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Bergstrom, Christer. Kursk: The Air Battle, July 1943. Hinckley, UK: Classic Publications, 2007
Acknowledgements; Table of Equivalent Ranks; Glossaries and Abbreviations; map; photos; tables; sidebars; Notes; Sources and Bibliography; Index
Appendices: Luftwaffe order of battle; VVS order of battle; Luftwaffe losses; Structure of the Luftwaffe; Structure of the Soviet Air Forces; Highest military awards
Christer Bergstrom continues to specialize in books about air operations on the Russian Front, and a fine job he does. Among other titles, he has written three books in the Black Cross, Red Star series. Those volumes deal with the air war in the East from Barbarossa through Stalingrad. The author covered much the same groundsometimes, in fact, with exactly the same text, images, and appendicesin his Barbarossa: The Air Battle and Stalingrad: The Air Battle. Continuing with that sequence of books, Bergstrom's Kursk: The Air Battle hit shelves in the USA earlier this year.
With the Kursk title, this set moves beyond the chronological leading edge of Black Cross, Red Star and breaks new ground. Furthermore, despite all the ink devoted to Operation Zitadelle, no one seems to have previously published a book specifically addressing air ops during that decisive battle. So this really is fresh ground.
While the Kursk volume represents new territory for Bergstrom, his approach will be familiar to anyone who has read his previous books. It's worth noting, however, that this one covers a much shorter period of time than his others, permitting a more focused and detailed examination of events.
To open the proceedings, he offers two chapters totaling about a dozen pages"From Stalingrad to Kursk" and "Preparatory Air Operations"carrying the campaign in general, and the air war in particular, from February through June 1943. Among other interesting nuggets, a sidebar discusses the air raids against Gorkiy in 1943 which knocked out much of Soviet light tank production and killed as many as 15,000 people. (No source is indicated, but see also Richard Muller.) More importantly, the second chapter compares the Luftwaffe and VVS in the summer of 1943 numerically, according to the types and quality of aircraft in use, and by the relative training and experience of the opposing pilots.
With the third chapter, Bergstrom launches his blow-by-blow account of operations above the Kursk salient and the Orel bulge. Here's a sample:
To the north, 241 ShAP with its Yak-7B escort from 737 IAP fared even worse: they were intercepted by a group of Bf 109s from III./JG 3 just as they crossed the front-line north-east of Belgorod. The German fighters
struck down from above on the eighteen Il-2s, which flew at around 400
metres altitude, and shot down two of these. Just as the eighteen Yak-7Bs
were about to intervene, another formation of Bf 109s2./JG 52 led by
Oblt. Paul-Heinrich Dahnedived down to perform a classic fighter attack.
Dahne and one of his pilots destroyed two Il-2s and then attacked the Soviet
fighters, claiming two of these shot down. The terrified Soviet pilots formed
a defensive circle, and in that moment, a third group of Bf 109sthis time
from 7./JG 52appeared on the scene. These had been scrambled from
Ugrim only fifteen minutes earlier, and now hurled themselves against the
Soviet aircraft. Lt. Erich Hartmann opened up with all arms against an
Il-2 and sent it towards the ground as a blazing torch. When the battle was
over, the German fighter pilots had claimed six Il-2s and eight Soviet
fighters shot down. 241 ShAP actually lost seven Il-2s. At Mikoyanovka
aerodrome, no one noticed any Soviet air attack.
Not every paragraph explodes with air-to-air combat, burning aircraft, and deadly crashes. Bergstrom pays attention to the overall course of the battle, the interplay between ops on the ground and in the air, and the plans, tactics, and missions employed by both sides. For example, despite a certain margin of superiority in the quality of machines and experienced pilots, the Luftwaffe could not be everywhere at all times. As a result, on many occasions German commanders ceded air space over "less important" areas in order to concentrate at critical points. Likewise, both sides in the ever-shifting conditions over the battlefield sometimes found it difficult to determine their top priorities. For examples, each fighter assigned to protect friendly bombers meant one less available to intercept enemy bombers.
The Il-2s of 224 ShAD, which were being escorted by 18 GIAP, were able
to perform four attacks against their targeta column of German vehicles
with artilleryand returned to base without having suffered any own losses.
Other airmen of 1 VA which flew deep into German-occupied territory
detected long vehicle columns moving northwards on the roads from Orel.
These was [sic] the reinforcements which 9. Armee had sent to join
55. Armeekorps in its defensive fight against Bagramyan's troops. Because of
this discovery, the Soviets decided to reinforce Bagramyan's army with the
1st Tank Corpswhich would place 55. Armeekorps in an even more
difficult position. But 1. Fliegerdivision could not strike against 1st Tank
Corps as it rumbled hurriedly southward to reach the battlefield south
When the German air activity in the east slackened at noon on 13 July,
the Bryansk front resumed its offensivethis time with an exceptionally
strong air support. Not only the whole of 15 VA, but also Boston bombers
of 16 VA's 221 BAD and the ADD's 113 BAD were dispatched to ensure a
breakthrough on the ground in this area. Subject to hellish bombardment
from the air, 53. Armeekorps was unable to hold out and started to fall back.
The Bryansk Front's troops broke through and were able to expand their
penetration to a depth of 16 kilometres.
Generalmajor Deichmann had no option but to abandon the support of
55. Armeekorps in the north and order his air units back to fight the Bryansk
Front and 15 VA in the east. A huge air battle ensued.
When the action shifts from Zitadelle to the Orel bulge, Bergstrom offers two chapters on the action on Army Group Center's front. Here in particular the Germans committed tank-busting aircraft to halt Soviet armored attacks which threatened to break through and encircle 9th Army and 2nd Panzer Army.
In sum, the book devotes about 90 pages to the ebb and flow of combat, the back-and-forth missions, and the constant dogfights. In addition, while not quite so exciting, the last chapter, "Results and Conclusions," contains some pertinent insights.
- Although the VVS had ample time to prepare to defend against the inevitable offensive, lack of experience at the "medium command level" greatly hindered air units when the battle began
- As a result, Soviet higher commands exerted greater direct control with lessened flexibility in comparison to Luftwaffe operations
- Inexperience among Soviet pilots accounted for the bulk of their "atrocious" losses in the opening days
- Soviet fighter pilots also suffered heavily because they were forced to fly slow, close escort missions
- On the other hand, the VVS demonstrated an ability to rapidly adapt to new situations, including introduction of effective escort tactics which eventually "reduced bomber losses to negligible levels"
- Kursk and Orel saw the first mass use of anti-tank aviation in history
- Luftwaffe cannon-armed tank-busters, according to Bergstrom, "managed to halt an entire Soviet offensive"
- The Soviet PTAB anti-tank bomb, we're told, was probably an even better weapon, but was initially unproven and utilized by inexperienced pilots
- The battle marked the "beginning of the end of the Luftwaffe's superiority in the air on the Eastern Front"
- The best fighter in the air during the battle was the Soviet La-5FN
- Nevertheless, during July Luftwaffe fighters claimed almost 2000 victories against approximately 200 German fighters lost, a ratio attributed largely to the far greater experience of German pilots
Of course, claims are not the same as verified victories. Bergstrom goes on to quote a variety of conflicting primary sources regarding aircraft losses on both sides. Much of his data is displayed in a series of tables pinpointing specific losses for specific units due to particular causes on individual dates. The author explains and evaluates the data carefully (even taking into account the participation of Spanish pilots on both sides of the line) and draws some informed conclusions. Although the numbers are impossible to reconcile precisely, all this data makes it clear that the VVS suffered far more machines and pilots lost than the Luftwaffe. Bergstrom's detailed statistics and thoughtful analysis, it should be noted, are representative of his approach throughout the book.
In addition to the tables of losses, Bergstrom closes with a number of appendices covering OBs with types of aircraft and numbers available, more data on aircraft losses (including names of pilots and aircrew), and information about the structure and organization of Luftwaffe and VVS flying formations.
Readers familiar with Bergstrom's earlier Air Battle books and/or his Black Cross, Red Star series will know what to expect with Kursk. In some ways, this volume proves to be even stronger and shows the author reaching a new level of maturation. On top of that, as noted above, this appears to be the first book devoted exclusively to air operations during the Battle of Kursk, providing another reason why it should make a solid addition to any WWII bookshelf.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Classic Publications or its US distributor, Specialty Press.
Thanks to Specialty Press for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 21 September 2008
Copyright © 2008 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone