A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, your previous interview evoked great interest and a plethora of additional questions. Of course, while it’s not possible to answer all of them, you have agreed to respond to a portion of them
Let us begin with this. Already after the war, the following basic deficiencies of the training of [Soviet] fighter pilots were being discussed. 1. Insufficient flight hours in combat aircraft. 2. Pilots lacked skill in firing at aerial targets. 3. Pilots did not know how to observe (did not “see the airspace”). 4. While some knew how to conduct one-on-one aerial combat, no one knew how to conduct group-on-group aerial combat. 5. Our pilots were completely unprepared to employ radio communications, even if the capability existed. Nikolay Gerasimovich, how do these criticisms correspond to the truth?
N.G. Let me respond in order. It’s true that we did not get many flight hours in combat aircraft, but it cannot be said that what we received was insufficient. Everything depended on how much time was spent in this regard.
The assertion that we did not know how to engage aerial targets is false. We had plenty of gunnery practice in flight training. We fired at sleeves. My class had 15 sorties for firing at aerial targets and 20-25 sorties for firing at ground targets.
True, it must be said that before the war began, in 1941, there were classes that fired much less—somewhere around five times at aerial targets (also at sleeves) and five times at ground targets. But this “accelerated course” consisted of pilots who had relatively good flight training, primarily former aeroclub instructors. They were not being taught, rather they were being refreshed, and therefore their period of training was abbreviated.
It is another issue that firing at a sleeve as a training exercise is a relatively serious deficiency. It was impossible to determine the range to the sleeve itself because it was small. We estimated the range by looking at the towing aircraft. Because we did not develop the habit of determining range to the target, this led to the practice in actual combat of commencing fire from too great a range, particularly at bombers (for some reason it seemed so enormous!). This error plus the mounting of small-caliber weapons made our gunnery ineffective. When we learned how correctly to determine the range to the target—“at the rivets” (when you could distinguish the rivets it was time to commence firing)—we began to get good hits.
In other respects, firing at sleeves developed good habits of aerial gunnery because it taught how correctly to compute lead and economically expend ammunition.
A.S. I have heard that many pilots, having become accustomed to firing at sleeves, commenced firing at targets when it became the size of the standard towing aircraft.
N.G. No, this is not true. You calculate lead that is appropriate for the sleeve, not the towing aircraft. Therefore no one aimed the sight ahead of the towing aircraft. What would be the sense of that?
A.S. You did not use gun camera film at flight training school?
N.G. No. We knew that such a thing existed but we did not have the capability.
A.S. I see. What can you say regarding the ability of pilots to observe the airspace?
N.G. Regarding observation, our primary deficiency was an inability to look all around. We did not acquire the practice of all-around vision, that is, we were too slow in detecting the enemy. This gave the enemy the opportunity to conduct a surprise attack.
The war underscored that one had to be able to look all around, in all directions. Moreover, maneuver of the flight had to be constructed so that one could carefully examine the entire airspace, particularly the rear hemisphere. We had to do a “snake”, a “pair of scissors”. When we arrived in the regiment, Safonov said to us directly, “Look to the rear so that you can see the tail skid of your own airplane.”
In addition, it was not enough simply to look, but one had to observe with a proper technique. First far away and then closer in. We had to evaluate sighted “points” (objects). If we saw a dot in the sky, we immediately had to make a determination if it was an aircraft or not. If, while looking, one saw a complete aircraft, then it meant only one thing—it had approached undetected and would now open fire. You didn’t even have time to maneuver.
Correct observation technique required diligent conditioning, constant analysis, and critique of actions in group, with commensurate training and their practice, both for the group as a whole and for each individual member of the group. What’s left?
A.S. Group battles.
N.G. What can I say about group aerial combat? Yes, it’s true that we did not conduct them during flight training. Only individual. Rarely we conducted a “flight-on-flight” engagement. Normally even those engagements were only conducted in the horizontal plane.
Even in units we did not conduct group battles, but worked on developing good habits of individual combat, with good techniques of individual piloting. We did this.
A.S. What was the impetus for this, in your view?
N.G. On the one hand, before the war the form of combat known as “group battle” was greatly underestimated. On the other hand the maneuver of a tightly formed flight (we flew in threes then) was risky. There could be mid-air collisions and no one needed that risk.
Group battle was undervalued because the entire combat experience of the previous wars—Spain, China, and Khalkhin Gol—spoke to the greatest success being attained by pilots conducting individual combat, not part of a formation. This was the case with our leading aces as well as the leading enemy aces—the Italians and Japanese. The Germans, by the way, did not particularly stand out compared to the Italians in Spain. As the future made clear, our experience gained in these wars was correctly leveraged. But it did not receive subsequent development.
A.S. I’m not clear. What are you saying?
N.G. Let me explain. Group aerial combat with precise coordination of pairs and flights, that is without their breaking up, achieved its classical realization only in 1941, on the Soviet-German front, in the battle for Moscow, the Far North, and at Sevastopol. Before 1941 all mass air battles were conducted in accordance with a single scheme—massed air raids of bombers escorted by a large group or groups of fighters. As soon as the air battle was initiated, the fighter formation broke up and subsequently each fighter conducted individual battle. We operated in this fashion in Spain, along with the Germans and Italians. We and the Japanese operated in the same manner, for the most part, at Khalkhin-Gol, and the British and the Germans in the Battle of Britain. Only at the end of the Battle of Britain did the Germans begin to operate more rigidly in flights. But at the same time many German pilots continued to fight in combat as individuals. It is another issue that in matters of combat coordination of flights, the Germans surged strongly forward and by the summer of 1941, having generalized the experience of previous wars, definitively formulated their tactics on the basis of relatively rigid coordination of pairs and flights. Previously pairs and flights had been employed only episodically. It happens that in isolated issues of tactics someone is always out in front. Therefore one can’t say that in training our flight crews we did not take into consideration the peculiarities of group battle. We were unfortunate in 1941 that we were faced with completely unfamiliar tactics of the conduct of group aerial combat, which had never been employed to any significant degree prior to this time.
A.S. Did you conduct many aerial engagements in flight training?
N.G. Air battles were at the very end of training, at the end of the course. We conducted perhaps 10—15 of them. Only the accelerated instructor course had more battles, somewhere around 15—20. Cadets conducted all engagements with instructors in accordance with a previously developed plan.
A.S. What engagements counted, all of them or just the ones you won?
N.G. Every engagement. What happens happens. You or your enemy, you let an opportunity pass, someone makes a mistake, and it’s over. If someone ends up on our tail, it’s too late to turn it around. Both aircraft are of the same type, identical in speed and maneuver. In order to shake someone off your tail, you’d have to do something very dangerous. And this, of course, would benefit no one. It’s better to learn without making mistakes.
A.S. And radio communications?
N.G. Yes. We had no practice in the use of radio because radio-equipped aircraft for all practical purposes did not exist at our flight schools. Also in combat units, not all aircraft were radio-equipped, and the radios already mounted in aircraft left much to be desired in their effectiveness. The quality of the radios in the I-153 and I-16 fighters was completely unsatisfactory. We badly undervalued radio communications before the war.
A.S. How did you introduce the young replacements into combat in the 72d Air Regiment? What steps did you take for the most rapid elimination of the training deficiencies mentioned above among these young pilots?
N.G. We introduced them to combat gradually. Our “old” pilots watched over them. Our young pilots were not sent out on just any mission. We tried, whenever possible, to select something simpler for their first mission. If the mission might include flight over enemy-controlled territory, such as escorting bombers or adjusting artillery, the composition of the flight of four for the combat mission would be three veterans and one “newbie”. The veterans closely monitored the actions of the young pilot.
Before the sortie they told him, “Your mission is to stick with me. Do not get separated, no matter what maneuver I make, and OBSERVE! You return from the mission and the first question is “What did you SEE?” [emphasis in original]. They compared what you saw with what your [pair] leader saw. Then there was the mandatory discussion of the sortie. They examined every one of your maneuvers, made observations, corrections, gave advice, in short, they instructed.
In this manner a new pilot conducted three or four engagements in such a group while his more experienced comrades looked on and determined if he could carry a normal combat load or not. If the answer was “yes”, then he was given full access to combat missions. If the answer was “no”, he made several additional flights under their watchful eye. Until he reached proficiency. So an inexperienced pilot was not sent into a serious battle right away. We did not do that in our regiment.
A.S. Did you conduct training aerial engagements with experienced pilots?
N.G. My cohort did not. We had few aircraft and those that we had were constantly being flown on combat missions or were in repair. We were extremely short of equipment. In my recollection, when we arrived in the regiment there were ten serviceable aircraft and eighteen pilots.
What kind of battles were these? There were 25 of them [Germans] and 6 of us! If they got the jump on you—good luck! Aircraft were damaged and pilots were wounded. We flogged these aircraft and the mechanics spent all night patching them up and getting them running again. When was their time for training battles?
As soon as the equipment supply situation improved, this was somewhere around early 1943, then training battles became obligatory, the new pilots with the veterans.
A.S. How were you personally introduced to combat? Did the fact that you had been an instructor pilot have any influence?
N.G. They brought me in just like all the others. I was stronger than the rest in piloting skills, spent less time in controlling my aircraft and therefore “saw” the airspace better. They began assigning me normal combat missions after my third combat sortie.
A.S. What were the strengths of Soviet prewar fighter pilot training, if there were any?
N.G. The strong side was the fact that we were well grounded in the techniques of piloting. Despite the fact that we did not get a lot of flight time, all of it was spent in development of pilot skill. It was practiced until it became reflex. Before the war, much attention was paid to precise flight control, so that if you did a spiral, for example, the instruments did not gyrate.
Before the war it was an axiom that “pilot technique was the foundation of victory in combat” and there was good reason for this belief. No one ever looked at their gages but flew the airplane “by the seat of his pants.” A sixth sense, a gut feeling, when and what to do. We did not fear that we would stall out into a spin, overpower the stick, and so on. We took everything from the aircraft that it was capable of. We pushed it to the limit and sometimes just beyond the limit.
It’s another matter that pure piloting skill, if it does not provide one the opportunity to fire on the enemy, is useless in combat. But again, having pilots who possess extraordinary piloting skill, as soon as we received modern aircraft, we mastered new tactics, tied maneuver to fire, and we began to win. The Germans lost technical supremacy, we acquired combat experience, and that meant that the Germans much less often had the opportunity to launch a surprise attack. This greatly reduced their ability to conduct maneuver combat. They fell further and further behind with each year of the war. The majority of German pilots did not have our level of pilot skill and did not like to “dog fight”. Maneuver combat was not the Germans’ preferred style of conducting battle.
A.S. When did well-trained cohorts begin to arrive in the combat regiments?
N.G. Somewhere in the second half of 1944. We fought the second half of the war in modern equipment and had acquired good combat experience. The loss levels in combat regiments were dropping and regiments began to demand significantly fewer replacements. From this came the possibility of pilots being sent directly from flight school to reserve air regiments [ZAP], where their instructors were combat-experienced pilots. At the ZAPs young pilots practiced only combat flying, and in a quite serious manner. After the ZAPs these pilots moved on to combat regiments with good combat habits. The ZAP was one of the most needed and effective components of the Soviet school of combat training.
A.S. Researchers note the following basic deficiencies of Soviet fighter tactics in the 1941—42 period. 1. Passivity of fighter elements, which always attempted to conduct battle from the defense (“defensive circle”). 2. Inability to employ vertical maneuver. 3. They disregarded echeloned combat formation by altitude. 4. The basic flight consisted of three aircraft (not two pairs).
In your view, to what degree were these deficiencies a result of equipment obsolescence, low qualification of rank and file pilots, and the upper level command component?
N.G. Let’s look at these one at a time. First, there was no passivity. Our fighter forces never asked how many enemy they faced and were always eager to fight.
Second. Deficient observation, which I have already addressed, played a large role in these shortcomings. We spotted the enemy too late and therefore were forced to initiate combat on his conditions, by his initiative. This led to situations where we were forced to begin an engagement “from the defense,” more simply manifested in the aforementioned “circle defense”.
Third. Frequently this perceived passivity was a direct consequence of the inadequacy of our aircraft in speed. If you lack speed, you conduct defensive combat.
A.S. Did the 72d Air Regiment employ the “defensive circle”? If so, when did you finally abandon it?
N.G. We frequently used the “defensive circle” when we were flying the I-15bis and I-153. The practice fell off sharply when we transitioned to the I-16 type-28 because this type of “Ishak” was superior in the majority of tactical and technical characteristics to the Bf-109E (the basic German fighter in the Far North at that time). It’s too bad that this type was so scarce in our VVS then.
Later we transitioned to the Hurricane and the most common German fighter was the Bf-109F. At that time the “defensive circle” was used more broadly in combat with enemy fighters because in the Hurricane combat with this type of Messer was possible only in one manner—to attempt to engage it in the horizontal plane. We simply were forced to conduct strictly defensive battle. The Hurricane was unable to engage in active offensive battle and it lagged behind the Messer in both speed and vertical maneuver.
We completely abandoned the defensive circle as soon as they re-equipped us with the P-40. The P-40 was equal to the Bf-109F and therefore we had no reason to resort to the defensive circle. No reason at all.
Our neighbor 20th IAP also rarely employed the circle and they flew Yaks.
In addition, I want to make clear to you that the circle was a legitimate multi-faceted tactical maneuver. The circle had its application and it cannot be said that it was always bad. Fairly often it happened that we went out to escort attack aircraft and, engaging enemy fighters, pulled them into this circle. What a sweet deal! What’s most important in providing cover? To distract the attacking enemy fighters and give our own bombers the chance to either drop their ordnance or get away. And if you manage to suck enemy fighters into the “carousel”, then consider your mission accomplished. They have nowhere to go. This was a legitimate tactical method and not a bad one.
A.S. What about vertical maneuver?
N.G. Yes, let’s talk about vertical maneuver. To say that we didn’t know about it and didn’t study it is not true. It was practiced on a par with horizontal maneuver at flight schools. It was a normal, legitimate combat maneuver.
It is another matter that when the Germans brought out the Bf-109F and later the FW-190, vertical maneuver was nearly abandoned. The “F” and the “Fokker” were very strong in vertical maneuver (especially the “F”). It was practically impossible to conduct battle with them in the vertical plane. They significantly surpassed the I-16 and particularly the Hurricane. Why would we employ a maneuver in combat in which our fighter was markedly weaker? Yes, and the speed of the “F” and the Fokker exceeded that of our aircraft. We tried to pull the Germans into horizontal combat. Again, as soon as we had aircraft that were competitive with the enemy, we began to fight magnificently with the Germans in the vertical.
A.S. What can you tell us about the echelonment of combat formations [by altitude]?
N.G. We were aware of the necessity to echelon combat formations even before the war. One need only look at Soviet prewar tactics manuals to know this. I can’t speak for 1941, but when I reached the front in 1942 echelonment was not being utilized for one reason—a shortage of aircraft. We needed echelonment but had nothing with which to achieve it. Just the same, if we flew in a flight of six, we were echeloned. Four flew together and a pair flew above or conversely flew below the four-ship formation.
A.S. Why did we fly in “threes” for so long? Some fighter regiments were still flying in “threes” into 1943.
N.G. All IAP in the Northern Fleet were flying in pairs in 1942.
A.S. How long from the beginning of the war did you fly in “threes” in your regiment, and when did you finally abandon the practice?
N.G. Our regiment began to fly in pairs somewhere around the second month of the war. As soon as we understood why the Germans flew in pairs, we evaluated the benefits of this formation and then began to fly in pairs.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, it is well known that the pair was not mandated by any kind of regulations. Tell us, did the higher command visit any recriminations upon B. F. Safonov for the fact that his pilots were not flying “according to regulation”?
N.G. No. What regulation? A regulation in war can only carry so far. The combat regulation prescribes only the general characteristic of a formation. As for its specifics, that is the right of the commander to decide, which, by the way, is also expressed within the regulation.
The regulation OBLIGATES the commander to show thought and initiative. Safonov was just such a commander. Safonov decided that the regiment would fly in pairs. He had the full right to make this decision and he made it. Did the regiment fight well? It fought well. And when a regiment is fighting successfully, then who will condemn the commander for the display of initiative? He was within his rights.
What did we have before the war? Threes, sixes, and nines. A squadron of three threes. During the war, as we began to fly in pairs, a squadron became twelve. A pair, four-ship flight, six-ship, and so on.
A pair was a pilot and a senior pilot. As a rule a flight was a four-ship formation—the flight commander and senior pilot were leaders and two pilots were wingmen. If six aircraft flew, then a pair was added to a four-ship formation.
A.S. So as I understand you, the higher command acquiesced to the transition to pairs.
A.S. I heard that light machine gun armaments (conventional caliber [.30 caliber]) “forced” the employment of the three-ship formation (two attacking aircraft and the third for cover), especially for attacking bombers.
N.G. No. I’ve never heard that. Even when we began to fly the Hurricane, which was armed only with conventional caliber machine guns, we did not revert to “threes”.
A.S. What were the strengths of Soviet prewar tactics, if there were any?
N.G. First of all, it must be said that all the tactical methods that we developed before the war for combat training were analogous to German tactics. There were no substantial differences.
The strength of our tactical construct was that our pilot knew how to conduct maneuver battle. That is, he was taught quickly to evaluate the situation and not to fear a numerically superior enemy. It was very difficult to get the better of our pilot in maneuver battle. The Germans understood that immediately. Therefore they preferred not to enter into a maneuver battle if they did not have numerical superiority.
The strength of German tactics was precise coordination of pairs in a flight and, particularly, between flights. Just as the war was beginning, we began hurriedly to study the German success in coordination and at the same time to incorporate everything that we had conceived and yes, observed in others before the war.
A.S. What specifically did we learn from others? I thought that in regards to tactics, we got everything only from the Germans.
N.G. No. For example, echelonment was a French innovation. They developed this concept in the early 1930s and we observed it during maneuvers (as did the Germans). The French were strong in tactics before the war. Had the French Army held on longer in 1940, perhaps French pilots could have demonstrated their skills. I don’t know about their flying mastery and airplanes, but French fighter tactics were the most advanced. I discovered this fact after the war when I was an Academy student [Academy – advanced, graduate level, military institution of higher education, I.G.].
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, you have said that in battle the Hurricane against the Messer had to engage the enemy in the horizontal plane. How was this accomplished? You yourself have said that the Hurricane was not capable of “active combat” against the Messer.
N.G. That is completely true. If the Germans did not want to accept combat, then there was nothing we could do and they flew away. But if the enemy himself actively attempted to conduct battle, then it was possible to take advantage of the desire of the German pilot to shoot you down. The Germans were eager for kills.
Let’s say that we were formed up in our “carousel”, and the Germans were above us in pairs. They were unable to break up our circle and waited until one of us left it. You justified their expectation and provoked the German to attack. You gave the appearance that you were breaking off, as if to say “I’m not too bright and I’m flying out of the ‘circle’!” This stray was too tasty a morsel for the German. He came after you immediately. Because the Hurricane was very good in horizontal maneuver, you took advantage of this and immediately turned back into the “circle” at maximum turn rate. The German could not poke his nose into the circle (if he did, it was all over for him) and rushed past or turned away, exposing his flank. In a Hurricane it was simply impossible to contest with a Messer in any other way. All combat was conducted in this manner. The primary factor was to calculate everything correctly and jump back into the “circle” neither too soon nor too late. Then your counterattack would have a chance of success.
A.S. I understand. But what did you do if you made a mistake and didn’t make it back to the “circle”?
N.G. They shot you down. The Germans were serious fighter pilots and did not forgive such mistakes.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, in a previous interview you pleasantly surprised everyone with your evaluation of the P-40 fighter. “The Tomahawk was equal to the Bf-109F and the Kittyhawk was slightly better.” And more: “When the later types Bf-109G and FW-190 appeared, the P-40 Kittyhawk became somewhat dated, but not by much. An experienced pilot could fight an equal fight with it.”
N.G. Yes, I said those things.
A.S. I’m quoting to you. M. Spik, a very authoritative military aviation historian, says: “Aviation units stationed on Malta and in the North African desert had to be satisfied with second-class aircraft. At first these were Gloster Gladiator bi-planes and worn out, shot up Hurricane Is. Later they received the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk and Kittyhawk fighters, in June 1941 and April 1942, respectively. Acknowledged as unsuitable for the European theater, they were sent to the desert, where they were fully capable of contesting with the majority of Italian aircraft, though they did not stand comparison [emphasis mine, A.S.] with the German Bf-109E and F. The same can be said regarding the Hurricane IIC fighter, despite its more powerful Merlin engine and exceptionally heavy armament consisting of four Hispano 20mm cannons. It also lagged behind the German fighters in flight characteristics. Only in March 1942 did the first Spitfire Vs begin to arrive at the front, first to Malta and later to squadrons stationed in the desert. But by this time the Luftwaffe units were transitioning to more modern aircraft—the Messerschmitt Bf-109G.” (M. Spik, Asy Luftvaffe (Smolensk: Rusich, 1999).
Regarding the Hurricane, you have already explained everything very well, and your evaluation coincides with that of Spik. But the P-40? According to Spik, the P-40 was a “second-class airplane”. Can you explain why your evaluation of this fighter is so different?
N.G. Even during the war I recognized the fact that the Allies considered it inadvisable and almost impossible to conduct aerial combat in the P-40. We considered the P-40 to be a full-fledged fighter plane.
When we began to use the P-40, we immediately discovered two deficiencies that reduced its value as a fighter. 1. The P-40 was a “slug” in acceleration, rather slow to acquire speed. This weak dynamic resulted in a low combat speed. It had trouble maintaining the speed required for combat. Speed is essential for a fighter. 2. It was weak in the vertical, especially the Tomahawk.
We compensated for poor acceleration by holding the engine at higher revolutions and cruising at a higher speed. We corrected the second deficiency by removing a pair of machine guns. That was all. The fighter came up to par.
Now everything depended on you, the pilot. Keep your head! And work the stick intensively.
It is true that because of our unforeseen operating regime the engines had a limit of about 50 hours, and often less. Normally an engine might last 35 hours and then it was replaced.
A.S. And because of your intensive stick movement the Tomahawk still did the “Abracadabra” [Soviet flying jargon for “tumbling”, A.S.]? By the way, I have not seen mention in a single foreign article of the tendency of the Tomahawk toward tumbling. The Allies found many deficiencies in the Tomahawk, but don’t refer to tumbling a single time. Why is this?
N.G. I don’t know, but the Tomahawk did have that deficiency.
A.S. Just the same, the evaluations of the P-40 series seriously diverge. Is all of this because of the differences in Soviet and Allied tactics?
N.G. Not at all. Tactics has nothing to do with it. The primary difference in evaluating the combat capabilities of the P-40 arises from the fact that we and the Allies exploited the aircraft in a completely different manner. They were required to use the aircraft in accordance with written instructions [technical manuals – I.G.]. Any violation of those guidelines was a “no-no”.
In our case, as I have already mentioned, the primary rule was to get everything out of an aircraft that it was capable of and a bit more. How much is “everything” the documentation for an aircraft does not say. Often even the designer of an aircraft himself did not have even a clue. It would only be revealed in combat.
By the way, everything I have said also applies to the Airacobra. If we had flown it in those regimes that the Americans outlined in the aircraft specifications, they would have shot us down immediately. This fighter was a “dud” in its “native” [by-design] regimes. But we conducted normal combat in “our” regimes, be it with the Messer or with the Fokker. But in some cases we flew 3—4 such aerial battles and it was done. “Replace the engine.”
A.S. There is still an outstanding question regarding the machine guns on the P-40. What about the armaments? There was some kind of hodge-podge. I can’t find any definitive detail in any handbook. [This is with respect to the answers of N.G. in the first series of the interview – I.G.].
N.G. The Tomahawk and Kittyhawk had different armaments. The Tomahawk had four machine guns—two synchronized heavy machine guns in the nose and a pair in each wing. I have already forgotten the caliber of the wing-mounted machine guns, because we immediately removed them. Perhaps they were standard [they were .30 caliber—JG].
The Kittyhawk did not have [nose-mounted] synchronized machine guns. It had only six (three in each) wing-mounted heavy machine guns. We removed two of these machine guns immediately, leaving four.
A.S. From our previous conversation, did I understand correctly that the lack of cannon armament on the P-40 was not regarded as a “tragedy”? The more so in that two machine guns were sufficient? Did this opinion originate with a pilot who commenced firing at point blank, or were there other opinions in the regiment?
N.G. The absence of cannons was not a “tragedy”. When we had Tomahawks with two machine guns, of course, we would have liked more machine guns. When the Kittyhawk arrived with four machine guns, that was sufficient. But the “signature” of course remained—firing from close range, point blank.
A.S. It’s all clear. Nikolay Gerasimovich, can you provide for us an example of an aerial engagement in the P-40? Something distinctive, that could not have been done in a Hurricane.
N.G. Yes, I can. This combat occurred approximately at the time when we had been completely re-equipped with the P-40. No more Hurricanes remained in the regiment.
Four of us in Tomahawks engaged six Bf-109Fs. We shot down three without losing one of our own. We did this employing correct tactics and the aircraft did not fail us. Here is how it went. We were flying at an altitude of 3—4,000 meters [approximately 10—13,000 feet]. The Germans in the Bf-109Fs were 500 meters [1,500 feet] lower. We attacked them with surprise, out of the sun, at a good speed. They never saw us. We shot down two in the first pass, leaving four. They reacted appropriately, dispersed in pairs and attempted to engage us in battle in the vertical plane, counting on the superiority of the Messer in this maneuver.
We also split up and entered the battle “pair versus pair”. This was our kind of fight! We shot down the third right away, since we were clearly stronger in maneuver combat. The P-40 was superior to the Messer in horizontal combat and did not lag behind in the vertical (we had a good reserve of speed). Their will to fight quickly left them. They split up, went to full power, and broke away in a steep dive.
In Hurricanes we would simply not have been able to engage the enemy in such an active, offensive combat.
A.S. What strong suits of the P-40 were used in your regiment?
N.G. Primarily speed.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, did you have any kills in the P-40?
N.G. Yes, one, in a Tomahawk. Bf-109F. I was a wingman. The German attacked my leader and did not see me or simply did not take me into account. Most likely he did not see me.
I had spotted him at considerable distance. I could see that he was making a run at my leader. I already had considerable experience and was quite familiar with the capabilities and tendencies of German pilots. Had I less experience, I would have commenced blocking fire and simply driven the German away. But I resolved to shoot him down. I calculated approximately from where he would open fire and constructed my own maneuver so that I would catch him. Of course, this was a serious risk. You make a mistake and lose your flight leader, that was an unthinkable disgrace. In this case I had to maneuver in such a manner as not to lose my flight leader and at any moment be able to commence blocking fire. In the end, when the German reached the position of commencing fire, and this was 100 meters behind my leader, I was 25 meters behind the German. I fired first, beating him to the punch. Two large-caliber machine guns at point-blank range. It has taken much longer to tell this story than the incident itself lasted.
I was seriously shot up in a P-40 one time but limped back to my airfield.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, give us your estimation of German fighter pilots. Of their combat qualities: pilot skill, coordination in battle, tactics, what were the Germans’ strongest attributes at the beginning, in the middle, and at the end of the war?
N.G. At the beginning of the war the German pilots were very strong in all the qualities you have listed. They were excellent pilots, outstanding in gunnery. They practically always operated in a tactically rational manner and cooperated well between and among themselves in battle. Their coordination was phenomenal. You could not get in behind him because another pair would intervene and drive you away.
At the beginning of the war the German pilots were trained (I am not afraid to use this word) almost ideally. They were well organized and took good advantage of their numerical superiority. If it was really required, they could be engaged in a dog fight. Their mastery gave them this option. Though, of course, they lagged behind our leading aces, like Boris Safonov, in this form of combat even in 1941.
Again, they had constant numerical superiority and believe me, they used it to their advantage. Moreover, flight characteristics of German aircraft in most cases were superior to ours and German pilots utilized this tactical and technical superiority very intelligently.
The Germans excelled in this high class of pilots in 1941—42. By 1943, we had heavily attrited these German pilots of prewar training. They began sending pilots to the front whose training quality was markedly lower. This shortage of well-trained flight crews led to a condition which by the middle of 1943 caused the Luftwaffe to form special designated groups of the most experienced ace pilots. These groups were rushed to various fronts, to the most critical sectors. The remaining units were manned with ordinary pilots, not badly trained but not highly trained. Just average. The “entrenched middle class.”
In 1943 the majority of German pilots lagged behind us in maneuver combat. Their gunnery skills had weakened; they began to lose to us in tactical training, although their aces were very “tough nuts”.
German pilots slipped further in 1944, when the average German pilot was a product of accelerated training. Their piloting skills were poor, gunnery was weak, they were unable to coordinate their actions in battle, and they did not know tactics. It can be said that these pilots did not know how to “look behind”. They frequently neglected their responsibilities to cover troops and installations. These pilots rarely executed the classic maneuvers of air combat and then only if they had managed to create serious (2—3 times) numerical superiority. They were very passive and tentative during equal strength battles; if we would shot down one or two then the rest would flee.
In the North we fought our last protracted heavy air battles with the Group of Schmidt in the first half of 1943. He was a famous German ace who, according to intelligence data, had pilots in his group each of whom had not less than forty victories.
We fought bitterly with them for two weeks and inflicted capital losses on them, but suffered serious losses ourselves. As far as I know, Schmidt himself was shot down twice during these battles. We shot Muller down at this time, when he was in Schmidt’s group. Then they pulled this group out for reforming and reconstitution, after which they transferred it to more critical sectors. It never returned to the Far North.
After this there remained almost no “serious” German pilots, only average, on our front. And the Germans were falling behind us as well. On the whole, they attempted to fly at the level of “hit and run” or “drop [bomb] and flee”. We ruled the skies from the middle of 1943 to the end of the war. We began more often to fly on free hunt, periodically caught them and gave them a good thrashing, and showed them who was master of the airspace.
A.S. These “quick-trained” pilots, in their level of training were they better or worse than you after pilot training?
N.G. Worse. At least we were taught how to fly! These men were “yearlings”. We cut them to ribbons! These Germans basically did not know how to do anything. I suspect even their takeoffs and landings were poor. We shot down many of them.
A.S. It is well known that the Germans frequently built a group of fighters as an ace and his “support and cover team”. How often did the Germans employ this method and what, in your view, were the shortcomings of this method of conduct of battle?
N.G. In the first half of the war, the Germans very broadly employed the tactic “one or two fight and six provide cover”. This also occurred at the end of the war, but significantly less often. Of the most well known who worked with a “cover group”, in the Far North we had Müller. [Rudolph Müller, JG 5, 94 victories, shot down and captured on 19 April 1943—JG]
Later, when the Luftwaffe began to experience a serious shortage of fighter aircraft, they were forced to abandon this method. They had already expended a large quantity of serviceable aircraft. It seems that the pilots who were tied down in covering the ace were unable to do anything else.
When they attacked our bombers, we, naturally, were providing cover. When we became more experienced, we did not bother with the cover group but immediately organized an attack on the ace. The rest of them, all of his “team”, abandoned the bombers and threw themselves on us, which was precisely what we wanted. Our primary mission was to protect the bombers and, it turned out, that the Germans by their own tactics helped us to accomplish our mission. Of course, one could amass an astronomical personal score by this method, with the assistance of a team. But from the point of view of strategy, this method was a failure.
In general this method can be employed, but only if you have serious numerical superiority, along with a “free hunt”. Near the end of the war, we began to fly “free hunt” more frequently. We had numerical superiority, which permitted us to do this. We went out in fours, as a rule, but at tree-top level. We already knew where their lines of communication were and where transport aircraft flew. We went out, struck at them, and immediately departed the area. We did not fly on “free hunt” when we were few in number.
A.S. Tell us, Nikolay Gerasimovich, what were the weak aspects of German fighter pilots in 1942?
N.G. They had none of the weaknesses that hit you in the face. They were very calculating and did not like to take risks. They liked to get kills. They really made money on this.
A.S. This was a shortcoming?
N.G. Often, yes. We also got paid for our kills, but for us this bounty was the least of our concerns. It was not that way for the Germans. If they shot someone down, they received money. If they did not discard their drop tanks, they also got paid.
A.S. Was it common for them not to discard their drop tanks?
N.G. Yes, frequently. Several times we were attacked by German fighters still holding their drop tanks and we couldn’t understand why the pilot did not drop his tank before an attack. Then POWs explained that they paid something for a drop tank brought back—its full value or a fraction of their full value. This is how they conducted aerial combat: to make sure to shoot someone down and remain untouched themselves.
A.S. What’s so bad about that?
N.G. Often, in order to be victorious, one has to risk it all and tilt the battle in one’s own favor. But the Germans did not like to take risks. If they felt that the battle was equal or was just beginning to develop not in their favor, they preferred to withdraw from combat more quickly.
A.S. Well, that’s correct. The next time they might win it all.
N.G. It depends! There are times when situation does not repeat itself. There are such battles when one must fight to the death—there will be no “next time”.
A.S. Can you give us an example?
N.G. The defense of a facility or convoy against the attack of bombers, or escorting one’s own bombers. Here you die, you provide the escort, without any “next time”.
And just the same German fighter pilots had a single, overarching deficiency. A serious shortcoming, in my opinion.
The Germans could be engaged in battle when it was entirely unnecessary. For example, during the escorting of their own bombers. The whole war we took advantage of this. One group tied down the escort fighters in combat, attracting the fighters to themselves, while the other group attacked the German bombers.
The Germans jumped at a chance for a kill. They abandoned the bombers immediately and ignored the fact that our other group would shoot down the bombers, so long as we had the strength.
A.S. I didn’t think the German escorts would be so careless.
N.G. Well, how else could we, flying Hurricanes, shoot down the German bombers? Had they covered their bombers like we protected ours, we never would have gotten to them.
Overall, I got the impression that bombers were not a priority in the Luftwaffe. Their priority was fighters and then reconnaissance. One had unbelievable freedom of action and the other had the very best cover. But bombers, this was a “flat iron”. Hey, they have gunners—they fend off attackers or they don’t—whatever happens, it’s on them.
Formally, the Germans escorted their attack formations very heavily, but just get involved in battle and poof—the cover evaporated. It was relatively easy to distract them and it remained so for the entire war.
At the beginning of the war, in one of these distraction engagements, the Germans were lured away unbelievably easily, because our fighters were always in the minority and in technical and tactical characteristics were less capable.
The likelihood that the German pilots would shoot someone down was high. They were glad to become engaged in any battle, just give them a reason. It was clear that they were paid very good money for each victory. This cavalierness surprises me to this day.
A.S. How did our pilots operate when escorting bombers?
N.G. We had a group of immediate or direct escort of attack aircraft, bombers, or shturmoviks. The mission was always postulated in a strictly determined manner. We were not to be shooting down, but fending off. Our basic mission was protection. We had a rule that it was “better to shoot down no one and not lose a single bomber than to shoot down three and lose one bomber.” We had some serious explaining to do if we were providing fighter escort for bombers or shturmoviks and would loose any of them.
If even a single bomber was shot down, a complete investigation was begun. How, where, and why was it lost? Who permitted it to happen? And so on. Judging by what I saw, the Germans did not have a similar procedure. It was obvious that they had a whole different approach to these cases, because for the entire war they abandoned their bombers if a chance for a kill appeared.
A.S. Tell us, was there an order stating that if a fighter escort mission for bombers was not satisfactorily executed, the combat sortie was not counted?
N.G. No, there was no such order. There was an order by which fighter escort was severely punished if they lost bombers. This happened. All the way up to military tribunal [courts martial]. We didn’t have any cases like this in the regiment, where we abandoned bombers. But there were occasions when bombers took themselves out of formation.
The Germans were also not fools. One group would tie us down in battle and the other would lie in wait. Our bombers departed the drop zone at maximum speed and we flew back and forth fending off German attackers from one side and then the other. If we were not careful, we could not catch up with our bombers. Well, as soon as the bombers had completely separated from the escort fighter group, they became easy pickings for enemy fighters. In this case we called them on the radio to reduce the speed of their entire group so that our fighters could take up positions.
With time we developed very good coordination with the bombers and these cases of separation became a rarity. We practiced coordination with bomber pilots—they began to maintain the required speed, and with gunners—who should defend what hemisphere. Normally we defended the upper hemisphere and the gunners the lower hemisphere. If the Germans attempted to attack from above, we chased them off. If they came in from below, the gunners “hosed” them. If that drove the enemy fighters back up, we engaged them again. It worked out well.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, you have implied that by the end of the war the German pilots openly disregarded their duties for covering troops and facilities. How was this manifested?
N.G. An example. We were escorting shturmoviks. German fighters showed up and circled around but did not attack. They were too few in number. Our Il-2s were working over the front line area—the Germans still did not attack. They concentrated and brought in fighters from other sectors. The Il-2s departed from the target area just as the Germans launched their attack. By this time the Germans had concentrated and had gained numerical superiority of 3:1. What was the sense in this attack? The Il-2s had already done their work. Only for personal score. This happened often.
N.G. Yes, and there were even more interesting cases.
A.S. More interesting?
N.G. The Germans had a habit of circling around us but not attacking. They were not fools; their intelligence was working. Red-nosed Airacobras belonged to the 2d GIAP VVS KSF [Guards Fighter Air Regiment, Air Forces of Red-Banner Northern Fleet]. They were not about to lose their heads by tangling with the elite Guards. They might get shot down. It was better to wait around for easier prey. Very calculating.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, in you view, what explains the tendency of German pilots toward enlargement of their personal score?
N.G. To us it was crazy. You know, when we shot down Müller, they brought him in to us. I remember him well. Average height, athletic build, red-haired. We were surprised that he was only an oberfeldvebel [master sergeant]. This was an ace with more than 90 victories! I still remember how surprising it was to learn that his father was a simple tailor.
Well, this Müller, when we asked him about Hitler, declared that politics did not motivate him; he did not have any hatred toward Russians. He was a “sportsman”; results were important to him and he wanted to shoot down more. His “cover group” engaged in combat and he, the “sportsman”, struck or did not strike as he pleased.
I got the impression that many German fighter pilots were just such “sportsmen”. It was all about money and glory.
A.S. Well, let’s agree that for the German fighter pilots—“sportsmen”—the war was a form of sport. What was the war for our pilots, for you personally?
N.G. It was the same for me as for all the rest. Work. Back-breaking, bloody, dirty, fearsome, and never-ending work. To withstand which was possible only because we were defending the Motherland. It was nothing close to a sport.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, it is a well-known fact that in the Luftwaffe, especially in the second half of the war, very often German fighter pilots had the right of independent selection of the place and time of combat. A kind of freedom of action that Allied fighter pilots could not even dream of. In your view, was this a strength of the German fighter command or, conversely, a weakness?
N.G. This was a “loophole”—an attempt to interest the fighter pilots to operate more actively. By all accounts, this measure did not bring any positive results.
Bear in mind that a pilot does not want to fly into those situations where the fate of the war will be decided. They order him to go there because he would not go there on his own. By human nature everyone wants to be a survivor. And “freedom” gives the fighter pilot the “legal” possibility to avoid these places. A “loophole” is transformed into a “hole”.
“Free hunt” was the most preferred method of conduct of the war for a pilot and the least preferred for his army. Why? Because the interests of the rank-and-file pilot almost always basically diverged from the interests both of his own command and of the commander of the forces that his aviation unit supported.
To give complete freedom of actions to all the fighter pilots would be the same as giving complete freedom to all the infantry soldiers on the battlefield. Go where you want, dig in where you want, and shoot when you want. This is absurd. An infantryman cannot know where and when he is most needed because he cannot possibly see the battlefield as a whole.
The same is true of the fighter pilot—the foot soldier of the air war. He could rarely determine correctly both the place and time that he was most needed. A simple rule applied here—the fewer fighter planes (and airplanes in general) one had, the more centralized had to be their command and control. Not the reverse. Fewer in number but employed only in those places were needed and only at the time required, not distracted to the accomplishment of secondary tasks.
It must be said that in the Luftwaffe “free hunt” was used very often in the first half of the war when they had numerical superiority, and less in the second half of the war. One cannot disregard the “free hunt” as a legitimate tactic. In some sectors German “hunters” inflicted significant losses on us, particularly in transport aircraft.
It should also be stated that after the aerial battles on the “Blue Line” [Kuban, summer 1943—JG], the Luftwarffe gradually lost overall air superiority. Toward the end of the war, when air superiority had been completely lost, “free hunt” remained the only method of conduct of battle by German fighter aviation by which they obtained any kind of positive result. In places away from the principal contested areas, they would occasionally “catch” someone. By this time it had become a matter of inflicting a loss—any loss—on the enemy. These “hunts” could not possibly have any effect on the outcome of the war.
A.S. Yes, but the scores of the aces were in the hundreds. Wasn’t there a direct relationship: “the more you shot down, the greater losses you inflicted on the enemy, and the more it contributed toward victory”?
N.G. No, that direct relationship did not exist. Everything was caught up in the priority of missions. The Germans had this problem throughout the war and never did resolve it properly.
Here is an example for you. During the escort of their own bombers German fighter pilots were constantly distracted and got tangled up in secondary aerial engagements. It turns out that the Luftwaffe command, when it prioritized missions to its pilots, gave protection of their own bombers and destruction of enemy aircraft the same priority. Under these circumstances, the German fighter pilots chose to get kills. How this all came out in the end—you know.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, how would you evaluate the operational control of Luftwaffe units?
N.G. Very high. They showed the utmost skill, especially in the first half of the war. Later this control diminished somewhat.
The Germans maneuvered their aviation assets well, both their attack groups and their fighter groups. They concentrated a large quantity of aviation on axes of main attacks and at the same time conducted “distraction” operations on secondary axes. The Germans attempted to overcome us strategically, to overwhelm us with mass in the shortest possible time period, to smash our resistance. We must give them their due, they transferred units from front to front very skillfully. They had almost no aviation units that were “tied” to army formations. On a sector where at a given moment they were in the minority, they conducted demonstration flights and with great talent gave the impression of activeness and high numbers. They showed that they were strong and capable of launching powerful attacks.
A.S. All in all, how did we defeat the Germans in aerial combat—in numbers or in skill?
N.G. We used both numbers and skill.
A.S. I was referring to the arguments that one frequently hears now, that if the quality of our aviation had been better, we could have accomplished what was required with fewer numbers.
N.G. Those who hold this position have a poor understanding of the subject. Numerical superiority with parity in equipment quality and flight crew training is a great thing. It will bring victory.
At the beginning of they war the Germans were beating us, and why? Tactics, radio communications, and so on. But what was the main reason? The Germans were able to create tactical and strategic numerical superiority.
In their initial attacks the Germans destroyed an enormous number of aircraft. The Germans bombed our equipment directly on the airfield and shot us down in aerial combat. What we were unable to evacuate we destroyed ourselves to prevent it falling into enemy hands. This all happened. But there was still another cause that few mention.
A.S. Insufficient training of Soviet pilots?
N.G. No, that’s not it. Our pilots were not bad. In fact, we had good pilots and we had outstanding pilots. The main reason was that the Germans captured enormous number of facilities to produce and, particularly important, to repair aircraft. Plus gigantic reserves of spare parts were seized by the Germans. This is why we did not have enough aircraft in the first half of the war.
The production of new aircraft had fallen sharply and it was impossible to rehabilitate and restore old types in the required quantities. No aircraft! We had to get aircraft from every possible source!
The Germans achieved numerical superiority and did not allow us to catch up. Continuous combat with no time to catch our breath! Losses, of course, occurred on both sides. But the Germans replaced their losses much faster that we could. And they kept us in this condition, “unable to catch our breath”. It goes without saying, that from their side, this was military mastery of the highest class.
We, rank-and-file pilots, knew what it felt like. Strategic numerical superiority of the enemy, for us—simple pilots—manifested itself in the fact that we fought EVERY aerial engagement in the minority. And even if you were a good pilot, you should try six against twelve! You turned away from one of them and came under the fire of another. These twelve enemy pilots were not lesser pilots than you; they also were not “pushovers”. They were masters, the best of the best. But no matter what kind of masters the Germans were, we overcame!
We acquired combat experience and came up to par in numbers. As soon as we gained numerical superiority over them, everything started to go our way. Understand that all these German tricks with the rushing of aviation units from one front to another were reduced to a minimum. They no longer had the ability to fully concentrate their strength. All this developed while the enemy was falling behind in numbers, or while he still maintained numerical superiority, the quality of his equipment and flight crews fell sharply, on the order of one-half.
When against our thousand aircraft the enemy put up two thousand, and still another thousand in places where we had only two hundred, and he attacked in both places simultaneously, and both his pilots and his aircraft were at least as good as ours, it was impossible to defeat him. We could put up stiff resistance and inflict great losses on him, there was much we could do, but defeat him we could not.
Look what happened in the second half of the war. Our equipment was as good as the Germans’, the quality of training and combat mastery of our flight crews was equal, and later even exceeded theirs, and add to that the numerical superiority that we attained. As soon as this happened, our victory became inevitable.
You have to understand that the Germans simply could not produce combat aircraft in the numbers required to complete the war nor could they train the necessary number of pilots. They could not and we could. This is the whole argument in a nutshell.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, is it true that even in 1942 there were serious problems with equipment repair? The war had been going for a year already.
N.G. Very serious. The lack of spare parts was disastrous. We were constantly short of repair parts for the M-63 engines for the type-28 I-16. Because of this, in fact, we never had more than ten aircraft of this type flying simultaneously in the regiment. The remaining six to eight aircraft sat for weeks waiting for repair. They delivered spares to us using the Li-2 transport aircraft and only by this means were we more or less able to remain operational.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, how would you evaluate the German fighters Bf-109E, Bf-109F, Bf-109G, and FW-190?
N.G. The Germans had good fighters. Power, fast, maneuverable, and able to withstand damage.
Regarding the Bf-109E I can say that in its tactical and technical characteristics, he corresponded to the type-28 and type-29 I-16, surpassed all earlier types of the I-16 and Hurricane, and was inferior to the Yak-1, P-40, and P-39. According to the pilots of the 20th IAP, the Yak-1 was superior to the E in all parameters. This fighter was beginning to show its age by 1942, although in the North they employed it almost to the beginning of 1943. Later they withdrew all of them in a matter of a week or two. Apparently they had begun to suffer very serious losses. Later we encountered only the Bf-109F, Bf-109G, and FW-190.
The Bf-109F was superior to the E across the board; it was more modern. It was an unbelievably dynamic aircraft, with good speed and vertical maneuverability. In the horizontal it was not as good. Its armaments were normal—a 20mm cannon and two machine guns. Overall, of course, it was superior to all types of the I-16 and the Hurricane. It was equal to the Yak-1 and P-40, and slightly inferior to the P-39.
The Bf-109G was a powerful aircraft, fast and very good in vertical maneuver. It was not bad in horizontal maneuver but it appeared late, only in 1943, when all of our regiments had already been reequipped with modern aircraft. Overall in its tactical and technical characteristics it was on a par with the Yak-1B (7B, 9), La-5, and P-39 Airacobra, and a bit better than the P-40.
The Fokker [FW-190] also was a powerful and fast aircraft, but as a fighter it was inferior to the Bf-109G. It did not accelerate as quickly (large frontal area) and was not as capable in the vertical plane. The Fokker was extremely powerful and therefore was often employed as an attack aircraft. It carried external stores [bombs].
It must be said that the Bf-109G and FW-190 carried very powerful armaments, with five and six firing points respectively, for the most part cannons. This was a very strong aspect of German aircraft.
A.S. From the literature we know the strong suits of the Bf-109G: 1. Powerful engine that was altitude-capable. 2. Powerful cannon armament. 3. Good dive characteristics. 4. Simple in control. 5. High speed and exceptional acceleration.
Its weaknesses: 1. Poor vision from cockpit. 2. Narrow chassis, which created serious difficulties during landing, especially with a crosswind.
Does this cover it?
N.G. Regarding high altitude performance I can’t say anything. I flew the Airacobra up to 8,000 meters [26,000 feet] and didn’t have any particular problem with the Messer. Neither we nor the Germans flew any higher than that. I heard that the Yak had problems at altitude but we rarely fought high altitude battles. The Messer engine had a supercharger. It had exceptional acceleration; if the pilot “firewalled it,” as they say. But I couldn’t describe its speed as outstanding. It was fast, but our aircraft had just as much speed.
The armaments were indeed powerful—five firing points, of which three were 20mm cannon. But again, my Airacobra had a 37mm cannon and therefore I had no inferiority complex regarding weak armaments.
The G model was heavy and dived very well.
I can’t say anything regarding simplicity of control, the narrow chassis, and poor cockpit visibility. You’ll have to address these issues to German pilots. I will say that we shot down many Messers by attacking from the rear, but you can never tell precisely if it was because of poor visibility or the pilot simply didn’t look to the rear.
A.S. Now about the FW-190. The strong points of the FW-190: 1. Powerful and high-altitude capable engine. 2. Powerful cannon armament. 3. Good dive characteristics. 4. Light on the controls. 5. Good visibility from the cockpit.
The weak points: Average acceleration.
N.G. As far as the power and high-altitude performance of the FW-190 engine, again I am unable to make any specific comments, but I know it was powerful.
I can say that the Fokker engine was significantly more reliable and resistant to damage than the Messer engine. If the Fokker lost two cylinders it could still fly. Though increased reliability and resistance to damage are characteristic for all radial engines in comparison to in-line engines. German engines were not quite at the level of our own in this regard. Our I-16 and La-5 could lose four cylinders and just the same make it home. The Fokker could not lose more than two and still fly.
Because of the radial engine the German Fokker pilots loved to employ the head-on attack, especially early on. They were protected by the engine and it had powerful armaments—four 20mm cannons and two machine guns. One burst was sufficient to down any aircraft.
The Fokker was also very good in a dive; this was a common strength of German aircraft.
It was very good in the horizontal plane and not quite as good in the vertical.
As far as ease of control and visibility from the cockpit, again you’ll have to address those issues to the Germans.
Regarding acceleration, the Fokker was indeed weak. In this aspect it was inferior to almost all of our aircraft except perhaps the P-40. The P-40 was its equal to in this regard.
A.S. In spite of all this, Nikolay Gerasimovich, in your view why did the FW-190 not “rule” on the Eastern Front? By all accounts from Soviet pilots, it was a good fighter, but no more than that. On the Western Front, the Fokker caused an uproar.
N.G. You are correct. It was a powerful fighter, equal to any other. But in its combat qualities it was not unique in any way.
Overall I got the impression that the Germans expected a lot from this aircraft, but clearly overestimated its impact and exaggerated its capabilities.
For example, who ever gave them the notion that the Airacobra was inferior to the Fokker in speed? They believed it. At first the Germans were very confident in its superiority in speed, and it happened frequently that, after an attack, a Fokker would attempt to break away from us at full throttle. We caught up to him and “poured it to him” from above. He “huffed” and “puffed” but could not break contact. We quickly broke the Germans of the habit of using full power. Later, it became a rule with Fokkers—to break off from an attack or pull away from under fire only by a steep dive, and by no other method.
The Fokker also was not equal to the Airacobra in the vertical, although they initially attempted to fight with us in the vertical plane. We also quickly broke them of this habit. I still don’t understand why they decided that the Fokker could outperform the Airacobra in the vertical.
The acceleration dynamic of the Fokker was a weakness, perhaps its weakest characteristic. Later they attempted to maneuver the Fokker so that they would not lose speed. In a protracted maneuver battle of a Fokker against a Yak, Lavochkin, or Airacobra—the Fokker lost from the start. He lost his speed and then it was over. Until he acquired new speed, we had more than one opportunity to shoot him down. Our aircraft were very dynamic.
The Fokker was powerful in head-on combat and the Germans often took advantage of this. They knew that their aircraft could withstand two or three hits but could shoot down the enemy with a single burst. This gave them great confidence in frontal attack. However, the Germans quickly began to regard frontal attacks on Airacobras with great caution. We had a 37mm cannon, a round from which no engine could withstand. One hit and it was over. Knowing this, it took nerves of steel to conduct a frontal attack. The engine could not save him. We had stronger nerves than the Germans.
I experienced this myself one time. We were engaged frontally by four Fokkers. Four against four. It turned out that during a turn my wingman got in front of me. I told him, “Go ahead, you’re in front; I will cover you!” He hit the lead Fokker in the nose with his cannon. He hit the German with one, perhaps even two cannon rounds. The Fokker disintegrated. The three that were left immediately dispersed and we lost sight of them. The whole engagement lasted several seconds.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, you have told us a great deal but nonetheless have not explained the principal reason why the Fokker did not become the “be all and end all” fighter on the Eastern Front that it was on the Western Front. Look at what James “Johnnie” Johnson (No. 1 British ace of World War II) wrote in his memoirs: “ . . . When the flight control officer told me that a group of enemy fighters had been spotted up ahead, I tried to avoid combat if the sun and altitude did not give us an opportunity for a surprise attack. The superiority of the Focke-Wulf over our Spitfires was too great in the spring of 1943.” (James E. Johnson, The Best British Ace, Moscow: “AST”, 2002). And Johnson flew the Spitfire Vb, an aircraft that in the West was considered better than the P-40 and also better than the P-39.
Even if one considers the fact that on the Eastern Front the Fokkers were often piloted by fighter-bomber pilots, who had not distinguished themselves in fighter combat, just the same this does not explain the difference in the evaluations of the effectiveness of the FW-190.
N.G. Well, perhaps the answer is rooted in the difference in employment of the Fokker. The Fokkers in our theater were employed as a front-line fighter and fighter bomber, and in the West as interceptors.
It might be that the whole explanation can lay in radar support. In the West, Fokkers were vectored by radar; that is, by the time that contact occurred the Fokkers had managed to acquire speed and to gain altitude superiority. In this case, the low acceleration rate of the Fokker did not play any special role because it had already acquired speed and altitude. The Germans were still less likely to conduct a prolonged maneuver battle.
On our front the Germans did not have the kind of radar support density that they enjoyed in the West. Both we and the Germans, on the whole, used visual means to detect the enemy. You fly and you look around. If you spot something, go to full power and engage it. In conditions of the absence of radar vectoring, the dynamic of acceleration played a crucial role in the most rapid achievement of maximum speed. The Fokker was just mediocre in this respect.
As far as I can recall, when the Germans began to employ the Fokker in the West as a fighter bomber, they also began to suffer heavier losses.
A.S. Did you ever have occasion to encounter the “ground attack” variant FW-190F in battle and how did you evaluate it?
N.G. The one carrying bombs? Yes, I encountered it and shot it down.
While it was carrying external stores this aircraft, of course, was “harmless”; but after it had dropped its ordnance it was a standard Fokker, no better and no worse.
Recall that I have already told you how we were covering patrol torpedo boats. I misspoke, actually I didn’t tell you the whole story. Six FW-190s with bombs were attacking the PT boats and six Bf-109Fs were providing cover to them.
We had my flight of six and a pair led by Vitya Maksimovich. The Fokkers went low and the Messers flew 500 meters [1600 feet] above them. I set up a good attack. We came out of the sun, and with this advantage all six of us struck first at the Messers. I shot down one, rocketed past them and immediately, in a continuation of the attack, shot down a Fokker. We zoomed upward like on a child’s swing, into the sun. We were on top of the Messers again! It turned out very well. We dispersed the Messers and the Fokkers (dropping their bombs into the sea) also scattered in all directions. We hit them again from above. We chased them all over the place.
Altogether I shot down three in this engagement, but another pilot also shot at one of them and they counted this one toward his score.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, you constantly say that the basic Soviet fighters, the Yak and the Lavochkin, were equal to the German fighters in speed, although reference books contradict this. According to reference data, German aircraft always have superiority in speed. How do you explain this difference between reference data and practical data?
N.G. Reference data is obtained under ideal conditions, in “ideal” aircraft. Tactical and technical characteristics are always lower under actual use conditions.
A.S. Yes, but we also determine the tactical and technical characteristics of our aircraft in ideal conditions. So let’s attempt to approach this phenomenon from another perspective. What kind of actual speed (by instrument) did German fighters attain in aerial combat?
N.G. The Bf-109E—from 450 to 500 kmh [270—300 mph]. The Bf-109F: 500—550 kmh [300—330 mph]. The Bf-109G was equal to the F in speed or perhaps just a bit faster. The superiority of the G over the F was in armament, not speed.
The FW-190 reached speeds of 470—550 kmh [280—330 mph]. All of these aircraft approached speeds 30 kph greater in a dive.
You know, we didn’t pay particular attention to our instruments during an aerial engagement. It was obvious without looking that your own aircraft was lagging behind in speed or it wasn’t. Therefore I can affirm that the Airacobra, Yak, and La [Lavochkin] were not surpassed by the German fighters in speed.
A.S. What can I say? Can we agree that the speeds you have indicated to me are somewhat lower than those listed in reference works?
N.G. What have we been talking about? You must understand that you have been making the same mistake as do all people who have no connection with combat aviation. You are confusing two concepts: maximum speed and combat speed. Maximum speed is attained under ideal conditions: horizontal flight, strict maintenance of altitude, calculated engine revolutions, and so on.
Combat speed is a range of maximum possible speeds that an aircraft can develop for the conduct of active maneuver aerial battle, and at which all forms of maneuver attendant to that battle can be executed.
When I speak to you about speed, I have in mind namely the combat speed at which I conducted battle. To me maximum speed is neither here nor there.
A.S. What if you had to chase someone down? Don’t you need maximum speed then?
N.G. Well, I caught up to them, and then what? If you get going too fast, at some point in time you will have to scrub some off or you will outrun your target. Firing accurately on a target at high speed is problematical. More precisely, if I am fortunate enough to hit the target, how many hits are sufficient—that is the question. So first I catch the target, then I slow down, fire, hit the throttle, and accelerate again. The capability of an engine to drive an airplane forward and brake it in the shortest space of time is called “responsiveness”.
Many consider that if an aircraft has a high maximum speed, then its combat speed will also be high, and this is not always so. It happens that during the comparison of two types of fighters, one of them may have a higher maximum speed and the other a higher combat speed. Such factors as responsiveness of the engine and thrust-to-weight ratio have substantial influence on the combat speed. These are the same factors that provide for maximum acceleration.
One need not look far to find an example of this. We had the fighter LaGG-3. I flew it myself. Well, in 1941 this aircraft had greater top speed than the Yak-1. It had several indisputable advantages over the Yak in addition to its higher speed. The LaGG was more durable and harder to set on fire. Why? It was made from delta wood [del’ta-drevesina]. In addition, the LaGG was more powerfully armed. But you know what? Ask any pilot who fought in the war, “Of the two fighters, the Yak and the LaGG, which would you prefer?” He would most certainly respond “the Yak”. Why? Because the Yak was a very dynamic aircraft with high responsiveness and the LaGG was a “slug”, a “boat anchor”. The LaGG was somewhat heavier than the Yak, which meant it was more inert. The maximum speed of the LaGG was higher because the aircraft was aerodynamically very “clean”. If you “poured on the coal” it would “sweat”mightily. [Think steam locomotive—Golodnikov is of that generation—JG.] If it lost speed, it was very difficult to regain it. In order not to lose speed in combat, one needed a deft touch. I had to construct my attack, combat maneuver, or dive in such a manner as to preserve my speed. And one more thing—the LaGG required decent effort on the stick for control.
The Yak had only two advantages over the LaGG, but they were significant!—outstanding responsiveness and ease of control. The Yak could regain speed that it had lost very easily—full throttle and that was sufficient. One did not have to dive; the Yak picked up speed even when the nose was up. In addition to everything else, the Yak was considerably easier to control than the LaGG. On the one hand it was stable but on the other it reacted instantly to the slightest pressure on the stick.
I only flew the LaGG-3; I never fought in it. But now, from the perspective of my combat experience, I can say that the LaGG-3 was a fair fighter. It was fully equal to the P-40 in its tactical and technical characteristics, but could contend on an equal footing with a Messer only in the hands of an experienced pilot, who really knew how to exploit its engine and was tactically skilled. An inexperienced or insufficiently trained pilot (we had many of these early in the war) in a LaGG could not in any way stand up against a Messer. He simply did not know how to take advantage of his aircraft’s strong points. A Yak offered such a pilot a significantly greater chance of survival. At the same time an experienced pilot in a Yak felt himself significantly more confident and gave little thought to any speed he might lose during the engagement.
Here is another example. Between the I-16 type-28 and the Bf-109E, the Messer had a higher top speed and the combat speeds of these two aircraft were practically equal. If one compares the type-28 with the Hurricane, the Hurricane had higher maximum speed but the I-16 higher combat speed. The Hurricane was a very sluggish fighter.
You can try, but it is a difficult and thankless task to compare the combat qualities of aircraft using reference book data. There are simply too many nuances to consider.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, you may know that now many consider the Yak to be a mistake of the Soviet aircraft industry. The arguments go something like this:
1. In all stages of the war, all types of Yaks were inferior to the Messer in maximum speed. 2. The armaments of the Yak also were inferior to the majority of Bf-109 types except, perhaps, the F model.
There were other deficiencies, such as how easily it burned, it had structural stability, and so on. Now the popular opinion is that we produced the Yak only because Yakovlev was “close” to Stalin, was his primary consultant on matters of aircraft construction, which he took advantage of. His fighter was just average.
N.G. This is not true. Yaks were outstanding aircraft. I flew them myself and knew many excellent pilots who fought in Yaks. They gave them very high marks.
Keep in mind that the Yaks were unique in one aspect—this fighter had very high combat speed. Yakovlev from the very beginning built a fighter not simply with high maximum speed (as did all aircraft designers of that era), but with high combat speed. I do not know whether it was intentional or accidental, but the Yak had these qualities. And throughout the war the Yak was improved, first and foremost by increasing its combat speed.
Understand that if you look at German fighters, either the Messer or the Fokker, their combat speed was 80—100 kmh [50—60 mph] lower than their maximum speed. As far as I know, British and American aircraft of this period were analogous in this respect to the German fighters. This relationship of speeds of the Western aircraft was maintained for the duration of the war. The difference between maximum and combat speeds of the Yak was on the order of 60—70 kilometers [35—40 mph], and during the second half of the war even less. The Yaks were the most dynamic and lightest fighters in the Soviet VVS and therefore were very good in vertical maneuver. Throughout the war a standard, average, adequately trained pilot in Yaks could contend with Messers on a par. At the beginning of the war the Yak was any pilot’s dream.
I haven’t yet said anything about the Yak-3 that appeared in 1944. In its ability to accelerate and thrust-to-weight ratio, and for magnitude of combat speed, it was a unique fighter. The difference between its combat and maximum speed was 40—50 kmh [25—30 mph]. Perhaps during this period there was no other country in the world whose fighter could be compared with the Yak-3 in combat speed. The responsiveness of the Yak-3 was phenomenal, and its maximum speed was not too shabby, though it was not the fastest fighter in the world. It was not the fastest, but in combat it could outrun any enemy in practically any form of maneuver.
In addition, the Yaks were simple and cheap to manufacture, which permitted us to produce them in large numbers. You see, if you have a good fighter but you can’t produce it in the numbers required for war, then it isn’t such a good fighter after all. Simplicity and low cost of a combat aircraft in production are almost just as important qualities for war as its speed and maneuverability.
A.S. But the armaments of the Yaks were weak; there can be no argument about that fact. Two, maximum three firing points, of which only one was a cannon. The Messer had five, of which three were cannons.
N.G. If you know how to shoot, then two firing points are sufficient (I should know—I got by with two large-caliber machine guns on the P-40). If you don’t know how to shoot, you will miss with five. Extraneous armaments do nothing except weigh down the aircraft and consume extra productive capacity.
A.S. Understood. So if I can paraphrase the words of one famous German pilot of World War I, one can cleverly say that ten firing points on five Yak-9s will be more powerful than ten firing points on two Bf-109Gs.
N.G. Absolutely. In addition it should be said that by the second half of the war, we were using our fighters in a specialized manner. For example, when they assigned fighters to escort bombers, the “attack group” was comprised of Airacobras or Lavochkins, and the direct cover group was comprised of Yaks. This was appropriate.
The “attack group” engaged in and conducted battle with enemy fighters; therefore it was preferable for them to have engines that performed better at altitude. They needed to arrive at the place of battle with a reserve of altitude and more powerful armaments. The initial attack was a surprise and therefore more effective in terms of results. It was better to have heavier aircraft in this group in order to chase down Germans in a dive. The Lavochkin and Airacobra met this requirement better.
In the direct cover group it was better to have more dynamic and lighter aircraft with good vertical capabilities. They circled around the bombers and fended off German fighters who managed to break away from the “attack group”. The Yaks were just this type of aircraft. It was another matter that in the direct cover group the chance to get a kill was significantly less than in the “attack group”. The Yak pilots were constantly unhappy about this specialization, but had to live with it.
A.S. Erich Hartmann (the highest-scoring Luftwaffe ace of World War II) acknowledged that on two occasions he avoided combat with A. I. Pokryshkin [second-highest Soviet ace of the war, P-39 Airacobra pilot from March 1943—JG]. Hartmann had the right to choose the time and place of combat, so he did not violate any orders or regulations. But now two points of view are expressed regarding Hartmann’s actions.
1. Hartmann was a coward, and this action does not make him look good.
2. Hartmann acted properly in avoiding this quite dangerous engagement with an unpredictable conclusion. Better he survive to shoot down countless Soviet aircraft on other sectors of the front, inflicting great losses on the enemy, than he shoot down Pokryshkin alone.
In your view, which of these two opinions is correct?
N.G. It’s not that simple. One has to look at the situation from two perspectives.
The first—if “free hunters” were to meet in the air, pair against pair or six against six, then Hartmann undoubtedly acted appropriately. It is highly unlikely that Hartmann would have the opportunity to achieve the element of surprise (considering who his foe was), and Hartmann couldn’t even dream of having the kind of preparation for maneuver combat as had Pokryshkin. It is most likely that in avoiding this kind of combat, Hartmann simply realistically considered his own strengths and opportunities. He was not ready for such an engagement.
Our own Safonov several times dropped a message bag on the Germans, challenging any of the German aces, be it Müller, Schmidt, or whomever, to combat. In an I-16! Not once did any of them respond and never did he encounter any of them in the air or in a fight.
A.S. Did he really drop a message bag? I thought this was just a legend.
N.G. No, this was not a legend; it actually happened. The bag fell on the center of the airfield. “I challenge you one-on-one, at such-and-such time, in such-and-such area.”
No one responded to his challenge. One can understand why not. What good could come of it? In group combat, which his subordinates would initiate, he would choose the high ground [altitude] and come out the victor. In one-on-one combat the result would be totally unpredictable, and the Germans knew that they had insufficient training to contest with leading Soviet aces such as Safonov. I have already told you that the Germans fought in a very calculating manner.
A.S. You said that the Hartmann question had to be looked at from two points of view. What is the second?
N.G. The second perspective is when Pokryshkin was not on a “free hunt” but escorting attack aircraft (bombers or shturmoviks), or covering an area of terrain. Pokryshkin spent his entire wartime career fighting in frontal aviation, and they did not fly “free hunt” very often. Normally they were covering terrain or in immediate escort of bombers. As you know, they did not send an elite guards regiment such as Pokryshkin’s [16th Guards Fighter Regiment of 9th Guards Fighter Division—JG] to cover just any sector nor did they assign it to a secondary axis. Most assuredly they would place it where the main attack was being launched.
In the case where Pokryshkin was escorting bombers, Hartmann would be OBLIGATED to attack. Not Pokryshkin personally, of course, but the bombers. It is another issue that Pokryshkin simply would not permit an attack against “his” bombers to go unpunished. Here, of course, Hartmann did not have an option.
Here is another alternative. Pokryshkin is covering a piece of terrain and Hartmann is supposed to clear the airspace over that terrain for the actions of his own attack aircraft. In this case, there is also nowhere to hide, he has to fight, there is no way out. In this case, if he does not engage Pokryshkin in combat, Pokryshkin will shoot the bombers into little pieces, which in fact Pokryshkin did frequently.
So, everything depends on the situation.
A.S. Do you think that Hartmann actually shot down 352 aircraft?
N.G. I doubt it. Although, for sure, he did shoot down a great number.
The Germans had a relatively lax system for confirming victories. Frequently all that was required was confirmation by a wingman or camera film. The actual fall of the aircraft did not interest them, especially toward the end of the war.
A.S. And us?
N.G. It was difficult. And with each year of the war, it became more and more difficult. From the second half of 1943 a shoot-down could be counted only with the confirmation of the kill by VNOS [vozdushnoe nablyudenie, opoveshchenie i svyaz—air observation, notification, and communication] posts, gun camera film, agent network, and other sources. It was best of all if all these sources were taken together. The testimony of a wingman and other pilots was not taken into consideration, no matter how many of them there were.
A.S. If I understand you correctly, kills were not counted without “external” confirmation?
N.G. That is correct. We had a case when one of our pilots, Zhenya Grediushko, shot down a German with a single round. (By the way, he later became a helicopter test pilot in the Kamov bureau and achieved fame there as the first to land a Kamov helicopter on the deck of a cruiser.) They were flying in a group of four and encountered four Germans. Because Grediushko was out in front, he fired off a round from his cannon. We had such a “guards’ style”—if we realized that we did not have the element of surprise, then normally the group leader fired a single cannon round toward the enemy. This “fiery ball” was a summons—“Fight or scram!” Zhenya fired off this single round from some distance, and it struck and blew up in the lead Messer. Shot down by a single round. The remaining Messers, of course, dispersed. In the end they avoided the engagement.
Because we were flying over the tundra, in the German rear, there was no one who could confirm the victory. Neither VNOS posts nor an exact position of the downed German (no terrain features). No way to find the individual pieces of wreckage. Gun camera footage was useless because the target was too far away. The ammunition expenditure was a single 37mm round from four aircraft. Thus they did not give him credit for this kill, even though three other pilots clearly witnessed it, how he destroyed the German.
So if there was no “external” confirmation, it was as if the kill did not occur.
Only later, unexpectedly, did confirmation of this shoot down by infantrymen occur. It turns out that their reconnaissance group in the German rear witnessed this engagement (they returned to our positions with a “tongue” [captured live prisoner—JG]). Upon their return, they made note of this aerial battle and the downed German in their written report. It happened.
A.S. They say that German pilots avoided frontal attacks, they were cowards. Is this true?
N.G. No. They did not like them, as a rule. A frontal attack is risky, a lottery, and the Germans did not like to take risks. (Therefore we also did not like fontal attacks. A frontal attack was almost always a forced element of an engagement.)
But it was not any kind of cowardice, only a calculation. The German might not survive a frontal attack on an Airacobra or a Yak-9T; he could be struck by a 37mm round. Not so against a Yak-1b or Yak-9. Think about it. If he is in a Bf-109G (five firing points) or an FW-190 (six firing points and a radial engine), and he is facing a Yak-1b or Yak-9 (two firing points), the German should attempt to conduct a frontal attack (if he does not have the element of surprise). He has a great advantage. I have already stated that the Germans were very calculating. Here, conversely, our pilot had to avoid a frontal attack and try to pull the German into the vertical plane.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, you spent some time fighting along side British pilots. Could you talk to us about the strong and weak points of British pilots (pilot skill, firing, coordination in combat, tactics)? What did the 2d GIAP incorporate from British tactics?
N.G. The 151st Air Wing came from the aircraft carrier. It was rather diverse. They had one squadron commanded by a Müller (not exactly a British surname) [It should be Miller – I.G.]. This was the strongest, the best squadron. They had very good individual and formation flying skills. But a Hurricane is still a Hurricane. They lost five men while shooting down, I believe, twelve aircraft. This was from 1941, September I think, through May 1942. I can’t remember the exact dates now.
The other two squadrons were clearly weaker. Müller’s [Miller’s – I.G.] squadron flew with us on all significant missions.
A.S. So you flew together?
N.G. Yes. When they had already transferred a portion of the aircraft to us, we conducted joint flights.
A.S. How did you communicate with each other when airborne? You had hardly anyone who spoke English.
N.G. What’s to discuss? The flight plan was worked out on the ground, zones of responsibility had been assigned, basic variants of coordination during the fending off of attacks were worked out (“you here, we there”), what has to be agreed upon once airborne? Everyone knew what to do without words.
A.S. Did the British have any particular tactical methods?
N.G. At first their flight formation was interesting—a rhomboid. Three flew conventionally, a leader and two wingmen. The fourth flew behind them and flew a figure 8, both vertical and horizontal—controlling the rear hemisphere. They introduced this tactic to us and we were already flying in pairs. We tried it, flew in this rhomboid a time or two, and did not employ it again.
In the first place, to fly in threes was bad in and of itself. Secondly, what was this fourth aircraft supposed to do, the one in the back? If he flew to the left of the three-ship flight, and at that moment the three-ship broke to the left, there was the danger of collision. If he was flying to the left and the three-ship broke to the right, he would lose contact with them and be shot down himself.
Later the British, watching us in action, somewhere toward the end of 1941 began gradually to transition to pairs. Very gradually. They dragged out this transition for some time.
I don’t recall any other peculiarities in the British tactics.
Understand, the Hurricane was the kind of airplane that if you sat the best pilot in it from any country and forced him to contest with a Messer, he would last only if he held the Messer in the horizontal plane. There was no other way.
A.S. How do you evaluate the combat qualities of the British pilots, their aggressiveness and energy?
N.G. They were not cowards. They never shied away from combat. They went straight into battle. Any of our fighter regiments would have taken Müller’s [Miller’s – I.G.} squadron complete and not been disappointed. These were competent pilots.
A.S. Did you ever have the opportunity to fly with American pilots?
N.G. No. The only one I ever saw was a test pilot who came in to check out the P-40 Tomahawk for stability. He said himself he was a “check pilot” and not a fighter pilot.
A.S. What was your first impression of B. F. Safonov? What can you say about him as a fighter pilot and a man?
N.G. My first impression of Safonov—he was a very fascinating person. He knew how to relate to people. He was a good psychologist.
He was also a good analyst. He analyzed every occurrence, each battle.
Safonov examined every engagement, no matter how insignificant; he assembled everyone and dissected the actions of each pilot, no matter who they were. It happened that someone might come back with a score of bullet holes. He took everyone to this aircraft and examined each hole to determine how each one might have been inflicted. “You got this one—he would say—when you were not looking, what they were firing at you, when you did this and when you did that. And you should have done this and that, and if you had you would not have these holes.” Safonov had “vision”! He had a real talent.
He was always thinking about improvement of the technical possibilities, and it was because of him that rockets were mounted on the I-16. It was also his idea to mount rockets, cannons, and “Bereziny” [Soviet-made .50 caliber machine guns] on Hurricanes.
He took responsibility on himself. We were the first to begin flying in pairs.
And when the British made noises about making technical modifications to the Hurricane without their permission, he said to them, “Nonsense. The war justifies it. Do it under my authority.”
There was yet another quality, not insignificant—he was almost a teetotaller. I never saw him drink vodka. In the evenings, when we gathered, he would drink 25—50 grams of red wine and that was all.
He did not smoke. He was very literate, well-read, cultured. He spoke well—concisely, with precision and pleasant diction.
He did know how to curse; you know yourself that some of us often do not understand normal speech. But he only swore when the occasion required it. Communications in battle contained more cursing than normal speech. But to curse someone without reason – never!
A.S. What did Safonov consider to be most important for a fighter pilot?
N.G. Number one was the ability to shoot. Moreover, to shoot “in the Safonov way”—taking no chances, “at the rivets”.
Number two was maneuver—to be able to close to the range of firing.
Number three was “to look around”! Vigilance and observation were the bases of everything.
You spotted [the target], maneuvered, closed, opened fire, and killed! This was his formula.
A.S. At the present time doubts are being raised about Safonov’s personal score. Did he in fact personally shoot down 22 German aircraft?
N.G. He did, and perhaps even more. Safonov was an exceptional marksman and in a single engagement might shoot down two or even three German aircraft. But Safonov had a rule—“do not register more than one kill per battle for yourself.” He passed along all the others to his wingmen. I remember well one engagement when he shot down three German aircraft and then ordered that one be scored to him, one to Semenenko (Petr Semenenko flew as wingman to Safonov), and the third to someone else. Petya stood up and said, “Comrade commander, I didn’t even fire. I did not break the muzzle cover.” (After the machine guns on the Hurricane were reloaded, the wing muzzle openings were covered with percale to keep the dust and dirt out. AS) And Safonov said to him, “You did not fire, but I did fire, and you supported my firing!” And Safonov played out this little charade on many occasions.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, how many times were you shot down?
N.G. They hit and damaged me times.
A.S. Can you describe to us in more detail, under what circumstances did they hit you the first time?
N.G. I was the leader of a pair of P-40 Tomahawks. We were escorting shturmoviks. Messers showed up.
I saw a pair of Messers begin their attack and went to meet them, head on. Our intercept course was very unfavorable but I wanted to fire a short burst, not so much as perhaps to hit one of them but more to show that “I see you, peel off!”
Normally the Germans broke off, but on this occasion I looked and the lead German was “showing smoke”, he had commenced firing. I still had time to think, “He missed”—and at that moment there was a flash, a boom, shaking, and smoke! I blacked out for several seconds and then came to. I regained control; my fighter shook, the instrument panel was destroyed, there were metal shards everywhere. I manipulated the stick and worked the rudder pedals—the aircraft responded to inputs but the trimmer did not work.
I began to consider why the aircraft was shaking. It became obvious that the propeller was loaded up and there was nothing I could do to lighten it. I reduced rpms, made some small flat turns, and flew back to my airfield at very low level.
It was later determined that two rounds had struck my aircraft. The first hit in the propeller hub and disabled the mechanism for pitch control. The second entered the cockpit, in the left side.
And only on the ground did I understand that the entire left side of my body (but primarily my arm and thigh) were peppered with small pieces of shrapnel. I had about a hundred pieces in me! While I was flying, I had not felt any particular pain. I understood that I had been hit, but did not think it was so serious. True.
They sent me to the VVS hospital at Severomorsk. They removed some of the shrapnel, the larger pieces, and a large portion, the smaller pieces, remains in my body to this day. Thank God there were just a few that penetrated deeply. I lay in the bed for several days and then they brought in casualties from convoy PQ-17, almost all of them with hypothermia. At that time all the military and civilian hospitals were full. They asked me if I would object to being sent back to our own medical station for further recuperation. Every bed was needed. Of course, I voted in favor of this.
As soon as I returned to my unit I went right back on flight status. I did not take any special treatments. I was an experienced pilot, not a “greenhorn”. Who was going to fight if not me?
A.S. Wow! A round in the cockpit! How did you survive that?
N.G. An interesting design peculiarity of the P-40 saved me. Its trimmer was controlled by a large, 8—10 centimeter diameter steel wheel, with a thickness of 1.5—2 centimeters. From this gear went the Hall chain. This wheel was immediately under my left hand. The German round hit it. It did not penetrate through it, but because it struck it, all the shrapnel went along the left side rather than across the cockpit. I caught the fragments at an angle.
A.S. Of course I understand that this question is not very tactful, but how would you evaluate the power of the German cannon shell?
N.G. Powerful. Like our own ShVAK.
A.S. And the second time?
N.G. It was also in an aerial engagement. I was in an Airacobra. The four of us were fighting with eight Messerschmitts. My engine was damaged. I had to make a forced landing and did not reach my airfield. I got out without any injuries.
A.S. Did you have any unconfirmed victories?
A.S. How many?
N.G. There were some. This is like shaking your fists after the fight is over.
A.S. Did you have any group kills?
N.G. Yes. Eight. “Partial” victories. There were some of those, but don’t write this down. (Pardon me, Nikolay Gerasimovich! A.S.)
I personally scored seven kills. These were confirmed. No more about this.
A.S. Rudel in his memoirs writes, “RAF commanders, who piloted the Hurricanes with the Russians at Murmansk, are divided in their memoirs. They are extremely harsh. Of all those who were shot down, almost none remain alive.” (Hans Ulrich Rudel, Stuka Pilot, Text from website Millitera. A.S.) What did the British see that was so terrible?
N.G. I don’t know. What could they have seen?
A.S. Perhaps someone was shot?
N.G. War story! Think about it. Why would they kill a captured pilot?
They brought some shot down German pilots to our airfield and showed them to us.
I recall how Müller was very indignant. After he had been hit he was trying to land, when one of our pilots began to fire at him. He said that this was un-chivalrous, to fire at a damaged aircraft attempting to land. And we said to him, “And our pilots, who are hanging under parachutes, you shoot at them in the air. It that chilvarous?”
Müller could not believe that Kolya Bokiy had shot him down. Kolya was about a head shorter than him and noticeably narrower in the shoulders. Our brigade commander was Petrukhin, a blunt man. He said to Bokiy, “Punch him in the face, so he would hit the ground, then he will believe!” We all laughed.
German pilots always asked to see the one who shot them down and, when we showed them, they almost always did not believe it. “How could it have been him? To shoot down me?!”
A.S. Did the Germans often shoot at pilots who had bailed out?
A.S. This question is not particularly tactful and you do not have to respond to it, but did you ever personally shoot at German pilots in the air who had bailed out of their airplanes?
A.S. We have covered these “high subjects” very well. Now I have some more practical questions.
The pliers/wire cutters on the I-16, to cut through the landing gear cables—were these common cutters or special, aviation wire cutters intended for this purpose?
They say that these were special wire cutters, aviation, manufactured in the factory and stored in a canvas pocket.
N.G. Special wire cutters did exist, but most of the pilots used ordinary pliers.
A.S. It is well known that the I-16, for indicating the position of the raised gear, inside the cockpit between the cover and instrument panel was located a flexible metal hose, inside of which ran a cable with dowel pins on the ends. The hose was formed in an arch, in the upper portion of which was an open section; if the dowel pin was visible—the gear was completely raised.
N.G. Yes, that’s how it was. Inside the hose was a cable with a slide block. In addition there was a back-up control for raising and lowering the gear—dowel pins on flats.
A.S. Were the I-16 or Hurricane ever used on skis?
N.G. The I-16 had special skis, but we did not use them. It didn’t have enough speed, so why would you use skis? There were no skis for the Hurricane. As far as I know, it was never contemplated.
A.S. Were non-standard armaments ever mounted on the I-16 or on other aircraft? Were the armaments of first-series I-16s strengthened?
N.G. As I have told you, large-caliber machine guns and rockets [RS]. I never heard about any other modifications.
A.S. Were I-16 aircraft with the M-25 engine re-equipped in the regiment or did they come from repair shops with the M-62 or M-63 engine?
N.G. No, neither in the regiment nor in the repair shops.
A.S. How were the RSs fired (were they fired at aircraft, at what range, were they fired in salvo at ground targets, how was the range to the enemy calculated)?
N.G. We determined the range using the sight and commenced firing independently. We fired in salvos. We aimed at individual aircraft but the dispersion was great. Therefore aimed firing, in the literal meaning of the term, was impossible. But in salvo, with proximity fuses, the results were not bad.
A.S. At what range did you fire the wing-mounted machine guns?
N.G. Now I don’t remember exactly. We fired on the firing range at special targets, I think at 100—200 meters. We commenced firing “at the rivets” [when we could distinguish the rivet heads].
A.S. How much more complicated was it in maneuver combat to get hits from the wing-mounted gun and synchronized armaments in comparison with the engine-mounted cannon?
N.G. It was more difficult with the wing-mounted gun. The wing-mounted gun required more precise determination of range. It fired with greater dispersion of rounds and therefore had a larger beaten zone. How much more complicated? That’s difficult to say.
A.S. Did the aircraft “move around” during firing (compare the wing-mounted, synchronized, engine cannon; ShKAS, BS, ShVAK)?
N.G. While firing the cannon and machine guns—no. When launching RS—yes. The aircraft shuddered and twitched from side to side.
A.S. Can you talk in a bit more detail about the 57mm RS? Was this a non-standard caliber?
N.G. The 57 millimeter RS was used only in the beginning of the war. Pre-war supplies. By the end of 1942 we had completely shot them up and later, for the remainder of the war, they mounted only 82 and 132mm RSs on aircraft.
A.S. What was your personal firing technique—did you adjust using the tracer or put the burst right on target? How did you input lead during firing from 1/4, 2/4?
N.G. Basically, I fired immediately for destruction. When you are “firing at the rivets”, the range was minimal.
When it was necessary to force the enemy to turn, to change course, when there was no possibility of reliable destruction because of long range, we fired by tracers, using up to 4/4 lead. Lead was determined by the sight reticle.
A.S. What was your ammunition expenditure in combat?
N.G. The expenditure of ammunition depended on the type of combat. The greatest expenditure occurred when we were escorting bombers or shturmoviks. We frequently fired long “barrier” bursts. In this kind of combat, we frequently did not have enough ammunition.
A.S. Did it happen that destroyed [enemy] fighters were counted to bomber gunners or antiaircraft artillery?
N.G. Probably. It happened, especially when there was no gun camera film. These things happen in combat, where it is very difficult to establish who exactly got the kill. Everyone was firing.
A.S. Did it also happen that when a mission was not accomplished the combat sortie was not counted?
N.G. Of course. You did not carry out the combat mission.
A.S. A combat sortie and an aerial engagement. Are these one and the same?
N.G. No. A combat sortie could occur without an aerial engagement. Frequently, even if one encountered an enemy in the air, a combat sortie did not result in an aerial engagement.
An aerial engagement occurs when both sides are attempting to accomplish their mission in maneuver combat, where they are actively attacking the enemy. If there is no active maneuver combat, it means that you did not conduct an aerial engagement.
Here is an example. We were covering a convoy. Then it began! “Messers from the right!” We went that way. We fired at them, they fired at us. “Junkers from the left!” We went at them. They spotted us, dropped their bombs into the ocean, and turned back. “Messers behind us!” We turned to meet them, we fired, they fired, they dispersed. We flew this way and that way over the convoy, then flew home wet with perspiration. But this was not considered an aerial engagement. It was simply a combat sortie.
A.S. How did you maintain contact with the convoy? Did the sailors vector you to the airplanes attacking them?
N.G. Primarily we maintained contact with them by radio, although sometimes we did not have that. Frequently the sailors guided us to the aircraft attacking them with red rockets, particularly if we did not have radio communications.
A.S. Compare the difficulty of piloting the I-16, I-15, LaGG, Hurricane, and so on.
N.G. The most complicated was the I-16; the remainder were easier to fly.
In general, every airplane has its own peculiarities and complexities of piloting. Here much depends on the degree of one’s familiarity with the equipment.
A.S. You flew the I-16 in the winter, in fur flight suits? If yes, then what influence did this have on observation?
N.G. We did not fly in fur flight suits in a combat situation. They were too bulky and uncomfortable, constricted movement, and blocked vision. We flew in normal quilted [padded] trousers and jackets without collars, with silk scarves.
A.S. Did you use shoulder harnesses?
N.G. We used them. Although sometimes we just had seat belts.
A.S. How was your visibility to the rear in the I-16? For example, was the tail or the area behind it visible, did you simply have to look back, or did you have to crane your neck?
N.G. We stuck our heads out far enough to see the tail wheel. If you could see that, it meant that you could observe the rear hemisphere normally—you could see behind you.
A.S. If you were shooting at a bomber, what was the ammunition expenditure for defeat of individual components? Was it difficult to hit a gunner, into the cockpit, where did you normally fire?
N.G. When attacking a bomber, first of all we tried to shoot out the engines. Even if you don’t get a kill, he dropped his bombs before reaching the target. If we were attacking from below we fired at the gunner.
The ammunition expenditure depended on the weapon. For example, it took 2—3 rounds of 37mm cannon and 20—40 .50 caliber rounds to shoot down a Ju-88 in a single attack by a P-39.
A.S. This question is not exactly on topic, but in your view, was the Ju-88 a better dive bomber than the Pe-2?
N.G. The Ju-88 never dropped bombs from a dive, only in horizontal flight.
A.S. Well, according to reference book data, the Ju-88 was a dive bomber.
N.G. Aren’t you a little confused? The Germans’ dive bomber was the Ju-87 Laptezhnik. This aircraft only bombed out of a dive. It bombed very accurately, but was also very slow. It was relatively easy to shoot down. In my opinion, the Germans stopped using it in the North sometime in mid-1944.
The Ju-88? I never saw it drop bombs from a dive and never heard that it was used that way either.
A.S. Did our pilots employ the “clock” orientation method (as in “enemy at 2 o’clock”)? If not, how did you name directions?
N.G. No. We did not use the clock method. We used the simple method of “from the right-above, from the left-below, from behind,” and so on. [These are one- and two-word expressions in Russian, making them much simpler and quicker to enunciate in Russian than in English—JG.]
A.S. How difficult was it to bail out of a Hurricane, P-40, and LaGG-3? Could you jettison the canopy at high speed?
N.G. The canopy had to be jettisoned. The methods for abandoning those particular aircraft were practically identical.
A.S. How would you compare the survivability of a belly landing in say an I-16, the LaGG, and the Hurricane? How dangerous was it for the pilot and could the aircraft be repaired?
N.G. In the conditions of the Far North, forced landings could be accomplished on a frozen lake. As a rule, in these particular types of aircraft, a forced landing did not present any particular difficulty. Later the aircraft was recovered and repaired at repair shops. True, the aircraft were often further damaged during recovery and transportation from the forced-landing site.
A.S. How would you compare the survivability from enemy fire of the I-16, Hurricane, and so on?
N.G. Fighter aircraft returned [to base], as a rule, with bullet holes from small-caliber machine guns, less often from large-caliber machine guns, and very rarely from armor-piercing cannon shells. By types? The differences were not great.
A.S. How many aircraft were there in a regiment?
N.G. The number of aircraft in a regiment depended on the nature of the combat actions and enemy competence. On average a regiment had 30—40 fighters, but there were times when 8—10 or even fewer aircraft were left in a regiment.
A.S. What kind of antiaircraft coverage did our own airfields have?
N.G. Antiaircraft coverage of our airfields was accomplished in the larger system of antiaircraft coverage for the VMF. The airfield normally was protected by 5—6 batteries of 20mm and 37mm cannons. They were employed for aircraft takeoffs and landings, and also to defend against air raids and enemy attacks directed against the field proper.
A.S. In your discussion of the Hurricane, everyone is a bit perplexed by the information about the desert camouflage. Were the aircraft actually yellow, or was this just a reference to the British green—brown camouflage scheme?
N.G. We had 15—20 Hurricanes in desert camouflage (at least that’s what we called it), which consisted of large yellow areas with brown spots. The remaining aircraft, those that were handed over to us by British pilots, were in the standard green—brown British camouflage.
A.S. Also about camouflage: can you be specific, were the lower surfaces of the lend-lease aircraft painted in our blue color, or did they keep their American gray? In general, how common was it to repaint aircraft in our color schemes? Were the aircraft numbers painted in silver? Was the white dispenser used in winter?
N.G. We never repainted American aircraft and we did not use white sispenser.
True, P-40s came to us with national markings on them—white American stars. We simply painted these stars red. We also painted the numbers and propeller hubs red. All the other paint was left “as is”.
A.S. They say that Safonov’s Kittyhawk was painted blue. Is this true?
N.G. As far as I can remember, no. It was the standard olive green.
A.S. Were there any peculiarities or difficulties in maintenance of the Hurricanes, in comparison with other aircraft?
N.G. No. As far as I can recall, we had no special problems maintaining the Hurricane. All the technical maintenance work was accomplished in accordance with instructions developed in Great Britain. The same applied to the service periods of the equipment [engine hours between service or replacement of components, et cetera].
A.S. You have already mentioned that during the exploitation of imported equipment our “culture” regarding the changing of oil increased sharply. What other examples of heightened technical culture in other systems can you highlight?
N.G. I can’t think of any other examples.
A.S. In many publications it is mentioned that Safonov received a P-40E Kittyhawk from the American delegation, and you say that it was from the VVS. Could it have been directly from the Americans?
N.G. I guess it is possible that the aircraft went from the American delegation to the VVS, and from their to Safonov. But I doubt it. In any case, there were no special procedures, such as “turnover of aircraft from the American delegation,” in the regiment.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, can you recall, either to affirm or deny the presence in the regiment of a P-40 with the inscription “Za Safonova!” [for Safonov] and an ace of spades with anchor on the tail? Whose aircraft was this? And in general, how widespread was the practice of individual emblems in the regiment?
N.G. I don’t remember if we had such an aircraft in our regiment. We did not paint either aces or anchors on our airplanes. We did not use individual emblems.
It is possible that there was such an aircraft, but in the 78th IAP. They loved “illustrations”. They painted a “shark’s mouth” on their “chins”. I saw this with my own eyes.
Safonov at one time flew an I-16 with the inscription “Za VKP(b)!” [for the communist party (bolshevik)].
A.S. By the way, how did you get spare parts?
N.G. Our spare parts system was centralized. Spare parts for foreign aircraft were delivered together with the airplanes, in containers [crates]. These spares were stored in warehouses and delivered to units as required.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, altogether, how many types of aircraft have you flown?
N.G. I’ll give them to you in order. Before the war: Po-2; R-5; I-156bis; I-16 types 4, 5, 10, 17, and 21 [most likely type 24 – I.G.]; and UTI-4.
During the war: I-16 types 28 and 29; LaGG-3; MiG-1; Hurricane; P-40 Kittyhawk and Tomahawk; P-39 Airacobra almost all types; and UT-2 and UT-1.
After the war: Yak-1b, Yak-7b, Yak-9, Yak-11, P-63 KingCobra, La-9, La-11, Yak-12, Yak-18, MiG-15, UTI-MiG-15, MiG-19r, MiG-19spsv, Yak-25, Yak-28, Su-9, Su-15, Su-15UT, An-14, Il-14, Tu-124, L-29, and An-2.
I made three flights on the MiG-21, but did not qualify in it. That is all.
A.S. What were your most favorite and least favorite postwar aircraft?
N.G. I had several favorites. The last series of the MiG-19, the PM. The Su-15 was very good, reliable, with two engines. The Su-9, as a “aerobatic aircraft” was very good. I executed an entire routine of complex maneuvers in it, but the engine—help us God! It was a “one-time use” engine, as I heard, it was derived from a cruise missile engine. It simply was not meant for “aircraft” regimes and multiple-use employment. We lost many pilots because of engine failure. Later they “refined” the engine and the Su-9 became a completely normal fighter.
A.S. Why didn’t they make the Su-9 a frontal aviation fighter?
N.G. I don’t know. Probably because of the engine. Though the airframe was sound. This aircraft was unique in its piloting characteristics, and for this I loved it.
A.S. And your least favorite airplane?
N.G. Perhaps, the Yak-28.
First, it was clumsy, it was awkward. Heavy, though the engines were powerful and reliable.
Second, it “shook” in supersonic flight. After it had been flown in supersonic regime, mechanics drilled into cracks that appeared in its fuselage with a 2mm drill bit.
Third, no matter how many flights you made in a day, you could never land it on the same spot twice. No matter what regime you maintained, it flew and then it dropped. It hit the pavement where it wanted to and not where the pilot wanted it to.
Fourth, its radio compass worked very poorly, making it a very difficult airplane to fly in bad weather. The radio compass was mounted in the tail and the tail vibrated, causing the indicator to jump around. We oriented not by the arrow, but by the center of its field of motion.
This is why I did not like the Yak-28. Nobody liked it.
A.S. Thank you for a very interesting interview.
Text © AndreySukhorukov
Translation © James F. Gebhardt