Living Conditions: Soviet Air Force in World War II

Living conditions for combatants in any war are marginal at best. Unlike the soldiers in the field, however, air force personnel experience better conditions, to a certain degree, especially when defending their homeland from foreign invaders.

Previously prepared airfields in the Soviet Union during the war provided the best accommodations. That being said, during the fallback in the summer and fall of 1941, prepared fields suffered dedicated attention from the Germans. Fuel dumps, ordnance storage areas, and lines of parked aircraft attracted level and dive bombers in abundance. Fortunately for the Soviets, their aircraft were designed for operation from primitive grass fields.

Prepared fields, generally co-located with moderately sized cities, were rare in early forties Russia. More common were runways formed by dragging a log behind a tractor to level the ground. Level areas were useful as long as the trees surrounding the area, especially from the typical approach and departure ends allowed relatively safe air operations.

Roads in the Soviet Union were also primitive. Most of them, unpaved, turned into muddy tracks during the summer and fall mud seasons. The Soviets frequently fell back on air supply during those periods, understanding the airfields were many times in the same shape as the roads, and less volume could be transported by air.

Make-shift paved airfields were laid by the local populace, along with air force personnel in a few days using octagonal slabs of concrete. Although my source doesn’t say where these fields were laid, I expect places like Stalingrad, and Moscow as well as other places intended to be held.

In summer maintenance and air crews lived in holes in the ground covered with tents. Bunkers were built if time permitted. Bunkers were holes in the ground covered with boards and surrounded by sandbags. Tents overhead deflected most of the rain. In winter maintenance and aircrew frequently used local villages for shelter. Farm buildings, such as barns, though smelly, got one out of the wind. Wood stoves provided localized but much needed heat. People who live in areas where the temperatures reach -40 degrees C/F will tell you the experience is indescribable.

Revetments became standard storage places for aircraft. Each aircraft had its own revetment to prevent one explosion from destroying more than one aircraft. Revetments were formed using available materials, including logs, dirt berms, sand bags, detritus from destroyed buildings. The Soviets became masters of camouflage, and built decoy airfields to encourage the Germans to waste their bombs.

Once the Russian offensives began and the Soviets retook airfields, they found the Germans plowed up the runways, laid hundreds of booby traps, and made the area as unusable as possible.

As with fuel and ordinance, spare parts, lubricants, tools, food, replacement clothing, and personal items were brought by rail as close as possible to operation centers. Transportation for short distances by road was used when possible, and by air if necessary.

Aircrew were allotted 3,450 calories per day, including .5 kilograms of meat. Maintenance people received a ration of 2,954 calories with less meat and sugar. According to E. R. Hooton, there was generally plenty of bread and soup.  Although sharing of food with the ground crews was not allowed, it frequently happened. Hooten also mentions Tushonka, a canned meat. Tushonka means ‘mystery meat’ because it could be pork, chicken, beef, or horse.

Conditions for women in the Soviet Air Force were similar, but different. I’ll explain that statement in my next post.

Sources: War Over the Steppes, E. R. Hooton, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2016

Night Witches, Bruce Myles, Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago, IL, 1997

The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1973

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Grigoriy Rechkalov and Aleksandr Pokryshkin

The second and third highest scoring Soviet aces in World War II were Grigoriy Rechkalov and Aleksandr Pokryshkin. Captain Rechkalov scored 56 individual and 5 shared victorirs and Colonel Pokryshkin scored 53 individual and 6 shared victories. These numbers are from E. R. Hooton’s War Over the Steppes. Other sources vary. Both flew large numbers of sorties. Rechkalov flew 415 plus and Pokryshkin 560.

Both pilots were trained in flying clubs and, during the war, received great amounts of publicity in Soviet newspapers and magazines. Captain Rechkalov received his second Hero of the Soviet Union gold star on 1 July, 1944. Neither of my sources give the date of the first award.

Aleksandr Pokryshkin joined the 55 Fighter Air Regiment flying MiG-3 fighters. He shot down his first kill on the day after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. On 20 July, 1941, he was shot down behind German lines by anti-aircraft fire, but he was able to return to his unit without being captured. Over the northern Caucasus he achieved 20 victories in 350 sorties.

As a leader Pokryshkin invented new techniques for air combat. He taught echeloned formations flying different altitudes within the group, and between the groups, and instructed pilots on tactical procedures.

Transferred to the 16 Guards Fighter Air Regiment flying P-39 Airacobras he received command of one of the squadrons. By July 1944 he commanded 9 Guards Fighter Air Division during the Lvov-Sandomir operation. Assigned to support ground forces near Radziejow, his flight of twelve fighters encountered a formation of forty bombers and eight fighters. First Lieutenant Trud and four aircraft kept the enemy fighters busy while Colonel Pokryshkin and Captain Rechkalov attacked the bombers. The bombers jettisoned their bombs and fled. The Soviets chased them until all of their ammunition was expended. Five German bombers and four German fighters were downed with the loss of one Soviet aircraft.

During the fighting over the San River Aleksandr Pokryshkin downed 28 enemy aircraft in four days in very bad weather and engaging much larger enemy forces.

In the fall of 1944 Colonel Pokryshkin received his third Hero of the Soviet Union gold star. He and Ivan Kozhedub were the only two Soviet pilots to win three of the coveted decorations.

Sources: War Over the Steppes, The Air Campaigns on the Eastern Fron 1941 – 45, E. R. Hooton, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2016

The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner and Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1973

Luftwaffe vs. VVS

The German air force and the Soviet air force shared much in common. I failed to notice this fact prior to reading War Over the Steppes, by E. R. Hooten. This author points out the differences between the air forces of the United States and Great Britain and the air force of the Soviet Union. This contrast underlined the similarities between the Luftwaffe and the VVS.

Both governments rewarded high productivity of finished machines, so German and Soviet aircraft manufacturers produced more aircraft rather than setting aside sufficient spare parts for maintenance. The lack of spare parts led to cannibalizing combat damaged aircraft to keep combat worthy aircraft in the air. It also led to large numbers of unflyable aircraft falling into enemy hands during rapid retreats.

The common thread between these air forces also emerges when examining aircraft design and usage. Both Germany and Russia developed machines and tactics for assisting armored forces engaged in rapid advances. Dive bombers, strike bombers, and medium altitude level bombers were built in large numbers. Few long range, high altitude heavy bombers entered the inventory. Fighter design and tactics revolved around protecting bombers in the tactical arena, or carrying out ground attacks themselves.

Later in the war Germany built many high altitude interceptors and night fighters primarily for defense against American and British high altitude heavy bombers. These fighters lost their advantage against light, nimble Soviet aircraft at medium to low altitudes.

On the human side, both the Germans and the Soviets kept their pilots on the front and in the fight. A Soviet unit was withdrawn from combat only when it required re-equipment and additional personnel.  The Germans, according to Adolf Galland in his book The First and the Last, flew their pilots until they were killed. When a pilot was wounded the pilot was removed from the fighting unit for recuperation. The Soviets kept their pilots in the hospital until they were again fit for duty. Home leave was not granted. Famed Stuka pilot Hans-Ulrich Rudel finished the war flying combat missions with one leg amputated and the other in a cast.

I found myself most interested in the vast difference between German and Soviet pilots’ victory scores and combat missions flown. Erich Hartmann, leading all time fighter ace, scored 350 victories and flew in excess of 800 sorties. Gerd Barkhorn, also a member of the 300 club, scored 301 victories in 1,104 sorties. Compare these statistics with those of Ivan Kozhedub, the leading Allied ace, with 62 victories and 330 sorties, or Grigoriy Rechkalov with 52 victories and 415 sorties.

E. R. Hooten explains the discrepancy resulted from a conjunction of factors, not lack of enthusiasm or courage on the part of Soviet pilots. Soviet pilots received little gunnery or navigation training. Poor basic flight training and a lack of flight time, as well as shortcuts taken during the manufacture of aircraft, caused high accident rates. To avoid accidents, Soviet commanders restricted flight hours, further reducing flight experience. Limited instrumentation in Soviet fighters made flying in marginal weather conditions hazardous. Lack of radios in the aircraft early in the war contributed to poor flight discipline. The Soviet Union’s primitive radar lacked a ranging capability preventing coordinated attacks on formations entering the combat zone. All of these failures, not under their control, limited the Soviet pilots’ effectiveness.

The treaty ending World War I prohibited Germany from building an air force.  The treaty allowed Germany to train pilots and fly air liners. In 1925 Germany built an airfield at Lipetsk, 220 miles from Moscow. At Lipetsk they trained pilots and tested the aircraft ultimately used in World War II. I can’t help feeling that this fact caused many of the similarities between the German and Soviet air forces.

Source: War Over the Steppes: The Air Campaigns on the Eastern Front 1941-45, by E. R. Hooton, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2016

Soviet Aces: Lilya Litvyak

Perhaps the most famous woman ace in the Soviet Air Force, Lilya Litvyak, began her career in fighters with the 586 Fighter Air Regiment defending Saratov during the battle of Stalingrad. The commander of the regiment, Tamara Kazarinova, reputed to be a martinet, was relieved of her command and replaced by a man, but not before one of the squadrons was broken up and the eight best pilots were sent to several all male units. On 10 September, 1942, Lilya and her friend, Katya Bodanova, were transferred to  the 437 Fighter Air Regiment, flying La-5s. Shortly afterward, they were sent to the 9 Guards Fighter Air Regiment flying Yak-1s, but the commander, Lev Shestakov, refused to accept them and forwarded them on to 296 Fighter Air Regiment.

Colonel Nikolai Baranov, commander of 296 Fighter Air Regiment, had already decided to foist the women off on another unit. Lilya, with the help of Captain Alexei Salomaten, convinced Colonel Baranov to allow the women to fly on Salomaten’s wing. Lilya had already proven her proficiency in aerial gunnery in training and she and Katya regularly flew wing for Colonel Baranov and Captain Salomaten. Although it was strongly forbidden, Lilya enjoyed beating up the airfield after scoring each victory.

The 296 Fighter Air Regiment’s duty was ‘free hunt’ in the area of Stalingrad. By Christmas 1942 Lilya had achieved six aerial victories. Although Lilya refused an interview with a Soviet war correspondent, he interviewed a number of her friends and published a feature article in his newspaper, making her famous.

On 15 March, 1943, Lilya was wounded in the leg during an attack on German bombers. Ignoring her wound, she downed two bombers before belly landing her machine. Upon returning to base, she passed out from loss of blood. While recovering from her wound her unit was transferred to Rostov on Don.

After a period off duty for healing, she returned to the 296 Fighter Air Regiment, which now had become 73 Guards Fighter Air Regiment. Upon the death of her squadron leader, Lilya was promoted to flight leader. She was wounded again on 16 July, 1943. One week later she was forced to parachute from her aircraft, again wounded. The pilot of her tenth victory, a German ace, parachuted to safety and was captured. He refused to believe Lilya had shot him down until she described the dogfight to him, maneuver by maneuver.

Lilya’s record shows 168 combat sorties flown with 11 victories, and one balloon. On 1 August, 1943, she shot down a Bf 109 fighter. Between clouds, squadron mates sighted her aircraft, closely pursued by several German machines. She did not return from that mission. Her body was recovered in 1989.  Michail Gorbachov awarded her the Hero of the Soviet Union decoration posthumously.

Sources: The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1973

Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II, Bruce Myles, Presidio Press, 1981. Second Printing, Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago, IL, 1997

Yakovlev Aces of World War 2, George Mellinger, Osprey Aircraft of the Aces #64, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2005

Soviet Aces: Ivan Kozhedub

Ivan Kozhedub, the leading Allied ace with 62 victories, learned to fly in one of the many flying clubs and societies sponsored by the Volunteer Defense Society of the Soviet Union. He entered the military flying school in January 1940 and completed training in February 1941. Retained as a flying instructor he instructed student pilots until the fall of 1942. He arrived at 240 Fighter Air Regiment, equipped with LaG-5 fighters, in the spring of 1943.

Sergeant Kozhedub’s first combat sortie took place on 26 March, 1943, in the Kharkov area in the Ukraine. Promoted to Junior Lieutenant and deputy squadron commander in June 1943, he still had no combat victories. On his fortieth sortie, 6 July, 1943, the second day of the Battle for the Kursk Salient, he made his first kill, a Junkers 87 Stuka dive bomber. He nearly fell victim to a Bf 109 fighter, but his wingman drove the German fighter away.

On 7 July, 1943, when his squadron leader was wounded in combat, Lieutenant Kozhedub became the de facto squadron commander. The squadron leader, unable to fly due to his injuries, was not evacuated and led the squadron on the ground while Kozhedub led it in the air. Soon afterward he received his first decoration,

On 15 August, 1943, Kozhedub downed two Bf 109s and eight days later he destroyed a Focke Wulf 190 fighter. On 30 September, 1943, he destroyed another Ju 87. Separated from his formation during an attack by Bf 109 fighters, Kozhedub, alone, discovered and attacked a formation of eighteen Ju 87 dive bombers. When he downed one of the Stukas, the remainder jettisoned their bomb loads and fled.

During October 1943, in ten days, Ivan Kozhedub downed eleven enemy aircraft in 146 combat missions and 27 combats.

Bad weather interfered with operations during the first months of 1944. Snow and low clouds forced fighters to fly in smaller formations at treetop heights. It was at this time, February 1944, that Kozhedub was promoted to captain and awarded his first gold star, the Hero of the Soviet Union award.

The 240 Fighter Air Regiment relocated to Modavia in April 1944. There Captain Kozhedub downed two Hs 129 anti-tank aircraft. The squadron took on new La-5FN fighters.

In July 1944 Captain Kozhedub trained in the La-7. Awarded his second Hero of the Soviet Union gold star 18 August, 1944, Ivan Kozhedub, on 23 August, with 48 victories, was made deputy commander of 176 Guards Fighter Air Regiment. Days later he was promoted to major.

Weather, deteriorating with the arrival of another winter, provided few opportunities to fly. The unit relocated to Poland where the Soviet army’s Belorussian Front fought to liberate Warsaw. Their airfield, located so close to the front, barely gave them time to retract their undercarriage before they engaged ground forces.

On 19 February, 1945, Kozhedub and his wingman surprised a Messerschmidt 262 twin jet fighter near Frankfurt. Kozhedub shot down the 262 when his wingman’s cannon fire caused the German to turn toward Kozhedub and directly into the sights of the ace.

He made his 61st and 62nd kills, Fw 190s, on 19 April, 1945. He was awarded his third Hero of the Soviet Union, one of only two pilots so awarded, on 18 August, 1945. In the 1960s he was still on the active list as a Colonel-General.

Sources: LaGG and Lavochkin Aces of World War 2, George Mellinger, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2003

The Lavochkin La 5 & 7, Witold Liss, Profile Publications, Surrey England, 1967

The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1973

Second Air Army Into Poland

With the beginning of the spring 1944 thaw, roads became impassable and temporary airfields unusable. Supplies and fuel, provided by air, allowed the Second Air Army to fly 400 sorties per day until 17 April, 1944. During this period, First Ukrainian Front consolidated its positions along the Dnieper River. Victories in White Russia and the Karelian Isthmus strained German forces. As a result, the Soviet high command ordered the First Ukrainian Front to attack Rava Ruskaya and the Lvov areas with the intention to break through and destroy German forces in the area.

The German Army Group defending First Ukrainian Front’s objectives were supported by the Fourth Air Fleet with 750 machines, while the Sixth Air Fleet provided an additional 300 to 400 machines as needed.

The reinforced Second Air Army, supporting the offensive, possessed three thousand aircraft based on 65 airfields. Planning for the assault and controlling this force required a division of labor. Twelve hundred aircraft in the Rava Ruskaya area fell under the command of Second Air Army staff under the deputy commander, General S. V. Slyusarev. This group’s mission consisted of protecting the attacking ground forces. Fifteen hundred aircraft, under the Second Air Army commander’s control with the assistance of Eighth Air Army’s field control group, operated in the Lvov area. The remaining four hundred aircraft remained in reserve.

A day or two before the beginning of the offensive, the air units moved to forward airfields. Mock airfields, constructed to distract the Germans, served their purpose admirably, drawing considerable attention from German bombers.

The offensive began on 13 July, 1944, with a two thousand plane raid intended to pin down enemy forces, suppress artillery fire, and soften up enemy strong points. Sixty percent of the Second Air Army’s assets supported mobile units. Reserves supported the armored forces. Strikes pounded the columns of German armor advancing out of Zolochev.

On 15 July the Germans attacked near Plugow forcing Soviet units to take defensive positions. Air strikes were called in to repel the attack. Soviet fighters protected the dive bombers by positioning themselves at the altitude where the dive bombing attacks began, and also at the altitude where the dive bombers recovered. Dive bombers were followed up by horizontal bombers making repeated runs. From 2 pm until 6 pm the bombings continued, augmented by the commander’s reserves. Nearly 3,300 sorties were flown. As the 8th Panzer Division advanced to the front, they too, were inundated with bombers.

By 16 July the battle neared Lvov. Bombers attacked resistance points at Vinnikov, Zhuravka, and Kratoshina, entry points to the city of Lvov. The Third Guards Tank Army circled behind the city of Lvov and coordinated its attacks from the west with those of the forces closing in from the east. Lvov fell to Soviet forces on 27 July, 1944.

From 13 July to 27 July the Second Air Army flew 30,500 sorties and destroyed 350 enemy aircraft on the ground and in the air.

Source: The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1973

Second Air Army — Crossing the Dnieper River

Bad weather conditions over the Bukrino bridgehead on the first of November restricted Second Air Army’s operations, allowing only 640 sorties in two days. The failure to expand the bridgehead at Bukrino caused a switch of the Soviet offensive to the Lyutezh bridgehead about 100 kilometers to the northwest on 3 November. This break through succeeded, allowing Soviet liberation of Kiev on 6 November, the anniversary of the of the revolution.

During the following months the Second Air Army concentrated on the destruction of enemy tanks and motorized infantry. The improvement of the weather during the period of 12 to 15 December allowed Second Air Army’s commitment of assets in large groups. By the end of operations around Kiev on 23 December the Second Air Army completed 20,000 sorties destroying 300 enemy aircraft.

During the battles around Bukrino and Lyutezh bridgeheads Soviet and German aircraft operated in approximately equal numbers. At the end of operations in the Kursk area the Germans possessed 1,460 operational aircraft, while the Second, Fifth, Seventeenth and Eighth Air Armies operated 2,360 machines in the same area.

The offensive to liberate the west bank of the Dnieper began on 24 December, 1943. In three days the Soviet Army overran Radomishlem, a German strong point. By 30 December the First Ukrainian Front salient expanded into an area 300 kilometers wide and 100 kilometers deep. The Germans reacted by concentrating assets in the Vinitsa region. German reinforcements of aircraft allowed them to achieve a two to one advantage over Soviet aircraft.

The Second Air Army, now under the command of General S. A. Krasovsky, struck back, flying 4,200 sorties, including 2,500 against tanks. As January 1944 advanced, the First and Second Ukrainian Fronts moved to surround enemy forces in the Korsun-Shevchenkovsky area, coordinating attacks with the Third and Fourth Ukrainian Fronts to the south.

From 12 to 25 January the Second and Fifth Air Armies concentrated on enemy defensive points. Together the two air armies operated 768 aircraft and were opposed by a thousand enemy machines. The spring thaw brought bad weather putting many undeveloped airfields out of operation. Aerial operations took place in formations of four to eight aircraft under ceilings of 100 to 150 meters.

In spite of the mud and rain the Korsun pocket was closed on 28 January. Second and Fifth Air Armies flew 2,800 sorties from 29 January to 3 February assisting troops struggling to keep the pocket closed. The Germans attempted to supply their troops by air. Second Air Army and the AFLRO flew blockade operations while the Fifth Air Army supported Soviet front line troops. German counter attacks in the Tolmach and Lisyanka regions took place in frequent heavy rain which dissolved dirt roads to impassability. The enemy were forced back along much of the Dnieper.

Beginning 4 March Second Air Army supported the First Ukrainian Front in the area of Proskurov-Chevnovtsy. Weather restricted operations to single or pairs of aircraft striking resistance points, and artillery and mortar batteries. Over the next three days weather improved to the point where operations could take place using six to eight aircraft. When the First Ukrainian Front resumed the offensive on 21 March the Second Air Army assisted the First and Fourth Tank Armies in driving the Germans from their defensive positions.

Sources: The Soviet Air Force in World War II, edited by Ray Wagner and Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1973

Battle for the Dnieper, Grigory Utkin, World War II Magazine, 1970s

Second Air Army: Kursk To the Dnieper River

The Battle for the Kursk Salient began on 5 July, 1943. On that date 175 large scale air battles were fought resulting in 239 enemy aircraft shot down. From 5 July to 10 July the Second Air Army fought 205 air battles and claimed 330 enemy aircraft destroyed for a loss of 153 machines. All of these actions took place over an area measuring 20 by 60 kilometers and including two thousand aircraft on each side.

On the night of 10/11 July night bombers of the Second and Seventeenth Air Armies as well as the AFLRO attacked trains and troop columns.  Bad weather on 12 July hindered preparatory operations for the Soviet counter-attack at Prokhorovka. Two hundred aircraft operated over the battlefield in small groups.

During the counter-offensive at Orel the Second Air Army supported the Voronezh Front while the Fifth Air Army assisted the Steppe Front. Their missions included maintaining control of the air, protection of the strike troops, cooperation with ground troops to break through the enemy defenses, resistance to enemy efforts to build defensive lines, destruction of enemy communications, hindrance of movement of the enemy reserves, and aerial reconnaissance.

The counter-attack at Belgorod and Kharkov began on 3 August. The Second Air Army attacked enemy targets in the vicinity of the Fifth and Sixth Guards Armies of the Voronezh Front. Thirty-six bombers, seventy-six ground attack aircraft, and forty-five fighters took part in these actions. On the Steppe Front the First Bomber Air Corps flew 150 sorties. The Germans responded with large numbers of aircraft.

The First and Fifth Guards Tank Armies joined the attack and, supported by the Second Air Army’s Fifth Ground Attack Corps and the 291st Ground Attack Division, assaulted enemy artillery and centers of resistance. The 202nd Bomber Air Division attacked enemy forces moving up to the front. Fighters flew cover over the tank groups moving forward.

On this first day of the attack, 2,670 sorties were flown. By the end of the day Soviet ground forces took Tomarovka, Sayenkov, and the Dobraya Volya region.

On 5 August the Seventeenth, Fifth, and Second Air Armies hit railroad stations at Gorlovka, Slaryansk, Barvenkovo, Makeyevka, and Pavlograd destroying trains and motorized columns. When enemy forces attacked near Akhtyrka, the Second Air Army destroyed 30 tanks and 400 vehicles and mortar batteries in three days of fighting. Kharkov fell to Soviet forces on 23 August.

The next operation consisted of seizing a bridgehead across the Dnieper River. As Soviet troops moved forward into the Poltava-Kremenchug area, the Second and Fifth Air Armies concentrated on destroying retreating German forces. Between 21 and 25 September Soviet forces reached the Dnieper River south of Kiev and Kremenchug. Several crossings were made and developed into bridgeheads. German bombers attempted to annihilate the bridgeheads and Soviet fighters engaged the bombers from makeshift airfields.

The first attempt to break through the German defenses took place at the Bukrino bridgehead, supported by the Second Air Army, during the period from 12 to 15 October. Infantry concentrations, strong points and artillery were targeted. The bridgehead was enlarged but the breakout failed.

Source: The Soviet Air Force in World War II, edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1973.

Second Air Army: Build up to Kursk

Of the period between 2 February, 1943, and 6 May, 1943, The Soviet Air Force in World War II says nothing about the Second Air Army. During this period the Soviet Army was certainly not inactive. Readers of my first blog, Formation of the Kursk Salient, can see that not only did the offensives continue, both the Soviet Army and the Wehrmacht engaged in advances and retreats forming the Kursk bulge. Vicious combats took place up until the spring thaw began 26 March, 1943, when operations subsided.

During this “quiet period” the Second and the Sixteenth Air Armies built or renovated 154 airfields. This activity included camouflaging not only active airfields, but fifty “false” airfields built to divert German activity. Supplies were laid in for ten to fifteen days of operational activity.

Soviet air operations continued as well. From 6 May to 8 May Soviet aircraft attacked German airfields. Special groups, assigned to anti-aircraft suppression, encountered increased enemy resistance. During encounters with enemy aircraft 285 enemy machines were destroyed, of which 53 were shot down. German aircraft were moved to the rear, dispersed and camouflaged. The Germans set up radar stations and small numbers of aircraft maintained standing patrols.

By this point in the war 70% of the Luftwaffe operated on the Eastern Front. In the area surrounding the Kursk battle line the Germans employed 2.4 times more day bombers than the Soviets, but the Soviets possessed twice as many fighters. The Second, Seventeenth, and Sixteenth Air Armies were concentrated around the Kursk battlefield. Here the Soviet Air Force outnumbered the Luftwaffe by 1.5 to 1.

On 2 June, 1943, the German bombers attacked the Kursk railroad junctions. The raid was intercepted by the Sixteenth and the Second Air Armies and the 101st Fighter Air Division. Of 287 German bombers only 160 broke through and put the railroad junction out of service for twelve  hours for a loss of 145 German aircraft.

A second Soviet operation ran three days from 8 June to 10 June. Units taking part were the First, Fifteenth, and Second Air Armies and the AFLRO (Air Force for Long Range Operations). Twenty-eight airfields were attacked. Night raids pounded airfields at Gorki, Saratov, and Yaroslavl.

The Second and Sixteenth Air Armies made raids against the German transportation network flying 1,909 sorties and destroying seven locomotives and 260 railroad cars. They started 220 fires and made 90 hits on railroad stations.

Soviet Air Force staff planned to coordinate operations between the Second Air Army and the Sixteenth Air Army on the northern front of the Kursk Salient and between the Second Air Army and the Seventeenth Air Army on the southern front.

The commander of the Second Air Army at this time was General S. A. Krasovsky. The Second Air Army’s main duty consisted of ground attack and bomber missions against tank concentrations in the area of the 6th Guards Army. By this time the Soviets had learned that attack groups of thirty to forty bombers were easier to defend than groups of six to eight and changed their tactics accordingly.

Source: The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Edited by Ray Wagner, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1973

Second Air Army–Early History

For this blog I used The Soviet Air Force in World War 2, translated by Leland Fetzer and edited by Ray Wagner. Of the nearly 400 pages only 122 deal with the first six months of the war and no mention is made of the Second Air Army in those pages. That the first six months consisted of a string of disasters no one denies. Losses on the ground far exceeded losses in the air. Fighter units flying the I-16, I-15, I-15bis, and I-153 fared poorly when confronting the Bf 109E and F, the Heinkel 111 and the Junkers 88. Even the vulnerable Junkers 87 Stuka succeeded in its mission of supporting infantry and armored units of the Wehrmacht and harassing retreating Soviet military units and terrifying civilians fleeing the battle.

The first mention of the Second Air Army takes place in the discussion of the 19 November, 1942, counteroffensive at Stalingrad. By that time modern aircraft such as the MiG-3, Yak-1, and the LaGG-3 had begun to replace the ’30s era fighters.

In the winter of 1942-43 the Soviet Supreme Command began moving air assets into the Volga area around Stalingrad. The Second Air Army, commanded by General K. N. Smirnov, was transferred from the Voronezh Front to the Southwest Front. Few airfields existed in the area and those were not fully equipped. Three air divisions of the Second Air Army took up positions on the right wing of the Southwest Front. One to two days prior to the opening of the counter offensive these divisions moved forward to the advanced airfields. Their operations consisted of supporting the Southwest Front as it moved forward to encircle von Paulus’s Sixth Army in Stalingrad.

Ordering von Paulus to hold his position, surrounded in Stalingrad, the Germans built up a rescue force in the neighborhood of Kotelnikovo and went on the offensive to relieve the 6th Army on 12 December, 1942. These forces were supported by 450 German aircraft. The Second and the Seventeenth Air Armies possessed 455 machines. Soviet troops took the offensive on 16 December in weather that restricted air activity. By the afternoon of the 16 December the weather improved and 200 sorties were flown in support of the Soviet attack.

Soviet air attacks on German forces assisted the Soviet forces in their breakthrough on 18 December. In the first five days 2,067 sorties were flown, of which 407 took place at night. On 24 December Tatsinskaya airfield was taken and 350 enemy aircraft were destroyed.

During the period from 16 December to 31 December, 1942, the Second and Seventeen Air Armies flew 4,177 sorties, 80% in support of ground forces. From 19 November to 2 February, 1943, the Second, Seventeenth, Sixteenth and Eighth Air Armies and the long range bomber force (AFLRO) flew 35,929 sorties while the enemy flew only 18,500, and lost 3,000 machines.

Radio communications facilitated coordinated operations in the air and on the ground. During the rapid movement of the front aerial transport transferred air units and equipment and supplies, keeping air units within striking distance of the battlefield.

Source: The Soviet Air Force in World War 2, translated by Leland Fetzer and edited by Ray Wagner, 1973, Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, NY