Soviet Air Force 1941/1942 – Defeat & Recovery


The Soviet Air Force in World War II got a very rude awakening. It endured one of the most devastating defeats in aviation history. At the time of the German attack, the force consisted of about 10 to 15 thousand aircraft, of which 7 500 were deployed on the Soviet western theatre, whereas the German Air Force had around 2 800 aircraft deployed for Operation Barbarossa. The Germans achieved a total surprise, and launched an attack with about a thousand bombers against 66 air-fields in the Russian border district. The reported losses in these initial attacks vary, but the Soviet official history states a loss of 800 aircraft stored on the ground, and a total loss of 1 200 aircraft. This basically crippled the Soviet Air Force (units) stationed near the front lines. These attacks also inflicted significant damage and chaos on the logistical side, Thus, by day 3 of Operation Barbarossa, the Luftwaffe was free to focus mainly on supporting the ground troops. In mid-July 1941, the Soviets admitted to the destruction of almost 4 000 aircraft, whereas the German Air Force claimed around 6 900 planes (were) destroyed. The kill claims were probably a bit higher than the real ones, but the official war-time number (was) probably lower. Yet, most importantly, both numbers are substantial. These losses were during the initial phase of Operation Barbarossa, and are based on war-time claims from both sides. According to post-war Soviet and German records, between the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, and the end of (the) year 1941, the losses were approximately as follows: A total of 21 200 aircraft were lost on the Soviet side, with 17 900 combat aircraft, and the loss of 3 300 support aircraft, yet only around 50% of these losses were combat losses. The German side lost a total of 2 500 combat aircraft, and 1 109 damaged. Note that these numbers are quite off, and shouldn’t be compared one-to-one, because both sides counted losses differently. The problem is, I haven’t found a proper article on this topic yet, although a knowledgeable user indicated that German losses were usually total losses, whereas Russian seemed to include damaged vehicles, too. The reason(s) for the disaster are many: some of them were the result of on-going processes, some were structural shortcomings, and others were definite failures in leadership. In any way, Stalin played a major role in most of these factors. Although the Soviet Air Force was successful in the Far East in 1938-39, during the Spanish Civil War, the German Bf 109 outclassed Russian planes like the I-16. The performance of the Red Air Force in the Winter War against Finland was a disaster; thus, a major re-organisation was started in February 1941, which would, at least, take until mid-1942. Thus, it wasn’t finished when the Germans attacked, and made the (Soviet Air) Force even more vulnerable. Additionally, the Soviet expansion into Eastern Poland and the Baltic States required many resources, that would’ve been needed elsewhere. About two-thirds of built or renovated air-fields were located in this region. Thus, many units were still located in unsuited air-fields which were too small or unfinished, which made camouflage and dispersion more difficult. Unlike the British, the Soviets lacked an early-warning system, which resulted in a total surprise combined with Stain’s reluctance to prepare properly for the up-coming German attack. Another major structural problem was created by Stalin’s purges: In 1937, the (Soviet) Air Force had 13 000 officers. Of those, 4 700 were arrested, followed by another 5 600 in 1940. Although some of the arrested officers were later released, it (was) only around 15%. This, of course, had a severe impact on morale and effectiveness, because the (Soviet) Air Force consisted of a large degree of purge survivors, promoted inexperienced young officers, and recruits. The purges also affected the design bureaus for weapons and aircraft: some were dismissed, some (members) were arrested, which often led to execution. (Others) were put in special prison bureaus, like Andrej (Nikolaevič) Tupōlev. Furthermore, the drastic measures and understandable fears surrounding the purges also inflicted the production of aircraft, because changing the production line from one aircraft to another can be quite complicated, and usually include(d) a severe reduction in efficiency, for adapting machinery and processes. This loss, or better investment of time could easily (be) seen as “sabotage”, so most factories were reluctant to switching over to new models. As a result, in 1940, 7 300 older models were produced, whereas only around 200 of newer models were produced. The numbers, especially for newer models, increased in 1941, yet training on the new aircraft was kept to a minimum, due to (the) fear of losses caused by accidents, which would also lead to “sabotage” or other charges. I guess Stalin would’ve been a huge Beastie Boys, or maybe the other way around. (That would at least explain those moustaches.) Oh well, I digress. Let’s take a look at the recovery of the Soviet Air Force. Although German losses were way lower than Soviet ones, the Luftwaffe also had fewer aircraft available in the beginning. Furthermore, the logistical system of the Luftwaffe was unsuited for a long war in Russia – something I(‘ve) discussed in a previous video. Already, in October and November, the Russians ordered attacks against Luftwaffe air-fields. Additionally, since the Japanese were no longer a threat, more than 1 000 aircraft from the Far East arrived. All this helped to slowly tip the balance. Whereas in (the) end of September 1941 could oppose 1 000 Luftwaffe aeroplanes with only 550 of their own, in mid-November, the situation was quite different, with 670 Luftwaffe planes versus 1 140 Russian planes. Yet the numbers alone didn’t win the battle for the Red Air Force, but the balance was slowly changing, and in Fall 1942, the Luftwaffe got seriously challenged. After Hitler denied the 6th Army to break out of Stalingrad, it was supplied only by the Luftwaffe. The Soviets (then) established the so-called “aerial blockade”, and after 2 months of intensive fighting, the Luftwaffe’s air superiority was finally lost. Let’s take a look at the major factors that contributed to the resurrection of the Soviet Air Force: One aspect was the mostly-successful evacuation of the aircraft industry and the lack of German attacks against it. Furthermore, the successful creation of a talented command staff and a successful re-organisation The re-structuring efforts included the transformation (of units) into Air Divisions, where each Division consisted of one type of aircraft, which improved the logistics and command efficiency. Additionally, the use of on-board radios grew, which allowed better co-ordination with ground stations for warning and command-and-control. There were also tactical changes, like the creation of special “Ace” units, and the use of (the) free hands of experienced pilots. The Soviet air doctrine focussed strongly on fighters in order to achieve air superiority. Thus, a considerable effort was spent to develop the Fighter Arm into an elite force. All these changes and the continuous Luftwaffe losses allowed the Soviet Air Force to break the air superiority of the Luftwaffe, and, subsequently, force it into a defensive role. Thus, within 18 months, the Soviet Air Force was able to recover and deal a severe blow against its enemy. Thank you for watching, please like, comment, and share, and subscribe… …and… …see you next time! [“Demilitarised Zone” by Ethan Meixsell]
Subtitles by: Eitchviel

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