After a slow start the Soviets had by 1953 caught up on
Western jet fighters mainly due to the copying of British Rolls-Royce engines.
MiG had now become the dominant aircraft designer and its fighters would see
service round the world for more than 40 years. This lead in aircraft design
would not last and by the end of the Cold War western aircraft design and
technology would once more be more than a match for the Soviets.
Its development started at the end of World War II, when the
Soviet Union captured numerous German components, including Junkers Jumo-004
jet engines. This engine was studied in the USSR, and the Klimov OKB created a
domestic counterpart under the designation RD-10. In turn, the Yakovlev OKB
used the design to produce a jet fighter based on the latest version of the
The designers decided in favor of the pod-and-boom layout. A
turbojet engine with 900 kg thrust was mounted instead of the old VK-107A
piston engine. The engine was inclined so that the jet stream exited underneath
the fuselage and wing. The rest of the airframe was left almost unchanged,
except for an additional heat shield, made of refractory steel, located in the
exhaust section. The aircraft’s armament included two Nudelman-Suranov NS-23KM
cannons with 60 rounds each. The cannons were housed in the forward fuselage
above the engine. The new Yakovlev fighter was originally called the Yak-Jumo
but later obtained the designation Yak-15.
The first flight of the Yak-15 was on April 24, 1946, and
the plane was launched into full-scale production in the autumn of the same
year. Production Yak-15 planes had a different engine, the RD-10, manufactured
in the USSR. The service life of the earliest engines was officially claimed to
be 25 hours, but in reality it was 17 hours at best. Nevertheless, the Yak-15
was very easy to pilot, and its steering was similar to that of the Yak-3, which
had been the basis of its development. As a result, it was decided that
although the Yak-15 did not meet the requirements of the Air Force for a modern
combat fighter, it was perfectly suitable as a transition from prop to jet
In addition to its engine’s limited service life, the Yak-15
had a number of distinctive disadvantages. The most commonly encountered
defects during its operation included hydraulic fluid leaks (through the
sealing rings of the landing gear shock struts), the rupturing of rudder
control cable threads, and the deterioration of tail wheel springs (probably
caused by overheating). But the Yak-15’s main disadvantage was its very short
Nevertheless, the significance of the Yak-15 in the history
of Soviet aviation should not be underestimated. Hundreds of pilots underwent
training on planes of this type, and it was the Yak-15 that became the first
Soviet jet aircraft officially accepted for service in the Air Force as well as
the first jet fighter that enabled military pilots to master advanced
Production of the Yak-15 was discontinued in 1947. In all,
280 planes were constructed.
An all-metal, single-seat cantilever monoplane with two
turbojet engines, mid-mounted wings, and retractable tricycle landing gear. It
was clear by the end of World War II that the piston-engine-and-propeller combo
had reached the limit of its potential. Soon it would be necessary to switch to
new engine types.
Jet aviation in the USSR changed for the better at the very
end of the war when captured German turbojet engines, particularly the BMW-003,
arrived in the Soviet Union. The aforementioned engine was studied in the
shortest time possible, and a Soviet copy, the RD-20, was launched into mass
In the end of 1945, the Mikoyan Design Bureau began the
development of a jet fighter with two BMW-003 engines (producing 800 kg of
thrust). On 24 April 1946, test pilot A.N. Grinchik first flew the prototype
I-300 (F-1), the first Soviet fighter with a turbojet engine. The plane reached
a speed of 920 km/h and had powerful armament: a 57mm N-57 cannon and two 23mm
In 1946, the I-300 began full-scale production and was
accepted for service with the Air Force under the designation of MiG-9 (Product
FS). Before producing it on a full-scale basis, the designers of the Mikoyan
Design Bureau reworked the fighter’s construction (particularly its fuselage)
from scratch to adapt it to production in large quantities.
The power unit of production MiG-9s consisted of two RD-20
turbojet engines producing 800 kg of thrust apiece. At first, planes of this
model had RD-20A-1 engines, with a service life of 10 hours. Actually, these
engines were captured BMW-003s, reassembled in the USSR. Subsequently, MiG-9s
featured only Soviet-produced turbojet engines: the RD-20A-2, with a service
life of 25 and 50 hours, and later the RD-20B, with a service life of 75 hours.
The armament of the production planes differed from that of
the prototypes. The MiG-9 (Product FS) had one 37mm Nudelman N-37 cannon with
40 rounds and two 23mm Nudelman-Suranov NS-23K cannons with 80 rounds each.
In 1947, it was decided to equip the MiG-9 with RD-21
uprated engines producing 1,000 kg of thrust. The engine was uprated due to
increased gas temperature and turbine revolutions.
A prototype I-307 (Product FF) aircraft was built and tested
with these engines in 1947. The testing showed that the I-307 had higher flight
characteristics than production MiG-9s. The I-307 remained a prototype, since
in March 1948 a decision was made to start the full-scale production of the
more advanced MiG-15.
The last production aircraft were handed over to the Air
Force in December 1948, and in factories they were supplanted by a new plane
from the Mikoyan Design Bureau, the MiG-15. A total of 602 MiG-9 fighters were
The MiG-9 was the beginning of the jet MiG’s history. The
success of the MiG-15 fighter all over the world would have been impossible
without the experience gained in the processes of design, building, testing,
mass production, and operation of the first Soviet jet fighter, the MiG-9.
As new fighters were received by the Air Force, some MiG-9s
would be delivered to China. These planes became the first jet fighters of the
People’s Liberation Army Air Force of China.
In 1948, Soviet high command issued a requirement for a two
man, all-weather, twin -engined jet interceptor that would be capable of
carrying a new type of radar system called “Toriy” (Thorium). All three Soviet
design bureaus (Lavochkin, MiG, and Sukhoi) developed a prototype for testing.
Lavochkin’s design, the La-200, had a long fuselage to
accommodate its two turbojet engines, swept wings, and a large cockpit for two
men. The La-200 took its maiden flight on September 9th, 1949. It was the only
aircraft of the three designs to pass initial trials.
By the early 1950s, the La-200 was ready to enter production
under the official designation La-17. However, due to the appearance of the
Yak-120 (later known as Yak-25), which surpassed the La-200’s performance in
testing, the La-200 order was cancelled in favor of the Yakovlev design.
Only a single prototype of the La-200 was ever built, and it
was modified several times during development to improve performance, correct
flaws, and test other radar systems.
The IL-28 was created to meet a requirement for a bomber to
carry a 3,000-kilogram payload at 800 kph (500 mph). Although there were
several previous attempts to create such an aircraft the IL-28 was the first
successful design. It incorporated the new Rolls-Royce Nene engines, produced
as the unlicensed “RD-45”. After the completion of testing in 1949,
the aircraft was ordered into production on 14 May 1949, with the new Klimov
VK-1, an improved version of the previous RD-45. The IL-28 was widely exported
and was utilized by almost all of the Warsaw Pact nations along with various
Middle Eastern and African nations. It was license-built in China as the Harbin
H-5 and in Czechoslovakia as the Avia B-228. It is known to still be in service
today in the Korean People’s Air Force (KPAF). Although few in number, they
provide North Korea with a means of strategically bombing targets.
An all-metal cantilever monoplane with a crew of three.
Created at OKB S.V. Ilyushin.
S.V. Ilyushin put forward his preliminary design for the
Il-28 on 12 January 1948. By 8 July 1948, the test pilot V.K. Kokkinaki took
the Il-28 out for its maiden flight. It was equipped with two turbojet
Rolls-Royce Nene engines. On 30 December 1948, the Il-28 underwent in-plant
tests with the Russian series-produced RD-45F engine – a licensed version of
the English engine.
But the decision on the aircraft’s fate was delayed until 14
May 1949, when the Council of Ministers decided to increase the Il-28’s speed
to 900 km/h by installing more powerful VK-1 engines with a maximum thrust of
2,700 kgf. In only three months, on 8 August 1949, the Il-28 took its maiden
flight with the VK-1 engines.
The turbojet VK-1 engines were located under the wing in
streamlined engine nacelles.
The Il-28’s armament included two turrets – one to the fore
and one to the rear. Two frontal 23 mm Nudelman-Rikhter NR-23 cannons with 100
shells each were mounted in a fixed position in side compartments in the front
fuselage. The pilot acted as gunner for the frontal cannons.
The movable Il-K6 tail turret also contained two 23 mm
Nudelman-Rikhter NR-23 cannons, these with 225 shells each.
The aircraft could carry bombs of various calibers
internally, up to and including the FAB-3000. Its bomb compartment could
contain 12 FAB-100 bombs or eight FAB-250s, or between two and four FAB-500s,
or a single FAB-1500 or FAB-3000.
The Il-28 became the most mass-produced jet-powered bomber.
The aircraft was easy to manufacture and reliable in use. It was in series
production between the years of 1950 and 1956. The Il-28 reached peak production
during the Korean War: in 1953, six plants were building them at once. In
total, 4,405 Il-28 bombers were produced. In the 50s, the Il-28 was the main
front-line bomber in the Soviet Air Forces.
The Il-28 was widely distributed beyond the borders of the
USSR. It served in the air forces or air-defense forces of: Algeria,
Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Hungary, Vietnam, East Germany, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq,
Yemen, China, North Korea, Morocco, Nigeria, Poland, Romania, Syria, Somalia,
Finland and Czechoslovakia. The People’s Republic of China and Czechoslovakia
produced them under license (with the designation B-228).
The MiG-9 was a cantilever mid-wing monoplane of all-metal
construction with a smooth stressed skin and a retractable tricycle undercarriage.
To simplify the process of assembly the aircraft was divided into several
semi-monocoque stressed-skin structure. Duralumin was used as the main
Technologically the fuselage was built in two sections – the
forward fuselage (frames Nos. 1 through 15a) and the rear fuselage (frames Nos.
15 through 35), which were joined together by fittings. The fuselage structure
incorporated two air ducts supplying air to the engines. The ducts had an
elliptic cross-section changing to circular at the rear and ran along the
fuselage sides, flanking the cockpit.
The forward fuselage housed the armament, the nose landing
gear unit, the cockpit with the canopy, controls and appropriate equipment, a
fuel tank and other units. The forward fuselage framework consisted of four
variable-section longerons, 15 frames, a number of stringers, two beams for the
installation of the nose gear unit and two beams for the attachment of the
armament. Attached to frame No. 1 was the front fairing which formed the
aircraft’s nose with a bifurcated air intake for the powerplant. The inlet
ducts were structurally joined to the beams of the nose gear unit and to the
armament attachment beams. Together with the floor of the cockpit, the skinning
and the longitudinal structural members they formed a structure sustaining all
the stresses of the forward fuselage.
The framework of the rear fuselage consisted of four
longerons, 20 frames, a number of stringers and two ribs to which the main
undercarriage units were attached. The aft fuselage housed equipment, wiring
and control units, as well as two bag-type fuel tanks in containers. A heat
shield protecting the fuselage undersurface from hot exhaust gases was mounted
between frames Nos. 19 and 34. Between frames Nos. 19 and 29 the fuselage was
structurally integral with the lower part of the fin. Lugs for mounting the
stabilizers and the fin were installed on frames Nos. 32, 34 and 35.
The landing gear attachment ribs together with the wing
attachment beam and engine attachment beam formed a load-bearing structure
absorbing the loads from the undercarriage, the wings and the engines.
The cockpit was placed in the forward fuselage over the
engines within the space between frame No. 5 and the sloping frame No. 11 a.
The cockpit canopy had a streamlined shape, consisting of a fixed windshield
and an aft-sliding rear portion which could be jettisoned in an emergency. Aft
of frame No. 5 the cockpit floor was partly formed by the inlet ducts. The rear
part of the floor adjoining the rear wall of the cockpit sloped in such a way
that the pilot’s seat was placed between the engines. The seat was a duralumin
pan of the usual type, designed to accommodate a parachute and attached to the
cockpit floor by brackets. The seat was provided with a harness comprising leg
belts and shoulder straps. A padded seat back was attached to the rear cockpit
wall. A padded headrest was attached to the rear bow of the sliding part of the
canopy. The cockpit armour comprised two steel armour plates 12 mm (0.47 in.)
thick and, on some machines, a 55-mm (2.16-in.) bulletproof glass plate mounted
in the front part of the windshield. An attachment unit for the
centrally-mounted cannon was installed in the cockpit on suitably stressed
elements of the structure; the cockpit also housed the control stick and rudder
wings of trapezoidal planform and all-metal two-spar riveted construction,
built as one-piece panels attached to the fuselage sides. Incidence 1°,
dihedral 2.5° and thickness-to-chord ratio 9% over the entire span.
The wings employed a combination of airfoil sections. A
low-lift TsAGI1-A-1 0 airfoil was used in the span segment between ribs Nos. 1
and 3; a high-lift TsAGI1-V-1 0 airfoil was used between rib No. 6 and the
wingtip, and the span segment in between featured a transitional airfoil
section. This combination of airfoil sections precluded the possibility of the
aircraft entering a spin at high angles of attack.
The wing framework comprised two spars, 21 ribs and a number
of stringers. The wings were equipped with Frise ailerons and TsAGI-type
slotted flap§. (modified Fowler flaps). The flaps occupied the portion of the
trailing edge between ribs Nos. 1 and 11, the ailerons being accommodated
between ribs Nos. 11 and No. 21. The ailerons’ maximum deflection angle was
+22S/-14S. The flaps were set at 20° for take-off and 50° for landing. The
trailing-edge section of the wings between ribs Nos. 1 and 6 had a cutout for
the wheel wells. The wings also housed six bag-type fuel tanks which were
placed in containers.
Tail unit: the
empennage was of all-metal construction, featuring high-set cantilever
stabilisers. The tail surfaces employed a NACA0009 symmetric airfoil section.
The fin and the stabilisers were detachable. The horizontal tail was built in
two symmetrical halves, each half having two spars and 11 ribs. The front
stabiliser attachment fittings were of a rack type, permitting the incidence of
the stabilisers to be adjusted on the ground between the angles of +1°10′ and
-4°. The starboard elevator incorporated a steerable trim tab.
The fin structure was similar to that of the stabilisers.
The fin’s frame comprised two spars and six ribs. The elevators were of
allmetal construction and were attached to the stabilisers by five brackets.
The all-metal rudder was attached by three brackets to the fin and the
pneumatically retractable tricycle type, with single wheel on each unit. The
wheel base was 3.02 m (9 ft 11 in.). All three units had levered suspension and
oleopneumatic shock absorbers, those on the main undercarriage struts being
mounted externally. The main units retracted outwards into the wings, the nose
unit aft into the fuselage. The levered-suspension main units had 660 x 160 mm
(25.74 x 6.24 in) wheels equipped with brakes and mounted on semiforks. The nose
unit had a non-braking wheel measuring 480 x 200 mm (18.72 x 7.8 in); it
featured an attachment point, an integral shock absorber, a shimmy damper, an
uplock, a downlock and a retraction jack. Each mainwheel well was closed by two
doors, the bigger one being attached to the main gear strut and the smaller one
to the wing; the nosewheel well had a forward door segment hinged to the nose
gear oleo and two lateral doors at the rear.
RD-20 Series A2 single-shaft axial-flow turbojets delivering 800 kgp (1,764 Ib
st) each. The engine had a seven-stage compressor, a single-stage turbine with
air-cooled blades and a variable nozzle with a movable centre-body. Each engine
had its own Riedel two-cylinder two-stroke starter.
The fuel (kerosene) was accommodated in ten tanks. Four
tanks (including three bagtype tanks) were housed in the aft fuselage, the
remaining six were located in the wings. The total capacity of the fuel system
was 1,595 litres (351 Imp gal), of which 1,225 litres (269.5 Imp gal) could be
carried in the four fuselage tanks. To facilitate engine start-up a special
start-up fuel system using more easily combustible petrol was provided.
production MiG-9s were equipped with one centrally-mounted 37-mm (1.45 calibre)
Nudel’man N-37 cannon with 40 rounds and two 23-mm (.90 calibre) Nudel’man/
Sooranov NS-23K cannons with 80 rpg. The N-37 weighed 103 kg (227 Ib) and
possessed a rate of fire of 400 rounds per minute, the muzzle velocity of the
shell being 700 m/sec (2,296 ft/sec). The NS-23K cannon had a rate of fire of
600 rounds per minute and a muzzle velocity of 680 m/sec (2,230 ft/sec). The
N-37 protruded 1.16 m (3 ft 9.67 in.) beyond the plane of the air intake lip,
while the NS-23K cannons protruded 0.5 m (1 ft 7.68 in.). The ammunition boxes
were accommodated in an equipment bay between fuselage frames Nos. 1 and 6.
It should be noted that some production aircraft were
provided with attachment points for a centrally-mounted cannon of a larger
calibre. Thus, the first three machines of the ‘parade’ batch (c/ns 106001
through 106003) were provided with attachment points, ammunition box and link
and case chutes for the 57-mm (2.24 calibre) Nudel’man N-57 (izdeliye 120P)
cannon. MiG-9s with c/ns 106004 through 112001 were fitted only with attachment
points for the N-57 cannon (they differed in having an increased-diameter
equipment: The basic range of equipment installed on production MiG-9s
comprised the following items: an RSI-6 CRei-VM’) short-wave transceiver; an
RPKO-10M direction finder, a single 1.5-kilowatt GSK-1500 DC generator driven
by one of the engines, a 12-A-10 DC battery and an RU-45A AC converter. The
cockpit housed flight and navigation instruments and engine control
instruments: a US-1 000 airspeed indicator, a VD-12 altimeter, an electrical
gyro horizon combined with a Horn-type turn indicator; a PDK-44 compass, a
VR-30 vertical speed indicator, a TF-15 tachometer, an MP-80 kerosene pressure
gauge, an EDMU-1 gas pressure gauge, a TVG-44 exhaust gas thermometer, a BE-296
fuel gauge and TME-45 engine oil thermometers.
A single-wire aerial was attached with one end to a strut
which was mounted on a fuselage frame, offset to starboard; the other end of
the aerial was attached to the fin.
The aircraft was fitted with a PKI-1 reflector gunsight
which was later replaced by an ASP-1 N optical sight; some machines were
provided with an S-13 gun camera in the wing/fuselage fairing.
Oxygen system: a
KP-14 breathing apparatus which ensured oxygen supply for the pilot to an
altitude of up to 12 kilometres (39,370 ft).
conventional mechanical control system comprising control stick, rudder pedals
and trim tabs. The stick was connected to the ailerons and elevators by
push-pull rods and bellcranks, while the rudder was controlled by means of
steel cables. The elevator trim tab installed on the starboard elevator was
The initial-production 1-300s (by then the type had been
allocated the service designation MiG-9) were to be powered by BMW 003A
engines, a small stock of which had been captured in Germany. Known in service
as the RD-20 Series A1, these original German engines had a TBO of only ten
hours. Subsequently the Kazan’ engine factory No. 16 managed to increase the
TBO of 50 hours; the longer-life Kazan’-built engines were designated RD-20 Srs
The time limits set for the manufacture of small batches of
jet fighters seemed absolutely impracticable; nevertheless, all the plants did
what they were expected to do. The first production MiG-9 (c/n 106001) was
completed on 13th October; the remaining nine aircraft (c/ns 106002 through
106010) were assembled by 22nd October. All of them were virtually hand-made,
next to no production tooling being available; structurally they were basically
identical to the second and third prototypes. The fighters were transported to
the airfield in Ramenskoye by rail, and as early as 26th October Mark L. Gallai
flew the first production machine. In addition to Gallai and Shiyanov,
production MiG-9s were flown by GK Nil VVS test pilot L. M. Koovshinov; later,
other military pilots selected for demonstrating the aircraft over the Red
Square on 7th November joined in the conversion to jet fighters. Preparations
for the aviation part of the military parade were fully completed, yet the
flypast on that festive day had to be cancelled due to adverse weather.
In October, while military pilots were preparing for the
anniversary parade, the final stage of the 1-300’s manufacturer’s flight tests
began, preceded by live weapons trials at a shooting range. Mark Gallai was
tasked with testing the armament in the air. This was the most dangerous
mission, since there was no prior experience in the USSR of large-calibre
automatic cannons being fired in the air on jet aircraft. On 10th and 17th
October Gallai performed flights to an artillery shooting range in Noginsk east
of Moscow where he fired the weapons; these flights showed that the aircraft
behaved normally when the 37-mm cannon mounted in the air intake splitter was
Generally the performance figures obtained in the course of
the 1-300’s manufacturer’s flight tests were fairly impressive. The range at an
altitude of 5,000 m (16,404 ft) and 563 km/h (304 kts) indicated airspeed was
633 km (393 miles), the endurance being 1 hour 2 minutes. With one engine shut
down and the fighter flying at 360 km/h (194.6 kts) IAS, the maximum range at
5,000 m increased to 726 km (451 miles), the endurance being 1 hour 40 minutes.
Remarkably, the aircraft showed no tendency to yaw when flying on the power of
When the manufacturer’s flight tests were coming to an end,
M. Gallai had a narrow escape on the F-3 when the horizontal tail
disintegrated; the pilot had to muster all his skill to make it back to base
and land the damaged aircraft in one piece. A while later, in February 1947, a
similar accident happened on the F-2 flown by GK Nil WS test pilot Yuriy A.
Antipov during the State acceptance trials – it also suffered a structural
failure of the stabiliser. Fortunately, once again the pilot managed a safe
landing. As a result, urgent steps had to be taken to reinforce the fighter’s
airframe and make some other improvements; both affected aircraft were
Manufacturer’s flight tests of the F-2 went on through the
second half of November and the first half of December; on 17th December the
machine was handed over to GK Nil WS for State acceptance trials. The F-3 had
been handed over to the military institute ten days earlier, on 7th December
1946. However, in 18 accordance with the Council of Ministers directive No.
1249-511 ss dated 5th June 1946 the 1-300 (MiG-9) was to be presented for State
acceptance trials as early as 1st September. Thus, the design bureau was nearly
three and a half months late in handing the machines over to GK Nil WS. Later,
in the autumn of 1946, the Government revised the State acceptance trials
commencement date and the number of machines to be handed over was increased to
four (they included the first two machines of the initial-production batch and
the two surviving prototypes). However, bearing in mind the haste in which the small
batch had been built in Kuibyshev, the transfer of the production fighters to
GK Nil WS was delayed in order to subject the airframes to a more thorough
The State acceptance trials of the F-2 were interrupted on
5th April 1947 when test pilot D. G. Pikoolenko had to make a belly landing
because of an engine failure. There were also other flight incidents. In one of
the flights Pikoolenko discovered that the aircraft tended to pitch up in
maximum-speed flight. Antipov decided to repeat the flight profile and get a
personal impression of what had happened, but when the machine was flying at
approximately 5,000 m (16,400 ft) the stabiliser suddenly disintegrated (this
accident happened in February). In both cases the aircraft was saved thanks to
the skill and courage of the pilots. Fortunately, in each case the pilots
succeeded in landing the fighter safely at the risk of their lives, using
ailerons for lateral control and ‘playing’ with the throttles for pitch
control. This made it possible to trace the causes of the accidents and make
appropriate changes to the tailplane design.
After repairs and necessary improvements had been made, the
trials of the second prototype resumed on 21 st May and were duly completed on
29th May. Somewhat earlier, on 19th May, the testing of the F-3 was completed,
too. Between 2nd June and 24th June the institute held armament trials on the
F-2; these were not part of the State acceptance trials programme.
State acceptance trials of the second production machine
(c/n 106002) were started on 8th May 1947, continuing until 21 st June. Testing
of the first production MiG-9 (c/n 106001) which had passed manufacturer’s
flight tests with two 260-litre (57.2 Imp gal) drop tanks under the wingtips
between 27th December 1946 and 5th April 1947, began on 28th April (also with
drop tanks); on 8th May the fighter had to be grounded because its RD-20
engines had to be replaced but no replacement engines were available at the
institute. The aircraft rejoined the State acceptance trials programme on 2nd
June, this time in ‘clean’ configuration, completing them on 21 June together
with the second production machine.
During the State acceptance trials the MiG-9 was flown by GK
Nil VVS test pilots A. G. Proshakov, A. Khripkov, A. G. Koobyshkin, Yu. A.
Antipov, P. M. Stefanovskiy and D. G. Pikoolenko, while Engineer-Major A. S.
Rozanov was in charge of the machine. The military test pilots performed
hundreds of flights on the four jet MiGs, determining their performance, firing
the weapons, studying and evolving the methods of their combat employment in
first-line units. More than 200 aerobatic manoeuvres were performed and there
was not a single case of the engines flaming out. The 1-300 has the distinction
of being the first Soviet jet aircraft on which a spin was performed.
The use of four machines was due primarily to the wide scope
of the trials programme which could not be effected within a short time frame
on one or two aircraft. Thus, the F-2 (or MiG-9 No. 02, as it was referred to in
the GK Nil VVS report) was used between 17th December 1946 and 5th April 1947
for determining the stability and handling characteristics, as well as field
performance with American-made wheels borrowed from a Bell P-63 Kingcobra.
Between 7th and 21 st May 1947 the institute assessed the changes made by the
manufacturer when updating the aircraft; the armament was tested between 2nd
and 24th June 1947, having been installed immediately prior to that.
Kuibyshev-built MiG-9 cln 106002 was used in May and June
1947 for determining the range and endurance, as well as field performance with
Soviet-made wheels, and assessing the functioning of the radio equipment. MiG-9
c/n 106001 served for assessing the fighter’s agility, aerobatic capabilities
and structural strength limits in June 1947. The F-3 (or aircraft No. 03) was
used for determining the speed limits and basic flight performance (with the
exception of range and endurance). Besides, in July-December 1947 the fifth
aircraft of the ‘parade’ batch (MiG-9 c/n 106005) was used by GK Nil WS for
special tests involving mock combat with the Lavochkin La-9, Bell P-63C
Kingcobra, Supermarine Spitfire Mk IX and Yak-15. The fourth aircraft of the
initial batch (MiG-9 c/n 106004) underwent State acceptance trials to determine
the influence of firing the weapons on the engines’ operation at altitudes in
excess of 7,000 m (22,965 ft); more will be said about this a while later.
Still, despite the numerous shortcomings and defects, the
MiG-9’s assessment by the State commission can be considered favourable.
Generally the military were quite pleased with the fighter’s handling
qualities; as for speed, rate of climb at high altitudes and altitude
performance, it was markedly superior to piston-engined fighters then in service
with the Soviet Air Force. Also, the MiG-9 had no equals in the Soviet Union
regarding its firepower – the other contenders from A. S. Yakovlev’s OKB-115
(the Yak-15) and S. A. Lavochkin’s OKB-301 (the ‘150’) were armed with only two
23-mm cannons (on the other hand, their engines did not flame out when the
cannons were fired, ‘whereas much work was still needed to enable the MiG-9 to
actually produce a high weight of fire). In comparison with the Me 262
Mikoyan’s fighter had a lower take-off weight and surpassed the German jet
virtually in all performance characteristics except range. The British Gloster
Meteor F. 3 and the American Lockheed P-80A Shooting Star which had been
designed and built somewhat earlier were also inferior in performance to the MiG-9
(again with the exception of range). A while later, improved versions of the
Western fighters outperformed the Mikoyan twinjet, but that was achieved
primarily thanks to the installation of more powerful engines (the Soviet Union
was still seriously lagging behind the Western world in aero engine design at
the time). As regards the armament, the MiG-9 was roughly on a par with the
Meteor (the latter was armed with a quartet of 20-mm cannons) but could not use
the armament with the same efficiency (the Meteor’s wing-mounted engines could
not possibly flame out when the cannons were fired in a salvo). The Shooting
Star, on the other hand, was considerably inferior to the Soviet fighter as
regards weight of fire (it was armed with six 12.7-mm machine-guns), but,
again, it could fire its weapons without any limitations, since the six 12.7-mm
(.50 calibre) machine-guns did not have such a marked effect on engine
Despite obvious shortcomings and defects, full-scale
production of the MiG-9 began at Plant NO. 1 in Kuibyshev when the State
acceptance trials were still under way. The production version was known
in-house at OKB-155 as the 1-301, aka izdeliye FS, the S standing for
sereeynoye (production, used attributively). The haste with launching
production was again due to the wish of the nation’s leaders to demonstrate the
country’s air power at the 1947 May Day parade. Besides, the Soviet government
strongly believed that for want of something better one should build in series
aircraft that were available at the moment and rectify their shortcomings in
the process of production.
As noted earlier, the majority of production MiG-9s were
powered by RD-20 Srs A2 engines built by the Kazan’ engine factory No. 16. The
armament of production fighters comprised one N-37 cannon and two NS-23K
cannons. In March and April a batch of 48 aircraft intended for the May Day
parade was manufactured, supplemented by one more machine for OKB-155,
whereupon series production of the MiG-9 was suspended. Building on
recommendations from TsAGI and the results of the manufacturer’s flight tests
and State acceptance tests, the OKB introduced a number of changes into the
fighter’s design in May and June 1947. The fuel system was improved; airbrakes
were incorporated into the wing trailing edge just outboard of the flaps. The
fin area was increased and a fin fillet added to improve directional stability;
also, the rudder and elevator skin which had been made of elektron magnesium
alloy was replaced by duralumin and the framework of these control surfaces was
strengthened. Air suction inside the fuselage was eliminated and the shape of
the fuselage fairing aft of the engine nozzles was changed in order to ensure a
smoother flow of engine exhaust gases.
In the course of three years a total of 610 MiG-9s was
manufactured, 604 of them being production machines. As noted earlier, the
first ten examples of the initial-production (‘parade’) batch were manufactured
in great haste in 1946.
Were the Germans defeated in Operation Barbarossa and the
Battle for Moscow, or were the Russians victorious? The best answer to both is
yes. The Soviet Union and the Red Army fought back from the beginning, mobilizing
resources and developing skills to save their capital, frustrate the invasion,
capture the initiative, demonstrate blitzkrieg’s limits, and begin the still-
continuing process of discrediting the myth of an inherently superior German
way of war. That is no mean list of accomplishments in six months against any
opponent, much less the Wehrmacht.
The long list of specific German mistakes can be
conveniently grouped under two headings: comprehensive overextension and
comprehensive underestimation. Both reflected the general sense of emergency
that had informed Hitler’s Reich from the first days of its existence. Time was
always Adolf Hitler’s chief enemy. He was convinced that only he could create
the Thousand-Year Reich of his visions, and to that end was willing to run the
most extreme risks.
Hitler’s generals, especially the panzer generals, shared
that risk-taking mind-set and accepted the apocalyptic visions accompanying it.
That congruence shaped Barbarossa’s racist, genocidal nature. From the campaign’s
beginning, terror and murder followed in the wake of the panzers. That was
worse than a crime. It was a mistake antagonizing broad spectrums of a
population that could have been mobilized to work for and with the conquerors,
and in some cases act against the Soviet system. To behave differently would
have required Nazis to be something other than Nazis—and, perhaps, generals to
be something other than generals, at least when confronting Slavic/Jewish
The army would have been constrained to recast its
institutional mentality. However intense the antagonism between the Führer and
his commanders may have become in later years, in 1941 they possessed a common
vision in which choices and priorities were unnecessary. Germany’s weaknesses
in numbers, equipment, and logistics were sufficiently daunting that reasonably
prudent military planners would have advised against the entire campaign to the
point of resigning. But partly through their own history, and partly through
years of exposure to National Socialism, Germany’s soldiers had come to believe
in the “Triumph of the Will.”
It is an overlooked paradox that the failure to reach Moscow
may have averted a German catastrophe. Stalin proposed to continue fighting
even if Moscow fell, calling on resources from the Urals and Siberia. Aside
from that, capturing the city with the resources available—if it could be done
at all—would have involved heavy losses, losses that would fall
disproportionately on the mobile troops who would be first in and expected to
do much of the heavy work. Comparisons with Verdun once again circulated in the
armored force. And should the swastika fly over the Kremlin, Army Group Center
would be forward-loaded at the far end of a long salient vulnerable to
systematic counterattacks, containing a tenuous supply line exposed to constant
harassment from a developing partisan movement. Operation Typhoon’s outcome
preserved the cadres—or the skeletons—of the panzers to anchor the defense
during the winter and prepare for another try in the spring.
They did both well. In January 1942, 18th Panzer Division
used its last dozen tanks as the core of a 50-mile thrust into Soviet-occupied
territory to rescue an infantry division that had been surrounded for a month.
In 6th Panzer Division, Erhard Raus pragmatically employed a series of local
counterattacks as tactical training exercises for replacements. Was this heroic
professionalism or wishful thinking? Or more like magical thinking, the kind of
insanity defined as doing the same thing the same way and expecting different
results? In 1807 and again in 1918 the Prussian/German army had responded to
defeat with comprehensive self-examination. In 1939 Hitler’s army had responded
to victory by an internally initiated tune-up. Nothing remotely similar
happened during the winter of 1941-42. Especially for the panzers, whatever
energy remained after replacing losses was devoted to improving existing
That situation invites explanation in terms of desperation.
As late as the end of February, total tank strength was down to around 150—for
the entire Eastern Front. It was not a figure encouraging detached speculation
on better ways of war. But even at this relatively early stage, a process of
selection was taking place in the regiments and divisions. Eighth Panzer
Division’s CO Erich Brandenberger was an old gunner, as calm in demeanor as he
was quick to react to emergencies. Heinrich Eberbach took over 4th Panzer—no
surprise after his success in making the most of small numbers on the road to
Tula. Hans Hube’s loss of an arm in the Great War had not kept him from rising
to command of the 16th Motorized Division, staying with it when it was
converted to tanks, and building a reputation as a brilliant tactician. Hermann
Balck, marked as a comer for his work in France, had been on staff duty during
Barbarossa, but would make his mark beginning in May commanding 11th Panzer
One cannot speak of a common personality type in officers
who came from everywhere in the prewar army. Some were religious; some were
skeptics; some were casually Gottglaubig—the Nazi term for nondenominational.
Some were deliberately muddy-boots; others took conscious pains with their
grooming. What these officers and their contemporaries similarly marked out for
high command was pragmatism. They were hands-on problem-solvers who maximized
the material they were given and did their best in the situations they
confronted. “I’ll try, sir” was not an acceptable response in the panzer force
that emerged from the rubble of Barbarossa. There was no try—only do, or do
Another thing the new generation of panzer leaders had in
common was a level of bravery and charisma not seen among senior Prussian/
German officers since the Napoleonic Wars. Omer Bartov has made a strong case
for the increasing “demodernization” of the German army in the Soviet Union.
Its simplified version describes a situation in which material and numerical
inferiority, and the resulting high casualties, led to the erosion of
primary-group identification and an emphasis on National Socialist ideology as
a primary element of morale and fighting power. One might suggest that a tank
crew is an automatically self-renewing primary group, as is to a lesser degree
the men riding in the same half-track or truck. In the panzers, however,
regiment and division commanders to a significant extent also facilitated
primary groups by personal leadership.
Post-Barbarossa, an infantry colonel appearing in the front
line was likely to generate a reaction similar to the one made famous by
American cartoonist Bill Mauldin: “Sir, do ya hafta draw fire while you’re
inspi rin’ us?” His panzer counterpart, in a radio-equipped tank or half-track,
usually with one or two more as escort, could have a decisive effect on events
at the sharp end—and had a solid chance of surviving till next time. Such
behavior had little to do with ideology, and not much more with “warrior
spirit,” but had much to do with mutual expectations. It was what one did when
it had to be done. Even for generals it was often a matter of leading as though
one’s life depended on it—as it often did literally. And there are few greater
boosters of combat morale than the effective presence at a hot spot of someone
who seems to know what he is doing and what to do next. In 6th Panzer Division,
a familiar catchphrase was “Raus zieht heraus”—“Raus’ll get us out of this.”
Hans Hube’s nickname was simply “the man”—not “the old man” but “the man.”
The ethos had serious drawbacks. It led to a focus on
“hitting the next target,” a privileging of action at the expense of reflection
at all levels and in all aspects of war-making. That pattern was, if not always
exacerbated, too often not balanced by the staffs. The abolition of the Great
General Staff by the Versailles Treaty combined with the rapid expansion of the
army under Hitler conspired to create a chronic shortage of qualified staff
officers, and encouraged the development of new ones to meet staff requirements
of the new formations. What was important was solving the immediate problems of
organizing and training new divisions, and providing equipment and doctrine for
new branches—like the panzers.
It is not necessary to reference Nazi anti-intellectualism
to understand that considering ramifications and implications was not a quality
particularly valued in the post-Barbarossa armored force. It is ironic to think
that Versailles, so often excoriated for failing to sustain German rearmament,
may have had a decisive “stealth success” in removing a potentially significant
counterpoint to the army’s tunnel vision.
The panzer spirit also spread through promotion. Guderian’s
advocacy of a flexible, mobile defense against the Soviet winter offensive
might be sound in principle, but arguably lay outside the panzers’ current
capacities. His successor was corps commander Rudolf Schmidt, whose nickname
“Panzerschmidt” suggests determination rather than finesse. Schmidt based his
tactics on strong points established in villages that were magnets for Russians
no less cold than their opponents, and defended until relieved by battle groups
built around whatever was available and could be scrounged. Walther Model
commanded a corps during Typhoon, and in January 1942 brought his
uncompromising mind-set and a belief in the defensive potential of small armored
battle groups to 9th Army. Many other panzer generals would follow the same
Reconfiguring the panzers’ command profile would have meant
little if the armored force was not restored materially. That was the main
challenge during the winter and early spring of 1942. Overall losses during
Barbarossa amounted to more than 1,100,000 men, and there was no way they could
be entirely replaced before resumed operations enlarged the gap. Halder
calculated the resulting loss of combat effectiveness as from half to
two-thirds in the infantry. The mobile divisions were better off in personnel
terms, but not by much, especially given the loss in specialists incurred by
such measures as using dismounted tankers as infantry during the desperate
winter months. More than 4,200 tanks had been destroyed or damaged during
Barbarossa. There was no way an overextended industrial network and an
overburdened repair system could compensate. As late as March, the gap between
tables of organization and tanks in unit service was more than 2,000. The
corresponding shortfall in trucks was 35,000. A quarter-million horses were
dead, a loss no less serious to an army still largely muscle-powered and likely
to remain so given an increasingly untenable gap between the Reich’s oil resources
and the Wehrmacht’s needs.
Hitler had planned on using new production to expand the
army to 30 panzer divisions. The best the overstrained factories and
replacement systems could deliver was four: three built around existing army
regiments and one formed by converting the 1st Cavalry Division.
Grossdeutschland was upgraded to a motorized division, with selected recruits
and a guarantee of the latest equipment as it became available. Authorizing
tank battalions for the four SS motorized divisions absorbed still more
production. Some effort was made to replace quantity by quality. The two light
companies of each tank battalion were authorized 17 J or L versions of the
Panzer IIIs with the long-barreled 50mm gun. An increasing number of the medium
company’s 17 Mark IVs were Fs and Gs, with a 75mm high-velocity gun that was
the first clear match for the T-34 to appear in the armored force. These
up-gunned tanks were issued to replace losses, so throughout 1942 panzer
battalions would operate with mixed establishments of shorts and longs.
Most panzer and motorized divisions were assigned an
antiaircraft battalion with eight 88mm towed guns and a couple dozen 20mms. In
recognition of the Red Air Force’s exponentially improving ground-attack
capacity, the new addition was also a welcome upgrade of the divisions’
antitank capability. The motorized divisions received an even larger direct
force multiplier: an organic tank battalion. That gave them a ratio of six to
one in infantry and armor, compared to the panzer divisions’ four to two. Given
the high casualties the motorized infantry had suffered in 1941, and given the
Reich’s limited ability to replace tank losses, the upgrading was more or less
a distinction without a difference. It was also a way of increasing the number
of tank-equipped divisions without the problems inevitably accompanying new
The revamped structure of the motorized divisions was also a
recognition that the hard-hammered marching infantry—some divisions were
two-thirds short of authorized strength as late as May—were going to require
mobile backup, “corset stays,” even in what passed for quiet sectors. The
status of the motorized infantry was acknowledged when, in October 1942, they
were redesignated as grenadiers. In March 1943 they became panzer grenadiers.
In June the motorized divisions were retitled panzer grenadiers as well.
The honorifics would gladly have been exchanged for a few
dozen more half-tracks: a battalion’s worth of those valuable vehicles was the
best most mobile divisions could expect. Firepower was nevertheless increased,
with the commander’s track in each platoon sporting a 37mm gun, which was still
useful in many ways. Other half-tracks carried a variety of increasingly heavy
guns and mortars on improvised mounts. The 50mm antitank gun became a battalion
weapon, and panzer grenadier battalions also had as many as eight infantry guns
for direct support—substituting for towed field artillery too often bogged
down, out of contact, or out of range.
The resulting amalgam of weapons and vehicles continues to
delight war-gamers and order-of-battle hobbyists. In fact, the plethora of
crew-served heavy weapons reflected the continuing shortage—or better said,
absence—of tanks and assault guns. Another indication of the patchwork nature
of the armored force’s reconstruction is that the tank battalions for the
motorized/panzer grenadier divisions were transferred from the panzer
divisions: another institutionalized dispersion of a scarce and wasting asset.
The battle group system remained basic to the employment of
the mobile troops, but experience produced modifications. Regiments evolved
toward task force headquarters, with battalions becoming increasingly
autonomous, transferred among them as needed for building blocks. In the
offense or for counterattacks, battle groups were usually built around the tank
battalions, the half-tracked rifle battalion, and the reconnaissance battalion.
On the defensive the panzer grenadier regiments did the heavy work with the
tanks in reserve—if they were available—for gap-plugging and counterattacks.
Improvements in forward fire control in principle allowed the panzers’
artillery to be centralized at divisional level, its fire allocated where most
needed or most promising. In fact, battalions were often attached to battle
groups for the sake of quick reaction.
The Eastern Front’s major contribution to tactics was added
emphasis on speed. The ability to form, commit, and restructure battle groups
to match changing situations was often the major German force multiplier
against a materially and numerically superior enemy that, even as its flexibility
improved, was still structured around orders from above. The success of these
formations, time and again, against all odds and obstacles, in turn fostered a
sense of operational superiority that inevitably manifested itself in racial as
well as military contexts. The results could range from triumph to disaster—but
at division level and below the disasters, tended to be dismissed as the chance
of war rather than signs of a fundamental shift in the balance of fighting
The developed battle group system was also a tactical
response to a Soviet strategy that during the winter of 1941-42 sought to
decide the war by breaking the German defenses along the entire front. Stalin
and his key military advisors agreed that it was best done by hammering as hard
as possible in as many sectors as possible, on the principle that something had
to give somewhere. The plan had a political dimension as well: to restore
domestic morale still far too labile for Stalin’s peace of mind by providing at
least small-scale victories.
A more prudent approach might have involved structuring
military objectives to buy time: time for promised American assistance to
arrive; time to restabilize an industrial base physically transferred east of
the Urals; and above all, time to shake down a still- rebuilding Red Army as
yet unable to translate strategic planning into operational and tactical
success. Instead, recovered from the shocks of December, the Germans proved
well able to parry, block, and then halt a series of ambitious offensives from
Leningrad to Rzhev-Vyazma and south to Orel and Kursk.
Those successes were primarily achieved by the well- applied
economy-of-force tactics indicated above: mutually supporting strong points
backed by relatively small armored battle groups. They validated infantry
officers’ assertions that with minimal direct infusions of the right kind of
support, they could take care of both themselves and the Russians. Beginning in
1942, the Army Weapons Office began mounting captured Soviet 76mm and German
75mm high-velocity guns on Panzer II chassis. These 10.5-ton Marder tank
destroyers, though open-topped and lightly armored, were potent killers of
T-34s. They went first to the infantry. So did most of the increasing number of
independent assault-gun battalions formed during 1942 whose low-slung
Sturmgeschütz IIIs were armed with short and long 75mm guns in combinations
depending on availability. A mobile division lucky enough to have one of these
battalions attached for a time usually employed it with the panzer grenadiers,
where its flexible firepower was no less welcome than among ordinary Landser.
The Red Army was not the only one able to restore itself
under emergency conditions. With winter turning to spring, the Germans in
Russia emerged as a combination of an ideologically motivated citizen army and
a seasoned professional fighting force. The months in Russia had pitilessly
exposed weak human and material links. New weapons still existed mostly on
drawing boards, but officers and men knew how to use what they had to best
advantage. A counterattack in late April relieved 100,000 men cut off in the
Demyansk Pocket since January. Infantry, artillery, and pioneers, with
substantial support from the Romanians, began the final attack on the Crimean
peninsula on May 8. Most of the mobile divisions had been refitted. Some
especially hard-tried ones like the 6th and 7th Panzer Divisions were sent all
the way to France. The rest remained in Russia but out of the line for a few
weeks. They would be ready by the time the rasputitsa, the spring thaw, ended.
The Red Army Air Force played an important role in World War
II. During the war, Soviet pilots reportedly flew 3.125 million sorties. By
1943, Soviet aircraft production surpassed that of Germany. With more than
36,000 built, the Soviet Ilyushin Il-2 ground support aircraft was the
most-produced plane of the war by any nation. The effectiveness of Soviet
aviation was enhanced by the country’s receipt of some 20,000 U.S. and British
aircraft. Nonetheless, the Soviet air arm operated primarily in a ground
support role. The Soviets had nothing that approached U.S. or British strategic
The Voyenno-Vozdushnyye Sily (VVS, Soviet Air Force) became
an entirely independent military service in 1946. Soviet concerns over U.S.
strategic bombing and nuclear weapons also led to the establishment of a
separate Soviet Air Defense Service as an independent branch with its own
interceptor air arm in 1954. In addition, the navy retained its own air arm,
and the rise of nuclear weapons led to the creation of a separate strategic
striking force to control long-range strategic nuclear missiles. Nonetheless,
their World War II experience caused the VVS to place primary emphasis on
support of ground forces.
The VVS was composed of three major operational branches,
the most important being the theater support arm, Frontovaya Aviatsiya (FA,
Frontal Aviation). The other two components were Voenno-Transportnaya Aviatsiya
(VTA, Military Transport Aviation) and Dal’naya Aviatsiya (DA, Long Range
Aviation), both of which supported theater operations but also served as
strategic national resources under the Soviet General Staff.
FA units provided tactical air support for Soviet theater
operations, with responsibility for defensive and offensive counter-air
operations, deep attacks on critical theater targets, fire support for ground
units, reconnaissance, and electronic combat operations. During the 1950s, the
FA component numbered as many as 12,000 aircraft.
Compared to Western systems, Soviet aircraft designs tended
to be less technologically advanced. Building on German jet engine design, in
1946 the Soviets placed into production their first jet fighters, the
Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-9 and Yakovlev Yak-15. For their strategic bomber, on
Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s order the Soviets produced a carbon copy of the
U.S. Boeing B-29, some of which had been forced to land on Soviet territory
during the war. The result, produced by reverse engineering, was the Tupolev
Tu-4. The first Soviet jet bomber, the handsome and versatile twin-engine
Il-28, entered service in 1950.
During the Korean War (1950–1953), the Soviets sent
substantial air units to southern Manchuria to fight on the side of the
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) and the People’s
Republic of China (PRC). Soviet pilots dueled with United Nations Command (UNC)
aircraft in far North Korea. They also trained units of the Chinese air arm and
then turned over their aircraft to them, creating the Chinese Air Force.
Soviet fighter attacks did force the UNC to end daytime
raids by B-29 bombers, but the Soviets refused to supply air support to
communist ground units in Korea. Reportedly, the Soviets lost 120 pilots and
335 aircraft in the war. Their MiG-15 aircraft was one of the most successful
of Soviet jet fighters and a close match for the North American F-86, which was
hastily rushed to the Korean theater to meet the Soviet MiG-15. In dogfights
with the MiG- 15, the F-86 generally prevailed, thanks largely to superior
American pilot training.
In aircraft design, the Soviets continued to emphasize
maneuverability and interception capability in their fighter aircraft. Their
MiG-19, entering service in 1955, was the first Soviet supersonic fighter
aircraft. That same year, the turboprop Tu-95 entered service. It was the
world’s fastest propeller-driven aircraft and the first true Soviet
intercontinental bomber. Already in 1950 the Soviets had in service their first
The progress of the Cold War and the threat posed by nuclear
and thermonuclear war as well as the development of missile technology led to
major changes in the VVS. Beginning in the 1960s, the Soviets modernized their
fleet of strategic bombers. In 1961, the Tu-22 entered service as the Soviets’
first supersonic strategic bomber. This process reached its culmination with
the 1987 appearance of the Tu-160. With a gross weight of some 590,000 pounds,
the Tu-160 is the heaviest warplane ever built. Capable of carrying a payload
of 36,000 pounds, the Tu-160 carries a bigger payload and is faster than its
rival North American/Rockwell B-1B. Although only fourteen Tu-160s were
delivered by 1991, when combined with the extensive development of cruise
missiles it gave the Soviets the capability to carry out deep strikes around
Strategic bombers nonetheless played a less-significant role
than land-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), especially
compared to the American triad structure. The Soviet bomber program was
relatively small compared to that of the U.S. Air Force, reaching a high point
of more than 800 aircraft and an average inventory in the 600s, with fewer than
200 truly intercontinental-ranged bombers.
At the same time, the Soviets continued to develop their
fighter and interceptor capability, bringing on-line a wide range of fighter
aircraft with the MiG-21, MiG-23/27, MiG-25, MiG-29, and MiG-31 as well as the
Sukhoi Su-9, Su-11, Su-15, and Su-27. Ground attack aircraft appeared in the
form of the MiG-27, Su-7, Su-17, Su-24, and Su-25. With the increasing
importance of helicopters, in 1973 the Soviets introduced the superb Mikhail
Mil– designed Mi-24 attack helicopter, prompted by U.S. development of the Bell
AH-1 Cobra. The heavily armored Mi-24 saw wide service in Afghanistan.
The VTA component of the VVS performed long-range air
transportation functions. The VTA controlled tactical—parachute and airfield
assault landing and resupply—and international or strategic airlift. With a
peak strength of 1,500 aircraft, the VTA was also charged with the delivery of
Soviet airborne forces, which were also controlled as a strategic national
asset. Transport aircraft extended their range and capabilities in the Antonov
An-22, An-24, and An-26 and the Il-76. Entering service in 1987, the An-124
Ruslan, with a gross weight of nearly 893,000 pounds, surpassed the U.S.
Lockheed C-5A as the world’s largest aircraft to achieve production status. In
1988 it was edged out by a stretched version, the An-225. Although only two of
the latter have been built, they are the largest aircraft in world history.
Unlike the U.S. structure of assigning intercontinental
ballistic missiles (ICBMs) along with the bombers to the Strategic Air Command
(SAC) of the U.S. Air Force, the Soviets’ land-based missile forces were not
assigned to the VVS but rather to the separate service of the Raketnye Voyska
Strategicheskogo Naznacheniya (RVSN, Strategic Rocket Forces). The RVSN was
created in 1959 to control the newly developed ICBM capability as well as
intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and medium-range ballistic
missiles (MRBMs). The Soviet military considered the RVSN to be the elite
service of their force structure, with responsibility for ensuring Soviet
security through the capability to conduct effective nuclear strikes at the
beginning of any conflict, setting the stage for victory.
The nuclear capabilities of the DA and RVSN were further
supported by the SLBM component of the Soviet Navy. The navy maintained a
sizable long-range aircraft capability that provided maritime reconnaissance,
antiship, and antisubmarine capabilities as well as air-to-surface missile
strikes against land targets. Aircraft included the VTOL (vertical takeoff and
landing) Yak-36, which entered service in 1976 on the first Soviet aircraft
carriers. The Soviets also introduced the Kamov Ka-25 helicopter with an
antisubmarine warfare capability.
The final component of the Soviet airpower force structure
was the Voyska Protivovozdushnoy Oborony Strany (PVO Strany, Troops of National
Air Defense). The Soviet leadership created the independent PVO Strany in 1948,
giving it responsibility for the integrated air defense system of the homeland.
The PVO Strany organization controlled the substantial air defense system through
early warning radars, weapons control systems, and a communications network.
The technical systems were operated by the Radiotekhnicheskiye Voyska (RTV,
Radio-Technical Troops). The extensive interceptor force assigned to PVO Strany
was organized as the Istrebitel’naya Aviatsyiya PVO (IA PVO, Fighter Aviation
of Air Defense). The interceptors were tightly controlled by the overarching
command and control structure, which also integrated fighters that could be
assigned to the national air defense role in an emergency. The Soviet
interceptor inventory peaked at more than 5,000 aircraft in the late 1950s. PVO
Strany also integrated the interceptor activities with the thousands of
surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that it controlled through the Zenitnyye Raketnye
Voyska (ZRV, Zenith Rocket Troops) organization. These strategic SAMs could
also be supported by the numerous tactical SAM systems that were deployed in
the military districts across the Soviet Union as part of the Voyska
Protinvovozdushnoy Oborony Sukhoputnykh Voysk (PVO SV, Troops of Air Defense of
the Ground Forces). When ICBMs became a significant component of the U.S. force
structure in the early 1960s, the Soviets reacted by expanding the PVO Strany
organization to include an antimissile defense component (designated PRO).
Active antimissile sites were deployed around Moscow. Likewise, as space
systems were developed by the United States and the Soviet Union in the early
1960s, the Soviet military added an antisatellite component (designated PKO) to
During the 1980s, the Soviet military developed the air
operation concept, an aggressive offensive use of airpower at the start of a
theater campaign, designed to seize the initiative and create conditions for a
rapid ground victory. The air offensive was intended to reduce an enemy’s
offensive striking power—especially nuclear delivery systems and air, missile,
and heavy artillery firepower—and establish at least localized air superiority
over the main axes of attack. Additionally, the air attacks would help soften
enemy defenses at and behind the points of attack and would limit enemy
maneuvering capability in response to Soviet advances. Soviet theater
operations would also include parachute and helicopter assaults to seize key
enemy targets and support the rapid advance of the main ground assault.
Reflecting their support role, FA units were assigned to the theater or front
commander (in peacetime to the Military District commander in the USSR or to
the Soviet Group of Forces outside the USSR).
By the mid-1980s, the VVS deployed some 6,000 tactical
fighters, ground support, and reconnaissance aircraft as well as 670 strategic
bombers. The Soviets also fielded 1,300 fighter interceptors. The VVS possessed
some 3,500 helicopters and 650 transport aircraft. Soviet naval aviation added
another 1,100 airplanes and helicopters.
Soviet air forces were an important component of Soviet
theater war capabilities and operational concepts during the Cold War era. VVS
units served during the Cold War not only in the Soviet Union but also in
Central and Eastern Europe, Mongolia, and Afghanistan. Noteworthy Cold War
service came during the Korean War, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, and
especially the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (1979–1989).
Soviet instructors and pilots saw air combat in the Korean War and the Vietnam
War. They also served with the Egyptian Air Force during the War of Attrition
(1969–1970), in Angola (1975–1990), and in Ethiopia (1977–1979). Such service
demonstrated the wide reach of the VVS and provided much useful training, but
it also revealed serious shortcomings in equipment, logistics, and organization
and could not conceal that the Soviets placed reliance on numbers and tight
control rather than on more flexible training and innovation.
Epstein, Joshua M. Measuring Military Power: The Soviet Air Threat to Europe.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984. Higham, Robin, and Jacob W.
Kipp. Soviet Aviation and Air Power: A Historical View. Boulder, CO: Westview,
1977. Mason, R. A., and John W. R. Taylor. Aircraft, Strategy and Operations of
the Soviet Air Force. New York: Jane’s Publishing, 1986. Murphy, Paul J., ed.
The Soviet Air Forces. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1984. Scott, Harriet Fast, and
William F. Scott. The Armed Forces of the U.S.S.R. 4th ed. Boulder, CO:
Westview, 2002. Whiting, Kenneth. Soviet Air Power. Boulder, CO: Westview,
VVS orders of battle
Gril’ev, A.N. “Boevoi Sostav Sovetskoi armii”.
Volumes I – V. Voenno-nauchnoe upravlenie general’nogo shtaba. Moscow:
Voenizdat, 1963, 1966, 1972, 1988 and 1990. Gril’ev is listed in the U.S.
Library of Congress On-Line Catalog as follows (note the different spelling of
the last name):
Grylev, A. N. (compiler and editor). “Boevoi Sostav
Sovetskoi armii”. Voenno-nauchnoe upravlenie general’nogo shtaba,
voenno-istoricheskii otdel. Moscow: Voenizdat, 1963 – 1990. 5v. LC Control No.
98146424. Call No. Microfilm 98/4 (D). Microfilm Reading Room (Jefferson
Building, Room LJ129B). This is a massive OB work that covers the Red Army,
VVS, Navy, NKVD and para-military forces from 1 Jun 41 to 1 Sep 1945. The
5-volume study was prepared for the Soviet General Staff and was originally
classified SECRET. If you are British, then you may be able to find it in the
British Library or in the university libraries at Oxford or Cambridge. It is
the definitive work on the subject and the only one that’s been done.
“Voenno-Vozdushnye sily (VVS).” Unlike the Royal Air Force
(RAF) or the Luftwaffe, but like the USAAF and JAAF, the VVS was not a separate
air force organization. VVS bombers and support aircraft were integrated with
various Fronts of the Red Army, while anti-aircraft guns and
fighter-interceptors were organized separately under the PVO, or Air Defense
Force. As a result of being controlled by ground force commanders, and given
experience in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), during the prewar period the
VVS built a nearly exclusively tactical air force of medium bombers, dive
bombers, and heavy attack fighters. It eschewed acquisition of more than a
handful of long-range strategic bombers. Joseph Stalin took a direct interest
in the VVS. His limited prewar thinking about strategic bombing was influenced
by the deep battle attack doctrine developed by the Red Army. In 1939 VVS
“mixed air divisions” were set up that deployed bombers and fighters to each
Front (army group). As a result, when war came VVS aircraft were widely dispersed
among ground formations themselves deployed too far forward, and were not
capable of a coordinated overall response to being suddenly attacked. The
problem of commanded structure and overly wide dispersal was compounded by
weakness in aircraft design. That would not change until 1942, with reforms
forced upon the VVS by extraordinary pressures of catastrophic losses of
aircraft and near-defeat of the whole Red Army in 1941.
The VVS underwent a violent purge that began in 1937,
continuing to mid- 1941, the very eve of the German invasion. In addition to
top officers, many talented aircraft designers were arrested, executed, or
driven to suicide. Aircraft types were miserable in design compared to German
or British models, but had been produced in great volume by the pathologies of
a Soviet economic model that valued sheer numbers over quality. The
inadequacies of the prewar VVS were revealed in extraordinary peacetime losses
to accident: upwards of 800 aircraft per year, or more than the entire prewar
production runs of some RAF models. A paucity of repair facilities, technical
support, fuel supply systems, and ground-to-air or air-to-air radio
communications completed the prewar picture. On June 21, 1941, the eve of the
German–Soviet war, the VVS numbered 618,000 personnel, but not enough
experienced or qualified officers. It deployed over 20,000 military aircraft of
all types. In the first three days alone the VVS frontier Military Districts
lost about 2,000 aircraft. Several top commanders were immediately arrested and
shot, scapegoats for Stalin’s diplomatic and military catastrophe. During the
first weeks of fighting the VVS lost thousands more outclassed planes, many
destroyed on the ground or abandoned in all-out retreats. By the end of July it
was a shattered remnant of its prewar self. Over the first six months of
fighting its losses were even more immense.
New VVS formations had to be created almost from scratch in
early 1942, some formed with Lend-Lease fighters shipped in haste from the United
States or Britain. However, they were eventually supplied with new and
much-improved Soviet warplanes designed by men released from NKVD prisons or
camps, built by men and women working in desperate factory conditions in
hastily moved or erected plants. Starting in May 1942, the Stavka reorganized
the whole structure of the VVS. The largest Soviet air formation became the air
army (“vozdushnaia armiia”), with each attached directly to Fronts or held in a
Stavka reserve. The first air army created on May 5 was followed by 16 more,
with those founded in 1943 and 1944 much larger than the original formations.
All were multipurpose, comprised of varying numbers of subunits of fighters,
bombers, night bombers, and ground-attack aircraft. All units were closely tied
to control by Front commanders and carried out tactical missions only. Some air
armies were held in the Stavka reserve, carefully released to create local
superiority over major offensive operations. More rarely, reserve air armies
were assigned a strategic mission. A special 18th Air Army was formed in
December 1944. A huge force culled from the Stavka reserve, it comprised 18
divisions of long-range bombers and 4 more of regular bombers. It carried out
deep strikes into Germany, including bombing Berlin. Otherwise, revived Soviet
air power was used principally in support of ground forces, matching Luftwaffe
concentration on close support in the east. Nor did the VVS dedicate much of
its resources to bombing the Kriegsmarine, which left German ships in the
Baltic intact and active deep into March 1945. VVS aircraft were superior in
quality and vastly greater in numbers to the opposing, ragged formations of the
Luftwaffe by the end of the war. Yet, systemic problems continued: as late as
1944 some 8,600 VVS fighters were lost to ground or air accidents, compared to
just 4,100 lost to enemy ground fire or fighter interception.
Below the level of air armies were air corps (“aviatsionnaia
korpus”). Soviet air corps were usually single purpose and hence formed
exclusively of either bombers or fighters. The Luftwaffe equivalent was a
Fliegerkorps. Soviet air corps were comprised of two or more air divisions, the
basic VVS tactical fighting unit. The Luftwaffe equivalent was a
Fliegerdivision. Over the course of the war Soviet air divisions conformed to
one of five structures and purposes. Prewar and early war formations were known
as “basic air divisions.” There were 37 in all. Of these, 20 were wholly
destroyed while 14 were converted or redistributed to other air units created
in a series of emergency air force reforms carried out in 1941–1942. An air
regiment (“aviatsionnyi polk”) was the core VVS unit below division-level. Each
comprised fighters or bombers, but not usually both. The prewar VVS had eschewed
organization by aircraft function, though some specialization was allowed. The
core of the VVS was a total of 51 “mixed air divisions,” formed before the war
or created during the first year of fighting. By 1942 all 51 were destroyed or
reformed into the new air armies. Seven all-bomber divisions were in place
before June 22, 1941. Another 59 bomber divisions were added from 1942 to 1945.
This expansion reflected a Soviet wartime shift to uniform aircraft-type
formations. Similarly, 98 all-fighter divisions were added by 1945 to the
original 11 prewar fighter divisions, most of which were decimated or destroyed
in the first weeks and months of BARBAROSSA. The VVS quickly discovered an
urgent need for ground-attack aircraft, as its capabilities were increasingly
directed into direct support of Red Army ground forces, a shift matching
Luftwaffe concentration on close support in the east. Starting from no prewar
divisions of assault aircraft, the VVS created 48 ground-attack divisions by
The VVS—uniquely among wartime air forces—recruited entire
squadrons of women combat pilots and crew, fielding all-women bomber squadrons
as early as mid-1942. As in other air forces, more women flew transport
aircraft and provided a ferry service from the factories to the front. At the
end of the war the VVS deployed 15,500 frontline aircraft and had established
total domination in the air above the Red Army, lasting throughout its advances
into Central Europe and Germany.
The Soviet military had three air arms, the Red Army Air
Force, Long-Range Bomber Aviation, and the Naval Air Forces. The first two were
administered by directorates of the People’s Commissariat for Defense, and the
last by the People’s Commissariat of the Navy. In terms of operations, the
land-based air forces were under the command of the relevant armies or fronts
(army groups), and the naval air forces were subordinated to the relevant
The Red Army assigned air armies to Front-commands, enabling
ground forces to take full advantage of the air support. Usually one Front had
one air army assigned. The following air armies were for example in the area
around Kursk summer 1943: 1st Air Army (West Front), 2nd Air Army (Voronezh
Front), 5th Air Army (Steppe Front), 15th Air Army (Bryansk Front), 16th Air
Army (Central Front) and 17th Air Army (South-Western Front).
An air army had as basic unit the air division which
normally controlled three air regiments (resulting in 124 aircraft, unless it
was a bomber division, in which case it had 98 aircraft). Thus an air regiment
usually had 40 aircrafts (except bomber regiments, which had 32 aircraft). When
the war started there existed air divisions that were mixed but later this was
not very common. The division had one category of regiments, fighter, bomber or
attack. Instead the types could be mixed at the air corps level. One air corps
controlled two or three divisions.
Furthermore there existed air-units belonging Long-Range
Aviation (a.k.a Soviet Bomber Command) and PVO (Soviet Air Defense). The former
were assigned to support different sectors during the war while the later
defended the rear. For example on 22 June 1941 the PVO had ca 1500 fighters
aircraft in 40 Fighter regiments. The largest unit was 6th PVO Fighter Corps in
Moscow-area with eleven PVO Fighter Regiment.
At the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, in
June 1941, the Soviets had 8,105 combat aircraft, most of them obsolescent and
outclassed by German planes, so that by the end of the year, their numbers had
been decimated to 2,495. Production quickly made up these losses, however, and
by January 1945, the Soviets had some 14,500 operational aircraft. Early
catastrophic losses were due not only to poor equipment, but also to poor
leadership and organization. In 1942, the Soviets introduced the “air army”
system, which greatly streamlined command in the air force, so that one of 13
air armies had responsibility for supporting a particular front. Each air army
typically consisted of a command staff, two or three fighter divisions, a
“Shturmovik” (ground-attack) division, one or two night-bomber divisions, and
reconnaissance and liaison units. The typical air army had 400 to 500 aircraft.
Flexibility was built into the organization of the formation, which could, when
necessary, draw on the Air Reserve for additional aircraft and pilots. By the
end of the war, about 43 percent of all aircraft deployed by the Soviets
belonged to the Air Reserve pool.
By the middle of the war, the Soviets were producing
excellent fighters and well-trained pilots. Far less effective was Long-Range
Bomber Aviation, which suffered catastrophic losses early in the war and never
recovered as fully as the fighter and Shturmovik units did. In contrast to the
American and British air arms, Soviet Long-Range Bomber Aviation did not engage
in strategic bombing. Its missions were exclusively tactical, directed against
Axis concentrations, railheads, depots, and the like.
It is not widely known in the West but the Russians have
always boasted the second or third largest naval air force in the world.
During WWII, the naval air force numbered several thousands
of aircraft including all standard Soviet aircraft and several lend lease types
including B-25s and A-20Gs used in the Mine-Torpedo Air Regiments and the P-39,
P-40 and Hurricane which were used in fighter units. The Soviets received a
couple of hundred P-47Ds, though they saw little use, the Russians actually
preferring the P-39 to the “jug”. However one of the few units to
receive examples of the P-47 was the 255 Fighter Regiment, assigned to the
Northern Fleet during the late stages of the war. Possibly the most unexpected
fighter was the FW-l90D sufficient of which were captured in 1945 to be issued
to a unit of the Red Banner Baltic Fleet. More traditionally naval types used a
variety of obscure Russian float planes and flying boats, and several varieties
of the Catalina, both the tall tail PBN received under lend-lease and an early
PBY equivalent manufactured under a 1930s license. They also received 2 OS2U
Kingfishers at the end of the war.
Soviet naval air units were mainly equipped with
conventional land-based aircraft and, although flown by naval officers, were
used principally in support of land operations, typically guarding the flanks
of large ground units. Nearly one-third of naval air sorties were flown on air
defense missions. About a quarter of naval air missions were close ground
support, and 14 percent of sorties were reconnaissance patrols. No more than 10
percent of naval air missions attacked Axis ships or naval bases.
The Russian/Soviet Navy is divided into 4 independent
fleets-the Northern fleet, based at Murmansk; the Red Banner Baltic Fleet,
based at Leningrad; the Black Sea Fleet, and the Pacific Ocean Fleet, each with
its own air unit. There are also independent flotillas for the Caspian Sea,
Amur River and the Polar regions, though I have little indication that they had
any serious air units. During the war each fleet had a Mine-Torpedo Air
Division, primarily equipped with the DB-3/Il-4, a division of fighters, a
division of bomber/dive bombers with the SB-2 or PE-2, one or more recon
regiments and possibly some independent air regiments and air escadrilles. Each
division consisted of three regiments. At the start of the war a Regiment might
range from 40-64 aircraft depending on type in 4 squadrons. By 1942 the
established regiment size had been reduced to 21 aircraft in 2 squadrons. By
the end of the war regimental size was back to 3 squadrons and 30-40 aircraft.
Some anti-shipping strikes were flown against German and
Romanian vessels in the Black and Baltic seas, and of course there was a lot of
ASW activity, particularly by the Northern Fleet. But most Naval air activity
was in defense of bases, support of ground forces in the coastal regions, and
support of a number of tactical amphibious landings. Naval Fighter pilots were
some of the Soviet’s best, and Boris Safonov of the Northern Fleet was the
first Soviet Ace to win the Hero of the Soviet Union twice. Safonov, currently
one of Russia’s more popular air heroes, was also the first Russian pilot to
fly the Hurricane. He commanded the regiment which hosted two RAF squadrons
that were sent to Murmansk in December 1941. This exploration of Soviet Naval
air will continue in future columns.
Green, William, and Gordon Swanborough. Soviet Air Force Fighters. New York:
Arco, 1978; Polak, Tomas, and Christopher Shores. Stalin’s Falcons: The Aces of
the Red Star: A Tribute to the Notable Fighter Pilots of the Soviet Air Forces
1918–1953. London: Grub Street, 1999; Hardesty, Von. Red Phoenix: The Rise of
Soviet Air Power, 1941–1945. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1991.
In the war that began on 1 September 1939 air power played a crucial role from the start. The Germans considered a massive opening attack on Warsaw, but bad weather forced them to attack alternative targets. The Luftwaffe’s most important contribution in the Polish campaign lay in quickly gaining air superiority; the Poles were skilled opponents, but they possessed obsolete aircraft which were no match for those of the Germans.
Luftwaffe bombers struck particularly at cities and transportation links, which thoroughly disrupted the Polish mobilization. A small number of Luftwaffe aircraft directly supported the drive of the German panzer forces which completely broke the Polish army apart in the first week of the campaign. Close air-support strikes were mostly successful; however, one Wehrmacht battalion, bombed for several hours by the Luftwaffe, suggested that courts martial might be in order.
Attempts were made to intercept German Dornier Do 17 reconnaissance aircraft which violated Polish airspace from the spring of 1939. Fighter units were ordered in July 1939 to establish fighter posts (‘ambushes’) along the routes of the reconnaissance aircraft flights. 1 Pulk Lotniczy organised posts along the border with East Prussia, a total of 2 sections. Dywizjon III/I used airfields near Bialystok and Grodno, and Dywizjon IV/1 near Suwalki. Aircraft of 2 Pulk organised posts at Wieluri, Czltstochowa and Zawiercie along the Western border. Aircraft of 4 Pulk provided posts near Bydgoszcz, while 3 and 5 Pulk maintained aircraft at readiness at their permanent airfields. During July the aircraft were scrambled many times to intercept and visual contact was sometimes established with German aircraft, but due to the high altitude at which the Dorniers operated, and their superior speed with respect to the P11c fighters, none was ever shot down, and at the end of July these posts were abandoned. Also at the same time Soviet reconnaissance aircraft violated Polish airspace, but there is no written record of any contact with Polish interceptors.
In the early hours of 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, spearheaded by a total of almost 2,000 Luftwaffe aircraft, nearly half of which were bombers. By 27 September the Polish campaign was concluded. It had apparently proved the ‘invincibility’ of the Luftwaffe, which had completely overwhelmed the poorer-armed and less modern Polish Air Force, had given copy-book support to the German ground forces, and had clearly been the supreme factor in such a quick victory. Yet the cost had not been light. Against fierce but hopeless opposition in the air and from the ground, the Luftwaffe had lost at least 750 men and nearly 300 aircraft, with a further 279 aircraft counted as overall strength losses due to serious damage. The Polish Air Force, with less than 800 aircraft on 1 September, had sustained a loss of 333 aircraft in action. Considering that the gross strength of the Luftwaffe at the end of August 1939 was hardly more than 4,000 aircraft of all types – perhaps only half of which could be truly regarded as first line ‘attack’ machines – the loss rate during some three weeks of the Polish campaign, against ill-prepared and inferior opposition in the context of aircraft, gave serious pause in the minds of the more perceptive Luftwaffe heads of staff. Replacement of such casualties quickly was virtually impossible; such resources were simply not available immediately. With France and the Low Countries already designated as ‘next’ on Hitler’s agenda for conquest, the querulous doubts in many Luftwaffe chiefs’ minds prior to the Polish venture now assumed a level of deep concern.
This concern was exacerbated by the knowledge that Germany now had Britain and France as declared enemies. Only men like Göring or other Hitler-sycophants could believe that the Luftwaffe was fully prepared for any long-term aerial assault or struggle; the force was still in its adolescence, and had been built on the narrow platform of tactical air power. Its aircraft were too standardised in role to be capable of undertaking every possible task that would present itself during any sustained aerial conflict. The quality of its air and ground crews was never in question; all were peacetime-trained and thoroughly professional, while among the Staffeln and staffs was a hard core of combat-tested veterans of both the Spanish Civil War and the Poland campaign. Its aircraft presented a mixed picture. The standard fighter was the angular Messerschmitt Bf 109, on a par or clearly superior to almost any other fighter in the world in 1939. Its stablemate Bf 110 two-seat Zerstörer (‘destroyer’) was the apple of Göring’s eye for the moment, but within a year would demonstrate forcibly its unsuitability for the ‘escort fighter’ role imposed upon its unfortunate crews. Of the frontline bombers, the already notorious crooked-wing Junkers Ju 87 dive-bomber was basking in the limelight of apparently deserved fame for its large contribution to recent operations, yet it too would reveal its feet of clay when faced with determined fighter opposition in the months ahead. Of the other bombers the porcine Heinkel He 111 and slender Dornier Do 17 predominated, both twin-engined, medium-range designs of relatively mediocre performance, and poorly armed for self-defence. Only the emerging Junkers Ju 88 offered slight hope of improved bomber performance, although even this excellent design was not intended for long range operations. The one great omission from the Luftwaffe’s offensive air strength was a truly heavy, long range bomber. The only design projected for filling this gap was the troublesome Heinkel He 177, which was conceived in 1938 but did not commence operations until August 1942.
Notwithstanding the eventual failure of many of the 1939 Luftwaffe’s operational aircraft types, the contemporary morale of the German air crews and their upper echelon staffs was very high. The rapidity with which Poland had been vanquished appeared to suggest that the Blitzkrieg tactical war was a sure-fire key to victory, an opinion echoed in the staff rooms of many of the Allied services of the period. If there were doubts about the future efficacy of the Luftwaffe they existed mainly in the minds of individual senior officers and strategists; no such gloomy thoughts pervaded the ranks of the firstline Staffeln. The high casualty rate against relatively ‘soft’ air opposition during the Polish Blitzkrieg was mostly attributed to inexperience on the part of younger air crews, a modicum of sheer bad luck, or simply the exigencies of war. There lingered no lack of confidence in men or machines. If there were any queries among the Luftwaffe crews these pertained to how they might fare against the French air force and, especially, the British Royal Air Force when the inevitable first clashes occurred over the Western Front. Led or commanded by veterans who had fought the Allies in the air during the 1914–18 war, all the young Luftwaffe crews had been trained and inculcated with the fighting traditions created by the now-legendary names in German aviation annals. Inbred in that tradition was an almost unconscious respect for the fighting qualities of the Engländer – would they now acquit themselves against the contemporary generation of RAF fliers with the same courage and honour as their forebears …?
Thus far the war has been, in the air, a strange one. It has been strange in several ways. People had expected the Blitzkrieg to break in full fury in the west, but as yet no thunderbolt has fallen there. Poland felt its impact and crumpled under the stroke, though conditions there seemed, prima facie, unfavorable for the successful conduct of a lightning war. The course of the conflict has not, in fact, followed the book. There have been a number of surprises. In the operations at sea, for example, it was confidently expected that aircraft, not the submarine, would be the chief danger to maritime commerce. The airplane, we were told, would harry and dragoon belligerent and neutral shipping in the narrow waters into which the busy lanes of ocean traffic converge. Actually, the air arm has not been particularly effective at sea, though British aircraft have taken a hand with some success in hunting the submarine. That, however, had been foreseen.
Certainly the achievements of the German air force in Poland fulfilled the expectations of the most sanguine adherents of the blue sky school. In conjunction with the mechanized ground forces it dominated the situation from the first. The lists were set for a tourney between the old order of warfare and the new. Germany’s strength lay in her possession of the most modern instruments of mechanical destruction. Poland was, in comparison, a nineteenth century Power. Her cavalry was her pride. One could imagine her gallant horsemen galloping with Jeb Stuart or Sheridan in Virginia. Indeed, her great masses of cavalry might have thundered their way to victory in the still more appropriate setting of the medieval era. As it was, they were a sheer anachronism. Confronted by armored cars and tanks, hammered by high explosive from the air, they were only flesh for the slaughter. The twentieth century won all along the line. The Polish defeat was a tragedy, but an inevitable one.
German intelligence had estimated the front-line strength of the Polish air force at some 900 aircraft. In fact on 1 September the figure was nearer 300, made up of 36 P37 `Los’ twin-engined medium bombers, 118 single-engined `Karas’ P23 light reconnaissance bombers and 159 fighters of the PZL P11c and P7 types. Light gull-winged monoplanes, with open cockpits and fixed undercarriages, they had been an advanced design in the early 1930s but were now hopelessly outclassed by the Luftwaffe’s modern aircraft. Neither the PZL P11c nor the P7 could get high enough to intercept the high-flying Do17 reconnaissance aircraft.
On the opening day of hostilities, however, the German attack came in at low level, aiming to knock out the Polish air force on the ground. The Luftwaffe failed to achieve its objective as during the last days of peace the Polish air force had dispersed its aircraft to a number of secret airfields. On the morning of September 1 not one Polish squadron remained at its pre-war base. As a result only 28 obsolete or unserviceable machines were destroyed at Rakowice air base.
At first the methods by which she won it were, apart from the fact that the aggression itself was utterly unjustified, fair enough in themselves. Herr Hitler had announced to the Reichstag on September 1 that he would not war against women and children. He was speaking, it will be noted, less than four weeks before the time when women and children were to be slaughtered and mutilated in Warsaw. “I have ordered my air force,” he said, “to restrict itself to attacks on military objectives.” Replying to President Roosevelt’s appeal that civilian populations be spared the horrors of air bombardment, he defined his attitude to this question in terms which, coming from another, would have presaged the waging of a humane and chivalrous war: ” . . . that it is a humanitarian principle to refrain from the bombing of non-military objectives under all circumstances in connection with military operations, corresponds completely with my own point of view and has been advocated by me before. I, therefore, unconditionally endorse the proposal that the governments taking part in the hostilities now in progress make public a declaration in this sense. For my own part, I already gave notice in my Reichstag speech of today that the German air force had received the order to restrict its operations to military objectives.”
That the German air force did confine itself more or less to military objectives in the opening phase of the war is supported by a certain amount of independent evidence. Mr. H. C. Greene, the correspondent of the London Daily Telegraph, reported in that journal from Cernaŭti on September 10 that military objectives such as bridges, roads, railways and aerodromes had been aimed at almost exclusively, though terrible losses had fallen on the civil population as a result of the attacks. On September 6, Mr. Butler, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, stated in reply to a question in the House of Commons that the information in the British Government’s possession showed that the German bombing attacks had in general been directed against objectives serving a military purpose and not indiscriminately against the civil population; but he also was careful to add that the latter had at the same time suffered heavy casualties. Soon, however, evidence began to accumulate that other than military objectives were being attacked and that, in fact, methods of terrorization were being adopted by the German Luftwaffe.
It is true that one must always accept with caution reports from belligerent sources concerning excesses or outrages committed by the enemy. There is inevitably an element of propaganda in such reports. Further, newspaper correspondents on the spot are apt to be impressed by what is told them and are not in a position usually to know or state the other side of the case. Some of the Polish announcements were certainly examples of exaggeration, excusable, no doubt, but still unreliable. For instance, a communiqué of September 2 stated that individual farms and farmers had been bombed — a somewhat improbable occurrence. On the other hand, it is even more improbable that the reports from many quarters about the ruthlessness of the German air force were entirely devoid of foundation. We have, in fact, unbiased evidence sufficient to convict without any need for dependence on ex parte testimony.
Unquestionably, there were numerous instances of bombing objectives which by no possibility could be termed military. Among them was that of the village of Tomaszow, which was the victim of “a particularly vicious bombing” according to a message to the Times of September 11 from its special correspondent on the Polish frontier. Other instances were attested by Dr. Oskar Zsolnay, a Hungarian official trade delegate who had been in Lwów and who described in a Budapest paper a large number of bombing raids on that city, nearly all of them directed against non-military objectives. Some of the most important evidence was supplied by the American Ambassador to Poland, Mr. Biddle, who on September 8 furnished the State Department with particulars of cases in which non-military targets had been attacked: they included his own villa, more than ten miles outside Warsaw, a sanatorium, a refugee train, a hospital train and a hut for Girl Guides. “It is also evident,” he added, “that the German bombers are releasing the bombs they carry even when they are in doubt as to the identity of their objectives.” Again, on September 13, Mr. Biddle reported that the village to which he had then moved and which was, he said, “a defenseless open village” had been attacked by German bombers. On September 20 the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Information said in the House that reports from the British Ambassador to Poland supported the evidence of Mr. Biddle on the bombing of open towns.
One may perhaps feel some hesitation in accepting without reservation the statement in the Polish communiqué of September 15 that the bombardment of open towns by German aircraft had “assumed the character of a systematic destruction of all built-up areas or cities without any connection with military operations,” but there can be no reasonable doubt about the fact that a great number of non-military objectives were bombed. Beyond question many villages were deliberately attacked and a number of them destroyed. In Warsaw itself the Belvedere and Lazienki Palaces, the Seym (Parliament) building, the Soviet and Rumanian Embassies, the Latvian Legation, a number of churches and some hospitals had been wholly or partly demolished from the air even before the intensive bombardment from air and ground began on September 25. The final state of the city was still more tragic. The correspondent of a Danish newspaper who visited it after the surrender reported that scarcely a house was undamaged and in several districts, especially the suburb of Praga, not one house was left standing. The devastation was due in part to artillery fire, but the bombs of the aircraft contributed very materially. Inevitably the losses suffered by the civil population were heavy in the extreme. It is perfectly clear that if the Germans did in fact attempt to bomb only military objectives, they failed in that attempt most lamentably. The more likely explanation is that no such attempt was made. The city was bombed indiscriminately, subjected, in fact, to a display of Nazi Schrecklichkeit. The destruction was intended as an object lesson. “I should like the gentlemen of London to see what a city looks like when it has been through what Warsaw suffered,” said the German wireless announcer on October 4. “These gentlemen ought to see what might happen in their own country if they persist in their mad warmongering.”
The fiction that only military objectives were bombed was kept up in the German reports. A communiqué issued by the High Command on September 25 stated: “Important military objectives in Warsaw were successfully attacked in power-dives by German aircraft.” It is a sufficient commentary upon this to record that when Warsaw asked for an armistice on September 27, 16,000 soldiers and 20,000 civilians lay wounded in the hospitals. There is little doubt, indeed, that Warsaw was subjected to a bombardment, from ground and air, of which the purpose was psychological, or more bluntly, to terrorize. That particular type of bombardment is nothing new in the practice of German arms. It was tried on many occasions in the Franco-German War of 1870-71. At Strasbourg, for instance, the civilian quarters of the city were shelled by siege batteries in order to “induce the inhabitants to compel the governor to surrender the fortress.” The effect was simply to stiffen the determination of the garrison and the inhabitants to resist.
Exactly the same tactics were employed at Warsaw nearly seventy years later, and the same effect was produced; the morale of the city was unbroken, for it was lack of ammunition and supplies, not loss of courage, which finally made surrender inevitable. Methods of frightfulness defeat their aims when used against a determined people. Herr Hitler announced in his speech on September 19 that the British blockade might force him to make use of a “weapon by which we [Germany] cannot be attacked.” The fresh resort to Schrecklichkeit here foreshadowed, whether it referred to the poison gas or to bacteriological warfare or merely to massed attack from the air on cities, will not effect its object. On that point there can be no doubt whatever.
The major role which the German air force played in the conquest of Poland is no proof that it will achieve similar successes in the west. Poland was, in comparison with Germany, very weak in the air. That her air force, was able to resist as well as it did testifies to the gallantry of its personnel. It is the more regrettable that its achievements were magnified by some absurd propaganda. The statement in a communiqué of September 3 that 64 German machines were brought down on that day for the loss of 11 Polish machines was entirely unbelievable. The announcement a little later that Berlin had been bombed was no less unconvincing. There is no escape from the conclusion, on the known facts, that Poland was wholly outclassed in the air.
Soviet Operations in Eastern Poland
The Soviet operations in eastern Poland had been anticipated in the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. Stalin’s delay in attacking Poland was in part due to uncertainty over the reaction of the Western Allies, the unexpectedly rapid pace of the German advance, the distraction of military operations in the Far East and the time needed to mobilise the Red Army. Besides the dramatic events in Poland, Stalin was preoccupied with the undeclared war between the Soviet Union and Japan, which culminated in the decisive Soviet victory at Khalkin Gol in September 1939. An armistice was signed with Japan on 15 September, and Soviet intelligence correctly reported that German formations were already operating east of the proposed Soviet-German demarcation line. As a result, Stalin was forced to act sooner than planned.
The decapitation of the Soviet officer corps by the purges of 1937 and 1938 hindered a major military operation of this scale. The Red Army general staff estimated it needed several weeks to fully mobilise. The German advance had proceeded much more quickly than the Soviets had anticipated, forcing a hasty commitment of the ill-prepared Red Army to secure the spoils of the treaty agreement. The Red Army had expected the German operation to be an updated version of the First World War pattern: a series of border clashes until both sides mobilised and deployed their main forces for decisive battle. They had overlooked the possibility that Germany would strike from a fully mobilised posture against their smaller and only partially mobilised opponent. The planning was already well in place as the Red Army general staff had prepared plans in 1938 for intervention under various scenarios during the Munich crisis.
The Red Army was organised into two fronts and deployed no less than 25 rifle divisions, 16 cavalry divisions and 12 tank brigades with a total strength of 466,516 troops. The Red Army’s tank forces sent into Poland actually exceeded the number of tanks and armoured vehicles of the Germans and Poles combined, amounting to 3,739 tanks and 380 armoured cars. The Red Air Force was also committed in strength, totalling about 2,000 combat aircraft. Fighters, consisting mainly of I-16 and I-15bis, made up about 60 per cent of the attacking force, along with medium bombers such as the SB accounting for another 30 per cent of the force. The remainder of the combat elements were army co-operation types like the R-5 biplane.
Polish defences had been stripped bare in the east. Normally the border was guarded by the Border Defence Corps (KOP) with about 18 battalions and 12,000 troops along the Soviet frontier. These forces were little more than light infantry with very little in the way of artillery support. Furthermore, many of the units had been ordered westward as reinforcements, leaving only a token force behind. The force ratio was ludicrously one-sided, roughly one Polish battalion per Soviet corps.
Red Army mobilisation was chaotic at best. Due to the upcoming harvest, it was difficult to fill out the units with their usual supply of war-mobilisation trucks from the civilian sector. As a result, Soviet formations, even tank brigades, seldom had even half of their table-of-organisation in support vehicles. There was also a shortage of spare parts for most types of vehicle including tanks. Although the Red Army order of Battle presents the picture of a conventionally organised force, in fact, the Soviet formations were often deployed in a haphazard fashion, loosely configured as regional groups. Indeed, there are substantial disparities in the historical records about which units participated and under which command, due to the haste under which the operation was prepared. As a result of their belated and haphazard mobilisation and the almost non-existent opposition they faced, the Red Army relied on its cavalry and armoured forces to sweep rapidly into Poland. Horse-mechanised groups were created with tank brigades supporting cavalry divisions.
There was considerable confusion on the Polish side when news of the Soviet invasion first began to filter through. At first there was some hope that the Soviets might be intervening to aid Poland, a delusion that was quickly exposed when word arrived of armed clashes. Nevertheless, the high command on the evening of 17/18 September ordered that the KOP and other units along the frontier were not to engage Soviet forces except in self-defence or if the Soviets interfered with their movement to the Romanian bridgehead. However, the order was not widely received. Instead the commander of the KOP, Brigadier-General W. Orlik-Ruckemann, ordered his troops to fight. Skirmishes between the KOP and Red Army units took place all along the frontier, especially near several of the major cities such as Wilno and Grodno, and along the fortified zone in the Sarny region. The heaviest fighting, not surprisingly, took place in Galicia in south-eastern Poland, since regular Polish army units were gravitating towards this sector near the Romanian frontier.
Galicia was one of the few areas where there was any significant aerial combat between the Polish air force and the Red Air Force. This occurred mostly on the first day of the Soviet invasion, as the surviving Polish air force units had been ordered to escape into Romania. Surviving Polish fighters had been subordinated to the Pursuit Brigade, which was headquartered near Buczacz to the south-east of Lwow. During the first contacts on 17 September, Polish fighters downed an R-5 and two SB bombers, and damaged three further Soviet aircraft. The following day the Pursuit Brigade was evacuated to Romania taking with it 35 PZL P. 11 and eight PZL P. 7 fighters; the last remnants of the combat elements of the Polish air force. A number of Soviet aircraft were lost in subsequent fighting, mostly to ground fire. According to recently declassified records, only five aircrew were killed during the fighting, attesting to the relatively small scale of Soviet air losses in this short campaign.
The use of the 3rd Ukrainian Front’s tank forces during the
March 1945 battles is of interest. It had been planned beforehand to use the
tanks and self-propelled guns in order to strengthen the defense on prepared
lines, and with the start of the German offensive, the tank formations were
moved up to these lines.
The tactics of strict defense were adopted by the tank and
self-propelled guns – the armored vehicles were dug into the ground among the
infantry’s combat positions, or else kept concealed in ambush. In order to
facilitate a more responsive command arrangement over the tank formations, they
transferred from subordination to the Front to the control of the army
The tank’s combat formations on the defensive depended on
the situation and the assignment. For example, the 18th Tank Corps, having
taken position among the combat positions of the infantry south of Seregélyes,
assigned each tank brigade its own sector of defense, while the motorized rifle
brigade was distributed by battalion among the tank brigades. The defense was
organized around individual strongpoints, each of which had 2-5 tanks, a
platoon of motorized infantry, and 2-3 guns.
The 18th Tank Corps was reinforced with the 207th
Self-propelled Artillery Brigade of SU-100 tank destroyers, which took up
positions by battery in the second echelon of defense. At the same time, the
tank destroyers had prepared firing positions in the first echelon, to which
they moved up during enemy tank attacks. All of this allowed the creation of a
dense wall of anti-tank and antipersonnel fire in front of the 18th Tank Corps’
positions, and in the course of 10 days of savage fighting, the enemy was in
fact unable to break through the defense in this sector.
Thus, on 7 and 8 March alone, units of the 18th Tank Corps
knocked out or destroyed 33 German tanks and self-propelled guns. In return,
their own losses amounted to a total of 16 tanks or assault guns, including 2
T-34, 2 ISU-122 and 3 SU-76 knocked out, and 6 T-34 and 3 ISU-122 burned out.
Part of the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps occupied positions
in the Heinrich Estate, Sárkeresztúr, Cece, Sárbogárd area. Here the defense
was organized around company-sized strongpoints, each of which contained 5 to 8
tanks or self-propelled guns. The strongpoints had standard trenches,
machine-gun nests, dug-in combat vehicles, and anti-tank gun positions. The
anti-tank guns moved up into their positions only in order to conduct fire, but
spent the rest of their time in shelters. The SU-100 tank destroyer batteries
were positioned in the second echelon, and with sudden counterattacks they
would destroy the enemy’s tanks and halftracks.
Tank ambushes were widely and successfully employed. For
these, groups of tanks and selfpropelled guns would take concealment on the
flanks of the anticipated axis of advance of enemy tanks, calculating to take
shots at their side or rear facing. Artillery guns were usually positioned in
order to protect the tanks that were waiting in ambush. Combat experience
demonstrated that when organizing tank ambushes, it was useful to use decoy
tanks, which by their actions were supposed to lure the enemy armor into the
flanking fire of the tanks concealed in ambush.
The 18th Tank Regiment of the 1st Guards Mechanized Corps,
which was defending in the Sárkeresztúr area, adopted a rather curious tactic.
When the regiment’s positions were attacked by up to a battalion of infantry,
in order not to reveal the locations of the tank ambushes, the regiment
commander Lieutenant Colonel Lysenko decided to counterattack the enemy with
T-34 recovery tanks and armored halftracks. In this fashion, the tankers
repelled two attacks by German infantry and took 35 Germans prisoner.
The SU-100 self-propelled artillery guns showed themselves
to be quite effective in the March battles. In addition to the SU-100s of the
208th Self-propelled Artillery Brigade and of the two regiments in the 1st
Guards Mechanized Corps, with which the 3rd Ukrainian Front started the battle,
on 9 March the 207th (62 SU-100, 2 T-34, 3 SU-57) and 209th (56 SU-100, 2 T-34,
3 SU-57) Self-propelled Artillery Brigades arrived to join the Front. Upon
their arrival, the 207th Brigade was sent to the 27th Army, and the 209th
Brigade went to the 26th Army. Thus, by 10 March 1945, the total number of
SU-100 tank destroyers in the area of Lake Balaton (after deducting the combat
losses) amounted to 188.
These self-propelled guns were actively used on the defense
in cooperation with the infantry in order to repel enemy tank attacks, as well
as to cover the bridges across the Sárviz and Sió Canals. They proved quite
effective in these tasks. For example, the 208th Self-propelled Artillery
Brigade over the course of 8 March and 9 March knocked out 14 German tanks and
self-propelled guns, as well as 33 enemy halftracks, while losing 8 SU-100
destroyed and 4 disabled.
In order to combat enemy tanks, the SU-100s primarily
operated out of ambush positions. SU-100 batteries were deployed in covered
positions, camouflaged in woods, or on the reverse slopes of hills and ridges.
In front of them, at a distance of 100-200 meters, firing positions with good
visibility and good fields of fire were prepared, and as a rule, they offered
360° of fire. In the positions or next to them, observation posts were set up, in
which there would be an officer who had a communications link with the battery.
Whenever German tanks appeared at a distance of 1,000 to 1,500 meters, the tank
destroyers would move up into their firing positions, fire several rounds, and
then use reverse drive to pull back into cover. Such a tactic justified itself
when repelling enemy attacks in the areas of Sáregres and Simontornya. For
example, on 11 March, a battery of the 209th Self-propelled Artillery Brigade’s
1953rd Self-propelled Artillery Regiment, having taken up an ambush position in
a dense patch of woods west of Simontornya’s train station, repelled an attack
of 14 German tanks, three of which were set on fire at a range of 1,500 meters.
The normal range for firing from the SU-100 at heavy German
tanks was 1,000 to 1,300 meters, but out to 1,500 meters, and sometimes even
longer, when firing at medium tanks and self-propelled guns. The SU-100s as a
rule fired from fixed positions, but sometimes from short halts. From the
indicated ranges, the SU-100 could inflict damage to all types of German armor,
and as a rule, with the very first on-target shell.
Cooperation between the self-propelled guns and other units
was implemented in the following fashion. The commander of the self-propelled
regiment and the rifle regiment commander as a rule were located in the same
observation post or had telephone contact with each other. The commanders of
the rifle battalion and of a self-propelled gun battery would personally work
out all questions of cooperation on the spot, and in case of need, also had
telephone communications. The commander of the SU-100 brigade maintained
constant radio contact with the commander of the rifle division to which his
brigade was attached. This allowed the transmission of information regularly in
the course of fighting and the reaching of necessary decisions.
Nevertheless, during the battle, a number of genuine
miscalculations in the organization of cooperation with the SU-100s were
revealed. For example, fire cover provided by the field artillery for the
self-propelled guns was poorly organized, the infantry didn’t render assistance
to the crews when attempting to pass through swampy areas of terrain, and
several of the all-arms commanders tried to use the SU-100 in the role of infantry
support tanks. For example, the commander of the 36th Guards Rifle Division
ordered a battery of tank destroyers to lead an infantry attack. Because of the
absence of infantry and artillery cover, the SU-100s came under the fire of
German antitank guns, as a result of which three of the tank destroyers were
A substantial shortcoming of the SU-100, which was revealed
in the course of fighting, was its absence of a machine gun. Because of this,
the vehicle had no close range defense against infantry and proved defenseless
against assaulting German infantry. As a temporary measure, it was proposed to
give each crew a light machine gun, and to give 8-10 light machine guns to the
company of submachine gunners in the SU-100 self-propelled artillery regiments.