What the Huge Air War between the Soviets and Nazis Was Like

May 13, 2020 Topic: History Region: Europe Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: World War IINaziSovietStalinHitlerMilitaryHistory

What the Huge Air War between the Soviets and Nazis Was Like

A clash for the ages.

Key point: The best of the best fought over the skies of Eastern Europe. Berlin wanted to conquer and Moscow wanted to save its homeland.

In June 1942, the Black Sea port of Sevastopol on the Crimea was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of World War II. Commanded by Generaloberst Erich von Manstein, the German Eleventh Army was dispatched in a powerful attack to seize this important stronghold. Throughout the battle, a stiff but uneven air war raged between German Messerschmitt Me-109 fighters and a handful of determined Soviet airmen based inside Sevastopol. Due to the limited geographic area, the same fighter aces on both sides met in combat each day. Hauptmann Gordon Gollob, Oberleutnants Anton Hackl, Heinrich Setz, and Feldwebel Ernst-Wilhelm Reinert were among the most prominent protagonists in German Fighter Wing 77 (JG 77), as were Kapitans Mikhail Avdeyev, Konstantin Alekseyev, and Boris Babayev in the Soviet naval 6th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment—6 GIAP/VVS-ChF.

A Mutual Respect

Both sides learned to pay great respect to their adversaries. Heinrich Setz, commanding the fourth Staffel (squadron) of JG 77, described the air combat with “most experienced” Soviet fighter pilots over Sevastopol as “extremely hard,” and Hauptmann Gollob was compelled to instruct his fighter pilots to avoid “turning combats at low flight altitude.”

And Kapitan Mikhail Avdeyev, commanding the first squadron (1 AE) of 6 GIAP/VVS-ChF, dedicated much space in his memoirs to honor a most feared German ace over Sevastopol, whom the Soviet pilots called “Z”—their interpretation of the call sign on the fuselage of this Me-109 F as a black Latin character “Z.” Avdeyev wrote: “‘Z’ appeared every day, always with his back protected by other fighters. Usually, he picked his victims carefully, and only rarely were his attacks without success. More than once, I tried to pursue this Fascist, but this proved to be a most difficult undertaking.…

“It was clear that ‘Z’ was an outstanding pilot, definitely somebody from von Richthofen’s inner circle or maybe even von Richthofen himself.…[Von Richthofen was cousin to the famous WWI ace and, at age 47 in 1942, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe 4th Air Fleet fighting at Sevastopol.]

“That damned ‘Z’ deprived us of our sleep and never left us in peace. It was as if he jeered at us. A hundred times I examined my mind to find out different ways of attacking him—from above, from below, from the clouds or from the sun. But these fine theories always were shattered by the realities. ‘Z’ wasn’t someone whom you could lure into a trap, or who could be made to lose his nerves through a frontal attack. He was a worthy opponent, and he definitely gave us a lot of headache.”

“Z” was Anton Hackl, the Staffelkapitän of 5./JG 77. “Toni” Hackl would remain in frontline service during the entire war. He was among the few who survived more than a thousand combat sorties, achieving a total of 192 confirmed and 24 unconfirmed aerial victories. Roaming the skies above Sevastopol with his Me-109 F-4, “Black 5,” in June 1942, “Toni” Hackl would bring down 11 Soviet aircraft during this battle, making him the most successful German fighter pilot during the campaign. Mikhail Avdeyev was a stunned witness of how swiftly “Z” shot down an Il-2 of 18 ShAP/VVS-ChF in early June: “The fighters of the 1st Eskadrilya took off first. Three or four minutes later, a dozen Messerschmitts appeared. In that moment, Mayor Gubriy’s Stormoviks were taking off.

“Eight Yakovlevs met the Messerschmitts over the sea. Our fast, sudden attack and precise gauge maneuvers drew the Messerschmitts into combat and prevented them from engaging the Stormoviks. Then, from somewhere high above, beyond the dogfight, one Messerschmitt, which no one had detected, came rushing downward like a vulture. It set one of the Stormoviks on fire and disappeared at treetop level. Together with Danilko, I tried to pursue him as he leveled out from the dive, but we were intercepted by four Messerschmitts. We caught a quick glimpse of a black ‘Z’ on the hunter’s fuselage side.”

Nevertheless, both Soviet and German accounts indicate that the Soviet naval airmen based inside Sevastopol in general were tougher than their German counterparts. Several statements by Luftwaffefliers that flew against Sevastopol reveal how impressed the Germans were with the stamina displayed by these Soviet pilots.

Duels in the Skies

In early June 1942, the airmen of both sides had been involved in a prolonged and intense campaign over the eastern part of the Crimea, the Kerch Peninsula (which was completely overrun by the Germans in May 1942), and were in desperate need of a rest.

Leutnant Armin Köhler of I./JG 77 wrote in his diary: “Each day there is an uninterrupted row of combat sorties. We are unable to sleep at night. If this carries on much longer, our nerves will soon be worn down.”

To Hauptmann Gordon Gollob, who commanded the German fighter force in the Crimea, this was a cause of great concern. At the onset of the assault against Sevastopol, he wrote in his diary: “The pilot situation looks bad, partly because of losses in aerial combat and injuries, and partly because some pilots have to be relieved from first-line service. Far from everyone is able to stand the enormous physical and mental strain. The most reasonable—and most human—thing to do is to release those pilots who have lost their perseverance from first-line service before they influence other pilots with their negative attitude or get killed.”

But Hitler was determined to capture Sevastopol—the thorn in the side of his army—before the summer offensive against the oil fields in the Caucasus was opened. As they were lined up against Sevastopol, the exhausted Luftwaffe pilots knew that notwithstanding their numerical superiority, it would not be an easy fight. This had been proven to the fighter pilots of JG 77 on May 27, 1942 when four Me-109s bounced two MBR-2 hydroplanes of the Soviet 116th naval reconnaissance aviation regiment (116 MRAP/VVS-ChF). The slow hydroplanes should have been no match to the Me-109 F-4s, but the MBRs, piloted by Kapitan Nikolay Tarasenko and Leytenant Yevgeniy Akimov, fought off the attack vigorously by turning head-on against the Germans. Unteroffizier Ernst Thoma’s Me-109 was shot down and the remaining three chose to disengage, thus enabling the MBR-2s to land safely at Sevastopol.

Unteroffizier Thoma landed in his parachute in the sea near Cape Khersones and was rescued by the Soviets. He was brought to Sevastopol, where he reportedly revealed the number of planes, the location of the forward German airfields, and other details regarding JG 77. The following night, a group of MBR-2s from 116 MRAP/VVS-ChF raided the German airfield in accordance with the information given by the unhappy Ernst Thoma. Later the Soviets executed him.

Of the Soviet airmen in Sevastopol, the fighter pilots of 6 GIAP/VVS-ChF—awarded the name of honor Sevastopolskiy—constituted the greatest threat to the Luftwaffe. The most famous pilot of this unit was Kapitan Mikhail Avdeyev, an excellent marksman who commanded the first squadron, 1 AE, of this regiment.

On June 1, Avdeyev and his wingman Starshiy Leytenant Danilko came close to killing Generaloberst Erich von Manstein. As the two Soviet pilots returned from a reconnaissance mission over the road to Yalta, they spotted a lone motor torpedo boat. Disregarding the order to avoid combat, they immediately put down the noses of their Yak-1s and came down with guns blazing.

Generaloberst von Manstein had boarded the Italian motor torpedo boat in order to check if the strategically important road from Sevastopol to Yalta could be controlled from the sea. Suddenly machine-gun bullets crashed into the deck of the boat. The two Yak-1s dived with the sun at their backs, undetected by the enemy. To the left and to the right of von Manstein, the port commander of Yalta, Kapitän Joachim von Wedel; the Italian commander of the torpedo boat; and the Generaloberst’s faithful driver, Oberfeldwebel Fritz Nagal fell dead. Von Manstein was lucky to escape any injuries.

The Siege of Sevastopol Begins

The German attack on Sevastopol, initiated on June 7, 1942, was preceded by five days of German artillery shelling and bombardment from the air. Between June 2 and June 6, six hundred aircraft of Generaloberst Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Air Corps VIII carried out relentless “softening-up” bombings of Sevastopol. Individual German bomber crews made up to 18 sorties daily. What the defenders of Sevastopol had to endure was even worse than the previous Luftwaffe blitz against Warsaw, Rotterdam, London, or Malta. A Soviet army commander recalls how the German bombers “literally plowed up the earth throughout our defense area.” And yet, it took 25 days of furious ground fighting before the German flag could be raised in the ruins of Sevastopol.

“Earth, water, rock fragments, steel, and cement were intermingled with bleeding corpses,” recalls Hauptmann Werner Baumbach, a German bomber pilot veteran who took part in the battle: “And yet, the Russians continued to cling to their ground, their native soil, with unparalleled tenacity.” A report from the German Eleventh Army noted: “Defying our air superiority, the enemy’s air force intervened in the ground combat with ground-attack aircraft and fighters.”