Sunday, March 15, 2015

First Challengers to the Luftwaffe 1941

First word of the attack arrived in Moscow in the form of a desperate signal from the commander of the Black Sea Fleet, who reported a devastating Luftwaffe raid was taking place against the naval base at Sevastopol. The report was disbelieved by Stalin until confirmed by direct telephone contact between Sevastopol and the Kremlin. Two hours later Ambassador Count von der Schulenburg delivered Germany’s declaration of war to Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov.

Luftwaffe bombers located the Black Sea Fleet at anchor in Sevastopol by the oscillating light of the city’s powerful harbor lighthouse. Neither the harbor nor the city were blacked-out. Attack aircraft from other Fliegerkorps bombed Bialystok, Brest-Litovsk, Grodno, Kiev, Kovno, Rovno, Riga, and Tallinn without meeting any effective air or ground defense response. Two thousand outmoded VVS aircraft were destroyed in the first three days of battle, hundreds while parked in neat rows or great circles during the opening hours of the fight after dawn on June 22. Thousands more aircraft were shot from the sky by better trained and more experienced Luftwaffe pilots flying more modern planes. Some Soviet pilots crashed their slow and ill-armed monoplanes into faster and more powerful enemy aircraft, using suicide tactics to make up for the inadequacy of their planes. Such acts were not ordered, but on the first day they set a tone for the savagery to come in the east, for total war waged without pity on the ground or in the air, in the villages and countryside, and within hundreds of towns and cities. Thousands more VVS aircraft were abandoned on overrun airfields in ground panic over the first weeks. The most reliable calculations place the number of lost VVS planes at just under 4,000 within the first 15 days, compared to Luftwaffe losses of 550 aircraft. Initial Luftwaffe success was unparalleled in the history of air operations. It gave German pilots total domination above the battlefield for the first six months of the war. Air supremacy in turn permitted Luftwaffe commanders to switch to critical ground support and interdiction roles, ripping apart exposed Soviet columns, strafing and bombing pockets of surrounded Soviet divisions and whole armies. For most of the rest of the BARBAROSSA campaign the Luftwaffe thus concentrated on attacking tactical targets ahead of advancing ground forces of the Ostheer, and on interdicting Red Army fuel and ammunition supplies, troop trains, and columns on the march.
Luftwaffe reconnaissance units worked frantically to plot troop concentration, supply dumps, and airfields, and mark them for destruction. The Luftwaffe's task was to neutralize the Soviet Air Force. This was not achieved in the first days of operations, despite the Soviets having concentrated aircraft in huge groups on the permanent airfields rather than dispersing them on field landing strips, making them ideal targets. The Luftwaffe claimed to have destroyed 1,489 aircraft on the first day of operations. Hermann Göring — Chief of the Luftwaffe — distrusted the reports and ordered the figure checked. Picking through the wreckages of Soviet airfields, the Luftwaffe's figures proved conservative, as over 2,000 destroyed Soviet aircraft were found. The Luftwaffe lost 35 aircraft on the first day of combat. The Germans claimed to have destroyed only 3,100 Soviet aircraft in the first three days. In fact Soviet losses were far higher: some 3,922 Soviet machines had been lost (according to Russian Historian Viktor Kulikov). The Luftwaffe had achieved air superiority over all three sectors of the front, and would maintain it until the close of the year. The Luftwaffe could now devote large numbers of its Geschwader to support the ground forces.

Lavochkin LaGG 3
Lavochkin executed his first project together with another two talented technicians, Viadimir Petrovich Gorbunov and Mikhail lvanovich Gudkov, with whom he had worked since 1938. This was a single-seater fighter, initially designated I-22 and then LaGG-1; the prototype made its maiden flight on March 30, 1940. The aircraft was a low-wing monoplane, carefully studied from an aerodynamic point of view and fitted with completely retractable landing gear. A predominant feature that made it unique among its kind, was its being built entirely in wood, with the exception of the moving parts, which were metal, and the fabric covering: the fuselage, empennage, and wings had a supporting structure in wood onto which a covering of diagonal strips of plywood was stuck using special resins. Its engine was a large Klimov M-105 liquid-cooled V-12 that generated 1,050 hp at takeoff.

However, flight tests proved to be unsatisfactory. Consequently, before production got under way, numerous modifications were carried out. These included the adoption of a more powerful and supercharged version of the Klimov M-105 engine (the 1,240 hp (925 kw) M-105PF) and of a three-bladed variable-pitch metal propeller, increased fuel tank capacity, and the installation of slats on the leading edge of the wings. The prototype was redesignated I-301 and, once tests had been completed, the fighter went into production with the official designation LaGG-3. However, its initial operative service (from 1941) brought to light some negative flight characteristics, for example, a tendency to go into a spin following particularly tight turns, making further research and testing necessary.

Once in service with the units, the LaGG-3 was widely used in the early phases of the war against the Germans, especially on the Finnish front, and its performance proved to be satisfactory. However, the aircraft never possessed the characteristics of an interceptor that had been planned in the original project. Nevertheless, it was used with success in bomber escort duty, ground attack, and target attack against the least dangerous of the formidable German fighters, such as reconnaissance planes and bombers. Moreover, the LaGG-3 proved to be extremely versatile and reliable. Its typical armament included a 20 mm cannon that fired through the propeller hub and two 12.7 mm machine guns, while under the wings supports were planned for light bombs or rockets. Up to August 1942, a total of 6,528 LaGG-3s came off the assembly lines, a remarkable number considering the unexceptional performance of the aircraft.

In the course of production numerous other experimental prototypes were completed, built with the aim of improving the aircraft's characteristics. Lavochkin, in particular, dedicated himself to the task of perfecting it. Following a series of failed attempts, success was achieved when a radically new engine became available. This was the Shvetsov M.82 radial engine and, once it had been fitted on the LaGG-3, it transformed it into a first-class aircraft, the LaGG-5 of 1942, one of the best Soviet fighters of the entire war.

Mikoyan Gurevich MiG 3
The MiG-1 was the first Soviet fighter of World War 11 and the first to bear the "signature" of Artem lvanovich Mikoyan and Mikhail Lossipovich Gurevich, two designers who were to become world famous. Even today, despite the death of Mikoyan in 1970, and that of Gurevich in 1976, the designation MiG continues to be used to identify the most advanced Soviet combat aircraft, in remembrance of the partnership between the two great technicians, which originated in 1938, immediately prior to the outbreak of war.

In that year, Mikoyan and Gurevich began their long association with the intention of building a single-seater interceptor developed around the large and powerful Mikulin AM-35, a 12-cylinder Vee engine capable of generating 1,200 hp at 19,735 ft (6000 m) and 1,350 hp at takeoff. Two projects were completed, although only work on the second went ahead designated MiG-1, it was a small, slim low-wing monoplane, with retractable landing gear. Its airframe and covering were composite, wood and metal. In practice, it was the smallest and most compact airframe that could be created around the heavy engine, one of the most powerful in its category in the world at the time.

The prototype, redesignated 1-200, was completed in only four months, and it made its maiden flight on April 5, 1940. During initial flight testing the aircraft proved to have an excellent performance as far as speed was concerned, touching 403 mph (648.5 km/h) at 22,640 ft (6,900 m) on May 24. Mass production was launched immediately, although the fighter was not without faults. The principal ones were its lack of manoeuvrability, its negative characteristics in flight (due to the excessive weight of the wings), its limited range, and a lack of protection and armament.

These problems caused production to be limited to 100 aircraft and led the designers to develop a new version. This was designated MiG-3 and began to reach the units at the beginning of 1941, proving to be greatly superior to the previous aircraft. In particular, its overall aerodynamic characteristics had been improved, larger fuel tanks were installed, in the cockpit the pilot's seat and the canopy were modified, the engine was rendered more powerful, due also to the installation of a new propeller.

In combat the MiG-3 displayed its potential to the full, proving capable of giving the best of its performance at altitudes over 16,450 ft (5,000 m), where it was able to compete on equal terms with the best adversaries. However, at lower altitudes there was a noticeable decrease in the fighter's overall performance and in its manoeuvrability that placed it in inferior conditions. The aircraft's armament constituted another weak point. The two 7.62 mm machine guns and the single 12.7 mm machine gun and the 440 lbs (200 kg) of bombs were clearly not enough. Various experiments were attempted to remedy this, but the use of heavier weapons seriously penalized the aircraft's qualities.

However, the MiG-3 always remained a transitional aircraft, while the Soviets were awaiting more modern and effective products (like the Yakovlev and Lavochkin fighters) with which they finally succeeded in gaining overall superiority compared to the Luftwaffe. Production of the MiG-3 was suspended in the spring of 1942, when building of the AM-35A engine ceased after it had made way for the more powerful AM-38, destined for the llyushin 11-2. A total of 3,322 were built, in addition to the 100 MiG-1s. However, Mikoyan and Gurevich's fighter remained in front-line service until the final months of 1943, and it was subsequently relegated to secondary roles.

The MiG-1 had a number of short-comings with the result that only about 100 examples were built. The worst of these faults being stability, short range and vulnerability to combat damage, which resulted in modifications that produced the MiG-3. They included aerodynamic refinements, the outer wing panels having increased dihedral, greater fuel capacity, increased armament and armour protection.

The MiG-3 was no match for German fighters at low levels (below 16,405 ft or 5000 m), as a result an attempt was made to improve performance by incorporating the Shvetsov M-82 (later ASh-82) radial engine.

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