Supply by Airlift and Aerial Delivery Containers
I. The First German Experiments
For the Germans, dropping supplies by parachute to encircled units from battalion to army strength had all the characteristics of improvised operations. At the beginning of the first winter in Russia, the Army High Command asked the Luftwaffe to give immediate assistance to isolated or temporarily encircled units by dropping rations, medical supplies, and ammunition in aerial delivery containers which were originally designed for the supply of parachute units in action. In most cases these missions were successfully accomplished in a spirit of unhesitating co-operation between the services.
The need for the first airlift operation arose in 1942, when major elements of Eighteenth Army were trapped in the Demyansk pocket and Hitler ordered that they be supplied by air. The First Air Force was given this mission and assigned three groups of Junkers transport planes as well as some cargo gliders to carry it out. The chief supply officer of the air force formed a special air transport staff which, in co-operation with the responsible army agencies, carried out the supply operations in accordance with requests received from the encircled units.
An adequate airstrip was available within the pocket. The surrounding terrain could be used as a parachute drop zone. The enemy territory to be crossed was narrow and fighter cover was available throughout the flight and during the take-off from the airstrip. There were but few days on which the air lift was interrupted by snow storms, the formation of ice, or fog on the ground. Under such favorable circumstances it was not too difficult to maintain the fighting strength of the encircled forces.
On return flights the carrying capacity of the aircraft was taxed to the utmost since they were loaded with sick and wounded, official and soldiers' mail, and sometimes even with scarce materiel in need of repair. Although few planes were lost through enemy action, the rate of attrition from wear and tear was very high, requiring constant replacement of the transport planes. Because of increased demands by other sectors of the front and the low rate of production, it was even necessary to employ training planes in order to fill the gaps that developed.
In addition to regular airlift operations, aerial delivery containers were dropped by bombers to various isolated units which were in immediate need of supply. In round-the-clock flights
the bombers dropped their containers at the lowest possible altitudes despite strongly increased antiaircraft fire. These missions were very costly and put the personnel to a severe test. During February 1942, I Air Corps flew 1,725 bomber sorties in direct support of ground operations and 800 supply missions for the Army; by March the supply missions required 1,104 bomber flights. These figures clearly indicate that great numbers of bombers were diverted from their original purpose and employed in an improvised supply operation.
The Demyansk pocket was eventually relieved and in the opinion of top-level Army experts the air supply operations had been of decisive importance in enabling the encircled forces to hold out.
II. The Stalingrad Airlift
As a result of the above experience Hitler ordered that Sixth Army, which was encircled in Stalingrad during the winter of 1942, be supplied by air. Goering accepted the assignment without opposition although his assistants raised strong objections. The Fourth Air Force was charged with the mission of transporting 500 tons of supplies per day to a suitable airfield near Stalingrad. The experiences of the past winter indicated that only 50 percent of the planes could be fully operational at any given time and that therefore 1,000 transport aircraft carrying an average load of one ton each were required. This calculation did not take into account adverse weather conditions or losses by enemy action. Germany had just about that many transport planes but they were scattered all over Europe. The organizational machinery needed to concentrate most of these planes in the Stalingrad sector, and to improvise the essential procurement and transportation measures, reached truly gigantic proportions.
The circumstances surrounding this venture clearly indicated that it was doomed to failure and Luftwaffe experts therefore seemed extremely skeptical. That their misgivings were justified became obvious when the Russians continued their advance and captured most of the departure airfields within easy reach As a result many aircraft were lost while they were grounded for repairs. The approach flights led over an ever-widening strip of enemy-held territory which soon extended beyond the range of German fighter cover. Losses in men and materiel were replaced by crews and aircraft from the training commands, so that virtually all training of bomber crews came to a standstill during the winter of 1942-43. By the following spring the Stalingrad airlift accounted for the loss of 240 training crews and 365
training aircraft. The training program did not recover from the effects of these losses until 1944.
Inclement weather also played its part. Heavy snowstorms disrupted all air operations for days on end. Russian fighter and antiaircraft strength increased steadily. Nevertheless, the German crews did their utmost to accomplish their mission which, however, was far beyond their capabilities. The amount of supplies which eventually reached Sixth Army was small and could not avert the impending disaster.
Airlift operations in support of entire armies constitute a task which can only be accomplished after careful planning and preparation and then only by an air force which has all the necessary means at its disposal.
page created 4 September 2002
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