With the Germans’ rapid advance eastward in the summer of 1941, the Soviet leadership undertook the monumental task of evacuating industrial enterprises away from the combat zone to locations further into the depths of the Soviet interior. From factories, collective farms, cultural institutions, people, and everything in between, the evacuation of Soviet life away from the major metropolises under threat from the Wehrmacht, such as Kiev, Moscow, and Leningrad, is a feat that is unparalleled in world history. All in all, a total of 1,523 plants, including hundreds of aircraft and engine facilities, were relocated to the other side of the Urals. With the factories went an estimated 10 million workers. This undertaking enabled the Soviet aviation industry to avoid annihilation by the German military, and thus resulting in the creation of some of the greatest aviation plants in the world. The importance of evacuating the aviation industry eastwards cannot be understated. Indeed, despite the destruction caused by the German invasion and the subsequent evacuation of approximately 100 aircraft manufacturing plants, aircraft production rose from 10,500 in 1940 to 15,000 in 1941 and more than 25,000 in 1942. As much as anything, the herculean task of disassembling, transporting, and reassembling the Soviet Union’s aviation industry cannot be discounted as one of the main contributing factors of the Red Army’s victory over Germany in the Second World War.
Already on the morning of June 22, 1941, in the midst of Germany’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union, the leadership agreed that it was imperative to move Soviet industry, specifically defense enterprises, to the eastern regions of the country. By the end of the day, the People’s Commissariat of the Aviation Industry (NKAP) developed a program to move not only aviation factories, but also raw materials, enterprises that produced aircraft components, and aviation research facilities away from the western part of the country. In total, approximately 100 aviation facilities were marked for evacuation. In the chaos of Operation Barbarossa, the newly formed State Defense Committee (GKO), which effectively held complete control over the country, sought to organize, as much as was possible, an orderly evacuation of the Soviet Union’s endangered industrial enterprises. It was determined that the best course of action would be to undergo a two-step evacuation whenever possible by first transporting smaller auxiliary companies, and only afterwards begin evacuating the main aircraft production facilities.
Many factories, however, were in immediate danger of falling into German hands. In such cases, facilities were disassembled and transported in a less controlled and orderly manner. For example, Factory no. 23 in Leningrad, which produced LaGG-3 fighters, was determined to be particularly vulnerable in the early months of the war. Priority was also given to this factory because the LaGG-3, for all its defects, was perhaps the best aircraft the VVS had at its disposal at the time. Having been founded in 1912 as the Russko Baltiiskii Vagonzavod, Factory no. 23 was one of the Soviet Union’s oldest aviation manufacturing facilities and employed more than 7,000 workers. The evacuation of Factory no. 23 started on July 9, 1941, less than 3 weeks after the German invasion. Like many of the facilities that would move away from the advancing Axis armies, Factory no. 23 was absorbed into an existing plant in the Soviet east. The LaGG-3 production facility in Leningrad merged with Factory no. 153 in Novosibirsk, which had produced mining equipment until 1938 when it was converted to manufacture aircraft. Having started by producing I-14s and I-16s in the late 1930s, Factory no. 153, after the arrival of equipment from Factory no. 23, began producing LaGG-3s in the summer of 1941. Factory no. 301 from Khimki (Moscow) would also be evacuated to Novosibirsk later that year, and Factory no. 153 would focus its efforts on producing Yak-7s shortly thereafter.
Many plants, however, were not integrated into existing factories, and facilities had to be built from scratch. Often times, the machinery would arrive at a site before the physical structure was complete, and the workers would assemble production lines and begin manufacturing components out in the open before the plant was actually built. Indeed, it was not uncommon for workers to roll out their first plane from a roofless factory only two weeks after their arrival.
While certain plants were evacuated with urgency, others that were not in immediate danger were able to be disassembled and transported according to a more thought-out plan. On August 16, the GKO adopted a mobilization plan for the evacuation of Soviet industry in the 4th quarter of 1941. By this time, the majority of auxiliary factors had already been transported, and several main production facilities that were in immediate danger, including Factory nos. 23, 47, and 387 from Leningrad, no. 81 from Moscow, and no. 165 from Dnepropetrovsk, had already been evacuated. Starting in September, larger aviation facilities were to be disassembled and transported eastward as part of the second step of the evacuation process. Factories in Kharkov, Moscow, Taganrog, and elsewhere in the Ukrainian SSR and the central part of the RSFSR were transported to the other side of the Urals. The NKAP itself was sent from Moscow to Saratov on October 14.
While hundreds and sometimes thousands of pieces of aviation production equipment were loaded onto eastbound trains as part of each factory’s evacuation, a no less important resource that had to be transported away from the war zone was the workers themselves. For example, evacuation of Factory no. 23 (mentioned above) included 3,576 essential employees. Furthermore, the evacuation of Factory no. 26 (which produced M-17, M-100, M-103 and M-105 aircraft engines) from Rybinsk to Ufa entailed transporting approximately 14,000 workers, which even then was considered a skeleton crew as the factory had employed 24,500 workers prior to the outbreak of war.
It is not only the evacuation itself that is amazing, but how quickly and effectively the equipment and workers were reassembled after arrival. Indeed, the relocated factories were able to produce aircraft at an unparalleled rate at their new locations. Factory no. 18, for example, which was evacuated from Voronezh to Kuibyshev, and went on to produce 75% of all Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmoviks, some 30,000 total. It is difficult to fathom how the Red Army could have defeated the Wehrmacht if not for the close air support provided by these heavy-duty ground attack aircraft. Production of other aircraft that were key to victory over Germany was also made possible by the massive relocation efforts, including Petlyakov, Yakovlev, Tupolev, Lavochkin, and Mikoyan-Gurevich aircraft.
Aviation, of course, was not the only Soviet industry to be evacuated during the Great Patriotic War. Though many people and enterprises were evacuated in 1941-1942, the Soviet defense industry as a whole was given understandable priority, and this, as much as anything, contributed the ultimate victory over Germany. Indeed, the disassembly, transport, and reassembly of the Soviet defense industry is undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements of any country in the Second World War.