Prior to the Second World War most Soviet fighters were biplanes. The sole exception before 1940 was the Polikarpov I-16, the first cantilever wing monoplane fighter with retractable landing gear in the world. As the war in Europe began the Soviet government realized that their air force equipment lagged behind that of Germany and the aircraft designers were encouraged to develop new designs. New engines such as Vladimir Klimov’s M-105 inspired Aleksandr Yakovlev’s design of the I-26, prototype of the Yak series of aircraft. The M-105 had a hollow drive-shaft which allowed the fitting of a 20 mm cannon mounted on the engine which could fire through the propeller hub, unrestricted by the rpm of the engine.
Designed with a steel truss forward fuselage and a wood and fabric rear fuselage and a one piece wooden wing, the Yak-1 entered service with test squadrons in 1940. By the time of the German blitzkrieg into Russia, Operation Barbarossa, only 100 Yak-1s were in service on the western frontier. The majority of fighters in the Soviet Air Force were I-15 biplanes and the I-16 mentioned above. Of the modern fighters absorbing the initial German assault, the most numerous was the MiG-3 – 886 of the 980 modern fighters on the front. The remainder were Yak-1s and LaGG-3s. By 1 May, 1942, there were 134 MiG-3s in inventory of which 3/4 were combat capable. The MiG-3 was a difficult aircraft for new pilots to fly, in part due to the aft center of gravity. Additionally, the Germans targeted these modern aircraft. Due to poor performance in combat production of the MiG-3 ended in December 1941.
When the Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 only one tenth of the Soviet fighter force were Yak-1s. Initially pilots considered the Yak-1 to be too delicate for combat, but the Luftwaffe pilots considered the Yak the best Soviet fighter at the time. Constant improvement of the aircraft over the first six months of the Soviet involvement of the war caused the Soviets to conclude that, in spite of the many defects in the Yak-1, the defects were not as damaging as those in the MiG-3 or the LaGG-3. Development of winterized Yak-1s began in autumn of 1941 allowing more than 800 to be available in February 1942.
The Yak-1B, with improved pilot vision, armament and armor, was available in June 1942. The development of the Yak-7 began in August 1941, and the first combat action took place during the Soviet offensive at Moscow in the winter of 1941/42. Production of the Yak-9, the definitive aircraft of the series, began in October 1942 and was first used in combat during the counter-attack at Stalingrad in December 1942.
All three variants of the Yak fighter engaged in combat during the battle for the Kursk Salient. Although less sophisticated than the P-51 Mustang and less combat damage resistant than the Bf 109 or the Fw 190, they were perfect for the use to which they were put: close support of the ground forces. In combat at medium and low altitudes these aircraft were a match for any opponent. By the end of the war more than 35,000 of these machines of all variants had been produced and their service record was outstanding.
Sources: Yakovlev Fighters of World War Two, Yefim Gordon, Sergey Kosissarov, Dmitriy Komissarov, Hikoki Publications, Manchester, England, 2015; Soviet Combat Aircraft of the Second World War: Single Engine Fighters, Yefim Gordon and Dmitri Khazanov, Midland Publishing Limited, Leicester, England, 1998; The Soviet Air Force in World War II: The Official History, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday & Co., Inc., Garden City, NY, 1973