Kulakov: I was born on the 4th of March, 1923, in Rabotki, about 60 km downstream from Gorkiy. A ship was frozen there for winter time, and my father lived in it. My mom came to see him while she was pregnant; after that she was supposed to go to Sosnovka for delivery, but as she crossed the Volga by ice, she gave birth to me. My father left his job as a sailor and became a handyman. Mother was a housewife.
I was not the only child in our family; my older sister died from typhus and a younger one died due to some accident. I have a younger brother who was born in 1935 and now lives in Sosnovka, Gorkiy District, Spasskiy region now. Dad passed away at the age of 68 and my mother at the age of 95.
What level of schooling did you attain?
In Sosnovka village I studied through 4th grade; then I had to go to Mary village, which was located 7 km from Sosnovka. There used to be an unfinished middle school there, with a hostel, where I studied through 7th grade. For further education I had to go to Dzerzhinsk, to my aunt’s home (father’s sister). I finished 9th grade there and also I went through primary piloting training in the local aero club. I have to say that although my education was difficult and had many stages, it is only due to the Soviet regime that it was possible at all. During the time of the monarchy, I wouldn’t have had an opportunity to get any education at all.
How did I get into the aero club? One day a pilot came to our school. He was a very handsome man, senior lieutenant, in a blue uniform, with a “chicken” on his sleeve, and he says, “Who wants to be a pilot?”
The “chicken” referred to here was a bird figure, indicating aviation branch of the Army.
I always wanted to be in the military service; I even played military games while I was a child. Of course I stood up first. “I do!”
About 100 men enlisted from our school (a class usually consisted of no more then 40 students), but only about 20 passed the commission.
In 1940 I finished my training with the Dzerzhinsk aero club as a U-2 pilot, and 9th grade at school. There was an invitation to Engels Bomber School, but I was not accepted due to my young age. So I had to wait. To speed up the process, I sent a letter to Moscow to the Peoples’ Commissar of Defense Klementiy Voroshilov, in which I asked to be sent to pilot school. In the autumn of 1940 I received an acceptance letter.
Father was against my choice of profession. Two pilots crashed and were killed in the aero club, and it became widely known through the “skirt radio.”
The “skirt radio” is the passing of rumors from one “skirt” (woman) to another. The term is used in situations where the news was spread rapidly by women, but could be very unreliable in terms of accuracy.
Dad came to me and kept asking, “Are you training to become a pilot?”
I replied, “No, no, dad, I’m going to be a mechanic, and later I’ll study to become an engineer.
“Then why do you need these flight goggles?”
“Oh, those. When I work under the aircraft, motor oil drips straight to my face and I have to protect my eyes.”
When I received an acceptance letter, I finally told my dad that I’ll become a pilot: “I’m going to continue my training!”
He thought for a while and replied, “If it’s your choice, go on. I won’t object!”
Were there female students at your aero club?
We had six females.
What flight school did you got into?
I was accepted for Engels Bomber Pilots School, but when I went there I decided to visit my aero club, and the chief of the club said to me: “Listen! Do you want to change your acceptance for Chernigov Fighter Pilots School?
“Of course! What can be better then a fighter pilot career?”
To put it briefly, I arrived at Chernigov in the winter of 1940. At first we had some theoretical education; then we started to fly the UT-2.
Did you have UT-2 or UT-2M? UT-2M was a modification with better spin characteristics.
I can’t really say. We did not notice any changes. The UT-2 we had, were good enough for us.
We had made a few flights when war broke out. We were sent to a station “Verblud” near Rostov-on-Don and Zelenograd. We built dugouts there, made a barracks in it with two-tier beds. One thing I still remember—there were millions of mice.
When the Germans got close to Rostov, we were sent via Baku and Krasnovodsk to Kyzyl-Arvat.
I was initially assigned to 2nd Squadron and conducted a few flights on the I-15, but then about 20 of the best pilots were assembled in the 6th Squadron to fly the I-16. Our training was very brief—several solo flights in the “box” [local training area], then in a flight of three, then by single aircraft on a flight route, and finally by paired aircraft on a flight route.
Which planes did you fly?
UTI-4, dual-seater. I completed my training in 1942. It was in May, very hot weather. I was sent to the 13th ZAP (reserve air regiment) near Penza.
What was your rank when you left flight school?
Sergeant. Officer ranks were given to new pilots from 1943 on.
How were you fed in the fighter school?
While this may seem a strange question, in fact food was in short supply throughout the Soviet Union during the war. Military personnel and workers in the labor force were assigned a ration caloric intake based on several factors, among them their contribution to the war effort. Training units in rear areas did not eat as well as units in combat at the front. As this text indicates, further stratification of rations was imposed even in units at the front. [JG]
Not too great. But it was war. We were not really stuffed neither at Rostov, and Kyzyl-Arvat, nor in the ZAP. We were always hungry. Not that we starved, but we always wanted to have something to eat. Even when we arrived at the front, we didn’t have enough to eat.
During ZAP training, at first we were on patrol duties and kitchen service [KP, kitchen police in US military vernacular], but we did not actually fly. Then we started flying Yak fighters. I made several flights with an instructor –“box” training, then “zone,” but I did not fly solo yet.
“Box” training was “touch and go” practice in the shape of a box; “zone” training was aerobatic flight in a zone set aside for that purpose.
In January 1943, Hero of the Soviet Union Major Ivan Neustruev suddenly arrived to “buy” pilots.
The phrase to “buy” pilots refers to a system of hand-selection of pilots for a specific unit by unit representatives. These unit representatives were sometimes referred to as “merchants.”
He was a very famous pilot at Leningrad Front.
Ivan Pavlovich Neustruev (1915–1965) completed flight training in 1937, was a participant in the Soviet–Finnish War 1939–40, and fought in the Great Patriotic War from its beginning. He commanded the 11th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment, 2nd Guards Fighter Aviation Corps, PVO Strany [national antiaircraft defense]. By August 1943 he had flown 128 combat sorties, participated in 55 aerial engagements, and had a score of 11 personal and 6 shared enemy aircraft. He was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 28 September 1943.
We lined up. Neustruev walked down the line. His face showed some Tatar ancestry. He said, “This one, this one, this one…”
We were standing in our foot wraps (Marshal Timoshenko thought this up—foot wraps for pilots!)
Then: “Get them properly dressed!” He turned to us, “You are going to the front.”
It was that simple. I do not know if he had looked through our files, but he neither asked our names, nor spoke with us, nor tested us in the air. He selected 22 pilots for Leningrad Front.
How did you get to Leningrad from the ZAP?
We arrived by train at Volkhov in January 1943; from Volkhov we marched to Kobona, where we were loaded on trucks. We crossed Lake Ladoga on the ice. The “Road of Life” began at Osinovets on the other side of the lake.
The “Road of Life” is a name given to a transport route across Lake Ladoga, by water during the navigation season, and on the ice during the winter. It took this name from its purpose—to give life to the people of Leningrad through hauling in supplies. A total of 360,000 tons of cargo were moved by this route, primarily food provisions and forage for animals.
When we were loaded into the trucks, we were told, “You will have to go standing! Standing only! If the truck goes beneath the ice, jump away from it as far as you can”.
The driver drove standing up on the running board and steered through an open door. We stood in the bed of the truck. Imagine—it was January, but we were going through water as if it was a river. There were so many holes in the ice from bombing and shelling. We crossed the lake at night and I still remember those girls with lamps that showed us the route.
Then we were brought to Baskov Lane in the Admiralty area of Leningrad. The 7th PVO [antiaircraft defense] Corps commander was General Erlykin, with Colonel N.D. Antonov, HSU, being his deputy.
Nikolay Dmitrievich Antonov was a fighter pilot and veteran of the Soviet–Finnish War, 1939–40, and completed 30 combat sorties in attack and reconnaissance. He was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 21 March 1940. During the Great Patriotic War he commanded a fighter division and corps. He retired at the rank of lieutenant general in 1970 and died in 1986.
Antonov looked us over and checked our documents. We had really low flying experience. We were divided by the following criterion: those who had been flying Yaks were sent to 27 GvIAP; the rest were sent to 103rd and 102nd GvIAPs.
So, Vladimir Krotov, Alexandr Mikhailov, Denisenko, and I were sent to 158th IAP, which was reformed into 103rd GvIAP on 7 July 1943. This regiment was using “Hawks” [Kittyhawks].
What planes had you flown before that?
U-2, UT-2, UTI-4, I-16, and several flights in the Yak-7 with an instructor.
Where was your regiment stationed?
The 103rd GvIAP was stationed in Kovalevo, on an airfield with the name “Smolniy.” Now it is called “Rzhevka”.
As we were passing through the city to the airfield, we became hungry, and we were fed as soon as possible. We hadn’t seen so much bread at one time in the rear! But we were ashamed to take it. We had a ration, while our techs were starving. Only flight crews received full rations.
Vladimir Krotov, Alexandr Mikhailov, and I were assigned to 1st Squadron.
In the morning we were brought to the airfield and saw our airplanes for the first time. We were told what kind of a beast “Kittyhawks” were; we called them little bombers, because of its “beard” [radiator intake cowling] and low speed.
We were introduced to squadron commander Litavrin and squadron commissar Major Leshkevich. We saw two men walking toward us: one was in a raglan coat without shoulder straps, a young boy, very handsome; he looked like a girl. The second one was older. We discussed among ourselves, “This old one must be ‘Dad,’ and that young one should be Leshkevich.”
The Russian term of endearment used for “Dad” here is equivalent to our own expression for the commander—“the old man.” [JG]
Sergei Demenkov said, “I will introduce you to squadron commander.
The two men walked up to us and the young one removed his raglan coat. And what we saw: Order of Combat Red Banner, Order of Lenin, Gold Star! It was Hero of the Soviet Union Sergey Litavrin.
Sergey Litavrin entered the Soviet Army in 1939 and completed flight training in 1940. Between June 1941 and December 1942, he flew 311 combat sorties, and in 55 aerial engagements downed 10 enemy aircraft. He received the rank Hero of the Soviet Union on 28 January 1943. Litavrin was killed in an aircraft accident on April 2, 1957 at the rank of colonel.
We were shocked! We were going to be in his squadron!
At that time neither flight leader Sergei Demenkov nor Grigoriy Bogomazov were Heroes. They both received their stars in 1943.
Sergey Demenkov entered the Soviet Army in 1939 and completed flight training in 1940. Between June 1941 and August 1943, he flew 313 combat sorties, and in 51 aerial engagements downed 11 enemy aircraft. He received the rank Hero of the Soviet Union on 28 September 1943. Demenkov retired at the rank of major general in 1975.
Grigoriy Bogomazov entered the Soviet Army in 1938 and completed flight training the same year. From June 1941 to July 1943, he flew 350 combat sorties, and in 50 aerial engagements downed 12 (plus 4 shared) enemy aircraft. He received the rank Hero of the Soviet Union on 2 September 1943. Bogomazov retired at the rank of colonel in 1969.
We were introduced to Litavrin, and he assigned me as wingman to Demenkov.
So we began to fly Kittyhawks and train for future fights. To test my flying abilities, Litavrin took me into the air in UTI-4.
I took off.
“OK, begin aerobatics . . .”
Well, I began flying like we were taught at school. He said, “Who flies this way? Let me show you!”
And he sure did…
This is, I thought, some pilot, my squadron commander!
“This is how you should fly!”
I said, “Understood!”
We made several “boxes” with him, and everything was fine.
As I was looking around the Kittyhawk’s cockpit, he said to me, “You will fly solely in the Kittyhawk!”
Did you have problems with transition? For example, weren’t [instrument] indications in feet a problem?
Of course there were problems. And I had my first when I was making my maiden flight in the Kittyhawk. The UTI had no elevator trimmers. I was taking off in a Kittyhawk, and it just lifted off; but I couldn’t hold the plane in a climb even with both hands! It did not gain altitude, and as it gained speed, it grew more difficult to keep it level. What is going on? Then it suddenly came to me! Trimmers! Still, I landed safely. I was asked, “Why you held level for so long?”
But I did not confess. “I decided to gain a bit of speed”
I made several “box” flights and everything went all right.
“Well, you have to go to the zone now.”
So I did. I gained altitude and looked at the altimeter, but it was showing zero! It was simple – 10,000 feet or 3,000 meters and the altimeter made a “fool” loop and showed zero; but I did not know about this. What’s happening now? Zero! But I have altitude.
I pressed the stick away from me, and altimeter started moving. Altitude was indicated in feet, but we soon understood that 10,000 feet means 3,000 meters. 3,000 feet – 1,000 meters.
Abrek Arkadievich Barsht said the same thing, but he flew Hurricanes.
He used to be my deputy after the war.
So I went up to 10,000 feet again and thought, “I should try this plane out in a spin.” So I started the spin as I was instructed. We were told that Kittyhavks were strict, but I had no problems. I did left and right spins.
Did the Kittyhawk warn that it would spin?
Yes, it gave slight shudders. I did a right spin once again, then a split-S, loop, and the rest of the aerobatics. Everything seemed to be all right.
Did the Kittyhawk come out of a spin easily?
Yes, no problems at all.
So I flew into the zone. Now I had to engage in a mock dogfight. I flew with Vinnichenko, and I really kicked his tail.
Vinnichenko was later killed over the base; he spun, was unable to get control over his plane, and crashed. There was no fight; he just crashed by himself.
Fedor Ivanovich Vinnichenko, born in Luganskaya oblast in 1920, died on 30 May 1943 at the rank of junior lieutenant. According to archival records, he failed to return from a combat mission while flying a P-40.
We received an order to fly to Ivanovo to pick up new Kittyhawks. When we returned, we were eager to get into combat.
It happened that something was wrong with Demenkov’s plane, and he said to me, “I’ll take your plane.”
I replied, “Comrade senior lieutenant, I also want to “draw stars” [paint victory stars on the aircraft].
“You will have a lot of time for that.”
So he took off in my shiny new plane. There was a dogfight, but everything ended well.
The next dogfight took place on the 18th of March. I had just turned 20 years old. We took off and Litavrin took the lead. Arkadiy Morozov was his wingman and I was wingman to Demenkov.
Senior Lieutenant Arkadiy Ivanovich Morozov, born 1922, died 17 June 1944 when he failed to return from a combat mission in a P-39. At the time of his death, he had 8 personal kills.
We flew in pairs—the three-plane formation had been abandoned. The Germans taught us well.
We had a vector to Krasniy Bor. We flew at the altitude of 3,000 meters. Litavrin points. “Look—a pair of Messers.
They were above us, so we started a dogfight.
We used to ask Litavrin how we should act during a dogfight.
“Everything is simple: If you become separated,” he said, “the Germans will shoot you down. If you become frightened and run away, I will shoot you down myself. Is that clear?”
So I got a grip on Demenkov’s tail. He later told me, “I was afraid that you would cut my tail with your propeller.”
He was a great pilot, and turned with “streams” [vapor trails]. We fought for a long time. He started to perform a split-S; I was following him, and suddenly “Boom!” The German hit me and my engine stalled. At first I continued diving, then glided across the Neva River to Manushkino, and belly-landed.
This was my first fight. I got out of the plane and saw our soldiers, who told me that this was an AAA site [anti-aircraft artillery].
Did you see who hit you?
How could I? I just felt the impact and my engine died. And that was it.
Once I got out of the plane, I saw a large hole in my upper fuselage, behind the cockpit. I looked at it and collapsed to the wing. I was so tired. Arkadiy Morozov was circling above me. I should have waved to him, but I couldn’t think at the moment. I just lay on the wing and looked up at him. When he returned to the base, he reported that he had spotted me belly-landing near Manushkino, and then saw me lying out on the wing. Since I did not wave at him, he concluded I must be seriously wounded.
But I just did not think about it. Then an AAA battery commander (a captain) arrived.
“How did you manage to land here without being seen by us?
I said, “It’s great that you did not see me, or you would have finished me off!”
We had some laughs and talked a while. He also was from Gorkiy. I asked him if he could arrange a place for me to sleep. He took me to his dugout, where I slept until a truck from Kovalevo came to pick me up.
What happened to the airplane?
It was evacuated to a repairs facility, but that was none of my business, and I do not know where it was located.
When did you get another plane after your return to the regiment?
For some time I had no plane. During this time there were some dogfights. Vasiliy Makukha came back wounded, but his plane was also sent for repairs.
Junior Lieutenant Vasiliy Yakovlevich Makukha, born 1919, did not return from a combat mission on 21 (from other sources 18) June, 1943. At the time of his death, he had three personal kills.
I was given the airplane of HSU Ponomarchuk, our regiment commander, who rarely flew.
Stepan Yefemovich Ponomarchuk entered the Soviet Army in 1934 and completed flight training in 1937. He flew a fast bomber in the Soviet–Finnish War 1939–40, and was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 5 February 1940. He retired as a colonel in 1968.
He had 1 kill. For example, he brought aircraft from Ivanovo and we flew escorts with him at dusk.
Do you remember the tactical numbers on your aircraft?
I can’t remember now, two digit numbers. I can’t even recall the color of the numerals.
Were there any rapid recognition elements?
This is a reference to specific paint markings placed on the aircraft to permit pilots rapidly to recognize each other at speed in the air.
No, no rapid recognition elements.
Do you remember how your planes were painted?
The planes which we received at Ivanovo were of sand color and they had some spots. The bellies were white or blue. We were told that these planes came from Iran.
What type of armaments did your planes have?
Six 12.7mm [.50 caliber] Brownings. We used to say about our Kittyhawks in the manner of the “Volga-Volga” comedy movie: “America presented airplanes to Russia with six machine guns and a very low speed.”
Was there a practice of reducing armament of the aircraft in order to reduce weight?
No, we had six guns and that was good enough.
At what distance was your convergence set?
200 meters. They were good at this distance.
But what if you fired at a target, let’s say, 400 meters away?
Well, who will shoot at such a distance? 400 meters is way too far.
How would you know that you are shooting at 200 meters? What kind of gun sight did you have?
It was visible in the gun sight, it was good for aiming. What the gun-sight name was, I can’t say. It was a piece of glass with a light bulb.
Was there any armor installed [in your cockpit]?
We had armored seat backs. But it wasn’t too good at protecting us. We also had an armored windscreen.
How good was the visibility from a Kittyhawk?
Oh! It was great.
And what about the radios?
The radio was excellent. It was the main thing that saved us in combat.
Did you have any “gifted” airplanes?
A “gifted” airplane was one paid for by a group of factory or collective farm workers or other group of people. One of the more well-known “gifted” Lend-lease aircraft was an A-20 Boston paid for and donated by the American comedian Red Skelton. It had “We Do’od It!” painted on the nose. [JG]
No, we had none of those.
Did you use American or our fuel?
Were there any limitations when you used our fuel?
No, there were no limitations. I later flew Cobras, but there were no limitations then, either.
Anyway – we got carried away. When I returned, I thought: “How did this happen? I wanted to ‘draw a star,’ but I did not even see who shot me down”. And finally, on 24 March I got an order to fly: “You will be Grigoriy Bogomazov’s wingman.”
There were six of us; Bogomazov was the leader. I flew the regiment commander’s brand new aircraft, Demenkov had Morozov on his wing, and 3rd Squadron commander Shishkan, HSU, flew with someone else.
Ilya Minovich Shishkan, born in 1918, entered the Soviet Army in 1937 and completed flight training in 1940. By December 1942, he had flown 373 combat sorties, and in 56 aerial engagements had shot down 12 personally and 4 in group. He was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 28 January 1943, and was killed in aerial combat on 21 June 1943.
Colonel Antonov from the observation post (OP) shouted: “Faster, Kittyhawks! Faster, Kittyhawks!”
We flew to Krasniy Bor. I was a bit higher, and we noticed Ju-88s coming in three-plane formations.
Antonov from the OP: “Faster! Bombers are close; they are about to commence bombing run!”
I said to Bogomazov, “I’m attacking! Cover me!”
And I began to attack the enemy bombers head-on. I was shooting from head-on-above and saw how tracers disappeared into the enemy bomber’s cabin. After that I popped up with a combat turn. I turned my head to see where Grigoriy was, and when I turned it back to normal position I saw a Fokker. He was at 50–25 meters, when I saw his crosses as big as my windscreen!
I just stitched him with bullets down the entire length of his fuselage, and while I did this another German hit my plane from behind. My plane was set on fire and I had to bail out.
This was my first parachute jump, and because of lack of experience I opened my chute straight away. We fought pretty high, and as I opened my chute wind started to carry me toward enemy territory. I landed behind enemy lines. My comrades reported that two planes were shot down, a Junkers and a Fokker.
Everybody started to congratulate Shishkan, but he said, “No, they’re Kulakov’s victories. I had nothing to do with them.”
Meanwhile, I landed near the front line, and was hanging in a large pine tree about 1.5 meters from ground. I started to open my parachute release clamps, thinking the Germans must be nearby. I removed the shoulder straps and went upside down! With severe difficulties I managed to get free from the leg straps and run away. The forest was full of sounds – I heard shooting. Il-2s were strafing and AAA was firing. I ran for some time; I’m not sure exactly how long, and finally decided that this was enough. To make sure, I decided to climb a tree and check the surrounding territory from above. So I started climbing a pine tree like a squirrel, and at the time I weighed 64 kilos [approximately 140 pounds]! So I made it up to some branch, and thought… I knew that this was enemy-held territory, but I wanted to be sure. Stupid boy! I climbed down and moved toward the front line, and suddenly I encountered some gun position. Germans started shooting. Everything became clear now.
So I turned around and went to the rear, and came across a small river. I was standing at the bank, when a thought struck me: “They’ll send dogs after me! I have to get across to shake them from my tail!” What dogs could be on the front line? But my imagination worked well. As I was approaching the river, I spotted two Germans with machine pistols. I waited behind the tree, gripping my own pistol until they passed, and ran away once again. Then I found a place where I crossed the river; it wasn’t too deep and went to the forest. I found a crater, hid there, and decided to find some partisans, as it would soon get dark. I finally found the railroad that connected Krasniy Bor and Sablino. I stood in the forest for some time, and watched some woman wash clothes. After a while, some railroad trackmen passed through, after that a hand car, and then a train passed. I waited until everything was quiet and crossed the tracks.
It was March and snow was everywhere. I was dressed in calf-leather boots and a greatcoat. We actually flew in soldiers’ blouses—the Kittyhawk had great heaters. I just had no time to get change uniforms before we took off, and this circumstance saved my life. I would have frozen to death otherwise.
I found another crater, made a bed of branches, and settled down to rest. I was not sleeping, just resting and thinking: “No, I have to move.” That was my second day “abroad” [behind enemy lines].
I had three 100-gram chocolate bars with me – we were given those as “NZ” before we took off.
This is a common Russian military acronym for neprikosnovennyy zapas [untouchable supply]. It is used with any type of supply, the final remaining portion of which is “untouchable” except in a dire emergency. [JG]
It was common that pilots who bailed out were unable to get to our forces and died by freezing or hunger, so we had some chocolate and vitamins as “NZ.” In one pocket I had these vitamins and chocolate, and in the other I had about 50 rounds for my pistol.
Which pistol were you issued?
The same as everyone else—the TT.
Two sidearms were in common use during this war—the Nagant Model 1895 revolver, and the Tokarev Model 1933 semi-automatic pistol, commonly referred to as the TT (Tulskiy, Tokareva [Tula, Tokarev]). [JG]
So, when I felt that I was getting weaker, I would take a bite of chocolate. I kept walking around the forests; my feet got frostbitten, it became obvious that I will never find partisans, and finally I decided to try and cross the front line.
At night, it was about 0200, I came to Sablino. I tried to look through the windows, but they were covered by curtains. I found a heated bath house [sauna] and hid there. But I thought, “They have heated the place, so they will come to use it. No, I cannot stay here.”
Near one house was a river, and I had to cross it. But I was not happy with the thought of swimming in March. So I had to cross it by bridge. I did not know if it was guarded or not. I found a shed, and heard some animal breathing there. I climbed up to the loft, found some hay, and fell asleep there. In the morning I hoped to determine if the bridge was guarded. I had no will power to swim across that river in such cold weather.
In the morning I saw a boy urinating from the bridge. Then a German soldier walked up next to him and started to urinate as well. But I still had no idea if this bridge was guarded. So I thought to myself: “Let’s wait for day light and see.”
I saw kids playing soldier. I thought they would be playing Germans against Russians, but they were playing “Red” against “White.”
The “Reds” were the Communist forces during Russia’s Civil War and the “Whites” were the opposing forces, led primarily by former Tsarist Army officers.
Then I heard the mother of one of the boys shouting: “Kolka, go fetch some leftovers for our cow from the German canteen.” He was somewhere around eight years old.
Then the women began to stoke the fire in the bath house. I could hear what they were saying, but I could not see who was saying what: “Wait, Nyurka, our troops will come and they’ll show you how to sleep with Germans.”
She replied, “I’m free to sleep with whomever I please.”
At that moment I had only one thing in mind—I wanted some bread, or at least to smell it. It was my third day behind enemy lines. I tried to preserve chocolate as long as I could.
By the evening a heavy snowfall began, and I saw three Germans in officers’ coats going into the sauna. My first thought was to get inside and kill them all, but then I thought – what good I will get of that? And so I just ran across the bridge. As soon as I began crossing, I saw a guard post on the other side of the bridge. But it was snowing, I was in a great coat, and one could not tell if I was a German or a Russian.
As I got closer to the front line, German illumination rockets became more dangerous to me. When one would go into the air, I would fall to the ground and play dead. Somewhere nearby I heard a machine gun firing…
I knew that Krasniy Bor should be in our hands. I came out of the forest, and instead of a village I found a single building. Later I found out that in each cellar and in dugouts there were soldiers, a whole division of them.
My first thought was, “Germans must have captured Krasniy Bor, since no one stopped me.”
So, you simply crossed the frontline?
I did not know that I had crossed it. I thought that I was still in enemy-held territory, as I had not encountered any enemy trenches. So, I was moving toward a building, when suddenly I heard a shell coming my way. I was close to that building, just passing a damaged tank. As I fell to the ground, the shell exploded on the other side of that tank. Someone shouted, “Fedorov! Guys! His leg was blown off!”
Russians. Who are they? Some scouts? I looked out and saw two signalers with a starshina [first sergeant]. I jumped out and shouted, “Starshina, is Krasniy Bor ours?
“Move faster, they are about to start shelling us again.”
I said, “I’m a pilot; I was shot down and I have returned from the other side. Let me talk to the company leader.
“Comrade Senior lieutenant, there is some pilot here from the other side. He wants to talk to you.”
The lieutenant came out of the dugout and said, “Come here!”
But I noticed there was some water on the floor of the dugout. “My feet are frostbitten; can we go somewhere drier?”
“Let’s go to the division command post.”
It was really close, about 15 meters. We went in. There was a colonel in a black blouse with an Order of the Red Banner and an Order of Lenin on his chest. (A black uniform was a special privilege given to naval officers.) This was a real stroke of luck.
Excuse me, the divisional command post was 15 meters away from the company command post?
Yes. It was well camouflaged. I reported to this colonel, “Comrade Colonel, Sergeant Kulakov, shot down on…”
“We saw your fight. Here, have something to eat.”
I said, “I’d like to have some bread, and I need help with my feet.”
He gave me bread, and I moved to the stove and began to feel my feet getting warmer. So I said, “I have something going on with my feet.”
“Don’t worry; we will arrange a stretcher for you.”
“I’ll walk myself; it’s not too far.” As I tried to stand up I lost consciousness! So they carried me to the medical battalion (field hospital – looks like MASH from the famous TV serial). They started to undress me and cut my boots away. Some girl came forward and I gave her all the remaining chocolate. Then I said, “Give me back my pistol.” As soon as I took it, I lost consciousness again.
When I woke up I couldn’t quite understand where I was; there were curtains on the windows. I was in an evacuation hospital in Kolpino. I called out, “Nurse! I’d like to see a doctor.”
The doctor came to me and asked, “Haven’t you fed him?”
“He was brought in sleeping, with a pistol in his hand. We thought that he was dead, but he was sleeping. He was just barely breathing, but hasn’t moved for all this time.”
Why was I gripping my TT? Because infantry soldiers hunted after them. But I did not give it to anybody.
The doctor said to me, “Don’t worry about your feet, you will be able to dance.”
A colonel from the “special department” (osobyy otdel) came to me and I described the situation to him. He told me, “Well, let’s go to Hospital No. 101.”
My feet were bandaged, so they loaded me into the back of a truck and brought me to this “hospital.” What I did not notice at first – there was a guard at the entrance. So I went in. There was a large hall, no furniture, no beds.
“Go on,” he said, “sit down in that chair.”
You still had your pistol?
I hadn’t given it away, and it was in my holster. I sat down and waited for some time.
“Listen,” I said. “Where are all the doctors?”
“What doctors? You are in a special department.”
“Where? What about ‘Hospital No. 101?’ Who is in charge here?”
A senior lieutenant came up to me, took my pistol away, and started asking me questions. “Tell me what happened.”
I told him everything.
“You can tell this to your girlfriend.” he said. “You had better tell me what kind of a mission you were on.”
I answered, “What do you mean ‘what kind of mission?’ I was shot down on the 24th of March, and I returned back on 28th. I told you where I was, I described my route. And yes, I saw Germans, but they did not see me.”
“Think some more about what your mission was.”
I said to him, “Call General Yerlykin. Tell him that Kulakov has returned.”
He said once again, “Think long and hard.”
“There is nothing to think about! Why are you trying to make a spy out of me?”
“Go and think.”
So I went. They put me in the cellar. There were two young deserters and an old man already there. It was cold and damp…
I said to the guard, “The senior lieutenant ordered a bed to be put in here for me.”
After some time they brought a two-course meal to me. Later they brought a bed to me. Everything would be great, except that it was so irritating. The deserters got nothing. I asked the old man, “Gramps, what are you doing here?”
“When we started assaulting enemy positions, I became frightened and hid under some bushes. But they found me and brought me here.”
I was summoned for interrogation once again.
“So, have you decided to tell the truth?”
“I told you the truth.”
“Write it down.”
I said “Write what? I told you everything. If you want – you write.”
“Go and think some more.”
As I left the room, I met an aviation captain.
“Comrade Captain, do you know General Yerlykin?”
He said, “Yes, I do.”
“Please, pass the word to him that Sergeant Kulakov, who was shot down on the 24th is currently here.
I had access to the newspapers and read there, “Heroic act by Junior Lieutenant Kulakov. He shot down a Junkers and a Focke-Wulf.” There was an entire article on the subject. I thought, “It must be some other Kulakov.” Of course they did not write about the type of aircraft in this flight or who else was flying. But actually I was the main person in this article—a junior lieutenant’s rank was given to me on the 24th, but no one told me about it!
Two days passed, and on the third day I was called for interrogation again.
“OK,” he said. “Start talking.”
“I told you all I could. I was in Sablino, but I was not in captivity.”
“Do not worry, I will have to write everything down again.”
Then, suddenly, a door opened, and my regiment commander and commissar walked in. “Son!” (He called me a son, as I was the youngest in the regiment.) We hugged.
“We would like to congratulate you—you have been appointed to the rank of junior lieutenant.”
The regiment commander sent me to our hospital in Lisiy Nos. I spent a week there, and I was sent to Vsevolozhsk to a recuperation facility. I had some rest, the skin peeled off of my feet, and everything returned to normal. Our airfield turned into a marsh and we flew to Levashovo airfield. It was April of 1943.
Did you have any contact with naval pilots?
No. They had their own base in Priyutino, while we were stationed in Kovalevo. PVO was based at Uglovo, Kovalevo, Gorskaya, and Levashovo.
Levashovo was used for transport aviation?
And for transport aviation as well.
Grizodubova was stationed there for some time with her NBAP [night bombers].
This is a reference to the famous female aviator, Valentina Grizodubova (1910–1993), who earned Hero of the Soviet Union in 1938 for a world-record long-distance flight from Moscow to Siberia. During the war she commanded a regiment of long-range aviation (ADD) and later a bomber regiment.
We also were stationed there in 1944, when we flew Cobras.
When you came back, from where did you receive a new Kittyhawk?
We had some already when I returned. We started flying from Levashovo. Then, Kovalevo dried out and we returned there.
Rzhevka was an earthen airfield?
Yes, there was no concrete. That’s why we were transferred either to Levashovo or Gorskaya.
They were all-weather airfields?
Gorskaya was made of some black cinders, while in Uglovo there was a concrete runway. These two were all-weather bases.
What were your main missions?
We were assigned to PVO of Leningrad, 7th IAK PVO, and our main task was to repel bombers from Leningrad. But due to lack of forces, we were given tasks not well coordinated with PVO. We had to fly escorts for reconnaissance aircraft, forward air controllers, shturmoviks [ground-attack aircraft], and bombers. We had to strafe ground forces, although without bombs, and we had to fight for air superiority.
Which planes flew as forward air controllers?
You escorted Ils from a different regiment?
From a regiment stationed in Kasimovo. We were given an order to escort them very early in the morning, so we flew to Kasimovo in the evening and took off in the morning. There were six of us covering Ils during the strafing of Siverskaya airbase.
Were you communicating with the Il pilots in flight?
Our flight leader had a radio connection with the Il leader; the rest were connected only to each other.
Did you see the results of the strafing run?
Yes, of course. We were no higher then 2,000 meters.
Quite commonly we can see a following situation: our pilots claimed that they destroyed, let’s say 20 enemy planes, while the Germans claim that they suffered no losses.
They strafed them really good – you know, they attacked in regiment strength. I say what I saw. And there was a last crew with a camera that showed the results of the strike. We were there to keep our planes out of reach of the enemy fighters.
You have claimed two He-111s in one fight?
Yes. There were nine of them, and they were going to bomb Volkhov. We met them to the south from Zhikharevo, and attacked the last three. Our fighters attacked Fokkers, and because of that we were free to pick a target of our pleasure. Litavrin was the leader, I was on his right wing, and Sysoev was on his left. We attacked them from below and I shot my target down. Sysoev was shooting at the left bomber. We began to fire from about 200 meters and continued until we got to point-blank range. Litavrin’s plane was damaged and he landed at Volkhov airfield. Litavrin killed the gunner in his He-111 and I finished it off. Basically speaking, it was a shared kill, but it was credited to me as personal.
Were tracers well visible?
Yes. If you did not hit the aircraft you see how it arc downward, and if you hit—the tracer would stop at the plane or it would change trajectory.
Were you able to see explosions of the bullets on the enemy aircraft?
You could see only the tracers. Besides, we had no time to look at explosions or whatever—we had to look at our tails. For example, four of us came to Volkhov and we were attacked by six Fokkers.
I was looking out front, but then something made me turn my head and I spotted a yellow spinner right behind me. When he fired at me, I just made a skid and I saw four tracer lines. I just thought that this was it, but the German missed! As if it was not enough, he overshot, so I just pressed left rudder and sprayed him with bullets from no farther then 50 meters. That’s how I shot down my second Fokker.
Did you notice anything special about this Focke-Wulf?
It had a yellow spinner, and I think I saw some kind of painting on it. It may have been a spiral. And those four tracers. They shot down 1st pair leader Mikhail Iosifovich Mukhin and my wingman Vasilii Makukha. They caught him in a split-S. We lost two planes that time, but I returned with Petrov.
How often would the Germans launch an air raid on Leningrad?
I came to the regiment in 1943, and at that time air raids were very infrequent. Mostly they would try to sneak in at night.
Do you remember any friendly fire?
Once, above Osinovets. Denisenko was shot down on that day. A Yak-7 tried to get behind me, but I never let anybody at my tail. The Kittyhawk had a tighter turn, so I easily outmaneuvered him and positioned myself behind him. After that the Yak pilot dove down, and I was not going to chase him. When I landed I was told that it was a Yak piloted by Germans. I could have shot him down easily. But I did not know who the pilot was at the time of the engagement and was afraid to kill one of our own pilots by mistake.
Do you say that the Kittyhawk was better in terms of maneuverability than Yaks?
In horizontal maneuver? Of course! But the Yak was better at vertical maneuver. It was a lot faster.
In the ZAP [reserve air regiment] you flew Yaks and after that you switched to Kittyhawks. Was there a difference in piloting these two aircraft?
I made only several flights in a Yak, so my comparison may not be correct. In my opinion, the Yak was simpler, but the Kittyhawk was not so difficult for me either.
Which cockpit did you prefer?
If speaking of comfort—the Kittyhawk. It also had a great radio, and it even had a relief tube for urination!
During the war, you flew the Kittyhawk, Cobra, and Spitfire?
We finished out 1943 in Kittyhawks, and on New Year’s Eve we were sent to Vaziani airbase near Tbilisi to transition to Cobras.
It was a long journey—at first we went to Moscow, and after that we flew to Vaziani in a Douglas [C-47 or Li-2].
You left Leningrad via the “Road of Life” or the “road of victory?”
The blockade had been breached and we traveled by train. We were even warned not to light up anything in the rail cars, or the Germans would start shelling. But we managed to get through without any accidents.
We arrived in Tbilisi and started familiarization with the Cobras, “box” flying. All the numbers were again in feet and miles, but it was not a problem.
What was the Cobra’s armament?
It had a cannon and two machine guns.
Which cannons were in your Cobras?
The first ones had 20 mm cannons, and later we received aircraft with the 37 mm.
What is your opinion about The Cobra after the Kittyhawk?
I’ll tell you this: we had inappropriate tasks for Cobras, for example, escort. It was a very weak airplane at low altitude. It was good above 5,000 meters, and it had great maneuverability there. Below 5,000 meters, it was unresponsive.
The Americans used Cobras as a ground attack aircraft because it was considered a low-altitude aircraft. Therefore they maintained the Cobra in their inventory for a relatively brief period. They dumped them on us.
Still, we had some great aces who flew cobras: HSU Andrey Chirkov, for example.
Andrey Vasilevich Chirkov, born in 1917, entered the Soviet Army in 1937 and completed flight training in 1938. He fought in the Soviet–Finnish War 1939–40, and in the Great Patriotic War from June 1941. By June 1943, as deputy commander for aerial gunnery of the 29th Guards Fighter Regiment, Guards Major Chirkov had flown 389 combat missions, and in 60 aerial engagements had a personal score of 23 (including one ram), and an additional 9 shared kills.He was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 4 February 1944. He retired from active duty in 1949 and died in October 1956.
But he was shot down, and all because of incorrect use of the aircraft.
So the Kittyhawk was better in these roles?
In terms of horizontal maneuverability, yes. In terms of vertical maneuver, and especially in a dive, the Cobra was better. And the Cobra was a bit, but not decisively faster. Pokryshkin fought in a Cobra, but we were told that he had early versions with a more forward center of gravity. [Pokryshkin flew different versions, not just early ones. Ed.]
We received Cobras with a rearward center of gravity. We had three pilots killed in a very short time. Three men were killed in training, not in combat, and they were good pilots too. And I know there were a lot of accidents in 102 GvIAP.
In our regiment, squadron commander Vladimir Krotov was killed in a training flight. We were sitting at Gorskaya; he was working out aerobatics and spun to the ground. He had no chance of recovering, and he crashed in the Gulf of Finland. In my squadron, Vasiliy Yakovlev also spun and crashed. Natoka from 1st Squadron… can’t remember his name.
You know, it spun very specifically, around its own tail. Everyone was used to normal spins, but it had a rearward center of gravity. After a series of crashes, an inspector came from Moscow to show us how to counter the spins in the Cobra. Some major, I can’t recall his surname now. He explained everything by word, and invited regiment commander Bukhteev to try his recommendations out. We had no double seater, so they were flying side by side. Bukhteev was the first to try new technique, but he barely made it! The inspector himself almost crashed. He landed in Zelenogorsk and we never saw him again. That’s how our “spin education” ended. When all our cobras were used up, we got Spitfires.
Was it in 1944 or in 1945?
Maybe at the end of 1944. I’m not sure. In 1945 we met the column of victorious soldiers—they were marching along Moskovskiy Prospect, and we flew toward them at 500 meters altitude. Then we turned around above Pulkovo and flew in the same direction.
While you flew Cobras, you shot down a Brewster. Could you describe what happened?
We were covering a Pe-2 which was supposed to take photographs of Vyborg. It was somewhere around July 1944. Our leader was the chief of aerial gunnery training, Major Savchuk.
What was your rank at the time?
I was a lieutenant at that time. By the way, I was a squadron commander at the rank of junior lieutenant. Young pilots arrived as lieutenants, but I was still a junior lieutenant. General Antonov once came to our airbase and said, “You will be commanding a corps in the rank of junior lieutenant!”
And after that I was promoted to full lieutenant.
So, we were sleeping in dugouts, and I was such a heavy sleeper that I overslept the order to take off. Then, suddenly, I woke up. “What about the mission?”
“They just took off!”
I ran to my plane and took off with my wingman, Mikhail Sirotenko. It is quite possible that my lateness saved the day.
As I gained on them, I noticed four Brewsters which were trying to attack the Pe-2. And, most importantly—my friends couldn’t see them! I aimed and fired my cannon from below and behind and hit the last Brewster. It blew up in mid air! I saw an explosion and some pieces started to fall off of him.
Are you sure that those were Brewsters? Finnish archives do not confirm any losses of these airplanes on this date.
I do not know. Small, blunt-nosed, but definitely not a Focke-Wulf. By silhouette, it was a Brewster. But you know what? We were not looking for camouflage or markings. We had to shoot them down, and it did not matter what they were called.
The Peshka made a split-S and I followed her. Meanwhile, the remaining fighters started a dogfight behind us. But our main task was achieved—the Pe-2 was safe. If we had lost it, we could have been court martialed.
Do you know of any such cases?
Yes, for example HSU Nikolay Zelenov.
Nikolay Andrianovich Zelenov, born in 1917, entered the Soviet Army in 1936 and completed flight training. Fought in the Soviet–Finnish War 1939–40 and the Great Patriotic War from June 1941. By the end of July 1942, while assigned to the 154th Fighter Regiment, he had flown 382 combat missions and in 47 aerial engagements had scored 9 personal and 8 shared kills. He was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 10 February 1943. At the time of his death in June 1944, his score had risen to 31 personal and 10 shared victories.
He flew out on a Pe-2 escort mission. I do not know what exactly happened, but Fokkers shot several Pe-2s down. He was sentenced to 10 years, literally. He kept fighting and was cleared of all guilt.
Andrey Chirkov also was sentenced for 10 years for crashing a Yak with a mechanic riding inside his aircraft, behind the pilot’s seat. He wanted to commit suicide, but Zelenov saw it all and shouted, “Andrey, what are you doing!”
Chirkov shot himself through both of his cheeks and lost consciousness. Medics stitched him up and then he was sentenced to 10 years.
You asked about Plekhanov. Ivan Plekhanov was in our regiment, and he lost a hand (he had a score of 14 + 2). This happened before my arrival in the regiment.
Later he went with Bogomazov to receive awards. They received their awards and remained in the school for advanced combat training in Lyubertsy, near Moscow. Bogomazov was the deputy chief of the training center, and Plekhanov was the chief of the airfield service battalion. I met both of them in 1943. I saw Plekhanov there for the first time. They shot him down in his last engagement, and severed his right hand. But he was able to bail out; he pulled the pin with his left hand. This happened in the area of Plekhanovo [locale]. He used to say: “My last name is Plekhanov; that means that I should do something spectacular here.”
When they shot me down, they send my relatives the news: “Your son has died.” Well, later they wrote a letter that I was alive, but my father and mother were worried. My regiment commander, Stepan Yefimovich Ponomarchuk, gave me 10 days of leave. And I flew to Moscow on a routine Li-2, to Lyubertsy. There Grisha Bogomazov met me.
“Let’s go to the cafeteria. I’m a Hero now, and we must celebrate.”
Grigoriy Ivanovich Bogomazov, born in 1918, entered the Soviet Army and completed flight training in 1938. As a deputy squadron commander in the 158th Fighter Air Regiment, by July 1943 Senior Lieutenant Bogomazov had flown 350 combat sorties and in 50 aerial engagements had scored 12 personal and 4 shared victories. He was awarded the rank Hero of the Soviet Union on 2 September 1943. He retired from active duty at the rank of colonel in 1969.
So they laid a table. Plekhanov, Grisha Bogomazov, and Valentin Makarov, Hero of the Soviet Union and native of Stalingrad.
Valentin Nikolaevich Makarov was born in 1919, entered the Soviet Army in 1936, and completed flight training in 1938. As a flight commander in the 32nd Guards Fighter Air regiment, by September 1943 Senior Lieutenant Makarov had flown 132 combat sorties, and in 51 aerial engagements shot down 13 enemy aircraft. He was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 28 September 1943. He continued in service after the war, retiring in 1957 at the rank of colonel.
He also was in Moscow at the time. This was the 6th of November 1943. I remember the date because the Kremlin cafeteria made us a special cake. We drank and ate finger food, then decided to go see Vasiliy Stalin in the Kremlin. Bogomazov and Plekhanov knew Vasiliy Stalin—they had attended flight school with him.
They were captains and a major (Makarov), and all Heroes of the Soviet Union, and there I was—a junior lieutenant with one Order of the Red Star. I had only ten days of leave, and I had to visit my parents. So I told them to go to the Kremlin, and I was going home! They accompanied me to Kursk Railroad Station, we bought a ticket for me, sat together for a while, and I left.
They went to see Vasiliy Stalin. He met with them, and they later told me that at the time he was “under the supervision” of his father. “We sat in a separate room, drank, and everything was normal. Then we left.”
We touched upon the matter of awards. What awards did you receive?
I received my first Order of the Red Star for two downed aircraft. They disapproved a Red Banner. They thought it would be inappropriate to give out a Red Banner right away, that I should earn a Red Star first. My next decoration was Order of the Patriotic War II Degree, and later Order of the Patriotic War I Degree. Then came the Order of Lenin, and another Order of the Red Star. This one was for mastering jet technology in complex flight conditions. So altogether I have three Orders of the Red Star, Three Orders of the Patriotic War, and the Order of Lenin.
During the premiership of Mikhail Gorbachev, surviving World War II veterans were given an Order of the Patriotic War. Some veterans did not value this award because it was bestowed by an unpopular political figure, while others discounted it because it had been issued in such large quantities.
In your opinion, were commissars needed?
I will tell you that commissars, if they were needed, should have been flying. And not all of them flew.
We had our own Leshkevich, squadron commissar, and he did not fly.
“I am not a pilot!” He said. “I want to fight!”
He got what he wanted. They transferred him to ground forces, and he was killed somewhere around Novgorod. During an offensive, I think.
Our regiment commissar was Zloy. That was his family name. [Zloy means “angry” or “malicious” in Russian.] But he was utterly not malicious. He was a good man, a former pilot. He was taken off of flight status for health reasons.
Were osobisty [special department officers] needed?
Osobosty? I met with them when they checked me out after my return [from behind the lines].
I had a conversation with the Osobisty once. I will tell you everything that I know.
The war had ended. In 1952, when I was already flying jets, I submitted a request to attend academy, to study.
Suddenly one day, a notification comes to the regiment navigator, Tatarchuk, and to flight commander Borya Kravchenko. But I, the commander of 1st Squadron, did not receive a notification. I asked Kulkin, “Comrade commander, why no notification for me? My 1st Squadron is the best. We have not had any flying incidents. We are training constantly. Why?
He made a telephone call to the secret department and asked them to bring him something. He handed me a document case. “Read this.”
It was labeled “Personal file of Captain Kulakov.” I read, “. . . do not recommend for higher training.” It was signed by Major Voblikov, the chief of the special department of the division. I had never laid eyes on this Voblikov.
A day or so later, we had a party business meeting. The chief of staff, Ivan Pavlovich Taranenko, the general, and Colonel Nikolaev—the chief of the army special department, came to the meeting. (We had armies then. It was called the 25th Army, I think.) He was crippled—he had lost his leg during GPW.
When they had made their reports, speeches began. I asked to speak.
“Comrades! You know me. I flew and fought with you. Now I am transitioning my squadron to new equipment. They trust me to do that, but it turns out that I am what—an American spy? I’m suitable to fight, but I’m an enemy that can’t be trained?”
I spoke directly.
“What’s this? Why? I submitted a request to go to the academy, and they refused me. Because I was shot down and four days later I made my way back to our lines. I saw the Germans. True, they did not see me. And I fought again, they trusted me. But now, they do not trust me.”
Well, everyone began to speak out immediately, and they disrupted the meeting. Then the osobist, Colonel Nikolaev, stood up.
“Come see me tomorrow. Something is not right here, and we will take care of it.”
I went to the army headquarters. I think it was on Desyataya Krasnoarmeyskaya Ulitsa [10th Red Army Street] in Leningrad, near Troitskiy Cathedral—the one with blue cupolas, the only church with blue cupolas in Leningrad. I went in there, and they said to me, “Tell us your story again.”
Well, I told the whole story again, and wrote it down as well.
“Go home. You will receive notification.”
The notification to report to the academy came, and I went.
Time passed, and once again I met with an osobist. But now I was a division commander, a colonel. We were at Gorelovo. There was a knock on my door. “Comrade Colonel, may I come in?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Comrade Colonel, Major Voblikov, reporting for duty!”
It was like a blow to the head—Voblikov!
“Voblikov? Well, come in, Comrade Major; sit down.”
We began to converse. It turns out that he was no longer an osobist, and had been sent to us as the chief of the radio-technical section. I gave an order.
“Chimazov, Sasha. Bring me Voblikov’s personal file.”
His file told everything: where, what, when. His entire career up to this moment was in the special department. Beginning in 1948, special departments had been disbanded and their officers, in order not to be discharged from active duty, were reassigned to conventional units in accordance with their accession specialties.
I said to him, “Do you remember Captain Kulakov?”
“No, Comrade Colonel. I have not met this person and never knew him.”
“Well, how could we not have met? You wanted to ruin my career. You have never laid eyes on me, and I am looking at you for the first time. How is this?”
His facial expression changed rapidly.
“Well, all right. But if you intend to walk over more bodies, you will be in for some unpleasantness.”
That was the end of that. These were my meetings with the osobisty.
I consider that checking, of course, was necessary. As they say, “trust, but verify.” But what did they try to do to me in the special department? There were good people, and there were scum, who slandered other people, who wrote denunciations. This is what I found upsetting.
So if I understand you correctly, commissars were necessary, and osobisty were necessary?
Yes, of course. But you know how they puffed themselves up. They had to be deflated.
You were a party member. When did this occur?
They accepted me into the party in 1943, after I was shot down. In regards to the party, now they look at it in two ways. But in our time, the commissar selected those who flew well, who fought well. And they recommended me.
“It’s time for you to join the party.”
I replied, “The party? I’m not ready. I’m still young.”
I was a Komsomol member. I submitted an application to join the party, and they accepted it. Our zampolit Smirnov—he became our commissar after Zloy—congratulated me at the airfield.
Party members were expected to assume responsibility. “If you are a Communist; that means you are in the front ranks.” This is how it was. You could not shirk; you had to be the example. And indeed it was so. We flew, and we fought, and we did not show weakness.
There are many who say that the lieutenants won the war. That it was the young soldiers who won. Those who began and finished flight school during the war itself.
The lieutenants? I would not say that. What kind of lieutenants are you referring to?
Well, you yourself said that your regiment commander did not fly. Who did fly?
The squadron commander flew. Litavrin fought from the very beginning of the war, and became a Hero of the Soviet Union. How about Grisha Bogomazov, and Serezha Demenkov? All of them received Hero of the Soviet Union already in 1943.
He continued to fly as a Hero?
And was an even better pilot. Or take Shishkan, Hero of the Soviet Union. He died in 1943, at Kovalevo over the airfield. At that time no one had the sense to sit in an airplane and guide him down by radio. They sat with their mouths open and watched as Germans attacked him over the airfield. He received newcomers to the 3rd Squadron and led the young pilots. His wingman Plyakin got afraid and fled. Later he shot himself over this. In general he was a strong fighter, but on this occasion evidently his nerves gave out. The other guys refused to fly with him, and some said that if they encountered him in the air, they would shoot him down themselves. He could not stand up to this. You know, one could forgive a mistake in combat; but cowardice—never. It would have been better if he had simply said “That’s all, guys, I am drained.” (Vladimir Andreevich Plyakin, Senior Lieutenant, 10 victories, ended his own life in suicide on 31 November 1943.)
When they shot down Shishkan, he bailed out. He had never jumped before this occasion. He was afraid to jump. He came out of his aircraft in disarray—he pulled his ring while still in the cockpit, and thirteen of his shroud lines broke. He came down in swampy terrain; but with bad luck he fell on the driest spot. He lived two hours, long enough to make it to a hospital. He died in Leningrad.
Generally speaking, was it easy to jump out of the Kittyhawk? Didn’t you bail out twice?
Yes, it was easy. I bailed once, though.
How did the safety harness fit you? Did it secure you to the seat? Did you use the shoulder straps?
I did not use the shoulder harness. The same was generally true of other pilots. We only used the seat belt.
The Cobra or the Kittyhawk—how would you compare them with German aircraft? With the Messer and the Fokke-Wulf? In your opinion, was it possible to fight on a par with them?
No; the first Cobras, on which Pokryshkin fought, were good. As I said before, their center of gravity was forward, and they fought well.
Why did they have a forward center of gravity? Why do you think so?
The Cobra? Because there were descriptions of them. The first ones [that came over]—the center of gravity was forward, and later they changed the design. I do not know exactly how, but their center of gravity shifted rearward. Therefore, they said, the Americans refused them and they gave them to us. They would not give us better airplanes.
How did you compare with the German fighters? Were your fighters inferior to the Germans’? Were they equal?
You see, if I had actually fought with them in fighters, then I would comment.
Weren’t you in a dogfight?
Where? In the Kittyhawk, yes. But in the Cobra—not once. Only that time with the Brewsters. As I already told you, I only fired at him. I hit him and that was that. But not once was I in a genuine dogfight. In the Kittyhawk—I did engage in dogfighting.
They shot us down in Kittyhawks when the pilot did not see the threat. If you saw them, they could not shoot you down. It happened many times. I flew with side-slip and got away. One only needed to spot them in time. But if I missed, if even for a second I did not spot a Fokker, of course he would get me.
What about your attitude toward the German pilots? How were they as professionals?
I do not know how they were on other fronts. In PVO we always had to fight defensive combat. They were always above us, and we were always below them. This was always a problem.
But we had our Heroes of the Soviet Union here. Karpov—Twice Hero of the Soviet Union, he fought in Yaks.28 Even the Germans, when he took off, announced over the radio: Achtung! Achtung! Karpov is in the air.
Did this really happen? Did you hear this with your own ears?
No, I personally did not hear this. I never met Karpov, not once. This was said about the 27th Regiment.
Sixty-plus years have passed since that time. Give us your personal opinion. If a German came up to you and said that he had fought at Leningrad, would you be able to shake his hand? Would you be able to talk to him as one man to another?
Of course I would talk to him. Why not talk? He was following orders. If he was a pilot, why not talk to him. It was different then. Back then, I would not have lifted a hand, of course. He was an enemy.
In regards to their pilots, we did not have a bad opinion. We thought of them as professionals. Why? Because they frequently shot us down in the Kittyhawks. I repeat, those who were not watchful—they shot down.
Vorozheykin, Twice Hero of the Soviet Union. He spoke a phrase that comes to mind: He who has not felt the drumming of machine gun bullets on his seat armor cannot become a Hero of the Soviet Union.
There is a measure of truth in this phrase, but it did not have to be on the seat armor; it could be anywhere on the airplane. When they shot me down, Shishkan, Hero of the Soviet Union, said, “Because they shot you down in your first battle, but they did not kill you, you will live a long life.” And indeed, I began to watch my tail. All the time I watched my Kittyhawk’s tail.
Another thing about who won the war in the air. They say that 50 percent of the victory is the contribution of the technicians, the technical staff, those who prepared the aircraft.
Well, the mechanic prepares the aircraft; but he was not in the battle. But if he prepared it poorly, then even a good pilot cannot fight in it. And one cannot forget the conditions in which they worked. When we returned from a sortie, they fed us. But my technician, the flight technician, they were not even permitted to take an extra piece of bread. They were swollen from hunger. If you gave them bread, they would not accept it. “It’s inappropriate. We can’t.”
He couldn’t even rotate the inertial starter on the Kittyhawk—he didn’t have the strength.
We snuck bread from the cafeteria for the old women in Kovalevo, where we lived in their houses. The technicians would not take it from us.
Did you have any occasions when [someone] handed off their kills to a comrade, as if to say, “You do not have enough for Hero; take these, and later you will get a score and credit it to me.”
No. All the Heroes received that rank through their own effort, for their own kills. In the period in which I fought, you would never hear such talk.
Later, keep in mind that in PVO the engagements were primarily defensive. In these cases, you did not shoot someone down in every engagement, but only engaged in a brief dogfight and it was over. And the results were well documented.
How were your missions assigned? For example, go out to provide cover: hang around at such-and-such altitude in so-and-so quadrant, don’t go anywhere else?
If they said anything, it was specific. Quadrant such-and-such, or “to the area of Krasnyy Bor.” They gave us an altitude, for example, “3,000 meters” there. And you flew there at that altitude.
You were a pilot—this was, we will say, your work. What kind of monetary compensation did you receive?
Initially I received 500 rubles, I think. I was a sergeant. Later a thousand and some. This was when I was a junior lieutenant.
What bonuses were available? For number of sorties? For victories?
There were bonuses for victories: 1,000 rubles for a fighter, and 1,500 or 2,000 rubles for a bomber. I cannot remember precisely now.
Did they take deductions from you for the defense fund?
We gave almost all of our salary to the defense fund. We received very little money. A portion of my pay went to my parents. The rest all went into the fund. We subscribed to it ourselves and donated ourselves.
Did they pay you for decorations?
For decorations? No. They did not pay during the war. They did pay after the war. We accumulated coupons and then received payment. I received mine for the Red Star—15 rubles, I think—and for the Order of the Patriotic War—20 rubles. They paid 25 rubles for the Order of Lenin, I think, but I don’t remember exactly. (These were monthly payments.) In 1947, I think, we collected up all the coupons, went out, and spent it on drinks.
Did they pay for “guards” status?
They paid for “guards.” They added an appreciable amount, not quite half [of base pay].
What were you able to buy here in Leningrad with your pay?
A half liter of vodka cost 600 rubles. 600 rubles!
And a loaf of bread?
We did not buy bread. We had an unlimited supply in the cafeteria.
What was the procedure for confirmation of aerial victories?
Confirmation came from the pilots that flew [the mission], if they survived the battle and saw anything. Confirmation also came from ground units. I fired my guns in the battle over Krasnyy Bor, but was not sure I had hit anything. Right after I returned from behind enemy lines, they informed me I had scored two kills.
And when you shot down the Brewster?
The flight crews that were there and saw it, including the crew of the “Peshka,” provided confirmation.
In general, the majority of confirmations came from ground forces, because our own units were all around the area over which we flew.
Did they pay you the money for the victories right away, or later? Or did it go on your account?
If I recall, they paid it directly to us.
What was your most desirable mission, and what was your least desirable mission?
The most desirable mission was to intercept bombers. This was especially ideal when they did not have any escort fighters.
And the least desirable?
The least desirable was to escort ground-attack aircraft [shturmoviki], or a reconnaissance aircraft, or to cover a forward air controller. Because you could not become separated from them, and we were PVO. We had completely different tactics and different practices. The more so in the “flat iron” Cobra! What kind of cover is that? We ourselves became the target.
What was easier to shoot down—a bomber or a fighter?
It depended on from what position and what range you fired. If you fired too early—it was useless. When you fired at a bomber, if you hit the cabin or the engine, with a solid burst, it was a great feeling. It was especially good when you hit the cabin.
Did you know that the Germans called the glass cabin on the Junkers [Ju-88] and the Heinkel [He-111] Totenkopf—dead head? Because if you hit there, then everyone—the entire crew—was dead.
Yes. I shot up a Junkers in the cabin, and as it began to fall, the results were very clear.
Were there any occasions in your regiment, when someone would add non-existing downed aircraft to his own score?
When I arrived, this would have been very difficult—we had very few engagements that resulted in kills. Everything happened in full view.
Did you hear of cases when someone offered a deal, like, for example, “I will give you a victory, and you give me your calfskin boots.” This is just an example, I am exaggerating.
No, they dressed all of us very well. The Leningraders had their traditions. One time, Antonov [division commander] came to our unit. He was looking around, and Kolya Galanin’s boots were falling apart. He immediately summoned the chief of supply. The chief of supply was wearing good boots. Antonov ordered the chief of supply to remove his boots and hand them over to Galanin. “And if I ever see pilots in ragged boots again, you will go barefooted until the end of the war.”
Did you wear leather?
No, they did not issue us leather. We did not receive raglan coats.
What about leather jackets?
American leather jackets. We all walked around in them. I think I received my jacket at the end of 1943.29
Where did you receive this leather jacket?
It was a supply issue item. I tell you, it was hot when we flew. One time I took off in my greatcoat. It saved my life. It was the first time I had forgotten to take it off.
Didn’t it interfere, the skirt of the coat?
No. Well, you did up the straps and sat on it. On the whole you could twist your trunk and neck.
And the silk scarf, what color was it?
We wore them. It was white and pale blue—striped.
I asked naval pilot Nikolay Filippovich Polkanov this same question. They write this about Pokryshkin, that he thought up the “scissors,” the “swing”—up, down. Did you use these maneuvers?
Imagine, if we had had a better fighter, it would have been better. I used them in the Cobra. We used the “scissors,” in horizontal plane, not in vertical. I don’t know if it came from Pokryshkin or someone else. But absolutely in pairs, and if you were in a pair, the trailing pair should provide cover. We were already doing this.
I asked this question because when I asked one pilot, he replied that if the Lavochkin had carried as much fuel as the Cobra, he would have used many tactical innovations himself. And if the coverage area was limited to a strictly determined time, then he was primarily obligated to use this time in patrolling at an economical speed.
Yes, he is correct. You could not depart the coverage zone before the designated time. You flew around the area, come what may. You had to hold on and keep to the time schedule. This was an advantage to the Germans and not to our side. We flew at this low speed and he made a run at us. As a rule, he came in at a higher speed. We always had to endure such a fight.
I will continue. I said to him, “What did you do at this low speed?”
He responded, “I will come at him head-on. And in order not to miss the oncoming enemy, there is a silk scarf, which protects your neck from irritation.
Yes, because you rotated your head so much. Your head was turning through 360 degrees. This is true!
When, in your opinion, did your regiment conduct its heaviest fighting?
When I was fighting? This was during the breakthrough in 1943, especially in the summer. Later, it was weaker, and then they sent us off for transition training. Therefore, when the heavy fighting occurred here, we were receiving Cobras. We did not have to fly—we got stuck. We flew out of Vaziani and landed at Millerovo airfield; it had turned soggy.
Is this the Millerovo near Stalingrad?
Yes, on the Salsk steppe. We sat there approximately a month. They did not take us out of there. The airfield was muddy.
Tell us. Could you distinguish a Finnish fighter from a German fighter?
I encountered Finnish fighters over Finnish territory only one time, when we were escorting a “Peshka.” Other than the incident with the Brewster, I never saw them.
Approximately how many sorties did you make in a day?
I don’t recall any more than three sorties. In 1943 we had to make up to three sorties in a day. On the day when I was shot down, and I fell in German territory, we had just landed from a combat sortie, refueled, and the green rocket! A green rocket meant take off.
The Germans write in their memoirs that they flew up to 12–15 sorties in a day.
I don’t know. Our missions were different. Imagine—you go out on free hunt, you pick off a bunch of scatter brains. But this is not a battle—it is murder.
Was it possible to shoot down 17 aircraft in one or two sorties?
Seventeen? I would say it depends on what your mission was and what kind of aircraft. Let’s say you encountered a group of, for example, Ju-87s. Of course it’s possible to take them down because they sometimes even flew without rear gunners. But if you are talking about fighters—just try it! Try to dogfight with them! You will have to go to extreme effort just to shoot down one. The Germans, if they see the escort, will try to climb to avoid confrontation.
Did you have earphones in your helmet?
You can see the earphones in the photos. They are ours–Russian made.
Can you talk to us about radio discipline? Normally they write that radio discipline was bad—too much chatter over the radio.
I would not say that. Of course, it happened, along with cursing. But they said only what was necessary: course such-and-such, altitude so-and-so. You responded with “Roger!” And you shut up. Then, sometimes you gave warnings: “Look, over there, Fokker,” or “Someone is coming at your back.”
How did you converse? By call sign, by nickname, by last name?
There was a call sign. Mine was “21.”
By your aircraft number, or what?
In accordance with the squadron number. Arkadiy Morozov was “20,” and I—the deputy—was “21.” More than that I don’t remember. But those were our call signs.
Who in your regiment executed rams?
This unusual tactic—flying one’s aircraft purposefully into an enemy aircraft—was frequently employed early in the war (over 400 incidents annually in 1941 and 1942). Its use fell off somewhat in 1943 and 1944 (200 incidents annually), and decreased markedly after the issuance of an order in August 1944 forbidding its use (20 in 1945). [JG]
Before I got there, in our regiment Slava Totmin and Zhukov did this.
Nikolay Yakovlevich Totmin (1919–1942) joined the Soviet Army in 1939 and completed flight training in 1940. As a pilot in the 158th Fighter Air Regiment, Starshina destroyed an enemy aircraft by ramming on 4 July 1941. He downed an additional enemy aircraft on 20 July, and was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 22 July 1941. He was killed in battle on 23 October 1942.
Zhukov was the first. He did it twice, in fact.
Mikhail Petrovich Zhukov (1917–1943) joined the Soviet Army in 1938 and completed flight training in 1940. As a pilot in the 158th Fighter Air Regiment, having exhausted his ammunition supply, Junior Lieutenant Zhukov executed a ram of an enemy bomber on 29 June 1941. He landed safely, and was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 8 July 1941. He was killed in air combat on 12 January 1943.
If I am not mistaken, Zukov was one of the first three Heroes of the Soviet Union in the Great Patriotic War. Zhukov, Zdorovtsev, and a third whose name I don’t remember. Later there was a regiment commander; his name was Kharitonov.
Vasiliy Nikolaevich Kharitonov was born in 1922, joined the Soviet Army in 1939, and completed flight training in 1940. As a flight commander in the 123rd Fighter Air Regiment, by April 1942 Senior Lieutenant Kharitonov had flown 281 combat sorties and in 58 aerial engagements scored 9 personal and 11 group victories. He was awarded the rank Hero of the Soviet Union on 10 February 1943. He retired from active duty in 1958 at the rank of colonel.
What was the attitude in the regiment regarding ramming?
In general, the ram was a very serious thing. People had various opinions about it. Some said that a “rammer” was a Hero, and some said that one should have good gunnery skills, and then ramming would not be necessary.
Did you hear anything about aviation units that were made up of shtrafniki? Were aviators sent to penal aviation units?
A shtrafnik (plural strafniki) was a soldier or officer who was sent to a penal unit for misconduct. In the ground forces, penal units were assigned exceptionally dangerous and difficult missions. Strafniki who survived duty in a penal unit had the opportunity to exculpate their guilt and be returned to their former unit and status. But a large percentage of strafniki did not survive the experience. [JG]
I never heard of such a unit. I know we did not have them in PVO. We had people who were sentenced to confinement for something, but then they flew in their regiments and exculpated their guilt.
Tell us, please, about the three ground-attack sorties you are credited with during the war.
Three sorties? In ground attack? I don’t even remember.
It must be said, that you achieved remarkable results. You had 19 aerial engagements and six victories. Generally speaking, such efficiency of results is very rare.
I think I had 20 engagements. But these were such occasions that not to shoot something down was impossible.
What was your attitude toward German pilots during the war?
The German pilots were very well trained and they had good tactics. They knew not to engage when you had altitude advantage over them. They would fly off, gain altitude, and then come back to bite you.
In one engagement you shot down two bombers. The question arises—where was their fighter cover? You said their tactics were good.
And I also said that we were lucky. Because our fighters had tied down their escorts. And we took them out with no interference.
You fired upon a minimum of three bombers Did their gunners hinder you? In general, did they represent a danger to you?
Gunners? They had no less desire to live than did we. When I landed, I found bullet holes in my aircraft wings. The other battle also resulted in bullet holes for my plane. They offered resistance. A gunner hit Serezha Litavrin. He landed in Plekhanovo.
What deficiencies did you observe in German pilots?
Deficiencies? The fact that they conducted battles only when they had superiority. We accomplished our mission in any conditions, and they did not.
Did the Germans make head-on passes?
This never happened to me. But Totmin—one time he rammed a German in a head-on attack. He took off during an attack on our airfield, struck the wing of a Messer with his wing, and then Totmin zoomed upward in his “Ishak” [Polikarpov I-16] and bailed out. The German crashed directly on our airfield.
In your regiment did you know any last names of German aces or their call signs?
We knew some names, but not call signs. For example, on the Leningrad front, there was a Major Filipp.
What about Trautloft? Novotny?
No, I did not know these names.
Well, the Cobra—you said you did not like it?
Honestly, I did not like the Cobra.
Why not? Many praised it. For example, Ovsyannikov said that a stall in a Cobra was nothing to fear. Only that it reacted slowly.
Well, he was in a stall; perhaps I would have come out of it as well. During my flight experience, that never happened to me. But we lost people in our regiment: squadron commander, my friend, Volodya Krotov; and in my own squadron, flight commander Yakovlev also died in a Cobra. In the 1st Squadron, there was Natoka.
But it happened; you stalled out but recovered. Kostya Rozenshteyn, one of my pilots, went into a stall but recovered at the last moment.
Overall, we had fewer losses in combat. Whom did we lose in combat? Here is a photograph of me with my squadron commander, Morozov (I was his deputy) alongside Cobra bort (tactical) number 055. They shot him down in 1944. Who shot him down—the Finns or Germans—we don’t know. All four died. They were flying at low altitude, buzzing the border, toward the Finnish side, toward Priozersk. He was leading a four-ship and took Kolya Galanin and two young pilots with him.
We had just received replacements. I had said, “Arkasha, I’m going to fly with you, as you are going to fly with the young and inexperienced pilots. I’m going to go with you.”
“No, you have your own young pilots to worry about. I will go with them and show them the battle area.”
I was also in the air; I heard over the radio that they were in a fight. I heard my call sign—“21,” and his—“20.” I asked, “Where are you, ‘20’? Where are you fighting?”
But communications was interrupted and we never heard from them again. We lost the entire four-ship flight. There was no trace of them.
Later we learned that they had been shot down. They found Kolyamagin in the bay, already after the war, in his Cobra. They never found the other three. (17 June 1944, the following did not return from a combat mission on P-39s: Senior Lieutenant Arkadiy Ivanovich Morozov; Junior Lieutenants Nikolay Yakovlevich Galanin, Kolyamagin, and Vorobev.)
Didn’t they raise the aircraft of one of these four near Priozersk? His last name began with “K,” I think.
That would have been Kolyamagin; they brought him up. Before this, it was not known where they went down. I went to visit his parents in 1954, when I was studying at the academy. His father was Ivan, but I don’t recall his mother’s name.
They told me there was interest from the special department for a year; that perhaps he would reappear, perhaps he had been captured.
The entire four-ship flight perished on Cobras.
What about the organization of time off and life support; how was this done during the war? I’m referring to meals, bathing, movies, and books.
When I began the war, we pilots lived in Kovalevo. Today this is Rzhevka airfield. Now the “new Russians” have built upscale housing there; the old ones are gone.
Our squadron lived in one private home. If one looked through the forest from the airfield, our home was immediately opposite. An old woman lived there with her daughter. All the pilots were in one room, and the squadron commander lived by himself.
The white nights [the Leningrad area is located at a latitude that permits 24 hours of light for a limited period during the summer] lit up the place, and we curtained off the windows so we could sleep normally. Many men were not able to sleep during white nights.
How well did you eat?
They fed us normally. When we went there, we thought Leningrad was starving. And at first we were ashamed to take even an extra slice of bread. But we had a limitless supply of bread on our table. Well, after the reserve regiment, the food was excellent. They fed us a first, second, and third course. The menu was diverse, they fed us normally; nothing to be upset about.
We did have a problem with the technicians. We took bread from the cafeteria for our landlord, for the old woman, but if you offered a piece of bread to a technician, he would refuse it. And their caloric norm was different than ours. They were even swollen from hunger. As I already told you, my mechanic Avetisyan lacked the strength to rotate the starter on my aircraft.
How did you occupy yourselves during the quiet times?
In various ways. We played chess. I read a lot. The landlord of the apartment where Sergey Litavrin lived had a large book collection. She let me read them. I loved to read.
We also went to concerts. Concerts were held in the officers’ club. It is still located at Kirochnaya. By the way, the pilot Maresev came to meet with us there; this was at the end of 1943 or early 1944. When I saw him then, he was a major.
Aleksey Petrovich Maresev, born in 1916, entered the Soviet Army in 1937 and completed flight training in 1940. He was shot down in April 1942 and spent 18 days behind enemy lines. After returning to Soviet control, both of his legs were amputated at the knees. Through enormous strength of will, he returned to flight status in June 1943, and during the Kursk battle shot down three enemy aircraft. He was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 24 August 1943. He remained on active duty until 1946.
Shulzhenko performed for us at Lisiy Nos, at the airfield. And Ruslanova, but in this case at the officers’ club. I think I went to two of her concerts. This was amazing; I have remembered it my entire life. We also went to see a play at Pushkin Theater.
How did they select you to go to concerts? By some sort of command-selection procedure? Or anyone who wanted to attend?
Anyone who wanted to go. But some did not want to do these things, and others were unable. There were also meetings with students, with school children.
One time in 1943, with Demenkov, who was a Hero of the Soviet Union then, we went to the opening at Nevskiy Pyatachok of a plant or hydro-electric station. There was a meeting there and speeches.
You said you had a technician—Avetisyan, an Armenian. In light of today’s events, did the nationality question ever come up?
I had pilots Rozenshteyn—he was a Jew, Vasya Yakovlev—a Russian, and Mishka Voytikhovich—a Belorussian. Later on I had another Jew—Girdal.
No issues associated with any kind of special attitude toward various nationalities ever came up. None. Our commissar was Leshkevich—a Jew. We respected him. Earlier he had taught at a university; they drafted him from the university. He read lectures to us; he was a highly educated comrade. Thus there were no issues with this.
Were there superstitions at the front? Before take off?
There were, there were. What kind? To be photographed before a sortie was a bad omen. Some were unable to shave before mission. But I, for example, shaved. No one wanted the number 13. We avoided “13.” In my opinion, there were no aircraft in the regiment with the bort number “13.”
Barsht, for example, said that he flew with number “13” for the entire war. He picked that number himself.
Abrek Arkadevich Barsht (1919–2007) joined the Soviet Army in 1938, and completed flight training in 1940. As a squadron commander in the 118th Separate Forward Observer–Reconnaissance Air Regiment, by April 1945 Major Barsht had flown 365 combat sorties in reconnaissance and adjustment of artillery fire. He downed four enemy aircraft. He was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 10 April 1945. He retired at the rank of colonel in 1965.
There were fanatics—some adored the number “13.” But I told you how it was in my unit. I never encountered this, which would be the last word.
Did you fly at night?
No, we did not fly at night then. We escorted some Il-2s in the dark one time to Siverskaya. We took off very early in the morning. We initially assembled with lights, and then turned them off.
Approximately how many sorties did you have to make in a day?
I would say three or four. It was possible to fly five–ten in front VVS units (we were PVO), when there was an offensive underway or conversely an active defense in their sector. They kept us, on the other hand, on a tight leash, in the event the enemy should make a move namely on Leningrad, and then they would scramble us. The remaining sorties, for example for escort or for ground attack, were planned in advance.
I don’t even recall how many ground-attack sorties we made.
We have several questions about Lend-lease. Did they deliver Lend-lease food products to you? American tushenka?
Tushenka was a canned stewed meat [pork], prepared in American meat processing plants in conformance with the Soviet-provided recipe. According to an October 1945 National Geographic Magazine article, some 250,000 tons of this meat were delivered to the Soviet Union during the war.
I did not know what tushenka was. I rarely received a dry ration. But when we flew to get new aircraft, they issued us a dry ration.
What about clothing? Leather?
Clothing I remember.
How did you receive the clothing? Separately at a supply facility?
We received clothing individually at a supply facility in Kovalevo, and at other airfields, also at supply facilities. Now I don’t remember the frequency of exchange. We walked around in calf-leather boots. They recognized us as Leningraders when we arrived to pick up airplanes—it was immediately obvious—the Leningraders are coming. We wore yellow blouses made from English fabric. The color tended slightly toward brown. In general it was good material. And those jackets… The trousers were fur-lined.
The same as the jackets. Brown, they were all brown, both the jacket and trousers. We did not wear warm trousers, because the heater in the Kittyhawk would cook you.
Then how did it happen that you took off in your greatcoat?
I already told you—I had no time to take it off.
No, what I mean is if you wore a leather jacket, then why did you have a greatcoat?
At that time we had not received these leather jackets, and we walked around in greatcoats.
The Americans frequently write that they sent us various gifts, deposited in airplanes and in tanks. Is this true?
There was never anything in an airplane. Perhaps it happened, but we did not know about it.
Is it possible they were already cleaned out?
We did receive gifts, but not in the airplane, but in parcels. We gave them all to the technical personnel. We did not take them.
Our gifts arrived through the mail. If it was vodka, we kept it; but all the rest: honey and things like that, we gave to the technicians. We had enough. Our ration included chocolate. When they shot me down, there were three chocolate bars in the NZ [untouchable supply]. Without it, I don’t know how I would have survived.
Is it possible to say that Lend-lease equipment influenced the raising of our technical culture?
You will have to address that question to the engineers. This equipment was more demanding—it was not well-suited to our conditions. The airplane took off, and the technician trembled and worried. Like in the film V boy idut odni stariki [The old men go to battle alone]. But to me this was the best film I had ever seen. It was the most authentic; of course, it contained some minor errors, but excluding that, it was the most true to life.
Did the work on Lend-lease equipment influence the tactics and organization of the equipment’s combat employment?
The combat employment was just the same as for our own aircraft. Well, the radio equipment was better, and as I have already told you, the radio saved us. The radio alone helped us to avoid many losses. You could talk through it just the same as you and I are talking here now. And the Kittyhawk had excellent visibility. One had only to turn his neck.
Tell us about Heroes of the Soviet Union that served in the regiment.
Many who became Heroes passed through our regiment. Many.
Ivan Plekhanov—I met him in Moscow after he had already lost his arm. Pokryshev began with us38.
Petr Afanasyevich Pokryshev (1914–1967) joined the Soviet Army in 1934. He completed flight school in 1935 and served in the Soviet–Finnish War 1939–40. As a squadron commander inthe 154th Fighter Air Regiment, by July 1942 he had flown 211 combat sorties, and in 38 aerial engagements scored 11 personal and 7 shared victories. He received his first Hero of the Soviet Union award on 10 February 1943. He received his second Hero of the Soviet Union award on 24 August 1943 as commander of the 159th Fighter Air Regiment for 282 combat sorties, 50 aerial engagements, and scores of 22/7 enemy aircraft.
Matveev began with us.
Vladimir Ivanovich Matveev (1911–1942) joined the Soviet Army in 1930 and completed flight training in 1933. He participated in the Soviet–Finnish War 1939–40. As a squadron commander in the 154th Fighter Air Regiment, on 8 July 1941 Captain Matveev, having exhausted his ammunition, rammed an enemy aircraft while defending the skies above Leningrad. He was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 22 July 1941. He perished in combat on 1 January 1942.
I personally served with Litavrin, Demenkov, Bogomazov, and Shishkan. There was Kharitonov, or rather the Kharitonovs—there were two of them. I‘m talking about the one who was later regiment commander in Tikhvin. He received Hero in our regiment, and then was sent there. There are also Zhukov, Totmin; they were the first to die. They were Heroes.
Wasn’t Zdorovtsev yours?
Zdorovtsev. Starshina, I think he was still. They were the first three: Zhukov, Zdorovtsev, and Totmin.
What about Pilyutov and Oskalenko? Were they yours?
Pilyutov began with us. Oskalenko was in the 102nd.
Stepan Ivanovich Zdorovtsev (1916–1941) joined the Soviet Army in 1938 and completed flight training in 1940. As a flight commander in the 158th Fighter Air Regiment, and having exhausted his ammunition, Junior Lieutenant Zdorovtsev executed a ram of an enemy bomber on 28 June 1941. He landed safely and was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 8 July 1941. He went missing in action on 9 July 1941.
Petr Andreevich Pilyutov (1906–1960) joined the Soviet Army in 1928 and completed flight training in 1935. He participated in the Lake Khasan fighting in 1938 and the Soviet–Finnish War 1939–40. As the deputy commander of the 154th Fighter Air Regiment, on 17 December 1941 he shot down two enemy aircraft of a flight of six. By this time he had flown 170 combat sorties and achieved a score of six personal and four group victories. He was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 10 February 1943. By the war’s end his score was 17 total victories. He retired at the rank of colonel in 1955.
Dmitriy Yefimovich Oskalenko (1920–1942) joined the Soviet Army in 1937 and completed aviation technical training in 1939. He was a participant in the Soviet–Finnish War 1939–40 and graded from pilot training in 1941. As a flight commander in the 26th Fighter Air Regiment, by June 1942 Senior Lieutenant Oskalenko had flown 197 combat sorties and in 23 aerial battles had achieved a score of 12 personal and 3 shared victories. He was killed in action on 26 September 1942 and awarded Hero of the Soviet Union posthumously on 14 February 1943.
Serebryakov? No, not ours.
Did you ever have any connections with naval aviation? Also, any naval targets, for example, did you cover Kronshtadt?
With naval aviation—no. Not at all. We never escorted them either. They covered their bases themselves.
When did you receive Spitfires?
We received Spitfires in 1945, by summer, I think. The war had just ended when we received them. We gave our Cobras to someone, I don’t know who or where; but I never had to fight in the Spitfire.
What was the visibility like in the Spitfire?
We flew in them after the war had ended. You didn’t need to turn your head. There was no need.
But on the whole, the visibility from the Spitfire, in comparison with the Kittyhawk, was just slightly worse. I liked the Spitfire. We had not a single breakdown in my squadron, not a single flying accident.
What about the wing cantilever—was it rounded or clipped?
I flew both with rounded and clipped wings.
How did they differ?
The non-clipped was slightly better in horizontal maneuver (turns). Conversely, the clipped-wing version performed a bit better in vertical maneuver.
Pilots tell me that they were sent to be trained to fly the Spitfire, but no one even flew to you to help you transition to it. Is that true?
It’s true. We taught ourselves. No one taught us. I said that I flew the Kittyhawk on my own. Litavrin checked me out on the UTI, and I studied the cockpit. They talked me through several of its features, and that was it. I flew it.
Did you have the UTI-4 to the end of the war?
No, not to the end of the war. Later I received the Yak-7V.
Can you compare the Spitfire with the Cobra?
On the whole, I liked the Spitfire very much. It was very maneuverable and had good armaments. The Cobra was very demanding. All the time under pressure; it demanded your attention.
They were different: The Cobra had a nose wheel and the Spitfire was a “tail dragger.”
They both landed normally, and the instruments were about the same.
Since my training days, my landings were always good, even during examinations on the I-16. “Oh,” they used to say. “The unit commander is landing now.”
It was me landing. I always set it down alongside the “T.”
You leveled out the I-16, you level, you level, and at just the right time, a little bit of rudder, and then a three-point landing. I knew that reaction was needed, and I mastered this task. Some were fearful and landed on two wheels.
Was it difficult to steer when taxiing?
I don’t know; everything was normal for me. I didn’t have any problems with landing or taking off. It did not matter what airplane I was flying.
I took command of a squadron quickly; my courses ended in 1945. At the end of 1945, they sent me to Penza to a course for squadron commanders. There I said to the chief of the school, “I’ve had enough of ‘foreigners;’ give me a La-5 or a La-7.”
How did the La-5 and La-7 compare with the Spitfire?
Of course, the Lavochkins were better than the Spitfire. Maybe the Spitfire could outturn the Lavochkin in zooms, but the La-5 could beat the Spitfire in the vertical. There was very little difference between the La-5 and La-7.
Tell us, please, did you conduct training aerial battles with various types of airplanes?
Training? No. Nothing like that. I will tell you why not. It was done differently in PVO. We flew both ground-attack and escort missions. But our primary mission was to prevent enemy aircraft from reaching Leningrad. This was our task. If they assigned us the other missions, obviously they lacked sufficient forces. So if they ordered us to escort “Peshkas,” we escorted “Peshkas.”
What was the camouflage scheme on your Spitfires?
What kind of camouflage? That was 60 years ago! Neither do I remember how the stars were positioned. They were on the fuselage but I do not remember if they were on the wings.
And the bort number?
I don’t remember the numbers. We had various numbers, and after 1946, in 1947 I think, we gave them [the Spitfires] up.
I flew so many aircraft that you can imagine their number and numbers are long forgotten: the I-16, Yak-3 and -7, La-5 and -7; then the jets: MiG-15, MiG-17, MiG-19, and Su-9. Imagine all those numbers. Only the devil knows the numbers now.
And how many pilots there were! I even can’t remember all the ones I fought with.
Later I left the 103rd Regiment in 1947 and went to the 11th Regiment. I ended my service in the 103rd Regiment as a commander, a squadron commander. I arrived from courses, [they were undergoing] re-planning, and they named me the deputy. Then they began to reduce the number of older pilots. Where could they put them? They began to replenish the regiments with younger pilots, but even they had war experience. I was young and a squadron commander. They named me a deputy, and as soon as I left for Gorelovo to the 11th Regiment, I was named deputy to Hero of the Soviet Union Yevteev.
Mikhail Ivanovich Yevteev, born in 1920, joined the Soviet Army in 1938 and completed flight training in 1939. He was a participant in the Soviet–Finnish War 1939–40. As a squadron commander in the 11th Guards Fighter Air Regiment, by July 1943 Guards Captain Yevteev had flown 285 combat sorties, and in 65 aerial engagements achieved a score of 10 personal and 6 group victories. He was awarded the rank Hero of the Soviet Union on 28 September 1943. He retired at the rank of colonel in 1953.
I was there for six months, they moved him out, and I became the squadron commander. In 1952 I became a deputy regiment commander, and later regiment commander.
What was the last type of aircraft that you flew?
By this time I was the chief of combat training of an air army. We had an aircraft with the headquarters in Lodeynoe Pole. As the chief of combat training, I flew a MiG-17, a MiG-19, and a Yak-25.
Tell us, please, during peacetime did you execute any combat intercepts?
Combat intercepts? In 1952 my regiment was assigned to the base in Tartu [east-central Estonia], when incursions into our air space began to occur. We sat there the entire summer until fall, but not once did my pilots take off to intercept a target. Perhaps they knew that a regiment of interceptors with an order to shoot down intruders was based here.
Later, in 1952 I think, or in 1953, there was a night intercept. I was the regiment commander, and controlled the take-off myself. A violator had appeared, and we scrambled Semendeev and another pilot. Semendeev was shouting, “I got him, I have him on my screen!”
He was talking about an American. The second pilot broke in, “It might be me. Don’t shoot!”
The violator immediately maneuvered and departed into the overcast. This happened at night.
Colonel-general Ivanov, then the commander of Sixth Air Army, said to Semendeev during the after-action review: “Well, how could you miss him; they would have given you a decoration.”
“But he was shouting, I thought, that I had acquired the wrong target—our own plane.”
I never had another intercept or violation. They happened in the north; they crossed [the border] up there. I had an inspector, Hero of the Soviet Union Sergey Skornyakov.
Sergey Aleksandrovich Skornyakov, born in 1916, joined the Soviet Army in 1935 and completed flight training in 1937. He was a participant in the battles at Khalkhin Gol in 1939 and in the Great Patriotic War. As navigator of an air regiment, Major Skornyakov displayed heroism in the execution of a mission, and was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 6 December 1949. He retired in 1963 at the rank of colonel.
He shot down a four-engine bomber in the north. What type, I don’t remember. They gave him Hero for this accomplishment.
Did you chase any aerial balloons?
Do you remember your last flight, and what type of aircraft it was?
It was in 1964, when I suffered an accident in a Yak-25. I was checking out a pilot in complex conditions. We landed in Veshchino, and the accident occurred there—we overran the runway.
We broke the landing gear, and I suffered a concussion. I laid in the hospital, first here and then at the Central Aviation Hospital, where they check out the cosmonauts. I thought that I would return to duty, but it didn’t happen. They took me off flight status with the finding “Not suitable in peacetime; third degree in wartime.”
I left the army in that same year, 1964, at the rank of colonel.
What did you do then?
I worked as an engineer in the office of technical information for the plant Severnyy press [Northern Press]. Later I was the chief of staff of civil defense for the plant. This was more familiar to me. I commanded a squadron, regiment, and a division, and was the chief of combat training [of a PVO Air Army]
Results of the war:
Combat sorties: 117, of which 34 were to escort bombers; 31 to escort shturmoviks; 45 on routine patrolling; 2 in providing coverage ground forces; 3 in ground attack; and 2 in reconnaissance. 19 aerial engagements.
Flight time: P-40, 78.39 hours; P-39, 38.29 flight hours.
|Date||Type of enemy aircraft||Location||In what airplane|
|24 Mar 43||Ju-88 and FW-190||Krasnyy Bor||P-40|
|5 Jun 43||2 He-111||Pupyshevo||P-40|
|18 Jun 43||FW-190||Novyy Byt||P-40|
|15 Jun 44||Buffalo Brewster||Kyuriolya||P-39|
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 ©
Special thanks to S. Spiridonova and M. Bykov for their assistance.