Nikolai Polikarpov produced fighters such as the I-5 by 1924, and Andrei Tupolev created the first Soviet bomber designs, such as the ANT-4, in 1927. Development stalled during the Great Purges in the late 1930s, when the government ordered the imprisonment of some 450 aircraft designers and engineers, although most were allowed to continue their work from confinement. During the 1936–1939 Spanish Civil War, the Soviet Union supplied both I-15 and I-16 aircraft and pilot/instructors to the Republican side. However, these aircraft were outclassed by the German Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter. From October 1936 to December 1938, the Soviet Union sent 1,409 aircraft to Spain, of which 1,176 were destroyed. Nevertheless, by January 1937, 17 Soviet pilots had been decorated as Heroes of the Soviet Union.
The Spanish experience spurred a Soviet response to develop aircraft specifically for ground-attack and close-support duties. Representative of this effort were the Yak-1, MiG-1, and LaGG-3, which entered service in 1939 and 1940. These three designs were later improved. Alexander Yakovlev's Yak-1 was powered by a 1,100 hp engine and had a top speed of 360 mph. It was armed with a 20 mm cannon and two 7.62 mm machine guns. The virtue of this fighter was its simple construction and reliability. The Yak-1 could complete a 360 degree turn in 17 seconds. It enjoyed one of the highest productions of any aircraft of the war; a total of were 30,000 manufactured. Artem Mikoyan and Mikhail Gurievitch combined to produce the 1,350 hp MiG-1, which had a maximum speed of 380 mph. However, the MiG-1 was best suited to an interceptor role at high altitude. The LaGG-3 was the collaboration of Semyon Lavochkin, Vladimir Gorbunov, and Mikhail Gudkov. The LaGG-3, built entirely of wood, had armament, engine, and speed comparable to that of the Yak-1. However, the LaGG-3 had a tendency to spin during sharp turns.
Another reorganization of the Soviet air force took place in July 1940, with a view toward concentrating air assets. The 20 to 30 plane squadrons were amalgamated into 60-plane regiments. Between 3 and 5 regiments made up an air division, each of which supported a ground army. By February 1941, although 106 new air regiments had been authorized, only 19 had actually been formed. Moreover, by the date of the German invasion on 22 June 1941, only 20 percent of Soviet air force units had been fitted with the new Yak, MiG, and LaGG models. In April 1942, Lieutenant General Alexander Novikov took command of the Red Army Air Force. In May, he ordered that all Soviet airpower—heretofore apportioned sporadically among the ground armies and employed without concentration—should be unified. These remnants of surviving post–German invasion Soviet airpower were gathered to become the First Air Army.
The initial success of Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union owed much to the German Luftwaffe, which destroyed many Soviet air force aircraft on the ground. In only the first two days, 2,500 Soviet planes had been destroyed and the Germans had achieved air superiority. Another factor contributing to the demise of the Soviet air force was poor tactics; Soviet bombers attempted to attack without fighter protection. When threatened, Soviet bombers formed a tight wedge pattern, while threatened Soviet fighters maneuvered into a defensive circle. At the beginning of the campaign against Germany—and frustrated by their lack of tactical training and having to fly outclassed aircraft—many Soviet pilots resorted to attempting to ram German aircraft during engagements.
As the German offensive into the Soviet Union continued, the Soviets organized an evacuation eastward of much of their industry, including more than half of the aircraft factories. As a result, production fell off dramatically in the second half of 1941. By June 1942, however, 1,000 aircraft per month were once again being produced in factories that had been relocated east of the Urals. Moreover, the refabricated aviation plants began to produce upgraded aircraft models such as the MiG-3, which had an increased combat radius, and an up-gunned version of the Yak-1 with 12.7 mm cannon and a 1,260 hp engine. LaGG production was decreased in favor of a new product that was the creation of Sergei Ilyushin. His Il-2 Shturmovik began to reach the front lines in mid-July 1942. The impetus behind the design was the creation of a "flying tank": an aircraft with the ability to operate at altitudes of 50 to 500 feet and survive enemy ground fire while supporting Soviet forces by destroying German tanks. A design revision, Il-2m3, began delivery in November 1942. It added protection from German fighters. The new Shturmovik was a two-seater; the gunner faced rearward and manned a 12.7 mm machine gun. The pilot now controlled two 23 mm cannon and either a 1,300 lb bomb load or 880 lbs of bombs and 8 rockets. The Il-2 proved so successful that, at 35,000 units, it was the highest-production aircraft of the war, indeed of all time. Soviet leader Josef Stalin personally prioritized its production, reportedly remarking, "The Il-2 is as necessary to our armies as air or bread!" The Germans dubbed the Il-2 Der Schwarze Tod (the black death).
Soviet pilots revised and developed new principles of engagement, following the practices of their top aces such as Alexander Pokryshkin. His formula was "altitude-speed-maneuver-fire." From a higher altitude, a pilot had the opportunity to select his target and maneuver with speed into an advantageous position for attack. Squadron formations gave way to the "loose pair" of two aircraft operating together, either covering the other (attacking) aircraft. This tactic was first used during the late 1941 Battle of Moscow and resulted in Luftwaffe losses of 1,400 aircraft between October and December 1941. The six Soviet air regiments taking part in the defense of the capital were given the honorific "Guards" designation. From 15 November to 5 December, Soviet pilots flew 15,840 sorties, compared with only 3,500 for the Luftwaffe.
The new air doctrine also stipulated that bombers have fighter escorts: 4 bombers with 10 fighters and 16–24 bombers protected by a group of 20 fighters. The fighters were organized into groups. Each group consisted of 3–4 pairs totaling 6–8 fighters. Normally, 4 groups would constantly patrol a sector of the combat area. When fighters escorted ground-attack aircraft, the fighters divided into an escort group and an assault group. The escort group remained with the ground-attack aircraft but flew 300 to 1,000 feet higher to engage enemy fighters. The assault group flew 1,500 to 3,000 feet above the escort group and usually a half mile ahead to scout for enemy patrols and act as an advance guard to prevent enemy fighters from closing on the escort group.
Soviet aircraft production continued to climb during the war. From June 1941 to December 1944, the Soviets produced some 97,000 aircraft. During the war, the Soviet air force also benefited greatly from Lend-Lease deliveries of British and U.S. aircraft. The Soviets received 2,097 P-40 Tomahawks, 1,329 Supermarine Spitfires, 4,746 Bell Airacobras, 2,400 Bell Kingcobras, and several transports and bombers. Lend-Lease provided a total of 18,865 aircraft.
By 1945, the Red Army Air Force numbered 17 air armies, each composed of 2 fighter divisions, 2 fighter-bomber divisions, a night-bomber regiment, a reconnaissance squadron, and a liaison squadron. These air armies were held in reserve and tasked to support ground operations on a case-by-case basis. They were under the command of air officers who coordinated efforts with ground commanders. General Novikov also established an air reserve that could be moved around to achieve local air superiority. By 1945, 40 percent of Soviet air strength was held in a reserve capacity. In October 1942, Lavochkin produced the La-5 aircraft. Its 1,600 hp engine propelled the aircraft 30 mph faster than the Messerschmitt Bf-109F. Simultaneously, Yakovlev produced the Yak-9, which increased the Yak-1's combat radius and was armed with either a 20 mm or a 37 mm cannon and a 12.7 mm synchronized machine gun.
The Soviets had also organized a long-range aviation force in March 1942. The core of this was the Petlyakov Pe-8 four-engine bomber. But, throughout the war, Soviet emphasis, as with the Luftwaffe, was on ground-support aviation.
All major Soviet campaigns after the Battle of Moscow had substantial air involvement. One-quarter of Soviet airpower was concentrated in the area of Stalingrad by mid-November 1942 for the planned counteroffensive. In the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, the Soviets deployed 1,300 aircraft. During the Battle of Berlin in April 1945, Soviet aircraft were flying a daily average of 15,000 sorties.
The Soviets also organized foreign-piloted air formations, several of which distinguished themselves in combat. These included Regiment Normandie of French pilots, 1st Polish Warsaw Fighter Regiment, 2nd Krakow Night Bomber Regiment, 3rd Polish Ground Attack Regiment, and the Czechoslovak Fighter Regiment. Noteworthy also is the organization of a 400-woman-strong 588th Night Bomber Regiment, the pilots of which were known by the Germans as the "night witches." During the course of the war, these women flew some 24,000 sorties. Lidiia Litviak was the first woman pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft in daytime combat.
The Red Army Air Force, much of which was destroyed early in the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, grew dramatically in size during the war. It certainly played an important role in the Soviet victory in World War II on the Eastern Front, especially—as its name indicates—in ground-support aviation. Neville Panthaki
Boyd, Alexander. The Soviet Air Force since 1918. London: Macdonald and Jane's, 1973.; Jackson, R. The Red Falcons: The Soviet Air Force in Action, 1919–1969. Brighton, England: Clifton House, 1970.; Miller, R. The Soviet Air Force at War. Trans. Leland Fetzer. Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983.; Wagner, Ray, ed. The Soviet Air Force in WWII. The Official History, Originally Published by the Ministry of Defense of the USSR. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1973.