Aviation of World War II
Tales of the Finnish Forest, or "Untimely Thoughts" about the Winter War
It's no secret that the combat use of aviation in the Winter War of 1939-1940 for a long time was one of the least covered pages in the history of the Soviet Air Force. However, about 10 years ago, with the advent of glasnost, the situation changed dramatically. Finally, it became possible to fill this gap, to give a complete and, most importantly, an objective picture of events. But, unfortunately, so far nothing of the kind has been done. The only exception is the recently published book by S. Tikeltaub and V. Stepakov "Soviet Naval Aviation in the Baltic in the War of 1939-1940". The book contains valuable historical material, but, as the title implies, it deals with only one aspect of this topic. In addition, a very small circulation (only 500 copies) at a rather high price makes this edition almost inaccessible to most readers. Meanwhile, in recent years, articles and entire books have been published one after another, based on "rehashings" of Western publications and presenting the history of the Soviet-Finnish air war in a biased, distorted form.
The main idea of such publications can be reduced to the assertion that the "small but proud" Finnish Air Force extremely successfully resisted the huge air power of the "bloody Stalinist regime", inflicting enormous damage on it, and they themselves emerged from this war almost victorious, yes also with minimal damage. The only thing we can agree with here is that the Red Army Air Force throughout the war really had an absolute (10-12-fold) numerical superiority.
But the supporters of the "new look at history" go much further. Here are a few quotes from the book "Secrets of the Finnish War", written by a certain Boris Sokolov and published this year. "The level of flight training and tactical literacy of the overwhelming majority of Soviet pilots was extremely low." "Finnish pilots (...) outnumbered their Soviet counterparts."
"The very first air battles showed that the Soviet aviation couldn't fight." And finally - "Pilots with blue swastikas defeated the red-star falcons"! That's it, no more, no less. And after all, this is not written by some American, Englishman or Pole suffering from Russophobia1, but by our compatriot, moreover, described in the annotation to the book as a "famous historian."
Sokolov is not far behind another "great historian" of our time, Igor Bunich, whose creations literally flunked the shelves of bookstores. In his book Thunderstorm, he writes: “A few Finnish pilots (...) valiantly engaged in battle with the air armadas of Stalin's falcons, constantly winning victories in air duels. »
Let's refrain from commenting for now and try to figure out what these assessments are based on and how fair they are. I will make a reservation right away that all further reasoning is based only on open data from the Russian and foreign press, that is, on the very data that the above authors used (or could use).
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Let's start with the ratio of losses of the opposing sides. Literally all foreign historians (and after them many of ours) declare with unshakable confidence that Soviet losses in aircraft are many times, 10 times that way, superior to Finnish ones. However, the figures cited by them noticeably “walk”, which in itself cannot but arouse suspicion. For example, the Pole Pavel Pzhimushala in the book "Winter War" writes that the Finns shot down 207 Soviet aircraft in air battles, 314 were on the account of anti-aircraft artillery, and another 55 were shot down by rifle and machine-gun fire of infantry units. Pzhimushala estimates the total number of losses of the Soviet Air Force at 783 aircraft (surprising accuracy, it is only unclear from what ceiling he took this figure).
The popular English historian Robert Jackson, in his book "Red Falcons", recently translated into Russian, claims that Finnish fighters shot down 280 Soviet aircraft, anti-aircraft gunners - 314, and even "at least 400" crashed in accidents.
Alexander Kotlobovsky in the magazine "World of Aviation" No. 1-92 reported that according to official Finnish data, the LeR-2 fighter regiment alone destroyed 293 aircraft, plus 12 air victories were won by a separate squadron of Gladiators, staffed by Swedish volunteers. According to the same data, the number of victories of Finnish anti-aircraft gunners rises to 330.
The already mentioned Boris Sokolov named the figure "293" as the total number of victories of the Finnish aviation, including 5 fighters allegedly shot down by the gunners of the Blenheim bombers. But everyone was outdone by the Polish authors Zygmunt Charnotta and Zbigniew Moszhumanski, who wrote a book with the same title as Przymushala's, The Winter War. According to this book, Finnish fighters won as many as 518 victories, and anti-aircraft gunners - another 280!
Now let's see how these numbers fit in with the real data. According to the reports of the air regiments, combat logs and daily reports, during the entire war, the Red Army Air Force lost 224 aircraft shot down or made forced landings behind the front line. Another 86 are listed as missing and 181 are under the heading "died and damaged in accidents and catastrophes" (non-combat losses). We will not touch on the last figure for now, because it is clear that Finnish aviation has nothing to do with these losses. The combat losses of the Baltic Fleet aviation amounted to 17 vehicles, non-combat - 46. The Air Force of the Northern Fleet ended the war without losses.
Regimental reports can be trusted, since they were not compiled for the public and by no means for propaganda purposes. Moreover, it was simply unprofitable for the leadership of the air units to underestimate their losses. Firstly, a tribunal was threatened for falsifying reports, and secondly, daily combat missions were set based on the actual availability of aircraft (it is clear that a plane shot down yesterday cannot be sent for bombing today).
Thus, even if we consider all the planes that made forced landings on enemy territory or went missing as shot down, then the maximum that Finnish pilots and anti-aircraft gunners could really claim was 327 2 aircraft. As you can see, this figure roughly corresponds to the one that the Finnish anti-aircraft artillery alone takes credit for. But then what is left for the fighters?
Of course, both pilots and gunners were involved in postscripts. And how many air victories the “pilots with blue swastikas” actually won, we most likely will never know. However, the true figures of our losses give grounds to assert that the stories about the outstanding successes of the Finnish aviators are very far from reality.
In fairness, it should be noted that our pilots also voluntarily or unwittingly overestimated the number of their victories. According to official Soviet data, the Red Army Air Force and the Baltic Fleet aircraft destroyed 362 Finnish aircraft. In reality, the losses of the Finns are not so significant. To begin with, let's see what the authors already cited by us write about this. It is curious that they all refer to official Finnish data, but nevertheless, the numbers given by them vary.
So in the book of Charnotta and Moshumansky there is a figure of 70 aircraft, and in Pzhimushala - 74, of which 8 are non-combat losses. The author of the Red Falcons, Robert Jackson, is sure that the Finns lost only 62 aircraft, and another 69 were seriously damaged and later written off. Kotlobovsky, and after him Sokolov, write that the Finns admitted the loss of 67 aircraft, of which only 21 were in air battles. They also point to 69 damaged cars, but say nothing about their future fate. In general, almost all authors give approximately similar numbers. And any attempts to argue with them are now considered almost bad form.
Nevertheless, let me doubt the infallibility of official Finnish statistics. Oddly enough, the Finns themselves give the reason for this, namely their data on the quantitative composition of the Suomen Ilmavoimat (Finnish Air Force) during the war. By the beginning of the conflict, they had 168 military aircraft (see table), of which 145 were part of the first-line combat air regiments. In addition, in Finland there were approximately 140 communication, training, transport, ambulance and sports vehicles of various types, mainly locally built (Viima, Tuisku, Saaski, etc.). Many of them were actively used at the front, but the Finns do not publish any data on their combat work and losses, so we will have to leave these airplanes “outside the brackets” in further calculations.
As you know, during the Winter War, Finland was actively supported by its Western allies, primarily Great Britain, France and Sweden. Procurement of weapons and in other countries. In total, 194 combat aircraft arrived in the country before the conclusion of the truce. Some of them, however, went to the Finns too late and did not have time to take part in the hostilities, but now this is not about that.
And now the most interesting part. Summing up the results of the first two columns of the table, we get that during the Winter War the Finnish Air Force “let through” 363 aircraft. At the same time, according to again Finnish data (K. Keskinen, K. Steinman. Ilmavoimat Talvisodassa), by the end of the war, only 166 vehicles remained in the first line units, including 128 combat-ready ones. It is easy to see that the difference is no less than 197 aircraft. Let us subtract from this all the old fighters (Yaktfalks, Gauntlets, and Gamecocks), which were mainly used as training ones, as well as all other types whose losses are unknown to us (there are question marks opposite them in the table). Even if we imagine that these aircraft did not suffer any losses at all, it turns out that during the war the Finns lost 139 aircraft (see the result of the last column). And this is without taking into account the fact that many fighters and bombers, which were considered incapable of combat, were actually scrap metal, suitable only for spare parts (so, shortly after the war, 5 Blenheims damaged in battles were decommissioned as beyond repair). It is likely that a significant proportion of the losses were caused by non-combat causes. But then it must be admitted that the Finnish Air Force had a very high accident rate, and this does not fit with the statements about the exceptional skill of "pilots with blue swastikas."
1 Combat losses of the Bulldogs - 4 vehicles, the rest were decommissioned in January 1940 due to their inability to withstand Soviet fighters.
2 According to official Finnish data, these vehicles arrived too late and did not take part in the fighting.
3 Obsolete Swedish fighters. Used as training.
4 Transport and passenger aircraft used as night bombers.
5 The aircraft was in service with a separate Swedish volunteer squadron "flugflotilla 19", which fought on the northern sector of the front.
6 Data is incomplete.
If we sum up the combat and non-combat losses, it turns out that the Soviet aviation lost 554 aircraft in the Winter War, and the Finnish - at least 139 (in fact, much more, but for the "purity of the experiment" we will operate only with proven figures). As you can see, the difference is quite significant, although not as huge as some people who like to turn “white spots of history” into “black ones” try to imagine. But why did this difference arise? Maybe the fatal illiteracy and unpreparedness of Russian pilots, which arose, of course, due to “Stalinist totalitarianism”, repressions, etc., is really to blame for everything?
However, let's recall other local conflicts of the 20th century that took place under similar conditions. These conditions can be formulated as follows: a state that is strong in terms of aviation is waging an offensive war against a weak one, which, nevertheless, feels the powerful support of the “big brother” behind its back (in the case of Finland, the role of the “big brother” was played by the entire Western world, which supplied it with weapons) . There are two such examples - Korea and Vietnam. (“Desert Storm” and even more so the recent aggression against Yugoslavia are not suitable, because in these cases no one helped the “weak”, besides, the attackers had not only quantitative, but also qualitative superiority in aircraft engineering.) So, in Korea , and in Vietnam, the American Air Force, having a significant numerical superiority, lost for various reasons much more aircraft than their opponents, and for helicopters the figures are generally incomparable (American losses are tens, if not hundreds of times higher). But for some reason, no one is in a hurry to accuse American pilots of illiteracy and inability to fly on this basis, and the US leadership of being prone to totalitarianism. So, it's something else.
Firstly, it should be taken into account that the Soviet aviation, due to the multiple numerical superiority, acted much more actively than the Finnish one. In total, approximately 4,000 Soviet aircraft participated in the Winter War. Of these, 554 were lost, that is, about 14%. The Finns also lost almost 40% of their aviation, including over 95% of its original composition. Only thanks to overseas deliveries did they manage to maintain the combat potential of their Air Force.
During the hostilities, "Stalin's falcons" made a total of 100,940 sorties (84,307 - ground aviation and 16,633 - sea), and the Finns - less than 7,000. Therefore, in Soviet aviation, one lost aircraft falls on 182 sorties , and in Finnish - by about 50. Thus, in percentage terms, the losses of Suomen Ilmavoimat exceed the Soviet ones by three and a half times!
And this despite the fact that Soviet aviators almost all the time had to fight over foreign territory, where any forced landing inevitably meant the loss of a car, and sometimes life. By the way, the reason for such a landing could be anything: icing, engine failure, loss of orientation, and much more, but the Finns in any case declared the plane shot down.
Finnish aviation was in a much more advantageous position. Adhering to a mostly passive, defensive tactic, they mostly operated over their territory (even bombers never flew deep into the Soviet rear, limiting themselves to working in the front line), and therefore the Finns almost always had the opportunity to evacuate and restore broken cars. And of course, these cars do not appear in the lists of losses. In addition, such tactics dramatically reduced the risk of getting lost (places are familiar) and the likelihood of being hit by anti-aircraft fire (unless they could sometimes shoot down their own by mistake).
The size of losses was greatly influenced by extremely difficult natural and climatic conditions in the war zone: ice fogs, frosts reaching 40 degrees, airfields covered with snow, daylight hours lasting only 6-8 hours, and in the north - generally polar night. Of course, the climate equally affected both sides of the conflict, but since Soviet aviation was much more numerous, the absolute amount of non-combat losses caused by natural factors was also much higher.
Summing up the above, we will have to conclude that due to objective reasons, such as the balance of forces, tactics of the parties and the nature of hostilities, higher (in absolute terms) losses of the Soviet Air Force were inevitable. But to explain this by saying that the Finnish pilots are good, and the Soviet ones, on the contrary, are bad, means deliberately lying or not understanding the essence of what was happening. Moreover, I will take the liberty of asserting that the “phenomenal successes” and “minimal losses” of the Finnish Air Force in the Winter War are nothing more than a myth, moreover, a myth offensive to Russia.
To reinforce this myth in the West, and now in our country, the same battle is endlessly described, in which the Finnish ace Jorma Saravanto allegedly single-handedly shot down 6 Soviet bombers (an attempt to objectively analyze this episode see previous article). Thus, they try to convince readers that the entire air war over Finland proceeded in this way. Moreover, none of the authors gives counter examples. And there were such examples. Take at least February 29, 1940, when Soviet fighters shot down in one battle (according to Finnish data!) 5 Gladiators and Fokker D-XXI, losing only one I-16. Finnish propaganda failed to hide this battle, because in addition to the Finns themselves, foreign volunteers participated in it. Moreover, one of them, a Dane by the name of Christensen, died, and another Danish pilot was seriously injured. But such examples are not in vogue now, and therefore Sokolov, Kotlobovsky, and Jackson simply ignore this case.
For all the time of the fighting, "Suomen Ilmavoimat" actually did nothing that could somehow affect the overall course of the war. In no sector of the front were they able to prevent the offensive of the Soviet troops, or at least inflict significant damage on them. Nor were they able to prevent air raids on rear facilities. The only serious hindrance to such raids was bad weather. Finnish fighters were not even able to protect their own airfields from bombing, which is why they had to hide from air strikes all the time, constantly changing their places of deployment. Participation in the war of Finnish bombers was extremely insignificant3, although they suffered very tangible losses. It is characteristic that many of our soldiers who went through the Winter War never saw Finnish aircraft in the air at all.
Soviet aviation, on the contrary, made a significant contribution to the victorious outcome of the conflict for us. Even historians in the West are forced to admit that constant raids by Red Star bombers made it difficult for military supplies to Finland through seaports in the Baltic and in the Gulf of Bothnia. The Finnish railway network was seriously damaged. By the end of the war, train traffic on it had halved. Carrying out the isolation of the combat area, our pilots systematically attacked vehicles on the roads leading to the front. As a result, the Finns had to stop transportation during daylight hours.
However, all this is quite natural, given the multiple numerical superiority of Soviet aviation. Any other result would be a miracle, and miracles happen only in fairy tales, but in books by Boris Sokolov or Robert Jackson.
Nevertheless, it must be admitted that the Winter War was a severe test for our aviators, and Finnish pilots were a worthy adversary. Despite the significant inequality of forces, they did not sit out on the airfields, but fought desperately, to the death, regardless of losses. The Finns fought as best they could, and did everything they could, but the victory still remained with us. Victory not only on the ground, but also in the air, no matter how much someone would like to challenge it now
1 In the book of the Polish author Pzhimushala Wojna Zimowa, it is seriously stated that the Russian pilots were so cowardly that they jumped out with parachutes, barely noticing enemy planes in the air. As they say, no comment...
2 Historian V.S. Shumikhin in his book "Soviet Military Aviation 1917-1941" gives a slightly lower number of our losses - 261 aircraft, but he most likely had incomplete data.
3 During the war, Soviet bombers dropped 25,646 tons of bombs on the enemy, Finnish - 184 tons.