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The air war over the Steppes was more than a brutal clash in which might alone triumphed. It was a conflict that saw tactical and technological innovation as the Soviet air force faced off against Herman Göring's Luftwaffe. As Germany and the Soviet Union battled for victory on the Eastern Front, they had to overcome significant strategic and industrial problems, while fighting against the extreme weather conditions of the East. These factors, combined with the huge array of aircraft used on the Eastern Front, create one of the most compelling conflicts of the war.
Told primarily from the strategic and command perspective, this account offers a detailed analysis of this oft-overlooked air war, tracing the clashes between Germany and the Soviet Union over the course of World War II. Historical photographs complement the examination as author E. R. Hooton explores these epic aerial battles between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union.
Chapter 1: 1931-41
This will trace the changing relationships between the two allies in a decade that saw them swing from co-conspirators against the Versailles Treaty to enemies. It will examine the Luftwaffe build-up, which began during the Battle of Britain, and how the Mediterranean campaign would begin to effect the air war in the East like the 'Moon and the tides'. Soviet air power expanded explosively during the 1930s, but the huge air fleet had pilots who were barely trained. Moscow and Leningrad had air defences supported by radar, yet the flight to Moscow of a Lufthansa airliner sparked a purge of Soviet air leadership.
Chapter 2: June 1941-April 1942
The Luftwaffe had its greatest success destroying enemy air power in the opening hours of the campaign, but it destroyed aircraft and not men. The Soviet response was furious, but at terrible cost, allowing the Luftwaffe to pave the way for great advances that ended at the gates of Moscow. After that it covered the retreat and supplied isolated garrisons. These operations dissipated German air power, which could not escape the Wehrmacht's supply problems. It also allowed Luftwaffe commander in chief Herman Göring to consolidate his grip on the army's squadrons as the reconnaissance arm was reorganised.
Russian air power was held together by its new commander, Pavel Zhigarev, yet he would leave only the lightest of footsteps on the sands of time. In response to the terrible blows that severely undermined the Soviet aircraft industry, Soviet air power was fragmented but Zhigarev laid the foundations for its consolidation and, in almost his last act, authorised development of the La-5 fighter. However, losses and a disrupted industrial base meant the USSR had to extemporise, possibly influenced by the clash at Khalin Gol in 1939, from obsolete aircraft and trainers the night bomber force that would be a significant element of their air power until the end of the war
Chapter 3: May 1942-February 1943.
Air operations were greatly influenced by the characters of both side's leaders. The Luftwaffe was increasingly drawn into direct support of the army, especially on the Stalingrad front where the capricious von Richthofen played armchair general. The overstretched Luftwaffe had to rely increasingly on the slender reeds of its allies, and on the eve of the Soviet offensive at Stalingrad had only a single bomber to support the Italians and Hungarians. The situation was aggravated once more by the Mediterranean, to which there was a significant diversion of resources that effected the outcome at Stalingrad, where the Wehrmacht supply effort fell victim to personal rivalries. During this period the first German four-engined bombers were deployed in the newly formed night bomber units.
Aleksandr Novikov had barely taken over the Soviet air force when he faced a series of crises leading to the Stalingrad battle, where the defending fighters were supported by radar. Nevertheless, Novikov persuaded Stalin to consolidate his regiments into air armies, one per front, and despite the severe difficulties of replacing men and machines he made the air force a more formidable and effective arm. Although it had great success during the winter of 1942/43, it continued to display significant weaknesses.
Chapter 4: April 1943-April 1944
Other theatres helped to shackle Luftwaffe operations in the east, the most significant of these being the defence of Germany – this slashed German fighter strength by a third just as the Red Army began to advance, leaving the Leningrad front with half-a-dozen fighters! But the Luftwaffe's biggest problem was the increasing swing from indirect to direct air support. Although an attempt was belatedly made to create a strategic bombing force, its initial operations were transporting supplies.
Despite continued industrial weakness Novikov's airmen became more effective as they gained experience that improved their chances of survival. A steady stream of replacement pilots was now also reaching the squadrons, albeit poorly trained. British and Amercan-supplied Lend-Lease aircraft, despite limitations in some cases, proved a boon and aided expansion, as well as permitting more indirect support operations – all fighters now received transceivers. It is worth noting the Soviet attacks on eastern Germany helped cause an extension of the defensive Kammhuber Line into a 'wall' of radar and flak batteries surrounding the Fatherland.
Chapter 5: May 1944-May 1945
The Luftwaffe quickly became a totally direct air support force, Göring using the confusion following the assassination attempt on Hitler to disband the strategic bomber corps. By focusing upon single-engined aircraft (like the Soviets) the Germans expanded their air force, and it was soon easier to replace damaged aircraft than repair them. Yet even as the Luftwaffe became technically more sophisticated with jet fighters and bombers, 'cruise' missiles and even the world's first combat helicopter search and rescue mission, its ability to influence the ground battle disappeared.
By contrast, Novikov re-organised his strike forces and ensured his American-made bombers could extend the range of indirect attacks, while a regiment was re-equipped with abandoned USAAF B-17s and B-24s. Yet by the end of the war the Soviets were becoming increasingly aware of the power of strategic bombing, and as accidental clashes with American squadrons occasionally flared, its leaders also recognised how obsolete it was both in doctrine and material. Germany's surrender was a relief at all levels, one regiment being informed by their commissar who walked into the barracks naked and waving his Tokarev pistol!