Operation Orator and the Soviet Union’s Handley Page Hampdens

In late 1942 and early 1943, one regiment of the Soviet Northern Fleet’s VVS was equipped with Handley Page Hampden bombers, an obsolete British-built aircraft that would be retired by Bomber Command in late 1942 (though it continued to be flown by Coastal Command). Unlike most British and American aircraft in the Soviet Union, the Hampdens did not arrive via the Lend-Lease program, but were instead left behind by British and Australian aircrews upon completion of Operation Orator, during which RAF and RAAF aircraft covered the arrival of Arctic Convoy PQ-18 in the Soviet North. Though not a fondly-remembered aircraft by any user, the Hampdens of the Soviet Northern Fleet’s 24th MTAP achieved some success against German shipping in the Arctic for several months before transitioning to US-built A-20 Havocs/Bostons. However, through combat attrition and a lack of available spare parts, after six months of operational service, only one of the original 20 Soviet Hampdens remained.

Operation Orator and the Arrival of the Soviet Hampdens

The disaster of Convoy PQ-16, in which six of the seven merchant ships sunk fell victim to Luftwaffe air attacks, prompted the RAF and Royal Navy to place emphasis on defending the eastern half of the journey from Scotland and Iceland to Arkhangelsk and Murmansk in the Soviet Union’s far north. RAF Air Chief Marshal Sir Philip Joubert de la Ferté at Coastal Command arranged to have eight RAF Catalinas of Nos. 210 and 240 Squadrons deployed to the Kola Inlet near Murmansk and to Lake Lakhta near Arkhangelsk to cover the arrival of the next convoy, PQ-17. On June 27th, 1942, the convoy’s 35 merchant vessels departed Iceland. Four days later, the convoy was located by German forces, which proceeded to shadow and attack the eastbound ships. Shortly thereafter, when the German cruiser Hipper and battleship Tirpitz headed north from Trondheim, the order was given for the convoy to disperse and proceed to the destination independently, which gave the Luftwaffe and the Kriegsmarine’s U-boats the opportunity to target individual merchant ships without interference from the convoy’s escorts. The Catalinas of Nos. 210 and 240 Squadrons found that their mission had changed from hunting U-boats to rounding up the survivors of PQ-17. In all, 24 of the convoy’s 37 merchant ships that had departed from Iceland were sunk.

The results of the previous two convoys prompted Joubert to once again call for the deployment of British aircraft to the Soviet Union’s far north. In July and August, a new Search and Strike Force was formed that was to be commanded by Group Captain Frank Hopps. The maritime strike element was comprised of 16 Handley Page Hampden torpedo bombers from No. 144 Squadron RAF and another 16 Hampdens from No. 455 Squadron RAAF, which would be based at Vaenga outside Murmansk. The remainder of No. 210 Squadron RAF’s Catalinas were to join the contingent in Lake Lakhta near Arkhangelsk, and four long-range Spitfire PR Mk. IV(D) reconnaissance aircraft from RAF 1 Photographic Reconnaissance Unit were deployed to Afrikanda. The distance from the squadrons’ bases in the UK to their deployment in the Soviet North was not an issue for the PBY Catalinas, which had a range of 4,030 km (2,520 miles), or for the modified Spitfires, which were equipped with several additional fuel tanks that could store an extra 195 liters (43 gallons) of petrol in each aircraft. However, the Hampdens’ journey from Sumburgh to Afrikanda, a distance of 2,434 km (1,512 miles), approached the limit of the twin-engine bomber’s capacity. Indeed, the Hampden’s safe range without a torpedo was 1,930 km (1,200 miles), leaving little room for error.  Moreover, the matter was exacerbated by the fact that each aircraft was to carry a ground crew member on the journey, adding additional weight.

The Hampdens of No. 144 Squadron RAF and No. 455 Squadron RAAF took off from their base in Scotland late on September 4th. Their flight plan involved crossing the Norwegian mountains into northern Sweden (in violation of Swedish neutrality), over Finland and landing at Afrikanda, where they would refuel and fly the remaining 190 km (120 miles) to Vaenga. However, only 23 of the 32 Hampdens landed safely in the Soviet Union. Two of the twin-engine bombers crashed in Sweden, most likely due to ice accumulation, and another made a forced landing in Finland. Three Hampdens were shot down over Finland, and one bomber deviated from the flight plan and flew over the Kola inlet in the middle of a German bombing raid. Soviet fighters mistook the Hampden for a German Bf-110 and proceeded to shoot down the British aircraft. To make matters worse for the surviving Hampdens after such an arduous journey, a thick layer of fog hung over Afrikanda, forcing two aircraft to make forced landings and several others to divert to other airfields such as Kandalashka and Murmashi. Eventually, the 23 surviving aircraft reconvened at Vaenga, where they were met by the ground crews that had arrived in Murmansk on the USS Tuscaloosa.

On September 14th, crews of No. 144 Squadron RAF and No. 455 Squadron RAAF flew their one and only mission from Soviet territory. For most of the day, the British Hampdens carried out a search for the battleship Tirpitz and other Kriegsmarine ships that were thought to have been in the area. Ultimately, the torpedo bombers did not encounter any German ships or aircraft. With PQ-18 safely in port and the return convoy, QP-14, on its way home, Operation Orator was completed on September 22nd. While the RAF’s Catalinas would have no difficulty making the flight back to the UK, the Hampdens and Spitfires were another matter. Due to the heavy losses suffered by the torpedo bombers during the flight to Vaenga, coupled with the fact that the return journey would be against headwinds, Coastal Command suggested giving the Hampdens to the Soviet Northern Fleet. While the Soviet brass was considering the offer, a German airstrike against Vaenga destroyed three Hampdens, bringing the total number available down to 20. On October 1st, the Soviet Union officially requested that the UK give the aircraft to the Northern Fleet. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed, with the stipulation that all torpedos and bomb sights be removed by RAF ground crews before the Hampdens could be officially turned over. Churchill was eventually convinced to do away with the clause, and on October 12th, the Hampdens, complete with torpedos and equipment, were handed over to the Soviet Northern Fleet. On October 22nd, the personnel of No. 144 Squadron RAF and No. 455 Squadron RAAF departed Murmansk aboard the HMS Argonaut.

The Operational History of the Soviet Union’s Hampdens

The 20 surviving Hampdens served as the basis for the creation of the 24th Mine-and-Torpedo Air Regiment (24th MTAP), which was the first of its kind in the Northern Fleet. Using spare parts from Kittyhawk fighters and DB-3F torpedo bombers, one Hampden was converted to a dual-control trainer by mounting a second set of controls for an instructor in the nose of the aircraft where the navigator typically sat. After instructors complained that the arrangement was uncomfortable and did not allow for easy transition in the event that they needed to take control of the aircraft, the instructor’s position was moved behind the pilot’s seat. Despite the measures taken to ease transition to the demanding British aircraft, two aircraft were damaged during flying accidents before the regiment was cleared for operational duties.

 

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Captain A.Z. Stoyanov in a Hampden. Photo source: www.airaces.ru

The 24th MTAP flew its first sortie on November 8th, when two Hampdens were tasked with reconnoitering enemy ships. However, the aircraft were forced to turn back shortly after crossing into German-held territory due to inclement weather. On December 14th, the regiment’s Hampdens took off to bomb Luostari airfield, but were once against forced to turn back after it was discovered that the target was shrouded in a layer of clouds. Finally, on December 15th, four Hampdens of the 24th MTAP went on a bombing run against the port of Kirkenes, though only two aircraft managed to release their bombs. Three days later, one Hampden flown by Captain B.S. Gromov and one DB-3F flown by Captain S.I. Trunev attacked two German transports, sinking one with a displacement of 5,000 tons. Over the next several weeks, the Hampdens flew several night bombing sorties against German airfields and Kirkenes. On December 30th, a bomb dropped by one of the Hampdens made a direct hit on a transport moored near Kirkenes, sinking the ship.

 

In January, the the 24th MTAP focused primarily on attacking German convoys in the area, and on the first of the year, the regiment suffered its first combat loss when a Hampden piloted by one Captain Stoyanov failed to return from a sortie.  On the 14th of that month, two Hampdens attacked a German convoy near Vardo, Norway, one flown by Captain Bashtrykov and the other by Captain Kiselev. German anti-aircraft gunners opened fire on the first Hampden as it approached the convoy, setting Bashtrykov’s Hampden ablaze. Nevertheless, Bashtrykov maintained course, and did not break off until successfully firing a torpedo at one of the German transports. The torpedo hit the target, sending the ship to the bottom of the sea. Bashtrykov’s aircraft crashed into the water, killing all aboard. He along with his navigator, Sergeant Gavrilov, were both posthumously awarded the Gold Star Hero of the Soviet Union. During the same sortie, Captain Kiselev, who would later be awarded a Gold Star Hero of the Soviet Union during a separate mission, also managed to sink one of the German transports. The following day, two Hampdens, piloted by Captain Trunov and Lieutenant Zaichenko, sank two more transports from the same convoy. Later that day, two more Hampdens plus one Il-4 carried out another strike against the convoy, sinking one transport and one escort ship.

By the end of January, after flying operational sorties for nearly two months, the number of airworthy Hampdens available to the 24th MTAP had dwindled to 14, due both to combat losses and to the lack of available spare parts for the British bombers. On January 29th, the situation was further exacerbated during an attack against a German convoy. During the sortie, three Hampdens were destroyed by anti-aircraft fire, two of which crashed into the sea while the third, flown by Captain Ostrovsky, managed to reach the Rybachiy Peninsula and make a belly landing. However, during the attack, two aircraft, one flown by Ostrovsky and the other by Malyginym, scored hits on a German transport with a displacement of 16,000 tons, sending it to the bottom of the sea. However, the losses suffered while sinking the transport cost the regiment three Hampdens, bringing the total number available down to 11.

 

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A ground crewman writes “For Kiselev” on a torpedo. Photo source: Kotelnikov (book)

The remaining Hampdens engaged primarily in free hunt missions om February and March, though more often than not enemy ships were not detected during such sorties. On March 8th, four of the regiment’s aircraft, piloted by Lieutenant Dubinnim and Captains Popovik, Glushkov and Kiselev, attacked a German convoy, sinking three transports. By early April, the number of airworthy Hampdens in the Soviet Union diminished to only six or seven. However, by this this the 24th MTAP had started transitioning to US-built Douglas A-20 Havoc/Bostons, though the British bombers remained in service with the regiment. On the 25th of that month, Captain Vasiliy Nikolaevich Kiselev led a flight of five Hampdens against a German convoy in the Kongsfjord area of northern Norway when his aircraft suffered a direct hit from an anti-aircraft gun. Though his left engine was on fire, Kiselev continued his attack run against a German transport ship and managed to fire a torpedo before crashing into the water. His torpedo made a direct hit against the German ship, sinking the transport. Unfortunately, Kiselev was killed in the attack, along with his navigator, M.F. Pokalo, and the aircraft’s gunners, I.A. Berdennikov and V.I. Zhuchovk. Two other Hampdens scored hits on a German transport as well as an escort, sinking both. In July 1943, Kiselev was posthumously awarded the Gold Star Hero of the Soviet Union.

 

By May 1st, not only had the number of airworthy Hampdens decreased to two, but the North Fleet had run out of British-built torpedos as well. Though the regiment was converting to A-20s, heavy losses suffered by the new aircraft in April prompted the decision to modify the remaining Hampdens to allow them to carry and fire Soviet-built 45-36AN torpedos. To resurrect some of the decommissioned British aircraft, Northern Fleet mechanics modified the bombers’ ignition systems to allow them to use Soviet-built BG-22 spark plugs, which were otherwise not compatible with the Hampdens’ Pegasus engines. This measure helped make several more of the British bombers airworthy, which bought the regiment time to bring in more A-20s.

In May, the 24th MTAP was elevated to Guards status, becoming the 9th Guards Mine-and-Torpedo Air Regiment (9th GvMTAP). The regiment’s Hampdens continued to fly sorties through June. On July 4th, two Hampdens (flown by Major Shipilov and Junior Lieutenant Martynov), two Il-2s, and three Il-4s attacked German ships at Cape Kibergnes, during which an 8,000 ton transport was sunk and two others damaged. However, on the return back to base, the formation was attacked by German fighters, and all but two Il-4s were shot down. Fortunately, the crews of both Hampdens managed to ditch their doomed aircraft and were rescued. This was to be the last Hampden mission flown by Soviet forces, since only a single unserviceable example remained with the regiment. Nevertheless, by this time, the 9th GvMTAP had fully converted to A-20s.

-Patrick Kinville

 

Bibliography

Handley Page Hampden. Voina v Vozdukhe No. 147. 

Kotelnikov, Vladimir. Lend-Lease and Soviet Aviation in the Second World War. Helion & Company, 2018.

Richards, Denis, St G. Saunders, H. Royal Air Force 1939–1945: The Fight Avails. History of the Second World War, Military Series. II. HMSO, 1954.

Zetterling, Niklas. Tirpitz: The Life and Death of Germany’s Last Super Battleship. Casemate Publishers, 2009.

Zhirikhov, Mikhail. Asi Nad Tundroi: Vozdyshnaya Voina V Zapolyare, 1941-1944. Tsentropoligraf, 2011.

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