The Soviet Air Force After a Year of War

by Lt Col Nikolai Denisov,
Soviet Air Force

In a special dispatch radioed from Moscow, a Red Air Force officer reports on Russia's growing air power and tells why Luftwaffe failed in its initial mission

Long before World War II broke out, strategists and aircraft designers were working hard evolving new means of utilizing fighting aircraft, devising new equipment and new weapons.

Many aircraft experts and armchair strategists visualized future air combats as something in the nature of undreamt-of clashes of Martians fought in the stratosphere. These battles would, in their opinion, engage thousands of stratoplanes, rocket planes and machines hitherto unknown. The outcome of the war would be decided by the side possessing the strongest armada of such fantastic bombers and fighter planes. It all boiled down to a conception that the war would be decided by aerial engagements in which the main role would be played by machines, rather than by men.

This point of view, however, was held only by one section of aviation experts. Others, while paying tribute to the power of the air factor, challenged these conceptions and maintained that aircraft was destined only to supplement ground forces, and that every battle, every clash of enemies — indeed the entire war — would be resolved only in close cooperation of the basic arms, namely, infantry, tank corps, artillery and air force. This viewpoint by no means precluded far-reaching research in an effort to work out new and more perfected aerial arms, but it took sober account of achievements to date and guided army and air leaders along the path of utilizing all existing means in well-planned interaction.

The Soviet air fleet traversed its own path of development. Engineers, technicians and workers tested and tried every new model at plants and airfields. New engines resulted from sober calculation and technical research. Aviation schools trained pilots drawn from the finest manpower that Soviet youth could produce.

One year ago the peaceful creative work of our huge country was disturbed. Hitler, in his effort to enslave all of Europe's freedom-loving nations, launched a war on the Soviet Union by a treacherous blow from the air. The eyes of every man, woman and child in the Soviet Union were on that day turned skywards because for years, the Soviet people had stinted no effort to build up its air force and its aero-dromes.

Fascist tanks were pushing forward to Soviet landing fields. Junkers and Messerschmitt planes presently outnumbered Soviet frontier squadrons. The Luftwaffe which attacked the Soviet country had come fresh from "victorious" conquests of Poland, France, Belgium, Holland, Norway and other lands. Its aviators were proud of their Iron Crosses received in reward for bombing London, Coventry, Dunkirk and other towns.

Here, too, they were out to break the morale of the Soviet people, to frighten them by the mad drone of engines, by the hissing and thud of falling bombs. In those days Soviet fliers lived through the harassing times of initial losses. Many pilots lost their machines during the enemy bombing of aerodromes before they had time to take to the air. For them the war began, not by flying out to meet the enemy, but with their trip to the plant for a new machine.

Factories Moved East

The plants were obliged to evacuate, machines and model planes were loaded on to trains and the aircraft industry moved eastwards to the Urals, to the deep rear where it would be inaccessible to Nazi bombers.

The Germans were forcing their wedges of infantry and panzers into our country. Their spearheads were covered by bombers and fighters. Soviet fliers, while combating the enemy in the air, had at the same time to deal with tank columns. In destroying tank columns, they had also to silence Fascist artillery and mow down enemy machine gunners.

In cooperation with surface troops, they were called on to defend Leningrad, Sevastopol, Kiev, Odessa and dozens of other cities including the country's capital — Moscow. The Soviet Seagulls, with their extraordinary maneuverability, and the compact monoplane fighters by their splendid action in those days won glory that will always stand out as unique. The enemy suffered terrific losses from Soviet bombers. The spearheads of the German pincers were dulled. Thousands of Nazi planes were but heaps of ruins and many fascist squadrons had only remnants to remind Germany of their existence. The Soviet air force withstood the test.

In all their voluminous calculations on air supremacy, however, the armchair strategists overlooked one important detail. All plans recommended by them were based on a foundation of numerical air superiority. The speed of victory was measured only in terms of the number of planes and crews. Hitler's air chiefs, in massing their forces at basic fronts, did everything to ensure lasting superiority in the air. In those early days of the war they were convinced of the superiority of their aircraft and ventured out one by one to bomb our troops at the front line as well as deep in the rear, or to destroy communications and cities. Their whole strategy was founded on a policy of "intimidation."

German pilots did their utmost to maintain air superiority, especially since they felt that numbers were on their side. But this cocksureness was soon shattered by the Soviet pilots who displayed their own and, it appeared, superior style of aerial warfare. During the initial stage of the present war, the mass bravery and flying skill of the Soviet pilots served completely to refute the German doctrine of aerial warfare.

Nazi Tactical Error

The Nazi strategists miscalculated. In planning their blitz operations they seemed to have taken account of everything, even including the most favorable time for attack. They chose the moment when the Soviet air force was partly in process of re-equipment and had not yet mastered all new types of machines. The latest prewar models of high-speed fighters and bombers had made their appearance on army aerodromes only in May and June of last year. Many pilots had to accustom themselves to these machines and study them between battles. Early morning would see a pilot take to the air in an old-type plane to fight Junkers and Messerschmitts and on returning, take off in a new-type plane to study carefully its peculiarities. Then he would again change over to an old-type for a battle assignment. Only when the new types, with their higher speed, ceiling and improved armament had been sufficiently studied, did the pilots take them up to meet the enemy. The Soviet air force, when necessity arose, introduced ramming, tactics hitherto unknown in any other air force. Soviet pilots never hesitated to ram their propellers into the enemy machine, to shoot down and burn a fascist plane at pointblank range, as was done by our immortal Captain Gastello who drove his flaming plane into an enemy troop column to explode German tanks and armored cars.

The invincibility of the Nazi air force burst like a bubble in the very first stage of the war. Hard-fought battles were still raging over fields where the Red Army was tenaciously contesting every inch of soil and holding back the onslaughts of the mechanized Nazi columns when the Germans created a special air corps made up of picked pilots and navigators and intended for the destruction of Moscow. Again the Soviet people turned their gaze skyward and saw with satisfaction how squadrons of enemy bombers never reached the city but were dispersed by anti-aircraft fire and bold attacks of Soviet night fighters. The Nazis were met by new types of Soviet planes. One in particular. the powerful MIG-3, rapidly won deserved fame and respect. Moscow's skyline was closed, tightly closed, to the invader. The destruction of Moscow on which Hitler had staked much, had failed.

New Soviet Types

By that time whole squadrons of new Soviet planes were ready for action. Nazi strategists had based their plans on the weakness and inefficiency of the Soviet aircraft industry, part of which had been forced to evacuate under enemy fire and organize production in new localities.

But in computing the production capacity of Soviet aviation plants, the Germans apparently forgot to reckon with the spirit of the Soviet workers and engineers. When necessary, these men and women doubled — in some cases trebled — the output of planes and motors and built them of higher quality. Meanwhile, the Germans were learning to respect our armored assault planes designed by famous Soviet Engineer Ilyushin. These planes are commonly known as IL-2, or Stormovik, but the Germans immediately dubbed them Schwarze Tod, or Black Death. They were used to destroy the Luftwaffe at its airfields, to strafe enemy infantry formations and have set fire to hundreds of Nazi tanks.

The number of new planes taking off from Soviet airfields constantly mounted, including squadrons of the YAK and LAGG types, twin-motor and four-motor long-range bombers which bombed the Rumanian oil fields in Ploesti and appeared over Danzig, Königsburg and Berlin.

Fighting together with Soviet planes in air encounters at Murmansk Leningrad and Moscow were British Hurricanes and American Tomahawks. The freedom-loving peoples of Britain and the United States, by sending them, rendered effective aid to the Soviet air force in its difficult fight with Hitler's Luftwaffe.

Autumn of 1941 saw Hitler's grand offensive on Moscow. Dozens of infantry and tank divisions were to grip the Soviet capital in a vise of iron and fire, aided by hundreds of bombers and fighters. German air generals concentrated the bulk of their forces at the central front, leaving but small covering forces made up partly of German and partly of satellite planes at other fronts. At the northern sectors the enemy used Finnish planes, while the south was covered by Rumanian and Italian machines. It was a unique encounter with the "foreign air legion." Most air activity, however, centered around Moscow where the Germans threw into the battle literally everything they possessed, from Junkers, Heinkels and Messerschmitts to the heaviest Dornier bombers. Their fighter formations included the latest product of Messerschmitt plants — the Me-115.

This entire armada headed for Moscow with the Kremlin as its chief target, but not a single bomb fell on that seat of the Soviet government. The fields surrounding Moscow were littered with the debris of wrecked planes bearing the swastika symbol. The grand offensive on Moscow ended in dismal failure, both on land and in the air. Hitler's hordes were bled white in incessant battle, were pressed back west; the surviving planes hastily made off from the front line fields in search of safer havens in distant rear bases.

Winter Hinders Luftwaffe

Winter set in, and with it numerous difficulties for the Luftwaffe. German air leaders had not planned for a winter campaign and they lacked adequately trained fliers, mechanics capable of working effectively in severe cold and technical equipment to permit the use of snow-ridden air fields. The Germans resorted to the most primitive methods, at times heating frozen motors with hot stones and clearing the snow from the runways by driving hundreds of women, old men and children in the occupied areas for this work.

Meanwhile the Soviet air force was gaining a firmer grip on its newly-won air supremacy. Indeed, the Russian fliers had everything required for maintaining this supremacy — brand new planes of high quality, adequate winter equipment and last, but not least, invaluable experience accumulated in years of trans-polar and Arctic flights. Run down in the summer and autumn fighting, the German air units were in dire need of replenishment both in material and personnel. Thousands of German fliers lay buried in Russian soil. Nor were they all rank and file pilots, for some were among the best of Hitler's aces. His propagandists reported — wholly without foundation — the destruction of no less than 50,000 Soviet fliers, but took great care not to mention their own losses.

The Soviet air fleet, on the other hand, was adding new names to its list of heroes us hundreds of flying-school graduates joined its ranks. Throughout the winter, Soviet aviation held unchallenged sway in the air. It not only kept the Germans from performing raids, but itself undertook a series of highly effective raids and landing operations which intercepted German communications and had a tremendous effect on the morale of Nazi frontline troops.

While maintaining air supremacy, the Soviet air force actively prepared for spring. Every day saw new models come off the production lines. Training fields were used to break in fliers arriving from the front in the use of these new types. Air formations were replete with new machines and an experienced eye could spot not only Soviet-made craft but Bell Airacobras, Douglas Bostons and other Allied makes.

War Enters New Phase

The war in the air has entered its second and final phase. The Soviet air force has justified the hopes placed in it by the people. It has prevented an enemy who, by treacherous and sudden blow, gained some military advantages, from winning supremacy in the air. The days of difficult ordeals for Soviet aviation are a thing of the past and today the Soviet air fleet continues to gain in strength and scope with every passing day. Russian pilots have already been on the offensive, but in air encounters to come they will advance just as fast as their motors can carry them and as far as their planes will take them and with a full load of ammunition.

Air supremacy can and will be won only by following the doctrine according to which skill, bravery and heroism are organically interwoven with qualitative and quantitative superiority.

One year of war finds us in the midst of large-scale air engagements in which Soviet fliers consistently give a good account of themselves. They have disposed of hundreds, indeed thousands, of enemy machines. Hitler has produced many planes this winter, but they are manned by hastily trained and inexperienced fliers. The flier, it should be remembered, is not an infantryman and if Hitler's spring reserves, made up as they are reported to be, of older men and adolescents, will still shoot aimlessly, the ersatz fliers will fail to meet the bill.

One year of war finds us with thousands of British and American planes aiming at Nazi Germany's major industrial and economic centers. Our Allied air forces are shifting to a strategic offensive. The air attack, as we know, is the forerunner of the land attack by infantry, artillery and tanks. Squadrons of bombers and lighters appearing over Germany herald the beginning of the second front. Looking at the sky we can discern the pattern of the final destruction of Hitler's war machine.

War fosters the development of military science. Disregarding the fantasies of supernatural aircraft, we will continue to build modern machines of high maneuverability and striking power. Our pilots, steeled and trained in actual fighting, will continue their work of driving home attacks on the enemy. Our infantry, artillery and tanks shall not lack adequate air support. Together with these arms, our joint effort will ultimately bring victory.

This article was originally published in the August, 1942, issue of Aviation magazine, vol 41, no 8, pp 90-92, 265-266.
The original has 7 photos, including Photos credited to Sovfoto, British Combine.