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the Eastern Front

FW 190 on the Russian Front

The war fought between Germany and the Soviet Union became the most dramatic and costly battlefront of World War II. The area was vast—extending for 1,490 miles (2,400 kilometres). The human cost was high as well: Germany lost an estimated 3.5 million lives, battle casualties or prisoners of war. But Germany felt the costs were justified in order to provide Lebensraum—living space for Germans, which was to be located in Eastern Europe and the USSR. Hitler envisioned an easy six-week campaign to conquer the Soviet Union. Instead, it turned into four years of bloodshed and misery. Germany was slowly defeated while the Soviet Union rebuilt itself. Unlike in other war theatres where air power was used for its own military campaigns apart from ground troops, air power on the Eastern Front was used mainly to support ground operations, making it echo the movements and fortunes of the armies.

In the late 1930s, the Soviet Union had suffered a series of purges. Stalin had killed thousands of Russians as he eliminated all opposition to his regime. No one was safe—even top aircraft designers were imprisoned or killed. Three-quarters of the leaders of the air force, the Voyenno Voxdushnye Sily (VVS), were executed and the rest paralyzed with fear. Pilots were afraid to fly, worried that any mistake might be interpreted as sabotage. The VVS was unprepared to fight a war.

In September 1939, the Nazis conquered Poland and Russia occupied the eastern part of the country as part of a secret agreement with the Nazis to partition Eastern Europe between them. On November 30, 1940, the Soviets invaded Finland. In what was called the Winter War, the Soviets defeated the Finns. But it was at a great cost. The Finns were outnumbered 10 to 1, yet they slaughtered the ill-trained and ill-equipped invaders. Hitler himself, watching the debacle, said that to defeat Russia, he had only to "kick in the door to have the whole rotten edifice come crashing down."

Hitler began planning Operation Barbarossa—a six-week campaign to defeat Russia. He prepared the largest military force ever seen. The 117 ground divisions held 3 million men. The Luftwaffe (German Air Force) sent four of its five air fleets, equipped with the most recent first-line aircraft, including updated Messerschmitt Bf.109F.2.

Operation Barbarossa German offensive operations, June 22 - August 25, 1941.

Operation Barbarossa began at daybreak on June 22 when 30 bombers attacked airfields in western Russia. Although warned ahead of time by the British and given the exact date by his spy in Tokyo, Stalin felt protected by the Nazi-Soviet pact and ignored the warnings. He refused to relocate his aircraft, and 1,489 aircraft on the ground were destroyed that first day. By the end of the first week, more than 4,000 VVS aircraft had been destroyed.

Dead Russian troops and destroyed Soviet tanks litter the snowy field in front of German defensive positions, winter 1941-1942.

Soviet bomber pilots were sent out to meet the Germans, but the lack of experienced leadership because of the purges was obvious. The inexperienced pilots flew in tight formations, maintaining steady courses and altitudes. They had neither fighter escorts nor gunners and were easy targets for the well-trained Luftwaffe. The German pilots piled up victories quickly. Werner Molders became the first pilot to pass the 100-victory mark, and Erich Hartmann became Germany’s top ace with 352 victories--almost every one earned on the Russian front.

The Germans advanced eastward quickly, capturing cities and taking hundreds of thousands of prisoners. But their rapid move was reckless--the Luftwaffe was forced to abandon damaged aircraft and essential spare parts. The Luftwaffe eventually would lose as many planes to maintenance problems as combat. And no matter how many units the Germans killed, shot down, or captured, more Russian soldiers always arrived.

Soviet winter counteroffensives, December 1941 - March 1942. (click to enlarge)

New Soviet aircraft began arriving too. In spite of the purges, the Soviets had still managed to develop a strong aircraft industry. The MiG 3 high-altitude interceptor, which had been unknown prior to the invasion, debuted. Its top speed exceeded anything the Luftwaffe could produce, although the inexperienced VVS pilots rarely used it to its potential. And the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik, a low-altitude attack aircraft, boasted easy handling, powerful armament, and invulnerability to ground fire that made it a devastating ground attack aircraft against the German Panzer units, who called it the "Black Death." Stalin made the plane a production priority, calling it "like air, like bread" to the VVS.

Hitler was determined to reach Moscow before winter. By November, the Germans were only 19 miles (31 kilometres) outside the city. But the mud and winter weather—the worst in 20 years—stopped them. The German planes could not handle the subzero temperatures. Fires had to be set under the engines to help start them. The few heaters they had were used on the engines even though the mechanics’ hands froze to their tools. The Germans would never reach Moscow. Three million Russians and 800,00 Germans were dead. Adding to their problems, Hitler sent one of the air divisions to fight in the Mediterranean theatre.

The Russians were in better shape. Their planes were equipped for colder temperatures. And as the Germans approached Moscow, the entire Soviet aviation industry—1,500 facilities with 10 million employees--picked up and moved east across the Ural Mountains, away from the battlefront, to even more inhospitable conditions and no buildings in place at all. Within weeks of their move, however, they had constructed new plants and resumed aircraft production. By December, they had reached their previous production level and by the start of 1942, they had surpassed it. New airplanes began to stream back to the front, supporting counteroffensives during the winter that had pushed the Germans away from Moscow.

As summer of 1942 came, Hitler rerouted his ground troops toward the oil fields in the south. In November, an estimated 300,000 German soldiers found themselves trapped in Stalingrad, surrounded by the Russian Army.

Fighting was fierce: hand-to-hand combat was common. But Hitler declared Stalingrad a fortress and announced that he would mount his final victory from there. Hermann Goering promised that the Luftwaffe would supply the troops with 750 tons of airlifted supplies each day. But the supply planes had difficulty finding landing fields and when they did land, there were no trucks or handcarts to handle the supplies. The VVS protected the city with layers of fighter aircraft and antiaircraft guns placed in concentric circles around the city. If a plane did manage to get through the barricade and find a field, the supplies were often useless. Soldiers who were slaughtering horses to eat had no use for supplies like condoms or fishmeal. Under the command of its new leader, General A.A. Novikov, the VVS had shifted to the offence--hunting down enemy aircraft and slipping far behind lines to bomb the rear. The airlift failed, and on February 3, 1943, the last of the Germans surrendered. At the end of the war, German deaths at Stalingrad numbered 160,000; only 5,000 survivors returned to Germany.


After Stalingrad, the Russians, aided by the Allied bombing campaign, began to push the Germans out. The VVS maintained air superiority, and for the last 27 months of the war, it grew and learned to fight from the Germans. Novikov organized air armies modelled after the von Richthofen Flying Circuses of World War I. The air units contained every type of plane and could be dispatched to fight wherever they were needed. Aircraft from the Lend-Lease program began arriving from the United States and England, including Hurricanes, Spitfires, B-25 Mitchells, and most importantly, Bell Airacobras. A.I. Pokryshkin became Russia’s second-highest scoring ace flying an Airacobra P-39. And the Soviet factories were producing at high levels, adding new and deadlier aircraft, such as the Petlyakov Pe-2 and the Yak-9. The Shturmovik had a tail gunner position added to it--surprising many German pilots as they attacked from the rear.

"Detachment Lueg"

Gradually, the Germans were pushed back to Berlin. They had attacked a country unprepared for war and weakened by terror. Yet Russia’s tenacious spirit and cruel winter allowed it to fight back and claim victory. The nation and its air force had experienced a rebirth and emerged from World War II as a global power, ready to fight the Cold War.