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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