Fighter Combat in the East and in the West - A Comparison

German ace Hans Philipp, I./JG 54, after his 100th victory, March 31, 1942.
Soviet ace Georgiy Gromov, 20 GIAP, in front of the victory markings on his P-40 fighter.

The dominant assessment in the "Western World" of the air war on the Eastern Front during WW II in many ways still is rooted in myths and misconceptions. Of course this is due to the Cold War, the dominance in the West of German accounts from this war theater, and the previous Soviet reluctance of offering any insight into their archives.

It is clear that the German fighter pilots were more successful on the Eastern Front than against the Western Allies, and that the war in the air on the Eastern Front cost more Soviet than German aircraft. But the reasons to this are manifolded. One key issue is the development of German fighter aces, and the extreme emphasis that the Luftwaffe placed on individual aerial victories. First of all, the Germans held a superiority regarding pilot training, the experience of their airmen, tactics, and technical outfit in 1941-1942. The tutoring into an aggressive victory hunt taht the German fighter pilots ("Jäger," "hunters," in German) received must be taken into account. The output from German fighter pilot training schools until 1943 can be described as highly trained, self confident, and highly motivated young aerial warriors, tutored to hunt aerial victories and nothing else. They had been brought up to believe that they were superior to anything else. They enjoyed the advantages of the best fighter plane at the time (Messerschmitt Bf 109), highly efficient tactics, and the accumulated result of the experience of other Luftwaffe veterans from the Spanish Civil War and the air war in the West in 1940.

When Hitler launched his attack against the Soviet Union, the surviving veterans of the Luftwaffe had been hardened by the tough lessons of the battles for France and England in 1940-41. Stalin's extensive purges of the Red Army in the late Thirties resulted in huge qualitative deficiencies. Many of the best commanders, down to unit level, were executed. The conservative Stalinist thinking dominated, and the Soviet airmen found themselves ill equipped, inadequately trained for a modern aerial warfare, and tied down by obsolete methods and tactics. In addition, the technical modernization program for the Soviet air forces had merely begun.

The Luftwaffe held about a two-year technical advantage compared to the Soviet air forces. For these reasons, the Soviets suffered heavy losses in airmen. This led to radically reduced pilot training courses. Which in turn increased Soviet losses--and, of course, the success rate among the German fighter pilots. The entire situation enabled a core of German airmen to survive and amass a huge combat experience.

From late 1942, when the quality of the Soviet Air Force was slowly resurging, a core of immensely experienced German fighter pilots - with experience from 500 or even more combat sorties, all flown in the same aircraft type - had emerged on the Eastern Front. It is a fact that never have there been more war-experienced fighter pilots in action than the core of German aces that developed on the Eastern Front in 1941-1943. This conclusion is based not mainly on the number of aerial victories attained by the "top aces", but as a combination of several factors. The most important factor here is the amount of experience - both the exoerience attained by the "aces", but also the experience amassed by their wingmen. Many very skillful Luftwaffe fighter aces were killed in the West because the other pilots in their formation lacked the experience necessary to cover their formation leader. This problem was not at all as present in the East, where the core of experienced wingmen were far better than the average Jagdwaffe wingman in the West from late 1943 and onward.

Without doubt, fighter pilots in general developed and refined their combat skills the more experience they gained. For instance, 132-victory ace Alfred Grislawski states that when he flew over the Normandie in the Summer of 1944 - with an accumulated experience from almost 800 combat missions (most of which had been flown on Bf 109s) - he was much more skillful as a fighter pilot than when he "only" had flown 200 combat missions. "By that time [Summer of 1944] I could master any situation, and when I entered air combat I could tell in advance whom I was going to shoot down."

Of course war-weariness ultimately affected some veterans negatively, but far from everyone. Since fighter pilots in general developed and refined their combat skills the more experience they gained, it is plausible to assume that the fighter pilot veterans who accumulated experience from over 500 - in a few cases even over a thousand - combat sorties, developed levels of air combat skills that were unparallelled in any other air force. The majority of those served with the Luftwaffe on the Eastern Front.

The situation was different on the "Western Front," where the modern equipped and trained RAF was an equal opponent already from the start of the war. The Luftwaffe's pilot losses against the Western Allies in 1941-1943 did not allow such a tremendously experienced core of fighter aces to develop as was the case in the East. But of course there were exceptions. During the month of September 1942, German fighter ace Hans-Joachim Marseille claimed 54 victories - including 17 in one day - in North Africa (most of them fighters); during the same month, the top scorer on the Eastern Front, German fighter ace Hermann Graf, claimed 62 Soviet aircraft shot down - 10 was his best result for a single day.

For several reasons, the German fighter pilots in general held a slight upper hand in air combat with the Western Allies air forces until 1943. This however changed with the appearance of large formations of US heavy bombers and long-range US escort fighters. From the Fall of 1943, the "hunters" of the German fighter force had turned into "hunted." While the German fighters had to be concentrated against US bombers, the escorting Thunderbolts, Mustangs, and Lightnings, operating in incraesingly superior numbers, could bounce German fighters and shoot them down in scores. Added to this was the severe losses as a result of the heavy bombers' defensive fire. Increasing losses in the air battles over Germany resulted in reduced pilot training courses, which in turn further increased German fighter losses. This mainly affected the units with the highest losses - namely the fighter units in the "West".

Another important difference between the "West" and the Eastern Front was that until June 1944, the USAAF and RAF fighter pilots had no frontline on the ground to cover (this regarding Western Europe), and thus could concentrate on hunting German planes in the air. This advantage was never enjoyed by the Soviet fighter pilots.

It is interesting to study the fates of some German aces who "changed fronts." Here I only deal with fighter-to-fighter combat, where skill may count (any top ace could get killed in the massive fire from hundreds of heavy machine-guns from a US heavy bomber formation, regardless of immense flying skills).

"Jochen" Müncheberg, Galland's protegé in JG 26, arrived to JG 51 on the Eastern Front in August 1942. He was shot down twice in four weeks. Siegfried Schnell, who achieved 87 victories against the RAF and the USAAF, arrived to JG 54 on the Eastern Front in February 1944; two weeks later he was killed in combat with Soviet fighters. "Assi" Hahn was shot down by a Soviet La-5, and ended up in captivity three months after he arrived to the Eastern Front; he had previously scored 68 victories against the French Air Force and the RAF. Oberstleutnant Hannes Trautloft, "Assi" Hahn's Geschwaderkommodore on the Eastern Front, recorded this statement by "Assi" Hahn regarding the quality of the Soviet opposition three months after Hahn's arrival to the Eastern Front:

"Hahn told me that the air combats are not easier, but instead harder than what he previously had experienced. He, who is used to merciless air combats against a skillful enemy over the English Channel, told us that he had to mobilize all his skills to fight enemies who proved to be at least as killful as the Englishmen."

"Those 'Kanaljäger' arrived to us and thought that it was an easy game on the Russian Front. Well, they soon learned that this was not the case," said Artur Gärtner of JG 54.

Of course there also were experienced German fighter pilots from the East who got shot down and killed shortly after they had arrived in the West. But no one has denied that the air war in the West was dangerous; it is the air war on the Eastern Front that - probably incorrectly - has been described as "easy", from a German perspective. To some extent, the losses of experienced German fighter aces in the West in 1943 - 1945 also can be explained by the fact that they often did not have the same protection - i.e. quality of their wingmen - as in the East.

One famous Eastern Front expert who "changed fronts" is Günther Rall, who after 273 victories and over 700 combat missions (almost all on the Eastern Front) in the Spring of 1944 was shifted to JG 11 in the Home Defense. Indeed, Rall was shot down and wounded by Thunderbolts from U.S. 56 FG on May 12, 1944. But this was not until he had shot down two of the Thunderbolts himself - and in an air battle where 470 German fighters were pinned against fifteen hundred American planes, including 814 heavy bombers and 735 fighters. This was the ninth time Rall got shot down - eight of which had occurred on the Eastern Front. Asked about his opinion on the American and Soviet fighter pilots, Rall said: "The Americans weren't better than the Russians. The Russians were aggressive and tough opponents."

At the same time, it is interesting to study some of the German top aces that had been educated on the Eastern Front, and their accomplishments against US and British fighters:

Ernst-Wilhelm Reinert had carried out around 500 combat sorties and achieved 103 victories on the Eastern Front in 1941-1942 when he was shifted to Tunisia. Between January 1943 and early May 1943, he was credited with fifty victories against the USAAF and the RAF - quite comparable to the success rate achieved by other top aces on the Eastern Front at that time, and also comparable to the rate of successes that he had achieved against inferior equipped Soviets. Heinz Bär arrived from the Eastern Front to North Africa in October 1942 and shot down twenty RAF and USAAF fighters in two months - about the same rate of successes that he had scored previously on the Eastern Front. Theodor Weissenberger arrived to the "Normandie Front" in June 1944, after almost three years of service on the Eastern Front; he claimed twenty-five US and British fighters in only twenty-six combat sorties in June and July 1944 - his previous twenty-two victories had been achieved on twenty-five combat sorties on the Eastern Front. And we all know how Hartmann dealt with the US Mustangs...

We have asked several Luftwaffe veterans of their impression of the qualities of their various opponents. Hugo Dahmer, who served on the Eastern Front only in 1941, has the impression that the Soviet airmen were inferior to those of the RAF. Alfred Grislawski, who served on the Eastern Front until 1943, and from then on in the Reichsverteidigung, holds that the Soviet airmen in 1943 were equal to those of the RAF. Grislawski explained that "the Russians had a different tactic; their main task often was to strafe our ground troops, and because of this we often managed to catch them in a position that was to their disadvantage."

One German fighter ace and Knight's Cross holder (he expressed the wish of remaining anonymous) expressed the impression that the Soviet airmen were better than the Americans (this was regarding the US airmen in North Africa in 1942). This is supported by Alfred Grislawski, who - speaking of the last Soviet pilots that he met (in the spring of 1943) compared to the American pilots that he met later in 1943 and in 1944 - said: "It is hard to compare because the Americans always came in large numbers against few of us. But when it comes to the individual pilot, I regard the Russians as better than the Americans. This is only natural, because the Americans had this tour system. How much did they fly - thirty or forty combat missions? - and then they were called back home again. They never accumulated that much experience."

"The advantage of the Americans was that they always appeared in large numbers," is a common statement from former Luftwaffe aces.

The Soviet fighter pilots mostly operated in relatively small formations. The normal German fighter tactic was a high-side gunnery run against lower flying enemy formations, whereafter they could use the superior climbing performance of the Bf 109 to withdraw. In this way, the German fighter pilots frequently were in a position where they could choose to engage the enemy only when the situation was to their advantage. Whereas the German fighter pilots operated in the loose two-plane Rotte-formation, and in the four-plane Schwarm-formation (two Rotten) - where the wingman's task was to cover the leader, who was supposed to shoot down the enemy-, the Soviets (in 1941 to mid-1942) mainly operated in three-plane V-formations, which reduced the flexibility of the fighters. One of the main advantages held by the Germans was that all of their aircraft were equipped with R/T transmitters and receivers, while most Soviet fighters only were equipped with receivers during the first years of the war. What also hampered the Soviet fighter pilots was the common tactic of deploying them to area protection, where it was prohibited to pursue the enemy outside of the assigned territory; the German fighter pilots were mainly dispatched on free hunting sorties with no other territorial boundaries than those set by the amount of fuel in the tanks of their aircraft.

In spite of these initial German advantages in air combat, the Soviet airmen performed very well. Without doubt, the Soviet fliers in general were the toughest and most determined opponents ever to be faced by German airmen. Any other air force probably would have disintegrated morally following the immense losses that were dealt the Soviets by the Luftwaffe on June 22, 1941 - at least this was what the Germans had anticipated would happen to the Soviet armed forces. In spite of this, Soviet bomber crews kept launching one mission after another against the advancing German ground troops during the first weeks of the war, and the Soviet fighter pilots never ceased challenging the Luftwaffe of air superiority.

Until Tomas Polak and Hans Dieter Seidl in the late 1990s came out with their books on the Soviet fighter aces in WW II ("Stalin's Falcons" and "Stalin's Eagles"), the achievements by the Soviet airmen in WW II were relatively unknown in the Western World.

It is a fact that the most experienced and most successful fighter aces on the Allied side in WW II were the Soviet top aces.* It is interesting to note that the P-39 Airacobra was rejected by both RAF and USAAF pilots. Soviet ace Aleksandr Pokryshkin nevertheless achieved the bulk of his 59 personal (plus several "shared") victories while piloting an Airacobra, which by all means was vastly inferior to the Bf 109 G and the Fw 190 A - and to the Spitfire IX, the Mustangs, and the Thunderbolts that the British and US fighter pilots manned.

In 1941, Soviet ace Boris Safonov achieved his first sixteen victories (plus six "shared" victories) while piloting an I-16 Ishak. Although the performance of the I-16 has been belittled in several Western accounts (comparing test flights made by a New Zealand test pilot in recent years indicated that the I-16 was slightly superior to the British Hurricane), it is clear that the I-16 was vastly inferior to the Bf 109s with which it was opposed. It is easy to imagine which successes Safonov would have been able to achieve, had he been equipped with a Spitfire, and had he operated within the frameworks of a radar-supported fighter control system like RAF Fighter Command in 1940.

Taking the fact that the cream of the German fighter aces were deployed to the Eastern Front, the performance of these Soviet aces are even more impressive. It should also be noted that whereas several German fighter pilots flew with the main intention of achieving high individual scores (they had been brought up to this), the Soviet airmen waged a war with the intention of striking against the enemy wherever he could be found - on the ground or in the air. The main accomplishment by the Soviet air forces in WW II was their contribution to the destruction of the German Army. The German fighter pilots developed such an attitude toward strafing or fighter-bombing missions, that when they first were instructed to undertake such missions, they regarded it as an unjust punishment - which also was what Göring, who had issued the order, intended.

As mentioned, the dominant assessment in the "Western World" of the air war on the Eastern Front during WW II in many ways still is rooted in myths, misconceptions and bias. Of course this is due to the Cold War, the dominance in the West of German accounts from this war theater, and the previous Soviet reluctance of offering any insight into their archives. But the Cold War is over. What remains now is a handful of surviving veterans with their invaluable memories, and the huge amounts of aviation unit documents in the Russian archives.

We, the authors of "Black Cross/Red Star", have made an effort to find the truth behind the myths, misconceptions, prejudices and bias - on both sides! - by digging into those sources. Put together with the accounts of Russian and German pilot veterans that we have met, and Soviet and German air force documents, we have arrived at a picture that in many ways is opposed to some versions previously presented by both "the West" and "the East".

The only aim of our forthcoming six-volume book "Black Cross/Red Star: Air War Over the Eastern Front" is to find the actual picture of this hitherto little-known air war, the largest in history. The aim of this article is to bring about a better understanding of the environment during which the air war was fought on the Eastern Front, during which the German and Soviet fighter pilots attained their - often in the West doubted or belittled - large victory numbers. If this article has contributed to dismantle the impression that the achievements of the Soviet fighter pilots were below those of the British and American fighter pilots - which the author believes is a serious misconception - one important goal is achieved. At the same time, it is of course not the author's intention to belittle the achievements or standards of British and American fighter pilots.

The different natures of the fighter combats in "the East" and in "the West" that are presented here, are described in detail in our book "Graf & Grislawski: A Pair of Aces". Hermann Graf and Alfred Grislawski were in action - either one of them, or both - in the West in 1939, in the East in 1941-1945, and in the West in 1943-1944. Thus, that book gives ample and clear evidence and examples of what is discussed in the article above.


* The victory tallies of the many German "plus-100-aces" have been dismissed, often on purely political grounds, by representatives of the victorious nations - particularly in the old Eastern Bloc. Equally, the fact that quite a few Soviet fighter aces surpassed the achievements by the top scorers of the RAF and the USAAF was hard to accept, and often openly refuted, in the Western World during the Cold War. Countless attempts have been made over the years to belittle the achievements of the fighter aces of various nations - particularly the Germans, the Japanese, the Italians, and - in the West - the Soviets. A critical reader pointed out: "Did the Soviet top aces really shoot down more planes than Western top aces? They claimed more but that is a different thing." But that way of reasoning only leads into a swamp. In order to find out who the real top claimer against the Luftwaffe was in the way this critical reader means, one would have to find out first how many aircraft were actually shot down by the U.S. or British ace who in this regard was the actual U.S./British top scorer. That would involve examining every victory claim made by maybe the fifty highest claiming U.S./British aces. Next step would be to examine every single victory that was claimed by each Soviet ace who claimed more than that number of victories. Let's say that the "actual" U.S./British top ace hardly made any overclaims at all, and in reality shot down 30 German planes. Then you still would have to examine every single victory claimed by around fifty Soviet aces who claimed 30 or more victories. And then we know that the Generalquartiermeister loss lists for 1944 are missing, like so many Luftwaffe records. In other words: It is an impossible task. So until this Herculean task has been fulfilled, we have no other option but to accept - preliminary, of course - that the most experienced and most successful fighter aces on the Allied side in WW II were the Soviet top aces. Because even if Ivan Kozhedub's comrades overclaimed, we don't know if Kozhedub too did so. (It is my preliminary and present conclusion that the average Soviet rate of overclaiming during the whole war was something like three to one. But I have also found that some of the better Soviet fighter units - like the élite 9 GIAP from late 1942 onward - had a rate of overclaiming which was below the average.)

© Christer Bergström 2003 ©

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