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.
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%.
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.
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.
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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