Russian Air Power 1924 to 1941 Part I

On 31 December 1940, hundreds of Russian airmen met at the Pilots’ House on Gorki Street in Moscow with their wives and girlfriends to ‘eat, drink and be merry’ as they welcomed in the New Year.1 In crowded rooms people chattered and toasted each other while couples waltzed and tangoed on the dance floor in celebration of the end of their three-year ordeal.

On 1 December 1934, the popular Leningrad Party boss Sergei Kirov was assassinated outside his own office. This triggered Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s nascent paranoia and offered him an excuse to purge his rivals, or as Greta Garbo’s Ninotchka observed, ‘There are going to be fewer, but better, Russians.’ The purge initially focused upon the Communist Party, but from May 1937 it swept through the armed forces with the arrest of the Red Army’s leading commanders, including Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevskii. His radical ideas were based upon mechanised forces capable of driving deep into enemy territory, with air support clearing the way. But his failure to make it work, because Red Army command and control lacked radios, was used to push him into the execution chamber.

During the next two years the armed forces suffered a holocaust at the hands of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (Narodny Komissariat Venutrennikh Del, NKVD), with thousands of officers arrested, hundreds executed and many more cashiered on suspicion of disloyalty merely for seeking to modernise the forces. The impact upon Soviet air power was devastating, with the Red Army of Workers and Peasants Air Force (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sili-Raboche-krest’yanski Krasnoi Armiyy, VVS-RKKA), usually referred to as the (Army) Air Force (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sili, VVS), losing more than a third of its officers in 1937. A total of 4,773 personnel were dismissed, of whom 1,590 were arrested, including the commander-in-chief, two chiefs-of-staff, most district air commanders and the head of air training.

Those associated with air power also suffered, with aircraft designers Andrei Tupolev, Vladimir Myasishchev and Vladimir Petlyakov arrested, together with the entire staff of the Aviation Industry Research Institute (Tsentralnyy Aero-gidrodinamicheskiy Institut, TsAGI). An aircraft-design Gulag was established where Tupolev began work on his Tu-2 medium bomber, although it was not until 1940 that he was sentenced to 15 years in jail for being ‘a French spy’. He would be released in July 1941 to ‘conduct important defence work’, but he was not formally ‘rehabilitated’ until 1955.

The new generation of military leaders lacked their predecessors’ experience, while the climate of fear undermined their self-confidence. At any moment a disgruntled junior or a tortured acquaintance might denounce them and, to avoid displeasing their superiors, they rarely displayed any initiative. The result was the appalling failure of Soviet air power during the Winter War with Finland, whose 120 aircraft faced down nearly 3,900 Soviet aircraft almost to the end. The VVS commander, General-leitenant Yakov Smushkevich, who had led airmen with distinction in Spain and China, was ‘kicked upstairs’ as Deputy Defence Minister in March 1940, and five months later became General Inspector of the VVS. He was replaced by fighter ace General-leitenant Pavel Rychagov, who was credited with 20 victories in Spain while serving under Smushkevich. Rychagov had also distinguished himself in the summer of 1939 during future Marshal Georgii Zhukov’s Khalkin-Gol campaign against the Japanese on the Mongolian border.

Prowling through the Pilots’ House that December night in 1940 was a man who had suffered indirectly during the Purges, but would soon lead Stalin’s long range bombers. Aleksandr Golovanov was Aeroflot’s Chief Pilot and an instrument flying expert. He was also a former member of the secret police who turned to civilian aviation and honed his skills during a training course in France. When he returned to the Soviet Far East in 1937 he learned that his brother-in-law had been shot as ‘an enemy of the people’ and his local Communist Party had deemed him guilty by association, removing his Party membership card and banning him from flying.

Golovanov and his wife became pariahs, ignored by everyone and forced to sell almost everything to survive. Ironically, his NKVD friends saved him by arranging his transfer to Moscow, where he renewed his career and regained his Party membership card. Although a civilian, Golovanov is reported to have flown some of the NKVD’s victims from the Far East to Moscow. During the Winter War he flew leaflet missions at night using the skills common among Civil Air Fleet (Grazhdanskiy Vozdushnyy Flot, GVF) pilots.

He was astonished to discover Russian bomber crews, including those in the long range force, were unable to emulate these feats, and he tried to persuade the VVS leadership to improve navigation and instrument flying training. Leningrad Party boss Andrei Zhdanov showed some interest in the subject during the Winter War but Rychagov was dismissive, although he did create a navigation academy in March 1940. However, its instructors had little experience in instrument flying, so Golovanov now sought a meeting in more pleasant surroundings to put his case.

In the Pilots’ House he encountered Smushkevich, who was with the Aviation Industry Minister (Commissar) Andrei Shakhurin. Smushkevich was interested, but felt he was under a cloud after the Winter War. He also lacked the technical expertise to make a presentation, so he suggested Golovanov write directly to Stalin, and offered to have a courier convey his letter to the Kremlin. Golovanov followed his advice, and after meeting Stalin he was transferred to the Long Range Bomber Aviation (Dahl’niy Bombardirovochnaya Aviatsiya, DBA) to form an operational training unit, 212th Independent Long Range Air Regiment (OAP, DD) in February 1941, with GVF pilots and two PS-84 ‘flying classrooms’, while in March work began on a VVS electronic navigation aids system.

Rychagov was still not impressed, unlike DBA head General-leitenant Ivan Proskurov, who had been deputy commander of the Far Eastern VVS before his appointment in October 1940. Also formerly Head of the Red Army Intelligence (Glavnoe Razvedyvatelynie Upravlenie, GRU), Proskurov was an experienced bomber pilot who had also seen combat in Spain – indeed, he was responsible for the bombing of the German pocket-battleship Deutschland in 1937. Smushkevich was also pleased with the expansion of the DBA for he was all too aware that Russian air power was a giant with feet not of clay but of sand.

The VVS had blossomed in the 1930s, having especially benefited from the industrial cornucopia of the First and Second Five Year Plans (1928–32 and 1933–37). The new factories produced more than 20,000 aircraft and VVS strength rocketed – in 1924 it had 341 combat aircraft, which rose to 1,285 (including 48 TB-3 heavy bombers that could carry two tonnes of bombs 1,100 kilometres) by 1 January 1929. In 1933, at the beginning of the Second Five Year Plan, front-line strength was 3,156 (including 647 heavy bombers), and by 1937 it was 8,139, including 443 medium and heavy bombers. When Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the VVS had 7,321 aircraft, including 569 TB-3 four-engined heavy bombers organised into three Armies for Special Employment (Armiya Osobogo Naznachiya, AON), and by June 1941 the total had doubled to 15,599 combat aircraft and 3,934 trainers; but, as George Canning observed, ‘Statistics can tell you everything you wish to know, except the truth.’

Until 1939, the quantitative expansion was matched by a qualitative one, as shown by Tupolev’s bomber designs. In 1930 there was the maiden flight of a four-engined bomber based upon Junkers corrugated duralumin (aluminium) technology that became the TB-3, which served until 1945. Yet within four years Tupolev had produced a smoothed duralumin, stressed-skin design as the SB, with two M-100 engines – deliveries began in 1936. Industry was able to meet contemporary fighter requirements for both traditional, slow but ‘agile’ I-15/I-15bis biplane fighters with fixed undercarriages and ‘fast’ I-16 Donkey (Ishak) monoplane fighters with retractable undercarriages. Yet they suffered from industrial weakness for, with limited aluminium production, these Polikarpov fighters and the I-153 Seagull (Chaika) interceptor biplane with retractable undercarriage were largely of wooden construction, augmented by duralumin, steel and doped fabric. Like all the biplanes, the Chaika lacked the performance either to sustain attacks on enemy bomber formations or to inflict serious damage with their four rifle-calibre machine guns. Later Ishaks had heavy (12.7mm) machine guns or even 20mm cannon, which were more destructive, and all of these fighters, together with the SBs, proved effective over Spain and China. Nevertheless, experience showed the need for advanced replacements.

Their development and production proved prolonged as the Soviet aircraft industry expanded steadily from 1939 to 1941. In Shakhurin the Soviet Union had a dynamic and able administrator who was a graduate of the Moscow Engineering-Economics Institute and who had briefly served in the Red Army. From 1934 he had worked with, or in, the aviation industry, and would be a safe pair of hands throughout the war. Shakhurin headed the People’s Commissariat for the Aircraft Industry (Narodnoi Komissariat Aviatsionny Promyshlennosti, NKAP or Narkomaviaprom), which was established in January 1939. In the next two years he supervised a steady expansion of the industry with the NKVD using Gulag labour to build new plants in Kuibyshev, in Siberia. He also took a leaf from the British in taking over civilian factories and facilities that could be used for aircraft production. Via these means he had significantly expanded production capacity by the time of the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, and had some 174,360 workers who switched to 24-hour production in March 1941.

Yet his ministry did not have supreme authority in the highly politicised field of aircraft development and manufacture. An exception was the Air Force Scientific Test Institute (Naucho-issledovatelskii Institut, NII-VVS), which conducted state acceptance trials and also monitored aircraft for technical problems for which it provided solutions. But the designers, notably Aleksandr Yakovlev, exploited contacts with senior Party officials, the Party regional organisations and ultimately Stalin himself. Stalin changed his mind four times about authorising production of the four-engined TB-7 bomber! This might also have been influenced by his ne’er-do-well son Vasilii, who was in the VVS and would play an undistinguished role in air operations.

Yet despite Shakhurin’s efforts there were significant weaknesses, for the expansion was fuelled by drafting much unskilled labour into the factories which in turn resulted in half the components they made having to be rejected. This shortage of skilled workers made it difficult for the craft-based and under-capitalised industry to introduce sophisticated, all-metal, stressed-skin aircraft, which required more working hours to build than traditional designs. The weakness was illustrated when Moscow decided to build the famed DC-3 airliner at Factory 84, leading to production of the PS-84 transport (Li-2 from 9 September 1942). This was not a copy of the Douglas aircraft but a Russian version whose empty weight was more than one tonne less than the original, but whose two Russian engines developed only 2,000hp, compared with the 2,800hp of their American equivalents, thus making it up to 50km/h slower and reducing range from 2,575 kilometres to 2,330 kilometres.

Despite the problems, factories were expected to increase production, but the Purges had removed the best managers, leaving inexperienced men in fear of the NKVD. Their priority was to meet production targets with little regard for quality or adequate stocks of spares. Indeed, quality was regarded as a ‘bourgeois’ concept and therefore treasonous. Tupolev, for example, would always rush aircraft into production despite shortcomings, which he would later work to overcome. He failed, however, with the SB’s forward defence, which remained a pair of machine guns that could move vertically but not laterally.

Production of modern aircraft was also handicapped by the Soviet economic system based upon extremely bureaucratic central planning on a ‘top-down’ model. The development and marketing of new technological products depends upon vision and the willingness to take risks – features rarely found among bureaucrats, with the result that the Soviet Union lagged behind Germany and its future Western allies in key elements of technology. Aluminium was the basis of modern aircraft production, yet the Soviet Union produced only 60,000 tonnes in 1939 compared with Germany’s 194,000 tonnes, while the 100,000-tonne 1941 target compared badly with the 324,000 tonnes received by the Reich in 1941. The Russians tried to buy aluminium from Germany, but the first deliveries were due only in the summer of 1941. Throughout the war Moscow depended upon its allies to augment its own limited resources.

The Russian electronics industry also trailed behind its European competitors, and indeed continues to do so in the 21st century. Consequently, the VVS would be short of navigation aids throughout the war. Furthermore, while radio-telephone transmitter–receivers (transceivers) were in service with the Luftwaffe and the RAF in 1939, they did not become universal in Soviet-built combat aircraft until 1943. The need to have them in fighters was recognised by Russian pilots serving in Spain as early as 1937, but their reports were pigeonholed. This meant that until 1943, only formation leaders had transmitters while the remainder of the pilots had receivers, which hindered cooperation in air combat. Worse still, throughout the war the Russians had only high frequency (HF) radios, even in foreign aircraft, at a time when their allies and enemies had HF, VHF (very high frequency) and even UHF (ultra high frequency) sets. Reception on many of the radios installed in Russian aircraft was poor due to low quality and bad installation. Russian radar was also hamstrung by the Purges when Pavel Oshchepkov, the man spearheading development, was arrested and not released until 1946. Even when its allies delivered some modern sensors, the Soviet Union lagged compared with the Germans.

The petrochemical industry also caused problems for the VVS. When exposed to sunlight the Perspex in aircraft canopies tended to degrade and become opaque – a problem which does not appear to have been overcome until later in the war. Because of this, even in the bitter Russian winter, pilots would fly with open canopies and often end up with blackened, frost-bitten cheeks. The oil refineries produced only 70–78 octane fuels (B-70, B-74 and B-78) that front-line units had to mix with additives to provide the fuel required for the high-performance engines installed in combat aircraft. B-70 was used for trainers and night bombers and B-89 was the equivalent of the Luftwaffe’s 87-octane B4, used for bombers and transports. German fighters used C3 (94–100 octane) and Western fighters had 100–130 octane fuel. The Russians produced little of the essential ingredient – tetraethyl lead – in this high octane fuel, so all of their fighters, including Western ones, were restricted to B-95. Additives created a crisis for General-polkovnik Sergei Rudenko’s 16th Air Army (Vozdushnaya Armiya, VA) in the summer of 1944 on the verge of the great ‘Bagration’ offensive, for which it had the largest concentration of Soviet aircraft. Although he received thousands of tonnes of fuel, they lacked additives without which aircraft performance was degraded and engine running time reduced to 20–30 hours between overhauls. Yet Moscow’s bureaucrats claimed they were unnecessary and refused to supply them. Rudenko passed concerns to his political officer or commissar, General Konstantin Telegin, and then they discovered that the octane labels were unreliable with different readings in nominally the same batch. Telegin raised the matter at the State Defence Committee (Gosudarstvennyi Komitet Oborony, GKO), which brought Stalin into the picture, and he ordered the distribution of additives that brought the fuel up to the correct octanes within two days.

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