on 21 February 2008
This is the third volume in a series covering the air war between Germany and the Soviet Union. While the first two books covered the entire theatre following the initial German invasion or the lengthy Stalingrad campaign and its preceding battles, this volume focuses on a battle which lasted less than a month and occupied fewer than 250 kilometres of front line. The German offensive to destroy the Kursk salient in 1943, and the following Soviet offensive to liberate Orel, led to perhaps the largest air battle in history. Both sides committed huge forces on the ground and in the air. Previous accounts have concentrated on the land battle, this is the first I know of to directly address the aerial struggle.
As with the previous volumes the focus is on the operational level but with plenty of tactical anecdotes and personal accounts to add human interest into a battle so vast that otherwise it could otherwise seem an abstract account of the movements of huge fleets of aircraft.
Bergstrom starts with an introductory chapter describing how previous campaigns had led to the Kursk salient being formed, and the German plan to cut off the Soviet forces in it in a pincer movement similar to those they had successfully achieved in earlier years. The next describes the preparations for the battle made by both sides. The Russians were well aware of German plans and strengthened their defences, including those in the air. The abortive German strategic bombing campaign is discussed as well as costly raids on Soviet transport centres, which directly influenced German strategy during the battle for Kursk itself.
The core of the book is eight chapters which describe in detail the air campaign once the German attack was launched. Many previous books have relied too much on either Soviet or German accounts and the great strength of Bergstrom's is the weaving together detailed records from both sides. The simultaneous battles over both the north and south sides of the Kursk salient are described on a day-by-day basis, as are the air battles over the adjacent Orel salient a week later. The Soviet's carefully planned opening moves failed for a variety of reasons and Bergstrom shown how the greater experience and better tactics of German fighter pilots once again led to heavy Russian losses. But here the story changes from previous battles, and within 24 hours the Soviets started to modify both their tactics and operational planning, resulting in much more effective use of their air power. Bergstrom is particularly good at showing how this rapid learning from experience affected the battle.
Some histories of air wars concentrate too much on fighter combat, simply because it is perceived as more glamorous, but Bergstrom gives due weight to the bombers employed by each side and their effect on the ground conflict. The air war on the Eastern front was closely tied to the support of ground forces and Bergstrom links his narrative of the air war to that of the ground combat it was supporting. Kursk also saw the first mass use of specialist ground attack weapons such as the cannon-armed Hs-129 and the Soviet PTAB anti-armour bomb and their use and effectiveness is documented. The losses among the declining number of very experienced German bomber pilots is also emphasised, as is the increased Soviet effectiveness in ground attack.
A final chapter summarises the battle and its outcome, which pulls together the themes running through the book. Bergstrom has researched many original records to discover the losses suffered by each side and these are presented here in (sometimes slightly mangled) tables. His main conclusion is that though Soviet aircraft losses were much heavier than German ones, Kursk marked a Soviet victory, a defining moment when Soviet air power achieved a new level of competence, and when the strategic initiative was irrevocably lost by the Germans.
Completing the volume are a lengthy glossary, detailed orders of battle, a breakdown of losses for the Luftwaffe on 5 July, a bibliography and other appendices which cover the organisation of each airforce and the military awards each side used. Physically the book continues the same high standards of the two previous volumes. Photographs are relevant, clear and well captioned and the sole map in this volume is sufficient as the battle focused on a small area.
In summary this is another excellent book, one which sets a new standard for the coverage of the air battle at Kursk and expertly dispels the confusion that previous accounts have sometimes caused. Recommended reading.
For a very good review that gives, what I believe is, a good 360 degree analysis of this title please look to Mr Howard Mitchell's review. For my part I shall endeavour convey my thoughts on this book.
I really liked this book as it is full of detail and that explores the weakness and strengths of the opposing air forces, with a critical eye. The examination of the paradigm shift in their respective fortunes as the battle progress is both illuminating and lesson that should be learned from History. We are given great anecdotal information about various units, their commanders and individuals who fought won and lost in an air war that until recent times was not written about extensively. An air war that was probably the largest campaign of the Second World War. The book deals volume of equipment used, the strategic need for re-supply, repair and the need for good intelligence so as impact one's opponent in the most effective way possible. You are supplied with great photograph evidence, always a plus point for me. At times, you may tire with the length and breadth of the statistical information that is contained within the pages, as you wish to move on with the narrative. This book that cannot be read once, you will need to visit this volume at least a second time to really appreciate it.
This edition is well worthy of a full five star rating.
on 25 July 2014
The remarkable thing with this book is that the author has uncritically accepted claims of various kinds. For example, there is a story about German ground attack destroying huge numbers of Soviet tanks on 8 July, on the left flank of the German II SS Panzer Corps advancing north. Claims of 80 or 50 Soviet tanks destroyed have been mentioned in previous literature and Bergström uses the lower figure. Glantz and House book on Kursk is indicated as source. Unfortunately, all this is terribly wrong. The claims seem to originate from Bruno Meyer, who commanded the German aircraft that conducted the attack. It has long been known that claims by air units attacking ground units are wildly exaggerated. In fact, they are so exaggerated that should never be taken seriously. This action is no exception. Loss reports from the Soviet units operating in the area have been found and they show that less than ten tanks were lost in the area and this is due to all causes, not only enemy air. Bergström is off by an order of magnitude.
Similarly, he claims that German air power destroyed numerous tanks at Prokhorovka, which would be a major surprise. There are Soviet investigations which show that in the battle on the norther side of the Kursk bulge, about 5 % of the Soviet tank losses were incurred by enemy air power and available reports for the southern side suggest an even lower ratio, about 2 %. Given this background, it is reasonable to demand stringent arguments if somebody is claiming that Luftwaffe air attacks at Prokhorovka were devastating and caused very heavy Soviet tank losses. This is what Bergström does, so let's take a look at his arguments and sources.
Bergström writes that Rudel destroyed 12 tanks on 12 July. He admits that these claims have been questioned by historians, but argues that there is little reason for doubt. His argument is that the Stuka equipped with 37 mm cannons could knock out Soviet tank. However, it is well known that weapons performance can not be translated directly to battle flied results. It is far more complicated than that. Bergström goes on and says that the German air men inflicted terrible losses on the advancing Soviet tanks. He then quotes a report from the Soviet 31st Tank brigade, but the quote is vague: "We suffer heavy losses in tanks through enemy aircraft and artillery. At 10.30 hours our tanks reached the Komsomolets State farm, but due to continuous air attacks, they were unable to advance further and shifted to the defense." To an untrained eye, this might appear compelling, but it is not. Sentences like these can be found in many reports without units losing many tanks. "Heavy" is a very flexible word. Also, exaggerations can often be found in Soviet reports (and others) that appear to serve as a way to excuse poor performance. Furthermore, he only quotes from the 31st Tank Brigade, which is surprising. After all, many more Soviet tank and mechanized brigades fought at Prokhorovka. How does he know that 31st Tank Brigade was representative. In fact, it was not, because it was the only one not directly committed. In the end, the only credible evidence is reports giving actual losses, by cause. Such reports exist, but Bergström does not mention them. Instead, he indulges in shaky arguments.
These are but two examples of the shortcomings of the research on which this book is based on. Otherwise it is well written and for those who like photos, it has much to offer. However, there are already so many books on WWII that are based on flawed research that there is no need for yet another.
on 12 March 2014
As the author of the most updated book about the Soviet Airwomen, I can assure that this book is a masterpiese in his gendre, a lot of deep research, excellent pictures printed on quality paper, maps and charts of first rate, outstanding quality book, the proof is that the price don't reduce along the years.