Sunday, March 15, 2015


The Soviet military had three air arms, the Red Army Air Force, Long-Range Bomber Aviation, and the Naval Air Forces. The first two were administered by directorates of the People’s Commissariat for Defense, and the last by the People’s Commissariat of the Navy. In terms of operations, the land-based air forces were under the command of the relevant armies or fronts (army groups), and the naval air forces were subordinated to the relevant fleets.

The Red Army assigned air armies to Front-commands, enabling ground forces to take full advantage of the air support. Usually one Front had one air army assigned. The following air armies were for example in the area around Kursk summer 1943: 1st Air Army (West Front), 2nd Air Army (Voronezh Front), 5th Air Army (Steppe Front), 15th Air Army (Bryansk Front), 16th Air Army (Central Front) and 17th Air Army (South-Western Front).

An air army had as basic unit the air division which normally controlled three air regiments (resulting in 124 aircraft, unless it was a bomber division, in which case it had 98 aircraft). Thus an air regiment usually had 40 aircrafts (except bomber regiments, which had 32 aircraft). When the war started there existed air divisions that were mixed but later this was not very common. The division had one category of regiments, fighter, bomber or attack. Instead the types could be mixed at the air corps level. One air corps controlled two or three divisions.

Furthermore there existed air-units belonging Long-Range Aviation (a.k.a Soviet Bomber Command) and PVO (Soviet Air Defense). The former were assigned to support different sectors during the war while the later defended the rear. For example on 22 June 1941 the PVO had ca 1500 fighters aircraft in 40 Fighter regiments. The largest unit was 6th PVO Fighter Corps in Moscow-area with eleven PVO Fighter Regiment.

At the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941, the Soviets had 8,105 combat aircraft, most of them obsolescent and outclassed by German planes, so that by the end of the year, their numbers had been decimated to 2,495. Production quickly made up these losses, however, and by January 1945, the Soviets had some 14,500 operational aircraft. Early catastrophic losses were due not only to poor equipment, but also to poor leadership and organization. In 1942, the Soviets introduced the “air army” system, which greatly streamlined command in the air force, so that one of 13 air armies had responsibility for supporting a particular front. Each air army typically consisted of a command staff, two or three fighter divisions, a “Shturmovik” (ground-attack) division, one or two night-bomber divisions, and reconnaissance and liaison units. The typical air army had 400 to 500 aircraft. Flexibility was built into the organization of the formation, which could, when necessary, draw on the Air Reserve for additional aircraft and pilots. By the end of the war, about 43 percent of all aircraft deployed by the Soviets belonged to the Air Reserve pool.

By the middle of the war, the Soviets were producing excellent fighters and well-trained pilots. Far less effective was Long-Range Bomber Aviation, which suffered catastrophic losses early in the war and never recovered as fully as the fighter and Shturmovik units did. In contrast to the American and British air arms, Soviet Long-Range Bomber Aviation did not engage in strategic bombing. Its missions were exclusively tactical, directed against Axis concentrations, railheads, depots, and the like.

It is not widely known in the West but the Russians have always boasted the second or third largest naval air force in the world.

During WWII, the naval air force numbered several thousands of aircraft including all standard Soviet aircraft and several lend lease types including B-25s and A-20Gs used in the Mine-Torpedo Air Regiments and the P-39, P-40 and Hurricane which were used in fighter units. The Soviets received a couple of hundred P-47Ds, though they saw little use, the Russians actually preferring the P-39 to the "jug". However one of the few units to receive examples of the P-47 was the 255 Fighter Regiment, assigned to the Northern Fleet during the late stages of the war. Possibly the most unexpected fighter was the FW-l90D sufficient of which were captured in 1945 to be issued to a unit of the Red Banner Baltic Fleet. More traditionally naval types used a variety of obscure Russian float planes and flying boats, and several varieties of the Catalina, both the tall tail PBN received under lend-lease and an early PBY equivalent manufactured under a 1930s license. They also received 2 OS2U Kingfishers at the end of the war.

Soviet naval air units were mainly equipped with conventional land-based aircraft and, although flown by naval officers, were used principally in support of land operations, typically guarding the flanks of large ground units. Nearly one-third of naval air sorties were flown on air defense missions. About a quarter of naval air missions were close ground support, and 14 percent of sorties were reconnaissance patrols. No more than 10 percent of naval air missions attacked Axis ships or naval bases.

The Russian/Soviet Navy is divided into 4 independent fleets-the Northern fleet, based at Murmansk; the Red Banner Baltic Fleet, based at Leningrad; the Black Sea Fleet, and the Pacific Ocean Fleet, each with its own air unit. There are also independent flotillas for the Caspian Sea, Amur River and the Polar regions, though I have little indication that they had any serious air units. During the war each fleet had a Mine-Torpedo Air Division, primarily equipped with the DB-3/Il-4, a division of fighters, a division of bomber/dive bombers with the SB-2 or PE-2, one or more recon regiments and possibly some independent air regiments and air escadrilles. Each division consisted of three regiments. At the start of the war a Regiment might range from 40-64 aircraft depending on type in 4 squadrons. By 1942 the established regiment size had been reduced to 21 aircraft in 2 squadrons. By the end of the war regimental size was back to 3 squadrons and 30-40 aircraft.

Some anti-shipping strikes were flown against German and Romanian vessels in the Black and Baltic seas, and of course there was a lot of ASW activity, particularly by the Northern Fleet. But most Naval air activity was in defense of bases, support of ground forces in the coastal regions, and support of a number of tactical amphibious landings. Naval Fighter pilots were some of the Soviet's best, and Boris Safonov of the Northern Fleet was the first Soviet Ace to win the Hero of the Soviet Union twice. Safonov, currently one of Russia's more popular air heroes, was also the first Russian pilot to fly the Hurricane. He commanded the regiment which hosted two RAF squadrons that were sent to Murmansk in December 1941. This exploration of Soviet Naval air will continue in future columns.

Further reading: Green, William, and Gordon Swanborough. Soviet Air Force Fighters. New York: Arco, 1978; Polak, Tomas, and Christopher Shores. Stalin’s Falcons: The Aces of the Red Star: A Tribute to the Notable Fighter Pilots of the Soviet Air Forces 1918–1953. London: Grub Street, 1999; Hardesty, Von. Red Phoenix: The Rise of Soviet Air Power, 1941–1945. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 1991. 

VVS orders of battle
Gril’ev, A.N. "Boevoi Sostav Sovetskoi armii". Volumes I – V. Voenno-nauchnoe upravlenie general’nogo shtaba. Moscow: Voenizdat, 1963, 1966, 1972, 1988 and 1990. Gril'ev is listed in the U.S. Library of Congress On-Line Catalog as follows (note the different spelling of the last name):
Grylev, A. N. (compiler and editor). "Boevoi Sostav Sovetskoi armii". Voenno-nauchnoe upravlenie general'nogo shtaba, voenno-istoricheskii otdel. Moscow: Voenizdat, 1963 - 1990. 5v. LC Control No. 98146424. Call No. Microfilm 98/4 (D). Microfilm Reading Room (Jefferson Building, Room LJ129B). This is a massive OB work that covers the Red Army, VVS, Navy, NKVD and para-military forces from 1 Jun 41 to 1 Sep 1945. The 5-volume study was prepared for the Soviet General Staff and was originally classified SECRET. If you are British, then you may be able to find it in the British Library or in the university libraries at Oxford or Cambridge. It is the definitive work on the subject and the only one that's been done.

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