Regular Hush-Kit contributor and High Priest of the Cult of the Wyvern, Edward Ward, has written a book on Soviet military aircraft of World War II. We took the time to grill Ed on Soviet warplanes and other perversions.
What is the biggest myth or misconception about Soviet aircraft in WW2?
“There are a few prevalent in the West largely due to the paucity of information available during the Cold war, a time when trashing Soviet engineering in general, even historically, was politically expedient. At the same time, the exploits of Western aircraft in Soviet service was played down by Soviet authorities for exactly the same reason. Subsequently the truth has filtered out but the old myths are stubborn. A good example is that of the P-39 Airacobra, an aircraft rejected from operations by the RAF and unloved by the USAAF. Subsequently palmed off on the USSR, most reference works stated for years that the P-39 found a measure of success over the Eastern Front in the ground attack role due to its heavy armament. We now know that the Airacobra was never employed in ground attack units and was only ever used in the air superiority role, at which it excelled. It was so good in fact that it replaced the Spitfire in service with several units, a fact that would have left British and American pilots aghast. The reason for the disparity in experience was that the P-39 turned out to be, largely by accident, ideally suited to the combat conditions it was committed to. The P-39’s primary failing was that its altitude performance was poor, in the East this was irrelevant as most combat took place at medium and low level and at these altitudes the Airacobra was fast and handled very nicely – it is not a coincidence that a P-39 won the first post-war Thompson Trophy against much more fancied Mustangs, Thunderbolts and Lightnings. It was very reliable and rugged, easy to fly, and its tricycle undercarriage was well suited to the rough fields it had to operate from and Soviet pilots rated it as equivalent or superior to contemporary models of Bf 109 and Fw 190 in aerial combat. Grigory Rechkalov scored 48 of his 54 confirmed ‘kills’ in a P-39, the highest score by any pilot flying a US-built aircraft in the Second World War and its diminutive nickname of Kobrushka ‘Little Cobra’ gives one an inkling of the affection it engendered. None of this was widely known until fairly recently.”
What were the three most important Soviet types and why?
“Difficult to say definitively but I would go for the Yak fighters, the Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik and the Polikarpov U-2/Po-2. The Yaks were the most important Eastern front fighter type, continually improved throughout its life and built in insane numbers (about 40,000). The Il-2 has become emblematic of Soviet air power to the extent that it gave its name to a (very good) Flight Simulator in the 21st century and also serves as the perfect demonstration of the Soviet fixation on air power as a tactical extension of its ground forces. The U-2/Po-2 is the most produced biplane of all time and as well as being a perfectly good trainer and general purpose machine in the mould of the Tiger Moth, more importantly served as the particularly Soviet ‘light nuisance bomber’. A maddening attacker that caused little material damage but was constantly operating over German positions by night, was virtually uninterceptable and impossible to detect coming (approaches were usually made with the engine off and thus in virtual silence). German soldiers could seldom get a good night’s sleep and its psychological effect cannot be overstated. For the chauvinistic German army the fact that many of these terrifying attacks were flown by women was almost unbelievable and led to their nickname of the Nachthexen – Night witches. The Germans also copied the Soviet tactics with their own biplane trainers. Later the same aircraft became notorious as ‘Bedcheck Charlie’ of the Korean War, this time disturbing American sleep.”
How important was the Il-2?
“Simultaneously unbelievably important yet not as important as everyone thought at the time if that isn’t straying too far into cognitive dissonance territory. An Il-2 attack was a terrifying and demoralising experience but much like the Typhoon in the West, its actual destructive effect was overestimated, especially when attacking with rockets. But then, all wartime unguided rockets were appallingly inaccurate. But the Il-2 had a secondary role as a kind of icon – like the Spitfire in Britain, it become symbolic of a specifically Soviet fight back against the invader and as you are probably aware was built in greater numbers than any other combat aircraft in history (sort of – the Yak fighters are all more or less the same but get counted as separate types, if they are all considered the same aircraft then they are the most produced combat aircraft of all time).”
What is the stereotype of Soviet WW2 aircraft and how true is it?
“The Western stereotype is, I suppose, of a badly built, primitive, probably outdated aircraft, likely to achieve success against the much superior German machines only through weight of numbers. This is not true, though like most stereotypes there is a grain of truth at its heart that has been grossly exaggerated. For the fact is that Soviet aircraft, especially early in the war, did lack many refinements common on comparable contemporary aircraft. Early MiG-3s didn’t even have a fuel gauge for example. There has also been a distinct cold war bias when describing the same technology when used by the Russians rather than the Western allies. The use of composite wooden construction on the de Havilland Mosquito for example is generally presented as absolutely fucking mindblowing yet the use of composite wooden construction (for the same reasons) in Soviet fighters especially is usually served up as evidence of their primitive nature. The Lavochkin fighters for example used ‘delta drevesina’, a composite wooden material consisting of layers of birch strip bonded with bakelite film, this material being both appreciably stronger than any untreated wood and fire resistant. Both wing and fuselage were covered with a stressed skin of bakelite ply, minimising the usage of steel and aluminium in the airframe. There was a huge shortage of steel in particular in the USSR in the early war period.”
What was the finest Soviet fighter of the war and how did it compare with its German/Brit/US counterparts?
“It’s a toss-up between the late Yaks and the Lavochkin La-7, given that one of these is a lightweight inline powered fighter and the other a somewhat heavier radial machine, this mirrors the situation in Germany with the Bf 109 and Fw 190 as well as the American P-51 and P-47. There is a general correlation with the dainty Spitfire and heavyweight Typhoon/Tempest as well. Looked at in statistical terms all Soviet fighters were notably smaller and much lighter than their contemporaries, especially the Yaks. Both types were very highly rated for handling both by Soviet pilots and by test pilots from other nations, even the Germans had nice things to say about them in this regard. Performance wise, in say mid 1944, both the La-7 and Yak-3 are beginning to appear in large numbers and compare very favourably with the world’s best. The La-7 manages 423 mph at its best altitude and the Yak 447 mph. By contrast the Tempest V tops out at 427 mph, the Spitfire XIV at 448 mph, the P-47D at 428 mph and the P-51D at 437 mph. On the other side, the 109G-10 is capable of 428 mph and the Fw 190D-9 of 440 mph so everything is in the same sort of area speed wise, although they are all attaining these at different heights. The Tempest was probably the Western Allies best performing fighter at low and medium altitude so is the most directly comparable. The Soviet fighters cannot match the altitude performance of the others but that is irrelevant for their operating environment. In armament terms there is probably the biggest disparity, the La-7 has two 20-mm ShVAK cannon and the Yak-3 just the one, backed up with two 12.7-mm BS machine guns. Soviet fighters always had an armament considered inadequate by other nations. In range performance both the Soviet types lag behind their allies, though the special long-range Yak-9DD was developed for escort duties with a 1300 mile range so it’s not a complete walkover as that’s the same as the operational range of the P-51D (with drop tanks), a fighter known for its long legs.”
What were the biggest strengths and weaknesses of Soviet aircraft designs?
“Like most nations, the Soviets built a range of aircraft that possessed differing strengths and weaknesses but one area in which they lagged somewhat was in engine technology. The Klimov M-105 fitted to all the Yak fighters for example was essentially an outgrowth of the Hispano-Suiza 12Y and its power output was comparatively modest compared to the Merlin, though both started in roughly the same horsepower class, by 1945 the most advanced Klimovs were delivering around 1300hp whilst the Merlin was offering 2000hp or more. Soviet inline engines could never match the reliability of Western engines either due to lesser build quality. The radials were better but as these were all developed out of 1930s American designs (the Shvetsov Ash-82 derives from the Wright Cyclone for example) one can’t help but think they were cheating a bit. By contrast Soviet aerodynamic science was arguably better than that of the West. The USSR never found much use for the P-47s they were sent through lend-lease, regarding it as aerodynamically primitive, but they were astounded by its build quality and the powerplant design was intensively studied. The Soviets were perfectly happy to copy the best bits of other nations aircraft too – they bought a Ju 88 and a Dornier 215 from Germany before Hitler invaded and the Ju 88 in particular considerably influenced the design of the Tu-2.”
Did Soviet aircraft design influence other nations’ aircraft design?
“Not much to be honest. Or at least not directly anyway. The Polikarpov I-16’s impressive showing over Spain could be argued to have spurred the speedy and very successful development of the Messerschmitt 109 but the fact that it was the world’s first low wing, cantilever monoplane with a retractable undercarriage seems to have gone largely unnoticed when it appeared in the early 30s. To be fair, Soviet aircraft didn’t get out much. Later on, the Yak-3 had a sufficiently impressive combat performance to provoke a Luftwaffe general directive to ‘avoid’ combat with it below 5000 metres (which more or less ruled out all combat on the Eastern Front) but the Germans never attempted to emulate the Russian aircraft, even if grudgingly impressed by it. Japan got hold of a LaGG-3 but didn’t think much of it, which was quite reasonable as the LaGG was a pretty terrible aircraft.”
Why was so much fighting at low level on the Eastern Front?
“The simple answer is because neither side was particularly interested in strategic bombing (though both engaged in it a little) and the air war in the East saw the clash of the two greatest tactical air forces the world has ever seen. By contrast, the main thrust of the Allied air effort in the west from the Battle of Britain to D-day was strategic bombing, effective anti aircraft defences had forced bombers to operate higher and higher to survive and therefore it became a relatively high-altitude theatre. But if you look at what the 9th AF and 2 TAF were doing in the west from D-day onwards you see a similar situation emerge as in the East, a lot of low-level tactical short range CAS by fighter bombers and heavy employment of medium bombers. It is no coincidence that the most numerous lend-lease bomber supplied to the Soviets was the Douglas A-20. This wasn’t what planners in the USSR were expecting though, as proved by the large scale production of the MiG-3, a dedicated high-altitude interceptor. The poor old MiG then got itself a pretty poor reputation by being employed almost exclusively in combat at an altitude for which it had not been designed which seems rather unfair.”
How important was Soviet air power to the defeat of Germany?
“The short answer is very. Was it as important as Western air power? Difficult to say. The Eastern Front is generally considered to have absorbed roughly 80% of the German war effort in total but this is not equally distributed amongst the fighting forces. If you look at German aircraft loss statistics, whilst there are peaks and troughs depending on what’s going on at any given time, the general rule is that the losses are split (very) roughly half and half between east and west. The Soviet air force was fighting initially at a qualitative and numerical disadvantage but domestic aircraft production capacity was huge (German intelligence disastrously underestimated it), vast numbers of Western aircraft were supplied to the USSR effectively for free, and aircrew training greatly improved from the dark days of 1941 for the next four years. By 1945 the Red Army was arguably the most effective combined arms fighting force in the world and you can’t deny the devastating effect that air power played in its eventual victory.”
So Russia bombed Berlin? What is the story?
“Just like everyone else in the interwar era, the USSR got simultaneously hugely excited by and terribly worried about the potential of long range bombing. The Soviets developed the impressive Tupolev TB-3 in the early thirties, a strategic bomber ahead of its time but then seemed to largely forget about strategic bombing. The TB-3 was still in service in 1941 but was looking distinctly long in the tooth and the Berlin mission, though well within the range capability of the TB-3 would probably have proved suicidal for the lumbering, fixed-gear Tupolev. It was decided nonetheless that in the first months of the Great Patriotic War that Berlin must be bombed as a morale boosting measure and to prove to the Germans that the Soviets could strike back in response to Luftwaffe bombing of Moscow. Weirdly, the first aircraft to do so were naval Ilyushin DB-3T torpedo bombers of the Red Banner Fleet as the commander of the Soviet naval aviation, S.F. Zhavoronkov, proposed a bombing strike on Berlin and formulated a plan during July 1941. Admiral Kuznetsov approved the plan and on 7 August 1941 fifteen DB-3Ts flew from the Baltic island of Ösel off the Estonian coast. Five aircraft bombed Berlin, the others attacking secondary targets. German radio announced the raid as having been by British aircraft and stated five aircraft had been shot down. In reality none had been lost (one aircraft crashed on landing). Further raids were made over the following weeks and during August the crews of two naval squadrons, made 86 sorties, bombed Berlin 33 times, dropping 311 bombs with a total weight of 36,050 kg. Berlin was visited by the four-engine Pe-8 bomber for the first time on 10 August 1941 and the Soviets regularly bombed the German capital, as well as other cities, for the duration of the war. The loss rate was staggeringly low by contemporary standards – in 1942, one Pe-8 was being lost for every 106 missions (it got worse later) but the numbers of aircraft involved was pathetic, there never being more than 30 operational Pe-8s at any given time and the efforts of the Soviet bombers were essentially unknown in the rest until comparatively recently. The fact that I own a book named ‘The Allied Bomber War 1939-45’ (published 1992) and it does not mention a single Soviet mission or aircraft in any of its 207 pages is fairly indicative.”
What is your fav Soviet aircraft and why?
“It changes on an almost daily basis. However I have always had a penchant for Polikarpov’s fighters. I like rotund aircraft and the I-16, I-15 and I-153 are certainly not sleek. For now I will say the I-153 Chaika. I love that it’s a biplane fighter yet it replaced a monoplane fighter at the front and aesthetically it is unique, a gull-winged, retractable undercarriage biplane which from many angles resembles a barrel.”
Tell us about your book
“It’s a straightforward primer on Soviet aircraft of World War II, part of a series of Technical Guides published by Amber Books, fellow Hush Kit alumnus Thomas Newdick wrote the German entries in the series. I like to think of it as the modern equivalent of those excellent little Salamander Guides in the 1980s. Although it is relatively compact I hope I’ve got some fun nuggets in there, hopefully there’s some aircraft you’ve never heard of (the Shche-2 anyone?) and some surprises: perhaps the world’s first rotorcraft to see combat action? I have also tried to approach every type with an open mind, refer to Russian sources and not just repeat the clichés, fabrications and omissions I read over and over again in the (Western) books of my childhood. Oh and although it’s named ‘Russian Aircraft of World War II’ it is actually Soviet aircraft but the publisher informed me that the word ‘Soviet’ makes people automatically think of the Cold War and who am I to argue?”
What should I have asked you?
“How many Soviet aircraft were designed by people in prison? – the answer is a lot. My next book is on German aircraft of the First World War and it’s surprisingly pleasant not having to deal with designers being thrown in gulags or shot because their aircraft wasn’t immediately perfect.”
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Which aircraft is most like you and why?
“Blackburn Skua: British, mildly interesting in a way, and possessed of much potential in its early days but ultimately flawed, outdated and slow.”