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


Von Kleist’s surprise counter-attack forced the Russian 9th Army to hastily retreat towards the Donets River, which exposed Timoshenko’s forces south of Kharkov and made them vulnerable to possible encirclement. On May 18 the Red Army chief of staff, Gen. Vasilevsky, asked Stalin to stop the offensive and order Timoshenko’s forces to begin defensive operations. Stalin did not follow Vasilevsky’s recommendation and delayed the order to halt the offensive until May 19. It arrived too late. On the same day the pilots of III./JG 3 flew their first missions in the skies over Kharkov claiming four aerial victories.

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On May 20 von Kleist’s units reached the village of Protopopovka. At that time Timoshenko’s force was almost completely encircled, the only way of retreat being a 20 km wide corridor to their rear. “Like fiery wasps trapped in a bottle, the encircled armies turned inwards and stabbed at the German pincers”, wrote a British military historian John Erickson.7 However, the Soviet attempts to break out failed and after three days of relentless fighting German troops had the Russians completely cut off. The Luftwaffe bombers attacked both the Soviet elements caught in the trap and the forces trying to breach the German lines from the outside in an effort to break through to their encircled comrades. To that aim the Luftwaffe destroyed almost every bridge across the Donets River. In the meantime the German fighter outfits ruled the skies over the battlefield having secured almost total air superiority. In just two days, between May 20 and May 22, the pilots of I./JG 52 claimed 13 air-to-air kills. Despite a hectic tempo of operations Fliegerkorps IV suffered very modest losses: the Germans lost six aircraft on May 21 and six more on May 22, 1942. Lt. Hermann Graf from 9./JG 52 was officially removed from combat flying having scored his 100th victory. Nonetheless, he explored every avenue to bypass the ban and return to the sky. Here is how he remembers the action: “On that day my unit deployed to a forward airfield close to the front line. I followed in their footsteps, basically a civilian with Ofw. Süß as my chaperon. On our way in we ran into Soviet bombers harassing the German troops below. My orders clearly stated that in a situation like this I could only look on and was not allowed to take any offensive action. But when I thought about our boys on the ground being pounded by the Soviet bombers I did not hesitate for one minute and attacked the Russians. So it came to be that yesterday, May 20, at 17.37 I scored my 106th kill – a Russian bomber. The CO was mad as hell, but there was nothing he could do. The Su-2 that I shot down crashed and burned. The remaining two Soviet aircraft fell victim to Ernst Süß’s guns.8 Later on I was again stuck on the ground directing the fight over the radio. Then our CO, Maj. von Bonin, sent me to Rogani airfield to bring some supplies. I saw it as an excellent opportunity and requested a wingman to provide extra security. I did not want to waste time flying around the encircled Russian troops, so I flew across 7 km of enemy-held territory. Then, by pure chance, I stumbled upon an air-to-air fight. I saw two Bf 109s chasing a single Russian aircraft. They didn’t seem to be doing a great job – probably rookie pilots. After a while things began to look bleak for the young pilots, so I decided to step in. Soon I scored my 107th victory. This time the CO treated me to a big, fat cigar.”9
On May 22 a Henschel Hs 129 ground attack aircraft from 4./Sch.G 1 made a forced landing near the village of Grishina due to fuel starvation. The aircraft was flown by Uffz. Anton Maier, a veteran Eastern Front flyer who had flown 150 combat sorties in Henschel Hs 123 bi-plane attack aircraft. The machine was completely destroyed in a landing attempt, while its pilot suffered severe injuries and did not return to flying duties until February 1943.
The following day as many as three Hs 129B-1s were downed by Soviet AA fire near Izyum. Fw. Alfred Katzberg from Stab II./Sch.G 1 was forced to bail out of his burning aircraft (WNr 0186). Although Katzberg abandoned the aircraft over friendly territory, some 9 km from Petrovskaya, he was soon pushed by strong winds behind the Soviet lines and was subsequently listed as MIA. Uffz. Heinz Lammel from 5./Sch.G 1 was downed in the same area, just 11 km west of Petrovskaya. Lammel was killed while trying to land his stricken aircraft, just minutes after a direct hit from a Soviet AA gun had set one of the engines on fire. The third Hs 129 lost that day was WNr 0173, which also crashed near Petrovskaya. The pilot managed to walk away from the crash without major injuries.
The Luftwaffe bombers continued to pound the Soviet troops trapped south of Kharkov. One of the He 111 radio operators flying with 9./KG 27, Egon Hellweg, remembers: “For the past few days we have been engaging the Russians trapped south of Kharkov. KG 27 crews have been tasked with providing air support to our ground forces. We have already flown one combat sortie today and are now standing by for another order to launch. We’ll be airborne again as soon as the aircraft are turned around. The preflight briefing was very short and straightforward: targets and ingress routes have not changed. We had no losses on the previous sortie, so all the crews will be flying in the same aircraft as before. Our mission: engage all detected enemy troop concentrations, vehicles, tanks and artillery emplacements. We’ll be flying in loose formation en-route to the target area, then break into individual flights over the target. Our fighters should be there to provide top cover. Nonetheless, we were ordered to assume defensive formation after the bombing runs. The Russian fighters are very active over the target area and a formation of three bombers stands a better chance against such a threat than a single aircraft.

 

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