Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily (VVS) readiness in 1938

It is difficult to assess the readiness of the VVS for a possible conflict with the Luftwaffe at the time of the Munich Crisis. There is little hard information that I have found on aircraft strengths and readiness for the units deployed along the western frontier of the USSR.

In 1938 there were approximately 5400 aircraft in service with the VVS-RKKA, plus another 800 in service with VVS-VMF. Roughly 30% of these were fighters and 50% of these were bombers. A French intelligence assessment dated 1 January 1939 estimated the strength of the VVS at 5200 aircraft, of which 3750 were in Europe and another 600 in the central USSR. Approximately 100,000 men served in the Military Air Forces, of whom 7000 were pilots, according to Soviet sources. The 1938 inventory of the VVS included the following front-line combat types:

Polikarpov I-15
Polikarpov I-152
Polikarpov I-16/Typ 5 & Typ 10

Tupolev SB-2
Ilyushin DB-3B
Tupolev TB-3

Ground-Attack and reconnaissance:
Polikarpov R-5
Polikarpov R-Zet

Qualitatively, Soviet aircraft, which had been among the best in the world in 1936, were being superceded by developments outside the USSR.

The I-16 was the first retractable-undercarriage monoplane fighter in the world, although it was later to be eclipsed by the Bf-109. It was still a fast, well-armed and very maneuverable fighter capable of mixing it up with the

Bf-109B on fairly equal terms, and still a fairly even match with the later bf-109E. Unfortunately for the VVS, the version of the Bf-109 which the Luftwaffe flew during 1941 was the much superior Bf-109F. The I-15 and I-152 were rather more obsolescent, but were still among the best fighter biplanes in service.

The bombers were exceptional. Both the SB-2 and DB-3 were fast and the DB-3 possessed exceptional range. The TB-3 was rather more dated, but was still one of the very few four-engined bombers in the world. Either the DB-3 or the TB-3, staging from bases in Czechoslovakia, could have reached targets within Germany. The Polikarpov R-5 was a sturdy if unimaginative reconnaissance biplane, while the R-Zet was an effective specialized ground-attack aircraft. Other, more obsolescent types were assigned to the reserves. Aeronautical development elsewhere was proceeded at an exceptional pace, but even in 1938 the Soviet designs were still holding their own.

The main impediment to Soviet aviation development had been suitable aero-engines. This had finally been solved. Most of the designs from the late 1920s and early 1930s were built around the Bristol Jupiter or the BMW VI liquid-cooled engine, which had been manufactured under license from the late 1920s. The BMW VI was eventually developed by the Mikulin bureau into the AM-35 used in the MiG-3 and Il-2, but in 1938, important new developments were at hand. Firstly was an agreement to allow for the license manufacture of the Wright R-1820 Cyclone radial engine, numbers of which were imported directly from the USA to power the first I-15 aircraft. As the M-25, this engine became the basis for the Shvetsov radials which powered the later Lavochkin fighters, the Tu-2, and other later aircraft. Negotiations were also concluded for the manufacture the Hispano-Suiza 12Y liquid-cooled engine, which first powered the SB-2 series and was subsequently developed by the Klimov bureau as the VK-100/107 series, used in the Yakovlev fighters, the Pe-2, and many other important VVS aircraft. Finally, a license was obtained for the Gnôme-Rhône 14K Mistral Major, which was first built as the M-85, further developed by Tumanskii (within the Mikulin KB) and used in the DB-3 series. These four engines were used in all VVS aircraft (excepting Lend-Lease) until the advent of the first (Rolls-Royce Nene) jets after 1946.

In terms of organization, the Soviet Military Air Forces consisted of the VVS-RKKA (Military Air Forces of the Red Army) and VVS-VMF (Naval Aviation). The front-line strength of the VVS was approximately 60 brigades in the VVS-RKKA plus another 7 or 8 in the VVS-VMF. Each brigade consisted of three or four eskadrilya, which by late 1938 usually included four three-aircraft zvena (fighters or ground-attack) or two-aircraft para of bombers, so the nominal strength of a fighter eskadrilya was 12 fighters and of a bomber eskadrilya eight bombers. The nominal strength of a brigada was therefore anywhere from (minimum) 24 bombers to (maximum) 48 fighters. The heavy bombers (TB-3s) were assigned to special Corps of two or three brigady. It was common for air units to be amalgamated into Composite or Mixed Brigades assigned to each Military District, where fighter, bomber and ground-attack eskadrili were combined into the same unit. (This organizational structure was superceded twice before the start of the Great Patriotic War, first in April 1939 and again in July 1940.)

Military aviation was centered geographically, with some air assets assigned by region, to specific Military Districts, and others assigned to ground armies. There were 14 of these “Special Military Districts” in 1938; the ones facing Europe were the Belorussian, Leningrad, and Odessa Military Districts (voenny okrug). These were further revised in 1940, after the Soviet invasion of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Bessarabia, and Bukovina.

The Purges must also be considered in assessing the combat readiness of the VVS in 1938. The 1937 Purge had seen Marshal Tukhachevski executed in June 1937. General Alksnis, the VVS commander, disappear into the basement of the Lyubyanka that November. Many of the Military District commanders and their deputies were arrested and shot, including Marshal Blyukher, commander of the Soviet forces in the Far East. Many of their colleagues were also arrested, and most of the senior leadership was replaced by returnees from Spain, who just as quickly were themselves being culled. The pilots sent to Spain returned to find themselves under suspicion because of their exposure to foreigners, and many of these would also disappear. There was a clear leadership vacuum, and while the Spanish veterans who replaced the senior officers brought combat experience, few of them had any strategic vision, and in any event their views were largely unheard.

At roughly the same time, Stalin imposed a dual command structure throughout the Soviet military. Previously, the political commissar and the military commander had worked together, where the commissar’s duties were clearly defined and did not encroach upon military decisions. Now, however, the military commander and the commissar shared authority, and military decisions could not be made without the approval of the political officer. This greatly hampered the decision-making process, and the atmosphere of fear no doubt had a significant impact on the morale as well as the direction of Soviet military aviation.

Whether a conflict with Germany in 1938 over Czechoslovakia would have changed this significantly is open to discussion. By late 1938 much of the damage had already been done. The aerial operations against Japan in September 1939 were perhaps misleading, since the air leaders there, Shmushkievich, Rychagov and Grivtsevets, were very far away from the paranoia and intrigues of the Kremlin. What’s more, they succeeded in defeating the Japanese decisively. (Interesting note: this was also Zhukov’s first great success.) Certainly, these factors served to impede the fighting ability of the VVS in 1939-40 during the Winter War.

Despite this, the Luftwaffe would most certainly have had its hands full. A year later, during the attack on Poland, they suffered much heavier losses than is generally believed in the West, although here the Poles had the advantages of fighting in defense and over their own territory, which are advantages which would have accrued to the Germans in this scenario. They would have been greatly outnumbered, particularly with the German commitment in Spain (which would have ended immediately — with what effect?), and I suspect that Soviet numbers would have prevailed, particularly since in 1938 the qualitative edge that the Germans later enjoyed was minimal. It would have certainly made a difference in the fortunes of Europe.

In September 1939, Soviet air operations against Poland were minimal. The Air Force organization, still recovering from the purges of the past three years, was not ready for battle. Another possibility is to explore the consequences which may have arisen from a more cordial Allied treatment of the Soviet call for a Triple Alliance against Germany in April of 1939. Both France and England vacillated over the Soviet proposal, fearful of the repercussions it could hold for the independent Eastern European states of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Finland. These minor countries didn’t want Russian troops marching through their territory. Soviet obligations, under their own proposal, would have required them to come to Poland’s aid in the event of German aggression.