Messerschmitt Bf 110 vol. III


Fortunately for the Germans, soon after the outbreak of the war with the Soviet Union it became obvious that in this far end of Europe the time seemed to stand still. The Luftwaffe faced a fleet of bi-planes, many of which were still equipped with fixed undercarriage. In popular Ishaks the landing gear had to be manually cranked up. In early MiGs pilots preferred to fly with canopies slid back since these were hardly transparent and once shut, they notoriously jammed. The first LaGG fighters were duly dubbed “Varnished Guaranteed Coffins”. Radio sets, if at all, were mounted in commanders’ aircraft; the remaining pilots had to communicate with one another by hand signals or waggling wings. Soviet pilots’ training was at a disastrously low level, tactics suicidal, commanding poor, the combat experience – practically none. Lessons were not learned after ignominious defeats during the “winter war” (1939-1940) with Finland. Of those who gained invaluable experience in the air against Luftwaffe during the Spanish Civil War, many – on Stalin orders – were sent to Gulag camps in Siberia or executed. 75 percent of the Soviet first-line aircraft were antiquated I-15s, I-152s, I-153s (bi-planes) and I-16s. In combat with such an air force the Messerschmitt Bf 110 could once again prove its worth, as in times German invasions on Poland, Norway or France.
In his strategic plans Stalin apparently did not foresee Germans’ quick victory in the West; he underestimated Hitler. When he finally realized that it was Russia’s turn to face Wehrmacht, he played for time. To Germany he kept sending trainloads of grain, oil, iron ore and other strategic materiel – he was buying time, desperately needed to rebuild the might of the soviet army, at that time far behind modern standards and demoralized by recent purges.
So as not to provoke their “ally”, numerous warnings of the impending war with Germany were being ignored, negated or hushed up. The Red Army was helplessly waiting for the first blow, which almost brought it to its knees. The VVS4  pilots anxiously watched intruders, which trespassed the border with impunity on reconnaissance missions. Russian aircraft were still stuck on airfields well known to the enemy, neatly lined up in long rows – the way visiting generals liked it. Camouflaging was not ordered.

Loading machine guns of a Bf 110E-2/trop of 1./SKG 210. [Kagero's Archive]


To make the matters worse, the German attack fell upon the Red Air Force in a most unfortunate moment. When it became obvious that war was only a question of time, Russians began a hasty modernisation of their air force. In result, most airfields were literally crammed with aircraft of all types. What happened next, astounded even the Germans.
The priority task for the Luftwaffe in the first days of the war in the East was „grounding” the enemy air force, the tactics perfected during the Wehrmacht’s earlier campaigns. Due to the magnitude of the task (German intelligence reported that Russians could likely have as many as 15,000 combat aircraft at hand, including 9000 in the western part of the country), almost every armed aircraft in the Luftwaffe’s inventory was thrown into the battle. One of the very first aerial attacks, by Bf 110s of 6./ZG 26 led by Hptm. Johannes Freiherr von Richthofen (a cousin of the famed “Red Baron”), was in fact carried out a few minutes before the scheduled time. The 6./ZG 26’s Messerschmitts hit the 15 IAP/8 SAD  airbase in the Lithuanian Alytus, located half-way between Vilnius and the border with Eastern Prussia, one of the 66 Red Air Force airfields knocked out during the day. By the end of the day the Luftwaffe claimed 2000 VVS aircraft destroyed in the air and on the ground, by the end of the week – 4000. Had the Russia been the size of France, the war in the East would have practically been over.
Initially the defence was somewhat chaotic, but at times extremely determined. From the very beginning of the war in the East Soviet pilots commonly practiced an unsophisticated tactics of tarans (aerial ramming), usually destroying the tail control surfaces of an enemy aircraft with propeller. In the course of 1941 quite a few Bf 110s were “shot down” in this way. Already on the first day of the war Mladshiy Leytenant (2/Lt.) D. Kokorev of 124 IAP claimed successful ramming of an unknown Bf 110. Also on 4th July a machine of ZG 26 was likewise brought down by Mladshiy Leytenant (2/Lt.) Aleksandr Lukyanov of 159 IAP/2 SAD, while flying a MiG-3 during a Zerstörern raid on an airbase near Dno. Although such tactics seriously endangered, and in fact quite often ended the attacking pilot’s life, Soviet pilots performed several hundred tarans throughout the war.