Winter War: Finns vs. Soviet in air combat

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Winter War: Finns vs. Soviet in air combat

Post by durb » 27 Aug 2014 22:41

I try to make a short analysis of the "kill/loss" -ratios of Finnish Air Force fighter units against Soviets in air-to-air combat. But let´s first analyze the structure of Finnish Air Force claim records and also their time period.

As is known, Finnish fighter units claimed 207 air victories during the Winter War. A big majority of these air victory claims were SB 2 or DB 3 bombers - 153, almost 74 % (+ 1 TB 3 shot down by Swedish volunteer group F 19). The gunners of Soviet bombers managed to shoot down only 2 Finnish fighters - thus the kill/loss ratio of Finnish fighters vs. Soviet bombers in Winter War was more than 75:1. Not all of these claims have been verified by Soviet bomber unit loss records, but also Soviet records confirm quite heavy losses in air combat. During December 1939 about 50 Soviet SB 2´s and DB 3´s were lost, and during January 1940 losses continued to be equally high. During the Dec. 1939 and Jan. 1940 Finnish fighter units (incl. F 19) lost only 4 planes in air-to-air combat, which is remarkable taking in account the Soviet air combat losses at the same time.

This needs analysis. In my opinion the biggest reason was the Soviet bombing strategy. It was based on Giulio Douhet´s erroneus theory that "bomber gets always through" and that bomber formations are able to defend themselves withouth fighter support. Soviet air commanders sent unescorted and often small formations (less than 10 planes) against Finnish targets. At the beginning there was also underestimation of Finnish fighter units, but by late Dec. 1939 it must have been clear to Soviets that bomber units that Finnish Fokker fighters were often able to catch SB 2 and DB 3. However, the same faulty strategy was continued in January 1940. The Soviet strategic bombing campaign failed - it did not stop Finnish infrastructure to function and very many Soviet bomber aircrews were lost.

When it comes to Soviet fighter units in Dec. 1939 - Jan. 1940, their performance was obsolete also. There may have been some logical reasons for this - without extra fuel tanks Polikarpov fighters were unable to escort bombers to targets deep in Finnish territory. Finnish air commanders were also unwilling to risk their few fighters in fighter vs. fighter combats, so Finnish fighter units avoided such combat situations and engaged only when the fighter vs. fighter was unavoidable. Bombers were the primary targets for Finnish fighters. Combats against Soviet fighters were of secondary importance.

However in February 1940 things changed. Soviets concentrated more in tactical bombing near frontlines and Soviet bomber formations were often protected by strong fighter escort. If the bombing targets were deep in Finnish territory, escort fighters were equipped with drop tanks containing extra fuel. Soviet fighter units became more aggressive and forced Finnish fighters more often in combat. During February and March of 1940 Finnish fighter units lost 18 planes in air combats vs. Soviet fighters. In total Finns lost 20 fighters in air combats vs. Soviet fighters during the Winter War. Soviet fighter units managed to destroy also two Finnish fighters on ground.

In total Finnish fighter units claimed 42 Soviet fighters destroyed during the Winter War - about 20 % of Finnish total claims. By 2001/2002 the study of loss records of Soviet fighter units confirm the loss of 15 - 20 Soviet fighters in air combat during Winter War. The possible Finnish overclaiming is not so much when compared to average overclaiming of other air forces during WW2.

However, the main point is that the "kill/loss" -ratio of Finnish fighter units was only 2:1 or less against Soviet fighter units. This shows that Soviet fighter units were capable to challenge Finnish fighters and caused considerable losses during the Winter War. If Soviets had used their fighter units more actively and efficiently right from the start of war, this would have changed considerably the course of aereal warfare during the Winter War.

The main question is why the changes in strategy and in tactics of Soviet air units were made in February 1940 and not earlier? Should Finns "thank" Giulio Douhet for creating erroneus airwar doctrine of "invincible bombers", because it was adopted by Soviets and was perhaps the ultimate cause of considerable losses to SB 2 and DB 3 units?

Sources: LeR 2/Suomen Ilmavoimien historia 17 (Keskinen & Stenman 2001), Suomen Ilmavoimien hävittäjähankinnat 1918 - 1945 (Haapanen 2002). I have taken also look on Geust´s books of Red Stars series, vol. 5 and vol. 7, which give excellent basic information about Soviet air units during Winter War.

I have also looked the axishistory forum threads about this same topic. There has been very extensive discussion about the claim and loss records of both sides. This may seem futile, but actually "kill/loss" -ratio was very important information for the commanders of air units during the war - the more accurate it was, better picture it gave about the success and failure in airwar - this same goes for also for any airwar historian. However here I would like the discussion to concentrate more in the changes of strategies and tactics of airwar during Winter War.
Last edited by durb on 28 Aug 2014 12:49, edited 1 time in total.


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Re: Winter War: Finns vs. Soviet in air combat

Post by durb » 23 Sep 2014 15:30

I wonder where I could find a complete list of Finnish Air Force (FAF) combat losses (excluding the losses of accidents, engine failures or weather caused).

I know that the total losses of FAF were 62 planes to ALL causes and the sources I know mention that combat losses were 47. Now I wonder what is the structure of combat losses including all units (fighter, bomber, recce & liason) of FAF:
- losses in air-to air-combat and more spesifically: losses to enemy fighters and losses due to return-fire of bombers
- losses due to AA fire (excluding "friendly fire")
- planes destroyed on the ground (by bombing or strafing attack of enemy).

Looking Geust´s excellent Red Stars 7, I noted that there was refreshing Soviet unit exception of accurate claims. The fighter unit 49 IAP made 13 claims during Winter War and 9 of these claims can be verified by Finnish sources. This can be compared to 7 IAP - 72 claims, of which at most 11 can be verified by Finnish sources. I do not want to go further on the discussion of claim/loss -records, as this has been discussed ad nauseam elsewhere, just to point out that there were differences between the accuracy/credibility of war diaries of different Soviet air units.

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Re: Winter War: Finns vs. Soviet in air combat

Post by Mangrove » 23 Sep 2014 16:36

durb wrote:I wonder where I could find a complete list of Finnish Air Force (FAF) combat losses (excluding the losses of accidents, engine failures or weather caused).
Ilmapuolustus 1939-1940 (SPK 758)
durb wrote: - losses in air-to air-combat and more spesifically: losses to enemy fighters and losses due to return-fire of bombers
12 Gloster Gladiators, 9 Fokker D.XXIs, 6 Bristol Blenheims, 1 Fiat G.50, 1 Morane-Saulnier MS.406/410, 1 Bristol Bulldog, 1 Fokker C.X and 1 Junkers K.43.
durb wrote: - losses due to AA fire (excluding "friendly fire")
4 Fokker C.X.
durb wrote: - planes destroyed on the ground (by bombing or strafing attack of enemy).
1 Fokker D.XXI and 1 de Havilland Moth.

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Re: Winter War: Finns vs. Soviet in air combat

Post by Juha Tompuri » 23 Sep 2014 19:38

Mangrove wrote:
durb wrote: - losses in air-to air-combat and more spesifically: losses to enemy fighters and losses due to return-fire of bombers
12 Gloster Gladiators, 9 Fokker D.XXIs, 6 Bristol Blenheims, 1 Fiat G.50, 1 Morane-Saulnier MS.406/410, 1 Bristol Bulldog, 1 Fokker C.X and 1 Junkers K.43.
+ 1 Blackburn Ripon at least.
Mangrove wrote:
durb wrote: - losses due to AA fire (excluding "friendly fire")
4 Fokker C.X.
+ 1 Blackburn Ripon at least.

Regards, Juha

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Re: Winter War: Finns vs. Soviet in air combat

Post by durb » 23 Sep 2014 21:17

Thanks, the whole picture of FAF combat losses in Winter War seems to be this:

33 lost in air combat
5 lost to enemy AA fire
2 destroyed on the ground
6 missed - due to enemy action?

This means that due to enemy action total of 40 was lost and maybe as many as 46 (the missed planes). The fate of 6 missed planes should be compared to enemy´s combat claim records. There are also some individual cases like the loss of Morane 406 - to my knowledge this was not due to air combat but caused by enemy AA fire. Also the loss of Fokker CX FK-81 was a long time attributed to enemy flak, but nowadays we know that it was shot down by V. Peshkov of 49 IAP.

I have not gone through the dates of losses, but I believe that the losses rose sharply in February 1940 due to more efficient action of Soviet fighter units.

When it comes to losses of Gladiators, I think that they are "overpresented" due to one unfortunate air combat of 29.2.1940 when Gladiators were practically ambushed by 68 IAP. The whole Ruokolahti combat started in so disadvantegous position for Finns, that from the basis of Ruokolahti combat one should not make too far going conclusions of the performance of Gladiators in whole Winter War. I think that Gladiators did it quite well and their losses were comparable to the losses of Fokker D XXI units.

Of the Soviet fighters I do not yet know how the losses/successes should be analyzed. When it comes to I-16, one should take in account that I-16 type 5 with fixed skis is clearly inferior plane compared to I-16 type 17/18 with retractable skis. More clear comparison could be made between I-153 and I-16. If I remember right, Finnish fighter pilots found I-153 most troublesome. The I-15 bis was less successfull as a fighter - by Winter War Soviets already knew that I-15 bis was their weakest link as a fighter (demonstrated in air combats over China and in Nomonhan conflict). Frontline combat was taken care more by I-16 and I-153.

Leaving the ridiculous overclaiming figures aside, it would be interesting to find out the most efficient Soviet fighter units as confirmed by Finnish loss records. I believe that the after verifying Finnish records they are following: 7 IAP (10 air victories), 49 IAP (9 air victories) and 68 IAP (6 air victories). Together these three caused 25 of the air combat losses of 33 of Finnish Air Force. A careful study could also reveal the names of some of the pilots who actually managed to shoot down FAF plane during Winter War. I do not believe that an legitimate Soviet Winter War ace can be found, but maybe those who were successful with 1, 2 or 3 air victories like Vladimir Peshkov (49 IAP).

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Re: Winter War: Finns vs. Soviet in air combat

Post by durb » 25 Sep 2014 22:58

When I bought Mikhail Maslov´s book on Polikarpov I-15, I-16 and I-153 Aces (Osprey 2010), I considered it as an interesting way to know more about the combat history of famous Polikarpov fighters. The first read was positive, but the comparison of book with other sources has shown it to have certain flaws.

Here some comparison between the Winter War Chapter of Maslov´s book and C-F Geust´s The Winter War in the Air:

p. 64: "...a handful of Blenheim I/IVs were destroyed in late January" - Finnish sources confirm the combat loss of only one Blenheim in "late" January (19.1.1940). However, it is true that "handful" of Blenheims were destroyed by Polikarpov fighters during the Winter War - most in March. Had it not been that "late January", Maslov´s statement would have been correct.

p. 65 - Maslov quotes the war diaries of 149 IAP and 68 IAP on 25.2.1940. Soviets were engaged by Fokker D XXI and "Bristol Bulldogs" - Maslov repeats the identification mistake of Soviet pilots - Finnish biplane fighters are in all Maslov quotes "Bulldogs" - this includes also his Baltic Aces subchapter of Great Patriotic War. Still in 2010 Russian aviation historian fails to know that Gloster Gladiator was in Finnish service...

p. 65 - 66 contain Soviet combat records. Maslov fails to compare some Soviet combat records with Finnish loss records, although he has info of the latter. Thus his book credits Polikarpov aces with 9 air victories on 25.2.1940 (when true Finnish combat losses were 3 Gladiators). However Maslov deserves credit for comparing the Soviet claims and Finnish loss records on 2.2.1940 (12 vs. 1) and 29.2.1940 (18 vs. 6).

p. 68: "The leading ace to emerge from the campaign was Aleksander Bulaev of I-16 equipped 159th IAP. His records show that he flew dozens of combat sorties...and shot down at least nine enemy aircraft." - Was Bulaev really the legitimate Soviet Winter War ace with 9 air victories? C-F Geust does not mention such unit as 159th IAP to have taken part in Winter War. If 159 IAP was not in Winter War, where did Bulaev serve? And what about the claim that he shot down "at least" nine Finnish aircraft?

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Re: Winter War: Finns vs. Soviet in air combat

Post by CF Geust » 26 Sep 2014 10:31

Bulayev served in 7 IAP during the winter war, 159 IAP was formed only in late autumn 1940. Bulayev had 3 claims during the winter war (one Fokker D.21 on 21 and 29 December 1939, and two shared Bulldogs on 5 March 1940) according to the recent "All Stalin's fighter aces" by Mihail Bykov. Bulayev was killed when a Li-2 crashed 17 May 1943, with 12 fighter pilots on board (all killed in the crash). The fighters pilots were going to the rear to fetch new aircraft. Bulayev was awarded HSU posthumously 2 Sept 1943.

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Re: Winter War: Finns vs. Soviet in air combat

Post by Slon-76 » 26 Sep 2014 12:12

durb wrote: Here some comparison between the Winter War Chapter of Maslov´s book and C-F Geust´s The Winter War in the Air:
Maslov is well versed in technical matters, but ill write about the fighting. It is probably impossible to learn everything...
p. 64: "...a handful of Blenheim I/IVs were destroyed in late January" - Finnish sources confirm the combat loss of only one Blenheim in "late" January (19.1.1940). However, it is true that "handful" of Blenheims were destroyed by Polikarpov fighters during the Winter War - most in March. Had it not been that "late January", Maslov´s statement would have been correct.
+ 1 BL-112 6/01/40 shot dawn I-16 from 49 IAP
p. 65 - Maslov quotes the war diaries of 149 IAP and 68 IAP on 25.2.1940. Soviets were engaged by Fokker D XXI and "Bristol Bulldogs" - Maslov repeats the identification mistake of Soviet pilots - Finnish biplane fighters are in all Maslov quotes "Bulldogs" - this includes also his Baltic Aces subchapter of Great Patriotic War. Still in 2010 Russian aviation historian fails to know that Gloster Gladiator was in Finnish service...
We know about Gladiators. Нonestly-honestly )))
p. 65 - 66 contain Soviet combat records. Maslov fails to compare some Soviet combat records with Finnish loss records, although he has info of the latter. Thus his book credits Polikarpov aces with 9 air victories on 25.2.1940 (when true Finnish combat losses were 3 Gladiators).
.

8O on 25 February, it was stated: 68 IAP - 4 victory, 25 IAP - 3 victory. Not 9.
p. 68: "The leading ace to emerge from the campaign was Aleksander Bulaev of I-16 equipped 159th IAP. His records show that he flew dozens of combat sorties...and shot down at least nine enemy aircraft." - Was Bulaev really the legitimate Soviet Winter War ace with 9 air victories? C-F Geust does not mention such unit as 159th IAP to have taken part in Winter War. If 159 IAP was not in Winter War, where did Bulaev serve? And what about the claim that he shot down "at least" nine Finnish aircraft?
9 wins is someone invented figure. Bulaev was scored 3 victories personally and 3 in the group.
This is according to the documents:
23.12.39 - D.XXI
29.02.40 - 2 D.XXI (on the ground or on takeoff)
5.03.40 - 1 Gladiator (group)
5.03.40 - 2 Gladiators (group)

He was the most successful pilot of the 7th IAP, the most successful pilot of the VVS RKKA was V.F. Vilchik with 4 personal victories. (25/149 IAP)

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Re: Winter War: Finns vs. Soviet in air combat

Post by Slon-76 » 26 Sep 2014 12:38

durb wrote: When it comes to losses of Gladiators, I think that they are "overpresented" due to one unfortunate air combat of 29.2.1940 when Gladiators were practically ambushed by 68 IAP. The whole Ruokolahti combat started in so disadvantegous position for Finns, that from the basis of Ruokolahti combat one should not make too far going conclusions of the performance of Gladiators in whole Winter War. I think that Gladiators did it quite well and their losses were comparable to the losses of Fokker D XXI units.
The failure of the aircraft was mainly related to the fact that the Finnish command tried to use them on the front line. Where the superiority of the Soviet fighter was overwhelming. For the month of February 29, LLv 26 lost 7 machines, almost as much as LLv 24 since the beginning of the war.

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Re: Winter War: Finns vs. Soviet in air combat

Post by mars » 26 Sep 2014 19:28

durb wrote:Thanks, the whole picture of FAF combat losses in Winter War seems to be this:

33 lost in air combat
5 lost to enemy AA fire
2 destroyed on the ground
6 missed - due to enemy action?

.
I assume these above do not include Swedish losses in the North

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Re: Winter War: Finns vs. Soviet in air combat

Post by durb » 26 Sep 2014 22:53

The numbers above include also the combat losses of Swedish volunteer unit F 19: 1 Hawker Hart shot down by I-15 bis + 1 Gladiator shot down by Soviet AA fire. One F 19 Gladiator was lost accidentally and two Hawker Harts collided in air.

There is also some freedom for interpretation of the loss of the two Hawker Hart, which collided and were destroyed in combat situation 12.1.1940. I have read that bracing wires of one Hawker Hart had been shot off by AA fire and thus pilot lost its control and it collided together with another Hart bringing both down - although the loss of two was accidental I would say that also enemy action was involved (+ it was the first combat mission of Swedish volunteer pilots). On this same unfortunate mission of 12.1.1940 a third Hawker Hart was shot down by I-15 bis fighters.

In return F 19 pilots claimed 8 air victories + 3 enemy planes destroyed on the ground. As far as I have checked, at least 6 of their air victories have been verified by Soviet sources.

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Re: Winter War: Finns vs. Soviet in air combat

Post by durb » 04 Oct 2014 16:02

A small correction on F 19 losses mentioned above. The single combat loss of Gladiator was due to air combat on 23.1.1940, when second lieutnant (fänrik) Sjökvist was shot down and killed over Märkäjärvi (Salla). He was shot down by lieutnant Konkin of 145 IAP piloting I-15 bis.

More confusing is the data that we have on Ruokolahti air combat 29.2.1940. It is known that there were 15 Finnish fighters pitted against 23 Soviet fighters. When it comes to descriptions of combat there are notable differences. According to Juutilainen Finnish fighter pilots thought first that they had shot down 8 enemy planes and one I-153 was credited to improvised AA defending Ruokolahti airbase (Juutilainen does not mention in his memoirs how many of Finnish claims were finally confirmed). It seems that 68 IAP lost only one I-16 and one I-153 in air combat. On the other hand the 68 IAP claimed 18 Finnish fighters destroyed (10 Gladiator + 8 Fokker), while Finns lost in total 7 planes (6 Gladiator + 1 Fokker) on 29.2.1940. IAP 68 combat report stated that Finns had numerical superiority of 27 against 23 in Ruokolahti air battle (in truth only 15 Finnish planes). Much later Finnish pilot veteran Joppe Karhunen wrote a semifictional description of air battle, in which 15 Finnish planes fought against the superiority of 50 Soviet fighters over Ruokolahti.

Some of the other details are also different in Finnish and Soviet combat accounts on 29.2.1940. Finnish sources mention that one Fokker D XXI (Huhanantti) collided with a Soviet fighter but this is not mentioned in combat report of 68 IAP. Also the descriptions regarding the shooting down of first Gladiator (pilot Kosola) are different. According to Juutilainen he pursued the I-16´s which had shot down Kosola down and damaged two I-16´s - one so seriously damaged that it had to force-land and could thus be claimed as air victory. Soviet records are again different - no combat loss of I-16 is mentioned in this context but two "Bulldogs" were claimed when recce pilots of 68 IAP found the Ruokolahti airbase.

More planes in combat means more confusion and more contradiction on sources. Ruokolahti case is interesting as it was the biggest single air combat (AFAIK) in Winter War. Also it showed how dangerous it would have been to risk few Finnish interceptors in fighter vs. fighter -combats. The Polikarpovs were technically better for dogfight than Fokker D XXI and Gladiator. AFAIK, the fighter confrontations were something that Finnish Air Command wanted to avoid and pilots respected orders. On the other hand Finns are mentioned to be aggressive in air combat and attacking always when it seemed favourable - also against enemy fighters!? The flying tactics of Soviets were antiquated (vic-formations) and this probably enabled Finns to survive and emerge successfull from many combats. In February 1940 there were plenty of chances of combats vs. I-16 and I-153 due to more efficient Soviet IAP activity - the February 1940 should be studied more as the critical period in air during Winter War. Finnish pilots had a good fighting morale and they were aggressive if the situation demanded it, but I believe that they (and surely their commanders) would have preferred to engage more with SB 2 and DB 3 than with Polikarpov fighters.

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Re: Winter War: Finns vs. Soviet in air combat

Post by Slon-76 » 04 Oct 2014 20:57

durb wrote:It is known that there were 15 Finnish fighters pitted against 23 Soviet fighters.

Why 15? According to my calculation in Ruokolahti was:

1/LLv 26 (GL-255, 259, 262, 264, 265, 268, 278)
2/LLv 26 (GL-253, 256, 261, 263, 276, 279)
1/LLv 24 (FR-83, 91, 93, 100, 109, 117)
4/LLv 24 (FR-76, 94, 103, 108, 110)

Total 24 fighters. If the fight were 15 of them, which made the rest? Or am I mistaken somewhere?

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Re: Winter War: Finns vs. Soviet in air combat

Post by durb » 04 Oct 2014 23:07

Both Ilmari Juutilainen and Eino Luukkanen who participated in the battle mention that 15 Finnish planes took part in Ruokolahti air battle on 29.2.1940. IIRC, on that day there were in total 16 Finnish planes located at Ruokolahti on 29.2.1940. Some of the planes of LLv 26 were on that day defending Kouvola and claimed two DB 3.

When it comes to estimation of opposing forces, Juutilainen estimated that there were about 30 Soviet fighters against their 15 planes. Luukkanen estimated that the Soviet fighters were 36. But these are understable errors in such a air combat where in total 38 planes (15 Finnish + 23 Soviet) were fighting - it was difficult to count exactly how many enemy planes there were. Also Soviets claimed that there were more Finnish planes (27) in the battle as there really were (15). Not the first nor last air combat where both sides overestimated the strength of enemy.

When it comes to Finnish claims, they were officially 4 probables, but the actual Soviet losses seem to have been 2 or 3 planes. There has been a Finnish claim that after the combat wreckage of three Soviet planes (2 x I-16 + one I-153) were found. Of these the case of 2 I-16 is confirmed also by the combat report of 68 IAP - one was combat loss and the other one accidental, but combat-related. The destroyed Chaika was credited to mechanician Saunamäki, who had distinguished as a AA gunner. The 68 IAP records denies this and mentions that one I-153 was lost in air-to-air combat on 29.2.1940 over Tainionkoski (Imatra) - very near of Ruokolahti (strangely this Chaika loss is not included in Ruokolahti Air Combat description of 68 IAP). This would mean that actual Soviet losses related to Ruokolahti combats were indeed 3 planes and 3 pilots. Finnish losses were 7 planes and 5 pilots.

The one thing that puzzles me is that was GL-269 (Kosola) shot down by 68 IAP or by another Soviet unit? - this was few hours before the main combat of Ruokolahti 29.2.1940. Juutilainen claimed that he pursued and forced down one I-16 with fixed skis (tip 5?) which was partly involved with the shooting down of Kosola´s Gladiator. AFAIK, this I-16 could not be a 68 IAP plane. On the other hand 68 IAP combat record mentions the downing of two Gladiator ("Bulldog") by the planes which were in recce mission and found Ruokolahti base - this would hint that they shot down Kosola (but made double claim). Were there two separate IAP´s involved with Kosola and Juutilainen on the morning hours of 29.2.1940?

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