Considerable mystery still surrounds the Russian Air Force, particularly as to types of machines in action, and the number of planes of various types available. The Russians somehow or other managed to convince the European powers that in spite of the general air-mindedness of the people, their planes were not up to the same standards as those of England, Germany and the United States. Mr. Charles Lindbergh, who visited Russia on the same trip during which Goering and Milch sold him a bill of goods on the Luftwaffe, came back to America with little to say about the Red Air Force, other than the implication that it was inferior.
At the beginning of the war between the Germans and the Russians , the Red Air Force was known to have a considerable number of old two-engined bombers closely resembling the old French Farman type, but there was little news of anything in the heavy class, and the war progressed without any reports of long-range bombing attacks against German centers. In 1942 the Russians sprang a surprise on the British and Americans when they sent Premier Molotov to England and to the United States in a huge four-motored bomber, typed the TB-7, which dwarfed our own Fortress in size, if not in speed. The TB-7 was indeed a closely guarded secret, and on examination revealed many interesting features, especially in the number of guns carried and the position of two firing places in the wings and firing to the rear by remote control.
The TB-7 has a span of 120 feet, weighs over 5 0,000 pounds loaded, and is powered by four liquid-cooled engines of 1300 hp.
One radiator serves as a coolant for each pair of engines. The machine is heavily armored, and carries a bomb load in the neighborhood of 8000 pounds. These machines may have been used in the Russian raids on Berlin during 1942, but no details have been given, other than correspondents' reports that machines of "a secret type" were employed on these attacks on the German capital.
How many of these bombers Russia has, whether she has continued to manufacture them, time alone will prove, but if she has been able to continue production and is holding them for an allout blitz on Germany to hew a path for her advancing armies, they will prove a considerable asset to her air power.
The TB-7 is a development of the TB-6, a machine of similar dimensions which had five engines, one installed in the fuselage to drive the supercharger for the four engines mounted in the wings.
The power units of this machine are 830-hp. Hispano-Suiza engines , which give it a maximum speed of 210 miles per hour at 25,000 feet. The TB-6 was used by the Russian aviator Levensky in his attempt to fly from Moscow to the United States across the North Pole. Its bomb load is around 6000 pounds and it can be readily adapted as a troop and cargo carrier.
The Russians have made good use of tactical bombing and ground support of their advancing (or retreating) armies with medium bombers and fighter-bombers. Their standard medium bomber, the DB-3F, is a small two-engined plane with a maximum speed of 26 5 miles per hour and adaptable for use as a dive bomber or attack plane, or night interceptor. The DB-3F carries a crew of three or four according to the mission, and is easily recognizable by its long nose with the top filled in with glass panels. The machine can be used for a variety of jobs, ranging from short missions with a 500o-pound bomb load to 2000-mile round trips with 2000-pounds of explosives. It also serves for high-altitude reconnaissance and photography and is a development of the DB-3 which had a gun turret in the nose, a feature that has been dispensed with in the later model.
The TB-1 is a ponderous-looking, low-winged monoplane with square wing tips, powered by 680-hp. BMW engines. These machines seem to have been produced in large numbers previous to the outbreak of war between England and Germany in 1939, as was the big four-engined TB-3, a massive low-winged monoplane of the same shape as the TB-1, but with a comparatively low speed for its size. The TB-3 was used extensively for carrying paratroopers , and its use before the war probably gave foreign observers the impression that the Russian Air Force was obsolete and useless.
Neatest and most efficient of all the Russian bombers is the PE-2, an attack bomber with a high turn of speed and a degree of maneuverability that suits itself admirably to Russian practice of using bombers to fight bombers. The PE-2 has twin tails and two 1300-hp. engines. At first sight it is similar to the Me-no, but according to experts it is a better designed and more formidable plane. Russian correspondents in reporting the downing of German bombers by Russian attack planes probably refer to the PE-2, although details of machine performance are sparse.
The PE-2 in many respects resembles the British Mosquito, but it is larger than the British bomber, and also larger than the YAK-4 and the P-2. It has an outstandingly long nose with a raised cockpit cover where the crew of three or four are housed. The machine is of all-metal construction, with flush riveted stress-skinned covering on the wings, and fabric-covered control surfaces.
The PE-2 is well armed, with two machine guns mounted in the nose, others in the rear of the cockpit, and two set to the rear of the cockpit firing downwards fore and aft through the floor to the rear of the bomb bay. Some models have additional armament for night interception; others have fixed cannon guns in the nose for ground strafing.
The PE-2 has gained for itself quite a reputation as a fighter. It fits in admirably with the Russian conception that anything that flies should be used to fight the Germans. One Russian pilot in a PE-2 tangled with three Nazi bombers, type not mentioned. He shot down one, damaged the second, and cheered on by his score rammed the third, afterwards succeeding in making a crash landing . That the PE-2's are able to look after themselves is shown by another report that four PE-2 squadrons made ten raids against German positions without a single loss, shooting down twelve German fighter planes.
The most outstanding production of the Russian Air Force during this war is the Stormovik dive bomber which first showed the Allies and the Germans that the airplane could be used as an answer to the tank. The Stormovik, designed for close co-operation with infantry, carries a rocket bomb under the fuselage, and is armed with a 3 2-mm. cannon in each wing and several machine guns all firing outside the propeller arc. The heavy punch carried, however, is the rocket bomb. The Stormovik is a one-man machine, the pilot having an ample supply of guns and a wealth of armor to protect him during his low-flying attacks. Stormovik tactics are to swoop down rather than dive on advancing enemy tanks, sight the machine like a gun, at the same time using the armor-piercing cannon projectiles, and release the bomb. Operated as the bomb leaves its cradle underneath the fuselage, the charge is detonated, and the missile acquires a formidable velocity, which reaches its peak at the moment of impact with its target. So successful was the Stormovik during the German offensives of 1942—43, that the German tankmen called it "The Flying Death." A British observer who saw a squadron of Stormoviks in action related that twelve machines disabled fifteen tanks in a single attack. The Stormovik is heavily armored as a defense against fire from the ground.
Another medium bomber also used as a day and night fighter is the YAK-4. The YAK is built of wood and metal, and is used both as a single-seater and with a crew of two. It is powered by two n00-hp. engines and packs three guns, with the rear-firing ones probably operated by remote control. The YAK operates as a dive bomber and attack plane and was designed by Alexander Yakovlev , one of Russia's leading designers.
Generally speaking, Russian machines confirm to the Russian viewpoint on military aviation, which is purely realistic, and considers airplanes as an essential part of land armies. Russian aviators are under control of army generals and are mainly employed in short-range operations. For that reason the Russians have developed the medium bomber and the fighter-bomber in preference to the heavy long-distance craft. The Red Air Force seems to have the fewest machine types of all the belligerents, but its performance in action seems to have justified this economy in manufacture and pilot training.