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Nations at war
Hardesty, Von and and Ilya Grinberg. Red Phoenix Rising: The Soviet Air Force in World War II. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2012
xx + 428 pages
Acknowledgments; Abbreviations and Terms; Introduction; maps; photos; Notes; Bibliography; Index
Appendices: Characteristics of VVS Western Frontier Military Districts, June 1 1941; Number of Sorties Performed by Soviet Aviation during the Great Patriotic War; Numbers and Type VVS Combat Sorties in Eight of the Most Significant Operations; Quantity and Composition of Frontal Aviation; Deliveries of Aircraft and Engines; Deliveries of Foreign Aircraft; The Air Armies; Top Fifty Soviet Aces
Sequel? Revised edition? Entirely new work? Hardesty's 1982 publication, Red Phoenix, contained 288 pages divided into eight chapters. The new book, co-authored with Ilya Grinberg, amounts to significantly more pages divided into seven very similar chapters.
|Red Phoenix, 1982
||Red Phoenix Rising, 2012
|The Arduous Beginning
||An Arduous Beginning
|Where Was Our Air Force?
|Battle for Moscow
||The Air Battle for Moscow
|Over the Kuban
||Over the Kuban
|At Full Stride
||At Full Stride
|Barbarossa to Berlin: A Summing Up
||Triumph and Vulnerability
While the structure remains almost identical, the content of each chapter has changed radically, with new text containing the results of fresh and noteworthy research, more specific details, and fewer generalities.
Nevertheless, the book doesn't exactly get off to a flying start. Rather like the Soviet Air Force during successive stages of the Great Patriotic War, the beginning seems surprisingly unimpressive, but successive chapters gradually improve to a much more effective level.
The book opens by discussing the Luftwaffe assault on 22 June and Soviet unpreparedness, highlighted by uneven pre-war efforts to modernize VVS aircraft and infrastructure. Despite extremely heavy losses, the authors note how some Soviet air units immediately began undertaking offensive missions. Overall, these attacks seem not to have accomplished a great deal, and they mostly suffered significant casualties in the process, but the authors cite some hasty sorties inflicting notable losses on the Germans. On the other hand, while Hardesty and Grinberg are always fastidious about labeling victory tallies as "according to Soviet records" or "per official Soviet claims," they can seldom corroborate those wartime figures. (Joel Hayward's Stopped at Stalingrad also noted this issue with Red Phoenix.)
Within the first few pages, the authors also tackle the issue of Soviet air-to-air ramming attacks, which they indicate emerged right away. (The authors revisit the same topic on multiple occasions in the next few chapters.)
One of the most alarming tactics employed by Soviet pilots was the taran, or the deliberate ramming of an enemy plane. In fact, the 123rd IAP initiated this perilous maneuver as early as 1000 hours on that first day: in an attempt to save fellow pilot G. N. Zhidov from enemy attack, P. S. Ryabtsev successfully downed a German aircraft with this extraordinary tactic near Brest and then managed to parachute to safety. As the air battles unfolded, it turned out, he was not alone: on the same day, I. I. Ivanov of the 46th IAP rammed a German He 111 bomber with his I-16 fighter in the Zholkva region, a move he employed after his ammunition had been exhausted. However, Ivanov did not survive this bold exploit. The taran can be traced to August 26, 1914, at the beginning of World War I, when famed Russian aviator P. N. Nesterov rammed the plane of Austrian Baron von Rosenthal. Both Ryabtsev and Ivanov, along with a recorded eight other fighter pilots, followed in the tradition of Nesterov on the first day of Operation Barbarossa.
The taran required great skill and no small amount of courage to execute. The deed was always a voluntary act. In the popular mind, it reflected a higher calling of patriotism, the willingness to place one's own life in harm's way to achieve a tactical victory. The pilot consciously embraced this option only in extreme situations. Typically, the favorite script for the taran called for the ramming of the control surfaces of an enemy aircraftwith the slow-moving German bombers being the preferred targets. The Soviet pilot accomplished this feat by approaching from the rear, adjusting to the speed of the enemy plane at close quarters, and then pushing the tip of his propeller into the opponent's rudder or elevator. As soon as firm contact was made, the Soviet pilot would drop away quickly, fearing he might become entangled in the stricken aircraft as it spun out of control. The resulting impact on the enemy aircraft and on the Soviet fighter was never predictable. Frequently, both fell into a spin. If propeller damage was minimal, the Soviet pilot might even retain control of his fighter and land safely.
Ryabtsev's heroic exploit on June 22, like all ramming maneuvers, differed from the kamikaze attacks employed by the Japanese toward the end of World War II in the Pacific, although both were motivated by patriotism and desperation. For the Soviets, the tactic pivoted on certain practical considerations. While never an official directive, the taran became a live option when there was no hope of knocking down an enemy plane by other means. As noted, if the Soviet pilot was as skillful as he was bold, he might survive, as did Ryahtsev and many others, by parachuting to safety after executing the high-risk maneuver. Some chose to fly their now crippled aircraft to the ground, which proved to be the less predictable option. For the Soviets, the trade-off in the brutal calculus of air combat meant the loss of an obsolete prewar I-16 or I-15 for the downing of a modern He 111 or Ju 88. In time, ramming became an established, if unconventional, air combat technique.
The first chapter also devotes several pages to the VVS offensive against targets in Finland starting on 25 June, introducing readers to the local aviation commander, General Alexander A. Novikov, who went on to command the Red Air Force. Hardesty and Grinberg quote some impressive claims about VVS successes, but the authors concede the attacking aircraft suffered fairly heavy losses while actually destroying relatively few planes. There's no mention of how these air attackscoming before Finland began operationsserved as one of the prime justifications the Finnish government used for going to war against the Soviet Union in 1941. In a way, that focus on individual air missions against Finland, rather than larger strategic considerations, exemplifies the level at which the book is mostly built.
Most readers will find the first chapter the least effective in the book, perhaps because massive losses and total chaos resulted in a dearth of Soviet records. The initial chapter tends to be a little vague, never quite sets the stage for the beginning of the air war, and doesn't really offer a clear, overall view of the situation.
Obviously, on such a huge front with thousands of planes organized into so many units, no one would expect a single book to comprehensively chronicle every aspect of the air war, but it feels like the authors don't always make much of an effort to review the issues of paramount importance in a systematic, orderly, top-down fashion. Instead, in the early going, they tend to leap from one event to another topic to a different mission in a slightly disjointed manner. The narrative improves considerably as the book goes along, but in some ways, given the relative lack of strategic commentary on the part of the authors, their volume might have been better titled "The Most Important Air Battles of the Great Patriotic War."
The second chapter, covering the battle for Moscow, serves as an example. It begins to move toward stronger material, but the authors continue to spend many paragraphs on the ground offensive and Luftwaffe operations, making the pages feel more like a description of the battle rather than a history of broader issues in the evolution of the Soviet Air Force. Likewise, most chapters tend to cover a single specific air battle, with much information on Luftwaffe units and ops, rather than strictly focusing on VVS units and activities. While it's seldom a good idea to exclude the enemy from the story, sometimes it seems like the VVS takes a backseat here. Even in the chapter on Stalingrad, which contains much detail about Soviet organization and tactics, the authors write quite a few pages on the German side of the battle and the aerial supply effort in particular.
In the Stalingrad chapter, however, the authors also take some time to step back from their hitherto fairly tight focus on the tactical conduct of air battles in order to review the changing organization of the VVS, including creation of air armies and the evolution of the strategic bombing force. These pages also cover the process by which air regiments were reduced in size andfor the most parteach one re-equipped with a single model of aircraft. This material is handled quite well and transcends some of the more episodic content of previous chapters. Following those pages, the authors turn their attention to the conflagration atand aboveStalingrad.
In sum, the Stalingrad chapter proves the strongest so far, with a better overall grasp of the air battle and much important information about how the Soviets waged it, including, for example, details about the experimental ground-based radio guidance network constructed to help control VVS air ops around the city on the Volga. This chapter makes an excellent companion to Stopped at Stalingrad: The Luftwaffe and Hitler's Defeat in the East, 1942-1943 by Joel Hayward, and at this point the authors begin to take the book to a higher level. They conclude the chapter by looking at some representative Soviet air units and airmen (including Vasiliy Stalin, son of the most powerful man in the USSR), and their experiences during the Stalingrad campaign.
For the VVSin terms of organization and tacticsthere was the challenge to exploit the exposed and weakened enemy. Stalingrad provided an occasiona fiery oneto implement the 1942 reforms. In their larger meaning, the Stalingrad air operations compelled the VVS, for the first time, to organize and coordinate large-scale efforts in support of several Fronts. The air blockade was more than a token effort to intercept German transports crossing to the pocket from Morozovskaya and Tatsinskaya airfields; it involved a complex system of fighter interception, ground assault, and bomber sorties in full coordination with ground operations. Four air armies along with the ADD and elements of the PVO, were committed to the blockade, enhanced by the use of a radio control system. The logistical problems associated with the prolonged Stalingrad conflict placed enormous strain on the Soviets. Ruthless mobilization measures made the difference.
Stalingrad demonstrated the elaborate requirements for the conduct of large-scale air operations: administrative centralization; the creation of large, mobile air armies for rapid deployment; close coordination and liaison with ground forces; and the mobilization of logistical support. For the first time, the VVS command structure administered four air armies and five ADD divisions over a vast area in a five-month air campaign, shifting from strategic defense to a coordinated air offensive and air blockade.
For the VVS, the Stalingrad conflict brought honors and recognition. A total of nine air divisions were given the designation "Guards." Seventeen pilots received the highest decoration for bravery, Hero of the Soviet Union. Another 1,000 medals were awarded to VVS personnel for their participation in the air war at Stalingrad. The official Soviet claim was up to 3,000 German combat and transport aircraft downed (1,000 during defensive operations, and 2,000 during offensive operations). This expansive figure stood in contrast to the Germans' admission of the loss of 488 aircraft. Actual Soviet losses were high: 2,000 aircraft lost during the defensive stage, and 2,769 lost during offensive operations. The VVS tally also included 102,392 sorties, of which 67,500 were in the defensive stage and 34,892 in the offensive stage.
Chapter Four investigates the relatively unknown air battles over the Kuban bridgehead in the spring of 1943, during which, according to the authors, the VVS reached a new height of maturity and came close to matching the Luftwaffe as a seasoned, technologically savvy, and tactically competent opponent. Hardesty and Grinberg refer to this as the largest series of air battles on the Russian front to date. New developments included smokescreens laid by bombers to cloak advancing ground forces, the "closed circle" formation for bombers, and the emergence of talented Soviet fighter aces. This chapter also includes one paragraph about Spitfire fighters in Soviet service, noting "...after three months, the VVS withdrew its small number of Spitfires from the combat zones" but not offering any details about the experiment with British aircraft. The authors also mention female pilots in combat, but don't pursue that topic.
The chapter on Kursk, amounting to about fifty pages, provides an intensive operational/tactical history of the air campaign there, and probably stands as the fullest blow-by-blow account of air ops in the entire book. The material here compares favorably to the Kursk chapter in Duel for the Sky by Christopher Shores. Interestingly, in what must be an editing lapse, the authors write about a VVS raid conducted on 5 July on pages 239-240, and then write a strikingly similar account of the same raid all over again on page 250. The authors also write, regarding Soviet aircraft being grounded by poor weather conditions, "This alleviated the problems of the tank corps of General P. A. Rotmistrov's 5th Guards Tank Army, which attacked without air support and with only weak artillery support." The authors probably meant "exacerbated" rather than "alleviated." Even with a couple of editing lapses, the Kursk chapter proves especially strong.
In addition to the operational/tactical conduct of the air battle at Kursk, the authors in Chapter Five keep track of other developments, such as a directive issued by Novikov, the commander of the VVS, demonstrating that despite all its improvements, the Red Air Force still had more steps to take.
One example of how the VVS command learned from its recent experience was Novikov's directive of July 7, 1943, issued in the midst of intense fighting during defensive operations at Kursk. He noted the many positive structural and organizational changes in the VVS; then he analyzed the many significant shortcomings in air combat that had become apparent. Combat missions were frequently vague, without specific goals to be achieved. This resulted in a reduced sense of responsibility among air commanders at all levels. Aviators were more concerned with flying a sortie than accomplishing a mission. Operational planning was also far from ideal. Novikov mentioned a lack of creative approaches and a tendency to use standard means and methods (e.g., the same altitudes, directions, and attack methods). There was lack of prestrike reconnaissance of targets and their air defenses. Radio vectoring was actively deployed in all air armies but did not satisfy the requirements of modern aerial combat. The radio network was not wide enough, and its personnel did not possess the necessary qualifications. Fighter units rarely engaged in "free hunting" over enemy territory or the destruction of enemy aircraft during their approach to the front lines. The rigid linking of patrolling fighters to specific areas prevented Soviet pilots from active offensive air engagement. Unit commanders were advised to pay close attention to flying pairs' cohesiveness and coordination during combat. These pairs had to be permanent, which, according to Novikov, would increase the wingmen's responsibility for the actions of their leaders. He also called for the ability to create numerical superiority by implementing a tactic similar to one used by the Luftwaffethat is, radio calls for reinforcements during engagements. Another innovation suggested by Novikov in this directive was the development of "free hunter" tactics using the best pilots. The directive called for increased initiative among division and regiment commanders, providing them with greater flexibility in the planning of combat operations. Such operations required thorough planning and should not be treated as ad hoc measures. The directive paid special attention to the utilization of compact formations and the increased self-defense of strike groups due to the high density of defensive fire, as well as coordination with fighter escorts and antiaircraft artillery.
Chapter Six, "At Full Stride," continues in the same vein, but spread over larger geographical areas and a longer time frame, with less specific data about individual operations. At this point, the VVS had achieved near parity with the Luftwaffe in tactical proficiency and technical abilities, and also boasted a substantial numerical advantage. Hardesty and Grinberg make another interesting point about the comparative state of the German and Soviet air forces at the beginning of 1944. "The Luftwaffe survived as a fighting force in Russia in large part because of Soviet air doctrine, which dictated that the VVS operate as an integral part of an air-ground force. If the VVS had been released for extensive and sustained operations as an independent air arm, the attrition of German aircraft might have been higher."
The chapter goes on to cover, in varying depth, air operations over Finland, Korsun-Shevchenkovskiy, Romania, Belorussia, and Berlin. The chapter also discusses Polish, Czech, and other nationalities of airmen and units serving in the VVS during the late stages of the war. At this point, the Soviets suffered no shortage of aircraft or pilots, so these small national forces came into being strictly for political reasons. The authors write five pages about Operation Frantic, the ill-fated effort to use Soviet airbases for USAAF shuttle bombing. According to H and G's research, the disaster at Poltava in June 1944 was the result of poor coordination among Soviet forces rather than an intentional effort to teach the Yanks a lesson. The water seems slightly muddied when the authors go on to note that apparently the Soviets wanted the Americans to provide B-29 bombers to the VVS and utilize shuttle bombers against German targets on the Russian Front. It's not clear if Hardesty and Grinberg are claiming the Soviets expected the USAAF to use Russia-based B-29s against tactical targets, although Novikov was certainly anxious to get his hands on some Superfortresses.
As to the climactic battle of Berlin, the VVS massed 7500 warplanes in that sector alone, with a density of 50 aircraft per mile of frontage, demonstrating "...vast numbers, improved operational skills, and immense tactical firepower." For example, 899 aircraft of the 16th Air Army attacked Berlin during the afternoon of 25 April, and 590 aircraft of the same air army attacked the city again in the evening. On the 26th, more than 560 bombers of the 18th Air Army attacked the German capital. The story of the assault into Berlin makes abundantly clear the crucial role played by the air arm in achieving final victory.
The book's last chapter observes how at the moment of victory in Europe, Soviet leaders suddenly realizedtheir great achievements in airpower and the massive numbers of fighters and ground attack planes in action notwithstandingthey were technologically and qualitatively right back where they had been in the first half of 1941. Despite their vast inventories of aircraft, the Soviets found themselves lacking in critical areas such as long-range strategic bombers, jet fighters, and carrier-based air groups. In that sense, Novikov warned Stalin, the huge air fleets of 1945 were just as obsolescent and vulnerable to the western allies as the huge air fleets of 1941 that had been demolished by a superior opponent within the span of a few days. The last few pages of the book describe Soviet efforts to rapidly modernize the VVS by cloning three interned USAAF B-29 bombers and developing jet warplanes. Ironically, Alexander Novikov, who led the Air Force to victory, was arrested in 1946 and imprisoned for six years for allegedly failing to modernize his command.
Like the Soviet Air Force in June 1941, the book gets off to a slightly rocky start, but eventually hits its stride and, like the air armies of 1945, proves quite effective and impressive. Unlike those air armies, at its conclusion the book finds itself neither obsolescent nor vulnerable.
Leaving aside the issue of whether this should be considered a revised edition of Hardesty's 1982 work or a new book in its own right, different readers with different perspectives will come away with different opinions about its importance. To begin with, it's probably no exaggeration to say Red Phoenix Rising is the best English-language book ever written about the Soviet Air Force during World War II. On the other hand, there's not a huge amount of competition in that category, and few authors working in English have attempted to tackle a more-or-less full history of the VVS during the war. Furthermore, Red Phoenix Rising suffers somewhat in comparison to many other books about airpower during WWII. For example, A Time for Courage by John Terraine (published in the UK as The Right of the Line) is a magnificent history of the RAF during the war, and Red Phoenix Rising doesn't match that level of quality. Of course, Terraine had unfettered access to vastly more resourcesofficial documents, wartime records, memoirs, secondary sources, etcon which to build his knowledge and his work.
It's also important to keep in mind that Hardesty and Grinberg concentrate on the at-the-front, war-above-the-battlefield aspects of Soviet airpowerperhaps because that's what the VVS emphasized, or perhaps that was the main goal of the authors. In any event, they pay relatively scant heed to critical issues such as leadership, organization, recruitment, training, morale, science, industry, production, logistics, intelligence, and all the other factors compellingly enumerated by R. J. Overy in The Air War, 1939-1945 when he discusses the over-arching requirements for successful application of airpower.
So it's safe to say this is the best work so far on the topic, filled with facts and figures, sorties and missions, and battles and campaigns, but we also have to hope it's not the final word. Hardesty and Grinbergor any other researchers and authorshave farther to go before they can deliver a complete history of the VVS that equals or surpasses the best histories of the USAAF, the RAF, and the Luftwaffe.
Until then, we're happy to enjoy Red Phoenix Rising and appreciate the hard work undertaken by the authors to bring us to this useful milestone on the road to fully understanding the Soviet Air Force during the Great Patriotic War.
Not the best book ever published on the air war, but a solid effort and a welcome addition to any library covering the VVS. No one studying the Russo-German War can afford to miss this, whether it's a new book or a new edition.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from University Press of Kansas.
Thanks to UPK for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 13 May 2012
Copyright © 2012 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone