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Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmoviks engaging tanks, Kursk 1943

A trio of Il-2s attacking ground targets during the Battle of Kursk

As many would eventually grow to remember the Battle of Kursk and by extension the Battle of Prohorovka, German Operation Citadel would host the largest tank battle in history, however, Kursk was also a milestone in terms of the sheer amount of aircraft also present during the whole of confrontation. For example, just in a single series of predawn raids against German airfields around Kharkov before the Battle of Kursk, over 400 Soviet aircraft participated.[1]

However, just as soon as the bomber formations took off from Soviet airfields, German radar dispatched droves of Bf 109 fighter aircraft from JG 3 and JG 52 to intercept, resulting in the destruction of more than 120 Soviet aircraft by German fighters. Anti-air emplacements only served to knock down more aircraft as the Soviet armada began their ground-attack run. The July 5th Kharkov Air Raid as this event can perhaps best be described resulted in not only the failure to affect German air dominance in the Kharkov area in preparation for Operation Citadel, but also in the damaging loss of Soviet aircraft, leaving the air free for German aircraft in the area for some time.[2]

Regardless of the prior knowledge as to the time and location of the German attacks, the VVS struggled to counter initial German air advances. However, both sides lost a considerable amount of aircraft and perhaps more importantly, pilots during the opening stages of the battle. Some of the most common errors made on the part of Soviet pilots were to engage and hunt down Luftwaffe fighter aircraft over the ground-attacking Ju 87s or Hs 129s. Be that as it may, the next day, July 6th, proved to be far more successful for the VVS as more pressure was applied on German ground forces attempting to advance. The Luftwaffe by this time was already exhausted from its thousands of sorties carried out on the first day of operations. It simply did not have the resources to keep air superiority over the battlefield, for if any stretch of territory was deemed secure from air attack, it was quickly lost to the constant deployment of aircraft by the VVS. Furthermore, the skill of the Soviet airmen had dramatically improved since the early days of the war on the Eastern Front as had the performance of their aircraft.

We had been warned to expect resistance from pak and some tanks in static positions, also the possibility of a few independent brigades of the slower KV type. In fact, we found ourselves taking on a seemingly inexhaustible mass of enemy armor–never have I received such an overwhelming impression of Russian strength and numbers as on that day. The clouds of dust made it difficult to get help from the Luftwaffe, and soon many of the T-34s had broken past our screen and were streaming like rats all over the old battlefield... - An unknown German NCO on the final phase of the battle[3]

Sorties for the Luftwaffe decreased steadily from the period of July 9th to July 12th, the final day of the German offensive. Following the canceling of Operation Citadel, the Luftwaffe was very much forced into a position of attempting to maintain temporary air superiority in order to allow relief to German ground forces.[4] Never again would the Luftwaffe be in any position of sustained air superiority or consistent air to ground support.

References

  1. Hardesty, Von. Red Phoenix. Smithsonian Institution Press (1982), Page 159
  2. Timokhovitch I. Soviet Air Force in the Battle of Kursk. Military Publishing (1959), Page 51
  3. Clark, Alan. Barbarossa: The Russian-German Conflict, 1941-45. William Morrow (1985), Page 337
  4. Muller, Richard. The German Air War in Russia. The Nautical & Aviation Publishing Company of America. (1992), Page 144

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