Grigoriy Rechkalov and Aleksandr Pokryshkin

The second and third highest scoring Soviet aces in World War II were Grigoriy Rechkalov and Aleksandr Pokryshkin. Captain Rechkalov scored 56 individual and 5 shared victorirs and Colonel Pokryshkin scored 53 individual and 6 shared victories. These numbers are from E. R. Hooton’s War Over the Steppes. Other sources vary. Both flew large numbers of sorties. Rechkalov flew 415 plus and Pokryshkin 560.

Both pilots were trained in flying clubs and, during the war, received great amounts of publicity in Soviet newspapers and magazines. Captain Rechkalov received his second Hero of the Soviet Union gold star on 1 July, 1944. Neither of my sources give the date of the first award.

Aleksandr Pokryshkin joined the 55 Fighter Air Regiment flying MiG-3 fighters. He shot down his first kill on the day after the German invasion of the Soviet Union. On 20 July, 1941, he was shot down behind German lines by anti-aircraft fire, but he was able to return to his unit without being captured. Over the northern Caucasus he achieved 20 victories in 350 sorties.

As a leader Pokryshkin invented new techniques for air combat. He taught echeloned formations flying different altitudes within the group, and between the groups, and instructed pilots on tactical procedures.

Transferred to the 16 Guards Fighter Air Regiment flying P-39 Airacobras he received command of one of the squadrons. By July 1944 he commanded 9 Guards Fighter Air Division during the Lvov-Sandomir operation. Assigned to support ground forces near Radziejow, his flight of twelve fighters encountered a formation of forty bombers and eight fighters. First Lieutenant Trud and four aircraft kept the enemy fighters busy while Colonel Pokryshkin and Captain Rechkalov attacked the bombers. The bombers jettisoned their bombs and fled. The Soviets chased them until all of their ammunition was expended. Five German bombers and four German fighters were downed with the loss of one Soviet aircraft.

During the fighting over the San River Aleksandr Pokryshkin downed 28 enemy aircraft in four days in very bad weather and engaging much larger enemy forces.

In the fall of 1944 Colonel Pokryshkin received his third Hero of the Soviet Union gold star. He and Ivan Kozhedub were the only two Soviet pilots to win three of the coveted decorations.

Sources: War Over the Steppes, The Air Campaigns on the Eastern Fron 1941 – 45, E. R. Hooton, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2016

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

Soviet Aces: Lilya Litvyak

Perhaps the most famous woman ace in the Soviet Air Force, Lilya Litvyak, began her career in fighters with the 586 Fighter Air Regiment defending Saratov during the battle of Stalingrad. The commander of the regiment, Tamara Kazarinova, reputed to be a martinet, was relieved of her command and replaced by a man, but not before one of the squadrons was broken up and the eight best pilots were sent to several all male units. On 10 September, 1942, Lilya and her friend, Katya Bodanova, were transferred to  the 437 Fighter Air Regiment, flying La-5s. Shortly afterward, they were sent to the 9 Guards Fighter Air Regiment flying Yak-1s, but the commander, Lev Shestakov, refused to accept them and forwarded them on to 296 Fighter Air Regiment.

Colonel Nikolai Baranov, commander of 296 Fighter Air Regiment, had already decided to foist the women off on another unit. Lilya, with the help of Captain Alexei Salomaten, convinced Colonel Baranov to allow the women to fly on Salomaten’s wing. Lilya had already proven her proficiency in aerial gunnery in training and she and Katya regularly flew wing for Colonel Baranov and Captain Salomaten. Although it was strongly forbidden, Lilya enjoyed beating up the airfield after scoring each victory.

The 296 Fighter Air Regiment’s duty was ‘free hunt’ in the area of Stalingrad. By Christmas 1942 Lilya had achieved six aerial victories. Although Lilya refused an interview with a Soviet war correspondent, he interviewed a number of her friends and published a feature article in his newspaper, making her famous.

On 15 March, 1943, Lilya was wounded in the leg during an attack on German bombers. Ignoring her wound, she downed two bombers before belly landing her machine. Upon returning to base, she passed out from loss of blood. While recovering from her wound her unit was transferred to Rostov on Don.

After a period off duty for healing, she returned to the 296 Fighter Air Regiment, which now had become 73 Guards Fighter Air Regiment. Upon the death of her squadron leader, Lilya was promoted to flight leader. She was wounded again on 16 July, 1943. One week later she was forced to parachute from her aircraft, again wounded. The pilot of her tenth victory, a German ace, parachuted to safety and was captured. He refused to believe Lilya had shot him down until she described the dogfight to him, maneuver by maneuver.

Lilya’s record shows 168 combat sorties flown with 11 victories, and one balloon. On 1 August, 1943, she shot down a Bf 109 fighter. Between clouds, squadron mates sighted her aircraft, closely pursued by several German machines. She did not return from that mission. Her body was recovered in 1989.  Michail Gorbachov awarded her the Hero of the Soviet Union decoration posthumously.

Sources: The Soviet Air Force in World War II, Edited by Ray Wagner, Translated by Leland Fetzer, Doubleday and Company, Inc., Garden City, NY, 1973

Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia’s Women Pilots in World War II, Bruce Myles, Presidio Press, 1981. Second Printing, Academy Chicago Publishers, Chicago, IL, 1997

Yakovlev Aces of World War 2, George Mellinger, Osprey Aircraft of the Aces #64, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2005

Soviet Aces: Ivan Kozhedub

Ivan Kozhedub, the leading Allied ace with 62 victories, learned to fly in one of the many flying clubs and societies sponsored by the Volunteer Defense Society of the Soviet Union. He entered the military flying school in January 1940 and completed training in February 1941. Retained as a flying instructor he instructed student pilots until the fall of 1942. He arrived at 240 Fighter Air Regiment, equipped with LaG-5 fighters, in the spring of 1943.

Sergeant Kozhedub’s first combat sortie took place on 26 March, 1943, in the Kharkov area in the Ukraine. Promoted to Junior Lieutenant and deputy squadron commander in June 1943, he still had no combat victories. On his fortieth sortie, 6 July, 1943, the second day of the Battle for the Kursk Salient, he made his first kill, a Junkers 87 Stuka dive bomber. He nearly fell victim to a Bf 109 fighter, but his wingman drove the German fighter away.

On 7 July, 1943, when his squadron leader was wounded in combat, Lieutenant Kozhedub became the de facto squadron commander. The squadron leader, unable to fly due to his injuries, was not evacuated and led the squadron on the ground while Kozhedub led it in the air. Soon afterward he received his first decoration,

On 15 August, 1943, Kozhedub downed two Bf 109s and eight days later he destroyed a Focke Wulf 190 fighter. On 30 September, 1943, he destroyed another Ju 87. Separated from his formation during an attack by Bf 109 fighters, Kozhedub, alone, discovered and attacked a formation of eighteen Ju 87 dive bombers. When he downed one of the Stukas, the remainder jettisoned their bomb loads and fled.

During October 1943, in ten days, Ivan Kozhedub downed eleven enemy aircraft in 146 combat missions and 27 combats.

Bad weather interfered with operations during the first months of 1944. Snow and low clouds forced fighters to fly in smaller formations at treetop heights. It was at this time, February 1944, that Kozhedub was promoted to captain and awarded his first gold star, the Hero of the Soviet Union award.

The 240 Fighter Air Regiment relocated to Modavia in April 1944. There Captain Kozhedub downed two Hs 129 anti-tank aircraft. The squadron took on new La-5FN fighters.

In July 1944 Captain Kozhedub trained in the La-7. Awarded his second Hero of the Soviet Union gold star 18 August, 1944, Ivan Kozhedub, on 23 August, with 48 victories, was made deputy commander of 176 Guards Fighter Air Regiment. Days later he was promoted to major.

Weather, deteriorating with the arrival of another winter, provided few opportunities to fly. The unit relocated to Poland where the Soviet army’s Belorussian Front fought to liberate Warsaw. Their airfield, located so close to the front, barely gave them time to retract their undercarriage before they engaged ground forces.

On 19 February, 1945, Kozhedub and his wingman surprised a Messerschmidt 262 twin jet fighter near Frankfurt. Kozhedub shot down the 262 when his wingman’s cannon fire caused the German to turn toward Kozhedub and directly into the sights of the ace.

He made his 61st and 62nd kills, Fw 190s, on 19 April, 1945. He was awarded his third Hero of the Soviet Union, one of only two pilots so awarded, on 18 August, 1945. In the 1960s he was still on the active list as a Colonel-General.

Sources: LaGG and Lavochkin Aces of World War 2, George Mellinger, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2003

The Lavochkin La 5 & 7, Witold Liss, Profile Publications, Surrey England, 1967

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