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Red Stars Over Berlin

By By Jon Guttman
9/23/1998 • Aviation History, Aviation History Archives

It was a sight that nobody in the Soviet Union had seen since the grandiose flyovers of May Day or the anniversary of the Russian Revolution during the early 1930s. The skies over Moscow had often been darkened on such state occasions with formations of warplanes, including gigantic multiengine bombers. That was all before June 22, 1941, when Adolf Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, pouring tanks and troops across the Soviet Union’s western border while the Luftwaffe swept the sky clean of Soviet aircraft.

Now, on the evening of August 11, 1941, the air reverberated once more with the drone of dozens of powerful engines, as 14 giant bombers left the airfield at Pushkino, near Leningrad. This time, however, they were not on their way to a take part in a Moscow flyover. Their mission, personally conceived by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, was to strike at the very heart of Hitler’s Third Reich–Berlin.

It was not the first time the German capital had been bombed–Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) had already done so exactly one year before, when 81 Handley Page Hampdens, Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys and Vickers Wellingtons sought retribution for a German raid on London. But only 29 of the planes had actually bombed the target, and the raid, along with three subsequent attacks over the next 10 days, did little damage beyond that inflicted on the ego of the Luftwaffe’s commander in chief, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, who had sworn that no enemy bomb would ever fall on Berlin.

The Soviets had also proven Göring’s statement to be a hollow boast as early as August 7, when twin-engine bombers of their navy had struck at the German capital. Now, however, Stalin was aiming for something more than just a token gesture. He gathered 14 Petlyakov Pe-8 four-engine bombers, ordered them fitted with diesel engines to increase their range and dispatched them to wreak havoc on Berlin’s populace with sizable bombloads.

Stalin’s eagerness to strike at the German capital was a radical reversal of an earlier policy based on Soviet observations during the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s. In spite of such highly publicized events as the German bombing of Guernica on April 26, 1937, Stalin and the Soviet high command (Stavka) remained unconvinced of the value of strategic bombing. Consequently, the Soviet aircraft industry–once famous for producing such giants as the Tupolev TB-3, the ANT-20 Maksim Gorki and the Kalinin K-7–was reorganized to concentrate on single- and twin-engine airplanes. Development of multi-engine, long-range aircraft almost completely stopped.

Soviet interest in strategic bombing revived after Hitler’s Directive 33, issued on July 19, 1941, called for the bombing of Moscow. The order’s official purpose was retaliation for earlier Soviet bombing attacks on Bucharest, the capital of Germany’s ally, Romania, and the Finnish capital of Helsinki. The real motive, of course, was to terrorize the Muscovites into submission. By the time Hitler issued his directive, however, the operational attrition of the rapid German advance had taken its toll on the Luftwaffe. It had only assembled a total of 195 Heinkel He-111Hs of Kampfgeschwader (bomber wings) 27, 53 and 55, and Junkers Ju-88As of KG.3 and KG.54 when the first attack was launched on the night of July 21. Arriving over Moscow at about 10 p.m., 127 German aircraft dropped 104 tons of high explosive bombs and 46,000 incendiaries during the next five hours. Intense anti-aircraft artillery, night fighters and the unsettling glare of more than 300 searchlights dispersed the German formations, however, causing them to scatter their bombs haphazardly.

German air raids on Moscow would continue throughout 1941, but the first was the largest–and for the loss of 17 aircraft, it fell far short of satisfying Hitler’s demand that Stalin’s capital be “razed to the ground.” Its successors declined steadily in size and effectiveness. Far from terrorizing the Muscovites, the German raids only managed to stiffen their will to resist with more success than a dozen of Stalin’s speeches. They also inspired Stalin to retaliate in kind by bombing Berlin.

At that time, the V-VS (Voyenno-Vozdushny Sili, or Red Air Forces) had only three aircraft types available that could reach a target that was becoming more and more distant with each day the German army advanced into Russia. Those survivors were the Ilyushin Il-4, the Yermolayev Yer-2 and the Petlyakov Pe-8.

Of the three, the Il-4 ranks among the most neglected of World War II’s great aircraft. Created under the direction of Sergei Ilyushin, the TsKB-26 (its original design bureau designation) first flew in 1935 and went into production in 1937 as the DB-3 (DB standing for Dalny Bombardirovschik, or long-range bomber). Powered by two 765-hp Shvetsov M-85 14-cylinder, twin-row radial engines–soon replaced by 960-hp M-86s–the DB-3 had excellent speed, range, bomb capacity and handling characteristics for its time. Its only weakness was in its armament–three 7.62mm ShKAS machine guns mounted in the blunt nose, a dorsal turret and a ventral position.

In 1939, after 1,528 DB-3s had been delivered, the DB-3F, a modified model with a more pointed nose, replaced it on the production line. When the V-VS began to name aircraft after their designers in 1940, the DB-3F became the Il-4. Although 2,000 DB-3Fs had been built by 1940, the 1941 German onslaught compelled the Soviets to either destroy factories or to dismantle and move them from the path of the invaders. Once the factories had been rebuilt in Siberia, full-scale production of the Il-4 resumed in 1942. The airframe was redesigned to use more wood in order to conserve Russia’s metal supplies, and the puny 7.62mm ShKASs were replaced with 12.7mm BS machine guns. More than 6,800 Il-4s would be built by the time production ceased in 1944.

The Il-4 was roughly comparable to Britain’s Handley Page Hampden and Japan’s Mitsubishi G4M1, but it outlived its contemporaries in V-VS service because of its versatility. In addition to bombs, Il-4s assigned to the Red naval air arm, or V-VS-VMF (Voyenno Morsky Flot), could carry either one 2,072-pound torpedo or up to three 1,102-pound torpedoes under the fuselage. Reconnaissance and glider-towing versions were in service by 1943. Its wingspan was 70 feet 4 1/4 inches, length 48 feet 6 1/2 inches, and its height was 13 feet 9 inches. The final version, which used two 1,100-hp M-88B engines, weighed 12,230 lb. empty and 22,036 lb. loaded. Its maximum speed was 255 mph, initial climb rate was 886 feet per minute, service ceiling was 32,808 feet and range, with a 2,205-lb. bombload, was 1,616 miles.

The Yer-2’s origins lay in a commercial design by Roberto L. Bartini, an Italian Communist who had emigrated to Russia after Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime declared his party illegal in 1923. A talented designer, Bartini produced an aerodynamically advanced, all-metal, twin-engine monoplane with inverted gull wings called the STAL-7, which first flew in 1937. The STAL-7 was capable of carrying two crew members and 12 passengers at an average speed of almost 252 mph. It was considered for use in a round-the-world flight in 1939, but the outbreak of war intervened. Stalin then issued a direct order for the plane to be developed into a long-range bomber, the DB-240. Vladimir Grigorevich Yermolayev, who had been an engineer in Bartini’s design team since 1931, was placed in charge of the bomber project. Apparently, Bartini’s political credentials did not eclipse his Italian origins in Stalin’s eyes.

Yermolayev did little to the STAL-7’s wings other than bolster them structurally, but the semimonocoque fuselage was considerably redesigned, with a bomb bay, a pilot’s canopy offset to the left and a glazed nose for the bombardier. In addition to 2,205 pounds of bombs, the armament consisted of a 12.7mm BT machine gun for the bombardier and two 7.62mm ShKAS guns–one in a dorsal gun turret and one firing through a trap door in the fuselage floor behind the wing. To improve the dorsal gunner’s field of fire, the STAL-7’s single vertical stabilizer and rudder were replaced by a twin fin and rudder arrangement, with 5 degrees of dihedral to the horizontal stabilizer. The ultimate engine choice was two 1,100-hp Klimov M-105s, driving three-bladed, variable-pitch propellers. The plane’s wingspan was 75 feet 5 1/2 inches, and its length was 54 feet 1 1/4 inches.

The DB-240 was first flown by N.B. Shebanov in June 1940 and performed admirably, with a maximum speed of 311 mph at 19,685 feet, a service ceiling of 25,260 feet and a range of 2,548 miles. State acceptance trials commenced in September, and within a month the bomber was ordered into production under the new designation of Yer-2. The first production Yer-2s, built in Voronezh, were delivered to the DBA (Dalno Bombardirovchnaya Aviatsiya, or long-range bomber aviation component) eight months later. Two regiments were working up on the new bombers when the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa. The existing Yer-2s were promptly pressed into service in direct support of Soviet ground troops–a role for which they had not been designed–while new aircraft were virtually flown from the factory gates to the front.

While the twin-engine Yer-2 had commercial origins, the Pe-8 was the last of a distinguished line of four-engine, long-range bombers from the design bureau of Andrei N. Tupolev and was intended as a successor to Tupolev’s TB-3. The Pe-8’s development began in 1934 at the hands of a design brigade headed by Vladimir Mikhailovich Petlyakov, assisted by Yosif F. Nezval. Petlyakov had been Tupolev’s deputy during the development of the titanic ANT-20 Maksim Gorki and the TB-6 12-engine bomber (designated ANT-26 by the Tupolev design bureau). The latter was abandoned in favor of a more aerodynamically modern four-engine project, the ANT-42.

An all-metal cantilever monoplane with an oval-section monocoque fuselage and retractable landing gear, the ANT-42 was up-to-date but fundamentally unremarkable, aside from a wing that was thick enough to incorporate a “crawlway” by which gunners could reach machine gun positions in the rear of each inboard engine nacelle. Tupolev also proposed the novel idea of boosting the plane’s four wing-mounted 1,200-hp Klimov AM-34FRN 12-cylinder engines by means of a “central boosting unit,” or supercharger. The compressor for the unit was to be driven by a reduction gear from an auxiliary Klimov M-100 liquid-cooled engine in the rear fuselage. Special bearings and materials were required to cope with the up to 30,000 revolutions per minute generated by the supercharger, as well as gas temperatures in excess of 1,000 degrees Celsius amid ambient air temperatures at high altitude that were anticipated to be as low as minus 60 degrees Celsius.

Construction on the prototype began on July 27, 1934, but the supercharger unit was still not ready by the time the prototype was completed on November 6, 1936. On December 27, General Mikhail M. Gromov took the big bomber up for the first of a series of factory trials. In October 1937, the plane returned to the factory for the installation of the supercharger and the amalgamation of its radiators into single units on the inboard engine nacelles.

Meanwhile, in April 1936, work had begun on a second prototype, with improved AM-34FRNV engines and an M-100A auxiliary engine, increased fuel capacity, and a dorsal machine-gun turret in place of sliding panels. At about that same time, however, Stalin’s purges eliminated two of the ANT-42 project’s most enthusiastic supporters. Marshal Mikhail N. Tukhachevsky was executed on June 11, 1937, then General Yakov A. Alksnis was arrested on November 23 and died in Lubyanka prison eight months later. Petlyakov was also arrested and placed in a detention center in Factory No. 156, leaving his deputy, Nezval, to supervise most of the bomber’s development. Tests of the second prototype were completed on December 28, 1938, but the V-VS refused to accept the supercharger and ordered Nezval to redesign the bomber to use Mikulin AM-35 engines, each with its own separate supercharger.

At that point, the four-engine bomber’s very existence was in doubt. The consensus at a conference held by Stalin at the Kremlin early in 1939 was that the Spanish Civil War, then in its final months, had proved the value of tactical air power but the airplane’s worth as a strategic weapon remained theoretical. Only the chief of the Scientific Research Institute for the Air Forces, Aleksandr I. Filin, spoke in favor of the big bombers, and–given the fact that the recently purged Tukhachevsky and Alksnis were proponents of the strategic bombing concept–he received no open support from his colleagues. Nevertheless, Filin earned the ANT-42 a reprieve when Stalin finally said, “Oh, well, let it be as you wish, but you haven’t convinced me!”

Limited production of the ANT-42, under the military designation TB-7, began in Factory No. 22 outside Moscow. More were to be built at the yet-to-be-completed Factory No. 125 at Povolozhe. The first pre-production TB-7, with AM-35 engines, emerged from Factory No. 22 in the early summer of 1940, by which time it was falling behind the latest Western standards. Production proceeded slowly, given Stalin’s continued skepticism and the higher priorities placed on allocating the more desirable high-altitude 1,200-hp AM-35A engine to the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-3 interceptor fighter.

The standard Pe-8, as the TB-7 was redesignated in 1940, had a maximum speed of 265 mph at 20,865 feet, a service ceiling of 26,900 feet and a maximum ceiling of 33,790 feet with the AM-35A engine. At a cruising speed of 174 mph, with the full fuel capacity of 3,431.5 gallons in one fuselage and 18 wing tanks, and a 4,410-pound bombload, the maximum range was 2,920 miles. The Pe-8’s wingspan was 127 feet 11 4/5 inches, wing area 2,031 square feet, length 77 feet 4 3/4 inches and height 20 feet 4 inches. Its empty weight was 36,728 pounds, while the maximum takeoff weight was 69,268 pounds.

The Pe-8’s maximum bombload–for shorter-range missions–was 8,818 pounds. Defensive armament consisted of a nose turret with twin 7.62mm ShKAS machine guns–later replaced by a 20mm ShVAK cannon–one 12.7mm BT machine gun in each of the two inboard engine nacelle positions, and one 20mm ShVAK cannon in the dorsal and tail turrets. The 11-man crew included a pilot and co-pilot seated in tandem in a cockpit offset slightly to the left, with 9mm armor for their seats, along with modest armor protection for the navigator’s and nacelle gunners’ positions.

Nezval projected a passenger-carrying version of the Pe-8 for Aeroflot, in the event that the bomber should fall completely from favor. He also experimented with four 1,400-hp Mikulin AM-37 engines and 1,540-hp Shvetsov M-82 14-cylinder twin-row radials. In addition, during the winter of 1940, he fitted one of the Pe-8s with the 1,000-hp M-40, a new turbosupercharged V-12 diesel engine developed by A.D. Charomsky. Speed and high-altitude performance with the heavier diesels proved inferior, but they increased the bomber’s range to 4,849 miles. That impressed Stalin, who ordered the diesels into production over the protests of Charomsky’s design team, which had not yet ironed out all of the engines’ development problems. The production ACh-30B diesel engine was rated at 1,500-hp on takeoff, but fell off to 1,080-hp at operational altitudes.

The completion of the first production batch of Pe-8s and the creation of a special unit for them–the 432nd BAP (ON) (Bombardirovachnyi Aviapolk Osobovo Naznacheniya, or special purpose bomber regiment) under Major Viktorin I. Lebedev–coincided with the 1941 German invasion. The bombers were promptly committed piecemeal in a series of short-range night attacks on railheads and staging areas that did little or nothing to slow the German advance.

Such was the arsenal of the V-VS’s withered long-range bomber component when Stalin called upon it to mount retaliatory strikes against Berlin in early August 1941. The first such raid, however, would not be flown by the DBA’s strategic bombers, but by the smaller DB-3s of the Soviet navy.

By that time, the DB-3s could only reach Berlin from the Baltic coast. Therefore, on July 28, People’s Commissar of the Navy Admiral Nikolai G. Kuznetzov recommended to Stalin that nocturnal raids against the German capital be launched from Saaremaa Island, off the coast of Estonia. The task was given primarily to the 1st Guards Mine and Torpedo Air Regiment of the Baltic Fleet Air Force, which was stationed at Kaluga on Saaremaa. On the night of August 7, 13 aircraft took off, led by Lt. Col. Evgeny N. Preobrazhensky, with Major Pyotr Ilich Khokhlov as his navigator. The German anti-aircraft defenses were taken completely by surprise, and although the bombers did only minor damage, all of them returned safely. On the following night, the naval bombers were joined by Il-4s of the 22nd and 30th BAPs (bomber regiments) of the V-VS, operating from Kagal and Aste on Saaremaa. A total of 15 aircraft successfully flew the 1,240 miles to and from Berlin. The Saaremaa-based naval aviators made one more nocturnal raid to Berlin before they were joined on August 11 by DBA regiments equipped with Il-4s and Yer-2s.

On that same day, 14 Pe-8s were also being assembled at Pushkino for their first sortie. Originally, 18 bombers had been dispatched to the field, but four had had to return to the factory due to engine malfunctions, while a fifth was almost shot down by anti-aircraft guns as it approached its destination.

Major General Mikhail Vassilievich Vodopyanov, who had been named a Hero of the Soviet Union for his role in rescuing the survivors of the Arctic exploration vessel Chelyushkin in 1934, was placed in overall command of the newly formed 81st Long-range Bombing Aviation Division (Dalny Bombardirovachny Aviadivision, or DBAD). The division was comprised of Lebedyev’s 432nd BAP (ON), then based at Kazan; the 433rd Reserve Wing, also at Kazan with Pe-8s; and the Yer-2-equipped 420th and 421st BAPs. Vodopyanov’s aircrews were drawn from Aeroflot, test centers and operational units, with an emphasis on pilots and navigators familiar with the Northern Seas route (i.e., the Arctic). In spite of their individual expertise, however, most of the former airline pilots had little or no experience in formation flying, nor in taking off or landing on unpaved runways. Those factors would become serious handicaps in the mission to come.

Meanwhile, the ACh-30B engines, with two-stage centrifugal superchargers and VISh-24 constant-speed propellers, were being installed and tested in the Pe-8s. Charomsky’s staff had predicted the problems that arose. Fuel flow for each engine had to be adjusted manually by the pilot–an added burden made no easier by the discovery that the engine’s rpms sometimes fluctuated wildly, after which the engine would often stop, especially at high altitudes.

While Charomsky’s technicians struggled to rectify the engine problems and the aircrews trained under the scrutiny of an impatient Stalin, Vodopyanov planned his route to skirt around the coastlines of Estonia and Latvia, then across the Baltic to a landfall north of Stettin, in hopes of avoiding interception by the Luftwaffe. The total distance to the enemy capital was calculated at 1,680 miles, which would be flown at the Pe-8’s long-range cruising speed of 175 mph and at an altitude of 23,000 feet. If they left at last light, the estimated time of arrival over Berlin would be around midnight.

After a final day of frenzied preparations, final briefings and further delays, Vodopyanov took the controls of one of the 14 Pe-8s, with Major Endel K. Pusep, an old comrade from Vodopyanov’s days of flying in the Arctic, seated behind him as his second pilot. Shortly before takeoff, he asked Stalin for a secondary target, Stettin, to be added to the mission orders, just in case any of his planes were unable to fly the full distance. Stalin reluctantly assented, though he reiterated emphatically, “But you must reach Berlin!”

Finally, at 9:15 p.m.–later than originally intended–the 14 Pe-8s took to the sky. At about the same time, two squadrons of Il-4s from the 200th BAP took off from Saaremaa to join the attack. Colonel Nikolai I. Novodranov’s 420th BAP was also ordered to send a squadron of Yer-2s to Berlin.

Things began to go wrong for the Pe-8s almost from the start. Just as Major Konstantin P. Yegorov’s plane took off, two engines cut out on the same side, sending it crashing to earth and killing all 11 crewmen. As the bombers made their way toward the Baltic, Captain Aleksandr N. Tyagunin’s plane came under attack by Polikarpov I-16 fighters, then was struck by trigger-happy Soviet anti-aircraft gunners, who sent it plunging into the sea off Tallinn.

Lieutenant Vasily D. Bidny was just 40 minutes from Pushkino when his right inner engine caught fire. He extinguished the flames by shutting down the engine, but as he flew over Danzig (Gdansk) at 19,685 feet, the left outer engine failed. The Pe-8 was struggling to stay airborne on two engines with a full bombload and descended to 6,560 feet, at which point Bidny decided to hit the secondary target of Stettin. After dropping his bombs on the Lauenburg railroad station, Bidny managed to bring his plane down safely near Leningrad, just as the last of his fuel ran out.

The remaining 11 Pe-8s pressed on toward Berlin and succeeded in releasing their bombloads piecemeal over various parts of the city. Vodopyanov and Pusep experienced no difficulties until they were just 12 minutes away from Berlin. Then, at an altitude of 22,965 feet, one of their engines began to falter. Vodopyanov had come too far to stop now, and he grimly kept the plane on course while German anti-aircraft guns opened fire. They reached the target and Vodopyanov’s bombardier released 8,818 pounds of bombs–just as flak bracketed the plane, sending shell splinters tearing into the fuselage and puncturing a fuel tank in the right wing. Vodopyanov calculated that he had about four hours’ fuel left for a five-hour flight and ordered his navigator, Aleksandr P. Shtepenko, to abandon the originial circuitous return route and set a direct course for home.

Vodopyanov’s troubles continued. His plane flew through a low pressure area and began to ice up. Snow swirled through the shrapnel-riddled cockpit area and covered the instruments. By the time he got clear of the foul weather, Vodopyanov found himself down to 6,560 feet. He was then over Estonia–and right over the front line between the Soviets and the advancing Germans. Shtepenko announced, “ETA base 30 minutes,” but he spoke too soon, for at that very moment all four engines stopped dead. The plane came down in a forest, but Vodopyanov and his crew miraculously emerged unhurt and made their way to safety on the Soviet side of the lines.

Only four of the other Pe-8 crews could claim to have made the round trip without incident when they arrived at Pushkino on the morning of August 12, and all of the pilots complained of engine problems. Two other planes turned up later in the day. Major Mikhail M. Ugryumov ran out of fuel but landed near a tractor factory outside of Kalinin, where he refueled his plane from buckets and then resumed his homeward flight. Major Aleksandr A. Kurban’s engines seized up several times, compelling him to restart them by going into shallow dives, consuming precious fuel each time. He ran out of fuel at Krasnoye Selo but, like Ugryumov, he force-landed his plane without damage, refueled and eventually made it to Pushkino.

Three other Pe-8s had been less fortunate, force-landing well short of their home base. One was listed as missing until it was later learned that its pilot, 1st Lt. Aleksandr I. Panfilov, had become disoriented during the return flight, strayed over Finland and been shot down near Helsinki by enemy anti-aircraft fire. Only two of his crew survived the crash and were taken prisoner by the Finns.

It had been a disastrous mission for the 1st Squadron of the 420th BAP, as well. Not only were its Yer-2s overloaded with fuel, but its pilots–experienced only in flying from concrete runways–were also appalled to find nothing but a grass airstrip at Pushkino. As Lieutenant Aleksandr I. Molodschy tried to take off, both of his engines began to lose power and his brakes failed. Molodschy kept going at full throttle and took off, only to come down again and then run out of runway. The Yer-2 crashed, but Molodschy and his crew survived. Molodschy would go on to a distinguished wartime career as a bomber pilot, receiving two Gold Stars of a Hero of the Soviet Union.

After several other Yer-2s suffered similar crackups, the mission was canceled–though not before at least three Yer-2s had managed to take off. Low clouds forced Lieutenant Vladimir M. Malinin to descend to 2,700 feet before dropping his bombs over Berlin. On the way back, however, his plane was shot down by Soviet air defenses, killing the entire crew. Commandant V.A. Kubyshko also bombed the German capital, only to be attacked by several Soviet fighters during his return flight. His plane went down in flames, but he and his crew managed to bail out safely. The third Yer-2, piloted by Captain A.G. Stepanov, was last seen over Berlin, but it never returned.

Upon his return, Vodopyanov was immediately rushed to Moscow. He was ushered into the Kremlin the next day to report to a grim-faced Stalin and a roomful of Party officials, marshals and generals. Vodopyanov tallied the raid’s results: “Eleven of our aircraft reached the target, six aircraft regained their base, one was shot down by our own anti-aircraft artillery, one is missing and the rest made forced landings owing to engine failures. My aircraft crash-landed in a forest.” Then Vodopyanov lost his composure and blurted out: “I’m ready to tear out those damned diesels with my teeth! Engines must be reliable for operational flying, and flying with these diesels means the loss of aircraft and men.”

It was a scathing indictment of a decision made by Stalin himself, but the Russian leader listened silently as Vodopyanov added, “And one more thing, we must have homing beacons, for without them we wander around like blind kittens.”

“What would you like us to do,” asked one of his seniors, “direct the fascist aircraft straight to your airfield?”

“Surely it is obvious that such beacons would be sited well away from the field,” Vodopyanov shot back. “We should not have much difficulty in flying the last 50 to 100 kilometers from the beacon to our base!”

At that point, Stalin spoke up, ending the argument and dismissing Vodopyanov. Soon afterward, Colonel Aleksandr E. Golovanov replaced Vodopyanov in command of the 81st DBAD. A week later, however, Vodopyanov was assigned to assist in testing a Pe-8 with Shvetsov M-82 radial engines in place of the Charomsky diesels. Not long after that, a homing beacon called Pchelka (little bee) was introduced at V-VS air bases. Apparently, the realities of war had changed Stalin’s attitude somewhat since the terrifying days of his prewar purges.

Meanwhile, the nocturnal raids on Berlin continued. Golovanov did not consider the Pe-8s up to the task, but he did lead three of them on a less ambitious but completely successful raid on Königsberg on the night of September 1. The naval DB-3s flew a total of 10 sorties over Berlin before Saaremaa had to be evacuated in the face of imminent German invasion. The last attack was made on the night of September 4-5. A total of 86 naval aircraft participated in the raids, of which 33 were reported to have reached Berlin, while others bombed secondary targets, including Stettin, Königsberg, Memel, Danzig, Swinemünde and Libau. Five of the naval pilots were awarded the Gold Star of a Hero of the Soviet Union on August 13, including Preobrazhensky, who participated in all 10 raids. Five of the Red Army pilots were likewise awarded Gold Stars on September 16, 1941.

By then, Stavka had dissolved the DBA altogether, although the strategic component would be nominally resurrected under a new name, Aviatsiya Dal’novo Deistviya (long-range aviation), or ADD, in March 1942, with Golovanov as its commanding officer. Even then, it was of limited relevance at best. After September 1941, the battle front moved beyond the Soviet Union’s capability to sustain a long-range bombing campaign. Vodopyanov asked for permission to try flying daytime bombing missions in the Pe-8 and was assigned two aircraft for a trial sortie. Both aircraft returned damaged, and in spite of Vodopyanov’s report of good results against the enemy target, no further daytime attacks were carried out.

The great quantities of metal and labor that went into the Pe-8 had become a luxury that Stalin felt he could no longer afford. After producing its 79th Pe-8 in October 1941, Factory No. 22 began to transfer machinery from its Moscow location to Povolozhe. There, it was put to work in Factory No. 125 manufacturing Pe-2 twin-engine tactical bombers.

Western observers got their first glimpse of the Pe-8 when one of the now-obsolescent bombers, flown by Major Pusep, carried Foreign Minister Vyacheslav M. Molotov and other senior Soviet officials to RAF Leuchars, near Dundee, Scotland, in May 1942. From there, the Pe-8, with extra fuel tanks in its bomb bay, flew to Washington, D.C., on May 29 and eventually returned to Moscow on June 13–flying some of the way over German-held territory.

On June 10, 1942, the Soviets organized a new bomber division, the 45th DBAD, commanded by Colonel Lebedev, consisting of the 746th and 890th BAPs. Later that month, while the Germans renewed their offensive, Stalin and Golovanov discussed the idea of another strike on Berlin. This time, the Pe-8s used conventional AM-35A engines and took off from Kratovo airbase, south of Moscow. To compensate for that distance, the bomb loads were carefully limited to no more than 6,000 pounds and extra fuel tanks were installed.

On the night of August 29, five Pe-8s, piloted by Major Pusep and Captain Vladimir V. Ponomarenko of the 746th BAP, and Captains Boris A. Kybyschko, Mikhail V. Rodnykh and Pavel M. Archarov of the 890th, took off for Berlin, while seven other Pe-8s set off on a diversionary raid on Königsberg. At the same time, 100 Il-4s and Yer-2s took off from various airfields near the front lines. At 1:23 on the morning of August 30, the first bombs fell on Berlin. It was the largest Soviet raid ever to be mounted against the German capital, but damage was still received belated recognition when he was awarded the Order of Lenin on his 70th birthday, May 14, 1967.

Although it never received the publicity afforded the Yakovlev and Lavochkin fighters or the Il-2 Shturmovik ground-attack plane, the Il-4 was a mainstay of the V-VS’ bombing force throughout the war. That is more than can be said for its stable mates, the Yer-2 and the Pe-8.

Dramatic–and sometimes traumatic–as they had been, the Soviet bombing raids on Berlin were never seriously expected to do more than pay the Germans back for their equally ineffective attacks on Moscow and provide a much-needed boost to morale on the home front. Ultimately, a terrible retribution would fall on Berlin, but it would come from the RAF and the United States Army Air Forces. The Soviets, too, would eventually reach Berlin, but it would be the Red Army, rather than bombers, that would dismantle the last of Hitler’s Reich, block by viciously contested city block.

The end of the war in Europe on May 8, 1945, left the Soviet Union the most formidable land power on earth, but with a hopelessly inadequate strategic air arm that was no match for that of its rival-to-be, the United States. In the early years of the Cold War, the ADD component of the V-VS would have to start over from scratch–albeit aided immeasurably by the acquisition of a Boeing B-29 that strayed into Soviet territory and was interned, to be copied and mass-produced as the Tupolev Tu-4.

For additional reading, Aviation History senior editor Jon Guttman suggests: Red Stars in the Sky, Vol. 2, by Carl-Fredrik Geust, Karlevi Keskinen, Klaus Niska and Kari Stenman; and for readers who speak German, Pe-8, Der Sowjetische Fernbomber, by Ulrich Unger.

Published in the March 1998 issue of Aviation History Magazine.

 

 

One Response to Red Stars Over Berlin

  1. […] under Major Viktorin Lebedev, just at the time when Germany began to invade the Soviet Union, the History Net reports.Their mission was to fly along the coast of Estonia and Latvia, across the Baltic Sea and […]

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