on 3 August 2008
This is the fourth and final volume in a series covering the air war between Germany and the Soviet Union and the one which covers the largest scope - the whole Eastern front from near the middle of the war to its end. Given the huge scale of the volume the focus is on the strategic level rather than the operational, but the book uses numerous tactical anecdotes to illustrate the flow of the air campaign.
The air war on the eastern front was almost always conducted to support armies on the ground and Bergstrom describes the ground war to show how air power supported it (though the limited 'strategic' bombing campaign briefly conducted by the Luftwaffe in 1944 is discussed).
The first five chapters of the book cover the history of the German Army Group Centre from the invasion of 1941 to the summer of 1944 and also outline the fate of its two flanking Army Groups, which by 1944 had suffered a series of defeats. The near collapse of the German forces in the south following the battle of Kursk left Army Group Centre exposed along a lengthy front line. Bergstrom uses this introduction to describe how the German Luftwaffe and Soviet VVS (Air Force) changed over this period. After its initial crushing defeats the VVS had recovered and by the start of 1944 had reached a maturity from which it would soon be able to overwhelm the Luftwaffe. Bergstrom is particularly good at contrasting the two air forces to show how each developed up to this point, and as in previous volumes he uses records from both German and Soviet sides to produce a balanced account of the air war.
The remaining seven chapters cover the Soviet offensive aimed at destroying Army Group Centre in June 1944, Operation Bagration, and the subsequent series of catastrophic defeats the Soviets inflicted on the Germans afterwards, both on the ground and in the air, which took them on to Berlin. Operation Bagration is naturally described in some detail as are the major battles elsewhere, but given the titanic scope of the war on the east front there are inevitably some areas which receive little coverage. Again, Bergstrom emphasises how each air force evolved over this period, considering how it was employed, the quality of its pilots, the relative effectiveness of its aircraft and the numbers of them which could be fielded. During this period of the war the VVS had become a tremendously powerful force. Only in exceptional circumstances, such as when advancing Soviet armies outran their supply lines and the Luftwaffe was falling back on prepared bases, was Soviet air power seriously challenged. Bergstrom emphasises that the trump card in the Luftwaffe's arsenal, the skill of its pilots, was being steadily eroded and that by the end of 1944 newly arriving VVS pilots were better trained than their German counterparts (and often flying better aircraft to).
The book is finished off by appendices giving orders of battle for the Luftwaffe and VVS, tables of Soviet aircraft losses throughout the war, command structures etc. There is a lengthy and useful glossary.
Physically the book continues the same standards of the three previous volumes. Two maps have been provided which are usually enough to follow the course of the ground war, though irritatingly the starting positions of the Soviet land and air armies have been omitted from the second. The photographs continue to be clear and informatively captioned.
There are a few niggles with some details. The Bf 110 is described as being, 'contrary to popular myth', highly successful in all roles it was used in, which will raise a few eyebrows. Bergstrom also describes the P-39 Airacobra as inferior to all Soviet fighters from the Yak-1 onwards, and then ignores the question of why the Soviets would have used it in such large numbers and for so long if this were actually so.
The major failure of the book, however, is that it simply stops at the end of the war. One of the strengths of previous volumes in the series has been a concluding chapter where Bergstrom draws together all the threads which have been running through the narrative to emphasise why the air war developed as it did. Lacking this, the book ends not with a bang but with a whimper. As all the volumes in the series are 144 pages regardless of scope this seems to have been a decision made simply to fit a set number of pages and it left me with a decided feeling of anticlimax.
Despite this, overall this is another very good book. If it is not quite as good as the three excellent volumes which precede it, that is only because they set very high standards for it to live up to. It is still the most detailed and balanced account I know of describing the final triumph of the VVS and the collapse of the Luftwaffe in the east.
Considering all four volumes together they provide, if not a complete history of the eastern front air war in all parts of the theatre and at all times, then one which covers the critical actions. They explain why air power was critical to the land battle, and chart the waxing and waning of the opposing air forces as they followed their different paths from the triumphs of the Luftwaffe in June 1941 to its destruction by a very different VVS in 1945. Recommended reading for anyone interested in the subject.
on 12 April 2010
First of all I would say that this volume is well worth adding to any WW11 air combat collection - especially if you've got the previous 3 volumes, as this 4th and final book takes you to war's end. Its not quite as complete as the previous 3 volumes as the above reviewer says; lacking detailed maps of airfields and a conclusion. But this does not detract too much. Once again there are some excellent photos; most of which I've not seen before.
Once the book get's going past the reminder of what happened in previous volumes it becomes interesting. Bergstrom outlines ground operations and the air battles that followed Kursk closely, and he has gone into loss records too which gives you a clearer view of the results of particular combats (and the chronic Soviet overclaiming).
Excellent new Soviet fighters enter the arena, but the Luftwaffe can still achieve local air supremacy, but pretty soon it's obvious that the writing is very much on the wall, and only a delusional Hitler seems to believe the war can still be won!
The final battles around Berlin are very exciting and see some bizarre aircraft combinations taking to the air - including the Mistel; a German "piggyback" secret weapon aimed at the Oder bridges. Add to this the superb La-7 and Yak 3's, which the Luftwaffe counters with Fw-190D9's and even some of the new Ta-152's. But now the Russians have quality as well as quantity and the Luftwaffe is very much Goering's broken toy.
However I do wish that the author would stick to his excellent knowledge and narrative of the air war on the eastern front without straying into aircraft comparisons; for example stating that the failure of the Bf-110 series as a day fighter was a myth is just not true - the only time the poor old 110 had any success as a day fighter was over Poland in 1939 and Russia during the summer of 1941. If it had to face a normal fighter defence then it was hopelessly outclassed. During the Battle of Britain the Bf-110 itself had to be escorted by Bf-109's ! The same was true over the Mediterranean, Aegean, Africa and even over Russia when it faced even early Soviet fighters such as the LaGG-3. As a night fighter it was superb.
More like a genuine myth was Bergstroms statement that "the P-39 airacobra was inferior to all Russian fighters after the Yak 1". At low level the US fighter was quite a handful as evidenced by the significant number of Russian aces that succesfully flew the type - many of which became aces, including the 2nd top-scoring VVS ace. The air war in the east was usually at lower altitudes, so suited the P-39 very well. The type was fast, sturdy and well armed.
Try reading "Red Star Airacobra" by Evgeniy Mariinsky also available here from Amazon. This fighter, like most sent from the West to aid the Soviets, was well equipped and reliable - the same could not be said of some VVS home-produced aircraft, which tended to vary in quality depending from which factory they had been produced. Soviet doctrine did not encourage praise of foreign aircraft types for political reasons.
I would also add that the main reason that the il-2 was so successful was that Russia could simply build so many of them and also benefitted from an endless supply of aircrew to fly them. A 2-seat ground attack/close air support aircraft was not ideal in 1943-45 and none were used in the battlefield in the west. The RAF's Typhoon and Tempest, along with the USAAF's P-47 Thunderbolt could do everything that the Shturmovik could do and more (Typhoon and Tempest 4x20mm cannon and 2,000 lb of bombs or rockets), and also revert to a capable fighter if the need arose. I think we have to keep some of these things in mind when we praise the genuinley capable Russian VVS in WW11 and try and keep comparisons with other air forces a bit more realistic.
I was so impressed with the previous editions that this was a must buy for me. This work is an extremely competent understanding of the air in its last year, or so, of the war on the Eastern Front. I am sure that due the length and breadth of the air work we will not be getting the `whole history' here. To quote Howard Mitchel's review, this edition is more to do with strategic events rather than the full operational machinations of both air forces. You still get the anecdotes that really brought the other books to `life' me. You get some excellent photographic evidence - which are completely new to me and which I have not seen in other histories which relate to the same subject matter. The maps are done well and are welcome addition to support the narratives as it `play through'. At the end the book there is very good appendix. For me another very good edition that is worthy of a good four stars.