My understanding is that the Russians were mostly superior on the ground to the Germans (except for armor, in the early stages of the war), and the main German advantage was in the air.

The encirclement battles of 1941 were made possible, because the German air force disrupted Russian communications and troop concentrations, making possible the armored "Blitzkrieg." But the Russians won that battle of Moscow during the winter, when the Germans had no air support.

Likewise, in 1942, German airpower was a deciding factor in the battles for Voronezh, Rostov, and the early (summer) part of the Caucasus campaign. But the encirclement of Stalingrad took place starting in November, just when the German planes were (mostly) grounded. At any rate, they couldn't fly in sufficient supplies to prevent the capture of the 6th Army.

Air power was close to parity at the battle of Kursk in 1943. After that, Russian ground superiority carried the day.

Was German success and failure "explainable" by the waxing and waning of their air power superiority.

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    Russians superior on the ground? Their army's leadership had been gutted by Stalin, and the shock of the invasion led to massive encirclements. As the German army began scraping the bottom of the barrel later in the war, their quality declined while the USSR's cohesion improved with experience. history.stackexchange.com/questions/1239/… mentions a ratio of 1.4 : 1 of Soviet to German losses over the whole war, and earlier in the war it was about 5:1. Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 17:15
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    I always heard General Winter was the deciding factor in the German failure during the Battle of Moscow. But the Wikipedia article on the Battle of Moscow (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Moscow#Wearing_down) provides a very plausible explanation for the German failure to defeat the Russians during 1941: exhaustion of the troops, equipment worn down, & extended supply lines.
    – llywrch
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 20:20
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    @llywrch: "General Winter" basically grounded the German aircraft, including resupply capabilities.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 20:39
  • @TomAu: Supply by air has always been expensive, & never provided the volume of resupply needed; at best, it played only a very small role in meeting the needs of the German invaders. Exhaustion, worn-out equipment, & over-extended supply lines seem far more likely.
    – llywrch
    Commented Apr 28, 2020 at 20:43
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    @TomAu I'm sure you're being wrong about "General Winter" basically grounded the German aircraft, including resupply capabilities. The German air force was supplied by land and in winter it's actually easier to supply (when there are no roads with pavement), (this is actually how transportation works in tundra until nowadays, one can watch videos on Youtube how oil/gas companies move their stuff). The problem with supply was the distance, not winter. Usually there are never enough engines, trucks etc.
    – d.k
    Commented Apr 29, 2020 at 10:25

3 Answers 3


It was single most important operational factor

There are many causes and factors that would explain catastrophe befalling Soviet Union in summer of 1941, and subsequent defeats in 1942/early 1943. We could talk all day about purges in officer corps after Tukhachevsky affair, technological lag (especially considering radio), lower education level of Soviet peasantry (bulk of population), inhumanity and sycophancy of communist system, hatred or indifference of large parts of population toward said system etc ...

However, if we limit ourselves only to military matters, things that decide outcome of a battle in given place an time, then utter failure of VVS almost everywhere (except perhaps in and around Moscow, which would be explained) caused much of the early pain for Soviets. It is a well known fact that USSR started the war with certain numerical advantage in aircraft and armored vehicles. Although VVS based itself on mostly obsolete types like I-16, I-15, I-153, Tupolev SB plus some modern types with teething problems, it was almost incredulous how fast it disappeared over front lines - almost by the end of June 1941 ! In fact, Soviet soldiers rarely saw their own aircraft right until the end of that year. Indeed, many of them would die never having a chance to witness Soviet air power that was one of the cornerstones of Soviet propaganda before the war.

What happened next was almost predictable. Soviet tank formations in 1941 were poorly led, often attacking without reconnaissance, infantry or artillery support. They did consist mainly of relatively obsolete T-26, BT-5 and BT-7 tanks with some early T-34, KV-1 and KV-2. Often, they would run into German anti-tank screen that would decimate them. However, considering sheer numerical superiority, they would certainly inflict much larger damage to Germans hadn't Luftwaffe hanged almost always over their heads. Few examples of this happened during battle of Brody - in places where Soviet armor did manage to strike Germans, German loses were not insignificant. However, after destruction of VVS, Soviet armored formations were left unprotected and subject of decimating raids. What is maybe more important, Soviet railway system and supporting elements like fuel carrying trucks (which were already in short supply in Soviet Union) were also heavily bombed during daylight. Of course, other units (especially artillery) received their fair share of bombing - as a result already in July of 1941 most Soviet units were milling mobs of confused infantry armed only with light weapons.

Compare this with German aerial offensive against Moscow in late July 1941. Germans already has ample experience in destroying enemy capital cities. However, their first and largest raid did just moderate damage, losses were described as between 6-7 bombers, with subsequent raids being smaller and again with some losses. Reason for this was fairly good Moscow air defense (especially for Soviet standards) and large number of fighter units dedicated for defense of capital. When Germans did get in near the Moscow later that year, bad weather, constant attrition, and those same fighters prevented them from achieving total aerial superiority as usual. Operation Typhoon unexpectedly failed, first strategic German failure in entire war.

But note that as soon as Germans pulled away from Moscow in January-February 1942 near Rzhev and Vyazma, Luftwaffe again gained upper hand and acted as force multiplier. This pattern was repeating in 1942, one notable example was elimination of Kerch landing where German aviation practically smashed tightly packed Soviet troops. Overall, dedicated and almost unopposed bombing of Schwerpunkt during advance on Stalingrad and oil fields continued until late autumn. Stalingrad itself was bombed to a ruble, with tens of thousands civilians being killed. Soviet commander Chuikov ordered his troops to get close to the enemy and therefore deprive him of aerial and artillery support, but this was tactic that was only usable in the city. Elsewhere, Soviets had to gradually and painstakingly rebuild their aviation, wait for bad weather, and even for opportune moment when Germans moved some of their aviation units to Africa (to counter Operation Torch) . Only under such conditions they unleashed Operation Uranus and encircled German forces in Stalingrad. Note that even in such circumstances Germans managed to partially supply their troops trough airlift, thus prolonging the fighting and allowing other units to withdraw from Caucasus.

Finnaly, we should mention Kursk. Often regarded as turning point in the war, it was also turning point in aerial warfare. VVS again suffered large loses in this battle, but first time in the war Germans could not achieve neither supremacy nor superiority over battlefield, which coincided with failure of offensive. Luftwaffe did blunt subsequent Soviet offensives , for example during Operation Kutuzov, but could not completely stop them. Period of second half of 1943 and early 1944 could be described as balance of power in the air. VVS did loose more aircraft, but Germans were no longer bombing with impunity, thus they started their long retreat towards Germany.


I would not say so.

The German advantage was in a superior doctrine and training at all levels, as well as better communications (availability of radios).

Their officers and soldiers (infantry, tankers, pilots) spent more time in training before arriving at the front and they were taught a better tactics.

Of course, using Stukas as flying artillery gave them extra advantage, which disappeared in, say, street fighting in Stalingrad, but that was far from the only strength they had.

The German advantages eroded with time, as they lost more and more experienced soldiers and could no longer afford to teach new pilots for 2 years. Also, the Soviets "learned on the job" how to fight the Germans, and received many thousands of radios from the US.

Whatever advantage Germany might have had in aviation, it was dramatically reduced by Goering's ego - his famous pronouncement "whatever flies is mine". In all armies tactical air forces were subordinate to the local ground commanders. E.g., (almost) every Soviet Front (Army Group) "owned" an Air Army and the Front commander could assign Air Divisions to his Armies to provide tactical support. He was also responsible for the logistics of his Air Army. Same with all the other combatants ever since - except for the Luftwaffe, where Army Group commanders had to communicate with their Luftflotte commanders through the OKL.

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    Not only training, but experience. And not just experience, but experience in a new pace of warfare. The German military had conducted large scale operations into Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, France, Greece, Crete, North Africa, and Yugoslavia.
    – Schwern
    Commented Apr 30, 2020 at 4:55

No, it is far from being that simple.

the Russians were mostly superior on the ground to the Germans

At which stage of the war? If we consider 1941 and 1942, then Germans were outnumbering Russians in most of cases. New archive researches as well as publishing unit documents online (pamyat-naroda.ru) prove that very well. Starting from 1943 the Russians began having more troops than the Germans and we can say that they were a bit stronger since this time. But not that much.

The encirclement battles of 1941 were made possible, because the German air force disrupted Russian communications and troop concentrations

No. In 1941 the Red Army was not fully mobilized. In many places German ~13700 men divisions met Russian ~6000 men divisions*. This was because many of them were in peace time strength, that is 1/3 or 2/3 from their wartime strength. Which means that some divisions had only one regiment and that had only one battalion. Nevertheless they were put on the same 16-20km fronts. Germans exploited this by quickly maneuvering and concentrating most of their forces on weakest spots of soviet thin defenses, achieving local advantage of like 6-1 or even more. Yes, then they hammered with Stukas, artillery, concentrated tank units - everything they had.

BTW, Germans were superior in artillery at the beginning of the war. Search for their division artillery lists and you will see a lot of different guns of calibers sometimes up to 203mm [Isaev "Stalingrad"]. Soviet divisions didn't have anything near that until 1943-1944. They had such guns, but those were not in standard divisions. Until Kursk we see that German artillery used much more shells per day. In Stalingrad that was on average ~900 tons per day vs ~400 for the Soviets [Isaev "Stalingrad"]. During the battles at "Stalin line" some Soviet supporting artillery units had less that one issue of ammunition. And German artillery was much more maneuverable. They had a luxury, Soviets couldn't afford until the end of the war - specialized towing vehicles, which meant that their artillery was at least 2-3 times faster than Soviet. So if they need to retreat, they had to leave their heavy artillery. In 1941 German infantry division could march more kilometers per day than Soviet tank division. Just because they solved all those issues beforehand and had all the necessary vehicles (or horses) where they needed them. Their army was balanced.

Tank forces didn't have proper support vehicles: evacuators, fuel trucks etc. So they had fuel, but no standardized means to get it to the battlefield. They had to use ordinary trucks loaded with barrels, reducing their effectiveness even further. Some units at the start of the war had only 4% of oils needed for their vehicles and little fuel. Others that did have fuel, broke down. BT tanks had gasoline engine, T-34 had V2 diesel. Tankers, who had a possibility to switch to better T-34 didn't have time get to know new vehicles properly. Did you know that V2 when running on mid-revs resonates and develops cracks in its aluminum body? They didn't too, because proper manuals didn't make it to the units yet. One runs gasoline engine on mid-revs usually, but one has to run V2 mostly on high revs. Thus we have well known statistics of T-34 engine breakdowns.

At any rate, they couldn't fly in sufficient supplies to prevent the capture of the 6th Army.

Even if they could fly all the time, they couldn't have provided several thousands of tons of supplies each day. ~900 tons of shells per day of fighting, Ju52 could carry 1500kg, Ju88 could 2000kg, so you would need 450(600) flights (that's one flight every 2 minutes) to get just the shells for Paulus army.

So Air force was only one of many factors, much of which were more significant in Red Army early defeats.

  • Full strength was around 12000 according to GKO Nr459, but peace time was from 15% to 75% of that.
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    Some source references would improve the quality of the answer.
    – Steve Bird
    Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 8:48
  • understood. Will add them in a while.
    – Zmur
    Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 12:17
  • Your comment about division sizes is factually incorrect because the frontage assigned to the units was matching. German divisions tended to be oversized in consequence of habits developed after 1806-7 to skirt terms of the peace treaty and army limits imposed by napoleon. Commented Nov 25, 2020 at 14:43
  • @PieterGeerkens There were 3 types of divisions: staff, territorial, mixed. Staff divisions in peacetime had 40-75% strength in peacetime. Territorial had 10-20% officer staff but privates arrived there for training for short periods. Mixed divisions were organized similarly to staff, but had some units based on territorial principle, those had peacetime strength around 15-30%. Full strength, according to GKO Nr459 was 11 343 men. [rkka.ru/handbook/data/35.htm]
    – Zmur
    Commented Nov 26, 2020 at 6:36

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