war fought between Germany and the Soviet Union became the most dramatic
and costly battlefront of World War II. The area was vast—extending for
1,490 miles (2,400 kilometres). The human cost was high as well: Germany
lost an estimated 3.5 million lives, battle casualties or prisoners of
war. But Germany felt the costs were justified in order to provide
Lebensraum—living space for Germans, which was to be located in Eastern
Europe and the USSR. Hitler envisioned an easy six-week campaign to
conquer the Soviet Union. Instead, it turned into four years of
bloodshed and misery. Germany was slowly defeated while the Soviet Union
rebuilt itself. Unlike in other war theatres where air power was used
for its own military campaigns apart from ground troops, air power on
the Eastern Front was used mainly to support ground operations, making
it echo the movements and fortunes of the armies.
late 1930s, the Soviet Union had suffered a series of purges. Stalin had
killed thousands of Russians as he eliminated all opposition to his
regime. No one was safe—even top aircraft designers were imprisoned or
killed. Three-quarters of the leaders of the air force, the Voyenno
Voxdushnye Sily (VVS), were executed and the rest paralyzed with fear.
Pilots were afraid to fly, worried that any mistake might be interpreted
as sabotage. The VVS was unprepared to fight a war.
September 1939, the Nazis conquered Poland and Russia occupied the
eastern part of the country as part of a secret agreement with the Nazis
to partition Eastern Europe between them. On November 30, 1940, the
Soviets invaded Finland. In what was called the Winter War, the Soviets
defeated the Finns. But it was at a great cost. The Finns were
outnumbered 10 to 1, yet they slaughtered the ill-trained and
ill-equipped invaders. Hitler himself, watching the debacle, said that
to defeat Russia, he had only to "kick in the door to have the whole
rotten edifice come crashing down."
began planning Operation Barbarossa—a six-week campaign to defeat
Russia. He prepared the largest military force ever seen. The 117 ground
divisions held 3 million men. The Luftwaffe (German Air Force) sent four
of its five air fleets, equipped with the most recent first-line
aircraft, including updated Messerschmitt Bf.109F.2.
Operation Barbarossa German
offensive operations, June 22 - August 25, 1941.
Operation Barbarossa began at daybreak on June 22 when 30 bombers
attacked airfields in western Russia. Although warned ahead of time by
the British and given the exact date by his spy in Tokyo, Stalin felt
protected by the Nazi-Soviet pact and ignored the warnings. He refused
to relocate his aircraft, and 1,489 aircraft on the ground were
destroyed that first day. By the end of the first week, more than 4,000
VVS aircraft had been destroyed.
Dead Russian troops and destroyed Soviet tanks litter the snowy field in
front of German defensive positions, winter 1941-1942.
bomber pilots were sent out to meet the Germans, but the lack of
experienced leadership because of the purges was obvious. The
inexperienced pilots flew in tight formations, maintaining steady
courses and altitudes. They had neither fighter escorts nor gunners and
were easy targets for the well-trained Luftwaffe. The German pilots
piled up victories quickly. Werner Molders became the first pilot to
pass the 100-victory mark, and Erich Hartmann became Germany’s top ace
with 352 victories--almost every one earned on the Russian front.
Germans advanced eastward quickly, capturing cities and taking hundreds
of thousands of prisoners. But their rapid move was reckless--the
Luftwaffe was forced to abandon damaged aircraft and essential spare
parts. The Luftwaffe eventually would lose as many planes to maintenance
problems as combat. And no matter how many units the Germans killed,
shot down, or captured, more Russian soldiers always arrived.
Soviet winter counteroffensives,
December 1941 - March 1942. (click to enlarge)
Soviet aircraft began arriving too. In spite of the purges, the Soviets
had still managed to develop a strong aircraft industry. The MiG 3
high-altitude interceptor, which had been unknown prior to the invasion,
debuted. Its top speed exceeded anything the Luftwaffe could produce,
although the inexperienced VVS pilots rarely used it to its potential.
And the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik, a low-altitude attack aircraft,
boasted easy handling, powerful armament, and invulnerability to ground
fire that made it a devastating ground attack aircraft against the
German Panzer units, who called it the "Black Death." Stalin made the
plane a production priority, calling it "like air, like bread" to the
was determined to reach Moscow before winter. By November, the Germans
were only 19 miles (31 kilometres) outside the city. But the mud and
winter weather—the worst in 20 years—stopped them. The German planes
could not handle the subzero temperatures. Fires had to be set under the
engines to help start them. The few heaters they had were used on the
engines even though the mechanics’ hands froze to their tools. The
Germans would never reach Moscow. Three million Russians and 800,00
Germans were dead. Adding to their problems, Hitler sent one of the air
divisions to fight in the Mediterranean theatre.
Russians were in better shape. Their planes were equipped for colder
temperatures. And as the Germans approached Moscow, the entire Soviet
aviation industry—1,500 facilities with 10 million employees--picked up
and moved east across the Ural Mountains, away from the battlefront, to
even more inhospitable conditions and no buildings in place at all.
Within weeks of their move, however, they had constructed new plants and
resumed aircraft production. By December, they had reached their
previous production level and by the start of 1942, they had surpassed
it. New airplanes began to stream back to the front, supporting
counteroffensives during the winter that had pushed the Germans away
summer of 1942 came, Hitler rerouted his ground troops toward the oil
fields in the south. In November, an estimated 300,000 German soldiers
found themselves trapped in Stalingrad, surrounded by the Russian Army.
Fighting was fierce: hand-to-hand combat was common. But Hitler declared
Stalingrad a fortress and announced that he would mount his final
victory from there. Hermann Goering promised that the Luftwaffe would
supply the troops with 750 tons of airlifted supplies each day. But the
supply planes had difficulty finding landing fields and when they did
land, there were no trucks or handcarts to handle the supplies. The VVS
protected the city with layers of fighter aircraft and antiaircraft guns
placed in concentric circles around the city. If a plane did manage to
get through the barricade and find a field, the supplies were often
useless. Soldiers who were slaughtering horses to eat had no use for
supplies like condoms or fishmeal. Under the command of its new leader,
General A.A. Novikov, the VVS had shifted to the offence--hunting down
enemy aircraft and slipping far behind lines to bomb the rear. The
airlift failed, and on February 3, 1943, the last of the Germans
surrendered. At the end of the war, German deaths at Stalingrad numbered
160,000; only 5,000 survivors returned to Germany.
Stalingrad, the Russians, aided by the Allied bombing campaign, began to
push the Germans out. The VVS maintained air superiority, and for the
last 27 months of the war, it grew and learned to fight from the
Germans. Novikov organized air armies modelled after the von Richthofen
Flying Circuses of World War I. The air units contained every type of
plane and could be dispatched to fight wherever they were needed.
Aircraft from the Lend-Lease program began arriving from the United
States and England, including Hurricanes, Spitfires, B-25 Mitchells, and
most importantly, Bell Airacobras. A.I. Pokryshkin became Russia’s
second-highest scoring ace flying an Airacobra P-39. And the Soviet
factories were producing at high levels, adding new and deadlier
aircraft, such as the Petlyakov Pe-2 and the Yak-9. The Shturmovik had a
tail gunner position added to it--surprising many German pilots as they
attacked from the rear.
Gradually, the Germans were pushed back to Berlin. They had attacked a
country unprepared for war and weakened by terror. Yet Russia’s
tenacious spirit and cruel winter allowed it to fight back and claim
victory. The nation and its air force had experienced a rebirth and
emerged from World War II as a global power, ready to fight the Cold