That the German military aircraft industry entered World War II with innovative and devastatingly effective designs surprised no one, but little was expected of the Soviets. While it is true that some Soviet aircraft designs were obsolescent or even obsolete at the outbreak of war, the nation also produced a number of superb aircraft.
The Soviet Union possessed large numbers of aircraft at the outbreak of the war, but most of these were inferior to their German counterparts. Making matters worse, when Germany launched its invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, it destroyed 1,200 Soviet aircraft in the first nine hours of the attack. The Soviet Union managed not only to sustain this loss but to recover, because of its monumental efforts to transfer industries eastward beyond the reach of the German army and air force. In the first three months after the German invasion, the Soviet Union relocated 1,523 factories. The primary production line for the Yakovlev Yak-1, for example, was moved more than 1,000 miles and returned to production in less than six weeks. The success of these efforts allowed the Soviet Union to exceed German production for each year of the war, including 1941, for a total of 159,261 Soviet aircraft compared with 119,331 German aircraft.
Ilyushin II-4. Among the bombers, only the major Soviet model is generally classified as a heavy bomber. The twin-engine Ilyushin II-4 was a superb aircraft, with more than 5,000 produced between 1937 and 1944, mostly during the final three years of production. The prototype design dates to 1935, and hard lessons learned during the Red Army invasion of Finland during 1939-40 resulted in improvements to armor protection. Nevertheless, later models of the aircraft replaced many metal parts with wood, which was easier to come by during the war. The II-4 served with the Red Army Air Force as well as with Soviet Naval Aviation, and it was naval pilots who flew the first Soviet air raids over Berlin on August 8, 1941. The aircraft served to the end of the war, although in the final months its age was showing, and it was relegated mainly to glider towing.
General specifications of the II-4 included two 1,100-horsepower M-88B radial piston engines, a wingspan of 70 feet 4 ¼ inches, and a top speed of 255 miles per hour. Service ceiling was 32,810 feet. Defensive armament consisted of 0.5-inch machine guns in the nose, in a dorsal turret, and in ventral positions. The II-4 carried up to 2,205 pounds of bombs or three 1,102-pound torpedoes and was crewed by four.
Like the Germans, the Soviets produced more light to medium bombers than heavy bombers. The three most important were the Tupolev SB-2, the Tupolev Tu-2, and the Petlyakov Pe-2.
Tupolev SB-2. Familiarly called the Katyusha, the Tupolev SB-2 was first flown on October 7, 1933. Intended as a high-speed bomber, it was at the time one of the Tupolev organization’s most advanced designs, based on a heavy fighter airframe rather than a bomber. Construction was all metal and, in service during the Spanish civil war, its 255-mile-per-hour speed outflew many enemy fighters-until the appearance of the German Bf- 109 fighter. A total of 6,656 SB-2s were built up to 1940, and some remained in service until 1943, despite heavy losses to the Bf-109s.
The SB-2 was driven by twin 850-horsepower M100 V-12 piston engines to a top speed of 255 miles per hour and a service ceiling of 27,885 feet. Its range was a modest 746 miles. Wingspan was 66 feet 8 ½ inches, and defensive armament consisted of two 0.3-inch machine guns in a nose turret, one in a dorsal turret, and one in the ventral position. Bomb capacity was 2,205 pounds, and the plane was crewed by three.
Tupolev Tu-2. First flown in October 1940, the Tupolev Tu-2 went into production beginning in 1942 and, with the Petlyakov Pe-2, emerged as the most important Soviet bomber of the war. This medium bomber had a maximum speed of 342 miles per hour and had a range of 1,243 miles. It was 45 feet 3 inches long with a wingspan of 61 feet 10 inches. Bomb load was an impressive 6,614 pounds. Along with the Petlyakov Pe-2, the Tupolev Tu-2 was used in large numbers during the war, and some of these aircraft remained in Soviet service during the postwar years, flying in the Korean War with North Korean forces. During the early 1960s, the Tu-2 continued to fly with the Chinese air force and with the air forces of other communist countries. Its general specifications included a power plant consisting of two Shvetsov Ash-82fn 1,850-horsepower 14 cylinder radial engines making a top speed of 342 miles per hour over a range of 1,553 miles. Defensive armament was two 20- mm ShVAK cannon in wing roots and three 0.5- inch UBT machine guns, two in dorsal positions and one in the ventral position. As mentioned, the bomb load was 6,614 pounds. The aircraft was crewed by four.
Petlyakov Pe-2. This aircraft was produced in a light-bomber configuration and, like the Pe-3, in a fighter configuration. The Pe-2 is generally judged the most important light Soviet bomber of the war, and a total of 11,427 Pe-2s and Pe-3s were produced. By the time of the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, only a few hundred Pe-2s had come off the assembly lines. As they reached the front in greater numbers, however, German fighter pilots despaired, because the fast and nimble aircraft was difficult to catch and destroy. The Pe-2 benefitted from continual improvements made in direct response to meetings with frontline pilots. By late 1942, more crew armor and better armament had been added. The ShKAS 7.62- mm dorsal and ventral guns were replaced by Berezin UBT 12.7-mm guns. A turret replaced the hand-held dorsal gun position, and the nose was redesigned to enhance bombardier protection and efficiency.
The final specifications for the aircraft included two 1,100-horsepower Klimov M-105R V-12 piston engines, which made a top speed of 335 miles per hour. Wingspan was 56 feet 3.5 inches, and service ceiling 28,900 feet. For a light bomber, range was excellent at 932 miles. Bomb load was 2,646 pounds, and the plane was crewed by three.
The Red Air Force suffered devastating losses during the opening weeks of the German invasion. Many planes were destroyed on the ground, while others, mostly obsolete or obsolescent, were shot out of the skies by superior German fighters. American and British aircraft were rushed to the Soviets to help make up for the losses, even as the Soviet aircraft industry went into high gear and began turning out some excellent fighters. Certainly, the early losses were devastating, but they also forced a rapid modernization of the Red air force, which threw impressive designs into the fray.
The Polikarpov I-16 Rata entered service late in 1934, the first of the new generation of monoplane fighters. More than 450 machines were operationally tested in the Spanish Civil War, and I-16s bore the brunt of the initial German assault on the Soviet Union. The Rata was marginally stable at best but was outstandingly maneuverable; it had a very good zoom climb but poor diving characteristics. Approximately 20,000 were built, the type remaining in service until 1943.
Lavochkin LaGG-3. First flown on March 30, 1940, the Lavochkin LaGG-3 was a refinement of the earlier, grossly underpowered LaGG-1. Built mainly of wood, the LaGG-3 was produced in great quantity (6,528) until mid-1942. Like its predecessor, it was still somewhat underpowered, and pilots grimly dubbed the wooden plane the “Guaranteed Varnished Coffin.” Nevertheless, and despite its construction materials, it was remarkably durable and could survive very substantial battle damage. General specifications included a power plant consisting of the 1,050-horsepower Klimov M-105P liquid-cooled in-line engine, which made for a top speed of 357 miles per hour. Service ceiling was 31,825 feet, and maximum range was 404 miles. The aircraft had a wingspan of 32 feet 1 inch. Armament typically consisted of two 12.7-mm UBS machine guns mounted in the engine cowling and one ShVAK 20-mm cannon firing through the streamlined propeller hub. The LaGG-3 could carry six 3.23-inch rockets or 440 pounds of bombs.
Lavochkin La-5 and La-7. As the LaGG-3 was an evolutionary improvement on the LaGG-1, the La- 5 and La-7, also from Lavochkin, developed from the LaGG-3. Like its predecessor, the La-5 was made chiefly of wood, but it was designed to accommodate the Shvetsov M-82F radial engine, which produced 1,330 horsepower and drove the plane to nearly 400 miles per hour, making it a match for the best German fighters. Production on the new aircraft began about July 1942, and it proved quite successful. In 1943, Lavochkin added a new power plant, the M-82FN direct-injection engine, which developed 1,630 horsepower and pushed the aircraft beyond 400 miles per hour. The modified plane was designated the La-5FN. Its general specifications included the 1,630-horsepower M-82FN radial engine for a top speed of 402 miles per hour and a service ceiling of 36,089 feet. Range was 475 miles, and wingspan was 32 feet 1 inch. Armament included a pair of 20-mm nose cannon and four 8.2-cm RS-82 rockets or 150 kilos of bombs.
The Lavochkin La-7 pushed the envelope even farther with yet another high-performance ASh- 82FN engine, which made speeds of 423 miles per hour. The La-7 was introduced in 1944, when the Soviets had already achieved air supremacy over most of the vast eastern front. Except for the new engine, it was in other respects identical to the La-5FN.
MiG-3. Before the end of World War II and well into the postwar and cold war era, “MiG” would be one of the most widely recognized names in fighter aircraft design. It stands for Mikoyan-Gurevich, and the design team’s MiG-3 earned a reputation for extraordinary performance-top speed of 398 miles per hour with a very rapid climb rate of nearly 4,000 feet per minute-that was tempered by the difficulty pilots had handling the machine and its inherently poor armament. Despite its high speed, it could barely hold its own against the German Bf-109.
The MiG-3 went into production in December 1940 and reached the front line fighter squadrons in April 1941. Production continued through December 1941, by which time it had reached some 3,120 aircraft. General specifications included a power plant consisting of a 1,350-horsepower Mikulin AM-35A liquid-cooled V-12 engine, which made 398 miles per hour. Wingspan was 33 feet 5 ½ inches, range 743 miles, and service ceiling 39,370 feet. Armament consisted of a single 12.7-mm machine gun and two 7.62-mm machine guns in the upper nose cowl. Some aircraft were also equipped with a pair of 12.7-mm machine guns mounted under the wings.
Yakovlev Yak series. The Yakovlev Yak series (Yak-1, Yak-3, Yak-7, and Yak-9) was so successful that a staggering 37,000 were produced during World War II, most of them Yak-9s. The Yak-1 first flew in January 1940, and the Yak-9 went into production in summer 1942. It was produced in several specialized variants, the most important of which were the Yak-9T, a ground-attack antitank version; Yak-9B, a fighter-bomber version; Yak-9D, a long-range fighter; Yak-9DD, a very-long-range fighter escort, and Yak-9U, the final evolutionary step of the type, which reached a speed of 435 miles per hour and could easily outperform the Bf-109 and, indeed, anything else the German could throw at it. General specifications of the Yak-9U included a 1,650-horsepower Klimov VK-107A V-12 piston engine, making 435 miles per hour. Wingspan was 32 feet 0.75 inches, and service ceiling was 39,040 feet. The fighter had a range of 541 miles. The Yak- 9U was armed with one engine-mounted 20-mm MP-20 cannon and two 12.7-mm UBS machine guns. It could carry two 220-pound bombs on underwing racks.
Ilyushin Il-2. For the close air support or ground-attack role, the Red Air Force used the Lavochkin La-5 and La-7 fighters but also flew two more specialized aircraft, the Ilyushin Il-2 and the Sukhoi Su-2. The Ilyushin Il-2 was produced in a remarkable quantity of 36,163, according to Soviet historians. The design dates to 1938, when it was conceived as a two-seat aircraft, but it was a lighter single-seat design that first flew, on October 12, 1940. The aircraft proved highly effective against German transport vehicles and tanks, although it was highly vulnerable to fighter attack. In February 1942, therefore, the two-seat design was resurrected, the second seat occupied by a rear-facing gunner who defended against air attack. A version of the aircraft survived World War II and was used in the Korean War. General specifications included a power plant consisting of one 1,700-horsepower Mikulin AM- 38F liquid-cooled inline piston engine making a modest top speed of 251 miles per hour-adequate for ground attack. Wingspan was 47 feet 10 _ inches. Service ceiling was 19,500 feet, and range was 375 miles. Typical armament included two 37- mm machine guns and two 7.62-mm guns, all wing mounted; one 12.7-mm machine gun was fired from the rear cockpit. Bomb load consisted of up to 200 5.5-pound hollow-charge antitank bombs or eight RS-82 or RS-132 rockets.
Sukhoi Su-2. The Sukhoi Su-2 was produced from early in the war until about 1942 but was badly mauled by German fighters, despite the inclusion of a rear-facing defensive gunner. Late model specifications included one 1,520-horsepower Shvetsov M82 air-cooled radial piston engine, which made for a top speed of 302 miles per hour. Wingspan was 46 feet 11 inches, and service ceiling 28,870 feet. Armament consisted of four forward-firing 7.62-mm wing-mounted machine guns and one or two machine guns in a dorsal turret. The Su- 2 could deliver 882 pounds of bombs.
The Soviet Union introduced the A-7 glider in 1939. It had a wingspan of 62 ft 2 inches and length of 37 ft 7 inches. It weighed 2,000 lb empty and carried a pilot and eight passengers. A total of 400 were manufactured. The Soviets, however, had few aircraft available for glider tows, and following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, their priority was with other weaponry. They used the A-7 chiefly to transport supplies to partisans working behind German lines.
When it entered service in 1928, the two- to three-seat Polikarpov U-2/Po2 biplane was intended as a basic trainer. By the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, approximately 13,000 had already been constructed for both military and civil use. The U-2/Po2 performed a wide variety of roles besides training, such as tactical reconnaissance, air ambulance, night artillery spotting, and close ground support. One version, the U-2GN, was equipped with loudspeakers and used for propaganda purposes. Production continued in the Soviet Union until 1948 and in Poland until 1953; more than 33,000 were ultimately produced.
The five-seat Beriev MBR-2 (Be-2) flying boat was first introduced in 1931 for coastal patrol service. Incorporating a wooden hull and metal wings and utilizing a single pusher engine, it proved to be one of the most versatile flying boats of its time. In addition to its reconnaissance role, it was used in air-sea rescue, light transport service, and minelaying operations. More than 1,500 of all varieties were produced.
While the Soviet Union relied heavily on American aircraft, such as license-built Douglas C-47 Skytrains, for transport purposes, the four-engine Tupolev TB-3 (ANT-6), originally designed in the early 1930s as a heavy bomber, had been converted primarily for troop and freight transport by the time the Soviet Union entered World War II. Later versions fitted with four 1,200 hp engines were capable of carrying more than 12,000 lb of cargo. In addition to carrying airborne troops and supplies, it also served as a glider tug. Some were even modified to carry a tank or truck between their undercarriage legs.