- - Friday, March 30, 2012


By Von Hardesty and Ilya Grinberg
University Press of Kansas, $34.95, 305 pages

Uncountable books have detailed Soviet resistance to German invaders in World War II, concentrating chiefly on the tenacity of the Red army foot soldier and the development of a highly professional armored corps. But relatively little is said about the Soviet air force (or VVS for its Russian-language name, Voenno-nozdushnyye Sily).

Much of this neglect was because of the inaccessibility of Soviet documents other than wartime propaganda boasts and untrustworthy memoirs of pilots and other officers. Historians such as Von Hardesty of the National Air and Space Museum made a stab at an overall study in a 1982 book that drew heavily on memoirs of German veterans who had fought against the Soviets. But, as he concluded, those papers “were a mix of accurate storytelling and transparent bias.”

Mr. Hardesty is back, this time with Ilya Grinberg, a professor at the State University of New York College at Buffalo. Now, the authors are able to rely on what they term “an avalanche of declassified Russian archival sources, combat documents and statistical information” made available over the past three decades.

Even students of the war might be surprised at some of their findings. Based on their study, the VVS “emerged as the largest operational-tactical air force in the world by the end of the war.” The VVS played a critical role in battle after battle, from the defense of Moscow through Stalingrad and the tank offenses that finally drove the Wehrmacht out of the USSR.

But the VVS got off to a rocky start when Germans attacked in June 1941, suffering tremendous losses in the first frantic hours of warfare. Dictator Josef Stalin, as has been established, ignored warnings from putative allies such as the British that an attack was coming. He scoffed, saying the British were trying to lure him into the war to stem their looming defeat at German hands. Hence, when German reconnaissance planes flew over his airfields and other installations, he ordered that they not be molested. Stalin’s prewar purges of the military also cost the VVS in terms of skilled leadership.

So when German attack planes appeared, they found hundreds of VVS aircraft - bombers, fighters and reconnaissance planes - “parked in long rows, as if on display.” In the course of about 20 minutes, the Soviet western air district lost 347 planes of 409 deployed.

Losses were equally severe elsewhere. Even now, exact figures are difficult to come by. German claims - up to 1,200 aircraft the first days - were so high that even the air commander, Hermann Goering, “a man often prone to hyperbole,” suspected exaggeration. He demanded further study. “The subsequent recount, to his amazement, added 300 Soviet aircraft to the original figure.” (One Russian archive source cited puts the two-day loss at 3,822 aircraft, versus just 78 enemy downed.)

As a crash aircraft-manufacturing program got under way, surviving aviators made do with what they could. Some pilots - volunteers - opted to ram German aircraft. Relatively slow-moving German bombers were a favored target. The Soviet pilot did this by “approaching from the rear, adjusting the speed to the enemy plane at close quarters, and then pushing the tip of his propeller into the opponent’s rudder or elevator.” Once contact was made, the Soviet pilot would drop away quickly. Results were never predictable. “Frequently both fell into a spin.” As the authors write, ramming “reflected a higher calling of patriotism, the willingness to place one’s own life in harm’s way to achieve a tactical victory.”

A frantic building program in the Urals, far from the battlefronts, in time enabled the VVS to achieve numerical parity with the Luftwaffe. Hitler’s military, meanwhile, was so overextended that his air force could not replace lost planes. The Soviets also made wide use of camouflage to conceal likely targets. “The Kremlin walls were disguised as apartment facades with the use of contrasting colors.” Netting was draped over the golden cupolas. “Lenin’s tomb was reshaped with scaffolding to appear as a two-story building.”

One area in which the VVS remained deficient was the development of a long-range attack bomber such as the American B-29 Superfortress. Late in the war, a grudging Stalin agreed to permit U.S. planes to land in the USSR after extended bombing missions aimed at both German and Japanese targets. The result: one of the more celebrated aircraft “hijackings” of the 20th century (although Mr. Hardesty and Mr. Grinberg are too polite to use the term).

In the summer and fall of 1944, three B-29s landed on Soviet territory in the Far East after missions against Japan. Soviet air officials quickly termed the planes “a gift from God” and refused to permit their return to their American bases. Stalin ignored heated diplomatic protests and went along with his military. As the authors note, “His … decision to copy the American bomber - what became one of the most celebrated exercises in technological transfer - would have a profound influence on the evolution of post-war Soviet airpower.”

Technicians carefully disassembled two of the B-29s and tediously replicated each part. What eventually emerged were close to being B-29 clones. First put on public display at an air show in August 1947, the planes stunned Western military air attaches. They also caused a sudden increase in Cold War tensions: For the first time, the Soviets had a bomber with the ability to carry nuclear weapons on one-way missions to New York or Chicago. Dozens of a modified version of the plane were based in Soviet Asia once the Korean War broke out.

“Red Phoenix Rising” has perhaps more detail than will interest the lay reader. But as war history, it is first-rate.

Joseph C. Goulden is author of “The Dictionary of Espionage” (Dover, 2012).

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