Monday, 18 February 2013

Eastern Front Aces

I've decided to combine two popular posts about the top scoring German and Soviet aerial and tank aces of World War II.

First up  - the tank aces.

They were, so the readily available statistics tell me, Dmitri Lavrinenko and Kurt Knispel.

Statistics however do not tell much of a story on their own. There is a dearth of information online in English on Lavrinenko, whose 52 confirmed kills make him the highest scoring allied ace of the conflict. This is due to two reasons. Firstly in comparison to a number of German tank aces Lavrinenko’s tally is quite low. The reason for this and for his relative obscurity is that Dmitri Lavrinenko lost his life early in the war; being killed by flying shrapnel from an exploding mine on 18th December 1941. At the time of his death the twenty seven year old former school teacher had been at war for just two and half months and had seen action on 28 occasions. He was therefore a remarkable tank fighter indeed.

Lavrinenko had endured a baptism of fire in Ukraine, nursing his damaged tank back to safety as the Russians retreated before the German blitzkrieg.

As the Wehrmarcht closed in on Moscow, Lavrinenko joined the First Guards Brigade charged with the defence of the capital. He found himself almost constantly in battle as the German attempt to capture Moscow gradually bogged down in the face of the fearsome Russian winter before the defenders began to turn the tide as the counter-offensive commenced in December. Fearless in engaging the enemy and prodigious in the accuracy of his aim, on one occasion taking out seven enemy tanks with seven rounds when ambushing a German column in the open field; his white painted T34 invisible against the snow, Lavrinenko soon came to the attention of his superiors and shortly before his death had earned the Order of Lenin. He was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union in 1990 having played a significant role in the salvation of his nation’s capital.
In contrast to Larinenko the top scoring German tank ace of the war Kurt Knispel survived to within days of the war’s end. The former mechanical apprentice joined the German army in 1940 and trained as a gunner and loader, seeing action for the first time in a Panzer IV during operation Barbarossa in 1941. By the time his unit reached the gates of Stalingrad, Knispel was a tank commander with 12 credited kills. Knispel escaped the debacle of the defeat at Stalingrad, having been returned to Germany for training in operation of the new Tiger tank. He was back on the eastern front in time to take part in the Battle of Kursk and its aftermath before being transferred west to fight in the defence of Normandy, seeing fierce fighting around Caen.

As the Soviets advanced into Czechoslovakia, Knispel once more found himself on the eastern front, resisting the Soviet onslaught, in one engagement his Tiger was hit 24 times. Finally his luck ran out. On 28th April 1945 even as Hitler was making his preparations for suicide, Knispel was fatally wounded in an explosion during fighting near Wostitz and died shortly afterwards in a field hospital. He was just 23 years old. During his remarkable career as a tank commander Knispel is credited with an incredible 168 kills. In spite of this achievement and of being recommended for the Knights Cross on four occasions, Knispel never received the honour. His general lack of military bearing and respect for authority have been blamed for this. His assault on an SS officer whom he witnessed mistreating Soviet POWs especially blotted  his copybook with officialdom. In the eyes of posterity however it is this incident which stands out as the mark of the man and it is for that rather than the number of tanks that he destroyed that we can respect him as a man and as a soldier.

Kurt Knispel and Dmitri Lavrinenko

Battle for Moscow



Now to the aerial aces.

In the summer of 1943, as the greatest tank battle of the Second World War raged in the  Kursk salient, a twenty three year old pilot named Ivan Kozhedub serving with the 240th Fighter Air Regiment claimed the first of his 62 ‘kills’ in a career which would see him become the highest scoring Soviet ace of the war and would see him remarkably awarded with the title of Hero of the Soviet Union on no less than three occasions.

Ivan Kozhedub
Kozhedub’s first success; downing a Ju-87 ‘Stuka’ dive bomber was followed within days by three more kills as he began to master his craft.

Kozhedub’s ability had long been recognised but his value as an instructor in preparing new pilots for aerial combat had kept him away from the front lines until now. As his pupils had gone off to win glory in the skies, Kozhedub had chafed at being kept behind the lines and had repeatedly requested a transfer to combat duties. In March 1943 his wish was finally granted and he found himself transferred to the Kursk sector of the front.

At the conclusion of the Kursk campaign, Kozhedub, now a squadron leader, was transferred to the Dnieper front where his prodigious efforts in aerial combat soon gained recognition. In February 1944 Kozhedub was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union for the first time, having claimed 27 combat kills. His feats included downing 11 enemy planes in the space of 10 days.

 In July 1944 Kozhedub joined the 176th Fighter Guards Regiment on the Belorussian Front as Vice Commander. Here he conducted ‘lone wolf’ operations, flying against a Luftwaffe increasingly on the back foot in the face of growing Soviet air superiority. Flying his trusty  Lavochkin La-7 ‘no. 27’ which he would keep until the end of the war, Kozhedub continued to add to his victory tally, claiming another fifteen kills including downing three of the highly rated German Focke Wulf 190 fighters in a single day. His efforts would earn him in August 1944 the accolade of Hero of the Soviet Union for a second time.

As the air war pushed on into Germany in 1945, Kozhedub scored one of his most notable victories by shooting down a Messerschmitt 262 jet near Frankfurt.

Legend also has it that Kozhedub was forced to shoot down two US P51 Mustangs over Berlin which mistook his plane for a German one.

Kozhedub survived the war, receiving a third gold star as a triple Hero of the Soviet Union at the conclusion of hostilities. In total he flew 326 combat missions, fought 126 combats and claimed 62 kills, making him the highest scoring Allied ace of the war, his refusal to share kills; crediting the other pilot instead, meant his official tally could have been much higher. He remained in the air force and commanded a clandestine unit during the Korean conflict. Kozhedub went on to reach the rank of General in the Soviet air force and died in 1991.
Ivan Kozhedub 1920-1991

At around the same time as Kozhedub was making his first combat sorties over the Kursk salient, a young German pilot named Erich Hartmann was making his return to active duty in the same sector of the front. Hartmann had suffered a nervous breakdown after being shot down no less than five times during his baptism of fire on the Russian front in the previous year. His experience now proved to be invaluable as he embarked on an incredible run of success against the less experienced Russian pilots many of  whom proved to be no match for Hartmann in his Me109. On the first day of the German ground assault alone Hartmann claimed four kills and by August 1943 had amassed no fewer than 90 combat victories. In the course of his baptism of fire Hartmann had learned from his mentors to attack enemy aircraft by firing only at point blank range. This technique helped to garner him his incredible kill-rate but was also high risk and resulted in Hartmann being forced to land his plane, damaged by flying debris, behind Russian lines.

Hartmann was captured by Russian ground troops but by faking injury he found himself placed on a stretcher and put into the back of a truck. When the truck came under attack from German aircraft, Hartmann made a break for freedom and was able to make it back to his own lines.

Hartmann continued to serve on the Russian front as the tide of war gradually turned against the Germans, nevertheless maintaining his amazing rate of victories over enemy aircraft. He was awarded the Knights Cross in October 1943 and went on to be awarded the additional ‘oak leaves’ and ‘diamonds’; meeting Hitler on both occasions. On both occasions he caused something of a furore; on the first occasion by turning up drunk and on the second by refusing to surrender his side-arm in order to meet the Fuhrer.

In the last days of the war Hartmann found himself facing both US and Russian forces. In an engagement over the Romanian oilfields, he fought on against a squadron of P51 Mustangs until his plane both ran out of fuel and ammunition and was forced to bail out.

Hartmann claimed his last kill on the very last day of the war before surrendering his squadron to US forces. Under the terms of the Yalta agreement the German airmen were handed over to the Russian forces. Hartmann had received orders to fly west and surrender to the British but had refused to leave his comrades.

He was to spend a decade in Russian prison camps before finally being repatriated in 1955. By the end of the war Hartmann had amassed a total of 352 confirmed kills, a higher total than any other fighter pilot in history. He served for a time with the West German air force and died in 1993.

 Random picture of an Me109 not related in any way to Erich Hartmann.


More on WW2 flying aces

Very interesting interview with Ivan Kozhedub

Profile of Erich Hartmann

Battle of Kursk

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