This is an interview with Grigoriy Tarkhanovich Avаnesov, who began the war on the Baltic Sea and ended it on the Black Sea as a flying boat navigator/bombardier.
Lieutenant G.T. Avanesov, navigator of an MBR-2 aircraft of the 82nd Separate Squadron of the VVS Black Sea Fleet, converses with an Izvestiya newspaper correspondent after a flight in anti-submarine escort of a convoy from Sevastopol to Poti. On the right: Lieutenant Yu. P. Molokhovskiy. Paleostom (Poti) Airfield, April 1942.
My name is Grigoriy Tarkhanovich Avanesov. I was born on 8 November 1918 in Baku. My father, Tarkhan Grigorievich Avanesov, completed fifth grade. He died in 1957, just one month before I was promoted to the rank of colonel. My mother, Yekaterina Pavlovna Avanesova, was a housewife. I was sent to a Russian school in Baku and finished tenth grade there. I always wanted to be a painter and applied to a Leningrad art academy in 1937, but failed the exams. After that I enlisted in the army. I was sent to Yeysk aviation school named after Stalin. When my parents learned of this, it caused a real panic; my mother and older sister were particularly worried. Conversely, my younger sister was very happy about this fact – having an aviator in the family was very prestigious at the time. Dad thought for a day, and then gave me his parental blessing. We were loaded into railway cars and sent to a naval aviation school named after Stalin. This was in October 1937.
Did you ever think about becoming a pilot before your enlistment?
Not really. I thought of pilots as some special people, and I was really into painting.
Was the education there good enough?
At first, we had a little exam at the school – composition and a math test. Those who passed these examinations with the highest grades were sent to the navigation department. It was thought that navigators needed to know more than pilots. Navigators and fighter pilots had a two-year training course; bomber pilots went through three years of training. Training was great. We had to learn navigation, camouflage and the uncovering (discernment) of camouflaged targets, bomb aiming, and machine gun use, as well as piloting skills. I was quite busy in the air. I finished school in 1939 and was sent to Baltic Fleet aviation in Paldiski. My first plane was an MBR-2.
The MBR-2 (morskoy blizhniy razvedchik [naval short-range reconnaissance]) was a Beriev-designed flying boat. It was powered by a single 860-hp Mikulin AM-34 (V-12 liquid-cooled) engine. It had a maximum speed of 275 kmh, service ceiling of 26,000 feet, and normal range of 400 miles. It was armed with a bow-mounted ShKAS 7.62mm machine gun and another in a dorsal turret. Its maximum payload was 400 kg (880 lb). Total production of the MBR-2 series was approximately 1,500 aircraft.
We were supporting our forces that were involved in the Finnish war. We were not participating in it directly. After that I was transferred to the 81st Separate Squadron, which was based at Grebnoy canal in Leningrad. Its commander was Captain Kashtankin. He later became a Hero of the Soviet Union by ramming an enemy ship.
Viktor Nikolaevich Kashtankin (1910–1944) entered the Soviet Navy in 1929 and completed flight training at Yeysk. He served in both the Black Sea and Baltic Fleets and in the Soviet–Finnish War 1939–1940. As the deputy commander of the 7th Guards Shturmovoy Air Regiment, Guards Major Kashtankin executed 36 combat sorties against enemy ground forces. On 23 March 1944, he guided his burning aircraft into an enemy patrol vessel. He was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously on 31 May 1944.
We did not fly combat missions there. As the Finnish War ended, we were transferred to the newly leased Hanko Peninsula. This event took place in March or April of 1940. Our airdrome was called Podvalandet.
How did you meet the war?
For me the war began in 1940. We flew several reconnaissance missions. We painted over our red stars and flew over the Baltic to see what the cargo ships sailing from Germany to Finland were carrying. On 24 June, before the start of the war was announced, the Finns shot down Dubrovin’s aircraft from 18th squadron.
In actual fact, this aircraft, crewed by Dubrovin, Korchinskiy, and Bliznetsov, made a forced landing on water at 1245 on 24 June 941 due to a maintenance issue. The crew was captured and the Finns later used the aircraft in their own air force.
What were you doing when the Great Patriotic War (GPW) started?
I was a chief of the squadron’s parachute-landing service, responsible for parachute training. It was my responsibility to check the squadron’s parachutes, so I woke up early. When I reached the airfield, I heard over local radio that the war had begun. Someone flew in reconnaissance at about 0800. Early on the morning of 25 June, large-caliber guns fired at us from Finnish territory, but without result. Then we were moved to Tallinn. Three crews were left behind – Ignatenko, Streletskiy, and Volkov were the pilots. While in Estonia, we were constantly under rifle and shotgun fire from locals. From there I got my first combat order. We were told that a submarine had left Helsinki or Kotka with an escort of five torpedo boats, and two or three crews capable of night flying were required. My pilot Volodin stepped forward. And Kizenko — he later flew Il’s and became an HSU.
This may be Petr Yevdokimovich Kiselenko (1919–1975), an aero-club graduate who entered the Soviet Army in 1940, completed pilot training in 1941, and in 1943 was a deputy squadron commander in the 237th Ground-attack Air Regiment. By mid-November 1944 he had flown 106 combat sorties, and was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 18 August 1945.
Our mission was to prevent the submarine with escort from reaching Tallinn port. We scrambled in two MBRs with four FAB-100 or PLAB-100 each.
FAB—fugasnaya aviatsionnaya bomba (high-explosive aviation bomb); PLAB—protivolodochnaya aviatsionnaya bomba (anti-submarine aviation bomb). The “100” indicates 100-kilogram bomb weight.
We found the submarine right in the mid-route between Tallinn and Helsinki, but it submerged. No surprise, our cruise speed was about 160–180 km\h. But the escort boats began shooting at us. We went into circles and shot back with ShKASes, my gunner – Kirsanov, if I remember correctly, and I. I fired all 750 rounds with no visible result, of course. But we managed to sink one of the small boats with FABs and PLABS, and that I saw with my own eyes – the torpedo boat broke in two and sank in a matter of seconds. The other four turned around and proceeded to Helsinki. It was interesting that no damage was inflicted on us. Those gunners were really bad!
What happened then?
Well, from Tallinn we flew to Libava (Libau) port and bombed some airbases. At night, of course. No real damage was expected from these attacks, but if we could damage a runway, this could already prevent enemy pilots from taking off for a couple of hours, which in turn could help save lives. Then we were moved to Ezel and Kogul. From there we flew reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) missions. Preobrazhenskiy arrived at Ezel with his group some time later.
Yevgeniy Nikolaevich Preobrazhenskiy (1909–1963) entered the Soviet Navy in 1927 and completed flight training in 1930. He was a participant in the Soviet–Finnish War of 1939–1940. In August 1941, as commander of the 1st Mine-Torpedo Air Regiment, Colonel Preobrazhenskiy participated in the bombing of Berlin. He was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 13 August 1941. He went on to command an aviation brigade and later the VVS of Northern Fleet and after the war the VVS of the Pacific Fleet. From 1950–1962 he commanded the air forces of the Soviet Navy. He personally flew the Lend-lease Douglas A-20 in both the Baltic and Northern Fleets in its role as a torpedo bomber.
We helped him with weather recon and bomb supplies. We were happy when they dropped bombs on Berlin!
In August 1941, we were told that tomorrow at 1000 new fighters would come to the bases to show them to us, so that we would be able to recognize them. We were standing at the beach when we saw three planes coming from the south. We cheered. But they threw bombs at us. Those were Bf-109s! We dispersed and tried to hide. At the same time the Messerschmitts strafed our planes on the water. Several were lost. Our anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) defenses were hiding with us, but we threw them out of the foxholes. The AAA fire started when they left. In about 10 minutes three planes came back. We started firing, but those were the promised Yaks! Someone shouted “Yaks!” We answered “Huyaks”! (Word game – second is very rude swearing) and continued firing. No one could remember what these Yaks looked like. This led to some problems later. Luckily, we killed no one! During the attack, Germans destroyed three or four MBRs that were loaded with bombs and were on the water waiting for take off.
After the evacuation from Ezel we were sent to Yeysk, and as we were going there our train was hit by bombs. The car next to ours was blown to pieces, killing and wounding a lot of people. Anyway, we arrived at Yeysk and were transferred to 60th Squadron of the Black Sea Fleet. We arrived there in November 1941. Our squadron was based at Gelendzhik, and from there we flew to support Sevastopol. Our main work was ASW. We had a special method of finding U-boats. They left trail of oil on top of the sea. If it was cone-shaped, we dropped a series of bombs slightly ahead of the trail. If it was still, we dropped bombs in the middle of it. Of course, we could not see the damage we inflicted. It was rather boring, really.
It was then that you were transferred to Catalinas?
We were transferred later. I was in 82nd Squadron (Black Sea Fleet) by this time. In 1943, the 26th of March, we were sent after torpedo boats that had attacked Tuapse port. They went to Kerch. We found them, or perhaps some other boats almost at their port. Still, we bombed them, but after the bombs were gone we were intercepted by fighters. I don’t know whether we hit something or not; we had to fight for our lives. Pilots went to from 400 m to 10 m altitude; we shot at the fighters and they left. Germans did not like low altitudes. We started gaining altitude back almost at our shore. When I radioed to the ground that we were arriving, they said that a fighter was behind us. Our gunner Bui said that two are gaining on us. Our second plane, piloted by Glushkov, was not touched for some reason. Then everything exploded around me. We fell into the water without parachutes, and when I came to the surface I saw a Me-110, a twin-keel plane. Its pilot strafed us and departed. (No claims were found for this MBR downing in the german sources so far). I shouted that I was sinking, when I saw my pilot, squadron commander Vasilyuk, shaking his fist at me and shouting something like “You God- ****ed m***er! If you sink I’ll go down after you and I will torture you instead of the devil, and I will do it better! All demons will get in line to study!” That helped a lot.
When we landed in the water, our life vests inflated with gas, and they helped us to stay afloat. We had black vests, by the way. I lost consciousness in the boat that came to save us. It took us to the AAA battery, where soldiers immobilized my damaged knee. The last thing I can remember, we were flying at approximately 150 meters, and fell down without chutes! The tail gunner was killed in the air or sank with the plane. I was sent to the hospital at Tshaltuby, and after a month I was sent to the training facility where I studied to fly the PBN-1 Catalina (Nomad).
What is your opinion of the Catalina?
It was a marvelous plane! Best of all, it was able to carry 600 kg of bombs instead of the 400 carried by the MBR-2. We patrolled the Black Sea and managed to kill three U-boats with it. This was confirmed by intelligence agents. Our squadron alone damaged four more boats. We had almost no transition problems – all measurements were made in meters already, and there was a bombsight combined with the airplane’s controls, which meant that I was able to control the plane while aiming. We even had radars, although almost no one used them. The other thing was radio compass – we used that one quite often.
How long the Catalina could fly?
We had a fuel tank capacity for 22 hours, but we never flew longer then 18 hours, which is still a long time. We had to leave at least 7 per cent emergency fuel on landing.
How were the Catalinas painted?
They were all silver, no special paint. Original serial numbers were removed and we had only stars and tactical numbers.
What else you could tell us about the differences between the PBN and MBR?
Differences? Everything was different! The first thing you noticed was the luxury of the aircraft. It was really pleasant to fly in one of those, the luxury still was somewhat unnecessary. Speaking of my work space, I had a turret with a 12.7-mm machine gun, and there were two gunners on the sides – thus the Catalina had better protection against enemy fighters.
While Lend-lease Catalinas (Nomads) came equipped with the Browning M-2 .50-caliber machine gun, it was common in low-density units to replace it with a Soviet UB (universalnyy Berezina), also a 12.7-mm weapon. This was done primarily for logistic purposes.
Actually, it was a really simple and reliable aircraft. What else? The MBR was designed for water landing only, while the Catalina had landing gear, which really helped ground crews. Oh! I forgot the engines! Those were really great! M-17s and M-34s on the MBR were good and reliable, but they lacked horsepower. On the Catalina, we had two engines with supposed possibility of one-engine flight, which is always welcome. Last, but not least – it was better built and had more robust construction. Generally speaking, it would be better to compare this plane not with the MBR, but with the MDR, but I haven’t flown those.
The MDR-6A was a twin-engine design by Chetverikov. It was powered by two 960-hp M-63 engines, with a top speed of 430 kmh, ceiling of 29,500 feet, and maximum bomb load of 600 kg.
What do you think about fighters?
The Germans were great! No, really. There were some tricks that helped, but we lost a lot of pilots to their fighters. Our pilots were excellent in 1941 and from 1944 onward. In between those years, they were rather weak.
What do you think about flak?
I can’t say anything about flak. Ground-based targets were not a matter of our interest. The AA defenses of surface vessels were not really good in the beginning, but later they stiffened up.
If I remember correctly you said that you used some unusual method of bomb aiming in MBR?
Yes. You see, the problem in the MBR-2 was that the usual, standard aiming device, the OBP-1, was designed to aim from 2000 m only. Not higher or lower – otherwise you had to make calculations, and there was even a special chart for them, but there was no time for it in real battle. What we did – we would draw differently colored lines on the side of the cabin and aim with a machine gun. It was an extremely precise method, and we did not have to fiddle with the altitude change charts, which in turn seriously shortened our attack time. Catalinas had a good, precise, but mechanically complex and unreliable sight. Or perhaps not everyone knew how to use them correctly. The other big plus for the Catalina was the fact that I was inside the aircraft for the duration of flight. In the MBR, I had to stand in the wind all of the time. To fight this I would sometimes switch places with the pilot – there was a special hatch in MBR for that. The pilot would stand in my place and rest, while I would fly the plane and also rest. In Catalinas I forgot about frostbites, wind, and peeling skin, but there I had no chance of rest. If plane was in the air for 18 hours, it meant that I was awake and on guard for 20-22 hours.
What was a standard bomb load?
One FAB-100 and three PLAB-100 with 10-, 30-, and 60-m fuses. A hit within 10–15 m was a sure kill for submarines due to hydraulic impact, especially at depth. The PBY had the same load with an exception that we had the capability to load two more bombs, and most often they were OMABs.
Orientirovochnaya morskaya aviabomba (naval aviation position-marking bomb). Equipped with various colors of smoke, it was dropped into the water through a special launch tube. It came to the surface and created a colored spot on the water. Another variant—ODMAB (D for dymovaya [smoke])—created a cloud of colored smoke and was therefore less persistent.
If you were at sea and you found a ship, how you would confirm that it was enemy?
Well, no ship would be at sea only because the captain wants it to be there. We received possible areas of our fleet positions for the duration of each flight. Enemy ships would reveal themselves very soon, as they would throw everything at you on approach. We lost one or two of our planes to surface friendly fire. In July 1941 we lost one from a two-plane flight to a patrol boat. We assembled ourselves and went to that ship to beat up the gunners and throw them overboard. But things like that happened.
Was your defense good enough?
Well, we could cover the entire upper hemisphere in both planes, but the lower part was undefended, of course. Our gun had special interrupters to prevent us from shooting through our own engines. Seriously speaking, one of my colleagues managed to shoot down two Bf-109s with a ShKAS in 1941. Their pilots were showing off in front of our pilots and came too close.
When we flew PBNs we almost never saw enemy fighters, so as I have already said, potentially we had better armament but we had no chance to test it.
Meeting enemy planes was not really a common thing?
Meeting a fighter would usually end up with us being shot down. No surprise really. But usually we would encounter four-engine FW-200 patrollers or Do-18 and Do-24 flying boats. Then we would gallantly fly past to conduct our business, not forgetting to notify our fighter regiments. It was not our business to deal with them. I remember, though, that a neighboring regiment’s pilot flew under one of these Dorniers and a gunner shot its belly seriously. Most likely it sank after landing.
What would happen if you had a damaged belly?
On landing we would have a fuselage full of water, so that the plane would gradually sink. If the side floats were damaged, we wouldn’t even have time to get out. On the initial landing run we would loose some skin pieces.
Was it difficult to land these planes?
Oh, yes. On take off the most difficult part was the wild ducks. There were lots of them, and at take-off speed of about 150 km\h, a duck would do the same damage as a 20mm explosive shell. Landing on a force-3 sea was considered dangerous, and 3.5 impossible. Surprisingly, most planes were lost on calm water – pilots couldn’t see where the water level was; so we had speed boats go cross our landing approach to create waves. If we struck a submerged log, the plane would disintegrate. Logs were only visible in wavy conditions.
Do you remember your last combat sortie?
September 1945. Don’t be surprised—we kept flying convoy cover until 1946. The point was that we could see the mines under water surface and warn ships. Even now, once in three or four years, ships are damaged by those mines. So our presence was needed. I ended the war with 380+ missions.
Do you remember the war’s end?
Yes, of course! I was asleep when firing began near my house. I grabbed my machine pistol and ran to the street. Everyone was shooting in the air. I asked what had happened and someone shouted “The war is over, we WON!” I started firing myself. We were drunk for two days, but after that peace time service began with discipline and all the other stuff included.
And after the war?
My life was not too happy after the war. I had to leave flying for teaching at the Military Naval Academy in Leningrad. My son was a starpom [executive officer] on the Komsomolets submarine and died on 7 April 1989, when it sank near Medvezhiy Island. War was clear and easy… and peaceful life is difficult. But war is so stupid, it should not ever happen again. I do not understand what happens nowadays, why so many wars are going on, why the USA constantly puts its nose in other countries business. Why do they think that bombing non-combatants is so great a military achievement? Or perhaps Stalin was right, saying that one man’s death is a tragedy, but the death of millions is a statistic?
Interview was conducted by Oleg Korytov and Konstantin Chirkin © in St. Petersburg, Russia
Transcribed and edited by Igor Zhidov ©
English translation by James F. Gebhardt ©
Translation edited by Ilya Grinberg ©