During the mid-1930s Soviet Russia had the most powerful military aviation in the world, in terms of both numbers and technical excellence. The Tupolev TB-3, first flown in 1930, was the world's first monoplane four-engined bomber and the only one as yet in series production; the Polikarpov 1-16 was the world's first monoplane fighter to have a retractable undercarriage.
The main weaknesses of the Soviet aero industry were in engine development (reliance being mainly on copying and improving German, French and American designs) and in production standards, but these factors only really became significant when a new generation of fighter planes was brought into production on the eve of the German invasion of Russia in 1941. The AM-35 motor fitted in the MiG-3, based on the German BMW VI of 1926, was a massive 46.6 litres compared to the 27 litres of the equally powerful Rolls Royce Merlin fitted in the Royal Air Force's Spitfire, which may have been a factor in this type being a distinctive-looking but not very manageable aeroplane; and the shoddy finish on the LaGG-3 fighter reduced speed by at least ten per cent and rate of climb by fifty per cent. (1)
Perhaps more important were failures in the field of doctrine of employment. It was one thing to have a huge air force, another thing to know how to use it in a war. The Soviet air service (Voenno-Vozdushniye Sily or VVS) suffered from Stalin's purge of his military high command from 1937 onward no less than the army. Jakov Alksnis, the VVS's Chief of General Staff, an advocate of the use of long-range strategic bombers, was amongst the first to be executed. Though Alksnis bequeathed to his successors the TB-7 (later redesignated the Pe-8), a four-engined bomber greatly superior in performance to the TB-3, Stalin showed no interest in furthering its development and the two men principally responsible for its design, Vladimir Petlyakov and Andrei Tupolev, were detained in a NKVD (secret police) establishment, Central Design Bureau 29, till 1940 and 1941 respectively. (2) After the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 Stalin became convinced that there was no likelihood for years to come of Russia finding itself at war with Germany, and as Germany was the only enemy powerful enough to justify investment in a long-distance bomber fleet there was simply no requirement for a modern four-engined bomber.
One of the sequels to the Nazi-Soviet pact was the Soviet attack on Finland in November 1939, which both in the VVS and in the Red Army as a whole showed up the limitations of the commanders who had been promoted to replace those whom Stalin had purged. Air raids on Helsinki on November 1, 1939, the first day of the war, killed nearly a hundred civilians but had no strategic purpose beyond announcing the commencement of hostilities; thereafter the Finnish capital was generally left alone. Encounters between the VVS and the much smaller Finnish Air Force were relatively infrequent, partly because of the terrible weather conditions, and the lesson that bombers penetrating enemy air space required a fighter escort, which the Japanese for example had learnt in China, failed to register with the Russians even after a Finnish pilot, Jorma Sarvanto, single-handedly shot down six of a formation of seven DB-3F twin-engined bombers on January 6, 1940. (3) In fact the VVS seems to have learnt nothing at all from the war with Finland.
When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the VVS was not merely not ready for action, it was not in a state to be brought to readiness even if given sufficient notice. Forty-three per cent of aviation officers had served less than six months; ninety-one per cent of formation commanders had held their posts for less than six months. Fewer than a quarter of the VVS's fighters were modern MiG-3s and LaGG-3s; more than a quarter of the remainder were biplanes, even more outmoded than the by now ageing I-16s which were the most numerous type in VVS employ. Fighter tactics were outmoded and ineffective. On the first day of the Nazi onslaught the VVS lost 336 aircraft in aerial combat to only fifty-nine lost to the Luftwaffe. (4) Even more serious was the loss within a few hours of 800 aircraft destroyed on the ground in the course of Luftwaffe bombing raids on sixty-six Soviet airfields. This incidentally was the first time it ever happened that one air force achieved a significant victory over another by pre-emptive air strikes against its air bases; when the Luftwaffe had attempted this in Poland in September 1939, and in France in May 1940, the results had been disappointing, though such attacks were later a significant success during the Japanese campaign against British and American forces in the Far East. Even without the German attacks on Soviet air bases the superiority of the Luftwaffe pilots in air-to-air combat and the loss of hundreds of slightly damaged but repairable aircraft that had to be abandoned on airfields about to be over-run by advancing German ground troops meant that by the end of the first week of German invasion the VVS was nearly defunct as a combat organization.
Nearly: but not quite. Individual pilots gave a good account of themselves. Technical inadequacies could be made up for by fanaticism and blind courage. On a number of occasions Soviet planes downed their opponents by ramming. (One pilot V.V. Talalikhin, destroyed five planes by this method between August 7, and October 27, 1941. (5)) The unsatisfactory MiG-3 and LaGG-3 and soon the somewhat more promising Yak-1 began to arrive in greater numbers from the factories. A little later British and American fighter planes supplied as Lend-Lease began to...