Red Army VVS Assault Aviation

The Red Army VVS assault aviation first saw combat near Berezin and Bobruisk. The combination of armament and armor made IL-2 a potent means of fighting enemy ground forces, especially against tanks and motorized units. First days showed German tanks and motorized units’ ability for rapid maneuver and mass strike. Russia’s ground forces could not withstand the Germans and assault aviation rose in value. Because of the lack of special aircraft, IL-2 attacked only moving tank and motorized columns and tank concentrations. Later IL-2 also was used to attack targets on the battlefield.

Early combat showed that the pilot could attack targets from 300-400m using rocket shells and could destroy 1-2 tanks in one passe. Rockets demoralized the enemy, and in several cases tank crews fled their tanks under air attack. Bombs and machinegun fire were also effective.

Analyzing period documents we can see combat experience summarized: how the enemy acted and what was good and bad in applying Soviet assault aviation. In “Conclusion about combat applying West Front VVS” we find: “in the Bobruisk airfield 28-29 June 1941, 30-35 enemy fighters Me-109 were destroyed by sturmoviks from 4th Aviation Regiment on the ground “. In another part German tactics were documented: “There were cases when enemy pilots used deception: 2-3 aircraft JU-88, pursuing escorts, dropped their landing gear above the airfield, descended, went along airfield border and, from an altitude of 400-500m, suddenly attacked (attack on airfield Bihov 28 June 1941). Another document (report ” To the Reserve Front VVS navigator”) spoke about problems that appeared in the first month of war. There were differences between theoretical and practical combat range of the new aircraft (IL-2, MIG-3, and Pe-2), which caused forced landings in first days of war, lack of radio navigation (only by compass or visually), and poor bombing accuracy due to lack of precise target pointing. At the same time the document also spoke about new methods of applying experience. Very good results drove dive attack tactics and emphasized the need for fighter cover during assault operations. An interesting fact concerned the new method of using rockets which were fired backward from the aircraft (rocket launchers were turned around), allowing attacks on enemy columns or position without turning (also used later in Afghanistan and Chechnya). Another instruction (about narrow target attack tactics) pointed to the utility of using Pe-2, SU-2, and IL-2 in small groups (zveno/shesterka) with echelon attack (in 10-15 minute intervals), using sun or clouds to gain surprise. The instruction also spoke about ground target attack effectiveness for IL-2 from low altitude and as a dive bomber in diving maneuvers. Support for ground forces was proposed, in attacking vital points such as small targets; artillery positions and grenade positions. In addition it recommended sending a liaison from AF to ground units for better coordination. Wide use of camouflage on airfields was stressed. Another document concerning assault aviation addressed the need to attack enemy airfields using combined groups (bombers, sturmoviks and fighters). First strike was recommended for fighters (to suppress airfield FLAK), and in common operations, the ratio of fighters and sturmoviks was recommended two to one.

The first big application of Soviet assault aviation was in Mozhaisk defense, as component of Special Air Group under the command of N. A. Sbytova. The group consisted of 46th Bomber Air Regiment (equipped with Pe-2), 65th and 243d Ground attack Regiments (with IL-2). In that operation, the Group interacted with 5th Army. Later in counteroffensive near Moscow, VVS flew 16,000 combat sorties in three days, half of them supporting ground forces. Front Aviation according to the Soviet sources “played significant role in the offensive against Army Group Center”.

Nevertheless, speaking about basic assault aviation aircraft – IL-2 (despite some successes) suffered big losses. The absence of a gunner made sturmovik defenseless to rear-quarter fighter attack. German Air Command formed special fighter group of pilots trained in attacking IL-2 from above and behind. In the combat units (for example in 806 SHAP sturmovik air regiment) engineers and technicians improvised a gunner position using a hatch behind the pilot (made for transporting a maintenance technician). From veterans’ stories, rear gun was sometimes simulated by installing sticks (creating illusion of a machinegun for fighters). The weak point was also a wood tail section (later it was reinforced by a steel longeron). Combat operations also indicate a small speed range for the IL-2 which complicated sturmovik group actions (and led to new engine development).

A special tactic was developed for defense from enemy fighters. Single-seat IL-2 attacked ground targets from a “free circle” with 150-200m between aircraft. When enemy fighters appeared they formed a “closed circle”(forward aircraft was covered by firepower of the one behind).

Nevertheless it was impossible to quickly fix these problems. In October 1941 KB S. V. Ilyushina was evacuated from Moscow. Several aviation factories were also evacuated (including factories that produced IL-2) and because of this mass production of IL-2 was reduced and stopped altogether for 35 days. In very hard conditions people started production in new places, sometimes working under the open sky. At that time two aircraft factory directors Shekman and Tretyakov got this telegram:

“You betray our country and our Red Army. You have not to this date produced the IL-2. Red Army needs IL-2 aircraft as air, as bread. Shekman gives one IL-2 per day, Tretyakov one-two MIG-3. There is a rout on the Red Army. I ask you to not frustrate the government. I require you to produce more IL-2. This is your last warning.” (National Defense Commissar I. V. Stalin P553).

After that IL-2 production increased, partly by reducing MIG-3 production. Finally the two-seat IL-2 started going through its factory tests.

Hostilities also shaped the combat tactics of sturmoviks. Emphasis was made that the basic targets for sturmoviks should be enemy tanks and that it was ineffective to use all ammunition in one attack. The orders spoke about to the requirement to assign the units a clear mission before the flight to include time of target attack, numbers of attacks, time on target, enemy strength, return orders, group actions in air battle, anti FLAK maneuvers, and protection for take off and landing. On 18 June 1942 came Stalin’s order about applying fighters and sturmoviks IL-2 on the battlefield as day bombers with approved weapons variants. Commander of Western Front VVS Colonel Naumenko issued directions that emphasized the need for better interaction between the Army and aviation and aviation units assigned to airfields close to the front line (for faster reaction). He also made special directions about sturmovik actions (prohibition of flying the same route to the targets and the need to have detailed combat plans).

Tremendous changes in USSR military aviation happened after General A. A. Novikov was assigned as VVS Commander (11 Apr 1942). His reformations created Air Armies, which took airpower application to a higher level. The Air Armies enabled force concentration, flexibility, and quick reaction to changes in the situation. Novikov’s next step was to develop communications, which was a weakness in military aviation.

Using of assault aviation also showed new problems – inability for sturmoviks fight against enemy fighters from “hedgehop” altitudes and necessity of creating new methods of attack.

Especially effective against our sturmoviks, enemy fighter groups, attacking our sturmovik employing “hedgehop” tactics, engaged them and shot from close distance. On several occasions ME-109s approached closely to IL-2, dropped their landing gear, stood on their tail, and with carefully aimed fire from machineguns attacked the vulnerable spots of the sturmoviks-between the cockpit dome and fuselage and in the side cockpit dome windows-while they were attempting to land.

New sturmovik tactics emerged: diving attack with new array and target attack order, assault blow from “hedgehop”, bombing from level flight, and defense air battle against enemy fighters.

The next serious phase of applying assault aviation was the battle in Stalingrad. At that time 8th Air Army reinforced by ten regiments (General Novikov’s special order) took part in the hostilities. Seventy-five percent of the Army equipment was new types of aircraft: YAK-1, YAK-7b, IL-2, and Pe-2.

General Falaleev was assigned in June as Chief of Staff VVS. In August the units got his order which emphasized assigning combat missions to the units, fighter coordination, the role of sturmovik units in escort and maneuvers above the target and supporting problems.

During Stalingrad battle, assault aviation was used very frequently and effectively. For example, from 18 to 22 August 8th Air Army flew more than 1,000 sorties to prevent enemy forces from crossing the Don River. Attacks were made by groups of ten to thirty Pe-2 and IL-2, covered by fighters, that greatly increased their effectiveness. On 22 October came General Novikov’s special Directive for ground attack and fighter regiments, “It is necessary to train a minimum of five crews for flying in complex and night conditions”. In the defensive operation phase 406 night sorties were made by sturmoviks IL-2. On 12 November Stalin made clear that his basic objective for VVS in Stalingrad was to concentrate efforts in the breakthrough zone, clear the airspace from enemy aircraft, and create the necessary support and air cover for the ground forces. When the offensive operation started in Stalingrad the battlefield picture was: 17th Air Army supported 5th Tank Army and 21st Army, 16th Air Army supported 65th Army and 8th Air Army assisted 50th Army. In the 16th Air Army in that period almost all assault aviation was replaced by new IL-2s reinforced by two bomber divisions of Pe-2. November’s combat statistics of this Army showed that of 2,848 sorties flown in that period, 2/3 were against Germany’s airfields. A bright spot in the offensive operations were VVS tactics. In December 1942 (16-31) of the 4,177 sorties flown by 2nd and 17th Air Armies 80% supported ground troops. The tactic of assault aviation was constantly developed. A method of attacking targets from low-level with small number of heavily armed IL-2s was created. The example of successfully using that method occurred with 7 IL-2s, under the command of Captain I. P. Baktin and covered by of squadron YAK-1, on 2 January at Sal’sk airfield. Soviet sturmoviks made six passes and destroyed 72 Germany aircraft, losing only four of their own aircraft. On 28 November a Soviet air raid destroyed 219 enemy aircraft on the Gumral and Bol’shaya Rossoshka airfields.

General lessons learned in Soviet military aviation development from the battle of Stalingrad include the clear need to create Air Armies, develop communication systems (to allow coordination of those armies), close coordination with ground forces, and developing new methods of applying assault aviation.

In 1942, many orders and instructions about assault aviation application were issued. Among others, instructions for conditional signals for sturmovik (bombers) and fighter’s interaction were issued. Special instruction: “Sturmovik action against airfields and small targets” were developed. It spoke about choosing and apportioning targets among flying crews, selecting routes to a target, approaching a target, attacking a target, leaving the target, rejoining, active defense against enemy fighters, returning to base, and using bombs with special fuses.

Viewing the “air battle” above Kuban we can divide it in two parts. The first part was fighting to achieve air superiority. The second part for supporting Soviet force offensive operations broadly was applied assault aviation. For example; in the battle near village Krymskaya, sturmoviks from 2nd Mixed Air Corp under command of General Major I. T. Yeremenko supported tanks attack. The 4th Air Army in interacting with naval air units in the period from 29 Apr to 10 May made 12000 sorties and more than half of them against Germany ground positions. In operation of “Blue Line” attack mass strike tactic were again applied: 4th Air Army attacked German positions with 338 combat aircraft. There in the first time IL-2 used special bombs for smoke screen making, under cover of which Soviet ground forces were able to secretively approach enemy position and attack by surprise. Senior Lieutenant N. P. Dedov applied the new tactic in attacking Germany artillery position with 36 IL-2 under fighter cover. They attacked by columns, six aircraft in each, to predefined targets, with changing columns above targets in a circle (later it called “circle of death”), which gave for each pilot more freedom in maneuve.

And of course speaking about Soviet assault aviation application in WWII, we can’t overlook the “Battle of Kursk”. The “Battle of Kursk” became the smithy of new assault tactics against Germany armor. The initial phase of operation, like in Stalingrad, had a defensive character; 16th and 2nd Air Armies participated in it. The VVS was already fully reorganized and rearmed. Sturmoviks IL-2 were changed to IL-2M3 with more powerful engine and a shooter in the back cabin, armed with a 12.7mm machinegun. Also the aircraft had NS-37 guns (constructor A. E. Nudel’man), special pocket shells RBS-82 and RBS-132, cumulative bombs PTAB-2.5-1.5 (constructor I. A. Larionov). The first time that kind of bomb was used occurred on 6 June 1943 in “Kursk Arc” battle. Using those weapons pilots from 291 Assault Air Division (Commander Colonel A. Vitruk) in first five days of “Kursk Battle” destroyed and damaged 422 enemy tanks. In the defensive phase of operations VVS started applying “Okhotniki” (hunters) tactic, including sturmoviks in the teams. Their patrolled pointed areas, attacking all possible targets and exerted constant military pressure on the German Army rear area.

On 12 of July near Prokhorovka, the biggest tank battle of WWII happened, involving some 1200 tanks. Assault aviation from both sides actively participated in the battle, attacking enemy tanks and each other. By the end of battle Germany lost 300 tanks, the Soviet side had commensurable losses, but was better able to absorb these losses. The failure of the German offensive operation “Citadel” enabled the Soviets to launch counteroffensive operation. The VVS in that operation had the followings objectives: establish control of the air space above the battle zone, make a blow against enemy ground forces to create a corridors for own forces, support ground force offensives on the battlefield and continue attacking enemy reserves attacking.

IL-2 contributed to the victory of “Kursk Battle” in a major fashion. Attacking, for example, the 9th Panzer Division in July 7 1943, sturmoviks in 20 minutes destroyed 70 tanks or in four attacks against the 17th Panzer Division destroyed near 200 (from 300). In favor of it powerful weapons and invulnerability IL-2 was named as “flying tank”. An article in the Pravda (August 8, 1943) stated that:

“It was clear to us that air forces would primarily be used in joint operations with land armies and the navy. Therefore, our design ideas were directed toward aircraft that would render the most effective assistance to the ground forces of Red Army”.

Summarizing the experience of assault aviation application in the “Kursk Battle”, we can conclude that it entailed the first mass application against enemy armor and was used in offensive operation for creating “offense corridors”, with later close ground support on a battlefield.

Also assault aviation was broadly applied in the Navy for enemy ships attacks and amphibious support. The effective attack method for sturmovik IL-2 against enemy ships was the “topmachtoviy method”. The results were five-time higher compare with bombing from horizontal flight. An aircraft went on 30m altitude with 400km/h speed, dropped bombs, rebounding on water, smash in the ship’s board. Trying to attach torpedoes to IL-2 wasn’t successful (it was too heavy for IL-2). The great example of applying sturmoviks in the Navy can be operation of Crimea deliverance. In it took a part 23rd Assault Aviation Division, 8th and 47th Assault aviation Regiments (from 11th Assault Aviation Division). In that operation sturmoviks flew ground support sorties, attacking enemy ship convoys with very good results.

by Major Jurijs Plavins