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The Battle for the Skies Over the Soviet Union:1941-45

Mark Caruthers holds a Bachelor's degree in Geography and History from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).

Operation Barbarossa: June 1941

On June 21, 1941, German troops invaded the Soviet Union in what would be the largest land invasion in military history. In the end, it will cost tens of millions of Soviets their lives not counting the millions of German soldiers who will be left buried in the Soviet soil.

Stalin will term the conflict "The Great Patriotic War." It will pit the German "Fatherland" against the Soviet "Motherland." The invasion's primary objective codenamed "Operation Barbarossa," was to open the western part of the Soviet Union to repopulation by German citizens to build a greater Germanic Reich.

The ideology was guided by the term "Lebensraum" which means living space, a Nazi geopolitical concept that included the extermination or enslavement of all the Soviet citizens that lived in the western part of the Soviet Union.

Germany's dramatic victories over France and Poland in 1939-40 strengthened an attitude of supreme confidence among Hitler and his generals. Hitler considered the defeat of the Stalinist regime was only a matter of time and a key factor in launching the Nazi New Order.

The epic Russo-German war in the 1940s would become one of the most decisive military struggles in history and the air war would play a vital role in determining an outcome.

At dawn on June 21, 1941, three million German troops pushed into the Soviet Union behind 3,300 tanks supported by over 7,000 guns. The German army on the ground was protected by a cloud of over 2,000 Nazi aircraft which paved the way for their spearheads as they advanced Soviet territory. It was the beginning of an effort to cleanse Soviet lands for German re-occupation.

The invasion consisted of three massive armored spearheads that thrust deep into the heart of the Soviet Union. The ambitious campaign to bring down Stalin involved a series of envelopment battles.

The southern spearhead's objective was to surround and destroy all Soviet armies west of the Dvina and Dnieper Rivers in the Ukraine. The Northern spearhead's objective was the capture of the Baltic republics and Leningrad. The Central spearhead's objective was the complete annihilation of all surviving Soviet forces around Moscow, ending with armored strikes toward the Volga and Caucasus regions. It was a bold plan that would stretch the German army and air force to its limits.

The Luftwaffe Strikes First

One of the first targets of German generals early in the invasion was the destruction of the Soviet Air Force. German strategists understood that Red Air Force would have to be overwhelmed, if their Blitzkrieg tactics of using stukas and tanks to break up strengthened Soviet defensive positions were to work.

Luftwaffe (German Air Force) aircraft crossed the Soviet frontier at dawn on the first day of the invasion to destroy the communist air force before they had a chance to slow the German advance on the ground. In most cases Soviet aircraft were lined up in rows since Stalin had refused to allow any defensive preparations to not provoke an attack from Hitler.

By the end of the first day, the Soviets had lost over 1,200 airplanes all along the front as German spearheads marched toward the east deeper into the Soviet Union.

On the second day of the invasion one Russian archival source revealed the Soviet Air Force losses had reached a staggering total of 3,922 aircraft, with the downing of just 78 Luftwaffe aircraft.

The Luftwaffe would now shift its focus to ground support of the Wehrmacht's three massive armored thrusts which advanced rapidly deep into Soviet territory along three corridors. Soviet Air Force I-16 fighters had proved themselves during the Spanish Civil War, but by 1941 they were completely outclassed by the Luftwaffe's latest models of Messerschmitt Bf109s.

As Nazi tanks plunged deep into the Soviet Union, the Luftwaffe fighter command was an elite force that had no equal in the air, they took complete control of the skies over German spearheads.

German pilots fought with gallantry and devastating skill, racking up hundreds of kills as Hitler's armies marched to the very gates of Moscow. Hitler's headquarters staff boasted, "The Luftwaffe can do anything."

But he would underestimate the determination of the Soviet air force. The upcoming battles would be fought with a level of brutality and ruthlessness not yet displayed in the Second World War, perhaps not seen in Europe since the struggle between Christians and Muslims in the Ottoman wars of the sixteenth century.

The brutality wasn't confined to the troops in the field, the aggressive spirit of the air war is illustrated in a remarkable incident near the city of Orel during the battle of Kursk on July 4, 1943.

The incident involved a young Soviet pilot named Lt. Vladimir D. Lavrinekov, an ace with thirty kills, Lavrinekov downed an Me-109 in an air battle and watched the German land on a flat field. The Luftwaffe pilot quickly jumped out of his cockpit and quickly ran for cover in a nearby gully filled with trees and underbrush.

Circling low over the crash site, Lavrinekov saw that the Red Army units in the area could possibly not locate the German pilot opening the possibility he might escape. The young Russian landed his fighter next to the crashed Me-109 and led a search party through the thickets in the gully. Laverinekov found the downed German pilot, and attacked him strangling him until he died. Then the Soviet ace calmly returned to his fighter, and took off in a cloud of dust, leaving the dead German pilot for the wolves.

German Planes Dominate Soviet Skies in the Summer of 1941

German bombers on the way to bomb a key target in the Soviet Union,

German bombers on the way to bomb a key target in the Soviet Union,

June 22,1941, Operation Barbarossa the invasion of the Soviet Union.

June 22,1941, Operation Barbarossa the invasion of the Soviet Union.

The Knights of the Skies

History has treated most air heroes generously because the lion's share of man to man encounters in which individual skill and fighting spirit could affect the outcome of an exchange had long disappeared from land and naval battles. Chivalry thus had found a home among the fighter aces on the modern battlefield.

Romance always surrounds the leading fighter aces of all nations, because individual birdmen battling it out still held the potential for glorification while war itself became mechanized mass murder which not only included the combatants, but also for women, children, and the elderly.

German ace of aces Eric Hartmann is still practically unknown nearly seventy years after the end of the Second World War. When the war ended, he was captured by the Red Army and imprisoned illegally for ten and a half years in a camp in Siberia. His attainment of the staggering tally of 352 confirmed aerial victories the ultimate achievement by any air fighter.

The high scores of the German fighter pilots were not well received by Allied leaders because their numbers were an embarrassment to the military leadership.

There is a common tendency in the Western world to regard the Allied air assault on Germany mostly led by American and British air fleets. But in truth, the Soviet Union sustained twice the losses of the Western Allies as they battled the bulk of the Nazi war machine on the ground, and in the air on the Eastern Front.

By far the largest air war was fought on the Eastern Front. Reorganized in 1939 to slowly emerge as a separate service from the Red Army, the Soviet Air Force had previously been hampered in its development through tight army control. The Air Division under the reorganization became the largest air unit in history at the time of the invasion of Russia, it was estimated that the Red Air Force had between forty and fifty Air Divisions that contained almost 162 regiments.

The overall numerical strength of the Soviet Air Force was estimated by the German military leadership at about 10,500 planes.

Red fighter forces were equipped mostly with the I-16 Rata, or its more modern version, the I-151 and I-153. Obsolete in 1941, the Soviet Air Force was replacing the I-16 Rata with MIG-3 and Lagg-3 fighters when the German Army unleashed its blitzkrieg across the western Soviet frontier.

Almost two-thirds of the Soviet Air Force still used the Rata when the Luftwaffe caught the Soviets napping during the first days of Operation Barbarossa. The German Air Force almost completely destroyed the Soviet Air Force in the first ninety days of the war, it was the Luftwaffe's golden era on the Eastern Front when the German pilots enjoyed complete air superiority over the battlefield.

The vaunted power of the Luftwaffe proved to be an illusion in face of the upcoming challenges of the Eastern Front. The air supremacy achieved in June-July 1941 quickly dissipated, as the frigid Russian winter set in and the strains of a 2,000-mile front began to take its toll on the German armed forces.

To further add to the problem at the end of 1941, Hitler withdrew Luft Flotte 2 from the support of Army Group Center to meet new threats in the Mediterranean theater. Russia proved to be more formidable in its defensive capabilities than their western European advisories in 1940. Although Soviet resistance was inconsistent, it displayed a ferocity and toughness unequaled in the West.

The enormity of the landscape appeared to absorb the German infantry, mechanized units, and aircraft with ease. The military successes of the Wehrmacht had ended in exhaustion rather than inevitable victory. The vision of Operation Barbarossa had proved foolhardy and ill-fated. But the war would drag on for another three and a half bloody years.

Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG52) (52nd Fighter Wing)

Jagdgeschwader 52 (JG52) (52nd Fighter Wing) was the most successful fighter wing of all time with a total of more than 10,000 claimed air-to-air victories over British, Soviet, and American aircraft during the Second World War.

It was the only fighter wing to have three of the highest scoring aces in military history, Eric Hartmann, Gerhard Barkhorn, and Gunther Rall. The unit would fly the ultra-modern Messerschmitt Bf109 throughout the war.

The war gave Eric Hartmann the opportunity to experience the complex and expensive world of aviation. Powered flight in Europe was a possibility only for the lucky few because aircraft were expensive to acquire and operate. Certainly, sport flying was beyond the reach of most young German men in their teens.

Under the stresses of war, the same young men could now become military pilots and find themselves the recipients of an education in aviation in which no expense was spared. By 1940 the German fighter force had begun to capture the imagination of the German people.

Newspapers carried extensive publicity about successful fighter pilots. Erich's imagination was captured by the seemingly glamorous trade of fighter piloting. So, he decided to enlist in the Luftwaffe (German Air Force). His father was against Eric's decision to join the Luftwaffe because he believed the war would end in the defeat of Germany.

On October the 15th 1940, with the climax of the Battle of Britain already finished, the fresh-faced Eric Hartmann joined the Air Force Military Training Regiment 10 at Neukuhren, about ten miles from Konigsberg in East Prussia. He completed basic flying training by the 14th of October 1941, and began an advanced flying course.

His instructors at Berlin-Gatow had already determined that he was fighter pilot material. During his advanced training, he was introduced to an aircraft that he would fall in love with the Messerschmitt 109. Hartmann would fly seventeen different types of powered aircraft by the time he flew the Me109.

On October 10,1942, Hartmann was sent to the banks of the Terek River north of the Caucasus Mountains to fly with the 7th squadron of Jagdgeschwader 52. His first combat patrol took place on October 14, 1942, and it nearly became his last.

His good fortune was in flying his first mission with Paule Rossmann the flight leader of No.3 Gruppe, of the 7th Squadron. He helped him set the pattern for the distinctive aerial tactics that would carry him on to an unprecedented pinnacle of success, and along the way, he would overcome every tough old dogfighter that ever flew. The things Hartmann would learn from Rossmann would push him to the top of this lethal trade.

Soon after take-off, the two pilots would put their Me109s into a steep climb reaching 12,000 feet. Then the two-plane sortie followed the Terek River, to the city of Prokhladay, where Rossmann noticed a formation of Soviet aircraft strafing a German supply column that was trying to leave the city. Rossmann radioed his rookie wingman to follow him as he dove on the Soviet planes.

After plunging for almost a mile, Hartmann finally was able to see the Soviet planes that Rossmann had in his gun sights. Suddenly Hartman over-reacted and pushed his Me109's throttle up to full speed, cutting in front of Rossmann, targeting the closest Soviet plane, firing his machine guns and 20mm cannons at almost point-blank range.

He missed his target and barely avoided a collision with Rossmann's plane before leveling off, only to find himself surrounded by dark green Soviet fighter planes who were turning behind Hartmann's Me109 for the kill. Terrified, he pushed the throttle of his plane as far forward as possible and headed to the west through a cloud bank until he lost his pursuers.

After outrunning the Soviet fighters, he continued to head west toward German lines when the engine of his Me109 suddenly sputtered and stopped. Almost twenty miles from his airfield he was forced to belly land his plane near a German infantry column. Having destroyed a valuable plane without inflicting damage on the enemy Hartmann was grounded for three days once he returned back to base.

After getting back in the air, Hartmann resumed flying with Rossmann and paid close attention to the veteran airman's fighting philosophy. Earlier in the war, Rossmann had suffered a bad arm wound and was unable to take his plane through the tight movements required for close-in dogfighting.

Rossmann's remarkable eyesight saved his career. It made it possible for him to see targets at extreme distances, diagnose each situation according to its own distinct characteristics, and then plot how to carry out his unique, unorthodox style of attack which involved a long-range surprise attack.

Rossmann's victims rarely saw him, exploding into flames long before he was close enough for his victims to realize that they were even a target. He used these sniper tactics to score kills on a regular basis while other German pilots of his wing charged bull-like into swarms of Soviet fighters taking as much as they gave.

Some would barely make it back to their base alive or not at all. Hartmann would use Rossmann's style of attack throughout his career, but unlike his teacher he had no lame arm and was able to maneuver his Me109 through tight turns, climbs, and dives.

Along with his incredible marksmanship, he was able to combined Rossmann's rare ability to fatally wound his opponents at long range, but Hartmann also was able to use the dogfight tactics of other fighter pilots who preferred the point-blank attack.

Germany's "Blond Knight" in the next two years would become the ace of aces, the greatest fighter pilot in air combat history. For aesthetic reasons Hartmann had his Me109's nose painted with a distinctive black tulip design on its nose cone.

Soon the Soviet fighter pilots recognized his uniquely adorned aircraft and began calling him the "Black Devil of the South" and placed a 10,000-ruble bounty on his head. But Hartmann was so feared by his enemy they avoided him like the plague.

So, in January 1944, he had the artwork removed. No longer recognizable he soon shot down another 50 Soviet warplanes over the next two months. The cold blue Russian skies were filled with the smoke trails of falling Soviet aircraft, but the sheer weight of Stalin's air legions would finally become a deciding factor in the war. These were the largest air battles in history, and they just kept growing as the red star-emblazoned aircraft endlessly droned in from the east.

The Soviet Air Force Rises from the Ashes

The Soviets overall were better prepared to challenge the Luftwaffe for control of the skies in future battles than their western Allies. The Red air force put an effort in building up a reserve of trained pilots' years before the first shots were fired in Operation Barbarossa. Also, they made preparations for large scale aircraft production in the Ural Mountains, and by the end of 1941 they were able to recover rapidly from the Luftwaffe's initial devastating air attacks of June and July 1941.

The Red air force was able to maintain a steady stream of pilots from their training schools to man the steady flow of fighters that rolled out of Soviet factories. Soviet losses were extremely heavy throughout the Second World War, but their fighter pilots improved consistently as the war continued, as the Luftwaffe's fighter force began to slowly melt away under the avalanche of Soviet fighters.

Like the Soviets the German Air Force lacked a four-engine strategic bomber that was capable of destroying the Soviet's vast armament factories and flying schools beyond the Ural Mountains. As a consequence, the flood of material and personnel had to be dealt with in the skies above the German front lines all along the Eastern Front.

From late 1942 onward, Soviet air power became an aerial tidal wave that grew as the Luftwaffe steadily declined. Despite these facts, many in the west considered that German pilots enjoyed any easy harvest of kills over the skies of the Soviet Union.

But facts rule that out, instead the Red Air Force was a deadly adversary. Eric Hartmann would compare Eastern Front combat to the fighter assaults on the Allied bomber fleets that blacked out the skies above Germany. The clouds of lead and steel that filled the sky made it inevitable that a pilot constantly in action would eventually fly into some stray projectiles.

Often there were as little as ten German fighters against three hundred Russians. The odds were against the Germans, and there was a distinct chance of a mid-air collision as likely as being shot down. Some Soviet fighter pilots would intentionally ram German fighters, German pilots would term this suicidal maneuver the "Crazy Ivan." German fighter pilots had to plan their attacks with considerable care to survive.

Soviet Fighters Overwhelm the Luftwaffe

Though Soviet pilots in the beginning of the war lacked the training and combat experience of German aces, but as the war progressed, they began to earn their respect. In day-to-day operations over long periods, the Germans felt superior, both technically and psychologically.

That was especially true of the best German pilots. Nevertheless, all German pilots respected the quality of the Guards fighter regiments, the elite of the Soviet fighter arm. Crack Soviet pilots were concentrated in the Guards regiments. They were real fighter pilot types, aggressive, tactically formidable, fearless and they flew some of the finest fighter aircraft in the skies.

The Guards regiments produced the most top-scoring Allied fighter pilots of the Second World War. All the leading German aces on the Eastern Front were either shot down or forced down several times giving testament to the quality of Soviet pilots.

The exposure rate of these fighter pilots was the greatest in history. With Eric Hartmann as an example, he flew on fourteen hundred sorties, and fought in eight hundred aerial battles, where it is estimated he found himself in Soviet fighter pilots gun sights approximately two hundred times. Hartman was shot down three times during the war but luckily avoided capture on all those occasions.

Hartmann and other top German Aces were most likely some of the most skilled air fighters in air combat history, but the law of averages was against them, implying that they would eventually be downed one way or another. Wherever the Guards air regiments fought the Luftwaffe's pilots expected a tough fight.

The masses of Soviet pilots stood below the Guards in skill, but they still took a toll on German fighter pilots in the long battle of attrition that was the Eastern Front. The top Soviet fighter of the war, Major General Ivan Kozhedub, scored sixty-two aerial victories against the Luftwaffe, and seven other Soviet pilots are credited with more victories than the top-scoring American ace, Major Richard I. Bong, with forty kills scored in the Pacific Theater of Operations.

Kozhedub is reported to have commanded the North Korean Air Division, which was equipped with MIG-15 jets in 1951-52 during the Korean War. Whether Kozhedub flew any combat missions is to this day unknown, but it is quite possible since at that time he was only thirty-one years old. American military commanders in Korea felt certain that experienced Russian pilots did fly combat missions in the skies over Korea, and it is possible that Kozhedub added to his sixty-two kills of the Second World War.

Alexander Pokryshkin The Red Air Force's Ace of Aces

Alexander Pokryshkin in 1940 as a young pilot before the Great Patriotic War.

Alexander Pokryshkin in 1940 as a young pilot before the Great Patriotic War.

Alexander Pokryshikin in 1941 as the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.

Alexander Pokryshikin in 1941 as the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union's Most Decorated Pilot

The most famous Soviet fighter ace of the Soviet Union's Great Patriotic War was Colonel Alexander Pokryshkin of the Red Air Guard Regiment. Pokryshkin was credited with fifty-nine confirmed aerial victories, as a result he would win the Gold Star as Hero of the Soviet Union three times.

Surprisingly before the war Pokryshkin's mechanical aptitudes were so outstanding he almost didn't become a pilot, even though his superiors constantly dismissed his request for flight school, he never refused to be denied his true calling. Pokryshkin began his fighter training at Kacha, and soon afterward was assigned to a regular Red Air Force unit in 1940. His excellent piloting skill drew attention and soon he was accepted by all his fellow pilots.

He would literally write the book on Soviet aerial fighter tactics; throughout his career he would keep a journal on all the aerial maneuverers he learned in his combat sorties. Pokryshkin would become a great ace because he understood from the very beginning the importance of the individual in aerial combat.

Through experience he acquired in mock combat and constant study of aerial maneuver before the war, Pokryshkin learned how to defeat a competent opponent in a superior aircraft. Like Eric Hartmann in his deadly Me109, he became a follower of the sudden, swift and violent attack.

Like Hartmann, Pokryshkin was lucky enough to develop these tactics under the wing of a veteran pilot named Sokolov who fought in the Spanish Civil War. Sokolov taught Pokryshkin the art of the sudden, savage strike which won the psychological battle immediately, leaving his enemy confused and vulnerable to be blown out of the sky. Pokryshkin would write in his diary, "The factors of success are maneuver and fire!"

Bell P-39 Airacobra

Part of lend lease from America Pokryshkin flew the Bell P-39 Airacobra early in the war, the 37mm cannon in its nose made it a favorite of Soviet pilots.

Part of lend lease from America Pokryshkin flew the Bell P-39 Airacobra early in the war, the 37mm cannon in its nose made it a favorite of Soviet pilots.

Pokryshkin Writes the Book on Fighter Tactics

At the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union Pokryshkin was serving as a Red Air Force pilot in the Ukraine. Two days after the German invasion Pokryshkin was on a reconnaissance mission near Jassy, when he first encountered the veteran fighter pilots of the Luftwaffe's JG-52 who Eric Hartmann would join a year later.

Pokryshkin in a MIG-3 along with his wingman Lieutenant Semyonov would fly into a flight of five Me109s, three below him and two above his Russian element (flight of two aircraft). Pokryshkin would react very quickly pulling back on the stick of his MIG-3 and begin a rapid climb toward the higher German element. Closing in at point-blank range, Pokryshkin sent a burst into one of the Me109s with all his guns. The German fighter burst into fire and went spiraling to the earth, trailing smoke.

The battle tested Pokryshkin would have little chance for more dogfighting with German fighters until autumn 1941. He would fly reconnaissance missions, and seldom found German fighters. Pokryshkin's new tactics were largely responsible for breaking the Red Air Force out of its outdated fighter doctrine.

Taught to fly and fight in horizontal planes before the German invasion, Soviet fighter pilots became easy prey to the combat veterans of the Luftwaffe. Improved aircraft performance opened up the vertical plane to Soviet fighter tactics, and Pokryshkin was among the most important contributors to modern Soviet fighter tactics. He used the climbing spiral often to evade his enemy.

Against the advice of his more conservative comrades who made themselves easy targets to the more experienced German pilots. His leadership brought him to the front ranks of the Soviet fighter pilot elite. Like the aces of the Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front, Pokryshkin was shot down many times as the Soviet air force battled the legions of Luftwaffe fighters.

Pokryshkin's passion for knowing