The Russian Air Force between two world wars

On August 12, Russia will mark the 100-anniversary of the national military air forces. On that very day in 1912 by the order of the Defense Department a special air forces unit was established. Later by the decree of the Russian president this date was declared as the Day of Russia’s air forces.

The history of Russia’s Air Force is full of heroic and dramatic events. Its development between the two World Wars was difficult and controversial. Although it was a peaceful time for the USSR, many Soviet pilots took part in various local armed conflicts abroad. "Our pilots and designers gained a great experience at that time,” says aviation historian Vladimir Ivanov.”In the 1920s, Soviet pilots took part in providing assistance to the first Afghan government and fought in China. Let’s add to this the battles of Lake Khasan and the River of Kalhin Gol in Mongolia and the civil war in Spain. There our pilots learned the air combat tactics. Those events helped the aircraft designers test new aircraft and look for the ways to improve it."


About 6,000 pilots died in those “special business trips”, which is how those combat missions were officially called. This is a huge figure especially considering that the USSR did not officially fight in the wars in China and Spain and sent only volunteers there. It also shows how intensive the military actions in China, Mongolia and Spain were. They helped our air forces to work out tactics and strategy as well as to define technical requirements of new combat aircraft. The severest sky battles took place in 1936-1939 during the civil war in Spain. Then the USSR supplied its I-15 and I-16 fighters to Spain.



"Those battles showed that in general the planes were suitable for combat actions but they had some flaws,” says Ivanov. “For example, the I-16 fighter was equipped only with two machine guns and designer Polikarpov was given the task to strengthen the armament. He successfully fulfilled the task. The I-16 fighter received 4 machine guns and later large caliber arms were installed. The Battle near Guadalajara proved that those fighters could be effectively used against the infantry."


In August-September of 1936, in Spain the German pilots tested first Messerschmitt aircraft. It was also in Spain when Soviet and German pilots fought each other for the first time before the World War II.



New combat aircraft was used in the battle of the Khalhin Gol River in Mongolia. When it became clear that the Japanese Air Force had advantage in maneuvering ability, the Soviet command sent the I-153 Chaika fighters to Mongolia. In terms of speed these planes were not inferior to the Japanese ones and they also had better maneuvering ability. In Mongolia the Soviet air forces gained a valuable experience of swarm attacks. Soon after that began the production of new aircraft Yak-1, MiG03, LaGG-3 began, which were made operational right before the war of 1941-1945.


Undoubtedly, not everything was perfect. On the eve of World War II, the Soviet pilots were focusing on horizontal maneuvers and did not practice vertical maneuvers enough. The aircraft had poor armour plating and armament. The Spanish experience showed that pilots needed radio communication equipment which was installed on all planes only in 1942. Nevertheless Spain gave our pilots a valuable experience of night combats. High level of readiness of the Soviet air forces and aviation industry enabled the industry to produce new combat planes fast and make them operational during the war.

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