The Soviet Union: Glider Pioneer?

G-11s, along with the Antonov A-7 constituted a majority of Soviet transport gliders. They were mainly used from mid-1942 for supplying Soviet partisans with provisions, weapons, equipment and trained men, towed mainly by SB or DB-3 bombers. Most intensive use was from March to November 1943 in Belarus, in the Polotsk-Begoml-Lepel area, on the Kalinin Front. Several hundred Soviet gliders (of all types) were used in night supply flights there. After landing, the gliders were destroyed and pilots were sometimes returned by aircraft. The only known instance of a glider returning from the field occurred in April 1943, when a famous glider and test pilot Sergei Anokhin evacuated two wounded partisan commanders in a G-11, towed by a Tupolev SB bomber, piloted by Yuriy Zhelutov, on a 10 m (33 ft) short towrope.

Gliders were also used to supply partisans in some areas in 1944 and to transport sabotage groups behind enemy lines. G-11 gliders were also used in at least one small-scale airborne operation, the Dnepr crossing, carrying anti-tank guns and mortars.

A less typical action was an airbridge from Moscow to the Stalingrad area in November 1942, to rapidly deliver anti-freeze coolant for tanks, during the battle of Stalingrad.

The A-7 was considered a successful design, but it had less capacity than the other light glider, the G-11. Moreover, a place for cargo was limited by an arrangement of seats and a presence of cantilevers of a retractable landing gear in the center of a transport compartment. It could transport seven troops (including pilot) or up to 900 kg of cargo.

The G-11 enjoyed relative success as a light transport glider design, having more capacity than the Antonov A-7, and its transport compartment was a better fit for cargo, although light guns could only be carried in parts due to small hatches.

While this glider transport experiment [Russian transport of infantry in gliders attached to bombers] first attracted attention and caused much comment among aviation writers and experts, the military leaders among other great powers took little heed of the glider potential, except for the war-minded Germans.

Just after dark one day in the spring of 1943, gliders took off from an airfield whose name, if it had one, is now lost. Their destination was secret. The Soviet Union was fighting for its life. No one was yet convinced that her armies had conclusively stemmed the German onslaught. The gliders carried Matjus Sumauskas, president of the Supreme Soviet of the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic, Henrikas Zimanas, editor-in-chief of Komunistas, and seventy others. They were all Lithuanians and members of Operative Group II, organized to launch partisan movements in German-held Lithuania.

Some 600 miles behind German lines, the gliders cut away from their tow planes. It was black below. Some came in to fairly good landings. One crashed, killing all. Zimanas’s glider hit an obstacle and was virtually demolished, with the pilot killed and the passengers badly bruised or severely injured. The accident hurt Zimanas’s spine and leg. Despite his injuries and the arrival of an evacuation aircraft, he remained with the mission, assisting as best he could as a radio operator while the other partisans made their way to the Kazyan Forest. Regaining strength, although limping and in severe pain, Zimanas caught up with the main force in the Kazyan Forest. He then went with it to Lithuania.

Nothing was ever known in the West during the war of these isolated but daring partisan operations behind German lines that were frequently launched with gliders. It was through those missions that the use of transport gliders was finally coming into its own in Soviet military operations, the culmination of years of preparation.

Like the Germans, the Soviets had long been avid gliding and soaring enthusiasts. The Soviet Union was one of the few countries to compete with the Germans with any degree of success in the development of gliding. The meager amount of information allowed to seep out of the Soviet Union gave no idea of the great activity centered around glider development there. Soviet progress appears to have anticipated that of Germany by perhaps as much as five years, a fact of immense historical significance.

In the Soviet Union, the state took a direct interest in soaring. Under its support, Soviet glider pilots began to gain international recognition shortly before World War II. In 1925, the Soviets held their first national glider competition in the Crimea.

While Germany originally used the glider as a subterfuge to improve its aeronautical technology and skill resources, the Soviets embarked upon a substantial glider development program for entirely different reasons. Germany’s interest in the glider was rooted in those of its qualities that could serve military ends and took absolutely no notice of its commercial value. In the Soviet Union, it was the other way around. Military use became a coincidental offshoot. Soviet commercial aircraft could fly passengers and cargo into areas that had no trains and where roads were impassable in bad weather. The aircraft was solving historical communication problems that had reined in domestic development over the centuries. The aircraft was meeting a vital economic and political need at a critical point in the history of the Soviet Union. The Soviet expansion of commercial air transportation strove to keep up with the increasing demand to fly more and more passengers and cargo.

Short in technological skills and lacking the industrial capacity and production know-how to turn out the increasing number of aircraft demanded of a strained economy, the Soviets turned to the transport glider as offering a way to double air-cargo capacity, using substantially less resources in airframe materials, aircraft, engines and fuel than would be necessary to achieve the same cargo lift with powered transport aircraft.

By then, Soviet-built gliders had been towed long distances in single tow. Experiments were started in double and triple tows, with the thought that ultimately a single aircraft could tow many transport gliders carrying passengers in “glider train” formation. So rapidly did they progress, that by 1939 they had managed the art of towing as many as five single-place gliders with a single aircraft, a feat never matched elsewhere and an accomplishment not surpassed outside of the Soviet Union since.

Although Soviet interest focused chiefly on sport gliding in the 1920’s, the government decided to expand Soviet gliding activities in the 1930’s. In 1931, a dramatic upsurge occurred when the Komsomol passed a resolution calling for an unheralded expansion of the gliding movement during the Ninth Party Congress, held in January. The Komsomol announced a threefold purpose in its resolution: first, it sought to build an enormous pool of glider pilots through training programs; second, it hoped to gain useful information for its aeronautical research program through research and development and the testing of new glider models; and third, it was setting out to capture as many world records as it could.

To back up the program, the government built a glider factory in Moscow in 1932. It set production goals at 900 primary trainers and 300 training gliders per year. It named Oleg K. Antonov, an aircraft engineer and designer who was to become famous for his glider designs, to head design and engineering at the plant.

Shortly after the Komsomol resolution was passed, eighty leading glider and light-plane designers assembled at Koktabel. They studied twenty-two glider designs and selected seven for construction and tests to be made in 1932. In retrospect, the pace at which the whole movement progressed gives some indication of the importance the government placed on the program.

In thirty-six days of tests, Soviet glider pilots flew 662 flights, averaging more than an hour each in the seven gliders to be tested. Together with testing conducted on other gliders from distant parts of the Soviet Union, they established six new Soviet records. During that year, V. A. Stepanchenok in a G-9 glider looped 115 times and flew upside down for more than one minute in a single flight. Soviet glider pilots went on to perform new and unexpected aerobatics and carried out long-distance tows and a multitude of other feats. By 1939, Olga Klepikova flew a glider 465 miles to capture the world distance record, a feat that was unbeaten for twenty-two years. On the same occasion, B. Borodin flew two passengers for more than four hours in a single flight and, with that feat, the transport glider was born. It was then up to some perceptive person to recognize the significance of the flight, and it appears that this was not long in happening.

Although Soviet authorities saw the transport glider as a solution to commercial needs for more air lift, they apparently concurrently saw that the transport glider had some military potential. Military and commercial development began simultaneously in the very early 1930’s, perhaps in 1931 or 1932, and ran on closely parallel paths. The Moscow glider factory was their design and production focal point. In 1934, the Moscow glider factory produced the GN-4, a five-place glider that could transport four passengers and was designed for towed flight.

The idea for a multi-passenger towed glider, as opposed to the two-passenger soaring glider already flown, must have blossomed in 1932 or 1933, inasmuch as Groshev (designer of the transport glider GN-4), had one on the drawing board then. The GN-4 appears to have been a modest development compared with others then on the drawing board, for General I. I. Lisov, in his Parachutists—Airborne Landing, published in Moscow in 1968, reveals that as far back as 1932 the work plan for the Voenno Vozdushniy Sily (VVS) design bureau included the G-63 glider, a craft that could carry seventeen soldiers or a like amount of cargo. What is even more remarkable is that the bureau was daring enough to include a requirement for a fifty-man glider, the G-64, which was to be towed by a TB-1 bomber.

While there are those who would criticize such bold statements as an attempt to bolster the Soviet ego with another first or discount them as pure propaganda, there is evidence based on what was to come that the statements did not come from unrealistic fantasy. In 1935, the Soviet magazine Samolet (Flight) discussed the use of gliders for carrying passengers, citing an eighteen-passenger glider, and having a photograph in support. The article goes so far as to give an illustration of a transport glider train drawn by a four-engined aircraft. This would mean that the 1932 VVS design requirement was realized, in part, by 1935 or earlier, since gliders cannot be designed, built and tested overnight. On 9 October 1935, the New York Times reported that a 118-passenger glider with a ninety-two-foot wingspan, the G-3, had been built by the experimental institute in Leningrad and test-flown several times. It was to have been flown from Leningrad to Moscow the same month. This was undoubtedly the glider reported in Samolet.

In his book Without Visible Means of Support, Richard Miller mentions that the Soviets experimented in 1934 with a thirteen-passenger troop glider, grossing 8,000 pounds. In that same year, the Soviets could boast ten gliding schools, 230 gliding stations and 57,000 trained glider pilots.

Around 1934, a new concept took hold, fostered by Lev Pavlovich Malinovskii, head of the Scientific Technical administration of the Grazhdanskiy Vazdushniy Flot (Civilian Air Fleet). Malinovskii conceived the idea of using a low-powered freight glider plane, easy to produce and cheap to operate, that could solve some of Russia’s long-distance fast freight needs. The fully laden glider would carry around a ton of goods and be powered by a single 100-horsepower engine. The engine would assist the tow plane during take-off. Once safely airborne, the glider would cast off and deliver its cargo to a distant terminal under its own power.

Because most of the models were underpowered, only one or two went beyond the experimental stage. Several apparently grew into sizeable ten-passenger models, and there is a strong likelihood that these models, with engines removed, became the first of the larger twenty-passenger transport gliders developed in the Soviet Union and observed during the mid- 1930’s.

While Soviet designers and engineers were busy at the task of creating and producing the new aircraft, military leaders went about the task of building airlanding and parachute forces to use them. By 1933, the first of these formations appeared. The Soviet Union startled the world when 1,200 soldiers landed by parachute with all weapons and equipment during maneuvers around Kiev. Later in the year, aircraft transported a complete division, together with armored vehicles, from Moscow to Vladivostok, a distance of 4,200 miles. Minister of War Kliment Voroshilov was fully justified in stating at a congress in 1935:

“Parachuting is the field of aviation in which the Soviet Union has a monopoly. No nation on earth can even approximately compare with the Soviet Union in this field, far less could any nation dream of closing the existing gap by which we are leading. There can be no question at all of our being surpassed.”

That gliders were used in these maneuvers is not confirmed, although they may have been. Because of the secrecy surrounding them and the fact that they were so similar to powered aircraft in appearance, their presence among the powered aircraft could have passed unnoticed. Terence Otway states, however, that “by 1935, [the Soviet Union] had gone a long way towards creating an effective airborne force, including parachute troops carried in gliders.”

In the Caucasus maneuvers of 1936, the paratroopers participated publicly. From that point forward, however, all exercises and maneuvers of the arm were carried out in strict secrecy. Keith Ayling reports in They Fly to Fight on a large number of personnel carried in gliders, in one instance, in 1936. They were undoubtedly from the same Caucasus maneuver.

After dropping the veil of secrecy over airborne developments, the Soviets did not entirely neglect the fledgling airborne arm, contrary to foreign observer indications. By 1940, they approved an airborne brigade of 3,000 men, of which more than a third were glider troops. By mid 1941, in a doctrinal turnabout, glider troop elements disappeared from Soviet troop lists, although glider manufacture continued. Only recently has information become available that in 1941, just before the war started, the Soviet Union had already built a glider tank transport, the world’s first, which was capable of transporting a light armored vehicle. Shortly after this flight, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and no more experiments with that glider were conducted. However, the daring experiment, far ahead of those of any other nation manufacturing gliders, gives some indication of the extent of the Soviet Union’s interest in, and progress with, the glider as a military tool.

To what extent German military leaders learned from Soviet transport glider developments is not certain, but those developments certainly could not have gone unnoticed, in view of a curious succession of events involving both the Soviet Union and Germany. In a much overlooked clause, the Treaty of Rapallo of 1922 enabled the German military to produce and perfect in Russia weapons forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles. To that end, the Soviets turned over the remote, disused Lipetsk airfield, about 310 miles southeast of Moscow, in 1924, where they established a flying school and also tested aircraft. Through these activities, the Red Air Force gained information about German technical developments.

In 1923, the Germans opened a “Moscow Center” liaison office in Moscow, manned by German officers who reported to the Defense Ministry in Berlin. Junkers and other German aircraft manufacturers built factories in the Soviet Union, staffed by German officers and aircraft engine experts. Many officers, such as August Plock, Hermann Plocher and Kurt Student, who were later to become generals and who occupied important posts in the Luftwaffe, served in the Soviet Union in the 1920’s. General Student, who masterminded Hitler’s glider attack on Eben Emael while an infantry officer, visited the Lipetsk airfield every year from 1924 to 1928.

Three factors strongly suggest that early German development and use of the transport glider followed Soviet developments by three to five years. The Soviets must have had their transport glider on the drawing board perhaps as early as 1932 to enable them to produce their five-passenger GN-4 in 1934 or earlier. The Germans produced their Obs (flying observatory) in 1933 or 1934, a glider that was not a true transport vehicle but closer to a scientific laboratory. Second, foreign observers saw Soviet transport gliders in flight in 1935 or 1936, carrying perhaps as many as fifteen to eighteen passengers. The nine-passenger German DFS 230 glider did not appear before 1938, and it proved to be a substantially smaller model than those seen in the Soviet Union up to that time. Third, the Russians had large airborne organizations in planning in the early 1930’s and actually flew them in the large airborne drop at Kiev in 1935, while it was not until 1938 that the Germans finally organized their 7. Flieger-Division.

Although Soviet military leaders conducted few and only marginally useful air assaults during the war and the glider saw only limited use as a military transport to support these operations, it did play some role.

For the Dnjepr River crossing operations of 24 September 1943, the Soviets planned to use thirty-five gliders to transport heavy guns and equipment. In planning, the glider landings had been sandwiched in between the first and second massed parachute drops. Apparently, the glider phase was not implemented. Apart from this, it was used extensively in partisan support operations and in many raids.

German forces found guerrillas annoying and persistent. Although guerrillas lived off the land to a great extent, the regular military force kept them supplied with weapons and ammunition by glider and, where possible, by powered aircraft. The magnitude of these operations and the importance played by the glider can be judged by the fact that in counterguerrilla operations conducted just in and around Lipel alone, the German forces overran one field that held more than 100 gliders.

Gliders transported rations, weapons, medical supplies and, at the same time, provided partisans with key personnel and important orders and information. Gliders landed by night on emergency airfields and during the winter on the ice of frozen lakes. This support enabled the partisans to carry out successful attacks on railroads, roads, airfields, bridges, convoys, columns of troops, rear area command agencies and even troop units. The Germans suffered heavy losses of personnel and materiel. The Germans flew reconnaissance missions to discover air-drop and landing fields in partisan-held areas, attacked airlift operations wherever they were identified, used deception by setting up dummy airfields and giving fake signals and eventually activated a special antipartisan wing, comprised of 100 Ar 66’s. The results achieved against the guerrillas, especially in the central sector of the front, remained unsatisfactory. In the final analysis, this use of airlift by the Russian Air Force must be considered a success, since the relentless night airlift operations enabled the partisans to carry out their tasks.

After the war, Soviet interest in gliders did not immediately wane, and new models were reported, though sources of these reports are few and hard to find. As late as 1965, the Soviets had three glider regiments, which they have since deactivated.

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