Legends of the Air: WWII Soviet

It is time, I think, to take a look at some of the most influential and fantastic aircraft fielded by the Soviet Union in World War II. Allied aircraft such as the Spitfire, Hurricane, Mustang, and Lancaster are almost household names, yet I doubt that as many people are familiar with MiG-3s or Yak-1s. Although the first few weeks of Operation Barbarossa (Germany’s 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union) all but decimated the VVS, as the Soviet Air Forces were known, some aircraft still remained and the VVS was rebuilt to be a great strength. This post outlines my favourite WWII-era planes of the resilient nation that is Russia, and the powerful and fearsome air force that was the VVS.

Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik

The Il-2 Sturmovik was a fabled ground attack aircraft, fitted with four to five guns and capable of carrying additional bombs or rockets. Although it suffered heavy losses in the first days of the war (largely due to its original lack of a rear gunner), it became prolific in the later years and was feared by German forces.

Attacking Sturmoviks

Attacking Sturmoviks, with guns blazing. Attributed to RIA Novosti archive, image #225/F. Levshin/ CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to F. Levshin.

Some 36,000 examples of the Sturmovik were made from 1941 to 1945, with Josef Stalin famously remarking in the gloomy days of 1941 that “the Red Army needs Il-2s like the air it breathes, and the bread it eats”. However, despite these massive production numbers, only one airworthy Sturmovik remains today; a sad reminder of what was such a formidable and abundant aircraft on the Eastern Front.

Il-2 Sturmovik

Image of Il-2 in flight: from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author.

Polikarpov I-16

Introduced in 1934, the I-16 Ishak, or Donkey, was a rather temperamental fighter- although one that did see great success in the Spanish Civil War, as well as against the manoeuvrable Bf-109 in WWII. The I-16 was quite slow compared to German fighters, but it did have wonderful agility in the hands of a good pilot. Conversely, if an inexperienced pilot was at the controls, the I-16 was difficult to control and its controls were quite sensitive. Any abrupt manoeuvre would send the plane into a spin, so pilots soon learned to be careful with this aircraft. The Donkey is unique because it was the first monoplane with a retractable undercarriage, and this feature began a trend in aircraft design that was soon taken up by the whole world.

Spanish I-16

Image of Spanish I-16: from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Alvaro.

Polikarpov Po-2


Po-2 Diagram

Line drawing of Po-2, showing its seemingly archaic design. From Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Kaboldy.

The Po-2 is one of my favourite planes of all time, because of its unassuming and surprising efficiency. A veritable relic first used in 1928, the Po-2 was a small biplane constructed from wood and fabric- hardly different from the planes of the First World War. Its top speed was a blistering 93 miles per hour,  and although it was meant to be a training plane, the Po-2 was used to great effect as a night bomber.

Some of the most successful pilots to fly these planes belonged to the Night Witches squadron- a squadron made up entirely of female aviators. Of course, this was incredibly unusual by Western standards, but throughout the war the Soviet Union allowed women to fight as pilots, snipers, tank commanders, and more. This squadron formed in 1942, and by the end of the war, its members had flown over 23,000 sorties. An incredible 23 of its members were made Heroes of the Soviet Union- their nation’s highest military award.

Nadezhda Popova

Dmitry Medvedev with Nadezhda Popova, a captain of the Night Witches. She flew over 800 sorties over three years as a pilot of the Po-2. From http://www.kremlin.ru via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author.

The tactics of Po-2 pilots were just as unusual as the plane itself- flying over German positions only in the dead of night, the pilot would fly mere feet above the ground before pulling up, switching off the engine, and gliding in for a bombing run. These tactics caused the Germans much anxiety and pain; forcing them to stay alert at night and listen for the strange choppy engine noise of the Po-2. Because of this peculiar noise, Wehrmacht soldiers called the Po-2 a “sewing-machine”.

Po-2 in Museum

Image of Soviet Po-2 in German museum: from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Jan Rehschuh.

I imagine that German soldiers on the Eastern Front must have had nightmares about the noises accompanying a Po-2 bombing run- with only the wind rushing through the airplane’s struts betraying its presence. Luftwaffe fighters had trouble with the Po-2, because even the stall speeds of Bf-109s and Fw-190s were hugely faster than the top speed of the Po-2. Moreover, Soviet pilots flew at treetop level and were difficult to spot and engage. What a fabulous legacy this simple little biplane has- really quite amazing!

Captured Po-2

A captured Po-2 in the Ukraine. Note its small scale and antiquated appearance. From Bundesarchiv, Bild 169-0112/ CC-BY-SA via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author. 

Lavochin-Gorbunov-Gudkov LaGG-3

I must admit, the LaGG-3 was not loved by its pilots. They found it to be sluggish in manoeuvres, slow to climb, and heavy with an underpowered engine. But I find it fascinating nonetheless- it is quite beautiful to look at, and its construction was unique. It was made almost completely of wood-laminate which was unusual for a newly-developed fighter. And fortunately, its legacy is not all negative, because its design gave rise to the later and immeasurably more successful Lavochkin La-5.

LaGG-3 in Moscow

Image of camouflaged LaGG-3 in Moscow: from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Mike1979Russia.

Lavochkin La-5

The La-5, designed by Semyon Lavochkin, shared some of the unfortunate LaGG-3’s positive attributes; such as its lightweight wooden airframe. However, it was a completely new plane, with a 1,330 horsepower engine, better cockpit visibility, and better armament. The La-5 had two 20-mm cannons plus underwing racks which could accommodate 400 pounds of bombs, giving it superior firepower to standard Bf-109s.

Lavochkin La-5

Image of La-5 fighters on airfield: from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author.

Despite incurring high losses, the La-5 was one of the best fighters the VVS had in WWII, and was the plane Ivan Kozhedub used for most of his 62 kills.  Kozhedub was the highest-scoring Allied air ace of the war, and was the ideal role model and propaganda tool in the eyes of Soviet leadership; he was young, talented, patriotic, and a Communist Party member. During his career in the VVS, Kozhedub was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union medal on three separate occasions, and he was one of the few to ever shoot down a jet-powered Me-262.

Ivan Kozhedub

Image of Ivan Kozhedub in front of his La-5: from http://airaces.narod.ru/all1/kojedub2.jpg via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author.

Yakovlev Yak-1

Another impressively successful Soviet fighter, the Yak-1 was superior to several Lavochkin designs and that of the MiG-3. It earned its designer, Alexander Yakovlev, numerous awards and distinctions, and was well-equipped in all categories. Armament on the Yak-1 was good, speed was swift, and manoeuvrability was staggering. This made it a worthy adversary to the Bf-109Es and Fs of the day, and subsequent improvements on the design (like the Yak-3, -7, and -9) made the Yak-1 even better.

Yakovlev Yak-1

Image of Yak-1s lined up and awaiting combat: from http://www.flickr.com/photos/sdasmarchives/6312755899 via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to San Diego Air & Space Museum.

Petlyakov Pe-8

Unique because it was the Soviet Union’s only four-engine bomber built during WWII, the Pe-8 was a capable bomber despite suffering nagging engine problems throughout its career. It was mainly used for sorties against airfields and railyards in Germany, and later, transportation centres in occupied territory. In size, the Pe-8 was actually slightly bigger than the well-known Avro Lancaster; with a wingspan of 128 feet compared to 102, and an empty weight of 40,000 pounds compared to 36,000.

Petlyakov Pe-8

Image of Pe-8: from heavybomber.narod.ru via Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to unknown author.

Despite its many successful sorties, the Pe-8 fleet incurred substantial losses, and by mid-1944 was being replaced by Lend-Lease B-25 Mitchells. It seems that Luftwaffe fighter pilots felt compelled to target the Pe-8, because the Soviet Union had used this aircraft’s sorties into Germany as a high-profile morale booster for the Soviet people.

Stamp of Pe-8

Image of postage stamp featuring the Pe-8: from Wikimedia Commons. Attributed to Vizu.

As this post has perhaps demonstrated, the Soviet Union fielded a great number of quality aircraft throughout WWII. Although aircraft designers may have been intimidated and oppressed, they were still able to come up with amazing designs that rivalled the best that German precision could muster.

I myself have unfortunately not seen any of these beautiful airplanes in person. I believe I did see a MiG-3 somewhere in the UK, but I’m still eagerly awaiting a sight of my ultimate favourites- the Po-2 and Il-2 Sturmovik. This has been a fun post for me, combining as it did two of my greatest interests! I really am extremely enthusiastic about the Eastern Front and Soviet aircraft. The aircraft of the VVS during WWII really mirrored the spirit of the Soviet people in the same war; disadvantaged and against all odds, yet resilient, capable, and triumphant at the end, and that might be why I am so intrigued by this subject.


(2014, April 8). Ilyushin Il-2. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilyushin_Il-2.

Jackson, R. (2004). The Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft. Bath, UK: Parragon Publishing.

Morgan, H. (1997). Soviet Aces of World War 2. Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing.





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