“Voenno-Vozdushnye sily (VVS).” Unlike the Royal Air Force (RAF) or the Luftwaffe, but like the USAAF and JAAF, the VVS was not a separate air force organization. VVS bombers and support aircraft were integrated with various Fronts of the Red Army, while anti-aircraft guns and fighter-interceptors were organized separately under the PVO, or Air Defense Force. As a result of being controlled by ground force commanders, and given experience in the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939), during the prewar period the VVS built a nearly exclusively tactical air force of medium bombers, dive bombers, and heavy attack fighters. It eschewed acquisition of more than a handful of long-range strategic bombers. Joseph Stalin took a direct interest in the VVS. His limited prewar thinking about strategic bombing was influenced by the deep battle attack doctrine developed by the Red Army. In 1939 VVS “mixed air divisions” were set up that deployed bombers and fighters to each Front (army group). As a result, when war came VVS aircraft were widely dispersed among ground formations themselves deployed too far forward, and were not capable of a coordinated overall response to being suddenly attacked. The problem of commanded structure and overly wide dispersal was compounded by weakness in aircraft design. That would not change until 1942, with reforms forced upon the VVS by extraordinary pressures of catastrophic losses of aircraft and near-defeat of the whole Red Army in 1941.
The VVS underwent a violent purge that began in 1937, continuing to mid- 1941, the very eve of the German invasion. In addition to top officers, many talented aircraft designers were arrested, executed, or driven to suicide. Aircraft types were miserable in design compared to German or British models, but had been produced in great volume by the pathologies of a Soviet economic model that valued sheer numbers over quality. The inadequacies of the prewar VVS were revealed in extraordinary peacetime losses to accident: upwards of 800 aircraft per year, or more than the entire prewar production runs of some RAF models. A paucity of repair facilities, technical support, fuel supply systems, and ground-to-air or air-to-air radio communications completed the prewar picture. On June 21, 1941, the eve of the German–Soviet war, the VVS numbered 618,000 personnel, but not enough experienced or qualified officers. It deployed over 20,000 military aircraft of all types. In the first three days alone the VVS frontier Military Districts lost about 2,000 aircraft. Several top commanders were immediately arrested and shot, scapegoats for Stalin’s diplomatic and military catastrophe. During the first weeks of fighting the VVS lost thousands more outclassed planes, many destroyed on the ground or abandoned in all-out retreats. By the end of July it was a shattered remnant of its prewar self. Over the first six months of fighting its losses were even more immense.
New VVS formations had to be created almost from scratch in early 1942, some formed with Lend-Lease fighters shipped in haste from the United States or Britain. However, they were eventually supplied with new and much-improved Soviet warplanes designed by men released from NKVD prisons or camps, built by men and women working in desperate factory conditions in hastily moved or erected plants. Starting in May 1942, the Stavka reorganized the whole structure of the VVS. The largest Soviet air formation became the air army (“vozdushnaia armiia”), with each attached directly to Fronts or held in a Stavka reserve. The first air army created on May 5 was followed by 16 more, with those founded in 1943 and 1944 much larger than the original formations. All were multipurpose, comprised of varying numbers of subunits of fighters, bombers, night bombers, and ground-attack aircraft. All units were closely tied to control by Front commanders and carried out tactical missions only. Some air armies were held in the Stavka reserve, carefully released to create local superiority over major offensive operations. More rarely, reserve air armies were assigned a strategic mission. A special 18th Air Army was formed in December 1944. A huge force culled from the Stavka reserve, it comprised 18 divisions of long-range bombers and 4 more of regular bombers. It carried out deep strikes into Germany, including bombing Berlin. Otherwise, revived Soviet air power was used principally in support of ground forces, matching Luftwaffe concentration on close support in the east. Nor did the VVS dedicate much of its resources to bombing the Kriegsmarine, which left German ships in the Baltic intact and active deep into March 1945. VVS aircraft were superior in quality and vastly greater in numbers to the opposing, ragged formations of the Luftwaffe by the end of the war. Yet, systemic problems continued: as late as 1944 some 8,600 VVS fighters were lost to ground or air accidents, compared to just 4,100 lost to enemy ground fire or fighter interception.
Below the level of air armies were air corps (“aviatsionnaia korpus”). Soviet air corps were usually single purpose and hence formed exclusively of either bombers or fighters. The Luftwaffe equivalent was a Fliegerkorps. Soviet air corps were comprised of two or more air divisions, the basic VVS tactical fighting unit. The Luftwaffe equivalent was a Fliegerdivision. Over the course of the war Soviet air divisions conformed to one of five structures and purposes. Prewar and early war formations were known as “basic air divisions.” There were 37 in all. Of these, 20 were wholly destroyed while 14 were converted or redistributed to other air units created in a series of emergency air force reforms carried out in 1941–1942. An air regiment (“aviatsionnyi polk”) was the core VVS unit below division-level. Each comprised fighters or bombers, but not usually both. The prewar VVS had eschewed organization by aircraft function, though some specialization was allowed. The core of the VVS was a total of 51 “mixed air divisions,” formed before the war or created during the first year of fighting. By 1942 all 51 were destroyed or reformed into the new air armies. Seven all-bomber divisions were in place before June 22, 1941. Another 59 bomber divisions were added from 1942 to 1945. This expansion reflected a Soviet wartime shift to uniform aircraft-type formations. Similarly, 98 all-fighter divisions were added by 1945 to the original 11 prewar fighter divisions, most of which were decimated or destroyed in the first weeks and months of BARBAROSSA. The VVS quickly discovered an urgent need for ground-attack aircraft, as its capabilities were increasingly directed into direct support of Red Army ground forces, a shift matching Luftwaffe concentration on close support in the east. Starting from no prewar divisions of assault aircraft, the VVS created 48 ground-attack divisions by 1944.
The VVS—uniquely among wartime air forces—recruited entire squadrons of women combat pilots and crew, fielding all-women bomber squadrons as early as mid-1942. As in other air forces, more women flew transport aircraft and provided a ferry service from the factories to the front. At the end of the war the VVS deployed 15,500 frontline aircraft and had established total domination in the air above the Red Army, lasting throughout its advances into Central Europe and Germany.