Here's What You Need to Know: Soviet fliers knew that on approaching Berlin they would face a dense ring of antiaircraft defenses with crews experienced in battling British air raids.
On July 22, 1941, exactly one month after invading the Soviet Union, German aviation conducted its first air strike on Moscow. Squadrons of German bombers fought through the swarms of Soviet fighters, searchlights, and air defense artillery barrages to drop over 100 tons of bombs on the Soviet capital. Even though the damage to the city was minor, Soviet Premier Josef Stalin could not allow the attack on his capital to go unanswered.
The war was going badly for the Soviet Union, and Stalin needed some symbolic act to raise the morale of his people. With this in mind, he ordered a retaliatory air attack on the German capital of Berlin to demonstrate to the Soviet population and the rest of the world that the Soviet Union was still very much in the war.
However, as the Red Army continued steadily retreating under the German onslaught, the distance from the front lines to Berlin stretched to over 600 miles. With the airfields of the Red Air Force relocating farther and farther east, this placed the German capital just out of reach for the majority of Soviet long-range bombers. The Soviet Navy turned out to be in a unique position to carry out Stalin’s orders, and headquarters staff of the Naval Air Forces under Lt. Gen. Semyon F. Zhavoronkov came up with an ambitious and extremely dangerous but marginally workable plan.
Since the annexation of the small state of Estonia in 1940, Soviet forces had garrisoned the Moonzund Archipelago, located in the Baltic Sea west of the Estonian capital city of Tallinn. From Saaremaa, the main island of the Moonzund Archipelago, Berlin was roughly 550 miles and under four hours of flight time away. With precise planning and preparation, Naval Ilyushin DB-3 medium bombers could fly to Berlin and back, with less than 20 minutes of fuel remaining upon return. Any deviation off course, equipment malfunction, or extension of flight time could force the bombers to land in the water or in occupied territory.
The closest friendly territory on the mainland was a small and rapidly shrinking Soviet beachhead around Tallinn, a major base of the Soviet Baltic Fleet. Saaremaa Island featured two dirt airstrips. One was located roughly in the center of the island near the village of Kagul, and a second, smaller strip was near the village of Aste to the southeast. A squadron of old Polikarpov I-153 “Chaika” biplane fighters was stationed at Kagul. Neither runway was long enough at the time to accommodate the long-range bombers but could be extended without much difficulty.
General Zhavoronkov presented his plan to his superior officer, commander of the Soviet Navy Admiral Nikolay G. Kuznetsov, who approved the proposal and set up a meeting for the two of them with Stalin. At the meeting on July 26, 1941, Stalin approved Zhavoronkov’s plan and placed the general in command of the effort dubbed Operation B for Berlin.
Using Torpedo Bombers for the Task
General Zhavoronkov selected the 1st Torpedo Bomber Regiment from the Baltic Sea Fleet to provide the majority of personnel and aircraft for the mission. Additional aircraft and personnel would come from an Army aviation regiment. At the start of the war, the Red Air Force was not an independent service, but a subordinate force with the Army and Navy. Hence, its full name was the rather cumbersome Military Air Forces of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army (VVS RKKA).
The 1st Torpedo Bomber Regiment was an experienced unit with many of its pilots having participated in the Winter War of 1939 with Finland. After the German invasion, the regiment had been constantly engaged since June 24, the third day of war, and had suffered heavy casualties in the process. Flying sometimes three to four missions a day, mainly against ground targets, the regiment experienced heavy strain on men and machines. Ironically, the regiment’s home base near Leningrad was close to a small village called Bezzabotnoye, meaning “carefree place” in Russian. Its commander, Colonel Evgeniy N. Preobrazhenskiy, an experienced pilot and officer, was placed in charge of flight operations, with General Zhavoronkov in overall control.
The 1st Torpedo Bomber Regiment was equipped with several models of DB-3 medium bomber, mainly upgraded DB-3F and torpedo adapted DB-3T versions. Depending on a particular aircraft’s configuration, it carried a crew of three or four consisting of pilot, navigator, and one or two gunners, one of whom doubled as radio operator. A further improved version of this aircraft, Dal’niy Bombardirovschik, meaning “long-range bomber,” was redesignated IL-4 in 1942 in honor of its designer, Sergei Ilyushin. This twin-engine aircraft, comparable to the German Heinkel He-111 bomber, remained the workhorse of the Red Air Force’s long-range aviation during World War II, with over 6,200 machines produced. The aircraft’s two M-87B radial engines had a service life of up to 150 hours before an overhaul was needed. However, the regiment’s high tempo of operations prevented adequate maintenance from being performed on its engines. This, coupled with the distance involved in the round-trip flight to Berlin, reduced the aircraft’s lift capacity to only 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of bombs, half their nominal payload of 1,000 kilograms (2,200 pounds).
Colonel Preobrazhenskiy, his political deputy Grigoriy Z. Oganezov, and chief navigator Captain Pyotr I. Khokhlov, selected a task force of 30 crews and 20 aircraft plus approximately 200 technical support personnel for Operation B. After three days of hasty preparations and last-minute repairs, the task force took to the air on August 4, on the way to Saaremaa Island.
Planning for the mission was conducted in conditions of such utmost secrecy that the pilots and navigators did not know their destination at takeoff but were required to follow Preobrazhenskiy’s instructions while in flight. General Zhavoronkov was on board the lead aircraft to oversee operations in person at Saaremaa. Technical support personnel, along with their equipment, aircraft fuel, and bombs, were ferried over by ship.
Kagul airfield, the new home of Preobrazhenskiy’s task force, had just been completed in the spring of 1941. Its grassy runway was located in a large meadow surrounded on three sides by Estonian homesteads and bordered on the fourth by an elm forest with many large boulders scattered in front of the tree line. Situated in an exposed forward position, the airfield was vulnerable to German air attacks, defended only by four antiaircraft batteries.
The Moonzund Archipelago, which consists of four large islands and scores of smaller ones, was garrisoned by roughly 25,000 Soviet troops who guarded nearly 500 miles of shoreline. Multiple west-facing strongpoints were established to control the passage between the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Riga. Some of the defensive works featured large-caliber artillery, including 406mm guns mounted in naval turrets.
The fighter squadron already based at Kagul had also been heavily engaged since the beginning of the war, with only 15 aircraft remaining of the original 27. Surviving machines were redirected from supporting ground operations on the mainland to flying combat air patrol over Saaremaa Island to protect the long-range bombers. In addition, two Chyetverikov Che-2/MDR-6 floatplanes were assigned to Preobrazhenskiy’s command for reconnaissance and the rescue of pilots downed in the water.
Planners of the upcoming operation understood that once the bombing of Berlin commenced, the Germans, knowing the technical capabilities of Soviet long-range bombers, would quickly figure out where the attacks had originated. Therefore, safeguarding the bombers on the ground became an issue of paramount importance. Merely dispersing aircraft around the airfield perimeter and hiding them under camouflage netting would be insufficient.
Navigating in the Night
By late July 1941, the Moonzund Islands were in an exposed position, within easy reach of German tactical aviation from the Estonian mainland across the shallow and narrow straights. To reduce aircraft vulnerability at Saaremaa, individual shelters covered with camouflage nets would be built next to Estonian homes around the airfield. Two construction battalions immediately set to leveling taxiways to each shelter, filling potholes, and cutting down trees. Once the bombers at Kagul airfield were sheltered and the airstrip extended to 3,600 feet, construction battalions moved to the Aste airfield to similarly prepare and expand an airstrip there to receive the second group of long-range bombers, which would come from the Army aviation regiment. One of the four available antiaircraft batteries was reassigned to Aste airfield as well.
Soviet fliers knew that on approaching Berlin they would face a dense ring of antiaircraft defenses with crews experienced in battling British air raids. A vast array of flak artillery, fighter aircraft, and powerful searchlights reaching to almost 20,000 feet, defended the German capital. Therefore, the heavily laden bombers would have to make the majority of their journey in darkness, placing them over Berlin at the optimal time of between 0100 and 0200 hours. To meet this schedule, the bombers would have to take off between 2100 and 2200 hours and return between 0400 and 0500 hours. To avoid German fighters, the majority of flight time would be at the altitude of 23,000 feet.