Soviet Air Power In Perspective: Development
And Impact, 1925 - 1942
SUBJECT AREA - Foreign Policy
SOVIET AIR POWER IN PERSPECTIVE:
DEVELOPMENT AND IMPACT, l925 - l942
LCDR Victor A. Steinman
United States Navy
Conference Group 2
Title: Soviet Air Power in Perspective: Development and Impact, l925 - l942
Author: LCDR Victor A. Steinman, United States Navy
Thesis: Soviet air power, while not the predominant military service
component during these years, did in fact play a large supporting role in
ensuring the victory of the Red Army in the Great Patriotic War.
Background: Frequently in conversations concerning World War II, one
hears criticism of the Russian military for its general neglect of airpower,
specifically in a strategic role. Likewise, the Russian Air Force has been
lampooned for being merely an airborne extension of the Red Army, or
'airborne artillery'. While there is certainly an element of truth to each of
these suppositions, when taken in context of time and place, clear justification
for these roles emerge. Furthermore, as the largest land power in the world at
the time, a body of logic and science supports the Soviet Union's emphasis on
fielding a massive land army as the lead service in her defense. History has
certainly borne out these observations, and some critical supporting evidence is
contained in this paper that substantiates these points.
There are many commonly held misconceptions about the
development and implementation of Soviet military aviation as it emerged
prior to and during the Great Patriotic War.1 The ensuing fifty years have
perhaps made it easier levy indictments of Soviet air power. Some of the
more prominent of these are: the Soviet Union did not adequately promote
aviation as part of its national military strategy, that the Soviet Air Force
was largely just an element of airborne artillery, and that the pilots
themselves were second-rate and lacked initiative. However, a critical
examination of this transition period offers us some tangible evidence
which, in the main, vindicates Russia of much of the commonly held
rhetoric about her air force. Certain overriding factors served to script the
form and function of Soviet aviation to a large extent. Irrespective of the
Aryan supremacist overtones, the following comments of a highly
decorated Luftwaffe general officer serves to summarize my point:
As events show, Russian (response) to German Air Force operations,
however primitive and makeshift in character, and however crude they
might have first appeared to be to their more enlightened Western
opponents, proved throughout the course of the war to be highly efficient,
effective, and ultimately an important factor in the defeat of Germany.2
This paper will briefly highlight the developmental history of Soviet
aviation from its modem beginnings to the period of Soviet air superiority in
World War II. In doing so, emphasis is accorded to the following issues:
(l) that the geography of the Soviet Union significantly impacted the
makeup of the military (favoring land armies over air or naval components)
and the national military strategy, (2) that early implementation of air
power reinforced its position as in support of, if not always subordinate to,
the Army and, (3) that within the constraints of these first two points, the
Soviet air force and the individual aviator managed to perform quite
admirably as the war progressed.
Literally dozens of pertinent, first-hand accounts of the air war on the
Eastern Front are available, and more information is cascading from the
new Russia. The attempt here is to meld these source documents
(primarily German, British and Soviet) and yield a resultant product which
may be less characterized by the particular national overtones of the source.
Perhaps, as Richard Stockwell states early in his book on Soviet air power,
"there are no experts on Russia - there are only varying degrees of
Impact of Geography
The Soviet Union has frequently been lambasted for lacking vigor and
commitment in embracing air power in WWII - implying a lack of vision or
general neglect for an emerging potent military component. Here, all one
needs to do is review some of the essential tenets of geography and history to
better understand the introductory position of air power in the USSR. "Wars
are not tactical exercises writ large. They are ... conflicts of societies, and
they can be fully understood only if one understands the nature of the
society fighting them. The roots of victory or defeat often have to be sought
far from the battlefield, in political, social, and economic factors". These
words of Michael Howard are poignantly relevant when studying the role of
Soviet aviation in their struggle with the Wehrmacht.
It is impossible to truly understand the complexion and role of Soviet
aviation in World War II without thoroughly factoring in the predominant
impact of geography. The geography of a region largely predetermines the
economy, commerce patterns, culture, and productivity of that area. It also
directly impacts the infrastructure, development, and dispersal of the
military. The Soviet Union l94O was the largest contiguous land mass
on the face of the earth, fifteen loosely assembled states totaling over
8,35O,OOO square miles - nearly one seventh of the earth's land surface.
Recognition of the enormity of the land mass itself may obviate the
emphasis on a land army, however, some very prominent scholars have
gone to great pains to examine and explain the linkages.
British geographer and political theorist Sir Halford J. Mackinder, in
his seminal book, Democratic Ideals and Realities, gives us the most
detailed treatise on the direct relationships between geography the
subsequent military focus of particular regions. The strategic significance
of prevailing geography virtually mandates the size, type, and disposition of
the military a country will field. Mackinder describes the Heartland4 (a
region roughly equivalent to the boundaries of the Soviet Union) as an area
of great insularity - an area nearly impregnable to armed forces by land or
sea. He developed compelling argument, predicated on climate, economy,
population base, terrain, weather, and resource distribution, that Russia
was the largest insular land mass in the world - susceptible to land
invasion from only a very narrow flank. That area he defined as the
transitional split between East and West Europe. History has repeatedly
scripted the failures of attacking foreign armies that have traversed the
Russian steppe - and to a great extent the factors of land mass and climate
have been primary contributors to the ultimate demise of invaders.
The preponderance of data drawn from a historical analysis of the
Soviet Union intrinsically points towards a military posture which very well
should emphasize a land army over all other forms of military power, and
that is exactly what we find prior to World War II. As a huge land power,
Russia was naturally suited to field an equivalently massive army, having
only to muster a critical threshold population base. Mackinder illustrates
his theory through the use of historical example, demonstrating Russia's
emphasis on a land army, from the early Cossack horsemen to present, as
perfectly consistent with their geographic domain. The following statement
related his Heartland concept to population base, and also proved to be quite
prophetic (keeping in mind that the book was published just after the
signing of the Treaty of Versailles):
It is evident that the Heartland is as real a physical fact within the
World-Island as is the World Island itself within the ocean, although its
boundaries are not quite so clearly defined. Not until about a hundred
years ago, however, was there available a base of manpower sufficient to
begin to threaten the liberty of the world from within this citadel of the
World-Island. No mere scraps of paper, even though they be the written
constitution of a League of Nations, are, under the conditions of today, a
sufficient guarantee that the Heartland will not again become the center
of a world war.5
Just as the island nation of Great Britain derived its power from
command of the seas, then, so has the great insular power of the Heartland
traditionally been suited to land defense by an army. The fact that Russia
had always placed exaggerated importance on a standing army cannot be
overlooked - and surely makes great strategic sense in light of her inherent
geographical characteristics. An eminently qualified Luftwaffe general
officer, who spent most of the first three years of the war in the East during
the second world war, best substantiates the impact of geography at the
operational level, recalling:
Germany's fundamental problem in Russia was the conquest of space.
This could be achieved only by a far superior mass of manpower and
material or by possession of much greater mobility, neither of which the
Germans had in l943. The acuteness of logistical problems at the same
time forced German troops to place an ever greater reliance upon Soviet
Soviet Aviation: Inception to the Eve of War
The modern Soviet Air Force can trace its formative beginnings to the
mid-l92Os. During World War I, aviation remained an organic arm of the
Army and Navy, and was largely ineffective. It was during this period that
an affiliation developed between Russia and Germany7 - the Weimar
Republic which had been victimized by the terribly punitive provisions of
the Versailles Treaty after World War I. This treaty effectively neutered the
German Reichswehr infrastructure, and simultaneously fixed the Soviet
Union behind an artificially prepared 'cordon sanitaire' - a region of buffer
states between the two countries, drawn with political boundaries which
were largely irrespective of long-standing cultural, ethnic and national
orientations. Under the Treaty, the Germans were prohibited from all
activities leading towards remilitarization. The interests, then, of both the
Reichswehr and Nicholas II's Russia were tentatively served by the
cooperative (albeit illegal) venture of cross-military training and
development. A system of tenuous contractual agreements between the two
countries facilitated the training of approximately l2O senior Soviet officers
in Germany between l926 and l933. Attendees of particular note for
advanced military training in Berlin were two of Russia's greatest
contemporary military figures - Mikhail Tukhachevsky8 (then Red Army
Chief of Staff), and Georgi K. Zhukov, Minister of Defense.
Soviet military aviation had its formative beginnings in this setting,
and henceforth we see an immutable relationship between the German and
Russian approach to air power. Arrangements were made for the
construction of a huge aircraft manufacturing facility (the Fili Plant;
approximately l5O miles south of Moscow), initially staffed by German
engineers and skilled labor. Concurrently, a large flight training and
testing area was established near Lipetsk, where some limited numbers of
Soviet aviators directly familiarized themselves with German air tactics.
Thus, the Soviets became benefactors of an accelerated jump start in their
fledgling "air army".
Stalin, as Lenin before him, recognized the importance of an "air
army". Accordingly, great emphasis (yet not at the expense of the Army)
was placed on the complete rebuilding of the organizational structure,
infrastructure, and personnel of the "Air Forces of the Red Worker and
Peasant Army". At this early growth stage, it is apparent that the Russians
strove to model their air force after the Germans'. The emerging role of the
air force would be as an auxiliary force for the Army and Navy, and though
the Luftwaffe would eventually become a component part of the defense
structure in Germany, the Russian system would largely remain as it had
begun. Although the writings of Douhet9 were accessible and read by key
individuals in Russian military aviation, very little attention or merit was
paid to their bold vision of air power as a strategic implement.
By l927, the Russians had thoroughly schooled themselves on
German engineering and design techniques, and had begun to incorporate
certain manufacturing and assembly processes based on the German
model. That same year, all contact was severed with the Germans -
cooperative ventures and contracts were dissolved - as Stalin was readying
the country for the first Five Year Plan (l928 - l932). The next decade would
be one of tremendous relative growth for aviation, but also one in which we
see a fledgling air force severely retarded by the impact of the purges.
The execution of Tukhachevsky and his companions was only the first
step in a senseless blood purge of the Red Army that all but eliminated
the top echelons of the officer corps. During the Purge, the Red Army
lost 3 marshals, 11 deputy commissars for defense, 57 corps
commanders, l10 divisional commanders, and l86 brigade
commanders. ... Soviet aviation was especially hard hit by the Purge. .
About 75 percent of the senior officers in the (VVS) were eliminated by
l939. No army could stand a blood purge of that dimension without
suffering pernicious anemia in its command system.10
Although production goals set by these early Plans were often
unrealistic, great progress was made in the standup construction of
aircraft fuselage and engine manufacturing facilities (nearly all of these
plants built in European Russia - west of the Urals in the Moscow-
Leningrad-Donets basin). By the end of l933, the Germans estimated the
strength of the Soviet air force at approximately l,5OO front-line aircraft,
with an annual production rate nearing 2,OOO. Thus, with a good deal of
outside assistance and direct German cooperation, the Russians had built
an aviation industry from almost nothing. Most importantly, perhaps, is
that by l936, the Soviets had gone a long way towards establishing self-
sufficiency in production and training - assets which would pay great
dividends in the not-too-distant future!
In l936, marginal advances towards independent operations by the
air forces were made, removing them from direct control of the Army and
Navy. The changes were largely organizational, and the establishment of
air "divisions" or brigades were created - larger units of single type/model
aircraft than had existed before. Still, little changed with respect to the
traditional subordinate position of the Air Force to the Army.11 Here again,
though, we gleen the candid perspective of a ranking Luftwaffe officer who
dispels some common rhetoric often attributed to the Soviets in building
their aviation industry:
Together with the ruthless methods of labor management of
the totalitarian government, the inborn Russian characteristics
of tenacity, endurance, frugality, and, particularly, obedience,
promoted the speedy development of a solid foundation of suitable
personnel. The widespread assumption that the average Russian
has little, if indeed any, technical aptitude was soon proved a fallacy.
The opposite was found to be true.12
Coincident with Russia's preoccupation with giant land armies was
her tendency to mimic the function of the German air force model -
German aircraft research and design was peculiarly different from most
other countries in the pre-WWJI years. Aircraft were envisioned more as
task oriented tools of war, and as such were designed for specific military
applications - a sophisticated and effective approach towards building an
Ground attack tactics were closely coordinated with ground operations;
within these limitations they were well planned and developed from
experience that dated all the way back to the Spanish Civil War. The
technical development that took place along parallel lines brought about
the evolution of the IL-2 ground-attack aircraft whose design, capability,
and usefulness were much more oriented to a single purpose than was
the case with the German ground-attack aircraft types.13
The Russians continued their pattern of duplicating the German
model by adopting in piecemeal fashion the fundamental air doctrine of the
Luftwaffe. Tactical air had never lost its place in Germany following
World War I (at least in theory), and as such, their air doctrine of l935 was
the best document on employment of air power, as it related to both the
strategic and political constructs. General Hans von Seeckt14, the noted
progenitor of German aviation doctrine at the time, impressed his officers
to study and formulate lessons learned from World War I. Essentially, air
power was cast in a "use when needed" approach - sometimes essential,
other times, not required at all! Both the Soviet Air Force and the Luftwaffe
always took their respective armies' needs into the equation. Likewise, both
countries, as the major land powers of Europe, knew that this was critical
to the future of war.
For the duration of World War II, Germany and Russia would
adhere to this same doctrine. On paper, it was factored into three major
applications: air superiority, interdiction (direct and indirect close air
support), and deep strike bombing (strategic). Germany got the most
effective use of its air power of any of the participants early in the war (i.e., Poland). Success had its foundation in the organizational structure, even
more so than technical apparatus. The command structure hinged on
cooperation and familiarity with the ground counterparts.
Evaluation of Pre-WWII Combat Experience
In the five years prior to Hitler unleashing the fury of Barbarossa,
the Soviet Union had ample opportunity to practically implement their 'air
army' in three different theaters. Recalling that their aviation doctrine,
design, and structure mimicked that of the Luftwaffe (to a large extent), it is
no wonder that we see little experimentation in these combat operations.
While the democracies of Europe were accelerating down the road of
appeasement, Germany and Italy aggressively participated in aiding
Franco in the Spanish Civil War15. It is estimated that as many l0,000
German and 5O,OOO Italian troops fought in Spain, with a preponderance of
war material (tanks, planes, artillery) being supplied by the two primary
fascist states of Europe to the Nationalists. Spain provided a dynamic and
furtive test bed for Germany to introduce and perfect blitzkrieg tactics. On
the other side, the Loyalists of the Spanish republic became almost
completely dependent on supplies from the Soviet Union.
The predominantly Communist "International Brigade", formed in
France by the Comintern, became the vehicle through which Soviet aviation
exercised its participation in the war. Depending on the source, widely
ranging estimates of Soviet support exist, but it is safe to say that
approximately l,5OO Russian aircraft and 5OO-6OO pilots were in Spain at the
height of Soviet intervention. The bulk of these aircraft were aging single-
engine fighters and medium bombers. The Russian pilots paid little heed to
the general direction of the Loyalists' operations, and their participation
was only loosely veiled in the trappings of the cause. There was a much
greater concern for testing new aircraft and exercising tactics. The Soviets
enjoyed an advantage in the air during l936-37, both numerically and in
performance of their machines, however, as the Luftwaffe introduced the
new Me-lO9, the tide decidedly turned in favor of the Nationalists.
The most effective use of Russian air power in Spain was seen in
direct support of ground actions. Typically, composite flights (a mix of
different type/model/series) of aircraft, in groups of between seven and fifty,
would locate and target columns of Nationalist troops and vehicles. In
these scenarios, very low altitude strafing and bombing proved to be quite
effective. In retrospect, the Soviets lost an opportunity to explore the
advantages of air power as an independent strategic element, because they
had a limited capability of interdicting lines of communications, but chose
instead to engage front forces in contact. They committed very few of their
early long range bombers to this theater (which were poorly outfitted for
navigation aids and often lacked radios altogether) and had little success in
using them. It must be mentioned that the Luftwaffe operated in like
fashion, and one may deduce that to some extent, the Soviets were again
modeling their air element to the German's.
Gradually, the Nationalists wore down the republican strength, and
a non-negotiated peace was proclaimed by Franco forces on 27 March,
l939. The Germans' assessment of the impact of Soviet air was not
particularly flattering, but they did perceive strengths in their ability to
sortie from auxiliary airfields under less-than optimum conditions.
There was evidence of awkwardness in operational thinking, and
of inadequacies in general staff training. On the other hand, there
was also unquestionable evidence of the ability to master organizational
and supply problems by improvisations, and of aptitude in camouflage,
ground services, and cooperation in air-ground operations.16
At the same time operations were going on in Spain, Stalin was
forced to focus on the Far Eastern theater. Russia took advantage of an
opportunity to aggressively assist China in defending herself from the
Japanese (Sino-Japanese War17), thereby forestalling direct war Japan
itself. This war offered them an indirect approach to halting Japanese
expansion towards Russia's eastern frontiers, and once again, an
opportunity to flex their military. Over the course of approximately three
years (l937 - l94O), the Russians had between 2OO and 5OO aviators in China
at any given time. As in Spain, these pilot groups generally operated as an
autonomous component (i.e., not in combined operations with Chinese), and
likewise reinforced their doctrinal commitment of air power in support of
ground operations. Although the Soviet pilots had ample opportunity to
observe the tactics and supporting operations of both their adversaries and
the Chinese, American, and British aviation units, there is no
substantiating evidence that any real exchange was made on their part.
Operating with virtually little or no real-time coordination, the Soviet pilots
loosely planned attacks on vehicle assembly areas and units on the move,
which generally coincided with coincident friendly ground operation.
The final pre-WWII engagements were flown in the Finnish-
Russian War18, or Winter War, which provided an all-too grisly realization
that gross inefficiencies existed in both tactics and leadership. Repeated
air bombardments and massive frontal assaults eventually turned the tide
for the Soviet forces, and a short-lived peace treaty was signed on l2 March,
l94O, in which Finland ceded part of the Karelian Isthmus, Viborg and
several border territories to the USSR. German observations of the role and
impact of Soviet air power were mixed. The primary functions were still in
the direct support arena - "fighters" provided traditional close air support
and direct prosecution of ground targets in conjunction with infantry and
armor, while bombers concentrated near the front. At the height of the
Soviet offensive on the Summa Front in February, l94O, nearly one third of
the air force was committed in theater. Although flying against little to no
resistance from airborne threats, the Soviet bomber groups, which
accounted for nearly 5O per cent of all sorties, performed dismally. Severe
losses were suffered in the thick of Finnish antiaircraft barrages. Russian
aircraft losses for the war are estimated at nearly 9OO aircraft, of which
almost half were bombers. Inability to operate in adverse weather or at
night, poor navigation instrumentation, ineffective bomb sights, and engine
problems reaffirmed organizational resistance to strategic bombing.l9
In summary, the Soviets had made a commitment to aviation,
although the lion's share of the military budget was still going into armor
and artillery. To a large extent, the Soviet Air Force was comprised of aging
machines and hand-me-down tactics. This mixture made for a
cumbersome, unimaginative application of air warfare. Predictably, the
experience on these three fronts served to reinforce their fondness for close
air support, air protection of the rear, and prosecution of ground targets in
conjunction with infantry, artillery and armor. There was very little effort
to employ long range strikes for deep interdiction, and the few attempts at
strategic bombing generally netted an abysmal failure. As such, bomber
action was always concentrated at or near the front. Regrettably, much of
the expertise acquired by the Soviet officers in Spain, China, and Outer
Mongolia was liquidated by Stalin, a woeful error in light of the impending
outbreak of world war.
Assessment of the Soviet Air Force:
The Days Prior to Barbarossa...
The spring l94l German intelligence estimate of Soviet air strength
was accurate in general distribution and function, but slightly
underestimated the total number of aircraft. The Russians had formed five
military districts facing the German threat, from north to south:
Leningrad, Baltic, Western, Kiev, and Odessa (redesignated respectively
Northern, Northwestern, West, Southwestern, and Southern shortly after
war commenced). Army and air force units located in these districts were
well forward of the old "Stalin line"20 - precariously close to the German
threat. The Soviets proved to be ingenious at engineering, constructing and
camouflaging nearly 2OO forward airfields (both expeditionary and
improved) in this vast forested area. The very proliferation of these bases
became at once an asset with regard to deception and protection, but
significantly weakened their ability to mass fires or exercise any
semblance of centralized control.
The German Intelligence Digest (UdSSR21) detailed 38 known
Russian Air Divisions there, and assumed as many as 5O. Between 3 and 6
regiments made a division; each regiment nominally built on 4 squadrons
(l5 aircraft maximum per squadron; in actuality, averaged 9 - l2 aircraft
each). The UdSSR estimated a total of approximately 5,7OO aircraft
(counting 5OO reserve aircraft between Moscow and the Urals) on the
Russian west - roughly 2,7OO bombers, and 3,OOO fighters. In April of l94l,
the German air attaché in Moscow arranged for a group of Luftwaffe
officers to tour selected Russian aircraft factories. The timing and the
intent of this preview was as obvious then as it is to us now. At the end of
the tour of inspection, Chief Engineer Artem Mikoyan, designer of the MiG
fighter and brother of Anastos Mikoyan, the Peoples' Commissar for
Industry, said to (the German attaché): "We have now shown you all we
have and all we can do; and we shall destroy anyone who attacks us."22
June 22, l94l
Hitler's Directive No. 2l, "Case Barbarossa", issued on l8 December
l94O and delayed for months, came to frightful culmination in the pre-dawn
hours of 22 June l94l. The order itself specifically called for "preventing the
effective operation of the Russian Air Force by powerful blows." To this end,
the Luftwaffe was stunningly successful, even if against a somewhat
disorganized and unprepared foe.
Doubtless, the Soviet Air Force was in no way ready for the events of
summer and fall l94l. Abbreviated training programs had been introduced
to increase the throughput of both pilots and maintenance technicians.
This late effort fell far short of properly manning the divisions, and as
expected, the new arrivals were lacking in proficiency and experience. The
Russian army estimated the Luftwaffe strength massed for the attack at
approximately 4,OOO aircraft (counting all transports, reserves, and
assuming full strength per squadron). Russian intelligence reports
accurately warned of a Luftwaffe that was 'outfitted with modern aircraft,
flown by combat experienced pilots, with a large production capacity for
both aircraft and personnel'.
Prior to the attack, Soviet air strategy was focused on destroying
enemy concentrations (force on force). Although they addressed deep
operations, their concept most closely equates to the modem term rear area.
Strangely enough, the air force gave highest priority to the destruction of
enemy airfields and aircraft on the ground (considering what was about to
happen to their own aircraft in a matter of hours!). Practically, however,
air was to be employed coincident with ground troop operations. The Soviet
doctrine spoke to offense, but it is plainly obvious that the general strategy,
both for the Red Army and the Air Force, was one of defense. Soviet
historical publications had consistently been extremely critical of blitzkrieg,
often interchanging the term with the words high risk - again, perhaps,
reinforcing their own predisposition to interior defense.
The reality of the opening months of the war is documented in the
official history of the Soviet Air Force: the Soviets admit to a loss of l,2OO
aircraft on the first day! The Germans claim total Soviet aircraft losses as
l,8OO - 32O airborne and l,48O on the ground! Accounts of air action early in
the war seem almost ridiculous by today's standards! Some have made
compelling argument that the incredible losses in June and July may have
been a blessing in disguise for the Soviet Air Force - it forced the Stavka and
Stalin to immediately reckon with relocation of production facilities, it
reduced the inventory of mostly obsolete aircraft, and, since most aircraft
were destroyed on the ground, many Soviet aviators lived to man-up newer,
more formidable aircraft in the following months! The disparity in
numbers is irrelevant; the point is clear - the Russians took incredible
losses on the first day and for months to follow, For the moment, morale,
technology, and initiative were all allies of the advancing Hun.
The Soviets candidly admitted, at the time, that the early use of air power
was spoiled by the inability to concentrate attacks and lack of adequate
coordination (the downside of the numerous dispersed airfields located too
close to the front).
"Evolution" During the War
The Soviet Air Force made many subtle changes over the course of
the next two years - largely in response to dire circumstances and to
accommodate a more coordinated effort with the Red Army. Improvements
were made in aircraft - a few certain types were battle proven, and were
subsequently mass produced on unprecedented levels23. Effective, albeit
simplistic, tactics were developed in response to the Luftwaffe's Stukas and
Me-lO9s. As the air war progressed, the individual Soviet aviator become a
more seasoned, polished warrior. Confidence bred efficiency and lethality.
Likewise, organizational changes were made to streamline the Air Force.
Although it would never take on a strategic role, nor would it have any
great degree of autonomy, air operations and Air Force commanders
matured to embrace a greater share of the burden of the war.
One of the most dramatic and impressive accomplishments of the
war was the grandiose maneuver of shifting most of the aviation fuselage
and engine production to new production facilities in the east. From the
spring of l942, production of the Yak-1 was in Novosibirsk, the Il-2
Stormovik plant was moved to the Volga region, and the MiG-3 factory
moved to the Urals near Kuibyshev. As one might expect, coincident drops
in production accompanied these moves for the winter/spring l94l-42.
However, production accelerated swiftly, increasing to a maximum rate of
35,OOO aircraft in l943 and almost 4O,OOO in l944!
Within the constraints of "air war infancy", the Soviet pilots were
making limited advances in tactics and procedures: in response to
Luftwaffe anti-air warfare (AAW), Soviet bombers began flying tighter
grouped formations, with two echelons of fighter support - one to strip early
in response to enemy fighters; a second echelon remained attached
providing defense in depth. Soviet pilots began considering the
performance characteristics (both the limitations and exploitable
advantages with respect to their Luftwaffe counterpart) of their aircraft
when assigned specific roles - thus, the newer aircraft (MiG-3 and Yak-1)
accomplished more than the older aircraft (I-16 and I-153). These were
major advances in tactical procedures, especially when considering how
far these aviators had come in only a short period. (In the opening months
of Barbarossa, many medals were awarded throughout the districts to
daring airmen for ramming Luftwaffe aircraft!)
Protection of own-troops was augmented by flying combat air patrol
(CAP) missions in vicinity of friendly unit locations. These flights may
have had little damaging effect on Luftwaffe fighter/bombers, but they
definitely had a positive impact on general morale of Soviet Army troops.
As the war progressed, the Russian pilots honed their close air skills to a
fine edge. General Uebe speaks to this point with some element of disgust,
perhaps revealing his real appreciation for the Soviet pilots' prowess in this
Russian dive bombers and bombers were nearly always employed
either for air interdiction operations or for the bombardment of German
bases close to the Soviet front lines. Little distinction was made by
Russian leaders between air interdiction and tactical air support
operations, all such missions being lumped together under the heading
of "Support of Ground Forces." ... Not only did they favor the use of
tactical airpower, but the majority of their plans entailed close support
type operations. The Russian Army thus came to view airpower as the
aerial counterpart of conventional artillery.24
Sweeping organizational changes streamlined the command and
control of the air force. On July 10, l94l, the General Headquarters of the
High Command25 (Stavka), issued a directive which established the Office
of Air Force Commander of the Red Army, positionally commensurate with
a Deputy People's Commissar of Defense (replacing the former Chief of
Operations of the Red Army Air Force). This single act was nearly
synonymous with designating a service Chief today. This new component
commander was additionally given direct control of the Civil Air Fleet - an
added benefit for mobilizing air logistics efforts. This Stavka also
reorganized the Air Forces of the Fronts (replacing the Air Forces of the
Border Districts), reducing the number of military districts from five to
three. The net effect was one of more centralized command and more
freedom for the Division commanders to make decisions. Predictably, this
same directive continued to order the "destruction of enemy tanks, troops,
fuel supplies, air bases and machine guns."
These organizational changes were first put to the test in the defense
of Moscow. The Luftwaffe, by both German and Russian accounts, massed
an incredibly concentrated bombing campaign on the city from 22 July to l5
August, l942. A state of siege was declared on l9 October, l942, and the
situation became so precarious that parts of the government were moved to
Kuibyshev (of note - both the famous aircraft designers, Ilyushin and
Yakovlev,26 were ordered to leave Moscow that month!). The Red Army
claimed to have attrited the German motorized and tank divisions by 5O% in
equipment while inflicting 45O,OOO casualties! Although it is difficult to
factor out the effectiveness of the Air Force, there is little doubt that the
ability to prosecute attacks as an air army (opposed to being attached
directly to ground units in small groups) and call up large air reserves had
devastating effects on the German assault.
The German offense had been effectively stopped for the first time
since the war began. The Soviet Air Force claimed to have flown 5l,OOO
sorties - 86% ground support, l4% in direct defense of Moscow. For the first
time, centralized control of the long-range, fighter and front aircraft was
effected, and this proved to be a significant advancement, which virtually
"guaranteed operational cooperation and tactical joint efforts with ground
In many ways, the Russian use of air power in the battle of
Stalingrad and the follow-up campaign at the Kuban bridgehead stands as
a watershed period with respect to organization, implementation, tactics,
and tenacity. During the period from November l9, l942, to February 2, l943,
four Soviet Air Armies and the Air Force for Long-range Operations27
(AFLRO) flew nearly 36,OOO sorties in direct support of the defense, and
eventual counter-attack, at Stalingrad. From April l7 to June 7 of that year,
the Soviet Air Force finally established complete air superiority in driving
the Germans from the Caucasus region. It is difficult to grade the
performances of the two air forces at this point in the war - a depleted and
overstretched Luftwaffe which was facing a robust and ever-increasing Red
Air Force, but the fact remains that by all German accounts, the Soviet
pilots performed admirably by the mid-point of the conflict.
Hindsight clearly reveals three significant outcomes of the Russian
experience in the air war with Germany, namely: a virtual lack of
appreciation for the strategic significance of air power (a neglect apparent
from the beginning of military aviation in the Soviet Union); a methodology
throughout the war of adopting the German Luftwaffe model; and the
ability to improvise and generate tactics of their own.
A sound understanding of the geography and history of the Soviet
Union answers the armchair historians' questions as to why the Russians
didn't exploit aviation as a strategic component of their military. It made
little sense for a great continental power to experiment with aviation,
particularly when she was so perilously close to defeat at the opening of the
war. The primacy of the land component was played out in full in the Great
As one authority has pointed out, the war in the east was determined on
the ground by the Wehrmacht and the Red Army and it was an "army
show". Neither the Luftwaffe nor the Red Air Force played more than a
supporting role, although a valuable one at times.28
Napoleon had also terribly miscalculated the vastness of the Russian
plain and their strategy of warfare. He too had breached the defenses of
Borodino (his Smolensk) and expected unequivocal surrender from the
Czar. Hitler's Barbarossa made provisions for an operational culminating
point at Smolensk, but unlike Napoleon, he felt victory would be his
predicated on the technological edge Germany held at that time. The
relative edge diminished as the Russians mobilized and industrialized in a
fashion unparalleled in history.
The fact that the development and manifestation of the Soviet Air
Force should so closely parallel that of the German Luftwaffe is quite
understandable, particularly in light of their very early joint ventures.
Mutual needs were served, and the Russians felt no compunction to be
different for changes' sake.
Russian tactics did tend to be systematic and fixed in character, but
improvements were made in all aspects of their operational procedures.
The Soviet pilots grew in self-assurance and aggressiveness. The fighter
forces improved and perfected air-to-air tactics; the ground attack units
continued their time-proven persistent approach, contributing decisively to
breaking the German momentum; and the bombers started to proliferate
later in the war - with increased all-weather capability and better targeting
devices. Luftwaffe General, D. Walter Schwabedissen, summarizes
.the Soviets. continued to employ their air power primarily to serve
the purpose of operations on the ground. The rapid decline of the
German air power potential, the progressive development of the Soviet
air forces in all fields, their growing combat experience, and their vast
numerical superiority enabled them to make a vitally important
contribution towards final victory.29
1 World War II is described by two separate terms in the USSR. The term Great
Patriotic War is used for the fighting between the Soviet Union and Germany and her allies, while World War II covers the entire l989-l945 period.
2 Uebe, Generalleutnant a. D. Klaus, Russian Reactions to German Airpower in World War II. USAF Historical Studies: No. l76, USAF Historical Division, Research Studies Institute, Air University; Arno Press, New York, l964, p. lO4.
3 The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, frequently shortened to USSR or Soviet Union, was the official name of the Soviet state. The USSR was the successor to the Russian Empire of czarist times. It came into existence following the overthrow of the last of the Romanov tsars in l9l7. Pre-Revolutionary Russia is often spoken of as Old Russia, Tsarist Russia, or Imperial Russia. Post-Revolutionary Russia was often referred to as
Soviet Russia. The name Russia is used loosely to refer to the country either before or after the Revolution, though technically this name applied only to the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR), the largest of the fifteen Union Republics which made up the former USSR. For the purposes of this paper, the terms Russia, Soviet Union, and USSR are deemed interchangeable, as they were at the beginning of the war.
4 An area Mackinder defines as the regions of Arctic and Continental drainage,
measuring nearly half of Asia and a quarter of Europe, forming a great continuous patch in the north and center of the continent. This whole patch, extending right across from the icy, flat shore of Siberia to the torrid, steep coasts of Baluchistan and Persia, has been inaccessible to navigation from the ocean. The Heartland, for the purposes of strategical thinking, includes the Baltic Sea, the navigable Middle and Lower Danube, the Black Sea, Asia Minor, Armenia, Persia, Tibet, and Mongolia. The Heartland is the region to which, under modern conditions, sea-power can be refused access. Mackinder cautions, "the facts of geography remain, and offer ever-increasing strategical opportunities to land-power as against sea-power."
5 Sir Halford J. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality, Henry Holt and Company, New York, l9l9, reissued l942; p. ll6. Mackinder convincingly argues that the region of the Heartland is the most naturally suited for defense of all the land areas of the globe. His oft-quoted axiom, "Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland:
Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island:
Who rules the World-Island commands the World"
6 Uebe, Generalleutnant a. D. Klaus, Russian Reactions to German Airpower in World War II. USAF Historical Studies: No. l76, USAF Historical Division, Research Studies Institute, Air University; Arno Press, New York, l964, p. 22.
7 In l922, Germany and the USSR met in Italy and signed the Treaty of Rapallo.
Essentially, this agreement canceled each of the signatories pre-war debts and
renounced their war claims. Particularly advantageous to Germany was the inclusion of a most-favored-nation clause and of extensive trade agreements. The treaty enabled the German army, through secret agreements, to produce and perfect in the USSR weapons forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles.
8 Marshal Tukhachevsky was one of the most forward-thinking, operationally astute military leaders in the Soviet Union. Not surprisingly, he was killed June of l937 as part of the general military purge of the next two years. It is quite interesting to review the following comment he made while lecturing at the General Staff Academy, concerning the nature of military operations in the initial period of the next war:
"Operations will be inestimably more intensive and severe than in the First World War. As for the Blitzkrieg which is so propagandized by the Germans, this is directed towards an enemy who doesn't want to and won't fight it out. If the Germans meet an opponent who stands up and fights the offensive himself, that would give a different aspect to things. The struggle would be bitter and protracted... In the final resort, all would depend on who had the greater moral fiber and who at the close of operations disposed of operational reserves in depth."
Sadly enough for the Russian military, many lesser-known, yet equally brilliant and tactically oriented air force officers disappe8red at the same time - a period when they were needed the most!
9 Giulio Douhet (8l69-l93O) was an Italian military officer and early advocate of strategic air power. He attained limited notoriety prior to his death by stipulating (and publishing) that command of the air could win wars alone, irrespective of the participation of land armies or ocean navies.
10 Whiting, Kenneth R., Soviet Air Power, l9l7 - l978. Documentary Research
Division, Air University Library, Air University Document AU-2l, l979, 82 pp.
11 By l94l, the organization of the Soviet Army Air Forces was essentially as follows:
Army Group Commander of Air Forces Bomber Div Fighter Division
Army Commander of Air Forces Composite Air Division
Corps Organic Air Units Attached Lt Bomber and Gnd Attack
12 Schwabedissen, Generalleutnant a. D. Walter, The Russian Air Force in the Eyes of the German Commanders. USAF Historical Studies: No. l75, USAF Historical Division, Research Studies Institute, Air University; Arno Press, New York, l96O, p. 6.
13 Schwabedissen, Generalleutnant a. D. Walter, The Russian Air Force in the Eyes of the German Commanders. USAF Historical Studies: No. l75, USAF Historical Division, Research Studies Institute, Air University; Arno Press, New York, l96O, pp. 256.
14 German general who fought in Poland, Serbia, Rumania, and Turkey during WWI.
In l92O, he was made chief of the Reichswehr - the German army, which was limited to just 100,000 men under terms of the Treaty of Versailles. He commanded the Reichswehr until l926 and made it an efficient nucleus capable of serving as cadre for a larger army. After the Treaty of Rapallo, Seeckt concluded (l923) a secret agreement with the USSR to obtain weapons forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. He was a member of the Reichstag (l93O-32), representing the conservative People's party. In l934-35, he was a military advisor to Chiang Kai-shek in China.
15 (l936-l939) Yet another stage on the European theater in which fascist/nationalist advances ran headlong into socialist/communist ideologies. Spain, traditionally a separatist state, was the perfect arena for turmoil. In l936, the recently elected Popular Front (composed largely of liberals, Socialists and Communists) faced the revolutionary thrust of an extreme right-wing opposition, led by General Francisco Franco. Great Britain and France, anxious to avoid general conflagration, proposed a non-intervention pact - which eventually produced 27 signatories - of which Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union were party to.
16 Schwabedissen, Generalleutnant a. D. Walter, The Russian Air Force in the Eyes of the German Commanders. USAF Historical Studies: No. l75, USAF Historical Division, Research Studies Institute, Air University; Arno Press, New York, l96O, p. 46.
l7 (l937-l945) This war merely reflected a continuation of power politics between China and Japan, which had erupted in hostilities in the first Sino-Japanese War (l894-l895). The Japanese felt compelled to expand its territorial boundaries and political influence in mainland China. The result was an uncomfortable but effective coalition of the Nationalist Chinese (led by Chiang Kai-shek) and the Chinese Communists to form a united front against the Japanese. Early in the war, the Japanese strategy of taking control of the eastern cities, the road and rail networks, was profoundly effective. Chinese resistance reached a low point, and rural guerrilla fighting became the only
visible counter to the Japanese aggression.
18 (l939-l94O) This war was largely manufactured by the Russians. the Soviet Union, flexing the perceived advantages of the "non aggression" pact between Germany and herself (signed August l939), contrived justification for war with Finland by placing unrealistic demands on the Finnish government, primarily, demilitarization of the Mannerheim Line and accession of valuable Finnish territory. After two months of strained negotiations, Russia declared war on Finland on 3O November, in response to "alleged" Finnish artillery attacks on Soviet infantry. Fierce and concentrated fighting took place on the eastern border of Finland. World public opinion was with the Finns, and some direct military support was forthcoming from Sweden and Norway, and supplies from France and Great Britain.
19 Kilmarx, Robert A., A History of Soviet Air Power. Faber and Faber, London, l962, p. l52. Kilmarx clearly indicates that the Soviet military councils grew even more skeptical of strategic bombing during this action on the Karelian Isthmus. Among the noted reasons for poor performance, he notes the overall "lack of preparation and conditioning for positional winter warfare..., and... lowered military morale as a result of the purges."
20 John Erickson, in his book, The Road to Stalingrad, describes in great detail the magnitude of effort required for the Soviets to hastily prepare defenses in the west. The Stavka and Ministry of Defense (with Stalin's approval, of course), advanced the defensive line forward of the first major fortification scheme, the Stalin Line (constructed l929-35). The Soviets reasoned that they were making good use of recently acquired areas as a result of the treaty with Hitler. Generally, this new defensive line was. at best, 5O% complete (with full complement of weapons) by l94O, and in early l94l, there was an especially "desperate rush" to fortify and strengthen the more vulnerable segments. As Kenneth R. Whiting so aptly points out, this played perfectly into the Germans' hands - actually facilitating the encirclement operations detailed in Barbarossa.
21 "Orientierungsheft Union der Sozialistischen Sowjetrepubliken" (UdSSR), der
Oberbefehlshaber der Luftwaffe, Fuehrungsstab Ic/IV No. 35OO/4l geh. - the German Intelligence Digest on Soviet Russia, l94l. This document correctly detailed the disposition and hierarchical formation of the Soviet air forces along the Western Defense Zones, but controversy has persisted over the total number of aircraft. The UdSSR estimated 5,7OO aircraft distributed throughout the five military districts; a separate Luftwaffe intelligence report estimated 4,7OO; and the Soviet historical data itself ranges from between 4,5OO to 8,OOO aircraft (bomber/fighter/transport).
22 Schwabedissen, Generalleutnant a. D. Walter, The Russian Air Force in the Eyes of the German Commanders. USAF Historical Studies: No. l75, USAF Historical Division, Research Studies Institute, Air University; Arno Press, New York, l96O, p. 4O.
23 The Soviets had also designed and produced one of the most successful ground-attack in history, the Ilyushin Il-2 "Stormovik". The first variant was introduced in limited numbers to the Eastern Front in the early months of the war. From its very inception, this aircraft was designed and equipped with ground-attack/direct support mission as it's primary function. To that end, the "Stormovik" was an overwhelming success, with sustained monthly production of the aircraft soon reaching 3OO per week. The final production (including series improvements) totaled over 36,OOO - by far the most widely produced aircraft in the world at that time!
The other significantly successful types, produced in massive numbers, were the:
Lavochkin LaGG-3 - fighter/fighter-bomber; single seat, single engine; all-wood,
Mikoyan/Gurevich MiG-1 and MiG-3 - fighter/fighter-bomber; single seat, single
engine; improvements of MiG-3 won "Stalin Prize"; good top speed, some
Yakolev Yak-1 - fighter/fighter-bomber; single seat, single engine; continual revisions kept this a/c current and effective.
24 Uebe, Generalleutnant a. D. Klaus, Russian Reactions to German Airpower in World War II. USAF Historical Studies: No. l76, USAF Historical Division, Research Studies Institute, Air University; Arno Press, New York, l964, p. 30.
25 As described by General Uebe, "...directly under the supervision of Joseph Stalin and immediately below him was the Stavka, or supreme planning body, a staff of a dozen or more of the most highly qualified military officers in the Soviet Union. Although the Chief of the Army General Staff was invariably a member of this group, the entire army staff was always subordinate to the Stavka. Only among these members of the supreme board of strategy was there a full measure of freedom of thought and flexibility for military planning. No inferior staff enjoyed the privilege of making such sweeping changes in plans. In theory, flexibility and a large role in operational planning extended down through the commands of army groups, but the relative amount of freedom actually decreased in relation to the distance from the Stavka."
26 Sergei Ilyushin headed the design bureau for long-range bombing, and early
designs included the DB-3, which was powered by two large radial engines, and could carry up to 5,OOO lbs. of bombs for 8OO miles. By l94l, the DB-3 was aging, and Ilyushin went on to design the most famous Russian aircraft of the war, the Il-2 Stormovik. According to Richard Stockwell, in Soviet Air Power, Ilyushin was "respected more than liked. ...he took his work seriously, particularly in flight tests of new designs. In the early days, he did much of the testing himself and has the scars to show it. This led to the legend in Russian aviation circles that if you want to measure the diameters of the
instruments placed on the panels of early Russian airplanes, you can check them by the impressions on Sergei Ilyushin's face.".
Alexander S. Yakovlev was principally noted for the design and subsequent
improvements of the fighter/bomber Yak-1/Yak-3. The fuselage of these aircraft were constructed of tempered steel tubing, and the percentage of metal components increased with each design improvement. Of his character, Stockwell notes that Yakovlev also had "a love for speed and women, both of which got him into trouble with higher authorities. He insisted on testing his own designs until (Stalin) forbade designers to flight-test their own products. As for his other major vice, a number of pregnant scandals are supposed to have been hushed officially, including one involving the family of a leading Party man."
27 According to accounts in The Official History: The Soviet Air Force in World War II, a major organizational improvement was made in March, l942. The AFLRO was
formed and made subordinate to the Stavka. In May of that year, formation began of front air armies with air divisions consisting of one type of aircraft, and in July, the Air Corps of the Supreme Command Reserve was formed. Just as important was the change in October, 1942, which abolished the Commissar system. From then on, the government retained a political officer, but strictly subordinate to the unit commander, and primarily responsible for political indoctrination of troops only.
28 Whiting, Kenneth R., Soviet Air Power, l9l7-l978. Documentary Research
Division, Air University Library, Air University Document AU-2l, l979, pp. 42.
29 Uebe, Generalleutnant a. D. Klaus, Russian Reactions to German Airpower in World War II. USAF Historical Studies: No. l76, USAF Historical Division, Research Studies Institute, Air University; Arno Press, New York, l964, p. 3O.
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