Much like in the Red Army and Red Navy, military deception, or Maskirovka, was a commonly used tactic in the VVS through the Great Patriotic War. All along the fluid Eastern Front, the Soviet Stavka sought to deceive the German war machine by setting up decoys and dummies, from fake tanks and vehicles to entire airfields. While the practice of Maskirovka entailed a broad range of military deception, the VVS was especially adept at providing intricate camouflage to cover their aircraft as well as constructing and maintaining dummy airfields, especially towards the end of the war.
According to the Red Army’s Theory on Deep Battle (Teoriya glubokoi operatsii), instructions for which were issued in 1935, particular emphasis was to be placed on achieving surprise, making forces mobile and maneuverable, concealing concentration of forces and equipment, misleading the enemy, and using natural concealment practices. The VVS at first focused mostly, though not exclusively, on these tenets by constructing intricate camouflage schemes for their aircraft and airfields. While in some cases this was as simple as painting aircraft white during the winter, such as the white MiG-3s of the 12 GIAP that were engaged in the defense of Moscow during the winter of 1941-1942, other instances involved much more intricate schemes.
Significant effort was put forward by the Airfield Service Battalions (BAO) to conceal the aircraft in order to make them blend in with their surroundings whenever they were not in the air. At airfields that were located in the vicinity of forests, for example, aircraft were parked among the trees, and taxi ways to the main airstrip were concealed. If there were no trees under which to park, small coniferous trees were planted around the aircraft parking area. Experience showed that in order to adequately conceal 15-20 aircraft, approximately 15,000 young fir trees were needed per month. This undoubtedly created more logistical problems, and fake trees made of wood and cloth were frequently used in lieu of actual trees.
The Soviet’s preoccupation with protecting aircraft on the ground was certainly justified, as the majority of the VVS’ aircraft were destroyed during Operation Barbarossa. On the first day of the invasion, June 22, 1941, 56 Soviet airfields were attacked by the Luftwaffe. Similar to the US Navy’s Hickam Airbase in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, VVS fighters, bombers, and reconnaissance aircraft were parked neatly in close rows on the airfields, providing easy targets for the 500 German bombers, 270 dive bombers, and 480 fighters that were involved in the initial German invasion. By the end of the first day, 1,489 Soviet aircraft had been destroyed on the ground.
Just two weeks following the German invasion, VVS command issued special directives calling for BAO to place special emphasis on three specific areas to minimize damage in the event of an enemy airstrike: aircraft dispersal, camouflage/concealment, and deception. These three tenets would be the focus of Soviet aircrews throughout the war, and would evolve considerably from 1942 onwards.
Many historians consider the Soviet victory at Stalingrad to be the main turning point of the war, when the Red Army went from the defensive to the offensive. While the VVS undoubtedly played a role in the victory, their turning point did not come until several months later, over the skies of the Kuban, when they were finally able to achieve convincing air superiority against the Luftwaffe. Nevertheless, the German retreat west did provide new opportunities for the Airfield Service Battalions and their Maskirovka plans.
The Germans certainly did what they could to destroy their own airfields during their organized retreats, but Soviet engineers, with the help of the local population, were usually able to rehabilitate the airfields within two to three days. While captured enemy airfields were widely employed for use as basing sites for the VVS (some estimates suggest captured airfields satisfied as much as 30% of the requirements for aviation bases through the war), the BAO also rehabilitated these airfields for use as decoys. In doing so, Airfield Service Battalions would maintain a significant quantity of personnel, material supplies, technical support material, and dummy aircraft to divert attention away from legitimate VVS basing stations. Lighting was even strung up and operated at night so as not to make the Germans become suspicious.
In April of 1944, a directive from the Chief of Staff of the Red Army VVS required that aerial reconnaissance missions be conducted over these dummy airfields every two days to inspect the effectiveness of the Maskirovka measures. Russian historian and Red Army tank veterans Dmitry Loza has suggested that of the 2,246 observed cases of enemy aircraft missions against aircraft basing sites of all types between May 1, 1942 and May 1, 1945, an astounding 66% were conducted against dummy airfields.
Soviet Maskirovka was not limited to the VVS. Its practices contributed to many of the great Red Army victories through the war, including the battles of Stalingrad, Kursk, and Operation Bagration. In all of these cases, the element of surprise, which was achieved through Maskirovka, proved to be instrumental to victory.
These practices have continued since 1945, with denial and deception operations taking place in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Prague Spring, and the annexation of the Crimea.