The Soviet Union’s B-29 Superfortresses

Although the Soviet Union requested that the United States provide strategic bombers as part of the Lend-Lease program, such requests were repeatedly denied by the Western Allies. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union did fly and operate a number of American and British strategic bombers that had made forced landings on Soviet territory. Among the numerous B-17s, B-25s, B-24s and Lockheed Venturas that ended up in Soviet hands were four B-29 Superfortress bombers which at the time were the most advanced aircraft the world had ever seen. These four airframes would eventually be used as a blueprint for the Tupolev Tu-4 strategic bomber, which was a direct copy of the B-29.

The Soviet Union obtained its first Superfortress in July of 1944 when a B-29-5-BW named Ramp Tramp (USAAF serial 42-6256) of the 462nd Bomb Group/770th Bomb Squad made an emergency landing at a Soviet Naval Air Arm base in Tsentralnaya-Uglovaya, about 30 km east of Vladivostok. The B-29, which had been part of a 96-ship formation that had taken off from Chengtu, China to bomb the Showa Steel Works at Anshan in Manchuria, experienced engine problems while returning from the raid (some sources claim electrical problems, others say it was hit by Japanese anti-aircraft fire). While the damage was not severe, the aircraft, piloted by Captain Howard R. Jarrell, had been the last to take off from Chengtu on the 1,650-mile mission, and it took the crew two hours at a high-power setting to catch up with the rest of the formation. Consequently, despite the otherwise minor damage, Jarrell determined that the aircraft would not be able to make it back to base and opted to fly towards Soviet airspace, as US pilots had been ordered to do in such situations. While still over Japanese territory, the crew began destroying written manuals, orders codebooks and instructions. Upon crossing into Soviet airspace, the B-29 was intercepted by Yak-9 fighters and escorted to Tsentralnaya-Uglovaya, where the damaged Superfortress made a successful emergency landing.

Though the US and the Soviet Union were allies in the war against Germany, the latter had signed a Pact of Neutrality with Japan in April of 1941, two months before the German military launched Operation Barbarossa. The pact, which was valid for a period of five years, stipulated that,  “Should one of the Contracting Parties become the object of hostilities on the part of one or several third powers, the other Contracting Party will observe neutrality throughout the duration of the conflict.”[1] Consequently, as the US public learned in the wake of the Doolittle Raid in April of 1942, US aircraft that made forced landings on Soviet territory and the USAAF crews who piloted those aircraft would be interned on legal grounds for the duration of the war. Moscow was strict in its observance of this pact; had a war broken out between the Soviet military and Japan prior to the defeat of Germany, the results would have been catastrophic for the Soviet Union, at least earlier in the war.

Another Superfortress, this time a B-29A-1-BN christened Cait Paomat II (serial number 42-93829) of the 440th Bomb Group/395th Bomb Squad, ended up in Soviet hands the following month (August 20th, 1944). This aircraft, which was piloted by Richard McGlinn and had taken off from Chengtu China as part of a 75-ship formation, was damaged during a raid against the Imperial Steel & Iron Works in Yawata in mainland Japan. The damage to the B-29, which had unknowingly strayed into Soviet airspace, was so severe that the crew opted to bail out of the aircraft. All eleven crew members parachuted to safety and the empty aircraft itself crashed into Sikhote-Alin mountain range near the city of Khabarovsk, just across the border from China. The crew, however, found themselves separated in the vast wilderness of Siberia. After several weeks in the wild, the USAAF airmen encountered a village, the members of which contacted the proper authorities. Despite minor injuries, all eleven crew members survived the ordeal in the Siberian wilderness and joined their fellow interned countrymen. The aircraft itself sustained significant damage in the crash. Nevertheless, the wreckage was collected and delivered to Moscow for examination. The wing section of this aircraft would later be used for the Tu-70 program (a passenger variant of the Tu-4).

General ArnoldThe third Superfortress to arrive in the Soviet Union was a B-29-15-BW (serial number 42-6365), named General H.H. Arnold Special of the 468th Bomb Group/794th Bomb Squadron. On November 11th, 1944, this particular B-29 was flying as a pathfinder aircraft for a 27-ship formation that took off from Pengshan, China that was tasked with bombing an aircraft factory in Omura on Kyushu Island, Japan. On the way to the target, the formation flew through the eye of a typhoon, which caused the General H.H. Arnold Special to lose one engine, its central fire control system and its radar. When it emerged from the storm, the crew found themselves far off course to the north, and they opted to fly to the Soviet Far East. Upon crossing into Soviet airspace, the B-29 was intercepted by Soviet fighters and escorted to Tsentralnaya-Uglovaya, where the aircraft and crew were interned.

42-8358Ten days later, another B-29-15-BW (42-6358), named Ding Hao! of the same Bomb Group & Bomb Squadron as the General H.H. Arnold Special, was part of a 62-ship raid on the Omura aircraft factory. Over Japan, the Superfortresses encountered heavy opposition from Japanese fighter and from light bombers that dropped phosphorous explosives onto the formation. Consequently, only 27 B-29s reached the intended target and another 13 managed to bomb secondary targets. Eight of the Superfortresses failed to return from the mission, including Ding Hao!, which, during the attack, had been hit by machine gun fire from a Japanese fighter. 42-6358’s copilot, Jack Schaefer, had recently joined to rest of the crew overseas, and the raid on the Omura plant was his first combat mission. According to him, “Being hit by enemy fire was nothing new for the rest of the crew. They were on their ninth mission and this had happened before. It was new for me, but I was so busy doing my job that I didn’t realize we had been hit until the engineer shut down no. 3. He advised the pilot that no. 4 was doubtful as well. I had been on several training flights where we had lost an engine, so I was not all that concerned. The pilot conferred with the engineer and the navigator and made the decision that we would not have enough fuel to get back beyond enemy lines. After reviewing our options, we decided to head north to Vladivostok in the Soviet Union.” Upon crossing into Soviet airspace, Ding Hao! was intercepted by Yak-9s and escorted to Tsentralnaya-Uglovaya. All crew members survived.

The accounts of the US airmen who were interned in the Soviet Union tend to emphasize a less than warm reception upon setting foot on Soviet territory. Schaefer recalls that Ding Hao!, upon landing at Tsentralnaya-Uglovaya, was surrounded by military vehicles and the crew were ordered out at gunpoint. Some sources indicate that the crew of Ramp Tramp, the first B-29 to make a forced landing in the Soviet Far East, were questioned by Soviet military police and were not allowed to speak to the American Consulate for more than a week. The US crews were undoubtedly treated with some degree of suspicion upon landing in Soviet territory, and the situation was almost certainly exacerbated by the language barrier, but their reception is somewhat understandable considering the security situation at the time.

The US crews were first interned in Khabarovsk, about 400 miles north of Vladivostok, and were later transported to Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where they, along with the crew of other US bombers that were interned, were held in what had been a Russian nobleman’s estate prior to the 1917 revolution. Recollections of the interned servicemen paint a bleak picture that indicate the camp was little different from a POW prison. While the internees were undoubtedly prisoners held in a prison, the camp’s conditions were comfortable for the Soviet Union and were considered superior to the conditions of Soviet soldiers in Red Army reserve units. Rooms held 15-20 US servicemen, they were given decent food (by Soviet standards), they were allowed to play sports and play games. Nevertheless, the US airmen understandably felt only bitterness towards their jailers.

About 130 internees were held at the camp, and in January of 1945, they were allowed to “escape”, which served the purpose of freeing the US servicemen while allowing Moscow to appear innocent in the eyes of Tokyo. Following the blueprint for an NKVD orchestrated “escape” that had successfully been executed on two prior occasions, the airmen were transported to Ashkhabad on January 25th and then on to Kizil-Arvat via train, a three-day journey, and early on January 28th they were transported across the border into Iran aboard lend-lease Studebaker US6 trucks. From there, they were given fresh uniforms and returned to the United States. The formerly interned servicemen were given strict orders to remain silent, one of the conditions demanded by Moscow for the release of the airmen. A letter received by Schaeffer’s father by the US War Department stated, “Reference is made to the previous letter from this office informing you that your son, Second Lieutenant John K. Schaefer, 0771810, was safe and interned in a neutral country. A further report has been received that he was returned to duty. You are urgently requested not to publicize the fact that he was interned, for such publicity is not considered to be in the best interest of the country, and may jeopardize any chance of release of other Americans who may be interned.”

Ramp Tramp, General H.H. Arnold Special and Ding Hao! all sustained some damage but were nevertheless far from being written off. The surviving Superfortresses sat in storage at Tsentralnaya-Uglovaya where the USAAF insignia were replaced by Soviet red stars and Soviet-style serial numbers based on the aircraft’s originals (for example, 42-6256 was given the Soviet serial 256 Black, 42-6358 was given 358 Black and 52-6365 was given 365 Black). In early 1945, the Soviet Naval Aviation’s Vice Chief of Flight Inspection, Lieutenant Colonel Semyon Reidel, was tasked with ferrying Ramp Tramp (256 Black) to the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI) in Zhukovskiy outside Moscow where it would be subject to close examination. Reidel spoke English and had the assistance of two A-20 pilots from the Black Sea fleet who were familiar with US-built aircraft as well as several engineers from the Pacific Fleet. Together, the team was able to repair 256 Black and carry out all necessary ground checks, despite the fact that they did not have the proper equipment to maintain such a sophisticated aircraft. Flight tests in the Vladivostok area were carried out until January 21, 1945 which allowed Reidel and his crew to get accustomed to the complex bomber. While the B-29 had enough range to fly from the Soviet Far East to Moscow non-stop, the crew wanted to err on the side of caution and opted to stop in Chita, Krasnoyarsk and Taincha.

In April of 1945, Moscow denounced the neutrality pact with Japan. By this point in the war, the threat of Japanese retaliation against the Soviet Union was non-existent. While Moscow had agreed to join the allies’ war against Japan shortly after Germany’s capitulation, the denunciation of the neutrality pact was not tantamount to a declaration of war, and international law specified that USAAF airmen who made emergency landings in Soviet territory should still be interned for the duration of the conflict.

All three B-29s were eventually repaired and transported to Moscow, where Andrei Tupolev and his OKB were tasked with accelerating the Soviet Union’s strategic bombing development program by reverse-engineering the Superfortress. While the story of the resulting Tupolev Tu-4 deserves a post of its own, the OKB and others bureaus in the Soviet defense industry were successful in their task, and the first “Bull” made its flight less than two years after the end of the war.



Yefim Gordon,  Dmitriy Komissarov, Vladimir Rigmant, Tupolev Tu-4: The First Soviet Strategic Bomber.

Otis Hays Jr. Home from Siberia: The Secret Odysseys of Interned American Airmen in World War II.

Michael Heberling and Jack Schaefer. “Superfort Crew’s Siberian Odyssey”.

Vladimir Kotelnikov. Lend-Lease and Soviet Aviation in the Second World War.

Steve Pace. Boeing B-29 Superfortress.

Nikolai Yakubovych. Letayashchuie Superkreposti B-29 i Tu-4: Yadernii Otvet Stalina. 


The Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-1 & MiG-3 High-Altitude Interceptors

While the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-3 is certainly one of the more identifiable Soviet fighters of the Second World War, it rarely had the opportunity to be used as a high-altitude interceptor, the role for which it was designed. After Germany launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, it quickly became clear to the VVS that the Soviet Union’s other late-1930s monoplane designs, namely the Yak-1 and LaGG-3, were far more effective against German aircraft in the low-altitude air war on the Eastern Front. Indeed, by 1943, the vast majority of the more than 3,000 MiG piston-engined fighters that had been built had either been destroyed or had been withdrawn from frontline service. Mikoyan and Gurevich made several attempts at upgrading the MiG-3 throughout the war, and neither these variants nor their other piston-engined designs (I-220, I-221, and I-222) entered serial production. It wasn’t until the immediate post war period, when Mikoyan and Gurevich designed the MiG-15, that the two would secure their place on the list of great Soviet aviation designers.

Work on what would become the MiG-3 started in 1939, when Nikolai Polikarpov, the Soviet “King of Fighters”, launched a project to develop a high-altitude monoplane interceptor. The new project was designed around the promising yet unreliable Mikulin AM-37 engine. Designed for use in a high-altitude bomber, a project that never materialized, the AM-37 was 12-cylinder liquid-cooled engine that generated 1,350 horsepower and featured boosted supercharging. After the People’s Commissariat of the Aviation Industry (NKAP), Mikhail Kaganovich, suggested that Polikarpov use the new engine in his next design, Polikarpov began preliminary drafts of what became known as Project Kh (X).

The project was launched in June 1939, but due to developmental issues with another one of Polikarpov’s design, the I-180, work on the Kh was, at first, little more than an afterthought. Indeed, it wasn’t until August that Polikarpov put together a team to carry out the design phase of the new aircraft, which was composed of Mikhail Gurevich, Alexey Karev, Nikolay Matyuk, Y.Seletskiy and Vladimir Romodin. The team, under Polikarpov’s leadership, sought to construct the smallest possible aircraft around the AM-37 in order to minimize weight and drag. Attempting to meet a requirement issued by the VVS for a high-altitude fighter, Project Kh was to have a maximum speed of 531 km/h (330 mph) at low altitudes and 670 km/h (416 mph) at 7,000 meters (22,965 feet). The aircraft was also designed to be easily mass produced, specifically at Polikarpov’s Zavod No. 1. In a report written on the design phase of Project Kh, Polikarpov highlighted that the, “removable wing panels, detachable fuselage (wooden rear part and metallic aft part) and the undercarriage… give wide opportunities of mass production.” Moreover, the fighter was to have a significant amount of commonality with Polikarpov’s other fighters which would have further facilitated mass production of all aircraft at Zavod No. 1.

However, Polikarpov’s plans for Project Kh hit an abrupt halt when, upon returning from a visit to Germany as part of a trade delegation in November 1939, the famed Soviet aircraft designer learned that a new Experimental Design Department (OKO) had been established at Zavod No. 1 in his absence. Though Polikarpov remained the factory’s chief designer, Project Kh was put under the control of the new OKO which operated autonomously from the rest of the plant. The new Experimental Design Department was led by Artyom Mikoyan, who had been appointed the VVS’ representative at Zavod No. 1 earlier in the year and had been responsible for ensuring efficiency and quality at the factory. In addition to becoming the head of the OKO, Mikoyan was made Deputy Chief Designer of Zavod No. 1. To add insult to injury, approximately 80 members of Polikarpov’s staff were transferred to the OKO, including Vladimir Romodin and Mikhail Gurevich. Needless to say, the Soviet Union’s “King of Fighters” was displeased with the situation, but accepted that his fall from grace could have been much worse (many in the Soviet leadership held him responsible for the death of famous Soviet test pilot Valery Chkalov, who was killed while flying the I-180 prototype). Meanwhile, other events that occurred during Polikarpov’s trip to Germany solidified the future of Project Kh. In November, a commission was set up at Zavod No. 1 to determine which aircraft should replace the I-153 Chaika that was then in production. The commission initially leaned towards Yakovlev’s I-26 that would later become the Yak-1, but eventually decided on Project Kh. This decision ensured that the new fighter would be given the highest priority.

At the end of November, the newly-created OKO was able to focus its efforts on continuing the development of Project Kh. At only 34 years of age, Artyom Mikoyan acknowledged his lack of experience, and insisted that Mikhail Gurevich, who had been a member of the Project Kh team since its inception, become his principal deputy. Though initial sketches and designs had been completed under Polikarpov’s leadership, a significant amount of design work had to be done. Under the new OKO, Project Kh was redesignated I-200, though internally the aircraft was known as Izdeliye 61 (article 61). Work on the design of the aircraft accelerated under the project’s new leadership, and on December 25th, 1939, an initial mock-up was approved by the VVS, and all drawings were completed by early February 1940. However, the AM-37 engine was unfortunately not ready, and the less powerful AM-35A engine had to be used instead. The AM-35A was also a supercharged V-12 engine, but it only generated 1,200 horsepower and had a weight disadvantage. The downgraded engine lowered the aircraft’s projected top speed to 640 km/h (397 mph) at 7,000 meters (23,000 feet). Nevertheless, the NKAP insisted that the development of the aircraft continue at full speed, and in March the OKO was ordered to build three prototypes of the new interceptor and to prepare for its serial production at Zavod No. 1.


I-200-1 Prototype. Open Source.

The first prototype (unarmed) was completed on March 31st, 1940. On April 5th, test pilot Arkadiy Yekatov took the I-200 to the air for the first time. Flight tests of the first prototype continued over the next month, and Yekatov even flew the aircraft during the annual May Day flypast. The second prototype was completed on April 25th and made its first flight on May 9th. Construction of the third prototype was delayed due to synchronization issues with the weapons and propellers, but it eventually made its first flight on June 6th. The first two prototypes began factory tests immediately after their construction was finished. The first prototype was able to reach a top speed of 651 km/h (404 mph) at 7,000 meters (23,000 feet), slightly higher than initial projections. Due to the results of these early flights, the NKAP ordered the OKO to prepare for serial production of the I-200, several months before the completion of factory and state trials. By the time the prototypes had cleared factory tests in August, Zavod No. 1 had ceased production of the BB-22 bomber and had tooled up for serial production of the I-200. After accelerated state acceptance trials in September, the head of the main directorate of the VVS RKKA, Lieutenant General of Aviation P.V. Rygchagov, noted in a report written on the results of state trials that, “the aircraft I-200 with an AM-35A, developed by engineers Mikoyan and Gurevich… in its speed equal to 628 km/h, is the best among tested domestic aircraft and is not inferior to similar foreign aircraft at altitudes above 5,000 meters.”

With the rapid design, development and construction of the I-200 prototypes, teething problems and performance problems were almost inevitable. Indeed, though the VVS cleared the I-200 for serial production, concerns were raised over the aircraft’s stability, or lack thereof. Nevertheless, remaining consistent with the project’s accelerated schedule, the fighter was put into serial production and given the designation MiG-1. The first examples were sent to the Kachinsk Military School of Pilots and to the 41st IAP for operational evaluations. By the end of the year, approximately 100 MiG-1s had rolled off Zavod No. 1’s assembly line, and in early 1941, the high-altitude interceptors started arriving at frontline units. Almost immediately, the fighter’s deficiencies came to the foreground. The most glaring problem was the aircraft’s proclivity to enter an uncontrollable spin, brought on in part by the airframe’s heavy rear. Unlike other issues with the MiG-1, such as the lack of ventilation in the cockpit and the canopy that tended to stick, problems that were easily remedied, the center of gravity situation did not have a practical or realistic fix. Instead, Soviet pilots would become accustomed to the handling of the MiG-1 and later MiG-3, and pilot instructors would highlight the aircraft’s difficult handling when teaching cadets to fly the sleek fighter.


A production MiG-1. Source:

Zavod No. 1 was acutely aware of the MiG-1’s defects, and a large number of changes were introduced intermittently into the production line throughout the end of 1940. The most significant alterations included moving the engine 100 mm (4 inches) forward in an attempt to improve stability, and the installation of a new OP-310 water radiator. Similarly, the supercharger air intakes were streamlined, the cockpit canopy glazing was extended aft to improve rearward visibility, and the landing gear was reinforced. The cockpit’s instrument layout was improved , and an upgraded PBP-1A gunsight was installed. The number of underwing hardpoints was increased, as was the ammunition supply for the two ShkAS machine guns (750 rounds per gun). The culmination of these changes led to a new I-200 prototype (I-200 No. 4), which took to the air for the first time in late October 1940. After quickly passing acceptance trials at NII VVS, the first official MiG-3 (new designation) was completed on December 20th, 1940. By the end of the year, 19 MiG-3’s had been built, along with 92 MiG-1s, many of which contained some or nearly all of the MiG-3’s alterations.

Though many of the MiG-1’s defects were eradicated in the MiG-3, the new fighter’s performance lagged behind its predecessor. The changes to the MiG-1 resulted in a weight increase of 250 kg (550 pounds), which in turn decreased the aircraft’s maneuverability and rate of climb. For example, the time it took the MiG-3 to reach an altitude of 5,000 meters (16,400’) was a full minute longer than the MiG-1. Similarly, the aircraft’s ceiling decreased by 500 meters (1,640’). Nevertheless, the fighter’s stability improved considerably, it could carry more ammunition, and it top speed was higher. However, though better than the MiG-1, the MiG-3’s range (820 km/509 miles) fell far below VVS requirements. Nevertheless, the VVS was sufficiently pleased with the MiG-3 to plan for the production of 3,600 in 1941 (3,500 at Zavod No. 1 and 100 at Zavod No. 43 in Kiev).


Pokryshkin and his MiG-3. Source:

In early 1941, various VVS, PVO and VMF squadrons began receiving the new MiG-3, and by the time the German military launched Operation Barbarossa on June 22, just under 1,000 of the new fighters had been sent to operational regiments (MiG-1s and MiG-3s). Though the MiG-1/3 was fast and powerful, its handling characteristics differed significantly from what even the most seasoned VVS veterans were accustomed to. Indeed, the VVS regiments that were equipped with the new fighter had transitioned from Polikarpov’s nimble fighters of the 1930s, aircraft that could perform tight turns at low speeds at low altitudes. The MiG-3 was designed for high-speed aerial combat above 5,000 meters. Consequently, Soviet pilots had a difficult time transitioning to the new fighter that had wide banking turns even at slower speeds. Famed Soviet ace Alexander Pokryshkin’s regiment, the 55th IAP, received their MiGs two months before the outbreak of war. Though Pokryshkin would become legendary while flying a Bell P-39 Airacobra, he fondly remembered the MiG-3, while at the same time acknowledging its lack of maneuverability. In his memoir, Nebo Voini (The Sky of War), Pokryshkin wrote, “The MiG-3 fighter, with which our regiment met enemy aircraft on June 22, demanded a lot of new skills and additional learning efforts from the pilot. I liked this machine immediately. It could be compared to a strict, hot-tempered horse: in the hands of a strong-willed rider, it rushes like an arrow; if you lost control it would trample you with its hooves. In general, designers rarely manage to translate their thoughts into flight and fire characteristics with the same effect. In any design, weak points are inevitable. But in each new fighter of those years we saw our technical and creative victories. The excellent fighting qualities of the MiG-3 were, as it were, hidden behind some of its shortcomings. The advantages of this machine became apparent only to those pilots who possessed the ability to find and use them.” Pokryshkin, as one such pilot, would go on to claim ten German aircraft shot down while flying a MiG-3.

Like all operational Soviet aircraft at the time, the MiGs suffered heavy losses in the first days of the war, both in the air and on the ground. Of the 917 MiGs in the five western military districts on the eve of the German invasion, only 234 survived the first two days of the war. The 9th SAD, which had 230 MiG-1s and MiG-3s in its inventory on June 22, had ceased to exist by June 25, with all of its fighters being destroyed (the division’s pilots, however, reported shooting down 85 German aircraft in this time period, undoubtedly exaggerated). All across the Eastern Front, Soviet pilots found themselves engaged against high-quality German aircraft below 5,000 meters (16,400’), where the MiGs were inferior to the Luftwaffe’s Bf-109Es. Though there were isolated cases of Soviet MiG-3 success against the Luftwaffe in those fateful days, the stark reality was that the Soviet military was grossly unprepared for a German invasion, despite clear and convincing evidence that Berlin was planning such an attack. In any event, with approximately 75% of all MiG fighters destroyed on the first day of the war, the remaining aircraft and pilots were tasked with slowing down the German onslaught for long enough for replacement regiments to be formed and for the Soviet aviation industry to produce more aircraft which, in many cases, involved a full evacuation eastward to the other side of the Ural Mountains.

Famed test pilot Stepan Supron is credited with being the driving force behind the rapid replacement of MiG-3 regiments. Seeking to demonstrate that Soviet pilots could fly the MiG effectively given proper training, Supron suggested that five new regiments be created that would be staffed by test pilots from NII VVS, OKBs, and the VVS. Two such regiments were formed with MiG-3s: the 401st IAP, commanded by Supron, and the 402nd IAP, commanded by Pyotr Stefanovsky. The two regiments were equipped with 67 new MiG-3s, and deployed to the front on June 30th. Stationed at Zubovo near Smolensk, the MiGs of the 401st IAP were used for ground attack sorties, reconnaissance purposes, and as low or medium altitude fighters. On July 2nd and 3rd, the regiment claimed eight German aircraft shot down. On the 4th, Supron alone attacked a group of German aircraft, downing a Ju-88 before being shot down by a Bf-109. Supron died, and was posthumously awarded his second Gold Star Hero of the Soviet Union. The 402nd, stationed near Leningrad, also found success against the Luftwaffe, with Captain Proshakov shooting down a German aircraft during a night sortie. As replacement pilots were found and trained, the test pilots of the 401st and 402nd IAPs returned to their normal jobs. Later that summer, both regiments were transferred to Moscow’s PVO system.


MiG-3. Source:

From Moscow to Leningrad, Sevastopol to Karelia, MiG-3s were used all across the Eastern Front in the summer and fall of 1941. MiG-3s were rolling off Zavod No. 1’s assembly line at an increasing pace, and pilots were being trained specifically to fly the high-speed fighter. In the skies over Moscow, MiG-3s played a crucial role in defending the former capital from German bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. From the start of the war, the PVO’s 6th IAK, equipped with MiG-3s and other fighters, were tasked solely with air defense of the Soviet capital. With its rate of climb and good performance at high altitudes, the MiG-3 was considered to be the best fighter for the task, though Luftwaffe reconnaissance crews would come to learn that Soviet interceptors, including the MiGs, could not reach higher altitudes. Consequently, experienced German crews would simply fly their reconnaissance missions above 8,000 meters, beyond the range of the PVO’s interceptors. MiG-3s were similarly used during the defense of Leningrad in the north, where the fighters were tasked with intercepting German bombers and reconnaissance aircraft. The 7th IAK, which was comprised of Polikarpov I-153s and I-16s in addition to the MiG-3s, was heralded for repeatedly preventing the penetration of German Ju-88s into Soviet airspace in the summer of 1941.


MiG-3 with RS-82. Source:

MiG-3s were also pressed into service as ground attack aircraft, a role for which they were not designed. Fitted with 50kg- 100kg bombs and later with RS-82 rockets, MiG-3 pilots would carry out low altitude ground attack sorties against German-held positions. Ivan Bistrov, a MiG pilot with the 41st IAP, recalled one instance while attacking the city of Novgorod-Seversky: “All MiG-3 aircraft were equipped with two 50-100 kg suspended bombs. When approaching the city at an altitude of 2000 m we were met with a powerful barrage of anti-aircraft fire. The anti-aircraft guns were firing with short interruptions. I had never seen such anti-aircraft fire in the whole war, it was so dense. One of the volleys covered the left flank of the group, where Lieutenant Georgy Chistyakov’s unit was. All three aircraft went down in flames, killing Chisyatkov and his leading junior lieutenants Grigory Gagushin and Ilya Kostyashin. Despite such heavy fire, the regiment successfully dropped its bombs and stormed the enemy’s troops and equipment. The impact was palpable, cars were burning, gasoline tank trucks were exploding, in the air interwoven tracks that were flying to the ground from our aircrafts, and trails of German Oerlikon 20 mm rapid-fire guns.”

In October 1941, as the Wehrmacht was rapidly moving eastwards to Moscow, the decision was made to transport Zavod No. 1 and its OKO to Kubishev on the other side of the Ural mountains. Shortly thereafter, Soviet leader Josef Stalin ordered that the production of the Ilyushin Il-2 ground attack aircraft be accelerate and that Zavod No. 1 halt production of the MiG-3 in favor of the Il-2. As stated in Stalin’s now famous telegram, “The Red Army needs the Il-2 like it needs air and bread. Making one a day is an insult. We need Il-2s, not MiGs… this is my last warning.” By the time production ceased, a total of 3,120 MiG-3s had been built. During the spring and summer of 1942, they were gradually replaced by Yak-1s and LaGG-3s in most units, though the PVO and VMF continued to fly MiGs, but in greatly reduced numbers. One ground crewman stationed at Tushino, Nikolay Kolbasnikov, recalled, “We mainly serviced MiG-3 night fighters. These planes did not last long, as they were very heavy and clumsy. By 1942, most of these planes had been shot down by the Germans or destroyed in accidents.”

In 1942 and 1943, Mikoyan and Gurevich undertook a number of attempts to improve the performance of the MiG fighter, though ultimately none of the modified fighters went into serial production. One of the more notable experimental versions of the MiG-3 was the U variant. In February 1943, OKB-155 was instructed to develop a special air defense variant of the MiG-3 single-engine fighter that would be used by PVO units to intercept high-altitude German reconnaissance aircraft. According to the requirements put forth by the GKO (State Defense Committee), the improved variant (uluchshenniy, improved= U, MiG-3U) was to have a maximum speed of 670 km/h (416 mph), a ceiling of 12,500 meters (41,000 feet), and the ability to reach an altitude of 10,000 meters (32,800 feet) in 13 minutes. In order to meet these specifications, OKB-155 made a number of modifications to the airframe of the baseline MiG-3, such as extending the fuselage and moving the cockpit aft. Moreover, the MiG-3U featured upgraded equipment, including a new radio and an updated oxygen system. A total of six prototypes were built (D-01, D-02, D-03, D-04, D-05, and D-06). The first prototype, D-01, made its inaugural flight on May 31st, 1943, and though the aircraft’s performance fell short of the GKO’s requirements, the prototype did pass state acceptance trials. Shortly thereafter, four of the prototypes were transferred to the PVO’s 12th GIAP for operational testing. The regiment’s MiG-3Us achieved a level of success against the high-altitude Junkers Ju-86s that flew reconnaissance sorties over the Soviet capital. On one mission, a MiG-3U and a Yak-9D came within 1 km (3,300 feet) of a Ju-86 that was flying at an altitude of 13,000 meters (42,650 feet). After several months in service with the 12th GIAP, the MiG-3Us were withdrawn from service, due primarily to the fact that the aircraft were extremely difficult to land.

In another experimental variant, OKB-155 attempted to improve the MiG-3’s performance and maneuverability by installing a Shvetsov M-82 radial engine on the airframe of a MiG-3. The aircraft would receive the designation I-211 (sometimes referred to as MiG-9E). Naturally, significant changes needed to be made to the MiG-3’s sleek airframe to allow for it to accommodate the bulky M-82. In addition to the new nose, the fighter’s cockpit was moved aft 24.5 cm (9.6 inches) and raised 100 mm (3.9 inches). Moreover, the oil cooler was moved completely inside the fuselage, and its inlets were moved to the wing roots. Its tail was also raised. Work on the new aircraft lasted through 1942, and it was assembled in January 1943. By this time, an upgraded version of the M-82, the M-82F, became available, and was installed in the I-211’s airframe. The prototype took to the air for the first time on February 23, 1943 and was flown by test pilot N.V. Sakin. During flight tests, the aircraft reached a top speed of 670 km/h (416 mph), and it reached an altitude of 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) in only four minutes, both of which were significant improvements over the MiG-3. Despite the excellent results of OKB-155’s flight tests, the I-211 did not enter state acceptance trials. By this time, serial production of the La-5FN was in full swing, and design of its improved successor, the La-7, was underway. Consequently, the demand for a radial-engine variant of the MiG-3 had disappeared, and OKB-155 instead began work on improved designs that would use a newer generation of liquid-cooled engines.

Mikoyan and Gurevich would go on to design a number of impressive piston-engine fighter prototypes later in the war (most notably the I-220, I-221, I-222, I-224 and I-225), none of which would see serial production. However, as is well known, the two designers would gain global fame for their jet-powered aircraft that were developed in the height of the Cold War. Indeed, the word “MiG” soon became synonymous with Soviet and Russian fighters. However, this was due to the design bureau’s work on such legendary fighters as the MiG-15, MiG-17, and MiG-21. Contrary to popular belief, the MiG fighters of the Second World War were used on a relatively small scale, and it was other Soviet designs such as the Yakovlev and Lavochkin series and Lend-Lease aircraft such as the P-39 and P-40 that bore the brunt of the air war on the Eastern Front.

-Patrick Kinville



Gordon, Yefim and Dexter, Keith. Mikoyan’s Piston-Engined Fighters. Red Star Volume 13. Midland Publishing, 2013.

Gunston, Bill & Gordon, Yefim. MiG Aircraft since 1937. Putnam Aeronautical Books, 1998.

Khazanov, Dmitriy and Yurgenson, Andrey. MiG-3 Aces of World War 2. Osprey Publishing.

Medeved, Aleksdandr and Khazanov, Dmitriy. MiG-3: Pervii Frontovoi Vyisotnii Istrebitel. Arsenal Kollektsiya, 2005.

Pokryshkin, Aleksandr Ivanovich. Nebo Voini. Voenizdat, 1980.

Tessitori, Massimo. Mikoyan Gurevich MiG-1/MiG-3. Mushroom Modeling Publications No. 6121. 2006.

Ya Pomnyu (I Remember).



The Soviet Union’s Hawker Hurricanes

While Soviet pilots typically preferred US-built fighters such as the P-39 Airacobra over the British Hawker Hurricane, the latter was the first Western Allied aircraft to arrive in the Soviet Union and thus played a vital role at a crucial stage in the war on the Eastern Front. Indeed, with the first examples arriving in September 1941, the Hurricanes had an almost immediate impact on the war in the Arctic, where they flew air defense missions around the key warm water port of Murmansk. Throughout the winter of 1941- 1942, the Soviet Hurricanes suffered heavy losses against the highly-trained Luftwaffe pilots, but a significant number of Soviet pilots would earn their proverbial stripes in the unpopular British fighter before transitioning to P-39s, P-40s, and more advanced Soviet-built fighters. From Murmansk in the far North to Stalingrad in the South, the Soviet Hurricanes were used against the invading German military in a variety of roles, from air defense interceptor to ground attack aircraft and spotter. As Lend-Lease deliveries continued and the Soviet aviation industry began to recover from its monumental evacuation eastward, the Hurricanes were slowly relegated to secondary duties. By the time deliveries of the British fighter ceased in 1944, nearly 3,000 examples had been sent to the Soviet Union. Not the most popular fighter in the Soviet Union, the Hawker Hurricane played a key role in the first year of the war, and while Soviet war histories typically portray the fighter in a negative light, the aircraft undoubtedly contributed to the ultimate victory on the Eastern Front.

Soviet specialists were able to become acquainted with the Hawker Hurricane for the first time in March 1941, when a Soviet delegation that was visiting Germany was allowed to examine several captured aircraft, including a Hurricane and a Supermarine Spitfire. The delegation noted that the former was obsolete when compared to the sleek Spitfire. However, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union several months later, Moscow found itself in a dire situation and the Western Allies extended the offer of aid to their new, unlikely ally. The Kremlin immediately requested that 3,000 fighter aircraft be delivered to the Soviet Union, and in July, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill agreed to send 200 Kittyhawks and 200 Hurricanes. The UK-built fighters would be the first to arrive when, in early September, an initial batch of 39 Hurricane Mk. IIBs and 550 British servicemen were deployed to the Soviet Union’s Arctic port of Murmansk.


RAF and Soviet servicemen at Vaenga Airfield outside Murmansk. Photo source: Imperial War Museum CR27

The deployment, known as Force Benedict, departed the UK in mid August, and arrived in Murmansk in early September. 24 of the 39 fighters were transported on the carrier HMS Argus, and 15 were crated and transported aboard British merchant vessels. The RAF contingent was comprised of two squadrons: No. 81 Squadron RAF and No. 134 Squadron RAF, both of which fell under No. 151 Wing RAF. Tasked primarily with training Soviet pilots to fly the Hurricane, the RAF contingent found ample opportunity to carry out operational sorties against the Luftwaffe, both by conducting air patrols over the Murmansk area and by flying bomber escort missions in support of Soviet bombers. The RAF pilots made their mark as early as September 12th, when five Hurricanes of No. 81 Squadron intercepted  a Henschel reconnaissance aircraft and five Messerschmitt Bf-109 escorts, shooting down three of the fighters. One Hurricane was lost and one RAF pilot was killed in the battle. By the time 151 Wing returned to the UK in December, the RAF pilots had shot down 16 German aircraft for the loss of only one Hurricane. However, 151 Wing’s primary objective was to train Soviet pilots to fly the bulky fighter. The RAF pilots gradually relinquished their patrol duties as their Soviet counterparts became accustomed to the foreign fighter, and by November, 151 Wing had ceased combat operations around Murmansk altogether. By this time, three Soviet squadrons had successfully converted to the Hurricane, and their pilots were competent enough in the British fighter to train other airmen. Their mission complete, the RAF contingent departed Murmansk on November 27th, and by the end of the year, the number of Hurricanes in the Soviet Union would reach 100.

The Operational History of the Soviet Union’s Hawker Hurricanes

The first shipment of Hawker Hurricanes was handed over to the Soviet Northern Fleet’s newly-created 78th IAP, which had drawn pilots from the mixed 72nd SAP that had been fighting against the Luftwaffe since June, though with little success. The 78th IAP, based at Vaenga-1, was commanded by Boris Safonov, a Soviet ace who had by this time been credited with shooting down 14 German aircraft. The arrival of Force Benedict in August 1941 effectively doubled the Northern Fleet’s number of fighter aircraft, which had been flying I-16s, I-15s, and I-153s during the first few months of the war. The Hurricanes greatly aided the air defense of Murmansk and the Murmansk-Moscow Railway, a vital supply line needed by the Allies to send aid to the Soviet Union. Indeed, Murmansk, as the Soviet Union’s only warm water Arctic port, was one of two major destinations for  the Allied Arctic convoys that set sail from the UK, Iceland, and North America (the other destination was Arkhangelsk). It was in the Arctic that the Hurricane arguably had its greatest impact on the Eastern Front. Many pilots of the Northern Fleet VVS gained fame while flying Hurricanes, including Pyotr Sgibnev, who was credited with shooting down 15 enemy aircraft while flying the British fighter, and Boris Safonov, who scored several of his 20 individual victories in a Hurricane.


Twice Hero of the Soviet Union Boris Safonov

The first Soviet victory in a Hawker Hurricane was recorded in early October, when Lieutenant D. Sinev shot down a Messerschmitt Bf-110. By the end of the month, the 78th IAP’s pilots claimed a further eight German aircraft shot down. However, shortly thereafter, both sides curtailed air activity for the winter months. During the winter, the Murmansk area is plunged into a period of almost perpetual darkness, save for a few hours of semi-twilight around noon each day, making flying conditions far from ideal. Nevertheless, German air attacks did not cease entirely, as the Luftwaffe would use any and all available sunlight to attack the Murmansk-Moscow Railway, though such attacks were typically focused further south on the railway. In early 1942, the Luftwaffe resumed its bombing campaigns in full, focusing on the port of Murmansk as well as the Murmansk-Moscow Railway.  The 78th IAP, as well as the 2nd GvIAP, became engaged primarily with the defense of these key supply lines. Both regiments also escorted Soviet ground attack aircraft and bombers behind enemy lines during strikes against German-held positions, shipping, and airfields. In March, the 27th IAP joined the list of Northern Fleet regiments that were equipped with Hurricanes, followed by the 20th IAP in the summer. Though confronting a formidable foe in the Luftwaffe’s Jagdgeschwader 5 (JG 5), the Northern Fleet’s Hurricanes were used effectively in the air defense capacity around Murmansk. On April 15, for example, ten Hurricanes and three MiG-3s of the 2nd GvIAP were scrambled to intercept a large group of Ju-87 dive-bombers that was accompanied by both Bf-110s and Bf-109s. Major Boris Safonov, who had been put in command of the 2nd GvIAP, led the 13 Soviet fighters in their attack against the German aircraft. Diving from a higher altitude with the sun at their backs, the Hurricanes and MiGs caught the Ju-87s by surprise and managed to shoot down eight of the dive bombers. In the ensuing melee, a further five of the German escorts were claimed as destroyed. In the late spring, the Northern Fleet VVS began to gradually convert to P-39s and P-40s, with the 2nd GvIAP requipping entirely with the US-built fighters that summer. Nevertheless, a small number of Hurricanes continued to be flown by the 27th IAP and 78th IAP, increasingly in the ground attack role. 

One Baltic Fleet regiment, the 3rd GvIAP, also flew Hawker Hurricanes for a short time in late 1942. Tasked primarily with escorting Il-2 Sturmoviks, the regiment fought both against the Luftwaffe and the Finnish Air Force, achieving success against both adversaries. During one especially effective mission on August 30, 17 of the regiment’s Hurricanes along with seven P-40s escorted a ground attack force of eight Ilyushin Il-2s against the Gorodets airfield, where a number of Junkers Ju-88 bombers were based. While the Il-2s were approaching Gorodets, a group of Hurricanes split off from the main contingent and flew to Siverskaya, an airfield that was home to a group of Bf-109s. Effectively blocking the German fighters from taking off, the Hurricanes at Siverskaya enabled the Il-2s to make multiple passes against the Ju-88s on the ground at Gorodets without interference from enemy fighters. Based on photos taken by several Hurricanes, 17 Ju-88s were destroyed during the raid, along with two Bf-109s. In all, from August to October, the 3rd GvIAP’s pilots claimed 68 enemy aircraft shot down for the loss of 14 Hurricanes and 11 pilots. In October, the 3rd GvIAP transitioned to the Soviet-built LaGG-3 fighter.  

Though the Hurricanes’ service with the Soviet Navy has received a certain degree of publicity in post-war accounts, the fighter was also used elsewhere in the Soviet Union. Most VVS Hurricanes were flown on the Karelian Front, where a total of nine regiments were equipped with the British-built fighter.  Across the Front, the Hurricane regiments were responsible, first and foremost, for defending the railways that connected the port cities of Murmansk and Arkhangelsk to the Soviet interior. The most notable Hurricane-equipped regiment, the 152nd IAP, used the fighter in a similar capacity as their compatriots of the Soviet Northern Fleet, flying air defense missions around the southern sector of the Karelian Front, specifically around Medvezhegorsk, Mosalsk and Rebolsk, and also serving as bomber escorts behind enemy lines.  In this sector, the VVS’ primary adversary was the Finnish Air Force, which was equipped with obsolete Fokker D.XXIs and Brewster Buffalos. The 152nd was the most successful of the Karelian Front’s Hurricane regiments, and one pilot, Pavel Ivanovich Gavrilov, achieved ace status by shooting down five enemy aircraft while flying a Mk. IIB.  Hurricanes across the Karelian Front were involved in fierce clashes against the Luftwaffe and Finnish Air Force in the first half of 1942, but in May, regiments on the Front began receiving P-39s and P-40s, and the Hurricanes were slowly replaced.

The Hurricane was also flown by VVS units further south, and their presence was almost ubiquitous on the Eastern Front throughout 1942, though on a relatively small scale. In the winter of 1941-1942, the 4th IAP, which had been fighting on the Southern Front prior to this point, transferred to Yaroslavl and transitioned to the British fighters. After training in their new aircraft, the 4th IAP was responsible for air defense of Yaroslavl and Rybinsk. In May, the 4th IAP was split in two, with some of the regiment’s Hurricanes staying in Yaroslavl, and others being transferred to the Bryansk Front. The pilots on the latter front used their fighters primarily for escorting bombers and attack aircraft, and for providing air cover for Red Army ground troops. In July, the 4th IAP was transferred to Tula and Voronezh, where the regiment’s Hurricane pilots claimed 40 German aircraft shot down. In August, the regiment transitioned to Yakovlev Yak-1 and Yak-7 fighters.

A number of Hurricanes were used for air defense around Moscow, where the 67th, 429th, 438th, 488th, and 736th IAPs were equipped with the British fighter. The VVS Hurricanes in this sector were engaged both the defense of the Soviet capital and in offensive actions on the Western and Kaliningrad Fronts. In January 1942, several Hurricane-equipped regiments flew in support of the Red Army’s counter offensives outside Moscow, and a number of the Soviet capital’s Hurricanes were transferred to the South-Western Front. In early 1942, the 1st GvIAP was equipped with the British fighter, with which the regiment’s pilots managed to shoot down four German aircraft over the Kalinin in March, and another 20 in April. On the Voronezh Front, Hurricanes of the 438th IAP were tasked primarily with escorting Il-2 Sturmovik missions against the Wehrmacht.


A Hurricane on the North-West Front. Photo source:

In the summer of 1942, several Hurricane-equipped regiments, most notably the 436th, were transferred to the Stalingrad area. In the first few days of July, while flying cover Red Army ground troops, pilots of the 436th claimed 29 German aircraft shot down. By the end of the month, the regiment had claimed a total of 40 enemy aircraft shot down for the loss of 17 Hurricanes. Shortly thereafter, the regiment was requipped with P-40s. Meanwhile, the 485th IAP under the command of Georgiy Vasilevich Zimin, were using their Hurricanes to cover Red Army ground troops on the North-Western Front. In addition to escorting Sturmoviks and cover ground troops, the 485th IAP’s Hurricanes themselves engaged in ground attack sorties against the Wehrmacht. In May, the regiment’s pilots claimed 56 German aircraft shot down. The 485th IAP continued flying their Hurricanes until July, when they converted to Yak-1s.

By the end of 1942, the vast majority of the VVS’ Hurricane regiments had converted to either P-39s, P-40s, or Soviet-built fighters, and the UK-built fighters were then transferred to PVO air defense units around Moscow, Murmansk, Leningrad, and Stalingrad. Nevertheless, Hurricane deliveries continued, and several frontline fighter regiments flew the aircraft until mid-1944. Beginning in late 1942, the UK started shipping Hurricane Mk. IICs, armed with four 20 mm cannon, to their Soviet allies, the majority of which were sent directly to PVO units. In April 1943, an agreement was reached that saw the delivery of 60 Hurricane Mk. IIDs, a ground attack variant that was armed with two 40 mm (1.57 in) Vickers S guns. In early 1944, the 246th IAP was equipped with the Mk. IIDs, though ultimately, the heavy ground attack variant was not used operationally on the Eastern Front.

Following their withdrawal from frontline service, the majority of war weary Hurricanes were written off, though a small number were used for other purposes. Several were equipped with vertical aerial cameras and were used as short-range reconnaissance aircraft. Such modifications, which were typically undertaken by individual units, were flown both by special reconnaissance regiments and by ordinary fighter regiments. A small number were used by spotter reconnaissance squadrons on the Leningrad, Volkhov, and Kalinin Fronts, where specially modified two-seat Hurricanes were used for artillery spotting purposes. An even smaller number were fitted with special release mechanisms and were used to tow A-7 and G-11 combat gliders (such converted Hurricanes reportedly flew several sorties). Still more retired Hurricanes were sent to fighter training units in the rear where they served as conversion trainers. Similarly, they would tow special cones that cadets (and seasoned pilots) would use for aerial target practice. Indeed, though the majority of the Soviet Union’s Hurricanes were withdrawn by 1943, the British fighter continued to be used by Soviet forces through the end of the war, in a wide variety of roles.

The Hawker Hurricane in the Eyes of Soviet Pilots

The majority of the Soviet Union’s Hurricanes were of the Mk. IIB variant, which featured two additional 7.6 mm (.30 caliber) Browning machine guns, bringing the total number to 12 (six in each wing).  However, it quickly became clear that the small-caliber guns inflicted little damage against the sturdy German aircraft. One Soviet pilot, Evgeniy Pavlovich Pesterov, recalled, “this fighter [Hurricane] was very unimportant. Its armament was weak- 12 small-caliber machine guns. This was, for modern German fighters at the time, like peas that could not cause any damage.” Georgiy Vasilevich Zimin, who commanded the 485th IAP and would later become Marshal of Aviation, explained that, “in order to shoot down an enemy aircraft [in a Hurricane], it was necessary to approach it closely. To shoot down a heavy bomber, such as a Heinkel-111 [He-111], using conventional machine guns was extremely difficult.” Consequently, as often happened with Lend-Lease aircraft, the armament of Soviet Hurricanes was typically modified, either in the field or at modification centers. The most popular modifications entailed the removal of all Brownings and the installation of two Soviet-built 12.7 mm Berezin UB machine guns and two 20 mm ShVAK cannon. With such a set up, the altered Soviet Hurricanes could produce a weight of fire of 3.84 kg (8.45 lb) per second, which was more than any other single-engine Soviet fighter or German fighter at the time. In other cases, Soviet regiments would choose to retain four Brownings and add two UBs and two ShVAKs (or any combination of the above).


A Hurricane Mk. IIB armed with two ShVAK cannon and two UB machine guns. Photo source: Rybin, Yuriy. Soviet Hurricane Aces of World War 2.

With its sturdy construction and thick wings, the Hurricane had enormous potential as a gun platform. However, extra armament and ammunition equated to extra weight, which accentuated one of the Hurricane’s greatest deficiencies: its lack of power. Though the fighter was powered by an early model of the illustrious Rolls-Royce Merlin engine, the XX, the airframe was simply too large, heavy, and bulky to achieve the same flight characteristics as other Merlin-powered fighters. During testing conducted by the NII VVS (Air Force Research Institute), it was discovered that the Hurricane’s speed was somewhere between the I-16’s and the Yak-1’s. Moreover, it was inferior to the Bf-109E in terms of speed at low and medium altitudes and had a lower rate of climb. Nikolai Gerasimovich Golodnikov, the commander of the Soviet Northern Fleet’s 2nd GIAP, noted that the Hurricane’s heavy airframe, “did not glide well. The Rolls-Royce engine was good, but could not stand up to prolonged operation at maximum output. It broke down. Of course, it was a weak engine for this particular airframe… it had a very thick profile and poor acceleration characteristics. At maximum speed it was somewhat faster than an I-16. But until it had attained this speed, many things could happen. It was not slow in responding to the control stick, but everything happened smoothly, in its own time. In the I-16, if you moved the stick, the airplane inverted right now. With this beast, it would roll over very slowly.”

One factor that exacerbated the Hurricane’s underperformance was the Soviet Union’s use of lower octane gasoline. The Merlin XX engine was designed to use 87 octane fuel, which was not available in the Soviet Union. Indeed, the typical grade of Soviet aviation fuel was anywhere from 70 to 78 octane, and this was often times unintentionally contaminated with other chemicals, dirt and sand. Though the UK and US sent high-octane aviation fuel to the Soviet Union, the supply did not meet the demands of the VVS and VMF, and lower octane fuel was consequently often times used in Hurricanes. A British engineer by the name of Henry Broquet who was posted with 151 Wing in Murmansk collaborated with his Soviet counterparts and developed a tin alloy catalyst that enabled the Merlins to run on lower-grade fuel. Such measures helped make the Soviet fuel compatible with the Hurricane (and other Western aircraft), but the fact remained that the lower-grade fuel had a detrimental effect on the performance of the engines. The low-octane fuel both diminished overall performance and led the Merlins to wear down at a fairly rapid pace. Later in the war, delivery of aviation fuel from the Western Allies would match pace with Soviet demand for such fuel, but by this time, the Hurricanes had largely been relegated to secondary duties.

Even with higher-octane fuel, however, the Hurricane’s performance did not match that other Western fighters (or Soviet-built fighters). In his memoir, Georgiy Zimin recalled holding a series of mock dog fights in his Hurricane against a Soviet P-39 Airacobra in order to determine the combat characteristics of the British fighter. “In the first place, I was interested in the possibility of fighting vertically. I understood that in such a battle, the Hurricane was weak, but it was necessary to find out exactly how much.” Using the results from these mock dog fights, Zimin instructed his pilots to avoid engaging enemy fighters in vertical maneuvers at all cost. “The vertical maneuver for it [the Hurricane] was clearly contraindicated,” Zimin wrote.”The battle could only be conducted on turns.” He also noted that the Hurricane’s performance in a dive was much worse than the Airacobra’s. Ultimately, Zimin recommended that special actions be taken by Hurricane pilots in order to downplay the effects of the fighter’s deficiencies. For example, he suggested maintaining an altitude differential between flights or not more than 400-500 meters, “otherwise the flights would not have time to come to each other’s aid. The separation of pairs of flights should not exceed 100 meters. Direct support for bombers and ground attack aircraft was to be carried out approximately 50-100 meters… for fast fighters such as, for example, ‘Yaks’ such recommendations would simply be unacceptable, since they would limit the freedom to maneuver. But for the ‘Hurricanes’ it was necessary to tighten battle formations as much as possible.”


A Hawker Hurricane in Soviet markings at the Vadim Zadorozhny Technical Museum near Moscow. Photo taken by author.

Though Soviet war memoirs tend to portray the Hurricane in a negative light, Soviet pilots did acknowledge some of the British fighter’s merits. First and foremost, VVS and VMF airmen were pleased with the Hurricane’s ultra high frequency radio system. Soviet-built fighters in 1941-1942 typically lacked radios, rendering both offensive and defensive action almost futile (radios were generally found only in the aircraft of formation leaders). This changed as more Western aircraft began to arrive and as Soviet aviation factories began including radios in all fighters, but early in the war, when the Hurricanes were often the first line of defense against the Luftwaffe, the UHF radio systems in the British fighter improved the Soviet pilots’ tactical situation immeasurably. Soviet airmen also appreciate the comfort and flyability of the Hurricane. One pilot who flew MiG-3s and Hurricanes, Pavel Borisovich Florinskii, noted that the latter was more comfortable to fly than the former. Moreover, despite its performance drawbacks, many Soviet airmen were confident in the fighter’s ability in horizontal flight. As Nikolai Golodnikov recalled, defensive tactics were developed that accentuated these abilities. “It was very good in horizontal flight,” he noted. “If four Hurricanes established a circle, it was impossible to break out of it. No Germans could break into the circle either.”

Deliveries of the Hurricanes continued at a rapid pace through 1942 despite the fact that, by this time, Soviet VVS and VMF units had begun to receive US-built P-39 Airacobras and P-40 Warhawks, aircraft that Soviet airmen typically preferred over the British fighter. Moreover, the Soviet aviation industry had begun to recover from its monumental evacuation eastward, and more advanced Lavochkin La-5s and Yakovlev Yak-7s were beginning to arrive at front line units. Nevertheless, deliveries continued, and by 1944, when Hurricane shipments ceased, the Soviet military had accepted 2,834 examples of the British-built fighter. As mentioned above, initial batches were comprised of Mk. IIB models, which, along with their Canadian-built analogs (X, XI, and XII) would account for more than half the Hurricanes flown by Soviet forces. Approximately 200 Mk. IIAs, armed with eight Browning machine guns, were also sent by the British, and just over 1,000 Mk. IICs, with their four 20 mm Hispano cannon, were flown by Soviet forces. A small number of Mk. IIDs (two 40 mm cannon) were also sent to the USSR.

Much like in the West, where the Hurricane’s contribution to victory was unjustly overshadowed by that of the sleek Spitfire’s, its service in the Soviet Union is often overlooked. Arriving at a crucial stage in the war against Germany, the early Hurricane shipments had an immediate impact on the battlefield. Indeed, in late 1941 and early 1942, the Hurricanes helped the Soviet military hold the line against the Germans around the vital port of Murmansk, when failure to do so would have had debilitating effects on the Allied war effort.

-Patrick Kinville



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Ivanov, Sergei. Hawker Hurricane, Chast 2. Voina v Zozdukhe No. 74.

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

Kotelnikov, V.P., Petrov, G.F., Sobolev, D.A., Yakubovich, N.V., Amerikantsii v Rossii. 

Sokhorukov, Andrey. “Conversations with N.G. Golodnikov.”

Rybin, Yuriy. Soviet Hurricane Aces of World War 2. Osprey Publishing, 2012.

Ya Pomnyu Project (

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

Zimin, G.V. Istrebiteli. Voenizdat, 1988.


Polikarpov’s I-15 and I-15bis biplane fighters

The Polikarpov I-15 was a biplane fighter that was developed in the interwar period and would go on to see extensive use during the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, the Battle of Khalkin-Gol, the Winter War, and World War II. While the I-15 was a quality aircraft for its time, it quickly became obsolete in the face of rapid advancement in aviation design the world over. Nevertheless, it continued to be used for a number of years in several different roles, and was an integral part of the Soviet Union’s first line of defense against the Luftwaffe in June of 1941. Severely outclassed by Germany’s Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter, the I-15 played the vital role of holding the line against the German military’s onslaught during the early stages of the war when failure to do so would have been disastrous. Despite suffering heavy losses against the Luftwaffe, the I-15s did manage to help fight off the advancing Germany military for long enough for the Soviet Union to receive Lend-Lease fighters from the West and for the Soviet aviation industry to begin mass producing advanced fighters such as the La-5/7 and Yak-7/9/3.

The development of what would come to be the I-15 started in 1924, when Nikolai Polikarpov began work on his first biplane fighter: the 2I-N1. While serial production of this early fighter was not pursued, it did serve as a basis for Polikarpov’s future designs, including the I-3 and I-5. Produced between 1931 and 1934, production totals for the latter would reach more than 800. In 1933, Polikarpov sought to a develop a new fighter with increased speed and maneuverability, which resulted in the I-14a gull-winged radial-engine biplane. As Pavel Sukhoi was developing a monoplane fighter with the designation I-14 at the same time, the decision was made to redesignate Polikarpov’s new aircraft I-15, with the prototype number TsKB-3.

Construction of the first TsKB-3 was completed in October of 1933, with state trials undertaken later in the year. During factory and state testing, the new biplane did not fail to impress Soviet test pilots and engineers. With an ability to reach 5,000 meters (16,250’) in just 6.2 minutes, and the fact that it could make a 360-degree turn in only 8 seconds (which set a record), the TsKB-3 proved to be more maneuverable than any other Soviet fighter at the time.  Indeed, famed Soviet pilot Valeriy Chkalov himself carried out the flight tests, and was enthusiastic about the new biplane fighter’s maneuverability.


TsKB-3 prototype. Photo source:

Even before the TsKB-3 underwent state acceptance trials, preparations were underway to mass produce the biplane fighter. Looking to speed up the Soviet Union’s technical advancement in the field of aviation, Soviet leaders in the early 1930s sought cooperation with aircraft companies in the US and Western Europe, both to import aircraft and to obtain licenses to produce aircraft engines and components (and entire airplanes) domestically. In April of 1933, an agreement was reached with Wright Aeronautical that gave the Soviet Union a license to build Wright’s new R-1820 9 cylinder radial engine, complete with blueprints and technical assistance. These engines would be used for serial-production I-15s (among other aircraft). The first Soviet-built Cyclone, given the designation M-25, was built in the summer of 1934, and serial production the license-built engines began the following year in the city of Perm. At first, the engines were produced from kits that were provided by Wright, with the only major difference between the R-1820 and its Soviet-built version being the latter’s use of metric components. By the end of 1935, however, the workers at Factory No. 19, led by Chief Designer and Technical Director Arkadiy Shvetsov, had obtained the technical know-how and domestically-built components to produce the engine without assistance from Wright. By the end of the year, a total of 660 M-25s had been built.

However, serial production of the I-15 was given the greenlight in early 1934, before production of the M-25 had been launched. Consequently, initial production aircraft were powered by imported Wright Cyclone engines. Others were powered by the M-22, a license-built version of the Bristol Jupiter radial engine. Despite the fact that the M-22’s output was 150 horsepower less than the M-25, the I-15s powered by the former could reach a top speed of 347 km/h, roughly 20 km/h less than the Cyclone-powered TsKB-3/I-15s. It wasn’t until early 1936 that Factory No. 19’s M-25s were mated with the I-15 airframe.

The baseline I-15’s armament consisted of four PV-1 7.62 mm machine guns, and it had the ability to carry four 10 kg (22 lb) bombs under the wings. The airframe itself was a mixed construction, and its defining physical feature was the gull-shaped formation of its upper wings. The TsKB-3 prototypes were equipped with Hamilton Standard propellers, but serial production I-15s utilized Soviet-built two-blade fixed-pitch propellers.

The first I-15s began entering service with VVS units as early as the end of 1934. While Soviet pilots enjoyed flying the new fighter, the biplane proved to be unreliable, as it suffered from frequent mechanical issues. For example, problems were often caused by the M-25 engines, which were installed without dampers, and consequently made the aircraft vibrate, which in turn added additional stress on the airframe. Moreover, fuel and oil leaks were a constant problem, and the wheel spats would at times become clogged with grass which would cause the aircraft to flip on its nose during landings. These and other glaring issues led the Soviet leadership to pause production of the biplane while Polikarpov worked to eradicate the aircraft’s deficiencies. Meanwhile, Polikarpov’s I-16 monoplane was being delivered to frontline units for the first time. Ultimately, VVS commanders preferred the I-16 over the plagued I-15, and the decision was eventually reached to cease production of the former after only 384 had been manufactured.

Nevertheless, a number of I-15s remained in service with the VVS and, more significantly, they were sent to the Spanish Republican Popular Front Government and were used against Franco’s Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War. In October of 1936, the first shipment of M-22-powered I-15s arrived in Cartagena. The shipment contained enough fighters to form two squadrons, which were initially manned mainly by Soviet “volunteers”. When more Spanish pilots entered the ranks of the two squadrons, the I-15 was affectionately nicknamed Chato (snub-nosed). The I-15s first saw combat on November 4, 1936, and were credited with shooting down two Ju-52/3ms and two CR-32 fighters. No Chatos were lost. During a separate battle on the same day, I-15s claimed four He-51s shot down. Over the next several days, another 12 enemy aircraft were claimed by the I-15 squadrons for the loss of two Soviet fighters. By the end of November, the I-15s had claimed 60 enemy aircraft shot down, a rather ambitious exaggeration. Nonetheless, during this period the Chatos were successful in defending Madrid from the Nationalists, causing the latter to temporarily halt daytime bombing sorties. However, with the introduction of more advanced German fighters, the I-15’s success eventually faded.


Spanish I-15. Photo source:

Deliveries of I-15s to the Republicans continued until the summer of 1937, when another two batches of M-25-powered Chatos arrived. While the exact number of I-15s delivered to Spain is unknown, historians estimate the number to be between 139 and 155. Meanwhile, the Spanish Republicans themselves were manufacturing I-15s under license, an agreement that was reached in early 1937. In all, the Republicans would build 237 I-15s. However, the number of airworthy Chatos continued to decrease throughout the course of 1937 and 1938, in part due to normal wear and tear on the aircraft, and in part due to the fact that the Nationalist side began introducing German Messerschmitt Bf-109s and Italian Fiat G.50s, aircraft that outclassed the now obsolete Chato. However, as would be demonstrated on a much larger scale during the Second World War, skilled Polikarpov pilots could achieve a certain (small) degree of success against the German Messerschmitts, given the right circumstances.  A Republican I-15 pilot, Joaquin Calvo Diago, told Carl A. Posey years later, “The Chato is simpático… was very maneuverable against the 109 [the Messerschmitt Bf 109]. It climbed well.” Nevertheless, the German pilots did show that more often than not, the I-15 was no match for the Bf-109, and Chato losses continued to increase exponentially. Indeed, by the end of the war, of the 1,400 Soviet aircraft of all types that had been sent to Spain during the Civil War, 1,176 had been destroyed (83%). Ultimately, the Republicans and their Soviet allies lost the war, though a total of nine Soviet I-15 pilots were awarded the Gold Star Hero of the Soviet Union during the fight against Franco’s Nationalists. At war’s end, the victorious Nationalists had captured 53 flyable Chatos, and they remained in service with Franco’s forces until 1950.

Meanwhile, an improved variant of the Chato, the I-15bis, was reaching VVS units back in the Soviet Union. When serial production of the I-15 was halted in 1935, Nikolai Polikarpov was urged by the Soviet leadership to work on a modification of the biplane that would eradicate many of the deficiencies of the I-15 and would also improve the fighter’s performance. The resulting prototype, TsKB-3bis, featured a longer span un-gulled upper wing that was modified in response to Soviet pilots’ complaints that the gulled wing of the I-15 restricted visibility. It was also equipped with an upgraded M-25V engine, and a larger engine housing which incorporated the entire frontal section of the fuselage. These modifications brought the serial I-15bis’ top speed to 379 km/h (256 mph), 29 km/h more than the baseline I-15. Like its predecessor, the I-15bis was armed with four 7.62mm PV-1 machine guns. However, the I-15bis could carry an additional 50kg (110 lb) of ordinance, bringing its total payload to 150 kg (330 lb). Moreover, it could carry up to six RS-82 rockets, which were found to be useful against German targets during WWII. The TsKB-3bis completed state trials in the fall of 1937, and entered serial production shortly thereafter.


I-15bis in flight. Photo source

A number of I-15bis’ were sent to Spain during the final stages of the Civil War, but arrived too late to see action. Nevertheless, the bis did see extensive combat even before Germany’s launch of Operation Barbarossa in June 1941. In November 1937, a batch of I-15s and I-15bis’ complete with Soviet “volunteers” was sent to the Nanking area to support the Chinese military against the invading Japanese forces. Flying primarily against Kawasaki Ki-10 biplanes, the I-15bis performed well against their obsolete Japanese counterparts, with the Ki-10s suffering heavy losses. Consequently, the Japanese leaders replaced the obsolete outdated biplanes with the modern Mitsubishi A5M2a monoplane fighters, which proved to be faster than the I-15bis, though less maneuverable. During air combat between the two types, it was found that the outcome was determined primarily by the skills of the pilots and the effective use of tactics as opposed to technological superiority, and the I-15bis’ combat performance against the A5M2a was therefore mixed. In January 1938, the VVS leadership decided to replace the I-15bis squadrons with I-16 squadrons, as it hoped to assess the capabilities of the latter against the A5M2a. However, I-15bis fighters were also given to the Chinese Air Force, which continued to fly the biplane fighters for some time, receiving a total of 186 examples from the Soviet Union. Despite some success shown by Soviet pilots over the A5M2s, Chinese airmen were typically poorly trained, and combat losses were consequently high. However, there were a number of highly-skilled Chinese pilots who flew the Soviet biplane, including ace Liu Chung-Wu, who scored 4 of his 7 victories while flying an I-15bis. The outcome of each individual aerial battle in the skies over China (and in every other theater, for that matter) relied on a multitude of factors, such as numerical superiority and quality of pilot, and was not determined solely by the type of aircraft involved. For example, in April of 1938, a force of 12 Ki-10s and three new Ki-27s claimed 24 I-15bis’ shot down in a single air battle. However, later that month, a mixed force of Chinese I-15bis’ and Soviet I-16s claimed 36 Japanese aircraft shot down. The Soviet-built biplanes were eventually superseded by deliveries of US-built aircraft to the Chinese forces.

The I-15bis was also used extensively by Soviet forces during the Battle of Khalkin-Gol against the Japanese military in the summer of 1939. While the bis performed well against the Mitsubishi A5M2a, the appearance of the faster Nakajima Ki-27 caused problems for VVS airmen. Indeed, Soviet pilots, in general, enjoyed success during the Battle of Khalkin-Gol, but by this time, the I-15bis proved to be obsolete compared to the Japanese Ki-27 and the VVS’ other two fighters (I-16 and I-153). By August, the poor performance of the I-15bis prompted the VVS leadership to relegate the biplane to reconnaissance and night patrol duties. However, despite the fact that the I-15bis was the Soviet air arm’s worst fighter, the presence of the more obsolete I-15bis’ was used to the VVS’ advantage. Due to the fact that the bis did not have retractable landing gears, Soviet pilots who flew improved Polikarpov I-153 biplane fighters would bait Ki-27s into attacking by flying with their landing gear down, making the Japanese pilots think they were inferior I-15bis fighters. Once the Ki-27s would get within range of the I-153s, the latter would raise their landing gears, apply full throttle, and engage the oncoming Japanese aircraft. Though the Red Army and VVS was victorious at Khalkin-Gol, the successful performance in the air was due primarily to I-16 and I-153 fighters. Nevertheless, the I-15bis’ career was far from over.

Despite the Red Army’s convincing victory against the Japanese, the Soviet Union’s next combat operation, the Winter War with Finland, which began on November 30, 1939, was not nearly as successful. Though significantly outmanned and outgunned, the Finnish military was repeatedly able to repel the Red Army until the Soviets eventually broke through in March of 1940. The VVS, which deployed 2,500 aircraft (mostly Tupolev SB bombers) at the outset of the war, enjoyed air superiority for most of the conflict. Nevertheless, the Finnish Air Force, which had only 114 combat aircraft fit for duty at the end of 1939, inflicted severe damage against the VVS, shooting down 200 Soviet aircraft during the war and losing only 62 of their own. However, the losses suffered by the VVS were indicative of a larger problem within the Soviet military in general (decimation of military leadership during the purges), and were not necessarily reflective of the aircraft flown by Soviet pilots. Indeed, the primary Finnish fighter, the Fokker D.XXI, was roughly equivalent to the Japanese Ki-27. The I-15bis comprised approximately 30% of the Soviet fighters committed to the war against Finland, though more often than not they were relegated to non-fighter duties.

Though the air battles fought against Japan and Finland had demonstrated the obsolescence of the I-15 and I-15bis fighters, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, the VVS still had roughly 1,000 I-15s and I-15bis’ in their arsenal. Soviet pilots and ground troops recall how, on the first days of the war, the Polikarpov biplanes went up against the much faster Luftwaffe fighters and bombers, often with disastrous results. Leonid Mikhailovich Felman, a signals officer stationed in Kremenchuk in what is today central Ukraine, recalled the performance of the I-15/I-15bis on the first day of the war. “Biplanes- I-15bis. They said they showed themselves well in the battles with the Japanese [Khalkin Gol]. But this plane could catch up with neither Messerschmitts nor Dornier-13s. I asked the pilots: ‘well, how can you shoot down a plane, even if you can’t catch up with it?’ They said, ‘we must try to climb to get a speed equal to this plane’. But this, unfortunately, did not work.” An Il-2 Sturmovik pilot, Valentin Ivanovich Belikin, likewise remembered,  “….the SB was called a ‘high-speed bomber’ [SB= skorostnoi bombardirovshchik, fast bomber]. And its speed was very low, like our fighters! When we were in Armavi, they bombed us and bombed the city. Our fighters could not catch up with them: neither the Heinkel-111s nor other bombers. Our fighters were I-16s and I-15bis’! Because they had a lower speed! Why fight?! Us?! Against the Germans?! Well, no.”

Despite the abysmal performance of the I-15/I-15bis on the first days of the war, a number of Soviet pilots did achieve some success against their adversaries. Though the Polikarpov biplanes were slower than their German counterparts, their maneuverability was remarkable against the Bf-109s, and skilled Soviet pilots learned to accentuate the flight characteristics of the I-15s/I-15bis’ against the Luftwaffe’s superior aircraft, which enabled the occasional aerial victory over the Messerschmitts. Other pilots relied on luck in the face of German fighters. I-15bis pilot Vasiliy Kubarev recalled, “It was on this type of plane that I was able to shoot down my first plane- it was an Me-109 [Bf-109]. Four rockets were suspended under the plane. Well, when a lot of enemy planes appeared ahead of me, I released all four… all at once, without any interruption… he went into a flat corkscrew and fell to the ground…. The rest of the Germans turned and immediately left.” However, it must be stressed that, more often than not, the I-15 was no match for the Bf-109. “Our ‘Ishaks’, I-15s and I-16s were maneuverable,” one Soviet tank driver recalled, “but the Messers beat them mercilessly.”


I-15bis. Photo source:

While the I-15/I-15bis floundered as fighters in the face of highly-trained Bf-109 pilots, the biplanes were slowly replaced by MiG-3, LaGG-3, and Yak-1 monoplanes, which relegated the Polikarpovs to ground attack roles, a capacity in which they had a greater degree of success. The biplanes lacked armor and were consequently susceptible to even small arms ground fire, but as anti-aircraft gunner Dmitry Poltavets noted, I-15bis and I-153 pilots who were tasked with carrying out grand attack missions against Axis positions developed tactics to protect the fragile biplanes from ground fire. “The fighters stationed at the airfield that we were instructed to guard, helped the infantry repel enemy attacks- they attacked Romanian trenches every day, threw hand grenades and small bombs. And they did everything intelligently. For example, one fighter would dive, and the second would immediately enter a dive to fire bursts at the enemy and protect the one who was coming out of the dive so that he was not shot down by rifles and machine guns, because the I-15bis and I-153 were poorly protected even from rifle fire. Apparently, for the enemy, such ground attacks were extremely unpleasant, because soon German planes began to bomb our airfield.”

The Polikarpov I-15 and I-15bis continued to serve in frontline units until the end of 1942, by which time the Soviet aviation industry had begun recovering from its massive evacuation eastward and the VVS was receiving large numbers of Lend-Lease aircraft from the US and the UK. Nevertheless, the biplanes continued to be used for secondary tasks through the end of the war, including reconnaissance and training duties. Georgiy Afanasev, who would later go on to fly Yak fighters, remarked, “we learned on old stuff. I-1, I-15, I-15bis… Take off and land on the airfield, and turn… I initially flew the I-15bis- such junk, you understand.” A Sturmovik pilot, Valentin Averyanov, similarly recalled learning first to taxi using an I-15 without wings and then learning to fly solo in the biplane. “It is difficult to take off in it,” he noted. Another Soviet fighter pilot, Anatoliy Bordun, learned to fly at the Kachin Military Aviation School in the Crimea, where cadets flew I-15s and I-16s. One of his classmates was Vasily Stalin, son of Soviet leader Josef Stalin. As Bordun recalled, “for security reasons, Vasily Stalin was trained separately. We had one instructor for a group of eleven people, and he had his own individual- Captain K.V. Marenkov, the best instructor at the school. In addition, Vasily Stalin had a separate hangar, where the aircraft that he flew- a DIT-2 and an I-15- were kept. The school management apparently decided that the I-15 was still safer than the I-16. Vasily’s planes were painted red. And we were instructed that when a red plane was airborne to not come close to it.”

At the time of its development, the Polikarpov I-15 was a modern fighter that was capable of taking on any potential adversary that was then in production. However, as is well know, aviation technology was advancing by leaps and bounds in the late 1930s, and what was one day a solid and advanced aircraft could the next day become obsolete. Though the Chato initially performed well during the Spanish Civil War, it was clearly outclassed by the Messerschmitt Bf-109s and Italian Fiat G.50s when the latter two entered service on the side of the Nationalists. Attempts to improve the I-15 in the I-15bis helped extend the model’s shelf life as a modern fighter for a short time, but it was once again outdone by the introduction of the Nakajima Ki-27 during the Battle of Khalkin-Gol. By the time Germany launched Operation Barbarossa in June of 1941, the obsolete I-15s and I-15bis’ were and integral part of the VVS’ first line of defense. While the biplane fighters were no match for the latest models of the Bf-109, they did serve a vital function during the early stages of the war: they staved off the German onslaught for long enough for Lend-Lease aircraft to arrive in large numbers, and for the Soviet aviation industry to mass-produce aircraft that were superior to the Luftwaffe’s fighters. By 1943, the Soviet Union was sending large numbers of advanced La-5 and Yak-9 fighters to the front, and the Western Allies were contributing thousands of Lend-Lease aircraft. Moreover, mass production of the Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik ground attack aircraft was in full swing. When it was no longer needed in these two roles, the I-15/I-15bis was used to train future Soviet pilots, which in and of itself is a vital function. The I-15/I-15bis may not have been a world-class fighter, but it certainly did the job required of it.

-Patrick Kinville


  • Istrebiteli Polikarpova. Voina v Vozdukhe. No. 136.
  • Ivanov, Vladimir. Neizvestniy Polikarpov. Moscow: Yauza. 2009.
  • Gordon, Yefim. Polikarpov’s Biplane Fighters. Red Star No. 6. Midland Publishing. 2002.
  • Maslov, Mikhail. Polikarpov I-15, I-16, and I-153 Aces. Osprey Publishing. 2014.
  • Posey, Carl A. “The War Between the Wars: In the skies over Spain, pilots and airplanes. Air & Space Magazine. April 30, 2009.
  • Ya Pomnyu Project. 

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.


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.


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.


Cockpit of an A-20G. Photo source:

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.



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.


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.

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


  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 (
  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. (


The Petlyakov Pe-2: The backbone of the Soviet light bomber force

From the US P-38, B-25, and A-20 to the British de Havilland Mosquito and the German Ju-88, many twin-engine aircraft of World War II are widely discussed among aviation enthusiasts in the West, though more often than not, one key aircraft is absent in discussions and articles concerning twin-engine aircraft: the Petlyakov Pe-2. Indeed, while aviation publications in the US and the UK often address the Soviet Union’s illustrious Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik and the nimble Yak-3/7/9 series of fighters, the Pe-2, a highly capable and versatile aircraft that was one of the main components of the Soviet military’s arsenal, is seldom mentioned. Designed by a team of aviation engineers led by Vladimir Petlyakov in a special NKVD prison camp, the Pe-2 was developed under strenuous circumstances to say the least. Nevertheless, by the end of the war, nearly 11,500 examples were built, and for the majority of the war, the Pe-2 was the backbone of the Soviet light bomber force.

In the late 1930s, Vladimir Petlyakov, Andrei Tupolev, and dozens of other prominent aircraft designers were accused of being “enemies of the people” and were consequently imprisoned in a special NKVD camp for aviation engineers. Known as Experimental Design Bureau 29 (TsKB-29), the NKVD camp was effectively a research and design bureau within the Gulag prison system. TsKB-29, a former camp for the homeless located northeast of Moscow, was comprised of three buildings: the first was the prisoners’ barracks, the second a kitchen, and the third was a work area equipped with desks and drawing boards. The small camp was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and miles of thick forests on all sides. Nevertheless, conditions in the special camp were significantly better than those in other parts of the Gulag prison system, and though the engineers worked long hours, they were given sufficient food and heat, and the living quarters were acceptable. The NKVD proceeded to split the prisoners into four teams in charge of four separate development projects. The first, officially designated Project 100, was led by Vladimir Petlyakov, and was tasked with developing a high-altitude interceptor.  Project 101, headed by Dmitry Tomasevich, was tasked with designing a modern single-engine fighter. Project 102, led by Vladimir Myasischev, was to design a twin-engine high-altitude bomber. The final team, Project 103 and led by Andrei Tupolev, was told to design a four-engine heavy dive bomber.


TsKB-29. Photo source

Petlyakov and his team of 50 engineers were ordered to develop a high-altitude interceptor that could reach 630 km/h (391 mph) and fly at an altitude of 10,000 meters (33,000 feet), very ambitious specifications for 1938. The resulting aircraft, known as the VI-100, was an all-metal, twin-tailed monoplane powered by two Klimov M-105 liquid-cooled piston engines with TK-3 turbochargers. Featuring a pressurized cockpit that carried a crew of two (pilot and rear gunner), the VI-100 was an innovative design, despite its traditional layout scheme. It was armed with two 20mm ShVAK cannon and two 7.62mm ShKAS machine guns in the nose, as well as an additional 7.62mm ShKAS on a flexible mount in the rear cockpit. The first prototype made its inaugural flight in December of 1939, and test pilot P.M. Stefanofskiy provided Petlyakov’s design team with a long list of defects, the most significant being oil cooling system’s tendency to overheat at high altitudes. Despite this glaring deficiency, the first flight did highlight the VI-100’s potential as a high-altitude interceptor, achieving a top speed of 538 km/h (334 mph) at an altitude of 6,600 meters (21,600 feet), though these figures fell far short of the specifications put forth by the Special Technical Department of the NKVD (STO).

In April of 1940, using a second and upgraded prototype that had addressed many Stefanofskiy’s complaints, the VI-100 underwent state acceptance trials at the State Research Institute of the Red Army Army Force (NII VVS). During its eleventh flight, the second VI-100 prototype caught fire and made an emergency landing, injuring the crew and nearly destroying the aircraft. The remaining flights during acceptance trials were conducted using the first prototype, and the VI-100 made its first public appearance during the May Day parade in 1940. The aircraft was approved for production on June 1, 1940. The NII VVS concluded that, “the ‘100’ aircraft represents the most successful solution to the problem of developing an armed aircraft with a pressurized cabin,” and it was recommended for serial production.


VI-100. Source: S.V. Ivanov

However, by the time the VI-100 had passed state trials, enthusiasm among the Soviet brass for a high-altitude interceptor had waned. In September of 1939, Germany began its Blitzkrieg campaign, first in Poland and then in Western Europe, which involved well-coordinated close air support attacks by Luftwaffe Ju-87 dive-bombers in support of Wehrmacht troops. The German military had shown the world the power of modern mechanized warfare combined with tactical bombing, and the VVS reassessed its aviation design programs, making the decision to focus its efforts on aircraft that could provide effective support for the Red Army infantry. What is more, the Soviet dive bomber project that had shown the most promise at the time, the Polikarpov SPB, crashed twice and experienced several other major malfunctions within a short period of time, which effectively cancelled the project. Similarly, the VVS leadership had lost confidence in Alexander Arkhangelsky’s project to convert the SB bomber into a dive bomber. Consequently, the commander of the Soviet Air Force at the time, Yakov Smushkevich, ordered that the VI-100 design be converted into a dive-bomber, thus scrapping Petlyakov’s promising high-altitude interceptor program.

Petlyakov’s team was given 45 days to redesign the aircraft. Cabin pressurization was removed, the TK-3 superchargers were dropped, and modified Klimov M-105K engines were added. Dive brakes were also installed, as was a bombardier’s position and glazed nose, increasing the size of the crew to three. A dihedral was also added to the tail plane to increase stability. The new dive-bomber, designated PB-100, featured a bomb-bay in the fuselage as well as smaller bays in each engine nacelle, which gave the aircraft the ability to carry up to 1,600 kg (3,520 lb) of bombs. The VI-100’s transition to a dive-bomber went smoothly, and in mid 1940, Petlyakov was released from the TsKB-29 prison camp, and the decision was made to allow his name to be used for the serial production designation of the aircraft (Petlyakov Pe-2). The first production-quality aircraft made its inaugural flight in November of 1940, and deliveries of the new aircraft to combat units began the following spring.

Serial production Pe-2s were powered by twin Klimov M-105PF liquid-cooled V-12 piston engines that generated 1,100 horsepower each, which gave the aircraft a top speed of 580 km/h (360 mph) and a range of 1,160 km (721 miles). The dive-bomber was a fast and agile aircraft that outperformed all other Soviet bombers that been built up to this point. Galina Brok-Beltsova, a female pilot of the esteemed 125th Guards Bomber Regiment, recalled, “the first sensation of the Pe-2 is that of a beautiful bird of prey. The TB-3 [early 1930s four-engine heavy bomber] is a heavy machine; the speed is low, and its flight is constantly bumpy. And the Pe-2 is a predator, a very beautiful and fast machine, but also very difficult.” Anatoliy Lilin, a pilot with the 58th Bomber Regiment, also noted, “the maneuverability of the Pe-2 was very good. This machine could accelerate to 400-450 kilometers per hour, approximately the same speed as all fighters. And the bomber SB [twin-engine bomber introduced in 1936], on which I flew earlier, could not even get to 400. By the way, the Pe-2 performed all the forms of aerobatics that the fighters at that time could perform.”

Operation Frantic

Pe-2. Public Domain

However, like all aircraft of the era, the Pe-2 did suffer from numerous unpopular deficiencies. Soviet pilots generally agreed that the Pe-2 was a very complex aircraft, and was quite difficult to land. Yevgenia Gurulyeva-Smirnova, a pilot with the 125th Guards Bomber Regiment, explained, “the Pe-2 had one bad feature: its landing speed was quite fast, and that contributed to a number of crashes. We had fewer casualties in our regiment than the men did flying the same type of aircraft; I think we were more exact in our flying. Nevertheless, bomber pilots were typically willing to overlook such issues.” Another pilot, Mikhail Mabo, also noted recalled some the Pe-2’s drawbacks. “The Peshka [Pe-2] is an extremely complex machine… very difficult to land.” However, Mabo continued, “I was in love with the Peshka… I was very serious about flight work, and for me the Peshka was everything.” Anatoliy Linin also noted that, “of course, the Pe-2 was a strict airplane, it required skill, but it was also completely reliable.”

Pe-2 tail gunners, however, typically had stronger complaints than Peshka pilots, since the ventral 12.7 mm Berezin UB machine gun had a limited field of fire and was difficult to reload. Moreover, an additional 7.62 mm ShKAS machine gun that was added later that could be transferred between sockets on both sides of the fuselage and could be fired upwards caused additional problems. With the additional ShKAS, the gunner had to hold the machine gun in their arms. Anatonina Khokhlova Dubkova, one of the female tail gunners in the 125th Guards Bomber Regiment, explained, “at first I was the only woman machine gunner in the whole regiment. All the other gunners were men, because physically it was very difficult… the real effort was to recharge the machine gun, to pull the lever when it took sixty kilograms, and I had to do it with my left arm. I could never do it on the ground because it was very hard, but in the air it was one, two, and it was recharged! I squatted with the parachute behind my back, one machine gun behind me, another fixed machine gun that faced down and back. The latter gun was heavier, and it required the recharging. The lighter machine gun could be lifted out from one side and remounted on the other side, depending on where the attack was coming from.”

Following the Pe-2’s baptism of fire at the outbreak of the German invasion, Petlyakov’s team enacted a series of refinements based on suggestions given by frontline units, a process that would continue throughout the course of the war. In the summer of 1941, the most pressing issue with the Pe-2 was its relative lack of firepower. One of the forward firing 7.62 mm ShKAS machine guns was quickly replaced by a more powerful 12.7 mm BK, and a 12.7 mm UBT was mounted in the hatch installation in the navigator’s rear-facing position. At the end of 1941, an additional 7.62 mm ShKAS was added in the rear (mentioned above) that could be moved to either side of the fuselage and fired through the upper hatch. Pe-2 aircrews also made it clear at this time that the aircraft lacked sufficient armor, and consequently several changes were introduced to help the Peshka stand up to German aircraft and AA fire. For example, vulnerable service tanks were removed from the engine nacelles, and the armor plating around the navigator and tail-gunner was strengthened.

In January of 1942, Vladimir Petlyakov was killed in a plane crash, but work on improving the Pe-2 continued without delay. In early 1942, upgraded Klimov M-105PF and M-105RF passed state testing, and the Peshka was fitted with the new M-105PF, which gave the aircraft a slight increase in speed at low altitudes. Vladimir Myasischev took over the role of chief designer of the Pe-2, and made a number of changes to the Peshka’s bombsight, oxygen equipment, and cockpit instrumentation in 1943 and 1944, and also made several aerodynamical changes to the outer wing sections, which in addition to improving its handling characteristics, increased the aircraft’s speed by 10-15 km/h (6-9 mph).

The Pe-2’s airframe proved to be remarkably adaptable, and the Peshka was consequently used in a variety of roles by the Soviet military. Aside from its intended use as a dive-bomber, the Peshka also proved adept at daylight medium-altitude level bombing. Indeed, the highly-decorated and elite 6th Guards Bomber Aviation Division often alternated between dive-bombing and level-bombing during operational sorties in order to make it difficult for German anti-aircraft gunners to accurately fire at the Pe-2 formations. The Peshka was also widely used as a reconnaissance platform, which was given the designation Pe-2R. Stripped of its dive brakes, the Pe-2R featured additional fuel tanks in the bomb bay and was equipped with three cameras in the rear fuselage.


Pe-3 in flight. Photo source

However, the most numerous and significant variant of the Peshka was the heavy fighter version, which was given the designation Pe-3. Having come full circle from the VI-100 fighter to the Pe-2 dive bomber and back to the Pe-3 heavy fighter, the latter was given additional fuel tanks, which was made possible by the removal of two of the Pe-2’s bomb racks and the elimination of its electric bomb release system. An additional Berezin UBK 12.7 mm machine gun was installed in the nose and a fixed 7.62 mm ShKAS machine gun was added in the tail cone. Armament was further increased in the upgraded Pe-3, the Pe-3bis, which featured a total of two UBK 12.7 mm machine guns and one ShVAK 20 mm cannon in the nose, though the 7.62 mm ShKAS in the tail cone was removed. A total of 360 Pe-3s were produced during the war.

Throughout the course of the Second World War, the Petlyakov Pe-2 proved to be a fast, maneuverable, and durable twin-engine aircraft. A total of 11,427 examples were built, making it the third most numerous twin-engine aircraft manufactured during the war, behind the German Junkers Ju-88 and the British Vickers Wellington. With its easily adapted airframe, production Pe-2s changed considerably between 1941 and 1945, from the obvious performance-enhancing changes to the Klimov engines and the addition of armament to minor modifications such as changes to the layout of the glazed nose and tweaking the wings and rudders to increase maneuverability. Although aviation enthusiasts in the West tend to focus more on the heavily-armored Ilyushin Il-2 ground attack aircraft and the quick and nimble Yak-3 and Yak-9 fighters, the Pe-2 was undoubtedly one of the greatest Soviet aircraft of the Second World War, and while its impact on the outcome of the war on the Eastern Front cannot be quantified, it is difficult to imagine a Soviet victory without the use of a highly-capable and versatile twin-engine aircraft such as the Pe-2. Peshkas continued to be flown by the VVS, Soviet satellite states, China and Yugoslavia in the immediate postwar years, and were used as testbeds for various new Soviet technology in the late 1940s. Four are currently on display in Bulgaria, Norway, Poland, and at the Russian Central Air Force Museum in Monino near Moscow.



S.V. Ivanov, Pe-2, Voina v Vouzkukhe 113

Ya Pomnyu Project

Anne Noggle, Dance with Death, Soviet Airwomen in World War II

Aleksander Medved and Dmitriy Khazanov, Pe-2 Guard Units of World War II

Yefim Gordon and Dmitriy Khazanov, Soviet Combat Aircraft of the Second World War


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Pe-2s in flight. Source: S.V. Ivanov

The Soviet Polikarpov I-153 Chaika biplane



Though it is perhaps not the most well-known Soviet aircraft, the Polikarpov I-153 Chaika (seagull) was one of the pillars of the VVS’ arsenal in the late 1930s/early 1940s. Seeing extensive action against the Japanese at the Battle of Khalkhin-Gol in 1939, the Chaika proved to be obsolete by June of 1941 at the time of the German invasion. Nevertheless, until the Soviet aviation industry could be evacuated to locations far from the frontline and more advanced fighters and bombers could be produced, outdated aircraft such as the I-153 Chaika, the I-16, and the I-15 were tasked with both providing close air support for the Red Army and engaging the Luftwaffe, which had at its disposal some of the best aircraft in the world at the time, including the notorious Messerschmitt Bf-109. Though the Chaika biplanes were no match for the sleek German fighter, the I-153, serving in a multitude of roles, was able to contribute to the slowing of the massive German advance, buying enough time for the VVS to both receive more advanced aircraft from the UK and US via the lend-lease program and to receive the latest La-5s, Yak-9s, and Il-2s from Soviet factories.

The Polikarpov I-153 was an improved design of the I-15 biplane, which had first flown in 1933. Soviet pilots typically gave critical reviews of the I-15, with some complaining that the gulled top wing obscured the field of vision and did not provide sufficient stability. Though Polikarpov himself was a proponent of the gull-wing design, he was told to remove the feature and install an improved M-25 engine. The new aircraft was designated the I-15bis, and went into serial production in 1937. Polikarpov, however, was displeased with the lack of maneuverability in the I-15bis, and set about designing yet another derivative of the I-15. Reverting back to the gull-wings of which he was a proponent, the aircraft designer listened closely to the suggestions provided by Soviet pilots who were flying his aircraft on the frontline in Spain. Hearing complaints of the low rate of fire of the PV-1 machine guns on the I-15bis, Polikarpov’s team affixed new ShKAS onto the prototype, increasing the rate of fire from 750 rounds per minute to 1,800. The team also sought to improve the speed and performance of the aircraft by installing a retractable landing gear.


I-153 prototype. Photo source

Making its inaugural flight in August 1938, the new aircraft, with the designation I-153, performed much better than its predecessor, the I-15bis, and was put into production the following year, in time to get its first taste of combat at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol on the Mongolian-Manchurian border. According to reconnaissance pilot Iosef Birenberg, “These aircraft featured great maneuverability due to landing gear, and had four ShKAS machine guns, which provided a huge density of fire, more than eight thousand rounds per minute. This aircraft could also carry four bombs, up to 200 kilograms.”

In the first two months of the border war, known as Khalkhin Gol in Russia and the Nomonhan Incident in Japan, the Soviet Air Force sent their I-15bis and I-16 to go up against the Japanese Nakajima Ki-27s, with the Soviet side realizing that their two fighters were inferior to their Japanese counterpart. In early July, the first Chaikas arrived at the Tamsag-Bulak airfield, fresh from the factory. Over the next two months, the I-153’s performance, maneuverability, and four ShKAS machine guns helped the VVS turn the tide against the Japanese Ki-27s.


Japanese Ki-27s. Public Domain.

Japanese pilots quickly adopted different tactics to use while attacking the Chaikas, attempting to take advantage of the Soviet pilots’ poor forward visibility resulting from the gulled-wings. Soviet pilots, in turn, developed tactics to lure the Ki-27s in to attack, after which the pilots would use the I-153’s superior maneuverability to overtake the Japanese aircrafts. By flying with their landing gear down, the I-153 pilots would make it appear as though their aircraft were actually the inferior I-15 or I-15bis, inviting the Japanese to attack. Once the Ki-27s would get within range of the Chaikas, the latter would raise their landing gears, apply full throttle, and engage the oncoming Japanese aircraft.

Though the Red Army was victorious at Khalkhin Gol, the Soviet Union’s next combat operation, the Winter War with Finland, which began on November 30, 1939, was not nearly as successful. Despite being significantly outmanned and outgunned, the Finnish military was repeatedly able to repel the Red Army until the Soviets eventually broke through in March of 1940. The VVS, which deployed 2,500 aircraft (mostly ANT-40 bombers) at the outset of the war, enjoyed air superiority for most of the conflict. Nevertheless, the Finnish Air Force, which had only 114 combat aircraft fit for duty at the end of 1939, inflicted severe damage against the VVS, shooting down 200 Soviet aircraft during the war and losing only 62 of their own. However, the losses suffered by the VVS were indicative of a larger problem within the Soviet military in general (decimation of military leadership during the purges), and were not reflective of the aircraft flown by Soviet pilots. Indeed, the primary Finnish fighter, the Fokker D.XXI, was roughly equivalent to the Japanese Ki-27.


Polikarpov I-153. Photo Source.

In June of 1941, however, the I-153 would go up against some of the finest aircraft ever built in the finest air force ever assembled up to that point: the Luftwaffe. At the time of the German invasion, the Soviet Union’s fighter squadrons were comprised primarily of I-16s, LaGG-3s, Yak-1s, and I-153s, aircraft that were considered either obsolete or underpowered compared to the German aircraft that were causing mass destruction along the 1,200 mile front. Nevertheless, since the Soviet aviation industry would not be able to begin producing new designs until 1942 due to the evacuation of aircraft factories to the Soviet East, the VVS’ aircraft of the 1930s were tasked with halting the seemingly unstoppable German onslaught from the air.

Needless to say, this was a tall order to fill, but Chaika pilots, though flying against a far superior adversary, bravely went toe to toe with the seasoned Luftwaffe pilots. A fighter pilot with the 929 IAP, Evgeniy Pryanichnikov, recalled that in the early months of the war, “our regiment flew the 153 Chaikas, a renowned machine, which distinguished itself at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol, but by now was hopelessly outdated, much inferior in tactics and technical data to German aircraft.” Fighter pilot and Hero of the Soviet Union, Fedor Arkhipenko, noted that until 1943, Soviet fighters were simply not powerful enough to intercept German bombers. “At the beginning I-16s and I-153s could not catch up with the bombers even in a straight line,” Arkhipenko stated.

In these early months of the war, lacking an aircraft that could provide close air support, VVS leadership decided to use Chaikas as ground attack aircraft, despite the fact that the I-153s had little to no armor and were vulnerable to small arms fire from the ground (unlike the legendary Soviet ground attack aircraft that was introduced the following year, the Ilyushin Il-2). Anti-aircraft gunner Dmitry Poltavets described receiving close air support from I-15bis and I-153s during the defense of Odessa in the summer of 1941. During the battle, I-153s, “were assigned to help the infantry repel enemy attacks… One fighter would swoop down, and the second would immediately begin to dive at the enemy… in order to protect the first plane coming out of the dive from rifle fire and machine guns, because I-15bis and I-153 were poorly protected even by rifle fire.”


A restored Chaika. Public Domain

Despite being outmatched by the Luftwaffe both in terms of quality and numbers, I-153s did find some success as ground attack aircraft (while also suffering terrible losses), though their achievements would be overshadowed later in the war by more advanced aircraft, such as the Ilyushin Il-2. Documents submitted by the commander of the 267th IAP, Major Orlov, for example, outlined the achievements of one I-153 pilot, Junior Lieutenant Nikolai Loginov, while flying ground attack missions in the Caucasus in the late summer of 1942. Submitting a recommendation to award Loginov the Order of Lenin, Orlov wrote that from August 2nd to September 11th, the Junior Lieutenant, “flew 42 combat sorties against enemy troops for a total of 48 hours 37 minutes. In his group of ground attack aircraft he managed to destroy: automobiles = 54, carts and wagons = 6, field guns on a trailer = 1, anti-aircraft guns = 3, autobuses = 2, soldiers and officers up to 200 people.” Loginov was shot down and killed by German ace Walter Krupinski (who finished the war with 197 aerial victories) shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, his success shows that even against superior machines, the I-153, despite its shortcomings, was capable of getting the job done.

Beginning in late 1942, however, the Chaikas were gradually replaced by lend-lease aircraft such as the P-39 Airacobra and Soviet-built aircraft such as the La-5, Yak-9, and Il-2. With its ever expanding arsenal of aircraft that were equal to if not superior to the German airplanes over the Eastern Front, the VVS eventually managed to obtain and maintain air superiority, which enabled the Red Army to advance West all the way to Berlin. Though aircraft such as the I-153 did not make major contributions to the victory on the Eastern Front, they played the crucial role of helping the Soviet Union avoid a complete collapse from the German invasion in 1941. Chaika pilots certainly did not tally up kills against their German adversaries, but they did hold the Luftwaffe at bay well enough to buy time for the aerial icons of the Eastern Front, such as the Lavochkins and Yakovlevs, to roll off the assembly line and defeat the Luftwaffe.

-Patrick Kinville

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


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.”


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.



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


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.


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].”


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


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

Lend-Lease Soviet P-47



While it is commonly known among war bird enthusiasts that the Soviet Union received large numbers of P-39 Airacobras and P-40 Warhawks, planes that many American pilots deemed to be inferior to the P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs that were flown over the Western Front,  the VVS also received approximately 200 Republic P-47 Thunderbolts- heavy duty fighters armed with eight 50 caliber machine guns that were capable of flying more than 440 miles per hour at 29,000 feet. With a Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engine complete with a supercharger, the Thunderbolt was an extremely effective escort fighter and very capable of taking on any German aircraft both at high-altitude and low-altitude. Indeed, the USAAF’s top two aces in Europe, Francis “Gabby”Gabreski and Robert Johnson, flew P-47s.

In which role did the VVS use the P-47? Why weren’t more delivered? Unfortunately, very little is known about the Thunderbolts that arrived in the Soviet Union. Most of them were delivered to the 255th IAP of the Northern Fleet, where they were put into the high-altitude air defense role. While the Thunderbolt pilots of the US 8th Air Force did not have to look too hard to find a high-altitude dogfight, the aerial action over the entire Eastern Front was fought at a significantly lower altitude.

Whereas British and American bombers engaged in high-altitude bombing runs against German cities and industrial targets, requiring fighter escorts equipped with superchargers (P-47, P-51, P-38), the VVS focused more on low-level close air support, integrating the movements of their ground attack aircraft (IL-2 Sturmoviks) with ground forces. Consequently, while escorting the IL-2 “flying tanks”, Soviet escorts rarely found themselves in situations in which they would have to engage the enemy at high altitudes.

The Luftwaffe similarly used the Ju-87 and Ju-88 in close air support roles on the Eastern Front, meaning the VVS had little use for high-altitude interceptors.

What little information available about Soviet P-47s suggests that VVS pilots were unimpressed with the Thunderbolt’s maneuverability at low-altitudes. The P-39 became so tremendously popular among Soviet pilots due to its ability to maneuver in horizontal, and especially vertical, positions. The P-47 was a fast, powerful, and heavily armed aircraft, but it could not maneuver nearly as well as a P-39.

In addition to the high-altitude air defense role, it has also been suggested that the Soviets used P-47s as reconnaissance aircraft, due to their range that was far superior to other aircraft available to the VVS.

While undoubtedly one of the finest American aircraft of World War Two, the P-47 simply did not fit into the conditions of the Eastern Front.