The Soviet airforce fights back

An Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik ground attack aircraft.

An Ilyushin Il-2 Sturmovik ground attack aircraft.

For a long time the Luftwaffe had enjoyed almost complete air superiority over the battlefield on the Eastern Front. In the early days of Barbarossa the Soviet air force had been decimated. This had enabled the free use of ‘Stuka’ dive bombers working in close co-operation with German ground forces, a crucial part the Wehrmacht ‘blitzkrieg’ strategy.

Since 1941 the Soviet air force had been re-built with a combination of British and American planes supplied under ‘lend lease’, and Russian built planes. Now the situation was rapidly changing. No longer could the Luftwaffe clear the skies over a battlefield.

The Soviets had their own tactics for surprise attack from the air. More co-ordinated attacks were often very improvised affairs, as this account from the end of August by Igor Kaberov explains:

Next our home was the Oranienbaum bridgehead. The Germans were not far from there, but in that sector of the front it still remained quiet. On 30 August, Col Dzyuba’s little UT 1 aircraft flew in. Five Stormoviks followed him and, a little later, seven Kittyhawks landed on the airfield.

Cheerful young lads, with Guards’ badges on their uniforms, climbed from their cockpits. ‘Where are you guards heading?’ we enquired. ‘We want to set somebody alight,’ a tall blond sergeant answered cheerfully. ‘Are you taking us, or will you by by yourselves?’ ‘We’ve flown in to help you,’ he said, neither in jest nor seriously.

We exchanged glances. So army pilots had arrived to help us. And Col Dzyuba was there. That meant there was to be some kind of interesting operation.

Soon, all of us (the army pilots, too) were ordered to assemble in one place. ‘Ahead of us,’ Dzyuba waved a pointer at the map, then at a large photo, ‘is Gorodyets aireld. It is situated 25 kilometres south of Luga. As you see, there are Ju 88s on the airfield. They are refuelling. The photo was taken two hours ago. Evidently, the bombers recently flew in from somewhere. Your task is to destroy them on the airfield. At its northern end, twenty-five Me 109 fighters can be counted. Follow my orders — then they won’t take off. From our airfield, make for Samro Lake, then to Gorodyets. In the area shaded red,’ Col Dzyuba again raised his pointer, ‘are partisans. In the event of a forced landing, come down here. . . .’

Having defined the duties of the leading group, Dzyuba gave the command, ‘Go to it!’ Eight Il 2 Stormoviks, eighteen Hurricanes, seven Kittyhawk ghters and one Pe 2 aircraft taking photographs rose into the air. Fifteen of the Hurricanes were armed with rockets. Cameras had been fitted in two of the fighters (Maj Myasnikov’s and mine), in order to take pictures.

We crossed the front line. The railway was beneath us. To the left was Volosovo. Beneath my wings lay Bolshaya Vruda where, on 10 August 1941, I had to land. I remembered that good Russian woman, Zinaida Mikhailovna Petrova, and said to myself, as if addressing her: ‘Are you still with us, you who gave me shelter when I needed it? Dear Zinaida Mikhailovna, when Victory Day comes, put on the samovar. We’ll meet again, sit down to tea and remember the past.’

While I was talking to myself with Zinaida Mikhailovna, we had passed over the Samro Lake and were approaching Gorodyets: there was the Fascist airfield. Everything as we had seen in the photograph; Junkers aircraft stood in three rows, and next to them petrol tankers.

The Stormoviks immediately went into the attack, followed by the Hurricanes. Bombs and rockets exploded. The dispersal area was enveloped in flames. Again and again, our aircraft passed over it. One after another, the enemy machines burst into flames. ‘Take that for Nizino! That for Bolshaya Vruda! That for Leningrad!’ I shouted. Four Messerschmitts tried to taxi out for take-off. Two Hurricanes brought down a squall of fire on them. Pilots leaped from their cockpits, ran across the aireld, fell and lay motionless.

The sparse anti—aircraft fire did not trouble us. Once they had completed the task they had begun, the Stormoviks, Hurricanes, the Pe 2 aircraft (which had been taking photographs) and the Kittyhawks flew off.

Aleksandr Fyodorovich and I also photographed the burning aireld. As the cameras clicked, I heard Myasnikov’s voice: ‘Shall we give it to them?’ The CO questioningly glanced at me from his cockpit. I nodded.

He turned his fighter and went into a dive. We passed over the northern perimeter of the aireld and fired at the fighters in dispersal with all our machine-guns and cannons. Another two enemy aircraft burst into flames. A large group of Germans, who had gathered together, fled in panic. Yet again we placed them under fire, then, at full speed, chased after our comrades.

Back home, we learned that, at the same time as the attack on Gorodyets aireld, there had been an attack on Siverskaya, where enemy ghters had been assembled. That was why we had not been intercepted. Without losing a single aircraft, we destroyed seventeen Ju 88 bombers and two Messerschmitts. That number includes only those that were burned or broken to pieces by bombs and rockets. But there were also damaged aircraft, possibly even rendered permanently unserviceable.

See Igor Kaberov: Swastika in the Gunsight: Memoirs of a Russian Fighter Pilot, 1941-45.

Soviet IL-2 combat aircraft attack an enemy formation. The Kursk Bulge (Operation Citadel), The Voronezh Front, Russia.

Soviet IL-2 combat aircraft attack an enemy formation. The Kursk Bulge (Operation Citadel), The Voronezh Front, Russia.

The Curtiss P-40 was known as the Warhawk by the USAAF , but variants were known as the Tomahawk and Kittyhawk by other airforces that flew it, including the Soviets.

The Curtiss P-40 was known as the Warhawk by the USAAF , but variants were known as the Tomahawk and Kittyhawk by other airforces that flew it, including the Soviets.

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