The Red Banner Baltic Fleet and naval infantry – Leningrad Front

Naval Infantry.
Heavy cruiser Maxim Gorky at Leningrad 1942.

The Red Banner Baltic Fleet (Krasnoznamyonnyy Baltiyskiy Flot, KBF) suffered heavy losses during the evacuation of Tallinn on 28/29 August, but by the beginning of the siege of Leningrad it still had enough warships left to provide considerable naval gunfire support to Soviet ground troops. The heavyweights were the battleships Marat and October Revolution, each with 12 305mm guns that could hurl 470kg high-explosive shells out to 24km, and the heavy cruisers Kirov and Maxim Gorky, each with nine 180mm guns that could fire 97kg shells out to 33km. Additionally, the incomplete heavy cruiser Petropavlovsk (ex-Lutzow), purchased from Germany in 1940, had two operational 8in. gun turrets. The KBF also had seven operational Gnevny-class destroyers, as well as a number of smaller warships. In addition, the KBF operated a railway battery with four 180mm guns, as well as a naval test range near Toksovo that had a single 406mm gun, a 356mm gun and two 305mm guns. Once the Germans mined the Gulf of Finland, the KBF could not risk moving around much and the fuel-oil shortage virtually immobilized the largest warships. Nevertheless, even from their anchorages the Soviet warships could bombard targets around Pushkin and Krasnoye Selo. On the receiving end, the Germans found the Soviet heavy naval gunfire discouraging but not very accurate. Amazingly, less than 30 per cent of Soviet naval gunfire used an observer – often it was just fired at area targets – which greatly diminished its effectiveness. Yet the KBF fired over 25,000 rounds against German ground troops during September 1941, which played a major role in stopping the enemy’s final lunge toward the city.

During the course of the siege of Leningrad, the KBF provided over 125,000 sailors to fight in ground units, comprising nine rifle brigades, one ski regiment, 38 separate battalions and 32 artillery batteries. The 1st Naval Rifle Brigade played a crucial role in holding Leningrad in 1941 but was virtually destroyed, while the 2nd, 5th and 6th naval rifle brigades helped to hold the Oranienbaum bridgehead. The 4th Naval Rifle Brigade was tasked with defending the ice road over Lake Ladoga in the winter of 1941/42 and spent virtually the entire winter on the ice.

K-21 versus BB Tirpitz

Captain Lunin

According to citations from captain Lunin’s report – at 16:55 sonarman detected far unclear sounds, at 17:00 the deck-house of submarine was detected by watch officer via periscope and soon it became clear that was not submarine but the bridge of one of escort destroyers, at 17:15 Lunin detected battleship, heavy cruiser and 8 destroyers from ~30 cables [in reality those were battleship, 2 heavy cruisers, 7 destroyers and 2 torpedo boats], the attack was performed at 18:01 from 18-20 cables by 4 torpedoes with time gaps 4 sec; in 135 sec soundman heard two explosions, at 18:31, 18:32 and 18:38 long explosions were detected which continued 20 sec each. The periscope was raised at 19:05 and there were no any ships on the horizon.

HQ officers supposed after analysis that all torpedoes missed because of errors in determination of target course angle and speed, the same did historians later [speed of Tirpitz was 24 knots and Lunin calculated it as 22 knots, target course angle was 90 degrees and Lunin calculated it as 60 degrees]. If Lunin used time gaps in torpedo salvo not 4 sec but 14 sec he could hit the target with high possibility [probably, he didn’t want to stay at periscope depth too long]. In principle, such torpedo fire [90 degrees of target course, angle, distance 18-20 cables and speed 22-24 knots] was prohibited by Soviet naval manuals as useless and Lunin, probably, just wanted to use at least small chance.

The explosion heard at 18:04 was explosion from self-exploded torpedoes after their maximal run, explosions between 18:31-18:38 were from depth charges of German destroyers which detected British submarine. Germans didn’t detect K-21 and couldn’t hear explosions from missed torpedoes so they got info about attack against “Tirpitz” only after interception of radio message from the Soviet submarine.

Prof. Platonov doesn’t mention in his excellent book that “Tirpitz” was among official claimed hits of K-21. Even Dmitriev [Soviet-era historian] who described the “combat” between K-21 and Norwegian fishing motor boats as combat between K-21 and German anti-submarine vessels mentioned only that K-21 attacked very powerful German battleship “Tirpitz” using stern torpedo tubes and there are no words about any hits.

The fact that submarine attacked “Tirpitz” was very important itself that time [especially the radio message from K-21 which was intercepted by British convoy and Germans] – the visibility and sea state were very good so Lunin could raise periscope only for very short period of time [and that caused mistakes in the definition of distance and target course angle – as the result Lunin fired from stern tubes under very disadvantageous position], Lunin (as well as all other Soviet submarine commanders) had absolutely no experience in attack of large high-speed warship guarded by strong escort and performed anti-submarine manoeuvring [and he did that for the first and single time during the war among Soviet submarines], Lunin also didn’t know the abilities of modern German anti-submarine weapons and he was afraid for his submarine and crew too much.
Translated from Russian.

Soviet Union WWII Submarines

Soviet production of new submarines began in 1927. Clandestine cooperation with Germany gave Soviet engineers access to design data for German types from late World War I: minelayers, Type UBIII, and Mittel-U. The Soviets salved and recommissioned the sunken British submarine L-55, which gave them access to late-war British design information. Soviet designers also gained considerable data from rehabilitating the later czarist-era Bubnov-designed boats and the final examples of the ubiquitous Holland H-type submarines. Synthesizing this information permitted the Soviets to produce a wide variety of submarines on a large scale. There were two basic series of “M”-type coastal submarines, two basic medium submarine series—the “Shch” or Pike type of indigenous origin (though strongly influenced by British practice), and the later “S”-type derived from the same basic design as the German Type VII, minelayers of the “L”-type developed from the L-55, and long-range boats of the “K”-type. At the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, the Soviet Union deployed the world’s largest submarine force, with 168 boats in service.

The final “M”-type displaced 283 tons surfaced, had a range of 4,500 miles at 8 knots on the surface or 36 hours at 3 knots submerged, could dive to 295 feet, and had a battery of 2 torpedo tubes with 4 torpedoes and a 45mm antiaircraft gun. The developed “S”-type displaced 856 tons surfaced, had a range of 9,500 miles at 9 knots on the surface or 45 hours at 3 knots submerged, could dive to 330 feet, and had a battery of 6 torpedo tubes with 12 torpedoes and a 4-inch deck gun. Their indigenous rivals displaced 587 tons, had a range of 3,650 miles at 7 knots or 50 hours at 2.5 knots submerged, could dive to 295 feet, and carried 6 torpedo tubes with 10 torpedoes. The minelayers displaced 1,108 tons, had a range of 10,000 miles at 8.6 knots or 60 hours at 2.5 knots submerged, could dive to 330 feet, and carried 8 torpedo tubes with 14 torpedoes and 20 mines. The “K”-type were very popular with their crews and were regarded as the best Soviet submarines of World War II. They displaced 1,480 tons, had a range of 15,000 miles at 9 knots or 50 hours at 2.5 knots submerged, could dive to 330 feet, and carried 10 torpedo tubes with 24 torpedoes. Despite this variety, the Soviet Union’s yards produced large numbers of submarines during World War II, completing some 200 boats during the course of the conflict.

SERIES XIV (1938) “K” class

K-1 (29 April 1938), K-2 (29 April 1938), K- 3 (31 July 1938), K-56 (29 December 1940), K-55 (7 February 1941), K- 54 (March 1941), K-57 (1946)
Builder: Admiralty K-22 (4 November 1938), K-23 (28 April 1939), K-52 (5 July 1939), K-51 (30 July 1939), K-21 (14 August 1939), K-53 ( 2 September 1939), K-24 (1940)
Builder: Baltic K-58, K-60, K-77, K-78 (1946)
Builder: Zhdanov
Displacement : 1490 tons (surfaced), 2140 tons (submerged)
Dimensions: 320940 x 24930 x 149100
Machinery: 4 diesel engines, 2 electric motors, 2 shafts. 8400 bhp/2400 shp = 21/10 knots
Range: 14,000 nm at 9 knots surfaced, 160 nm at 3 knots submerged
Armament: 10 x 533mm torpedo tubes (6 bow, 2 stern, 2 trainable external mounts), total 24 torpedoes, 20 mines, 2 x 100mm guns, 2 x 45mm AA guns Complement: 60

Mikhail Alekseevich Rudnitskiy designed these large double-hull cruiser submarines. In addition to mines laid through two vertical tubes amidships, these boats originally were to carry a seaplane in a hangar abaft the conning tower, but the aviation proposal was abandoned. These submarines performed well and were the best Soviet-designed boats in service during World War II. All the class operated with the Northern Fleet. One additional boat building at Leningrad was not completed because of the German siege.

The K- 22 was mined off Cape Harbaken on 6 February 1942; the K-23 was lost off Okse Fjord on 12 May; the K- 2 failed to return from a patrol off the Norwegian coast in September. The K-3 was lost off Batsfjord on 21 March 1943, and the K-1 probably was mined in the Kara Sea in October. The surviving boats were stricken in the late 1950s, and the K-21 became a memorial at Severomorsk.

Soviet Amphibious Warfare

The projection of sea-based ground forces onto land. Amphibious warfare was more widely conducted in World War II than in any previous conflict and on a greater scale than ever before or since.

Involving all aspects of naval and military operations— from mine warfare to air and ground combat—amphibious operations are the most complex and risky of all military endeavors. The basic principles had been established in World War I and the postwar period, but the lessons were largely ignored by most military leaders except those in the Soviet Union, the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC), and Germany’s Landungspionieren (Landing Pioneers). The Royal Navy concluded that the British Gallipoli operation had demonstrated a successful amphibious assault was impossible in modern war.

Soviet landings and most Allied commando raids were tactical-level operations against limited objectives, although some had a strategic impact (capturing German codes, radars, and so on).

Amphibious operations also fall into four types: raids, assaults, evacuations, and administrative (noncombat) landings. The first of these is the most dangerous since it generally occurs in an area of enemy superiority and involves elements of both an assault and an evacuation. An administrative landing is the safest, being conducted in a benign environment with no enemy ground, air, or naval forces present. Assaults and evacuations face varying levels of risk, depending on the defender’s strength and support.

The phases of amphibious operations evolved as the war progressed. In 1939 the German army was the only service to recognize the need to rehearse landings and procedures for a specific landing. By 1943, every major military leader realized the necessity to practice for a specific landing. Then, as today, amphibious operations were broken down into five phases: (1) planning, (2) embarkation, (3) rehearsal, (4) movement to the objective area, and (5) the assault. Soviet doctrine added a sixth phase, the landing of the follow-on army forces.

The Soviet Union had a specialized amphibious force of naval infantry at war’s start, but they lacked equipment and training. They were expected to land on the beach using ships’ boats or other improvised transport. Soviet doctrine called for naval infantry to conduct amphibious raids and support the army’s landing by seizing and holding the beachhead while conventional forces disembarked behind them. Although this approach economized on the number of troops requiring specialized amphibious assault training, it proved costly in combat, as any delays in the follow-on landing left the naval infantry dangerously exposed to counterattack. As a result, Soviet naval infantry suffered heavy casualties in their amphibious assaults but one can argue they led the Allied way in these operations. On 23 September 1941, the Soviet Black Sea Fleet conducted the Allies’ first amphibious assault, when Captain Sergei Gorshkov landed a naval infantry regiment against the coastal flanks of the Romanian army besieging Odessa. The action eliminated the Romanian threat to the city’s harbor. In fact, amphibious raids and assaults figured prominently in Soviet naval operations along Germany’s Black and Arctic Sea flanks, with the Soviets conducting more than 150 amphibious raids and assaults during the war.

amphibious operations were critical to the Allied war effort. They enabled the Soviets to threaten the Axis powers’ extreme flanks throughout the Eastern Campaign. Thus the Soviets were able to divert Axis forces away from the front and facilitate Soviet offensive efforts in the war’s final two years.

References Achkasov, V. I., and N. B. Pavlovich. Soviet Naval Operations in the Great Patriotic War. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1981. Ruge, Friedrich. The Soviets as Naval Opponents, 1941–1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1979.






MiG-3s were delivered to front-line fighter regiments beginning in the spring of 1941 and proved to be a handful for pilots accustomed to the lower-performance and docile Polikarpov I-152 and I-153 biplanes and the Polikarpov I-16 monoplane. Even after the extensive modifications made to the MiG-3 in comparison to the MiG-1 it was still tricky and demanding to fly. Many fighter regiments were not diligent in training their pilots to handle the MiG as it flew very differently than the older fighters and the rapid pace of deliveries aggravated things so that many units had more MiGs than they had trained pilots to fly them by the time of Operation Barbarossa. On 1 June 1941, 1,029 MIG-3s were on strength, but there were only 494 trained pilots. In contrast to the untrained pilots of the 31st Fighter Regiment those of the 4th Fighter Regiment were able to claim three German high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft shot down before war broke out in June 1941. However high-altitude combat of this sort was to prove to be uncommon on the Eastern Front where most air-to-air engagements were at altitudes well below 5,000 metres (16,000 ft). At these sorts of altitudes the MiG-3 was outclassed by the Bf 109 in all respects, but also by other modern Soviet fighters like the Yakovlev Yak-1. Furthermore the shortage of ground-attack aircraft in 1941 forced it into that role as well, for which it was totally unsuited. Pilot Alexander E. Shvarev recalled: “The Mig was perfect at altitudes of 4,000 m and above. But at lower altitudes it was, as they say, ‘a cow’. That was the first weakness. The second was its armament: weapons failure dogged this aircraft. The third weakness was its gunsights, which were inaccurate: that’s why we closed in as much as we could and fired point blank.”

On 22 June 1941, most MiG-3s and MiG-1s were in the border military districts of the Soviet Union. The Leningrad Military District had 164, 135 were in the Baltic Military District, 233 in the Western Special Military District, 190 in the Kiev Military District and 195 in the Odessa Military District for a total of 917 on hand, of which only 81 were non-operational. An additional 64 MiGs were assigned to Naval Aviation, 38 in the Air Force of the Baltic Fleet and 26 in the Air Force of the Black Sea Fleet.

The 4th and 55th Fighter Regiments had most of the MiG-3s assigned to the Odessa Military District and their experiences on the first day of the war may be taken as typical. The 4th, an experienced unit, shot down a Romanian Bristol Blenheim reconnaissance bomber, confirmed by post-war research, and lost one aircraft which crashed into an obstacle on take-off. The 55th was much less experienced with the MiG-3 and claimed three aircraft shot down, although recent research confirms only one German Henschel Hs 126 was 40% damaged, and suffered three pilots killed and nine aircraft lost. The most unusual case was the pair of MiG-3s dispatched from the 55th on a reconnaissance mission to Ploieşti that failed to properly calculate their fuel consumption and both were forced to land when they ran out of fuel.

Most of the MiG-3s assigned to the interior military districts were transferred to the PVO where their lack of performance at low altitudes was not so important. On 10 July 299 were assigned to the PVO, the bulk of them belonging to the 6th PVO Corps at Moscow, while only 293 remained with the VVS, and 60 with the Naval Air Forces, a total of only 652 despite deliveries of several hundred aircraft. By 1 October, on the eve of the German offensive towards Moscow codenamed Operation Typhoon, only 257 were assigned to VVS units, 209 to the PVO, and 46 to the Navy, a total of only 512, a decrease of 140 fighters since 10 July, despite deliveries of over a thousand aircraft in the intervening period. By 5 December, the start of the Soviet counter-offensive that drove the Germans back from the gates of Moscow, the Navy had 33 MiGs on hand, the VVS 210, and the PVO 309. This was a total of 552, an increase of only 40 aircraft from 1 October.

Over the winter of 1941–42 the Soviets transferred all of the remaining MiG-3s to the Navy and PVO so that on 1 May 1942 none were left on strength with the VVS. By 1 May 1942, Naval Aviation had 37 MiGs on strength, while the PVO had 323 on hand on 10 May. By 1 June 1944, the Navy had transferred all its aircraft to the PVO, which reported only 17 on its own strength, and all of those were gone by 1 January 1945. Undoubtedly more remained in training units and the like, but none were assigned to combat units by then.

Even with the MiG-3’s limitations, Aleksandr Pokryshkin, the third-leading Soviet, and Allied, ace of the war, with 53 official air victories (plus six shared), recorded a number of those victories while flying a MiG-3 at the beginning of the war. He later recalled:

    “Its designers rarely succeeded in matching both the fighter’s flight characteristics with its firepower… the operational advantage of the MiG-3 seemed to be obscured by its certain defects. However, these advantages could undoubtedly be exploited by a pilot able to discover them”.

Air Battle of Kursk, (1943)

Fw 190 A-4: Introduced in July 1942, the A-4 was equipped with the same engine and basic armament as the A-3. Updated radio gear, the FuG 16Z, was installed replacing the earlier FuG VIIa. A new, short “stub” vertical aerial mount was fitted to the top of the tailfin, a configuration which was kept through the rest of the production Fw 190s. In some instances, pilot-controllable engine cooling vents were fitted to the fuselage sides in place of the plain slots. Some A-4s were outfitted with a special Rüstsatz field conversion kit, comprising the fitting of a pair of underwing Werfer-Granate WGr 21 rocket mortars, and were designated Fw 190 A-4/R6. However, the A-4’s main improvement was the number of Umrüst-Bausätze factory-refit package enhanced versions.

The U1 was outfitted with an ETC 501 rack under the fuselage. All armament except for the MG 151 cannon was removed. The U3 was very similar to the U1, and later served as the Fw 190 F-1 assault fighter. Some U3s used for night operations had a landing light mounted in the leading edge of the left wing-root. The U4 was a reconnaissance fighter, with two Rb 12.4 cameras in the rear fuselage and an EK 16 or Robot II gun camera. The U4 was equipped with fuselage-mounted 7.92 mm (.312 in) MG 17s and 20 mm MG 151 cannon. The U7 was a high-altitude fighter, easily identified by the compressor air intakes on either side of the cowling. Adolf Galland flew a U7 in the spring of 1943.

The A-4/U8 was the Jabo-Rei (Jagdbomber Reichweite, long-range fighter-bomber), adding a 300 L (80 US gal) drop tank under each wing, on VTr-Ju 87 racks with duralumin fairings produced by Weserflug, and a centreline bomb rack. The outer wing-mounted 20 mm MG FF/M cannon and the cowling-mounted 7.92 mm (.312 in) MG 17 were removed to save weight. The A-4/U8 served as the model for the Fw 190 G-1.

A new series of easier-to-install Rüstsatz field kits began to be produced in 1943. The first of these, the A-4/R1, was fitted with a FuG 16ZY radio set with a Morane “whip” aerial fitted under the port wing. These aircraft, called Leitjäger or Fighter Formation Leaders, could be tracked and directed from the ground via special R/T equipment called Y-Verfahren. More frequent use of this equipment was made from the A-5 onwards.[34] The Fw 190A-4 could achieve 1,700 hp (2,100 with MW-50 boost). Its maximum speed was 416 mph (670 km/h) at 20,590 ft (6,250 m). Operational ceiling was 37,400 ft (11,400 m). Normal range was 497 miles (800 km). Normal takeoff weight was 8,378 lb (3,800 kg).[35] A total of 976 A-4s were built between June 1942 and March 1943.
Celebrated tank battle of World War II during which air operations played an important role. Both sides employed air divisions in support of the operation. As for the German Luftwaffe, 1st Division, consisting of two luftflottes (air forces) with a total of 2,050 aircraft, was made available. Because Operation CITADEL called for a two-prong attack against the Russian stronghold at Kursk, Army Group Center was supported by Luftflotte 6 commanded by General Ritter von Greim; Army Group South was supported by General Otto Desslach’s Luftflotte 4.

On the Russian side, three air armies were made available to defend the Russian salient. The Sixteenth Air Army under Marshal S. I. Rudenko supported the Central Front, the Steppe Front was supported by Fifth Air Army under Colonel General Goryunov, and the Voronezh Front was supported by Air Marshal S.A. Krasovski’s Second Air Army.

Air operations began the first day when long-range radar alerted the Germans to a preemptive attack by the Second Air Army on airfields around Kharkov. The Germans, preparing for preemptive strike of their own, were able to get all serviceable aircraft airborne. The Russian force of 450 airplanes, expecting to catch the Germans by surprise, took heavy losses when it ran into waiting German fighters, giving the Germans air superiority in that sector.

The Battle of Kursk saw Germans using aircraft to make up for losses suffered at Stalingrad and in Africa. Specialized Junkers Ju 87G Stukas and Henschel Hs 129Bs were used as flying artillery to compensate for weak ground artillery. Their formations were responsible for killing hundreds of Russian tanks. On the Russian side, Ilyushin Il-2M3 Shturmoviks armed with 37mm cannons were used with devastating effect against German armor.

In addition to the flying antitank weapons, the Germans armed their Focke-Wulf Fw 190As with SD-1 and SD-2 antipersonnel containers that rained down fragmentation bomblets on infantry and artillery positions. The Russians concentrated on antitank operations and getting as many aircraft as possible into the fighting. In the end, quantity overshadowed quality. The Luftwaffe, unlike the Russians, did not have a steady supply of replacements for men and materiel. In order to bring the 1st Division to its preinvasion strength, all other air units on the Eastern Front had to be stripped of every available aircraft.

By 9 July, with the German attack faltering on the northern prong of the offensive, 50 percent of Luftflotte 6’s forces were shifted southward to support a possible breakthrough. In the end, Operation CITADEL fell short of its goals, and the offensive was suspended with the U.S. invasion of Italy. The combat initiative passed into Soviet hands and was never relinquished.

Once the operational reserves had been eliminated-and after the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, the Germans were always pressed in scraping them together then little could stop the Soviet thrusts until they literally outran the ability of their supply columns to maintain the pace.

First Days off Barbarossa – Airwar

VVS deployment on 22 June 1941.

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.

“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.

Finland’s Air Force

In the 1930s, two controversies hindered Finnish aircraft acquisition. The first was the issue of whether fighters or bombers should have priority (the need for fighters seeming paramount). The second was the country from which to purchase aircraft. The head of the Defense Council, Carl Mannerheim, favored Germany, and the air force commander, Colonel Jarl Lundquist (later a lieutenant general), favored Britain. Mannerheim stressed the danger of air attacks on Finnish cities when arguing for more funds for the air force, but he gave priority to air support for ground forces when war came.

In September 1939, the Finnish Air Force (FAF) had only 36 modern interceptors (Dutch Fokker D-XXIs) and 21 bombers (14 Bristol Blenheims and 7 Junkers K430s). Lundquist deployed his limited fighter assets forward to protect the army and defend as much Finnish air space as possible. Following the Soviet invasion of Finland in November 1939, Finnish bombers attacked airfields and supported ground forces. In late December 1939, the FAF was able to purchase additional Fokker fighters, but its best aircraft came in the form of Morane-Saulnier MS-406s purchased from France. The Finns purchased additional Blenheims, U.S. Brewster F2A Buffalos (the Finns enjoyed considerable success with this much-maligned aircraft), Italian Fiat G-50s, and additional MS 406s. Most arrived too late for the war.

During this Finnish-Soviet War of 1939–1940, also called the Winter War, the FAF supposedly accounted for approximately 200 Soviet aircraft, and more than 300 others were destroyed by antiaircraft fire or on the ground. Finnish losses during the war amounted to 53 aircraft.

Finnish Air Force in the Winter War
At the beginning of the war, Finland had a very small air force, with only 114 combat airplanes fit for duty. Therefore, Finnish air missions were very limited and fighter aircraft were mainly used to repel Soviet bombers. Old-fashioned and few in numbers, Finnish aircraft could not offer support to the Finnish ground troops. In spite of aircraft losses throughout the war, the Finnish Air Force grew by 50 percent by the end of the war. Most new aircraft shipments arrived during January 1940.

Finnish fighter pilots often dove into Soviet formations that outnumbered them ten or even twenty times. Finnish fighters shot down 240 confirmed Soviet aircraft, against the Finnish loss of 53. A Finnish forward air base often consisted of only a frozen lake, a windsock, a telephone set and some tents. Air-raid warnings were given by Finnish women organized by the Lotta Svärd. Finnish antiaircraft gunners shot down between 314 to 444 Soviet aircraft.

Finnish aircraft
At the start of hostilities, the Finnish Air Force had 146 aircraft of all types at its disposal. The primary fighter aircraft were 15 Bristol Bulldog IVs, which had entered service in 1935, and 41 of the more modern Fokker D.XXI. There were also 18 license-built Bristol Blenheim bombers. In 1939, an order had been placed in Italy for 25 Fiat G.50 fighters; two were being assembled in Sweden when the war broke out.

During the war, a number of aircraft were ordered from abroad:

    30 Gloster Gladiator II biplane fighters from the United Kingdom
    12 Bristol Blenheim IV bombers from the United Kingdom
    30 Morane-Saulnier M.S.406 fighters from France
    44 Brewster 239 fighters from the United States
    22 Gloster Gauntlet trainers from the United Kingdom
    10 Fiat G.50 fighters from Italy

In air combat, Finland used the “finger four” formation (four planes split into two pairs, one flying low and the other high, with each plane fighting independently of the others, yet supporting its wingman in combat), which was superior to the Soviet tactic of three fighters flying in a delta formation. This formation and the credo of Finnish pilots to always attack, no matter the odds, contributed to the failure of Soviet bombers to inflict substantial damage against Finnish positions and population centres.
In 1941, when Finland again went to war with the Soviet Union (the Finnish-Soviet War of 1941–1944, also called the Continuation War), Finland’s air force had increased substantially. It possessed 144 modern fighters (a mixture of U.S., British, French, Dutch, and Italian planes); 44 British and ex-Soviet bombers; and 63 mostly British and German reconnaissance planes. Once the Continuation War began, Finnish access to aircraft from other nations except Germany was cut off. The Finns did have their own aircraft industry, which produced limited numbers of aircraft including the VL Myrsky II fighter.

Continuation War 1941–44
The Finnish Air Force was better prepared for the Continuation War. It had been considerably strengthened and consisted of some 550 aircraft, though many were considered second-rate and thus “exportable” by their countries of origin. Finland purchased a large number of aircraft during the Winter War, but few of those reached service during the short conflict. Politics also played a factor, since Hitler did not wish to antagonize the Soviet Union by allowing aircraft exports through German-controlled territory during the conflict. New aircraft types were in place by the time hostilities with Soviet Union resumed in 1941. Small numbers of Hawker Hurricanes arrived from the United Kingdom, Morane-Saulnier M.S.406s from France, Fiat G.50s from Italy, a few dozen Curtiss Hawk 75s captured by the Germans in France and Norway then sold to Finland, when Germany began warming up its ties with Finland, and numerous Brewster B239s from the neutral USA strengthened the FiAF. The FiAF proved capable of holding its own in the upcoming battles with the Red Air Force. Older models, like the Fokker D.XXI and Gloster Gladiator, were replaced in front-line combat units with the new aircraft.

The FiAF’s main mission was to achieve air superiority over Finland and prevent Soviet air power from reinforcing their front lines. The fighter squadrons were very successful in the Finnish offensive of 1941. A stripped-down, more maneuverable, and significantly lightened version of the American Brewster B239 “Buffalo” was the FiAF’s main fighter until 1943. Results with this fighter were very good, even though the type was considered to be a failure in the US Navy and with British Far East forces. In the Finnish use, the Brewster had a victory rate of 32:1 – 459 kills to 15 losses. German Bf 109s replaced the Brewster as the primary front-line fighter of the FiAF in 1943, though the Buffalos continued in secondary roles until the end of the wars. Other types, especially the Italian Fiat G.50 and Curtiss Hawk 75 also proved capable in the hands of well-trained Finnish pilots. Various Russian designs also saw action when lightly damaged “kills” were repaired and made airworthy.

Dornier Do 17s (received as a gift from Hermann Göring in 1942) and Junkers Ju 88s improved the bombing capability of the Finnish Air Force. The bomber force was also strengthened with a number of captured Soviet bombers, which had been taken in large numbers by the Germans during Operation Barbarossa. The bomber units flew assorted missions with varying results, but a large part of their time was spent in training, waiting to use their aircraft until the time required it. Thus the bomber squadrons of Flying Regiment 4 were ready for the summer battles of 1944, which included for example the Battle of Tali-Ihantala.

While the FiAF was successful in its mission, the conditions were not easy. Spare parts for the FiAF planes were scarce — parts from the US (Buffalo & Hawk), Britain (Hurricanes), and Italy (G.50) were unavailable for much of the war. Repairs took often a long time, and the State Aircraft Factory was burdened with restoration/repair of Soviet war booty planes, foreign aircraft with many hours of flight time, and the development of indigenous Finnish fighter types. Also, one damaged bomber took up workshop space equalling three fighters.

Finland was required to expel or intern remaining German forces as part of its peace agreement with the Soviets in mid-1944. As a result, the final air battles were against retreating Luftwaffe units.

The Finnish Air Force did not bomb any civilian targets during either war. Curiously, overflying Soviet towns and bases was also forbidden, as to avoid any unneeded provocations and to spare equipment.

According to Kalevi Keskinen’s and Kari Stenman’s book “Aerial Victories 1–2”, the Finnish Air Force shot down 1,621 Soviet aircraft while losing 210 own aircraft during the Continuation War 1941–44.

Finnish Air Force strategy stressed aggressiveness; isolated fighters usually attacked no matter the number of Soviet aircraft. The FAF employed a blue swastika marking (no relation to the Nazi version) for national identification. The Luftwaffe and FAF cooperated in this conflict, although neither could prevent Soviet air raids into Finnish territory nor completely screen the Finnish army from air attacks.

References Kirby, D. G. Finland in the Twentieth Century. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979. Tillotson, H. M. Finland at Peace and War, 1918–1993. Wilby, UK: Michael Russell, 1993. Trotter, William R. A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish War of 1939–40. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 1991.