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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.