141: By Air and By Sea


The Five Year Plans were important to the Red Army, they would also be very important to the Soviet Air Force and Navy.



Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Second World War Episode 141 - The Soviet Union Part 11 - By Air and By Sea. While the Soviet Red Army was hoping to use the new industrial capabilities created by the Five Year Plans to enable a new form of more mobile warfare to be fought, the Soviet Navy and Air Force were largely dependent on the actions of the Five Year Plan to allow for any real expansion of their capabilities. This expansion would happen, and for the Soviet Air Force they would be able to test their new aircraft and the Soviet theories of air power multiple times before the invasion of Poland. The two most important areas where this occurred were in two actions that the podcast has already covered: The Spanish Civil War and the actions against the Japanese in Mongolia. In both cases the Soviet Air Force would encounter serious challenges, just like ever other air force of the 1930s as it engaged in air battles. From these challenging beginnings, the Soviet Air Force would go on to be an important part of the fighting on the Eastern Front of the Second World War, although its contribution would be largely overshadowed by the Red Army. The Soviet Navy would only really begin to be built up later in the 1930s. After the Civil War the naval power of the Soviet Union had largely decayed down to a large number of very small ships, but very few larger vessels capable of projecting any kind of power, and certainly nothing that could stand up to a challenge from a more modern naval power. There would be smaller expansion plans put in place during the 1920s and early 1930s before, in the Third Five Year Plan and ambitions of the Soviet Navy would massively expand. All of those ambitions would come to nothing though, at least during the time period of the Second World War as the planned construction and much of the in progress construction was put in hold in 1941 due to the German invasion.

Soviet air power theories during the 1920s would play an important role in shaping what the future Soviet Air Force would be, and most of these theories revolved around the Red Army. From the beginning Soviet air theorists structured their theories around the idea that air power existed to enable and assist the ground formations to get their jobs done. The general roles envisioned for Soviet aircraft would be outlined in the 1929 regulations, stating that Soviet aircraft “cooperates with ground troops in the accomplishment of combat tasks, attacking enemy troops from the air and protecting them [friendly troops] from enemy air attacks through battle with the aerial enemy; it paralyses the enemy rear; conducts aerial reconnaissance of the enemy; serves the command and troops with reconnaissance, observation of artillery fire, and communications; and fulfils separate [samostoiatel’nii] operational missions.” During the late 1930s one of the core concepts of the Soviet Air Force was also that the entire idea of air superiority was a fleeting state of the battlefield that could shift quickly .This meant that the Soviet Air Force had to be able to project a lot of air power over a short period of time to gain that air superiority, the Red Army had to be able to use that window of air superiority to the maximum possible benefit, and then the Air Force had to be in a position to reassert that air superiority again. This would be true regardless of the effectiveness of early actions, even through air combat and strikes on enemy air fields, it would always be possible for the enemy to bring in more air power and reassert their position over the battlefield. These regulations would be enhanced and expanded in 1936, in what would be kind of the high point for Soviet air power doctrine in the prewar years. Within the 1936 regulations Soviet Air power was also tied in closely with the continuing push towards Deep Battle and Deep Operations, with the Air Force expected to perform “… simultaneous assault on enemy defences by aviation and artillery to the depths of the defence, penetration of the tactical zone of the defence by attacking units with widespread use of tank forces, and the violent development of tactical success into operational success with the aim of the complete encirclement and destruction of the enemy.” From the perspective of the Red Army the Air power component of Deep Operations was critical as the scope of the attacks would quickly outpace the ability of the artillery to keep up, and it was critical that the Army commanders be informed of the dispositions of the enemy via aerial reconnaissance while the actions that the Red Army were concealed from the enemy by Soviet fighters. These new regulations would show a slightly different focus for Soviet air power, slipping in a bit about independent missions, before going into greater detail about the types of targets that should be targeted to best support the Red Army. “Air formations, as well as carrying out independent operations, act in close conjunction with all-arms formations at operational and tactical levels. They undertake missions against enemy columns, troop concentrations and support elements (ground-attack aircraft and light bombers); bridges (bombers); and enemy aircraft and airfields (fighters, ground-attack aircraft, light bombers). They also cover friendly forces and dispositions.” This slight change is interesting because it showcases the fact that the Soviet Air Force was beginning to pull away from its more support focused roots and moving beyond being placed strictly in an enablement position for the Army. This change in some ways mimics some of the debates happening in other Air Forces around the world, with Air power theorists not disagreeing that they needed to help the ground forces, but there being some disagreement on the best way to provide support. For the Soviet Air Force, and the British Royal Air Force for example, the Air Force would believe that the best way to use air power was not to tie it too closely to ground formations, but instead to give aircraft slightly more freedom on longer range interdiction attacks behind enemy lines, either against ground targets or against the enemy air force. This change in the Soviet Air Force was primarily driven by two different changes: the growing industrial capabilities of the Soviet Union which allowed for larger and more powerful aircraft to be produced in larger numbers and the growth in support for the ideas of strategic bombing. These changes did not cause an instant shift in the path of Soviet aviation, but it did cause discussions that in say 1929 were generally settled to be re-opened and re-evaluated. From an industrial perspective the Soviet Air Force would very quickly expand in size, starting from under a thousand aircraft in 1928 all the way up to over 8,000 in 1936, and then that expand would just continue and accelerate from that point. Heavy bombing would also be a well discussed topic among the Soviet Air Force. In the early 1930s the general structure of Soviet air power was built around tactical and operational level actions, so everything was relatively close to what the army was doing. But the appeal of heavy bombers was always there, and the pull of devoted resources to large heavy bombers was almost irresistible. The general focus on larger bombers in the Soviet Air Force was slightly different than in some other air forces though, focusing more on heavy bombers as a way of delivering large bomb loads to targets relatively close to the fighting. And instead of focusing on hitting strategic targets far from the fighting, range was seen as a major enabler in terms of flexibility. Longer ranges allowed for a single squadron to be based further from the front, making more space for shorter range aircraft closer to the fighting, at it also allowed each aircraft to cover more distance along the front, allowing for more flexibility. The developments of heavy bombers, and on a large scale without about a third of the Soviet Air Force in 1937 being heavy bombers, allowed for the structure of missions to be changed, with an increased focus on heavy bombers being used for strikes on enemy air fields to destroy their ability to project air power. The ideal scenario was seen as a large operation involving large numbers of heavy bombers, along with escorting fighters and even some close support aircraft as well, with the hope being that each type of aircraft would bring their own strengths to the attacks on airfields.

The Soviet Air Force would have multiple opportunities to test their air power theories during the 1930s. The first of these opportunities would come during the Spanish Civil War. Much like the Germans and Italians, the Soviet Union would send both aircraft and pilots to fly in Spain, in the Soviet case for the Republican forces against the Germans and Italians who flew for the Nationalists. When the first Soviet fighters arrived they were the best aircraft in the skies of Spain, particularly the I-16 which was better than the German aircraft before the Me-109 arrived in 1938. The arrival of the superior German fighter would cause the Soviets to push forward with developments on a new generation of fighter in 1939. The actions in Spain also provided first hand experience that would disprove one of the theories that had been gaining traction in the previous years, the idea that bombers were impervious to fighters and could bomb largely with impunity against enemy targets. The basis for this idea was the fact that before the generation of monoplane fighters that would arrive in the late 1930s bombers were often faster than fighters, or close enough to be able to stay far enough ahead as the fighters tried to intercept. This idea, and the general vulnerability of unescorted bombers would be proven over Spain, although many nations would make the same mistakes again in the first years of the Second World War. With the Spanish Civil War turning decisively against the Republicans, Soviet support would drop before finally ending before the final victory of the Nationalists. By then in May 1939 another round of experience would be found, this time in the vastness of Mongolia. In this area the Soviet pilots would come up against Japanese aircraft, but not for the first time. Before the fighting at Khalkin Gol and Nomonhan, Soviet pilots would be in action against Japanese pilots over China, with the Soviets being a key supporter of Chang-Kai Shek against the Japanese for much of the 1930s. Over Khalkin-Gol one of the major challenges of the Soviet Air Force was uncovered, and that was the lack of ability of the Air Force to properly share experience between pilots and squadrons, and then put that experience to use in future actions. This would cause General Zhukov to pull in experienced pilots to share their knowledge of the actions over Spain and China. These lessons would then be put to the test of Nomonhan, where the Soviet aircraft would do quite well, even though the Japanese aircraft would put a tremendous amount of effort into trying to bomb the Soviet airfields, a great example of how hard it was to really bomb an airfield out of usefulness. One interesting part of the Soviet experiences over Mongolia, is that the lightly protected Japanese aircraft would cause the Soviets to strongly favor machine gun armed fighters, which were more than capable of dealing with the Japanese aircraft. This would become a bit more of a problem in later years when faced with better protected European aircraft. Air combat over Finland would present a slightly different challenge. In the Winter War the number of aircraft involved would be higher, and because of this the average experience of Soviet pilots would be lower. This made it harder to maintain the same level of performance as what was seen in the later stages of the fighting in Mongolia, where the numbers involved were small enough that the pilots were often hand picked for their skills. By the start of the Winter War, the Soviet Air Force was also suffering under the same expansion induced stresses as the Red Army. The their numbers expanded, it was hard to find enough officers and to provide all pilots with as much training as they previously received before being put into combat. And the expansion was impressive, both in terms of men in the Air Force, but also in raw numbers of aircraft. By 1941 Soviet Industry was producing over 1,600 aircraft every month and was 4 times more than what the Germans were producing at the same time. Truly impressive given where the Soviet aviation industry was just a decade before, and every aircraft would be needed after June 1941.


After the Russian Civil War, the Soviet Navy would find itself in a rough spot. It had inherited a good number of large combat vessels, including 17 old battleships, but many of these ships were no longer combat capable and during the early 1920s they would be scrapped. The end result would be a very small naval force, with just a handful of larger ships like battleships kept on the naval lists throughout the interwar period. Any further expansion was hampered by a simple lack of funds for most of the interwar years along with the challenges faced by Soviet industry. There would be several unsuccessful attempts to restart naval construction during the 1920s, but these were always shot down for budgetary reasons. Soviet naval leaders would try and maintain realistic goals in the face of the downsizing, focusing initially just on trying to maintain a naval presence and the ability to project naval power in the Baltic sea, with the secondary theatre being the Black Sea. The two other areas of naval concern for the Soviet Union, the Arctic and Pacific oceans, were placed in a distant third and fourth place in terms of resources, with hopes that a Soviet naval presence could also be established in those theaters at some point in the future. In 1925 a set of exercises were held by the Soviet navy, and the results were disappointing. The conclusions drawn from the actions were that the Baltic Fleet needed a larger number of large ships if it wanted to be able to control the sea, while it also lacked enough smaller ships to support the increased number of large battleships. These deficiencies would not be easy to resolve and would require a lengthy building program and large amounts of money. The first real interwar naval building program would get started in March 1927 when three submarines were ordered. This was a small building program, obviously, but the Navy was really fighting an uphill battle during these years as it tried to justify funding and resources at a time when the other military services, the Army and Air Force, were also very deficient when it came to size and equipment. It did not at all help their arguments that the large navies built by other nations had not seemed to play a decisive role during the First World War, making it more challenging for the Soviet Navy to claim that the resources to build large ships was actually worth it. This would also mean that even the limited plans of 1929, heavily focused on repair and modernization of the old ships that the navy had, was reduced even further as the First Five Year Plan was coming up short of some of its goals. There was still progress made during this time though, for example the battleship Marat would go through a modernization program during the First Five Year Plan, and many smaller cruisers and destroyers would go through similar efforts.

Greater priority would be placed on the Soviet Navy during the Second Five Year Plan, this included the creation of the Naval Forces of the Far East based in Vladivostok and Khabarovsk and the Northern Naval Flotilla based near Arkhangel’sk. This involved some major construction efforts with the three base cities having their ability to construct and repair naval vessels massively increased. For example in Arkhangel’sk a huge new set of dry docks were created that had a roof covering them to allow for their use in the harsh Northern Russian winter. The problems were even greater for the Far East Fleet, because it also needed to be able to construct naval vessels due to the distances involved in moving any ships to the far east from western Russia. While these capabilities were being built up two temporary measures were taken, with some merchant ships converted into armed vessels and then some small and medium sized submarines were built in the west and then sent in pieces to Vladivostok where they were assembled. In July 1933 a major new naval expansion plan would be introduced, with an emphasis on both submarines and then naval vessels that were cruiser size and below. Submarines were given the most focus, with the goal being to build 369 submarines. The largest cruisers would be 8 ships armed with 180mm or 7 inch guns, to be joined by over 60 destroyers, 28 patrol boats, 267 motor torpedo boats, and over 100 smaller vessels. It would be during these years that the Soviets would start to work closely with the Italians for both ship plans as well as design and construction expertise. As with many plans of the Second Five Year Plan, the naval construction plans would result in a mixed bag in terms of success. On the negative side, none of the cruisers would be completed by the end of 1937, along with very few of the destroyers. They came very close to meeting the target for motor torpedo boats though, which was still something to be celebrated. For submarines, which were really the primary area of focus for the naval expansion plan 143 would be constructed, which missed the target by over 200, but 143 submarine still meant that the Soviet Navy in 1937 had the largest submarine force in the world, and they almost entirely composed and modern and very capable designs.

Even before the end of the Second Five Year Plan, the Soviet Navy was already planning for the next phase of expansion, and they were going big. As early as 1935 planning had already started to try and determine how Soviet naval construction capabilities could greatly expand, and they would have to if they were going to meet their new targets. The goal, as of April 1936 was to have a Soviet navy with 15 battleships, 22 heavy cruisers, 21 light cruisers, 162 destroyers, and 412 submarines. These numbers would later expand even further with the inclusion of aircraft carriers. But a continuing problem for the Soviet shipbuilders was around planning expertise. By 1935 large naval ships, think your battleships or aircraft carriers were not just expensive to build, they are also very hard to design, and it was proving to be very difficult to try and create designs within the Soviet Union that would meet their future needs. Therefore there were discussions with the Ansaldo ship building yard in Genoa with the intent of having the Italian company built a 42,000 ton battleship with 3 triple 405mm or 16" gun turrets, then after it was built all of the plans and specifications would be sent back to Moscow for use by domestic shipbuilders, this plan would not end up happening. There were also many Soviet designed battleship plans that were put forward during this time, with displacements ranging from 23,000 tons all the way up to 75,000 tons. In total there were five main variants of what the next generation of Soviet battleships would look like, and two would be selected in February 1936, one with 405mm or 16 inch guns and a displacement of 35,000 tons would be built for the Baltic fleet and one with 405mm or 16 inch guns and a 55,000 ton displacement for the Pacific fleet. In both cases all of the guns would be arranged in three triple turrets placed together in front of the superstructure, much like the Nelson-class battleships that the Royal Navy had laid down in the early 1920s. The idea that there would be two different designs, one for the Baltic and one for the Pacific pointed to the largest problem for the Soviet Navy in the 1930s, geography. The Soviet Navy had four key areas that they needed to defend if they wanted to be a naval power, the Arctic ocean to the north, the Baltic sea to the west, and Black sea to the southwest and the Pacific in the east. Three of these regions had major naval powers that also wanted naval control of the area, Arctic with the British, Baltic the Germans, and Pacific with the Japanese. But worst of all, none of these areas were connected with one another, and especially in wartime it was simply impossible to move ships between them. Of all the great powers the Soviet Union had the worst naval geography problems for this very reason, a battleship in one theater could not really lend any assistance to the ships in any of the other theaters if the Soviet Union was at war with other western nations. The tsarist navy had tried to send help the Pacific fleet in 1905, and the result had been the catastrophic defeat at Tsushima after the Russian fleet had travelled 33,000 kilometers from Europe. Because of this, the only way that Soviet naval power seemed to work was if the Soviet Navy could challenge the leading naval power in every region this greatly inflated the building requirements. The planned 8 battleships and one aircraft carrier in the Pacific would be stuck in the Pacific. The five battleships in the Black Sea would be stuck there. Now of course, these lofty dreams of having all of these ships available by 1947 would prove to be impossible, by the time that the war started none of the large capital ships had been completed, and they never would be due to every possible resource needing to be used to stop the Germans. Then when the war was over the overall make up of naval power would necessitate a rethinking of how the Soviets approached naval combat. But for a few brief years in the late 1930s the Soviet Naval leaders, and Stalin who was a big supporter, were allowed to dream the dream of having a massive Soviet fleet able to contest for supremacy on the high seas.