The Soviet Union was bound by treaty to support Czechoslovakia in 1938. One "sticking point" was that the Soviet Union would have to cross Polish and/or Romanian territory to do so.

Was there a possibility that the Soviet Union would had been able to obtain permission from one or both countries to use their airspace only? If so, under the circumstances:

  1. How did the Soviet air force of the time "stack up" vis-a-vis the German and Czech air forces (assuming that the Soviets and Czechs would be fighting side by side)? How much damage could such air units do to German ground forces?

  2. How possible was it to for the Soviet Union to airlift troops and resupply them over such distances?

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    Wouldn't the tag czechoslovakia also be apposite? – gktscrk Jun 18 at 6:28
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    Is the question about getting permission a separate one here, or are you solely interested in soviet airlift capability in 1938? – Danila Smirnov Jun 18 at 7:26
  • what about invading Eastern Prussia or broadly speaking, declaring war on Baltic Sea? – Antek Jun 18 at 13:07
  • Since they were regularly bombing Slovakia after occupation, I am sure they had their means. – Greg Jun 18 at 15:19
  • @Greg: Your comment might be the key to the question. Could you make that an answer? – Tom Au Jun 18 at 17:20

As I see it, the value of the Soviets telegraphing they indented to honor their treaty with the Czechs would be to call the German's bluff. The Czechs were no push over and the German army was not ready. With a promise of Soviet troops it's possible the Czechs would have decided to fight and the Germans would not have invaded.

How possible was it to for the Soviet Union to airlift troops and resupply them over such distances?

Quite poorly, but most nations would also have done poorly.

It cannot be overstated how fast military technology and experience advanced just prior to and during World War 2, particularly aircraft. In 1938 all metal monoplanes were just being introduced. Iconic heavy aircraft like the B-17 were just entering service. Nations had very little heavy lift capability, what they had was slow and not very reliable, and nobody had experience in strategic lift.

In 1938 the Soviets had just three types of aircraft capable of anything like transporting troops. The ANT-9 could carry 9 passengers, they had less than 100. 200 TB-1 bombers could be pressed into transport service.

Only the TB-3 is worth examining for a strategic lift. It was capable of carrying 35 soldiers or (extrapolating from its bomb load) 5000 kg and had the range to reach Czechoslovakia. The Soviets built 800 of them, but I don't know how many were operational in 1938. In theory they could lift an entire division of soldiers and deliver them to Czech airfields. In practice, hastily put together, with no operational experience, flying into a foreign airfield, it would be a mess. At least it was a friendly airfield in friendly territory.

They would have been unable to send any heavy equipment. Even a light tank was beyond the lift capability of the TB-3. German armor being very thin at the time, they would have been able to supply many capable anti-tank guns and rifles. As well as smaller artillery pieces.

What the Soviets had going for them is they had been experimenting with airborne units since 1930. In 1938 they would have three airborne brigades available (three more regiments were in the Far East). These could be used as a fire brigade, hastily assembled and rushed to Czechoslovakia. How much a few thousand light infantry would have helped is unknown. Beyond that, they would have had to scratch together forces and their equipment, load them, and hope they arrive together.

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  • 1938 and all metal monoplanes introduced might need some qualification, as I say Junkers got there a bit earlier, in 1915 : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Junkers_J_1 and the J7/D.I actually in service in 1918. If you mean that for Soviet forces, Grigorovich I-Z/Ilyushin I-21 & Tupolev TB-1 would also be earlier examples. – LаngLаngС Jun 18 at 16:24
  • @LаngLаngС Yes, and they were just becoming the norm. When people think about WW2 they think about great air fleets of sleek and powerful aircraft, but the situation was quite different in 1938. – Schwern Jun 18 at 16:31
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    @TomAu Yes, it was a heroic defeat made strategically worthwhile because it bought time for massive reinforcement by heavy units by sea. While Soviet paratroops could be used as a speed-bump in a similar way, no reinforcement by heavy Soviet units would be coming. Not by air, anyway. While the 24th gave a fierce defense, they were pushed back, overrun and General Dean was captured. And this was a proper, if unready, infantry division, the 24th, sea-lifted in, not air, with its equipment by a military with 10 years of experience transporting troops. – Schwern Jun 18 at 17:48
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    @TomAu Task Force Smith's primary achievement was also probably as a trip wire and having the US "blooded". Without their sacrifice, maybe an accommodation might have been reached letting NK occupy the South. With it, it was politically unacceptable. Re. paratroop survivability vs. main forces, look no further than Market Garden. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Jun 18 at 20:29
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    From the following site can be found annual production figures for TB-3 (819 by 1938) and some interesting information about its use as a transport aircraft and in airborne operations. It was used extensively in this role during the war. They could indeed carry T-38 tanks, trucks, or artillery pieces, slung underneath... -- globalsecurity.org/military/world/russia/tb-3.htm – Agent Orange Jun 20 at 7:35

I see very limited options how the Soviets could have helped Czechoslovakia during a potential war with Germany.

Diplomatically, crossing into Polish airspace would not be possible - Poland was at odds with both the USSR and Czechoslovakia. Romania, on the other hand, was in an alliance with Czechoslovakia so it could have allowed controlled passage of Soviet aircraft over Bukovina.

However, such a supply route would be very thin. As Schwern says, the Soviets did not have much in the ways of heavy airlift capability and most of the fighting would have taken place in Czechia, far from the Soviet border, severely stretching the fuel requirements.

Having said that, I think there would be one way the Soviets could have helped Czechoslovakia a great deal - by supplying aircraft itself. Czechoslovakia had many well-trained pilots, but in 1938 its airforce was mostly obsolete, with no bombers to speak of and only a few modern fighters. Soviet I-16 fighters could have significantly boosted Czechoslovak air defences, being only slightly worse than German elite Bf 109. This would also allow the Soviets to remain neutral on the surface, being only a supplier. (This eventuality is explored in Jan Drnek's Frogs in Milk, a piece of alternative history that is heavily biased in Czechoslovakia's favour but quite accurate in military details.)

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