Never before detailed in English, author George Mellinger's fourth book for Osprey exposes the story of the Soviet's use of Lend-Lease fighters. His 96 pages contain detailed text full of pilot and unit histories and stories, combat reports, technical insights by aircraft type, plus 8 pages of appendices. These feature a list of fighter regiments that used Lend-lease fighters, and a roster of Soviet aces. The aces' list includes rank, awards received, units, kills, sorties and combats, fate and qualifying notes. Additionally, Osprey's usual beautiful gallery contains 37 color plates by acclaimed illustrator Jim Laurier.
British Prime Minister Churchill described the Soviets as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. So can be considered the history of Western aircraft operated by the VVS (Voenno-Vozdushnye Sily, The Soviet Air Force) on the Eastern Front. The Sovietís experience with several aircraft types are the complete opposite of Western experiences. In particular, the reputations of two aircraft are total reversed: Brewster's Buffalo flown by Finland, and Soviet-flown Bell Aircobras. Both were considered flying coffins by Western pilots, both gave stellar accounts with, and against, the Russians. Aircraft obviously superior in Western air forces were found wanting over the Steppes.
Stalin's VVS of 1941 was the world's largest air force when Hitler attacked the USSR with Operation Barbarrossa. The first day smashed the VVS and the superior Luftwaffe continued scourging the survivors until the VVS was full of pilots with no aircraft to fly. Lend-Lease was a transfusion to keep it alive. Foreign aircraft became the mounts of some of the USSR's top aces and equipped some of VVS' most acclaimed units. Despite this the pilots were later discriminated against as "foreigners" by the bizarre Soviets!
Careers of dozens of Soviet pilots are presented in this work. We meet them in the respective chapter of the aircraft they most gained their fame in. Great aces like Hero of the Soviet Union (HSU) Pavel Kutakhov, who retired as Commander-In-Chief of the VVS in 1984. Ambiguities of the Stalin regimeís record keeping leaves many gaps. Some stories are short, others lengthy and detailed. Many read like a short novel. There was Vadim Fadeev, A.K.A. Boroda ("The Beard"), who strafed so low that the explosion of a victim blew his I-16 out of the air. He jumped out and ran to a nearby artillery battery and directed fire upon the Germans he had observed. Then, unholstering his pistol, he immediately organized and lead a counterattack! Thus we learn about the war the Russians fought against the Germans, against the elements, and against the Soviet system. Several great pilots ran afoul of their commissars. Maj. Aleksandr Zaitsev, leader and ace, shot at his commissar in the heat of an argument; hounded and persecuted by the Communists, it is unclear whether his later crash was a suicide or an accident. To be captured was considered treason! To escape and return to fighting was not enough to erase this black mark against most. Political faux pas would brand heroes as pariahs. Medals and awards were stripped away. Some, like Lt Col Sergei Dolgushin, were not awarded or restored until the end of the Soviet Empire!
Full of photographs, interspersed with combat reports and narrations of dramatic dogfights, this book drew me in and absorbed me.
The strange bedfellows of politics begins this work. The bizarre relationships of enemies becoming allies overnight is explored with Hitler and Stalin's non-aggression pact, and its threat to England. British Prime Minister Churchill, anti-communist crusader, expected an eventual war with the Soviets. Soviet fuel and food fed Hitler's Blitzkrieg through France and the Low Countries; the RAF had plans to bomb the Caucasian oil fields. Stalin had plans to bomb the Suez Canal and UK targets throughout the Middle East. Indeed, England and France supplied war material to Finland during her brave defense against Soviet depravations during the "Winter War."
Operation Barbarrossa changed everything overnight. Soon British Hurricanes of RAF No 151 Wing were on the way to the Arctic ports of Russia to bolster the dying Red Air Force. While the RAF used them effectively the Soviets were not impressed with their Hawkers. Most were older marks and worn out. They were too frail to withstand the harsh climate of Russia and the harsh treatment of the Russian pilots. The eight to twelve .303 machine guns in the wings were considered by the Soviets to do little more than "ruin the paint" of the German aircraft! Many were rearmed with powerful Soviet weapons, the pairing of the 20mm ShVAK cannon and heavy UB machine guns most common. Many were fitted with RS-82 rockets as well. Overall, the IAP (Fighter Air Regiment) pilots considered the Battle Of Britain winning Hurricane inferior to their obsolescent I-16 Rata, no faster and worse in vertical maneuvering. Turning performance was good and it was easier to fly. That was only when they could get airborne! VVS gas and muddy, frosty fields were hard on the prissy Merlin engines. The cold burst pipes and hoses. Many Hawkers were fitted with armored seats from Ratas to protect the pilots. They nosed over easily--Russian ground crew were impressed to cling to the tail during takeoff runs, letting go before flight (some with mortal consequences!) The British fighter was not an ace maker for the VVS, though several Red pilots attained acedome flying it. Pressed into stopgap service it killed Germans and shielded Soviet forces as best as could be expected for an obsolescent aircraft. Even the late arrival of 40mm armed "Hurribusters" failed to impress the Reds, happy with their ubiquitous Il-2 Sturmoviks. Hurricanes were removed from the front as fast as able by 1943, regulated to rear PVO (Air Defense) units. By VE day the only Hawkers at the front were used as hacks.
The Hurricane was not a total disappointment. It and all subsequent Western aircraft were heartily appreciated by the communist pilots for excellent canopy transparency, individual aircraft radios and (compared to VVS aircraft) lavishly equipped instrument panels.
American Curtiss P-40 Tomahawks and Kittyhawks were the next fighters donated by the RAF. VVS judged P-40 worse than their Yaks and Germanyís Bf-109F and G, and judged P-40 as equal to or better than VVS' I-16, LaGG-3 and the Hurricane. It was faster level and in a dive but otherwise shared the same air-to-air performance as the latter. VVS was very impressed with its range. And there was no need to expend trained ground crew riding the tail on takeoff! Curtiss' reputation for strong airframes was also acclaimed, one Tomahawk downing two Germans with two Taran (ramming attacks) in a single fight, yet repaired within hours! Hawk pilots seem to have shot down more Germans and made more aces than Hurricane, and P-40s were found "at the sharp end" longer. Its great endurance found it on long over water patrols with naval units. Yet the P-40 was not the battle winner the VVS sought, many being relegated to PVO units. The type suffered the same cold weather maladies as did Hurricane, an interesting fact considering the USAAC's extensive Alaskan evaluations as part of the acceptance trials of all new types. The P-40 was also hobbled by lack of spare parts. In fact, several airframes were refitted with Russian Klimov M-105P engines! Same as VVS' Hurricane experience was the removal of the light .303 and .30 caliber MGs, long out of favor with Russia. VVS found a mere pair of nose mounted .50 caliber heavy MGs consistent with Soviet armament. The four to six .50 calibers of the P-40D through N series must have astonished them! German naval forces sank under the ferocious firepower the Kittyhawks brought upon them.
Bound to astound, another Western star that failed to shine in the Soviet sky was the superb Spitfire! Like her Battle of Britain brother-in-arms, Supermarine's thoroughbred was too dainty for the Eastern Front. Tired and worn Spitfire Mk.Vs were the first to arrive in May, 1943. Mark IX versions arrived in 1944. Few kills were claimed and no known VVS aces were made in the Spitfire. As the proud Spitfires were regulated to rear area PVO units with improved runways suitable for the fragile pedigrees, their performance was used against high-altitude recon planes. At the front they were quickly replaced by useful aircraft like the P-39 Airacobra!
What the Japanese described as "meat on the table", abd their USAAF pilots derided as "Klunkers", Bell Aircraft's P-39 became the Western star of Red Star! Like their P-40s and Hurricanes, the Soviets eschewed the puny rifle caliber fangs in the "Kobra", trading that dubious firepower for performance enhancing weight savings. Yet the Kobra had more than the two heavy MGs in the nose like Tomahawks, Kobra had a third fang, a cannon! P-39 variants carried either a quick firing 20mm or a slower shooting 37mm. That weapon fostered the pervasive myth that the Kobra was used as a tank-killer; no anti-tank round was ever produced for the P-39's 37mm. In reality, VVS assigned all Kobras to air superiority IAPs! Incredibly successful and carrying many aces to win the HSU, P-39 equipped the "most formidable division" of VVS, 9 GIAP (Guards Fighter Air Regiment), "The Regiment of Aces" and VVS' most renowned fighter, 16 GIAP. Indeed, a father of VVS Fighter Aviation and triple HSU Aleksandr Pokryshkin, (considered the Boelcke and Manfred von Richthofen of the VVS) refused to trade his P-39s for world-class Yaks and Lavochkin fighters! Most of his 59 personal and 6 shared kills were in Kobras. Third ranking Allied ace and top P-39 ace Grigorii AGrisha Rechkalov scored 52 of his 56 personal kills in it. Multiple kills against the Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts were common. VVS used P-39s as front line fighters to the gates of Berlin!
Lesser Lend-Lease fighters are explored. The P-47 was judged an inferior fighter by test pilot Mark Gallai, even though he noted it faster, longer-ranged, more heavily armed and carrying more bombs than the twin-engine Soviet Pe-2! It was assigned to naval units due to its "great range!"
Another myth shattered is the use of the P-63 Kingcobra! Very few made it to the front before VE Day. None are known to have been used against Germany. They were used against the Japanese, scoring a few kills, several by Taran.
Finally, even the Douglas A-20 light bomber was used by the Soviet Navy as a fighter. A handful of pilots became aces, some as nightfighters.
A mere quartet of Mustang Is were delivered and they claim no known combat success.
The book is presented in several chapters. Again I note the differences in titles and number of chapters between my copy and that presented on the website (the latter shown in parenthesis):
Chapter 1: Hurricanes For Russia (Britainís Most Magnanimous Deed)
Chapter 2: Tomahawks and Kittyhawks (Curtiss Hawks - the First American Fighters)
Chapter 3: Kobras (The Airacobra - The Most Famous Lend-lease Fighter)
Chapter 4: Other Lend-Lease Fighters (The Spitfire)
(Chapter 5: Little-known Lend-lease Fighters.)
Lend-Lease records are chaotic but approximately 14,300 aircraft were sent to the Soviets. Despite Stalinís propaganda, they were generally equal to or better than his aircraft, saving the Soviets when the VVS was on its final leg. A fascinating read, it will entertain and inform a variety of connoisseurs of WW2 aviation and the Eastern Front. I highly recommend it!
I thank the wonderful people at Osprey Publishing for assisting me with this book to review.
Despite Stalinís propaganda, many British and U.S. Lend-Lease aircraft were generally equal to or better than his aircraft, saving the Soviets when the VVS was on its final leg. Osprey's Soviet Lend-Lease Fighter Aces of World War 2 is fascinating read, it will entertain and inform a variety of connoisseurs of WW2 aviation and the Eastern Front.
About Frederick Boucher (JPTRR) FROM: TENNESSEE, UNITED STATES
I'm a professional pilot with a degree in art.
My first model was an AMT semi dump truck. Then Monogram's Lunar Lander right after the lunar landing. Next, Revell's 1/32 Bf-109G...cried havoc and released the dogs of modeling!
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