What caused the Soviet Air Force to fail in 1941?

Soviet IL-2 planes attacking a Nazi column.

Soviet IL-2 planes attacking a Nazi column.

Fyodor Levshin/RA Novosti
While Russian military aviation is now showing the world that in Syria, along with the United States, Russia is the only country capable of projecting air power far beyond national borders, it was not always so. The dark days of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 created awareness of the importance of military aircraft.

The Second World War saw both the launch of Russian military aviation, and its most difficult period. The Soviet Air Force  suffered a devastating defeat in 1941. It lost nearly 70 percent of its combat aircraft in the first six months of the war. The day the hostilities broke out, on June 22, 1941, the Soviet Air Force lost a massive number of 1,200 aircraft, more than half of which did not even manage to get airborne.

The Germans also suffered serious losses during the initial period of the war – almost 4,000 aircraft, exceeding the Luftwaffe's losses in all previous campaigns. Nevertheless, the balance was not in favour of the Soviet side. The 22nd June losses were a huge shock for the Soviet generals. After flying around his devastated airfields, the air force commander of the Belorussian Military District committed suicide in despair.

On June 22, 1941 the German aviation went bombing Soviet cities. Germany started a war against the USSR. Source: RIA Novosti

The German air force - the Luftwaffe - was rightly considered the best in the world. Because of their excellent fighting capabilities, the Germans managed to turn the threefold superiority in the Red Army's aviation wing to zero by that winter and achieve numerical parity. Considering the Luftwaffe's general qualitative superiority, this placed them well on the path toward air supremacy.

German pilots located targets using properly functioning tracking stations, which neutralized the tactical superiority of the Soviet aviation wing in various sectors of the front. The Red Army's pilots showed great heroism, frequently ramming enemy planes, but that was not enough to then reverse the overall situation.

Reasons for defeat

The Red Army had widely varying air assets. They included both new (for example, the Il-2, dubbed the "Flying Tank") and outdated machines; outnumbering the new threefold. However, even the modern models had significant drawbacks: the quality of Soviet aircraft engines left much to be desired and the aircraft had poorly functioning radio communications. Soviet fighter plane armour was so vulnerable that even relatively weak machine guns mounted on German bombers could pierce through.

Kuybyshev. Workers assemble an Ilyushin Il-2 ground-attack aircraft during World War II.  Source: TASS

The training of flight personnel was provided on a just-in-time basis. Pilots barely had time to learn how to operate their new machines. Shortly before the war, Soviet pilot schools worked overtime, producing thousands of new pilots. The volumes of graduates were such that many were not made officers, so as not to inflate staff levels. Not all of the young pilots were professionals. This had already become clear during the 1939-1940 Soviet-Finnish War, when a small Finnish air force caused serious problems for the Soviet Air Force, despite its overwhelming numerical superiority.

Deep-rooted problems

However, the question of why 1941 was such a tragic year for the Soviet Air Force is more complicated. It should be borne in mind that creation of a full-fledged air force in the USSR began just 10 years before the war.

Aviation plants were often built on greenfield sites and had neither sufficient materials nor the necessary number of qualified engineers and workers. Aviation is among the most technically complex types of modern weaponry. Building top class aviation assets requires a well-developed chemical industry, electronics and metallurgy. All this was also created in the Soviet Union on a just-in-time basis.

Designers studied largely on the basis of trial and error. Disadvantages of aircraft engines limited their freedom of action, and attempts to resolve these issues in the short term led to grave consequences. The lack of qualified commanding staff was another major problem.

Stalinist repression did not create the problem, but it certainly exacerbated it. Training and combat experience of the Soviet pilots were not at a high enough level and they were still absorbing lessons learned during combat on the side of Republican forces during the Spanish Civil War a few years earlier.

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