aviation in World War 2

bomber tactics
the Blitz
bombing of Coventry
bombing in the Bristol area
Combined Bomber (CBO)
Bomber Command
the Dambusters
bombing of Hamburg
1000 bomber raids
bombing of Dresden
bombing of Nuremberg
the Schweinfurt raids
German Night Fighters
the Pathfinders
Soviet bombing raids
Pearl Harbour
the Doolittle raid
the B-17 and B-29
fire bombing raids on Japan
Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima

Soviet bombing raids

Everyone has heard of the great American, British and Canadian bomber stream that pounded Germany from the air during World War 2. These bombers are often credited with winning the war by destroying German industry and demoralizing the population. Indeed, the bombers of the western Allies did wreak havoc in Germany by day and night, but not too many people know that the Russians too had a strategic bombing campaign over Germany, and these raids were as terrible as any the British or Americans could construe.

The very first raid happened as the German forces were approaching Moscow in late 1941. Hitler's Directive 33, issued on 19 July, 1941, had called for a bombing campaign to soften the Soviet capital as a prelude to its proposed capture. Arriving over Moscow at 10 pm, the He.111Hs and JU.88As of KG3, 27, 53, 54 and 55 dropped a total of 104 tonnes of HE and 46,000 incendiaries for over 5 hours. The Soviets were prepared, however, and intense AA fire and over 300 searchlights managed to disperse the raiders.

The Luftwaffe would continue to strike at Moscow throughout 1941, but they never achieved Hitler's objective of reducing the city to rubble. On the contrary, they only stiffened the will of the Muscovites and prompted them to fight to the last.

The bombings enraged Stalin. He fumed over the fact that the Luftwaffe could hit his capital, but the puny bomber arm of the VVS (Voyenno-Vozdushny Sili, or Red Air Forces) could not strike back. Or could they? The VVS had undergone serious cutbacks in the '30s, and many of the Spanish Civil War veterans had been purged. But the USSR had to redeem her honour and take vengeance for the bombing of her capital city. Stalin demanded that the V-VS bomb Berlin. The raid was set for August 11, 1941, and was to be launched from Pushkino, near Leningrad.

This would not be the first time that Berlin had been bombed. The RAF had hit the city a number of times before, proving Göring's statement that "enemy bombs shall never fall on Berlin" to be false. Also, the Soviet navy, Voyenno Morsky Flot) had sent a token raid on August 7, using 14 Pe.8 heavy bombers. But this was to be the first major air raid conducted by the VVS on an enemy city so far away. The previous bombings of Helsinki and Belgrade would pale in comparison.

At that time, the VVS had only three aircraft types available that could reach a target that was becoming more and more distant with each day the German army advanced into Russia. Those were the Ilyushin Il-4, the Yermolayev Yer-2 and the Petlyakov Pe-8. In order to achieve the necessary range for the mission, these aircraft had to have their regular engines removed and replaced with long-range diesels. This was done at the order of Stalin himself.

On the same day as the small raid, 14 Pe-8s were assembled at Pushkino for their first sortie. Originally, 18 bombers had been dispatched to the field, but four had had to return to the factory due to engine malfunctions, while a fifth was almost shot down by anti-aircraft guns as it approached its destination.

A Pe-8 being readied for takeoff

Although experienced airline pilots, the selected aircrews would have considerable problems with formation flying or taking off and landing on unpaved runways. This would prove to be a serious handicap. Also a problem were the Pe-8's peculiar new ACh-30B diesel engines, of which fuel flow had to be adjusted by the pilot. Worse, the engine's RPMs fluctuated wildly, and occasionally the engines would just stop, especially at high altitudes. These problems were dealt with as quickly as possible so as not to hinder the raid.

Vodopyanov planned his route to around the coastlines of Estonia and Latvia, then across the Baltic to a landfall north of Stettin, hoping to avoid the Luftwaffe Jagdflieger. The total distance to Berlin was calculated at 1,680 miles, which would be flown at the Pe-8's long-range cruising speed of 175 mph and at an altitude of 23,000 feet. If they left at last light, the estimated time of arrival over Berlin would be around midnight.

Finally, at 9:15 p.m. on August 11, the 14 Pe-8s took to the sky. At about the same time, two squadrons of Il-4s from the 200th BAP took off from Saaremaa to join the attack. Colonel Nikolai I. Novodranov's 420th BAP was also ordered to send a squadron of Yer-2s to Berlin.

Things began to go wrong for the huge Pe-8s right from the start. As Major Konstantin P. Yegorov's plane was taking off, two of the new diesel engines cut out on the same side, sending it crashing to earth and killing all 11 crewmen. As the bombers made their way toward the Baltic, Captain Aleksandr N. Tyagunin's plane came under attack first by Finnish fighters and then by trigger-happy Soviet AA gunners, who sent it plunging into the sea.

Lieutenant Vasily D. Bidny was just 40 minutes from Pushkino when his right inner engine caught fire. He put out the flames by shutting down the engine, but as he flew over Danzig at 19,685 feet, the left outer engine failed, too. The Pe-8 was struggling to stay aloft on two engines with a full bombload, but descended to 6,560 feet. Bidny decided to hit the secondary target of Stettin and dropped his bombs on the Lauenburg railroad station. Bidny managed to bring his plane down safely near Leningrad, just as his last of fuel ran out.

The remaining 11 Pe-8s pressed on toward Berlin, releasing their bombloads over various parts of the city. Group leader Vodopyanov experienced no difficulties until he was only 12 minutes away from Berlin. At an altitude of 22,965 feet, one of his Pe-8's diesel engines began to falter. Vodopyanov had come too far to stop now, and he grimly kept the plane on course while German AA guns opened fire. He reached the target and his bombardier released the 8,188 pound bombload. Just then a flak shell hit the plane and sent shell splinters tearing into the fuselage and puncturing a fuel tank in the right wing. Vodopyanov calculated that he had about four hours' fuel left for a five-hour flight and ordered his navigator, Aleksandr P. Shtepenko, to abandon the originial circuitous return route and set a direct course for home.

Berlin being pummelled by Soviet bombs

Vodopyanov's troubles didn't stop there. His plane flew through a low pressure area and began to ice up. This in turn caused the instruments to frost over and become unreadable. By the time he got clear of the foul weather, Vodopyanov found himself down to 6,560 feet. He was then over Estonia, right over the German-Soviet front line. Navigator Shtepenko announced, "ETA base 30 minutes," but he spoke too soon, for at that very moment all four engines stopped dead. The large airplane came down in a forest, but Vodopyanov and his crew emerged unhurt and made their way to safety on the Soviet side of the lines.

In the end, only four of the other Pe-8 crews could claim to have made the round trip without incident when they arrived at Pushkino on the morning of August 12. Two other bombers turned up later in the day. Major Mikhail M. Ugryumov ran out of fuel and landed near a tractor factory outside of Kalinin, where he refuelled his plane from buckets and then returned home. Major Aleksandr A. Kurban's engines seized up several times, compelling him to restart them by going into shallow dives, consuming precious fuel each time. He ran out of fuel at Krasnoye Selo but force-landed his plane, refuelled and eventually made it to Pushkino. Three other Pe-8s were less fortunate. One pilot became disoriented and made his way to axis-ally Finland, where he and his crew were taken prisoner.

It had also been a disastrous mission for the 1st Squadron of the 420th BAP. Not only were its Yer-2s overloaded with fuel, but its pilots, veteran of Aeroflot, were appalled by the grass airstrip at Pushkino. When Lieutenant Aleksandr I. Molodschy tried to take off, both of his engines began to lose power and his brakes failed. Molodschy kept going at full throttle and took off, only to come down again and then run out of runway. The Yer-2 crashed, but Molodschy and his crew survived.

After several other Yer-2s suffered similar accidents, the mission was cancelled--though not before at least three Yer-2s had managed to take off. Low clouds forced Lieutenant Vladimir M. Malinin to descend to 2,700 feet before dropping his bombs over Berlin. He survived this hazardous manoeuvre only to be shot down by friendly fire on his return voyage. The entire crew was killed. Commandant V.A. Kubyshko also bombed the German capital, only to be attacked by several Soviet fighters during his return flight. His plane went down in flames, but he and his crew managed to bail out safely. The third Yer-2, piloted by Captain A.G. Stepanov, was last seen over Berlin, but never returned.

Upon his return, the mission commander and Pe-8 pilot, Major Vodopyanov was rushed to Moscow. Brought before Stalin and a roomful of Party officials, marshals and generals, Vodopyanov was asked for a mission report and summary.

"Eleven of our aircraft reached the target, six aircraft regained their base, one was shot down by our own anti-aircraft artillery, one is missing and the rest made forced landings owing to engine failures. My aircraft crash-landed in a forest."

Vodopyanov then lost his composure and cried out:

"I'm ready to tear out those damned diesels with my teeth! Engines must be reliable for operational flying, and flying with these diesels means the loss of aircraft and men."

In spite of the attack on Stalin's personal decision, the dictator listened as Vodopyanov concluded with a request for navigational beacons.

When a Party Official shot back at Vodopyanov for his request, Stalin spoke up, ending the argument and dismissing Vodopyanov. Colonel Aleksandr E. Golovanov replaced Vodopyanov in command of the 81st DBAD soon afterward. Vodopyanov was assigned to assist in testing a Pe-8 with Shvetsov M-82 radial engines in place of the Charomsky diesels. Also, a homing beacon called Pchelka (little bee) was introduced at V-VS air bases. The realities of war had changed Stalin's attitude since the terrifying days of his prewar purges.

Despite the problems with the Pe-8s, they soldiered on. On September 1, a completely successful Pe-8 raid on Königsberg was effected. Raids on Berlin continued, too. Naval DB-3s flew a total of 10 sorties over Berlin before their base at Saaremaa had to be evacuated in the face of imminent German capture. The final attack was made on the night of September 4-5. A total of 86 naval aircraft participated in the raids, of which 33 were reported to have reached Berlin, while others bombed secondary targets, including Stettin, Königsberg, Memel, Danzig, Swinemünde and Libau. Daylight bombing was even tried, but met with no success and was cancelled.

Although given a high priority, the Soviet raids were never intended to have carry the same weight as the RAF, RCAF and USAAF raids in the west. They were performed merely to pay the Germans back for their equally ineffective attacks on Moscow and provide a much needed boost to morale on the home front. It is kind of ironic that while the bombing of Germany's capital was left mainly to the airmen operating from southern England, it was the humble Soviet infantryman that dealt the city's final death blow, capturing it block by bloodily contested block.