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could be evacuated to locations far from the frontline and more advanced fighters and bombers could be produced, outdated aircraft such as the I-153 Chaika, the I-16, and the I-15 were tasked with both providing close air support for the Red Army and engaging the Luftwaffe, which had at its disposal some of the best aircraft in the world at the time, including the notorious Messerschmitt Bf-109. Though the Chaika biplanes were no match for the sleek German fighter, the I-153, serving in a multitude of roles, was able to contribute to the slowing of the massive German advance, buying enough time for the VVS to both receive more advanced aircraft from the UK and US via the lend-lease program and to receive the latest La-5s, Yak-9s, and Il-2s from Soviet factories.

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

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I-153 prototype. Photo source

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

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

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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 considered either obsolete or underpowered compared to the German aircraft that were causing mass destruction along the 1,200 mile front. Nevertheless, since the Soviet aviation industry would not be able to begin producing new designs until 1942 due to the evacuation of aircraft factories to the Soviet East, the VVS’ aircraft of the 1930s were tasked with halting the seemingly unstoppable German onslaught from the air.

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

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

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A restored Chaika. Public Domain

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

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

-Patrick Kinville

Lisunov Li-2: The license-built DC-3 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

The forgotten Soviet bomber: The Ilyushin Il-4

 

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Il-4 in flight. Photo source

 

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

 

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DB-3. Photo: Wikipedia

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

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

 

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Il-4 in flight. Source

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

 

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

 

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Ground crew loading a torpedo. Source

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

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

-Patrick Kinville

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

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Tu-2 in flight. Source: wio.ru

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

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

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

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TsKB-29. Photo source: Pokazhu

Tupolev managed to avoid the fate of many of his colleagues, and was sent to the Butirskoi prison, where he spent approximately one year. Shortly after Tupolev’s arrest, Lavrentiy Beria established the Special Technical Department of the NKVD (STO), which was effectively a research and design bureau within the Gulag prison system. In 1938, Tupolev was sent to the newly-established Experimental Design Bureau 29 (TsKB-29), an STO prison camp which focused on aircraft design and production. Accompanied by many of his colleagues who were arrested the previous year, Tupolev was transferred from Butirskoi to the prison camp near Bolshevo – a former labor camp for the homeless – northeast of Moscow. TsKB-29 was comprised of three buildings: the first was the prisoners’ barracks, the second a kitchen, and the third was a work area equipped with desks and drawing boards. The small camp was surrounded by a barbed wire fence and miles of thick forests on all sides.

The NKVD proceeded to split the prisoners into four teams in charge of four separate development projects. The first, officially designated Project 100, sought the development of a twin-engine high-altitude fighter. Led by Vladimir Petlyakov, a colleague of Tupolev’s at TsAGI, Project 100 eventually evolved into the Petlyakov Pe-2 light bomber, which would have a tremendous impact on the War on the Eastern Front. Project 101, headed by Dmitry Tomasevich, was tasked with designing a modern single-engine fighter. Project 102, led by Vladimir Myasischev, was to design a twin-engine high-altitude bomber. The final team, Project 103 and led by Andrei Tupolev, was told to design a four-engine heavy dive bomber.

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

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German Stukas. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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

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

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Tu-2s. Source: Voenneya Literatura

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

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

-Patrick Kinville

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Tu-160. Source: Army-news.ru

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

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French CG 3 fliers. Source: Myhistory.ru 

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

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Soviet Yakovlev Yak-1

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

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

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

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Source: Vokrug.tv

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

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

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Robert Marchi and his Yak: Source Gorod.Tomsk

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

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

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Normandie Yaks. Source pohodd.ru

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

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

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

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

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Normandie-Niemen monument in Kaliningrad

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

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

-Patrick Kinville

 

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

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

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

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

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R-5. Photo Credit: Pacific Eagles

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

 

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Photo Credit: Combat Ace

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

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

-Patrick Kinville

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

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An Ilyushin Il-2 in flight. Public domain.

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

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

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Il-2s in formation. Photo from Aviapress

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

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

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

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Il-2M with rear gunner. Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

-Patrick Kinville

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

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

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

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

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

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B-25 cockpit. Source: Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

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

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Soviet aircrews Photo from We Are the Mighty

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

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

-Patrick Kinville

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

 

 

The forgotten Il-2 rear gunners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Patrick Kinville

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