THE YAKOVLEV FIGHTER SERIES

As the most produced fighter series in history, the significance of the Yakovlev fighters cannot be overestimated. As mentioned in one of my previous blogs, at the beginning of the Great Patriotic War in June, 1941, only one tenth of the Soviet fighter force consisted of Yak-1s, and the most numerous modern fighter in the Soviet inventory was the Mig-3.

The Yakovlev fighter series began as the I-26, entered in the fighter competition with three other Yak prototypes. The I-26 was presented as a low and mid-altitude tactical fighter of mixed aluminum, and wood and fabric construction. It performed well at the prototype trials, achieving a maximum speed at sea level of 490 kilometers per hour and 585 kilometers per hour at 4,800 meters. The pilots reviewing the prototype found it easy to handle, though aerobatics were limited because of g load restrictions. The aircraft failed its state trials because of a laundry list of design and manufacturing flaws.

Many of the flaws were corrected before five prototype aircraft began operational trials. Production began at a Moscow factory in autumn 1940. At the time of the German invasion the Moscow plant was producing three aircraft per day. These aircraft were initially based at airfields near Moscow.

In combat the Yak-1 proved to be the best of the Soviet fighters, but its main opposition, the Bf 109F-2 and F-4 variants, were superior. In particular the Bf 109F-4’s speed advantage allowed it to engage in or break off combat at will.

In an effort to improve the Yak-1’s performance it was equipped with a Klimov M-105 PA engine. Although this did not eliminate the Yak-1’s inferiority to the Messerschmitt fighter, the new engine allowed prolonged inverted flight as well as negative g dives.

The first 1,000 Yak-1s were not equipped with radios. Future machines were equipped at a ratio of one in ten.

With the onset of winter the Yak-1, like all other Soviet combat aircraft, were painted with a chalk like white coating for camouflage. Skis on the Yak-1s allowed operation from snow covered fields. Large motorized rollers were used to flatten the snow prior to takeoff.

It is my intention to provide a developmental history of the Yakovlev series fighters and an outline of their operations during the Great Patriotic War. I also intend to discuss the careers of a number of the aces who flew these machines, including the exploits of the women who flew this machine in combat.

Sources: Soviet Combat Aircraft of the Second World War, Volume One: Single-Engined Fighters, Yefim Gordon and Dmitri Khazanov, Midland Publishing Limited, Leicester, England, 1998

Yakovlev Fighters of World War Two, Yefim Gordon, Sergey Komissarov, and Dmitriy Komissarov, Hikoki Publications, Ltd., Manchester, England, 2015

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Battle for Cherkassy and the Korsun Pocket

As the politically significant taking of Kiev unfolded, a more dramatic, militarily significant battle exploded near Cherkassy to the south. The Germans feared the result and the Soviets saw the benefit of sealing off two German corps in the Cherkassy bulge. The Soviet Air Force assisted by providing units of the Second and the Fifth Air Armies totaling 768 aircraft against 1,000 opposing German aircraft.

General Konev’s Second Ukrainian Front kicked off the battle against stubborn resistance on 24 January, 1944, with the support of the Fourth Fighter Air Corps. Low ceilings, fog and snow prevented air cover the next day.

General Vatutin’s First Ukrainian Front struck on 26 January opening a gap with the Sixth Tank Army. Rotmistrov’s Fifth Guards Tank Army, under General Konev, moved toward the Sixth Tank Army to enclose the Korsun pocket on 27 January, trapping the Fifth SS Panzer Division (Wiking) and SS Wallonian. Due to the poor weather conditions only experienced Soviet flight crews provided support in groups of four to eight aircraft.

The next day SS Wiking attacked Oschana, operating with little or no shelter from the weather. The Luftwaffe flew supplies in to the encircled troops and picked up the wounded, landing at two airfields within the pocket. The Soviets did what they could to eliminate the pocket under blizzard conditions and freezing temperatures. During the period from 29 January to 4 February the Luftwaffe lost forty aircraft to anti-aircraft fire or accidents. The Soviet Second and Fifth Air Armies flew 2,800 sorties during the same period. More than 120 air battles were fought and Soviet pilots claimed 130 German aircraft downed.

General von Manstein built up a relief force which included the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler SS Panzer Division. The relief attempt was scheduled for 3 February. On 1 February, just before the attack was to jump off, there was a sudden thaw, with temperatures dropping below freezing at night. On 2 February the aircraft of the First Guards Attack Corps of the Fifth Air Army attacked a column of tanks and other vehicles causing great damage to German forces. The German relief attempt started on schedule with the forces inside the pocket attempting to break out at the same time. The breakout forces were thrown back.

Konev and Vatutin rearranged their battle lines to further obstruct the relief attempt. By 5 February the mud caused by the thaw closed both airfields in the pocket and Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’s panzers became bogged down.

On 6 February Adolf Hitler authorized a breakout from the Korsun pocket to begin on 10 February. Just as the relief force resumed their attack, temperatures plunged again and the mud re-froze. At this point Field Marshal Georgi Zhukov of Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad fame, took command of the Soviet outer ring while Konev continued commanding the inner ring.

The breakout attempt began with Wiking, still trapped inside the pocket, taking Schenderovka on 11 February. SS Wallonian, in Novo Buda, attacked toward Komarovka on 12 February and took the village the next day, but Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, part of the relief force, was pushed out of Repki on the same day. German armor of the relief forces captured a bridge over the Gniloy Tikich River at Lisyanka, near Dzhurzhentsy, but a Soviet counter attack brought the relief attempt to a halt preventing contact with the surrounded forces.  The German forces trapped inside the pocket had to take Dzhurzhentsy themselves to break out.

By this time the pocket had been reduced to an area five by seven kilometers. Another breakout attempt was scheduled for 16 February. At dawn on 17 February the temperature dropped to -7 degrees Celsius in blizzard conditions. The engineers of the relief forces pushed two temporary bridges across the Gniloy Tickich River two kilometers upstream from the captured bridge but the escaping Germans could not reach them. Ice floes drifted down the river. Where the Germans attempted to cross, the river was two meters deep and several meters across. Under constant artillery and tank fire the Germans abandoned their equipment and swam to the other side. Only 35,000 of them were able to escape.

Two German corps had been destroyed. More than 3,000 Germans were captured near Schendorovka.

Sources: Crucible at Cherkassy, Pt McTaggart, WW II History Magazine, Volume 4, Number 5, September 2005

The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Translated by Leland Fetzer. Edited by Ray Wagner, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1973

Drive to Kiev

The drive to Kiev began as a result of the Soviet victory at Kursk. Soon after the taking of Kharkov on 23 August, 1943, the Soviet attack severed the Konotop-Bryansk rail line, breaking the connection between the German Army Group Center and Army Group South. Things were no better for the Germans in the south. Malinovsky’s South-west Front and Tolbukin’s South Front swept forward toward Zaporozhye on the lower Dnieper River. Stalino fell on 8 September and Mariupol on 10 September. von Manstein advised Hitler on 15 September, 1943, that Army Group South had to fall back to the Dnieper- Desna River lines to prevent the collapse of the Wehrmacht’s right flank. After much argument Hitler finally gave the order.

Soviet General Konev’s Steppe Front took Romny on the 16th September. Five days later Lt. General Pavel Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army reached the Dnieper River.  Soviet fighters protected the troops on the right bank and supported the crossings of the Dnieper. A bridgehead was established in the Bukryn area south of Kiev on 21 September, and another north of Kiev near Lyutich on 26 September. German assaults against the Bukryn bridgehead threatened to eliminate it. An attempt to drop Soviet paratroops into the Bukryn bridgehead on 24 September resulted in disaster.

Two hundred kilometers to the north, the Soviet Central Front under General Rokossovskii crossed the Desna River and headed south toward Gomel, another  key communications link between Army Group Center and Army Group South. On 6 October the 16th Air Army attacked this important railway and road center with 250 aircraft. The German resistance stymied Rokossovski’s advance, but, on 15 October Rokossovski’s men were able to cross the Dnieper River at Loyev, 55 kilometers south of Gomel. The Germans succeeded in containing this bridgehead as well.

Although there were now numerous leaks in the Dnieper River line, General Vatutin, commander of the Voronezh Front, could not get his bridging units up fast enough to take advantage of them. The German Fourth Air Fleet committed 867 aircraft while the Sixth Air Fleet committed another 960 aircraft in an effort to eliminate the Bukryn bridgehead, on 10 October. Orders were given for a breakout from the Bukryn bridgehead on 12 October. The night before the breakout attempt the Soviet Second Air Army bombers flew 272 sorties in preparation. German artillery fire made this breakout attempt very expensive and it was called off on 15 October. As a result, on the night of 24/25 October, Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army left the Bukryn bridgehead en route to the Lyutich bridgehead 150 kilometers to the north where the German forces were thinner. The marshy terrain made the transit difficult and resulted in the loss of a number of tanks.

On 29 October Stavka renamed the fronts. Voronezh front, commanded by Vatutin, became the 1st Ukrainian Front. Konev’s Steppe Front became the 2nd Ukrainian Front, and the Central front commanded by Rokosovskii became the Belorussian Front. Meanwhile, Stalin informed the commanders involved with the attempt to capture Kiev, that he wanted the city taken by 7 November, the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

During this period another bridgehead was established 15 kilometers north of Lyutich at Yasnohorodka. On 1 November Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army reached the Lyutich bridgehead. The attack out of the Lyutich bridgehead began on 3 November with a huge artillery attack. Supported by the 2nd Air Army’s fighters and bombers, the Soviet Forces broke out. A simultaneous attack at Yasnohorodka struck west toward Zhytomyr. German counterattacks proved insufficient to stem the Soviet onslaught. Soviet infantry entered Kiev on 5 November and Stalin was informed that Kiev had been taken on 6 November though house to house fighting reminiscent of Stalingrad was still going on within the city.

Rybalko’s 3rd Guards Tank Army took Fastiv, 60 kilometers southwest of Kiev on 7 November threatening the rear of Army Group South.

Sources: ‘The Battle of Kiev: Ending the Nazi Terror’, Pat McTaggart, Warfare History Network, December 27, 2016

The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, NY 1973

Kursk: The Clash of Armour, Geoffrey Jukes, Ballantine Books, Inc., New York, NY, 1968

 

Hitler’s Airborne Anti-tank Guns-Part Two

The Henschel Hs 129 also played a part in the Battle for the Kursk Salient. Built in fewer numbers than the Junkers Ju 87G this twin-engine close support aircraft’s role was not insignificant. Its rocky career began with totally inadequate engines. The Argus A-1 twelve cylinder inverted-vee, air-cooled engine developed only 465 horsepower for take-off. The fuselage was built around the armored cockpit made up of armor plate six to twelve millimeters thick and weighing in at nearly 500 kilograms. In the nose was a pair of 20 mm cannon and a pair of 7.9 mm machine guns. Underwing racks carried either two 50 kg bombs or twenty-four 2 kg anti-personnel bombs.

The prototype made its first flight in early 1939 and the machine was criticized for being seriously under powered and for providing limited visibility for the pilot. The priority for this machine remained low initially, so the redesign received more support only when the need for more close support aircraft became more apparent during the campaigns in Poland and France. The conquest of France made available the Gnome-Rhone 14 M radial engine. This engine developed 700 horsepower for take-off. Even these engines allowed only a 400 kilometer per hour maximum speed. A limited time was allowed for redesign, so, when the aircraft entered service in North Africa in March 1942 and the eastern front in May 1942, front line units learned that the engines were vulnerable to dust and could absorb only minimal combat damage. Additionally, the armament was totally inadequate for anti-armor work.

Field modifications provided for Hs 129Bs included an increase in armament to include a 30 mm cannon with 30 rounds in a detachable ventral pack. This weapon was proved to be unable to penetrate the 45 mm armor plate of the T-34 tank or the 75 mm plate of the KV-1 tank. This compelled the Luftwaffe to provide Hs 129 units with updates allowing installation of the 30 mm MK 103 cannon which possessed a higher muzzle velocity and a flatter shell trajectory than that provided by the MK 101. Some aircraft were also fitted with a 37 mm BK 3.7. Use of this larger weapon required the removal of the 7.9 mm machineguns. Both of these cannon were found to be effective against the softer sides and rear of the Russian tanks.

On 8 July, 1943, four squadrons of Hs 129s disrupted a Soviet surprise attack against II SS Panzer Corps near Belgorod. The anti-tank aircraft succeeded in scattering the Soviet tank brigade.

By the middle of 1944 the Luftwaffe realized the Hs 129’s performance was inadequate, as proved by excessive combat losses. Several experiments with higher power engines and different armaments proved unsuccessful. By the beginning of 1945 the Luftwaffe removed the aircraft from service.

Sources: Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1972

The Henschel Hs 129, Profile Publication Number 69, J. R. Smith, Profile Publications Ltd., Leatherhead, Surrey, UK

Hitler’s Airborne Anti-tank Guns

Two Luftwaffe aircraft were specifically modified for anti-armor work: the Hs-129 and the Ju-87. Except for the Messerschmitt Bf-109, the Ju-87, popularly known as the
Stuka, is perhaps the most familiar German aircraft of the Second World War. Photographs of this crank-winged dive bomber in operation over Poland, the Netherlands, and England are common. Also well known is that the aircraft was removed from bomber operations over England in early September 1940 during the Battle of Britain. Its later history is less well known.

The Ju-87B was used extensively on the Eastern Front during Operation Barbarossa, the attack against the Soviet Union in June 1941, although it was acknowledged to be obsolescent at this time. Work had already begun on an updated version of the venerable aircraft, but problems with the replacement engine delayed its introduction into service.

The Ju-87D entered service on the northern, Leningrad, sector of the Russian Front and, by the spring of 1942 increased numbers of the model arrived. This aircraft was capable of dropping a 1,000 kilogram armor piercing bomb, which also experienced teething problems. A modification of the Ju-87 D resulted in the Ju-87G. Armed with a 37mm cannon under each outer wing panel just outboard of the bend in the inverted gull wing, this aircraft was first tested operationally in the summer of 1942 by Oberleutnant Hans-Ulrich Rudel, author of Stuka Pilot. Rudel became a tank busting specialist, eventually credited with destroying 519 Soviet tanks.

During the Battle for the Kursk Salient small numbers of the Ju-87G were used alongside the Ju-87D against Soviet massed armor. On July 5, 1943, the first day of the battle, Rudel destroyed 12 Soviet tanks near Belgorod. As the battle progressed over the next week casualties among the Stuka units accumulated and, as a result, the career of the Ju-87 as a daylight dive bomber was ended. It was eventually relegated to glider towing, night bombing, and the duties of a unit hack.

Sources: Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1970

Profile 211: Junkers Ju 87D, Richard P. Bateson, Profile Publications Ltd., Windsor, England

Pawn of the Soviet Air Force–the Pe-2

The Soviet Union’s premier twin-engine attack bomber was the Pe-2, also known as Peshka, the Pawn. Designed by Vladimir Petlyakov, the Pe-2 was put in production in 1940. More than 450 had been produced by the time of the German attack on Russia in the summer of 1941, however, only only a few dozen aircraft were operational.

Originally powered by a pair of Klimov M-105-R engines the aircraft had a top speed of 445 kilometers per hour at sea level. Initial offensive armament was a 12.7 mm machine gun on the starboard and a 7.62 mm machine gun on the port side of the nose. Initial defensive armament was a rearward firing 7.62 mm flexible machine gun fired by the navigator from the rear of the cockpit canopy. The ventral gun, also a 7.62 mm weapon, was aimed by the gunner, alone in the middle of the fuselage, using a periscopic mechanism attached to the gun mount. In the field some units installed flexible 7.62 mm machine guns firing through portholes in the sides of the fuselage just behind the wing root.

Maximum bomb load was 1,000 kilograms. Normal bomb load was 600 kilograms. Four 100 kg bombs could be carried on mounts in the internal bomb bay. Initially a 100 kilogram bomb could be carried in each engine nacelle behind the landing gear. These were ultimately closed off. The external bomb load was carried under the wing center section between the engines: four 250 kilogram bombs, or two 500 kilogram bombs.

In 1942 experiments were conducted using the Pe-2 as a dive bomber. Using the extendible slatted speed brakes outboard of the engines the Pe-2s would dive at a 70 degree angle in line astern, spaced at 500 to 600 meters. After each aircraft dropped its bombs the attackers would form a ‘carousel’ keeping the target under constant attack. Fighters established a high cover over the bombers with two or three fighters diving with the bombers to provide support.

German pilots flying the Bf 109E found it difficult to catch the speedy little dive bomber. Later German fighters, with higher powered engines and greater speed potential could catch and down the Pe-2. As a result, aircrews complained about weak armament and insufficient armor plate protection for the ventral gunner. The 7.62 mm defensive guns were replaced with heavier caliber 12.7 mm weapons and armor protection for the navigator/rear gunner and the ventral gunner was extended. This change affected the speed of the aircraft which required a power plant change to the M-105-PF. The 130 horsepower increase allowed the Pe-2 to reach 460 kilometers per hour at sea level in a clean condition. The increased weight of the weaponry, armor, and external mounting of the bombs compromised the speed under operational conditions. and the pilots of the Bf 109Fs and Gs took notice of the increased caliber of the defensive weapons.

The Pe-2 had a reputation for difficult handling and inexperienced pilots found it impossible to land with one engine out. It proved demanding but not impossible to fly.

Sources: Soviet Combat Aircraft of the Second World War: Volume Two: Twin-Engined Fighters, Attack Aircraft and Bombers, Yefin Gordon and Dmitri Khazanov with Alexander Medved, Midland Publishing Ltd., Leicester, England, 1999

Profile 216: Petlyakov Pe-2, Malcolm Passingham and Waclaw Klepacki, Profile Publications Ltd., Windsor, England, 1971

Kurt Tank’s Butcher-bird–The Fw 190

The fate of the Focke-Wulf 190 on the Russian front perfectly summarizes the problems faced by the Luftwaffe itself. The Luftwaffe specialized in focusing numeric and qualitative advantage at a number of key points on the battlefield. In Russia the battlefield constantly expanded as the German Army forced itself east. Distances between key points increased with that expansion. The key points shifted from one part of the front to the next and the number of key points increased as the campaign progressed. The Luftwaffe broke up into smaller units in answer to the army’s calls for support, thus expending themselves in ‘penny packets’ and reducing their effectiveness. The primitive conditions existing on the airfields on the Russian front, together with the lengthening of supply lines stressed the sophisticated and sensitive structure of the Luftwaffe.

The Focke-Wulf 190, with its armament of four 20 mm cannon and two 7.92 mm machine guns arrived on the eastern front in late 1942 with the mission of combating the Il-2 armored ground attack aircraft. The legendary Fighter Wing 54, Green Heart, proved the machine’s usefulness on the Russian Front in the Leningrad sector.

At about that time the Luftwaffe learned the suitability of the Focke-Wulf 190 for fighter-bomber operations. Thus began a constant competition for the insufficient supplies of this aircraft. The aging Ju 87D found itself increasingly unable to defend itself against the swarms of Soviet fighters. So the Luftwaffe converted Stuka Wings to Attack Wings by replacing the Stukas with Fw 190 fighter-bombers. By late summer 1943 the Luftwaffe was re-equipping ground attack units at a rate of two every six weeks. Even the veteran interceptor wing, Fighter Wing 54, was converted to fighter-bomber duty.

The Focke-Wulf 190 was a sophisticated beast. Demand for this aircraft by increasing numbers of units, all with different requirements, resulted in a plethora of variants. The high demand and the number of variants complicated production and supply. The primitive conditions on the airfields challenged the maintenance crews on the front lines laboring to keep these sophisticated aircraft in combat capable condition.

I will touch on only a few of the many variants of this aircraft, stressing the mid-war fighter-bombers featured in the novel Cauldron. Please refer to my sources below for a complete list.

In 1942 production shifted from the Fw 190 A-3 to the A-4. Fighter-bomber variants coming out of the factories included the A-4/U-3 with additional armor plating for the engine and the cockpit and fittings for a 551 pound bomb or a 66 Imperial gallon drop tank under the fuselage. In the field the crews generally removed the outer two of the wing mounted 20 mm cannon to save weight. The A-4/U8 could retain the full gun armament and carry the drop tank under the fuselage and four 110 pound bombs on wing racks. If the two outer 20 mm guns were removed the aircraft could carry the drop tank under the fuselage and two 551 pound bombs on the racks under the wings. If the fuselage mounted machine guns were also removed and only the tw0 20 mm cannon in the wing roots were retained, the aircraft could carry the 551 pound bomb under the fuselage and two drop tanks under the wings. Variants only got more complicated from there.

The Focke-Wulf 190, like the Bf 109, served on all fronts. Its capabilities are well documented and make fascinating reading. Only a few sources are listed below.

Sources: Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, New York, 1972

The Focke-Wulf Fw 190A, Profile Publications #3, M.C. Windrow, Profile Publications, LTD., London, UK

Focke-Wulf Fw 190 Described, Geoffrey Pentland & Anthony Shennan, Kookaburra Technical Publications, Victoria, Australia

AIRCAM/AIRWAR 11 Luftwaffe Fighter Units Russia 1941-45, Christopher Shores, Sky Books Press LTD., New York, New York, 1978

JG 54, Jagdgeschwader 54 Grunherz: Aces of the Eastern Front, Jerry Scutts, Airlife Publishing LTD. Shrewsbury, England 1992

The Il-2: Russia’s “Flying Infantryman”

“Our army needs Il-2s as much as it needs bread, as much as it needs the air it breathes.” Joseph Stalin.

As the world’s first practical armored attack aircraft, Ilyushin’s Il-2 Shturmoviki made up a third of the USSR’s combat aircraft fleet during the Great Patriotic War–known to the West as World War II. Central to its construction was the one-piece armored bath with integrally pressed engine bearers and cooler nests. This thirteen mm thick armor plate extended from the nose to the rear of the cockpit and was augmented by armored glass for the canopy and 55 to 65 millimeter armored glass windscreen. It could not be penetrated from below by low caliber projectiles. Main undercarriage wheels were semi-exposed when the gear was retracted to allow gear up landings with minimal structural damage to the aircraft.

In a study done by the Soviet Union during the war, this aircraft’s only weak points were the wooden rear fuselage, the wooden outer wing panels, and the oil radiators. Metal outer wing panels proved to be more survivable.

Powered by an AM 38 engine of 1,680 horsepower and armed with two Shkas 7.62 mm machine guns, two Shvak 20 mm cannon, rails for eight 82-mm RS 82 rockets and a bomb capacity of 400 kg, 249 single-seat Il-2s were in service at the time of the German attack. With a fighter escort flying at 1000 to 1500 meters altitude and the Il-2s gliding down to attack at 10 meters altitude, Soviet pilots complained that the aircraft was vulnerable to attack from behind by fighters firing at ranges of 10 to 15 meters. By the summer of 1942 pilots frequently carried only half a bomb load, if they carried bombs at all. Their attacks were frequently made with guns and rockets alone. They recommended the addition of a rear gunner.

Two-seat Il-2s began to appear at the front in the spring of 1942, and the Il-2m3 made its appearance in August 1942. The armor plating was lengthened to include the rear gunner with minimal structural changes. Initially the rear gunner was provided with a pair of 7.62 mm machineguns. This was altered to a 12.7 mm machinegun. The pilot’s armament was increased to two 23 mm cannon in the wings. The Soviet Air Force now mandated a minimum 400 kilogram bomb load.

Experiments with 37 mm cannon were also conducted and small numbers were available at Kursk. The powerful recoil of these cannon made aiming difficult.

In January 1943 the AM 38F engine was introduced. This engine was uprated to 1,750 horsepower and was able to use low octane fuel. At the Battle for Stalingrad in the winter of 1942/43, 1,644 Il-2s were available. By the time of the Battle for the Kursk Salient, in July 1943, that number increased to 2,817 Il-2s.

German fighter pilots quickly learned that the Il-2 pilot’s standard attack procedure was to glide from 1,000 to 1,500 meters altitude to their attack altitude of 10 meters and then to turn to port to set up the Circle of Death. This technique allowed the Shturmoviki to have aircraft over the target continuously for an extended period. During the Battle for Kursk the 9th Panzer Division lost 70 tanks in 20 minutes on 7 July, 1943. German pilots took advantage of the knowledge of the port turn to set up their attacks. Even so, the Germans found the Il-2 difficult to down when it was evading at 10 meters altitude and 400 kilometers per hour.

Although we have no knowledge of all women Il-2 units, we do know that many of the units had mixed aircrews.

Sources: Soviet Combat Aircraft of the Second World War Volume Two: Twin-Engined Fighters, Attack Aircraft, and Bombers, Yefim Gordon and Dmitri Khazanov with Alexander Medved’, Midland Publishing Ltd., Leicester, England, 1999

The Ilyushin Il-2, Number 88, Witold Liss, Profile Publications Ltd. Leatherhead, England.

The Yak–The Soviet Union’s Premier Fighter

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

The Messerschmitt 109: Symbol of German WW II Airpower

The Messerschmitt 109 symbolizes German airpower in World War II for most Americans. This aircraft, designed by Willy Messerschmitt, was referred to, in German documents, as the Bf 109 after the company which built it: the Bayerische Flugzeugwerke or Bavarian Aircraft Factory.

The aircraft was first flown in September 1935 with a Rolls Royce Kestrel engine (the same engine that powered the Supermarine Spitfire prototype) because the proposed power plant, the Junkers Jumo 210 was not ready.

The Bf 109, powered by the Junkers Jumo 210, was first used in combat by the Condor Legion in Spain in 1938. Armament in the B model was three 7.9 mm machine guns mounted on the engine, one of them firing through the propeller boss. The C model carried two additional 7.9 mm machine guns, one in each wing.

The Daimler Benz engine was the definitive power plant for the Bf 109. The first aircraft to fly with the Daimler Benz engine in the nose was the Bf 109D. Daimler Benz was in the process of changing production from the unreliable DB 600 to the DB 601 so the engine change caused a change in designation to Bf 109E. Like any long lived aircraft the engine and the armament of the Bf 109 changed progressively. In most cases the changes improved the aircraft’s combat capability.

The Bf 109 performed well in every venue in which it was used from Norway to North Africa and from Great Britain to Russia. Its performance matched or exceeded any aircraft it met and, in the hands of the ‘experten’, the aces, it seldom disappointed. This was not an aircraft for the novice. At high speeds the control forces were so heavy both hands were needed on the stick, and the narrow undercarriage made it tricky to land. The forward positioning of the main wheels allowed for fast taxiing and aggressive braking.

The most famous ace to fly the Bf 109 was Erich Hartmann, veteran of 825 combat missions on the Eastern Front. Flying with Jagdgeschwader 52 he scored 352 victories.  As the Soviets drove the Luftwaffe back into the Balkans he included a number of Mustangs in this total. No other fighter pilot has ever matched this score.

The Bf 109G was the definitive example of this fighter, with more produced than any other variant. A total of nearly 35,000 Bf 109s of all variants were produced over 21 years. After the war they were flown by the Israelis in the 1948 war where they served alongside Spitfires. The final examples were Hispano and Merlin powered aircraft. The last were built in Spain in late 1956. The Spanish Air Force flew their Rolls Royce Merlin powered Hispano Ha1112s until they retired them in 1967.

Sources: Warplanes of the Third Reich, William Green, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, NY 1970. Augsburg Eagle, William Green, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, NY 1971. Combat Aircraft of World War II, Bill Gunston, Salamander Books, LTD., London, UK, 1978. The Messerschmitt Bf 109G, j. R. Smith and J. Primmer, Profile Publications, Surrey, England, No Date. The Blond Knight of Germany, Raymond F. Toliver and Trevor J. Constable, Ballantine Books, New York, 1970.