The 'Kuban Air Offensive Operation' was the Soviet air undertaking designed to seize and retain air superiority over the Kuban region as the land campaign approached its climax (17 April/7 June 1943).
The Soviet intention was to wrest air superiority over the Germans over the lower reaches of the Kuban river, the Taman peninsula and the port city of Novorossiysk during the 'Great Patriotic War' and thereby gain strategic air supremacy over the 'Gotenkopf Stellung' lodgement which was all that was left of the Germans' abortive attempt to take the Caucasus.
The Germans hoped to offset the Soviet superiority on the ground by its own superiority in the air, which at this time was considerable on this sector of the Eastern Front. In response to this, the headquarters of General Ivan V. Tyulenev’s Trans-Caucasus Front, which faced Generaloberst Richard Ruoff’s (from 24 June Generaloberst Erwin Jaenecke’s) 17th Army in the Kuban region, developed a plan for an air offensive to win air supremacy and thus be in an altogether better position to support the ground forces. In total, the resulting aerial campaign involved more than 2,000 aircraft on both sides. Each day, weather permitting, fierce air combat lasted continuously for many hours: each side steadily committed more aircraft, and on some days there were as many as 50 battles each involving between 50 and 100 aircraft on each side. In overall terms, the air campaign gave the Soviets air supremacy over the Kuban.
As a result of the encirclement and subsequent destruction of Generaloberst Friedrich Paulus’s 6th Army in Stalingrad, ending on 2 February 1943, there emerged a strategic and operational situation favourable for a Soviet offensive in the the northern part of Caucasus. The concept of this 'North Caucasian Offensive Operation' was to encircle and defeat the main forces of Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm List’s Heeresgruppe 'A' by co-ordinated strikes by the Trans-Caucasus Front and General Polkovnik Fyedor I. Tolbukhin’s South Front from the north-east, south and south-west designed to prevent the German army group’s withdrawal from the northern Caucasus.
Trying to avoid being outflanked and possibly encircled, the Germans began to withdraw: Generaloberst Eberhard von Mackensen’s 1st Panzerarmee retreated to Rostov-na-Donu, and Generaloberst Richard Ruoff’s (from 24 June Jaenecke’s) 17th Army fell back into the Kuban, where by February 1943 it had deployed itself in well-prepared defensive positions exploiting the advantageous terrain and the lines of the Adagum and Vtoraya rivers. Particularly strongly fortified was the sector of the front between the coast of the Black Sea in the Novorossiysk region to the village of Krymskaya: here almost every height and settlement had been turned into a strongpoint and centre of resistance, of which the most powerful was Krymskaya. To the Soviets and indeed the Russians, this was and is generally known as the 'Blue Line', and to the Germans as the 'Gotenkopf Stellung' position, a lodgement which, Adolf Hitler expected, would become the springboard for future operations in the Caucasus. The German and Romanian forces in the lodgement exceeded 400,000 men, and these were supplied from Crimea across the Strait of Kerch. The daily requirement was 1,270 tons, and the main weight of the transport effort was borne by a groping of high-speed landing barges, Siebel ferries and landing boats supplemented, to a lesser extent, by an 'air bridge' of Luftwaffe aircraft. A cable car was also built across the strait, and work began on the construction of a railway bridge and an oil pipeline began.
During February and March 1943, Soviet troops made repeated attempts to eliminate the Kuban lodgement. General Polkovnik Ivan I. Maslennikov’s North Caucasus Front at this time had a superiority of 1.5/1 in men and armour, and somewhat less in in artillery.
On 4 February, an amphibious assault was made in the area just to the south of Novorossiysk, and this 'Malaya Zemlya Landing Operation' seized a small beach-head on Cape Myskhako on Malaya Zemlya island. The 800 men of the Soviet naval infantry arm made a stand after being delivered in a course of a severe winter storm by craft of the Black Sea Fleet after an earlier unsuccessful landing attempt at Malaya Ozereyevka. The landing at Malaya Zemlya was intended as a decoy, but after a landing at Bolshaya Ozereyevka had been defeated, the Soviet plan was reworked and Malaya Zemlya became the main landing location despite the fact that on arrival the Soviets came under attack by a furious German counterattack with strong air support.
On 12 February, forces of the North Caucasus Front liberated Krasnodar and the, within one month, managed to advance 31 to 37.25 miles (50 to 60 km) to the west of Krasnodar, breaking through the Germans' first line of defence, before going over to the defensive on 16 March.
The 'Kuban Air Offensive Operation' was linked closely to the course of military operations as it primary task was support of the ground forces. In order to reduce the number of men involved in the fighting for the Taman peninsula at the western end of the Kuban region, the Soviet supreme command demanded that the Taman lodgement must be eliminated before the start of the Soviet forces' summer campaign, and in the resulting operations over the southern flank of the Soviet forces, the task of winning air supremacy was considered most carefully, and as a result the Soviets developed a new scheme of tactical air operations creating the conditions which favoured the ground forces' conduct of offensive operations in the Taman peninsula . At the end of March, the Stavka and the headquarters of the North Caucasus Front developed an offensive plan with the aim of breaking through the German defences and destroying the lodgement. The main blow was delivered by General Leytenant Andrei A. Grechko’s 56th army in the area of Krymskaya, where the communications centre in the Kuban region was concentrated and through which passed the main railway and unpaved roads to Novorossiysk, Anapa, Taman and Temryuk. Offensive missions were also assigned to the front’s other five main forces, namely the 18th Army, 9th Army, 47th Army, 37th Army and 58th Army. But the Soviet efforts in the first half of April were not successful and, moreover, the Germans made a number of counterattacks, which created a threat to the further conduct of the operation. From 18 April, therefore, supervision of the ongoing operation was undertaken by Marshal Sovetskogo Soyuza Georgi K. Zhukov, the Soviet deputy supreme commander-in-chief. Operational control of air and navy formations was entrusted to Marshal Aleksandr A. Novikov, the air forces' commander-in-chief, and Admiral Nikolai G. Kuznetsov, the navy’s commander-in-chief.
The tasks assigned to the Soviet air forces were the gaining of air supremacy, the provision of air cover for the ground forces, and the support of the North Caucasus Front’s offensive. For the first time in the 'Great Patriotic War', the front’s air headquarters developed a plan for an air offensive, which provided for the seizure of air supremacy and then, in bombing and assault strikes, for the destruction of the German and Romanian ground forces, especially their artillery and defence positions. The plan was approved by representatives of Zhukov and Novikov. In the course of the battle that followed, the Soviet high command responded to the increase in German air strength by a comparable and urgent enlargement of the Soviet air strength. Very quickly, therefore, the scale and tasks of the air battle far exceeded both sides' initial local goals and became a battle to destroy the most well-trained opposing air forces on the eve of the decisive battles of the 1943 summer campaign.
Heeresgruppe 'A' was tasked with holding the Kuban lodgement until the general situation at the front changed in favour of Germany once more. The need to defend the lodgement was dictated by both political and military factors. Operating in the Kuban area, the 17th Army included three German and one Romanian corps. Adopting and adhering to a generally defensive strategy, Ruoff decided to undertake a local offensive in April 1943 with the aim of eliminating the Soviet beach-head at Cape Myskhako. To carry out this 'Neptun' operation, the Gruppe 'Witzel' force of four divisions was created.
Since the Soviets had the superiority in ground forces, the Germans hoped to offset its inferiority in troop numbers by exploiting what was currently their superiority in the air. After the end of the 'Kharkov Defensive Operation' ('Zvezda') and 'Kharkov Defensive Operation' late in March, the main diver-bomber and medium bomber forces of Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen’s Luftflotte IV were redeployed to the airfields of Crimea and Taman. This air fleet’s primary task was the support of the German and Romanian forces in both defensive and offensive undertakings: thus, for example, the timing of the assault on Malaya Zemlya was twice postponed as bad weather prevented the use if air power. The organisation and implementation of the air supply arrangements for the lodgement was also of great importance. The transport units which had survived the decimation during unsuccessful attempt to supply the 6th Army encircled in Stalingrad were replenished with fresh equipment and personnel, and relocated to the airfields of Crimea as well as to Kherson. Command of the transport group of 180 aircraft was entrusted to General Martin Fiebig’s (from 21 May General Hans Seidemann’s) VIII Fliegerkorps.
According to Soviet high command estimates, by the beginning of the 'Kuban Air Offensive Operation', the Germans had concentrated on the airfields of the northern Caucasus and Crimea as many as 370 bombers, about 250 fighters, about 50 reconnaissance aircraft and as many as 200 transport aircraft for an overall total of 670 machines. In certain periods of the air battle which was now to unfold, the Germans could increase their air strength to 1,200 aircraft by drawing on their forces in Ukraine.
Between 1 April and 13 June, General Leytenant Konstantin A. Vershinin’s Air Force of the North Caucasus Front, which was under the operational control of General Polkovnik Aleksandr A. Novikov, comprised two air armies. General Major Nikolai F. Naumenko’s (from 24 April Vershinin’s) 4th Air Army controlled General Major Aleksandr V. Borman’s (from 18 May Polkovnik Ibragim M. Dzusov’s) 216th Mixed Aviation Division, General Major Dmitri P. Galunov’s 8th Guards Fighter Aviation Division, General Major M. N. Volkov’s 229th Fighter Aviation Division, Polkovnik S. G. Getman’s 230th Assault Aviation Division, General Major Dmitri D. Popov’s 218th Night Bomber Aviation Division and Polkovnik Piotr N. Anisimov’s 219th Bomber Aviation Division. The other air army was General Leytenant Sergei K. Goryunov’s 5th Air Army, which was transferred to the Steppe Military District on 24 April and had its air units transferred to the 4th Air Army. The 5th Air Army’s constituent elements were Polkovnik V. Ya. Kudryashov’s 236th Fighter Aviation Division, Polkovnik N. F. Balanov’s 295th Fighter Aviation Division, General Major Stepan P. Danilov’s 287th Fighter Aviation Division arriving on 17 April from the Stavka reserve, and General Major Ivan L. Fedorov’s 132nd Bomber Aviation Division.
Also serving in this theatre was General Major Vasili V. Ermachenkov’s Air Force of the Black Sea Fleet with Polkovnik Aleksei Z. Dushin’s 4th Fighter Aviation Division, Polkovnik Nikolai A. Tokarev’s 63rd Long-Range Heavy Bomber Aviation Brigade and Podpolkovnik A. A. Gubry’s 11th Assault Aviation Brigade.
During the second half of April, a separate fighter aviation division and three aviation corps were allocated from the Soviet supreme command reserve to the North Caucasus Front. By 20 April, 300 of these formation’s aircraft had reached Kuban, with another 200 aircraft arriving between the end of April and the start of May. These formations of the Soviet supreme command reserve were General Leytenant E Ya. Savitsky’s III Fighter Aviation Corps with Polkovnik P. T. Korobkov’s 265th Fighter Aviation Division and Polkovnik V. T. Lisin’s 278th Fighter Aviation Division; General Major Vladimir A. Ushakov’s II Bomber Aviation Corps with Polkovnik L. N. Yuseyev’s 223rd Bomber Aviation Division and Polkovnik Vladimir A. Sandalov’s 285th Bomber Aviation Division; General Major Ivan T. Eremenko’s II Mixed Aviation Corps with Podpolkovnik A. P. Zhukov’s 201st Fighter Aviation Division, General Major Ivan A. Lakeyev’s 235th Fighter Aviation Division and Polkovnik Stepan U. Rubanov’s 214th Assault Aviation Division; and General Major Georgi N. Tupikov’s VI Long-Range Aviation Corps with Polkovnik G. S. Counters’s 62nd Long-Range Aviation Division and Polkovnik S. S. Lebedev’s 50th Long-Range Aviation Division.
The Luftwaffe’s main forces were based on airfields in Crimea and at Anapa, and based in the Taman peninsula were small groups of Romanian, Croatian and Slovak fighters under German control. In addition, bomber squadrons operated from airfields in the Donbas and southern Ukraine to make raids on targets in Kuban at the limit of their operational radius.
Between 1 April and 10 June, the German and German-controlled air units of Luftflotte IV involved in seeking to counter the 'Kuban Air Offensive Operation' were under the operational control of General Günther Korten’s I Fliegerkorps, which had its headquarters at Simferopol in Crimea, General Kurt Pflugbeil’s IV Fliegerkorps which had its headquarters at Stalino, and General Martin Fiebig’s (from 21 May General Hans Seidemann’s VIII Fliegerkorps, which had its headquarters at Poltava.
The I Fliegerkorps's units included elements of Oberst Wolf-Dietrich Wilcke Jagdgeschwader 3 'Udet', Oberstleutnant Friedrich Beckh’s JG 52, Major Ulrich Diesing’s Zerstörergeschwader 1, Oberst Hans-Joachim Rath’s Kampfgeschwader 4 'General Wever', Major Egbert von Frankenberg und Proschlitz’s (from 9 May Major Hanns Heise’s) KG 51 'Edelweiss', Oberstleutnant Dr Ernst Kühl’s KG 55 'Greif', Oberstleutnant Dr Ernst Kupfer’s Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 'Immelmann' and Major Helmut Bruck’s StG 77.
The IV Fliegerkorps's units included elements of Oberst Hans-Henning Freiherr von Beust’s KG 27 'Boelcke' and Major Helmut Küster’s KG 100.
The VIII Fliegerkorps' unit included elements of Hauptmann Schellmann’s Kampfgruppe zbV 5, Major Beckmann’s KG zbV 500, Hauptmann Hans-Hermann Ellerbrock’s KG zbV 9, KG zbV 50 and KG zbV 102.
Also in the region was General Otto Dessloch’s I Flakkorps with Generalleutnant Wolfgang Pickert’s 9th Flakdivision and Generalleutnant Eduard Muhr’s 15th Flakdivision.
By the spring of 1943, Soviet air power had for all practical purposes recovered from the huge defeat and catastrophic losses it had suffered in the initial period of the 'Great Patriotic War'. During the winter campaign of 1942/43, the Soviet air forces gained operational superiority over Stalingrad as a result of quantitative superiority and qualitative equality in equipment. The proportion of new and considerably more advanced warplane types was increasing constantly: in fighters the air forces had been completely updated, and in bomber aircraft it was more than 65% updated. In the battles over Kuban, the latest developments of the leading Soviet designers saw massive service. It should also be noted that Soviet air power was nonetheless significantly weakened by various organisational inadequacies and the inconsistent adoption and implementation of new tactics by the forces involved.
The fighter units of the Air Force of the North Caucasus Front were equipped with both Soviet-made and imported Lend-Lease fighters. Soviet aircraft, which accounted for more than 80% of the total, were represented by the Lavochkin LaGG-3, Lavochkin La-5, Yakovlev Yak-1B and Yakovlev Yak-7, while imported types included the Bell P-39 Airacobra, Curtiss P-40E Kittyhawk and Supermarine Spitfire Mk V.
The LaGG-3 was markedly inferior to the main German fighters in manoeuvrability and armament. A major modernisation of the LaGG-3, the La-5 was slightly inferior to German fighters in speed and armament but possessed a slight advantage in turning. The Yak-1B was an improved version of the Yak-1, the best Soviet fighter in the initial period of the war. The Yak-7 was an air-combat fighter developed on the basis of a training aircraft: in flight characteristics and armament, it was not inferior to the Yak-1, and possessed superior agility. Operational use of the Yakovlev fighters had shown that they were essentially equal to German fighters but slightly inferior to them in manoeuvrability. Common disadvantages were the lack of effective radio communication: only command aircraft were generally equipped with transceivers, while receivers began to appear on all of the aircraft in the spring of 1943. All of the Soviet types were hampered by low manufacturing standards, which resulted in many defects and caused large numbers of wholly unnecessary accidents.
The foreign-made fighter that played the largest part in the 'Kuban Air Offensive Operation' was the Airacobra, received from the USA. The Airacobra differed from Soviet fighters in its more powerful armament, greater survivability, superior manoeuvrability and good controllability, although they were inferior to the Soviet types in their ability to withstand large overloads and perform snap manoeuvres. The presence of high-quality transceivers was a clear advantage. By the sprig of 1943, the Kittyhawk was no longer appreciated by Soviet pilots as it was significantly inferior to the Soviet types as well as the Airacobra. In front-line units of the Air Force of the North Caucasus Front, these fighters were gradually replaced by more modern types. British Spitfire Mk VB was deemed inferior in flight characteristics to the latest German fighters and, moreover, in flight was often confused with the Messerschmitt Bf 109, which led to losses to the 'friendly fire' of Soviet fighters and anti-aircraft guns.
In the bomber and assault units operating over Kuban the Petlyakov Pe-2 , Ilyushin Il-2 and Douglas DB-7 Boston were used. By the spring of 1943, the Pe-2 was the most numerous Soviet bomber type, and was notable for its ease of piloting, manoeuvrability, powerful weapons and survivability. Along with the Pe-2, the US Boston aircraft was used by both the Air Force of the North Caucasus Front and the air arm of the Black Sea Fleet as a multi-role type which performed the day and night bomber, reconnaissance, torpedo bomber and minelaying roles. It was distinguished by its good manoeuvrability, increased bomb load, ease of control, and obedience and stability in turns. However, weak defensive armament was among its shortcomings.
The Ilyushin Il-2 was employed for direct support of ground forces.This combined good protective armour and powerful offensive weapons. Since the end of 1942, there has been a massive programme to replace the original single-seat model of this aeroplane with a two-seat variant in which the rear=seater used a heavy machine gun to provide protection against rear-hemisphere attacks. As a result of the additional load, however, the Il-2m3’s manoeuvrability and other flight characteristics were degraded.
In addition to tactical light and medium bombers, Soviet long-range bombers, which were the Ilyushin Il-4 and Lisunov Li-2VV, were used for night air attacks on targets in Kuban. At night, light biplanes of the Polikarpov Po-2 and Polikarpov R-5 were deployed to make harassing raids on the German and Romanian forces in the front-line zone. These two single-engined biplanes were not used by day as they were wholly incapable of defending themselves against German fighter attack.
The winter of 1942/43 marked the start of the period of crisis for German air power over the Eastern Front, where the Luftwaffe was faced with the need to conduct hostilities in several remote theatres which, in conditions of extremely limited resources, led to the dispersion of forces and means. It was not uncommon for the squadrons of one group to operate simultaneously in areas separated from each other by some hundreds of miles. Moreover, the constantly increasing number and weight of the British and US night and dat bombing campaigns on Germany forced the Luftwaffe to allocate significant numbers of fighters for the air defence of the Reich. On 31 March 1943, therefore, about 60% of the German fighter strength were concentrated in the western theatre.
German aircraft production now ceased to offset the increased level of losses , which led to a decrease in the number of aircraft available to first-line combat units. A number of failures in the adoption of new types of aircraft and the need to increase production forced the Germans to continue the production of existing types in form upgraded in a number of ways. As a result, by the spring of 1943 as much as 25% of German warplanes were aircraft of obsolete or obsolescent types.
The Luftwaffe fighter units operating over Kuban were equipped with Bf 109 fighters of the latest Bf 109G-2 and Bf 109G-4 variants. Their advantages included more powerful engines and armament, increased survivability, and the universal use of transceivers. However, the weight penalty of the additional equipment and armament adversely affected manoeuvrability, and the increase in speed from the introduction of more powerful engine variants resulted in a deterioration in the overall controllability of the aircraft. Nevertheless, the Bf 109G was the highest point in this fighter’s technical development, and the Bf 109G was in general superior to Soviet fighters. The twin-engined Messerschmitt Bf 110G was almost never employed in its original heavy fighter and escort roles, and was instead employed for reconnaissance, ground attack and the interception of night bombers.
After one month of commitment in the 'Kuban Air Offensive Operation', the venerable Junkers Ju 87 dive-bomber, which had proved so decisive in the tactical role earlier in the war, was steadily withdraw from front-line service.
In total, three major air battles took place over Kuban, and by Soviet reckoning the first day was considered to be 17 April, but in reality there had been fierce air combat since 15 April, the date on which the Luftwaffe flew more than 1,500 sorties and disrupted the North Caucasus Front’s planned offensive. Only after this did it become obvious to the Soviet command that it was impossible to count on the success of the ground forces' further offensive before air supremacy had been won and held. It was therefore decided to strengthen the air forces in this sector and, having achieved a turning point in the fight against the Luftwaffe, continue the ground offensive in order to eliminate the 'Gotenkopf Stellung'.
The first major air battle took place between 17 and 24 April above the ground offensive against the German lodgement in the area of Myskhako area, just to the south of Novorossiysk, on Malaya Zemlya as German troops tried to destroy the 18th Amy’s landing group. The initiative for the start of the battle was taken by the Germans. Wholly unexpected by the Soviets, German troops went over to the offensive against the Soviet beach-head, the ground forces receiving active support by dive-bombers and level and horizontal bombers operating in waves of 25 to 30 aircraft. The opposing ground forces were so close to each other that air attacks of specific front-line positions were impossible, so the Luftwaffe instead concentrated its efforts on the Soviet heavy artillery on the shore of Tsemesskaya bay. In extremely fierce continuous assault, the Soviet ground forces held their ground, and the German two-day effort was limited to an advance of a mere 1,095 yards (1000 m), and was then brought to a complete halt.
In the air, however, the nature of the battle was somewhat different: Soviet air reconnaissance had not established the German air concentration and the direction of its main attack. While the German offensive was supported from the air by what the Soviets estimated was about 450 bombers and 200 fighters, the Soviets could respond with no more than 300 aircraft. Theoretically, up to 500 Soviet aircraft, including up to 100 bombers, could operate over this sector, but the main Soviet airfields were located to the west and north-east of Krasnodar, some 90 to 125 miles ((150 to 200 km) from the battle area. German dive bombers made more than 500 sorties during the course of the day, while the total number of Luftwaffe sorties that day was 1,560, and the opposing Soviet air forces were able to fly only 538 sorties. Exploiting its current numerical superiority, the Luftwaffe seized the air initiative in this sector. and in response, the North Caucasus Front redirects the main forces of the 4th Air Army and 5th Air Army to help the troops operating in the Novorossiysk region.
On 18 and 19 April, in the Myskhako area, air battles took place with mixed fortunes. In addition to the main air strength of the North Caucasus Front, the formations and units which the Soviet supreme command was transferring also became involved in operations in this sector. Thus, the 13th Fighter Regiment of the 201st Fighter Aviation Division was committed within a few hours of arriving in the combat area. German aircraft were based on airfields located only some 25 to 30 miles (40 to 40 km) from Novorossiysk, while Soviet fighters were located at a much greater distance. In addition, on their flights toward the area, the Soviet warplanes had to cross spurs of the main Caucasian mountains, which were generally covered by cloud that was impenetrable to Soviet aircraft, which had little or no instrument flight capability. Therefore, for a prompt response to German air raids, General Major Vladimir I. Izotov’s 'Gelendzhik Aviation Group' of about 100 fighters was deployed to forward airfields in the Gelendzhik area. This reduced flight times, and thus dramatically increased the numbers of Soviet aircraft which could quickly be committed over the battlefield. The main task of the Soviet fighters at this point was the interception and destruction of the German bombers: Soviet pilots inflicted significant losses on the Germans, reducing the effect of their attacks, but could not altogether prevent these attacks. Nevertheless, the intensity of the diver-bombers' sorties began to decline, initially from 500 to 290.
On 20 April, large-scale clashes continued over the Soviet beach-head. The Soviet air forces managed to fetter the German air effort and so reduce its capacity to undertake major attacks. Twice during this day, forces of more than 100 Soviet bombers inflicted massive blows on the German infantry and artillery formations seeking to drive back the Soviet landing group, and this resulted in heavy losses and forced the Germans to regroup their forces. In retaliation, two forces of Ju 87D dive-bombers carried out a night raid on the headquarters of the 18th Army, located in the village of Maryina Roshcha to the south of Kabardinka. This signalled the fact that the Germans had now seen the apparent superiority of Soviet air power and switched their dive-bomber operations to the night, having made 165 sorties per day. Between 21 and 23 April, the power of Soviet air attacks increased still as the availability of the supreme command’s three air corps increased. By April 23, about 300 of these corps' aircraft had been committed, which made it possible finally to change the overall balance of air power in the Myskhako area in favour of the Soviets. On 23 April, the number of German sorties over Soviet-held territory was was halved, and the most important task of preventing German bombing raids had been completed.
After 23 April, the Germans were forced to bring their ground offensive to a halt and indeed to retreat to their original positions, and their fighters went over to the defensive. In this first air battle, the Soviets estimated the German losses at 182 aircraft, and their own losses as fewer than 100 aircraft.
The first air battle had showed that, despite their overall superiority in numbers, the Soviet air forces did not have the initiative in the air. The presence of four command structures made it impossible to react swiftly, prevented the transfer of aircraft to other airfields, interfered with co-operation, and weakened the overall capability of the air forces. On 24 April, therefore, all of the 5th Air Army’s units were transferred to the 4th Air Army, whose headquarters was retired into the Soviet supreme command reserve. In addition, in order to centralise the control of major air forces in April, the air force headquarters of the North Caucasus Front was created under the operational but not organisational command of Vershinin, and in the immediate vicinity of the battle zone, in the Abinsk region, an auxiliary aviation control centre was organised.
The second problem was the advantageous location of German airfields in key areas of possible battles. An urgent operation was therefore launched to attack these German forward airfields each night using groups of between 30 and 40 bombers. Long-range bombers also carried out massive attacks on the Crimean airfields at Saki and Sarabuz, where units of two Luftwaffe bomber groups were based. In these raids, according to the Soviets, 170 aircraft were destroyed. In total, according to Soviet intelligence estimates, between 17 and 29 April about 260 German aircraft were destroyed or damaged on the ground. German sources do not confirm so large a number of losses, but do concede the high efficiency of the Soviet undertaking. The Germans therefore pulled many of their longer-ranged aircraft back to more distant airfields, and bolstered their air-defence capabilities.
The third problem was the need to speed the development of tactical techniques and boost young pilots' combat experience, and this was addressed by the organisation of a wide range of measures: continuous dissemination of combat experience, adoption and wide distribution of new tactical recommendations approved by Vershinin, popularisation of the most successful units' experience, best-practice lectures and displays by the best pilots. Emphasis was placed on the introduction of the echeloned battle formation, the advantages of actions at higher altitudes, the tactical use of pairs of aircraft (leader and wingman) and the maximum use of vertical manoeuvre in air combat. In practice, however, such efforts were not universally effected: according to the testimony of the 57th Guards Fighter Regiment’s pilots, for example, Savitsky’s pilots from the headquarters reserve of the III Fighter Aviation Corps refused the assistance of the veterans of the Kuban air battles, as a result of which they suffered significant losses in their first combats. Moreover, the attempted introduction of the principles of formation and air combat tactics often came into conflict with the passive tactics of many Soviet fighter units, which was accustomed to patrolling certain areas in order to cover Soviet ground forces.
From 28 April, major air battles developed in the area of Krymskaya and continued with short interruptions until 10 May as the Germans attempted to use air power to disrupt the Soviet offensive in the Crimea area, scheduled for 29 April.
On 28 April, the pace and scale of German air operations increased sharply on the eve of the 56th Army’s transition to the offensive. During the morning of this day, groups of between 10 and 15 bombers tried attack the Soviet forward ground elements, and throughout the day the Germans flew some 850 bomber sorties. In response, Soviet fighters flew 310 sorties and shot down 25 aircraft for the loss of 18 of their own aircraft. From that day on, an air battle developed over Krymskaya and continued, with short lulls, for many days.
On the night of 28/29 April, Soviet aircraft flew a retaliatory raid to suppress the German defences in the zone of the imminent offensive. Some 379 sorties were flown, in which 210 tons of bombs were dropped, and these caused 160 fires and 25 major explosions. The Soviets lost no aircraft.
On 29 April, the 56th Army’s offensive was preceded by a 40-minute air bombardment that was then developed into a major air support effort. Over a three-hour period, 144 bombers, 82 attack aircraft and 265 fighters operated over the battlefield, and in the course of this day the Soviets flew 1,308 sorties, 379 of them during the night. In 50 air battles, Soviet pilots claimed to have shot down 74 German aircraft, with another seven succumbing to anti-aircraft fire. The Soviets claimed that the German had flown about 700 sorties over the battlefield, but the initiative in the air passed to the Soviets.
From 1 to 10 May, Soviet air power steadily increased its attacks on the German defences and infantry concentrations. The result was soon seen: on 3 May and during the night of 3/4 May, the 56th Army liberated Krymskaya, and by 6 May had advanced to a depth of some 6 miles (10 km).
The tactics of Soviet aviation in this battle were of a pronounced offensive nature. Above the battlefield, three or four pairs of fighters usually appeared first to clarify the situation in the air and transmit the information to the main radio guidance station, and hen, after an interval of some 10 to 15 minutes, larger groups of fighters approached to drive away patrolling German fighters or pin them in combat. Only then did bomber and attack aircraft forces make their appearance, under fighter escort, to attack their target from several directions. Co-operation of this type sharply reduced losses to German fighters, even in situations in which the combat area was characterised by a significant saturation of such opponents.
German bombers attempting to strike at the Soviet ground forces met with active opposition from Soviet fighters and were forced to bomb from altitudes of anywhere between 9,845 and 16,405 ft (3000 and 5000 m), usually in a single group and direction. On a relatively narrow 15.5- to 18.67-mile (25- to 30-km) sector of the front, as many as 40 air battles took place each day, during which anything between 50 and 80 aircraft were involved.
From 29 April to 10 May, the 4th Air Army, the Air Force of the Black Sea Fleet and Long-Range Aviation flew 12,000 sorties, became involved in 285 air combats and, it was claimed, destroyed 368 German aircraft.
After the end of the fighting for Krymskaya, it was finally decided by the Soviets to centralise the control of their air assets. The North Caucasus Front’s air headquarters was disestablished, and Vershinin took command of the 4th Air Army while Naumenko departed for another front.
During May 1943, both sides prepared for further ground battles. Air activity decreased as units were replenished with new aircraft and fresh pilots after the losses of April’s fighting. By 25 May, the Germans had 700 aircraft and the 4th Air Army 924 aircraft.
In attacking the villages of Kievskaya and Moldavanskaya, the North Caucasus Front began fighting to break through the German 'Blue Line' defences. On 26 May, the 56th Army and 37th Army went over to the offensive, but before that Soviet attack aircraft laid a smokescreen in the area planned for the breakthrough. Air training had emphasised the launch of a massive air attack, in which the 338 aircraft committed included 84 bombers, 104 attack aircraft and 150 fighters. During the first six hours of the battle, the Soviet ground forces advanced in the breakthrough sector to a depth of between 1.85 and 3.1 miles ((3 and 5 km), on the process taking the Germans' first and second lines of defence.
To remove the threat of a Soviet complete breakthrough of their main defence line, the Germans committed their entire air strength: during the afternoon of 26 May the Germans struck a massive blow to the Soviet ground forces using Luftflotte IV's bomber force of some 600 aircraft operating from the airfields of Crimea and the southern part of Ukraine. Over the course of three hours, the Soviets more than 1,500 German sorties over the break-in area. The front’s anti-aircraft artillery and the fighters of the 4th Air Army were unable to repel this massive attack, and the German aircraft achieved a temporary initiative in the air. This had a heavy impact, both physical and moral, on the Soviet ground forces. The Soviet command was compelled to admit that it had not been prepared for this situation. Although all Soviet aircraft were thrown into the battle, they could make no more than 1,000 sorties per day. A frequent occurrence was the German tying of Soviet aircraft with their fighters, thereby making it possible for their own bombers and attack warplanes to break through to their designated targets with little or no Soviet interference. On the ground, the advancing troops suffered heavy losses to air attack, therefore, and this had the immediate effect of slowing the offensive’s pace.
On 27 May, the Germans maintained their superiority in the air, and during the day their aircraft flew 2,658 sorties. A difficult situation therefore arose for the Soviets both on the ground and in the air. The offensive as whole, and especially the movement of the ground forces, during the daylight hours were hampered by continuous German attacks involving groups of between 50 and 100 aircraft.
Vershinin and Novikov severely demanded that their fighters destroy the German bombers before they approached the front line. The escort of the Soviet’s own bombers was cut back, the fighters thus made available being retasked to patrol in groups on the approach routes of the German aircraft, and for the first time groups of 'free hunters' were created. The crews of Soviet bombers and attack aircraft focused their efforts on maximum possible combat with German fighters, and in order to weaken the activity of the Germans' air units night attacks on airfields were again intensified. During the period from 25 May 25 and 7 June, 845 sorties were flown against the German airfields. In this phase of the operation, Soviet pilots flew 10,250 sorties, and in 364 air combats claimed the destruction of 315 German aircraft.
Continuous air battles continued until 7 June.
In the air battles over Kuban between 17 April and 7 June, the Germans lost more than 1,100 aircraft, of which more than 800 were shot down in air combat, according to Soviet data. The Germans denied the significance of their losses which, they claimed, were no more than usual for military operations and many times less than the Soviet air losses.
According to a post-war report by the British Air Force Intelligence Directorate, based on captured German documents, during the first half of April 1943, the Germans concentrated a powerful strike force of some 550 to 600 aircraft in Crimea. However, the Soviet intelligence apparently, discovered the concentration of German air strength on Crimean airfields, and the Soviet command managed to assemble the forces necessary to repel the German threat. As a result, the Germans were unable to establish tactical air superiority. Attacks by Soviet warplanes on German supply ships in the Black Sea and in the Strait of Kerch forced the Germans to retain significant defensive forces in Crimea, where they suffered heavy losses as a result of Soviet air superiority.
Between 17 April and 7 June, Soviet aircraft flew some 35,000 sorties, of which 77% were by front-line air assets, 9% by Long-Range Aviation and 14% by the Air Force of the Black Sea Fleet. As a result, at the beginning of June 1943 the Soviets had once more regained the initiative in the air, and the intensity of the air combat began to subside. Both sides began the gradual reduction of their air strength in Kuban as they redeployed units to the areas in which future major battles were considered likely. The Soviet task of destroying the 17th Army was accordingly postponed until the autumn.
In general, as a result of the battles, Soviet aviation achieved its goal, which was important for gaining strategic air supremacy over the whole of the Eastern Front in the summer of 1943.