Why Soviet pilots were easy pickings for German fighters in World War II

Feb 13, 2023 8:46 AM PST
3 minute read
soviet pilots in world war ii

A Soviet LaGG-3 before take off.


The top-scoring American fighter ace of World War II was Richard Bong, who notched up 40 air-to-air kills. The top…

The top-scoring American fighter ace of World War II was Richard Bong, who notched up 40 air-to-air kills. The top scorer for the British Royal Air Force scored 38. The number one French fighter pilot had 33 kills. The top-scoring pilot for Nazi Germany was Erich Hartmann with an astonishing 352 aerial victories.  

Germany was not just lacking in the materials and manpower needed to make new aircraft, they were also short of pilots with the skills to fly the aircraft it did have. As a result, German fighter pilots weren’t allowed to simply go home or switch jobs after flying a certain number of sorties, as was the case with Allied air forces. This means they got a lot of experience and time in air combat. 

One of those German Luftwaffe pilots was Gunther Rall, who was born in 1918 and was in the Luftwaffe service at the very beginning of World War II. When Nazi tanks rolled into Poland in 1939, Rall was flying combat patrols on the French front. After the Fall of France in 1940, Nazi Germany set its sights on a new war, this time in the East. 

Rall was sent to fly missions against the Soviet Red Army when Operation Barbarossa was launched in 1941. He remained on the Eastern Front for the remainder of World War II. In that time, he gained a lot of experience flying against Soviet pilots. His opinion of their ability in air combat is backed up by his own equally astonishing kill count. Rall was the third-highest scoring fighter pilot of World War II, with 275 aerial victories. 

The Soviet Union’s air force lost around 46,000 aircraft in combat on the Eastern Front. Erich Hartmann, Gerhard Barkhorn, and Gunther Rall, the top scoring German aces and the top three aces in all of the war, were the cause of nearly a thousand of those Soviet losses. Rall credits three factors for the success of the German Luftwaffe in the war. 

American Medal of Honor recipient and pilot, Major Bong, was the top-scoring American fighter ace of World War II c. 1945.

German pilots, said Rall, never had to go out looking for a target. They were also always engaged in combat. Finally, German pilots and aircraft were “indispensable” to the German war effort. They were up against superior numbers, who were always looking for a fight. With the war going badly for Germany, the German pilots would have to fly until they were killed, captured, or seriously wounded. 

Along the Eastern Front, Rall also credits to flying abilities of Soviet pilots for his high kill count – or rather, the lack thereof. The former German pilot said Soviet fighters never fully grasped the idea of a totally three dimensional battlespace, and often flew just flat or horizontally. They limited their maneuvers to a circular space, which allowed for the German mindset to get the jump on them rather easily. 

Rall also said that Soviet pilots didn’t have the same understanding of mathematics or geometry that highly-qualified German pilots had. They didn’t have the training in advanced deflection shooting, either. So they ended up being poor pilots and terrible shots with their onboard weapons systems. 

That isn’t to say that Rall was a perfect pilot in combat. He was shot down five times and wounded three times. All but three of his aerial victories, however, came against Soviet pilots, so there must be a kernel of truth in Rall’s recollections. What he had to be prepared for was attacks from below. Flying at low altitudes left his Bf-109 Messerschmidt vulnerable to ground fire. Being captured by the Russians after being shot down was a fate worse than death.


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