“The Soviet Union’s burgeoning strategic bomber arm carried out attacks on Berlin too.”
WITHIN A YEAR of the start of the Second World War, Berlin found itself 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 leading up to 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 on the city.
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 missions against Berlin too. Although representing a 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. Here’s the story.
Stalin Strikes Back
The Soviet Union’s bombing campaign of Berlin began as a tit-for-tat response 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 warplanes struck the communist capital. While only minor damage was inflicted in the 127-plane mission, the attack underscored the weakness of the Russian military. Ever mindful of optics, Stalin was determined that the Nazi raid 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. Carrying out the directive would prove to be a challenge. The U.S.S.R. had only one make of modern heavy bomber in 1941, the Petlyakov Pe-8, and not many were availble.
And while Soviet aircraft had previously undertaken bombing missions against cities like Helsinki and Romania, raiding Berlin, which was nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from the nearest Russian airfield, would be no easy task. Nevertheless, Stalin’s generals began to lay plans for a counter-strike
Berlin in the Crosshairs
Ironically, it would be 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 went into overdrive to trumpet the success of the raids. More attacks would follow; not all would run so 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 almost from the start.
Only three of the bomb-laden Yer-2s could get airborne from their grassy airfield. Worse, one of the heavy Pe-8s suffered a complete engine failure moments after take off and plunged onto the ground killing all 11 crewmen.
More bad luck followed as jumpy Russian flak gunners along the outbound 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 their objective. German anti-aircraft batteries were placed on full alert and threw up a cordon of flak. The ground fire shredded the Soviet planes as they released their payloads high above the city. With their bomb bays empty, the attackers put 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 bogged down due to the bitter Russian winter and Soviet resistance was stiffening everywhere. With room to breathe again, the Kremlin once again contemplated taking the fight to Germany’s doorstep.
In March, the military established a new service under Stalin’s personal command called the Long Range Air Force (ADD). Equipped with newer Pe-8s, each fitted with more reliable engines, as well as more IL-4s, the expanded squadrons 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, the Soviet dictator was ordering even more 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. But 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.
(Originally publishing on MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Sept. 23, 2016)