While on a combat mission over the lower Don River Leutnant Utter, a young Swabia native, demonstrated extraordinary courage and valor, which earned him the Iron Cross 1st Class:
A four-ship formation of III./KG 4 aircraft were on their way back to base after a sortie over the Don estuary. Only a few minutes earlier they were in the thick of it with AA shells bursting all around them and muzzle flashes dotting the ground below. Now it was quiet again and beneath them lay a huge expanse of sun-bathed steppe – the enemy territory. Just as the section leader called for his wingmen to form up the muzzle flashes appeared again – one, then another, then ten, then fifty: it was the Russian light AA artillery, machine guns and small arms fire. Damn, it must have been one of those Russian pockets that, for some reason, were never marked on charts. Even if the German crews had immediately returned fire their low flying aircraft were still sitting ducks: the Russian rounds were finding their targets time and time again. Then, as unexpectedly as it had begun, the barrage ended. At first it seemed that the Luftwaffe flyers had made it unscathed. Then a radio message came through: “Herr Leutnant, the left wingman is trailing smoke and dropping out of formation!”
Leutnant Utter looked over his shoulder just in time to see one of his aircraft make a forced landing a few hundred meters below and off to the left. Utter was not about to leave his crew behind: although he had quickly lost sight of the downed aircraft, he immediately threw his machine into a 180 degree turn to check on his comrades’ fate. He then saw a pillar of fire and smoke shoot up into the sky – proof positive that the aircraft had crashed. Utter pushed his He 111 down to the deck. He was hoping that his gunners would keep the enemy shooters at bay while he pushed on to check on his downed mates – the utmost priority at that time.
Utter flew over the crash site just meters off the ground. The downed aircraft was burning like a torch. Looks like they didn’t make it, thought the young Leutnant. It was at that instant, however, that he spotted the four crew members, alive and well, running away from the burning wreckage. He also saw something else: Russian troops descending on the crash site from all directions. Utter new that he had to act quickly, or his mates would soon fall into the Soviets’ hands. Easier said then done: to land a heavy bomber on the trench-riddled steppe, in the middle of nowhere, was an impossible proposition. He still had no choice but to try it. Utter spotted what looked like a relatively flat piece of terrain to the right of the burning aircraft. He quickly turned around and, after ordering his crew to brace for impact, positioned the aircraft for landing. Gear down, the bomber touched down, bounced a few times and rolled to a stop.
The crew immediately jump out to take a good look around. The tall grass obscures the view, so Leutnant Utter fires a series of red flares to indicate their position to the downed airmen. The gunners get back into the aircraft to man their stations, while two other crew members armed with submachine guns take positions on the aircraft’s wings. No Russian troops have been spotted so far. That’s good, that should give the German crew a fighting chance to reach the bomber. Finally there they are: the pilot and observer with serious burns and the other two without any apparent injuries.
The time is running out: the first Soviet troops come rushing to the scene and bullets start flying all around. A few bursts fired by the Luftwaffe gunners briefly stop the Russian assault. Now for the moment of truth: take-off roll. The engines roar at full power as the aircraft accelerates across the treacherous terrain. The risky maneuver works and soon the bomber rotates, all the while chased by Soviet bullets. Leutnant Utter climbs away and points his aircraft towards the home plate.
The Battle of Kharkov
By the end of March 1942 Russian preparations for the Kharkov offensive were in full swing. The operation would involve the elements of the Southwestern and Southern Fronts under the command of Marshal Timoshenko. The Russian force included 640,000 troops, 1,200 tanks, 13,000 artillery pieces and mortars and 926 combat aircraft, all organized into 23 infantry divisions, two cavalry divisions and two armored corps. The main thrust of the offensive was to be launched from the Barvenkovo salient south of Kharkov complemented by a simultaneous strike of a shock group positioned to the north. Eventually the city of Kharkov was to be encircled after having been caught in the Red Army pincers. The plan of the offensive was officially accepted on April 28, 1942.