Normandie-Niemen Regiment: The French Flyers of the Soviet Union

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French CG 3 fliers. Source: Myhistory.ru 

After the surrender of France in June of 1940, exiled Brigadier General Charles de Gaulle, in a broadcast from London, urged his fellow Frenchmen to rally around France Libre to fight the German invaders. While many who answered de Gaulle’s call went on to fight the Germans in North Africa and the Mediterranean, a handful of French fliers eventually ended up in an unexpected theater of war: The Eastern Front. When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, de Gaulle saw an opportunity for his Free French pilots to fight the Germans. At the same time, de Gaulle hoped the move would garner Moscow’s formal recognition of his government. The few French airmen who arrived in the Soviet Union in September of 1941 would evolve into an effective and deadly air group, which would later be known as the Normandie-Niemen Regiment. By the end of the war, these French volunteers would shoot down 273 German aircraft through major campaigns such as the battle of Kursk and Operation Bagration. While some historians have suggested that their role was exaggerated by Soviet propaganda organs, the regiment’s track record indicates that the regiment, also known as GC 3 (Groupe de Chasse 3), carried out its missions effectively and successfully, thereby aiding the VVS in its crucial role in the victory of Germany.

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Soviet Yakovlev Yak-1

The core group of 12 French pilots and 47 ground staff arrived in Soviet Azerbaijan, through Iran, on September 1, 1941. The French airmen were given their choice of Soviet aircraft, and eventually settled on the fast and maneuverable Yakovlev Yak-1, one of the Soviet Union’s best fighters at the time of the German invasion on June 22, 1941. Captain Albert Litolff of the CG 3 noted that the Yakovlev was in many ways similar to the French Morane-Saulnier M.S.406 fighter that many of the airmen had flown against the Luftwaffe during Germany’s invasion of France, though the Soviet fighter had a greater speed and could perform sharper turns. Despite the fact that many in the CG 3 were experienced pilots before they left France, the fighter group spent its first six months in the Soviet Union learning the capabilities of their Yak-1s and studying the Soviet Manual of Operations. By the time the group became operational in March of 1943, the French pilots had an average of 857 hours of flight time, more than three times that of their Soviet counterparts.

On March 21st, 1943, the CG 3 was declared fit for duty, and was transferred to the Western Front, stationed outside of Kaluga, as part of the 1st Air Army, where it was tasked with escorting bombers of the 204th Bomber Air Division. Shortly thereafter, on April 5th, the pilots of the Normandie Group scored their first kill. According to an article published on April 8th in the Red Army’s newspaper, Krasnaya Zvezda, the first combat mission of Lt. Duran and Lt. Precios, who had “been waiting for the day when they would rise in the air in Soviet aircraft to shoot down the hated Nazis,” shot down a German Fw-190 fighter.

The French pilots, however, quickly learned firsthand the brutality of the Eastern Front. On April 13th, while escorting bombers of the 204th, three pilots of the CG 3 did not return from the mission. This incident made clear that the language barrier between the Soviet bombers and their French escorts led to a lack of interaction between the twin-engine aircraft and their fighter escorts, and it was something that could not be ignored. The CG 3 was subsequently taken off escort duty and transferred to the 303rd Fighter Division.

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Source: Vokrug.tv

Some historians argue that the training of French pilots highlighted individualism and promoted the principle of maximum independence in battle, which in turn made airmen of the CG 3 poor escorts. Many Soviet pilots, however, have discounted this accusation. For example, Sturmovik pilot Nikolay Rumyantsev 70 years later adamantly stressed that rumors suggesting that Normandie pilots were more interested in pursuing individual dog fights than providing cover were simply untrue. “They flew normally,” he emphasized. It was more likely that when issues did arise, it was due to the language barrier between bomber pilots and their escorts. It certainly would not have been the first time that the Normandie Group had to make adjustments because of the language difference.

For example, it was initially hoped that French mechanics would service the aircraft of CG 3, but they were replaced by Soviet air crews before the unit became operational in the spring of 1943. As one Russian mechanic, Yuriy Fedorin, recalled, “In the winter of 1942, the air temperature was -30˚C and below. The French technical staff was unable to prepare the aircraft for combat missions, and it was therefore decided to replace it with Russian [staff].” There was, consequently, a significant and frustrating language barrier between the French pilots and their Soviet ground crews. The pilots of CG 3 did not speak Russian, and Soviet citizens generally did not speak French, and those who did were not aircraft mechanics. The Normandie Group was thus forced to rely on the work of translators, of which there was an acute shortage. Fedorin recalled that, “When a pilot returned from battle, we would ask ‘how is the plane’, and he would say ‘good’ or ‘not good’, and then we would have to look for what was ‘not good’.”

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Robert Marchi and his Yak: Source Gorod.Tomsk

Communication issues notwithstanding, the CG 3 continued to fly combat missions with the 303rd Fighter Division throughout April and into May, when the Normandie group was temporarily grounded due to fears that the French pilots would be executed by the Germans if the airmen were forced to bail out or crash land in enemy territory. The Vichy regime had sentenced the CG 3 pilots to death in absentia, and it was unclear if the Germans on the Eastern Front would carry out the execution orders of the Nazi puppet state in France. Nevertheless, in June, an additional group of eight French pilots led by Major Pierre Pouyade arrived in the Soviet Union, and on July 12, after the VVS had sustained heavy losses during the German offensive at Kursk, the order grounding the CG 3 was lifted, and the Normandie regiment was brought to the front as part of the Soviet counteroffensive, during which the French pilots shot down an impressive 18 German aircraft. Seven CG 3 pilots, however, were killed between July 12th and 17th, including Captain Litolff and Major Tulasne.

Ilyushin Sturmovik pilots recalled how Tulasne died on July 17th while providing air cover for the ground attack aircraft. The French airman “escorted Sturmoviks to the area of Znamenskoye with nine fighters under the command of Major Tulasne… two Fw-190s attacked, clashing with three Yak-9s- Major Tulasne, Captain De Forges, and Second Lieutenant Bon. Soon another six Fw-190s and eight Bf-109s joined the battle, attacking the Sturmoviks from the right rear. Our fighters were forced to leave the Sturmoviks and the nine [Yaks] repulsed the enemy’s attacks. Lieutenant Beguin, when paired with Senior Lieutenant Vermeille, fought a battle with four Fw-190s and was shot down… Major Tulasne, Captain DeVore, and Second Lieutenant Bon, leading the fight against the enemy fighters, entered the clouds. After exiting the clouds, none of the pilots could see Major Tulasne.”

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Normandie Yaks. Source pohodd.ru

Due to the heavy losses suffered by CG 3 during the battle of Kursk, the French pilots were once again temporarily grounded in an attempt to give the Normandie airmen time to recuperate and recover from the intense and seemingly endless dog fights in which they participated. In early August, the CG 3 received fresh pilots and aircraft, bringing their total number to 40, and in early September the French airmen were ordered to help the Red Army liberate Smolensk, where the CG 3 continued to improve its track record. By the end of October, the Normandie airmen had claimed 72 victories for the loss of 20 French pilots.

The Normandie pilots were then transferred to Tula where they spent the winter of 1943-1944. The airmen, during the brief respite from the front, spent most of their time relaxing and training in their new Yak-9Ts that had just arrived. By spring, their number had increased to 61 pilots, and in May, the Normandie Regiment was transferred back to Smolensk where it was put on operational duty with the 303rd IAD. On June 22, the Normandie regiment participated in Operation Bagration- the Red Army’s largest offensive of the war. By the end of the day, CG 3 pilots had shot down eight German aircraft, losing one of their own.

One Soviet pilot, Valentin Besklubov, later recalled a terrifying run in with the French pilots while flying a Yak-9 during Operation Bagration, saying “The heavy air battles began for us when we participated in Operation Bagration. We had already been flying the Yak-9. There was one case in which I was in combat and ran out of fuel, and I didn’t make it back to the airfield, so I landed in an unfamiliar place. People ran up to me, not speaking Russian. I was scared, I thought it was a German airfield. They sat on the wings, and immediately began looking at the instruments. It turned out to be the Normandie-Niemen French regiment. The next day, when I refueled, I flew to my own airfield.”

The CG 3 continued its work at the front lines throughout the summer and fall of 1944, joining the Red Army and VVS in the gradual push westwards. On October 16th, the regiment had its most successful day, when Normandie pilots shot down 29 German aircraft, losing none of their own. The French pilots continued to pile up convincing numbers, claiming 12 enemy aircraft on the 17th, 11 on the 20th, and 12 on the 22nd. According to Soviet sources, Normandie airmen shot down 129 German aircraft in the summer and fall of 1944, losing 20 aircraft of their own and 15 pilots. In November, due to its contribution in covering Soviet troops crossing the Niemen River, the regiment was renamed the Normandie-Niemen regment, and that same day, two French pilots, Marcel Albert and Roland de La Poype were awarded Gold Star: Hero of the Soviet Union, the USSR’s highest distinction.

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Normandie-Niemen monument in Kaliningrad

Between January of 1945 and the end of the war, Normandie-Niemen pilots carried out a further 1300 sorties, shooting down an additional 67 German aircraft while losing ten of their own. Another two French pilots, Marcel Lefèvre and Jacques André, were awarded Gold Star: Hero of the Soviet Union after the German surrender. By May 9, 1945, the regiment had claimed 273 aerial victories and 37 probables, losing 87 aircraft and 52 pilots. In 5,240 sorties flown, the CG 3 took part in 869 dog fights and also destroyed numerous ground targets including 27 trains, 22 locomotives, two E-boats, 132 trucks, and 24 staff cars. After the war was over, the Soviet government expressed its gratitude to the regiment by offering 37 of the unit’s Yak fighters as a gift to France. The French pilots returned to Paris to a hero’s welcome on June 20, 1945.

The French pilots of the Normandie-Niemen regiment were thus not simply products of Soviet propaganda; they were active at the frontline in decisive battles such as Kursk and Operational Bagration, and had the record to show for it. After the swift defeat of France by the Wehrmacht, several French fliers answered Charles De Gaulle’s call to fight against the Germans in the Soviet Union, not for political purposes, but as a way to fight against the enemy that had invaded their own homeland. These airmen fought in several decisive battles on the Eastern Front, helping the VVS maintain air superiority, thus enabling the Red Army to deliver the crushing offensives against the Germans in the last two years of the war. While welcomed as heroes upon their return to France in 1945, these brave pilots truly were Heroes of the Soviet Union.

-Patrick Kinville

 

Polikarpov R-5: The impact of a seemingly outdated biplane on the Eastern Front

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R-5s in flight. Photo Credit: Wings of Russia

In June of 1941, at the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the VVS had only recently begun its modernization campaign to produce aircraft that were on par with their Axis counterparts. Fighters such as the I-16 Rata that had been mainstays in the Spanish Civil War, Khalkin Gol, and the Winter War, were slowly being replaced by the LaGG-3 and Yak-1; aircraft which VVS pilots quickly found to be inferior to the Luftwaffe’s Bf-109. In terms of numbers of aircraft prior to Operation Barbarossa, however, the Soviet Union had a clear advantage over Germany, though most of these machines were considered to be out-of-date by the outbreak of war. Indeed, some Soviet aircraft that had seen service throughout the 1930s, such as the Polikarpov R-5 biplane, had been scattered throughout the Soviet interior at the end of the decade, ending up in various flying schools, aero clubs, and different transportation detachments. In the summer of 1941, however, the VVS found its mighty air fleet decimated by the German blitzkrieg, and seemingly out-of-date aircraft, such as the R-5, were brought to the front to serve as night bombers and liaison aircraft until Soviet industry could recover from the invasion and begin manufacturing large numbers of modern aircraft.  The Soviet military, with its knack for getting the most out of ostensibly obsolete equipment, was able to find a useful role for the antiquated R-5 biplane.

The R-5, powered by a Mikulin M-17B water cooled V-12 engine that put out 680 horsepower, was designed by Nikolai Polikarpov in 1928 and put in service by the VVS in 1931. It was used in Khalkin Gol, the Winter War, and the Soviet invasion of Poland, after which it was used primarily as a trainer until the summer of 1941, when several hundred returned to frontline duty. As Sergey Glumov, an R-5 pilot, recalled, “before the war it was a good airplane. But by 1941, it had, for technical reasons, become a completely ‘disliked’ aircraft… [only] four bombs… and about the speed, I cannot say without bringing tears to my eyes… There was no radio on the R-5. There was no lighting in the R-5 to view a map… the defenses were terrible… German tracer shells mowed down our planes.”

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R-5. Photo Credit: Pacific Eagles

Nonetheless, the fall of 1941, due to the lack of modern aircraft, R-5s were assigned to the 615th and 687th regiments during the defense of Moscow, where the biplanes carried out an estimated 10% of all night bombing sorties. Similar to the more well-known Polikarpov Po-2, the R-5 engaged in primarily night bombing and reconnaissance missions. In January of 1942, night bomber regiments equipped with R-5s were tasked with providing support for the 2nd Shock Army near Lake Ladoga in an attempt to break the siege of Leningrad.  Primarily engaged in operations to disrupt rail transport and conduct reconnaissance, the number of regiments flying R-5s on the Volkhov Front continued to increase, and the antiquated biplanes found a new role: delivering rations and ammunition and evacuating the wounded from the front. In March and April, when elements of the 13th Calvary Corp of the 2nd Shock Army were surrounded by Wehrmacht forces, the 658th air regiment delivered more than one thousand tons of food, ammunition, and other supplies, and evacuated 676 wounded soldiers and officers.

 

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Photo Credit: Combat Ace

Soviet R-5s continued to play the above-mentioned roles not only near Leningrad, but also in the Southwestern Front, the Bryansk Front, and the Southern Front. It was only in mid-1943, when the Soviet aviation industry had recovered from the wholesale evacuation eastward in 1941-1942, that the biplanes began to be phased out. La-5s, Yak-9s, Il-2s, and Pe-2s began arriving at the front in large numbers, and R-5s were once again relegated primarily to training roles. Nevertheless, the Polikarpov biplanes continued to be used in specialized roles along the Eastern Front, and were often used for delivering supplies to Soviet partisans behind enemy lines. R-5s continued in such specialized roles through the end of the war, and some were even as far west as Berlin in May of 1945.

The scant amount of historical coverage in the West given to the air war on the Eastern Front focuses primarily on lend-lease aircraft such as the P-39, P-40, and Spitfires, and on the capable Soviet-built Lavochkins, Yakovlevs, and Ilyushins that came out later in the war, all of which undoubtedly played a crucial role in the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany. However, before such aircraft were available in large numbers, seemingly obsolete biplanes, such as the Polikarpov R-5, were thrown into battle after having been relegated to training roles several years before the outbreak of World War Two. The R-5 is indicative of a larger trend throughout all facets of the Soviet military, in which equipment that was ostensibly outdated and outmatched by the German military machine enabled the Soviet Union to proverbially bend but not break in the early stages of the war, until modern machinery could be given to Soviet soldiers, airmen, and sailors. This, in turn, enabled the Red Army to push back the Wehrmacht all the way to Berlin. However, the equipment that brought the Soviet Union into the crucial year of 1943, such as the R-5, played a large role in the victory over Germany, and deserves to be remembered as such.

-Patrick Kinville

The Circle of Death: The evolution of Soviet Il-2 Sturmovik tactics

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An Ilyushin Il-2 in flight. Public domain.

The Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik rightfully has its place as one of the most decisive weapons in the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany on the Eastern Front during World War Two. In nearly all major Soviet offensives, the “flying tanks” provided crucial close air support to the Red Army infantry on the ground. Like much of the Soviet military, however, the effective tactics that the German Wehrmacht would eventually grow to fear evolved through a series of trials and often times disastrous errors, and it was not until the Battle of Kursk in 1943, when Il-2 squadrons adopted the closed loop tactic, that the Sturmoviks became a decisive force on the battlefield. Indeed, the Sturmovik formations providing close air support at the Battle of Kursk were as instrumental in the Soviet victory as any other part of the Red Army.

In the early months of the war, Sturmovik tactics involved approaching a target in groups of 3-5 aircraft, attacking one at a time from an altitude of 20 meters up to 200 meters. Each Il-2 would expend all of its ammunition and ordinance over the target in a single pass. Such tactics meant each Sturmovik received little to no cover from the other aircraft in their formation. What is more, Ilyushin had yet to manufacture two-seat Il-2s with a rear gunner at this time, making the Sturmoviks easy prey for Luftwaffe pilots in 1941. Indeed, in the early stages of the war, on average, one Il-2 was lost for every nine combat sorties.

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Il-2s in formation. Photo from Aviapress

Soviet pilots and researchers at the Nauchno-Ispytatelniy Poligon Aviatsionnogo Vooruzheniya (Aviation Armament Scientific Testing Firing Range) quickly determined that Ilyushins had to attack from higher altitude in order to increase battle efficiency. It was also found that three runs over the target were required for each Sturmovik to inflict significant and accurate damage on the ground target. In the first pass, the Il-2 might fire its four rockets, in the second, the Sturmovik could drop its bombs, and the third pass could involve strafing with its combination of machine guns and cannons. Whatever the order, it was determined that the most effective Il-2 attack involved using each type of armament in separate passes.  This naturally required significantly more time over the target than the initial tactic of hit and run. In order to provide sufficient cover for each formation, it was determined that circling above the target would allow each Sturmovik to cover the aircraft in front of it while simultaneously allowing time for the optimum three passes over the target.

The closed loop, which was also known as the “circle of death”, involved up to eight Il-2s forming a defensive circle, each aircraft protecting the one ahead of it with its forward machine guns. The aircraft were spaced 150-200 meters apart, at an altitude of at least 300 meters, banking at 15-40 degrees. Each individual Il-2 took turns leaving the circle, attacking the target, and rejoining the circle. Such formations would remain over a ground target for up to 20 minutes, until all ammunition and ordinance was expended, after which time the Il-2s would regroup and return to base. The circle was also used for collective defense against German fighters when attacked before the formation reached the target, as the large field of cover ensured that no individual Sturmovik was vulnerable to attack.

Sturmovik pilot Mikhail Shatilo recalled maintaining the closed loop for up to 20 minutes over a target, saying “sometimes there would be a lot of German pairs flying nearby, but what would they do? If they came too close, we would be covered. The Germans knew not to come too close to the Ilya [Il-2].”

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Il-2M with rear gunner. Wikipedia

Another pilot, Pavel Zatsepin, testified to the effectiveness of the closed loop, recalling an episode in which his squadron was on a mission west of Vilnius in 1944: “over the radio while approaching the target I heard that eight Focke-Wulfs and four Messerschmitts were in the air… we began to close the circle to handle the enemy. [I] noticed that two Me [Bf-109s] rushed to attack from the bottom. I sharply turned to fire all my cannons and machine guns to attack the enemy. The second Messer suddenly jumped into the middle of the vicious circle… the group opened fire on him and shot him down. The remaining enemy fighters did not come to fight.”

The value of the tactic was not lost on Soviet fighters who provided escort for Ilyushins. One La-5 pilot at the Battle of Kursk, Ivan Konstantinovich Moroz, recalled that “Sturmoviks were not difficult to protect from [enemy] fighters, because their tactical interaction had been worked out. As soon as the [enemy] fighters began to attack, the team formed up in a circle. They flew in a circle, covering each other… and we [the Soviet fighters] would cover them from below or above.”

Nevertheless, like all air tactics, the closed loop did, at times, leave Sturomoviks susceptible to anti-aircraft fire and attacks from German fighters, particularly at the moment when the circle disbanded and the formation began returning to its airbase. Luftwaffe pilots learned to wait until this moment to attack the last, and therefore most vulnerable, aircraft. As Il-2 pilot Yuriy Afanasev recalled, “the most difficult moment is getting out of the circle, because here someone is last [and will not be covered].”

Sturmovik pilots developed other tactics throughout the course of the war, but none would be as decisive as the closed loop. Indeed, the development of such a tactic is indicative of the evolution of the VVS, and the entire Red Army for that matter, from 1941-1945. Initially using obsolete and rudimentary hit and run tactics, Il-2s at first were easy prey for the skilled pilots of the Luftwaffe. Over time, Il-2s developed the closed loop tactic, turning a formation of Il-2s into an efficient and effective force. This enabled the Sturmoviks to act in concert with Soviet long-range bombers, VVS fighters, and ground troops, all of whom had developed tactics of their own. Following the disastrous early stages of the war, the Soviet military learned the value and strategic importance of acting in unison on the ground and in the air. Such concerted actions proved to be a major turning point on the Eastern Front, enabling the Red Army to defeat the Germans at Kursk and every other major battle thereafter.

-Patrick Kinville

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Il-2 on display at Central Air Force Museum Monino, Moscow. Photo taken by author.

“It was a beautiful aircraft”: The Soviet B-25s

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A Soviet B-25 in flight. Photo from airwar.ru

As one of the most iconic US bombers of all time, the B-25 Mitchell will forever be remembered for its use in the Doolittle Raid against Japan in 1942 and subsequent role in both the Pacific and Europe during the Second World War. One often overlooked aspect of the twin-engine bomber, however, was its use by the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front. Indeed, throughout the course of the war, the VVS received 861 B-25s of various models, accounting for 10% of the Soviet Long Range Aviation’s (Aviatsiya Dalnego Deystviya, ADD) fleet. As a country whose aviation industry focused on producing fighters and ground attack aircraft, the Soviet Union repeatedly requested that the US provide four-engine bombers such as the B-17 and B-24 as part of the lend lease program. The US, however, turned down each request. Instead, the VVS was given B-25s, and like all other aircraft received from the US, the Soviets were able to make the necessary field modifications to place the aircraft in an effective role on the Eastern Front. In general, the Soviet airmen who flew the Mitchells had only positive things to say about the US-made twin-engine bomber, and throughout the course of the war, Soviet B-25s had a tremendous impact on the war on the Eastern Front.

B-25s first started to arrive in the Soviet Union only after the opening of the so-called Persian Corridor, from allied Iran through Soviet Azerbaijan, through which a large number of lend-lease supplies were delivered, though the Mitchells would later be delivered via the Alaska-Siberia ferry route. The new twin-engine bombers eventually made their way to Monino outside Moscow, where Soviet pilots began to learn how to fly the American aircraft. One Soviet pilot, Aleksandr Vasilevich Dudakov, recalled having initial difficulty with the new bomber, as the control switches in the cockpit were labelled in English. “We all used to learn the German language, and here the equipment was made in America. The labels said ‘ON’… and ‘OFF’ [in English]. Some devices were very clear: the artificial horizon [attitude indicator] was obviously an artificial horizon,” Dudakov stated.

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B-25 cockpit. Source: Wikipedia

Soviet pilots were quickly able to overcome the language gap, and soon develop a deep fondness for the Mitchell bombers. “The B-25 is an interesting machine,” pilot Dmitriy Petrovich Vaulin recounted. “[It had] amazing instrumentation, the cabin equipment was nice. The motors were good… these American planes were all much simpler, and they worked better.”

Aircrews were not the only ones who tested and experimented with the new B-25s in the Spring of 1942, as the Soviet Research Institute of the Air Force had been running tests to determine how, exactly, the Mitchell should be used in combat. Researchers quickly determined that, when compared to the Soviet-made Ilyushin Il-4, the B-25 had a greater maximum speed and longer range. It was also noted that on-board conditions were better in the Mitchell than the Ilyushin, and that its “flying, including take-off and landing, was so simple, so young pilots could quickly put into operation.” As one test pilot,  MA Hyuhtikov, summed, “The B-25DP, despite its heavy weight (13,700 kg), is simple to pilot in takeoff and landing, relatively easy to fly on one engine; it has a good longitudinal and quite satisfactory lateral stability.”

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Soviet B-25s. Photo: USAAF via Von Hardesty

Researchers also noted that the defensive armament in the B-25 was superior to the Il-4, though Soviet aircrews quickly recognized the American bomber’s Achilles heel, and asked the North American aviation company to rectify the issue. As the early-model B-25s lacked a tail gunner, Luftwaffe pilots quickly learned the Mitchell’s blind spots, and German Bf-110 night fighter pilots developed a tactic in which they would follow a B-25 below the bomber until the Mitchell began its landing approach, upon which time the German fighter would attack. As Dudakov explained, the blind spot “enabled the German night fighter Bf-110 to seamlessly adapt to the bottom of the plane and follow it to the landing airfield, where the crew lost vigilance. [This tactic] killed several of IL-4s and B-25s.” A single tail gun was thus added to the Soviet B-25s in an attempt to cover the bomber’s blind spot, and starting in 1944, the VVS received B-25J models complete with two 12.77mm machine guns in the tail.

With these kinks worked out and aircrews trained to fly the American bombers, B-25s were given to the 37th, 125th, and 16th regiments of the 222nd division in the Spring of 1942. It quickly became clear that the Mitchells were unsuited for carrying out the low altitude close air support missions on the Eastern Front, and the 222nd was consequently given over to ADD (long range aviation) on September 29, 1942. It was determined that Soviet Pe-2s, Il-2s, and lend-lease A-20s were better for low altitude missions, but the Soviets recognized the B-25’s potential as a long-range bomber given its large bomb load, strong armament, and quality navigation and radio equipment. Shortly after its transfer to ADD, the 222nd began carrying out long-range night raids against German targets in the rear, which would be its primary role through the end of the war.

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Soviet aircrews Photo from We Are the Mighty

In late 1942 and into 1943, B-25 aircrews generally carried out strikes on German railway junctions, airfields, and other such rear areas, but in the second half of the war, the Mitchell crews bombed targets in cities such as Warsaw, Breslau, Konigberg, Tilsit, and Berlin. Towards the end of the war, however, due to the fact that B-25s required more room to take off and the advancing Soviet forces often had to make use of dilapidated and makeshift airfields, Il-4s were at times chosen for bombing missions over the Mitchells, despite the fact that their bomb loads were significantly lower than the American-made bombers. Nevertheless, the Soviets were able to modify some B-25s to convert them into transport aircraft. Mitchells were gutted out to carry as many as 20 people, and could haul up to one ton of supplies over a distance of 2,240 kilometers. Moreover, B-25s were used as reconnaissance aircraft, as they were capable of flying at night and were equipped with modern navigation and monitoring systems. On such flights, crews would place a 215 gallon fuel tank in the bomb bay, which would increase flight time by up to 7 hours.

B-25 were thus highly respected among Soviet bomber crews in the Great Patriotic War. One Soviet fighter pilot who test flew a Mitchell, Sergey Yakovlevich Tatushin, simply said, “It’s a beautiful aircraft.” Of the 861 B-25s delivered to the Soviet Union, 497 survived the war. In accordance with the terms of the lend-lease program, under the supervision of US officials, the majority of the Soviet Union’s American-made aircraft were destroyed, but not all. Indeed, the 330th regiment, stationed in Babruysk, continued flying B-25s until the introduction of the Tu-4 (a reverse engineered B-29) in 1949. The B-25 rightfully has its place in history as a major contributor to the Allied victory over the Axis powers in World War Two. Nevertheless, like so much about the Eastern Front, Soviet Mitchells were soon forgotten in the West. While Soviet air forces generally focused on providing close air support to the Red Army, the ADD did carry out long-range missions against rear targets, and the B-25s were undoubtedly the best aircraft they had for the job. The B-25 with Soviet marking truly was a beautiful aircraft (as were all Mitchells).

-Patrick Kinville

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B-25 on display in Monino. Photo taken by author

 

 

The forgotten Il-2 rear gunners

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Il-2s attacka German column at the Battle of Kursk. Image Source: RIA Novosti archive, Image #225/ F. Levshin/ CC-BY-SA 3.0 

The aircraft that arguably had the greatest impact on the war on the Eastern Front, the Ilyushin Il-2, is also one of the most well-known Soviet aircraft in the West. Nevertheless, common misconceptions of the role of the Sturmoviks, like so many aspects of war against Germany in the East, lead to denigration, which in turn contributes to a gross misunderstanding of not only this particular aircraft, but of the whole of the war on the Eastern Front. Soviet ground attack aircraft were an integral part of the Stavka’s plan to defeat the Wehrmacht. Indeed, from the Stalingrad to Kursk and all the way to Berlin, it is difficult to imagine how the Red Army could have been victorious if not for the effective close air support provided by Il-2s. One often overlooked yet crucial aspect of the combat effectiveness of Sturmovik units was the presence of a rear gunner armed with a 12.7mm UBT machine gun in each aircraft. Initially produced in a single-seat model, the development of Ilyushins equipped with a rear gun enabled Sturmovik units to fly in formation with greatly decreased vulnerability, as rear gunners would provide cover not only for their own aircraft, but for all Sturmoviks in the formation. While their job was undoubtedly one of the most dangerous in the VVS, Il-2 rear gunners played a pivotal role in the ground attack missions which, as much as anything, were instrumental in the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany.

The Ilyushin Il-2 was one of the war’s most definitive weapons, though through a series of trials and errors on the part of Soviet engineers, the flying tank would not have its profound impacts until 1943. In early 1938, Sergey Ilyushin and his team developed the TsKB-55 (BSh-2) prototype in response to the Kremlin’s call to develop a heavy ground attack aircraft. The two-seat heavily armored plane powered by a single Mikulin AM-35 inline engine was found to be underpowered, but after removing the rear-gunner and installing a more powerful AM-38 engine, Soviet test pilots reported drastic improvements in maneuverability, speed, and handling. This single-seat model was cleared for service in early 1941, and the first production model was flown in March of that year.

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Single-seat Il-2. Photo Source: War Spot

Following the German invasion on June 22nd, 1941, the new Il-2s without rear gunners
found themselves defenseless against the battle-tested Luftwaffe fighters. During the first offensive mission mounted by an Il-2 unit on July 1 along the Berezina river near the city of Bobruysk, the German Bf-109s were quickly able to identify the attack the Soviet aircrafts’ blind spots, and the Sturmoviks consequently suffered heavy losses at the hands of the enemy fighters. The vulnerability of the single-seat Il-2s led many VVS units to field modify their aircraft in the early months of the war by cutting a hole in the fuselage behind the cockpit to mount a 12.7mm UBT machine gun. The rear-gunner sat atop a canvas strap in these crude early two-seaters. The mount allowed gunners to fire at angles of up to 35 degrees upwards and 15 degrees on each side. While the makeshift solution did provide much needed cover, Sturmovik pilots found their aircraft more difficult to handle as the center of gravity had shifted backwards due to the increased weight. Moreover, the two-man crew led to the Il-2’s already slow top speed being reduced by a further 10-20 km/h. Nevertheless, airmen convinced the Ilyushin design bureau to produce a two-seat Sturmovik, which started rolling off production lines in 1942. With gunner mobility increased to 38 degrees and upwards and 22 degrees on each side, the serial production two-person Il-2s had a much improved firing angle for rear gunners than the makeshift two-seaters.

To improve the performance of the improved Sturmoviks, Soviet engineers developed the more powerful AM-38F engine. In the fall of 1942, two-seat Il-2s powered by the upgraded engine made their service trials, with the rear gunners shooting down seven German aircraft and repelling many attacks during this time. By January of 1943, the definitive Sturmovik that would have such a pivotal impact on the war, the Il-2M3, began to arrive in large numbers at the front. However, it did take time for the two-seat Ilyushins to completely replace the single-seat versions. One Il-2 rear-gunner, Fedor Lavrentovich Gavrilov, recalled when he first arrived that the front in 1944 that one single-seat Sturmovik remained in his regiment, and the rest were equipped with a 12.7 mm UBT in the rear. The pilot of the lone early model Ilyushin, Yakov Petrovich Tsukarev, was the natural target for German fighters on any bombing run, and he was eventually shot down because of it. “When we bombed the Germans who went out of the city [in Romania] the German fighters saw the [Ilyushin] with no rear gunner and began to converge on his tail. As a result, he was shot, but he pulled the Ilyushin to our territory,” Gavrilov recounted.

Gavrilov went on to describe the tactics that Il-2M3 crews were able to adopt to provide cover to the other aircraft while flying in formation. “Our task [as rear-gunners] during the flight was primarily to repel the attacks of enemy fighters… if we went with one machine… it would be difficult to fend off the enemy. But we flew with a whole squadron of 12 aircraft and 12 12.7 mm UBT machine guns [providing rear cover]. German planes were terribly afraid to get under the concentrated fire of our turrets, and if suddenly a fighter flew into it, it would be shot down,” he recalled.

From tactics such as the closed loop, loose circle, and scissors maneuvers, Il-2 airmen sought to ensure the presence of a coordinated defensive formation during their sorties. Nevertheless, the skilled German pilots developed tactics of their own to counter the Sturmovik formations, and were able to locate the Achilles heel of the heavily armored flying tank: the oil cooler. Erich Hartmann, the Luftwaffe’s top scoring ace with 352 victories, recalled targeting the oil cooler on Il-2s because if he shot the armored sections of the cockpits, his bullets would simply bounce off. As a result, Hartmann would attempt to approach Sturmoviks from below and behind, targeting their underbelly and the vulnerable oil cooler. If such a maneuver were not possible given the circumstances of the battle, Hartmann attempted to shoot the where the wing met the fuselage with his Bf-109’s 20mm cannon. Fifteen of the German ace’s 352 victories were Sturmoviks.

While the Il-2 had its vulnerabilities, the rear-gunner’s position was much more perilous than the pilot’s. While his crewmate was protected by 12mm of armor on both sides and behind the seat, not to mention 65mm protective glass sections, the gunner was provided with 6mm of armor, which was only effective against small arms fire. The death rate among rear-gunners was understandably exceptionally high, and injuries were even more frequent. Resting their feet on partitions separating the fuselage from the cockpit, gunners’ legs were protected only by the aircraft’s outer plywood. As one rear gunner recalled, “there was a feeling that every time you’d go out you were going to your execution. [With only] a tunic and a gun, and if they [German fighters] should double up, or God forbid four come in?”

Despite the rear-gunners’ vulnerability, like so many aspects of war, an individual’s combat instincts, which could only be developed after experiencing battle, served as the best defense for Il-2 gunners. As one rear gunner, Vladimir Moiseyevich Mester, recalled, “Gunners, like most pilots, were killed during their first flight. When the gunner had made dozens of flights, there was hope that he would live, though it would not always depend on him.” With this experience came an understanding of how combat sorties unfolded, and in turn how to improve the equipment the rear-gunners were given. Il-2 crews quickly learned how to modify their rear compartments to expand the capabilities of the UBTs. Gunners recalled that the glass canopies covering the compartments restricted the firing arch of the 12.7 mm machine guns, and many regiments consequently decided to remove the glass, despite the fact that it led a further decrease in airspeed. Nevertheless, aircrews often determined that it was worth it to trade 5-7 km/h of airspeed for a larger field of vision for the gunner and a larger arch of fire.

Throughout the Great Patriotic War, Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmoviks played a pivotal role in the Soviet Union’s victory over Germany, especially in 1943-1945. Providing close air support to Red Army ground troops, the flying tanks fought at low altitudes on the front of nearly every major battle in Eastern Europe. As VVS pilots quickly learned, Ilyushins were not able to carry out the ever important ground attack missions effectively without a rear gunner to provide cover against the talented and battle-hardened Luftwaffe pilots. These often forgotten rear gunners undertook perilous missions behind scant amounts of armor on the front lines of the deadliest war in human history, and played a pivotal role in the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany on the Eastern Front.

-Patrick Kinville

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Il-2 on display at Central Air Force Museum, Monino, Moscow. Photo taken by author.

The evacuation of the Soviet aviation industry in 1941

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With the Germans’ rapid advance eastward in the summer of 1941, the Soviet leadership undertook the monumental task of evacuating industrial enterprises away from the combat zone to locations further into the depths of the Soviet interior. From factories, collective farms, cultural institutions, people, and everything in between, the evacuation of Soviet life away from the major metropolises under threat from the Wehrmacht, such as Kiev, Moscow, and Leningrad, is a feat that is unparalleled in world history. All in all, a total of 1,523 plants, including hundreds of aircraft and engine facilities, were relocated to the other side of the Urals. With the factories went an estimated 10 million workers. This undertaking enabled the Soviet aviation industry to avoid annihilation by the German military, and thus resulting in the creation of some of the greatest aviation plants in the world. The importance of evacuating the aviation industry eastwards cannot be understated. Indeed, despite the destruction caused by the German invasion and the subsequent evacuation of approximately 100 aircraft manufacturing plants, aircraft production rose from 10,500 in 1940 to 15,000 in 1941 and more than 25,000 in 1942. As much as anything, the herculean task of disassembling, transporting, and reassembling the Soviet Union’s aviation industry cannot be discounted as one of the main contributing factors of the Red Army’s victory over Germany in the Second World War.

Already on the morning of June 22, 1941, in the midst of Germany’s surprise attack on the Soviet Union, the leadership agreed that it was imperative to move Soviet industry, specifically defense enterprises, to the eastern regions of the country. By the end of the day, the People’s Commissariat of the Aviation Industry (NKAP) developed a program to move not only aviation factories, but also raw materials, enterprises that produced aircraft components, and aviation research facilities away from the western part of the country. In total, approximately 100 aviation facilities were marked for evacuation. In the chaos of Operation Barbarossa, the newly formed State Defense Committee (GKO), which effectively held complete control over the country, sought to organize, as much as was possible, an orderly evacuation of the Soviet Union’s endangered industrial enterprises. It was determined that the best course of action would be to undergo a two-step evacuation whenever possible by first transporting smaller auxiliary companies, and only afterwards begin evacuating the main aircraft production facilities.

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LaGG-3

Many factories, however, were in immediate danger of falling into German hands. In such cases, facilities were disassembled and transported in a less controlled and orderly manner. For example, Factory no. 23 in Leningrad, which produced LaGG-3 fighters, was determined to be particularly vulnerable in the early months of the war. Priority was also given to this factory because the LaGG-3, for all its defects, was perhaps the best aircraft the VVS had at its disposal at the time. Having been founded in 1912 as the Russko Baltiiskii Vagonzavod, Factory no. 23 was one of the Soviet Union’s oldest aviation manufacturing facilities and employed more than 7,000 workers.  The evacuation of Factory no. 23 started on July 9, 1941, less than 3 weeks after the German invasion. Like many of the facilities that would move away from the advancing Axis armies, Factory no. 23 was absorbed into an existing plant in the Soviet east. The LaGG-3 production facility in Leningrad merged with Factory no. 153 in Novosibirsk, which had produced mining equipment until 1938 when it was converted to manufacture aircraft. Having started by producing I-14s and I-16s in the late 1930s, Factory no. 153, after the arrival of equipment from Factory no. 23, began producing LaGG-3s in the summer of 1941. Factory no. 301 from Khimki (Moscow) would also be evacuated to Novosibirsk later that year, and Factory no. 153 would focus its efforts on producing Yak-7s shortly thereafter.

Many plants, however, were not integrated into existing factories, and facilities had to be built from scratch. Often times, the machinery would arrive at a site before the physical structure was complete, and the workers would assemble production lines and begin manufacturing components out in the open before the plant was actually built. Indeed, it was not uncommon for workers to roll out their first plane from a roofless factory only two weeks after their arrival.     

While certain plants were evacuated with urgency, others that were not in immediate danger were able to be disassembled and transported according to a more thought-out plan. On August 16, the GKO adopted a mobilization plan for the evacuation of Soviet industry in the 4th quarter of 1941. By this time, the majority of auxiliary factors had already been transported, and several main production facilities that were in immediate danger, including Factory nos. 23, 47, and 387 from Leningrad, no. 81 from Moscow, and no. 165 from Dnepropetrovsk, had already been evacuated. Starting in September, larger aviation facilities were to be disassembled and transported eastward as part of the second step of the evacuation process. Factories in Kharkov, Moscow, Taganrog, and elsewhere in the Ukrainian SSR and the central part of the RSFSR were transported to the other side of the Urals. The NKAP itself was sent from Moscow to Saratov on October 14.

While hundreds and sometimes thousands of pieces of aviation production equipment were loaded onto eastbound trains as part of each factory’s evacuation, a no less important resource that had to be transported away from the war zone was the workers themselves. For example, evacuation of Factory no. 23 (mentioned above) included 3,576 essential employees. Furthermore, the evacuation of Factory no. 26 (which produced M-17, M-100, M-103 and M-105 aircraft engines) from Rybinsk to Ufa entailed transporting approximately 14,000 workers, which even then was considered a skeleton crew as the factory had employed 24,500 workers prior to the outbreak of war.

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Ilyushin Il-2

It is not only the evacuation itself that is amazing, but how quickly and effectively the equipment and workers were reassembled after arrival. Indeed, the relocated factories were able to produce aircraft at an unparalleled rate at their new locations. Factory no. 18, for example, which was evacuated from Voronezh to Kuibyshev, and went on to produce 75% of all Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmoviks, some 30,000 total. It is difficult to fathom how the Red Army could have defeated the Wehrmacht if not for the close air support provided by these heavy-duty ground attack aircraft. Production of other aircraft that were key to victory over Germany was also made possible by the massive relocation efforts, including Petlyakov, Yakovlev, Tupolev, Lavochkin, and Mikoyan-Gurevich aircraft.

Aviation, of course, was not the only Soviet industry to be evacuated during the Great Patriotic War. Though many people and enterprises were evacuated in 1941-1942, the Soviet defense industry as a whole was given understandable priority, and this, as much as anything, contributed the ultimate victory over Germany. Indeed, the disassembly, transport, and reassembly of the Soviet defense industry is undoubtedly one of the greatest achievements of any country in the Second World War.

-Patrick Kinville

 

The Development of the Lavochkin La-5/5F/5FN

In the fall of 1942, the German Luftwaffe encountered to the Soviet Lavochkin La-5 for the first time in the skies over the Eastern Front. At first unaware of the ability and potential of the new fighter, German pilots dubbed the aircraft the Neue Rata, comparing it to the Polykarpov I-16s that had been heavily involved in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and were by this time obsolete. Luftwaffe airmen, however, quickly learned that the radial-engined fighter was not only better than the I-16, but was an improvement over the VVS’ “modern” fleet of Yak-1s and LaGG-3s as well. Over the next several months, the Lavochkin Design Bureau and Shvetsov’s OKB-19 engine manufacturer would continue to make improvements to the aircraft, culminating in the La-5FN variant, which in many ways was superior to the Luftwaffe’s own Bf-109 and Fw-190 fighters. The upgraded version of the La-5 would arrive at the front in time for the Battle of Kursk, where the new fighters played a crucial role in the Soviet Union’s pivotal victory over the German military during the latter’s last major offensive on the Eastern Front.

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An LaGG-3. Photo source: WW2 Planes

One of the VVS’ primary fighters at the time of the German invasion in June of 1941 was the LaGG-3. Designed by Semyon A. Lavochkin, Vladimir P. Gorbunov and Mikhail I. Gudkov in 1940, the LaGG-3 suffered from an acute lack of power with its Klimov M-105PF inline engine that produced 1,260 horsepower. Soviet pilots generally disliked the fighter. “Pilots didn’t like flying the LaGG-3 – a heavy beast with a weak … engine… They got used to it … but we had higher losses in LaGG-3s than in I-16s,” one Soviet airman, Viktor M. Sinaisky, recalled. The aircraft’s handling was also a source of concern for Soviet pilots, since the fighter had the tendency to enter a spin during steep banking turns. Nevertheless, in the early stages of the Great Patriotic War, the LaGG-3 was an improvement over the VVS’ outdated Polikarpov I-153 and I-15 biplanes, and Soviet airmen learned to accentuate the aircraft’s attributes. Indeed, in the hands of a skilled pilot, the LaGG-3 was an effective machine. For example, the top scoring LaGG-3 ace, Andrey Kulagin, shot down 22 German aircraft and 4 more in a group while flying the underpowered fighter.

Nevertheless, the aircraft’s operational performance, in general, left much to be desired, prompting Semyon Lavochkin to search for ways to increase the LaGG-3’s power. Indeed, the aircraft’s poor service record in the summer of 1941 caused Lavochkin to fall out of favor with the Soviet leadership, and in the fall, factories that had previously been assigned to LaGG-3 production were turned over to building Yakovlev Yak-1s and Yak-7s. In December, Deputy Commissar of Aviation Industry Pyotr Dementyev told Semyon Lavochkin, “the storm is coming down on you. Your days are numbered. Now you must take extraordinary steps to completely change the attitude of the military and the government toward the LaGG-3.”

Lavochkin initially sought to increase the fighter’s power by replacing the M-105PF engine with Klimov’s new M-107. Despite the fact that the new inline engine had significant teething problems of its own (unreliable and prone to overheating), Lavochkin successfully installed an M-107 on an LaGG-3. However, the experiment was decidedly unsuccessful, since all 33 test flights resulted in emergency landings. Meanwhile, an engineer at Lavochkin’s OKB, Semyon Alekseyev, suggested mating Arkadiy Shvetsov’s new M-82 air-cooled radial engine to the LaGG-3’s airframe. Lavochkin himself was convinced that his fighter’s redemption lay in the M-107, but he reluctantly agreed to let Alekseyev and “not more than two or three” other employees work on an M-82-powered LaGG-3.  Tracing its origins to a license-built version of the Wright R-1820 Cyclone radial engine (the M-25), the 14-cylinder M-82 could produce 1,700 horsepower, a significant improvement over the Klimov M-105. Alekseyev believed it would much easier to simply install the M-82 engine on the LaGG-3’s airframe than to design a new aircraft from scratch, and he and his team set about installing the large radial engine on the LaGG-3’s sleek airframe.

Needless to say, this was not a simple task. For one thing, the Shvetsov engine was a full 18 inches (46 centimeters) wider than the Klimov. Moreover, the M-82 was 550 pounds (250 kg) heavier than the M-105, meaning that the new engine would significantly shift the aircraft’s center of gravity forward. Nevertheless, Alekseyev’s team was able to make the necessary adjustments to the LaGG-3’s airframe to allow for the large radial engine to be installed on the narrow fuselage. In order to attach the M-82 to the airframe, Alekseyev’s team bonded plywood skirting to the outer forward fuselage, which helped ease the cumbersome radial engine’s transition onto the LaGG’s airframe. Two variable cooling flaps were installed on both sides of the fuselage, which allowed the 20 mm ShVAK cannons to be mounted above the M-82 (however, this later led to significant problems with the aircraft overheating, since the top cylinders frequently did not benefit from the cooling flaps). Work on the prototype was completed in February 1942 at Plant No. 21 in Gorky, and its inaugural flight of the new aircraft, designated the LaGG-3 M-82, was made the following month.

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Gu-82. Photo source: Airwar.ru

Interestingly, the installation of an M-82 to an LaGG-3 had already been attempted by Mikhail Gudkov, one of the LaGG-3’s original designers, in the summer of 1941. Gudkov took the nose section of a Sukhoi Su-2 light bomber, which also housed an M-82, and attached it to the airframe of an LaGG-3. The resulting aircraft, which was known as the Gu-82, made its first flight in September, and reached a top speed of 360 mph (580 km/h). Though the aircraft did have a number of issues, specifically regarding its stability, initial flight tests showed promise, and it was certainly an improvement over the LaGG-3. In October 1941, Gudkov wrote to Soviet leader Josef Stalin, “Currently, I am carrying out complex developments that give me reason to believe that I will be able to increase the speed of my machine to 600 km/h, without taking into account the elimination of defects in the mass production [of LaGG-3s]… after staying at the front, I distinctly imagine that we need to have an airplane with an air-cooled engine since the use of fighters with liquid-cooled engines in air battles and especially in ground attack against the enemy brings a great percentage of losses in pilots and material, because of the great vulnerability of the water system of the engine… proceeding from these considerations, I ask you, in order to gain time, without waiting for the end of flight testing, to allow me to introduce my aircraft with the M-82 at one of the production plants that produce the LaGG aircraft.” However, Gudkov did not immediately receive a response, and by the time he did, the LaGG-3 M-82 project was already underway, and the Gu-82 was not further pursued. While it is unclear why, exactly, the LaGG-3 M-82 project was chosen instead of the Gu-82, especially since the latter was several months ahead of the former, historians believe that it was due to Lavochkin’s close relationship with members of the Soviet leadership.

In any event, Lavochkin’s new LaGG-3 M-82 performed well during its initial test flights, with test pilot G.A. Mishchenko giving the aircraft all-around positive feedback. However, Mishchenko did mention that the engine tended to overheat, which prompted the OKB to redesign the oil cooler system and to reposition the supercharger air intake system. Though the measures helped, problems with the M-82 overheating would persist throughout the La-5’s and La-7’s production. State trials of the LaGG-3 M-82 continued through April, with the prototype reaching a top speed of 383 mph (600 km/h) at an altitude of 21,160 feet (6,450 meters), faster than any other production aircraft in the Soviet Union at the time. Pleased with the results of the state trials, the VVS NII KA recommended that the fighter be put into serial production, a proposal that was approved on May 19, 1942. Switching over production from the LaGG-3 to the new radial-engined version, now known as the LaG-5, was a slow process, but most of the conversions had been completed by late summer, and in August, 145 LaG-5s were built. The following month, the aircraft lost the G in its designation, and became known simply as the Lavochkin La-5.

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Lagg-3 M-82. Photo source: Airwar.ru

The new fighter had a top speed of 382 mph (582 km/h), an improvement over the LaGG-3, but the La-5 still retained a number of glaring deficiencies. For example, overheating of the M-82 led to the aircraft’s cockpit becoming unbearably hot, which prompted pilots to fly with the canopy open. Moreover, the tail wheel’s retraction mechanism was unreliable, and airmen frequently flew with the wheel in the down position. A combination of these and other factors would often reduce the fighter’s top speed by 25 mph (40 km/h). By the end of 1942, more than 1,000 of the upgraded fighters had been produced, and though the baseline La-5 was a significant improvement over other fighters available to the VVS at the time, it was still slower than the Bf-109 and Fw-190, and had inferior maneuverability. Consequently, the Soviet leadership ordered Shvetsov to begin producing a boosted version of the La-5’s radial engine, and ordered Lavochkin to continue work on improving the fighter.

Shvetsov’s new boosted engine, known as the M-82F, increased the supercharger’s output to 1,760 horsepower below 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). Though the increase in horsepower was not significant, the engine could run at such power with no limitations, whereas the unboosted M-82 could operate at full power for only several minutes. While Shvetsov was finalizing the upgraded radial engine, Lavochkin continued improving the La-5’s airframe, and the decision was made to lower the fuselage decking behind the cockpit and lengthen the canopy to increase the pilot’s field of vision. Similarly, the aircraft’s cowling joints were sealed and its oil cooler ducts were reshaped. The upgraded La-5, known as the La-5F, went into production in November of 1942, and was sent to frontline units in early 1943.

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An La-5F in flight.

However, many of the issues that plagued the baseline La-5 persisted in the F variant. The overheating problem of the M-82 continued in the M-82F, and pilots continued to complain that the cockpit would become too warm. According to famous Soviet writer Anatoly Markushi, “the pilots were tortured by the African heat in the cabin, and the soles of the sergeants’ boots were caked and cracked after ten flights.” As was the case with the baseline La-5, pilots would frequently fly with the canopy open, which increased drag and decreased speed. Nevertheless, when the La-5F entered service in early 1943, it was a vast improvement over most other Soviet fighters at the time, and Soviet pilots were willing to tolerate a degree of discomfort if it meant flying a faster and more maneuverable aircraft. Indeed, with a top speed of 364 mph (586 km/h) at an altitude of 12,00 feet (3,658 meters), the La-5F was faster than the Luftwaffe’s new Fw-190A-4 at this altitude.

As the F variant was reaching frontline units, Shvetsov was testing the new variant of his radial engine, the M-82FN, which featured direct fuel injection. The new engine could produce 1,850 horsepower, and featured an improved NB-3U injection pump. The M-82FN-powered La-5 received the designation La-5FN, and featured a number of ostensibly minor changes in an attempt to eradicate the deficiencies of previous La-5 models. The most significant of these alterations was a tighter fitting firewall along the cowling and oil cooler insulation, which helped decrease cockpit temperature. Moreover, the engine’s cylinder ribbing was enlarged to improve cooling in flight. The first La-5FN was tested in December of 1942 using an older “highback” airframe, and in March, a second La-5FN prototype was built using the latest “lowback” fuselage. At the end of the month, the second prototype underwent state trials, during which it reached a top speed of 372 mph (599 km/h) at low altitudes, 390 mph (628 km/h) at 10,500 feet (3,200 meters), and 405 mph (652km/h)  at 20,500 feet (6,250 meters). What is more, the aircraft demonstrated greatly improved handling characteristics and maneuverability. This new variant would become the definitive version of the aircraft that would have such a tremendous impact on the war on the Eastern Front.

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La-5FN. Photo source: Airwar.ru

The La-5FN had its first major success at the Battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943. Though Kursk is well-known for being the largest tank battle in history, aircraft on both sides played significant roles, providing close air support and air coverage for ground troops. La-5FNs by this time were flown by the 3rd GIAP, 88th GIAP, 31 IAP, 131th IAP (40th GIAP), 239th IAP, 254th IAP, and 272nd IAP. While the Luftwaffe maintained air superiority during the first part of the battle, the Soviet pilots in La-5FNs were eventually able to show German airmen that the new plane not only had significant firepower, it had the speed and maneuverability to match the Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs. Indeed, the La-5FN’s climb rate and turning radius were superior to those of the Fw 190A-8A, and its roll rate was slightly better than the Bf-109. The new Lavochkin in the hands of a skilled Soviet pilot was as deadly as anything on the battlefield. Some exploits of Lavochkin pilots have become legendary. One A.K. Horowitz, for example, is believed to have shot down nine German planes in a single battle near Kursk, though only six were confirmed (two Ju-87s, two Ju-88s, and two FW-190s). Later that same day, Horowitz was killed in a battle against four enemy fighters. He was posthumously awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union.

Similarly, in July, in the skies northeast of Kursk, several La-5 pilots shot down two Fw-190s piloted by Major Reinhard Seiler and Lieutenant Hugo Hunerfield of JG 54. Both Luftwaffe pilots were seasoned aces, with Seiler having 102 victories and Hunerfield 28. Both pilots ejected. Hunerfield was captured by Soviet ground forces. Seiler was rescued by German troops and sent back to the Reich for hospital treatment, where he was declared unfit for further combat duties. Such episodes in the skies over Kursk made it clear that the Soviet Union had developed an aircraft after two years of war that could match, and in many ways exceed, the performance of German fighters.

That same summer, a new La-5FN made a forced landing on a German airfield, which provided the Luftwaffe with a chance to examine and test-fly the VVS’ new fighter, and the results were sobering. The aircraft was sent to Germany to undergo extensive testing at the Luftwaffe Research Center in Rechlin. German test pilot Hans-Werner Lerche wrote a detailed report of his experiences flying the La-5FN, explaining that the new Soviet fighter excelled at altitudes below 3,000 meters, and its performance at this altitude was comparable to Luftwaffe fighters. He also noted that the new Lavochkin possessed superior maneuverability in some regards. Both German fighters, however, outperformed the La-5FN at higher altitudes, though given the fact that the majority of the air war over the Eastern Front was fought below 10,00 feet (3,000 meters), this was often not a problem.

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Captured La-5FN. Photo source: Airwar.ru

Lerche also discovered numerous problems with the new Lavochkin, though these defects would be eradicated by Soviet engineers in what would become the La-5’s successor, the La-7. For example, all engine controls in the La-5FN’s cockpit had separate control levers, meaning the pilot had to make constant adjustments during the flight. In contrast, contemporary German fighters had integrated controls, so only one lever was needed to control throttle, mixture, propeller pitch, radiator and cowl flaps. In addition, the German test pilot noted that the aircraft suffered from a short flight time- only about 40 minutes at cruise engine power. Despite these shortcoming, however, Lerche acknowledged that the La-5FN was a significant improvement over the Soviet fighters that had gone up against Luftwaffe pilots earlier in the war.

Following the successful development of the La-5, the Soviet industrial machine, which had recently recovered after being moved eastward away from the German advance in 1941 and 1942, produced a total of 5,048 La-5s of all variants in 1943, the majority of which were manufactured at the Sokol Aircraft-Building Plant in Nizhny Novgorod. A further 3,826 were built in 1944, though the number decreased when the upgraded La-7 began being produced in April. Production switched completely to the La-7 in November of that year.

Up against the German Luftwaffe, the La-5FN was as deadly as any other aircraft on the Eastern Front. The Soviet Union’s top ace, Ivan Kozhedub, scored the majority of his 64 victories flying his La-5FN. Following their introduction, the Lavochkins made a significant contribution to the VVS gaining air superiority over the Eastern Front. From Kursk all the way to Berlin, the La-5 played a crucial role in the last two years of the war. The Lavochkin La-5, as much as anything, is symbol of the Soviet Union’s industrial and military recovery in 1943. The momentum would take the Red Army and VVS all the way to Berlin in 1945.

-Patrick Kinville

Bibliography

  1. Khazanov, Dmitriy & Medved, Aleksander. La-5/7 vs Fw-190: Eastern Front 1942-1945. Osprey Publishing, 2011.
  2. Moore, Jason. Lavochkin Fighters of the Second World War. Fonthill Media, 2016.
  3. Yakubovich, Nikolai. Istrebitel La-5: Koshmarnii Son, Bubnovikh Tuzov. Yauza, Eksmo, 2008.
  4. Yakubovich, Nikolai. Neizvestnii Lavochkin. Yauza, Eksmo, 2012.
  5. Baevskii, Georgii. Stalinskie Sokoli Provit Asov Luftvaffe.
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  7. Khazanov, Dmitriy. Air War Over Kursk: Turning Point in the East. SAM Publications, 2010.