USAAF Lightnings vs Soviet Yaks over Yugoslavia

Early P-38s are shown over California.

Early P-38s are shown over California. France’s Army of the Air was so impressed by Lockheed’s new fighter that it ordered 500 of them in 1940. In an era when “destroyer” or heavy fighters, such as the Me-110, etc. were looked upon as the “heavy cavalry” of the sky, particularly for low level work, the P-38 seemed tallor-made. But it was the turbosupercharged P-38 built for high altitude performance that proved the big fighter’s worth. Unfortunately for early Lightnings, shortages of superchargers kept that important addition off the engines of the Initial production runs and when the British tested their first export P-3Bs, Models 322-16s, they did so without supercharging and the results were mediocre. As a result, production orders for the RAF were cancelled.

On the 7th November the Soviet Army was advancing rapidly near the city of Nis, then in Yugoslavia, now part of Serbia. What happened next, and why, is the subject of a number of different and varying accounts. No doubt both sides tried to keep the matter as quiet as possible at the time, rather than hand a propaganda victory to the Germans.

What is clear is that US Lightning fighter bombers attacked the Soviet ground troops and were themselves then attacked by the Soviet airforce. The number of casualties on both sides varies according to different accounts, but around 30 Soviet troops and airmen died, including General G.P.Kotov. The number of planes shot down in the dogfight above Nis also varies considerably between each account – but several US and Soviet planes were shot down.

It is, apparently, the only occasion in which US and Soviet planes have been in direct combat with each other. Despite all the subsequent provocations and incidents of the Cold War, they never actually fought each other.

Some accounts suggest that the US planes had been invited to provide air support for the Soviet troops but the Soviet advance was so fast that they were 100 kilometres away from where the Americans expected them to be. Other accounts suggest that the US planes navigation was out by an embarrassing 400 kilometres and they made their attack in entirely the wrong location.

Soviet commanders on the scene were not immediately able to understand the situation. This is the account of deputy commander of Squadron 707th Attack Aviation Regiment, 186th Assault Aviation Division, Hero of the Soviet Union, Colonel Nikolai Shmelev:

“Morning dawned serene November 7. Enveloped in a light haze city of Nis was decorated with red flags and banners. Aviators of our regiment columns entered the spacious parade ground. Taking the report, Colonel Shevrigin gave the command: “At ease!”.

The deputy commander for political affairs Sivud went into the middle order and ordered the 1st and 3rd Squadron deploy to the middle of the flanks and formed a sort of letter “C”.

“Comrades” Solemnly began Lt. Sivud. “Today, the entire Soviet people celebrate the 27th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist …”

“Run!” interrupted someone . “Fascists dive on our airfield!”

Everything, as if on cue, turned their heads to the south. Because over the mountains flew a large group of aircraft. Some of them had fallen into a dive. I heard muffled cries. One after another, over the airfield the others dived.

“Disperse! In the shelter!” Ordered Shevrigin.

“Tell headquarters!” Ordered Lt. Lopatkin.

“I do not understand” Sivud said as we ran together to the slit trench near the fence. “40 planes! Where did they come from?”

And not only Basil – we were all surprised and puzzled. After all, everyone knew that in our area of ​​the war there were no Nazi aircraft. And then – a whole armada! Suponin, Orlov and I watched from the slit trench, under a tree. They were near to the airport – about two kilometers away. We saw how they dived, one after another, and continued to dive, approaching our parked aircraft … And here they are already very close.

“So it’s not the Germans, the Americans! Allies!” Shouted our pilots, when the aircraft became clearly visible, and we saw the insignia of the US Air Force. Yes, it really was the American “Lightning”.

That morning, the deputy commander of the 866 th Fighter Regiment 288th Fighter Air Division, Major Dmitry Crude (later Hero of the Soviet Union) was standing on a nearby mountain. Visibility was perfect, and he admired the endless stream of infantry, marching in the song with a brass band. “And suddenly we heard solemn sounds” recalled the Major, “the roar of planes. Where are they? What, enemy aircraft on this sector of the front? We can not be absolutely sure there are none. So it’s American planes!

What do our allies want ? The first impression was that they were, on their own initiative, providing air cover for our troops, although this was not needed .”

Meanwhile, another group of planes formed a circle over the city, the other was the call for the bombing. The road shrouded in smoke. Our soldiers waving red flags, white patches, signalling the aviators that they were attacking their allies. But all the bombs fell and continued to fall.

I rushed to the airfield. I was running as six American planes swept low over the ground and attacked our Yak-9s, which were taking off. Before reaching the operations office I saw duty aircraft squadron commander, Hero of the Soviet Union, Captain Alexander Koldunov (subsequently twice Hero of the Soviet Union, Air Chief Marshal, Chief of the Air Defense Forces – Deputy Minister of Defense of the USSR), soar aloft with two others.

I ordered the whole regiment to take off. I managed to repeat several times: “do not open fire! Signal that we are allies. But the Allies shot down another one of our aircraft. The pilot managed to bail out …”

“Look, our “hawks” have soared!” Dmitry Suponin happily pushed me in the side (ground-attack pilot Nikolai Shmelev complements the story of the deputy regiment commander). In the air our group soared away. Landing gear up, our fighters dispersed at maximum speed from the earth and climbed straight up. They immediately went into action. The first pair off attacked the enemy aircraft. To help them, two more aircraft joined in, and soon the whole regiment took off. …

“The air battle flared up even more. The Americans were dropping bombs, first tried to defend himself. But, unable to withstand the onslaught of our fighters, they went into a formation to better cover each other with fire front guns, and went out towards the city.

One of our “Jacobs” promptly dived from a height on an attacking plane and opened fire. 37-mm cannon shell exploded in the center section of the “Lightning” and, burning like a torch, fell to the ground. The Yak slipped forward, but immediately came under fire from another bomber. Machine-gun fire got into the cockpit of the fighter and the nose, he abruptly went down and crashed. Killed by some of our military friends. My eyes filled with tears …

This account appears in Russian at NVO.NG.RU.

Apparently the original documents relating to the incident remain classified in both countries.

Soviet Yak-9s in flight. 'The pilots who flew it regarded its performance as comparable to or better than that of the Messerschmitt Bf 109G and Focke-Wulf Fw 190A-3/A-4.'

Soviet Yak-9s in flight. ‘The pilots who flew it regarded its performance as comparable to or better than that of the Messerschmitt Bf 109G and Focke-Wulf Fw 190A-3/A-4.’

A Yak-3 from Regiment Normandie-Niemen, the French Airforce unit that flew alongside the Soviets on the Eastern Front, in flight. 'The Yak-3 was a forgiving, easy-to-handle aircraft loved by both rookie and veteran pilots and ground crew as well. It was robust, easy to maintain, and a highly successful dog-fighter. It was used mostly as a tactical fighter, flying low over battlefields and engaging in dogfights below 13,000 ft'

A Yak-3 from Regiment Normandie-Niemen, the French Airforce unit that flew alongside the Soviets on the Eastern Front, in flight. ‘The Yak-3 was a forgiving, easy-to-handle aircraft loved by both rookie and veteran pilots and ground crew as well. It was robust, easy to maintain, and a highly successful dog-fighter. It was used mostly as a tactical fighter, flying low over battlefields and engaging in dogfights below 13,000 ft’

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Anon March 11, 2017 at 7:13 pm

+ObssesedNuker and if you believe the conspiracy theory in regards to the shootdown of flight KAL007, there was an air battle between Soviet and US forces in 1983. The powers involved quickly hid the incident lest it escalate into full scale war.

Gordon Arnaut April 30, 2015 at 3:05 am

Great Story.

I am in Serbia now and have traveled to Nis. It is a country of great contradictions.

The people here are impressive in their physical build and stature. They are also highly explosive. Do not provoke a Serb unless you can take punches. Fists fly right away.

But nothing seems to work here. Nobody, except for a very few, want to work. They want bread for nothing.

I don’t know, maybe I have a wrong take. Many things I like here. You have to look really hard to find a gal who doesn’t knock you out with her beauty. (And booty)

The guys are all big and strong. I don’t know how they do it. The streets are dirty, the water is bad, I could go on…the roads are worse than Africa…

But somehow these Serbs manage to live on third world wages while paying first world prices for basics like food and fuel.

I read in some ancient Greek writings that the Slavs overran Europe 1500 years ago. They managed to hang on to a good part of it…Why? The Greeks said the Slavs could simply live off the fertile land.

This is still true today. I see now how they live off the land. You don’t need much either. A little garden, a few farm animals, and there you go. You got enough to survive, provided you work from sunup to sundown.

Reminds of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, and the dream of those two wanderers who wanted a little piece of soil of their own they could live on. “Live off the land.”

Of course in that bitterly sad story, life got in the way…as it seems to often do.

As for the air battle over Nis, I would love to have more info. But the powers are keeping their secrets.

ObssesedNuker November 17, 2014 at 8:13 am

“Despite all the subsequent provocations and incidents of the Cold War, they never actually fought each other.”

Not entirely true. The Korean War did see a very small group of Soviet “advisers” who were ostensibly training their Korean and Chinese fly MiG-17s against US Forces.

A. November 7, 2014 at 9:15 pm

Thank you for posting this very interesting report.

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