The Soviet Union’s Hawker Hurricanes

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

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

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

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

The Operational History of the Soviet Union’s Hawker Hurricanes

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

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Twice Hero of the Soviet Union Boris Safonov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hawker Hurricane in the Eyes of Soviet Pilots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Patrick Kinville

 

Bibliography:

Chorlton, Martyn. Hawker Hurricane MK I-V. Osprey Publishing, 2013.

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

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

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

Sokhorukov, Andrey. “Conversations with N.G. Golodnikov.” http://lend-lease.airforce.ru/english/articles/golodnikov/part1.htm

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

Ya Pomnyu Project (www.iremember.ru)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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TsKB-3 prototype. Photo source: Airwar.ru

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

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

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

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

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

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Spanish I-15. Photo source: Airwar.ru

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

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

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I-15bis in flight. Photo source

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

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

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

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

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

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I-15bis. Photo source: Airwar.ru

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

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

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

-Patrick Kinville

Bibliography:

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

The Douglas A-20 Havoc/Boston in Soviet Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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A-20G torpedo bombers. Photo source: WIO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Patrick Kinville

Bibliography:

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

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

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

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

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TsKB-29. Photo source

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

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

 

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VI-100. Source: S.V. Ivanov

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

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

 

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

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Pe-2. Public Domain

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

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

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

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

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

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Pe-3 in flight. Photo source

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

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

 

Sources:

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

Ya Pomnyu Project

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

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

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

 

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

The Soviet 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.

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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.

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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.

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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). 

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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 

Sources:

  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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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

Sources:

  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)