Barenjagër: The Unparalleled Success of Luftwaffe Fighter Aces on the Eastern Front in WWII

The year was 1955, the month October, the region West Germany.  In the decade that had passed since the end of the Second World War, the country had made much progress towards recovery.  Families had been reunited. The economy gained strength.  Former soldiers turned back to their proverbial ploughshares, rebuilding homes, businesses, industries.  That decade had also changed the country drastically.  Music and fashion had evolved.  Cars now had clutches.  Televisions, once rare, had replaced radios in the home and were broadcasting American and British shows with German voiceovers.  But most significantly, the country, once united, had been divided between the victors of the Second World War like a Thanksgiving pie.  In the West, Germany prospered beneath the watch of the Allies.  The East, however, struggled with the yoke of Soviet rule.  The very capitol of the country was split down the centre by a massive wall, a physical manifestation of how Potsdam had chosen to hobble the former belligerent.

Stepping off the train and onto German soil for the first time in ten years must have been surreal for former Luftwaffe experten[1] Erich Hartmann.  He was thirty-three years old.  Ten years in the Russian Gulags had left him thin and weak, shadowed hollows beneath bright blue eyes, his once-fit physique having shrunk to just a hundred pounds.  But the Russians had not managed to break the spirit or the pride of the boy-turned-man once known as the Black Knight of Germany.  At long last he would be able to start life with his beloved wife Usci, who had faithfully waited for the long decade in which he had languished in the Soviet gulags.  Flying remained Hartmann’s other great love, and he would soon re-join other former flying aces to build the new German Luftwaffe.


Erich Hartmann had been the premier ace of the Second World War, his astounding score of 352 victories emblazoning his name across history as the top-scoring fighter pilot of all time.  It dwarfed the 104 victories of the respected Generalleutnant Adolf Galland and made the very definition of “ace” –five aerial victories – seem like a joke.  The American ace, Richard Bong, had “only” forty victories, and the top ace of the RAF trails behind Bong with thirty-eight.[2]  Only a handful of pilots from Japan and each of the allied countries qualified as ace by these standards.   And yet there are over five thousand Luftwaffe pilots who can claim this proud title. [3]  Hartmann was not unique amongst his brothers, nor was he a superman.  Gerhard Barkhorn also scored above three hundred victories[4], eight pilots scored above two hundred, and seventy surpassed one hundred aerial victories.[5]   It appears that the Luftwaffe pilots were far superior to pilots from any other air force during the Second World War.

Galland and his dog, Schweinebauch

However, the Luftwaffe cannot claim such remarkable scores in every theatre of war. Generalleutnant Galland with a his 104 victories was number one in his own theatre – the West, where he fought the Allies over Europe and England.  In actuality, pilots like Hartmann were found only in the Eastern field of operations.  In all other fields, German pilots do not appear to have performed any better or worse than their own allies or adversaries.  In fact, Eastern aces who were sent to other fronts were often quickly shot down, while Western pilots who were moved to the East became aces, sometimes overnight.

Over the past seventy years, historians and theorists have attributed this phenomena to various factors, including skill, training, equipment, communications, tactics, and leadership.  This essay will examine each of these factors in turn to determine whether or not they were the decisive elements which made the Luftwaffe scores in the East possible.  It shall demonstrate how differences in these factors originally gave the Germans great initial advantage over the Soviets, who were still reeling from the sprawling effects of the purges.  Yet as the Soviets closed the gaps in these areas, only one thing in particular continued to set the Eastern Front apart and made German victories possible – the sheer number of Soviet pilots.  An in-depth study of the aerial war in the East reveals that there is no single explanation for the incredible scores of the Eastern Luftwaffe pilots; in fact, a variety of factors unique to the Eastern front combined to make their legacy possible.  The Eastern Front provided Luftwaffe pilots with a unique set of circumstances that allowed them to achieve aerial victories on a scale that was unprecedented anywhere else in the Second World War.

Purging the Brains and Brawnrussia_vanessavoisin21

In 1941 the entirety of the Soviet military forces were reeling from the massive shock caused by Stalin’s purges.  Ostensibly triggered by the assassination of party leader Sergei Kerov in 1936, Josef Stalin’s paranoid “cleansing” of the military was intended to rid it of traitors and counterrevolutionaries.  Called off in 1938, the damage was lasting.  Instead of rooting out the seeds of sedition and treason, the purges instead resulted in the virtual decapitation and castration of the Soviet armed forces, depriving it as a unit of its ability to think and cowing its initiative.  Countless experienced combat officers and important military theorists were removed from the ranks, either imprisoned, murdered, or exiled.  The last three years prior to war saw a 90% turnover in military leadership, [6] leaving everything in the hands of people with little experience.  Those who replaced them were all too often sycophants, cronies, and political hacks.[7]  Suffering a desperate need for officers, many hapless privates and junior officers were rapidly promoted without the necessary experience or ability.  Training suffered as a matter of course: “There was no one to teach, no one to be taught, and nothing to teach with.”[8]  School output fell even as the army expanded, leaving the Red Army short thirty-six thousand officers on the eve of Barbarossa.[9]  Their total number of fighter planes were just over 600 – approximately two-thirds of the Luftwaffe’s fighting strength.[10]  Chief of German General Staff Ludwig von Beck described the Red Army as an “inert fighting force” due to the catastrophic effects of the purges.[11]  Indeed, the hobbled Soviets seemed a ripe target to German commanders.

So it was that when Operation Barbarossa was launched in the summer of 1941, the Luftwaffe found themselves facing a Red Army Air Force (VVS) that was hardly combat ready,  led by officers who were green, poorly trained, or utterly incompetent.  The Luftwaffe arrived in the East with fewer frontline aircraft than they had taken to Britain or France.[12]  Overstretched and at just 60% strength, they still swept aside the VVS, gaining air superiority or supremacy along the entire Eastern front on the first day of operations. [13]  According to Soviet sources 4,000 aircraft were lost in the first three days of battle.   The German losses, meanwhile, totaled less than seventy.[14] This vast initial success can be attributed to the effects the Purges had on training, equipment, tactics, and strategy.

The Brains: Training and Experience

In the early 1930s, VVS pilots had received a thorough two-and-a-half year course of training and were put into some of the best, most modern planes the world had to offer.  These pilots went on to gain combat experience over Spain, Khalkin Gol, and the Winter War against Finland.  However, by the time of the German invasion, pilots and commanders who had this sort of experience were few.  Stalin’s purges had stripped many of them from the VVS, depriving it of its most experienced commanders and trainers.  In June of 1941, 91% of the aviation commanders and over half of the officers had been in their position for less than six months.[15]  Many of them had never seen combat.  With all this inexperience in the upper echelons of the VVS, there were few or no suitable teachers to train new pilots.  With the desperate shortage of men and officers, training programs were repeatedly shortened to fill the gaps, reducing it from years to months.  Many if not most of the pilots whom the Germans met in the air in the summer of 1941 had suffered from enormously deficient training in which they had been taught only basic take-off and landing in trainer planes, with no experience in aerobatics and only very limited practice on the firing range.  In most cases, these men had received twenty hours of flight time or less[16] and had little to no understanding of aerobatics, dogfighting, or flying in bad weather.[17]   These deficiencies were magnified by the nature of the men themselves: the VVS recruited pilots based on the draft, the only air force in the world to do so.  As a result, some of the pilots simply had no talent, and others suffered from an outright fear of flying.[18]  To illustrate the gross deficiencies in their training, consider for example that 13% of the losses during the opening of Barbarossa had nothing at all to do with the Germans; they were due to accident on behalf of poorly trained VVS pilots.[19]

The German training program, on the other hand, was one of the best in the world, producing pilots who were vastly superior.  In 1941, all Luftwaffe pilots were volunteers who had been chosen with care.  Many of them had started out in gliding clubs in the 1930s.  The 250 hours of flying time which they had each received had included a thorough training in aerobatics, group flying, foul weather flying, emergency landings, and other likely situations with an emphasis on dog fighting and ground assaults.[20]  Training continued when green pilots reached the front.  Inexperienced pilots were tucked beneath the wing of an experten so they could safely gain more experience in the air.  It was beneath the protection and tutelage of aces that fresh pilots got their first victories, as their experienced tutors would make opportunities for them and protect them while they hunted.[21]  This helped them build confidence as well as practice – key ingredients to building a good pilot.

Not only were the Luftwaffe pilots better trained during these early stages of the war, but many of them had already been tempered in battle beginning with the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s and continuing with the war in Western Europe.  Victories over weaker enemies such as were found in Poland, Holland, Norway, and France gave fresh Luftwaffe pilots experience and confidence while providing veterans of the Spanish Civil War with more practice and opportunities.  The first true test of the Luftwaffe’s skill in the Second World War came when they faced the British over France and England.  A “mirror image” of the Luftwaffe in terms of skill and aircraft,[22] combat with the Royal Air Force was later called especially good practice by the Luftwaffe aces.  German ace Johannes Steinhoff[23] felt that they “learned a lot from the British, and… became even better fighter pilots” before turning East.[24]

Later, over the Eastern front, veteran pilots honed their skills on Soviets who presented a far lesser challenge than the RAF.[25]  Beneath the watchful and protective eyes of the German experten, fresh Luftwaffe pilots practiced the tricks of aerial combat on easy Soviet prey, gaining confidence and earning their first victories.  The Luftwaffe enjoyed such astounding success in the first week of battle that the twenty kills required to win the coveted Knight’s Cross had to be raised to forty in order to preserve its value![26]  Hermann Goering himself did not initially believe the numbers claimed by Eastern pilots, yet their systefighteraces2m for crediting kills was the most rigorous in the war: a credited victory required written testimony by a witness in the air or on the ground.  If no witnesses were present, a crash site was required.  The necessary paperwork required the pilot include his altitude, the aircraft type which he had downed, the time and date of the victory, and the location.  This elaborate and demanding system essentially eliminated the double-counting so many other air forces had to contend with.[27]  The first few months of Barbarossa were known as the “Happy Time” as pilots racked up scores and earned decorations.  Many became aces literally overnight.  Soon the requirements for the Oak Leaves to the Knight’s Cross were raised from forty victories to one hundred, and then to 120, and finally 190 after 1943.

But while the Luftwaffe would continue to enjoy success and glory in the east for the duration of the war, the “Happy Time” would come to an end as the Soviets began gaining experience and plugging the gaps which had given the Germans their initial lead.  The Soviets may have lost their few experienced pilots at an early point, but those who survived gained experience just as the Luftwaffe pilots did and talent began to emerge. The Red Banner squads in particular were staffed with excellent flyers, respected by the Luftwaffe and described as “some of the best pilots in the world.”[28]  Soviet training programs also improved  while the Germans, suffering from attrition, were forced to shorten their own pilot training programs, thus closing the gap.  Hartmann and other pilots who had entered the war early on had received thorough training and tutelage, whereas the new pilots had only received between twenty and sixty hours of training on biplanes or trainers – few had even sat in a Bf-109 before they reached the front.[29]  By 1943, the VVS was sending up pilots whose training was equal or superior to that of the incoming Luftwaffe pilots.  Learning from the Germans, Soviets quit throwing green pilots straight into combat and instead sent them into the reserves, where they could continue main-qimg-a88b9fac4fe6ad812da7b1ec66e8e6d0-c.jpgto learn in relative safety and where they, too, received tutelage for the growing ranks of Soviet aces.  The Germans soon lost such an option thanks to attrition, and fresh pilots went straight into combat.  Upon the receipt of the Diamonds to his Oak Leaves, Erich Hartmann complained about the growing deficiencies in the German training program to Adolf Hitler himself, explaining to the Fuhrer that the minimally trained pilots they were receiving were just throwing their lives away.  Thus, the success of German experten in the East cannot be solely attributed to  differences in training.

Like training, differences in tactics also contributed to the initial German success.  The effects of the Purges could be felt here, as well.  Important Russian theorists had fallen victim to Stalin’s paranoia just as military leaders had, leading to a stagnation in thought and a VVS that was relying on old and outdated tactics,[30] poorly taught. The resulting pilots “almost never used anything that resembled a coherent tactical formation,” flying instead in loose clumps and attacking individually as though they didn’t have an assigned wingman.[31]  This was in part because the Soviets initially fought in formations of three – when attacks came, the triple Soviet formation essentially shattered.  Teamwork was made impossible through lack of radios, and the use of wingmen was prevented by the odd

Erich Hartmann and Gerhard Barkhorn, the only two pilots in history to score over 300 victories apiece

number which always left someone the odd-man-out.  The Germans, meanwhile, flew in groups of four.  The “Finger Four” formation allowed the formation to split evenly into two pairs, leaving every lead with a wingman to protect him.  It was only a short time before the Soviets recognized the wisdom of this formation and adopted it themselves.[32]  Using this formation, they developed the “Hat” tactic, with one pair of fighters flying higher than the other for observation.  If attacked, the “Hats” would dive down to cover the other pair.[33]  Initially disdained for their weak or non-existent strategy, as the war progressed the Russians improved, soon proving themselves adept at improvisations and quick to learn from their adversaries.[34]  Their quick adoption of the “Finger Four” formation is an example of one such lesson, and how the tactical gap between Russian and German began to close.

A rigid Soviet command style combined with the Comissar system left pilots with little room for initiative.  This system of dual command attached politicians to each military unit, giving them a rank equal to whatever commander they were partnered with.  They had the ability to override or countermand orders, something which could be doubly problematic considering that these were politicians typically without military experience.  Taught by the Purges that thinking and initiative were dangerous, commanders took no risks and pilots followed orders without thought, for the consequences of doing otherwise could be quite dire.

The result was a VVS that was “a little stupid.”[35]  Completely micromanaged, even speed and altitude were dictated,[36] so that pilots, fearing the consequences of violating orders, often continued to fly their course even while being attacked.  Bomber pilots who had been poorly trained could not think independently[37] and often panicked at the loss of their leader.  Luftwaffe pilots recognized this quickly and targeted leaders, taking them out and reaping the victories from the ensuing chaos as formations fell apart.

Conversely, Luftwaffe command was comprised of pilots, both current and former, who had already proven themselves capable in battle and demonstrated leadership skills.  Pilots were given the freedom to think for themselves and were encouraged to exhibit independence within the framework of general orders.  This concept, known as Auftragstaktik, encouraged improvisation and initiative whilst in battle, allowing those in the action itself to determine the best way of fulfilling their objectives.  It was even permissible to bypass orders if another opportunity to fulfill the mission made itself apparent.  This resulted in a flexible and adaptable air force with pilots who were capable of making competent decisions and were able to function without their commanders.  Such things were particularly important in dog fights, where the fighting was fast-paced and the unexpected was a matter of course.

On either side, the Eastern air war was essentially a non-strategic conflict.[38]  Soviet strategy mostly consisted of swamping the enemy with large numbers.  The Luftwaffe also faced the Eastern Front without any set strategy.  Instead of being sent on long range missions or assigned bomber duty like in the West, German pilots were generally allowed to free-hunt, going into the air whenever they liked and searching for prey.  An extension of the German love for hunting, there was heavy emphasis on personal scores.  In their quest to achieve coveted decorations like the Oak Leaves, Swords, and Diamonds, they completed multiple sorties a day in order to increase their score,[39] and would sometimes

Hans Philip, 206 victories (second from left)

even keep particularly good hunting grounds a secret.  Hartmann, for instance, once discovered a hidden Soviet base.  For a time he made a habit of going out before dawn to hunt the Soviet planes as they took off and landed.  He was able to enjoy his solitary success for a short time before he had to take another pilot with him to prove that he wasn’t cheating.[40]  Conversely, in the West, Luftwaffe pilots were often sent on escort duty with bomber missions, an assignment they hated as they were forced to fly slowly to protect the bombers.  This stripped fighter pilots of the advantages of their speedy mounts and made them more vulnerable to attacks from the Allies.  Denied free-hunts, Western pilots didn’t have the opportunities to score the way Eastern pilots did.

Free hunts in the East yielded bountiful fruits, made easy by Soviet tactics.  Soviet fighters were tied to the protection of ground troops and thus forced to fly slowly at medium or low altitudes, easily visible to the ground troops in order to “boost morale.”[41]  Bombers flew in tight, rigid formations with low, steady courses and no fighter escorts.  The Luftwaffe pilots would swoop down upon their prey from high altitudes, scatter the formation, take out one or two targets, then go back up to altitude and wait for the next wave.  They would do this several times a day, and there was a plentiful supply of prey for their hunts.  The


sheer number of targets made the Eastern Front unique in World War II.  The Germans were forced to spread their waning number of pilots thinly across a large front – and, later, across multiple fronts.  This meant that the Luftwaffe pilots who served in the east had more prey to go around and less sharing to do.  “We were always outnumbered,” said Hartmann, “Ten or twenty to one.  We had a lot of targets.”[42]  By June of 1944 this number had actually increased to forty-to-one.[43]  Gunther Rall said that there were “so many Russians in the air, I believe you could have thrown a stone blindfolded and hit one by accident.”[44]  The air space was so busy that pilots had to work to avoid collisions – and the VVS had developed the habit of ramming.

It was a different story on other fronts.  The increasingly finite Luftwaffe presented American aces a distinct lack of targets.  On the average day over Western Europe, the


United States Air Force flew between ten and twenty thousand missions.  In contrast, the Luftwaffe typically only managed somewhere between three and eight hundred.[45]  In the east, the same fact of numbers which made the Germans so successful also prevented VVS pilots from achieving similar results.  For instance, VVS pilot Aleksander Konstantinovich Gorovets flew 73 missions between June 1942 and July 1943.  In that time he only encountered Germans ten times.[46] The outnumbered Germans were hard to find.

The rotation of Luftwaffe pilots also played a major role in their high scores – namely, that they were not rotated at all.  American pilots typically only toured for a year at a time.[47]  Over England, the RAF rotated their pilots regularly, moving them from the areas of action in the south to areas of relative calm in the north where they could rest and recover.  Allied aces were often pulled from combat entirely and sent to teach in flight schools or to work desk jobs after a certain number of missions.  Not so for the Luftwaffe.  Once a pilot left training and entered combat, he was there until the war ended or he died.  There was no rotation system, and while some aces were in fact pulled from flight, for the most part joining the Luftwaffe meant a pilot and his plane were not to be parted.  There was no limit on combat missions.  There was no limit on hours.  This “Fly-Till-You-Die” policy resulted in stress and battle fatigue – during the Battle of Britain, they even had a name for it: Kanalkrankheit, or Channel Sickness.  But this also meant that Luftwaffe pilots had more time in the air and flew more combat missions than any other air force during the Second World War.[48]  For example, Joachim Brendel flew 950 missions between 1941 and 1945, and scored 189 victories.[49]  Dietrich Hrabak began his service with the invasion of Poland, flew eight hundred missions, and won 125 victories.  Conversely, the top American ace Richard “Dick” Bong[50] scored forty victories while flying a total of 200 missions in the Pacific, giving him a far better victory ratio than either of the two mentioned Germans.  Also boasting a better ratio but fewer missions is the Soviet ace Ivan Kozhedub, who shot down 62 German planes in just 120 missions.[51]  It seems clear that the Luftwaffe pilots, while overworked, were given something which other pilots simply did not get – greater opportunity to build up a remarkable victory tally.[52]

The Brawn: Technology and Equipment

Polikarpov I-16

In the 1920s and early 30s the Soviet Union boasted the largest and most powerful air force in the world in terms of numbers and excellence.  They could proudly lay claim to the world’s first monoplane four-engine bomber, the Tupolev TB-3, and their Polikarpov I-16 was the first monoplane fighter with a retractable undercarriage.  Originally built in part through a post-WWI collaboration with the Germans,[53] the Soviet air force excelled at simplifying German designs from Junkers, relying on their ability to copy and improve foreign engine designs rather than coming up with their own.[54]  Poor production standards notwithstanding,[55] the VVS of the early 1930s was a force to be reckoned with.  However, in 1933 this arrangement was broken off and the VVS began to stagnate. Then came the Purges, and with important designers like Vladimir Petlaykov and Andrei Tupolev languishing in prison, the VVS stagnated further, suffering from increasingly outdated tactics, and shoddy training, and obsolescent planes.

What had been a modernized air force less than ten years previous was, by June 1941, utterly outdated.  The majority of the VVS fighters were bi-planes like the Polikarpov I-15 and I-153 and the once-vaunted Polikarpov I-16.   Now comparatively slow, the I-16 was still maneuverable, although most of its early pilots were not experienced enough to take

Lavochkin-Gorbunov-Gudkov LaGG-3

advantage of this.[56]  Poor standards of production resulted in all three of the above aircraft being coated with a flammable material, making them easy kills for the Germans. [57]  A similar problem plagued the more modern LaGG-3 fighter, also known as the “laquored coffin.”  Not only was it flammable, its laminated wood frame would shatter when hit by German cannon fire.  The LaGG-3 also suffered from engineering problems.  Its 1,210hp twelve-cylinder inline engine was not strong enough to haul the weight of the body, and as a result it “lagged” in speed at just 348 mph.[58]  It was difficult to pull out of a dive and had a tendency to spin if the stick was yanked too hard, making it a terrible plane for inexperienced pilots.  In an attempt to remedy the weight problem the armament was reduced, and as a result it was

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-1

completely outclassed by the Messerschmitt Bf-109.[59]  The MiG-1 and its offspring the MiG-3, while speedy at around 400 mph, were poorly armed with just three machine guns.[60]  Yet the greatest shortcoming of any of these modern fighters is that there simply weren’t enough of them.  Planes like the MiGs and the LaGG-3 made up less than one quarter of the VVS on the eve of Barbarossa.[61]   Existing bombers such as the Ilyushin Db-3 and Tupolev SB, once formidable, were also obsolete and easily shot down by the Germans, especially because they were sent out without escort.

Many of these planes were marked by a distinct lack of technology, a feature which many Germans scorned.  For instance, there was a general lack of gun-sights, with only a circle painted on the window as substitute.  In many cases altimeters and air speed indicators were also absent.[62]  More troublesome was the lack of radios.  This was a major handicap which affected many areas of Soviet combat far beyond the mere inconvenience of being forced to rely on hand signals, something most other pilots hadn’t had to resort to since the First World War.  Incapable of being able to properly communicate while in formation, pilots could not warn each other of incoming Germans.  When attacked, bombers dove and ran while their fighter escorts rallied to defend.  Following a dogfight, relocating the scattered bombers was difficult if not impossible without the ability to ask for their location, and there was no way for fighters to discuss which fighter was now to cover who.[63]  Given orders which were utterly inflexible, pilots had no way to communicate to the ground when the situation changed and the orders were no longer appropriate, and they had no freedom to adapt to an attack or any unexpected situation.  Germans, on the other hand, all had radios.  The later addition of radios to Soviet fighters was a great help; the improvement in communication also led to increased flexibility and an improvement in tactics.[64]  However, a lack of radio discipline or use of codes on the part of the Soviets ensured that Luftwaffe often had very good intelligence.[65]

The Luftwaffe fighter of choice was the Messerschmitt Bf-109.  Designed in 1934, it was first introduced into combat during the Spanish Civil War and emerged from that conflict a refined and superior war bird with a set of proven tactics to match.  By the outbreak of the Second World War, it was the dominant fighting machine in use by the Luftwaffe.  Built with an eye towards the British Supermarine Spitfire, the Battle of Britain resulted in further modifications and variations, so that the version employed against the Soviets in 1941 had been tried and refined in not one but two major conflicts.   Introduced in January


1941, the Frederick variant of the Messerschmitt Bf-109 was the most common version flown by the Germans during the early stages of the war against the Soviet Union.  Boasting a supercharged Daimler-Benz engine pumping out 1,200hp and a maximum speed of 373 mph, it was armed with a pair of synchronized machine guns and a 15 mm cannon.[66]  With a dual water-cooled radiator system, armour plating behind the pilot’s head, and useful automatic features like an electrical pitch regulator, even the Soviets admitted it was a very well designed plane.[67]  In 1942 the Gustav variant was released, outstripping the Fredericks with speeds of 406 mph and carrying a larger, 20mm cannon.[68]  The 109s major flaw came into play during take-off and landing – it featured a narrow undercarriage, the legs attached to the fuselage instead of the wings for the purpose of easing certain repairs.  In order to widen the stance of the plane, the legs were splayed to increase stability.  This delicate arrangement meant the legs were apt to snap during take-off and landing, a particular problem for fresh pilots.

Yet the scores of the aces cannot be solely attributed to the quality of their craft, for the Luftwaffe edge over Soviet technology lasted only a matter of months.  By the start of 1942 the Soviets had surpassed their previous aircraft production levels and were pumping out a steady stream of moderns fighters which were good and quickly becoming better.[69]  The MiG-1, MiG-3, and LaGG-3 were becoming increasingly available, helping to close the

Yakovlev Yak-7b

technological gap between the two adversaries.  As the war progressed, these planes were refined into variants which were increasingly efficient and effective.  The LaGG-3 was improved through the switch to an air-cooled double-banked 15 cylinder radial engine with 1,600hp.  The elimination of the liquid cooling system reduced the weight and led to increased speeds which just exceeded 400 mph.[70]  By 1944 this had evolved into the fearsome La-7, declared “damned fast” with a top speed of 423 mph and formidably armed with three 20mm cannons.[71]  Some of these fighters even came with an auxiliary rocket engine which, when fired off, increased speed by ten to fifteen percent.[72]  The slower Yak-1, produced in 1942, was to provide a base for solid fighters like the Yak-3.  This small and easy-to-handle fighter had an excellent power-to-weight ratio and was considered by some to be the best fighter in all of WWII.  Below eleven thousand feet – where most eastern dogfighting took place – it was equal to the Bf-109s.  It’s successor, the Yak-7b, was superior.[73]  The Il-10, introduced in 1944, was slow at just 311 mph but positively bristled with two machine guns and three 20mm cannons.[74]  Even the technological simplicity which Luftwaffe pilots had scorned proved to be a boon:  Soviet fighters were more easily accessible for trainees and green pilots.  Although ultimately they would comprise just one-eighth of the VVS, the arrival of Allied Lend-Lease planes also helped close the technological gap.  While British fighters like the Hurricane and the elegant

Bell P-39 Aircobra

Spitfire and proved intolerant of the conditions created by bad Russian weather and primitive airfields, the Soviets put many American planes to use.  The P-39 Aircobra was to prove a particular favourite, even though it had been dismissed by the USAAF as a failure.[75]

The Soviets had upped their game, answering the German invasion with fighters and pilots that were rapidly improving.  The Germans responded with the introduction of the Focke-Wulf 190, a plane that would prove to be the trigger for many Luftwaffe pilots to become Aces.[76]  This sturdy craft was an excellent design for the Russian front.  A


massive fourteen cylinder BMW radial engine producing 1,600hp tolerated abuse and damage better than the inline Dahlimer-Benzs of the Bf-109s.  The shape of the radial engine doubled as additional protection for the pilot, acting as a shield in a head-on attack or a crash-landing, something not provided by the sleek, streamlined nose of the Messerschmitts.  The downside to the engine was that the Focke-Wulfs would not glide; in the event of a stall, the front of the plane would drop “like a brick” and was apt to spin.  The weight of the engine also made it far more likely to summersault in a landing if a pilot failed to keep the tail down.  However, the stance of the plane was sturdier than the narrow, splayed arrangement of the Bf-109s.  Performance suffered at higher altitudes, but since fighting on the Russian front was at a lower level this proved somewhat irrelevant.[77]  The FW-190 also provided a solid gun platform with two machine guns and four 20mm cannons.[78]  In 1944 the Messerschmitt was also upgraded, the Kurfust  series representing the maximum power the airframe could take with a monstrous 2,000hp engine by Jumo Junkers.  This variant eschewed machine guns entirely, instead carrying two 15mm cannons and a single 30mm cannon.  With a top speed of 452 mph, it tore past everything else on the Eastern Front.[79]

Zum Schluss

German experten Hartman Grasser[80] summarized the situation in the East: “In the beginning it was the low quality of the Russian planes which cost them losses.  But after two years they improved their planes… and… their experience that the whole situation altered.  The Russians then could get true advantage, because their planes were better and more numerous, and their plots were better, and their training was vastly improved.”[81]

Yet In spite of all the improvements the Soviets made, the Germans continued to score remarkably well throughout the war.  Take for instance the case of the Fifty-Second Fighter Wing Jagdgeschwader 52, left alone in the east after Zitadelle.  Forced to lead a nomadic existence, they travelled from place to place to provide aid to the army as needed and to avoid the Russian line of advance.  The Soviets had become increasingly skilled and increasingly aggressive.  The Luftwaffe was running short of planes and men.  Yet in spite of these circumstances, JG 52 produced the late-comer Erich Hartmann, who, in the course of two weeks in August of 1943 increased his victories from fifty to eighty.  In a year his count rocketed skyward as he added two hundred tallies to his score.[82]  Another member of JG 52, Wilhelm “Willi” Batz struggled with finding his “shooting eye” right up until March of 1944, when in the space of 13 months he suddenly racked up 222 victories.[83]  The whole Jagdgeschwader actually had an eventful March: on March 21st, 1944, III JG 52 became the Luftwaffe’s most successful fighter wing ever with 3,500 kills to the group.  On May 10th this number had increased considerably and they claimed their 9,000th victory, and in June, in the face of a strengthening enemy and deteriorating situation, they hit 10,000.  While Soviet improvements in training, technology, and tactics helped narrow the gap, they could not stem the success of the Germans, leaving one to conclude that German success ultimately came down to a question of numbers, the one factor on the Eastern front which remained constant.

Flugzeug Me 109 auf Feldflugplatz
Bf-109s belonging to JG-52



Feltus, Pamela. “Air Power on the Eastern Front in World War II.” (accessed February 16, 2016).

Heaton, Colin D. “Aviation History: Interview with World War II Luftwaffe Ace Gunther Rall, (accessed February 16, 2016).


Harvey, A.D.  “The Soviet Air Force vs. the Luftwaffe.” History Today, 52, issue 1, (January 2002).


Angelucci Enzo, The Rand McNally Encyclopaedia of Military Aircraft 1914-1980. New York: The Military Press, 1980.

Bergström, Christopher.  Barbarossa – The Air Battle: July–December 1941.  Hinckley: Classic Publications, 2007.

Drabkin, Artem. The Red Air Force at War: Barbarossa and The Retreat to Moscow, Recollections of Fighter Pilots on the Eastern Front. Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2007.

Faber, Harold, ed.  Luftwaffe: A History.  New York: Times Books, 1977.

Glantz, David. Stumbling Colossus: The Red Army on the Eve of World War. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998.

Heaton, Colin D. and Anne-Marie Lewis.  The German Aces Speak II: WWII through the Eyes of Four More of the Luftwaffe’s Most Important Commanders.  Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2014.

Merridale, Catherine. Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006. .

Toliver, Col. Raymond F. and Trevor J. Constable.  Horrido!  Fighter Aces of the Luftwaffe. New York: Bantam Books, 1968.

[1] The Germans used the term “experten” instead of “ace.”

[2] Air Vice Marshall James “Johnnie” Johnson.

[3] John Weal, German Aces of the Russian Front, (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2002), 7.

[4] Gerhard Barkharn scored 301 victories.

[5] Weal, 7.

[6] Catherine Merridale, Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2006), 70.

[7] David Glantz, Stumbling Colossus the Red Army on the Eve of World War, (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1998), 109.

[8] Ibid., 34.

[9] Merridale, 71.

[10] Weal, 7.

[11] Glantz, 32.

[12] Weal, 7. The Luftwaffe took 3,826 frontline aircraft to France, and attrition left them with 3,705 over England.  They arrived in Russia with 2,598 frontline aircraft.

[13] Ibid., 264.

[14] Christopher Bergström, Barbarossa – The Air Battle: July–December 1941, (Hinckley: Classic Publications, 2007), 23.

[15] Ibid, 190.

[16] Weal, 9.

[17] Artem Drabkin, Barbarossa and the Retreat to Moscow: Recollections of Fighter Pilots on the Eastern Front, (Yorkshire: Pen and Sword, 2007), x.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Glantz, 202.

[20] Drabkin, xi.

[21] Colin D. Heaton and Anne-Marie Lewis, Interview with Erich Hartmann, The German Aces Speak II: WWII through the Eyes of Four More of the Luftwaffe’s Most Important Commanders, (Minneapolis: Zenith Press, 2014), 42.

[22] Colin D. Heaton, Interview with Gunther Rall, “Aviation History: Interview with World War II Luftwaffe Ace Gunther Rall, (accessed February 16, 2016).

[23] 176 total victories, awarded Oak Leaves and Swords to his Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.  A particularly interesting character because of his role in the Fighter Pilot’s Revolt against Herman Goering late in the war.

[24] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Johannes Steinhoff, 135.

[25] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Anton Hrabak, 224.

[26] Weal, 22.

[27] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Erich Hartmann, 20; Weal, 7.

[28] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Johannes Steinhoff, 155.

[29] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Erich Hartmann, 49.

[30] Weal, 51.

[31] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Johannes Steinhoff, 154.

[32] Drabkin, Interview with Vitaly Klimenko, 9.

[33] Ibid., 13.

[34] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Erich Hartmann, 19.

[35] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Johannes Steinhoff, 152.

[36] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Erich Hartmann, 19.

[37] Ibid, 44.

[38] Weal, 13.

[39] Pamela Feltus, “Air Power on the Eastern Front in World War II, (accessed February 16, 2016).

[40] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Erich Hartmann, 27

[41] Drabkin, xii.

[42] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Erich Hartmann, 20.

[43] Weal, 85.

[44] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Gunther Rall, 248.

[45] Heaton, Interview with Gunther Rall

[46] Norbert Hanning, Luftwaffe Fighter Ace: From the Eastern Front to the Defence of the Homeland, (Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2004) ??

[47] Heaton, Interview with Gunther Rall.

[48] Col. Raymond F. Toliver and Trevor J. Constable, Horrido!  Fighter Aces of the Luftwaffe, (New York: Bantam Books, 1968), 237.

[49] Ibid, 247.

[50] Served in action from 1942 to January 1945, when he was awarded the Medal of Honor and pulled from active duty to work publicity tours.  Bong was killed in August 1945 while attempting to test fly the P-80 Shooting Star jet fighter.  In a most amusing tale, Bong was left behind in America while the rest of his group was sent to England in 1942.  Bong had been grounded for taking his P-38 into San Francisco, buzzing Market Street, blowing wash of a lady’s clothesline, and looping the Golden Gate Bridge with some buddies.

[51] All missions flown in the Lavochkin LA-7, an excellent aircraft.  His victories even included one Me-262!

[52] Feltus.

[53] The “Lipetsk Arrangement” lasted from 1925 to 1933, during which time the Soviets allowed the Germans to build a flight school at Lipetsk in order to circumvent some of the restrictions from the Treaty of Versailles.  In return for use of the land, the Germans gave the Soviets technical information.  In 1933 the Soviets decided it had not been beneficial and broke it off, and the Germans agreed – although their own motivations for such an action are pretty clear.

[54] Toliver and Constable, 237.

[55] A.D. Harvey, The Soviet Air Force vs. the Luftwaffe, History Today, 52, issue 1, (January 2002).

[56] Harold Faber, ed., Luftwaffe: A History, (New York: Times Books, 1977), 251.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Enzo Angelucci, The Rand McNally Encyclopaedia of Military Aircraft 1914-1980, (New York: The Military Press, 1980), 196.

[59] Drabkin, Interview with Vitaly Klimenko, 14.

[60] Angelucci, 191.

[61] Harvey.

[62] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Gunther Rall, 251.

[63] Drabkin, Interview with Vitaly Klimenko, 9.

[64] Drabkin, xii.

[65] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Gunther Rall, 247.

[66] Angelucci,186.

[67] Drabkin, Interview with Viktor M. Sinaisky, 74.

[68] Angelucci, 186.

[69] Faber, 245.

[70] Angelucci, 228.

[71] Heaton and Lewis, Interview with Gunther Rall, 269.

[72] Angelucci, 228.

[73] Weal, 95.

[74] Angelucci, 211.

[75] Harvey.

[76] Weal, 120.

[77] Ibid., 95.

[78] Angelucci, 187.

[79] Ibid., 186.

[80] 103 aerial victories.

[81] Toliver and Constable, 270

[82] Weal, 84.

[83] Toliver and Constable, 252.



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