Combat Jets of the East German Air Force: 1956 to 1969 – The Early Days

East German Air Force Emblem (LSK)
East German Air Force Emblem (LSK)

East Germany which existed as a nation from October 1949 to October 1990 (known as the German Democratic Republic – GDR / Deutsche Demokratische Republik – DDR), was at the frontline of the Cold War between NATO and the Warsaw Pact nations controlled by the Soviet Union. As such the East German Air Force (Luftstreitkräfte der Nationalen Volksarmee – LSK) were a well-trained and well equipped division of the National People’s Army (NPA or Nationalen Volksarmee – NVA) which was organized in a similar structure to the Soviet Air Force (alas that also probably means they would have also been guided onto targets en masse with little to no freedom to make decisions or fully utilise their flying skills).

If the Cold War was ever to go hot, East German pilots would have been in the thick of the action. Luckily this never happened but just in case, they operated many of the best aircraft the Soviet Union had to offer and in those early days were quickly converted to fast jet operations.

Cold War Europe - Warsaw Pact vs NATO
Cold War Europe – Warsaw Pact vs NATO
Adjustments are made to a GDR LSK pilots pressure suit
Adjustments are made to a GDR LSK pilots pressure suit

The Soviet Union also had a large concentration of military ground and air forces based in the GDR which operated alongside the NVA. Given the significance of their front line position and essentially being a highly capable extension of the Soviet Air Force, the LSK received advanced versions of combat aircraft that were similar in technology and weapons systems to those operated by the Soviets (as opposed to the slightly downgraded export versions sold to most nations). They were also under stricter control by the Soviets than other Warsaw Pact air forces as a result!

Despite working together, communication between Russian speaking pilots and mostly German speaking pilots must have proven highly difficult in joint training exercises, especially given only certain LSK officers who had specific training, would have been able to adequately communicate in Russian. Vice versa, I am also not sure how many Soviet pilots were fluent in German?

I am always fascinated by the Soviet period and East Germany in particular has always been a focus of my attention. The following is the first of a three part series on the combat jet element of their air force.

Combat Jets of the East German Air Force 1956 to 1969

The former East and West Germany Map
The former East and West Germany

1950’s

Although the Soviets had started equipping East Germany with aircraft such as piston engined fighters as early as 1953, the East German Air Force (Luftstreitkräfte der Nationalen Volksarmee – LSK) was only officially established as part of the National People’s Army (NPA or Nationalen Volksarmee – NVA) on March 1st, 1956. This culminated with the GDR joining the Warsaw Pact.

MiG-15 & MiG-17 – The GDR enters the Jet Age

From 1953 the East Germans operated Lavochkin La-9 World War Two era piston engine fighters along with Antonov An-2 Colt light transports and training aircraft such as the Yakovlev Yak-11 and Yak-18. The LSK would soon operate various fighter, reconnaissance, training and transport aircraft along with helicopters and 1956 saw their first jet fighter, the Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-15 Fagot and MiG-15UTI two-seat trainers. MiG-15 fighters would remain in service until the mid 1960’s (101 MiG-15bis fighters entered service and the type was operated until around 1965) and the trainer version was used right up until 1984 (26 MiG-15UTI trainers operated from 1956 to 1984).

GDR MiG-15 bis fighters
GDR MiG-15bis fighters
GDR MiG-15UTI two-seat trainer
GDR MiG-15UTI two-seat trainer (Photo Source: DDR-Luftwaffe)
GDR JG-7 MiG-15UTI 1957
GDR JG-7 MiG-15UTI in 1957
GDR Trainers - MiG-15UTI and Yak-11 Luftwaffe Museum Berlin Gatow
GDR Trainers – MiG-15UTI and Yak-11 (Luftwaffe Museum in 2010)

The LSK would begin to receive the uprated Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-17 fighter-bomber from 1957/58 which were operated until 1983. The MiG-17 became the single largest number of fighters operated by East Germany with 75 MiG-17 Fresco A (1957/58 to 1983), 173 MiG-17F Fresco C with an afterburning VK-1F engine (1957 to 1983 –  in addition to Soviet built examples they also operated the Polish built PZL-Mielec Lim-5 Fresco C). Initially these early variants were simple gun fighters without radar like its predecessor the MiG-15 but from 1959 when 40 to 49 MiG-17PF / WSK-Mielec Lim-5P Fresco D (Polish built examples) entered service, they were fitted with Izumrud nose radar for all-weather interceptor operations (the Fresco D were phased out between 1970-1973 as more capable interceptor aircraft had entered service).

GDR MiG-17 fighter-bombers
GDR MiG-17 fighter-bombers
GDR MiG-17 Fresco Fighter Bomber (Luftwaffe Museum)
GDR MiG-17 Fresco Fighter Bomber (Luftwaffe Museum in 2010)
GDR MiG-17PF Fresco D all-weather fighter version equipped with Izumrud radar circa 1970
GDR MiG-17PF Fresco D all-weather fighter version equipped with Izumrud radar circa 1970 (Photo Source: DDR-Luftwaffe)
GDR MiG-17PF Fresco D all-weather fighter Luftwaffe Museum Berlin Gatow Germany
GDR MiG-17PF Fresco D all-weather fighter (Luftwaffe Museum in 2010)

MiG-19 Farmer

In the mid 1950’s the Soviet Union introduced the new Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-19 Farmer interceptor/fighter-bomber. This was a twin-engine (with afterburner) advanced development of the earlier MiG-17 Fresco design and the first Soviet fighter capable of supersonic speed (Mach 1.355 in level flight). The Soviets deployed the type in East Germany around 1957 as a front-line interceptor and numerous Soviet intercepts using the MiG-19 were conducted on NATO aircraft, including shooting down a USAF North American / Rockwell T-39 Sabreliner on a training mission that strayed into East German airspace on January 28th, 1964 with the loss of all 3 crew onboard.

East German MiG-19 Farmer circa 1970's (Photo Source: US Defense Imagery)
East German MiG-19 Farmer (Photo Source: US Defense Imagery)

From 1959 the LSK began to operate them alongside the Soviets with 12 MiG-19S Farmer C fighter-bombers armed with 3 x 30mm cannons and a hard point under each wing for a rocket pod or 250kg bomb; and 12 MiG-19PM Farmer D interceptors which had the cannons removed and were armed with 4 x AA-1 Alkali (Kaliningrad K-5M) beam-riding air-to-air missiles. Both types remained in service with the LSK until 1969. Despite good handling characteristics the type had problems with engine reliability, stabilisation issues and relatively high accident rates which meant that the MiG-19 had a reasonably short service career with the Soviet Union and GDR, who switched to the more favourable new MiG-21 Fishbed (according to DDR-Luftwaffe.de 4 MiG-19PM and 5 MiG-19S were lost in accidents in LSK service i.e. 37%!).

GDR East German LSK MiG-19S Farmer C
LSK MiG-19S Farmer C (photos via Forgotten Jets)
LSK MiG-19PM Farmer D - note the radar in the nose air intake East German
LSK MiG-19PM Farmer D – note the radar in the nose air intake (photo via Forgotten Jets)
GDR East German LSK MiG-19PM Farmer D (photos via Forgotten Jets)
LSK MiG-19PM Farmer D (photos via Forgotten Jets)

Il-28 Beagle

The LSK operated the Ilyushin Il-28 Beagle medium bomber from 1954 to 1982. 7-10 Il-28 bombers, 2 Il-28R three-seat tactical photo reconnaissance versions and 1 Il-28U trainer were operated by the GDR and they were predominately used for target towing and engine testing duties.

GDR Ilyushin Il-28 Beagle medium bombers and Il-2U trainer (Photo Source: DDR-Luftwaffe)
GDR Ilyushin Il-28 Beagle medium bombers and Il-2U trainer (Photo Source: DDR-Luftwaffe)
LSK Ilyushin Il-28 Beagle medium bomber Luftwaffe Museum
LSK Ilyushin Il-28 Beagle medium bomber (Luftwaffe Museum 2010)
LSK Ilyushin Il-28 Beagle medium bomber (Luftwaffe Museum 2010)
LSK Ilyushin Il-28 Beagle medium bomber (Luftwaffe Museum 2010)

1960’s

MiG-21 Fishbed – The GDR enter the supersonic age

By 1962 the LSK had received the first of 76 of the far more powerful, Mach 2.0 capable Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21F-13 Fishbed C fighters (delivered between 1962 and 1964 and phased out of service by 1985). The MiG-21 went on to become the most prolific fighter aircraft in LSK service and they received advanced versions of the MiG-21 that were equipped with weapons systems and technology similar to those operated by the Soviets. Originally the aircraft were left in a bare metal / silver finish.

GDR Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21F-13 of TAFS-47 in 1962
GDR Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21F-13 of TAFS-47 in 1962 (Photo Source: DDR-Luftwaffe)
GDR JG-8 MiG-21F-13 Fishbed fighters 1960s
GDR JG-8 MiG-21F-13 Fishbed C fighters (Photo Source: DDR-Luftwaffe)
GDR MiG-21F-13's of JG-8
GDR MiG-21F-13’s of JG-8 (Photo Source: DDR-Luftwaffe)
GDR Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21F-13 Fishbed C
GDR Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21F-13 Fishbed C
An early model Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21F-13 Fishbed of the LSK at the Luftwaffe Museum at Berlin-Gatow Airfield
An early model Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21F-13 Fishbed of the LSK at the Luftwaffe Museum at Berlin-Gatow Airfield taken during my visit in 2010
The first Mach 2.0 capable fighter of the LSK was the Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21F-13 Fishbed in 1962
The first Mach 2.0 capable fighter of the LSK was the Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21F-13 Fishbed in 1962 (Luftwaffe Museum 2010)

In November 1964 deliveries commenced of 52 of the more advanced MiG-21PF Fishbed D fighter (retired from service by 1988) and these were followed in 1964/65 by 82 of the improved MiG-21PFM Fishbed F which remained in service until 1990 (locally designated MiG-21SPS as the East Germans had confusingly designated some of their earlier MiG-21PF as MiG-21PFM! Some of these were also used under the training command). In December 1967 the MiG-21PFM which was compatible with the under fuselage GP-9 gun pod entered service (designated MiG-21SPS-K in the LSK) with the last of 54 delivered in May 1968 (the last were retired in 1990). 

GDR Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21PF Luftwaffe Museum Berlin Gatow
LSK Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-21PF Fishbed (Luftwaffe Museum 2010)
MiG-21PF cutaway Luftwaffe Museum Berlin Gatow
The opposite side of the MiG-21PF in the previous photo is an interesting cutaway (Luftwaffe Museum 2010)
JG-3 MiG-21SPS rocket assisted take-off 1979
JG-3 MiG-21SPS rocket assisted take-off 1979 (Photo Source: DDR-Luftwaffe)

Early examples of combat aircraft operated by the East German Air Force can be seen at the Luftwaffe Museum at the historic Berlin-Gatow airfield. I visited the museum in 2010 and have included photos here taken at the museum during that visit along with GDR and Luftwaffe historical photos.

Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21F-13 Fishbed of the LSK at the Luftwaffe Museum in 2010
Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-21F-13 Fishbed of the LSK at the Luftwaffe Museum in 2010

In my next post I will discuss the modernisation of the East German Air Force as newer combat jets began to enter service from 1970 onwards. Despite this modernization the MiG-21 remained the backbone of the LSK until its final days in 1990.

References:

Aeroflight (World Air Forces)

Aviatia.net

DDR-Luftwaffe.de

Forgotten Jets

TopEdge.com

Wikipedia

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18 thoughts on “Combat Jets of the East German Air Force: 1956 to 1969 – The Early Days

    1. Thanks Eric. You are correct! It seems in one of my early drafts of this I wiped that section. I will remedy that asap! I also want to add the approximate number of MiG-15/17/19 operated by the LSK.

      Like

  1. Hi Deano,

    For the website of Dutch spotters magazine Scramble (www.scramble.nl) I’m working on an article on the East German Air Force. While doing some research on the subject I stumbled on your excellent article. You’ve written an impressive overview of the history of the LSK. Would it be alright if I use this material for my article? It goes without saying that I will give you proper credit for it.

    I’d like to hear from you.

    Best wishes,

    Gerrit Wijnne

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Deano,

        Writing my article is getting near the end. To make sure I’m using your information correctly I’d like to send you what I’ve got at the moment. Could you provide me with an e-mail adress for that?

        I’d like to hear from you.

        Best wishes,
        Gerrit

        Like

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