First word of the attack arrived in Moscow in the form of a desperate signal from the commander of the Black Sea Fleet, who reported a devastating Luftwaffe raid was taking place against the naval base at Sevastopol. The report was disbelieved by Stalin until confirmed by direct telephone contact between Sevastopol and the Kremlin. Two hours later Ambassador Count von der Schulenburg delivered Germany’s declaration of war to Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov.
Luftwaffe bombers located the Black Sea Fleet at anchor in Sevastopol by the oscillating light of the city’s powerful harbor lighthouse. Neither the harbor nor the city were blacked-out. Attack aircraft from other Fliegerkorps bombed Bialystok, Brest-Litovsk, Grodno, Kiev, Kovno, Rovno, Riga, and Tallinn without meeting any effective air or ground defense response. Two thousand outmoded VVS aircraft were destroyed in the first three days of battle, hundreds while parked in neat rows or great circles during the opening hours of the fight after dawn on June 22. Thousands more aircraft were shot from the sky by better trained and more experienced Luftwaffe pilots flying more modern planes. Some Soviet pilots crashed their slow and ill-armed monoplanes into faster and more powerful enemy aircraft, using suicide tactics to make up for the inadequacy of their planes. Such acts were not ordered, but on the first day they set a tone for the savagery to come in the east, for total war waged without pity on the ground or in the air, in the villages and countryside, and within hundreds of towns and cities. Thousands more VVS aircraft were abandoned on overrun airfields in ground panic over the first weeks. The most reliable calculations place the number of lost VVS planes at just under 4,000 within the first 15 days, compared to Luftwaffe losses of 550 aircraft. Initial Luftwaffe success was unparalleled in the history of air operations. It gave German pilots total domination above the battlefield for the first six months of the war. Air supremacy in turn permitted Luftwaffe commanders to switch to critical ground support and interdiction roles, ripping apart exposed Soviet columns, strafing and bombing pockets of surrounded Soviet divisions and whole armies. For most of the rest of the BARBAROSSA campaign the Luftwaffe thus concentrated on attacking tactical targets ahead of advancing ground forces of the Ostheer, and on interdicting Red Army fuel and ammunition supplies, troop trains, and columns on the march.
RED ARMY AIR FORCE (VVS)
“Voenno-Vozdushnye sily (VVS).” Unlike the Royal Air Force (RAF) or the Luftwaffe, but like the USAAF and JAAF, the VVS was not a separate air force organization. VVS bombers and support aircraft were integrated with various Fronts of the Red Army, while anti-aircraft guns and fighter-interceptors were organized separately under the PVO, or Air Defense Force. As a result of being controlled by ground force commanders, and given experience in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), during the prewar period the VVS built a nearly exclusively tactical air force of medium bombers, dive bombers, and heavy attack fighters. It eschewed acquisition of more than a handful of long-range strategic bombers. Joseph Stalin took a direct interest in the VVS. His limited prewar thinking about strategic bombing was influenced by the deep battle attack doctrine developed by the Red Army. In 1939 VVS “mixed air divisions” were set up that deployed bombers and fighters to each Front (army group). As a result, when war came VVS aircraft were widely dispersed among ground formations themselves deployed too far forward, and were not capable of a coordinated overall response to being suddenly attacked. The problem of commanded structure and overly wide dispersal was compounded by weakness in aircraft design. That would not change until 1942, with reforms forced upon the VVS by extraordinary pressures of catastrophic losses of aircraft and near-defeat of the whole Red Army in 1941.
The VVS underwent a violent purge that began in 1937, continuing to mid- 1941, the very eve of the German invasion. In addition to top officers, many talented aircraft designers were arrested, executed, or driven to suicide. Aircraft types were miserable in design compared to German or British models, but had been produced in great volume by the pathologies of a Soviet economic model that valued sheer numbers over quality. The inadequacies of the prewar VVS were revealed in extraordinary peacetime losses to accident: upwards of 800 aircraft per year, or more than the entire prewar production runs of some RAF models. A paucity of repair facilities, technical support, fuel supply systems, and ground-to-air or air-to-air radio communications completed the prewar picture. On June 21, 1941, the eve of the German–Soviet war, the VVS numbered 618,000 personnel, but not enough experienced or qualified officers. It deployed over 20,000 military aircraft of all types. In the first three days alone the VVS frontier Military Districts lost about 2,000 aircraft. Several top commanders were immediately arrested and shot, scapegoats for Stalin’s diplomatic and military catastrophe. During the first weeks of fighting the VVS lost thousands more outclassed planes, many destroyed on the ground or abandoned in all-out retreats. By the end of July it was a shattered remnant of its prewar self. Over the first six months of fighting its losses were even more immense.