Book Review: Air Battle for Moscow 1941–1942

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by Dmitry Degtev and Dmitry Zubov

Warwick, Eng.: Air World / Philadelphia: Pen & Sword, 2021. Pp. viii, 238. Illus., tables, biblio., index. $34.95. ISBN: 1526774461

Red Eagles vs. the Luftwaffe Over Moscow

Writing two-sided history about the Eastern Front of the Second World War remains difficult. In recent years, historians have described major battles that, for decades, had been kept out of the historical record while battles put forward as models of mobile warfare have been shown to have been less dramatic, even if still terribly lethal. In 2022, the potential for destructive multi-domain warfare returning to the battlefields of this war, combined with the commitment of the current leadership in Moscow to repressing anything that contradicts what they perceive as their very own politically useful history, does not augur well for those writing (or reading) about the war in the east.

This books’ two Russian authors, Dmitry Degtev and Dmitry Zubov, have set out to provide a balanced narrative of both sides’ air operations around and over Moscow from July 1941 to April 1942. Starting with the “Moscow Blitz” by German night bombers, it covers the climactic German advance and the Soviet counterattack, starting in December, that continued through the winter and included some of the first Soviet airborne operations of the war.

The authors did this by “banging together” sources from both sides, although with no footnotes and only a page-and-a-half listing of book titles and (Soviet only) archival records, precisely how remains a matter or surmise. Having read lots of Soviet military magazines in the 1970s and 1980s, I could tell that their historical articles – which may have been based on the same archival sources – were also used. While the sources consulted for the German side of the story are far from comprehensive, the authors manage to cover much of both sides’ missions, claims, and losses in a detailed narrative.

The authors show how stretched the Luftwaffe was by the time it started operating around Moscow. The “Moscow Blitz” was much smaller than that against London earlier in the year; some 600 sorties total in July-August, about what they had put over Britain on their most intense nights of bombing. Other significant Luftwaffe operations are less well covered, such as the air resupply of the Demyansk pocket, cut off by the Soviet winter counteroffensive. This German success led to overconfidence in their airlift capabilities that was later to prove fatal at Stalingrad.-

On the Soviet side, the book only briefly touches on the development of Moscow’s air defenses. Some 500 single-seat fighters defended Moscow when the German bombing started, comparable in numbers with RAF’s Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain but not part of an integrated air defense system. Soviet attempts to improvise a response were hampered by the loss of experienced personnel in the purges and the Russo-Finnish war even before the devastating setbacks of summer 1941 and the difficulties of fighting under Stalin’s personal gaze. Taran – ramming tactics – were publicized as exemplifying socialist self-sacrifice but were in reality a desperate improvisation reflecting limitations in Soviet fighters, lacking even unreliable weapons and radios and flown by minimally trained pilots. The authors frank discussion of the Soviets’ limitations show these led to long-lasting distortions in the historical record; the archives of this period contain false and fabricated reports that served to preserve hard-pressed commanders against Stalin’s wrath.

The uneven source material is reflected in a narrative that provides interesting – and telling – details but sometimes misses the larger picture (especially on the German side), such as weapons loads of individual bombers attacking Moscow. Bullet holes (wooden airplanes can be tough) were counted in one Soviet fighter that returned to base after it tangled with a German bomber. The authors identify this as a Heinkel He 111 of KGr 100, the Luftwaffe’s pathfinders, down to a staffel in strength after the 1940-41 night bombing campaign over Britain.

The authors use their ability to focus on such details to describe lend-lease aircraft going into action with the Soviets: British-built Hurricanes and US-built P-40s. An I-153 biplane fighter shot down a Bf 109 flown by a Spanish Air Force volunteer pilot with a salvo of air-to-air rockets. The Sukhoi Su-2, an often-overlooked early-war Shturmovik, was appreciated for its air-cooled engine, less likely to freeze in sub-zero temperatures.

Such close-focus glances at the details of the campaign are interesting but overwhelm the narrative at times. The authors’ ability to present the campaign this way is limited by major gaps in the records, such as they day when nine He 111s are recorded as failing to return, without any corresponding Soviet claims to having shot them down. At the level of matching individual air combat, losses and victory claims, being comprehensive is not a realistic objective, but the authors have been able to pull together enough for a worthwhile narrative that runs until April 1942, while the Soviets transitioned from desperate improvisation to starting their learning curve. The first P-39 Airacobras arrived from the US and would be successfully used by fighter units through the end of the war. Radars – both Soviet-built and lend-lease – were incorporated into the air defense of Moscow. Ground observer networks were expanded and linked. The prewar three-fighter vee formations were replaced by flying in line abreast, stepped up for mutual support. The narrative captures all these events, but the slow and costly processes of operational and tactical evolution mainly took place outside the scope of this book. It was after new aircraft and new pilots went into action over Stalingrad in 1942 and the Kuban bridgehead in 1943 when the Germans started to feel the weight of Soviet airpower. The Luftwaffe’s capabilities in the east, which appear at their height in this book, would decline, slowly and painfully, towards their final failure.

This book has no maps. Even a single map showing major cities, airbases and the location of the front lines at key dates of the campaign would have been useful. The illustrations are black and white photographs, mostly from the Soviet sources, including some unlikely to be familiar to western readers.

While not a definitive account, this book is a detailed operational narrative of air combat at a decisive time on the eastern front and, secondarily, provides worthwhile insights on how both Soviet and German air arms adapted in combat at a time when both were stumbling. For those interested in Second World War air operations, Air Battle for Moscow, 1941-1942 is worth having.

 

Our Reviewer: David Isby’s writings on current and historical airpower include The Decisive Duel: Spitfire vs. 109 (London: Little Brown, 2012) and Fighter Combat in the Jet Age (London: Harper Collins, 1997) and articles for Air International, Air Forces Monthly and other magazines. A veteran historian, defense analyst, and war game designer, Isby has quit e a number of other books, articles, and games to his credit covering the Second World War, the military institutions of the Soviet Union, and military aviation in general. During the Soviet-Afghan War he observed the fighting on the front lines, and he is the author of Afghanistan: Graveyard of Empires: A New History of the Borderland (New York: Pegasus, 2011). His previous reviews include A Military History of Afghanistan, The Elite: The A–Z of Modern Special Operations Forces, Taranto and Naval Air Warfare in the Mediterranean, Airpower in the War against ISIS, Korean Air War: Sabres, MiGs and Meteors, 1950–53, How the Army Made Britain a Global Power, Modern South Korean Air Power, and Dirty Eddie's War.

 

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Note: Air Battle for Moscow, 1941-1942is also available in e-editions.

 

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

www.nymas.org and https://www.nymas2.org/

Reviewer: David C. Isby   


Buy it at Amazon.com




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