Berlin Bombing Offensive Operation

The 'Berlin Bombing Offensive Operation' was the Soviet small-scale bombing campaign against Berlin and other German targets, largely for psychological and propaganda reasons, after the start of the 'Barbarossa' invasion of the USSR (7 August/5 September 1941).

On 22 July, exactly one month after the start of 'Barbarossa', German warplanes flew their first major but largely unsuccessful bombing attack on Moscow. Two days later the Germans repeated their effort, and on this occasion dropped 300 tons of high explosive and incendiary bombs on the Soviet capital. As the Germans forces continued their eastward surge into the western USSR, inflicting huge losses on the Soviet ground and air forces, Joseph Goebbels, the German propaganda minister, announced that Soviet air power had been destroyed, and Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, pronounced his opinion that '[not] a single bomb will ever fall on the capital of the Reich!'

At this time, the air force of Vitse Admiral Vladimir F. Tributs’s Baltic Fleet was developing a plan to make air attacks from bases in the Leningrad area on Pillau in East Prussia, which was one of the German navy’s most important operational and training centres. General Leytenant Semyon F. Zhavoronkov, the commander of the Air Force of the Soviet Navy, proposed a retargeting of the forces which had been readied for the attack. On 26 July, Admiral Nikolai G. Kuznetsov, commander-in-chief of the Soviet navy, joined Zhavoronkov at a meeting with Iosif Stalin in which it was mooted that a retaliatory bombing of Berlin should be undertaken by the Air Force of the Baltic Fleet from the Cahul airfield on the island of Saaremaa (Ösel in German) in the Moonzund archipelago in the mouth of the Gulf of Riga: at the time this was the most westerly area of land still held by the Soviet forces, and now well behind the left flank of the German forces advancing rapidly through the previous Baltic states north-eastward toward Leningrad.

On 27 July, Polkovnik Yevgeni N. Preobrazhensky’s 1st Mine and Torpedo Aviation Regiment of the Baltic Fleet air force’s 8th Air Brigade, was personally ordered by Stalin to bomb Berlin together with its military and industrial facilities. Command of the operation was entrusted to Zhavoronkov, and Kuznetsov was made responsible for the outcome.

For the undertaking, the Soviets planned to use Ilyushin DB-3 (Il-4) twin-engined, Yermolayev DB-40 (Yer-2) twin-engined and Petlyakov TB-7 (Pe-8) four-engined long-range bombers of the naval and army air forces as all these types possessed the payload/range capability to reach and bomb Berlin and then to return. Considering the required return range of about 1,120 miles (1800 km), 825 miles (1400 km) of them over the sea and the powerful air defences ringing the German capital, a successful outcome of the operation was possible only if several conditions were met: the flight had to be carried out at fuel-economical high altitude, the return flight had to made directly from Berlin to Saaremaa, and each aeroplane’s bomb load must comprise no more than one 1,102-lb (500 kg) bomb or two 551-lb (250-kg) bombs.

On 28 July or, according to one source 2 August, Zhavoronkov flew to the village of Bezbotnoye near Leningrad, where the 1st Mine and Torpedo Aviation Regiment was based. Here the operation was being prepared in high secrecy, with only Tributs and General Major Mikhail I. Samokhin, the commander of the Air Force of the Baltic Fleet, kept in the loop. For the attack on Berlin, 15 of the regiment’s crews were selected.

On 2 August, a convoy of minesweepers and self-propelled barges with a supply of bombs and aviation fuel, steel plates for the lengthening and strengthening of the current earth runway, which was only 1,420 yards (1300 m) long, two tractors, one bulldozer and one asphalt roller, departed Kronstadt under strong escort. The convoy also carried galley facilities and bunks for the flight and technical personnel of the special attack group. After passing through the minefields of the Gulf of Finland and entering Tallinn, which was already under siege by German forces, on the morning of 3 August the convoy approached the berthing facilities of Saaremaa and the vessels unloaded their cargoes.

On the night of 3 August, a test mission was flown from the Cahul airfield: several aircraft, each carrying the fuel and bomb loads intended for the Berlin attack, undertook a weather reconnaissance mission and dropped their bombs on Swinemünde, a southern Baltic Sea port and naval base just to the west of German-occupied Poland.

On 4 August, the special attack group flew to the Cahul airfield, and between 4 and 7 August preparations were made for the flight by the final preparation of the aircraft and the lengthening of the runway.

On the night of 6 August, five aircraft flew a reconnaissance mission to Berlin. This confirmed that the anti-aircraft defences were located in a ring, with a radius of some 60 miles (100 km), round the city, and that there was a mass of searchlights capable of illuminating aircraft at altitudes up to 19,685 ft (6000 m).

During the evening of 6 August, the crews of the first group of bombers were briefed on their mission.

At 21.00 on 7 August, 15 DB-3 bombers took off for a flight across the south-eastern part of the Baltic Sea at an altitude of 22,965 ft (7000 m) along a path from Saaremaa to Berlin via Swinemünde and Stettin. The temperature in the aircraft was as low as -40° C (-40° F), which caused all glass (including the eyepieces of the crews' goggles) to freeze. The crews also had to use oxygen masks all the time. To maintain secrecy, all radio transmissions were strictly prohibited.

After a three-hour flight, the Soviet bombers reached the northern coast of Germany and, while overflying German territory, were repeatedly located by German observation posts: however, in the belief that these must be German aircraft, the anti-aircraft defences did not open fire. When the bombers were over Stettin, and in the belief that these were lost Luftwaffe aircraft, the Germans used their searchlights to guide the bombers to the nearest airfield.

At 01.30 on 8 August, five of the bombers dropped their bombs on a suburb of Berlin, which was well lit as no attack had been expected, and on Stettin: taken by total surprise, the Germans ordered a black-out only 40 seconds after the first bombs had fallen on the city. At 04.00, after a seven-hour flight, the bombers returned to base without loss.

The next flight was scheduled for 10 August, and this was to involve army aircraft under the command of General Leytenant Pavel F. Zhigarev. The mission was to be carried out by the forces of the 81st Bomber Aviation Division from the airfield of the city of Pushkin on more modern Pe-8 aircraft (412th Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment, renamed the 432st Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment) and Yer-2 (420th Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment, renamed the 433rd Heavy Bomber Aviation Regiment).

On 8 August, Kombrig Mikhail V. Vodopyanov, the divisional commander, received a personal order from Stalin to the effect that between 8 September and 8 October the 81st Air Division was to raid Berlin on alternate days, weather permitting, with a mix of high explosive and both small and large incendiaries. In the event of engine failure, making the flight to Berlin impossible, the alternative target was to be Königsberg in East Prussia.

Calculations indicated that the Pe-8 bomber with M-40F Diesel engines had the range to attack Berlin with a bomb load of 8,818 lb (4000 kg), half of it carried externally. To perform the missions, 12 Pe-8 and 28 Yer-2 machines were selected and flown to Saaremaa on 10 August. Here, after a more careful selection, 10 Pe-8 and 16 Yer-2 machines were deemed ready for the mission, and during the evening of the same day, these lifted off to raid Berlin.

On take-off, one overloaded Yer-2 suffered damage to its landing gear as it struck the drainage ditch at the far end of the runway, and one Pe-8 suffered the failure of its two starboard engines on take-off and crashed. The departure of the rest of the force was then halted, and the raid was then flown by seven Pe-8 and three Yer-2 bombers. While still climbing, the aeroplane being flown by Vodopyanov was inadvertently attacked by Polikarpov I-16 single-engined fighters, but reached and bombed Berlin. After that, the aeroplane came under German anti-aircraft fire and was damaged, and Vodopyanov was compelled to land in part of Estonia already in German hands: the co-pilot was of Estonian descent, so only he communicated with the local population, and after two days the crew reached Soviet-held territory.

On another aeroplane, the port outer engine caught fire over German territory. The crew managed to extinguish the fire, but for lack of power the aeroplane had to fly at a lower altitude. some 230 miles (370 km) short of Berlin, the crew dropped their bombs to reduce weight and turned onto the return course, but after another engine failed the aeroplane made an emergency landing on the airfield at Obukhov.

Another Pe-8 suffered an engine failure on the return flight, and was then hit by German anti-aircraft fire over the coast of the Baltic Sea, and crashed on landing.

On its return flight, a Yer-2 was shot down in error by an I-16 fighter, its crew escaping parachute, and another disappeared without trace.

Another of the Pe-8 bombers suffered several engine failures at high altitude, but the crew continued and bombed Berlin, but in the process used all the fuel and made an emergency landing in Torzhok.

Another Pe-8 was severely hit by anti-aircraft fire over German-held territory, but continued and bombed, but on the return flight suffered two engine failures. After making a forced landing in Finland, the crew dug themselves a trench, removed the cannon and machine guns from the aeroplane, and took up defensive positions. For four days the members of the crew fought superior Finnish forces, but only the radio operator/gunner survived: he planned to save the last bullet to kill himself, but instead fired on the Finns and had to surrender and was then forced to work for a Finnish landowner over a four-year period before being released.

Another Pe-8 bombed Berlin, but was then damaged by anti-aircraft fire and crashed as it tried to make a forced landing in the area of Ropsha, some 30 miles (50 km) to the south-west of Leningrad.

Of the 10 aircraft which lifted off and headed for Berlin, therefore, only six bombed and a mere two returned to base. As a result, Vodopyanov was removed as divisional commander: he did not leave the division, however, but continued as a simple Pe-8 crew commander, initially in the 432nd Long-Range Bomber Aviation Regiment and then in the 746th Long-Range Aviation Regiment after the former had been redesignated.

Up to 5 September, Soviet pilots carried out a total of nine raids on Berlin, in the process flying 86 sorties. Some 33 aircraft bombed Berlin, dropping 21 tons of bombs and raising 32 fires; 37 aircraft were unable to reach the German capital and bombed other targets. In total, 311 high explosive and incendiary bombs, with a total weight of 70,475 lb (36050 kg) were used, as too were 34 leaflet-filled propaganda bombs. Technical problems of assorted types forced 16 aircraft to abort their sorties and return to the airfield. In total, 17 or, according to some sources, 18 bombers and seven crews were lost during the raids, with two aircraft and one crew killed at the airfield while trying to take off with one 2,205-lb (1000-kg) and two 1,102-lb (500-kg) bombs carried externally.

The one-month Soviet air campaign against Berlin greatly irritated the Germans, Hitler demanded that 'The joint efforts of the ground, air and naval forces should eliminate the naval and air bases on the islands of Ösel and Dagö, and, first of all, the airfields from which the raids on Berlin are carried out.' This was thus the origin of the 'Beowulf' operation.

After Tallinn and the islands of the Moonzund archipelago had been taken by the Germans, the Soviets had no option but to end the raids on Berlin.