Red Phoenix Rising: The Soviet Air Force in World War2 – A book review part 1

Pop culture has familiarized most of us with World War 2 from the Western Front, mostly from the U.S. and British. In particular thousands upon thousands of books have been written on the allied air war on Germany on the western front.

Details on what happened between the Red Air Force and the Werchermat are somewhat few and far between. There was one written attempt to tackle some of this in a book called “Red Phoenix: The Rise of Soviet Air Power, 1941-1945.” Red Phoenix, like many books written about anything on that side if the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, got most of its information from sources outside of the USSR. In particular most of the first hand air combat accounts derive from Luftwaffe (and some Allied) sources.  Information inside the USSR was limited to western that were in the USSR during WW2, defectors, Western wartime archives  or intelligence reports made public in the West.


Red Phoenix Rising is the first serious academic work done on the Soviet Air Force in World War 2 in which the writers had access to Soviet World War 2 archives. This gives us a glimpse into what was going in a relatively little known theatre of aspect of World War 2 in the air.

Starting with the Introduction and Chapter 1 an interesting juxtaposition is made about airpower employment between the Allied and Axis powers in Europe.

Both the U.S. and U.K. placed a major emphasis on the destruction of the enemy’s strategic ability to wage war. The U.S. in particular had a huge bomber fleet that would attack targets far away from the forward line of troops. The effectiveness of the raids has been the subject of debates for years and have formed the basis our modern strategic bomber fleet. In fairness geography dictated a focus strategic airpower. The U.S. and U.K. air forces needed a way to bring the war to the Axis in a relatively quick manner.

Germany and the Soviet Union employed their airpower primarily in direct support of troops on the ground. Bombers like the HE-111 and the Soviet Pe-2 lacked the range to attack strategic in the Urals and Berlin respectively. The primary task of these air forces was to support the ground troops and were less constrained by geography (there was ongoing research in Germany to develop the so-called Amerika bombers).

The Soviets, until a few months before the war were still reeling under the Bolshevik revolution. As a result, like most parts of Soviet society at that time, the military was largely disorganized. Purges thinned the ranks of the most capable officers. Those that weren’t purged were too in fear for their lives to really advocate preparedness for what they saw was a coming war with Germany.  For the first 3 months of 1941 pilots in the VVS averaged 15.5 hours. Training they did receive was simplistic and unrealistic. Most VVS hardware was obsolescent I-16 and I-153 fighter aircraft. Modernization of the VVS was difficult at best although some types were equipped with more modern types like the IL-2 and MiG-3. As of June 22, 1941 932 pilots out of 2800 had transitioned to newer types of airplanes.

Germany on the other hand was prepared to fight a short and fast war, by-passing areas of resistance as they had done in Poland and France. Luftwaffe pilots enjoyed good training and high morale and in the early phases of the war good hardware.  Early models of the Bf-109 and Bf-110 were still some of the best fighters and bombers in their class. The Ju-87 Stuka dive bomber had become obsolescent in during the Battle of Britain the previous year (it was slow and vulnerable to rear hemisphere attacks during the dive).

At the start of Operation Barbarossa, losses on the Soviet side were horrendous. According to the book some sources say the Soviet Air Force (VVS) lost as many as about 3,922aircraft to a paltry 78 or so admitted on the Luftwaffe side for the first week alone (!). Most VVS units were caught totally off guard on the ground. At many Soviet airfields planes were lined up in nice and rows that made excellent staffing targets for Luftwaffe aircraft.

Despite what was an undeniable catastrophe on the Soviet side, there were pockets of VVS success at the unit level. The 123rd IAP (Air Regiment), led by Major Boris Surin, made preparations as early as May 1941 and as a result, gained considerable success during the Luftwaffe attack on the city of Brest. The 123rd fought 10 separate engagements in the skies over Brest, inflicting substantial loss of Luftwaffe aircraft.

The Soviet Air Force at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa suffered from many of the same readiness problems that plagued many of the Allied airforces at the beginning of World War 2. The country was still in the middle of being transformed to the socialist workers paradise that the great contradictions of Communism paradoxically could never make happen. The military, like the rest of the society suffered from a lack of the basics, food and fuel. There were some in the Soviet military command, Stavka, that saw war with Germany as coming all too soon. The Luftwaffe was already flying reconassiance sorties over VVS airbases. Strangely VVS pilots were only permitted to “escort” these flights, not to shoot them down. Some Stavka members saw the signing of the Non-Aggression Pact as a way to buy time to modernize the VVS but again no one could agree on how this was to be done.

Red Phoenix starts off strong and I’m looking forward to learning more and I’ll have further posts about this book as I read on.

Red Phoenix Rising: The Soviet Air Force in World War2 is available for sale at Amazon here.

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