Here's What You Need to Know: It was history’s greatest air war.
The Eastern Front was the decisive theater of World War II in Europe. German premier Adolf Hitler’s disastrous 1941 order to invade the vast Soviet Union mired Nazi Germany in a bloody, grinding conflict it could not win.
And as Germany bled itself pale in Russia’s rubble-heaped cities and seemingly endless plains, the western Allies — Great Britain and the United States — gathered their strength for a counteroffensive that, by 1944, would see Germany under assault from three sides.
At the peak of the fighting in 1943, the Germans deployed some 3.9 million troops on the Eastern Front. The Soviets — 6.7 million troops. Tens of millions of combatants and civilians perished.
The fighting in the air was no less awesome … and brutal. That’s the subject of historian E.R. Hooton’s book War Over the Steppes.
Taking advantage of primary sources from both sides, Hooton surveys the eastern air war in broad strokes, periodically zooming in to highlight individual pilots and commanders in order to put a human face on the titanic aerial struggle.
German troops invaded in the summer of 1941 and found themselves overextended on Moscow’s outskirts by that November. Over the next three-and-a-half years, the Germans slowly fell back, exacting a terrible toll for each mile they surrendered.
Snapshots of aerial operations give readers a sense of scale. Between Dec. 7, 1941 and April 8, 1942, the Luftwaffe lost 859 aircraft in the east, according to Hooton. Another 636 were damaged. On March 30, 1942, German squadrons possessed 1,766 airplanes including high-quality Bf 109G fighters, Ju 87 dive-bombers and Hs 129 attack planes.
In the second quarter of 1942, German planes drank 388,000 tons of fuel — 55,000 tons more than Germany produced in those three months, compelling Berlin to dip into dwindling reserves. The Nazis’ lack of oil resources would prove to be one of their greatest weaknesses. Germany produced 40,329 new planes in 1944, nearly matching the 41,136 the Soviet Union manufactured in the same year — but by then there was no fuel to fill the German planes’ tanks.
The raw figures reflecting Soviet industrial output tended to mask fundamental problems. The USSR built plenty of planes — but of generally inferior designs compared to German models, Hooton explains.
“The dubious quality of Russian aircraft was graphically underlined on 3 June 1943, when Yak-9 fighters built at Factory 153 in Novosibirsk began shedding their skins — a fate soon shared by Yak-3s and Yak-7s, as well as Il-2s from Factory 30 in Moscow,” Hooton writes. “The fault was traced to an unauthorized modification to camouflage paint, which reacted to the glue and poor quality timber in the wings, causing delamination under stress.”
On July 1, 1943, the Soviet air force on the Eastern Front numbered 8,491 planes. Second-line air formations possessed an additional 2,662 aircraft. But organizational flaws in the Soviet training system, and heavy losses to the Luftwaffe’s crack pilots, meant there were only 5,732 aircrew — half as many fliers as planes.
And thus gas-starved German squadrons operating superior aircraft faced much larger Soviet units desperate for trained crews. In the course of millions of sorties over four years, tens of thousands of aircraft were destroyed. Tens of thousands of aircrew died.
For individual pilots and ground personnel, the war was an uncomfortable routine punctuated by moments of sheer terror and — all too often — violent death. Hooton relays fascinating details of Soviet airmen’s daily lives.
“The aircrew were billeted in huts and villages up to 10 kilometers from the airfield, sleeping in bunks or on straw mattresses, and often sharing their rations with their hosts. Ground crews lived in smoky dugouts with improvised stoves and had sleeping bags.
“All would rise before dawn, wash and clean their teeth with their finger, but airmen usually did not shave, then walk to the mess for breakfast of tea or coffee, rolls or black bread, sometimes with sausage, then go to the airfield.”
Pilots would check their planes to ensure that poorly-trained, underfed maintainers hadn’t overlooked some critical mechanical detail. After a mission briefing, they took off. If they survived, their reward on returning to base was a quick lunch — perhaps followed by another mission.
Dinner for the survivors was a comparatively lavish affair. Total daily rations for aircrew amounted to 3,450 calories per day — half a kilogram of meat, 100 grams each of sugar and butter, two bowls of porridge or mashed potatoes.
Ground crews got only 2,954 calories — an inadequate sum during the Soviet winter. “Aircrew often gave them their leftovers, although this was officially frowned upon,” Hooton writes. “Support units were often half-starved.”
Cigarettes were almost as important as food. “Pilots, who received 30 packets of cigarettes a month, would often share them with the ground crews. There were different brands for different ranks, with regimental commanders smoking ‘Kazbek,’ pilots ‘Beloe Morye (White Sea) and ground crew ‘Prostoi’ (Easy).”
Superstition abounded. It was bad luck to shave or be photographed before a mission. And God help you if you, a male pilot, had sex with one of the female maintainers. Baths were infrequent — sometimes as rare as once a month. Toilets were holes in the ground.
“In bad weather, [airmen] would remain in a dispersal hut playing cards, draughts, dominoes or chess, although some regiments such as 1st GvIAP banned cards. They might listen to gramophone or live music, for each regiment had a good accordion player, or even dance with girls in the regiment. At the end of the day men would chat and write home, then go to bed.”
And then awake and repeat until an accident or a crack German pilot ended the filthy, hungry, fearful routine — in history’s greatest air war.
This article first appeared in March 2020.
Image: Wikimedia Commons