Review by Takis Diakoumis.
Helion’s now well established @War series continues to produce some of the best researched and accessible titles across an enormous range of global hotspots through the 20th century. This new one from Krzysztof Dabrowski to be added to the Europe@War set begins to examine the crucial development and initial operations of the Soviet Air Defence Force immediately after the Second World War.
Rodinu is the Russian word for ‘Motherland’. Rodinu’s vast area from the east to the west presented an enormous challenge for the Soviets just as tensions across Western Europe and the United States were heating up into what would eventually become a Cold War and, ultimately, attrition for all sides for almost 50 years.
Immediately following the end of the ‘Great Patriotic War’, the Soviets began to reorganise their defences to not only support expected all-out conflict but also, crucially, to deter peacetime incursions across the vast expanses of their territory. This was broken up into two categories encompassing border areas and internal areas, each broken down further into Air Defence Districts with responsibility shared between all military branches.
Defences would be tested almost immediately with the frequency of Soviet airspace incursions steadily increasing, eventually forcing a complete reorganisation of defensive units and leading to the creation of a separate branch of the Soviet military, the V-PVO – Voyska Protivovozdushnoy Oborony – responsible for monitoring the huge borders and defending Rodinu. The V-PVO would comprise fighter units, missile and rocket defences, and the radar network to support them. By 1960, the V-PVO would be maturing into an integrated system of aircraft and missile defences with a complex radar network scattered across the region.
Central to the strategy was layered ‘rings of steel’ surrounding key areas, particularly the Moscow region itself. Early surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) systems would be employed by individual air defence regiments with overlapping coverage.
Dabrowski carefully walks the reader through this rapid period of change and then slow evolution as Soviet defences tried to keep up with the growing planned and deliberate border violations from the West, especially the increasing number of long-range overflights of Soviet territory and its major population centres. The first undisputed and confirmed shootdown of a US surveillance aircraft would occur on 8 April 1950 when a US Navy PB4Y-2 Privateer was intercepted by four La-11 fighters; after repeated ignored attempts to have the Privateer follow them, it was shot down over the Baltic with the loss of all ten crew members.
Similar events would continue through the 1950s across eastern and western border regions. While initial efforts were more shallow, skimming borders, the hunger for information on Soviet capabilities eventually drove Western assets further into the Soviet heartland with deep penetration missions. The first major missions would actually involve RAF crews on loaned US RB-45C Tornado reconnaissance aircraft. Three RB-45Cs would take off from RAF Sculthorpe: one would overfly the Baltic states; another flew towards Moscow; and the third would arc around towards the Ukraine. While all intruders were detected, with as many as ten MiG-15s launched to intercept, all three aircraft would safely return to base. Dabrowski continues with initial US missions with RB-47s and RAF Canberras, as well as a repeat RB-45 three-ship mission by the RAF.
The biggest intelligence coups were yet to come, as much for their brazenness as the information they would collect. The arrival of the U-2 would see the deepest penetration missions ever undertaken where, from 1956, a series of deep incursions would begin to challenge US thinking on Soviet capability. While the Soviets were able to identify and track the aircraft from entry to exit, they would repeatedly fail to shoot them down or intercept them at all. Dozens of fighters would be scrambled to catch high-flying U-2s along their track with no success. This would finally change when, in May 1960, though again after failed aircraft interception attempts, a U-2 flown by Francis Gary Powers from a base in Pakistan, was shot down by Soviet missile defences. Powers was captured alive and the overflight program was over. Dabrowski’s breakdown of the Gary Powers U-2 incident is excellent. The complete sequence of events is unpacked in great detail and includes all Soviet units involved and their crews by name. As elsewhere, Dabrowski’s research and inclusion of details from both sides creates a more complete picture of what really happened than you’re likely to find in most other texts.
This is a fascinating story of the beginnings and slow evolution of the complex and eventually mostly integrated Soviet air defence network up to 1960. From the end of the ‘Great Patriotic War’ and into the beginning of the Cold War, the enormous Soviet borders were repeatedly violated, testing Soviet equipment, overall defensive capability and strategy. While its clear the V-PVO struggled with the deeper penetration missions by high-flying Western assets, it is also clear there was never any hesitation in attempting to shoot down intruders when they were found.
Krzysztof Dabrowski skillfully navigates all encounters with information from all directions, covering every aircraft intercepted and shot down, including the C-130 hit over Soviet Armenia by MiG-17s with the loss of all 17 crew members. This is one of the best blow-by-blow accounts you are likely to find anywhere on this sensitive period where superpowers tested each other just short of all-out conflict. Dabrowski includes a huge number of photos (including gun camera images), maps with mission routes as well as some gorgeous colour plates of aircraft from all sides (artwork by Tom Cooper). This is a fabulous start to what will certainly be a must-have set on the development of Soviet defences throughout the Cold War. The second volume, due out soon, is keenly anticipated.