In 1944 – 45 the Luftwaffe maintained a substantial presence on the Eastern Front, but the Russians launched a series of massive offensives that smashed the Germans on the ground and in the air.
Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 Type 3M ground-attack aircraft over the Eastern Front, 1944. Purpose-built for close support of ground forces, it had specially armoured engine and cockpit areas.
By the 1st January 1944, the Luftwaffe had a front-line strength of just over 5500 combat aircraft, about 1700 of which were deployed on the Eastern Front. In themselves, these were not unreasonable figures. They represented a statistical improvement on a year before, but, however they disguised a host of serious weaknesses. Because of decisions made as early as 1941, aircraft production had tended to concentrate on proven designs, merely updating and uprating them as time went on, neglecting the full development of fresh ideas. Some new machines were becoming available, not least the long-awaited Heinkel He 177 and Junkers Ju 188 bombers, though there were never enough of them to have an appreciable effect on combat power. Frontline squadrons depended on stalwarts such as the Messerschmitt Bf 109 and Junkers Ju 88, while the Focke-Wulf Fw 190 had proved an adaptable and, at times, quite formidable, fighter, but when it is realised that the Messerschmitt Bf 110 and even the Junkers Ju 87 were still being modified and deployed, despite their painfully apparent obsolescence, the nature of the problem facing the Luftwaffe may be appreciated.
A Gotha Go242A assault and transport glider lifts off under tow, winter 1943 – 1944. The aircraft is dropping its wheels to make it lighter and to improve aerodynamic shape.
A Junkers Ju 52 transport is prepared for take-off on an airfield on the Eastern Front, winter 1944 – 1945. The pipes into the port nacelle carry hot air to warm the engine.
A Messerschmitt Me 231A-1 heavy transport glider is pulledinto the air by a pair of Heinkel He 111H-6 bombers joined together and given a fifth engine. Known as the Heinkel-Zwilling, this rather unconventional combination was first used to deliver supplies to the men of the trapped 6th Army in Stalingrad in early 1943.
A clearer view of the unusual Heinkel-Zwilling, showing the engine layout and enormous wingspan of 35m (116ft). The two Heinkel He 111H-6 fuselages were attached by means of a new centre-wing section, strengthen to take a fifth engine. The aircraft, now known officially as the Heinkel He 111Z, was flown from the port cockpit.
Fatal flaws in the aircraft industry.
But those problems went much deeper. On the one hand, Allied bombing raids were beginning to bite by early 1944, hitting key components of the aircraft industry, including engine plants and fuel supplies; on the other, all Allied powers were now producing superior aircraft designs, which left the Luftwaffe struggling to keep up. In the East, the Soviets had not only deployed specific ground-attack machines, such as the Ilyushin Il-2 and Petlakov Pe-2, but were also well on the way to developing and fielding the next generation of fast interceptor fighters, such as the Lavochkin La-7 and Yakovlev Yak-3, both of which were more than capable of matching the latest modifications of the Messerschmitt Bf 109 or Focke-Wulf Fw 190. Moreover, by early 1944 the Soviet Red Air Force was outnumbering the Luftwaffe by a factor approaching 6 to 1, giving it the luxury of gaining air superiority wherever and whenever it was needed. Although 1700 combat aircraft might have looked good on paper, the Luftwaffe had a front of nearly 3200km (2000 miles) to cover and just could not do so with any hopes of lasting success.
This had been apparent in the campaign of late 1943, when attacks ensured that air superiority was attained, at least on a localised basis. What was emerging was a distinctive Soviet war-fighting philosophy, based in part on lessons drawn from the experiences of 1941- 43, and in part on theories of “deep battle” first propounded in the inter-war period. Enormous emphasis was laid on maskirovka – deception designed to enhance surprise by tricking the enemy into believing that an attack was about to happen elsewhere – and the air force played its part in this by concentrating in one place then attacking elsewhere, something that could only be done with large numbers of aircraft available. Once surprise had been achieved, avenues of advance would be carved out by overwhelming mechanised force, supported by massed air capability, which would observe the enemy’s deployments, act as “flying artillery” to blast a way forward, cut off enemy lines of supply and communications and, if necessary, resupply ground elements from the air. The overall aim was to advance into the depth of the enemy, disrupting his ability to respond and shattering his will to fight. If this could be done simultaneously along vast portions of the frontline, so much the better, as the Germans would be stretched and weakened.
Luftwaffe crew members pause to synchronise their watches before boarding their bomber. The three on the right are wearing the correct life jacket for crew of bombers, transport and flying boats, but the man on the left has managed to acquire an example of that issued to fighter pilots.
A Junkers Ju 52 is prepared for a day’s work by ground crew, who are removing the tarpaulins from cockpit and engines. The wheel fairings, with their painted lines, suggest that this is a civilian aircraft, possibly belonging to Lufthansa.
Soviet force levels were such that they could start to do this in early 1944, mounting offensives from Leningrad in the north to the Crimea in the south. With less than 350 fighters available all along the Eastern Front, there was little the Luftwaffe could do to withstand the pressure, particularly as any attempt to concentrate resources in one escort were doomed when attacks began elsewhere. Some local successes were enjoyed – in mid-January, for example, the Luftwaffe managed to deliver over 2032 tonnes (2000 tons) of supplies to forces trapped in the Cherkassy Pocket, and two months later a similar operation enabled the 1st Panzer Army to survive encirclement, but the costs were heavy. Over 650 transports were lost during the first five months of 1944, at a time when production of such aircraft had taken second place to fighters and bombers. Luftwaffe strength was being eroded steadily, not least in terms of trained pilots and crews.
With bow doors wide open, a Messerschmitt Me 323D-1 Gigant (Giant) six-engined transport waits to be off-loaded, 1944. Capable of carrying up to 18180 kg (40000 lb.) of supplies, it was extremely vulnerable in the air.
A massive Messerschmitt Me 231A-1 glider being towed aloft by a trio of Messerschmitt Bf 110C fighters, 1943. This combination, known as Troika-Schlepp, was not a great success, chiefly because of problems coordinating the towing aircraft. By 1943, the Messerschmitt Bf 110s had been replaced by the five-engined Heinkel He 111Z.
A hair-brained scheme.
The situation was not helped by a sudden decision, made by Hitler and Göring in November 1943, to mount a strategic bombing campaign against Soviet industry. Göring subsequent directive was crystal clear: “I intend to unite the majority of the heavy bomber units assigned in the East … [to be given] the mission of conducting air attacks against the Russian armaments industry with a view to destroying Soviet material resources … before they can be put to use at the front.” However, this was something for which the Luftwaffe was neither trained nor equipped, as was to become painfully apparent.
8 bomber gruppen, about 250 aircraft, mostly Heinkel He 111s, were withdrawn from frontline service, and preparations made to hit factories chiefly around Gorky. However, by the time the force was ready in late March 1944, Soviet advances had pushed the bomber bases so far west that the Heinkel He 111s were effectively out of range of their targets. With the longer-range Heinkel He 177s and Junkers Ju 188s unavailable in sufficient numbers, there was nothing that could be done to carry out Göring’s wishes. The bombers soon found that demands for their services from hard-pressed ground units took precedence, particularly as the whole experiment coincided with the withdrawal of fighter and fighter-bomber squadrons to defend the German homeland. All that was achieved was that for about 4 months bombers were not available to bolster defences in the East.
A Junkers Ju 88C pressed into service as a cargo-carrier, Eastern Front, 1944. The bomb appears to be a 1000 lb., and behind it are crates of supplies for aerial delivery.
An unusual sight by 1944 – 1945: a flight of Junkers Ju 88s flies into the attack. Such a group of flying machines would be an inviting sight for Soviet interceptor aircraft.
Göring rebuilds his shattered squadrons.
Fortunately for the Germans, the Eastern Front stabilised somewhat in April 1944, as the Soviets prepared their next series of offensives. Göring took the opportunity to rebuild his squadrons, taking advantage of a simultaneous lull in Anglo-American bombing raids as the Western Allies shifted air support to the projected amphibious assault on “Fortress Europe”. The results were impressive: by the 1st June the 3 Luftflotten in the East were fielding a total of nearly 2000 combat aircraft, the majority of which were ground-attack and bomber designs. The emphasis lay with Luftflotte 4 in the south. Here, 850 aircraft covered the approaches to the vitally important Romanian oilfields, where the main weight of the next Soviet assault was expected to fall, although the central region, defended by Luftflotte 6, was not neglected, with over 770 machines available. The real weakness lay in the north, where Luftflotte 1 had fewer than 400 aircraft, none of which were bombers and only 70 were ground-attack designs, inadequate numbers to stop the Russians. Given recent losses in all theatres, however, this was a remarkable achievement.
German engineers were experimenting with high-altitude bombers in an attempt to avoid Allied air defences. Here, a Junkers Ju 88S is shown fitted with nitrous-oxide injected BMW 801G-2 engines. The experiment was a success.
One of the more unusual Luftwaffe designs of the war was the Blohm und Voss Bv 141 tactical reconnaissance and army cooperation aircraft. The aircraft, powered by a single engine, never entered squadron service.
But it was not enough. The Soviets, for good reason, dubbed the campaigning season of 1944 the “Year of Ten Victories”, indicating just how flexible and wide-ranging they had become. Thus, when the expected offensive began in early June 1944, it did not materialise in the south immediately, but was presaged by an attack in the far north against Finland, where Luftwaffe defences were at their weakest. German and Finnish air capability was swept aside by sheer weight of numbers, forcing the Luftwaffe to send reinforcements from Luftflotte 6. This was exactly what the Soviets wanted, for on the 23rd June they opened their main attack, Operation “Bagration” on the central front, where they had massed over 6000 combat aircraft. As Army Group Centre fought for its very existence, Hitler authorised the withdrawal of aircraft from other theatres, 40 fighters from the defence of Germany, 85 from Italy and 40 from Luftflotte 3 in Western Europe, but too little avail. Within less than 3 weeks, the Soviets had punched an enormous hole in the German defences, allowing them to advance almost 800km (500 miles) by the end of July, to the border of East Prussia. Army Group Centre ceased to exist, along with nearly 400 Luftwaffe aircraft.
Nor was this the end of the nightmare, for the long-awaited assault in the south began on the 20th August, at a time when most Germans had assumed the area to be secure. By then, Luftflotte 4 had been reduced to less than 200 combat aircraft as reinforcements had been rushed farther north, and when this coincided with the sudden collapse of Romania, the Soviets were able to advance with comparative ease. By the 31st August, most of Romania had been occupied; by mid-September Bulgaria had changed sides, declaring war on Germany, and Soviet troops had entered northern Yugoslavia and eastern Hungary. Luftwaffe squadrons continued to fly, but they were finding it increasingly difficult to guarantee the existence of secure bases and were encountering overwhelming Soviet air strength. As the year came to an end, the remnants of the Luftwaffe in the East were being squeezed back into Germany to join their comrades now fighting the Western Allies. It was a hopeless task.
A Junkers Ju 87 Stuka banks to starboard over the River Dnieper. Its bomb racks are empty, implying a successful mission, but its days as an effective aircraft are numbered. As soon as the Soviets gain air superiority, the Stuka will be a doomed weapon.
Defeat, retreat and destruction.
The lull which occurred on the Eastern Front as the Soviets built up their forces for the next offensive did not last long. Even if it had, the Luftwaffe was rapidly approaching a situation in which it could no longer be revitalised. Over 13,000 aircraft had been lost in all theatres during the course of 1944, and production had suffered under the relentless weight of enemy bombing attacks, falling too little over 3000 machines in December. Moreover, as the Soviets advanced from the east they overran Luftwaffe training bases, established there to avoid attack from the Western Allies, and their withdrawal into Germany not only led to hopeless congestion but also disrupted the replacement of lost aircrews. Finally, as predominantly American bombers deliberately targeted oil facilities, fuel shortages curtailed air operations and reduced the levels of air support available to frontline ground units.
Romanian troops, fighting on the side of the Germans, watch as a number of Junkers Ju 87 Stukas peel away, having carried out dive-bombing attacks on nearby Soviet positions, 1944. The troops are well dug-in, clearly expecting a ground assault; the Stukas have given them a respite.
The crew of a Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 hurry through the cold of their airfield, discussing tactics and their recent experiences of battle, February 1944.
Soviet Ilyushin Il-4 bombers fitted with 45-36-N low-level release torpedoes, flying towards their targets, 1944. With a maximum speed of 416kmph 9260mph) and a range of 3776 km (2360 miles), the Il-4 was a capable machine.
Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 Type 3M aircraft seek out German panzer formations, 1944. Operating in a “Circle of Death”, whereby each aircraft attacked in turn until ammunition ran out, the Il-2s were rightly feared by enemy troops.
The next Soviet attack began on the 12th January 1945 and was stunning in both its scope and impact. Maskirovka had led German round commanders to expect the full weight of the offensive to fall around Warsaw; in reality it came farther south, bursting out of bridgeheads on the west bank of the River Vistula at Sandomierz and Magneszew. Luftflotte 6, facing the central front, had more than 1000 aircraft available and enjoyed the advantage of operating from concrete runways inside Germany, but the Soviets, true to form, had amassed overwhelming numbers of aircraft to support the breakthrough sectors. By the 19th January, Soviet troops had breached the eastern boarders of Germany; by the end of the month, they had reached the River Oder, less than 80km (50 miles) from Berlin, creating bridgeheads on the west bank from which they could assault the capital. Additional aircraft were scraped together from all theatres and hastily committed to try to stem the flow. Altogether, nearly 800 machines were found, but their crews were largely inexperienced and the Soviets were able to wreak havoc. Although they halted their attacks in February, having advanced nearly 800km (500 miles) and stretched their logistical chain to the limit, the end was clearly in sight.
One result was that, as the Soviets resumed their advances all along the Eastern Front, they encountered little opposition from a defeated and shattered Luftwaffe. In the south, for example, Luftflotte 4 tried to defend an area from the Adriatic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains with a force of little more than 500 aircraft, most of which were wasted when Hitler ordered a counterattack to relive the siege of a German garrison in Budapest. The Soviets immediately responded, ejecting the Germans from Hungary by the end of March and taking Vienna on the 13th April. By then, Luftflotte 4 had ceased to exist. Similar attacks in the centre, aimed at Berlin, began in late April. Despite bitter fighting on the ground, by the fall of the German capital in early May, the Soviets had suffered over 100,000 casualties; the Luftwaffe had virtually no discernible impact. There was literally nothing left to give.
The price of German failure in the East: the graves of fallen soldiers stand in front of a ruined Russian village, 1944.
The Eastern Front in retrospect.
Viewed in retrospect, the failure of the Luftwaffe in the East is not difficult to explain. From the start of Operation “Barbarossa” in June 1941, Hitler had expected his air force to do too much, covering an enormous frontage with inadequate resources. The Luftwaffe had been designed and trained for short, sharp, surgical campaigns, and despite the outstanding achievements of 1941, once the war in the East entered a second year, it would have taken a radical shift in priorities and industrial procedures to transform the force into one that was able to cope with a lengthy conflict. Faced with a Soviet Air Force which used the time to develop and grow, the numerical odds were soon stacking against the Luftwaffe, while the steady improvements to Soviets technology, coming at a time when the Germans were having to go for larger numbers of already existing designs in a vain bid to maintain viability, merely made things worse. In such circumstances, air superiority was impossible to retain and, once that could no longer be guaranteed, ground forces were left unprotected and vulnerable to defeat.
But the Soviets were not the only threat. While German forces battled for survival in the East, the Western Allies used their air strength not only to wear down the Luftwaffe still more but also to devastate its infrastructure. The oil industry and aircraft-production plants were included on the list of targets for the vast fleets of Allied bombers. The end in the West was just as traumatic and decisive as that in the East.
A Junkers Ju 87G-1, fitted with two under wing 37mm Flak 18 cannon, stands at dispersal on a German airfield, 1944. The cannon were designed as anti-tank weapons, but made an already slow aircraft even less manoeuvrable.
Men of a German armoured formation, moving over open terrain on the Eastern Front, wave to acknowledge the arrival of a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka. Despite its obsolescence, the Stuka continued to be deployed right up to the end of the war.
The aftermath of a successful Stuka tank-busting attack: a Soviet T-34/85 lies wrecked by cannon fire. Such damage could be easily absorbed by the Soviets, whose tank factories were working at full capacity by 1944.
Oberst Hans-Ulrich Rudel (centre), the most highly decorated Stuka pilot of the Second World War. Here he wears the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Golden Oakleaves, Swords and Diamonds. Also he wears two pilots’ badges, the upper one being the Combined Pilots and Observers Badge in Gold with Diamonds.
Oberst Hans-Ulrich Rudel. He was born on the 2nd July 1916 in Konradswaldau, the son of a Protestant Minister. In 1936 he enlisted in the Luftwaffe, applied for officer training, and was accepted. Following a short period of service with the Reich Labour Service he underwent military training. In 1937 he began his flying training at the Air War School at Berlin-Werder. In June of the following year he was transferred to the 1. Staffel for training as a dive-bomber pilot. When war broke out in 1939 he actively participated in the Polish Campaign as a Leutnant. In the summer of 1940 he returned to the Stukas that he loved so much, and was assigned to the “Grazer Group”. After seeing duty in France and Greece, he was transferred to the Eastern Front where he was to remain for the duration of his operational flying career.
It was on the Eastern Front that he made combat history. On the 22nd June 1941 he flew his first four missions in a Stuka as a member of the “Immelmann” Group (II./St.G.2). In September he was able to destroy the Soviet battleship “Marat” in Kronstadt harbour, and later destroy a cruiser and a destroyer. After having received a series of awards for his combat exploits, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. He continued to rise in rank and duty position, continued to fly operational missions, and became the first pilot to fly 1000 missions in the southern section of the Eastern Front. By the 25th November 1943 he had become the first Stuka pilot to accumulate 1600 missions and destroy more than 100 tanks. After a period of serving as acting commander of Group III “Immelmann”, he was named as its commander on the 22nd February 1944, and promoted to the rank of Major the following month. By June 1944 he had destroyed a total of 301 tanks, and had flown an unprecedented 2000 missions. A Daily bulletin dated the 3rd June 1944 stated, “Major Rudel, decorated with the highest German award for bravery, flew his 2000th mission against the enemy in the East”. For this achievement he was awarded the Golden Combat Clasp with Diamonds and 2000 missions bar personally by Reichsmarschall Göring. On the 1st September 1944 he was promoted to the rank of Oberstleutnant and the following month was named commander of the SG 2 “Immelmann”. It became obvious that Germany’s fighting power was near its end. But not to Rudel, he continued to fight with superhuman energy. In a mission in the Lebus/Oder area Rudel destroyed 12 tanks, but in the process, was forced down by enemy anti-aircraft fire. He suffered a severe leg wound. He was removed to a SS field hospital where his leg was amputated. Remaining in a Berlin hospital only a short time, he returned to his unit. He had the rudder pedal built up, and immediately began to fly operational missions. In the process of flying 2530 missions, destroying more than 519 tanks, 1 battleship, 1 cruiser, 1 destroyer, 70 landing craft and others, he was downed by flak 30 times, wounded five times, and had been cited for bravery more than any other German combatant. His e combat exploits came to an end when he along with other pilots of his Geschwader landed at the Kilzingen/Main airfield on the 8th May 1945, where he was immediately taken prisoner by the Americans.
Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross: Awarded on the 6th January 1942 after flying more than 400 missions as a dive-bomber and assault pilot while an Oberleutnant serving on the Eastern Front.
Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves: Awarded on the 14th April 1943 after flying more than 1000 missions as a dive-bomber and assault pilot while an Oberleutnant serving on the Eastern Front. He was the 229th Recipient.
Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves and Swords: Awarded on the 25th November 1943 for after flying more than 1600 missions as a dive-bomber and assault pilot while an Hauptmann serving on the Eastern Front. He was the 42nd Recipient.
Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oakleaves, Swords and Diamonds: Awarded on the 29th March 1944 after flying more than 1800 missions and over 200 enemy tanks destroyed as a dive-bomber and assault pilot while an Oberleutnant serving on the Eastern Front. He was the 10th Recipient.
Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Golden Oakleaves, Swords and Diamonds: Awarded on the 29th December 1944 after flying more than 2400 missions and over 463 enemy tanks destroyed as a dive-bomber and assault pilot while an Oberleutnant serving on the Eastern Front. He was the only recipient.
Combined Pilots-Observation Badge in Gold with Diamonds. - March 1944.
1939 Iron Cross Second Class November 1939, Iron Cross First Class July 1941, Bomber Operational Flying Clasp Bronze Class July 1941, Honour Goblet. September 1941, German Cross in Gold December 1941, Air-to-Ground Support Operational Flying Clasp Diamond Class April 1944. Hungary - Hungarian Golden Medal for Bravery 15th January 1945.
Air-to-Ground Support Operational Flying Clasp Diamond Class with 2000 pendant awarded in April 1944.
A pilot alights from his Junkers Ju 87 Stuka. The tiredness and strain of continuous combat missions can be seen in his face and in his stance.
–. Oberst Hermann Graf (second from left) with fellow pilots of Jagdgeschwader 52 on the Eastern Front. Graf was the first Luftwaffe fighter pilot to reach a total of 202 aerial victories, of which 200 were against the Soviets. They look at the flight mascot, a shaggy white terrier.
Field Marshal Maximilian, Baron von Weichs (centre) returns from a personal reconnaissance mission in a Fieseler Fi 156 Storch light aircraft in the background, probably during is time as Commander of Army Group Bon the Eastern Front, 1943. By then, the Fi 156 was a vulnerable machine.
A pilot paints his victory tallies onto the tail of his Messerschmitt Bf 109 on the Eastern Front.
Civilians watch as an air armada carrying paratroopers on Operation “Varsity” – the crossing of the Rhine – passes overhead.