In August 2022 Lombardy Studios launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring two books about the Eastern Front to the shores of America. One of the two books is Black Cross – Red Star: Air War Over the Eastern Front – Volume 1 by Christer Bergstrom published by Vaktel Books. The book is an excellent, in-depth look at air combat during Operation Barbarossa in World War II. A sample can be found here courtesy Lombardy Studios. Future volumes will cover later parts of the war.
Late in 2022 I also took in a new-to-me wargame, Wings of the Motherland, designed by J.D. Webster and published by Clash of Arms Games in 2019. Wings of the Motherland (WML) is part of J.D. Webster’s Fighting Wings Series of wargames which are dogfight-level tactical treatments of air combat in World War II.
Black Cross – Red Star and Wings of the Motherland compliment each other quite nicely and together enable me to explore the history of air combat during Operation Barbarossa.
Operation Barbarossa in the Air
The popular account of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 was that the Soviet Air Force (VVS) was destroyed in one fell swoop:
This massive air effort marked the beginning of ‘Operation Barbarossa’, the German invasion of Russia. Between 600 to 800 Russian aircraft were destroyed by the end of the day. The VVS was thrown into complete disarray. Hundreds more of its aircraft would be destroyed in the days that followed. Thus, in one surprise crushing blow, the Luftwaffe had attained immediate command of the sky.Webster, WML Scenario Book, 3
Despite the poor start, the Soviet Air Force would live on to fight and eventually dominate the air over the Eastern Front. But that was far in the future. The early days were dark…but not without some hope for the Soviets and challenges for the Germans. To further explore the air war during Operation Barbarossa I randomly selected one of the early-days scenarios from Wings of the Motherland. I ended up looking at “Air Combat Scenarios – Standard Level, 14. No Easy Days, 24 June 1941.” Here is the background for that scenario:
Background: Though the Luftwaffe was steadily sweeping the VVS from the skies, Soviet pilots, for the most part, continued their fanatical resistance. On several occasions they even got the upper hand such as when six I-16s of 163 IAP, led by Lt. Plotnikov (a Spanish Civil War veteran), caught a gruppe of StG 1 Stukas without escort over Minsk. They shot down six, including the commander of III/StG 1, Hptm. Mahlke, without loss. The German CO survived only to be shot down two more times within the next two weeks. Such was the relentless nature of the fighting in Russia.Webster, WML Scenario Book 22
Black Cross – Red Star has the same fight, found in Chapter 5: “The Blood Red Skies of Belorussia.” This account is a bit more detailed:
One Soviet fighter unit that had escaped destruction because it was based in the rear area was 43 IAD, assigned with the task of defending Minsk against air attacks. On June 24 its pilots fought hard against repeated waves of German bombers and dive-bombers which came in to attack Minsk. On this day, Kesselring decided to destroy the Belorussian capital. “Our mission read: Destroy the northern exits from Minsk in order to block the supply traffic, and as a secondary objective target the enemy columns on the roads northwest of Minsk,” wrote Hauptmann Helmut Mahlke, the commander of III/StG 1.
As his formation of twenty-six Ju 87s approached the target, they were met by a breathtaking sight: “Far ahead…a vast sea of flames: Minsk! Other Luftwaffe units have apparently been successful in their attacks.”
Right above the burning city, six I-16s of 43 IAD’s 163 IAP fell upon the twenty-six Ju 87s of StG 1 and StG 2. Led by Starshiy Leytenant Zakhar Plotnikov, a veteran from the Spanish Civil War, the I-16 pilots shot down seven dive-bombers (according to German loss records) without any own losses. In all, 163 IAP claimed twenty-one aerial victories in this area on June 24. Total Luftwaffe combat losses on the Eastern Front on June 24 were 70 aircraft, of which 40 were totally destroyed.Bergstrom 70-71
Interlude – Fighting Wings
Fighting Wings, Game Rules – Third Edition (2018) lays out in Rule 1.1 – Game Concept the three design goals of the game system:
- “Portray all aspects of air combat as it evolved from 1936 to 1946…”
- “Model aircraft capabilities as accurately as possible so that actual tactics of the era can be employed.”
- “Model an entire mission, from take-off to landing, by using three different, but interacting, scales of play.”
Frankly speaking, the only scale I have played—or even seen played—is the ‘Combat Scale’ where each hex on the map equals 100 yards and each turn equals four seconds real time.
I have heard/read many critics who say something along the lines of, “If you want to fly a flight combat simulator then it has to be a video game. It’s ridiculous to play a boardgame for several hours and simulate maybe 45 seconds of reality!”
My response has always been, “Yes, but…” Yes, Fighting Wings takes a long time to play as compared to the reality it portrays. But what Fighting Wings allows players to explore the game model and better understand why an airplane could, or could not, perform a certain way in a dogfight. By manipulating the model the player better understands the physics of air combat and the capabilities, limitations, and relative performance of their aircraft. It is one level of learning to read such analysis in a book. Video games allow a bit deeper understanding but the player is still generally only providing ‘input’ and letting a machine spit out the result. A wargame like the Fighting Wings Series teaches the player not only how to make the input, but also how to ‘compute’—and better understand—the output. It is a complete teaching-learning cycle.
The No Easy Days scenario pits 9x Ju 87R dive bombers of the Luftwaffe against 3x I-16 Type 24 fighters for the Soviets. While some might say this is “not your normal dogfight,” J.D. Webster in the Fighting Wings Scenario Book explains why this is actually not an unusual set up in an entry called, “A Unique Air War”:
A Unique Air War: With regards to air combat, the Eastern Front was unique in many ways. The Germans and Soviets both had air forces that were primarily tactical and aimed at supporting their Armies. Neither side had a true strategic bomber arm. As a result, the fighting was almost always centered over the battlefield and at low altitude. It was rare for either sides fighters to get much higher than 15,000 feet since their missions were to escort or intercept ground support aircraft which routinely operated at much lower levels. Luftwaffe dive bombers flew at around 12,000 feet before diving to ground level to attack, then run….”Webster , WML Scenario Book 7
Let’s take a closer look at the two aircraft types that are matching up in No Easy Day.
As Black Cross – Red Star tells us, “In general, the Soviet aircraft at the onset of the war were technically inferior to most German aircraft” (Bergstrom 26). The main Soviet fighter on June 24, 1941 was the “chubby little single-engine Polikarpov I-16 monoplane, called Ishak (Jackass) by the Soviet pilots and Rata (Rat) by the Germans…” (Bergstrom 26). The Wings of the Motherland: Fighting Wings Scenario Book describes the Rata thusly: “When this design first flew in 1934, it was considered one of the most modern monoplane fighters in the world. Pug nosed and brutish looking, the I-16 also proved to be a demanding airplane to fly. It was fairly unstable, but, this made it spritely in the hands of a skilled pilot” (Webster 8). In some ways the German pilots were dismissive of the Rata. As Bergsrom relates: “The I-16’s slow speed also often made it difficult to catch up with departing German bombers or reconnaissance planes—as Oberstleutnant Theodor Rowehl, commanding German reconnaissance group AufklGrObdL, said: ‘The Rata was not dangerous if it did not manage to take us by surprise'” (Bergsrom 27).
I’m guessing Plotnikov got a good jump on Mahlke!
In Wings of the Motherland each aircraft is described in detail using an Aircraft Data Card (ADC). The ADC for the Polikarpov I-16 Type 24 actually has two variants: the M-62 (service entry Oct ’39) and M-63 (service entry Apr ’40). The major differences between the two variants are an improved engine on the M-63 along with a radio for squadron leaders. None of the sources I have on hand specify if Plotnikov was flying an M-62 or M-63 and the ADC for the Rata says to simply roll a d10 and use the result (high-low) to determine if any particular aircraft was the M-62 or M-63. [A random 3d10 die roll resulted in 1x M-63 and 2x M-62 which was fitting with the veteran flight lead getting the better engine and radio-equipped aircraft.]
Ju 87R Stuka
As Bergstrom tells us: “The Stuka (Sturzkampfflugzeug, dive-bomber) is undoubtably one of the most famous German aircraft in World War II” (Bergstrom 33). The Ju 87 Stuka was a major player in the early days of Operation Barbarossa:
On June 22, 1941, the Luftwaffe had 376 Stukas in service with Stukageschwader StG 1, StG 2, and StG 77 between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. All of these were either of the model Ju 87 B-1 with a top speed of 383 km/h at 4,000 meters and a maximum bomb load of 500 kg or its long-range version Ju 87 R, capable of carrying drop tanks under the wings, which extended the operational range but reduced the bomb load to a single 250-kg bomb under the belly.Bergstrom 33
Major Paul-Werner Hozzel, commander of StG 2 “Immelmann” in October 1941 describes for us a typical Stuka attack:
When we approached the target, say at 5,000 meters altitude, can you imagine a loose unit formation? I ordered by radio, “Ready to attack, brakes out.” All put their dive brakes out for the preparation for the dive. To get the target into the window [in the aircraft’s fuselage beneath the pilot’s feet] it was necessary to fly at altitude and straight, on line. Then, without looking to the anti-aircraft fire—this you had to stand—until the target came to the forward edge. Then, the pilot looked until the target disappeared at the back edge. At that very moment we began the dive by diving over the nose. It was a remarkable feeling. Then we went into the 70-degree dive. Then we had the right direction to the target automatically. The next function was to aim the target over the sighting cross in front of me. So, allowing for wind speed and direction, we kept that point on the middle of the target…. I was normally the first to attack, as a commander, and I pulled up again, if the antiaircraft fire was not too heavy, to 800-1,000 meters so I could see if my crews were brave enough to release the bombs as low as possible.Bergstrom 33
For a game with so much detailed information I was a bit surprised to see that there is no Ju 87R ADC in Wings of the Motherland. A quick search online also failed to find one. The scenario rules direct players to use the included Ju 87D-1 ADC and reduce some engine power and defensive gun strengths.
No Easy Days
In the No Easy Days scenario, the battle apparently takes place before the Stukas have entered their dives. Victory points are awarded for severely damaged or destroyed aircraft and the Germans get bonus victory points if the Stukas still carry their bomb load at the end of the scenario or are still in formation. The nine German Ju 87R start in three vic-formations going north at Altitude 12.0 (12,000 feet). The three Soviet I-16 also start in a vic-formation approaching the Germans from the east at Altitude 11.0 (11,000 feet) and at around 800 yards range. The Flight Leaders for both sides are Veteran quality; all other pilots are Regular quality. The No Easy Day scenario is played to a maximum of 20 turns (80 seconds real time). While that admittedly seems a long game for a short few moments of time, it certainly portrays the early moment of “surprise” Plotnikov achieved against Mahlke.
“Model aircraft capabilities as accurately as possible so that actual tactics of the era can be employed.”
In the little-less-than 90 seconds of the No Easy Days scenario what is it that Plotnikov can do to shoot down the maximum number of Stukas while limiting his own losses? Logically, Plotnikov should climb above Mahlke and then “boom & zoom” his way through the Stukas shooting down as many as possible on the first pass while not falling to defensive fire. The Soviet fighters then have just a few moments to reset and maybe get a second—and if lucky a third—pass against the Stukas. With these considerations in mind, how good can you do?
Interlude – Flight Rules
Wings of the Motherland shipped with the Fighting Wings Third Edition Play Rules and Play Aids. The description of the digital product at WargameVault tells the complete story:
“This edition incorporates 15 years of minor improvements from second edition rules play, all the second edition errata and also introduces some major revisions to certain aspects of play for increased modeling accuracy and ease of play. Sections having major changes include Defensive gunfire modeling, heavy anti-aircraft gunfire modeling, air-to-air rocketry modeling. In the flight and combat model, new rules additions take into account the effects of high aircraft speeds on induced drag when turning, excess firepower points, lift-vector aiming effects and much more. The night combat rules and night fighting rules have been greatly expanded to better model the cat-and-mouse aspect of the night war. All in all, you will want to catch up to the state of the art with this rulebook.”
“Note that the aircraft data cards from all of the previous games and FW supplements are still usable, as are the scenarios from the previous games, although, with regards to the scenarios, you will have to interpret from the scenario description the flight attitude that the planes are likely starting with. In the future, updated scenario books will be available to bring the Over the Reich, Achtung! Spitfire!, and Whistling Death games all up to third edition standards.”
My copy of Wings of the Motherland also included a paper copy of errata dated July 20, 2020. This looks to be the same errata available through WargameVault under Wings of the Motherland Game Errata V1.0.
If you are interested in the Fighting Wings Series but not sure the $100-plus investment is worth it for you you have two other options. Against the Odds published Buffalo Wings – Second Edition in 2020. Buffalo Wings (BW) is a slightly simplified version of the 3rd Edition rules that enables players to play the game without too much of the extra chrome rules. For an early war scenario featuring aircraft of simpler technology and capabilities this rules set is perfectly serviceable.
There are also versions of a Fighting Wings Quick Start floating around the interwebs. The version I have on hand is from 2010 and is firmly rooted in the Second Edition of the rules. If you are really interested, you can join the Fighting Wings Group on groups.io and maybe find the latest version along with many more goodies.
One challenge the Soviet pilots face is is not from the Germans but their own combat formation. The classic three-plane V (Vic) formation was used if for no other reason than the lack of radios forced the aircraft to stay together. Soviet fighter ace Aleksandr Pokryshkin tells us, “We could communicate only by rocking the wings of our planes. In order to maintain contact, we were forced to keep so tight together that we lost maneuverability” (Bergstrom 37). As Bergstrom notes: “This added a tactical disadvantage to the inferior performance of most Soviet fighters” (Bergstrom 36). Bergstrom also points out that although the Spanish Civil War had shown both sides the advantage of the “collective combat method” (later called the ‘Finger-Four’) the reality of Soviet air combat tactics in June 1941 often led to individual dogfighting (Bergstrom 36).
Formations and Radios
The relevant formation rules in Wings of the Motherland that govern this battle are found in 8.5.1 – Fixed Formations and a special rule for the Soviets called ‘Zveno.’ The Germans start in a Fixed Formation where wingmen must be on or behind the leader’s 3-9 Line (an imaginary line drawn from the leader’s 3 o’clock to 9 o’clock position), within two hexes horizontal range, within 100 feet of altitude, and within 30 degrees of the leader’s facing (mnemonic 2-1-3). Several Fixed Formations can be chained together as long as the flight leads are behind the leader’s 3-9 Line, within 3 hexes horizontal and 300 feet vertical and 30 degrees of the leader’s facing (mnemonic 3-3-3). Aircraft flying in Fixed Formations are limited in their ability to maneuver (think few radical moves) but do gain defensive fire benefits.
The Soviets use a variation of the Fixed Formation which was called Zveno. The rules for the Zveno are found in the Wings of the Motherland: Fighting Wings Scenario Book on p. 14. The Zveno is a fixed formation but has no flight restrictions. However, in order to gain the initiative benefit of a leader, wingmen must be in the same hex, within 100 feet altitude , and within 30 degrees of the leaders heading (0-1-3). Optionally the wingman can be within two hexes, two hundred feet altitude, and again within 30 degree of heading (2-2-3).
The lack of radios for Soviet aircraft is reflected in Wings of the Motherland rule 8.1 – Initiative Phase. Initiative, the order of aircraft movement, is usually a combination of aircraft agility and pilot expereince level; the lack of a radio can also become a factor. The rules specifically states:
Determine A/C [aircraft] order of movement by first comparing agility class and then initiative numbers. A/C of a lesser agility class move before A/C of a higher class each turn (tailing can modify this). If both sides have A/C in the same agility class they move in order of initiative number, starting with the lowest number first.Wings of the Motherland, 8.1 – Initiative Phase
Stukas are considered L class (light bombers) while the Rata are F class (fighters). In Wings of the Motherland this is a combined class meaning they usually must both move in the same Initiative Phase and in initiative order. Loaded condition, however, is also factored in with Loaded L-class A/C moving before Normal L class or normal/loaded F class A/C. Thus, the Stukas will usually move before the Ratas—unless they drop their bombs and then dice off for initiative. For the Stukas this is a serious decision; keep the bomb load and score victory points but be out-maneuvered by the Ratas—or drop the bombs, lose the victory points, but have a better chance of staying alive?
Recall that in the No Easy Days scenario both sides start in a Fixed Formation (Zveno for the Soviets). According to the scenario special rules neither side must remain in that Fixed Formation but for the Germans they gain both defensive fire and victory point bonuses if they do so. The Soviets are free to break up their formation and pursue individual dogfights, like many historically did.
Rudimentary and Unstable
As noted above, the Polikarpov I-16 Rata was “fairly unstable” and “a demanding airplane to fly.” This is reflected on the ADC which calls out special rules for the Rata:
Rudimentary flight instruments (+20 to any disorientation rolls). Unstable A/C: If pilot not veteran or gifted, +05 to all attack LH [Likelihood of Hit] and stall/spin related moves…Simple gunsight. Ring and bead backup sight. Flaps only have landing or up setting. Cockpit fire vulnerability (17.1).Polikarpov I-16 Type 24 ADC
The practical impact of Unstable A/C rules for the Rata is that pilots in high-G maneuvers risk losing control of their aircraft. They also suffer a penalty when shooting due to the unstable aircraft shaking and which is not all that easy to do given the simple gunsight installed. If the Rata is unlucky enough to be hit, the pilot better hope the shells stay away from the fuel tank that is mounted in front of the cockpit because if it catches fire those flames are going to be coming right back into his face…
No Easy Days in Play
Since I had already done so much reading about the scenario history and situation and studied the aircraft and associated rules I decided to go ahead and play the No Easy Days scenario. It’s been a while since I played a Fighting Wings game so I’m sure I didn’t always make the optimal flight maneuvers but that wasn’t the main reason I was playing. I played to learn a bit more about those 80 seconds above Minsk over 80 years ago.
Relearning the Fighting Wings rules while playing No Easy Days was not that bad. In many ways the Germans are “on autopilot” as they gain the most defensive benefits (and Victory Points!) from staying in formation. This scenario doesn’t cover the actual dive bomb attack so it was not necessary to relearn those rules. The Soviets took a bit of some work and I’m sure a more experienced player could flown better than I did. In a way, though, my personal inexperience reflected the Soviet pilots inexperience at this stage of the war so I don’t think my shortfalls created an unbalanced situation.
At the end of the scenario I proved I am no Plotnikov; my Soviets only succeeded in shooting down two Stukas. Three other Stukas dropped their bombs and only three were in a legal formation at the end of the scenario. One I-16 was shot down because it spent too long behind the German formation and their defensive guns, as weak as they were, made the pilot pay for that mistake. Most importantly, the fight highlighted for me strengths and weaknesses of both the I-16 and Stukas. If only the Soviets had a better fighter to fly that could take advantage of those German vulnerabilities…
Feature image courtesy RMN