Early Soviet Jets II

Ilyushin Il-28

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 well-liked Yak-3.

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 aircraft.

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 flight range.

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 aerobatics.

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 production.

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 NS-23 cannons.

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 produced.

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 production MiG-9 in detail

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 production units.

Fuselage: semi-monocoque stressed-skin structure. Duralumin was used as the main structural material.

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 pedals.

Wings: unswept 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 fuselage.

Landing gear: 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.

Powerplant: two 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.

Armament: 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 internal bore).

Avionics and 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).

Control system: 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 controlled electrically.


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 A2.

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 fired.

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 one engine.

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 repaired.

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 check.

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 operation.

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.

The Defeat of Plan Barbarossa

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 Bolsheviks.

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 systems.

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 Division.

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 not.

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 path.

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 organizations.

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 power.

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.

Post WWII Voyenno-Vozdushnyye Sily [VVS]

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 bombing capability.

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 military helicopters.

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 the world.

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 PVO Strany.

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.

References 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, 1986.

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.

Victims of the VVS

“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 1944.

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 fleets.

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.

Further reading: 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.

Luftwaffe Air War Poland 1939

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 …?

Operational Method

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 SU-100 in Operations

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 commanders.

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 left burning.

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.