The Douglas A-20 Havoc/Boston in Soviet Service

a20g-11The A-20 Havoc/Boston twin-engine multi-role aircraft had a laudable service record in World War II. From its brief service with the French Armée de l’air before the Fall of France in 1940 through the capitulation of Japan in August of 1945, the rugged and versatile A-20 played an active role in the Western Allies’ major campaigns in North Africa, the Mediterranean, Western Europe, and the Pacific. However, the Havoc’s largest contribution to victory over the Axis Powers was felt on the often-over-looked Eastern Front.  Indeed, receiving just under 3,000 examples from the US as part of the Lend-Lease program, the Soviet Union operated more A-20s than any other country. At Stalingrad, the Kuban, Kurk, and during the Soviet Union’s enormous offensives in 1944 and 1945 that  brought the Red Army to Berlin, A-20s were used effectively by Soviet forces as medium bombers, reconnaissance aircraft, ground attack aircraft, heavy night fighters, and high-speed transports. What is more, the Havoc was widely used as a torpedo bomber with the Soviet Navy, where it had an impressive service record against German ships and submarines. Although the aircraft’s attributes are often overlooked, the Havoc in truth was a fast, agile, and all-around high-quality aircraft that could adeptly perform whichever mission was needed. In all theaters and fronts of World War II, the A-20 proved itself to be an unsung workhorse.

In the aftermath of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, the VVS found itself in a desperate situation; in the first week of the war, and estimated 4,000 Soviet aircraft were destroyed. What is more, its surviving arsenal was comprised primarily of obsolete Polikarpov I-16 and I-153 biplane fighters and Tupolev SB bombers, which had performed well in the Spanish Civil War and the Battle of Khalkin-Gol in the late 1930s, but by 1941 were outperformed and outclassed by their newer German opposites. While the Soviet brass was willing to accept any combat fighters and bombers that the Western Allies could spare, the A-20 was put atop the VVS’ list of desired aircraft. The US agreed, and the first deliveries of Havocs to the Soviet Union arrived through Iraq in February of 1942.

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A-20B, most likely of the 794th Regiment. Photo source: Kotelnikov (book)

The A-20B and A-20C variants made up the bulk of the VVS’ first batch of Lend-Lease Havocs, though a significant number of DB-7s, the original Havocs that were initially ordered by the French, were sent to the Soviet Union. The A-20B had a stepped arrangement of glass panels in the nose, and had two fixed 12.7 mm (.50 caliber) machine guns mounted on the forward fuselage. Though it lacked armor and self-sealing fuel tanks, the B variant was light and fast, and would consequently be used for a variety of non-bombing purposes. The C variants, on the other hand, were slightly slower than previous A-20 models, but featured additional armor and self-sealing fuel tanks which greatly improved the aircraft’s ability to withstand combat damage. The A-20C featured a slanted, glazed nose, and was armed with four fixed 7.62 mm (.30 caliber) machine guns mounted slightly behind and below the nose, and would be used mostly for conventional bombing sorties. Both the B and C models had guns mounted in the aft and ventral positions, though as we will see, in the Soviet Union, such armament was typically replaced by indigenous gun turrets. In all, the Soviet Union would receive 690 C variants, and 665 Bs. As early as April of 1942, Soviet A-20Bs and Cs were being sent to frontline units, and by year’s end, 19 nineteen bomber regiments were equipped with the twin-engine aircraft. However, aircrew transition to the new US-built aircraft proved difficult, since there were no dual-control trainer versions of the A-20 (US pilots typically transitioned using B-25s). Consequently, several bomber units modified A-20Cs in the field by installing a second set of controls for the instructor in the glazed nose where the bombardier would have otherwise sat. Such conversions were given the designation UA-20, UB-3, or UTI-Boston III.

The first Soviet outfit to receive A-20s was the 57th Bomber Aviation Regiment (BAP), followed by the 794th and the 860th, the latter two being formed into the 221st BAD shortly thereafter. Almost immediately, Soviet pilots demonstrated the Havoc’s innate ability to destroy armored ground targets when properly utilized. By the end of July, the 221st’s crews had flown 876 sorties, and claimed the destruction of 171 tanks and 617 trucks and automobiles (along with other important targets). However, during this time, the 221st suffered heavy losses, with 46 of their Havocs shot down in the same time period. Nevertheless, the 221st appreciated the abilities of the US-built light bomber.  S.I. Chernousov, the Division’s Commissar, later wrote, “these machines [A-20s] had good flight qualities for the time. They could compete with German technology, speed, and maneuverability.” Deliveries of Havocs continued to other units, including the 224th BAD, which began receiving A-20Cs in June. By late fall of 1942, all five of the division’s regiments had been equipped with Havocs, and in the winter, they were deployed from Voronezh to Stalingrad, where they joined the 221st to participate in the legendary battle along the city on the Volga River. By the end of the year, the Soviet Air Force operated a total of 274 A-20s.

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A-20C. Photo source: Kotelnikov (book)

Soviet airmen almost unanimously agreed that the Havocs met and often times exceeded their requirements for a light, twin-engine bomber. It was fast, maneuverable, and easy to fly. One Soviet airman, Pavel Mikhailovich Rozhko, recalled, “the advantage of the Boston was that it had a steering wheel in front, and was much easier to control… and they were really fast… neither Messerschmitts [Bf-109s] nor LaGGs [LaGG-3s] could catch up with them.” However, the highest praise given to the aircraft was its reliability and forgiving nature, especially when compared to the Soviet-built Petlyakov Pe-2 dive bomber. Its ability to fly on one engine was especially valued by all Allied pilots who flew Havocs, not just Soviet airmen. Indeed, A-20 instructions given to Soviet pilots stated, “flying with one motor does not represent special complexity.” One Soviet Navy pilot, Mikhail Vladimirovich Borisov, recalled being asked by a VVS pilot what he would do if one engine of his A-20 failed over the sea. Borisov responded, “I’ll fly on one engine. I’ll drink 100 grams of vodka, and fly on.” When asked what he would do if the second engine failed, he answered, “I’ll drink a second glass, and after two glasses, I’ll be knee-deep in the sea.”

However, by the end of 1942, Soviet airmen did have several complaints about the A-20B/C, specifically its defensive armament. The early A-20’s defensive armament consisted of two flexible 7.7 mm (.30 caliber) Browning machine guns mounted dorsally, and an addition single flexible Browning in the ventral position, armament that was deemed too weak by Soviet aircrews. Already in the early fall of 1942, Soviet engineers experimented with installing domestically-built UTK-1 turrets to increase the dorsal turret’s fire power. Pleased with the results, Deputy Air Force Commander Colonel-General A.V. Vorozheykin ordered the modification to be carried out on 54 aircraft, which were then sent to the 221st Division at Stalingrad. The alteration increased the aircraft’s weight and drag, leading to an overall loss of speed by 6-10 km/h. Nevertheless, Soviet aircrews were pleased with the modifications, and a total of 830 of the Soviet Union’s Havocs would be modified in such a manner over the course of the war.

More involved alterations were carried out on a number of A-20Bs to convert them into reconnaissance platforms. As mentioned above, B variants lacked self-sealing fuel tank and armor, and could thus fly higher and faster than the Cs, leading the Soviet brass to select B models for reconnaissance operations. The A-20Bs were fitted with a variety of Soviet-built aerial camera installations for day and night photography, and an additional fuel tank was installed in the bomb bay to increase the aircraft’s range. Such modified Havocs were used by both the Soviet Air Force and the Navy. The converted B reconnaissance platforms served adeptly throughout the course of the war, and often times flew alongside Soviet-built Petlyakov Pe-2Rs towards the end of hostilities. Georgiy Ivanovich Lashin, an A-20 pilot who flew both bomber and reconnaissance missions, was awarded the Gold Star Hero of the Soviet Union for his skills as a pilot, specifically while flying reconnaissance sorties. During the war, Lashin took aerial photographs of six European capitals (Bucharest, Sofia, Athens, Belgrade, Budapest, and Vienna), each time under attack from enemy fighters and anti-aircraft fire. Lashin was credit with photographing 150,000 square kilometers of enemy-held territory, including 160 airfields, 150 railway junctions, and thousands of other military targets, all while flying an A-20.

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Cockpit of an A-20G. Photo source: Airwar.ru

In early 1943, a new variant of the Havoc, the A-20G, began rolling off the Douglas assembly line in Santa Monica, California. By the time production of the Bostons ended in June of 1944, a total of 2,850 G variants would be produced, more than any other A-20 model. The most obvious difference between the new variant and previous designations was the elimination of the glass nose and bombardier position in favor of more forward firepower in the form of six 12.7 mm (.50 caliber) Browning machine guns in the nose, or in some cases, four 20 mm cannon and two Brownings. The primary reason for this alteration was that the tactical usage of A-20s by the USAAF had changed in the Pacific, where individual Havoc units often fitted their glaze-nosed Havocs with forward firing machine guns, which aided the Boston’s ability as a ground attack aircraft against Japanese encampments and airfields. Indeed, A-20Gs were initially meant to be used solely by USAAF units; neither the Soviet Union nor the RAF were meant to receive the gunships. Nevertheless, due to the VVS’ need for and effective use of the twin-engine aircraft, a total of 1,606 G variants, nearly half of those produced, were sent to the Soviet Union, where they were given the nickname Zhuchok, meaning little bug (the suffix G is pronounced Zh in Russian, thus leading to the nickname).

Given the G’s forward firepower, the VVS utilized the new variant as a ground attack aircraft as opposed to the light bomber role given to the B and C models. The first Soviet unit to receive the new gunship was the 244th BAD, with the 861st BAP being the first to use the G in the ground attack role. Unfortunately, the G Havocs proved to be too vulnerable to the heavy German anti-aircraft fire that was nearly ubiquitous when flying at low altitudes, and by November of 1943, the 861st had withdrawn their A-20Gs from ground attack operations due to heavy losses. Instead, Soviet forces typically used the heavily-armored Iyushin Il-2 Sturmovik for ground attack purposes. Consequently, a significant number of the Soviet G Havocs were modified, either in the field or at Factory No. 81 in Moscow, to resemble earlier B and C variants, with a glazed nose and bombardier position (most of the forward-firing guns were, of course, removed). Several other strategies were employed to install a bombardier position elsewhere in the A-20G, including behind the bomb bay and behind the pilot, both of which allowed for the retention of the forward-firing armament, but in the vast majority of cases, the nose was simply replaced. In any event, the VVS’ A-20Gs, whether modified or not, were used extensively in all the Soviet Union’s major offensives in the final two years of the war, participating in Operation Bagration, the Jassy-Kishinev Offensive, and the advance on East Prussia. Similarly, Zhuchoks were very active in the skies over Poland, Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Germany in 1944 and 1945, and in the final month of the war, Soviet A-20Gs carried out bombing missions against German-held positions in support of the Red Army’s operations against Berlin.

While the A-20s had an impressive service record with the VVS, the Havocs also served well with Soviet Navy’s Black Sea, North Sea, and Baltic Fleets. A-20s entered service with the Red Navy at approximately the same time as with the VVS, though the bulk of the VMF’s first Bostons were B variants. Due in part to the A-20B’s relatively short range, as well as the fact that the aircraft needed to undergo field modifications to be able to carry Soviet-built torpedos, Navy Havocs were used primarily for reconnaissance purposes in 1942. In January of 1943, the Black Sea Fleet’s 36th BAP began using A-20s for level bombing sorties against German ships at sea, with less than encouraging results.  Nevertheless, level bombing against German-held ports was found to be successful, and in June of 1944, the Havocs of the 36th BAP destroyed 11 German vessels in the port of Feodosiya.

 

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A-20G torpedo bombers. Photo source: WIO

However, it was the A-20’s use as a torpedo bomber that made the aircraft a key element of the Soviet Navy’s arsenal. A number of early A-20s that had been field modified to carry Soviet-built 45-36 AN torpedos, but it wasn’t until early 1943 that a systematic program was put in place to convert VMF Bostons into torpedo bombers. By this time, deliveries of A-20Gs had supplanted those of the B and C models, and the Zhuchoks, with their self-sealing fuel tanks and heavier armor, were the natural choice to undergo modification for torpedo bombing purposes. Such modifications entailed installing proper hardware to carry and fire two Soviet-built torpedoes, and in most cases, an additional fuel tank was installed in the bomb bay to increase range. The solid nose comprised of forward-firing machine guns was often times, though not always, replaced with a glazed nose to accommodate a navigator. In other cases, a navigator station was installed behind the pilot. The VVS typically did not modify their A-20s in this manner, since the addition of such a navigator/bombardier spot cut into the size of the bomb bay, thus decreasing the number of bombs that could be carried. Since torpedoes were affixed on external hard points, this was not an issue for the VMF’s torpedo squadrons.

The first modified A-20G was sent to the Baltic Sea Fleet’s 1st Guards Mine-Torpedo Regiment in March of 1943, with deliveries continuing to regiments of the Black Sea and Northern Fleets shortly thereafter. Soviet mine-torpedo squadrons typically used a mixed composition of Ilyushin Il-2s and Il-4s, Petlyakov Pe-2s, and A-20Gs during sorties, with the Havocs operating as so-called “low-level torpedo bombers”, dropping their torpedoes 600-800 meters (2,000-2,600 feet) away from the target at an altitude of 25-30 meters (80-100 feet) and a speed of 300 km/h (186 mph), a tactic that proved to be quite effective against German ships. For example, on October 5, 1944, aircraft of the Northern Fleet launched an attack against a German convoy of 26 ships. First, 12 Ilyushin Il-2s attacked the convoy, followed shortly thereafter by a second wave of Sturmoviks. The third wave was comprised of ten low-level A-20Gs, accompanied by 15 fighters, and then a final wave of another ten Havocs. The exact number of German ships sunk in the operation is unknown, though Soviet histories hail the mission as a great success. During the attack, an A-20 flown by commander of the 9th Guards Mine-Torpedo Regiment, Colonel V.P. Syromyatnikov, was shot down by German fighters, but Syromyatnikov managed to crash his Havoc into a German transport, sinking the ship. For this action, Colonel Syromyatnikov was posthumously awarded a Gold Star, Hero of the Soviet Union.

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A-20G of the 1st GMTAP Baltic Fleet. Photo source: World War Photos

Needless to say, such low-level torpedo attacks were quite dangerous for the A-20s which were vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire, but the success of such operations outweighed the risks, and by the middle of 1944, the VMF’s air regiments were making it nearly impossible for German shipping to operate in the Black, Baltic and North Seas. For example, from March of 1944 to the end of the war (14 months), the Baltic Sea Fleet’s 8th Aviation Division sunk a total of 229 German vessels. In August of 1944, 62 Pe-2s and 14 A-20Gs of the the 2nd Guard Mine-Torpedo Division raided the German naval base in Constanta, Romania, sinking a destroyer, a tanker, three submarines, and five torpedo boats, and destroying an additional destroyer, an auxiliary cruiser, three more submarines, and a number of ground installations. In an episode much celebrated by Soviet air war histories, Northern Fleet A-20s were involved in the July 1944 sinking of the German AA ship Niobe, which was stationed located in Finland’s Kotka Harbor at the time. Ilyushin Il-2’s carried out the initial attack, followed by three waves of Pe-2 dive-bombers. The last attack by Pe-2s was meant to draw attention away from four low-flying Havocs. The Peshkas scored two hits on the ship, and the Havocs scored two more decisive hits with torpedoes below the waterline, sending the Niobe to the bottom of Kotka Harbor (several German destroyers and transport were also sunk during the attack). The success of such mixed strike groups involving A-20s, Il-2s, Il-4s, and Pe-2s continued until the German Navy’s presence was nearly non-existent.

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A-20G night fighter with Gneis 2 radar. Photo source: Airwar.ru

Both the VVS and VMF attempted to use Havocs for other purposes, with mixed results. The Soviet Navy experimented with using Bostons for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) purposes in the North and Black Seas. Armed with PLAB-100 anti-submarine bombs, the ASW A-20s proved too fast to effectively carry out such missions (poor downward visibility also restricted the Havoc’s ability to serve this role). Consequently, the A-20’s use as an ASW platform was not pursued on a large scale. The VVS, in turn, used Havocs as night fighters and night intruders. Though the G variant proved to be vulnerable to anti-aircraft fire during daylight sorties, the Zhuchok demonstrated its prowess against German troop concentrations, airfields, and searchlight installations at night. In September of 1943, a Special Interdiction Group of A-20Gs was formed under the leadership of Lt. Col. Burlutskiy, and was tasked with attacking German night fighter units and installations that were wreaking havoc on Soviet long-range bombers. After 28 successful interdiction sorties were flown by Burlutskiy’s Group, the decision was made to the creation of three independent night interdiction regiments, all of which flew A-20Gs. All three eventually converted to conventional bomber regiments, though a number of Havocs continued to be used for night interdiction purposes until the end of the war. Havocs were also used by the VVS as night fighters, and though several regiments flew A-20s in this capacity, their use was not widespread. As the USAAF learned in Western Europe and the Pacific, the Havoc’s versatility enabled it to be flown as a night fighter, but that did not mean that the aircraft excelled in such a role.

The Soviet Union received several A-20 variants after the G, but in very low quantities. The glaze-nosed J variant of the A-20 was produced to serve as a lead ship for formations of solid-nosed USAAF and RAF A-20Gs. As the only aircraft crewed with a bombardier in each formation, the A-20J would serve as a guide for the A-20Gs, with the latter dropping their bombs when the former did. In order to produce A-20Js, aircraft were simply taken off the Douglas assembly line of A-20Gs, their solid noses removed, and frameless transparent noses installed. The G’s top four .50 caliber machines guns were removed and replaced by a bombardier station and bomb sight. The lower two .50 calibers were retained. The A-20H was similar to the G, with upgraded R-2600-29 engines, and the K, the final production Havoc model was the lead bomber variant of the H. Though the Soviet Union did receive a number of H/J/K models, the vast majority of the VVS & VMF’s Bostons were B, C, and G variants. 

After the capitulation of Germany, regiments in the Soviet East were equipped with A-20s in preparation for the war against Japan. However, only the 36th Mine-Torpedo Regiment used Havocs operationally during the short Soviet-Japanese war (the 36th destroyed a bridge in Korea on August 18, 1945). After Japan’s surrender, many of the Soviet Union’s A-20s were decommissioned and scrapped, though not all. In the late 1940s, several Bostons were converted into VIP transports and utility aircraft, and the Northern Fleet continued using their Havocs as torpedo bombers until 1954! Despite the fact that the Havoc was used extensively by Soviet forces in the victory over Germany, the memory of its role is, unfortunately, either tainted by Cold War rhetoric, or forgotten altogether. The Douglas A-20 is often times overlooked by aircraft enthusiasts from all countries, but from North Africa, to the Mediterranean, Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Pacific, the Havoc was a fast, capable, and reliable aircraft that quietly and effectively served a number of vital functions which ultimately helped the Allies achieve victory over the Axis.

-Patrick Kinville

Bibliography:

  1. Kotelnikov, Vladimir. Krasnozvezdnie Amerikantsi Stalina A-20 Boston. Yauza: Moskva. 2010.
  2. Kotelnikov, V.P., Petrov, G.F., Sobolev, D.A., Yakubovich, N.V., Amerikantsii v Rossii. 
  3. Ya Pomnyu Project (www.iremember.ru)
  4. Wolf, William. The Douglas A-20 Havoc: From Drawing Board to Peerless Allied Light Bomber. Schiffer: Pennsylvania. 2015. 
  5. Morozov, Miroslav. A-20 nad Baltikoi. (www.airwar.ru)
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An A-20G on display at the Central Air Force Museum in Monino. Photo taken by author.

One thought on “The Douglas A-20 Havoc/Boston in Soviet Service

  1. Pingback: Operation Orator and the Soviet Union’s Handley Page Hampdens | vvs air war

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