* World War II : air war in the East








World War II: Air War in the East


Figure 1.--Here two children on a collective farm use a shot-down ME-109 as acommfortable bench. I'm not sure when this photograph was taken, but probably durung Summer 1943.

Most historical accounts of the air war available in the West deal with the Luftwaffe campaigns in the West and the subsequent Allied strtegic bombing campaign. The air war on the Eastern Front is much less studied by Western historians. This is somewhat surprising as Germany and the Soviet Union when the War began had the two most powerful air forces. The Luftwaffe essentially destroyed the Red Air Force during the first few days of Barbarossa. As a result the Red Air Force was not a factor during Barbarossa. The Red Army during the Barbarossa had to fight with virtually no air cover. This graduaally changed and by 1943 the Red Air Force was again an important factor in the War. Several factors were involved here. The Soviets did have a substantial aeronautics industry and the Soviet war plants that had been moved east by 1943 had reached full production. America through Lend Lease was delivering planes to the Soviets. The Allied strategic bombing campaign forced not only forced the Luftwaffe to withdraw assetts from the Eastern Front to defend German cities. In addition the bombing disrupted German production as well as casused substantial lossess in German fighters. Many accounts of the air war do not give sufficent attention to the impact on the Luftwaffe of engaging the Allied bombers even before long-range fighter cover became available.

Soviet Aeronautics Industry

One has to ask after the resources devoted to the VVS why Soviet aircraft proved so disappointing during Barbarossa. Soviet aircraft designers had made considerable progress and had introduced some innovative aircraft. Later in the War the VVS proved more effective. There were several reasons for inferority of VVS aircraft. Aircraft designers were also sunject to the Stalinist terror. Two of the Soviet Union's most gifted designers, V.M. Petlyakov and A.N. Tupolev, were arrested by the NKVD and not released until 1940-41. One of the weakest aspects of Soviet aviation were the engines. This rflected the weakness of the overall Soviet industrial plant. There are factors that are difficult to assess. We susprect that Stalin's terror inhibited creativity and innovation--key elements in aviation. We also suspect that the free enterprise system so dispariaged by the Soviets were a factor in more technically advanced aircraft being created in Europe and America.

Opposing Air Forces

The air war in the East would be fought by what at the time were the world's two largest air forces. At yhe time, the United States was just beginning to build its massiv air force. The air war in the East in sharp contrast to the West was not a bomber war. Neither the Soviets or the Germans had a substantial strategic bomber force. And both air forces suffered serious losses making strategic bombing a minor part of air operations. The Luftwaffe nearly obliterated the huge Red Air Force during the first week of Brbarossa. The Luftwaffe was badly damaged in the Western Offenses. As a result, in sharp contrast to the Heer, the Luftwaffe when it plunged into the Soviet Union (June 1941), than when it prepared for the Battle of Britain (1940). and with the Battle of Britain, the full weight of the Luftwaffe could be hurled at the Royal Air Force and British cities. In contrast, the Luftwaffe in the East had limited resources that could be used to bomb Soviet cities. Rather the Luftwaffe had to be used for the purpose it was designed --ground support for the Heer and its Panzer spear head. And unlike the west, this was a huge battlefield streaching from the Black Sea to the Baltic and to lesser extent further north to the Arctic.

The Luftwaffe in the East

The Luftwaffe became the world's most powerful air force only because America and Britain severly limited military spending. The Liftwaffe the Germans built was a short-range tactical force, superbly designed to support the Heer's ground advances. Unlike the Red Air Force, there was a well developed gfound support combat doctrine. Germany did not, however, have the industrial capacity to also build a long-range strategic bombing force. The Luftwaffe had medium bombers which could launch raids on cities if German ground armies advanced so as to bring them into the limited range of the two engine medium bombers. Not only did the Luftwaffe not have long range bombers, but in 1941 was unprepared for a massive campaign in the East. The Luftwaffe was badly damaged in the Western Offenses, expecially the Battle of Britain (1940) as well as the Balkans (1941). Some of these losses, but not all were replaced. What was not replaced so easily was the highly trained and experiencc air crews. The Luftwaffe that launched Barbarossa was the least expeiences of any of the forces that conducted the previous Blitzkrieg campaigns. As a result, in sharp contrast to the Heer, the Luftwaffe when it plunged into the Soviet Union was smaller and less prepared (June 1941), than the force that launched the Battle of Britain (1940). and with the Battle of Britain, the full weight of the Luftwaffe could be hurled at the Royal Air Force and British cities. In contrast, the Luftwaffe in the East had limited resources which could be used to bomb Soviet cities. Rather the Luftwaffe had to be used for the purpose it was designed -- ground support for the Heer and its Panzer spear head. And unlike the west, this was a huge battlefield streaching from the Black Sea to the Baltic and to lesser extent further north to the Arctic. Over this huge front, the Luftwaffe could not begin to povide the support needed, leaving little capability available for strategic bombing. The Lufwaffe was years a head of oyther air forces, especially the Red air Force in ground support tactics. Most Soviet planes were not even equipped with radios. The Wehrmacht Army groups advanced so rapidly into the Soviet Union in the first phase of Barbarossa, that most cities in the western Soviet Union were not heavily bombed.

Soviet Air Force

Stalin made a huge committment to military aviation and by the time of the NAZIs came to power had built a huge air force. The Voenno-Vozdushniye Sily (VVS) was the largest and most powerful air force in the world. Only when Hitler seized powe in German (1933) was an air force created which could challenge the Soviet Air Force. Hitler ordered the secret rearamament of Germany, including the construction of an air force, in flagarant violation of the Versailles Treaty. Stalin poured emense resources into his air force. Planes were built in large numbers and incoroprated a ranbge of modern features. The Soviets had both modern figters and bombers. the Polikarpov I-16 fighter was the world's first monoplane fighter with a retractable undercarriage which improved performance. The Tupolev TB-3 bomber appeared in 1930. It was the the world's first long-range monoplane heavy bomber and had four-engines. It was the first such bomber to be put into series production. [Harvey] A substantial part of the VVs air fleet was composed of obselete aircraft. The Soviets tended to add new planes, but maintain their older planes in service. The result was a massive force with large numbers of obsolete craft. Less thgan 25 percent of the VVs fighter force was made up of the newer MiG-3s and LaGG-3s. A substantial part of the force was the increasing outclassed I-16s. There were even substantial numbers of biplanes in service. [Harvey]

Soviet Air Force Leadership

The ability of the Luftwaffe to surprise the VVS was not just a cleverly engineered attack. It relected the state of a service seriously depleted by Stalinist purges. Not only had the senior leadership of the VVS been either executed or committed to the Gulag, but large numbers of experienced officers at mid levels had suffered the same fate. One assessment suggests over 40 percent pf VVS aviation officers had served less than 6 months. Even more telling. over 90 percent of VVS formation commanders had been in that position for more than 6 months. [Harvey] The inexperience of the leadership and the fear of commanders to innovate mean that VVS tactical doctrine was out molded and ineffective against well conceived Luftwaffe tactical doctrine which had been tested and honed with campains in Poland (1939), France and Britain (1940), anf the Balkans (1941).

Barbarossa: Destruction of the Red Air Force (June 1941)

The Luftwaffe scored a major victory in essentially destroying the Red Air Force during the first 2 days of the Operation Barbarossa. This was a enormous accomplishment by the Luftwaffe. It was one of the most important tactical strike of the War. It is what the Luftwaffe had hoped to achieve over Britain. The Soviet Air Force had been the largest in the world. Much of it was destroyed on the ground. The came about because of both surprise, Luftwaffe technical competance, and the superiority of the German aircraft. Given the fact that the Soviets had ample warning of the attack, the Luftwaffe never should have been able to achieve such a success. The reason that they did was due to the fact that Stalin refused to believe the intelligence reports and prepare for the NAZI attack. The Soviet Commander of Russian Aviation, General Rychagov, was shot for "treasonable activity". The result of the Luftwaffe victory was that for most of Barbarossa, the Germans had air superority over the battle field. Thus even lumbering Stuka dive bombers could be freely deployed to support Wehrmacht operations.

Nature of the Air War

The air war in the East was different than the air war in the West for several reasons. First, neither the Luftwaffe or the Red Air Force had a significant strategic bombing apability. Thus the conflict was almost enirely a tactical struggle. Second, also because strategic bombing was not involved and was largekly tactical, it tended to be fought at lowe allditudes than the air war in the West. Third, the campaign was fought on such a huge front that it was not possible to focus air assetts in a decisive manner nor gain air superority over the battlefield as was the case in western campaigns. Fourth, because the Red Air Firce was destroyed at the inset of Barbzarossa and much of the Luftwadd==ffe swas with drawn to defend Germsn citiers, the air ar ws less intense thn in ythe West. Fifth, because the Germans and Sovirts produced little high-grade aviation fuel, high performance aircraft was not as importabt as in the West. The destruction of the Red Air force during the opening days of Barbarossa was a dissaster fir the Red Army. The vast scope of the battlefield, however, meant that this was not the decisive stroke that it might havevbeen in a western campaign. The Luftwaffe was just not large enough to deliver a knock out blow on such a huge battlefueld. Third, the weather limited air operations for long periods. The Luftwaffe was largely out of action for substantial periods during the decissive Winters of 1941-42 and 1942-43.

Soviet Cities

While the Germans did not have stategic bombers, the Barbarossa offensive allowed them to seize major cities in the western Soviet Union, including Odessa, Kiev, Krakov, Minsk, and Pinsk, and many others. The successful destruction of the Red Air Force at the onset of Barbarossa meant that Luftwaffe bombing raids were virtually unoppsed during the first year of the fighting. And brought the Luftwaffe into range of other cities, including Lenningrad and Moscow. Generalplanost envisioned killing large numbers of Slavs and driving others beyond the Urals to their death. The surviving slavs were to be used as slave labor. As part of that priogram, major cities were to be simply whiped off the map. The Germans sharply reduced reduced deliveries of food to occupied cities. Only people working for the Germans got food rations. The Slavs were to be rural Helots. Thus the Luftwaffe was used to attack major cities that the Whermacht approached. Hitler was especially determined to wipe out all traces of Lenningrad, Moscow and Stalingrad. Lenningrad was surounded and could be poundedd by both the Luftwaffe and artillery (1941-44). Moscow could only be hit by the Luftwaffe and after the Soviet Winter Offensive even that became operations on the outer limit of the Luftwaffe's capability (1941-42). Muscovites sought refuge in the city's Metro. Stalingrad was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe even before the 6th Army entered the city (1942). German bombing raids were only limited by the fact that air support was needed by the ground forces driving east. The Soviet Union was a vast country. And thus the Luftwaffe had much less impact than on the smaller battlefields of Western Europe. Even without bombing, the Germans set about destoying Soviet cities not destroyed by the fighting through demolition. Thus the Red Army moving west after Stalingrad entered citis that had largelly been gutted bu the retreating Germans.

Recovery of the Red Air Force

The Red Air Force ws by 1943 a significant force on the sastern bttlefield. Three major factors were involved here. First, the aviation plats shifed east during Barbarossa began to resume production in 1942, espcially by mid-year. They were beyond the range of German bombers. The Soviets did have a substantial aeronautics industry and the Soviet war plants that had been moved east by 1943 had reached full production. The aircraft produced were high-performance modern aircraft that could compete with the Luftwaffe. Second, while the Red Air Force was destroyed at the onset of Brbarossa, many of the planes were destroyed on the ground, meaning that many of the pilots survived. And the Red Air Force began a massive training program. Third, America through Lend Lease was delivering planes to the Soviets as well as aluminum to be ued in Soviet aircraft manufavture.

Destruction of the Luftwaffe

The Luftwaffe even at the peak of its strength in 1941 was not able to provide the advancing German columns the same levl of air support it provided in the smller battlefields of Wesern Europe. The desruction of the Red Ait Force meant that the Hermans did not face air attacks, but they had much less air support. This began to change in late-1942. While the Luftwaffe esetially leveled Stalingrad (September 1942), but by the end of the year the reconstituted Red Air Force was interdictig Luftwaffe planes attemopting to supply the shrinking Stalingrad pocket. The Allied strategic bombing campaign not only forced the Luftwaffe to withdraw assetts from the Eastern Front to defend German cities. In addition the bombing disrupted German production. Speers reforms maintained productin, but the strategic bombing campaign prevented increases. Luftwaffe losses were limited in 1943, but the expanding strategic bombing campaign drained resources from the East. Many accounts of the air war do not give sufficent attention to the impact on the Luftwaffe of engaging the Allied bombers even before long-range fighter cover became available. The arrival of U.S. Army Air Corps P-51 Mustangs led essentially to the destruction of the Lufwaffe (early-1944). The American flyers not only shot down lrge numbers of German planes, but most of the remaining experieced German fighter pilots. From this time on, the Whermacht in the East had vitually no aircover at the time the Red Air Fiorce was becoming a fiormidable force. As a result by the time of Bagration, not inly did the Luftwaffe not only not have even limited air cover, but the Red Air Force had achieved air superority.

Soviet Aircraft

The most famed Soviet aircraft of World war II was the Ilyushin IL-2m-3 Shturmovik. It was two-seater multi-purpose plane. It could serve as a fighter, but its was nore effectively deployed as dive-bomber in ground-support operations. It had a 1,770-horse- power engine and was heavily armored. It became known as both a flying tank and a tank buster. The Soviets built an incredible 36,000 Shturmoviks. Its was armed with two cannons and two machine guns, as well as a bomb-load of 1,320 pounds. This was a much more effective ground-support plane than the outdated Stuka which the Luftwaffe relied on for ground support for much of the War. While the Shturmovik was the best-known Soviet plane, the Soviets by 1943 were deploying several other planes that were competitive with the Luftwaffe. The Soviets deployed four fighters. Each had its own strenths and weaknesses, but were competitive with the Luftwaffe in a way that had not been the case in 1941. The United States through supplied 5,000 Bell P-39 Airacobras. The Soviets rearmed it with a heavier cannon. While not popular with American fliers, with the upgraded cannon it became an effective killer. I had assumed that meant a tank killer, but one source suggests it was used against German fighters and was resonsible for more German kills than aother aircrft type. Theseneeds to be confirmed. The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-3 was not sufficently manoeuvrable to tangle openly with German fighters, it could, however, cruise at high altitudes (40,000 ft) and dive on German fighters, rather like American tctics in the first year of the Pvific War. The Yakovlev YAK-3 became available in 1943 and was competitive with Luftwaffe fighters. The most effective Soviet fighter was Lavochkin LA-7 which became available in 1944. This impressive fighter had superior characteristics to both the ME-109 abd FW-190, especially with the decliing quality of theLuftwaffe piloys. The Soviets produced 15,000 which shifted the nature of the air war in the East during the final year of the war. The Soviets deployed a heavy bomber, the Petlyakov PE-8, which could reach Germany, but it was not made in the large numbers needed for a strategic bombing campaign. One source reportsvas to effective Red Air Force fighters, "La-5, followed by the more powerful La-5FN. From which Lavochkin developed the La-7 Yak-1B was a good match for its contemporaries, then came the the Yak-9, and in 1944, the Yak-3 which , under 15000ft, was the absolute killer against anything you could throw at it at the time, except the jet fighters of course, which were pretty untouchable for any propeller driven fighter. the Mig fighters were subpar, except the Mig-3U, which was a magnificent high altitude interceptor where it could hold its own against pretty much anything in its time: 1942. However, in World War II [on the Eastern Front], the action was taking place way lower and the Mig-3U had only a handful of aircraft ordered." [Savic]

Women Pilots

The Red Air Force was the only air force during World War II that had women fly combat missions. The U.S. Air Corps has female pilots, but they were not given combat missions. Before Barbarossa (June 1941), the Red Air Force was also all-male. The devestating German attack caused Soviet commandrs to change their policy. The Red Air Force was largely destroyed by the first week of the German onslaught. As a result, three ground attack regiments with women pilots were authorized (October 1941). We are not sure about their overall performance, but at least some were clearly highly competent. The best known of these pilots was a beautiful 21-year old young woman, Lidiya Vladimirovna Lilya Litvyak. She became the world's first female ace, diwning five German planes over Stalingrad. The Soviet media named her the White Rose of Stalingrad. [Yenne]

Sources

Harvey, A.D. "The Soviet Air Force versus the Luftwaffe" History Today (January 2002).

Savic, Marko. Blog post. (November 27, 2019).

Yenne, Bill. The White Rose of Stalingrad: The Rel-Life Adventure of Lidiya Vladimirovna Litvyak, the Highest Scoring Female Air Ace of All Time (2013), 328p.






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Created: 1:56 AM 3/15/2005
Last updated: 9:12 PM 9/11/2020