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The Soviet Air Force in World War 2 got a very rude awakening, it endured one of the most devastating defeats in aviation history. At the time of the German attack the force consisted of about 400 000 personnel, and 10 000 to 15 000 aircraft, of which 7 500 were deployed in the Soviet’s Western theatre. Whereas the German Air Force had around 2800 aircraft deployed for Operation Barbarossa. The Germans achieved total surprised and launched an attack with about 1000 bombers against 66 airfields in the Russian border districts. (p. 272)
Aircraft Losses during Operation Barbarossa
The reported losses on these initial attacks vary, but the 1970s Soviet official history states the loss of 800 aircraft destroyed on the ground and a total loss of 1200 aircraft. This basically crippled the Soviet air force stationed near the front lines. These attacks also inflicted significant damage and chaos on the logistical side. Thus, by day three of operation Barbarossa the Luftwaffe was free to focus mainly on supporting the ground troops, who captured the Russian airfields.(p. 273)
In Mid July 1941 the Soviets admitted to the destruction of almost 4000 (3985) aircraft, whereas the German air force claimed around 6900 (6857) planes destroyed. The kill claims were probably a bit higher than the real ones, but the official war time number probably lower. Yet, most importantly both numbers are substantial.
These losses were during the initial phase of operation Barbarossa and are based on war time claims by both side. Now according to post-war Soviet and German records between the beginning of the operation and the end of the year 1941 ( 22nd of June 1941 and the 31st of December 1941), the losses were approximately as follows:
A total of 21 200 aircraft were lost on the Soviet side. With 17 900 combat aircraft and the loss of 3300 support aircraft. (Greenwood: p. 67/ p.88) Yet, only 50 % of these losses were combat losses. The German side lost a total of 2500 (2505) combat aircraft and 1900 (1895) damaged. (Greenwood: p. 67)
Note: That these numbers may be quite off and shouldn’t be compared 1:1, because both sides counted losses differently, the problem is I haven’t found a proper article on this topic yet. Although a knowledgeable user indicated that German losses were usually total losses, whereas Russian losses seemed to include damaged vehicles.
Reasons for the Disaster
The reasons for the disaster are many, some of them were the result of ongoing processes, some were structural shortcomings and others were definitive failures in leadership. In any way Stalin played a major role in most of these factors.
Although the Soviet Air Force was successful in the Far East in 1938 and 1939. During the Spanish Civil War the German Bf 109 outclassed the Russian planes like the I-15. The performance of the Red Air Force in the Winter War against Finland was a disaster, thus a major reorganization was started in February 1941 which would at least take until Mid-1942, thus it wasn’t finished when the Germans attacked and made the force even more vulnerable. (p. 274)
Additionally, the Soviet expansion into Eastern Poland and the Baltic States required many resources that would have been needed elsewhere, about two thirds of built or renovated air fields were located in these regions. (p. 275) Thus, many units were still located on unsuited air fields, which were too small or unfinished, which also made camouflage and dispersal more difficult. Unlike the British the Soviets lacked a proper early warning system, which resulted in a total surprise combined with Stalin’s reluctance to prepare properly to the upcoming German attack. (p. 275)
Another major structural problem was created by Stalin purges. In 1937 the Air Force had 13000 officers, of those 4700 (4724) were arrested. Followed by another 5600 (5616) in 1940. (75 % of the most senior and experienced commanders were among those.) Although some of the arrested officers were later released it were only around 15 % (about 900 (892) or 16 percent of those in 1940). This of course had a severe impact on morale and effectiveness, because the Air force consisted of to a large degree of purge survivors, promoted inexperienced young officers and fresh recruits. (p. 276)
The purges also affected the design bureaus for weapons and aircraft. Some were dismissed, some were arrested, which often lead to the execution and some were put in special prison bureaus like Andrei (Nikolayevich)Tupolev.(p. 277-278)
Furthermore the drastic measures and understandable fear surrounding the purges also inflicted the production of aircraft, because changing the production line from one aircraft to another can be quite complicated and usually includes a severe reduction in efficiency for adapting machinery and processes, this “loss” or better investment of time could be easily seen as sabotage. So most factories were reluctant in switching over to new models.(p. 278)
This meant that in 1940 7300 (7267 old fighters and bombers) old designs were produced whereas only around 200 of newer models.(186 new fighters and ground attack “machines” (p. 277))
The numbers especially for newer models increased in 1941, yet the training on the new aircraft was kept to a minimum due to fear of losses caused by accidents, which could also lead to “sabotage” or other charges. I guess Stalin would have been a huge Beastie Boys fan or maybe the other way round, that would at least explain all those moustaches… Oh, well I digress.
Recovery Summer 1941 to Winter 1942
Let’s take a look at the recovery of the Soviet Air force, although the German losses were way lower than the Soviet ones, the Luftwaffe also had far fewer aircraft available in the beginning. Furthermore, the logistical system of the Luftwaffe was unsuited for a long war in Russia, something I discussed already in one of my previous videos. Already in October and November the Russians ordered attacks against Luftwaffe airfields. Additionally, since the Japanese were no longer a threat, more than 1000 aircraft from the Far East arrived, all this helped to slowly tip the balance.
Whereas in end of September (30th) 1941, the Russians could oppose the 1000 Luftwaffe air planes with only 550 (545) of their own. In mid-November the situation was quite different with 670 Luftwaffe planes versus 1140 (1138) Russian planes. (p. 279) Yet, the numbers alone didn’t win the battle for the Red Air Force, but the balance was slowly changing and in fall 1942 the Luftwaffe got seriously challenged. (p. 279)
After Hitler denied the 6th Army to break out of Stalingrad it was supplied only by the Luftwaffe, the Soviet established a so called “aerial blockage” and after two months of intensive fighting the Luftwaffe’s air superiority was finally lost. (the Germans could only field 350 fighters vs. 510 (509) Russian fighters in November 1942 (19th))
Important Factors in the Recovery
Let’s take a look at the major factors that contributed to the resurrection of the Soviet Air Force. One aspect was the mostly successful evacuation of the air craft industry and the lack of German attacks on this industry. Furthermore, the successful creation of a talented command staff and successful reorganization, which was supported by Stalin. (p. 280) The restructuring efforts included the transformation into air divisions, whereas each division consisted of one type of aircraft, which improved the logistics and command efficiency.(p. 281)
Additionally, the use of on-board radios grew, which allowed better coordination with ground stations for warning and command-and-control. (p. 281) There were also tactical changes like the creation of special ace units and the use of free hunts with experienced pilots. The Soviet Air doctrine focused strongly on fighters in order to achieve air superiority, thus a considerable effort was spent to develop the fighter arm into an elite force. (p. 75 Greenwood)
All these changes and the continuous Luftwaffe losses, allowed the Soviet Air Force to break the air superiority of the Luftwaffe and subsequently force it into the defensive role. Thus, within a mere 18 months the Soviet Air Force was able to recover and deal a severe blow against its enemy.
Additionally, the Soviet Air Force was starting to receive more and more planes, due to the lend-lease program which supplied around 18000 (18303; p. 280) planes during the whole war.
Amazon.com (affiliate link): Jones, David R.: From Disaster to Recovery: Russia’s Air Forces in the Two World Wars. In: Higham & Harris: Why Air Forces Fail
Amazon.de (affiliate link): Jones, David R.: From Disaster to Recovery: Russia’s Air Forces in the Two World Wars. In: Higham & Harris: Why Air Forces Fail
Amazon.com (affiliate link): Greenwood, John T.: Soviet Frontal Aviation during the Great Patriotic War, 1941-45. In: Russian Aviation and Air Power in the Twentieth Century
Amazon.de (affiliate link): Greenwood, John T.: Soviet Frontal Aviation during the Great Patriotic War, 1941-45. In: Russian Aviation and Air Power in the Twentieth Century
Pop-culture Beastie Boys Reference – Sabotage