Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen
|Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen|
Generalfeldmarschall Wolfram von Richthofen
10 October 1895|
Barzdorf, near Striegau, Germany
|Died||12 July 1945
Bad Ischl, Austria
|Allegiance|| German Empire (to 1918)
Weimar Republic (to 1933)
|Years of service||1913–1920
|Commands held||Condor Legion, VIII. Fliegerkorps, Luftflotte 2, Luftflotte 4|
|Awards||Ritterkreuz mit Eichenlaub|
Wolfram Freiherr[Notes 1] von Richthofen (10 October 1895 – 12 July 1945) was a German Generalfeldmarschall (General Field Marshal) of the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) during the Second World War. Born in 1895 to Prussian nobles, Wolfram grew up in wealthy surroundings. After attending school, he opted to join the German Army at the age of 18, rather than choose an academic career. He joined the army's cavalry arm in 1913.
On the outbreak of the First World War, he fought on the Western Front, winning the Iron Cross Second Class. He was redeployed to the Eastern Front in 1915, where he stayed until 1917. The von Richthofen family produced several notable personalities that would become famous during the First War. His cousins, brothers Lothar and Manfred von Richthofen, both became flying aces and they encouraged him to join the Luftstreitkräfte (German Imperial Air Service). He did so, and joined Manfred's Geschwader (Wing), Jagdgeschwader 1 (Fighter Wing 1). Manfred, known as the Red Baron, was the highest claiming ace of the war with 80 victories. On his first mission with his cousin, Manfred was killed in April 1918. Wolfram continued flying, and went on to claim eight aerial victories before the armistice in November 1918. His other cousin, Lothar, survived the war, but was killed in a flying accident in 1922.
After the war von Richthofen resumed civilian life and discharged himself from the army. He studied Engineering at University before rejoining the Reichswehr, the German armed forces in the Weimar Republic era. In 1933 Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party seized power in Germany, and the Reichswehr was formed into the Wehrmacht. Wolfram joined the new Luftwaffe. He served as part of the Condor Legion which supported the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. During this time, he recognised the need for close air support in military campaigns. He championed the dive bomber, particularly the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka. He also believed in improving ground-air communications, which was put into effect in the Second World War, after his experiences in Spain and Poland. The combination of effective air-ground communications, and powerful concentrations of dive bombers would lead to personal success for Wolfram in the first half of the war. By 1941, a high standard of air to ground communications became a uniform facility in the Luftwaffe.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, he commanded a specialised ground-attack air unit Fliegerkorps VIII (8th Air Corps), first as a small action unit in the Polish Campaign, and then as full-sized Air Corps in Western Europe, from May to June 1940. The effectiveness of his units proved decisive at certain points in the French Campaign, particularly covering the German thrust to the English Channel. He was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on 23 May 1940, in view of his achievements. He continued in frontline service during the Battle of Britain and Balkans Campaign in 1940 and 1941.
Von Richthofen achieved his greatest success on the Eastern Front. In particular, he achieved notable success in the Crimean Campaigns during 1942. Despite offering vital tactical and operational support to Army Group South, after the defeat at the Battle of Stalingrad he was moved to the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations, where he commanded Luftwaffe forces in the Italian Campaign. He remained in active service until late 1944, when he was retired on medical grounds. Soon after the capitulation of Germany in May 1945, he was taken prisoner by the United States Army, but died in captivity of a brain tumor on 12 July that same year.
- 1 Early life
- 2 First World War
- 3 Between the wars
- 4 Second World War
- 4.1 Polish Campaign
- 4.2 Western Europe
- 4.3 Battle of Britain
- 4.4 Balkans Campaign
- 4.5 Eastern Front
- 5 Death
- 6 Promotions
- 7 References in the Wehrmachtbericht
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 External links
Von Richthofen was born on 10 October 1895, at the von Richthofen Barzdorf estate (Gut Barzdorf), near Striegau, Lower Silesia to an aristocratic family. His father, Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen (1856–1922), and mother, Therese Gotz von Olenhusen (1862–1948) were of Silesian nobility, and the family had been nobles for 350 years prior to Wolfram's existence.
Von Richthofen was the second child and oldest son of four children. His older sister, Sophie-Therese was born in 1891 (and died in 1971). His brother Manfred was born in 1898 and Gerhard in 1902. He was the fourth cousin of the German World War I flying ace Manfred von Richthofen, popularly known as the "Red Baron," and the baron's younger brother Lothar von Richthofen. As the son of a noble, he enjoyed a life of privilege. The family’s noble status dated back to the 1500s, and by the 1700s the von Richthofens owned 16 estates in Lower Silesia. When Frederick the Great annexed Silesia in 1740, he personally granted the title of Baron (Freiherr) to one of von Richthofen’s ancestors. The family continued on in Silesia for a further three generations.
Von Richthofen’s home, an eighteenth century estate, was only one of 25 von Richthofen-owned properties totalling 140 square kilometres (35,000 acres; 54 sq mi). Barzdorf, where he lived, was a modest 350 hectares (860 acres; 1.4 sq mi), of which 269 was cropland and the rest forest. Interestingly Wolfram, as the oldest son did not inherit the estate. Instead, on the death of his father in 1922, it was given to his younger brother, Manfred. Some years before, Wolfram’s uncle General of Cavalry Manfred von Richthofen, his father’s brother, had asked him to inherit his estate to keep it in the family, as he himself had no children. Wolfram inherited the estate after Manfred legally adopted him. The General did not die until 1939, having lived long enough to see his nephew win success in the Spanish Civil War and in the Polish Campaign.
He had a distant relationship with his youngest brother, but a close one with Manfred. Unlike most Prussian nobles Wolfram von Richthofen went to the local Gymnasium (academic high school) and did not have private tutors at home. He attended school in Striegau. His grades in mathematics and German language were good, but he did not excel at foreign languages (in which he scored average to poor results). He found studying language to be boring, but did learn Italian and could converse competently in it in later life.
He became good friends with his cousins, Lothar and Manfred von Richthofen, and he hunted game at the estate with them regularly. By the end of his teens he had become an established hunter and horse rider – interests which remained with him for the rest of his life. He enjoyed being outdoors and, while still at school, opted to apply for a commission in the German Army (rather than choose an academic career).
In 1913, at the age of 18, he joined the army and took the officer course in Berlin. The Cavalry was the most prestigious arm, and he applied to join the 4th Hussars which belonged to the 12th Cavalry Brigade of the Sixth Army Corps in Breslau. He did not have much time to experience peacetime military service. In August 1914 the First World War began.
On 18 September 1920, he married Jutta von Selchow ( March 1896 – 1991) at a Lutheran church in Breslau (now the city of Wrocław in Poland). They had been introduced by her brother Gunther. Jutta was also of Silesian nobility, and had moved in the same circles. She had served as a nurse in the war. They lived in an apartment in Hanover while Wolfram restarted his academic career in Engineering. During their marriage they rarely travelled abroad in the 1920s. In the 1930s they took skiing holidays in Switzerland. The couple had three children; Wolfram (born 25 May 1922), Götz (27 November 1925) and Ellen (15 February 1928)
First World War
Fighting in the Army
The Hussars of the 12th Cavalry Brigade were attached to the 5th Cavalry Division, which was subordinated to the First Cavalry Corps. It formed part of the German Third Army that enacted the attack on France and Belgium in August 1914 as part of the pre-war Schlieffen Plan. He crossed the Meuse river at Dinant. It was involved in heavy action against the French VIII Cavalry Corps and fought in Belgium at Namur on 23–24 August and again at St. Quentin. The 5th Cavalry continued its drive into France after the Battle of the Frontiers, but was stopped at the First Battle of the Marne in September. In recognition for bravery in combat, Wolfram was awarded the Iron Cross Second Class (1914) on 21 September 1914. The modern combat environment damaged the effectiveness of cavalry, and thus von Richthofen’s division was transferred to the Eastern Front, in Poland that November.
On the Eastern Front, the Cavalry Division was mostly deployed in the south. Little combat took place, as the German army did not use cavalry as frequently. The division was kept mainly in reserve. Von Richthofen’s brigade served near Pinsk in 1916, and the division would spend late 1915 to January 1917 of defensive operations in the Pripet Marshes. Von Richthofen was made commander of the horse depot of the Brigade in the autumn, 1916 and was promoted to Squadron Commander, with 160 men under his command. This was never going to garner him the level of fame his cousins, Lothar and Manfred, were now achieving in the Luftstreitkräfte (Imperial Air Service). They personally encouraged him to join as an airman. He finally did so in June 1917.
Transfer to the Luftstreitkräfte
Before he joined the Air Service, Wolfram took leave in Germany until he reported to the 14th Flying Replacement Regiment based at Halle, one of several large flight schools. At this point in the war, German training was more thorough and longer than the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and at least equal to that given by Armee de l'Air and United States Army Air Service (USAAS). His training lasted three months, and he was assigned to the 11th Flying Replacement Battalion for advanced training in March 1918. He reported to his cousin Manfred’s unit, Jagdgeschwader 1 (JG 1) on 4 April 1918. On his first mission with his cousin, Manfred was killed in April 1918. Wolfram continued flying, and went on to claim eight aerial victories before the armistice in November 1918.
Between the wars
Academia and Reichswehr
Von Richthofen studied aeronautical engineering from 1919 to 1922 at the Technical University of Hanover. He served in Rome in 1929–1931 as an "informal" air attache in violation of the disarmament clauses of the Versailles Treaty.
In 1933 von Richthofen joined the Luftwaffe, commanded by his former commanding officer at JG 1, in 1918, Hermann Göring. By 1934 he was in charge of developing and testing new aircraft in the Technisches Amt, under the overall direction of Ernst Udet. Although von Richthofen had known Göring, having served under him in the First World War in JG 1, the two did not get along. They both came from aristocratic backgrounds, but von Richthofen was a Silesian from Lower Silesia, a drive commander, a good and hard working staff officer who enjoyed the company of engineers and like-minded men. Göring was a Bavarian, and a playboy who enjoyed talking about First World War stories and his time as an ace while he enjoyed the trappings of power. Göring preferred men like him, and promoted them on that basis. He overlooked the more qualified von Richthofen in favour of Udet, a hard drinker and playboy, who like Göring had grown up in Bavaria, to head the Technisches Amt.
Von Richthofen's role was mainly concerned with aircraft procurement programs for the fledgling Luftwaffe. He was involved in the development of types such as the Dornier Do 23, Heinkel He 111 and Junkers Ju 86. In the event, only the He 111 would make a real impact during the war. Von Richthofen was following a considerably difficult assignment, stemming from a directive issued to the Reichswehr before Hitler's rise to power. In July 1932, the Reichswehr had been pursuing the Schnellbomber (fast bomber) concept. The need for modern and fast bombers was to meet the future vision of air warfare for bombers that were faster than fighter aircraft.
As the 1930s progressed the He 111 was refined, and the Dornier Do 17 Schnellbomber entered planning, production and service in 1936–37. Even so, Göring as still interested in the heavy bomber program, which would give the Luftwaffe a firm strategic bombing capability. Von Richthofen was dubious about the employment of heavy bombers, and wanted the projects developing types like the Dornier Do 19 cancelled. Unfortunately for von Richthofen, for the time being, the Luftwaffe 's first Chief of the General Staff, Walter Wever, did believe in the heavy bomber program. The development of what Wever called the "Ural bomber" designs continued. At the time, Göring and Wever also required a long-range fighter escort design for protecting the bombers over Britain and the Soviet Union, Germany's expected enemies. Von Richthofen joined Wever in moderating some of the design requests of Göring, who insisted on a fast, fighter, bomber, ground attack and reconnaissance aircraft rolled into one design. However, von Richthofen used his position to split the specification into separate designs on 22 January 1935, viewing the request as impossible.
Wever was killed in an air accident in June 1936 and the emphasis shifted back to more affordable (in manpower and material terms) medium bombers. After Wever's death, Göring and Ernst Udet became more active in the development programs. Udet favoured the close support designs, such as the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka dive bomber, while Göring favoured having more medium bombers rather than a small number of heavy bombers. Von Richthofen did not get along with Udet, and did not believe in his ideas about dive bombing. Udet, much like Göring, favoured combining the qualities of aircraft. Udet sought out a design that could dog fight, dive bomb and carry out level bombing, much like Göring had requested. This was at odds with Wolfram's fundamental desire for aircraft that were easy to mass-produce and designed for, and to excel at, specialised tasks.
Although von Richthofen had managed to prevent aircraft design from heading into mediocrity, and kept them specialised for particular tasks, Udet still influenced the selection of the multi-purpose Messerschmitt Bf 110 and the Schnellbomber designed Junkers Ju 88 by the end of 1936. With the Ju 88, he insisted it have a dive bombing capability, though it was more suited to, and ideal for, the level bombing Schnellbomber concept. By the autumn, 1936, von Richthofen decided he had had enough of working with Udet, whose ideas he thought were totally wrong. With an expanding Luftwaffe and a civil war starting in Spain, an opportunity came for a field command.
Spanish Civil War
Innovation and experiences
In November 1936, von Richthofen left the staff to take a field command in the Condor Legion, a Luftwaffe contingent sent to support General Francisco Franco's Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. Udet continued with the dive bomber concept and the Ju 87 first saw action under von Richthofen's command in Spain. Wolfram retained his position as Head of Development, but he was now tasked with the evaluation of aircraft under operational conditions. His role expanded in January 1937, and he became Chief of Staff to Hugo Sperrle, who was to command the Legion.
Von Richthofen's experiences were to serve the Luftwaffe well in the long-term. His own learning curve in the war highlighted several issues that a modern air force would have to overcome. The most important issues concerned tactical and operational level warfare. Unlike the Italian officers from the Regia Aeronautica, the Germans put a great deal of effort into developing close support doctrine. Tactically, von Richthofen found little need to retain anti-aircraft artillery to defend airfields. He pushed Flak units into the frontline to bolster the artillery units. Rapid fire 20 mm calibres and 88 mm weapons were first used in Spain. Their effectiveness was reported to Berlin. Soon this tactic became part of Luftwaffe doctrine.Von Richthofen was pleased with his idea, and the knowledge the "Flak" theorists in Berlin were not happy about using air defence artillery in the ground battle.
Another tactical consideration led to operational innovation. Von Richthofen adopted the shuttle air tactic. In order to maximise support over the frontline, aircraft operated from bases near the front to keep and gain an advantage. It was very successful in the 1937 battles. Aircraft were sent in small formations to bomb frontline positions, while other groups of ground attack aircraft were en route and refuelling. This way a constant air presence was maintained over the battlefield which eroded the effectiveness and morale of the enemy. In order for this to be able to work effectively, three or more sorties needed to be flown per day. This required a large number of personnel to set up and man forward airfields. The Luftwaffe 's logistics units had to be completely motorised to bring in fuel, ammunition and spare parts. The logistics units had the opportunity to be tested under tough conditions.
These tactics and operational methods were employed during the Battle of Bilbao, which defeated the Republican forces in the north of Spain. The motorised logistics also helped during the rapid redeployment to the south, after the surprise Republican offensive at Brunete in July 1937. The air support was vital in defeating the offensive, which was supported by modern aircraft sent to the Republicans from the Soviet Union. German types like the Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter, which replaced the Heinkel He 51, the Do 17 and He 111 helped win and hold air superiority and interdict the battlefield, which decisively stopped the attack. The Republicans had spent most of their Gold reserves on buying Soviet equipment. With most of that equipment used up, the Condor Legion and Nationalists would have the technological edge.
The most difficult aspect of close support was communication. Air-ground liaison officers had been used since 1935, when the Luftwaffe first set up a training program for this purpose. By 1937, precise procedures had yet to be worked through for air to ground coordination. Staff officers were trained to solve operational problems, and the lack of doctrine and reluctance of the Oberkommando der Luftwaffe (OKL = High Command of the Air Force) to micromanage gave Sperrle and von Richthofen a free hand to devise solutions. Aircraft could not communicate with the frontline. Instead they could communicate via radio with each other and their home base. One of the first innovations was to prepare signals staff on the frontline in the region of any planned air strikes, and equip them with telephones. The forward officers could telephone the base with updates, who in turn could radio the aircraft. It became an important standard operational practice. Liaison officers were attached to the Nationalist Army, and improved coordination continued in the second half of 1937 despite occasional friendly-fire incidents. In the Second World War, the Luftwaffe air units and liaison officers at the front could communicate directly with updated radios.
German air doctrine also led the way in transportation capability. The Condor Legion, with the chief of staff's input, had proven logistics could be helped using air transports. By 1939, it would have the largest, and most capable transport service in the World.
The Luftwaffe entered the Second World War with high standards of training. Although other air forces also had training programs and pilots equal to the Germans, the Luftwaffe emphasised training its large units, the Geschwader (Wings), Corps and Luftflotten (Air Fleet) staffs in large-scale manoeuvres with the army in the pre-war years. War games and communication exercises in a different variety of combat operations allowed the officers to familiarise themselves with mobile warfare, and this produced proficient doctrine and better prepared operational methods than most of its opponents. With notable exceptions, such as RAF Fighter Command, most of the Allied air forces did not conduct large-scale unit and staff exercises, testing tactics and doctrine. Given the slight numerical and technological advantage of the Luftwaffe over its enemies in 1939–1941, its success during these years can largely be attributed to extensive officer and staff training programs along with the experiences of the Condor Legion in Spain.
Bombing of Guernica
During the Spanish Civil War the Condor Legion bombed Guernica. Soon afterwards, and even in modern day studies, historians referred to it as a deliberate act of terror bombing designed to break civilian morale. Yet there is no evidence in German air doctrine, or in German battle plans to suggest Guernica was targeted to break Basque civilian morale. Von Richthofen, who planned the raid, did not know much about Guernica. He was unaware there were Basque parliamentary buildings in the city, a fact which he did not know until he toured the city on 30 April, after Franco's Nationalists captured it.
There is much debate as to why it was bombed. One simple, and possible reason for von Richthofen sanctioning the bombing, was that two main roads being used to supply 23 Basque battalions at Bilbao intersected at Guernica. At least the 18th Loyala and Saseta battalions were stationed in the city at the time, making it a legitimate target. If the town was fortified (which it was not), it would have made a major obstacle to the Nationalist advance, which would be unable to pass beyond the town. If Guernica was levelled, the roads and train lines, as well as the bridges, would deny the enemy an escape route and also deny them the ability to evacuate heavy equipment. Another mitigating factor was the alleged "poor accuracy" of German bomb sights (which were the best in the world at that time) in early 1937. On that basis, unable to hit targets with precision, apologists argue, carpet bombing was the only realistic option. In the event, from a purely military perspective, it was a success, closing the city to traffic for 24 hours. Von Richthofen regarded it a "technical success", but was disappointed the Nationalists did not follow it up quickly, missing a chance to cut off large portions of the enemy forces. The casualty rates among modern sources suggest the civilian deaths were between 200–600, not the 1,600-2,000 as claimed by the Basque and German Governments.
Von Richthofen and Sperrle made an effective team in Spain. Sperrle was an experienced officer, and was intelligent with a good reputation. Von Richthofen was considered a good leader in combat. They combined to disagree with Franco on a number of topics and debates could become heated. Both men were blunt, and although the Germans and Spanish did not like each other, they had a healthy respect which translated into an effective working relationship. Von Richthofen even learned a little Spanish and Italian, an effort appreciated by Nationalist officers.
After Sperrle returned to Germany, von Richthofen assumed command of the Condor Legion. Helmuth Volkman assumed his place, but his pessimistic reports to Berlin, continued demands for support and resources, and disagreements with von Richthofen meant he was replaced by von Richthofen in October 1938, possibly at the request of the Nationalists. Von Richthofen was promoted to the rank of Generalmajor on 1 November 1938. He oversaw the final stages of the war, as the Nationalists defeated the Republican Spanish in early 1939. By this time, his belief in the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka was cemented. His earlier views about low-flying aircraft suffering unacceptably high losses were ill-founded. It had proved highly successful in its limited role and air superiority had contributed much to the success of the final battles.
Second World War
Von Richthofen commanded Fliegerführer z.b.V. (zur besonderen Verwendung—for special deployment)[Notes 2] during the Invasion of Poland, which began on 1 September 1939, starting the war in Europe. This unit was a tactical formation, and was attached to 2nd Fliegerdivision, under the joint command of Bruno Loerzer and Alexander Löhr. The operational goal of Fliegerführer z.b.V., was to support the German Tenth Army, under the command of anglophile Walter von Reichenau, who von Richthofen met shortly before the campaign. The army contained the majority of the motorised and armoured units and was to form the focus point, or Schwerpunkt of the offensive against Poland.
Von Richthofen's order of battle included a powerful concentration of strike aircraft. The formation had its headquarters at Birkental-Oppeln, but its units were spread out. Schlosswalden was home to 1.(F)/AufklGr 124, a reconnaissance unit which operated Dornier Do 17P aircraft. Lehrgeschwader 2 (Learning Wing 2), was based at Nieder-Ellguth, while the bulk of Sturzkampfgeschwader 77 (Dive Bombing Wing 77 or StG 77), which operated the Junkers Ju 87 Stuka, was based at Neudorf. Von Richthofen also commanded Slovak Air Force units (Slovenske Vzousne Zbrane); the 38th and 48th Fighter Squadrons and 16th Corps Squadron.
On the first day of the offensive StG 77 was committed to counter-air operations, striking Polish Air Force (PAF) bases. The need for counter-air operations left only Major Werner Spielvogel's II.(Schlacht)/LG 2 for close support operations. The unit supported the German mechanised XVI Army Corps. Along with other units, von Richthofen's I./StG 77 decimated a Polish Cavalry Brigade of Armii Łódź during the Battle of Łódź.
Only eight days into the campaign, on 8 September, the Tenth Army had advanced so far into Poland, von Richthofen was obliged to move Geschwaderkommodore (Wing Commander) Günter Schwartzkopff's StG 77 into Polish airfields while von Reichenau closed in on Warsaw. Von Richthofen was able to keep logistical elements functioning, which kept units flying three sorties per day. At the end of the first week of September, von Richthofen's battle group was transferred to Luftflotte 4 (Air Fleet 4) without any problems. The supply of spare parts, ammunition and fuel were flown in by a large transport fleet of Junkers Ju 52s. Von Richthofen had practiced with air transport extensively in peacetime.
The fast moving frontline meant that army headquarters lost touch with their forward units. The collapse of communications deprived commanders and squadrons of orders, a situation exacerbated by the lack of a common radio frequency and over-stretched logistics, which also forced them to scavenge enemy supply depots. Von Richthofen was the most affected. As early as 3 September, he noted in his diary that the army headquarters had ceased to know where the frontline was, and he refused to respond to army requests of air support. Instead he responded according to his own interpretation of the situation. This method did cause friendly fire incidents. On one occasion, Ju 87s knocked out a bridge across the Vistula river when a Panzer Division was about to cross.
The air-ground coordination was the responsibility of Kolufts, who synthesised data from their own aerial reconnaissance and forward units, but they were only advisors, and had little experience in air warfare. They were controlled by the army (Nahaufklarungsstaffeln). They depended on the Luftwaffe's Air Liaison Officer (Fliegerverbindungsstaffeln or Flivo) for fighter or bomber support. However, Flivo units were responsible to the Luftwaffe, not the army, and their role was to keep air commanders informed of the situation through the use of radio-equipped vehicles.
Loerzer confessed he was out of contact with Reichenau's command post for three days, while von Richthofen was soon complaining to Löhr about the former's ignorance. Because he was impetuous and wanted to be in the thick of the action, von Richthofen began flying around over the frontline in a Fieseler Fi 156 Storch as air-ground liaison collapsed. His claims were not always believed, and these personal operations were a waste of time, which needlessly exposed him to danger. Indeed, Major Spielvogel was shot down over Warsaw in his Storch on 9 September, and killed. While the operational situation was not good, Löhr took command of Fliegerführer z.b.V. giving the unit virtual autonomy and allowing von Richthofen to build a personal empire of six Gruppen (Groups).
By 11 September, the fuel situation was acute and logistics failed. On the first day his units were flying three missions every day, now it was reduced to one per day. Despite the problems, by 8 September von Richthofen was preparing an assault on Warsaw for which he received Heinrich Seybald's Kampfgeschwader 77 (KG 77). The raids had barely begun when a major threat developed behind him. A Polish counter offensive engaged the German Eighth Army, in an attempt to reach the Vistula river. Von Richthofen joined the assault and counterattack from the air. For three days the Germans bombed Polish forces. In the resulting Battle of Radom and Battle of the Bzura, in which further Polish attacks were made, were won by the Germans. Von Richthofen sent his air units up under orders to spend only 10 minutes over the battlefield, and to expend all ammunition. Polish forces sought refuge in the forests nearby, but were smoked out by incendiaries. Von Richthofen's men flew 750 sorties and dropped 388 tons of bombs. The air action destroyed remaining resistance, allowing the army to mop up.
The threat from the Polish generated calls for attacks on Warsaw. This had been planned for the first day, codenamed Wasserkante, or Operation Seaside. Just after midnight on 12/13 September, the Luftwaffe chief of staff Hans Jeschonnek, ordered Löhr to prepare to attack Ghettos in northern Warsaw, in retaliation for unspecified war crimes against German soldiers in recent battles. Von Richthofen's airmen flew 183 to 197 sorties, dropping a 50/50 mixture of high explosive and incendiaries. Some bombs fell close to German forces, conducting the Siege of Warsaw, and smoke made it impossible to assess damage. Von Richthofen confronted Hermann Göring over the need for a united air command for the Warsaw campaign, and hinted he was the man for the job. He did not get his way until 21 September. Weather delayed the attack, which began on 22 September. Von Richthofen did not get the aircraft he wanted for the operation, in particular the Heinkel He 111, and instead was handed old Junkers Ju 52 transports, which delivered bombs by airmen throwing them out of the doors. His Ju 87s were also banned from using bomb loads greater than 50 kg. On 22 September, von Richthofen's command flew 620 sorties. German air units dropped 560 tonnes of high explosive and 72 tonnes of incendiaries. The bombing did great damage, causing 40,000 casualties and destroying 10 per cent of buildings in the city. Only two Ju 87s and a Ju 52 was lost. The army complained of near friendly fire incidents and smoke made life difficult for German artillery. Hitler, despite the complaints, ordered the bombing to continue. Von Richthofen's force flew 450 sorties against Modlin, securing its surrender on 27 September after 318 tonnes of bombs had been dropped on it in two days. Warsaw surrendered soon afterwards, and the campaign was declared over after the Polish surrender on 6 October 1939.
The invasion of Poland prompted the United Kingdom and France to declare war on Germany. Through the winter, 1939–40, the Wehrmacht began preparations to invade the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France. The basic plan called for an invasion of the Netherlands, by Army Group B, and Belgium by Army Group B and Army Group A. The operation, Case Yellow, was designed to suck in the Allied armies into the Low Countries, and then breakout through the Ardennes in southern Belgium and Luxembourg, and advance to the English Channel to encircle and destroy them.
Originally, von Richthofen's force had retained its original name, Fliegerfuhrer zbV, after Poland, but then was renamed Fliegerdivision 8 (Flying Division 8) on 1 October, but days later, it was given Corps status. Von Richthofen was given command of the unit, now a specialist ground-attack Corps, VIII. Fliegerkorps (8th Flying Corps). Most of the Geschwader involved were based at Cologne and Düsseldorf. Included in the order of battle, was Jagdgeschwader 27 (JG 27), equipped with Messerschmitt Bf 109s; KG 77, equipped with Dornier Do 17s; Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 (StG 2) and StG 77, equipped with Ju 87 Stukas; and LG 2, equipped with Ju 87s, Bf 109s, Ju 88s and He 111s. The Corps was a purpose-built ground attack organisation. By 10 May, the order of battle had changed. Only one gruppe (group) of LG 2 remained, III.(Schlacht). IV.(St)./Lehrgeschwader 1 (LG 1), with Ju 87s were added, as was I.Sturzkampfgeschwader 76 (StG 76).
The task of von Richthofen varied. He was to support von Reichenau's German Sixth Army in Belgium and Paul Ludwig Ewald von Kleist's XXXXI and XIX Corps. During the Phoney War period he established his headquarters at Koblenz on 18 October 1939 and thereafter, his Corps steadily rose in strength, from 46 Staffeln (Squadrons), 27 of them Ju 87 units, to 59 by the end of the month. In December, he was first assigned to support Reichenau. Attacks on enemy air bases were only to be carried out if Allied air power attempted to interdict the German ground forces. Ground support was the first priority. This was reflected in Fliegerkorps VIII order of battle which contained six Ju 87 Gruppen (Groups, of 30 aircraft). Fliegerkorps V had the primary counter-air role and was positioned close to the front to provide air superiority support. But when a breakthrough took place, it was to exchange airfields with Fliegerkorps VIII, to allow for effective air support to the army. However, the Corps' war diary and von Richthofen's personal diary make no mention of this order, which may indicate a breakdown in staff work at some level.
What did not break down was communication. Operationally, the air division and corps headquarters were placed alongside, and moved with, army equivalents. The air liaison teams attached to the corps and Panzer Divisions were directed to report the battle situation at the front, but were forbidden to advise the army, or request air support. The army sent separate reports, under the same conditions. The reports were digested by Kleist and von Richthofen's chiefs of staff, and action was or was not taken with mutual agreement. Attack orders could be delivered in minutes to air units. A Guppe (Group) of Ju 87s and Bf 109s was ready in reserve to respond, and could do so within 45 to 70 minutes. Fliegerkorps VIII and von Richthofen were led to believe they would spend the entire campaign supporting Reichenau in northern Belgium, but the OKL did not inform the Corps that it was going to be used in a Meuse river breakthrough.
Von Richthofen knew Reichenau, and they had a close working relationship. During the planning for the Sixth Army's operations, Reichenau seemed to display a lack of interest when the subject turned to the capture of the bridges at Maastricht, in the Netherlands, and Fort Eben-Emael in Belgium. The defeat and/or capture of these objectives were essential for the Sixth Army to advance into the Low Countries. So unenthusiastic was Reichenau by the suggested airborne operation by glider troops against the fort, he refused to allow the diversion of any artillery. Von Richthofen supplied a Flak battalion, Flakgruppe Aldinger, for the task of supporting them.
Battle of the Netherlands
Von Richthofen found himself under pressure in other sectors on 10 May, the first day of the offensive. In the early phase of the Battle of the Netherlands, the Fallschirmjäger (paratrooper) forces had been tasked with capturing The Hague and the Dutch Royal Family. In the subsequent Battle for The Hague, German forces met heavy resistance. The French Seventh Army was also advancing through Belgium into the Netherlands near the Hague, increasing the threat in a situation which was getting out of control. Von Richthofen was ordered to throw in half of his force in the Hague battle and attack the Scheldt estuary, near Antwerp, Belgium, on the Dutch border to stop the French Army before it took up position on the Dutch Moerdijk bridgehead. Despite thick cloud, I. and III./Kampfgeschwader 4 (KG 4) and Kampfgeschwader 54 (KG 54), along with von Richthofen's Ju 87s, drove the French back preventing them from supporting the Dutch at The Hague.
Battle of Belgium
Fliegerkorps VIII had to turn its attention to supporting Reichenau, in the Battle of Belgium. Von Richthofen provided direct and indirect support to the German Sixth Army, in particular, to Erich Hoepner's XVI Army Corps, part of the Sixth Army. His losses were light. Just 12 Ju 87s were lost, anti-aircraft fire accounted for six I./StG 76 machines. His support operations were usually 65 kilometres ahead of the forward edge of the battlefield, with even reconnaissance aircraft pressed into service as bombers. Army units carried flares and Swastika flags to prevent friendly fire incidents. A major battle took place on 12 May 1940. Hoepner's Corps confronted René Prioux's Corps de Cavalerie during the Battle of Hannut. Von Richthofen's forces proved effective against French armour during the battle. Von Richthofen also provided much needed support for the 3rd Panzer Division and 4th Panzer Division, which were heavily engaged on 13 and 14 May. He also supported the German divisions a day or so later, at the Battle of Gembloux Gap.
For the cost of 12 aircraft (four Ju 87s), he helped attack French communication and supply positions, and supported Reichenau as he reached the Dyle river. At that time, he had moved into the Netherlands, at a Hotel, near Maastricht. He had a basic room, with a bath that did not work. In the afternoon, he received an order to cease operations in Belgium, and send all he had to support Georg-Hans Reinhardt's XLI Corps, north of Sedan. Von Richthofen was incredulous, and he had to move his entire infrastructure 100 kilometres to the south. The failure of the OKL to inform him he was to support the breakthrough is difficult to explain. He later noted in his diary that it was a major oversight for the OKL not to have informed him of his expected input, but his diary also suggests he relished the fog of war and the unknown. His forces were split, with LG 1 and StG 2 continuing support in Belgium, while most were moved south. During the winding down of operations in the north, his units did help the Sixth Army capture Liege in Belgium on 17 May.
Battle of France
The most notable actions of his Corps took place during the Battle of Sedan. By this time, von Richthofen had moved into St. Trond-Liege in Belgium. The heavy German air assaults on French positions included 360 by his medium bombers, although his Ju 87 units could only fly 90 owing to the difficulties he had moving his Corps around. The Germans captured Sedan and crossed the Meuse river, which would enable Army Group A to continue to the English Channel. On 14 May von Richthofen's JG 27 helped defend the bridgehead from Allied air attacks. Allied bomber strength was decimated. During the battle von Richthofen suffered a personal blow. Günter Schwartzkopff, Geschwaderkommodore of StG 77, was killed when his Ju 87 was hit by ground fire. Schwartzkopff was one of the founding members of the German dive-bomber arm and had specialised knowledge on the method of attack. He had been ordered not to engage in combat, as he was too valuable to lose, but on 13 May he ignored orders. He was one of the very few German aerial casualties over Sedan.
Thereafter, events moved quickly. After the German breakthrough at Sedan von Richthofen asked that Fliegerkorps VIII be allowed to support Kleist to the sea. One of the motivating reasons for this was the gap which had developed between the Panzer Divisions and infantry divisions struggling to catch up. Army Group A had wanted the Panzers to slow down, to allow the infantry to cover their flanks and rear, but Guderian ignored orders and continued on to the Channel under the pretext of a "reconnaissance in force". Von Richthofen convinced Göring to help press for the Panzers to continue, while his air Corps provided an aerial flank. It proved a wise decision. StG 2 and 77 Ju 87s broke up attacks on the flanks of Army Group A, most notably combining to repulse Charles de Gaulle's Fourth Armoured Division on 16 and 19 May, at Montcornet, Aisne and Crécy-sur-Serre. This effectively decimated the remaining core of the French Ninth Army, through air power. Excellent ground-to-air communications were maintained throughout the campaign. Radio equipped forward liaison officers could call upon the Stukas and direct them to attack enemy positions along the axis of advance. In some cases the Luftwaffe responded to requests in 10–20 minutes. Oberstleutnant Hans Seidemann (von Richthofen's Chief of Staff) said that "never again was such a smoothly functioning system for discussing and planning joint operations achieved".
Still, for him personally, there were problems. He moved his HQ to Ochamps to keep up with events, while he gambled on German air superiority holding out to fill forward airfields up with aircraft leading to overcrowding. He also had communication difficulties, and flew around in his Storch to organise air support for the army. Hugo Sperrle, chief of Luftflotte 3 (Air Fleet Three) arrived at the same HQ, disrupting staff work and leading von Richthofen to explode with rage. The pressures compelled him to risk being shot down in order to pass on orders, and while flying on 22 May he was forced to land owing to a fractured fuel tank. He organised support for Reinhardt and covered Heinz Guderian's Corps, with KG 77, StG 77 and JG 27. While he complained about communication, by the standards of the day, it was efficient. The radio-equipped forward liaison officers assigned Fliegerkorps VIII new targets, while leaving less important orders to land line officers. The Ju 87s were on 20-minute alert, and within 45 to 75 minutes they were diving onto their targets. In some cases, they were able to respond in 10 minutes. By 21 May, with his fighters based at Charleville-Mézières, Ju 87s at Sint-Truiden, and his Do 17s back in Germany, von Richthofen's logistics were overstretched and his fuel was running out.
By 21 May the Allied armies were encircled and counterattacks had been repulsed at Arras. The Allies were evacuating the ports of Dunkirk and Calais. During the Battle of Dunkirk and Siege of Calais (1940), von Richthofen supported the advance of Army Groups A and B. However, they were frequently meeting Royal Air Force (RAF) fighters, flying across the Channel. Von Richthofen noted RAF Fighter Command and its No. 11 Group RAF were responsible for 25 per cent of German losses. On 22 May, StG 77 lost five Ju 87s, indicating increased difficulty. Sperrle asked for support and von Richthofen helped capture Calais and was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on 23 May. Von Richthofen was ordered to support the German Fourth Army, though he showed little interest in the Dunkirk battles. He regarded them as a waste of time, and they disrupted preparations against southern France (Case Red). He believed the attempt to destroy Allied forces, or prevent the evacuation with the Luftwaffe was unrealistic. Over Dunkirk, losses were heavy and progress slow. On 26 May, von Richthofen made a special effort to gain and hold air superiority. Overall, German air power failed to prevent the evacuation.
After the expulsion of the British Army and the surrenders of the Dutch and Belgians, von Richthofen was ordered to support the German Ninth Army, containing Guderian's Corps. The battles were swift. The French lost their most capable formations in the encirclement, and they capitulated on 22 June 1940, after the capture of Paris on 14th, and the encirclement of the Maginot Line on 15 June.
Battle of Britain
Von Richthofen continued, after the French capitulation to command VIII. Fliegerkorps during the Battle of Britain. The British refusal to reach a compromise with Germany forced the OKL to prepare a plan for attaining air superiority, codenamed Operation Eagle Attack. Should this have been successful, the Wehrmacht may have launched an invasion of Britain, codenamed Operation Sea Lion.
For the first time, the Luftwaffe was engaged in an offensive air war without the support of the German Army. Despite von Richthofen's Corps being primarily a specialist ground assault organisation, which supported ground forces, he was expected to help lead the assault over Britain. His Stuka units were the best precision attack aircraft in the Luftwaffe and their 500 kg bombs were capable of sinking merchant shipping, and/or seriously damaging warships. In June 1940, von Richthofen and his Corps' specific mission was to establish air superiority over the southern part of the English Channel (near France) and to clear British shipping from the strip of sea altogether, particularly from the region between Portsmouth and Portland. Fliegerkorps VIII had a particular advantage; British fighters did not have enough radar warning and were operating at the limits of their range. This gave his Ju 87s a near-free hand in operations.
In July 1940, skirmishes took place, between Luftflotte 2, under Albert Kesselring and Hugo Sperrle's Luftflotte 3 on one side, and air vice marshal Keith Park's No. 11 Group RAF of Fighter Command on the other. The initial battles revolved around the British southern coast. Attempts by German air fleets to interdict British shipping in the English Channel were met with a significant response from the RAF, and many air battles ensued over the Channel. They were referred to by the Germans as Kanalkampf ("the Channel battles"). Von Richthofen made use of his Do 17P reconnaissance aircraft to locate convoys. When located, he usually dispatched a Gruppe (30 aircraft) to engage the convoy, holding other Stuka Gruppen back for repeat attacks. The campaign was complicated by the weather, which grounded the Corps for long periods, and while the Ju 87s proved effective, they proved vulnerable to RAF fighters. On 17 July 1940, von Richthofen was promoted to the position of General der Flieger in recognition of his service.
Operations over the Channel were successful. Although von Richthofen's force severely over-claimed the number of ships sunk, they did succeed in forcing the Royal Navy to suspend convoys through the Channel temporarily, as well as forcing it to abandon Dover as a base. On 8 August 1940, during one of the last operations against shipping, his airmen claimed 48,500 tons of shipping sunk in one operation. The actual number was just 3,581 tons.
Campaign against the RAF
In mid-August, the Luftwaffe was ready to begin the main assault over Britain proper. The campaign opened on 13 August 1940, christened Adlertag (Eagle Day), by Hermann Göring. The entire day met with repeated German failures, in communication, intelligence, and coordination. The objective of the raids, Fighter Command's airfields, remained unscathed. Von Richthofen's Ju 87s were involved over the Portland area, and in actions against RAF Warmwell and RAF Middle Wallop. Cloudy skies were largely responsible for the failure of the raids. The campaign did not get much better for von Richthofen, on 15 August, known as the The Greatest Day. On 16 August, elements of StG 2 had success against RAF Tangmere, in which they destroyed 15 aircraft (seven Hawker Hurricanes and six Bristol Blenheim night fighters). Damage was done to buildings and workshops, but for a loss of nine Ju 87s and three severely damaged. Three days later, the Ju 87s suffered their greatest defeat. On 18 August, a large group of air battles led the day to be called "The Hardest Day". On that day, von Richthofen sent his units against airfields in southern England. Faulty intelligence meant all those hit by his units were unimportant. StG 77 struck at Fleet Air Arm bases, which had little to do with Fighter Command. In the process, the Geschwader took heavy losses.
Von Richthofen was not so much shocked by total Ju 87 losses, which were running at a bearable 15 per cent, assuming the raids were getting results and the battle short, but he was alarmed at the near destruction of an entire Gruppe, a loss rate which ran at 50 per cent. It required a rethink of the types to be used in the campaign. The Battle of Britain amounted to a defeat for the Ju 87. The Ju 87s were removed from the battle, and were limited to small-scale attacks on shipping until the spring, 1941, by which time the Battle of Britain was over and the air war over Britain (The Blitz) was winding down. Von Richthofen's force flew 100 sorties in October, compared to the 100 per day in July 1940. In December 1940, Fliegerkorps VIII ended its Ju 87s operations and entered intensive winter training to be ready for the resumption of operations in the spring.
Battle of Yugoslavia
In April 1941 VIII. Fliegerkorps were tasked with supporting the German invasion of Yugoslavia and the German Army in the Battle of Greece and the Battle of Crete. The failure of the Italian Army in the Greco-Italian War forced Hitler to intervene to secure the Axis flank, close to the Romanian oilfields. He approached Yugoslavia, and asked them to join the Axis powers in order to facilitate a quick victory in Greece. Initially the offer was accepted, only later to be rejected after a pro-Allied government assumed power. Operation Marita was expanded to involve the invasion of both countries.
Preparations began in early 1941, as von Richthofen moved his units into Bulgaria via Romania. He found the country primitive, and resolved to improve the infrastructure, particularly communications, for the invasion of Yugoslavia. He intended to operate 120 aircraft from Bulgarian airfields and moved them into place on 1 March. While preparations were taking place he indulged in hunting and horse riding expeditions as a guest of the Bulgarian Royal Family. With Boris III of Bulgaria, he discussed dive-bombing techniques and the Corps' new aircraft, such as the Junkers Ju 88.
Von Richthofen's Corps was given two wings of Ju 87s for the task; Sturzkampfgeschwader 2 (StG 2) and Sturzkampfgeschwader 3 (StG 3), based in Bulgaria. With reinforcements, the German air contingent, under Luftflotte 4, would have a total of 946 combat aircraft supported by hundreds of transport machines. This force outnumbered the Greek, Yugoslav and RAF forces combined. Von Richthofen arranged to have the German Twelfth Army's air reconnaissance units cooperate with his own formations through the use of a liaison.
The Corps' operations supported the German Twelfth Army in southern Yugoslavia, which cut the Yugoslav Army off from Greece and the Allied forces there. The victory in Yugoslavia was complete with the bombing of Belgrade, which facilitated a rapid victory by destroying command and control centres. Moreover, by adding Yugoslavia to its list of enemies, the Axis' operations were eased. Instead of attacking strong Greek fortifications on the Yugoslav-Greek border, the Germans could break through the weak southern Yugoslav defences, and then outflank the elite Greek forces defending the Metaxas Line.
Von Richthofen's force did not participate in the bombing of Belgrade, but were engaged in attacking Yugoslav reinforcements, concentrated on the Austrian and Hungarian borders in the north, that were streaming south to block the break through. Mass columns of Yugoslav forces were caught in the open and decimated. The bombing of the capital disabled the command and control function of the Yugoslav Army, but it also convinced those in the government that further resistance would meet with even more destruction. Yugoslavia surrendered on 17 April.
Battle of Greece
Operations shifted to Greece. The Axis success in the Battle of the Metaxas Line allowed them to outflank the main Greek Army position and encircle the most effective Greek force. Von Richthofen's units supported the attack against the Line, without much interference from Allied air forces. Just 99 RAF aircraft (74 bombers) and 150 Greek aircraft opposed von Richthofen's 500. By 15 April, the RAF had withdrawn. From this date, Fliegerkorps VIII 's main targets were Allied ships cramming the evacuation ports. Unlike the gross over claiming against British shipping in the English Channel in 1940, the claims of 280,000 tons of shipping (60 vessels) destroyed up until 30 April 1941 were approximately correct.
Allied forces withdrew down the east coast of Greece, where the Royal Navy and Greek Navy began evacuating them from ports around southern Greece, including the capital, Athens. Ju 87 units from von Richthofen's Corps inflicted high losses on shipping, eliminating the small Greek Navy and causing damage to British shipping. In two days, the Greek Naval base at Piraeus lost 23 vessels to Stuka attack. From 21 to 24 April 43 ships were sunk on the southern coast. Total Allied shipping losses amounted to 360,000 tons.
Battle of Crete
The end of the campaign on the mainland meant the sole remaining objective was the island of Crete, which lay off Greece's southern coastline. During the Battle of Crete von Richthofen's Ju 87s also played a significant role. The operation came close to disaster on the first day. Most of the airborne forces that landed by glider or parachute lost most of their radios, which meant von Richthofen had to rely on aerial reconnaissance aircraft. The German parachute troops were pinned down on the island, on the Cretan airfields they were supposed to capture. The level of effort von Richthofen directed at relieving the pressure on them quite possibly saved the German units from destruction.
On 21–22 May 1941, the Germans attempted to send in reinforcements to Crete by sea, but lost 10 vessels to "Force D" under the command of Rear-Admiral Irvine Glennie. The force consisting of the cruisers HMS Dido, Orion and Ajax forced the remaining German ships to retreat. The Stukas were called upon to deal with the British Naval threat. On 21 May, the destroyer HMS Juno was sunk, and the next day, the battleship HMS Warspite was damaged and the cruiser HMS Gloucester was sunk with the loss of 45 officers and 648 ratings. The Ju 87s also crippled the cruiser HMS Fiji that morning, (she was later finished off by Bf 109 fighter bombers) while sinking the destroyer HMS Greyhound with a single hit. As the Battle of Crete drew to a close the Allies began yet another withdrawal. On 23 May the Royal Navy also lost the destroyers HMS Kashmir and Kelly sunk followed by HMS Hereward on 26 May; Orion and Dido were also severely damaged. Orion had been evacuating 1,100 soldiers to North Africa and lost 260 of them killed and another 280 wounded during the attacks. Around eight British destroyers and four cruisers were sunk (not all by air attack), along with five destroyers of the Greek Navy.
On 22 June 1941 the Wehrmacht launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. Richthofen continued his command of Fliegerkorps VIII which contained JG 27, StG 2, StG 3, 10./LG 2, and II.(S)./LG 2. Added to this force was II./Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG 52), I./Kampfgeschwader 2 (KG 2), III./Kampfgeschwader 3 (KG 3) and Zerstörergeschwader 26 (ZG 26). Initially his force supported Army Group Centre, under the command of Kesselring's Luftflotte 2.
The Luftwaffe was numerically weaker than it had been in May 1940, possessing 1,000 fewer aircraft. It had only 838 operational bombers, as opposed to double that number the previous spring. Whereas in France it had to conduct operations 200 miles deep, it had to do this on a front six times as long, many times deeper, and with fewer aircraft. The failures of production aside, the Luftwaffe had made improvements on its operational organisation. The Flivos that von Richthofen had championed in 1939 became a uniform facility throughout the Luftwaffe. Each Panzer and Motorised division, now had air liaison officers attached to them to allow for effective air support. The experiments in France and the low countries had paid off. By the summer, 1941, the Luftwaffe and its land-air liaison teams would dramatically reduce the number of friendly-fire incidents, as German assault aviation would have detailed knowledge of friendly and enemy dispositions. It would not be until the beginning of 1943 that the Western Allies began adopting the same methods. In the opening phase of Barbarossa, von Richthofen's units were able to perform very well. The response for air support did not usually exceed two hours.
In the opening rounds, von Richthofen was involved in large pre-emptive strikes against the Red Air Force (Voyenno-vozdushnyye sily, or VVS) airfields. The Luftwaffe lost 78 aircraft on 22 June, but destroyed 1,489 aircraft on the ground, though further research indicates the number exceeded 2,000 destroyed. It is likely that 1,800 aircraft were destroyed in the first strike (for two losses), and 700 in the second (for 33 losses). The VVS' officer corps had been decimated in the Great Purge and although it possessed a large aviation industry, and large reserves, its modern aircraft were not up to the technical standards of the Luftwaffe. Around 91 percent of units’ commanders had been in their post less than six months. Most of the Soviet aircrews were poorly trained, and lacked radio communication between pilots, much less air to ground liaisons or effective ground support methods. The Soviet air forces in the Western Soviet Union were largely destroyed. In July, waves of unescorted Soviet bombers tried in vain to halt the German advance, only to suffer extremely high loses. Within three days, the close support units of Kesselring's Luftflotte 2, including von Richthofen's Corps, were able to revert to close support and interdiction operations largely unhindered.
On 23 June, his Corps decimated the Soviet Western Front's 6th Cavalry Corps when they attempted a counterattack near Grodno. Von Richthofen threw all available aircraft at the thrust and played a vital role in its defeat. The Soviet Corps suffered 50 per cent casualties, mostly from air attack. Von Richthofen's Corps claimed 30 tanks, and 50 motor vehicles in 500 sorties. Army Group Centre continued to advance, reaching Vitebsk. Fliegerkorps VIII supported the army in the Battle of Smolensk only days later. In this phase he was also moved south, to support Panzer Group Guderian, which succeeded in supporting the capture of Orsha. The encirclement of Soviet forces at Smolensk was complete on 17 July 1941. Three weeks later, the last Soviet forces in the pocket were eliminated. Fliegerkorps VIII 's achievements were important in defeating Soviet counterattacks and attempted breakouts. Von Richthofen was awarded the Oak Leaves to his Knight's Cross for an impressive performance. Results from the battles, and in particular the defeat of the Soviet counterattacks by the Soviet 13th and 24th Armies, were impressive. Von Richthofen's forces were credited with disrupting reinforcements and destroying 40 motor vehicles on 24 July alone.
However, logistically, the Germans were starting to suffer serious problems in supplying their frontline just four weeks into the campaign. Wolfram von Richthofen lamented, "the Germans are good at fighting but weak at logistics". While German production could make up for losses at the front, it took time to get aircraft to the sector. The common operating strength by late summer was 50 to 60 percent, including Fliegerkorps VIII. Between 19 July and 31 August, the Luftwaffe had lost 725 aircraft. Before the operations in the Soviet Union, scant attention had been made to logistical operations in the east, primarily because of German over-confidence.
The victories had been hard won, but growing Soviet resistance and increased counterattacks brought the Smolensk-Moscow front to a stalemate. Hitler wavered, and on 30 July ordered Army Group Centre to assume the strategic defensive. In Directive 34, he refocused the main effort of Barbarossa on Leningrad because of strong concentrations of enemy forces west of Moscow. To this end, Wolfram von Richthofen and his Fliegerkorps was assigned to Luftflotte 1 (Air Fleet 1). During July 1941, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW, or German High Command) displayed a lack of coherent strategy. It shifted from pursuing one objective to the next. It first wanted to advance to Moscow, then Leningrad, before shifting operations further south.
Von Richthofen took almost all of his units, except JG 52, to support Army Group North. In heavy combat, working with Fliegerkorps I, von Richthofen's fleet flew 1,126 sorties on 10 August, supporting the German army's advance on Narva. They claimed 10 tanks, more than 200 motor vehicles and 15 artillery batteries. Owing to increased Soviet aviation activity, von Richthofen directed ZG 26 against Soviet airfields, with success. Further support was rendered to the German Sixteenth Army at Novgorod near Lake Ilmen. Experienced crews from von Richthofen's Corps, flying He 111s from KG 4, attacked railways near Leningrad to disrupt reinforcements. Fliegerkorps VIII 's airmen noted Soviet resistance was far harder in the Lake Ilmen area than they had previously experienced. On 15 August, a major effort by StG 2 succeeded in softening up Soviet defences and destroying the main Soviet supply bridge over the Volkhov river. The fortress of Novgorod was destroyed by von Richthofen's Ju 87s, and was thus abandoned. The city fell on 16 August. Just 24 hours later, a major Soviet counter offensive by the Soviet Northwestern Front attempted to recapture the city. Von Richthofen, in conjunction with Fliegerkorps I destroyed the attackers almost completely near Staraya Russa. KG 4 and KG 2 in particular were successful. The latter wing knocked out 18 Soviet tanks in a single mission, despite the presence of strong Soviet fighter forces. Bf 110s from von Richthofen's ZG 26 were directed to deal with Soviet aviation on the ground. On 19 August, for the cost of just three Bf 110s, they destroyed 40 Soviet aircraft on the ground and three in the air, easing the pressure on German air units which were meeting numerically superior numbers of the enemy.
The German Eighteenth Army and the Sixteenth Army successfully conquered the remaining parts of Estonia, seizing Chudovo, north of Novgorod, which severed one of the two main supply lines from Leningrad to Moscow. In support of these operations, von Richthofen's Corps dropped 3,351 tons of bombs in 4,742 attacks from 10 to 20 August 1941. On 20 August von Richthofen moved strike and fighter aircraft to Spasskaya Polist, 40 km north-east of Novgorod, to support an attack that would encircle Leningrad, and cut it off from Murmansk. German XXXXI Panzer Corps sealed in Soviet forces in the Lake Ilmen-Luga-Novgorod sector. The Leningrad Front attempted to relieve them, and von Richthofen was ordered to blunt the attack. The Soviets were supported by strong air units, and large air battles broke out. During the course of them Fliegerkorps VIII lost one of its most able Stuka aces, Anton Keil. The Germans succeeded in maintaining their lines, and could now turn to capturing Leningrad.
Before a main assault could be launched, Leningrad needed to be completely cut off from the Soviet hinterland which led to the Siege of Leningrad. This was achieved by Fliegerkorps VIII, which supported the German Eighteenth Army in forcing the Soviet 54th Army from the shores of Lake Ladoga and Leningrad was isolated. Thereafter, Fliegerkorps VIII and I concentrated on a 16 square kilometres of front over Leningrad, achieving numerical superiority. Von Richthofen's bombers participated in great efforts to destroy Leningrad from the air, some crews flying two missions per night. On 8 September, 6,327 incendiaries alone were dropped causing 183 fires. The German Army advanced into the breaches created by the Luftwaffe. However, by committing their last resources and reinforcing their 54th Army (later renamed the 48th Army), the Soviets stalled the German advance on 25 September. With the offensive stopped, Hitler returned von Richthofen to Luftflotte 2. Operations had been expensive. In August Fliegerkorps VIII had lost 27 aircraft destroyed and 143 damaged.
Frustrated in the north, Hitler turned to Moscow. On 2 October 1941 he enacted Operation Typhoon, an offensive aimed at capturing Moscow via a pincer movement. It achieved early success in enveloping considerable Soviet forces at Vyazma and Bryansk by 10 October. However, the initial success gave way to a grinding battle of attrition. By 11 November the situation in the air was also changing from a position of initial parity. Kesselring's Luftflotte 2 and the headquarters of Fliegerkorps I were moved to the Mediterranean Theatre. This left von Richthofen's Fliegerkorps VIII in control of all Axis aviation supporting Army Group Centre against Moscow. The Soviet opposition was growing in number and quality. By 10 November, 1,138 aircraft (738 serviceable) including 658 fighters (497 serviceable) were defending Moscow. The weather slowed down operations until 15 November, when the mud and rain water froze and mobile operations became possible. Von Richthofen threw all available aircraft into the Battle for Moscow whenever conditions permitted. Fliegerkorps VIII flew 1,300 sorties from 15 to 24 November.
One last attempt to capture Moscow was made on 2 December, but lack of fuel and ammunition and increasingly stiff resistance prevented its success. By this time, the Soviet air forces had gained air superiority. By 5 December, when the counteroffensive drove Army Group Centre back, they could muster 1,376 aircraft against just 600 German. The Germans possessed just 487 fighters (200 serviceable) on the entire Eastern Front. There were 674 Soviet fighters (480 serviceable) on the Moscow front. When the Soviet offensive began it quickly gained ground. German morale sank and Army Group Centre, overstretched and exhausted, was threatened with collapse. Von Richthofen's forces, despite enemy air superiority, did all they could to blunt the attack. The effectiveness and determination of German air units improved the morale of the army. Concentrating aviation against Soviet ground forces, the Luftwaffe delivered a series of attacks that took the wind out of the Soviet offensive within two weeks. Von Richthofen's forces bore the main burden of the air defence against the Soviet attack, and had been reinforced with four Kampfgruppen. Hitler had forbidden a retreat, and von Richthofen endorsed this view. His refusal to give ground and his tenacity saw him become one of Hitler's favourites. Hitler gave him a further five transport guppen to keep his Corps effective. Fliegerkorp VIII would stay on the front until April 1942, fighting a series of Soviet counter offensives.
The Crimean campaign: Kerch
In the winter, 1941–1942, the stalemate on the north and central sectors was not mirrored in the south. Army Group South had overrun the Ukraine, were outside Rostov, considered the gate to the Caucasus and its rich oil fields, and had occupied most of the Crimea. However, in December the Soviets made an amphibious landing at the Kerch Peninsula, on the extreme east coast of the Crimea. The landing threatened to cut off the German Eleventh Army commanded by Erich von Manstein, which were engaged in the siege of Sevastopol on the southern-central tip of the Crimea. Von Manstein called off the siege and prepared, though outnumbered and refused army reinforcements by Hitler who was building Army Group South for a different operation (Case Blue), to repel the danger. On 31 March, he laid down his plans and called his offensive Operation Trappenjagd (Bustard Hunt).
On 17 April, he demanded massed close support aviation for his offensive. Von Manstein turned to von Richthofen and Fliegerkorps VIII, which had returned to the front after resting and refitting in Germany. Hitler encouraged the reinforcement of German aviation in the area, regarding von Manstein's operation of great importance. The Soviets not only had the chance to relieve Sevastopol, which would allow the Black Sea Fleet to continue operating against Axis shipping in the Black Sea, it would also provide air bases for the VVS to attack the Romanian oil fields. Thus Hitler called for the greatest possible concentration of air power to support the operation.
Von Richthofen had arrived in Luneberg on 12 April, ready for a four-week period of leave. On 18 April he received a call from the Luftwaffe's Chief of the General Staff Hans Jeschonnek who informed him he was to leave for Kerch immediately. He commented in his diary, "By order of the Fuhrer, I must immediately leave again, to work at Kerch. Get there quickly and get everything started! Formal orders still to come". After meeting Hitler he wrote, "The Fuhrer insisted in a very respectful manner that I should take part at Kerch, because I'm the only person who can do the job". Hitler clearly had a high opinion of von Richthofen and believed the Corps' record, as a specialised close-support force, was unparalleled and would guarantee success. He was right. Von Richthofen was arrogant, aggressive and harsh, but he was a driven, pro-active, successful and influential tactical air commander.
His Corps had been resting in Germany, rebuilding after the winter battles. This was still in progress when von Richthofen landed at Luftflotte 4 's headquarters at Nikolayev on 21 April. The discussion that von Richthofen had with Löhr, the air fleet's commander, was unique in Luftwaffe history. For the first time organisational custom, which was to place Corps level units under the command of an air fleet in whatever region the Corps was deployed, was abandoned. Richthofen was allowed to operate independently alongside Luftflotte 4. Fliegerkorps VIII was under his command at all times and would provide the lion's share of close support operations. All offensive air operations were the responsibility of von Richthofen, and he was only answerable to Hermann Göring. This news was not received well by Löhr or his chief of staff at Luftflotte 4, Günther Korten. Korten demanded that he should be given command of the Corps. His request was ignored, though he later fulfilled some of his ambitions by succeeding Hans Jeschonnek as Chief of the General Staff after the latter’s suicide.
Von Richthofen met with von Manstein on 28 April, and largely got on with von Manstein. Despite being conceited personalities, they both genuinely respected each other. Though on one occasion von Richthofen claimed in his diary to have taken great delight in beating von Manstein in a debate over tactical differences. Von Manstein and von Richthofen determined that the limited land forces available meant communication between land and air forces were critical. The main points of effort were discussed and each man's staff was ordered to deal directly with each other to facilitate rapid cooperation.
Von Richthofen was incredibly pro-active. He flew in his Storch around the front, often coming under enemy fire and on occasion force-landing. He urged his Corps to speed up preparations and openly criticised his superiors, including Löhr of Luftflotte 4, over what he considered to be "inferior" preparations. The difficulty in getting units out of Germany quickly, where they were refitting, prompted von Richthofen, in consultation with Jeschonnek and von Manstein, to ask for a postponement of the offensive for two days until they could be brought in. His request was granted, and the offensive was moved to the 7 May 1942. When the reinforcements arrived, he had 11 bomber, three dive-bomber and seven fighter Gruppen at his disposal.
The ensuing operation led to the Battle of the Kerch Peninsula. Von Richthofen's forces quickly established air superiority, destroying 82 enemy fighters within the first day. Von Richthofen arrived at his command post as the bombs first fell. He was impressed with the 2,100 sorties flown on 7 May. Inter service communication was facilitated by Fliegerverbindungsoffizier (air liaison officers or Flivos), specially trained air force officers attached to ground units. They advised the air Corps on the situation and intentions of the ground forces and also advised the army of the best use of air power. This operational style was effective against fixed targets in slow-moving operations, but was more difficult in fast-moving operations such as Bustard Hunt. The advance meant von Richthofen had to keep moving forward. He complained bitterly about the inability of his signals teams to set up new telephone and radio communications quickly enough.
Operations were successful. The Corps flew 1,700 missions on 9 May, destroying 42 enemy aircraft for two losses. On 10 and 11 May, bad weather prevented large-scale operations, but on 12 May they flew 1,500 sorties. On this day, the Soviet line in the Crimea collapsed. Enjoying air supremacy, the Wehrmacht made large gains. Near the Sea of Azov, Soviet infantry, massed and unprotected, suffered heavy losses to von Richthofen's units which were using Cluster bombs. Von Richthofen was delighted at the "wonderful scene"; "we are inflicting the highest losses of blood and material". He was amazed at the scale of destruction; "Terrible! Corpse-strewn fields from earlier attacks....I have seen nothing like it so far in this war". He was so shocked, he felt compelled to show the Luftwaffe's signals officer, Wolfgang Martini, the carnage.
However, that same evening, von Richhofen received bad news. He was ordered to send one fighter, one dive-bomber and two bomber Gruppen to help contain a Soviet breakthrough in the north, and the developing Second Battle of Kharkov. Von Richthofen complained in his diary, claiming success was now in question at Kerch. The statement was likely hyperbole. By this time the Soviets had collapsed in the Crimea, and were streaming back to the port of Kerch. Kerch fell on 15 May. Von Richthofen then complained he did not have the adequate forces to stop the Soviets evacuating by sea, but Axis aviation did inflict considerable attrition on Soviet units on the beaches and sank a number of vessels. German artillery and air attack brought the Dunkirk-style evacuation to an end on 17 May. Von Manstein praised von Richthofen's support, describing his air operations as decisive in the Kerch victory. The Corps had flown between 1,000 to 2,000 missions per day before the Kharkov withdrawal, and 300 to 800 afterwards. It effectively decimated Soviet air power in the region, reducing it to barely 60 aircraft from over 300 in 10 days. Other sources give a total of 3,800 sorties flown in support of Trappenjagd.
The Crimean campaign: Sevastopol
On 20 May, von Richthofen met von Manstein again to discuss preparations for overcoming the fortress port of Sevastopol. It was emphasised that the same level of air support offered at Kerch was needed. On 22 May, Von Richthofen had the chance to meet with Hitler, who once again flattered the Luftwaffe commander and his abilities, referring to him as "his specialist". The aim of the discussion as far as von Richthofen was concerned, was to impress upon Hitler the importance of not diverting forces away from the front as had been done at Kerch. Hitler listened closely and agreed.
Hitler and the Luftwaffe Chief of the General Staff Hans Jeschonnek intended to promote von Richthofen to command Luftflotte 4, while sending Alexander Löhr to the Balkans. Göring wanted Bruno Loerzer, his friend and commander of Fliegerkorps II to take the job, but Hitler wanted a hands-on commander. Jeschonnek agreed that the higher command of the air force was lousy, and needed a competent combat leader. On 25 May he flew the six-hour flight back to Simferopol.
During the planning phase he ordered anti-shipping operations to cease in the Black Sea and ordered Admiral Schwarzes Meer (Admiral Black Sea) to stay in port. Von Richthofen feared that the coming operations would mean friendly fire incidents against Axis shipping near Sevastopol. Admiral Götting and Fliegerführer Süd (Flying Leader South) Wolfgang von Wild, responsible for all naval aviation in the region, ignored the request as they saw it as absurd. It was only necessary to abandon operations in the Crimean shipping lanes, not the whole expanse of the Black Sea.
Von Richthofen pooled his resources with von Wild and Kurt Pflugbeil's Fliegerkorps IV. This gave the Luftwaffe some 600 aircraft to support von Manstein. Von Richthofen scrapped all the forces he could for the assault, getting three dive-bomber, six medium bomber and three fighter Gruppen for the operation. He was not overly concerned with his fighter strength, as his fighters outnumbered the 60-odd aircraft of the Soviet air defence. He could begin close support operations immediately and did not have to wait to conduct time-wasting battles for air superiority. So confident was von Richthofen that the VVS posed no threat, he lent his Flak forces to the army, though he retained operational control.
The stages of the air campaign were managed into three; attacking Soviet reserves beyond German artillery; raids against harbour facilities, airfields, fortresses and shipping; cooperating with German artillery to cancel out Soviet mortar and gun batteries. Von Richthofen acknowledged that not all of these components could be conducted simultaneously. He chose shattering the fortifications through relentless air bombardment as the most important tactic.
Von Richthofen garnered most of the air units into supporting the land operations. His view of anti-shipping operations, and von Wild’s conduct of them, was scathing. However, he did not take into account the systemic technical problems with German U-Boat and aerial torpedoes which were unreliable, and blamed von Wild and the air units instead for failing to achieve much success.
When the operation, Sturgeon Catch, began on 2 June 1942, von Richthofen watched it all unfold. He awoke at 03:30 and by 05:45 was watching the first waves of bombers hit Sevastopol from his own Storch, in company with his chief of staff. The air units of Fliegerkorps VIII were positioned close to the front, some 70 kilometres away. The aircraft barely had time to reach altitude before reaching the target, but the close proximity of the front allowed for short flights and low fuel consumption which eased logistics. Von Richthofen's forces flew 723 sorties and dropped 525 tons of bombs. The bombs included the fortress busting 1,400, 1,700 and 1,800 kg bombs. Between 3 and 6 June, 2,355 missions showered 1,800 tons of bombs and 23,000 incendiaries. On 7 June 1,300 tons of bombers were dropped in 1,368 air attacks and were followed on 8 June by another 1,200 sorties. The mechanics were working around the clock to keep the aircraft operational in sweltering heat (up to 105 °F). On 9 June 1,044 sorties and 954 tons of bombs were dropped, followed by 688 sorties and 634 tons the next day. Von Richthofen's logistics were stretched after a week of action. On 11 June another effort dropped 1,000 tons of bombs in 1,070 sorties. Von Richthofen noted that he now had only enough supplies for 36 hours of operations. He ordered only important and fewer targets attacked, ordering aircraft to attack in columns to reduce the wastage of bombs and keep the pressure up on the fortifications. It failed to solve the "bomb calamity", von Richthofen noted on 14 June and three days later he could only drop 800 of the planned 1,000 tons.
Von Richthofen's participation on the operation came to an abrupt end on 23 June 1942. Having been informed by Jeschonnek and Hitler that he was to assume command of Luftlfotte 4 after the fall of Sevastopol earlier, they decided not to wait. They ordered him to Kursk in order to take up his command, leaving his Corps behind, and Sevastopol air operations under the command of von Wild. Von Richthofen was disgusted. He felt it was ridiculous to move him mid-operation, and he had wanted to be there when the fortress fell. He wrote, "It is a pity that one can never finish what one starts in the east. After a while, it takes away all the pleasure".
Without von Richthofen, Fliegerkorps VIII continued to contribute to the successful but costly operation. The Corps flew 23,751 sorties and dropped 20,000 tons of bombs, losing just 31 aircraft. The Axis finally achieved victory on 4 July 1942, when the last defenders were routed. The Luftwaffe’s close support arm reached a peak over Sevastopol. From then on, it would be dispersed over the Eastern Front.
On 28 June 1942 the Axis began their major summer offensive, Case Blue. Army Group South's objective was to advance towards the Stalingrad and Caucasus regions. Now commanding Luftflotte 4, Generaloberst von Richthofen had one of the largest commands supporting the effort. The Luftwaffe concentrated its largest single force since Barbarossa. Of the 2,690 aircraft supporting Case Blue, 52 per cent (1,400) were under the command of von Richthofen. A further 265 Romanian, Hungarian, Italian and Slovak aircraft were also present. Opposing them were 2,800 aircraft (900 in reserve) including 1,200 fighters of the southern VVS front. To the north, the Soviets had been convinced the main attack was to come against Moscow owing to the German deception plan Operation Kremlin.
The offensive opened on 28 June, and the Red Army put the German forces on the boundary of Army Groups Centre and South under severe pressure in the belief the main thrust to Moscow would emanate from that region. The battles of Voronezh cost the Soviets 783 aircraft by 24 July, but it meant von Richthofen had to divert Fliegerkorps VIII, now under the command of Martin Fiebig, north to deal with the threats while Pflugbeil's Fliegerkorps IV covered the advance into the Caucasus. On 18 July von Richthofen moved Luftflotte 4 and its headquarters to Mariupol on the Sea of Azov. On 2 August von Richthofen created the Gefechtsverband Nord under the command of Alfred Bulowius Nahaufklarung, Jadg, Kampf and Stuka gruppen and combined these groups on an ad-hoc basis to support the hard-pressed Heer. Hungarian and Italian air units also assisted. Within six weeks, von Richthofen had lost 350 aircraft and objected to Hitler's directive splitting the two armies (Army Group A and B) to pursue the capture of Stalingrad and the Baku oilfields at the same time, as he now had to support two lines of logistics which he could ill-afford. Nevertheless he committed himself to his task, and ordered Fiebig to destroy rail links around Stalingrad, where the German Sixth Army, despite having 1,000 aircraft supporting its drive to the city, were struggling to make rapid headway.
On 3 September, the Luftwaffe began its major effort against the city by beginning several destructive raids. The Battle of Stalingrad initiated a regression in air tactics back to the First World War, where a few flights of aircraft made pin-point attacks against enemy infantry and acted as an extension of the infantry. The Ju 87 units usually flew four sorties per day. Their bombing was so accurate that von Richthofen commented in his diary that they dropped bombs within hand-grenade distances. In October, the Romanian Air Corps arrived (180 aircraft) which attacked rail targets north east of Stalingrad and eased the air situation. Logistics were stretched and the front in Stalingrad formed into a stalemate, with the Germans having taken central and southern Stalingrad. With no reinforcements, and having lost 14 percent of his strength, von Richthofen turned to support the German Army in the Caucasus. Göring ordered him to concentrate on Stalingrad, but von Richthofen refused to return. This prompted a meeting between Hitler, Jeschnonnek and Göring on 15 October. Hitler was in a good mood, and he had taken personal command of Army Group Bs operations in the Caucasus on 9 September. He supported von Richthofen and gave him the authority to continue, partly in the belief that the battle in Stalingrad was nearly over.
This had not always been the case. Most of German aviation had been concentrated on the Stalingrad Front in August, on Hitler's orders. Pflugbeil's Fliegerkorps IV was over-stretched for over a month from 28 July. Von Richthofen had wanted to support Army Group B in the south, but despite the Caucasus oilfields being the primary target for German strategy, the Army Group received poor air support. Von Richthofen's arm-chair general tactics were important in deciding where air power was to be used, and would be done so only if he rated the army's chances of success as reasonable. He allowed some raids against Grozny's oilfields and close support operations, but the mountain terrain in the region made it difficult for the Panzer Divisions to exploit the actions of his air units. In a fit of pique at the army's failures, Von Richthofen refused to provide support for the Caucasus front. This remained the situation until mid-October. For a few days, a concentrated effort was made in the Caucasus. Hitler's realisation that the oilfields at Baku could not be captured meant that he was forced to order the Luftwaffe to eliminate them. The operations had limited success.
In the winter, von Richthofen was forced to reshuffle his units around to meet threats and offer support. By 7 November, he had helped the German Sixth Army eliminate nearly all of the Soviet forces in Stalingrad. But the effort created a supply crisis. The Luftwaffe 's railheads were 100 kilometres west of Stalingrad, and regardless of the army's difficulties, his units got logistical priority. Von Richthofen recommended this be amended. The battle in Stalingrad had meant, in von Richthofen's view, that air units could not be effective in close-quarter combat. Until this point, von Richthofen had received 42,630 tons of supplies and 20,713 tons of fuel while the army received 9,492 tons of fuel. Von Richthofen rationed his own fuel stocks which allowed him to create a reserve but also increased, by air lift, the tonnage from 2,000 to 5,000 tons.
Disaster at Stalingrad
On 19 November the Red Army began a counter offensive, named Operation Uranus. Within days, the Soviets had encircled some 300,000 German, Italian, Romanian and Hungarian soldiers in the city of Stalingrad. It was decided by Hitler and the OKL to supply the Axis forces by air. Von Richthofen was horrified. He telephoned Berchtesgaden and tried to get through to Hitler, but none of his aides would put him through. He tried to convince Göring that his air fleet did not have the resources to sustain an air lift, and that the best option would be to attempt a breakout before the Soviet forces entrenched. He flew to von Manstein's headquarters, and the Field Marshal agreed a breakout must take place. With the Sixth Army preserved, the initiative could be regained later. He made this request to Hitler. The Soviet divisions were smaller than their German counterparts, but they had 97 of them. Holding Stalingrad was now impossible.
In the event, Hitler chose to continue with the airlift, perhaps influenced by the Luftwaffe 's success in the Demyansk Pocket. Luftflotte 4 failed to alter the situation. The best air lift operation took place on 7 December 1942, when 363.6 tons were flown in. However, the concentration of Soviet aviation disrupted the intended supply operations and German transport losses were heavy. Some 266 Junkers Ju 52s were destroyed, three quarters of the fleet's strength on the Eastern Front. The He 111 gruppen lost 165 aircraft in transport operations. Other losses included 42 Junkers Ju 86s, nine Fw 200 Condors, five Heinkel He 177 bombers and a Junkers Ju 290. The Luftwaffe also lost close to 1,000 highly experienced bomber crew personnel. So heavy were the Luftwaffe 's losses that four of Luftflotte 4's transport units (KGrzbV 700, KGrzbV 900, I./KGrzbV 1 and II./KGzbV 1) were "formally dissolved". In the air, the Luftwaffe had sustained its heaviest defeat since the Battle of Britain. The remnants of the German Sixth Army surrendered on 2 February 1943.
A complete disaster was averted by Army Group South, largely thanks to von Richthofen's Luftflotte 4 and his former Fliegerkorps VIII, under his overall command. The loss of Stalingrad left Rostov-on-Don the only bottleneck supplying Army Group A in the Caucasus. In December 1942, Luftflotte 4 was still one of the most powerful single air commands in the world. On 15 January 1943, 1,140 of the 1,715 aircraft on the Eastern Front were under von Richthofen's command. Its attacks on the Soviet Southwestern Front prevented the Soviets from achieving the goal of isolating the Army Group in the Caucasus. Its air operations proved decisive in this regard.
Although defeated, Luftflotte 4 had flown 24,760 wounded and 5,150 technical personnel out of Stalingrad, which was 11 per cent of the total German manpower. It delivered only 19 per cent of the required supplies. It had four fewer transport groups than at Demyansk, so failed in its overall task despite Fiebig ordering his bombers onto transport operations. They managed an average of 68 sorties per day, delivering 111 tons of supplies against the requirement of 300 tons for the Sixth Army.
After the defeat, von Richthofen travelled to see Hitler on 11 February. He first met with Göring, who was worried that von Richthofen would use the opportunity to criticise his leadership. In the event he did not, but von Richthofen did criticise Göring's reluctance to disagree with Hitler and attacked his willingness to allow him to receive what he considered to be faulty advice. When von Richthofen did meet Hitler he criticised him openly for micromanagement, though he did insist he had been let down by his advisors. Hitler took all of this calmly, and admitted (as he had done to Erhard Milch) that he bore the ultimate responsibility for the air lift fiasco. Von Richthofen argued commanders needed more tactical and operational freedom, as had von Manstein. Hitler agreed. Von Richthofen was probably helped, regardless of his criticism, by the fact that Hitler genuinely liked him, and believed him to be loyal. Four days later von Richthofen was promoted to the rank of Generalfeldmarschall.
Recovery at Third Kharkov
The frontline threatened to collapse altogether in the east, but the Red Army had not yet learned the full lessons of manoeuvre warfare. At Stalin's behest, it attempted to cut off the Axis forces in the Caucasus by advancing to Rostov, using Kharkov and Belgorod as a springboard. It strained the logistics of Soviet forces and presented an ideal chance for von Manstein to counterattack. Radio intercepts suggested the Soviets were low on fuel, for their ground forces and the VVS, giving more urgency for a counter stroke. It would lead to the Third Battle of Kharkov, where von Manstein would win a major victory.
To support his attack von Richthofen sent eight of his weakest Gruppen home to rest and refit, which allowed the machines left to be redistributed among stronger units. With congestion eased the infrastructure could cope with serviceability, which improved dramatically. The Luftwaffe was also now back near to pre-prepared air bases, near logistical railheads at Nikolaiev and Poltava which enabled accelerated rates of re-equipment. After allowing his forces to re-equip near Rostov, he moved his units on 18 February. Richthofen moved his forces closer to the front; Fliegerkorps I, now under Günther Korten was moved from Boryspil, near Kiev to Poltava, Fliegerkorps IV under Fiebig was moved to the Kuban and Fliegerkorps V under Pflugbeil was moved to Dnepropetrovsk in the centre of the German offensive thrust. These forces were to support the First Panzer Army and the Fourth Panzer Army. Korten began his support for the Fourth Panzer Army on 19 February 1943. By 21 February 1,145 sorties had been flown, and another 1,486 were flown the following day. With the offensive going well, von Richthofen took the time to rest. The Luftwaffe flew a daily average of 1,000 sorties, with total air superiority owing to the absence of the VVS. In the event von Manstein encircled and destroyed a large number of enemy forces, stabilising the front, but leaving a bulge in the east, around the city of Kursk.
Throughout the spring and early summer, 1943, von Richthofen began preparing his air fleet for Operation Citadel, and the Battle of Kursk, the major summer campaign which was supposed to repeat the Kharkov victory on a larger scale, and turn the tide in the east back in the Axis favour. Von Richthofen did not take part. Third Kharkov proved to be his last battle in the Soviet Union, and he was transferred to the Mediterranean to begin operations there.
Von Richthofen was suffering from headaches and exhaustion and was diagnosed as having a brain tumor. He was sent on medical leave to the Luftwaffe hospital for neurological injuries at Bad Ischl. On 27 October 1944, Von Richthofen was operated on by chief brain surgeon Professor Dr. Wilhelm Tönnis. Tönnis, a former professor at the University of Würzburg, was one of the most noted German specialists. Initially it was thought that the operation was successful, but the tumor had only been slowed. In November 1944 von Richthofen was officially relieved of his command in Italy and transferred to the Führerreserve. His condition declined steadily in early 1945. It is thought likely that Professor Tönnis attempted a second operation but the tumor had progressed beyond hope for recovery. Germany surrendered on 8 May 1945. The hospital was taken over by the American Third Army and von Richthofen became a prisoner of war. Wolfram von Richthofen died on 12 July 1945.
- Fähnrich – 22 March 1913
- Leutnant – 19 June 1914
- Temporary Oberleutnant – 29 February 1920
- Rejoined the Army with rank of Leutnant – 1 November 1923
- Oberleutnant – 31 July 1925
- Hauptmann – 1 February 1929
- Major – 1 June 1934
- Oberstleutnant – 20 April 1936
- Oberst – 23 January 1938
- Generalmajor – 1 November 1938
- General der Flieger – 19 July 1940
- Generaloberst – 1 February 1942
- Generalfeldmarschall – 16 February 1943
References in the Wehrmachtbericht
|Date||Original German Wehrmachtbericht wording||Direct English translation|
|Thursday, 20 June 1940||Beim Durchbruch durch die Maginotlinie sowie bei der schnellen Einschließung des Feindes in Elsass-Lothringen und Burgund zeichnete sich vor allem die von Generalleutnant Ritter von Greim und Generalmajor von Richthofen geführten Fliegerverbände sowie eine von Hauptmann Steiner geführte Schlachtfliegergruppe aus.||Especially flying formations under the leadership of Lieutenant General Ritter von Greim and Major General von Richthofen as well as a close air support group led by Captain Steiner distinguished themselves in the breakthrough of the Maginot line as well as in the fast encirclement of the enemy in Alsace-Lorraine and Burgundy.|
|Thursday, 7 August 1941||Am Verlauf dieser gewaltigen Schlacht waren die Armeen des Generalfeldmarschalls von Kluge und der Generalobersten Strauß und Freiherr von Weichs, die Panzergruppen der Generalobersten Guderian und Hoth sowie die Luftwaffenverbände der Generale der Flieger Loerzer und Freiherr von Richthofen ruhmreich beteiligt.||During the course of this great battle, the armies of Field Marshal von Kluge and the Colonel General Strauß and Freiherr von Weichs, the Panzer groups of Colonel-General Guderian and Hoth, and the Luftwaffe detachments of the generals of the Air Loerzer and Freiherr von Richthofen were involved gloriously.|
|21 October 1941 (extra)||In schwerem, von den Fliegerverbänden der Generale der Flieger Freiherr von Richthofen und Förster unermüdlich unterstützen Ringen, haben die in der Heeresgruppe des Generalfeldmarschalls Ritter von Leeb zusammengefaßten Verbände des Heeres und der Waffen-SS seit dem Bericht des Oberkommandos der Wehrmacht vom 6. August 1941 über 300.000 Gefangene eingebracht, 1.581 Panzerkampfwagen und 4.063 Geschütze erbeutet oder vernichtet.||In heavy struggle, tirelessly supported from flying units of the General der Flieger Freiherr von Richthofen and Förster, the Army and the Waffen-SS units, which have been combined in the army group of Field Marshal Ritter von Leeb, took over 300,000 prisoners, captured or destroyed 1581 tanks and 4063 guns, since the armed forces report of 6 August 1941.|
|Tuesday, 19 May 1942 (extra)||An diesem gewaltigen Erfolg haben starke Luftwaffenverbände unter der Führung der Generalobersten Löhr und Freiherr von Richthofen hervorragenden Anteil.||Strong Luftwaffe forces under the leadership of Colonel General Löhr and Freiherr von Richthofen had contributed outstandingly in this success.|
|Wednesday, 20 May 1942||Wie durch Sondermeldung bekanntgegeben, haben deutsche und rumänische Truppen unter dem Oberbefehl des Generalobersten von Manstein, unterstützt von starken Luftwaffenverbänden unter Führung der Generalobersten Löhr und Freiherr von Richthofen, in der Verfolgung des geschlagenen Feindes die Meerenge von Kertsch in ganzer Breite erreicht und die letzten stark befestigten Brückenköpfe beiderseits der Stadt nach erbittertem Widerstand genommen.||As announced by special message, German and Romanian troops under the command of General von Manstein, supported by strong air forces under the command of Colonel General Löhr, and Freiherr von Richthofen, in pursuit of the defeated enemy, reached the Strait of Kerch in full-width and took the remaining strong fortified bridgeheads after fierce resistance on both sides of the city.|
|Thursday, 2 July 1942||Wie bereits durch Sondermeldung bekanntgegeben, haben deutsche und rumänische Truppen unter Führung des Generalfeldmarschalls von Manstein, hervorragend unterstützt von den bewährten Nahkampffliegerkorps des Generalobersten Freiherrn von Richthofen, nach fünfundzwanzigtägigem erbitterten Ringen am Mittag des 1. Juli 1942 die bisher stärkste Land- und Seefestung Sewastopol, bezwungen.||As announced by special message, German and Romanian troops under the command of Field Marshal von Manstein, superbly supported by the proven close air support Corps of Colonel General Freiherr von Richthofen, defeated after twenty-five days of bitter struggle at noon on 1 July 1942 the strongest land and naval fortress of Sevastopol.|
|Wednesday, 12 August 1942||Wie durch Sondermeldung bekanntgegeben, haben Truppen des Heeres unter Führung des Generals der Panzertruppen Paulus, hervorragend unterstützt durch die Flakartillerie und die fliegenden Verbände der Luftwaffe unter Führung des Generalobersten Freiherrn von Richthofen, im Grossen Don-Bogen westlich Kalatsch die Masse der sowjetrussischen 62. Armee und starke Teile der 1. Panzerarmee vernichtet.||As announced by special message, troops of the army under the command of General of Panzer troops Paulus, superbly supported by the anti-aircraft artillery and flying formations of the Luftwaffe under the command of Colonel General Freiherr von Richthofen, destroyed the mass of the Soviet 62nd army and large parts of the 1st Tank Army at the great Don arc west of Kalach.|
|20 March 1943||Die unter dem Oberbefehl des Generalfeldmarschalls von Manstein stehenden Truppen des Heeres und der Waffen-SS haben in hervorragendem Zusammenwirken mit Verbänden der Luftwaffe unter dem Oberbefehls des Generalfeldmarschall von Richthofen im Verlaufe der deutschen Gegenoffensive zwischen Donez und Dnjepr, die zur Wiedereroberung der Städte Charkow und Bjelgorod führte, dem Feind schwerste Verluste an Menschen und Material zugefügt.||The troops of the Army and the Waffen-SS, under the command of Field Marshal von Manstein, in excellent cooperation with units of the Luftwaffe under the supreme command of Field Marshal von Richthofen, during the German counter-offensive between the Donets and the Dnieper, which led to the re-conquest of the city Kharkov and Bielgorod, inflicted heavy losses in men and material to the enemy.|
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Media related to Wolfram von Richthofen at Wikimedia Commons
- Literature by and about Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen in the German National Library catalogue
- "Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen". www.spartacus-educational.com. Retrieved 6 June 2011.
- "Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen". Encyclopaedia of Civil Defense and Emergency Management. Retrieved 6 June 2011.
- "Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen". Axis Biographical Research. Archived from the original on 29 October 2009. Retrieved 6 June 2011.
- "Wolfram Freiherr von Richthofen". Lexicon der Wehrmacht (in German). Retrieved 6 June 2011.
|Commander of VIII. Fliegerkorps
19 July 1939 – 30 June 1942
General der Flieger Martin Fiebig
Generaloberst Alexander Löhr
|Commander of Luftflotte 4
20 July 1942 – 4 September 1943
Generaloberst Otto Deßloch
Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring
|Commander of Luftflotte 2
11 June 1943 – 27 September 1944