Victims of the VVS

“Voenno-Vozdushnye sily (VVS).” Unlike the Royal Air Force (RAF) or the Luftwaffe, but like the USAAF and JAAF, the VVS was not a separate air force organization. VVS bombers and support aircraft were integrated with various Fronts of the Red Army, while anti-aircraft guns and fighter-interceptors were organized separately under the PVO, or Air Defense Force. As a result of being controlled by ground force commanders, and given experience in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), during the prewar period the VVS built a nearly exclusively tactical air force of medium bombers, dive bombers, and heavy attack fighters. It eschewed acquisition of more than a handful of long-range strategic bombers. Joseph Stalin took a direct interest in the VVS. His limited prewar thinking about strategic bombing was influenced by the deep battle attack doctrine developed by the Red Army. In 1939 VVS “mixed air divisions” were set up that deployed bombers and fighters to each Front (army group). As a result, when war came VVS aircraft were widely dispersed among ground formations themselves deployed too far forward, and were not capable of a coordinated overall response to being suddenly attacked. The problem of commanded structure and overly wide dispersal was compounded by weakness in aircraft design. That would not change until 1942, with reforms forced upon the VVS by extraordinary pressures of catastrophic losses of aircraft and near-defeat of the whole Red Army in 1941.

The VVS underwent a violent purge that began in 1937, continuing to mid- 1941, the very eve of the German invasion. In addition to top officers, many talented aircraft designers were arrested, executed, or driven to suicide. Aircraft types were miserable in design compared to German or British models, but had been produced in great volume by the pathologies of a Soviet economic model that valued sheer numbers over quality. The inadequacies of the prewar VVS were revealed in extraordinary peacetime losses to accident: upwards of 800 aircraft per year, or more than the entire prewar production runs of some RAF models. A paucity of repair facilities, technical support, fuel supply systems, and ground-to-air or air-to-air radio communications completed the prewar picture. On June 21, 1941, the eve of the German–Soviet war, the VVS numbered 618,000 personnel, but not enough experienced or qualified officers. It deployed over 20,000 military aircraft of all types. In the first three days alone the VVS frontier Military Districts lost about 2,000 aircraft. Several top commanders were immediately arrested and shot, scapegoats for Stalin’s diplomatic and military catastrophe. During the first weeks of fighting the VVS lost thousands more outclassed planes, many destroyed on the ground or abandoned in all-out retreats. By the end of July it was a shattered remnant of its prewar self. Over the first six months of fighting its losses were even more immense.

New VVS formations had to be created almost from scratch in early 1942, some formed with Lend-Lease fighters shipped in haste from the United States or Britain. However, they were eventually supplied with new and much-improved Soviet warplanes designed by men released from NKVD prisons or camps, built by men and women working in desperate factory conditions in hastily moved or erected plants. Starting in May 1942, the Stavka reorganized the whole structure of the VVS. The largest Soviet air formation became the air army (“vozdushnaia armiia”), with each attached directly to Fronts or held in a Stavka reserve. The first air army created on May 5 was followed by 16 more, with those founded in 1943 and 1944 much larger than the original formations. All were multipurpose, comprised of varying numbers of subunits of fighters, bombers, night bombers, and ground-attack aircraft. All units were closely tied to control by Front commanders and carried out tactical missions only. Some air armies were held in the Stavka reserve, carefully released to create local superiority over major offensive operations. More rarely, reserve air armies were assigned a strategic mission. A special 18th Air Army was formed in December 1944. A huge force culled from the Stavka reserve, it comprised 18 divisions of long-range bombers and 4 more of regular bombers. It carried out deep strikes into Germany, including bombing Berlin. Otherwise, revived Soviet air power was used principally in support of ground forces, matching Luftwaffe concentration on close support in the east. Nor did the VVS dedicate much of its resources to bombing the Kriegsmarine, which left German ships in the Baltic intact and active deep into March 1945. VVS aircraft were superior in quality and vastly greater in numbers to the opposing, ragged formations of the Luftwaffe by the end of the war. Yet, systemic problems continued: as late as 1944 some 8,600 VVS fighters were lost to ground or air accidents, compared to just 4,100 lost to enemy ground fire or fighter interception.

Below the level of air armies were air corps (“aviatsionnaia korpus”). Soviet air corps were usually single purpose and hence formed exclusively of either bombers or fighters. The Luftwaffe equivalent was a Fliegerkorps. Soviet air corps were comprised of two or more air divisions, the basic VVS tactical fighting unit. The Luftwaffe equivalent was a Fliegerdivision. Over the course of the war Soviet air divisions conformed to one of five structures and purposes. Prewar and early war formations were known as “basic air divisions.” There were 37 in all. Of these, 20 were wholly destroyed while 14 were converted or redistributed to other air units created in a series of emergency air force reforms carried out in 1941–1942. An air regiment (“aviatsionnyi polk”) was the core VVS unit below division-level. Each comprised fighters or bombers, but not usually both. The prewar VVS had eschewed organization by aircraft function, though some specialization was allowed. The core of the VVS was a total of 51 “mixed air divisions,” formed before the war or created during the first year of fighting. By 1942 all 51 were destroyed or reformed into the new air armies. Seven all-bomber divisions were in place before June 22, 1941. Another 59 bomber divisions were added from 1942 to 1945. This expansion reflected a Soviet wartime shift to uniform aircraft-type formations. Similarly, 98 all-fighter divisions were added by 1945 to the original 11 prewar fighter divisions, most of which were decimated or destroyed in the first weeks and months of BARBAROSSA. The VVS quickly discovered an urgent need for ground-attack aircraft, as its capabilities were increasingly directed into direct support of Red Army ground forces, a shift matching Luftwaffe concentration on close support in the east. Starting from no prewar divisions of assault aircraft, the VVS created 48 ground-attack divisions by 1944.

The VVS—uniquely among wartime air forces—recruited entire squadrons of women combat pilots and crew, fielding all-women bomber squadrons as early as mid-1942. As in other air forces, more women flew transport aircraft and provided a ferry service from the factories to the front. At the end of the war the VVS deployed 15,500 frontline aircraft and had established total domination in the air above the Red Army, lasting throughout its advances into Central Europe and Germany.

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The Soviet military had three air arms, the Red Army Air Force, Long-Range Bomber Aviation, and the Naval Air Forces. The first two were administered by directorates of the People’s Commissariat for Defense, and the last by the People’s Commissariat of the Navy. In terms of operations, the land-based air forces were under the command of the relevant armies or fronts (army groups), and the naval air forces were subordinated to the relevant fleets.

The Red Army assigned air armies to Front-commands, enabling ground forces to take full advantage of the air support. Usually one Front had one air army assigned. The following air armies were for example in the area around Kursk summer 1943: 1st Air Army (West Front), 2nd Air Army (Voronezh Front), 5th Air Army (Steppe Front), 15th Air Army (Bryansk Front), 16th Air Army (Central Front) and 17th Air Army (South-Western Front).

An air army had as basic unit the air division which normally controlled three air regiments (resulting in 124 aircraft, unless it was a bomber division, in which case it had 98 aircraft). Thus an air regiment usually had 40 aircrafts (except bomber regiments, which had 32 aircraft). When the war started there existed air divisions that were mixed but later this was not very common. The division had one category of regiments, fighter, bomber or attack. Instead the types could be mixed at the air corps level. One air corps controlled two or three divisions.

Furthermore there existed air-units belonging Long-Range Aviation (a.k.a Soviet Bomber Command) and PVO (Soviet Air Defense). The former were assigned to support different sectors during the war while the later defended the rear. For example on 22 June 1941 the PVO had ca 1500 fighters aircraft in 40 Fighter regiments. The largest unit was 6th PVO Fighter Corps in Moscow-area with eleven PVO Fighter Regiment.

At the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941, the Soviets had 8,105 combat aircraft, most of them obsolescent and outclassed by German planes, so that by the end of the year, their numbers had been decimated to 2,495. Production quickly made up these losses, however, and by January 1945, the Soviets had some 14,500 operational aircraft. Early catastrophic losses were due not only to poor equipment, but also to poor leadership and organization. In 1942, the Soviets introduced the “air army” system, which greatly streamlined command in the air force, so that one of 13 air armies had responsibility for supporting a particular front. Each air army typically consisted of a command staff, two or three fighter divisions, a “Shturmovik” (ground-attack) division, one or two night-bomber divisions, and reconnaissance and liaison units. The typical air army had 400 to 500 aircraft. Flexibility was built into the organization of the formation, which could, when necessary, draw on the Air Reserve for additional aircraft and pilots. By the end of the war, about 43 percent of all aircraft deployed by the Soviets belonged to the Air Reserve pool.

By the middle of the war, the Soviets were producing excellent fighters and well-trained pilots. Far less effective was Long-Range Bomber Aviation, which suffered catastrophic losses early in the war and never recovered as fully as the fighter and Shturmovik units did. In contrast to the American and British air arms, Soviet Long-Range Bomber Aviation did not engage in strategic bombing. Its missions were exclusively tactical, directed against Axis concentrations, railheads, depots, and the like.

It is not widely known in the West but the Russians have always boasted the second or third largest naval air force in the world.

During WWII, the naval air force numbered several thousands of aircraft including all standard Soviet aircraft and several lend lease types including B-25s and A-20Gs used in the Mine-Torpedo Air Regiments and the P-39, P-40 and Hurricane which were used in fighter units. The Soviets received a couple of hundred P-47Ds, though they saw little use, the Russians actually preferring the P-39 to the “jug”. However one of the few units to receive examples of the P-47 was the 255 Fighter Regiment, assigned to the Northern Fleet during the late stages of the war. Possibly the most unexpected fighter was the FW-l90D sufficient of which were captured in 1945 to be issued to a unit of the Red Banner Baltic Fleet. More traditionally naval types used a variety of obscure Russian float planes and flying boats, and several varieties of the Catalina, both the tall tail PBN received under lend-lease and an early PBY equivalent manufactured under a 1930s license. They also received 2 OS2U Kingfishers at the end of the war.

Soviet naval air units were mainly equipped with conventional land-based aircraft and, although flown by naval officers, were used principally in support of land operations, typically guarding the flanks of large ground units. Nearly one-third of naval air sorties were flown on air defense missions. About a quarter of naval air missions were close ground support, and 14 percent of sorties were reconnaissance patrols. No more than 10 percent of naval air missions attacked Axis ships or naval bases.

The Russian/Soviet Navy is divided into 4 independent fleets-the Northern fleet, based at Murmansk; the Red Banner Baltic Fleet, based at Leningrad; the Black Sea Fleet, and the Pacific Ocean Fleet, each with its own air unit. There are also independent flotillas for the Caspian Sea, Amur River and the Polar regions, though I have little indication that they had any serious air units. During the war each fleet had a Mine-Torpedo Air Division, primarily equipped with the DB-3/Il-4, a division of fighters, a division of bomber/dive bombers with the SB-2 or PE-2, one or more recon regiments and possibly some independent air regiments and air escadrilles. Each division consisted of three regiments. At the start of the war a Regiment might range from 40-64 aircraft depending on type in 4 squadrons. By 1942 the established regiment size had been reduced to 21 aircraft in 2 squadrons. By the end of the war regimental size was back to 3 squadrons and 30-40 aircraft.

Some anti-shipping strikes were flown against German and Romanian vessels in the Black and Baltic seas, and of course there was a lot of ASW activity, particularly by the Northern Fleet. But most Naval air activity was in defense of bases, support of ground forces in the coastal regions, and support of a number of tactical amphibious landings. Naval Fighter pilots were some of the Soviet’s best, and Boris Safonov of the Northern Fleet was the first Soviet Ace to win the Hero of the Soviet Union twice. Safonov, currently one of Russia’s more popular air heroes, was also the first Russian pilot to fly the Hurricane. He commanded the regiment which hosted two RAF squadrons that were sent to Murmansk in December 1941. This exploration of Soviet Naval air will continue in future columns.

Further reading: Green, William, and Gordon Swanborough. Soviet Air Force Fighters. New York: Arco, 1978; Polak, Tomas, and Christopher Shores. Stalin’s Falcons: The Aces of the Red Star: A Tribute to the Notable Fighter Pilots of the Soviet Air Forces 1918–1953. London: Grub Street, 1999; Hardesty, Von. Red Phoenix: The Rise of Soviet Air Power, 1941–1945. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1991.

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