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The Tragedy of the USSR Military Aviation in 1941: an Accident or a Pattern
The recognition of mistakes is that powerful factor that makes it possible to correct one's actions in the right (i.e., correct) direction. This is a kind of feedback that makes the process of government sustainable.
The Origin of the Problems
As you know, the mechanical transfer of the experience of the civil war, political purges and the destruction of the military elite in 1937-1938, led to a strong drop in the combat potential of the Red Army. The subsequent forced restoration of the combat potential of the Red Army and aviation, including, as you know, was poorly supported by material resources and did not give a positive result. For example, if in 1937 there were 18 aviation schools in the Armed Forces, then by May 1, 1941 there were already 100 of them ("Military personnel on the eve of the war." Doctor of Historical Sciences, Professor F.B. Komal. Military History Journal » No. 2, 1990). But on January 1, 1941, the schools and colleges of the Air Force were only 44.1% full of teachers. In addition, in these educational institutions, instead of 1276 SB aircraft in the state as of September 1, 1940, there were only 535, and F-1 cabins with dual control, instead of the supposed 743 - 217. They were also poorly provided with fuel (41.4% of the need ), the terms of training often changed (from 1939 to 1940 - 7 times) and the number of flight hours.
Appointments and transfers in 1939 alone involved 246,626 people in the service cycle, which at that time accounted for 68.8% of the staff of the commanding staff. During this period, huge movements of officers took place in the army, there were especially many promotions to the positions of senior and higher commanding staff in 1938-1939. This is explained, firstly, by the fact that then new regiments, divisions, corps, armies and military educational institutions were being formed. Secondly, as a result of the dismissal of a large number of officers in 1937-1938. there was an additional shortfall in personnel. The voids were filled with new people, many of whom were immediately promoted to major leadership positions, although most of them did not have the necessary knowledge and experience. And the fact that under these conditions the doctrine of offensive military operations was adopted under any conditions in the event of aggression from the outside was evidence of the illiteracy of the leadership of the state and blatant irresponsibility. As it turned out very soon, already during the Finnish War, not a single branch of the armed forces was ready to conduct not only offensive, but even defensive hostilities.
It is quite natural that in such a situation there still existed: a bias in general views on the war, a denial of the objective laws of armed struggle in favor of authoritative opinion, clannishness in the leadership of the country and the armed forces. They led to distortions in the ideology of the formation of the Army's weapons system, including aviation, in determining priorities in the development of weapons and planning the combat training of troops. For a long time they could not determine the role of long-range bomber aviation, they could not come to a common opinion about what kind of fighter the Air Force needed, the Air Force itself was subordinate to the Ground Forces, etc. No one looked at the Air Force as a complex system with its own objective laws of development and functioning, and, accordingly, the issues of interaction between the Air Force and other branches of the military were poorly worked out.
The elementary incompetence, disorganization and irresponsibility that prevailed in the leadership of the country and its armed forces are evidenced by memoirs and, which have recently become available, many orders and documents of that time1. Ultimately, it was this that led to the defeat of 1941 and the difficulties of 1942, although all signs of impending disaster were already on the surface in 1939.
The first wake-up call sounded back in May 1939, when the first days of fighting near the Khalkhin Gol River brought a simply depressing result: 18 of ours were paid for 2 downed Japanese aircraft. Things got to the point that the People's Commissar of Defense K. E. Voroshilov in early June ... banned combat sorties (RGVA, F. 32113, Op. 1, D. 473). The situation changed only after the arrival of experienced pilots who were able to teach their combat comrades what they were not taught in flight schools.
The very first battles in the skies over Finland most cruelly dispelled illusions about the combat readiness of the Red Army Air Force, especially bomber aircraft. On November 30, 1939, a squadron of the 35th high-speed bomber regiment flew out to strike at the most important objects of the enemy capital - the station and the power plant, but as a result of losing orientation, they dropped their deadly cargo ... on the residential and diplomatic quarters of Helsinki (RGVA, F. 34980, Op.12, D.1935).
Commander P.S.Shelukhin, seconded to the headquarters of the North-Western Front, wrote to the People's Commissar of Defense2: “The state of combat training of air units is at an extremely low level ... bombers do not know how to fly and especially maneuver in formation. In this regard, it is not possible to create fire interaction and repel an attack by enemy fighters with massive fire. This enables the enemy to inflict sensitive blows with his insignificant forces. Navigational training is very poor, resulting in a lot of wandering (sic) even in fine weather; in poor visibility and at night - mass wanderings. The pilot, being unprepared for the route, and due to the fact that the responsibility for aircraft navigation lies with the pilot-observer, carelessly in flight and loses orientation, hoping for a pilot. Mass loses orientation have a very detrimental effect on the combat capability of the units, so they lead to a large number of losses without any influence from the enemy and undermine the confidence of the crews in their own forces, and this, in turn, forces the commanders to wait for weeks for good weather, which sharply reduces the number of missions. <…> Speaking about the actions of aviation in general, it is necessary to say most of all about its inaction or action mostly in vain. For there is no other way to explain the fact that our aviation, with such a colossal superiority, could do almost nothing to the enemy for a month ... ”(F. 34980, Op. 12, D. 1774, L. 23v.).
For the entire time of the Soviet-Finnish war, the USSR lost 627 aircraft of various types. Of these, 37.6% were shot down in combat or landed on enemy territory, 13.7% were missing, 28.87% were lost as a result of accidents and disasters, and 19.78% were damaged, which did not allow the return of the aircraft to service. At the same time, the Finnish side lost 76 aircraft shot down and 51 damaged in battle (K. Keskinen, K. Stenman Op.cit. p. 145.), although according to official Soviet data, the Finns lost 362 aircraft.
The last war showed a serious backlog of the Soviet Air Force both in technology and in the organization of hostilities and command and control. Sadly, it was not the Soviet side that learned the lesson from what happened, but the Finnish side.
It should be noted that the fiercest internecine struggle of party and government officials taking place in the second half of the 30s, which resulted in a landslide fragmentation of the main governing structures of the USSR and the people's commissariat of the defense industry (NKOP) into dozens of small highly specialized people's commissariats (“The evolution of the management system of the Soviet defense industry in 1921-1941 and a change in the priorities of the "defense"", Ph.D. M. Mukhin. An abbreviated version of the article was published in the journal "National History" No. 3, 2000).
The deterioration of the foreign policy situation in Europe led to some understanding among the Soviet leadership of the inevitability of war with Nazi Germany. Obvious mistakes and blunders of the “leadership” began to be corrected by whipping up ideological psychosis with the help of patriotic slogans. A feverish investment of defense industry enterprises began, the accumulation of material resources in the Red Army and the deployment of new military formations.
A visit to German aircraft factories, purchases of equipment samples and their detailed study revealed a serious backlog of domestic equipment, both in terms of technical indicators and technology. Moreover, according to the conclusion of the Research Institute of the Air Force of the Red Army, German aviation technology had the potential to increase its main characteristics without a significant change in design. It was suggested that in combat operations with the USSR, Germany would not use the demonstrated equipment, but its modernized versions with even higher flight performance.
By the end of 1940, the capacity of Soviet flying clubs reached 100,000 pilots with independent flight time of up to 20 hours per year for each trainee. A sharp increase in the number and pace of training of flight crews, combined with a decrease in flying hours, led to an unprecedented increase in aviation accidents: up to 2-3 accidents and accidents per day3. However, nothing significant has been done with regard to the development of the strategy and tactics of the use of the Air Force, the improvement of issues of interaction with other types of troops. There was no time left to increase the level of technical equipment of the Red Army Air Force units and to take into account foreign (German) experience in aircraft construction in domestic designs.
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Already after the war, for a long time, at different levels and by different people, attempts were made to smooth out the obvious causes of the 1941 disaster. For example, in the memoirs of G.K. Zhukov, and then in other sources, it is stated that from 01/01/39 to 06/22/41 the Red Army received 17745 combat aircraft from industry, of which 3719 aircraft of new types: Yak-1, MiG-3, LAGT-3 , IL-2, Pe-2, etc. In fact, everything was much worse:
The Il-2 aircraft was accepted for mass production by decision of the Defense Committee under the USSR Investigative Committee at the beginning of January 1941. The first serial Il-2 at factory No. 18 (Voronezh) was accepted by the military representative only on March 21, 1941. tests of this aircraft at the Air Force Research Institute were not completed (V.I. Alekseenko. Soviet Air Force on the eve and during the Great Patriotic War). On June 22, this aircraft was not in the combat units: 2 were on trials, 8 - on retraining of the flight crew)!
The first serial LAGG-3 was accepted by a military representative at the plant number 21 (Gorky) on February 24, 1941. State tests of the LAGG-3 of the first series were completed a few days before the war, but a large number of defects were revealed. There were 29 units in service.
In total, in the combat units of the Soviet Air Force by the beginning of the war there were 706 aircraft of a new type, for which 1354 pilots were retrained. Of these, MiG-3 fighters - 407 (686 pilots retrained), Yak-1 - 142 (156 pilots retrained), LAGG-3 - 29 (90 pilots retrained), Pe-2 - 128 (362 pilots retrained), Il-2 - 0 (retrained 60 pilots). Including in the Western border districts there were 304 fighters and 73 Pe-2s, i.e. a total of 377 aircraft of the new type. - This was less than 6% of the total aircraft fleet of these five districts (V.I. Alekseenko. Soviet Air Force on the eve and during the Great Patriotic War). The situation was no better with combat training. Poor technical support for the combat operations of Soviet aviation (lack of radio communications, lack of topographic maps, etc.) in the very first months of the war led to unreasonably high losses and low effectiveness of the use of combat aircraft. Cases where only the leader of the group knew the combat mission for the flight and had a topographic map were the rule rather than the exception. In this case, the death of the lead aircraft or damage to its aircraft stopped the group from carrying out a combat mission and led to the demoralization of the rest of the pilots, making them easy prey for enemy fighters. There were frequent cases of recruiting fighter units at random, etc. In the orders and reports of that time, the phrases are often striking: “Our pilots are not familiar with the silhouettes of domestic aircraft. Cases of fire impact on own aircraft are not uncommon, ”etc.
Recognizing the courage and valor of the Soviet pilots of that time, bowing before their feat and self-sacrifice, one cannot fail to recognize the fact that the USSR managed to revive its Air Force after the 1941 disaster solely at the expense of enormous human resources4, the relocation of almost the entire aviation industry to areas inaccessible to German aviation and the fact that in the first months of the war the Air Force lost mainly equipment, and not flight and technical staff. It was they who became the basis of the revived Air Force.
However, the full use of the resources of the Red Army Air Force throughout the Great Patriotic War was not observed. There were also no significant changes in the tasks of Soviet military aviation, in the tactics of its use, in contrast to the German one: the activity of aviation was completely subordinated to the interests of the ground forces, mainly in the front line (see the dynamics of aircraft production by the factories of the USSR and Germany). This can be seen from the ratio of the types of combat aircraft of the Red Army Air Force, produced by the industry - the share of bomber aircraft with the transition of the Red Army to offensive combat operations practically did not increase. The history of the Soviet Pe-85 bomber clearly illustrates the level of understanding of the role and place of aviation in the war, which the Soviet leaders had, and what it cost the country. So, long-range aviation did not "work" efficiently enough on the objects of the German military-industrial complex.
Despite the constant numerical superiority, air supremacy by our aviation was won only by the middle of 1944*. According to German sources, by this time the proportion of experienced pilots in military aviation had greatly decreased. Nevertheless, an analysis of the dynamics of the numerical superiority and losses of combat aircraft of the Red Army Air Force over the years of the Great Patriotic War shows that even on the eve of surrender, with the overwhelming numerical superiority of the Red Army Air Force, Nazi aviation was still a very serious enemy. According to domestic sources, at the end of 1944, for a guaranteed victory in an air battle over a German pilot on a Bf 109 aircraft, at least two Soviet Yak-3 aircraft were required on average.
Thus, the way of managing the country and the national economy, the numerous mistakes made by the leadership of the USSR and its Armed Forces long before June 22, 1941 and constantly made in the conduct of hostilities due to incompetence, voluntarism and irresponsible attitude towards people led to what we call the catastrophe of 1941. Its effects were felt throughout the war. And the consequences of the principles of governing the country adopted at that time and the cult of irresponsible attitude towards the population are still felt by us.
Just a few years after the Great Patriotic War, the sad military experience was safely forgotten, being supplanted by a wave of memoirs and praising the wise management of the country during the war. At the same time, the illiteracy and incompetence of the top leadership, its obvious miscalculations were presented as weakness and lack of performance, and sometimes betrayal of the military leaders of the middle and lower levels6. A fundamental and objective assessment of the causes of the transcendent human and material losses in the last war was not made.
From all this follow trivial conclusions that are relevant in any era:
- the smallest mistake by the standards of peacetime, made in preparation for the war, can turn into a disaster during the war;
- any underestimation or overestimation of any factor, the slightest incompetence of the leadership in the conduct of armed struggle greatly increases material losses and human casualties;
- the military and economic weakness of the state in itself is a powerful "provocative" factor, stimulating "friendly" states to fight in one form or another for the redivision of the world. Moreover, relations between states do not play a special role here;
- and finally, most importantly - a possible future war is won in peacetime long before it starts.
* - The thesis about the numerical superiority of Soviet aviation in the second half of the war is quite controversial. Indeed, the number of aircraft of the Red Army Air Force surpassed the Luftwaffe. But this is for aircraft in general. In reality, the number of aircraft that took part in the battle could not be in our favor due to the more intensive use of their aircraft by the Germans. In the course of many air operations, the number of sorties by the enemy was 2.5-3 times higher. Thus, despite the "paper" numerical superiority of the Red Army Air Force, numerical parity was maintained in the sky for quite a long time. Note. editor).
1 “Russia in faces, documents, diaries. THE HIDDEN TRUTH OF THE WAR: 1941. UNKNOWN DOCUMENTS. M.: RUSSIAN KNIGA, 1992. Comparison of the data and descriptions of events given in the orders and other documents of those years, with the memoirs of Soviet leaders of various levels and the studies of foreign authors, including German, unfortunately, does not allow us to consider the memoirs of Soviet leaders as a source of information that deserves complete trust. Nevertheless, upon careful study of what is written there, one can imagine the depth of the irresponsibility of the country's top leadership and the armed forces.
2 Document style saved.
3 This situation was one of the formal reasons for the dismissal of Pavel Rychagov, Chief of the Air Force, who had replaced Ya.V. Smushkevich (see extract from the protocol of the decision of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party of Bolsheviks of 04/09/1941). According to the results of the combat use of Soviet aviation in the war with Finland, Ya.V. Smushkevich presented the country's leadership with an objective report, for which he paid the price. On the eve of the Great Patriotic War, both Smushkevich and Rychagov, and Arzhenukhin (Chief of Staff of the Air Force under Smushkevich), who became the head of the Air Force Academy, were arrested, and in October 1941 they were shot in the city of Kuibyshev, in whose prison they were kept at that moment (Kanun and the beginning of the war, Documents and Materials, L. 1991, p.
4 “What flight record do you have on combat aircraft? Answer:
- One and a half to two hours, and then most often on old planes, rarely anyone flew on new ones.
I ask commanders:
- How will the development of the new material part take place?
- The theory was explained to them during their studies, they were introduced to the features of the aircraft, but here we give one or two flights, and then - to Stalingrad. Time doesn't wait." (From the memoirs of the People's Commissar of the Aviation Industry A.I. Shakhurin about the farewell to the front at the end of 1942 of the air regiment, which received new equipment).
44093 pilots were trained during the war. 27,600 pilots were killed in action. Of these, 11,874 fighter pilots, 7,837 attack pilots, 6,613 bomber crew members, 587 reconnaissance pilots and 689 auxiliary pilots. Non-combat losses amounted to 3994 pilots (V. I. Alekseenko. Soviet Air Force on the eve and during the Great Patriotic War).
5 "Flying Fortress" of the Red Army Air Force. V. Rigmant. AVIATION and SPACE yesterday, today, tomorrow. May-June 2002
6 The most striking example is the fate of General Pavlov. However, there were often cases similar to the one that occurred in the early days of the war in the Baltic states. In the zone of the Baltic Military District, the enemy attacked 11 Soviet airfields. The first bombs on the port of Libava and the airfield of the 148th IAP, commanded by Major Zaitsev, fell at 03:57. However, the commander of the 6th Smad, I.L. Fedorov, did not dare to give an order to repulse the aggressor. It did not follow after the second raid. The initiative was taken by ordinary pilots, and Commissar Golovachev outlined it to the command. But even after that, nothing has changed (Rytov A.G. “Knights of the Fifth Ocean”, M., Military Publishing, 1968). The fear of disobeying Stalin's order and "giving a pretext to the aggressor" suppressed common sense. This was one of the reasons why the aviation group, which outnumbered the enemy almost twice, allowed him to gain complete air supremacy.