The forgotten Il-2 rear gunners


Il-2s attacka German column at the Battle of Kursk. Image Source: RIA Novosti archive, Image #225/ F. Levshin/ CC-BY-SA 3.0 

The aircraft that arguably had the greatest impact on the war on the Eastern Front, the Ilyushin Il-2, is also one of the most well-known Soviet aircraft in the West. Nevertheless, common misconceptions of the role of the Sturmoviks, like so many aspects of war against Germany in the East, lead to denigration, which in turn contributes to a gross misunderstanding of not only this particular aircraft, but of the whole of the war on the Eastern Front. Soviet ground attack aircraft were an integral part of the Stavka’s plan to defeat the Wehrmacht. Indeed, from the Stalingrad to Kursk and all the way to Berlin, it is difficult to imagine how the Red Army could have been victorious if not for the effective close air support provided by Il-2s. One often overlooked yet crucial aspect of the combat effectiveness of Sturmovik units was the presence of a rear gunner armed with a 12.7mm UBT machine gun in each aircraft. Initially produced in a single-seat model, the development of Ilyushins equipped with a rear gun enabled Sturmovik units to fly in formation with greatly decreased vulnerability, as rear gunners would provide cover not only for their own aircraft, but for all Sturmoviks in the formation. While their job was undoubtedly one of the most dangerous in the VVS, Il-2 rear gunners played a pivotal role in the ground attack missions which, as much as anything, were instrumental in the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany.

The Ilyushin Il-2 was one of the war’s most definitive weapons, though through a series of trials and errors on the part of Soviet engineers, the flying tank would not have its profound impacts until 1943. In early 1938, Sergey Ilyushin and his team developed the TsKB-55 (BSh-2) prototype in response to the Kremlin’s call to develop a heavy ground attack aircraft. The two-seat heavily armored plane powered by a single Mikulin AM-35 inline engine was found to be underpowered, but after removing the rear-gunner and installing a more powerful AM-38 engine, Soviet test pilots reported drastic improvements in maneuverability, speed, and handling. This single-seat model was cleared for service in early 1941, and the first production model was flown in March of that year.


Single-seat Il-2. Photo Source: War Spot

Following the German invasion on June 22nd, 1941, the new Il-2s without rear gunners
found themselves defenseless against the battle-tested Luftwaffe fighters. During the first offensive mission mounted by an Il-2 unit on July 1 along the Berezina river near the city of Bobruysk, the German Bf-109s were quickly able to identify the attack the Soviet aircrafts’ blind spots, and the Sturmoviks consequently suffered heavy losses at the hands of the enemy fighters. The vulnerability of the single-seat Il-2s led many VVS units to field modify their aircraft in the early months of the war by cutting a hole in the fuselage behind the cockpit to mount a 12.7mm UBT machine gun. The rear-gunner sat atop a canvas strap in these crude early two-seaters. The mount allowed gunners to fire at angles of up to 35 degrees upwards and 15 degrees on each side. While the makeshift solution did provide much needed cover, Sturmovik pilots found their aircraft more difficult to handle as the center of gravity had shifted backwards due to the increased weight. Moreover, the two-man crew led to the Il-2’s already slow top speed being reduced by a further 10-20 km/h. Nevertheless, airmen convinced the Ilyushin design bureau to produce a two-seat Sturmovik, which started rolling off production lines in 1942. With gunner mobility increased to 38 degrees and upwards and 22 degrees on each side, the serial production two-person Il-2s had a much improved firing angle for rear gunners than the makeshift two-seaters.

To improve the performance of the improved Sturmoviks, Soviet engineers developed the more powerful AM-38F engine. In the fall of 1942, two-seat Il-2s powered by the upgraded engine made their service trials, with the rear gunners shooting down seven German aircraft and repelling many attacks during this time. By January of 1943, the definitive Sturmovik that would have such a pivotal impact on the war, the Il-2M3, began to arrive in large numbers at the front. However, it did take time for the two-seat Ilyushins to completely replace the single-seat versions. One Il-2 rear-gunner, Fedor Lavrentovich Gavrilov, recalled when he first arrived that the front in 1944 that one single-seat Sturmovik remained in his regiment, and the rest were equipped with a 12.7 mm UBT in the rear. The pilot of the lone early model Ilyushin, Yakov Petrovich Tsukarev, was the natural target for German fighters on any bombing run, and he was eventually shot down because of it. “When we bombed the Germans who went out of the city [in Romania] the German fighters saw the [Ilyushin] with no rear gunner and began to converge on his tail. As a result, he was shot, but he pulled the Ilyushin to our territory,” Gavrilov recounted.

Gavrilov went on to describe the tactics that Il-2M3 crews were able to adopt to provide cover to the other aircraft while flying in formation. “Our task [as rear-gunners] during the flight was primarily to repel the attacks of enemy fighters… if we went with one machine… it would be difficult to fend off the enemy. But we flew with a whole squadron of 12 aircraft and 12 12.7 mm UBT machine guns [providing rear cover]. German planes were terribly afraid to get under the concentrated fire of our turrets, and if suddenly a fighter flew into it, it would be shot down,” he recalled.

From tactics such as the closed loop, loose circle, and scissors maneuvers, Il-2 airmen sought to ensure the presence of a coordinated defensive formation during their sorties. Nevertheless, the skilled German pilots developed tactics of their own to counter the Sturmovik formations, and were able to locate the Achilles heel of the heavily armored flying tank: the oil cooler. Erich Hartmann, the Luftwaffe’s top scoring ace with 352 victories, recalled targeting the oil cooler on Il-2s because if he shot the armored sections of the cockpits, his bullets would simply bounce off. As a result, Hartmann would attempt to approach Sturmoviks from below and behind, targeting their underbelly and the vulnerable oil cooler. If such a maneuver were not possible given the circumstances of the battle, Hartmann attempted to shoot the where the wing met the fuselage with his Bf-109’s 20mm cannon. Fifteen of the German ace’s 352 victories were Sturmoviks.

While the Il-2 had its vulnerabilities, the rear-gunner’s position was much more perilous than the pilot’s. While his crewmate was protected by 12mm of armor on both sides and behind the seat, not to mention 65mm protective glass sections, the gunner was provided with 6mm of armor, which was only effective against small arms fire. The death rate among rear-gunners was understandably exceptionally high, and injuries were even more frequent. Resting their feet on partitions separating the fuselage from the cockpit, gunners’ legs were protected only by the aircraft’s outer plywood. As one rear gunner recalled, “there was a feeling that every time you’d go out you were going to your execution. [With only] a tunic and a gun, and if they [German fighters] should double up, or God forbid four come in?”

Despite the rear-gunners’ vulnerability, like so many aspects of war, an individual’s combat instincts, which could only be developed after experiencing battle, served as the best defense for Il-2 gunners. As one rear gunner, Vladimir Moiseyevich Mester, recalled, “Gunners, like most pilots, were killed during their first flight. When the gunner had made dozens of flights, there was hope that he would live, though it would not always depend on him.” With this experience came an understanding of how combat sorties unfolded, and in turn how to improve the equipment the rear-gunners were given. Il-2 crews quickly learned how to modify their rear compartments to expand the capabilities of the UBTs. Gunners recalled that the glass canopies covering the compartments restricted the firing arch of the 12.7 mm machine guns, and many regiments consequently decided to remove the glass, despite the fact that it led a further decrease in airspeed. Nevertheless, aircrews often determined that it was worth it to trade 5-7 km/h of airspeed for a larger field of vision for the gunner and a larger arch of fire.

Throughout the Great Patriotic War, Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmoviks played a pivotal role in the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany, especially in 1943-1945. Providing close air support to Red Army ground troops, the flying tanks fought at low altitudes on the front of nearly every major battle in Eastern Europe. As VVS pilots quickly learned, Ilyushins were not able to carry out the ever important ground attack missions effectively without a rear gunner to provide cover against the talented and battle-hardened Luftwaffe pilots. These often forgotten rear gunners undertook perilous missions behind scant amounts of armor on the front lines of the deadliest war in human history, and played a pivotal role in the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany on the Eastern Front.

-Patrick Kinville


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

The evacuation of the Soviet aviation industry in 1941


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.


Ilyushin Il-2

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.

-Patrick Kinville


The Development of the Lavochkin La-5/5F/5FN

In the fall of 1942, the German Luftwaffe encountered to the Soviet Lavochkin La-5 for the first time in the skies over the Eastern Front. At first unaware of the ability and potential of the new fighter, German pilots dubbed the aircraft the Neue Rata, comparing it to the Polykarpov I-16s that had been heavily involved in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and were by this time obsolete. Luftwaffe airmen, however, quickly learned that the radial-engined fighter was not only better than the I-16, but was an improvement over the VVS’ “modern” fleet of Yak-1s and LaGG-3s as well. Over the next several months, the Lavochkin Design Bureau and Shvetsov’s OKB-19 engine manufacturer would continue to make improvements to the aircraft, culminating in the La-5FN variant, which in many ways was superior to the Luftwaffe’s own Bf-109 and Fw-190 fighters. The upgraded version of the La-5 would arrive at the front in time for the Battle of Kursk, where the new fighters played a crucial role in the Soviet Union’s pivotal victory over the German military during the latter’s last major offensive on the Eastern Front.


An LaGG-3. Photo source: WW2 Planes

One of the VVS’ primary fighters at the time of the German invasion in June of 1941 was the LaGG-3. Designed by Semyon A. Lavochkin, Vladimir P. Gorbunov and Mikhail I. Gudkov in 1940, the LaGG-3 suffered from an acute lack of power with its Klimov M-105PF inline engine that produced 1,260 horsepower. Soviet pilots generally disliked the fighter. “Pilots didn’t like flying the LaGG-3 – a heavy beast with a weak … engine… They got used to it … but we had higher losses in LaGG-3s than in I-16s,” one Soviet airman, Viktor M. Sinaisky, recalled. The aircraft’s handling was also a source of concern for Soviet pilots, since the fighter had the tendency to enter a spin during steep banking turns. Nevertheless, in the early stages of the Great Patriotic War, the LaGG-3 was an improvement over the VVS’ outdated Polikarpov I-153 and I-15 biplanes, and Soviet airmen learned to accentuate the aircraft’s attributes. Indeed, in the hands of a skilled pilot, the LaGG-3 was an effective machine. For example, the top scoring LaGG-3 ace, Andrey Kulagin, shot down 22 German aircraft and 4 more in a group while flying the underpowered fighter.

Nevertheless, the aircraft’s operational performance, in general, left much to be desired, prompting Semyon Lavochkin to search for ways to increase the LaGG-3’s power. Indeed, the aircraft’s poor service record in the summer of 1941 caused Lavochkin to fall out of favor with the Soviet leadership, and in the fall, factories that had previously been assigned to LaGG-3 production were turned over to building Yakovlev Yak-1s and Yak-7s. In December, Deputy Commissar of Aviation Industry Pyotr Dementyev told Semyon Lavochkin, “the storm is coming down on you. Your days are numbered. Now you must take extraordinary steps to completely change the attitude of the military and the government toward the LaGG-3.”

Lavochkin initially sought to increase the fighter’s power by replacing the M-105PF engine with Klimov’s new M-107. Despite the fact that the new inline engine had significant teething problems of its own (unreliable and prone to overheating), Lavochkin successfully installed an M-107 on an LaGG-3. However, the experiment was decidedly unsuccessful, since all 33 test flights resulted in emergency landings. Meanwhile, an engineer at Lavochkin’s OKB, Semyon Alekseyev, suggested mating Arkadiy Shvetsov’s new M-82 air-cooled radial engine to the LaGG-3’s airframe. Lavochkin himself was convinced that his fighter’s redemption lay in the M-107, but he reluctantly agreed to let Alekseyev and “not more than two or three” other employees work on an M-82-powered LaGG-3.  Tracing its origins to a license-built version of the Wright R-1820 Cyclone radial engine (the M-25), the 14-cylinder M-82 could produce 1,700 horsepower, a significant improvement over the Klimov M-105. Alekseyev believed it would much easier to simply install the M-82 engine on the LaGG-3’s airframe than to design a new aircraft from scratch, and he and his team set about installing the large radial engine on the LaGG-3’s sleek airframe.

Needless to say, this was not a simple task. For one thing, the Shvetsov engine was a full 18 inches (46 centimeters) wider than the Klimov. Moreover, the M-82 was 550 pounds (250 kg) heavier than the M-105, meaning that the new engine would significantly shift the aircraft’s center of gravity forward. Nevertheless, Alekseyev’s team was able to make the necessary adjustments to the LaGG-3’s airframe to allow for the large radial engine to be installed on the narrow fuselage. In order to attach the M-82 to the airframe, Alekseyev’s team bonded plywood skirting to the outer forward fuselage, which helped ease the cumbersome radial engine’s transition onto the LaGG’s airframe. Two variable cooling flaps were installed on both sides of the fuselage, which allowed the 20 mm ShVAK cannons to be mounted above the M-82 (however, this later led to significant problems with the aircraft overheating, since the top cylinders frequently did not benefit from the cooling flaps). Work on the prototype was completed in February 1942 at Plant No. 21 in Gorky, and its inaugural flight of the new aircraft, designated the LaGG-3 M-82, was made the following month.


Gu-82. Photo source:

Interestingly, the installation of an M-82 to an LaGG-3 had already been attempted by Mikhail Gudkov, one of the LaGG-3’s original designers, in the summer of 1941. Gudkov took the nose section of a Sukhoi Su-2 light bomber, which also housed an M-82, and attached it to the airframe of an LaGG-3. The resulting aircraft, which was known as the Gu-82, made its first flight in September, and reached a top speed of 360 mph (580 km/h). Though the aircraft did have a number of issues, specifically regarding its stability, initial flight tests showed promise, and it was certainly an improvement over the LaGG-3. In October 1941, Gudkov wrote to Soviet leader Josef Stalin, “Currently, I am carrying out complex developments that give me reason to believe that I will be able to increase the speed of my machine to 600 km/h, without taking into account the elimination of defects in the mass production [of LaGG-3s]… after staying at the front, I distinctly imagine that we need to have an airplane with an air-cooled engine since the use of fighters with liquid-cooled engines in air battles and especially in ground attack against the enemy brings a great percentage of losses in pilots and material, because of the great vulnerability of the water system of the engine… proceeding from these considerations, I ask you, in order to gain time, without waiting for the end of flight testing, to allow me to introduce my aircraft with the M-82 at one of the production plants that produce the LaGG aircraft.” However, Gudkov did not immediately receive a response, and by the time he did, the LaGG-3 M-82 project was already underway, and the Gu-82 was not further pursued. While it is unclear why, exactly, the LaGG-3 M-82 project was chosen instead of the Gu-82, especially since the latter was several months ahead of the former, historians believe that it was due to Lavochkin’s close relationship with members of the Soviet leadership.

In any event, Lavochkin’s new LaGG-3 M-82 performed well during its initial test flights, with test pilot G.A. Mishchenko giving the aircraft all-around positive feedback. However, Mishchenko did mention that the engine tended to overheat, which prompted the OKB to redesign the oil cooler system and to reposition the supercharger air intake system. Though the measures helped, problems with the M-82 overheating would persist throughout the La-5’s and La-7’s production. State trials of the LaGG-3 M-82 continued through April, with the prototype reaching a top speed of 383 mph (600 km/h) at an altitude of 21,160 feet (6,450 meters), faster than any other production aircraft in the Soviet Union at the time. Pleased with the results of the state trials, the VVS NII KA recommended that the fighter be put into serial production, a proposal that was approved on May 19, 1942. Switching over production from the LaGG-3 to the new radial-engined version, now known as the LaG-5, was a slow process, but most of the conversions had been completed by late summer, and in August, 145 LaG-5s were built. The following month, the aircraft lost the G in its designation, and became known simply as the Lavochkin La-5.


Lagg-3 M-82. Photo source:

The new fighter had a top speed of 382 mph (582 km/h), an improvement over the LaGG-3, but the La-5 still retained a number of glaring deficiencies. For example, overheating of the M-82 led to the aircraft’s cockpit becoming unbearably hot, which prompted pilots to fly with the canopy open. Moreover, the tail wheel’s retraction mechanism was unreliable, and airmen frequently flew with the wheel in the down position. A combination of these and other factors would often reduce the fighter’s top speed by 25 mph (40 km/h). By the end of 1942, more than 1,000 of the upgraded fighters had been produced, and though the baseline La-5 was a significant improvement over other fighters available to the VVS at the time, it was still slower than the Bf-109 and Fw-190, and had inferior maneuverability. Consequently, the Soviet leadership ordered Shvetsov to begin producing a boosted version of the La-5’s radial engine, and ordered Lavochkin to continue work on improving the fighter.

Shvetsov’s new boosted engine, known as the M-82F, increased the supercharger’s output to 1,760 horsepower below 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). Though the increase in horsepower was not significant, the engine could run at such power with no limitations, whereas the unboosted M-82 could operate at full power for only several minutes. While Shvetsov was finalizing the upgraded radial engine, Lavochkin continued improving the La-5’s airframe, and the decision was made to lower the fuselage decking behind the cockpit and lengthen the canopy to increase the pilot’s field of vision. Similarly, the aircraft’s cowling joints were sealed and its oil cooler ducts were reshaped. The upgraded La-5, known as the La-5F, went into production in November of 1942, and was sent to frontline units in early 1943.


An La-5F in flight.

However, many of the issues that plagued the baseline La-5 persisted in the F variant. The overheating problem of the M-82 continued in the M-82F, and pilots continued to complain that the cockpit would become too warm. According to famous Soviet writer Anatoly Markushi, “the pilots were tortured by the African heat in the cabin, and the soles of the sergeants’ boots were caked and cracked after ten flights.” As was the case with the baseline La-5, pilots would frequently fly with the canopy open, which increased drag and decreased speed. Nevertheless, when the La-5F entered service in early 1943, it was a vast improvement over most other Soviet fighters at the time, and Soviet pilots were willing to tolerate a degree of discomfort if it meant flying a faster and more maneuverable aircraft. Indeed, with a top speed of 364 mph (586 km/h) at an altitude of 12,00 feet (3,658 meters), the La-5F was faster than the Luftwaffe’s new Fw-190A-4 at this altitude.

As the F variant was reaching frontline units, Shvetsov was testing the new variant of his radial engine, the M-82FN, which featured direct fuel injection. The new engine could produce 1,850 horsepower, and featured an improved NB-3U injection pump. The M-82FN-powered La-5 received the designation La-5FN, and featured a number of ostensibly minor changes in an attempt to eradicate the deficiencies of previous La-5 models. The most significant of these alterations was a tighter fitting firewall along the cowling and oil cooler insulation, which helped decrease cockpit temperature. Moreover, the engine’s cylinder ribbing was enlarged to improve cooling in flight. The first La-5FN was tested in December of 1942 using an older “highback” airframe, and in March, a second La-5FN prototype was built using the latest “lowback” fuselage. At the end of the month, the second prototype underwent state trials, during which it reached a top speed of 372 mph (599 km/h) at low altitudes, 390 mph (628 km/h) at 10,500 feet (3,200 meters), and 405 mph (652km/h)  at 20,500 feet (6,250 meters). What is more, the aircraft demonstrated greatly improved handling characteristics and maneuverability. This new variant would become the definitive version of the aircraft that would have such a tremendous impact on the war on the Eastern Front.


La-5FN. Photo source:

The La-5FN had its first major success at the Battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943. Though Kursk is well-known for being the largest tank battle in history, aircraft on both sides played significant roles, providing close air support and air coverage for ground troops. La-5FNs by this time were flown by the 3rd GIAP, 88th GIAP, 31 IAP, 131th IAP (40th GIAP), 239th IAP, 254th IAP, and 272nd IAP. While the Luftwaffe maintained air superiority during the first part of the battle, the Soviet pilots in La-5FNs were eventually able to show German airmen that the new plane not only had significant firepower, it had the speed and maneuverability to match the Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs. Indeed, the La-5FN’s climb rate and turning radius were superior to those of the Fw 190A-8A, and its roll rate was slightly better than the Bf-109. The new Lavochkin in the hands of a skilled Soviet pilot was as deadly as anything on the battlefield. Some exploits of Lavochkin pilots have become legendary. One A.K. Horowitz, for example, is believed to have shot down nine German planes in a single battle near Kursk, though only six were confirmed (two Ju-87s, two Ju-88s, and two FW-190s). Later that same day, Horowitz was killed in a battle against four enemy fighters. He was posthumously awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union.

Similarly, in July, in the skies northeast of Kursk, several La-5 pilots shot down two Fw-190s piloted by Major Reinhard Seiler and Lieutenant Hugo Hunerfield of JG 54. Both Luftwaffe pilots were seasoned aces, with Seiler having 102 victories and Hunerfield 28. Both pilots ejected. Hunerfield was captured by Soviet ground forces. Seiler was rescued by German troops and sent back to the Reich for hospital treatment, where he was declared unfit for further combat duties. Such episodes in the skies over Kursk made it clear that the Soviet Union had developed an aircraft after two years of war that could match, and in many ways exceed, the performance of German fighters.

That same summer, a new La-5FN made a forced landing on a German airfield, which provided the Luftwaffe with a chance to examine and test-fly the VVS’ new fighter, and the results were sobering. The aircraft was sent to Germany to undergo extensive testing at the Luftwaffe Research Center in Rechlin. German test pilot Hans-Werner Lerche wrote a detailed report of his experiences flying the La-5FN, explaining that the new Soviet fighter excelled at altitudes below 3,000 meters, and its performance at this altitude was comparable to Luftwaffe fighters. He also noted that the new Lavochkin possessed superior maneuverability in some regards. Both German fighters, however, outperformed the La-5FN at higher altitudes, though given the fact that the majority of the air war over the Eastern Front was fought below 10,00 feet (3,000 meters), this was often not a problem.


Captured La-5FN. Photo source:

Lerche also discovered numerous problems with the new Lavochkin, though these defects would be eradicated by Soviet engineers in what would become the La-5’s successor, the La-7. For example, all engine controls in the La-5FN’s cockpit had separate control levers, meaning the pilot had to make constant adjustments during the flight. In contrast, contemporary German fighters had integrated controls, so only one lever was needed to control throttle, mixture, propeller pitch, radiator and cowl flaps. In addition, the German test pilot noted that the aircraft suffered from a short flight time- only about 40 minutes at cruise engine power. Despite these shortcoming, however, Lerche acknowledged that the La-5FN was a significant improvement over the Soviet fighters that had gone up against Luftwaffe pilots earlier in the war.

Following the successful development of the La-5, the Soviet industrial machine, which had recently recovered after being moved eastward away from the German advance in 1941 and 1942, produced a total of 5,048 La-5s of all variants in 1943, the majority of which were manufactured at the Sokol Aircraft-Building Plant in Nizhny Novgorod. A further 3,826 were built in 1944, though the number decreased when the upgraded La-7 began being produced in April. Production switched completely to the La-7 in November of that year.

Up against the German Luftwaffe, the La-5FN was as deadly as any other aircraft on the Eastern Front. The Soviet Union’s top ace, Ivan Kozhedub, scored the majority of his 64 victories flying his La-5FN. Following their introduction, the Lavochkins made a significant contribution to the VVS gaining air superiority over the Eastern Front. From Kursk all the way to Berlin, the La-5 played a crucial role in the last two years of the war. The Lavochkin La-5, as much as anything, is symbol of the Soviet Union’s industrial and military recovery in 1943. The momentum would take the Red Army and VVS all the way to Berlin in 1945.

-Patrick Kinville


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  5. Baevskii, Georgii. Stalinskie Sokoli Provit Asov Luftvaffe.
  6. Kylobovskii, A. & Blashchuk, V. La-5FN s Tochki Zreniya Luftvaffe. Aerokhobbi, Vol. 1, 1993.
  7. Khazanov, Dmitriy. Air War Over Kursk: Turning Point in the East. SAM Publications, 2010.

The Soviet Airwomen of the 588th (46th Guards) Night Bomber Regiment


Much has been written about the 588th Night Bomber Regiment, later renamed the 46th “Taman” Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, the all-female VVS regiment that carried out night bombing harassment missions against German ground troops, and for good reason, as these young women performed amazingly heroic actions during the Great Patriotic War. The airwomen of the 46th were pushed to the edge of human limitations, and played a crucial role in the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany on the Eastern Front.

The 46th was made up entirely of female volunteers in their late teens and early 20s. Dubbed Nachthexen (Night Witches) by their German adversaries, the Soviet airwomen in the Night Bomber Regiment flew over 24,000 combat sorties throughout the war, dropping 23,000 tons of bombs behind enemy lines.

One of the more amazing features of the story of the 46th is the equipment with which they were given to carry out their missions: Polykarpov Po-2 biplanes (known as U-2 until 1944), made of wood and canvas. Powered by a Shvetsov M-11D engine that

produced 125 horsepower, the aircraft, ostensibly from a bygone era, carried a pilot and a navigator as well as a total of six 50 kg bombs. With a maximum speed of 152 km/h (94 mph), the Po-2s had a peculiar advantage over German interceptors such as the Bf-109 and Fw-190, as these Luftwaffe aircraft had stall speeds higher than the Polykarpov’s top speed. Consequently, the Soviet airwomen developed evasive maneuvers to exploit the discrepancy, and found that a diving corkscrew movement was an effective way to avoid being hit by German aircraft guns.

A danger far larger for the aircraft of the 46th, however, was anti-aircraft fire. Important ground targets were frequently equipped with search lights. If the Germans were able to catch the biplanes in the searchlight, it was quite easy for the anti-aircraft guns to zero in on the slow-moving plane to shoot it down. As Senior Lieutenant Yevgeniya Zhigulenko recalled, “There is a superhuman psychic overstrain when you are blinded by the searchlights and deafened by the explosions of antiaircraft shells and fire all around you. Your concentration over the target is so intense that it results in a complete loss of your whereabouts—a disorientation. You cannot tell the sky from the ground. Many of our crews crashed in that way.”

The airwomen of the 46th developed defensive tactics to minimize the chances of being caught in one of the dreaded searchlights. It was determined that the element of surprise was the best way to avoid being downed by anti-aircraft fire. The Po-2 pilots would thus approach the target from a high altitude, throttle back the engine to idle, and quietly glide over the target. Until the bombs exploded, the only sound that could be heard on the ground was the wind flowing over the plane’s canvas.

After a bombing run began, however, German anti-aircraft operators were able to anticipate the flight path of other Soviet aircraft, as bombers attacked the target individually, with approximately 3 minutes between each run. After dropping their bombs, each aircraft would return to the airfield, refuel and rearm, and take off towards the target again. Thus, there was a continuous stream of these small planes from dusk to dawn, one bombing every few minutes. As Junior Lieutenant Raisa Zhitova-Yushina explained, “The aircraft flew on their missions at three-minute intervals between planes. It was like a conveyor belt: every three minutes an aircraft took off. When we were approaching the field and runway [upon return] we would cry out ‘Refuel, bombs, get ready!’ because we were eager to bomb the positions of the Germans.”

The Germans, consequently, were well aware of each mission’s timing following the first attack, though as Major Mariya Smirnova, the commander of the squadron, recalled, “They had to be on the alert all night long—they didn’t have a wink of sleep. This strategy was deliberate to tire the enemy around the clock.”


Pilots of the 46th Guard Regiment

In order to accomplish such psychological victories over the Germans, however, the pilots, navigators, and aircrews of the 46th had to sacrifice their own sleep. Many veterans of the Night Bomber Regiment recalled sleeping only 2-4 hours each night. “After each combat night we were allowed to sleep three or four hours before a new duty day,” mechanic of armament Junior Lieutenant Olga Yerokhina-Averjanova stated. Similarly, Senior Sargeant Nina Karayova-Buzina, recalled “We worked all night, then had a two to three-hour rest and returned to the planes in the morning… We were very small and slim during the war, and we had bad nutrition, never enough sleep, and very hard work, but no one complained. I never even felt tired.”

The 46th undoubtedly played a crucial role in the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany on the Eastern Front. After being activated in May of 1942, the regiment was active in the Don region, saw action in the Crimea, Belorussia (Belarus), Poland, and as far west as Berlin. Thirty of the Regiment’s crew members were killed in 1,100 nights of combat. It was not uncommon for individual pilots and navigators of the regiment to amass an astounding 1,000 combat missions flown throughout the war. Twenty-three of its members were awarded the Gold Star Hero of the Soviet Union, the state’s highest award.

The brave young women of the 46th accomplished truly amazing feats during the Second World War. Subject to the elements, facing sleep deprivation, at times starvation, injury, illness, and not to mention gender biases and discrimination, these servicewomen took the ostensibly obsolete Po-2 biplane and turned it into an effective weapon. The regiment was involved in many of the major battles on the Eastern Front, and the bravery, fortitude, strength, and sheer willpower of these young women played no insignificant role in the victory over Germany.

-Patrick Kinville

Primary sources obtained from collection of interviews conducted by Anne Noggle in Noggle, Anne.  Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II. Texas A & M University Press, College Station, TX 1994.

The Role of P-39s on the Eastern Front


Receiving more than 5,000 P-39s through the lend-lease program, the Airacobra was one of the VVS’ most lethal weapons during the Great Patriotic War. Soviet aces such as Aleksandr Pokryshkin, Grigory Rechkalov, and the Glinka brothers racked up dozens of kills flying the unique aircraft. While many historians and aircraft enthusiasts in the West are aware that the P-39 had a tremendous impact on the Eastern Front, there are many misconceptions surrounding how, exactly, the Airacobra was used by Soviet pilots, as many erroneously believe that these particular aircraft were used primarily in the role of close air support.

By reading first-hand accounts of Soviet pilots who flew the P-39, one immediately can see that this is a gross misconception of the Airacobra’s role which, as it turns out, stems from a mistranslation used by writers in the West after World War II. Russian-language sources use the term prikrytiye sukhoputnykh voysk to describe the role of P-39s on the Eastern Front, which translates to coverage of ground forces. Indeed, this is what Airacobra pilots did, though in a way that differs significantly from close air support. Because of this error, many in the West hold the notion that these aircraft were used as “tank busters” and were primarily engaged in ground attack operations. While Airacobra pilots undoubtedly strafed targets on the ground (especially towards the end of the war), the P-39’s primary mission was to intercept German dive bombers and their escorts that were attempting to carry out close air support for the Wehrmacht. As these missions naturally entailed flying at lower altitudes (P-39s did not have two-stage superchargers), the Airacobras and Soviet pilots excelled at providing such coverage for ground forces.


Grigoriy Rechkalov and his P-39

Towards the end of the war, after the VVS had gained air superiority, P-39s, like all Soviet aircraft, were employed as ground attack aircraft. A directive issued on September 7, 1944, explained “at the present time, when our air forces have garnered and are maintaining unquestioned air superiority, all the conditions have been created for the broadest employment of fighters for defeat of enemy ground targets with bombs and machine guns and cannon fire.” Airacobras were consequently fitted with single RRAB-70 70 kg bombs for the battles around Berlin. While the P-39 was built around a 37mm cannon, Soviet fighter units equipped with these aircraft did not have the armor-piercing ammunition necessary to penetrate the turrets of German tanks and assault gun covers. Nevertheless, with their cannons (without armor-piercing rounds), .50 caliber machine guns, and 70kg bombs the Soviet P-39s were adept at carrying out ground attack operations in the final months of the war.

As was the case with other Soviet fighters, P-39s engaged in close air support operations only towards the end of the war and only after air superiority was achieved. While Airabocras undoubtedly contributed to the victory over Germany in this role, their primary task was to provide air coverage over the front line, a task at which they excelled. Indeed, Aleksandr Pokryshkin scored 47 of his 65 victories flying his P-39 and Grigoriy Rechkalov scored 44 of his 56 in an Airacobra. In the hands of skilled Soviet pilots, the P-39 was as deadly as any other aircraft over the skies of the Eastern Front.

-Patrick Kinville

The Soviet Union’s British-built Avro Lancasters


Despite the fact that the VVS received a plethora of lend-lease aircraft from the US and the UK during World War Two, the Western allies were hesitant to give the Soviets one weapon of which the Red Army had an acute shortage: The coveted four-engine bomber. The USAAF and Washington had placed particular emphasis on designing, developing, and mass producing four-engine bombers such as the B-17 and B-24. Indeed, by the end of the war, the US had produced an astounding 18,482 B-24 Liberators, making it the most produced US aircraft of the war. A further 12,731 B-17 Flying Fortresses were built, and British produced 7,377 Avro Lancasters. With several exceptions, none of which were intentional on the part of the Western allies, no four-engine bombers ended up in the hands of the VVS.

Aside from the domestically-built Petlyakov Pe-8 four-engine heavy bomber, of which only 93 were produced, Soviet Long Range Aviation, or Aviatsiya dalnego deystviya (ADD), used primarily twin-engine Soviet Ilyushin Il-4s and lend-lease B-25 Mitchells. While VVS forces focused primarily on providing close air support for Red Army troops, the Soviet leadership undoubtedly sought to obtain long-range, four-engine bombers, and repeatedly requested that the Western allies provide such aircraft. The US and the UK simply did not want to provide the Soviet Union with their top weapons. The top-secret Norden Bombsights, for example, were stripped from the B-25s that were sent to the Eastern Front.

One of the most sought-after aircraft was the elegant, yet powerful, British Avro Lancaster.  Powered by four 1,280 horse power Rolls Royce Merlin V-12 engines, the Lancaster could carry 6,350 kg of bombs more than 4,000 km. With a crew of seven, including a pilot, flight engineer, navigator, bomb aimer/nose gunner, wireless operator, mid-upper and rear gunners, the aircraft were defended by 8 Browning .303 Mark II machine guns. By the end of the war, Lancasters had performed 156,000 sorties, dropping a total of 608,000 tons of bombs.

Despite the refusal of the Western allies to send four-engine bombers to aid the Red Army on the Eastern Front, Soviet pilots did obtain several such aircraft, including two Avro Lancasters. In September of 1944, Soviet and British commanders launched Operation Paravane in an attempt to destroy the German battleship Tirpitz which was stationed in Norway’s far north. The German ship posed a serious threat to convoys sending supplies to the Soviet Union, and Allied military strategists developed a plan to deploy Lancasters from their base in Lincolnshire to the Yagodnik airfield in Arkhangelsk, where it would refuel and attack the Tirpitz.

On September 11, 38 Lancasters embarked on the 11-hour flight to Yagodnik, only to find the airfield enveloped in fog and rain, leading 10 aircraft to make forced landings in the Taiga. Seven bombers were damaged, though British and Soviet ground crews were able to repair one. The remaining Lancasters took off from Arkhangelsk on September 15 to attack the Tirpitz, which was sheltered by the Altafjord mountains and a highly effective smoke screen system. Consequently, only one bomber scored a hit on the battleship, causing severe damage, but not complete destruction.


British Landcaster after crash in the Taiga, September, 1944

After dropping their bombs, the British Lancasters returned to their home base in Lincolnshire, leaving the six aircraft that had been damaged while making forced landings at Yagodnik several days earlier. Upon inspecting the bombers, Soviet mechanics determined that two were salvageable, and they were transferred to the workshops of the White Sea Fleet under direction of Chief Engineer Kiryanova. Mechanics were eventually able to rehabilitate the two Lancasters, though they would ultimately not be able to serve as long-range bombers

One aircraft, marked with the number 1, was transferred to the 16th Transport Detachment at the end of January 1945. Piloted by one Commander Evdokimov, the Lancaster was used not only as a cargo plane, but also as a convoy escort and reconnaissance aircraft. Given the Lancaster’s exceptional range, aircraft no. 1 explored remote areas in the White Sea and surrounding areas in search of German submarines. Unlike the seven-man British bomber crew, this particular Lancaster carried five servicemen: two pilots, two mechanics, and one navigator. In August of 1945, following the victory over Germany, Soviet Lancaster 1 was sent to the Pacific, but was stranded en route when it landed in Krasnoyarsk to refuel only to find that the refueling station did not have gasoline with a sufficient level of octane to power the Merlin engines. By the time the fuel arrived, the Japanese had surrendered. The aircraft eventually found its way to Riga where it was displayed at a technical school. Its ultimate fate is unknown.

The second Soviet Lancaster, aptly christened Number 2 and flown by one I.I. Dubenets, was sent to the 70th Transport Regiment, where it served as a transport aircraft. Following the war, while landing in Moscow, Number 2 skidded off the runway, damaging the nose and the chassis. The aircraft was not restored.

While the two Lancasters that the Soviets eventually obtained were not used as heavy bombers, it is worth noting that they did carry out a significant number of missions, though they never met the enemy face to face. Much like most Soviet warplanes from the Second World War, the two Lancasters have not survived. Nevertheless, their story is indicative of how Soviet forces would use anything and everything at their disposal to achieve victory over Germany.

-Patrick Kinville


Soviet VVS Maskirovka Deception in WWII


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.

Soviet raid on Berlin- August, 1941


While much has been written about Germany’s swift and convincing victories over Red Army defenses in the Summer of 1941, Soviet victories during this period, however ostensibly small they may be, are often overlooked by historians. With the exception of several defensive battles that became symbols of Soviet resistance in the early months of the Great Patriotic War (Brest Fortess, Smolensk, etc.), little is known in the West about many of the psychological victories by the USSR over Germany following Operation Barbarossa, such as the bombing of Berlin. While Americans consider the Doolittle Raid to be one of the great victories over the Japanese during World War Two (despite negligible physical damage), the VVS undertook a similar, yet relatively unknown, so-called “morale-raid” on Berlin just two months after the Nazi invasion.

On July 21st, less than a month after the start of Operation Barbarossa, 127 German aircraft bombed Moscow, the capital of the Soviet Union. The raid inflicted negligible damage, though it did underscore the USSR’s inability to defend even its largest city. The Kremlin immediately sought to plan a retaliatory strike, but given the outdated state of the VVS in 1941, no Soviet aircraft had the range to strike Berlin from the airfields around Leningrad. Military strategists at first began to plan a strike against Pillau, where the German fleet was stationed. Stalin, however, ordered that a plan be drawn up to bomb Berlin.

In July-August of 1941, the Wehrmacht made significant advances daily, and the Soviet military was throwing everything it had at halting Army Group North’s drive on Leningrad. The Soviet Naval Staff, after calculating several scenarios, determined that the only chance of success lay in launching Ilyushin DB-3T torpedo bombers from a small island of the coast of Estonia. Strategists determined that if the twin engine bombers were loaded with 3,000 kg of fuel and not more than 750 kg of bombs, the aircraft would be able to make the 1800 km round trip journey to Berlin, with some 10-15% of reserve fuel to spare. As pilots would not have the extra fuel needed to perform evasive maneuvers when encountering German defenses (both anti-aircraft fire and fighter planes), the only option was to fly at high altitudes in a straight line both directions, thus significantly reducing the accuracy of the bombardments. Tactical bombing, however, was not the point of the raid on Berlin.

On August 2nd, fully loaded Soviet DB-3T bombers took off from the make shift airfield to test if using such an airstrip were even possible. The test showed that skilled pilots could indeed take off in such conditions. Two days later, on the night of August 4th, five Soviet aircraft made a reconnaissance flight over Berlin, taking off from the island airstrip. The Germans had set up a 100 km anti-aircraft perimeter around the German capital with spotlight efficiency up to 6,000 cubic meters. The planes successfully flew over Berlin without being detected. The Soviet pilots were ready to bomb Berlin.

On the evening of August 7th, 1941, 15 Ilyushin DB-3T torpedo bombers of the Baltic Fleet took off from the island off the coast of Estonia and headed straight for the German capital. Soviet fighters lacked the range to serve as escorts, so altitude was the bombers’ only protection.

The German military, however, did not expect such a mission to come from the Soviet Union, despite the fact that Berliners had been subjected to British bombing since the previous August, though on a small scale. Nevertheless, Nazi propaganda assured German citizens that there was no danger whatsoever from the East, saying that the Soviet Air Force had been destroyed as a result of Operation Barbarossa. Indeed, the notion of a Soviet bombing run on Berlin in the Summer of 1941 seemed almost impossible to the German military brass and Nazi leadership.

Berliners at that time were not subjected to blackouts, and the streets of the city were lit up by the glow of apartment windows and street lights. RAF raids on the German capital were rare, and the city’s illumination on the clear night of August 7th led the Soviet bombers directly to the center of Berlin. The Ilyushins approached their targets quietly from an altitude of 7,000 meters. There was no sign of anti-aircraft fire. The search lights were switched off. The bomb bay doors slid open, and more than 11,000 kg of bombs fell through the night sky onto the center of Berlin.

The aircraft, significantly lighter after dropping their loads, swung around and high tailed it back to Estonia. The still night sky at 7,000 meters was abruptly interrupted by the explosions of anti-aircraft shells. Nevertheless, the Soviet bombers returned unscathed, and their mission had been completed.

The German propaganda machine initially claimed that the raid had been carried out by the British, reporting that six RAF planes had been shot down. Newspapers in the UK immediately refuted the claims, and the German government begrudgingly acknowledged that it was in fact Soviet aircraft that had attacked Berlin.

While no significant damage had been inflicted on the German capital, the Kremlin heralded the bombing run as a significant victory over the enemy, much as the US would do the following year after the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo. In both cases, the effect had a tremendous impact on the population who had experienced only defeat by Axis powers up until those points.

The Soviet Union would continue to carry out bombing missions against Berlin, but the German defenses were always henceforth prepared for the VVS bombers. Soviet military strategists eventually decided to focus VVS aircraft on providing close air support for Red Army ground forces, which had a pivotal effect on all the major Soviet operations through the end of the war.