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The Soviet Airforce Versus The Luftwaffe

A.D. Harvey assesses the role of the Soviet Air Force in the defeat of Nazism.

Soviet Russia, having invested lavishly in military aviation, had the most powerful air force in the world in the mid-1930s, in terms of both numbers and technical excellence. The Tupolev TB-3, first flown in 1930, was the world’s first monoplane four-engined bomber and the only one at the time in series production; the Polikarpov I-16 was the world’s first monoplane fighter to have retractable undercarriage.

The Soviet aero industry had its weaknesses, notably in engine development (which relied mainly on copying and improving German, French and American designs) and in production standards: in 1941 it was found that the shoddy finish on the LaGG-3 fighter, one of a new generation of fighters intended to replace the I-16, reduced speed by at least 10 per cent and rate of climb by 50 per cent. More important, however, were defective notions of operation and deployment. It was one thing to have a huge air force, another to know how to use it in a war. The Soviet air service (Voenno-Vozdushniye Sily or VVS), no less than the army, suffered from Stalin’s purge of his military high command from 1937 onwards. Jan Alknis, the VVS’s Chief of General Staff, an advocate of the use of long-range strategic bombers, was among the first to be executed.

Though Alknis bequeathed to his successors the TB-7 (later redesignated the Pe-8), a four-engined bomber greatly superior in performance to the TB-3, Stalin showed no interest in furthering its development, and the two men principally responsible for its design, V.M. Petlyakov and A.N. Tupolev, were detained in an NKVD (secret police) establishment until 1940 and 1941 respectively. After the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 Stalin became convinced that there was no likelihood for years to come of Russia finding itself at war with Germany, and as Germany was the only enemy powerful enough to justify investment in a long-distance bomber fleet, there was simply no requirement for a modern four-engined bomber.

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