In August 1941 an Allied Power Bombed Berlin, but it Might not be Who You Think

Berlin raid
DB-3 in flight (Image credit: via grafiq.ru)

The story of a daring and oft forgotten nighttime air raid on the Nazi capital, carried out by the Soviet Navy using near obsolescent torpedo planes, early in the war on the Eastern Front.

The history we see and hear of the bombing of Germany by the Allied forces during World War 2 generally focuses on the efforts of the British and the Americans, but not long after Germany had invaded the Soviet Union, the Nazis bombed the Soviet capital of Moscow on the night of July 21, 1941. The raid caused little damage but it enraged Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin and the Soviets needed a victory however symbolic, as the war up to this point had not been going well for them. Stalin wanted Berlin bombed and soon.

The Petlyakov Pe-8, the only modern four engine heavy bomber in the Soviet inventory in 1941. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Dire Straits

The Soviet Union only had one large four engine bomber at the time, the Petlyakov Pe-8. However, it was fairly new with teething problems and only available in very limited numbers. The constant retreating of the Soviet Red Army was also pushing adequate airfields and support units for the big bombers further and further eastward, making it even more difficult for the raid to become a reality because of the distances and logistics. A different plan was needed.

The Plan

That plan was the brainchild of Soviet Naval Air Forces General Semyon F. Zhavoronkov. The idea was for twin engine torpedo plans to fly to Berlin from the Estonian island of Saaremaa (Ösel) in the Baltic Sea. Attacking Berlin from the island was approximately 4 hours flight time, a distance of about 550 miles (900 km) round trip. The raid would be a nighttime attack, with complete radio silence and the planes blacked out the entire trip. The planes would fly in the darkness over mostly water, with no surface features for navigation, and only using the aircraft instruments and dead reckoning to reach their target. Dead reckoning is accomplished by precise accounting of time and distance from a last known position or takeoff point. Very skilled navigators would be needed for this mission.

The mission plan was presented to Admiral Nikolay Kuznetsov, commander of the Soviet Navy. Kuznetsov liked the idea and he and Zhavoronkov met with Premier Stalin and presented the plan on July 26, 1941. Stalin approved of the mission and placed Zhavoronkov in charge of it. The plan was dubbed “Operation B”, and would be surrounded by utmost secrecy.

Zhavoronkov selected the 1st Torpedo Bomber Regiment led by Colonel Preobrazhenskiy to carry out the attack. Although the torpedo unit was created and trained to attack naval targets at sea, the unit had been used heavily in the early part of the war attacking and bombing ground targets. They flew the Ilyushin DB-3T twin engine bombers and the grass and dirt runways at Kagul and Aste airfields on Saaremaa would have to be lengthened to accommodate the larger and heavier planes, as these were originally single engine fighter bases. Engineers quickly converged on the area, lengthening and repairing the runways and taxiways, and constructing individual camouflaged shelters for each aircraft next to Estonian homes and farms, since the Germans were well aware of the Soviet presence on the island. The planes would then be flown to the islands, where the crews were not even informed of what the mission being prepared for was going to be. Bombs, ammunition, and other supplies would be delivered by the Soviet Navy.

By early August everything was in place for the attack, the crews were trained and the aircraft ready. The weather, however, was not cooperating, delaying the mission after a few successful practice runs. Orders to conduct the mission finally came on Aug. 7, after the weather had improved. The planes would take off at 2100 hours.

The Plane

The Ilyushin DB-3 was a twin engine aircraft designed by Sergi V. Ilyushin and first flew in 1936. The aircraft flown by the 1ST Torpedo Bomber Regiment at the time of the raid were mostly the DB-3T model, a naval torpedo variant. Its normal payload consisted of one Type 45 torpedo, but it had a small bomb bay and mounting points under the aircraft for carrying conventional bombs as well. The DB-3T had a top speed of around 270 miles per hour (429 KPH), with a normal payload of around 2,200 pounds (1,000 kg), carried three defensive machine guns, and a crew of 3. The planes flown on this particular mission however had been used intensely since the outbreak of the war, and regularly scheduled maintenance, especially engine overhauls, were not able to be performed. This, coupled with the extreme range of the mission, affected the performance of the aircraft causing it to carry a much lighter bomb load. The planes attacking that night carried only 1,100 pounds (500 kg) of bombs.

Berlin raid
Ilyushin DB-3 on display at the Central Air Force Museum, Monino, Moscow Oblast, Russia. Out of approximately 1,500 built, this is the sole remaining example. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The aircraft was also used by a few other counties; China in her war with Japan, a handful of examples were captured by the Finns and used against their former owners in the Soviet/Finnish Winter War that began in 1939, and the Germans also captured a few DB-3’s as well.

Eventually, the DB-3 went through extensive modifications in airframe, wings, engines, and an entirely new more aerodynamic and, aesthetically pleasing nose replaced the greyhound bus front end. It was then designated the more familiar IL-4.

The DB-3 morphed into the Ilyushin IL-4 pictured here after extensive modifications and improvements to the airframe, engines, wings, and a new extensively glazed front end. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Attack

As the planes droned on towards Berlin, in order to avoid German air defenses and searchlights, they climbed to an altitude of over 21,000 feet. At this height the air temperatures were in the minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit range (-31 Celsius). The cold caused frost to form on goggles, oxygen masks, and canopies. Human skin would freeze to any metal surface it came into contact with. It was difficult to manipulate or operate anything mechanical let alone concentrate on the tasks at hand. Compasses and gauges froze up, a huge problem when flying blindly and in silence. With the planes blacked out, it was difficult to tell where other aircraft were making collisions a danger as clouds were thick and heavy that night. Oxygen was thin at this altitude, and even with a supply, the crews were affected. Breathing became difficult, limbs felt heavy, extremities numbed, ears would bleed, and nausea was common.

Each aircraft was assigned a specific target and secondary targets. As the raiders approached Berlin, they used the lights and landmarks of the city to find their targets, as Berlin was not blacked out and not expecting any air raids. Field Marshal Goering of the German Luftwaffe (Air Force) was confident the enemy would not strike Berlin, in spite of the fact the British already had in 1940. Goering had boasted the Soviet Air Force had already been wiped out as well. The bombs falling on the capital of the Reich told a different story. With an obvious element of surprise to the unprepared and unsuspecting Germans, the planes dropped their payloads and headed home, as air defenses were not at full strength. Still, under orders of radio silence, Colonel Preobrazhenskiy broke it by allowing a short message to be transmitted back with the words “I’m over Berlin. Mission completed. Returning.” This was the first news of the success of the raid causing great celebration back at base. All 15 planes returned to base.

Allied Power Bombed Berlin
German searchlights and anti-aircraft fire light up the night sky as bombs explode during a raid on Berlin in Sep. 1941. (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Aftermath

The raid caused minor damage and was initially blamed on the British by the Germans, only to discover through Soviet news agencies reporting on subsequent raids it was the Soviets attacking them. The bombing was a surprise slap in the face to the Germans, and a huge morale boost to the Soviet cause. The Germans became resolute, destroying the bases on the island, attacking it with aircraft. The Soviets continued to fly missions against Berlin until the island fell in October to German ground forces. Nine Soviet pilots and navigators received Hero of the Soviet Union awards for their bravery in conducting these raids.

Hero of the Soviet Union Medal.
About Darrick Leiker
Darrick Leiker is based out of Goodland, Kansas and is a contributor to TheAviationist. Coming from a military/law enforcement background in the United States Air Force, he graduated Electronics Technology at Northwest Kansas Technical College, is an amateur astronomer, avid scale modeler, and also collects classic automobiles. Darrick has experience in the world of Cryptocurrency, cybersecurity research/intelligence, and also built and managed his own business. An avid reader and history buff, Darrick’s passion is to insure those who went before us and those currently serving are not forgotten. Darrick curates a small private museum of scale models, artifacts, and memorabilia, while working in the wine and spirits industry.