Air Assault goes disaster – 5th of July 1943
In the months before Operation Zitadelle, both sides on the Eastern front worked at full effort to be prepared for what we now call the biggest tank battle ever. The Wehrmacht planned to cut off a big bulge of soviet-hold and destroy the troops which then would be encircled. On the other side, the Red Army knew about this plan due to espionage (i.e. “Rote Kapelle”) and put all its effort into building up deep defensive systems as well as reserves for a countestrike.
The air war was also prepared on a large scale. New airfields were built, huge amounts of supply were stored, and combat units were rebolstered up to strength.
So, after long delays, the german offensive should start with a combined preparation by artillery and the Luftwaffe on the 5th of July 1943, a Monday. The night from Sunday to Monday was very long for the “schwarze Männer”, the mechanics from Luftflotte 4. Hundreds of Stukas, Kampf- & Schlachtflieger were ready to take off from the 6 airfields around Charkov and the three fields south of Belgorod. Suddenly, alarm was given: The previously installed Radar-system had detected large numbers of contacts heading in from the East! Immediately, flak positions were manned and all fighters available from JG3 “Udet”, JG52 and also the hungarian 5/I Vadászosztály revved up there engines and took off while their comrades in the bombers were already waiting.
The VVS’ target was to destroy the Luftwaffes main force on the ground even before it could launch into action. For this, a formidable attack force was formed. It consisted of Il2-Shturmoviks as attackers and several groups of fighters which had different duties. The Sturmoviks approached in four spearheads, 291.ShAD towards the northern airfields around Belgorod, while 292, 266 and 305ShAD were bound for the Charkov area.
The planned tactic was that a group of 64 fighters would draw the attention of german fighters away from the Ilyushins, while 40 others blocked the airfields and 94 stayed with the Shturmoviks.
Table1: Structure of the VVS’ attacking force
On the german side, 2 groups from each JG52 (I. and III.Gruppe) and JG3 (II. and III.Gruppe) started to intercept their enemies. In sum, they had 180 (!) Messerschmitts at their hands, ca. 30% being of the latest type G-6.
The aerial battles which developed were among the most impressive ever on the Eastern Front. A lot of the fights could be watched from the german airfields. Already during take-off, some Germans were attacked by russian fighters. One example was recorded at JG3:
„5.7.1943 Bf 109G-4 W.Nr. 19965 weiß 11 + 4./JG 3
Nevertheless, most of the fighters were able to start in time to fend of the enemy. 359 fighter mssions were flown by the Luftwaffe, and 21 by the Royal Hungarian Air Force. When the day was over, the Luftwaffe had gained a big victory.
Indeed, the losses of JG3 and JG52’s were huge for a single day: JG3 lost 2 pilots including Emil Ziebler, a 36-kill-ace. 4 Messerschmitt were written off as 100%. JG52 even lost 8 pilots and recorded 11 Bf109's as 100%-losses. Karl Schumacher with 56 kills was wounded, while Wilhelm Hauswirth (54 kills) went MIA.
But the losses were totally neglectable in comparison with the much higher claims: JG 3 claimed 108 kills incl. 28 fighters, 68Il’s, 11Pe2’s and one Boston. JG 52 recorded 92 claims incl. 43 fighters, 45 Ilyushins and 4 Pe-2’s. Additionally, ca. 40 russian planes were shot down by Flak. In Luftflotte 4’s sector, only 5 Luftwaffe bombers were lost. Other units claimed also 163 kills in the northern part of the Kursk bulge: 99 from JG51 and 59 from JG54, making the whole day a huge success for the Luftwaffe.
Altogether, the russian operation proved to be a total failure: The tasks were not even partly reached, but huge losses were suffered. Reasons were the good-working german Würzburg-RADAR-system and the bad tactic to use a big number of fighters as distraction force, so that they were not able to protect the Sturmoviks. The losses on the VVS-side were indeed so high, that Luftwaffe gained control of the air for several days, until the Soviets had pulled in reserves.
Concerning these events, a newer article with further information can be found on the internet site of 88.IAP.
This article was written ca. 2005
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