Could the Red Air Force do Tactical?
The Germans certainly did not believe it

It’s a commonly known fact. The mighty Luftwaffe was far superior to the Soviet Union’s Red Air Force at the start of the Second World War. The German Air Force, the Luftwaffe, possessed a clear advantage over the Soviets in material and training, and for a brief moment; was superior to the Red Air Force in aircraft inventory. At the time of Operation Barbarossa, one of the biggest military gambles of all time, the Red Air Force was behind the Germans in aircraft design and development, as well in the number of air worthy aircraft. The Soviets did catch-up and eventually surpassed the Luftwaffe in the number of available planes, but not even this fact could change the outcome of the battle in the air. When the Germans initially started planning their surprise invasion of the Soviet Union, they carefully considered the ability of the Red Air Force to interfere or even deny Germany air control over the battlefield – a must for the German high-octane ground forces. After studying a mass of intelligence papers and reports, the German High Command felt strongly that the Soviets would only be able to muster limited tactical operations, if any. The Red Air Force’s main asset, the sheer number of fighters, most of them obsolete by 1940, was to be employed in a vain defense of the Motherland. All thru the war, the Soviets were not able to change the reality of warfare on the ground with its Air Force. Not even the introduction of new aircraft and tactics could changed it.

In the early stages of Operation Barbarossa, the German ground armies seldom saw any Soviet aircraft above their heads. When they did, it was an occasional reconnaissance aircraft or a lone bomber on a desperate mission. The only fighters that were deployed by the Red Air Force close to the German lines were the venerable I-16 fighters. They were no match for the advanced German fighters and they quickly were shot down by the Germans. Their pilots, parachuting into new German lines, were, for the most part sobbing at the idea of being a prisoner of the “savage” Germans, as the Red propaganda had led them to believe. They became more confused when the Germans treated them in a somewhat friendly manner, by their standards. The same fate awaited the bombers that followed. Deprived of any significant fighter escorts, their single-line formations were decimated by German ground fire. If any Red bomber managed to pass thru the anti-aircraft fire, the German fighters were waiting to take care of them. This happened repeatedly during the early stages of the war in the East. At this moment, a Soviet bomber attack meant nothing more to the German ground troops than an exciting spectacle, which always ended in tragedy for the Russians. Day after day, the Soviets sent their bombers in formation, and day after day, the majority did not come back home. Aircraft that managed to return to their bases were the ones that had jettisoned its bomb load and promptly turned around at the first sight of a German fighter formation. The Soviets were destined to loose all of their available aircraft if they continued with this unproductive practice. Although the Russians were able to replace all of the aircraft lost, it never recovered from the shock effect of the German fighters pounding their formations. The German superiority on fighter design was to last until the end of the war. The Soviets tried new tactics as the Germans inched closer to the heartland of the country. Soviet bombers and fighters started bombing bridges, strafing armor columns and German troop concentration areas, but this tactic did little to slow the German progress. The Germans crossed every bridge and the Soviets planes were overwhelmed by the fighter tactics of the Luftwaffe.

Another problem for the Red Air Force was the lack of coordination between the branches of the military. The Army would plan an operation but they would not inform the Air Force of it in time, or vice-versa. Planned, joint operations did manage to move forward, but with little success. The art of cooperation, introduction of new tactics and integration are a presupposed measure of personal initiative, a faculty that the Russians did not seem to posses because it ran counter to its national character. The Soviets missed many opportunities to employ airpower in order to achieve a decisive victory. A major aircraft concentration outside Moscow in the winter of 1941 would have had devastating effects on the retreating German troops, but no effort was put forward by Soviet air force officers. But when Soviet air assets were deployed, as in the Battle of Kursk during the summer of 1943, they achieved a success against the Germans. Unfortunately for the Soviets, by now all they could accomplish with tactical air power was to delay, rather than halt, the German withdrawal. The Red Air Force did not manage to destroy the majority of bridges in the area. This is the War’s second stage for the Red Air Force; they would attack in full-force, but would mainly concentrate on destroying armor, not trying to prevent the enemy from escaping. This second act would follow the Red Air Force all the way to Berlin. Time and time again, such as in Vitebsk in 1944 and East Prussia in 1945, they could have inflicted a more damaging blow, but they fizzled out after a couple of days of fighting. Another factor that hampered the Soviet air effort was their insistence on a bombing level of 7,000ft or higher. This had the effect of denying a clear sighting lane for bombers. Many of their bombs missed their targets, thus making it imperative that they go back at that target, providing the Germans with an incoming direction. These raids tended to be made by single formations. The Russians did not employ any large scale bombing formations during the war. Carpet bombing was also not employed by the Soviets. When they tried to do saturation bombing, they usually missed the Germans altogether, sometimes they even hit their own ground troops.

Night bombing attacks were the stamp of nuisance raids. In nearly all instances they were flown by a single plane and directed at targets located close to the front lines. They were annoying to the Germans but seldom caused major damage. Major night attacks, such as the bombing of Tilsit in East Prussia, were performed by single-line formations of bombers. At this rate, it took the Red bombers seven full days to destroy most of Tilsit. By the second night, the residences, knowing what’s coming, had left the city. After a major night bombing mission, some of the returning bomber crews would become disoriented and would land on German airfields thinking it was an airfield in Russian hands. Faulty maps, no clear electronic finder systems and outdated intelligence, contributed to the Soviet disastrous air effort during the last years of the war. It was the sheer mass of aircraft they had available and the fact that the Germans were sustaining massive losses on other fronts, which helped the Soviet Air Force clear the skies of German fighters on the Eastern Front in 1945. But in all critical tactical areas: aircraft design, tactics, training, integration and operational concepts, the Luftwaffe was vastly superior; all the way to the end of the war. So, yes, the Germans were right, the Soviets could not do tactical.

– Raul Colon


1. Top Guns of the Luftwaffe, Donald L. Caldwell, Random House
2. Heroes of WW II, Edward Murphy, Random House
3. Fighting in Hell…, Edt Peter G. Tsouras, Presidio Press Book