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

In the early hours of May 15 the crews of 929 IAP commanded by Kap. Farit Fatkullin launched a strike against Kharkov-Süd airfield, home to II./JG 52 under Hptm. Johannes Steinhoff. During the fighting Hero of the Soviet Union Lt. Alexander Perepelitsa shot down a Messerschmitt fighter. The downed aircraft was most likely Bf 109 F-4/R1 (WNr 13 132) “yellow 5” flown by Fw. Friedrich Schmidt (later listed as MIA). Minutes later the Soviet pilot was jumped by Luftwaffe fighters and shot down. The battle ended with Luftwaffe crews claiming a total of three air-to-air kills: Oblt. Siegfried Simsch – two (32-33) and Hptm. Steinhoff – one (54). Later that day their colleagues from III./JG 52 would add eight more enemy aircraft to their tally.
In the evening of May 15 the Soviet offensive north of Kharkov was practically brought to a halt. Now the Red Army armored “steam roller” was moving along only in the south, capturing Krasnograd and Taranovka. The collapse of the Russian drive in the north was largely due to the effort by the Luftwaffe – and not just the aircrews: Flak batteries had a huge share in the fighting, especially the lethally effective 88 mm guns, whose shells could easily penetrate the armor of T-34 or KW tanks. Gen. Halder, head of the Army General Staff, greatly appreciated the Luftwaffe effort and wrote in his diary: “The enemy’s offensive drive was stopped thanks to the outstanding efforts by our military aviation.”4
In the Morning of May 17 the forces of Army Group Kleist launched a surprise counter-attack against the Soviet positions in the southern bulge of the front, near Izyum. The German force consisted of eight infantry divisions, two panzer divisions and a single mechanized division. Supporting the left flank were five Romanian infantry divisions. Air support was provided by five Luftwaffe fighter squadrons. A large number of horizontal and dive bombers also took part in the fighting dropping not only bombs, but also 8,349,300 leaflets on the Russian positions (60% of the leaflets were dropped by Heinkel He 111 H aircraft from KG 55). The Luftwaffe bombers also delivered 383 containers with ammunition and supplies for German units surrounded in the forests near Ternovaya. After the fighting the Wehrmacht soldiers sent a letter to the KG 51 airmen to thank them for the their help in those difficult moments. Here is what they wrote:
“As you know we were surrounded for ten days and about 1,000 of us, without any heavy weapons, had to face 30,000 enemy troops. The Russians attacked incessantly, supported by huge numbers of tanks. For days on end we were shelled by all kinds of weapons. To make things worse, we were running out of ammunition and suffered from fatigue and the lack of basic supplies.
Knowing this, you can probably imagine the gravity of our situation. We fought as hard as we could and after ten days we were finally saved.
Now I would like to say a few words to you, my dear friends. It was the German airmen and tank crews that saved us and let us finally break free. I cannot even begin to describe what you have done for us. I would like to offer my highest regards to you and assure you that all of our soldiers greatly appreciate your efforts. I personally was responsible for defending a 150 meter long sector facing 1,500 Soviet troops poised to attack. There is no doubt in my mind that they would have broken through if it was not for you and your bombs. Your aim was indeed excellent, since the first bombs hit the woods where the enemy troops were concentrated. Your repeated strikes destroyed several more of such enemy troop concentrations. It was you who kept us alive, or at least saved us from being captured. Your bombs had a horrifying effect on the enemy: the Russians lost all their will to fight and attack. Let me say once again how greatly I am impressed by the precision of your work, the precision worthy of the best professional.
You were dropping bombs fifty meters from our positions and you never missed your mark. To be honest, we all thought that was the end for us, but your bombardiers did a great job putting the bombs exactly on target.
The most dangerous moment that I can remember was when one of the heavy bombs landed just four meters from my foxhole. That one, thank God, was a dud! To sum up, you did an excellent job, one we shall never forget.”5
Luftwaffe reconnaissance crews played an especially important role during the fighting at Kharkov. Their job was not only to report movements of the Soviet troops, but also to direct artillery fire along the front. Those brave crews, whose work often went unnoticed were vindicated in a special letter of appreciation sent by Gen. von Kleist to Fliegerkorps IV: “The effects of the air operations carried out by tactical reconnaissance crews were at the basis of the command’s decision making process. Those crews worked tirelessly and with great courage to provide the command with a clear picture of enemy actions throughout the entire operation.”6
During that period most of the Luftwaffe aircraft flew up to ten combat sorties per day. It was that strong air support that allowed the III. Panzerkorps to advance 24 km towards Barvenkovo, while the 17th Army moved 28 km towards Izyum. The Stuka units also provided invaluable support to Paulus’s forces which had to face the advancing Red Army armor on May 17.