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

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

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

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


TsKB-3 prototype. Photo source: Airwar.ru

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

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

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

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

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


Spanish I-15. Photo source: Airwar.ru

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

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


I-15bis in flight. Photo source

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

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

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

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

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


I-15bis. Photo source: Airwar.ru

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

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

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

-Patrick Kinville


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

The Douglas A-20 Havoc/Boston in Soviet Service

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



A-20G torpedo bombers. Photo source: WIO

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

-Patrick Kinville


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


Lend-Lease Soviet P-47



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

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

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

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

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

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

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