“The Soviet Union’s burgeoning strategic bomber arm carried out attacks on Berlin too.”
ALMOST FROM THE start of the Second World War, Berlin was in the crosshairs of Allied bombers.
Beginning with the first British raid on the Nazi capital, launched on Aug. 25, 1940, through to the last attacks before VE Day, RAF Bomber Command dropped an estimated 45,000 tons of ordnance on the city. American planes were responsible for an additional 23,000 tons in the war’s last two years. In all, the western Allies launched more than 360 raids.
Interestingly, these were not the only air attacks on the political epicenter of the so-called Thousand Year Reich. Many forget that the Soviet Union’s burgeoning strategic bomber force carried out raids on Berlin too. Although representing a minute fraction of the total tonnage to fall on the city (less than 1 percent in all), the Soviet’s Berlin bombing campaign remains one of the more interesting yet forgotten chapters of World War Two.
Stalin Strikes Back
First and foremost, the Soviet raids on Berlin were a reaction to German air strikes on Moscow.
On the night of July 21, 1941 — less than a month after the start of Hitler’s invasion of the U.S.S.R. — Axis bombers struck the communist capital. While only minor damage was recorded in the 127-plane mission, the attack underscored the weakness of the Russian military. As such, Stalin was adamant that the gesture would not go unanswered.
Within hours of the German bombardment, the Soviet dictator ordered commanders of the Voyenno-Vozdushny Sili (V-VS), or the “Red Air Force”, to draw up plans for an immediate retaliation against the enemy capital.
The directive posed some obvious challenges. The U.S.S.R. had only one modern heavy bomber in 1941, the Petlyakov Pe-8, and it was only available in limited numbers.
And while Soviet planes had previously undertaken bombing missions against cities like Helsinki and Romania, a token strike on Berlin, which was more than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from the Russian capital, would be no easy task.
Berlin in the Crosshairs
Ironically, it was planes of the Soviet navy that flew the first of the so-called “morale raids”. On the evening of Aug. 7, 15 Ilyushin DB-3T torpedo bombers of the Baltic Fleet operating from an island airstrip off the Estonian coast struck the German capital after travelling a distance of more than 600 miles (1,000 km). All returned safely. While the damage caused by the twin-engine bombers was negligible (each carried fewer than 1,000 pounds of bombs), the Kremlin propaganda machine was quick to trumpet the success of the raids. More attacks would follow; not all would as smoothly.
Comedy of Errors
At dusk on Aug 10, a formation of air force Yermolayev Yer-2 medium bombers and 14 of Stalin’s prized four-engine Pe-8s formed up over Pushkino Airfield in Leningrad for the first air force raid on Berlin. The planes were to be joined over the city by two full squadrons of Ilyushin Il-4 bombers flying from Saaremaa, Estonia. Unfortunately for the Soviets, the mission was cursed with misfortune from the start.
Only three of the bomb-laden Yer-2s could get airborne from the grassy airfield. Worse, one of the heavy Pe-8s suffered an engine failure moments after take off and plunged onto the ground killing all 11 crewmen.
More bad luck followed as jumpy flak gunners along the flight path mistook the planes for an enemy formation and opened fire downing one bomber. Engine trouble forced yet another Pe-8 to abort somewhere over Poland. The crew managed to jettison its bombs over a secondary target and then set down at Leningrad on just two engines.
Only eleven of the heavy bombers and just three Yer-2s even reached the objective. Anti-aircraft fire shredded the Soviet planes as they released their payloads high above the city. With their bomb bays empty, the attackers came about and sped for home. Misfortune would dog them the entire way.
No fewer than five of the remaining Pe-8s dropped out of formation on the homeward leg due to mechanical failures or flak damage. A ruptured fuel tank prevented the lead Pe-8 from even making it back to base. One of the Yer-2s disappeared in the darkness and was never seen again.
Only seven planes made it home.
If nothing else, the Aug. 10 raid demonstrated the serious flaws in not just the prized Pe-8 heavy bomber, but the Soviet air force’s ability to conduct long-range strategic bombing.
Subsequent attacks on Berlin would fall to the Baltic Fleet.
Ten navy raids were mounted from Saaremaa over the late summer, including a massive 86-plane mission on Sept. 4 that struck a host of targets in eastern Germany and occupied Poland. Thirty-three aircraft taking part in the operation were assigned to attack the Nazi capital. They succeeded in inflicting moderate damage.
The raids on Berlin would surely have continued had the German army not overrun Estonia, depriving the Soviets of the Saaremaa island air base.
By late 1941, Hitler’s panzers were driving ever closer to Moscow and Stalin was forced to shelve further plans for strategic bombing raids on the Third Reich.
By the following spring, the strategic situation on had stabilized. The Nazi onslaught had become bogged down in the bitter Russian winter and Soviet resistance stiffened. With room to breathe again, the Kremlin was again contemplating taking the fight to Germany’s doorstep.
In March, the military established a new service called the Long Range Air Force (ADD). Equipped with Pe-8s, now fitted with more reliable engines, as well as more IL-4s, the new squadrons, which took orders directly from Stalin himself, were tasked with deep strike missions against the Third Reich.
In 1942 alone, the new branch flew more than 1,100 sorties against Germany and Nazi occupied Poland.
By August, Stalin was ordering a new round of attacks on Berlin.
On the night of Aug. 29, 100 Il-4s and Yer-2s took off from airstrips around western Russia. They were joined in the air by a dozen Pe-8s flying from fields near Moscow. The planes reached Berlin shortly after 1 a.m. The bombers, which carried minimal payloads in order to extend their ranges, inflicted only light damage. Yet again, the raid was heralded as a massive triumph
Passing the Torch
Another even larger attack was mounted in September — this one involving more than 200 planes. Although it too met with moderate success, it was fast becoming evident that the Long Range Air Force could do more damage by hitting purely military targets rather than launching symbolic raids against the German capital.
From that point on, the Soviet strategic bomber force would focus on enemy logistics and command and control targets in Eastern Europe and leave the bombing of Berlin to the British and Americans.