from the city to bring over reinforcements and supplies that made each new German offensive very costly.
Despite the enormous pressure the Luftwaffe applied all over the routes to Stalingrad, Novikov successfully introduced new planes and fresh concepts like radar directed fighter interception that allowed Soviet pilots faster interception of German air and ground attacks. He sent ten regiments of new and streamlined Yaks-1 and 9 along with the La-5 to the Eighth Air Army in the Stalingrad region which helped to slow the German offensives into the city. While German pilots kept control of the skies over Stalingrad, the constant Soviet attacks wore down the Luftwaffe which had to guard the bombers. Flak batteries on the islands and eastern bank of the Volga took their toll of planes as well and made their bombing and strafing runs more difficult.
16th Air Army Commander S.I.Rudenko and his 434th Fighter Regiment Commander Major I.I.Kleschev also organized teams of well-trained and experienced pilots who showed the other newer pilots how to fight. Step by step they increased their comrades self-confidence and faith in their aircraft. This began to reap dividends as more Soviet pilots fought their foes with the same kind of heroism as their allies on the ground. One pilot even imitated the kind of close combat tactics Chuikov's men practiced in downtown Stalingrad. B. Gomolko of the 520th Fighter Regiment was so aggressive that he flew by himself against the Germans. He pounced on ten German bombers, shot down one, and quickly ran out of ammunition. This did not stop the aggressive pilot who used his propellor to slice off part of another enemy plane. Both planes fell to the earth while Gomolko and the German crew parachuted to the ground. The Russian landed minutes before the Germans. Then he told the Germans they were prisoners but one resisted; so, Gomolko shot him. The other German needed no more convincing.
STRANGLING THE SIXTH ARMY
While the Red Army smashed through the thin Rumanian and Hungarian units on the northern and southern side of the Sixth Army, Soviet pilots did their best to cover their comrades on the ground. The breakthroughs of the 19th and 20th of November were so complete and Russian and Axis units were mixed together so thoroughly, that in the first week of the offensive it was hard for pilots flying over one-hundred miles per hour to distinguish friend from foe. Friendly fire incidents occurred but not enough to slow the linkage of the two arms of the encirclement. Once the twin rings of encirclement were tied around the Germans, it was easier for Russian staff officers to prepare accurate maps of the front-line and for pilots to see were the Germans were and cooperate with their troops.
While the Red Army tightened their anaconda grip on their enemies and fended off Von Manstein's rescue attempt, Soviet pilots hurt the Luftwaffe's resupply effort. The local commander, General P.S. Stepanov created rings of antiaircraft guns. As the Sixth Army lost control of their western airfields, Luftwaffe transports had to cover greater distances and had to fly more and more predictable paths. Even in overcast conditions, crews fired shells fused to explode at altitudes German planes were likely to fly that took their toll of planes.
Soviet pilots intercepted an increasing amount of German planes carrying supplies into the besieged Germans. General Stepanov used radar and observation posts to guide his planes to their targets. For example, General Yeremenko remembered that the 11th of December was so overcast, that three planes from Colonel I. Podgorniy's fighter division was alerted by the sound of German planes. Twenty to thirty kilometers from Pitmonik Airfield, sixteen transports full of supplies covered by four Messerchmitts descended from their cloud cover. The Soviets shoot down five planes and forced four others to land in Russian territory in their first attack. One German bomber escaped only because the Soviet fighters did not have enough fuel for pursuit. Thirty-four pilots became prisoners. One was taken to General Yeremenko's headquarters. The General offered freedom to the pilot if he took the Russian terms of surrender to the Sixth Army. In response, the German asked that if the General found a Soviet pilot bringing such terms to him, what would he do? Yeremenko replied that he would judge such a pilot. The German than said that if he presented such a document to his commander, there would be no judgment, he would just be shot and that it was better to be a prisoner.
Soviet pilots also attacked German airfields. Captain Bachtin and seven Stormovik aircraft used low cloud cover to approach the Salsk airfield unseen. At first, German antiaircraft crews were too surprised to open fire and Bachtin's men bombed and strafed the parked planes. After the second strafing run, German fire improved but the Soviet pilots relentlessly attacked four more times until they destroyed seventy-five planes.
While German and Soviet sources conflict on casualties, the Red Air Force clearly inflicted great damage on the resupply effort. Soviet sources claim 775 cargo planes, 189 bombers, and 200 fighters. The Germans admit to 266 planes destroyed. Even this latter figure represented a significant loss for the Germans. Every plane and crew lost meant greater wear and tear on remaining crews that struggled to fly and land in horrible weather. Thanks to the threat the Red Air Force posed and attrition they caused, the Luftwaffe was only 30% operational in southern Russia and unable to meet the 500 tons of supplies that the Sixth Army required. On a good day, 300 tons arrived and that was very rare. So the Germans ate horseflesh and had so little ammunition that they surrendered faster than they otherwise would have and killed fewer Russian soldiers thanks to their comrades in the air.
From the dark days of 1941 to the winter of 1942/3, the Soviet Air Force evolved into a modern arm capable of supporting ground operations. Thanks to the hard work of the factory workers in Siberia, newer, faster, and tougher aircraft replaced the biplanes. Planes were grouped in smaller and more maneuverable units that were better able to dogfight German fighters and retain at least some air superiority when it mattered most. These pilots skillfully exploited German operational problems during the winter of 1942 by strafing airfields and intercepting supply planes the surrounded Sixth Army relied on. This pattern continued throughout the war at Kursk, the Destruction of Army Group Center, and to the wolf's lair itself--Berlin.
Light WW2 fighter Yak-3.(Spring 1943) 2650kg. Speed- 660km/h Weapons: One 20mm gun, and two 12mm MG.
The 2 pics above is captured from http://www.geipelnet.com/war_albums
More reading here, Article from Russian war-history magazine
A.S.Yakovlev. "Tsel jizny": (Aircraft designer memoirs)
Stalingrad front newspaper: "Stalinskoye znamya"
M.A.Vodolagin " Ocherki istorii Volgograda".
Stalingrad city Publishing House 1953 "Rasskazy stalingradtsev".
A.S.Chuyanov "V dni surovich ispitaniy".
Soviet high commanders memory books :
G.Jukov. "Vospominaniya i razmishleniya".
Marshal of Soviet Union A.M.Vasilevsky
Artillery Chief Marshal N.N.Voronov.
Marshal of Soviet Union A.I.Yeriomenko
Air Marshal S.I.Rudenko.
Twice Hero of Soviet Union Army genearal P.I.Batov.
Twice Hero of Soviet Union colonel-general A.I.Rodimtsev
Hero of Sovciet Union,colonel-general M.S.Shumilov.
Hero of Sovciet Union,colonel-general I.I.Ludnikov.
Vladimir Kostin "Is Stalingradskoy tetradi"
Ivan Afanasiev "Dom soldatskoy doblesti"
I.V.Lebedev "Ich bylo tridtsat' tri".
V.D.Sokolov. "Snayper bombometaniya"
L.I.Troskunov. "Slovo - kak pulya"
A.A. Zelenkov. "Universitety Mujestva. Zapiski komandira 706 polka 204-y strelkovoy divizii"
Jury Levin "Podvig obretaet imya"
Ivan Paderin "Soldatskoe plemya"
Boris Drudzinin "Vistrely,uslishannie v Berline"
Hero of Soviet Union V.E.Bondarenko "Schastye pobedy".
Boris Myasnikov "Desant".
Erickson, John. The Road To Stalingrad: Stalin's War With Germany.
Glantz, David and Jonathan House. When Titans Clashed: How The Red Army Stopped Hitler.
Hayward, Joel S. Stopped At Stalingrad: The Luftwaffe And Hitler's Defeat In The East 1942-1943.
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