Excogitations On The Strength Of The Soviet Air Force During Barbarossa.

by Daniel Russ on September 25, 2011

Lavochkin 5
Germany warred with Russia for 47 months. Germany started by deploying most of its aircraft to the Eastern front. One might wonder why the Russians didn’t notice the build up as a precursor to war. Keep in mind during the 1930s Stalin purged (murdered) most of his army staff for disloyalty. He saw it as a mundification. History saw it as sociopathic. Seventy five percent of the Soviet Air Force leadership was killed. It’s not that easy to replace experience. District commanders, brigade commanders, and local air staff were imprisoned and punished even if they were only suspect. Stalin ran a paranoid operation the likes of which the world has never seen. Combat pilots who might egress Soviet airspace and ask for asylum were not allowed to fly. In fact the designers were the hardest to replace and when Stalin had small circles of aircraft designers killed, he shot himself in the foot.
Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik
Still there is that quality that the Soviet Union possessed that made a huge difference. It was immensely large with a large population. The Soviet Union, under Communist ideology highly prized education and technical institutes were given good shift in the build up to the Second World War. These universities and technical institutes created men like Mikoyan and Gurevich and Tupelov and Ilyushin, men who built planes that would rival all the best aircraft in the world.
Yakovlev Yak -9
The invasion of Russia was named Barbarossa, after a Germanic Crusader that led Christians into the Mid East in the 11th century: Frederick Ist, or Redbeard. It was a bad portend as he never finished the trip. But Barbarrossa in myth stood for a man who established order in a world gone mad. The Russians suffered losses that woud have devastated a smaller country as the invasion began. It’s a good thing the Russians saved their factories and moved them and reassembled them quickly, because the Germans destroyed almost 4000 Russian planes while they were on the ground under the feckless eyes of the inexperienced Soviet Commanders. Stalin had not listened and when the gravity of the attack hit him, he met his senior staff, decided who would be sacked or worse, and left the meeting in high dudgeon.
Messerschmitt Bf 109
When the Second World War started the Soviet Air Force was divided into five air divisions. Each one had various support components of fighters, bombers and attack aircraft. Russian pilots of the Second World War in the air war favored the Ilyushin IL-2 Sturmovik. It was a twin engine ground attack aircraft, considered by many to be the best tank killer of the war.  Over 36,000 were built and Germans considered them the primary cause of armor loss after Kursk. Twin 37 mm cannons and a creative array of cluster and HEAT munitions took their toll on Panzer columns. The Russians had others on the assembly line as well. The Yakovlev 9 or Yak-9 was a single engine light fighter that the Soviet Union created to match the flight and distance characteristics of the German Messerschmitt BF-109 and the Focke-Wulf 190. The Russians built over 16,000 Yak-9s. And there was the La-7 developed by Lavochkin was a single engine fighter bomber that carried two 20mm cannons and 1000 kilograms of fuel and ordinance.


When Germany struck across the Russian frontier on June 22nd 1941 they had 2700 front line fighters, like the Messerschmitt BF-109 and the Focke-Wulf 190. While Germany had by far the best-trained and best equipped air force at the outset of World War II, Hitler’s ambitions, his micromanagement and unchecked proclivity for expanding operational parameters at the last second backfired. The aplomb with which German planners could arrange the movement of massive amounts of resources from one place to the other was frangible, and Hitler paid little attention to the problems that might hinder the progress of his dreams of a greater Germania. Thusly, the Luftwaffe, as effective as it was, was overstretched. By the end of the war, the Luftwaffe had only been used like a stopgap measure; and after Italy had had fallen and its air assets were effectively grounded, the vast distances that the Wehrmacht needed to cover were simply too much for the Luftwaffe to fill. Plus, Soviet production filled the air with Soviet fighters, at least as capable as the Germans planes and the Germans lost their air superiority.


While German troops were making early progress and fighting intense engagements with Soviet forces in 1942, Hitler decided to hold invasion operations into Moscow off because he needed to borrow divisions to defend Sicily against an allied invasion. It is an astonishing fact that Germany had the ability to move thousands of troops inside its own lines of communication on a massive scale with little advanced warning.  Yet this delay allowed the Russians to build robust defenses around Moscow that slowed the Panzer juggernaut to come. That said one of the most important aircraft the Germans had was the Junkers 52, a reliable air transport plane that did a lot to keep the Germans fed and clothed and armed on the Eastern Front. So Operation Typhoon, the siege of Stalingrad, and the advance on Moscow would rely heavily on the Ju-52 for resupply.


The Moscow offensive bogged down about 19 miles from the entrance to Moscow as seasonal torrential rains turned the Russian steppes into muddy rivers. Tanks, infantry, armored-vehicles, and artillery were brought to grinding halt. German technology by now littered the western Russian countryside. Now more than ever the value of a horse was rediscovered. The rains that trapped the Germans in the mud then transformed into a deadly ice and snow and then became another deadly enemy in a thaw in the Spring that released all the water in the frozen landscape and once again created a sea of mud west of the city. Soon enough the Army Group Center was divided by Hitler into three columns and sent in three different directions. Panzer armies were sent South to the Caspian Sea, West to the Back Sea and East to Stalingrad.


Focke Wulf 190


Stalingrad turned into the first major Corps level defeat on the Eastern front and was the fulcrum where the strength and momentum shifted. In November of 1942, when Soviet forces surrounded the German 6th Army, the Red Air Force had numerical superiority and over Stalingrad had shot down almost 500 transports and almost 300 fighters. The Germans simply did not have the air assets to support massive ground missions all throughout Central Asia.


Source: Wiki, Oxford Companion to Military History, www.history.army.mil/, History Channel Online


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