Soviet Air Force 1941/1942 – Defeat & Recovery

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.


Books (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 (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 (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 (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

Online Resources


Axis and Soviet air operations during Operation Barbarossa

Pop-culture Beastie Boys Reference – Sabotage

Stalingrad & Romania – Germany’s blamed Ally

Note this is a script for the video, this is not intended as an article, but it contains also a few more information and references.


One common theme in Germany and Austria was and sadly still often is to blame the Romanians and Italians for various German defeats in World War 2.Probably the most common is to blame the Romanians for the disaster in Stalingrad, because their Armies were defending both flanks of the German 6th Army.

Yet, at a closer look at the situation surrounding the Stalingrad disaster clearly shows that the defeat of the Romanian troops wasn’t their fault. This might not be a popular topic, but it is something very important to address, because I think that soldiers of all nations did their best and deserve our respect even if they held views that are not in alignment with our own.


So let’s start at the beginning, during Operation Barbarossa in 1941 Hitler was quite reluctant about Expeditionary Forces, especially the Italians ones, but after suffering heavy losses throughout the offensive and during the defensive in the Winter of 1941 the German forces were severely depleted.

Hence, for the summer offensive in 1942 Germany needed troops from its Allies, notably Romania, Italy and Hungary. The initial plan was based on the assumption to use 750 000 non-German troops.
But there were major problems with these troops:

  1. The training and experience of these troops was not on par with that of the German Army.
  2. They were lacking equipment, most importantly tanks, artillery and anti-tank guns.
  3. These troops also needed to be supplied, which put further strain on the German supply lines.
  4. There were several internal rivalries, most notably Hungary and Romania, who had land disputes and held back troops in case a war would break out between them.

These were well known problems that the German High Command was aware off. Another major shortcoming on the German side was that those troops should have been equipped with German equipment this was in some cases promised. But the Non-German troops only received very few if any of that equipment, thus their ability to fight against the Soviet Army was severely limited especially against Russian tanks like the T-34.

The Prelude

This situation was problematic enough, but it got worse throughout the Operation “Fall Blau” or Case Blue. The initial plan was to destroy large parts of the Red Army between Donez and Don. Afterwards the German Pincers should meet at Stalingrad. Note that this plan didn’t include the capture of Stalingrad itself. Furthermore, only after the success of the previous operation the Caucasus should be attacked.

The non-German Armies were considered less effective in terms of combat effectiveness, thus they were assigned for defensive operations most notably holding the 600 km long front between Voronezh and Stalingrad. Only a few German divisions were available to provide support in case of a Russian attack.

The initial plan was already very optimistic, but Hitler changed it during the operation, especially the fact that in July he ordered to split the Army Group South and lead the troops against Stalingrad and the Caucasus simultaneously in July. (23rd of July 1942; S. 134) Furthermore, he ordered that the city should be captured. This meant urban warfare and urban warfare is mostly a war of attrition, something the German army wasn’t suited for, because it lacked already manpower, quite in contrast to the Soviet Union, which was very well suited for a war of attrition.
The whole situation was obviously dangerous, the Chief of the General Staff of the Army noted in September (24th) that only after the capture of Stalingrad a sufficient number of German troops would be available to stabilize the Romanian parts of the front. Now, while the German Sixth Army was fighting in Stalingrad the Romanian armies secured its Northern and Southern flank. (S. 128)

To summarize:

  • the German Army had no reserves left,
  • it was involved in heavy fighting in Stalingrad,
  • the Romanian armies were severely under-equipped
  • and securing both flanks of the 6th German Army.

The Soviet Attack

Meanwhile the German military intelligence, which was probably the weakest link in the whole German military establishment, didn’t notice the massive buildup of Soviet forces on the Northern and Southern Flank. Only in November 1942 the Germans suspected an attack on the Northern Flank, but were still unaware about the upcoming attack on the Southern flank. Finally, when the Soviets attacked the focused on the center of the Romanian armies, where no German units were present. (S. 136)

Due to the lack of tanks and anti-tank guns most Romanian troops were routed, yet the remains of the 3rd Romanian Army now under command of General Lascar were surrounded early on and fought well for 4 days. Even Hitler himself noted the bravery of these troops. (S. 138)

The main problem is they never should have been there (and they should have been better equipped in the first place). Thus, blaming the Romanians nowadays is just short sighted or outright stupid.
Of course most of the German soldiers on the Eastern Front didn’t know better and they lost their comrades in Stalingrad, thus they were quite understandably bitter about the fast Romanian defeat. And clearly after the war, they brought this memory back with them. But for all of us, who never fought on the Eastern Front, I think it is time that we acknowledge that the fault was with Hitler and the German Army High Command and not with the Romanians, who also bleed and died in Russia like everyone else.


Books (affiliate Link): Vogel, Thomas: Ein Obstmesser zum Holzhacken. Die Schlacht um Stalingrad und das Scheitern der deutschen Verbündeten an Don und Wolga 1942/43. S. 128- in Stalingrad Militärhistorisches Museum.

Online Resources

Third Army (Romania) – World War 2