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.