Aviation of World War II

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From War to Cooperation

When the First World War ended, Russia and Germany found themselves the outcasts of the world community. After the Bolshevik-organized coup d'etat and subsequent peace treaty with Germany the Entente nations broke diplomatic ties with Soviet Russia. Germany having lost the war, was forced to sign the Versailles Treaty that deprived it of some parts of its territory and put it under the control of the victorious countries. In order to avoid an expansion of Communist ideas to the West, a so-called "sanitary cordon" was set up between Russia and Germany It consisted of newly independent Poland and other East European states.

What Russia and Germany had in common were not only their political isolation, but also the hard economic situation in both countries. Four years of the world war, destructive revolutionary events, and the ensuing civil war had caused Russia's industry to collapse. Many skilled specialists left the country, some considered "counter-revolutionary elements" were executed by firing squad, and most of the factories were shut down. As a result, the combat capability of the Red Army had decreased drastically That was clearly proved when the Poles defeated Soviet troops near Warsaw during a "liberation march" the Red Army made into Poland in the summer of 1920.

German industry was also in bad shape. The country was exhausted by war and had to pay huge reparations to the victors. The situation in the military sphere was even worse. The Versailles Peace Treaty stipulated that the strength of the German Army could not exceed 100,000 men and Germany was forbidden to have such modern arms as aviation, armor, and submarines. Also, it was prohibited from exporting and importing weapons and war materials.

All this predetermined the beginning of cooperation between Soviet Russia and Germany in the military-industrial sphere. It gave advantages to both countries since such cooperation was to help Russia strengthen its economy and army based on German scientific, technological, and military know-how. At the same time, for Germany it meant that it could develop its military industry, evading the bans the Versailles Treaty imposed. Ground Forces General Hans von Seekt, Chief of the Ground Forces Directorate of the Reichswehr (as the German Armed Forces were called until 1935), wrote in a special memorandum on Soviet-German relations: "We want two things: first, reinforcement of Russia in the economic and political, i.e. military, sphere and, thus indirectly our own reinforcement since we are strengthening a future ally; then we want <…> our own immediate reinforcement and, for this, we will aid Russia in developing its defense industry, which will serve us in the event of necessity".

Obviously, such cooperation was a gross violations of the Versailles Treaty provisions, especially Article 179, which stipulated that Germany pledged "to take befitting measures so as not to allow German citizens to leave their territory to join the army, navy or aeronautical [this term included aviation as well —Author] service of any foreign power, or to temporarily be assign to it for the purpose of providing assistance in military affairs or, in general, contribute to training in the military naval, and aeronautical affairs in a foreign country". Therefore, all talks between the USSR and Germany on the problems of military-industrial interaction were held in strict confidence.

The first contacts began soon after the unsuccessful Bolshevik attempt to foster the development of revolutionary events in Germany in 1918-1919 according to the Russian scenario and following the defeat in the Polish Campaign of 1920. At that time, the government of Soviet Russia had to abandon its hopes for an impending world revolution and switch to a policy of compelled peaceful coexistence with capitalist countries.

"Special Group R" (Sondergruppe R, R standing for Russland, Russia) headed by a Major Fischer was set up in Germany in 1921 with the aim to interact with the Soviet leadership in the military-industrial sphere. Soon the group's delegation visited Russia and a return visit was paid in September 1921. K Radek, a member of the Communist Party Central Committee, and L Krasin, People's Commissar of Foreign Trade, headed the Soviet delegation. The January 1922 meetings resulted in agreement between the Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) and German military. It stated that "...The Red Army leadership guarantees the German General Staff the opportunity to transfer to the RSFSR three German factories the German General Staff selects... The Army of the RSFSR will have the opportunity to completely use the production of the aforementioned factories".

Aviation played a significant part among the spheres of cooperation between Germany and Russia. World War I demonstrated that Air Forces were of great importance to modern warfare. Meanwhile, the situation in the Soviet aircraft industry was extremely bad. The foundation of the Red Army Air Forces was a small number of obsolete and worn-out First World War-vintage airplanes. Aircraft plants ravaged by w^ar and revolution and left without qualified engineers were unable to launch the production of modern machines. By 1920 the aircraft industry's productivity was less by a factor of 10 than the 1917 level.

German aviation also was in a sorry plight. Under the terms of the Versailles Treaty all German war planes left over from the war had to be scrapped, production or purchase of military aviation technology was prohibited, and, in April 1921 according to the so-called London Ultimatum, a ban was imposed on construction of all airplanes in Germany. The victors made concessions year later and let German firms produce commercial aircraft. But, nevertheless, stringent limitations were placed on the technical specifications of the designed airplanes so Germany could not use its civil aviation as the basis for creating modern air forces. The engine power of a single-seat plane could not exceed 60hp and the maximum speed for passenger planes was set at 170 kilometer per hour, ceiling at 4000 meters, and the payload at 600 kilograms. Employment of armor and equipment that could be used for firing and bombing was prohibited. The Allies set up the "Aviation Guarantee Commission" comprising aviation engineers and pilots of the Entente countries (Russia excluded) to ensure that these obligations were fulfilled.

In 1921-1922 the Soviet government bought abroad about 150 WWI-vintage German war planes—Halberstadt. Fokker D VII. LVG, and so on. However, that did little to strengthen the Red Army Air Forces. For the most part, these were obsolete machines and some of the acquired planes (the Halberstadts, in particular) proved to be so worn out that it was indeed dangerous to fly them. Additionally, this approach did not stimulate development of aircraft production in the country and, surrounded by hostile states, Soviet Russia needed a powerful base to develop its own aviation.

That's why the Soviet leadership's main efforts were aimed at using German scientific and technological potential for development of defense industries. The aforementioned RSFSR-Reichswehr agreement provided the prerequisites for this. It stipulated that the military factories to be moved to the RSFSR would also include plant to produce planes and engines. Besides, the agreement mandated that German technical specialists and the latest airplanes were to be sent to Russia.

The Treaty of Rapallo concluded between the two countries on April 16, 1922 provided the legal base for economic and political cooperation. It declared a mutual renunciation of reparations for losses sustained during the world war and confirmed resumption of diplomatic and economic ties between the Russian Soviet Federative Republic and Germany. Article 5 of the Treaty noted that: "The two governments will meet the economic needs of the sides in the spirit of good will".

When the Treaty of Rapallo was ratified. A P. Rosengol`tz, Chief of the Red Army Air Forces, informed the Chairman of the Revolutionary War Council L D. Trotsky by letter: "It is clear that conclusion of the Russo-German Treaty should be used to speed up talks on joint organization of military production in Russia. First off, organization of the aircraft industry could be suggested since doing so using strictly our own resources is extraordinarily difficult..."

The first steps in this direction soon followed.

D.A. Sobolev, D.B. Khazanov


  • "The German Imprint on the History of Russian Aviation " /D.A. Sobolev, D.B. Khazanov/