Objective: the Caucasus! The Luftwaffe operations in the southern sector of the Eastern Front: May – August, 1942


Facing the Soviet Southwestern Front were numerically inferior Wehrmacht forces consisting of 14 infantry divisions and two panzer divisions supported by the aircraft of Fliegerkorps IV. At that time the Fliegerkorps included III./JG 77, II./KG 55 and KG 27. It was the Luftwaffe airfields that were on the receiving end of the initial assault by the Soviet forces. On May 11, 1942 the III./JG 77 airfield came under repeated attacks by Pe-2 and Su-2 bombers, as well as Il-2 ground attack aircraft escorted by large numbers of fighters. However, the raids resulted in surprisingly little damage: only one Messerschmitt Bf-109 F-4/R1 (WNr. 13 273) was damaged at Kharkov-Nord airfield. The Luftwaffe pilots scored as many as nine air-to-air kills in the process of defending their own bases. Ofw Wilhelm Baumgartner from 9./JG 77 shot down three enemy aircraft, increasing his total tally to 26. The hardest hit was the 282 IAP2 that lost five Polikarpov I-16 fighters on that day.
The main Soviet offensive began at dawn on May 12. Numerically superior Russian forces quickly broke through the Wehrmacht 6th Army defenses both south and north of the city. By noon the Soviet troops advanced 20 km into the enemy territory. The Germans were in a difficult situation since the Russian offensive was launched just days before their own offensive operation, code-named “Fredericus”, was to begin. The Wehrmacht units were in the process of regrouping for the upcoming offensive, which made them vulnerable to the Soviet attack and ill-prepared for defensive operations.
It was no surprise therefore that Gen. Paulus, in command of the 6th Army, immediately requested reinforcements. Luckily, the Wehrmacht high command quickly realized the gravity of the situation and persuaded Hitler to order most of von Richthofen’s Fliegerkorps VIII assets (mainly medium bombers and dive bombers) to be moved from Crimea to Kharkov area. Fliegerkorps IV units that were already in theater were greatly outnumbered and could not effectively counter the Soviet offensive. The pilots of III./JG 77 fought hard to deny the enemy air superiority, but lacked the punch to deliver effective attacks against the Soviet ground units.
During air-to-air fighting on May 12, 1942 the fighters of III./JG 77 shot down eight Soviet aircraft, while losing three machines and two pilots: Uffz. Ludwig Berger from 7./JG 77 was captured and later died in a POW camp on January 3, 1943, while the CO of 9./JG 77 Hptm. Arthur Brutzer was listed as MIA.
That same day saw the arrival of the first Luftwaffe units re-deploying from Crimea. Among them were the crews of III./JG 52 who wasted no time and dispatched four enemy aircraft before the nightfall.
The following day was a real turkey shoot for the pilots of III./JG 52: the crews reported no fewer than 42 kills, including 6 victories each claimed by Lt. Hermann Graf and Lt. Adolf Dickfeld. The Soviets lost some of their leading fighter pilots on that day, including the Hero of the Soviet Union Lt. Arseny Stepanov from 929 IAP and three 512 IAP pilots: St. Lt. Gennady Dubenok, St. Lt. Ivan Motorny and St. Lt. Valentin Makarov. In total, the Luftwaffe pilots claimed 65 aerial victories on that day. Later that day one of the St.G 77 squadrons arrived in the Kharkov area, followed two days later by the Geschwader’s remaining units. Also arriving on May 13 were two squadrons of KG 27. On May 14 the Luftwaffe forces in the area were reinforced by three squadrons from KG 55 and three KG 51 squadrons, which arrived on May 15. The last unit to arrive in the area was one of the KG 76 squadrons. Additionally, one of the dive bomber units operating in the central sector of the Eastern Front as part of Luftwaffenkommando Ost was also deployed to Kharkov.
By May 14 Timoshenko’s forces had successfully penetrated German defenses along the front. At that time the Soviet commander should have deployed the forces of the 21st Tank Corps to complete the encirclement of the Wehrmacht units. However, the Soviet intelligence reported a concentration of German panzer units in the area of Zmiev, some 25 km south of Kharkov. Timoshenko decided to delay the introduction of his armored units, which allowed Paulus to consolidate his defense lines deep within the 6th Army positions. Despite heavy losses the Soviet air force remained very active and claimed the destruction of no fewer than 100 German tanks.3
The Red Army air force losses were in fact staggering: the pilots of III./JG 52 reported 51 kills, while two more were added by members of III./JG 77. At 14.40 Ofw. Josef Zwenemann from 7./JG 52 scored his 48th aerial victory, which was also the 1,000th kill credited to III./JG 52 pilots. Other members of the unit also reported multiple kills: Lt. Graf scored six enemy aircraft (98-104), Lt. Dickfeld nine (82-90), Lt. Gratz eight (19-26), Fw. Steinbatz four (67-70), Fw. Wachowiak five (58-62) and Uffz. Gratz six (21-26). The unit lost only one Bf 109F during the fighting. It was on the same day that the Luftwaffe ground attack aircraft and dive bombers began to fly offensive operations against the Soviet armor.
On May 15 the Luftwaffe forces in Kharkov area included 10 bomber squadrons, six fighter squadrons and four dive bomber squadrons, plus two dedicated ground attack and reconnaissance units. However, due to complex logistics overall combat readiness figures stood at only 54.6%.