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majority of the more than 3,000 MiG piston-engined fighters that had been built had either been destroyed or had been withdrawn from frontline service.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 US-built Mustang Mk. I fighters

In late 1941, the Soviet Union received ten North American Mustang Mk. Is from the Royal Air Force. Acquired by the RAF for use as tactical reconnaissance and fighter-bomber in early 1941, the British sent the Mk. Is to the Soviet Union (along with Hawker Hurricanes and Curtis P-40 Warhawks) in late 1941 and early 1942 in an attempt to strengthen the aerial arm of the Soviet military after the major losses suffered by the VVS and VMF (Soviet Air Force and Navy) during Operation Barbarossa. Indeed, on the first day of the war, an estimated 1,200 Soviet aircraft were destroyed by the Luftwaffe, and the aircraft that the VVS had left in its arsenal in the summer of 1941 were mostly obsolete LaGG-3 and I-16 fighters, or I-15 and I-513 biplanes. What is more, due to the fact that the majority of the aviation industry was located in the Western part of the country, the Soviet Union was forced to undergo the herculian task of evacuating hundreds of aviation manufacturing facilities to the other side of the Urals, no small task even in times of peace. Consequently, in late 1941, the Soviet Air Force was in a dire situation, and was in desperate need of fighters to halt the Luftwaffe’s onslaught until the aviation industry could recover from its massive evacuation.


Soviet Mustang Mk. I

Well aware of the situation of its new and unlikely ally, England began sending its own fighters to help bolster the Soviet air arm. As early as August of 1941, RAF squadrons began deliveries of Hawker Hurricanes Mk. II to the Soviet Union (nearly 3,000 would eventually be flown by the VVS and VMF), and even began diverting US-built P-40s to the Eastern Front (2,200 would be delivered from both the UK and the US from 1941-1944). Though both fighters had their drawbacks, deliveries of P-40s and Hawker Hurricanes to the Soviet Union in 1941 helped the VVS and VMF stave off the Luftwaffe until the Soviet aviation industry could get up and running (after the US entered World War II in December, however, the Soviet Union was included in the Lend-Lease Act and eventually went on to receive thousands of US-built aircraft).  Soviet pilots were generally not as enthusiastic about the Hurricanes and P-40s that they received from the RAF in 1941 as they would be about the Bell P-39 Airacobras that they began to fly the following year, but the two types proved to be effective in the hands of skilled Soviet pilots (Boris Safonov scored the majority of his 26 confirmed aerial victories while flying the Hurricane before he was killed in 1942). As part of the UK’s attempts to prop up the Soviet VVS following the disastrous summer of 1941, at a time when the UK itself had an acute shortage of quality aircraft, the decision was made to send a small batch of the RAF’s newest but hitherto untested fighter for evaluation by Soviet engineers: the North American Aviation Mustang Mk. I.


NA-73X prototype. Public domain.

The Mustang, which later received the designation P-51 while in service with the USAAF, would go on to gain notoriety as one of the best fighters of the Second World War. In 1941, however, the Mustang was a brand new aircraft that had not received its baptism of fire. Indeed, the aircraft’s origins were humble, and was only manufactured out of sheer necessity. After being approached by the British Direct Purchase Committee (BDPC) in the Spring of 1940 with a request to build the Curtis P-40 for the RAF under license, North American Aviation suggested building a brand new fighter instead of producing an aircraft that had already shown signs of obsolescence. NAA’s President,  James H. “Dutch” Kindelberger, proposed building a single-engine fighter from the ground up using the same Allison 1710-39 that powered the P-40 (the later  B,C,D, and K variants of the P-51 would be powered by the elegant Packard Merlin engine). Promising superior performance, firepower, and range, Kindelberger persuaded the BDPC to accept NAA’s proposal, despite the fact that, up until this point, the company had never manufactured a combat aircraft from scratch.

On October 26, 1940, the resulting aircraft, designated NA-37X, made its first flight, and the following October, after successfully completing NAA’s test program, the first production example arrived in the UK. RAF pilots were pleased with the new aircraft, which had been christened the Mustang Mk. I, and those who evaluated the US-built aircraft reported it to be faster and more maneuverable than the Spitfire Mk. V up to 15,000 feet (4,500 meters). However, like the P-40 and P-39, the Mustang’s Allison engine, which lacked a two-stage supercharger, meant the aircraft’s performance decrease significantly above 20,000 feet (6,100 meters). Consequently, the RAF used the Mustang Mk. Is primarily for tactical reconnaissance and ground-attack duties.


Soviet Mustang Mk. I. Photo source

The Soviet VVS, on the other hand, did not deem the Mustang fit for operational service on the Eastern Front at any altitude. The first two Mustangs arrived in the Soviet Union on December 16th, 1941, and the tenth (and final) aircraft arrived six months later. However, it wasn’t until June of 1942 that the Mk.I underwent state testing at the State Air Force Research Institute. The test pilot, V.E. Golofastov, reported that though the Mustang’s low-altitude speed was sufficient, it was lower than the Yakovlev Yak-7B’s by 6-30 mph (10-50 km/h). Moreover, Golofatsov noted that the Mk. I’s rate of climb was inferior to that of the Yak-7B and the German Bf-109. The Soviet pilot did, however, admire the Mustang’s armament which consisted of four 12.7 mm and four 7.62 mm Browning M2 machine guns. Nevertheless, the State Air Force Research Institute made it clear that the Bell P-39 Airacobra, of which deliveries from the US had begun several months prior, was a better fit for the VVS.

Despite the fact that the Mk.I did not impress Soviet pilots and engineers during state tests, three Mustangs were sent to the 3rd Air Army on the Kalinin Front for combat trials in the fall of 1942. Two aircraft were flown by the 5th Guards Fighter Regiment, which at the time was equipped with LaGG-3s. Among those who flew the Mustangs was Hero of the Soviet Union V.A. Zaytsev (34 aerial victories) and future Hero of the Soviet Union V.I. Popkov (41 victories). In his memoirs, Popkov gave the Mustangs a negative review. According to him, although the aircraft’s speed was sufficient, “it was heavy, like iron”. The Soviet ace also noted that the Mk.I’s maneuverability left much to be desired, and its rate of climb was poor compared to other fighters available at the time. Another five Mustangs were sent to the 6th Reserve Brigade near Ivanovo where they were used to help convert Soviet pilots to US-built aircraft, and the other two found their way to the Air Force Academy and the Central AeroHydrodynamic Institute. Although the Luftwaffe claimed that two Soviet P-51s were shot down over Karelia in late 1943, the VVS never used its Mustangs in combat, and the German pilots more than likely misidentified the aircraft that were shot down.

The RAF did have a certain degree of success with the Allison-powered Mustangs, but it was not until North American Aircraft produced the P-51B and P-51C variants that the Mustang became the dominant aircraft of World War II. Powered by the elegant Packard (Rolls Royce) Merlin engine, the B & C variants transformed the air war over Western Europe as a whole. With its two 75 US gal (280 liter) external drop tanks, the Merlin-powered P-51B/C was introduced as a bomber escort with a combat radius of 750 miles (1,210 km), which allowed bombers to retain their escorts deep into German territory. An additional 85 US gal (320 liter) fuel tank was later installed aft of the pilot’s seat, which improved the fighter’s range even more. The Mustang continued to improve with the D and K models, which were, in many historians’ opinions, the best fighters of the Second World War. The P-51D/K featured two 110 US gal (416 liter ) drop tanks, which increased the Mustang’s combat range to an astounding 1,000 mi (1,609 km).

While the P-51 undoubtedly had a tremendous impact on the USAAF & RAF’s Combined Bomber Offensive in Western Europe, it is important to bear in mind the differences of the air war fought on the Eastern Front, where dogfights were typically conducted at low altitudes since the VVS focused on providing close air support to Red Army ground troops, and in the West, where fighters fought off German Bf-109s and Fw-190s that attempted to intercept strategic bombers at high altitudes (10,000 meters/33,000 feet or above). Moreover, the Soviet Air Force operated primarily from forward airstrips, which were often times located only several minutes from Axis-held encampments, which in turn meant range was not nearly as crucial for Soviet fighters as it was for those in the West. Indeed, one of the Soviet Union’s best domestically-built fighters of the war, the Yakovlev Yak-3, had a combat range of only 325 km (203 miles). 


Soviet Yak-9s and US B-17s during Operation Frantic. Public domain.

The VVS did acquire a number of P-51Ds that were left behind following following Operation Frantic, a series of shuttle bombing operations in 1944 in which US aircraft used Soviet airfields to hit Axis targets in Southern and Eastern Europe. Though full flight tests were not conducted on the war-weary P-51Ds, several Soviet pilots flew the aircraft, and reported that the Merlin-powered Mustang was inferior to the Yak-3, Yak-9, and La-5FN at low and medium altitudes, but was superior above 5,000 meters (16,000 feet). Soviet engineers showed little interest in examining the P-51’s technology, unlike the B-29, which the Tupolev Design Bureau would later reverse engineer to create the Tu-4 strategic bomber after the war.

Although the Mustang went on to become a game changer in the air war over Western Europe, when Soviet test pilots evaluated their ten Allison-powered Mk.Is in 1942, it was determined that Soviet-built aircraft and the Bell P-39 Airacobra were more well-suited for the VVS and VMF. Indeed, two other types that are considered to be among the best fighters of World War II in the West, the Republic P-47 and the Supermarine Spitfire, were both flown operationally by Soviet forces, but were deemed to be inferior to the Yak-3, Yak-9, La-5FN, and P-39 while in combat over the Eastern Front. Even though the Allison-powered Mustang was well-liked by RAF pilots and USAAF pilots who flew the A-36 dive-bomber variant of the Mustang, it was not fated to have an impact on the Eastern Front.

-Patrick Kinville 


  1. V.P. Kotelnikov, G.F. Petrov, D.A. Sobolev, N.V. Yakubovich, Amerikantsii v Rossii
  2. Chorlton, Martin, Allison-Engined P-51 Mustang

Dmitry Glinka, a Soviet P-39 ace with 50 aerial victories

With 50 confirmed aerial victories, Dmitry Glinka was one of the top Allied aces of World War II. Like most Soviet aces, Dmitry Glinka came from a modest background. Born to a family of miners just a month after the October Revolution of 1917, Dmitry (not to be confused with his brother Boris, also a Soviet ace) began working as an electrician for the MOPRa mine in 1932. After developing an intense interest in aviation, Glinka joined the Krivoy Rog Aeroclub, and entered the Kachin Red Flying School, from which he graduated in 1939.

glinkad9After graduation, Glinka was assigned to the Transcaucasian Military District’s Air Force Fighter Wing near the city of Baku in the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic. In the summer of 1941, in the wake of Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Glinka was assigned to the 45th IAP, which was stationed in Iran during the Anglo-Soviet invasion of the country in August and September. Equipped with a Polikarpov I-16, Glinka did not fly any combat missions during the invasion, but did manage to fly several hundred sorties in the “Rata” before the 45th IAP was transferred to the Crimean Front in early 1942.

Upon the 45th’s transfer, Glinka was reequipped with a Yakovlev Yak-1 single-engine fighter. On April 9th, 1942, Dmitry Glinka shot down his first German aircraft, a Ju-88 twin-engine bomber. From there, the young pilot found his stride, shooting down another Ju-88 later that month, and a Messerschmitt Bf-109 single-engine fighter on May 8th. The following day, Glinka achieved ace status when he shot down three Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombers. Several days later, Glinka himself was shot down. Waking up in the hospital without recollection of bailing out of his doomed Yak, his doctors grounded him for two months so he could recover from a severe concussion.


Glinka’s P-39K

Glinka’s return to the regiment in July coincided with the arrival of a fresh batch of pilots to the 45th, including Ivan Babak, who Glinka chose as his wingman (Babak himself would go on to have 35 aerial victories during the war). In February of the following year, the regiment was refitted with lend-lease P-39s Airacobras, and in March was thrown into the Battle of the Kuban. In perhaps the fiercest aerial combat of the entire war, Dmitry Glinka shot down 20 German aircraft, making him one of the most successful pilots of the pivotal campaign. One battle, in particular, brought Glinka notoriety, when he led a flight of six P-39s against an armada of sixty German bombers (Ju-87s and Ju-88s) and eight Bf-109s. The Soviet fighters were able to sow confusion into the ranks of the Luftwaffe aircraft, forcing them to ditch their bombs and turn around. During the melee, Glinka was able to down two Junkers and one Messerschmitt. Years later, the great aircraft designer, Alexander Yakovlev, recalled this battle, exclaiming, “It is difficult to visualize the picture of this battle! After 68 enemy aircraft aimed more than 150 gun barrels at our fighters. You had to have insane courage… to rush into such a battle and be victorious.”

However, not long after, Glinka was again shot down, this time by the rear gunner of a Ju-87 Stuka, but not before he shot down two Ju-88s. Forced to parachute out of his destroyed P-39, he spent two weeks in the hospital recuperating, and returned to his regiment with his arm still in a splint. On April 24th, 1943, for his courage, bravery and heroism displayed against the enemy over the Kuban, Dmitry Glinka was awarded the Gold Star Hero of the Soviet Union.

Immediately after the Battle of the Kuban, the 45th, which by then had been designated the 100th Guards IAP, participated in the Miusskaya offensive, during which time Glinka continued to increase his tally. By September of 1943, the Soviet ace had shot down 38 German aircraft, and he consequently received his second Gold Star Hero of the Soviet Union. That same month, Glinka had another close encounter, when a German grenade that he had been examining blew up. Fortunately for him, the explosion caused only minor wounds, and he was back in the air within several days.

2dba7d524cc890a81ef65ae4f2143fa5The 100th GIAP then received a much deserved 6-month rest in late 1943 and early 1944. In the spring of 1944, the regiment was sent to provide air cover the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts for the Jassy–Kishinev Offensives. In the first week of May, Glinka had yet another brush with death when a Li-2 transport aircraft on which he was traveling crashed into a mountain. Sustaining serious injuries in the crash, Glinka lay in the wreckage for two days before being rescued.  In July, after spending two months in the hospital, Glinka rejoined his regiment, which had been sent to provide air cover for the Lvov–Sandomierz Offensive. During the operation, the Soviet ace shot down nine German planes, raising his score to 46. Glinka was inactive until the Battle of Berlin the following spring, where he shot down two Bf-109s and two Fw-190s.

Throughout the course of the war, Dmitry Borisovich Glinka flew 300 sorties and fought in more than 100 air battles. When the war officially ended on May 9th, 1945, Glinka had shown down 50 German aircraft (11 in a Yak-1, and 39 in a P-39), and making him the sixth highest scoring Allied ace of WWII. After the war, Glinka continued his career in the VVS, first commanding a regiment, and later becoming deputy commander of a division. In 1960, he was discharged from the Soviet military with the rank of colonel. He died in 1979.

-Patrick Kinville

The Soviet PBY Catalinas of WWII


Soviet Catalina. Photo source

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

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

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


Soviet GST. Photo source

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

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

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

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


PBN Nomad drawing. Wings Palette

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

-Patrick Kinville


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


Further reading:

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

Lisunov Li-2: The license-built DC-3 and the unsung workhorse of the Eastern Front


Easily one of the most recognizable aircrafts of the Second World War is the twin-engine C-47 transport plane. In both the European and Pacific theaters, the C-47 Dakota was pivotal to the success of innumerable missions of the Western Allies, and General Dwight D. Eisenhowever, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, called it one of the most vital pieces of military equipment in the war. Although the Soviet Union did fly several U.S.-built C-47 Dakotas, the vast majority of transport aircraft used by the Soviet military were Lisunov Li-2s, license-built versions of the C-47. While similar in form and function to the Dakota, the Li-2 was modified to fit the needs of the Soviet forces on the Eastern Front, which in turn made the license-built aircraft capable of carrying out tasks that its Western counterpart could not.

In June of 1936, the head of the Soviet Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI), N.M. Kharlamov, reached an agreement with the Douglas Aircraft Company to purchase one of the California aircraft manufacturer’s latest fixed-wing, twin-engine commercial aircraft, the DC-3 (which later had the military designation C-47), for $130,000. More significantly for the development of the Soviet aviation industry as a whole, the TsAGI purchased a license to build their own aircraft based on the DC-3 for $207,500, complete with blueprints, technical support, and manufacturing guidance from Douglas. Per the terms of the contract, a Soviet delegation, which included aeronautical engineers Boris Lisunov and Vladimir Myasischev, traveled to the Douglas plant in Santa Monica, CA, where they learned not only how to produce DC-3s, but how to run an efficient and cost-effective aircraft manufacturing facility.

Before the Soviet Union could manufacturer such aircraft, however, several important steps needed to be taken, including the translation of Douglas’ technical documents from English to Russian, and, more significantly, the conversion of the U.S. company’s imperial measurements to the Soviet Union’s metric system, a task which took six months. Meanwhile, as engineers were preparing the technical documents for the production of the twin-engine aircraft, the Soviet Union purchased an additional 18 DC-3s from Douglas, and Soviet authorities began to prepare aircraft factory no. 84 in Khimki, just outside Moscow, to be the production site for the aircraft. Vladimir Myasischev, who had visited the Douglas plant in California, was to head the project in Khimki.

skiThough Soviet engineers initially hoped to incorporate as few changes as possible to thedesign of the DC-3, by the time the first aircraft made with imported parts rolled out of factory no.84 in November of 1938, almost 1,300 engineering changes had been made to the original Douglas drawings. In addition to converting the measurements from the imperial to the metric system, no small task on its own, numerous modifications had to be executed in order for the aircraft to be able to house the Soviet-built Shvetsov ASh-62 engines, which were a development of the Wright R-1820 Cyclone that had initially been built in the Soviet Union under licence as the Shvetsov M-25. Nevertheless, after a series of trials and errors, the new aircraft passed government tests in 1939, and was designated PS-84 (Passazhirskiy Samolyot 84, or passenger aircraft 84).

The new Soviet-built PS-84 entered commercial service in the summer of 1940. By this time, Aeroflot, the Soviet Civil Air Fleet, had 12 U.S.-built DC-3s in their service, which were used primarily for international flights, and the PS-84s were to be used for longer domestic routes, such as the Moscow-Irkutsk line. Over the next year, factory no. 84 increased its efficiency by leaps and bounds, in part due to the help that had been provided by the Douglas company since 1936, and by October of 1941, four months after the German invasion, aircraft production in Khimki reached its pinnacle, producing 1.5 PS-84s per day. However, due to the Wehrmacht’s rapid advance toward Moscow, the Soviet military leadership, seeing the importance of the PS-84 transport aircraft, put factory no. 84 at the top of the list of aviation factories to be evacuated to the Soviet East. A herculean undertaking even in times of peace, in a period of only two months, the PS-84 factory outside Moscow was successfully evacuated to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The last factory no. 84 aircraft rolled off the assembly line on October 18th, 1941, and the first Tashkent PS-84 was completed less than three months later on January 7th, 1942.

The PS-84s that were produced in Tashkent, however, varied significantly from those that were built in Khimki during the first few months of the war. The Soviet military, receiving aircraft that were designed to carry civilian passengers in comfort, transformed the aircraft to fit the needs of the Eastern Front. As one Soviet technician, Nikolai Sharapov, recalled, “The factory in Tashkent transformed it, the Li-2 [PS-84] aircraft. Lisunov was the chief engineer. He redesigned it… he removed the soft seats… he made the seats of folding metal. He also created another large door: in addition to the passenger door there was added a cargo door. A turret was also added to these plans… and ShKAS machine guns.” Indeed, Soviet ground crews had begun undertaking significant field modifications to the PS-84 as early as September of 1941 in order to make the commercial aircraft more suited for military tasks on the Eastern Front. In particular, due to the fact that 18 of the 51 PS-84s in the Moscow sector had been lost by August, Soviet technicians sought to bolster the defensive capabilities of the converted passenger planes by installing a dorsal turret armed with a 7.62mm ShKAS machine gun and two additional machine guns in the waist of the aircraft.

The field modifications undertaken in the autumn of 1941 were incorporated into the production plans at the Tashkent factory in early 1942, with the dorsal turret being upgraded to house a 12.7mm UBT machine gun. Upon relocation of the factory, the aircraft itself received a new designation: the Li-2, named after Boris Lisunov who had taken over as head of the project. “It came [from the factory in Tashkent] as a bomber,” Li-2 pilot Nikolai Syshchikov recalled. “All planes had a high-caliber UBT [12.7mm] in the turret, and two ShKAS [7.62 mm] on the sides. At first there was a nose gun, but then it was removed- it was not necessary, it was not a fighter! The plane was too heavy to roll, to chase and catch [another aircraft] in its sights, so the fixed machine gun was simply removed.” Indeed, even without the nose gun, the single UBT and two ShKAS’ affected the aircraft’s performance, decreasing its top speed by as much as 14-17 km/hr and significantly reducing  its range and rate of climb. Nevertheless, Soviet airmen were willing to trade performance for armament, and Li-2s continued to be manufactured with the three machine guns until production of the military variant of the aircraft ceased.

li2-5The PS-84/Li-2 was used primarily as a transport aircraft during the first year of the war, but from the summer of 1942 onwards, it was adapted to to serve as a bomber. By installing hardpoints under the fuselage, the Li-2 was able to carry up to four 250 kg bombs, which were released by the navigator who used a primitive bomb sight set up along the right window. To increase the payload, Li-2 crew members often loaded smaller bombs into the cabin of the aircraft, which they would throw out of the back door while over enemy territory. The lack of accuracy during such missions convinced Soviet military officials to to use the Li-2s as night bombers, as such campaigns did not require precise accuracy. Indeed, the license-built DC-3s were used extensively as night bombers in November and December of 1942 during the Battle of Stalingrad, during which time Soviet forces held only a small strip of land along the west bank of the Volga River. Li-2 bombers would simply fly over the German-occupied territory of Stalingrad, drop their bombs, and return to their airfield to rearm.

While Li-2s certainly were capable of playing various roles, their main mission was to transport soldiers and material all along the 1,200 mile Eastern Front, a task that the Li-2 was more than capable of handling. Much like the C-47 in the west, the Li-2 was responsible for transporting Soviet paratroopers during airborne operations, and they were used in all the major tactical and operational airdrops on the Eastern Front, including Vyazma in 1942 and Desaniki in 1943. One paratrooper, Viktor Markin, remembered jumping out of a Li-2 with his platoon several times, simply stating, “It was a good plane, reliable.”


Li-2 in flight. Source

Li-2s were also tasked with delivering supplies to the front and to Soviet partisans behind enemy lines, as well as evacuating civilians and wounded soldiers. During October-December 1941, while delivering supplies to the besieged city of Leningrad, 30 PS-84s delivered 5,000 tons of goods, while evacuating 50,000 people, including 9,000 wounded soldiers.“And so, therefore, we had to fly all the time,” Nikolai Sharapov explained. “This division provided all the weapons to the front: ammunition, medical supplies, food. And from the front we brought back the badly wounded in these aircraft. At the same time, I had to fly to the front line to the partisans. Our crews would have to fly four times throughout a night to the other side of the front to drop supplies to the partisans. Six or seven times per night we flew to the besieged Leningrad.”

Soviet authorities continued to put emphasis on Li-2 production until the end of the war. After the first Li-2 rolled off the assembly line in Tashkent in January of 1942, a further 422 were produced that year, with production increasing to 618 in 1943 and peaking at 627 in 1944. 458 were built in 1945, but production tailed off considerably after Germany surrendered in May. Commercial Li-2s continued to be built until 1954, and they saw extensive use in the Soviet satellite states through the 1960s. In total, more than 6,000 Li-2s were built, both for military and commercial purposes.

Much like its cousin, the C-47, the Li-2 was a workhorse, known for its toughness and dependability. However, the Soviet-built version was heavily modified to carry out tasks unique to the Eastern Front, and was thus more versatile than the Douglas aircraft, which itself was an extremely functional aircraft. Nevertheless, both the C-47 and Li-2 deserve to be remembered as the workhorses that operated tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure the success of the allied operations that led to the defeat of Germany and Japan.

-Patrick Kinville

Yakovlev Yak-3: The highly maneuverable and much-loved Soviet fighter


Yak-3 in flight. Photo source

Of all the exceptional aircraft flown by Soviet airmen during World War Two, one, in particular, was especially championed by VVS pilots: The Yakovlev Yak-3. As one of the smallest and lightest aircraft flown by any combatant country during the war, the Yak-3’s legacy is still apparent in the Russian VVS today. Indeed, Russian pilots in the 21st century are often willing to trade range and firepower for maneuverability and speed, a theme which has its roots in the Second World War and it oftentimes misunderstood in the U.S., where firepower and strategic ability is often preferred over agility and performance. Nevertheless, the Yak-3 in World War Two had its pros and cons, like all aircraft, but the VVS leadership, by the time the new Yakovlevs arrived in 1944, had learned from 3 years of war against the Luftwaffe that it was crucial for each type of aircraft to be put into a role in which its strengths would be accentuated and its weaknesses would be downplayed. As a fast and highly-maneuverable aircraft with limited range and firepower, the Yak-3 was used almost exclusively as low-altitude tactical fighter. Escort missions for bombers and ground-attack aircraft were reserved for the Yak-3’s big brother: The Yak-9D.


Yak-3 in flight. Photo source 

With a length of 8.5 m (27’ 10”) and a wingspan of only 9.2 m (30’ 2”), the Yak-3 was significantly smaller than the German Bf-109s and Fw-190s. Indeed, its wing area was only 14.85 m² (159.8 ft²), leading many during the design phase to question if the new aircraft could even take off. Nevertheless, with its Klimov VK-105 V-12 liquid-cooled piston engine that produced 1,300 hp, the nimble Yak could not only take off, it could reach a top speed of 655 km/h. The combined speed and maneuverability compensated for the relatively light-armament which consisted of one 20 mm ShVAK cannon and two 12.7 mm Berezin UBS machine guns. Similarly, the Yakovlev Design Bureau was forced to significantly decrease the size of the fuel tank from the preceding Yak-1 to meet the requirements for such a small and agile fighter. Consequently, the Yak-3’s range was only about 650 km (405 miles). One Soviet pilot, Vasiliy Lambutsky, recalled that the Yak-3 “had little fuel. This aircraft was only for air-to-air combat… Yak-3s were very bad at escorting bombers… as a rule, in these cases, we flew the Yak-9. There was such an aircraft, the Yak-9D. This plane had fuel for an hour and forty minutes. And the Yak-3… for one hour.” Another pilot, FF Kondratev, similarly recalled flying a Yak-3 for the first time in 1944 near Poland. “This aircraft had a superiority over the enemy,” he stated. “As a drawback, it could only carry a little gasoline, just 40 minutes of fighting; from takeoff to landing, one hour.”

By 1944, however, the VVS had several different types of aircraft that that had a range more suited towards escort duty, including the larger Yak-9, the Lavochkin La-5/7, and the ever popular U.S.-built Bell P-39 Airacobra. The broad range of aircraft at the VVS’ disposal during the final two years of the war made it possible for Yak-3s to be used in a more localized setting, scrambling to engage aircraft in close proximity to the aerodrome in which they were stationed. When put into this role, Soviet pilots agreed that the Yak-3 was the best aircraft in the skies over the Eastern Front.

Boris Eremin, a Soviet fighter pilot in World War Two, put it succinctly when he said, “The best [fighter] was the Yak-3, an ideal machine for a fight. Just a fairy tale. You fly one, and you cannot convey your satisfaction with it.” Another Soviet, pilot Ivan Gaydaenko, similarly recalled, “I think that of all of the planes that were in the war, the best were Yaks, especially the Yak-3. If an experienced pilot were flying one, it was impossible to shoot him down, they were so maneuverable.”

The praise of the nimble Yakovlev became truly apparent when compared to the much-respected German Bf-109s and Fw-190s. “The only type of Yak which was better than a Messer [Bf-109] in full and without reservations, such as speed, vertical and horizontal maneuvers, [and] acceleration dynamics was the Yak-3,” fighter pilot Ivan Kozhemyako explained. Many other pilots have echoed this assessment. “In a dogfight for all intents and purposes [a Yak-3] was superior to the Bf-109… especially during verticals… the Germans were afraid of it,” one airman recalled. Others praised the Yak-3 for its ability to easily get onto the tail of Fw-190s, the Luftwaffe’s tough and powerful fighter that was introduced in large numbers in 1943. It could “get behind the tail in one turn and shoot it down,” pilot Sergey Kramarenko noted.

The Luftwaffe itself was able to inspect the new Soviet fighter after a Yak-3 made an emergency landing at a German airfield in East Prussia in January of 1945. Hans-Werner Lerche, the test pilot who had flown a captured Soviet La-5 the year before, was able to test the capabilities of the nimble Yakovlev for himself, though due to negative weather conditions and the fact that the Wehrmacht was rapidly retreating eastwards, the test flights conducted on the Yak-3 were not nearly as thorough as those conducted on other captured allied aircraft. Nevertheless, Lerche was able to fly the new Yak several times, and was thoroughly impressed. Lerche noted that Field Marshall Goering had arrived to inspect the captured Soviet plane, and was told by the test pilot that though the test flights had not yet started due to the poor weather, “due to the extremely low weight of the aircraft, coupled with its excellent aerodynamic qualities and  powerful engine, you can expect an excellent rate of climb and combat qualities at low altitude compared to our fighters Bf-109 and Fw-190.”


Yak-3 blueprint. Photo source

Despite its size and weight, Soviet pilots generally thought the Yak-3 was a durable aircraft, and ground crews admired it for its reliability and relative easiness to repair. One VVS mechanic recalled that, “The most advanced machine during WWII was the Yak-3. The work of ground crews and mechanics was [generally] time-consuming, but the Yak-3 was much easier and more convenient.” What was of primary importance for ground crews and mechanics was the ease in which otherwise debilitating damage could be repaired, especially when it came to repairing holes in the plywood surface. German ground crews, after inspecting the Yak-3 that was captured by the Luftwaffe in January of 1945, echoed this assessment. “Of common interest [to the ground crew] was the perfectly crafted plywood ring,” Lerche explained. “It created minimum resistance and could easily be repaired even at forward aerodromes with improvised equipment.”

In addition to the Yak-3’s impact on the battlefield in 1944 and 1945, the aircraft had tremendous importance for the Soviet and Russian aviation industry that can still be felt today. Russian fighter pilots, above anything else, champion an aircraft’s maneuverability, a tradition that had its origins in the 1930s but was solidified by VVS airmen in fighters such as the Yak-3. Nowadays, Russian aircraft companies such as Sukhoi, Mikoyan, and Yakovlev produce aircraft with maneuverability capabilities that are superior to their western counterparts. The Yak-3 was one of the great aircrafts of not only World War II, but of the entire history of aviation. One Soviet pilot, FF Kondratev, put it succinctly when he later stated, “I shot down 8 enemy aircraft. I have to thank the design office that created the Yak for that.”

-Patrick Kinville

The forgotten Soviet bomber: The Ilyushin Il-4



Il-4 in flight. Photo source


Often overshadowed by the U.S.-built B-25 Mitchells and A-20 Bostons in western histories, the Soviet-built Ilyushin Il-4 was one of the great bombers on the Eastern Front. With over 5,000 built over the course of the war, the Il-4 was used in a variety of roles, from medium-range and long-range bombers to torpedo bomber. While the twin-engined Ilyushin would not go on the achieve the legendary status of its little brother, the Il-2 Sturmovik, the Il-4 did make a significant contribution to the war, as the VVS had an acute shortage of bombers capable of carrying heavy payloads over vast distances. Despite numerous shortcomings, Soviet bomber crews generally thought the Ilyushin was a tough and quality aircraft. The Soviet military required a dependable twin-engined bomber, and the Il-4 proved to be more than capable.



DB-3. Photo: Wikipedia

The Il-4 evolved from the Ilyushin DB-3 bomber of the 1930s. Immediately following the German invasion in June of 1941, the DB-3 was the only twin-engine bomber that the Soviets had in their arsenal, and in August, it was the DB-3 that carried out the air raid on Berlin that gave Soviet soldiers and citizens a significant morale boost in the midst of a seemingly endless German onslaught. In 1941-1942, the Ilyushin Design Bureau set about radically redesigning the airframe, wings, and fuel system of the outdated bomber. Initially marked for designation as DB-3F (Forsirovannyi or “boosted”), the changes made to the bomber of the 1930s were so significant that in March of 1942, the outcome of the DB-3’s transformation was an entirely new aircraft: the Ilyushin Il-4.

The new low-wing, twin-engine bomber arrived to the front at around the same time as the U.S.-made B-25s and A-20s, which were sent to the Soviet Union as part of the lend-lease program. The marks given to the Il-4 by Soviet aircrews were initially quite poor when compared to the Mitchells and Bostons. As one Soviet bomber pilot, Rotislav Demidov, succinctly put it, “The Boston is good because it is much easier than the Il-4. The Il-4 is a heavy airplane with inferior maneuverability.”



Il-4 in flight. Source

Nevertheless, Soviet pilots and aircrews gradually grew to admire the strengths of the
twin-engined Ilyushin and were willing to overlook its deficiencies. As Fedor Titov of the728th Regiment recalled, the Il-4 “had weak engines. On takeoff, it was difficult… [but] I was used to it. I then flew the B-25. I didn’t like it as much… maybe it was a little faster, but the Il-4 had a ceiling of 7,800 meters… [up there] all was good!” Another Soviet bomber pilot, Vladimir Pshenko, also thought the Il-4 was a quality aircraft despite its shortcomings. “In terms of piloting, the Il-4 was a very moody airplane. Particularly during takeoff… However, I liked the Il-4. It flew well in both simple and complex conditions. It survived the war.”


The twin-engined Ilyushin was especially championed for its ability to withstand attacks from German fighters and anti-aircraft guns. Soviet mechanic Dmitry Bogdanov explained that “Il-4s were surprisingly tenacious. They had fabric coating, like canvas… After each sortie our equipment managed to patch up [the holes]… the aircraft could be fixed with incredible adaptations.” Soviet bomber pilots also noted that Il-4s were able to withstand significant amounts of combat damage and still fly, often times on only one engine, though this depended on the ability of each individual pilot. An Il-4 could get home on one engine “with difficulties,” Soviet navigator Nikolai Bungin recalled. “On one engine, with good piloting, it could fly to its home airfield. But some could not cope [with only one engine] and landed on reserve airfields, which were closer.”



Ground crew loading a torpedo. Source

Powered by two Tumansky M-88 radial engines, the Il-4 could carry 1,000 kilograms of bombs 1,600 kilometers, and had a maximum payload of 2,600 kilograms. Such specifications caught the attention of the Soviet Navy, so twin-engined Ilyushins were also fitted with equipment enabling it to carry type 45-36 torpedoes. The Red Navy began using the domestically-built bombers extensively in 1943, and by the end of the war, Il-4s would go on to sink more than 50 German ships. The Il-4’s naval service was far from its only accomplishment. Over the course of the war, Soviet DB-3s and Il-4s flew more than 222,000 sorties, dropping 2,000,000 bombs. By May of 1945, 240 pilots, navigators, gunners, and navigators became Heroes of the Soviet Union while flying these bombers.

While western historians tend to focus on the impact of U.S.-built bombers, such as the B-25 and A-20, on the war on the Eastern Front, the Soviet aviation design industry itself was capable of producing a high-quality bomber of its own. Mitchells and Bostons were undoubtedly superb aircraft, and deserve to be remembered as such, but it is fallacious Cold War thinking to believe that the U.S.-built twin-engined aircraft were the only bombers that the VVS and Red Navy had at their disposal. Though lacking the legendary status of its little brother, the Il-2 Sturmovik, the Il-4 was an effective bomber that was wisely used in the roles in which it excelled. The twin-engined Ilyushin deserves to be remembered as the tough and capable bomber that it was. As Sergei Ilyushin himself said in 1943, “In order to fly on a dark night 1500 km into the enemy’s rear, you need to very strongly believe in the reliability of the… aircraft and motor.” The Il-4 proved to be such an aircraft.

-Patrick Kinville

Aviation design in the Gulag and the development of the Tu-2


Tu-2 in flight. Source:

In October of 1937, at the height of the Great Purges, Andrei Tupolev, one of the pioneers of the Soviet aviation industry and the designer of several Soviet bombers in the 1920s and 1930s, was arrested by the NKVD and charged with espionage, sabotage and aiding the Russian Fascist Party. While in the Gulag prison system, Tupolev would go on to design one of the Soviet Union’s best aircraft of World War Two: The twin-engine Tu-2 dive-bomber. Though Tupolev’s aircraft did not arrive at the front in large numbers until the summer of 1944, in the midst of the Wehrmacht’s retreat westward, the design and construction of the dive-bomber would have a tremendous impact on the Soviet aviation industry as a whole. The experience gained while designing the Tu-2 proved to be instrumental for Tupolev and his team following the Second World War, and its effects can still be felt today, as the Russian Federation’s three main bombers were all designed by the Tupolev Design Bureau: The Tu-95, Tu-22, and Tu-160.


TB-3 designed by Tupolev in the late 1920s. Source: Wikipedia

Tupolev was far from the only aircraft designer to come under suspicion from the NKVD in the late 1930s. In addition to several managers and designers of the Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute (TsAGI) who were arrested along with Tupolev, including Vladimir Petlyakov who would go on to design the Pe-2, dozens of other prominent figures in the industry were accused of being enemies of the people, including designers at the Experimental Design Bureau, engineers at the Kharkov Aviation Institute, and managers at the Smolensk Aircraft Factory, just to name a few. Many of these individuals were executed in the late 1930s, and none would be rehabilitated until 1954-1955, despite their wartime service.


TsKB-29. Photo source: Pokazhu

Tupolev managed to avoid the fate of many of his colleagues, and was sent to the Butirskoi prison, where he spent approximately one year. Shortly after Tupolev’s arrest, Lavrentiy Beria established the Special Technical Department of the NKVD (STO), which was effectively a research and design bureau within the Gulag prison system. In 1938, Tupolev was sent to the newly-established Experimental Design Bureau 29 (TsKB-29), an STO prison camp which focused on aircraft design and production. Accompanied by many of his colleagues who were arrested the previous year, Tupolev was transferred from Butirskoi to the prison camp near Bolshevo – a former labor camp for the homeless – northeast of Moscow. TsKB-29 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.

The NKVD proceeded to split the prisoners into four teams in charge of four separate development projects. The first, officially designated Project 100, sought the development of a twin-engine high-altitude fighter. Led by Vladimir Petlyakov, a colleague of Tupolev’s at TsAGI, Project 100 eventually evolved into the Petlyakov Pe-2 light bomber, which would have a tremendous impact on the War on the Eastern Front. 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.

Project 103 specifically sought the development of a high-altitude long-range four-engine dive bomber that would be able to destroy land-based fortifications, ships, and other heavy targets. The STO envisioned the bomber flying at an altitude of 10,000 meters, which meant the aircraft required a pressurized cabin and powerful high-altitude engines. The Project 103 team members were told the aircraft should be able to dive at an angle of 50-70 degrees at a speed of 900 km/hour. Tupolev’s team, which by April of 1939 had grown to 24 members, were unanimous in their assessment that the design and construction of such an aircraft was virtually impossible. A four-engine dive bomber that had all the characteristics sought after by the STO would be very complex structurally, and extremely difficult to maintain. Project 103 determined that a new twin-engine dive bomber would be able to fit the needs set forth by the STO, but it would be impractical to pursue such a project with more than two engines.


German Stukas. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

In September of 1939, after witnessing the destruction wrought by the Luftwaffe’s Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombers during the German invasion of Poland, the Soviet leadership acknowledged the need to develop medium dive-bombers of their own that would be capable of effectively attacking key ground targets. While at the time Soviet designers were working on what would become the Il-2 Sturmovik ground attack aircraft, which was comparable to the Stuka, Moscow saw the need for a multi-role dive-bomber that had a speed similar to that of German fighters, namely the Bf-109.

In the fall of 1939, Tupolev’s team thus received the order to develop a high-speed, twin-engine dive-bomber that could carrying a heavy bomb load and be capable of operating both during the day and at night. Project 103 quickly turned out designs per the specifications set forth by the STO. Throughout 1940, Tupolev’s team explored different possibilities and combinations that would give the new aircraft the required speed and bomb load. Moscow’s decision to pursue such an aircraft was reaffirmed in 1940 after witnessing the destructive capabilities of Germany’s new twin-engine multi-role aircraft, the Ju-88, during the Battles of France and Britain. Tupolev’s first prototype flew in January of 1941, and after a series of trials and fatal errors, Project 103’s aircraft 103B was accepted for state trials. Powered by two Shvetsov M-82 engines, the new aircraft had a top speed of 528 km/hour, a range of 2,000 km, and could carry a bomb load of 3,000 kg. Armed with two 20mm ShVAK cannons and five 7.62mm machine guns, the new high-speed dive-bomber was well equipped to play a variety of roles.


Tu-2s. Source: Voenneya Literatura

Though Project 103’s aircraft, now designated Tu-2, passed state trials and was officially introduced in March of 1942, the dive-bomber proved too complex for the conditions on the frontline. Nevertheless, a small number of Tu-2s reached the front in 1942, and VVS crews were generally enthusiastic about the armament, speed, and range of the new dive-bomber. After a series of further modifications and the stabilization of the aviation industry following the wholesale evacuation eastwards in 1941-1942, the Tu-2 serial version made its first flight in August of 1943 and was send to forward VVS units. However, it was not until June of 1944 that the VVS received large enough numbers of Tu-2s to have an impact on the Eastern Front. By this time, the Wehrmacht was retreating westwards, and the Western Allies had opened up the second front that Moscow had been requesting for more than two years. Consequently, the impact of the Tu-2 on the outcome of the war was less than some contemporary Soviet aircraft, such as the Il-2 Sturmovik.

While the Tu-2’s ultimate contribution to the victory over Germany was limited due to the fact that it did not arrive in large numbers at the front until 1944, its contribution to the Soviet aircraft industry as a whole cannot be understated. Tupolev would go on to lead the project to reverse-engineer U.S. B-29 Superfortress bombers, resulting in the Soviet Tu-4 heavy bomber that was in service from the late 1940s to the 1960s. Tupolev also spearheaded the Tu-95 bomber project in the 1950s, bombers which are still in use today. Following his death in 1972, the Tupolev Design Bureau continued Andrei’s work designing and producing heavy bombers for the Soviet VVS. The Russian Federation’s supersonic strategic bombers, the Tupolev Design Bureau’s Tu-160, is today one of the most lethal weapons in the VVS’ aresenal. Despite designing the aircraft under the incredibly adverse conditions of a Soviet prison camp, Andrei Tupolev’s team designed a dynamic multi-role aircraft whose impact can still be felt today.

-Patrick Kinville


Tu-160. Source:

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


French CG 3 fliers. Source: 

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


Soviet Yakovlev Yak-1

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

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

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



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

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


Robert Marchi and his Yak: Source Gorod.Tomsk

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

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


Normandie Yaks. Source

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

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

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

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


Normandie-Niemen monument in Kaliningrad

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

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

-Patrick Kinville


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


A Soviet B-25 in flight. Photo from

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

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


B-25 cockpit. Source: Wikipedia

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

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


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

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

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


Soviet aircrews Photo from We Are the Mighty

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

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

-Patrick Kinville


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