The German-held Kuban bridgehead, situated along the Taman peninsula, was an area of extreme importance to both sides. The Germans saw the region as essential to protecting the eastern approaches to the Crimea , whereas the Soviets viewed the bridgehead as a launch-point for another possible German offensive into the northern Caucasus . Unlike Stalingrad , Kursk or even Operation Bagration, the campaign is almost unknown in the West, probably due to the fact that there were no real breakthroughs on the ground, no encirclements, no capitulation of German armies. At best, it was a set of limited ground offensives during the boggy months of spring.
However, the air battles over the Kuban sector were pivotal to the growth of the VVS as the offensive long-arm of the Red Army, sending a clear message to the Luftwaffe: the VVS was about to return what it had received. In fact, Soviet historians hold this two-month air campaign in early 1943 to be as important to the war effort as the Americans do the battle of Midway. It was a battle fought with such intensity that General K. V. Vershinin, the main Soviet air commander of the sector, claimed on some days he could see an aircraft fall every ten minutes, and it was not unusual for as many as 100 air battles to take place in a day.
The German Fourth Luftflotte (Air Fleet), which included the elite Udet, Molders and Green Hearts JGs (Jagdgeschwader, equivalents of Groups), was responsible for this area, while its Soviet counterparts were primarily the Fourth and Fifth Air Armies, along with three air corps from STAVKA reserves. Both air forces were roughly equal in size at about 1000 combat aircraft each. The Luftwaffe fighter units were mainly equipped with Bf 109 G 2/-4's and Fw 190 A's, while the VVS possessed a mixture of the latest Yakovlev and Lavochkin fighters, along with large numbers of 11-2 Sturmoviks and Pe-2 bombers. In addition, there was a steady flow of lend-lease aircraft: P-39's, A-20's, P-40's and even Spitfire V's. Though Soviet pilots found the Spitfire a disappointment (it looked too much like a Bf 109 and was very vulnerable to groundfire), they flew the P-39 with great elan during the battle. In fact, two pilots of 16 GvIAP (Gvardeiskii Istrebitelnii Aviatsionnii Polk, or Guards Fighter Air Regiment), A. I. Pokryshkin and his squadron mate G. A.Rechkalov, were very successful flying the P-39-the former claiming 20 kills during the battle.
Phase 1: Myskhako
The battle began April 17, 1943 when the German Seventeenth Army launched Operation Neptune, focused upon the Soviet beachhead at Myskhako. German Ju 87's tried to dislodge the Soviets and initially the divebombers were unopposed, but within three days VVS fighters arrived to stop the attacks. Though Soviet fighter pilots claimed 182 Luftwaffe aircraft destroyed in the following week, the losses were considerable for both sides. In the end, Soviet resistance was so stiff the Wehrmacht was forced to abandon its attack.
Phase 2: Krymskaya
The second phase of the battle began when the Soviet 56th Army launched a major ground offensive on April 29. The objective was to establish a breakthrough corridor to Anapa, a coastal town deep in the German rear on the Black Sea . The offensive began around the village of Krymskaya , which had great strategic value due to its position north of Novorossisk and close to a key railroad junction. By this time the VVS had considerable numerical superiority, so much so that the Luftwaffe lost an average of 17 fighters a day up to May 10th; in total some 368 German aircraft were claimed by the VVS. However, once again the Soviet air force was also paying a heavy price in aircraft losses, and by May 9 / 10 the Luftwaffe had actually regained air superiority over Krymskaya. After the Soviet 56th Army made only limited gains, a two-week lull ensued.
Phase 3: Blue Line
On May 26th, the Soviet offensive was renewed along the fortified German "Blue Line" with a powerful armored infantry thrust. Within hours of the Soviet assault, the Germans launched a determined counterattack that soon stalled the Soviet drive. As a result, more than 100 Soviet tanks were lost on the first day. In the air, the response from both sides was immediate and uncompromising. The VVS had launched a preparatory raid of 338 aircraft. The Germans responded with up to 1,500 sorties on the same day. German sources state that the VVS lost 350 combat aircraft on May 26th alone, but overall air losses to the Luftwaffe were so severe that they discontinued active air engagements in the area on June 7th. During this third phase of the campaign many reputations were made: the Glinka brothers, Dmitrii and Boris, scored 21 and 10 victories respectively in the Kuban , A. L. Prukozchikov-20, V. I. Fadeyev-15, N. E. Lavitsky-15, D. I. Koval-13, V. I. Fedorenko-13 and P. M. Berestnev-12.
On July 5, 1943 German operation Zitadelle began, only to be called off by Hitler twelve days later after German forces suffered substantial losses in their advance. The Soviets quickly seized the initiative, beginning their counteroffensive just as the German offensive was stalling. This turn of events did not bode well for the Germans deployed in the Kuban Bridgehead, especially after the Soviets occupied all land routes to the Crimea by October 13, 1943 . That same month, the Kuban Bridgehead was evacuated by German forces.
The Battle of The Kuban, 1943
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