CHAPTER 13 – The Winged Tank 115
The air force must be rendered ineffective and destroyed on the airfields . . . Success in putting the air forces out of action on the ground depends on the surprise element in the action taken. It is important to catch the air forces on the airfields. Marshall. S. KONEV (VIZH, 1976, No. 7, p. 75)
Training hundreds of thousands of paratroopers and providing parachutes for their use was only part of the task. Military transport planes and gliders were also required. The Soviet leaders understood this very well. That is why the parachute psychosis of the 1930s was also accompanied by a glider psychosis. Soviet glider pilots and their gliders were well up to world standards, and indeed higher. By the beginning of the Second World War, out of eighteen world gliding records, thirteen were held by the Soviet Union. The best builders of Soviet military aircraft were sometimes deflected from their main work in order to make glider planes.
Even Sergei Korolev, who was later to create the first sputnik, was set to work on developing gliders, which he did with great success. If builders of war planes and ballistic missiles were put to work on making gliders, the purpose was obviously not simply to win world records. Had Stalin been interested in breaking records, why did he not put the best minds to work on creating new racing bicycles? That Soviet gliding was heading in a military direction is beyond dispute. Even before Hitler came to power, the Soviet Union had seen the creation of the first airborne cargo glider in the world, the 6-63, made by the plane builder Boris Dmitriyevich Urlapov.
Heavy gliders were invented which were capable of lifting a freightcarrying vehicle. P. Gorokhovsky even created an inflatable rubber glider; after they had been used behind enemy lines, they could be loaded on to a transport aircraft and returned to their own territory to be used again. The Soviet generals were dreaming of throwing not only hundreds of thousands of airborne infantrymen into the West, but hundreds and possibly thousands of tanks as well. Soviet aircraft designers were looking hard
for a way in which to realize this dream by the most simple and least expensive means.
Oleg Antonov, who was later to design the largest military transport aircraft in the world, suggested that the ordinary tank, produced in series, should be fitted with wings and a tail unit, and its hull used as the framework for the whole of this surprisingly simple construction. This system was given the initials KT, which stood for the Russian words for ‘winged tank’. The switchgear for the air vanes was fixed on to the tank cannon. The tank crew controlled the flight from inside the tank by means of turning the turret and raising the barrel of the cannon. The entire construction was astonishingly simple.
Of course, the risks involved in flying in a tank were unusually high, but then human life was cheap. The KT flew in 1942. There is a unique photograph of a tank, complete with wings and tailpiece, flying through the air, in a book (Soviet Tanks and Combat Vehicles of World War Two, 1984) published by Stephen Saloga, a prominent Western tank expert. Just before landing, the tank engine started up and its caterpillar tracks began revolving at maximum speed. The KT then landed on its own tracks and gradually braked. The wings and tailpiece were then discarded, and the KT became an ordinary tank again.
Oleg Antonov missed the beginning of the war with his winged tank; hostilities did not begin as Stalin had planned, and this extraordinary machine turned out to be just as unnecessary as the million parachutists. The Soviet plane designers had their mistakes and failures, their frustrations and defeats. But their successes were beyond doubt. The Soviet Union entered the war with many times more gliders and glider pilots than the rest of the world put together. In 1939 alone, the Soviet Union had 30,000 trainees simultaneously under instruction in glider-flying.
Piloting skills often attained a very high standard. In 1940, for example, a demonstration was given in the Soviet Union of a flight of eleven gliders being towed by one aircraft. Stalin did everything to ensure that there were enough gliders available for his pilots. It was not singleseater sports gliders that he had in mind, of course, but multi-seater ones built for airborne assault. The end of the 1930s saw intensive competition between more than ten Soviet aircraft design offices to see who could create the best airborne assault glider. Apart from the winged tank, Oleg Antonov also designed the multiseater A-y airborne assault glider; V. Gribovsky invented the excellent G-II airborne assault glider; D. N. Kolesnikov designed a glider, the KZ-2O, which could carry twenty soldiers; while G. Korbula was working on the design of a jumbo glider.
In January 1940, the Central Committee (that is to say Stalin) ordered that a Directorate for the Production of Airborne Assault Transport Gliders be set up under the Peoples’ Commissariat for the Aviation Industry. 1940 was taken up with intensive preparatory work, but from spring 1941 onwards, mass production of airborne assault gliders began in the plants operating under this new directorate.
This burst of glider production has interesting implications. The gliders produced in the spring of 1941 would have to have been used in the summer of that year, or by early autumn at the latest, since it would have been impossible to keep them safe until 1942. All the hangars, and there were not very many of them, had long been crammed full of the gliders which had already been produced.
It would have been simply out of the question to keep a great airborne assault glider in the open air for any length of time, exposed to the rains and winds of autumn, to frosts and to heavy snowfalls weighing many tons. The mass production of airborne assault transport gliders in 1941 meant that they were intended to be used in 1941. If Stalin had intended to throw hundreds of thousands of his paratroopers into Western Europe in 1942, then the mass production of gliders would have had to be planned for 1942. The glider is a means of delivering cargoes and groups of paratroopers without parachutes.
Paratroopers equipped with parachutes are conveyed into the areas behind enemy lines by military transport aircraft. The best military transport plane in the world at the outbreak of war was the legendary American C-47 or ‘Dakota’. This excellent aircraft, albeit under another name, formed the base upon which Soviet military transport aviation was built. For some reason or other, the United States government sold Stalin the licence to produce it before the war, along with the highly complex equipment which it needed. Stalin took full advantage of this opportunity. So many of these C-47s were produced in the Soviet Union that some American experts believe that, when the war began, the Soviet Union had more of these aircraft than the United States did.
In addition to the C-47s, the Soviet Union also had several hundred obsolete TB-3 bombers, which had been down-graded to military transport aircraft. All the large-scale airdrops which took place in the 1930s were made from TB-3 aircraft. Stalin had enough of them to airlift several thousand parachutists and heavy weapons, including light tanks, armoured cars and artillery, simultaneously. No matter how many military transport aircraft Stalin built, he would have had to use them intensively, day and night, over a period of weeks or months if he wanted to carry a great body of Soviet paratroopers into the enemy hinterland, and then keep them in supplies. This gave rise to the problem of how to keep the aircraft undamaged on their first trip, so that they could make subsequent runs.
The losses of aircraft, gliders and paratroopers on the first trip could be enormous; on the second, they would be even greater, because the element of surprise would have been lost. The Soviet generals understood this very well. It was obvious that a massive drop of paratroopers could only be achieved if the Soviet Union had absolute supremacy in the air. The newspaper Red Star stated quite categorically on 27 September 1940 that it was impossible to land these great numbers of parachutists successfully without air supremacy. The Field Service Regulations is the basic document, graded top secret, which lays down the procedures for Red Army operations in war. The issue which was in force at the time was Field Service Regulations 1939,
known as PU-39.
It lays down simply and clearly that an ‘operation in depth’ in general, and a mass drop of parachutists in particular, can only be carried out in conditions where the Soviet Air Force has supremacy in the air. The Field Service Regulations, as well as the Operational Air Force Regulations and the Instructions on the Independent Use of Air Force all envisaged a vast strategic operation to be carried out in the initial period of the war, with the purpose of knocking out the enemy’s air power. According to the design of the Soviet Command, air arms from various fronts and fleets, the air arm of the High Command and even the fighter arm of the Anti-Aircraft Defences (PVO) all had to take part in that operation.
These regulations considered that the element of surprise was the main guarantee of the success of the operation. The surprise operation to knock out enemy air power had to be carried out ‘in the interests of the war as a whole’. In other words, the surprise strike at the airfields had to be so powerful that the enemy air force would not be able to recover from it before the war ended. In December 1940, at a secret meeting attended by Stalin and members of the Politburo, a senior commander of the Red Army discussed the details of such operations.
These were called, in Soviet jargon,‘special operations in the initial period of war’. General Pavel Rychagov, the officer commanding the Soviet Air Force, insisted on the necessity of camouflaging the Soviet Air Force’s preparations in order to ‘catch the whole of the enemy air force on the ground’. It is quite obvious that it is not possible ‘to catch the whole of the enemy air force on the ground’ in time of war.
It is only possible to do so in peacetime, when the enemy does not suspect the danger. Stalin created so many airborne troops that they could only be used in one situation: after a surprise attack by the Soviet Air Force on the airfields of its enemy. It would be simply impossible to use hundreds of thousands of airborne troops and thousands of transport aircraft and gliders in any other situation.
CHAPTER 14 – On to Berlin 121