Researching for Historical Fiction

A fiction writer must know intimately the world he/she is trying to describe. Place, time, local culture, and the attitudes of the people of the time all play a part in the story. The best place to stage your story is a place that remains as it was at the time your action takes place. That’s usually not possible with historical fiction. Even stories about the recent past frequently involve changes in the places being described. More distant, yet still modern, times can be researched using photographs, paintings, or sketches. Descriptions of places, written by people who lived there at the time your story takes place, are helpful, but seldom provide the panoramic view that allows the writer to look around and feel part of the venue.

In addition to place, technology also changes over time. As obvious as that sounds, a few months or years during periods of rapid technological  change can make a tremendous difference. An example is the telephone, not to mention computers.

Finding sources useful in fleshing out a past period can be challenging. Diaries, interviews of people who lived at that time, and bureaucratic records, to name a few, can make a time in the past come alive. Unfortunately, people writing during that time take many common objects for granted and do not spell out how or when those objects may have been used. They may simply make reference to them feeling these items were too common to describe. Photographs can be helpful, but even a photograph doesn’t describe how an object was used.

My era of interest is World War Two, and specifically the aerial aspect of that war. I have found autobiographies by pilots of that era most helpful. Interviews done during the war or immediately after might be less valuable if classified material of the time is avoided, glossed over, or redacted.

The setting of my most recent writing, the Soviet Union, is particularly troubling for Americans because most of us, (myself included) do not speak or read Russian. We are dependent on translations of works. Another problem with documents written in the Soviet Union during the war, such as newspapers, and books published for mass distribution, were politicized. More recent documents, though more forthcoming, are frequently fogged by the passage of time.

Archives, available here in the west, are helpful, but these documents also suffered from political manipulation. More recent documentation released after the dissolution of the Soviet Union tends to be more realistic.

Walking the battlefields I describe would be helpful, except that several of them are battlefields once again. Regrettably, for me, the costs of travel are also a deterrent.

My main references are books about the aircraft and operations from Soviet sources translated into English. These books and articles provide very good information in most cases. I have spoken with, as opposed to interviewed, a very successful German fighter pilot from World War Two, and discussed the characteristics of a Yak-9 fighter with a pilot who flew a model provided with an Allison engine, rather than the original Klimov. Both discussions provided insight for me, colored, of course, by pre-conceptions based on my previous study.

Biographies of Russian pilots lack fine detail. One of my books includes interviews with twenty Soviet women who flew in combat with the Soviet Air Force. Bruce Myles, who interviewed these women in the 1970s, wrote the book Night Witches, telling the true stories upon which my fiction is based. Unfortunately, he barely touches upon the things most important to people, and which can be most revealing about their lives. Items such as food, hygiene, and personal care make a tremendous difference in morale and influence the attitudes of people, not just women, who put their lives on the line for their country.

Finally, combat is a supremely messy affair. Many veterans decline to discuss their feelings while in combat. Many times the events in which they partake occur so quickly that analysis of those feelings doesn’t take place until after the events they describe. Even if they relate those events to others, they hide the feelings they have as they reflect on those events. Only those who actually participate can know how those feelings actually temper and change the person involved. Any writer who wasn’t there can only imagine, probably unsuccessfully, their reaction. Consequently, I have only my books, my own flight experience, and my imagination to attempt to re-build the world of fighter pilots on the Eastern Front of World War Two, known to the Russians as the Great Patriotic War.

Sources: Night Witches, Bruce Myles, Presidio Press, 1981

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

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

Yakovlev Aces of World War 2, George Mellinger, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, UK, 2005

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