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.
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
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).
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).
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.
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%!).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.