With their operations in the Balkans completed, the Wehrmacht’s weight fell on the Soviet Union. Some Luftwaffe units, moving from the Balkans, only arrived at their staging areas for Barbarossa in the week prior to the invasion. Despite the momentous tasks confronting the Luftwaffe in the forthcoming campaign, its force structure reflected the strains of the almost continuous fighting over the past year. On 22 June 1941 the Germans had barely 100 fighters more than they had had on 10 May 1940 and 200 fewer bombers than a year earlier. In the early hours of 22 June Luftwaffe bomber crews flew over the Soviet-German frontier at high altitude and then dived down to hit Soviet airfields at first light. Caught by surprise despite ample warning, the Soviets desperately attempted to fight back. What ensued was a massacre of Soviet air units, as most still had their aircraft parked wing tip to wing tip. Fliegerkorps IV’s success on the first day suggests the extent of the surprise; it reported that it had destroyed 142 enemy aircraft on the ground and only sixteen in the air. For the entire front, Soviet losses totalled 1,200 aircraft in the first eight-and-a-half hours. The desperate situation on the ground forced Soviet commanders to throw air units into battle to stem the German tide. Ill-trained, ill-equipped and ill-prepared, Soviet aircrews floundered in tactically defenseless formations and obsolete aircraft. Field Marshal Erhard Milch, the Luftwaffe’s chief of supply, recorded Soviet air losses as 1,800 aircraft on the first day, followed by 800 on 23 June, 557 on the 24th, 351 on the 25th and 300 on the 26th. Since many of these aircraft were obsolete, the real loss was in their crews.
By the end of July the Luftwaffe had run into logistical difficulties similar to those plaguing the army: The support structure delivering fuel and munitions was not adequate for Russia’s continental spaces, as opposed to the central European distances to which the Germans were accustomed. As early as 5 July, Fliegerkorps VIII’s commander, General Wolfram von Richthofen, was noting: ‘Supply is the greatest difficulty in this war’. By early August supply difficulties had stalled the ground offensive, while Soviet reserves were putting intense pressure on the German spearheads, particularly around the Yelyna salient.
The Luftwaffe confronted a number of difficulties beyond logistics. The funnelshaped nature of the theater meant that aircraft concentration declined drastically as the Luftwaffe moved into Russia’s vast spaces. The same thing happened to the ground forces, which increased their calls for air support. In the first months of the invasion, the Luftwaffe launched a number of long-range raids against Moscow and Leningrad. But as fall approached Luftwaffe strength declined and demands from the ground forces increased. By fall, the Luftwaffe was launching few attacks on major Soviet cities; moreover, because of the distances and the failure of intelligence as to Soviet industrial strength, the Luftwaffe struck few significant targets behind Moscow.
Luftwaffe units found themselves shuttling back and forth from battlefront to battlefront throughout the late summer and fall- a situation that only exacerbated supply and maintenance difficulties on the primitive grass fields of the theater. Visiting bases in the east in fall 1941, Milch discovered a catastrophic situation: aircraft were awaiting repairs at a number of bases, but no work was occurring because the units had moved on and the supply system was providing barely enough bombs, fuel and parts to support operations.
A final drive on Moscow before winter brought the climactic moment of the campaign. Operation Typhoon began in late September and scored spectacular victories against a Soviet high command again caught by surprise. Three panzer armies, supported by more than 1,500 aircraft, slashed through the strung-out Soviet defenses. Flying over 1,000 sorties per day, the Luftwaffe was a major factor in the breakthrough. On 5 October Soviet reconnaissance pilots reported a German column over twenty-five kilometers long driving along the highway between Smolensk and Moscow; the reporting pilots were almost shot for defeatism by the NKVD on their return. In early October the German advance encircled two vast pockets at Bryansk and Vyazma; by the time the fighting had died down, the Germans claimed to have captured over 500,000 enemy soldiers.
But at this point, with the road to Moscow seemingly wide open, the rains arrived turning everything into a morass. On 9 October the Luftwaffe flew only 300 sorties off the sodden grass strips that were its bases. If the Luftwaffe had confronted great difficulties so far, it was now entering a nightmare period. The breakdown in German logistics, exacerbated by a sea of mud, increased demands for Luftwaffe crews to fly in supplies as well as provide direct support to the army. Fog and rain added to the difficulties in finding and hitting targets. Yet so optimistic was the senior leadership that it transferred Field Marshal Kesselring and his Luftflotte 2 to the Mediterranean, to restore the deteriorating situation in that theater.
Only the arrival of cold weather in mid November allowed the ground forces to resume the advance on Moscow. The Luftwaffe, however, was unable to provide much support. Its strength in front of Moscow lay on unimproved airstrips with neither the maintenance nor supply support for sustained operations. The Soviets, however, possessed winter-ready airfields and hangers around Moscow; thus for the first time in the campaign they mounted air operations that provided significant support to the Soviet ground troops. Moreover, Soviet air units were by now receiving newer models from factories in the Urals; consequently, their pilots were flying aircraft that could match Luftwaffe aircraft. In early December the Russian winter brought conditions for which the Germans were completely unprepared, and the Soviet armies went over to the offensive. For the next three months they threatened to destroy the German army on the Eastern Front. The planes the Luftwaffe could still fly became essential to the survival of the hard-pressed ground forces; fighters, long-range bombers, everything was thrown in to supporting the front. By this point the Luftwaffe had become primarily a ground-support force.
But in December 1941 and January 1942, the Luftwaffe was close to collapse. In the first four months of Barbarossa the Luftwaffe lost 36 percent of its Bf 109 fighter pilots and 56 percent of its bomber crews. On the maintenance side, the in commission rate for all Luftwaffe fighters in December 1941 was barely 50 percent, while the figure for bombers had fallen to 32 percent. The figures on the Eastern Front were even worse, as Luftwaffe ground crews attempted to repair aircraft in unheated shelters in temperatures well below zero. Admittedly, the Luftwaffe was never in as bad a shape as the army; at least it had the use of its air-transport system to fly winter clothes, parts and lightweight oils to front-line air bases. But in January 1942 less than 15 percent of its 100,000 vehicles remained in working condition.
By spring, fighting on the Eastern Front had burned itself out; both sides were completely exhausted. Nevertheless, Hitler determined to launch a summer offensive aimed at capturing Stalingrad and at driving deep into the Caucasus to capture and disrupt much of the Soviet Union’s oil supplies. Even more than in 1941, the Luftwaffe’s role was to support the army’s drive with interdiction strikes and close air support. Where the Luftwaffe appeared in strength it could usually dominate the skies. While Soviet equipment had improved noticeably since 1941, Soviet pilots were still not up to the quality of their Luftwaffe opponents – most were rushed to the front with minimal flying training. But the Germans were also hard pressed: new fighter pilots were now serving part of their operational training period in front-line squadrons.