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Von Hardesty
National Air and Space Museum

When the Red Army launched its final assault on Berlin in May 1945, the Soviet Air Force deployed 7,500 aircraft in support of the advancing troops. At this culminating moment in the war, the Soviet Air Force boasted 18 air armies with an inventory of over 15,000 operational aircraft. World War II concluded with the Soviet Union possessing the largest tactical air force in the world.

Few Westerners--even those with some familiarity with the history of World War II--typically think of the Soviet Union as a major air force in 1945. Our most enduring image of the Soviet Air Force is one of ineffectiveness, the victim of Operation Barbarossa. The preemptive German air strikes began on June 22, 1941. By the fall, Soviet air losses may have exceeded 7,000 aircraft.

The Soviet air arm, however, survived these difficult days. By the summer of 1942, the Soviet Air Force had been reorganized under its talented wartime commander, A. A. Novikov. Organized into mobile air armies, Soviet air power challenged the Luftwaffe for air supremacy at Stalingrad, the Kuban, and Kursk in 1942-1943. The year 1944 saw the Soviets in firm command of the air. The air war in the east culminated in 1945 in the skies over Berlin. The air armies functioned as an integral part of Soviet combined arms warfare, providing air support for the massive ground offensives that expelled the German army and captured Berlin.1

There was an unforseen irony to this Soviet air triumph. At the very moment of victory in 1945, many perceptive Soviet air commanders realized that the wartime design and production priorities left the Soviet Union ill-equipped for the post-war world. Fighter and ground attack aircraft had been produced in large numbers, giving the Soviets a wartime edge over the Luftwaffe. This impressive victory over the Luftwaffe did not transform the Soviet Union into a major air power. The nuclear age (with the accompanying Cold War) called for a new kind of air force, a strategic air arm with long- range bombers and the full utilization of jet engine technology to enhance aircraft speed, range, and load capacity.

During the long and arduous war with Germany, the Soviet Air Force had evolved as a kind of flying artillery, linked organically to the army, and deployed for cooperative interaction with the ground forces. To perfect this role, the Soviet aircraft industry had been mobilized to manufacture vast numbers of tactical aircraft. Because of this wartime emergency, four-engine, long-range bombers were not produced, except for a small number of Pe 8s (only 79 built). By contrast, Soviet aviation plants manufactured over 36,000 Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmoviks.2

The Anglo-American strategic bombing operations required modern, long- range bombers, a priority that fully anticipated the needs of the post-war nuclear age. The American B-29 Superfortress represented the state-of-the-art long-range bomber in 1945. In addition, the Germans had been the first to introduce an operational jet fighter. The British and Americans had made important strides in this important technology during the war and they would quickly exploit their advantage.

By contrast, Soviet wartime research and development had given little place or emphasis to these technical innovations, although foreign aircraft designs had been monitored and studied throughout the war. The Soviets in 1945 grappled with a sort of technological riptide, an altered reality for which they were ill prepared.

Consequently, the Soviet Union's pursuit of victory, if impressive in its epic proportions, had bought military vulnerability in its wake. The rapid tempo of weapons development often made whole categories of weapons obsolescent, even at peak moments of effectiveness. The technological gap with the Americans quickly became apparent as the Cold War took shape in the last decade of Stalin's rule. For the Soviets, the Cold War reinforced the perception of military vulnerability and the urgent need to modernize the Soviet Air Force.

The Bomber in the History of the Soviet Air Force

The bomber, or more specifically the long-range bomber, occupies a peculiar (often a central) place in the history of the Russian/Soviet aeronautical establishment. The old Imperial Russian Air Force had deployed the world's first long-range bomber squadron at Yablonna, near Warsaw, in September 1914. Russian airmen flew the four- engine Il'ya Muromets throughout the period of Russia's involvement in World War I.3 Designed by Igor Sikorsky, the bomber performed varied missions, attacking German troop concentrations, supply lines, and communications centers. This unique airplane could stay aloft for missions of six hours or more. The Il'lya Muromets proved to be an effective platform for bombing, aerial observation, and photography. Always heavily armed, the Il'lya Muromets became a formidable flying fortress. Only one of these bombers was downed by enemy fighters during the entire war.

The Bolsheviks, triumphant in the Russian Revolution, displayed a real enthusiasm for air power. They organized the Red Air Fleet, which played a dramatic, if marginal, role during the Russian Civil War that followed in the wake of the Bolshevik coup. During the 1920s, the new Soviet military establishment began a debate on the nature of air power. The quest to adapt military doctrine to Marxism-Leninism dominated and distorted Soviet military thinking and planning.4 The Soviets studied air theorists in the West. For example, Douhet became a familiar figure to Soviet military theorists, in particular to Jan Alksnis, the Soviet Air Commander in the 1930s. Douhet's writings were first translated into Russian in 1935.

The Soviet pre-war fascination with large aircraft expressed an older tradition going back to Igor Sikorsky's designs. The Il'lya Muromets had demonstrated its effectiveness as a bomber in World War I. The need to design aircraft with long-range flying capabilities reflected Russia's enormous geography, a nation with eleven time zones.

For a brief period, Douhet attracted many disciples within the Soviet air establishment. By the early 1930s, the Soviets began the manufacture of large bombers, first the twin-engine TB-1 and then the four-engine TB-3. Flotillas of these lumbering giants appeared at air shows and military maneuvers. They gave full expression to the evolving interest of the Soviets in strategic bombing. Jan Alksnis, the Soviet Air Commander, appeared to be an ardent enthusiast of Douhet. A. N. Lapchinskiy, one of the Soviet Union's most prolific air theorists of the interwar period, also indicated a keen interest in the potential striking power of the bomber in any future war. Emblematic of this trend was the eight-engine, 70-ton Maxim Gorky, which flew over Red Square on May Day and participated in several highly orchestrated air shows. The Maxim Gorky suggested that the Soviets were a major air power and possessed the means for long-range bombing. Two transpolar flights to the United States in 1937 also impressed the West with Soviet advances in long-range aviation.5

The Soviet emphasis on large aircraft and, in particular, the design of long-range bombers, proved to be shortlived. Stalin's purge of the military of the late 1930s signaled vast changes. The purges brought repression and the arrest of many aircraft designers. For reasons that remain obscure, the purge process in its final stages targeted many aviation leaders, civil and military.6 Among these victims was the Soviet Union's small coterie of Douhetists. The arrest and execution of Jan Alksnis eliminated the long-range bomber's most visible defender. Andrei Tupolev and many of his associates escaped death, but their arrest and humiliation confirmed the fact that the Soviet Union's brief flirtation with the bomber was over.

The dramatic shift away from long-range bombers, however, cannot be explained only by the purges. The involvement of the Soviet Union in the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, profoundly influenced Soviet aviation priorities on the eve of World War II. The Spanish war demonstrated that fighters and ground attack aircraft were more effective than the slow, lumbering bombers of the period. The introduction of late-model German fighters such as the Messerschmitt BF-109E altered the course of the conflict, exposing the inferior character of Soviet aircraft technology and air combat tactics. Spain proved to be a crucible for learning, a grim episode that helped to shape Soviet war planning in positive ways.

In 1940, Stalin ordered the reorganization of the Soviet Air Force. Soviet aviation production goals now called for a whole new generation of aircraft. Long-range bomber aviation persisted, but on a reduced scale. This shift, in part, was explained later as a reaffirmation of combined arms warfare. As this idea was understood in 1940, the Soviets stressed the centrality of the ground forces. This meant that air power was subordinate to all defensive and offensive ground operations. The air force became explicitly a tactical air arm. Bombers persisted, but only to enhance tactical air operations. Even so-called Long-Range Bomber units, reorganized as the 18th Air army, preformed essentially tactical support missions during the course of the war.

The Post-War Context

Several overarching trends in Soviet aeronautical development shaped the post-war years. They are worth noting, if briefly:

  1. Soviet air doctrine, even with its outward pretensions of clarity, consistency, and scientific grounding (as opposed to Western "military art"), was not coherent, except in a formal, often propagandistic, sense.
  2. The traditional emphasis on combined arms warfare continued, now reinforced by the epic victory over Nazi Germany. The post-war context, however, would require adjustments to new realities, both technological and geo-political.
  3. The Soviets entered into a desperate struggle to gain parity with the West. Highly centralized research institutes such as TsAGI and an abundance of talented designers allowed for steady progress. But the sense of backwardness, real and imagined, haunted the aeronautical establishment. The aeropropulsion section is just one example of chronic obsolescence and failure. For the Soviets, the systematic copying of foreign technology and the creative new designs by indigenous designers blended to shape the Soviet Air Force. The Soviet instinct to copy was fully incorporated into research and development. While derivative in many respects, Soviet aircraft also embodied genuine innovations. Part of the problem of interpreting Soviet aviation is to understand this duality.
  4. No one can understand these years without reference to Stalin, who took a keen interest in the aviation question. His influence was pervasive and often negative.

The Tu 4 Program

The quest to build a new long-range bomber became a high priority in the post-war years. Parallel work in jets and rockets proceeded as well. Building offensive weapons anticipated the acquisition of nuclear weapons that became a reality for the Soviets in 1949.

The Tupolev Tu-4 become the first genuine Soviet long-range bomber. The Tu-4 was a copy of the American B-29. The story of the Tu-4 has fascinated students of Soviet aviation for decades.

The story began in late 1944 when three B-29s landed near Vladivostok while participating in air strikes over Japan. The crews and aircraft were interned. Subsequently, the crews were returned, but not the advanced bombers. The acquisition of the B-29s, at the time the most technically advanced bomber in the world, provided the Soviets with a rare opportunity to study and to replicate a proven long-range bomber.

L.L. Kerber, author of Tupolevskaya sharaga (unpublished) and an associate of Tupolev, told me this past September that one B-29 was disassembled for detailed analysis, another was test flown, and the third aircraft was used as a trainer. One can see a Soviet-built Tu-4 at Monino, the Soviet Air Force museum near Moscow. The fate of the interned American B-29s remains a mystery.

Stalin ordered a Soviet version to be produced within a year, and gave Tupolev complete access to the Soviet Union's engineering and material resources for this high priority project. Thousands of draftsmen, engineers, and technical specialists were mobilized to work on the high-priority project. It became one of the most extraordinary examples of reverse engineering in aeronautical history.

The technical problems were complex and immense. Each component had be replicated within the Soviet system, using metric measurements. There were problems with exotic metals, the American preference for tight tolerances, and the replication of sophisticated hydraulic systems. The construction of turrets and plexiglass were also difficult. Rather than manufacture new tires for the Tu-4, Soviet agents endeavored to buy them in the West.

The most formidable task, of course, was building the Soviet equivalent of the Wright R 3350 engine, which powered the B-29. Here the longstanding Soviet backwardness in aero engines dogged the project. Early reviews of the Tu-4 proved it to be under-powered. By the time of the Korean War, however, this problem had been solved.

The Tu-4 had a range of only 1,500 miles. It proved to be slow, vulnerable to attack by the new jet fighters, and, in terms of global strategy, not an optimal delivery system for the Soviet Union's growing stockpile of atomic weapons.

The Late Stalinist Bomber Program

During the last years of Stalin's rule, the quest for a strategic bomber continued, even as new missile technologies emerged to challenge the need for a long-range strategic bomber.

The Tu-4 had been an interim solution. The Tu-16, a twin-jet bomber with a maximum range of 4,000 miles, rivaled the American B-47. The Tu-16 did not become operational until after Stalin's death. Other Soviet bombers, in particular the M-4 Bison and the turbo-prop Tu-95 Bear, also became operational in the 1950s. None of these jet bombers performed satisfactorily, although they gave the Soviet Air Force a credible strategic bomber force.

By the mid-1950s, the political situation within the Soviet Union had changed in a dramatic way. Nikita Khrushchev, the new leader, displayed little enthusiasm for long- range bombers. Khrushchev saw the missile as the weapon of the future. Missile development and the organization of the Strategic Rocket Forces in 1960 heralded a new age in strategic weapons.

The Changing Character of Russian Archives

An important arena for the study of this historical theme is the Russian archive. In recent years there has been an extraordinary outpouring of information on the Soviet Air Force. In the course of five years, the situation has changed dramatically. Memoirs and archival holdings, many hitherto unavailable, are now accessible to Russian and Western historians. In addition, historical journals, newspapers, and film documentaries have generated new studies to fill in what Gorbachev called the "blank pages" of history.

As Chekhov once said, "to live in the present, the past must be redeemed and for that, it must be known."

The archival scene in Russia, one should note, is changing almost daily. The Hoover Institution recently signed a major agreement with a Russian counterpart. Crown Publishers in turn has reached an agreement with Russian archival authorities to publish a sequence of books on the Cold War. Various projects, too numerous to mention, have involved microfilming and more open access to Russian archives for Western scholars.7 This pattern will no doubt continue and, barring a major political turnabout, create an altered context for research on Russian history.

For individual scholars and researchers, there are unique stories to relate, many representing breakthroughs in our knowledge of Russian history. This past September I had a long conversation with L.L. Kerber who told me about his years with Tupolev in prison. I am working with him to publish an unabridged version of his memoirs, which first appeared in the underground press in the 1970s.

Kerber tells an extraordinary story. The Tupolev Design Bureau consisted of a group of highly skilled designers and engineers. They were joined in prison by many engineers who had only recently been held in labor camps. Tupolev, Petlyakov, Myasishchev, Korolyov, and over 150 other men, were imprisoned. Tupolev, by the way, had been accused of selling blueprints to Messerschmitt.

The building which housed the group appeared quite normal from the outside. The inside, however, was a real prison with bars sealing each window. The internee workers followed a precise regimen; up at 7 a.m., work from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.; a break for dinner; then work to 7 p.m. As the war drew near, then work to 10 p.m. Throughout the prison years they wore blue coveralls. They were well fed with yogurt for breakfast and a two-course dinner each day, with dessert. Dormitories were located on the top three floors. A commissary of sorts provided soap, razor blades, and cigarettes. Neither radios nor newspapers were allowed. There was a huge cage on the roof that was used for exercise. Punishments could be severe. Life approximated that in Solzhenitsyn's novel, First Circle.

While in Moscow, I also met B.E. Chertok, a retired Soviet Army colonel who led the Soviet troops into Peenemunde, Germany, at the close of the war. He told me that his team, supplied with photographs and sketchy intelligence, targeted Wernher von Braun for capture. One of his great regrets, he confessed, was not capturing von Braun. Chertok is now preparing his memoir that will be an important document on the Soviet rocket program.

Kerber and Chertok are interesting individuals, but what about the larger archival scene? For Russian and Western historians, the current situation is unique. There has not been a time in the last seventy years when official records have been more accessible. This situation is not merely a byproduct of Glasnost. Behind the opening of the archives is the manifest need to rewrite most Soviet history. D.A. Volkogonov's pioneering biography of Stalin represents the first major endeavor to rewrite Soviet history with references to primary sources and outside the constraints of the old official ideology. Volkogonov currently plays a major leadership role in the administration of the Communist Party and KGB archives.

Archival holdings on the pre-revolutionary military organizations are now being opened. This is essentially true of the Russian Civil War and interwar years. There is an extraordinary interest within the Russian historical community to research and to write about Tsarist and White Russian activities.

World War II archives are more spotty. Part of the problem is the sensitivity of certain materials, but the scattered nature of military archives presents real problems.

There has been some access to General Staff materials, but certain key records such as war plans, mobilization schedules, and operational documents, remain secured. The administration of these archives is open to debate and further planning. Should there be a 30, 50 or 75-year rule applied?

For Soviet Air Force history, many wartime records and post-war analyses are available. Certain air staff and operational records, however, remain closed. After action reports, keyed to major operations, are of interest. If available in a comprehensive fashion, we will be able to write more authoritative histories of the Soviet Air Force in World War II.

Also, the records of the various design bureaus need to be analyzed, to see how the Soviet aeronautical establishment worked, in peacetime and in war. Once these critical records are examined in depth, we will be able to say something definitive about military history and the development of the Soviet Union's strategic bomber program. The next decade may be one of great promise in Russian/Soviet military history.


1. See Von Hardesty, Red Phoenix: The Rise of Soviet Air Power, 1941-1945, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982, Second edition, 1991. For coverage of specific aspects of Soviet air tactics, see by same author "Roles and Missions: Soviet Tactical Air Power in the Second Period of the Great Patriotic War," in Transformation in Russian and Soviet Military History, Proceedings of the Twelfth Military History Symposium, USAF Academy, 1986, Washington: Office of Air Force History, 1990, and "The Soviet Air Force: Doctrine, Organization, and Technology," in Horst Boog, Ed., The Conduct of the Air War in the Second World War, An International Comparison, Studies in Military History, Milatargeschichtliches Forschungsamt, Freiburg, Oxford and New York: St. Martin's Press, 1992.

2. For technical and production data on Soviet military aircraft, see V.B. Shavrov, Istoriya konstruktsii samoletov v SSSR, 1938-1950 gg., Moscow, 1988 and A.S. Yakovlev, Sovetskiyye samolety, 3rd edition, Moscow, 1979.

3. K.N. Finne, Igor Sikorsky, The Russian Years, Ed. By Carl Bobrow and Von Hardesty, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987, provides a unique history and perspective on this pioneering long-range bomber unit.

4. A.N. Lapchinskiy, an early Soviet air theorist, wrote extensively on air power. His Vozdushnyy boy [air combat], Moscow, 1934, and Bombardirovochanaya aviatsiya [bomber aviation] are two representative examples of Soviet contributions to the interwar literature on air theory.

5. See G. Baidukov, Russian Lindbergh, The Life of Valery Chkalov, Ed. With introduction by Von Hardesty, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991. Baidukov was Chkalov's co-pilot on the epic 1937 flight and his account of Chkalov's life, if celebratory, provides many insights into the interwar Soviet campaign to establish air records.

6. The purge campaign reached the aviation community in the late 1930s. Among its victims were Jan Alksnis, the one-time air commander, who had championed Douhet's theories.

7. For a recent and informative review of the changing Russian archival scene, see James G. Hershberg, "Soviet Archives: The Opening Door," Bulletin of the Cold War International History Project, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington: Issue 1 (Spring 1992) and Patricia Kennedy Grimsted, "Beyond Perestroika: Soviet Area Archives After the August Coup," International Research & Exchanges Board (IREX), Princeton, NJ, Jan 1992, first published by American Archivist, 55 (Winter 1992) and then published separately by IREX.

22 September 2003