The first Operation Barbarossa bombing raid, June 1941:
The Luftwaffe’s Chief of the General Staff, Hans Jeschonnek, wanted to begin the air attacks before the German artillery started firing. However, Hitler and the OKW decided it may give the opportunity for the Soviets to disperse their air units, and his idea was rejected. Hitler gave the order for the air strikes on airfields to be carried out at dawn. Although many new German bomber crews had only limited training in instrument-flying, the Luftflotten overcame the problem by hand picking experienced crews, who would cross the border at high altitude, to swoop on their targets. The Germans deliberately targeted Soviet fighter air bases first, to knock out potential opposition to its bombers and dive bombers.
The first attacks began at 03:00 on 22 June. The Soviets had been caught by surprise, their aircraft bunched together in neat rows which were vulnerable. The results were devastating. At Pinsk aerodrome 39 SBAP of 10 SAD lost 43 SBs and five Pe-2s on the ground after attacks by KG 3, which lost one bomber. Further to the west, 33 IAP/10 SAD lost 46 I-53 and I-16s to fighter-bombers of JG 51. Messerschmitt Bf 110s of SKG 210 destroyed 50 aircraft at Korbin airfield, near the headquarters of 10 SAD and the Soviet Fourth Army. The airfield based the 74 ShAP, which lost 47 I-15s, 5 I-153s and 8 IL-2 aircraft on 22 June. Worse was still to come. Slightly later, KG 54 attacked airfields in the area, and its 80 Ju 88s destroyed 100 Soviet aircraft. However, the Luftwaffe and its allies were far from alone in the skies. The VVS flew 6,000 sorties in comparison to the German 2,272 sorties and VVS ZOVO put 1,900 aircraft into the air. They put up bitter resistance in the air scoring a few successes.
Such was the intensity and determination of the Soviet pilots they disregarded their losses and fought with a resolve which surprised German airmen. In several cases Soviet pilots rammed German machines. Do 17s of KG 2 lost one bomber to this method, while in a notable incident Wolfgang Schellmann, Geschwaderkommodore (Wing Commander) of JG 27 was rammed and bailed out, only to be murdered by NKVD troops upon reaching the ground. Around 19 reported incidents of ramming, known as tarans were recorded on the 22 June 1941, but this may have been an over-dramatisation of the engagement, which involved unorthodox methods.
The Stavka were stunned by the initial assault and took several hours to realise the disastrous situation and respond. They ordered every available VVS bomber into the air. Without coordination and fighter escort, they suffered catastrophic losses, and flew, quite literally, to the “last man”. The Germans believed the bravery of Soviet bomber crews to be unequalled in this regard. For example, SBAP/10 SAD, which had lost many aircraft in the ground strike, put up 18 SB bombers to attack the spearheads of Army Group Centre. They were engaged by JG 51 and all 18 were shot down. In the event, the VVS’ bombers kept coming, and on several occasions the Bf 109s wiped out entire formations.
It was only 10 hours after the first Axis attacks, at 13:40, that commander of the VVS KA, Pavel Zhigarev, was able to order the long-range aviation into action. The 96 DBAP of 3 BAK put 70 DB-3s into the air but lost 22 with many others returning damaged. The German fighter pilots had it very easy under these circumstances; unescorted bombers in a target-rich environment. JG 53 claimed 74 air victories for two losses. III./JG 53 claimed 36 air victories alone and 28 on the ground. JG 51 was credited with 12 fighters and 57 bombers. JG 54 accounted for 45 air victories and 35 on the ground for one Bf 109 damaged. The Bf 110s of SKG 210 accounted for 334 Soviet aircraft against 14 airfields. It lost seven Bf 110s destroyed or damaged.
At the end of the day, German reports claimed 1,489 Soviet aircraft destroyed on the ground alone. At first, these figures were believed to be barely credible. Even Hermann Göring refused to believe the figures and had them secretly checked. In fact, German officers checking the airfields, which were soon overrun by the Wehrmacht, counted over 2,000 wrecks. Soviet sources confirm these totals. The VVS Baltic District lost 56 aircraft on 11 airfields. VVS ZOVO lost 738 of its 1,789 aircraft on 26 airfields. The VVS Kiev District had 23 of its airfields bombed it lost 192 aircraft, 97 on the ground. In addition, 109 training aircraft were destroyed. VVS Odessa, in the south lost 23 aircraft on six airbases. The DBA and naval air forces reported the loss of 336 aircraft. Entire units were nearly wiped out. 9 SAD lost 347 out of 409 aircraft including the majority of the 57 MiG 3 and 52 I-16s of 129 IAP. 9 SAD’s commander, Sergey Chernykh was shot for the failure. Only the VVS Odessa, under the command of Fyodor Michugin, was prepared for the assault, losing only 23 aircraft to Emanoil Ionescu‘s Romanian Air Corps. Ionescu lost four per cent of his strength on this date, the worst Romanian losses on a single day in the 1941 campaign.
In all, two waves of Axis attacks had struck. In the morning, the first wave destroyed 1,800 aircraft for two losses, while the second wave lost 33 Axis machines but destroyed 700 Soviet aircraft. The Soviet official history of the VVS only admits to “around” 1,200 losses. In the air battles, Axis losses were more significant. In some cases Luftwaffe losses, relevant to their strength were “shocking”; KG 51 lost 15 Ju 88s in one action. KG 55 lost 10 He 111s over the airfields. In contrast other bombers units suffered lightly. KG 27 claimed 40 Soviet aircraft on the ground, for no loss. Total Luftwaffe losses amounted to 78 on 22 June; 24 Bf 109s, seven Bf 110s, 11 He 111s, two Ju 87s, one Do 17 and 10 miscellaneous types. The Romanian Air Force lost four Blenheims, two PZL P.37 fighters, two Savoia-Marchetti SM.79, one Potez 633, one IAR 37 and one IAR 39. Losses amounted to 90 other Axis aircraft. The Soviet claims were a considerable exaggeration; “more than 200 enemy aircraft” were claimed to have been destroyed on the first day.
The balance of power in the air was altered for the next few months. The Luftwaffe had attained air superiority, if not supremacy at this point. The low German opinion of Soviet combat capabilities had been confirmed, and was bolstered by information provided by captured VVS personnel. The Soviet bomber fleet had been practically destroyed and its remaining forces continued ineffective and costly attacks on the German rear, while Axis surprise and qualitative superiority nearly forced a collapse of Soviet air units. However, the VVS recovered once surprise had worn off, as indicated in the lessening losses on the ground, and rise of casualties in the air. The autumn weather also provided breathing space to partially rebuild. Moreover, a number of crews survived the initial strikes on the ground, to be redeployed afresh. The Luftwaffe had been unable to destroy the VVS for those reasons.
If you want to check the order of battle of Luftwaffe and Soviet VVS (Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily):