Polikarpov R-5: The impact of a seemingly outdated biplane on the Eastern Front

wofrussia07_polikarpov_r-5f

R-5s in flight. Photo Credit: Wings of Russia

In June of 1941, at the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the VVS had only recently begun its modernization campaign to produce aircraft that were on par with their Axis counterparts. Fighters such as the I-16 Rata that had been mainstays in the Spanish Civil War, Khalkin Gol, and the Winter War, were slowly being replaced by the LaGG-3 and Yak-1; aircraft which VVS pilots quickly found to be inferior to the Luftwaffe’s Bf-109. In terms of numbers of aircraft prior to Operation Barbarossa, however, the Soviet Union had a clear advantage over Germany, though most of these machines were considered to be out-of-date by the outbreak of war. Indeed, some Soviet aircraft that had seen service throughout the 1930s, such as the Polikarpov R-5 biplane, had been scattered throughout the Soviet interior at the end of the decade, ending up in various flying schools, aero clubs, and different transportation detachments. In the summer of 1941, however, the VVS found its mighty air fleet decimated by the German blitzkrieg, and seemingly out-of-date aircraft, such as the R-5, were brought to the front to serve as night bombers and liaison aircraft until Soviet industry could recover from the invasion and begin manufacturing large numbers of modern aircraft.  The Soviet military, with its knack for getting the most out of ostensibly obsolete equipment, was able to find a useful role for the antiquated R-5 biplane.

The R-5, powered by a Mikulin M-17B water cooled V-12 engine that put out 680 horsepower, was designed by Nikolai Polikarpov in 1928 and put in service by the VVS in 1931. It was used in Khalkin Gol, the Winter War, and the Soviet invasion of Poland, after which it was used primarily as a trainer until the summer of 1941, when several hundred returned to frontline duty. As Sergey Glumov, an R-5 pilot, recalled, “before the war it was a good airplane. But by 1941, it had, for technical reasons, become a completely ‘disliked’ aircraft… [only] four bombs… and about the speed, I cannot say without bringing tears to my eyes… There was no radio on the R-5. There was no lighting in the R-5 to view a map… the defenses were terrible… German tracer shells mowed down our planes.”

polikarpov-r-5

R-5. Photo Credit: Pacific Eagles

Nonetheless, the fall of 1941, due to the lack of modern aircraft, R-5s were assigned to the 615th and 687th regiments during the defense of Moscow, where the biplanes carried out an estimated 10% of all night bombing sorties. Similar to the more well-known Polikarpov Po-2, the R-5 engaged in primarily night bombing and reconnaissance missions. In January of 1942, night bomber regiments equipped with R-5s were tasked with providing support for the 2nd Shock Army near Lake Ladoga in an attempt to break the siege of Leningrad.  Primarily engaged in operations to disrupt rail transport and conduct reconnaissance, the number of regiments flying R-5s on the Volkhov Front continued to increase, and the antiquated biplanes found a new role: delivering rations and ammunition and evacuating the wounded from the front. In March and April, when elements of the 13th Calvary Corp of the 2nd Shock Army were surrounded by Wehrmacht forces, the 658th air regiment delivered more than one thousand tons of food, ammunition, and other supplies, and evacuated 676 wounded soldiers and officers.

 

post-39531-0-03385000-1463483895

Photo Credit: Combat Ace

Soviet R-5s continued to play the above-mentioned roles not only near Leningrad, but also in the Southwestern Front, the Bryansk Front, and the Southern Front. It was only in mid-1943, when the Soviet aviation industry had recovered from the wholesale evacuation eastward in 1941-1942, that the biplanes began to be phased out. La-5s, Yak-9s, Il-2s, and Pe-2s began arriving at the front in large numbers, and R-5s were once again relegated primarily to training roles. Nevertheless, the Polikarpov biplanes continued to be used in specialized roles along the Eastern Front, and were often used for delivering supplies to Soviet partisans behind enemy lines. R-5s continued in such specialized roles through the end of the war, and some were even as far west as Berlin in May of 1945.

The scant amount of historical coverage in the West given to the air war on the Eastern Front focuses primarily on lend-lease aircraft such as the P-39, P-40, and Spitfires, and on the capable Soviet-built Lavochkins, Yakovlevs, and Ilyushins that came out later in the war, all of which undoubtedly played a crucial role in the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany. However, before such aircraft were available in large numbers, seemingly obsolete biplanes, such as the Polikarpov R-5, were thrown into battle after having been relegated to training roles several years before the outbreak of World War Two. The R-5 is indicative of a larger trend throughout all facets of the Soviet military, in which equipment that was ostensibly outdated and outmatched by the German military machine enabled the Soviet Union to proverbially bend but not break in the early stages of the war, until modern machinery could be given to Soviet soldiers, airmen, and sailors. This, in turn, enabled the Red Army to push back the Wehrmacht all the way to Berlin. However, the equipment that brought the Soviet Union into the crucial year of 1943, such as the R-5, played a large role in the victory over Germany, and deserves to be remembered as such.

-Patrick Kinville

The Circle of Death: The evolution of Soviet Il-2 Sturmovik tactics

il2_sturmovik

An Ilyushin Il-2 in flight. Public domain.

The Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik rightfully has its place as one of the most decisive weapons in the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany on the Eastern Front during World War Two. In nearly all major Soviet offensives, the “flying tanks” provided crucial close air support to the Red Army infantry on the ground. Like much of the Soviet military, however, the effective tactics that the German Wehrmacht would eventually grow to fear evolved through a series of trials and often times disastrous errors, and it was not until the Battle of Kursk in 1943, when Il-2 squadrons adopted the closed loop tactic, that the Sturmoviks became a decisive force on the battlefield. Indeed, the Sturmovik formations providing close air support at the Battle of Kursk were as instrumental in the Soviet victory as any other part of the Red Army.

In the early months of the war, Sturmovik tactics involved approaching a target in groups of 3-5 aircraft, attacking one at a time from an altitude of 20 meters up to 200 meters. Each Il-2 would expend all of its ammunition and ordinance over the target in a single pass. Such tactics meant each Sturmovik received little to no cover from the other aircraft in their formation. What is more, Ilyushin had yet to manufacture two-seat Il-2s with a rear gunner at this time, making the Sturmoviks easy prey for Luftwaffe pilots in 1941. Indeed, in the early stages of the war, on average, one Il-2 was lost for every nine combat sorties.

exp041_3

Il-2s in formation. Photo from Aviapress

Soviet pilots and researchers at the Nauchno-Ispytatelniy Poligon Aviatsionnogo Vooruzheniya (Aviation Armament Scientific Testing Firing Range) quickly determined that Ilyushins had to attack from higher altitude in order to increase battle efficiency. It was also found that three runs over the target were required for each Sturmovik to inflict significant and accurate damage on the ground target. In the first pass, the Il-2 might fire its four rockets, in the second, the Sturmovik could drop its bombs, and the third pass could involve strafing with its combination of machine guns and cannons. Whatever the order, it was determined that the most effective Il-2 attack involved using each type of armament in separate passes.  This naturally required significantly more time over the target than the initial tactic of hit and run. In order to provide sufficient cover for each formation, it was determined that circling above the target would allow each Sturmovik to cover the aircraft in front of it while simultaneously allowing time for the optimum three passes over the target.

The closed loop, which was also known as the “circle of death”, involved up to eight Il-2s forming a defensive circle, each aircraft protecting the one ahead of it with its forward machine guns. The aircraft were spaced 150-200 meters apart, at an altitude of at least 300 meters, banking at 15-40 degrees. Each individual Il-2 took turns leaving the circle, attacking the target, and rejoining the circle. Such formations would remain over a ground target for up to 20 minutes, until all ammunition and ordinance was expended, after which time the Il-2s would regroup and return to base. The circle was also used for collective defense against German fighters when attacked before the formation reached the target, as the large field of cover ensured that no individual Sturmovik was vulnerable to attack.

Sturmovik pilot Mikhail Shatilo recalled maintaining the closed loop for up to 20 minutes over a target, saying “sometimes there would be a lot of German pairs flying nearby, but what would they do? If they came too close, we would be covered. The Germans knew not to come too close to the Ilya [Il-2].”

il-2_cabin

Il-2M with rear gunner. Wikipedia

Another pilot, Pavel Zatsepin, testified to the effectiveness of the closed loop, recalling an episode in which his squadron was on a mission west of Vilnius in 1944: “over the radio while approaching the target I heard that eight Focke-Wulfs and four Messerschmitts were in the air… we began to close the circle to handle the enemy. [I] noticed that two Me [Bf-109s] rushed to attack from the bottom. I sharply turned to fire all my cannons and machine guns to attack the enemy. The second Messer suddenly jumped into the middle of the vicious circle… the group opened fire on him and shot him down. The remaining enemy fighters did not come to fight.”

The value of the tactic was not lost on Soviet fighters who provided escort for Ilyushins. One La-5 pilot at the Battle of Kursk, Ivan Konstantinovich Moroz, recalled that “Sturmoviks were not difficult to protect from [enemy] fighters, because their tactical interaction had been worked out. As soon as the [enemy] fighters began to attack, the team formed up in a circle. They flew in a circle, covering each other… and we [the Soviet fighters] would cover them from below or above.”

Nevertheless, like all air tactics, the closed loop did, at times, leave Sturomoviks susceptible to anti-aircraft fire and attacks from German fighters, particularly at the moment when the circle disbanded and the formation began returning to its airbase. Luftwaffe pilots learned to wait until this moment to attack the last, and therefore most vulnerable, aircraft. As Il-2 pilot Yuriy Afanasev recalled, “the most difficult moment is getting out of the circle, because here someone is last [and will not be covered].”

Sturmovik pilots developed other tactics throughout the course of the war, but none would be as decisive as the closed loop. Indeed, the development of such a tactic is indicative of the evolution of the VVS, and the entire Red Army for that matter, from 1941-1945. Initially using obsolete and rudimentary hit and run tactics, Il-2s at first were easy prey for the skilled pilots of the Luftwaffe. Over time, Il-2s developed the closed loop tactic, turning a formation of Il-2s into an efficient and effective force. This enabled the Sturmoviks to act in concert with Soviet long-range bombers, VVS fighters, and ground troops, all of whom had developed tactics of their own. Following the disastrous early stages of the war, the Soviet military learned the value and strategic importance of acting in unison on the ground and in the air. Such concerted actions proved to be a major turning point on the Eastern Front, enabling the Red Army to defeat the Germans at Kursk and every other major battle thereafter.

-Patrick Kinville

dsc_0415_zpsa6a98dc5

Il-2 on display at Central Air Force Museum Monino, Moscow. Photo taken by author.

Lend-Lease Soviet P-47

p47

 

While it is commonly known among war bird enthusiasts that the Soviet Union received large numbers of P-39 Airacobras and P-40 Warhawks, planes that many American pilots deemed to be inferior to the P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs that were flown over the Western Front,  the VVS also received approximately 200 Republic P-47 Thunderbolts- heavy duty fighters armed with eight 50 caliber machine guns that were capable of flying more than 440 miles per hour at 29,000 feet. With a Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engine complete with a supercharger, the Thunderbolt was an extremely effective escort fighter and very capable of taking on any German aircraft both at high-altitude and low-altitude. Indeed, the USAAF’s top two aces in Europe, Francis “Gabby”Gabreski and Robert Johnson, flew P-47s.

In which role did the VVS use the P-47? Why weren’t more delivered? Unfortunately, very little is known about the Thunderbolts that arrived in the Soviet Union. Most of them were delivered to the 255th IAP of the Northern Fleet, where they were put into the high-altitude air defense role. While the Thunderbolt pilots of the US 8th Air Force did not have to look too hard to find a high-altitude dogfight, the aerial action over the entire Eastern Front was fought at a significantly lower altitude.

Whereas British and American bombers engaged in high-altitude bombing runs against German cities and industrial targets, requiring fighter escorts equipped with superchargers (P-47, P-51, P-38), the VVS focused more on low-level close air support, integrating the movements of their ground attack aircraft (IL-2 Sturmoviks) with ground forces. Consequently, while escorting the IL-2 “flying tanks”, Soviet escorts rarely found themselves in situations in which they would have to engage the enemy at high altitudes.

The Luftwaffe similarly used the Ju-87 and Ju-88 in close air support roles on the Eastern Front, meaning the VVS had little use for high-altitude interceptors.

What little information available about Soviet P-47s suggests that VVS pilots were unimpressed with the Thunderbolt’s maneuverability at low-altitudes. The P-39 became so tremendously popular among Soviet pilots due to its ability to maneuver in horizontal, and especially vertical, positions. The P-47 was a fast, powerful, and heavily armed aircraft, but it could not maneuver nearly as well as a P-39.

In addition to the high-altitude air defense role, it has also been suggested that the Soviets used P-47s as reconnaissance aircraft, due to their range that was far superior to other aircraft available to the VVS.

While undoubtedly one of the finest American aircraft of World War Two, the P-47 simply did not fit into the conditions of the Eastern Front.