The Soviet PBY Catalinas of WWII

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Soviet Catalina. Photo source

The PBY Catalina is one of the most iconic aircraft of the Second World War, and its contribution to victory both in Europe and the Pacific cannot be understated. From cargo transport and search and rescue operations to anti-submarine warfare, patrol bombing, and convoy escorts, the Catalina could adeptly carry out any task required of it. While it is well-known that Catalinas were active in nearly every major Western Allied operation in World War II, its service record with the Soviet military is often times overlooked. Indeed, although the Soviet Navy only had a handful of license-built Catalinas in their arsenal during the first two years of the war, in 1944, the U.S. began sending a significant number of the rugged and versatile flying boats to the Soviet Pacific, Black, Baltic, and North Sea fleets as part of the Lend-Lease program, and the Red Navy went on to use them with great effect. By the end of the war, the Soviet Union had received more than 150 Catalinas of various types from the U.S. These flying boats would go on to have an outstanding service record with the Soviet military both during the war with Germany and during the Soviet-Japanese War of August 1945.

The Soviet Union began purchasing Catalinas and producing their own under license even before World War II. In 1937, one year after the PBY was introduced in the U.S., the Soviet Union negotiated a contract with Consolidated Aircraft to purchase three PBY-2s (Model 28-2), the right to produce the Catalina in the Soviet Union under license, and engineering support from the American company to help set up the flying boat factory in the city of Taganrog. The three Models 28-2s that arrived in the Soviet Union the following year were the only three PBYs to be powered by Wright Cyclone R-1820-G3 engines, each of which was approximately 200 horsepower less than the usual Pratt and Whitney R-1830s that were put in the majority of Catalinas. The different engines made it easier for Soviet engineers to produce their own license-built PBYs, since the Soviet Shvetsov ASh-62 (M-62) was developed from the Shvetsov M-25, which was a license-built variant of the Wright Cyclone R-1820.

In 1938, a party of 18 American engineers from Consolidated were sent to Taganrog on the Sea of Azov to help set up the Soviet Catalina factory. However, much like the Lisunov Li-2 project, which was a license-built version of the DC-3, technical documents needed to be translated from English to Russian, and, more significantly, Consolidated Aircraft’s imperial measurements had to be converted to the Soviet Union’s metric system, a task that took several months.  Nevertheless, production of the Soviet-built Catalinas began the following January, and the new aircraft were designated GST (Gidrosamolet transportnii, or seaplane transport). By October 1941, when the German military overtook Taganrog where the Soviet Catalina factory had been located, a total of 27 GSTs had been built.

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Soviet GST. Photo source

Unfortunately, little is known about the operational service of the majority of GSTs. In June of 1941, 11 Soviet GSTs were in stationed Sevastopol and were in service with the 80th Reconnaissance Squadron of the Black Sea Fleet. In the immediate aftermath of Operation Barbarossa, these flying boats were engaged mostly in reconnoitering enemy installations and naval bases on the Romanian coast and the western Black Sea, where the aircraft encountered stiff opposition. In the fall of 1941, when the Germans began their Crimean campaign, the Black Sea Fleet began using the remaining GSTs for night bombing missions against Axis encampments. As the Wehrmacht began to enclose Sevastopol, the license-built Catalinas were tasked with helping to evacuate important cargo from the city. By the time the GSTs were relocated to the Caucasus after the Crimea had fallen, only five of the Fleet’s 11 Catalinas were remaining. For the next two years, Soviet flying boats would play only a negligible role in the war against Germany, due both to the fact that the decisive battles of 1942 and 1943 were land operations, and to the fact that the Soviet military’s arsenal of flying boats had been severely depleted by the German onslaught of 1941 and early 1942.

Indeed, by June of 1944, the Soviet Navy’s seaplane forces found themselves in a crisis. Of the 859 flying boats of all types that were in the Soviet arsenal at the time of the German invasion, only 271 had survived. What is more, the Soviet aviation industry had only managed to manufacture 39 seaplanes during the up to this point, mostly Che-2s and Be-4s, aircraft which, by 1944, were grossly outdated. At the same time, the Red Army’s switch to a strategic offensive beginning in 1943 signified the need for a large number of modernized flying boats that would be able to perform anti-submarine tasks, transport duties, search and rescue operations, and long-range reconnaissance missions, assignments with which the majority of the remaining 271 seaplanes could not cope.

As early as 1942, Moscow had unsuccessfully requested that the U.S. provide PBY-5A amphibious Catalinas (complete with a retractable landing gear) for use in the North Sea and Pacific fleets. Despite this failed attempt, when Taganrog was liberated in August of 1943, Washington agreed to provide equipment, supplies, and tooling to rebuild the city’s GST factory. In October of 1944, however, the Soviet leadership made the decision to focus the factory’s efforts on a long-range amphibious aircraft project, known as LL-143, which eventually resulted in the Beriev Be-6, an aircraft that ultimately did not make its first flight until 1949.

The Soviet plans to focus on the development of the LL-143 in Taganrog was undoubtedly influenced by Washington’s decision in early 1944 to include the delivery of an initial 30 flying boats to the Soviet Union as part of the IV Lend-Lease Protocol. However, the Catalinas that were to be sent were not the PBY-5A amphibious aircraft that Moscow had requested, but the PBN-1 Nomad, a modified PBY flying boat that was different from its predecessor in several ways, but nevertheless a high quality and versatile aircraft (although it did lack a landing gear). Physically, the PBN-1 did not differ significantly from other PBYs, save for the bow, which was sharpened and extended by 60 cm (two feet), and its tail, which was slightly enlarged and reshaped. However, most importantly, the engineers at the Naval Aircraft Factory managed to increase the size of the flying boat’s fuel tanks, increasing the Nomad’s range by 50%. The PBN-1 also featured upgraded weapons with continuous-feed mechanisms, as well as an improved electrical system. The Soviet Union was finally getting a high quality flying boat that could adeptly play the role required of it.

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PBN Nomad drawing. Wings Palette

The first shipment of 24 PBN-1 Nomads arrived in Murmansk for use with the White Sea Fleet in June of 1944, and the second batch, destined for use in the Soviet Pacific Fleet, arrived shortly thereafter. The Black Sea and Baltic Fleets received their U.S.-built flying boats the following month. In many cases, the Nomads were put into operation almost immediately after the feets received them, despite a shortage of Soviet pilots who had been trained to fly the U.S.-built flying boats. To make matters worse, the upgraded PBN-1 reportedly handled differently than the Soviet-built GST, and successfully converting to the new aircraft took time for seasoned pilots. What is more, many airmen who were ordered to fly the Nomad had never before taken off or landed a seaplane of any kind.

Much like in the U.S. and the U.K., the Catalina in the Soviet Union was used to carry out a wide range of tasks, from search and rescue operations to anti-submarine missions and everything in between. Already as early as August 12, just two months after receiving their first batch of flying boats, a PBN Nomad with the Northern Fleet flown by S.M. Rubana came across a German submarine while on a reconnaissance mission. Flying without torpedoes or bombs on this particular day, the Nomad opened fire using its Browning .50 caliber machine guns, forcing the German submarine to dive. By this time, two more Nomads armed with depth charges had arrived, and proceeded to drop their ordnance. The crews of all three PBNs saw a stream of oil rising to the surface, making it the first successful Soviet Catalina attack against a German submarine. The incident appears to have convinced German submarines that the Soviet flying boats posed a threat significant enough to warrant diving when Nomads were in the area. One Catalina pilot, Sergey Pasechnik, recalled that his crew was often tasked with escorting ships of the Soviet Black Fleet. “During convoy escort, we had to carry 16 depth charges on each Catalina,” Pasechnik stated, “but we never had a chance to use them- the German submarines were afraid of us.”

Like in the U.S. Navy, the Soviet Catalinas were primarily responsible for carrying out reconnaissance operations and search and rescue missions, tasks at which the Soviet flying boats excelled. Already in August of 1944, shortly after receiving its first batch of Nomads, the pilots of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet put their flying boats to good use, rescuing two downed Soviet airmen on August 19th and three crew members of a Petlyakov Pe-2 on August 20th.

Soviet aircrews were in general enthusiastic about the Catalina, especially its ability to carry out extensive maritime patrol missions without refueling. As one Nomad pilot, Vladimir Zaytsev, recalled, “What can I say about this machine? It was the American-made seaplane that could stay in the air for more than 30 hours without refueling. However, the speed was low, 300-350 kilometers per hour.” The Catalina’s ability to remain aloft for extended periods of time became an award-winning achievement during the war, even for commercial carriers. Indeed, the longest commercial flights in terms of time aloft ever made in the history of aviation were the Qantas flights between Perth and Colombo that took place weekly from June of 1943 through June of 1945 over the Indian Ocean. During these flights, Catalinas traveled a distance of 6,652 km (3,592 miles) non stop, which took 28 to 32 hours.

Paradoxically, it was precisely due to the Catalina’s range and its ability to remain aloft for extended periods that made some Soviet regiments relegate its use to a secondary role, using it only for long-range missions. For example, after being sent to the North Sea Fleet, PBN Nomads flew only 40 anti-submarine sorties through the end of the war, whereas Soviet-built MBR-2s flew 170 such sorties during the same time period. The North Sea Fleet preferred to use the MBR-2s for close-range missions, and only used the Nomads when the Soviet-built MBRS “fell short”.

Nevertheless, other Soviet Fleets used the Consolidated flying boats to their full potential, appreciating many of the characteristics of the aircraft. Nomad crew members were especially enthusiastic about the PBN’s armament, which included three .30 cal (7.62 mm) (two in the nose turret, one in the tail), and two .50 cal (12.7 mm) machine guns (one for each waist gunner), all of which were U.S.-built Browning machine guns. As one Nomad gunner, Sergey Pasechnik, recalled, the Catalinas were “always [armed with] American Browning guns. They were wonderful machine guns that never jammed in all my service. It was a reliable and effective weapon.”

Soviet Catalina crews also appreciated the flying boats’ radar, especially while carrying out night patrol missions, although only 48 of the 107 Nomads were equipped with the apparatus. Pasechnik went on to explain that, “Radar was on in our flying boat constantly. As I said, this radar could operate at a distance of 120 miles. Of course, it was not as powerful as the detection systems that I worked with after the war, but we could easily determine a ship’s location, [and] easily find the shore… Radar significantly helped the pilots, especially during night missions.”

 

By the German surrender on May 9th, 1945, the Soviet Union had received 107 PBN-1s. Amazingly, none of the Soviet Nomads had been lost in combat, although nine had been lost due technical problems. Deliveries of Catalinas to the Soviet Union, however, did not stop with the capitulation of Germany. Indeed, the Western Allies had been preparing for the Red Army to join the war against Japan for some time before Germany’s surrender, sending a number of Lend-Lease goods that were to be used only against Japan (most notably the P-63 Kingcobra). Starting in the Summer of 1945, the U.S. began ferrying Consolidated’s latest flying boat to the Soviet Union, the amphibious PBY-6A, while at the same time continuing delivery of PBN Nomads. On January 1, 1945, the Soviet Pacific Fleet had 28 flying boats in its arsenal, and by August 9, when the Soviet Union entered the war against Japan, the Pacific Fleet had 71 Catalinas, both PBNs and PBY-6As.

The Soviet Catalinas did see extensive operational actions during the short Soviet-Japanese War of 1945, performing anti-submarine missions, search and rescue operations, and troop transport, among other tasks. Most notably, PBY-6As were used to transport airborne troops during the South Sakhalin Operation (August 11, 1945 – August 25, 1945) and the Kuril Landing Operation (August 18, 1945 – September 1, 1945). One PBN disappeared during the Far East Campaign, accounting for the Soviet Union’s only lost flying boat during the Soviet-Japanese War of 1945. After the war, the Soviet Union gradually replaced the Catalinas with the Beriev Be-6, which was produced between 1949 and 1957, though the U.S.-built flying boats continued to be used by the Red Navy until the mid-1950s.

As was the case with flying boats in service with the U.S. and U.K., the Soviet Catalinas had impressive service records. Often times the unsung hero of the Allied war effort, the PBY Catalina was a rugged and versatile aircraft that could perform a wide range of operations. Though the flying boats were not as popular and elegant as many other aircraft of WWII, they undoubtedly played a vital role in the war effort in all theaters, including the Eastern Front, and deserve to be remembered as such. 

-Patrick Kinville

Sources:

  1. V.P. Kotelnikov, G.F. Petrov, D.A. Sobolev, N.V. Yakubovich, Amerikantsii v Rossii
  2. Krylia Rodiny no. 9 & 10

 

Further reading:

  1. Mel Crocker, Black Cats and Dumbos: WWII’s Fighting PBYs
  2. Louis B. Dorney, US Navy PBY Catalina Units of the Pacific War (Osprey Combat Aircraft, No. 62)

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