Red Comets

by James L H Peck

During the closing days of November, Marshal Semyon Timoshenko launched the second great winter offensive, a rolling westward movement along the chill steppes of the Volga countryside that bids fair to outdo the campaign of last winter. Timoshenko's clever inverted V tactic is relieving Stalingrad and gathering thousands of Nazis into the apex from which few escape. Across the top, or open end, of the huge fast-moving V, the Red Air Force is sweeping the air clear of enemy forces and supporting the ground units as the sides of the V close around the retreating Wehrmacht.

The flying Red comets are showing their superiority of planes and pilots more conclusively than ever, and there is no longer much that is mysterious about the Soviet aviation. The reasons for prior lack of knowledge were, first, that very few military observers of the past two decades — with the possible exception of Goering's pet ZWB, office of aeronautical intelligence — have shown more than a superficial interest in Russian flying activities; and secondly, that the Reds, in contrast to the voluble Nazis, have been extremely good at keeping secrets.

Any attempt at analysis of the Red Air Forces must be governed by at least three principal considerations, each a distinct phase in itself, but all three closely related.

"It is impossible to wage modern warfare without conducting independent air operations. The success of all land and sea effort depends upon the successful activity of the air arm." Thus wrote Col Chripin, then deputy commander of the Red Air Force, in the January, 1935 issue of Voina i Revolutsia, at a time when most of the other nations considered air power as no more than an auxiliary to their surface forces. And the Red tacticians did not confine themselves to the abstract. It was during 1935 that such tactical innovations as the parachute army, the troop-carrying glider train, and the air-borne infantry were first displayed by the Soviets in sufficient unit force to be considered tactically significant. Methods for the use of these units, in cooperation with combat aircraft and ground forces, were advanced in the Preliminary Regulation, a manual of military air operations published that year by the Soviet Stationery Office. In accordance with these prescriptions, Red Air Force engineers developed specific types of craft for "anti-bomber" and "anti-tank" operations.

The problems of air strategy and tactics had a great appeal for the speculative Russian mind. This is clearly indicated by the Regulation, in which there appears ample evidence of original thought. Despite its age, the manual is not yet obsolescent. This much-stressed maxim appears frequently: "The principal task of an Air Force, when not engaged in independent operations, is to assist the Commanders of the ground troops during their operational movements."

The Regulation points out that when planes are detached to the support of army units, that particular army commander is in charge of operations and his junior echelons — commanders of air, tank, artillery, and engineer "formations" — assist him in the command. However, should the action be an air force operation which requires army support, the air force chief exercises command. (That the Luftwaffe, among other air arms, has accepted these very principles without reservation is evidenced by the campaigns of Flanders and France, the Balkans, Greece and Crete. During the invasion of the Lowlands and France, army commanders directed movements of both the air arm and ground forces. When Crete was invaded after the Balkan putsch, both the army and naval units were under Goering's command, and even the mountain troop division which was sent to Crete received its orders from General Student, a Luftwaffe officer.)

The development of these tactics and of specialized ground-support aircraft implies that the Soviets had correctly identified their potential enemies, and had made an exhaustive study of the weapons that might be used against them. The Red Air Forces were established, and then reorganized several times, with the aim of creating a striking force stronger than that of any hostile air power or combination of air powers. Within the past decade this can be interpreted to include all adherents to the Anti-Comintern pact. As the result of the early start, and because of the political influence upon national policy, the Russians were better prepared for Adolf's eastward push than anyone outside the country realized.

How this state of preparation was achieved is another aspect of the story. It is not generally known that the use of the airplane influenced greatly the economic development of Asiatic Russia and, to some lesser extent, that of Russia-in-Europe — chiefly because the plane afforded a means of winter communication between many of the remote and otherwise inaccessible regions of the USSR. Aside from this exceedingly practical attraction, the plane held a special interest for the Soviet people. One of their most popular holidays is Aviation Day, with the old and young alike participating in its celebration.

The Soviet is genitively an agrarian to whom the machine in general and the airplane in particular is a thing to marvel at and to master. He was intrigued by the airplane itself and he grew to love flying for the thrill and for the sense of "technical expression," but he did not lose sight of the plane's military significance.

In 1925 a flying society known as the Aviakhim was organized to raise funds and promote interest in aviation, and this was merged with the OSO (Society for Assistance to Defense) in January, 1937, to become the now famous Osoaviakhim. Young recruits received a course in model building, then received theoretical training and ground practice, using primary gliders built in the society's own factory. The next step led to air work and soaring in secondaries. By 1936, 20,000 had become licensed glider pilots and some 40,000 more were enrolled in the elementary and advanced schools. About 93 per cent of the Red Air Force personnel — according to 1940 figures — was made up of Osoaviakhim glider and parachute alumni. At the outbreak of war it was the largest organization in Russia, with the possible exception of the trade union. Its cells, or local branches, were to be found in virtually every community, collective farm, school or university.

In December, 1936, a 150,000-pilot training program was inaugurated and this figure was reportedly attained in the spring of 1938. It is reasonable to assume that at least an equal number has been added since then: this would indicate a reservoir of 300,000 pilots in addition to prior Red Air Forces personnel, which was sizable. The caliber of these airmen is evidenced by the Luftwaffe casualty list, a lengthy one, even on the basis of Goebbels' abbreviated admissions.

The planes in which these "falcons" (as the Red aviators are known) sally forth to battle are equally responsible for the Luftwaffe's inability to gain decisive air superiority over the steppes. Russian technological development, however, during the early years, was not apace of personnel training. And the Marshal "Fat" Goering must be occasionally piqued when he stops to ponder the assistance given the Soviets by German technicians during the embryonic period of Russia's aviation industry. (Of more recent ironical significance is the ascendancy of the Stormovik attack plane, effective antidote for the panzer. The plane is essentially a rebuilt Heinkel He-118, a number of which Germany sold to Russia during their armed truce. Sergei Iljushin, outstanding designer, made certain improvements on the ship which must have amazed even Ernst Heinkel, because it is more effective than anything Heinkel has ever put into the air.)

It has been mentioned earlier in the discussion that the Soviets developed specific types of anti-bomber and anti-tank planes to carry out their specialized tactics. Contrary to the popular impression, the majority of these craft are of distinctly domestic design. Many of the earlier types, however, were foreign designs modified to suit Red Air Forces requirements, but even these hybrid planes had a noticeable Soviet flavor. The trend of design suggests, and correctly, that all the tactical types may, when necessary, be used for army cooperation. Even the fighters are provided with racks for fragmentation bombs.

According to available information, the latest and best of these Red fighters is the Yak-1, also referred to as the I-26, although the first designation is probably more reliable, since it appears to be an abbreviation of the name of the designer, Alexander Yakovlev. (The Russians have, heretofore, employed a rather convenient numbering system, but they appear to have dropped many of the original designations and are using several groups of initials, all rather confusing. Alternate designations will hereafter follow the original and be enclosed in parentheses.) This ship is a low-wing, single-seater monoplane of aluminum alloy and plywood construction. Powered by a 1,300-hp M-38 (Toupolev) engine, and using a three-bladed metal propeller, the Yak-1 is reported to have a top speed of 400 mph. It is heavily armored and armed with two 20-mm Hispano-Suiza cannon, wing- mounted, and four .55-caliber Maxim machine guns.

The Mig-3 (I-61) is a fighter of similar construction, although it appears to be somewhat smaller in wing span and overall length. This ship is powered by a 1,250-hp liquid-cooled supercharged AM-35A (Mikouline) engine fitted with ejector-type exhaust stacks. The wing of this plane is characterized by a deep fillet and the inverted gull design. Armament includes two wing-mounted 20-mm cannon, two .30 machine guns, and two .50 machine guns in the cowl. Top speed of this plane is about 380 mph. The fighter is believed to be a development of the famed I-16, and the intermediate types were the I-7 — which never went into large-scale production — and the Mig-1.

The LAGG-3 which has often been confused with the Yak-1, is an all-plywood single-seater fighter having the same general lines as the Mig-3, excepting the gulled wing. The ship is heavily armored and is powered by an M-105 960-hp liquid-cooled engine which provides a 315 mile per hour top speed. A later version is powered by an M-38 1,300-hp engine and has a speed of 330 mph. Armament includes two 7.6-mm guns in the cowling and four wing guns.

The I-16, which became popularly known during its service in the Spanish Civil War as the Mosca — a Spanish word meaning "fly" — was the first Russian low-wing fighter prototype and it is still in service in large numbers. The model used in Spain was powered by a 750-hp M-25 (Cyclone) radial engine and was armed with two .50s and two .30 machine guns. The I-16B is fitted with a more powerful 1,000-hp M-63 (Cyclone) engine and is armed with two wing-mounted 20-mm cannon and two .50 machine guns in the cowl. A third modification, the I-16C, is powered with a 1,000-hp twin-row M-85 (Gnome Rhone) radial and carries the same armament. The prototype has a wing span of 29' 2" and is 20' 4" in length, does an even 300 mph at optimum altitude. The B and C modifications are probably much faster, despite the heavier armament, and are said to exceed the original Mosca's 480-mile range.

Still much in use is another Spanish veteran, the I-15 biplane, known then as the Chato (Spanish for "flat-nosed") and probably the best all-around fighter used by either side during the war. It is employed now in the USSR, however, in the role of a dive bomber. The prototype Chato was powered by a 725-750-hp M-25 (Cyclone) radial engine and had a top speed of 245 mph at optimum altitude. The dive bomber version, the I-15B, is considerably beefed-up to bear its heavier warload. A straight top wing has replaced the neat gull wing used on the prototype. Retractable landing gear has been installed on both models. The original model has a wing span of 33' 5" and an overall length of 20' 10". Armament of both models included two .50s on the cowling and two .30-caliber guns mounted in the top wing just outside the propeller arc. The ship reportedly carries a 1,000-pound bomb beneath the fuselage and four 50-pounders in wing racks. Once its bombing mission is completed, the plane doubles nicely as a fighter.

The Russians have developed their own brand of anti-panzer operations, a combination of low-altitude attack flying and dive-bombing which they refer to as "storm flying." Machines being used for this purpose include two single-engined, and two twin-engined airplanes. Most famous of these is the Il-2 Stormovik, one of the world's finest all-around attack planes. It is a single-engined, single-seater low-wing monoplane of aluminum alloy and plywood construction. The cockpit is situated over the wing and is heavily armored. The 1,300-hp M-85 (Toupolev) engine is also armored and certain vulnerable parts, such as the radiators and ducts, are protected by a layer of gum rubber which is self-sealing. The craft is armed with two wing-mounted 32-mm cannon — the first combat plane to mount such heavy armament in the wing — and four .55-caliber machine guns in the wings. Four 250-pound rocket bombs, ten 100-pound bombs, or a 1,000-pounder, are carried for dive bombing missions. The top speed is over 335 mph with full load, and the plane is said to be maneuverable enough to meet Nazi fighters.

The SU-2 is another of the new fighter storm planes, and it closely resembles our Navy's Brewster SB2A-1 Buccaneer dive bomber. It is a two-seater monoplane whose rear gunner mans a single-gun turret. The plane is powered by a 1,100-hp twin-row M188 (Gnome Rhone) radial engine. No information on armament is available, but the ship is reported to have a top speed of 270-280 mph.

The Yak-4 looks more like a medium bomber than an attack plane or fighter but it is being used for storm and combat work. It is a twin-engined, twin-tailed low-wing monoplane of alloy and plywood construction. The pilot-gunner enclosure is extremely compact and well faired, and the gunner is provided with two flexibly mounted machine guns, one firing rearward and the other firing downward under the fuselage. Another pair of guns is mounted in the ship's nose. The Yak-4 is equipped with leading- and trailing-edge dive brakes. Power is supplied by two liquid-cooled 1,100-hp M-105 (Hispano-Suiza) engines with three-bladed metal propellers. No data are available concerning bomb load, but the bomber's top speed is about 315 mph. An unusual note is the craft's four-wheeled landing gear. The BB-100 is a new modification of the Yak-4.

The PE-2 and the Yak-4 at first glance appear to be identical. But each has certain identifying characteristics. The PE-2 is somewhat more powerful and longer-ranged, although the Yak is said to be faster. The PE-2, first of the series used in front line service, has played the role of a storm plane with great success. The PE-2B and PE-3 versions are primarily fighters, bomb only upon occasion. All of the PE bombers carry a three-man crew. The craft are powered by two 1,300-hp M-38 Toupolev engines, and the difference between the three models is apparently that of armament combinations and crew arrangements (the fighter versions carry two men). The PE-2 is equipped with venetian-blind diving brakes. Two fixed machine guns of heavy caliber are installed in the nose and fired by the pilot. The rear gunner is provided with two flexible guns for defensive purposes and an underside gun for strafing.

The Red Air Force medium bombers are highly maneuverable and are sometimes used for army co-operation along with the storm planes. The ZKB-26, which served in the Spanish Civil War as the Katyusha, and the DB-3, which was used on the Moscow-New York-New Brunswick flight of April, 1939, were the basic medium bomber prototypes. The designation of the former plane was changed to SB-2. This ship is a twin-engined mid-wing monoplane which carries a crew of three. Powered by two 860-hp M-100 (Hispano-Suiza) liquid-cooled engines, it has a top speed of 220 mph. Another version of this plane was powered with 750-hp M-25 radial engines. The nose turret is fitted with two .30 guns and the rear gunner with two flexibly mounted .30s. The second modification, known as the SB-3, is powered with M-103 950-hp (Hispano) engines which are enclosed in neatly faired nacelles — engines on the earlier model had flat-faced radiators — and fitted with three-bladed propellers with large spinners instead of the two-bladed type. The rear gunner's emplacement is fitted with a turret and a floor emplacement. The SB-3's wing span is 66' and length is 41' 6". It has a top speed of 284 mph and carries about 2,800 pounds of bombs. Some models are fitted with diving brakes. A development of this plane is the SB-RK dive bomber which closely resembles the SB-3.

The DB-3, a low-wing, all-metal bomber, carries a 4-man crew. It is powered by two 1,000-hp M-63 (Cyclone) radial engines and has a top speed of 270 mph. Its bomb load is 5,500 pounds and the ship has a range of 2,200 miles. Turrets are provided in the nose and in the fuselage half way between the wing and tail. The DB-3F is a medium-reconnaissance bomber and one of the most beautiful of all Soviet planes. It is a modification of the DB-3 and is powered by two 1,100-hp M-88 (Gnome Rhone) radials with three-bladed propellers. The nose is enclosed in a pattern of plastic glass panels instead of the turret. Two .50 guns are mounted, fixed in the nose, and fired by the pilot, and the rear gunner is provided with a .50 gun turret. With the same 5,500-pound warload, the DB3-F is reported to have a top speed of 300 mph.

The Soviet heavy bombers of recent vintage have been kept secret except for occasional raids on Berlin, Rumania, or Nazi-dominated Baltic coast towns. Reported in operation is a four-engined craft powered by radial motors that is supposed to be a faithful reproduction of our Boeing Flying Fortress. Models of the plane have been revealed in Russian photographs, but few have been seen in action. The veil of secrecy was lifted from another of the big ships when Commissar Molotov was flown to London and subsequently to Washington this summer. The plane is known as the TB-7. It is larger than the famed British Halifax or Stirling and much cleaner in design than either. Whatever else remains secret about these heavy bombers, the most important item — their ability to dump death on Greater Germany and return home — is very much in evidence as the two RAFs, Royal and Red, apply an aerial pincers on the Reich from East and West. The plane is powered by four AM-35A 1,200-hp engines, has a speed of 270 mph and weighs 70,000 pounds.

These combat types are supplemented by large numbers of miscellaneous aircraft — obsolete tactical ships and civil airplanes — for which space does not permit discussion. With the exception of four types of flying boats — the most popular of which is the domestic version of our Consolidated Catalina, known as the GST-1, and the newest of which is a four-engined craft — and three types of seaplanes, the Red Navy Air Arm employs the same variety of planes as are used by the Red Air Forces.

Sixteen military districts, which correspond roughly to the Republics of the Soviet, form the largest divisions of the Army Air Forces. Each district has its Army Commander and Chief of Air Forces, and is made up of an Army-Cooperation Corps and Heavy Air Corps. The cooperation Corps consists of four units — fighter, storm, reconnaissance, and general purpose. The Heavy Air Corps comprises two bomber brigades and one parachutist brigade. Special fighter units are employed at certain points on the Russian Western front for "protective- support" actions, which would imply that these groups are given roving commissions.

On tactical missions, the aircraft are flown in zvenos or links (comparable to our Air Forces element). Three or four links made up an otriad, or squadron (an Air Forces flight); three of these squadrons form an eskadrilla (an Air Forces squadron). Three "wings" make up a brigade, and the largest tactical unit, the aviation corps, comprises three or four wings.

The War Aircraft Trust, a branch of the Commissariat of Defense, headed by Aleksei I Shakurin, is responsible for the production of military planes. The method employed is somewhat on the order of the current American practice of subcontracting. The Krematersky factories handle tubing and castings; the Voroshilov plant, forgings, tubing and fairings; the Yschevoker mill, stainless steel; the Kolchugina factories, sheet and strip aluminum, rivets, and non-ferrous forgings; and the Magnitogorsk mill — which boasts the largest open hearths in the world — strip, sheet, steel wire, bearings and bushings. Two separate plants manufacture deskaba, the Soviet equivalent of our duraluminum. These huge factories and mills are, for the most part, located within a 200-mile radius of Moscow, but even larger plants are being built — some are already in operation — in the new industrial regions beyond the Urals.

Aircraft accessories are produced through chain factories or "trusts." The Rubber Trust turns out tires, fuel cells, de-icers, fittings and mountings. The Electro Trust makes radios, magnetos, lights, insulated wires, etc. Gun sights and aircraft instruments — among the finest in the world, as is evidenced by the many successful Russ Polar flights and long-distance hops — are manufactured by the Fine Mechanics Trust. The Arms Trust produces aerial cannon, machine guns, ammunition and armor. These factories are also closely centered about Moscow.

Engines are produced by the Scientific Motor Institute, another branch of the Commissariat of Defense. In this department, too, there is a modified form of sub-assemblage. For example, Plant No 20 manufactures carburetors, fuel pumps and strainers, valves and small fittings. Plant No 30, also within Moscow, makes aviation hardware. Two undisclosed factories supply superchargers, radiators and pumps. Another large Moscow unit specializes in machined parts and light alloys. Plant No 28 is entirely devoted to the making of propellers.

In recent months many of these plants have been moved to the Ural region or supplemented by new factories there. The Ural territory is some 500 miles square and is endowed with much arable land and virtually every mineral required for the war effort. Here, reasonably safe from enemy interference, are some 20 aircraft factories. There are several other large establishments in Siberia and near Vladivostok.

Russia has, according to all reports, a plethora of airmen and ground personnel; she has the necessary natural resources and a rapidly expanding industry. Germany, on the other hand, appears to be running short on all three of these requisites, particularly since the Allied successes in Africa.

Meanwhile, the circumstances are favoring the Red Air Force. The advances toward Rostov in the South and toward the Latvian border in the North are taxing the winter-bound Luftwaffe to a greater extent than ever. The weather, for which the Soviets are admirably prepared, and increasing quantities of lease-lend material, which they are putting to such splendid use, may aid in shifting the aerial balance so far that Goering's boys may never again gain even local air superiority in Russia.

This article was originally published in the January, 1943, issue of Air News magazine, vol 4, no 1, pp 24-28, 76.
The original article includes 14 photos. Photo subjects include TB-7, Mosca, Yak-1, Sturmovik, AR-2, Mig-3, SB-3
Photos credited to Sovfoto, British Combine.