The Special Role of the Dive Bomber in the Soviet-German War

The German dive bomber, Stuka.

When Wehrmacht officers could see the Kremlin’s spires through their binoculars and the rest of the Soviet administration was being evacuated from Moscow, Stalin defiantly decided to stay put. News that Stalin stood firm in Moscow calmed the nerves of the city’s jittery residents. In a radio address to the Soviet people shortly thereafter, Stalin declared: “The war will be won by the side that has an overwhelming preponderance in engine production.” He was right on the money.

What became technologically and economically feasible in the late-1930s, and dominated the battlefield in the Soviet-German war, was a novel kind of warfare. What happened to land warfare in the late-1930s was something very specific: Artillery and armor became dramatically more mobile and broke-free from the two-dimensional surface of the earth.

This wasn’t Ivan Bloch’s battlefield that obtained on the western front in World War I. Even when the deadlock broke, the armies of World War I moved at the speed of marching infantry. By the late-1930s, the large-scale deployment of internal combustion engines brought a radical new mobility to both the tactical and the operational levels of land warfare.

Motorized formations could easily outmaneuver any massed formations that moved at the speed of the foot-borne. Large motorized formations composed of infantry, tanks, and artillery fought a complex dance for primacy on the map. The importance of the operational level of land warfare was considerably enhanced by the new operational mobility of the divisions. They could be moved around a map to exploit the terrain and outmaneuver the enemy’s forces. This opened up a whole new game played by the generals on a map of the operational theater.

The new mobility allowed for operational offensives that have been mistaken for the blitzkrieg. The lighting war is a war strategy—a formula for defeating the enemy—that says: Smash a hole through the enemy’s defenses and launch an all-out attack in the rear to achieve a rapid decisive victory.

The new mobility also admitted sub-strategic (ie, not threatening the very existence of the adversary) operational offensives that looked and sounded like this strategy. So successful operational offensives could destroy entire ‘armies’ (large multi-division operational commands) in a single offensive. But such operational blitzkrieg if you will, could not always transform a war of attrition into one admitting a quick decisive victory. With the strategic blitzkrieg, the whole point is to reach a quick decision.

Put another way, the operational blitzkrieg is a motorized solution to the deadlock of the Western front; the strategic blitzkrieg is a motorized solution to the problem posed by the war of attrition. To the extent that the enemy could be conquered in a single offensive (as turned out to be the case in France) the two are hard to distinguish. But distinguish them we must. For after the German strategic blitzkrieg of 1941 failed, operational blitzkrieg continued to dominate warfighting strategy on both sides through 1945 and no solution to the war of attrition could be found.

[Mearsheimer’s doctoral thesis argued that conventional deterrence is relatively easy when such war solutions seem to be available and difficult otherwise. He’s right. Wars of attrition are certainly unappealing if you think that you have less war potential than the enemy. Even if one has a comfortable margin on the enemy to be confident of ultimate victory, the prospect of considerable attrition exercises its own deterrent.]

An equally if not more radical transformation of the battlefield was that it became three-dimensional. Specifically, it became possible to project accurate firepower from the air onto the ground in support of one’s ground forces.

Bombing sorties on enemy formations are not tactical support. World War II bombers were so inaccurate that multiple sorties by flocks of bombers had to flown over a bridge in order to be relatively confident of having destroyed it. Close air support was thus simply not possible with bombers. And in the absence of precision-strike weapons or the capacity to deliver them, there was indeed only one way to deliver accurate fire to the ground from the air. That solution was for aircraft to dive on their targets and attack them with direct-fire. In order to do this effectively, specialized ground-attack aircraft, namely dive bombers, had to be built.

The Soviets, Germans, and the Japanese built dedicated dive bombers and mastered the art of using them in tandem with ground forces. The Western Allies never quite figured it out properly. Perhaps the latter fact explains why this important piece of the puzzle has so far not received the attention it deserves from students of the Soviet-German war.

The dive bombers had to be mass produced in large numbers to count in the war, so all three powers that mastered dive bombing concentrated on a single design they found to be effective. The German Stuka, the Japanese Sonia, and the Soviet Sturmovik were comparably effective machines.

The Soviet dive bomber, Sturmovik.

The Sturmovik was superior to the Stuka. Even if the Red Army deployed their dive bombers with less effect than the Germans, the Soviet Union’s dive bomber force was the strongest in the world by a wide margin. For the Soviet Union made 40,000 of these machines during the war while the Germans made only 6,500. (The Western Allies together produced a much smaller fleet of two thousand such machines; as did the Japanese.)

Combined arms doctrines seek to exploit the complementary nature of the various arms—infantry, artillery, armor, and aircraft—whereby the strength of one arm is used to compensate for weakness of the other. This required the motorization of infantry and artillery, which was achieved partially but substantially by both the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. Once all these pieces fell into place, there emerged a rather large premium on the relative skill in the deployment of the combined arms at both the tactical and operational levels. This was especially true of mobile air-land warfare.

Gaining air superiority—the job of the fighters—wasn’t enough. Airmen had to master dive bombing; ground commanders had to figure out how to effectively use air support; and most of all, officers had to learn how to ensure effective ground-air coordination. The Germans were the first to master dive bombing but the Soviets figured out the secrets to effective ground-attack early in the war as well. The Sturmovik factory in Moscow had to be relocated east of the Urals in the fall of 1941 when the enemy was at the capital’s door. Production promptly resumed before New Year’s Eve.

Whether they became better than the Germans over the course of the war is an open question. My reading is that the Soviets gained increasing mastery of the art and eventually closed the gap with the Germans. The Red Army’s catch up with the Wehrmacht in this technique was, I think, in line with its general catch up in the tactical and operational art of the combined motorized arms.

Ultimately, what mattered was not just relative skill—which only determined the exchange ratios, and more generally, the rates of attrition—but also the capacity of the two party-states to stomach the attrition and generate more fighting power than the enemy. So the game was rigged from the get-go. For the Soviet Union had much greater capacity for the mass production and effective deployment of the war machines than Germany. They could not only make tanks, self-propelled artillery and dive bombers faster than the Germans could shoot them down; they could make dramatically more of them.

This greater capacity of the Soviet Union did not exist in 1931. It was an achievement of Soviet forced-paced heavy industrialization—which was with considerable strategic foresight heavily-weighted towards motorized armament—that made the communist great power militarily much stronger than its overall economic, or even more specifically industrial strength, would otherwise suggest. But it was more than just the achievement of the communist leadership.

The rapidity of Soviet heavy industrialization was the success of ‘Stalinism as a civilization’. For had the Soviet people not bought into Stalinism’s grand project of ‘building socialism’, as Kotkin brilliantly captured, the elite venture would’ve failed. For how was it possible amid the dislocations and informational deficiencies of the command economy and the distorted incentives of the Soviet system—and indeed the definite costs of terror and famine—to transform a Third World country into a great power of the first rank in less than a decade?

What was required was nothing short of the building of a highly dynamic form of machine civilization—where men and women enthusiastically pitted themselves against the machine and each other to achieve ever higher feats of productivity. How Stalinism made all that possible is a fascinating story that has yet to be written. With Kotkin’s Magnetic Mountain we can catch a glimpse of this civilization in its birth pangs.

The nature of the new kind of warfare was not immediately understood by Western observers. Consequently, the premium it put on a very specific kind of heavy industrial capacity was not appreciated. Similarly obscure was the smashing success of Stalinism.

It was understood that the Soviet Union was rapidly industrializing. But no one had ever pulled off a military-industrial transformation of such astonishing rapidity before and there was no reason to believe that the Soviets could either; especially given that instability—famines, dislocations, inefficiencies and terror—seemed to be endogenous to the Soviet system. In addition, there were definite questions about the morale of the Red Army and the Soviet people. Whence, Western intelligence expected the Soviet Union to collapse under the German onslaught in 1941. Even in 1942, the Western Allies continued to worry about a separate Soviet-German peace. It was only by the Spring of 1943 that US intelligence finally became confident that the communist great power was going to prevail against Germany.

The primacy of conventional three-dimensional warfare of the combined mobile arms did not last for long. With the arrival of large numbers of tactical nuclear weapons in the 1950s, massed motorized formations lost their battlefield supremacy. But given the nuclear taboo and limited proliferation, this form of conventional warfare continued to dominate 20th century battlefields and the great powers’ plans to fight conventional war against each other. During the 1980s the rise of reconnaissance-strike ended the relevance of the art of combined mobile arms for conventional warfighting between great powers.


4 thoughts on “The Special Role of the Dive Bomber in the Soviet-German War

  1. This is misleading. The Ju-87 Stuka was a divebomber. The Sturmovik was not, it was a ground-support plane, relying on cannon, rockets and bombs, and was notoriously inaccurate as a bomber. Given its very high loss rate in combat, describing it as successful needs qualification. Saying the Western Allies did not get this concept is utterly wrong. There is a huge literature on the US P-47 and the RAF Typhoon in ground-support roles in Normandy and other battles.

  2. Found this via Adam Tooze’s twitter stream; very interesting!

    However, I think you’re slightly conflating two separate points: dive bombers vs attack aircraft, and tactical vs operational uses of offensive air power. I agree that Soviet tactical-operational skill has not always been sufficiently appreciated, but I also think you under-rate the Western Allied air forces.

    1930s dive bombers were a particular technical solution to the problem of accurate ground attack: specialist aircraft fitted with dive brakes[1] to keep their speed more or less constant in dives of between 60 and 90 degrees, and strengthened enough to withstand the high-g pullouts required for such steep dives. The Stuka was a dive bomber, but the Il-2 was not; without dive brakes it could not dive as steeply or bomb as accurately. The Western Allies did have dive bombers, but these were almost all naval types; the problem of hitting a moving warship was considered tricky enough to make the downsides of dive bombing worthwhile.

    The Luftwaffe’s whole-hearted embrace of dive bombing was partly contingent: Ernst Udet, its head of Research and Development, had seen demonstrations of US Curtiss dive-bombers, and became a strong proponent of the technique.[2] But dive-bombers were also ideal for the constraints the Luftwaffe was operating under: with their increased accuracy, they were lighter and cheaper than medium and heavy bombers, allowing the Luftwaffe to quickly build up its strength, and a lack of range didn’t matter when their intended role was to act as flying artillery. However, they did have some flaws. They were vulnerable during the attack and pull-out phase, both to anti-aircraft fire and – especially – to enemy fighters; during the French campaign and the Battle of Britain the Stukas took heavy losses, and thereafter were only able to operate with strong fighter cover. On the Eastern front they lasted a little longer, but by 1943 Stukas were being converted with cannon armament to act as more conventional ground-attack aircraft, and from 1944 were being replaced by faster and more survivable fighter-bombers where possible.

    By the time the Western Allies were turning to the offensive, they had already adopted fighter-bombers for most battlefield attack duties.[3] They weren’t quite as accurate, but were generally more survivable over the battlefield, and with the development of weapons such as rocket projectiles could pack a heavy punch..

    With regard to the more general employment of air power, as you note, the Luftwaffe’s role was conceived as that of flying artillery; given the very partial motorisation & mechanisation of the Army, the spearheads were never going to be able to have enough organic medium and heavy artillery to hand. And while on the whole the Luftwaffe was very effective in this role, it was less skilled at the operational air battle. Air power is often more effective when not employed directly on the front lines; being longer-ranged than artillery it can strike at supply and communication lines, concentration areas, and enemy air bases. Though it didn’t always come easily, by 1942 RAF commanders such as Mary Coningham had gained the confidence of their ground counterparts, and were able to wage an operational air war to gain air superiority over the battlefront. When the USAAF joined the battle in North Africa it was able to follow the RAF approach; from that point on the Western allies were able to leverage their superiority in materiel to gain near-uncontested air supremacy over the battlefront. They’d also continued to work on ground-attack techniques and especially on command and control, so over Normandy they were able to provide on-call ‘cab rank’ fighter-bomber support to ground forces. From the Soviet accounts I’ve read I don’t think they ever developed quite such a sophisticated system, though as with all things Red Army the quantity of attack aircraft they could draw on had a quality all of its own, and like the ground forces, by 1944 its commanders had become very good at wielding this weapon.

    [1] The biplanes used for early dive-bombing had enough drag to ensure they could dive steeply at terminal velocities and still pull out; dive brakes were only really required for monoplanes.
    [2] A requirement for dive-bombing was even added to the specifications for the Ju88 and He177 medium and heavy bombers, arguably compromising both designs.
    [3] Though medium bombers and even heavy bombers were also used on occasion, they tended to be used beyond the front lines.

    1. Hi Jacob,

      Thanks for your considered response. Your analysis of airpower is very helpful. My focus here is not on the effective use of airpower. You are quite right that ‘Air power is often more effective when not employed directly on the front lines; being longer-ranged than artillery it can strike at supply and communication lines, concentration areas, and enemy air bases.’ My question was narrower. I am interested in exclusively in close air support in the Soviet-German war: How effectively did the Wehrmacht and the Red Army deploy air-borne solutions to the problem of weak artillery support of the combined mobile arms.

      What I wanted to emphasize was that the dive bomber—together with institutional adaptations to ensure effective ground air coordination—was the key to that problem. This is because regular bombers were extraordinarily inaccurate. The only way to deliver accurate fire to the ground in the Soviet-German war was for the aircraft to dive on the target. Then it could either deliver bombs (Stuka) or direct-fire (Sturmovik). The latter was more accurate for obvious reasons.

      We know so much more about Western and German than Soviet warfighting. There is tremendous lack of information for the latter. We have this picture that the Soviets prevailed largely due to their greater capacity to mass produce the war machines. But that wasn’t enough. In order to win actual battles, the Red Army had to find specific battlefield solutions to the problem posed by Guderian’s Panzer Army—in other words, how to win the war’s great battles of encirclement. And the solution was to master this new form of three-dimensional warfare of the combined mobile arms. That’s what we see at Stalingrad and Kursk for instance. A necessary component of that was learning how to ensure effective ground-air collaboration. This the Western Allies never quite mastered—ground air coordination was poor, even if Western air arms were not inferior.

      If you have seen studies of Soviet warfighting, I’d be very interested.

      1. I’ve not kept up on the literature, but specifically on the Soviet air forces in WW2, Von Hardesty’s _Red Phoenix_ was re-published in an updated second edition a couple of years back; because of the way Russian archives were only open to researchers for a couple of years in the 1990s, I think it’s probably still the best study available in English. I vaguely recall Hallion’s _Strike from the Sky_ having stuff on Soviet air power, but IIRC it’s a fairly general study, and is not exactly recent. I don’t know how much David Glantz’s work treats airpower; I must confess that incredibly detailed operational history is not particularly my thing, though it is very valuable to have this stuff in English.

        But I’d still not agree with your statement that Western Allied air-ground coordination was poor, other than perhaps in 1940. By the time the RAF and USAAF had gained experience in the Western Desert and Tunisian campaigns, I’d have said they were as good as any air force around; by 1944 I’d have put them as slightly better. The lack of major break-through and encirclement battles in the West compared to in the East (depending on how you view the Normandy Campaign) wasn’t IMO down to poor air-ground cooperation, but rather down to force-space ratios and general operational technique.

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