Soviet Bomber Force I



Four-engined Pe-8

Firstly, the VVS did have a significant bomber fleet at the start of the war. During the first part of the 1930s, they had produced the TB-3, a pioneering aircraft, which had been overtaken by technology by 1939. However, they did have a large fleet of medium bombers, SB-2s and DB-3s, but only a few new four-engined Pe-8s. Initially, strategic bombing was seen by the Soviets as a means of deterring the Japanese, who were being overly boisterous in the Far East. However, after they got whupped in Manchuria in 1939, the Japanese backed off from their aggressive stance against the USSR and turned their attentions to China and later the imperial colonies of the European powers. By 1941, Soviet agents placed in Japan had given Stalin information about the lack of Japanese will to attack the USSR, and as a result the need for a strategic bombing force diminished. The Pe-8 (IIRC 81 were built) was no longer urgently required, and once the Germans invaded, there was a much greater need for fighters, short-range and intermediate-range bombers, so that is where production was focused. By the way, the DB-3F/Il-4 had a very impressive range, and could have performed some “strategic” bombing (and in fact did — several missions were flown against Berlin by DB-3s and Pe-8s, with poor results, before the notion was shelved.) VVS air policy was to place emphasis on tactical strikes (at and just behind the front lines) and interdiction (from 200 to 400 miles behind the lines) rather than to conduct a “strategic” air war against economic targets, as the British and Americans did. It was a question of priorities, as much as anything. As the war continued, Stalin pressed Roosevelt for the supply of B-17s and B-24s through Lend-Lease, so that the VVS could commence its own strategic campaign against the Germans, but the West balked at supplying such aircraft, which would have meant supplying Stalin with a weapon-delivery system he did not have, at a time when there were already doubts forming over the stability of a postwar peace. Also, the supply of such aircraft would be meaningless without also including things like the Norden Bombsight, which the Americans were quite paranoid over, and H2S ground-mapping radar, which the British were just as paranoid about.

It is worth looking at the different situations of the British and Americans vis á vis the Soviets. Both Western Allies resorted to strategic bombing as a way to carry the war to the enemy, at a time when the geography precluded direct confrontation. The only way they could strike back at Germany was from the air, at long range, from bases in England and later in the Mediterranean. The war in the USSR, on the other hand, was up close and personal, and if the Soviet Union wanted to strike back at the Germans they could do it with bayonets, let alone Sturmoviki. The VVS made a conscious decision to forego long-range bombing, which had a questionable impact on the enemy, with more direct attacks on troop concentrations opposing the Red Army, and on transportation and communications networks in the areas behind the front lines. Given the disappointing results revealed by the postwar US Strategic Bombing Survey, in hindsight it would appear they made the correct decision.

The rules changed again with the advent of the Atomic Bomb. From then, a handful of aircraft could change the course of history, and as soon as this became apparent to the Soviets, they wasted no time in reverse-engineering several B-29s which had overflown Japan and landed in Soviet territory, and this aircraft was produced as the Tu-4, the first postwar Soviet heavy bomber, which entered service in time to become the main delivery system for the first Soviet atomic bombs. Thus began the arms race.

ADD = Soviet Long-range aviation

The Soviet strategic bomber force was formed 5 March 1942 as a separate arm directly subordinated to the Supreme Command (= Stalin, ia. ADD was not part of the “ordinary” Air Force or VVS), and commanded by Col. (later Marshal) A.I. Golovanov (former Chief pilot of Aeroflot).

The task of ADD was to perform strategic night-bombing attacks to the German rear, but most missions were in fact connected with partisan supplies, VIP-transports etc. A number of spectacular raids (mostly propaganda character, leaflet dropping etc) with small numbers of aircraft were however performed to Berlin, Königsberg, Warszava, Bukarest etc in 1942-1943. The first real strategic raid was performed to Helsinki February 1944 (as has been pointed out), with a total of 2120 missions, ca 20.000 bombs dropped (and very moderate success to put it mildly…). A similar series of attacks were made to Budapest in Sept 1944. Because of questionable success the independent ADD was discontinued 6 Dec 1944 and reorganized as 18th Air Army (Golovanov did never become HSU as probably the only wartime Soviet marshal not to get the Golden star…).

Main equipment of ADD was Il-4 (equipped ca 5 of 7 bomber army corps; AK), one bomber AK was equipped with modified B-25 Mitchells (added fuselage tanks to increase range) and one AK was equipped with Li-2 (DC-3 copies) modified to bombers. (One AK consisted of two air divisions = AD, one AD consisted of two air regiments = AP; typical strength of one AP ca 20…30 aircraft). As most units were completely destroyed and subsequently reformed with new personnel and equipment it is rather difficult to follow the OOB in details, but some detailed info has recently been published in Russia.

One regiment (in 1944 named 890 AP) was equipped with four engine Pe-8 bombers. In 1944 ADD formed also a heavy night-fighter escort regiment equipped with modified A-20 Bostons (otherwise ADD did not use Bostons as bombers). In late 1944 several tens of B-17s and B-24s which had crashed in Eastern Europe (incl. Poltava) were taken into use after repairs, but were probably not used very extensively operationally, but kept as strategic reserves.

Total ADD strength in spring 1944 was ca 1000 aircraft.

“The task of ADD was to perform strategic night-bombing attacks to the German rear, but most missions were in fact connected with partisan supplies, VIP-transports etc.”

Yes some ADD units (only some of them-most of which were equipped with Li-2s) carried out quite a significant number of supply flights (not only to partisans, but also to supply encircled units–like the 2nd Assault Army at Lyuban in 1942), dropped reconnaissance groups and individual agents, carried out airborne operations, and carried out large-scale transportation in preparation for the war against Japan in August 1945, etc. But as far as I can see, the main task of the ADD during the entire war was nocturnal bombing operations, although most of the bombing missions were tactical–i.e. they were carried out in more or less close cooperation with ground operations. Relatively few real strategic raids were undertaken.

Thus, for instance, the B-25-equipped 4 GAK (later 4 GBAK)-which was formed in July of 1943–carried out a total of 13,407 bombing sorties (dropping 80,584 bombs with total of 17,035 tons) during the war. It also carried out a total of 2,336 supply flights to partisans (including Czechoslovakian, Polish, and Yugoslavian partisans), during which 1,447 tons of cargo and 864 men were dropped. So less then 15% of all missions carried out by this unit were not bombing missions. Other ADD units had approximately the same statistics (Il-4- and Pe-8-equipped units carried out a relatively lower number of “non-bombing” missions, while Li-2-equipped units-license-built US C-47s–carried out a relatively higher number.

I should have elaborated also the “tactical” missions of ADD (eg. against railway junctions, German strongholds, AF bases etc in German occupied parts of the USSR). However, only after Operation Frantic (USAF shuttle bombings from UK and Italy to Ukraine/Poltava, Mirgorod and Piryatin) the Soviets learned what a strategic air operation really is about. It is paradoxical how they applied this knowledge to build up their nuclear arm with both bomb technology and bomb carrier systems modeled after Western applications.