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

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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 on 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)

The Soviet Polikarpov I-153 Chaika biplane

 

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Though it is perhaps not the most well-known Soviet aircraft, the Polikarpov I-153 Chaika (seagull) was one of the pillars of the VVS’ arsenal in the late 1930s/early 1940s. Seeing extensive action against the Japanese at the Battle of Khalkhin-Gol in 1939, the Chaika proved to be obsolete by June of 1941 at the time of the German invasion. Nevertheless, until the Soviet aviation industry could be evacuated to locations far from the frontline and more advanced fighters and bombers could be produced, outdated aircraft such as the I-153 Chaika, the I-16, and LaGG-3 were tasked with both providing close air support for the Red Army and engaging the Luftwaffe, which had at its disposal some of the best aircraft in the world at the time, including the notorious Messerschmitt Bf-109. Though the Chaika biplanes were no match for the sleek German fighter, the I-153, serving in a multitude of roles, was able to contribute to the slowing of the massive German advance, buying enough time for the VVS to both receive more advanced aircraft from the UK and US via the lend-lease program and to receive the latest La-5s, Yak-9s, and Il-2s from Soviet factories.

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Polikarpov I-15. Photo Source

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

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

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

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Japanese Ki-27s. Public Domain.

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

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

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Polikarpov I-153. Photo Source.

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

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

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

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Restored Chaika. Public Domain.

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

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

-Patrick Kinville

Lisunov Li-2: The license-built C-47 and the unsung workhorse of the Eastern Front

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Li-2 in flight. Source

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

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

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

-Patrick Kinville

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

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Yak-3 in flight. Photo source

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

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Yak-3 in flight. Photo source 

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

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

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

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

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

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Yak-3 blueprint. Photo source

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

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

-Patrick Kinville