While a lot of ink has been spilled on the subject of Soviet airborne forces – especially studies written during the Cold War – most expound on their capabilities vis as vis a potential assault on NATO. However, Mr. Campbell does a very credible job in 64 pages of “de-mythifying” the Soviet Vozsushno-desantnye voyska or VDV. He goes from their origins in the 1930s in pre-war exercises that stunned the West but began to show the problems that would plague the VDV once war came, namely poor parachute equipment, aircraft not suited to the purpose, and airborne techniques that did not keep up with either the Germans or Anglo-Americans.
He then devotes attention to Soviet theory crashing into horrific practice, demonstrating the disaster most Soviet airborne landings descended into during the war, and how by 1943, the Soviet airborne units had been absorbed into the greater mass of Soviet Rifle divisions. Again, he states that all of the technical and tactical factors, along with an inability of most Soviet commanders to understand how to use airborne troops on an operational or strategic level doomed these landings to failure.
Campbell then writes about how the VDV was reformed post-war, and was given new missions in the light of the Cold War, with nuclear weapons making the strategic mobility of airborne forces an asset. The VDV was made a strategic asset that the Soviet Union made heavy use of in the brushfires to come: Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovokia in 1968, and Afghanistan in 1979. All of these conflicts made the VDV the Soviet fire brigade that the regime called upon to act when the Soviets needed boots on the ground quickly.
Campbell also discusses the Soviet embrace of the helicopter as a means to deliver specialized air assault brigades. Soviet Airborne Forces touches on how the VDV was distributed to individual Soviet Armies and Fronts in East Germany and Czechoslovakia as a means to give all arms of the Soviet Army a measure of vertical envelopment capability.
The book concludes with a discussion of the fate of the VDV as the Soviet Union collapsed, and how it has carried on in much the same format under the Russian Federation. It discusses how the VDV was very well suited to the post-Soviet world of murky conflicts in places on the Russian periphery.
Soviet Airborne Forces, like most Osprey Publishing’s releases, is a solid work, very readable, with a defined bibliography. You know what you’re getting when you buy one of his or Gordon Rottmann’s books. They’ve done some of the best entries for Osprey, and I think the level of research shows well here,
The illustrations are the usual Osprey high standard, and the uniform palettes are very well carried off, but honestly? I am not nuts about the new Osprey idea of scattering them throughout the book. This is not the author or illustrator’s fault, and doesn’t detract from the work. It’s more a message from this reviewer to Osprey – Please stop doing this?
So, What’s in it For Wargamers?
Most Ospreys have a lot to offer wargamers as a whole, and their books at worst are a great launchpad for wargamers to read about all sorts of subjects. They’re affordable and you get a lot in less than 100 pages.
For miniatures gamers, the uniform palettes are invaluable, but the newer Ospreys are really tightening up the standard of color shades and the like, which has been a real help to wargamers and modelers trying to match a color shade on a uniform.
As for this book specifically, there’s a lot to wargame here. The WWII actions might make for one-sided games at a glance, but a good tactical or operational game in miniatures could be made out of any of the actions described within. For the hex and counter crowd, the Avalon Hill game Cross of Iron (a gamette for the Squad Leader series) had a scenario about the Soviet airborne in it. There’s also the Avalanche Press game Red Parachutes, which is about the Soviet attempt to use airborne forces to force the Dniper river in 1943. Sadly, the game is out of print, but one can find it on ebay for less than $20.
The Soviet VDV figures work in a lot of games about Cold War “what-ifs” (namely Soviet invasions of West Germany, which was the fear that kept a lot of folks up in the Pentagon at night). Name a cold war era game like NATO, The Third World War, Iron Curtain, or The Next War and I’ve seen them in quite a few tactical and operational games as well (the author of this review has an entire 1980s Soviet VDV regiment in 6mm scale for Fistful of TOWs)
In short, if you’re interested in little-known Soviet WWII formations, or the VDV in the Cold War, I would get this book. It’s a great jumping-off point for further reading and research, and will spark more than a few games, and lively discussion.
Written by David Campbell
Illustrations by Johnny Shumate
Part of the Osprey Elite Series (No 231)
First Published in 2020
5 of 5 Stars
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(This article is credited to Jason Weiser. Jason is a long-time wargamer with published works in the Journal of the Society of Twentieth Century Wargamers; Miniature Wargames Magazine; and Wargames, Strategy, and Soldier.)