Thursday, March 26, 2015

In the bunker

On 16 January, Hitler returned to the partly bombed Chancellery in Berlin to be nearer to the Eastern Front. He now decided that the Western Front should go on the defensive to release troops to fight in the east. He also decided that they must hit the southern flank of the Russian spearhead and Hitler ordered Guderian to send the Sixth Panzer Army to Hungary. It was necessary, Hitler said, to hang on to the oil fields in Hungary, otherwise there would be no fuel for the Panzers.

General Nehring's XXIV Panzer Corps was stemming the Russian attack around Kielce, but the XLVI Panzer Corps had to pull out of the Warsaw area when it risked being encircled. It was supposed to go south to stop a Russian breakthrough that would cut East and West Prussia off from the rest of Germany. But the Russians threw it back on to the north bank of the Vistula and began their dash on the German border unhindered.

The German garrison in Warsaw now risked being cut off. Guderian told Hitler that they should be withdrawn, but he grew angry and insisted that Warsaw be held at all costs. But the garrison commandant had little artillery and only four infantry battalions with limited combat experience. It would have been impossible for them to hold the city and the commandant withdrew his garrison despite Hitler's orders not to. Hitler was furious and spent the next few days investigating the loss of Warsaw rather than devoting himself to more pressing matters. When Hitler ordered the arrest of members of the general staff, Guderian said that he alone was responsible for the loss of Warsaw, so it was he who should be arrested, not his staff. Nevertheless Hitler had three of Guderian's staff arrested at gunpoint. Guderian again insisted that he was the one whose conduct should be investigated, so ending up subjected to lengthy interrogations at a time when he should have been concentrating all his efforts on the battle for the Eastern Front. Two of his staff were then released, but instead of returning to their staff duties were sent to command regiments on the Eastern Front. Three days later one of them was killed. The third member of Guderian's staff was sent to a concentration camp, which he later swapped for an American prisoner of war camp.

On 18 January, the Germans in Hungary attacked in an attempt to lift the siege of Budapest. They fought their way through to the banks of the Danube. But that same day the Russians entered the city, so the effort had been wasted. Nevertheless Hitler sent the Sixth Panzer Army to Hungary in an attempt to hold the Russians there.

On 20 January, the Russians first set foot on German soil. Guderian's wife, who had been under constant surveillance by the local Nazi Party, was then allowed to leave and flee to the safety of Guderian's headquarters, half an hour before the first shell landed in Deipenhof.

The Russian onslaught could not be resisted. Hitler began to accuse his Panzer commanders of treason. Guderian tried to calm him, but Reinhardt and Hossbach were relieved of their commands.

The Russians had now mastered the art of Panzer warfare. They advanced rapidly, bypassing strongpoints and outflanking fortified lines - though most of the fortifications in the east had been stripped to build the Atlantic Wall. Germany's only hope now was that the Western Allies would realize what the rapid Russian advance might mean for the future of Europe and sign an armistice. Guderian said that he proposed to the German foreign minister von Ribbentrop that he open negotiations for an armistice on at least one front - preferably the Western. Von Ribbentrop told Guderian that he was a loyal follower of Hitler and he knew that the Führer did not want to make peace.

`How would you feel if in three or four weeks the Russians were at the gates of Berlin?' said Guderian.

`Do you believe that that is possible?' asked a shocked von Ribbentrop.

When Hitler heard of this, Guderian too was accused of treason, though he was not arrested. Hitler had few enough able officers left.

Guderian proposed a plan that would give them some breathing space. They should form a new army group specifically to hold the centre of the line. Guderian suggested that its commanding officer should be Field Marshal Freiherr von Weichs, a commander in the Balkans. Hitler approved Guderian's plan for the creation of a new army group, but gave its command to Himmler. Guderian was appalled. Himmler was not a military man. He was a politician, the head of the SS. He was also chief of police, minister of the interior and Commander in Chief of the Training Army, any one of which positions might be thought a full-time job. But Hitler was insistent. Guderian tried to persuade him at least to give Himmler von Weichs' experienced staff. But Hitler, who was now wary of all his generals, ordered Himmler to choose his own staff. Himmler surrounded himself with other SS leaders who were largely, in Guderian's opinion, incapable of doing the jobs they had been given. SS Brigadenführer Lammerding was his chief of staff. Previously the commander of a Panzer division, Lammerding had no idea of the duties of a staff officer. The new army group was to be called Army Group Vistula, though the Russians had crossed the Vistula months before.

Hitler set up new `tank destroyer' divisions. These consisted of men issued with antitank grenades and bicycles. Somehow they were expected to stop the huge armies of T-34s that were now driving westwards. And by this time 16-year-old boys were being conscripted into the army.

By 28 January, Upper Silesia was in Russian hands. Speer wrote to Hitler saying, `The war is lost.' Hitler now cut Speer completely and refused to see anyone alone in private, because they always told him something he did not want to hear. Hitler began demoting officers on a whim, and brave soldiers denounced by party members found themselves in concentration camps without even the most summary investigation. Guderian found that more and more of his day was spent listening to lengthy monologues by Hitler as he tried to find someone to blame for the deteriorating military situation. Hitler often became so enraged that the veins on his forehead stood out, his eyes bulged and members of staff feared that he might have a heart attack.

On 30 January, the Russians attacked the Second Panzer Army in Hungary and broke through. Guderian proposed evacuating the Balkans, Norway and what remained of Prussia and bringing back all the Panzers into Germany for one last battle. Instead Hitler ordered an attack and on 15 February the Third Panzer Army under General Rauss went on the offensive. In overall command of the offensive was General Wenck. But on the night of the 17th, after a long briefing by Hitler, Wenck noticed that his driver was tired and took the wheel, only to then fall asleep himself and crash into the parapet of a bridge on the Berlin-Stettin highway. Wenck was badly injured and, with him in hospital, the offensive bogged down and never regained its momentum.

In March, Rauss was summoned to the Chancellery and asked to explain himself. Hitler did not give him a chance to speak. After he had dismissed Rauss, Hitler insisted he be relieved of his command. Guderian protested that he was one of the most able Panzer commanders. Hitler said that he could not be trusted because he was a Berliner or an East Prussian. It was then pointed out that Rauss was an Austrian, like Hitler himself. Even so he was relieved of his post and replaced by von Manteuffel.

Himmler's Army Group Vistula did little to halt the Russian advance and Guderian eventually suggested that Himmler be replaced. On 20 March, Hitler agreed. He was replaced by a veteran military man, Colonel-General Gotthard Heinrici, who was currently commanding the First Panzer Army in the Carpathians. Under his command was the Third Panzer Army under von Manteuffel.

Guderian continued to come up with suggestions of how the Russian advance could at least be slowed. But after one final falling-out with Hitler, he was ordered to take convalescent leave of six weeks. He left Berlin on 28 March intending to go to a hunting lodge near Oberhof in the Thuringian Mountains, but the rapid advance of the Americans made this impossible. Instead he decided to go to the Ehenhausen sanatorium near Munich for treatment of his heart condition. Warned that he might invite the attentions of the Gestapo, Guderian arranged to be guarded by two members of the Field Police.

80cm K(E) railway gun

A brief history by the late Robert D Fritz
Work on the giant weapon begun as far back as 1934, when German army ordnance enquired of Krupp's the weight and speed required of a projectile to demolish the massive defences of the Maginot line which the French were then in the process of completing. Preliminary blueprints for an 80cm siege gun were compiled by Krupp's ballistic experts, but nothing more was heard from the authorities about it even during Hitler's visit to the works at Essen, in March 1936, during which he enquired into the giant guns feasibility, nothing was commissioned. It wasn't until October, 1939, that Hitler, in preparing his plans for attacking Russia, initiated orders for the production of the 80cm guns.

After orders in 1939 were given to develop and produce the gun, Krupp built a test model (late 1939) and sent it to Hillersleben. After the test programs for the gun were completed (mid 1940) and the results sent back to the Wafruf office in Berlin, the gun and its carriage were removed and presumably scrapped. The test results were favourable and contracts were let to Krupp at Essen for the manufacture of two of the guns in late 1940-41, and a third in 1944. This last one was found unfinished in its shop at Krupp, when the American forces swept through Essen.

Krupp was thoroughly equipped to turn out munitions. Among its facilities were open hearth and electric steel furnaces, foundries, forge and press shops, armour plate rolling mills, plate and spring shops, testing laboratories, low pressure vessel shops, and a large number of machine shops devoted to specific tasks. These buildings and the others were listed numerically in classes: e.g., machine shop 10, 11, 12, etc.; foundry 3, 4, 5, etc.; armour plate mill 1, 2, etc.

It was in machine shops 20, 21 (heavy gun shop and machine shop respectively), that the tube for the 80cm gun was made. The shells for this gun were made in draw and press shop 1; its carriage was made in machine and erecting shop number 1 (for gun mounts and gun carriages).

In machine shops 20 and 21, there were large gun lathes and milling machines for production of heavy gun tubes. In draw and press shop 1, there were three piercing presses from 250 to 1,500 tons, three drawbenches from 500 to 2,510 tons some turning lathes, five furnaces, and one 800 ton vertical drawing press. The power plant which was part of this shop provided the air, water, and electric power for the draw and press shop. Railroad tire shop 3 was also used in producing big shells. In this shop were 25 miscellaneous lathes, grinders, one shell bander, 12 car wheel lathes (not used), and six vertical mills. These two shops turned out the 80cm shells for the Gustav Geschutz and the Dora. In the machine and erecting shop 1 were 90 miscellaneous lathes, planers, milling machines, horizontal boring mills, grinders, and drill presses. This shop machined and assembled the parts for the 80cm gun railway carriage.

The two 80 centimetre guns which Krupp produced in 1941-1942 were the largest guns in the world. They were identical railway pieces but were different from conventional single track railway guns in that a 4 track system was needed for emplacement. The first gun produced was named Gustav Geschutz, after an engineer at Krupp; the second one produced was named the Dora, for the wife of the engineer who built it. Each gun was put under the command of a major general, and crews were selected and trained in the operations of the gun: presumably these crews had nothing to do with the construction of the gun emplacements, for this was probably a job of the German engineers, because of the road bed and track construction involved.

Invasion of Russia
The invasion of Russia started at 3:00 a.m. on June 22, 1941. The Russians were taken completely by surprise, and because of this the fast advancing German panzer columns met little resistance. Counter attacks made by the Russians quickly turned into envelopments by the Germans. But as the germane armies continued to penetrate deeper and deeper into Russian territory, their advance began to slow down. Losses in men and equipment mounted steadily on both sides, although in most cases Russian losses far exceeded those of the Germans. As the war progressed, Hitler decided on a feint toward Moscow, while concentrating his main forces for a push far to the south, through the Ukraine. The Russian high command failed to see through this ruse until it was too late.

As the German forces pushed closer and closer to the Crimea, plans were drawn up for the occupation of that peninsula. Included in these plans were the heavy siege artillery to be used against the fortifications at Sevastopol -and Kerch, the two strongholds in the Crimea.

Sometime in February of 1941, the Gustav Geschutz, one of the siege guns to be used at Sevastopol, started its long ride from Germany to the Crimean front. The train, 25 cars long, included gondolas, special flat cars, accessory cars, ammunition cars, and two cranes for emplacing the gun. The probable route taken was through southern Poland to the Ukraine, using the rail links between captured cities. Along the way in the Ukraine the gun was transported on the new German railway built from the Ukraine to the Crimean isthmus.

The gun reached the Perekof isthmus around the early part of March, 1942. Here it was held with the other siege artillery and ammunition, which were accumulating, until early in April when the siege artillery was moved into the Crimea, to the north of Simferopol (southern Crimea ). As the German forces drew closer to Sevastopol, preparations were made for the coming siege. The port had already been blockaded so that no reinforcements could be landed. As the Germans closed in, the siege artillery was moved into position. A railway spur was built to the Simferopol-Sevastopol railway, ten miles north of the target area. At the end of this spur were built the four semicircular tracks for the Gustav Geschutz. The train was moved down the Simferopol - Sevastopol line and onto this spur. The emplacement of the Gustav was then begun (early May). By June 5 the gun was ready to fire. On June 6 all of the siege guns began the reduction of fort Stalin.

The target area was a line of thick-walled forts built into a steep ridge which overlooked the north shore of Sevastopol bay (two thousand meters to the Southwest, across the bay, was Sevastopol). Immediately north of the ridge, flowing west to the Black Sea, was the Belbeck River with the town of Belbeck on its north bank. The mission of the siege artillery (and the Luftwaffe) was to neutralise all fortifications on the ridge and especially those across the river from the town. A beachhead was to be established on the south bank of the river, from which shock troops and tanks would storm the middle fort on the ridgeline, fort Stalin.

On June 9 the north attack, was started, preceded by strong air and artillery preparation. Meanwhile, Rumanian troops further south were preparing to launch an attack to the west across the Bayadar River. From June 10 to June 13 the north beachhead gained ground until, on June 14, fort Stalin was finally captured. The shock troops pushed over the ridgeline at this point and swept down to the north shore of Sevastopol bay.

On June 15 the Rumanians in the south launched their attack (with air support from the north) westward. They made a deep advance toward Balaklava, on the Black Sea.

On June 18 the breach in the ridge line in the north was enlarged. A heavy bombardment was made against fort Maxim Gorki (really two adjacent forts). There was an internal explosion and the fort was quickly captured. On the 19th Sevastopol itself was brought under fire from the siege artillery. Since there was only a slight increase in range, the siege guns did not have to move their positions. Also on the 19th the attack was begun against the fort on the cape above Sevastopol bay. On June 20 after air force and artillery preparation, the attack was made on fort Lenin. This was the easternmost fort of those on the ridge. Because its bombardment had been thorough, it was quickly captured.

On June 21 the cape fort fell. Now the entire ridge was in German hands. Sevastopol was being subjected day and night to intensive artillery fire. Under the shells of the 80 centimetre gun and the 60 centimetre mortar (Thor) and other guns, the city was beginning to disintegrate. On this day the Russians abandoned their positions north of the Chernaya River to set up a defence line along its south bank.

Consequently, on June 22, 23 and 24, the Germans pushed to the head of Sevastopol bay, reaching Inkerman on the 25th,

In the south during these three days the Rumanians were still advancing on Balaklava. However, the next day they took not only Balaklava but also Kadikoi. On the 27th the Rumanians were driving on mount sapeum at Inkerman; on the 27th the Germans were preparing to attack Southwest toward Sevastopol.

June 28 saw the siege of Sevastopol rapidly drawing to an end. The Germans at Inkerman began their drive toward Sevastopol. At the same time the Rumanians and Germans in the south started their push west. Under both of these drives the Russian lines gave way, allowing the two advancing forces to take considerable gains.

On June 29 the northern and southern armies consolidated along one front. Malakov hill, a flat-topped fortress, in the way of the Germans advancing along the south shore of Sevastopol bay, was shelled by artillery batteries on the north side of the bay. It fell after a short but heavy bombardment. After seizing the entire remaining defence line, the Rumanians and Germans pushed to the eastern city limits of Sevastopol. The city surrendered on July 1, thus ending the siege, although some Russians held out in the Khersones peninsula until July 4. Sevastopol was a vast pile of rubble and of the 80,000 population only 200 were left. In all, over 30,000 tons of artillery ammunition were used in the siege, or 50 tons day and night for 25 days. Twenty-five tons of bombs were dropped during the siege. Three hundred rounds were fired by the Gustav Geschutz alone. One of its gun tubes was worn out, and this was sent back to the Krupp works where a liner was added. This tube came back to the Crimean front, where its parent gun was using the spare tube which was brought along.

Little could be found on the deployment of the Dora at Stalingrad. It was presumably constructed in Germany later than the Gustav Geschutz, and transported to the Russian front. It arrived ten miles to the west of Stalingrad sometime in mid-august of 1942 where it was emplaced and ready to fire on September 13. On September 14 the siege of Stalingrad began. It lasted until November 19, when the German Sixth Army under General Paulus, smashing at Stalingrad with everything it had, was finally routed by the Russian counter offensive which began on November 20. The German left flank was quickly enveloped and the Russian armies driving from the Southeast closed the last possible corridor of retreat, when they met the Russian armies from the north, at Marinovka. Paulus did not realise the strength of the encircling Russians until too late. The German perimeter began to diminish in spite of the stubborn counterattacks. Paulus refused the Russian demand to surrender, and because of this, on January 8 and 9, 1943, his Sixth German Army was annihilated. Paulus himself was captured in the business district of southern Stalingrad, on February 2.

When the remaining German armies began their long retreat from Stalingrad, the Dora was taken from its emplacement and transported west to prevent its capture by the Russians. At about the same time the Gustav Geschutz was dismantled in the Crimea and sent west also. As the Russians swept into Poland and north-eastern Germany, the two guns were moved southward into Germany from their respective positions in Poland and Czechoslovakia.

In April, 1945, the American forces were also making considerable headway against the Germans. The US ninth army was advancing on Magdeburg; the U.S. first army had reached the Mulde river south of Dessau, and was pushing on Halle and Leipzig (which it captured on April 19 and 20, respectively), and the U.S. third army was sweeping through Bayreuth toward Chemnitz. At Oberlichtenau, just north of Chemnitz, the Germans, realising that capture of the Dora was not far off, destroyed it with demolition charges and dispersed the parts.

In early June, 1945, an ordnance intelligence team, upon discovering parts of the Dora in the railway yards at Chemnitz, could only photograph the guns' wreckage, as the Russians had already occupied the city (given to them by the Yalta conference), and had posted guards around the area of the wreckage.

The third army was pulled out of the Chemnitz region, and redeployed to the south in preparation for an attack on Regensberg.

One of the first Americans to see and examine the Gustav Geschutz was Colonel FB Porter, FA then commander of the 416th field artillery group. On April 22, he was passing along a little used road through a forest ten miles north of Auerbach (about 30 miles southwest of Chemnitz), on his way to assist in the attack on Regensberg, when he came to a small dirt road which led through the forest to the village of Metzenhof (or Metzendorf). There he met an American soldier who said that there were some big guns back in the woods. He followed the indicated route for about a half a mile until he came to a single track railway along which were the remnants of fourteen cars of the Gustav Geschutz. In this train, near Metzenhof, he found the Gustav's two gun tubes, one cradle, the right bottom carriage half, and other parts and accessories for the gun. One tube was intact (the spare tube), but the rest of the parts had been hurriedly damaged by the fleeing Germans.

He continued on his way south, to the Regensberg area where the 416th field artillery group participated in the capture of that city.

Later in June, when colonel porter moved his group headquarters back to Auerbach, he again investigated the railway spur near Metzenhof. This time he found the other parts of the gun scattered along some fifty miles of railway track. In a further check down the track, on a siding at the village of Vorra, colonel porter found the Gustav's breech ring, the bronze recoil jacket, the left bottom carriage half, the trunnion bearings, and the second gasoline-electric generator. Investigating further, he found, in a railway tunnel twenty-five miles south toward Weiden, the remainder of the twenty-five car train for the gun. The parts on these cars had been damaged also. It was apparent that the Germans had hurriedly sabotaged the gun, for there were still demolition charges on the various gun parts.

When colonel porter went to Paris, he informed ordnance intelligence of his discovery. With the knowledge of the damaged gun plus that supplemented by a captured German officer (who had been with the Gustav Geschutz in the Crimea), colonel porter wrote reports for the British and French ordnance. When he came back to the United States, he wrote another report which has been published in many of the military and scientific magazines.

What finally happened to these giant guns? The parts of the Gustav Geschutz at Metzenhof were scrapped on the spot and probably sent to German steel mills in the Ruhr. The cars at Vorra and those in the railway tunnel near Weiden were also scrapped and sent to the Ruhr to be melted down.

And the Dora, captured by the Russians? No one knows, except the Russians, what happened to it. It might have been melted down also, or it might have been reconstructed.

Specifications not found elsewhere
weight of gun 1,344 tons
length overall of gun 164 feet (49.98 m)
height overall of gun 35 feet (10.66 m)
weight of projectile with windshield 16,540 lbs
diameter of projectile 31.5 inches (80 cm)
weight of explosive charge 2,400 lbs. of RDX
length overall of projectile 11 feet 6 inches (3.50 m)
weight of propellant charge 2,500 lbs. in 3 increments
muzzle velocity of gun 2,500 ft per sec
maximum range 51,000 yds. 30 miles
maximum elevation 48 degrees

Robert D. Fritz wishes to thank the following
Charles H. Yust, Jr.
G. B. Jarrett, ( Colonel U.S.A. Retired)
Frederick B. Porter, Colonel U.S.A. Retired
Ordnance museum U.S.A.O.C.& S., Aberdeen proving ground
Imperial war museum, London, England for their kind help in furnishing material for this reconstruction.

Eastern Front Air War

In all this it is useful to recall that three-quarters of all Wehrmacht soldiers who were killed in World War II lost their lives on the Eastern Front. Compared to that, the Western one was almost a picnic. Until the autumn of 1942 the German Army and the Luftwaffe units supporting it, though weakened to the point where they were no longer able to attack all along it as they had done during the previous year, still enjoyed superiority over the Soviets. The outcome was a series of spectacular victories that brought it to Stalingrad and to the gates of the Caucasus. While the quality of Soviet aircraft was improving, German pilots and organization, including above all the critically important field of communications, remained superior. Concentrating its forces, the Luftwaffe was still able to obtain clear air superiority at the time and at the place it wanted. The problem was that, given the relatively low number of machines and the huge spaces to be overrun, there were never enough forces to do a really thorough job. This was reflected in the tremendous effort of the Luftwaffe transport command; during this period it flew 21,500 sorties, covered over ten million miles, and delivered 42,000–43,000 tons of supplies.

Determined to dislodge the last remaining Soviet forces still clinging to the right bank of the Volga at Stalingrad, in October the Luftwaffe concentrated 80 percent of all its combat power against that city. During that month the bombers and dive-bombers of Luftflotte 4 flew approximately 20,000 bomber and dive-bomber sorties to assist General Friedrich Paulus’s Sixth Army. Targets consisted of remaining pockets of resistance as well as Soviet traffic across the river. However, the Germans did not have a free hand. As enemy resistance stiffened, the number of serviceable machines dropped by almost half. By the time the Soviet counteroffensive got under way on November 20, the Red Air Force, constantly growing in numbers and operating from bases east of the Volga, was in control of the sky. Particularly important was the German pilots’ inability, made worse by the closeness of the fighting on the ground, to identify their targets at night. For just that reason, it was at night that the Soviets sent most of their reinforcements into the beleaguered city.

The Soviet counteroffensive quickly led to the encirclement of the German Sixth Army. Some months earlier, in February–May 1942, about 90,000 German troops had been cut off by the Red Army, forming two pockets south of Leningrad. During that period the Luftwaffe was able to keep the encircled forces alive by flying in supplies and replacement troops and taking out the wounded. In the end the encircled formations were able to break the siege, although doing so cost them much of their heavy equipment. Now Goering told Hitler that the Luftwaffe might repeat the performance. Yet conditions were entirely different. Whereas the battle for Demyansk took place toward the beginning of spring so that the weather could be expected to improve, that for Stalingrad got under way just when winter was setting in. Whereas the troops at Demyansk needed a minimum of 265 tons a day to survive, the 220,000 at Stalingrad needed at least twice as much. Flying in and out of the city, the distances the aircraft had to cover were also much longer.

Mobilizing every aircraft and every crew, braving nights that were becoming increasingly longer, atrocious weather conditions, and growing Soviet resistance in the air and from the ground, the Luftwaffe, still flying mostly obsolescent Ju-52s, did what it could. However, during the entire period when the air-bridge was in operation only once did it succeed in delivering as much as 280 tons, whereas the daily average stood at a mere 90 tons. Toward the end, as more and more airfields were lost to the advancing Soviet columns, the Germans were reduced to dropping supplies by parachute, with the result that many were lost or fell into enemy hands. None of this could save the doomed Sixth Army; by the time it surrendered, the Luftwaffe’s transport command, having lost almost 500 aircraft and many experienced crews, had received a blow from which it would never recover.

The last occasion when the Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front was able to intervene effectively in the ground battle was at Kursk in July 1943, when it saved the German Ninth Army from encirclement and possibly annihilation. From this point on, in the air as on the ground, the boot was clearly on the other foot. Already during 1942 the quality of Soviet airpower had begun to improve; aircraft received wireless—from early 1943 on, every new machine was equipped with a set—and modern navigation aids. Soviet ground radar had now developed to the point where it was able to provide 15 minutes’ advance warning against approaching German aircraft, greatly facilitating interception and enabling commanders to do away with the wasteful practice of mounting air patrols around the clock. Stalin’s Falcons finally got around to adopting the staggered four-finger formation, the outcome being a notable improvement in the scores of air-to-air combat.

By this time the Soviet aviation industry, much of which had been hastily evacuated to the territory east of the Ural Mountains in 1941, was back in full operation. Partly for that reason, partly because of the Luftwaffe’s decision to focus on the defense of the Reich, the Red Air Force also enjoyed a very great quantitative advantage. One result was that the number of air-to-air encounters actually declined, as was later to happen in the west too; there simply were no German planes or pilots left to carry on the fight.

This in turn meant that the Soviets, assured of air superiority at most times and places, were able to focus on air-to-ground attack. Like their enemies and their allies, they developed a system of forward air observers. They were fully motorized and used radio telephony to work with ground commanders down to the regimental level. Tactics, too, improved. At Stalingrad, deficient arrangements for air-to-ground cooperation made Soviet air support almost totally ineffective. Now, with the battle moving to and fro (but mostly to) over the enormous, almost featureless expanses, things became a lot easier. Smaller, more flexible formations numbering three or four aircraft were adopted. Pilots learned to launch their attacks from the west, especially during the late afternoon when the sun would blind the German defenders. While tactical bombers—the only ones the Soviets had—fighter-bombers, and ground attack aircraft flew both battlefield support and interdiction sorties, the Soviets continued to differ from the western Allies in that they always preferred the former to any other kind. By one calculation they devoted as many as 40–50 percent of all sorties to that task. This was almost as many as those devoted to air superiority (35–45 percent), interdiction (4–12 percent), and reconnaissance (2–13 percent) combined.

The number of Soviet combat aircraft grew from 1,327 at Stalingrad to no fewer than 7,496 during the climactic Battle of Berlin. The daily number of sorties went up from 500 at Stalingrad to 2,600 at Kursk to 4,157 at Berlin. Whereas at Stalingrad each aircraft flew 0.37 sorties per day on the average, two years later the figure stood at 0.55. Losses were heavy in proportion. Out of 33,700 ground-attack aircraft built, no fewer than 23,600, or 70 percent, were destroyed—12,400 by enemy action and 11,200 by accidents of every kind. All this fits in well with a report that, soon after the war, Stalin was shocked to learn that fully 47 percent of all losses had been due to accidents. As so often was the case, the discovery immediately led to an investigation into the nefarious activities of assorted so-called wreckers and enemies, though its results are not recorded. Yet in one respe ct the Soviets were fortunate. Given that almost all their aircraft were single- or twin-seaters, personnel losses were proportionally much smaller than those suffered by the western Allies in particular; in the long run, smaller losses translated into greater accumulated experience.

As so often was the case, just how much Soviet airpower affected ground operations is impossible to say. To be sure, we are told that “air cover and support from the tank armies that carried the burden of the major Soviet offensives after 1944 were critical to the overall success” and that “the [Frontal Air Force] was the most mobile, flexible, and powerful means for supporting tank armies during deep operations.” However, the question remains as to how critical “critical” really was. Whereas German records and memoirs pertaining to the West often stress the role of Allied airpower, when it comes to the Red Air Force they are of little help. To the very end, the German generals tended to look down on their Soviet enemies, attributing the latter’s victories, and their own defeats, to hammer-like blows delivered by overwhelming numbers rather than to any tactical and operational finesse. Always it was the supply system that broke down, or some neighboring unit that gave way, rather than they themselves who were defeated. For most of these generals, admitting that Soviet successes in the war in general, and in the air war in particular, might be due to qualitative superiority was little but heresy; during the Cold War, such an admission would cast doubt on Germany’s usefulness to its newly found NATO allies.