Part 1. Great Patriotic War
The formula of battle is simple:
You should see the enemy first;
Altitude is the guarantor of victory;
Plus speed and steel nerves.
De facto I was born on 29 February 1924, but de jure on 1 March 1924, in a remote settlement in the center of Russia, in Kursk oblast. The name of the village was Ovsyannikovo, and accordingly my family name is Ovsyannikov. I was a hereditary peasant; my father became a carpenter and a laborer, and my mother was a kolkhoz worker.
How did you get into aviation?
It was simple in our Soviet time—club members worked for free. I considered aviation to be the “profession of the elites.” We ran behind the pilots with open mouths, believing that this profession was incomprehensible.
It was in September 1940, at the beginning of the school year; I recall it like it was yesterday. The 15th of September was such a good day, with light clouds. I was in 10th grade at the time. The school was 5 kilometers from my house, in a former monastery—the [monastic] cells were made over into classrooms. It had an enormous garden, an apple orchard. We had one long break a day—20 minutes. We were running round the garden. Suddenly an aircraft appeared overhead—a U-2, flying so low we could see the pilot. We looked—the airplane was turning around. It made only one circuit and then the bell rang. Like a disciplined student, I ran back to class. The late-comers ran in and announced: “The airplane landed! In the field, close by.”
We were in literature class and whispered back and forth. When 15 minutes remained to the end of the lesson, the door suddenly opened and Fedor Yakovlevich Senkevich—the school principal—walked in. He was a tall man, and with him was the pilot, a man of average height. He was wearing a raglan jacket and carrying a mapcase. He removed his helmet, no earphones, just a helmet, with goggles.
Of course, we greeted him: Zdras’te! [Good day]
He asked: “How are things with you? What are you doing for your lesson?”
The teacher responded: “Now we are reviewing previous reading assignments and checking how well it was mastered.”
He replied: “Then I will take up your time to the end of the lesson. Is that alright?”
“Yes, yes, please do.”
This is when I saw the pilot for the first time. The director declared, “Kids!” (He always referred to us as “kids.”) A pilot from the Kursk aero club has flown to us. He wants to converse with you.”
The pilot gave a brief evaluation of the international situation—the war. It was 1940 and the war was already underway. The Germans were fighting in France, the Maginot line, and so on. Speaking briefly, he said that a supplementary call-up had been declared in Kursk, and they were bringing in boys. Then some of our girls raised their hands:
“What about girls?”
He replied: “Ladies! The government has forbidden the selection of young girls. Before this we had [female] pilots. Young girls were trained. But the government has issued a regulation that this is not women’s business. There are other clubs—radio, parachute class… Help yourselves!”
They grew quiet. The lesson ended and debates began. We had 15 young boys and 15 girls. All the boys gathered: “Well, how about it! Should we go? Let’s go!”
Only two did not go. One of them was our idol. His name was Valka Tutov. He was tall, well-proportioned, and the best student among us. He could make a complete revolution around the horizontal bar, and we still hung like sausages. Overall, he was a strong, developed young man. He said:
“Guys, the medical commission will not accept me. I can’t see out of one eye.”
The second guy was, well, not too bright. You might even say he was retarded.
At the established time, we all raced into town. Only two of our group made it through the medical screening. The remainder, including me, were “thrown overboard.” The surgeon probed me and said: “What is this you have—a left-side abdominal hernia!”
Well, that was all for me.
He said: “I advise you, young man, to go to the polyclinic and get a consultation for the hospital. Let them do a relatively simple operation on you. After that, we will look at you again.”
Our village was very religious; so were my mother and father, especially my mother. But she was also quite illiterate—she could neither read nor write. They had suggested to her before that I have an operation. But my mother responded:
“Cut on him? No way!”
Now I went to her and said: “Mama, I am going to the hospital, and they will do the operation!”
She protested, but I went anyway. They did the operation. I went back to school in about two weeks. It was late fall by now. My schoolmates who had been selected for the aero club in early November got their head gear somewhere, and showed them off. Well, we were around 17 years old then. They called themselves pilots.
In the Soviet public health system, a polyclinic was an out-patient facility located in large towns. It was staffed by general practitioners and specialists, and was normally equipped with a laboratory. Frequently it adjoined a hospital, where patients could receive bed care or surgical treatment.
You said that your village was religious. How did they regard Soviet authority in the village? And how did Soviet authority relate to the “believers”?
The village was Old Believers.2 As they used to go to prayers before the revolution, they kept going after. We did not have a church in the village, rather a prayer house. How did the people relate to Soviet authority? I could talk for a long time on this theme. Briefly—we lived the same way as we used to. Kolkhozes were formed. Peasants hardly wanted to go at first, later they “tried it out.” Nobody complained much; they got used to it. And as before, they crossed themselves and prayed.
Old Believers (starovery in Russian) in Russian history are worshipers who resisted changes to liturgical practices introduced to the Russian Orthodox Church by Patriarch Nikon in 1666–67. Persecution of this group varied with changes in regime, even into the Soviet period, but along the way drove many of them out of Russia into all parts of the world, including Australia, Canada, and the United States.
So, in the larger sense, Soviet authority did not interfere with your lives?
No. Absolutely not.
Was there a party organization? A Komsomol organization?
The Komsomol was an organization for teenagers, and was responsible for the political, moral, and physical education of the teenager. While commonly considered to be a branch of the Communist Party, it was a semi-independent political structure. It certainly served as a “feeder” organization for the party.
Not in the village. There was one in the school. I was an Oktyabrenok [pre-Pioneer]. On holidays, I participated in the religious processions; when I returned, the other boys teased me. But I was terribly religious, and could not argue with them.
But in all, we were happy and lived an interesting life. From my childhood, as long as I can remember, I participated in religious services and performed my duties for all the holidays. We were brought up with our own idiosyncrasies. For example, the railroad track was 5 kilometers away, and we could hear the whistle of the steam locomotives. Well, they preached that when the locomotive whistled, we had to cross ourselves. And we did. Locomotives were considered as anti-Christ manifestations. Airplanes were beginning to fly — an airplane flew over our village, a passenger airplane. It was flying, I think, from Kharkov northward to Moscow. In one of the sermons, I heard them say:
“It is written in the Bible — iron birds will appear in the sky. The noise they will produce will be the anti-Christ, the voice of the devil.”
And further: “You should not look at them; close your ears and cross yourself.”
This is how we lived.
Meanwhile, an airplane landed at your school?
This happened later. When I went to school, I already had begun to break away. What was the cross about? I had begun to argue with my mother.
“I do not believe in God!”
Of course, she was distressed by this.
But we digress. The young men who had joined the aero club came to the school and said to me:
“They have declared a supplementary selection. Do you want to join?”
“Yes, I do!”
So I went to the doctor again.
“What’s this you have?”
“What did they remove?”
“Remove” was not exactly the right term—they “took in.” Well, in general he understood. Perhaps it was the pre-war situation and the requirements had been lowered. But in the end, he gave me a satisfactory evaluation.
So we began to go to the aero club, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. As soon as lessons ended, we went from the school into town. Exercises began there at 1800 and lasted three hours. We returned home sometime around midnight. It was 10 kilometers to the town, but we were young.
Tell us what kind of equipment you had in the classes.
Nothing special. Well, of course we had posters and cutaway engines. We studied aircraft and aerodynamics, meteorological issues. Everything was laid out for us in an easy manner. I remember it all to this day. Our instructors must take credit for that. Our first flight was in May, with an instructor, of course. By the way, I had a female instructor. She was the wife of the flight commander—Yelena Karayskaya. She was pretty. My instructor had, I think, 10 or 12 students. So, we flew for the first time. I glanced down and there… I was accustomed to a single stream near the village, and I saw many streams! Well, I had no idea where I was, but overall I liked it. The credentials committee came to us, and everyone passed it: none of us were from a kulak background—we were all peasants. We made our flights very early, at 0600. We made four flights in a day, no more.
A kulak was a well-off peasant in the late Russian empire and early Soviet period. He typically owned his own land and hired other peasants. Kulaks as a class were singled out for persecution in the early Soviet period and blamed for many of the country’s agricultural economic problems.
Did they take you out of class on flight days?
From lessons? No. Examinations had already begun at school. We flew from 0600 to 0900. After 0900, as a rule, they released us and we walked to school. They greeted us with the words:
“The pilots have arrived!”
Our flight program was extended. When demonstration flights began, it was possible to be out for a day. During the first flights, we observed the pilot and did not touch the controls. We also flew on Saturday, Sunday, or days off.
One time my father came home on a Sunday. He worked as a foreman or team leader; he was building something somewhere. Well, now they call them handymen. My father was one of the first in the village to buy a battery-operated radio. He had only a fourth-grade parochial school education. He began to teach me church-Slavonic. We had a Bible at home.
I remember to this day, “Az, buki, vedi…”[the first three letters of the church-Slavonic alphabet].
It was Sunday, and we were still lying in bed. Mother awakened us from the kitchen: “Get up! It’s time to eat!”
It was already 10:00, I think. Father turned on the radio. Some kind of music was playing, over and over, and then they announced, “All radio stations of the Soviet Union are working!” This was the sign-on announcement.
Then Vyacheslav Molotov began speaking, and he declared, “Early this morning, the German Army violated the border… They bombed our cities.” He listed them: “Odessa, Kiev, and Minsk.”
Father listened, then he cried out, “Mother, trouble! Mother, trouble! War!”
Mother wailed, cried, and ran outside. The sun was already high. Everyone in our village learned that the war had begun from us.
Had you finished school by this time?
No, both the aero club and school continued to function. One day, some I-16s landed at our aero club airfield. On the other side of the town, in the south, was a large airfield with a concrete runway. Some SBs were stationed there. Why didn’t they land there? I don’t know. Two of I-16s broke their gear during the landing, I think. They came from Chernigov. Some Messerschmitts harassed them in the air. The war was on, and we were training. Back in June, before the war I think, I took off on my sixth flight solo. Everyone was going through the program, but I was the first to solo. I don’t know why, but everything was going my way, and I was the first among all of our young men. We flew only on the U-2. We also had a UT-2 and a UT-1, but only the detachment commander flew them. I remember how we looked at it; it was such a beautiful small airplane, a miniature. I finished school; we had a graduation party.
Did you have finals right before the war?
No. When our final exam was scheduled, a German airplane flew over. We rushed out of the schoolhouse. It had its own unique sound. It was in the evening, probably; it was a reconnaissance aircraft heading past us for Moscow.
Studies ended and they issued us our papers. Sometime in July, around the 26th, we finished aero club. They gave us a certificate of completion for aero club. “Komsomol, forward!” and we rushed off to the front. Quickly, independently, without any summons, we went to the voyenkomat [military commissariat—draft board]. To the front! We are already pilots! Send us to the front! They received us at the voyenkomat and said, “We are not sending you to the front, but to further flight training!” They sent me and two of my comrades to Chuguev Aviation School.
Did you call it “Chugunok” among cadets? [Chugunok in Russian is a cooking vessel that was used in a traditional Russian oven.]
Not at all. We did not call it “Chugunok.” I heard this the first time from you. Its name was Chuguev School.
On 29th of June, my father and younger brother accompanied me from Kursk railroad station to Kharkov. This was my farewell with my parents. Already on the 6th of August, I was enrolled as a cadet in Chuguev School. The school was large, with seven squadrons. Initially they had a terka there as well. We studied the UT-2 and I-16. Later we entered a flight program on the UT-2. We began to fly. We flew without any special strain, and there was no shortage of gasoline. We had not even begun solo flights when suddenly, sometime in early September, around the 10th, I think, flights were curtailed. They prepared all the aircraft that were capable of flight.
‘Terka’ term is an abbreviation for teoreticheskoye obucheniye (theoretical instruction). This training served two purposes—to impart aeronautical theory and also to round off the cadets’ rough edges.
We began walking guard, securing the aircraft, with a rifle and bayonet that together were taller than we were. We had one captain, Pavlov, the chief of personnel and supply records. He issued us our instructions. “Be vigilant!” He provided a review of events: spies killed someone here, they blew up a bridge there, and saboteurs landed somewhere else. He described the real situation to us. The nights… The nights are dark in Ukraine. We walked around the airplanes, which were spread out with about 30 meters between them. You are walking, and a gopher scampers from under your foot. “Whew!” And you have some unspeakable feelings… Your senses are on full alert. You are pumping adrenaline. In the morning you hear that in another squadron, sentries shot a horse. Someone shouts: “Halt! Who goes there?”
It keeps walking. Well, it turns out the “walker” was a horse. We had such episodes.
A rumor went around that they would evacuate us. The unserviceable airplanes were burned. On the 15th of September, we set out in a march column. We rolled up our greatcoat and shouldered our rifles and gas masks. We formed up and moved out. Where? For what? The answer to every question was the same—“Forward – march!” With all of the school’s squadrons. Our squadron walked from Blagodatnyy settlement. The squadrons were dispersed. We walked about 40 kilometers on the first day. We moved in this manner on foot 500 versts [approximately 500 km] to Kalach in Voronezh district! The Germans were at Smolensk. At night they flew over us to Kharkov, which they bombed.
Did your instructors stand Alert-1 in the cockpits of the I-16s to intercept enemy planes?
“Alert 1” is a readiness condition in which the aircraft was fully refueled and rearmed, oxygen tanks topped off, and all systems and instruments tested and checked. The aircraft was parked in a revetment or under camouflage. The pilot was sitting in the aircraft with parachute on. The motor was kept warm by periodic starting, the radio was turned on, and during hot weather a door or canopy was kept open for ventilation. The aircraft’s crew chief was nearby, prepared to assist the pilot as required. The aircraft was expected to take off within two to three minutes of a launch order, normally indicated by a flare fired from the control tower and conformed by telephone from the tower to the aircraft parking area, or if pilot saw enemy plane by himself. “Alert 2” meant that airplane was ready to take off, but a pilot could be close-by and not wearing a parachute. “Alert 3” meant that plane was ready, but a pilot was in the dug-out or commanding post. Basically speaking, all crews of the regiment were in unofficial Alert 3 stance. Usually if Alert 1 flight took off, Alert 2 flight would be changed to Alert 1 stance, Alert 3 to Alert 2, and some other crews would be assigned to Alert 3.
No, They did not stand watch. At Kalach they mounted us in rail cars. Where were they hauling us? It was a secret! They were correct in concealing our destination, by the way. There was a lengthy delay at Rostov while they permitted a hospital train to pass. I remember that well. They let it pass, and then the Germans bombed it.
Did it have the cross markings, in accordance with all the international conventions?
Yes, red crosses everywhere. But who looked at that? Oh, God! “In accordance with the Geneva Convention…” Oh, come on! They just dropped their bombs.
Did our pilots bomb their medical facilities?
I don’t know. But try to spot the crosses from an altitude of 6,000 meters.
Perhaps the Germans did not see the red crosses?
I don’t know. But that was not my point. I simply said that if we had not let that train pass, then it possibly would have been us and not them. We crossed the bridge over the Don. They transported us to Baku and there transferred us to a steamer. When we were crossing the Caspian Sea, I became seasick, perhaps for half a day. I was thinking, “God! It’s a good thing that I ended up in aviation. Thank God not in the Navy!”
We arrived at Krasnovodsk. The electricity was flowing! There was no blackout, it was as if there was no war going on! They placed us on a passenger train to Chimkent. A [flight] school was based there. The squadrons were being dispersed throughout Kazakhstan and Turkestan. One squadron was in Dzhambul. Ours was in Arys, a railroad hub north of Chimkent. The school was set up on a base for troop ammunition storage facilities.
By the way, Ivan Kozhedub was at our school. One day they held a formation and read a citation to us about Kozhedub. He flew at low altitude and hit something, and then made a forced landing. I have forgotten the details.
What types of aircraft did you have?
We were supposed to graduate on the I-16. We flew the UTI-4, that’s a dual seater. Before that we were supposed to master the UT-2.
Did the UT-2 have straight or bent wings?
Straight. What else?
Were you afraid of it? Was there talk that it would spin?
Indeed, it was complicated in that respect. It would go into a flat spin. At the beginning, for some time, we were forbidden to execute complex aerobatic maneuvers. I will tell you about spins later.
We began to train, and simultaneously constructing the airfield. The Kazakh steppe, gophers, burrows. We leveled the hummocks with shovels—no heavy equipment was available. Summer is dry there, and autumn—you can sink in this soil. Spring there is like a carpet! Initially tulips, later poppies. In mid-May, large flocks of sheep come. What they ate, I don’t know. Everything has dried up, everything is parched. Only camel’s thorn are green, and they remain green all summer.
We built the airfield and began to fly. By now it was 1942. Stalingrad. We finished with the UT-2 and went on to flights in the UTI-4.
After the U-2, when I took off in the UT-2, I began to work the stick abruptly. My flight instructor almost killed me after my check ride: “Do you want to kill me? What were you doing?”
I’m describing how maneuverable it was.
The UTI-4 was small—you could reach out and touch the wingtip, it seemed. In the rear cockpit you could say that your back was resting against the fin. Well, in short order I completed a total of nine flights. Right there it had begun, and just as soon it ended: they took a portion of our instructors to the front, along with the operational I-16 aircraft. Only several crippled airplanes remained. Some even had spreader bars between the wheels to keep the chassis from collapsing. They divided the cadets into two parts: we had four groups in the detachment—114th, 124th, 134th, and 144th. These they divided in half, and only the 114th and 124th flew. I was in the 134th. So I and my comrades spent many unhappy days on the sidelines. While they began to fly an accelerated program, we walked guard, spent a day on guard duty, and the next day worked in the kitchen. They flew and we “licked our lips.”
By now it was November 1942, and I was on guard duty. A call came from the entrance to the dugout. The chief of the guard took the handset. I heard him say:
He then informed us:
“The squadron commander just came through the checkpoint.”
I was replaced at my post, and a person replaced at his post should then stand watch over the guard house—the awake shift. I was standing on top of the dugout; it was cold, I was wearing a sheepskin coat. I was holding such a long, long rifle—longer than I was tall. Major Yusim walked up. He had his own distinctive stride—he did not raise his head, he looked down all the time. He came up even with me, raised his head, and asked the question:
“Ovsyannikov! Do you want to fly?”
“Yes, comrade Major!”
Then he said to me from below (from below, because I was above him, on top of the dugout):
“An experimental group is being formed, which will, bypassing the UTI-4, go through the program on Yak-7s, which have arrived at the school. We will issue the Yaks immediately. What do you think about that? Well, we will give you an additional course in the UT-2, including high-speed landings and maneuvers in zone.”
Were they dual-control or single-seat Yaks?
The Yaks were both single- and dual seat. We practiced takeoffs and landings and aerobatics in the Yaks. But we also performed this training in the I-16. Also spins. You had only to pull back the stick and it would spin. The Ishak [donkey, the nickname for the I-16] was demanding. But on the other hand, it came out of the spin immediately.
They have told me that the I-16 spun in an unusual manner. Everything normally spins evenly, but the I-16 rotated 360 degrees—slowed, rotated 360 degrees again, and slowed again.
I will not lie about the I-16—I did not fly in them. I flew the UTI-4 [a two-seat version of the I-16]. The Cobra spun in a jerky movement, and the MiG-19…
But let’s return to November 1942. As soon as the squadron commander left, the chief of the guard jumped up: “Are you an idiot? Do you want to be arrested? They will give you ten days of arrest!”
Being on guard duty, I did not have the right to talk or respond. But what kind of question was put to me? It was a provocation! I returned to my barracks after the shift change, and they were already waiting for me—my former flight commander, who trained me in the UT-2, and my instructor, Lieutenant Viktor Polesskiy. They began to train us in a special program. We worked on high-speed landings. You get close to the ground—level it out, and at level attitude carry on for perhaps a kilometer. Well, perhaps this was not necessary, I can’t say, really.
Then we moved on to the Yak-7. In July 1943 they graduated us; we “chased down” the group that had already completed in the Yak-7, but after the I-16. Well, we were like the guinea pigs—test animals. In July they commissioned us with officer rank—junior lieutenant. Before this they graduated as sergeants.
What did you think of the Yak after the UT and UTI?
Well, the Yak was a good airplane. As I began to take off, my back was pressed into the seat—it had a lot more power! As far as manipulating the controls—it was a normal airplane.
Were there breakdowns? How often were they damaged from unskillful flying?
I never had any myself; but in general, well, I don’t remember.
What color were they painted?
The UT-2s, I think, were white and one with a red stripe. The I-16s were greenish. Well, I’m not very selective in my colors, but it was closer to greenish.
Upon graduation, how many total hours had you flown?
Altogether 100 hours, including the aero club. About ten hours in the Yak at flight school. The program was local flight—circuits around the airfield and in the local area. One time we flew cross-country as a pair.
Did you have any examination or test for graduation?
Yes, there was an examination. It was flying around the local area with an instructor. I don’t remember whom I flew with. They also tested us in theory. I finished flight school in July and they issued us canvas boots. Before us they sent out sergeant pilots in puttees, and collected up any new greatcoats among us. Well, we ourselves exchanged them, and no one lost his. They issued us a certificate that said we were officers, and with this certificate… They had just introduced these ranks. Initially we were junior lieutenants. It was different for artillerymen—they held lieutenant rank for six months of their training. Well, Timoshenko was not really fair to us aviators.
Talk about how they fed you during training.
They fed us normally. It was sufficient.
Everyone with whom we have raised this subject has said: “We were not fed enough until we reached the front lines.”
Well, I can attest to that as well. For example, they did not give the instructors a supplementary breakfast. So we gave them supplements from our rations. We were not starving, but if they had given us seconds, we would have gladly eaten them. No, I would not say that we were hungry, no. Our ration was normal, but strictly controlled. Do you understand? It was according to norm.
One time we were sent to sort rotten onions from good ones in a vegetable storage base and we tried to eat them. We had young stomachs.
Well, we went to Moscow. We arrived at the personnel department and, instead of the front, they sent our entire group to Ivanovo—to be transitioned to the Cobra. On the one hand it was unfortunate, but on the other hand perhaps we were lucky. Initially we were upset. Well, we were officers and we were eager to get into the fight.
We arrived in the town Ivanovo at the 22nd Reserve Air Regiment. We went through another “terka” and transition training. There were no dual-control Cobras. They checked us out in Yaks. The food was worse in the reserve regiment than at flight school. I don’t remember the norm number. At the front, you could eat as much as you wanted for dinner. At the training regiment you could eat only as much as they gave you. Don’t ask for more! We were young then, and constantly wanted to eat.
Were they paying you then?
Yes, 550 rubles. But in the market a loaf of bread cost 100 rubles and a bottle of vodka 400 rubles. I recall one time we went together and bought vodka for someone’s birthday.
But more importantly, in essence, we frittered away our time. Flights occurred infrequently and we could have finished transition more quickly. We went dancing to keep ourselves busy and learn how to dance. The dances were free at the local circus.
What was your first impression of the Cobra?
My first impression of the Cobra was that it was a remarkable airplane. I liked it. Why did I like it? I will tell you. You sat in the cockpit and you could see everything, because it had a nose wheel. I did not fly the Lavochkin; I did not fight in the Yak; but I flew it, and I will tell you that the Cobra had good visibility.
What model of the Cobra were these—the “D” or the “Q”?
There were many variants. I do not recall specifically how they were divided up. We even had some with electric drive to change the propeller pitch. Later they were hydraulic—variable-pitch propellers.
Describe the program for transitioning to the Cobra.
What did we do in the Cobra? First, circuits around the airfield, then a program of flights in zone where we worked out the techniques of piloting the airplane. We did as our instructor directed—there was no dual-seater.
Before the completion tests, that is, toward the end of the program, I had an assignment: fly out, then go to a [gunnery] range and fire my machine guns at ground targets. I took off, flew out as required, and then decided I would do a slow barrel roll. I began to execute the roll. While in the inverted position, I somehow moved the stick slightly away from myself. What does this mean? My buttocks came out of my seat and I was hanging in my seat and shoulder harness. While I was dangling there, my airplane went into a flat spin. I began to recover. The first attempt… the airplane did a revolution and the nose came up suddenly, above the horizon. I thought, “Well, now it will recover!” But it went back out of control. Then I collected myself and thought, “What did they teach us?” They taught us well. I applied stick in the direction of the spin. You understand? At the moment the nose dropped, I pulled back on the stick and applied opposite rudder. I looked out and it had taken hold. I recovered. I flew straight home—no gunnery range—straight home. I had the thought, “Bail out!” I’m not lying. I thought, “I will jump!” What will I tell them? I had failed in my flight mission.
What did they say to you about this?
No one said anything, because I didn’t tell anyone about what had happened.
But you didn’t complete the gunnery task.
Think about it. Who was there to monitor it? So it went unnoticed.
What were the armaments on your Cobras?
The two extra wing guns were removed. What remained were two Colt-Browning 12.7 mm [.50 cal.] machine guns and a 37 mm cannon. It had 39 shells in the cannon system, but we snuck in 40. How 40? We loaded one directly into the barrel.
It’s a good thing I was unable to correct you. I was thinking, the cannon has a drum, each shell has a spot… What about the Cobra’s engine?
It was good, but weak in terms of engine hours, and not very good if you flew with too much throttle. I will tell you about it. This was not a fault of the airplane, but ours. Because our gasoline was not suitable.
We flew on our fuel—B-78. The Cobra had a limiter [governor]. The normal supercharger pressure on the Cobra was 67 pounds per square inch. They set the governor on the Cobra so that it would not exceed 45 pounds. Kinematics supported this; it was ours, already developed. It would not give any more with our fuel. Therefore, if one were using our fuel, the connecting rods in the engine would snap.
That’s not all. They glued a piece of paper on the throttle slot. Paper, ordinary paper. You could set the throttle to get only 40 pounds. Maximum 40. But in combat it was possible to get 45 pounds, but only by tearing the paper. Then you had to report this to the mechanics later. They could see this themselves; they then would remove the filters from the engine to check for [metal] filings.
What was dangerous about the Cobra? Its coolant fluid was Prestone [antifreeze], and it burned better than gasoline. In the event connecting rods would snap, a fire would break out. And in most cases—right away.
They said that, even under such conditions, these Allison engines did not last the projected number of operating hours.
Well, you know, this did not affect me—the mechanics worried about such things.
At the front, did you fly on our gasoline? What about at the training center?
At the front. More precisely, at both places. There was no other choice. The American gas was B-100. They could deliver it some places, but we never received any. Perhaps Pokryshkin flew on these aircraft.
Radios. What type was installed in the Cobra?
Very good radios. They were good for those times. At least there were no complaints about them. In general, we had good communications. There were earphones, not helmets, but earphones. There were no helmets. We wore our pilotka [garrison hat] and earphones. We also did not take our [oxygen] masks. In place of an oxygen mask we used a mouthpiece. Like a cigarette holder. We breathed through our mouth and this did not interfere with our ability to see.
How did the Cobra handle in flight? What were its optimal operating altitudes?
I don’t recall. In my opinion, it would even reach 12,000 meters. It was capable of fighting at all altitudes. It was a good airplane, an aerobatic machine. I liked the Cobra, but I did not fight in our fighters, so I can’t compare it to them.
It is well known that at one time the Cobra had a very weak tail section.
This is absolutely true. But we did not crumple our tails, because ours were reworked. Here’s the story. In our regiment, I think two Cobras twisted their tails, and the pilots bailed out. This was before my time. Our diplomatic representatives delivered a complaint to the manufacturer. They sent out the parts to strengthen the tails. Our technicians strengthened the aircraft. We riveted two plates around the tail portion of the fuselage.
We are interested in how your Cobras were painted.
Ours were green in color. Perhaps we did not over-paint ours. They painted only specific portions of the surface—the regimental markings. In our regiment we had white spinners, and I think the rudders were also white. In the 72nd Regiment, they were red, and in the 68th Regiment—sky blue.
What kind of art did they paint on your airplanes?
We decorated them. Stars [denoting victories] were painted on the nose. In our regiment we had Alexey Semenovich Smirnov, who later became a Twice Hero of the Soviet Union. When I arrived in the regiment, he was a squadron commander and Hero of the Soviet Union. The young generation arrived and among them was a pilot who drew well. He drew a “joker,” like on playing cards, on the rudder of his plane. There weren’t any other such art cases or attraction to drawing.
Our aircraft were not repainted in the winter. We flew them in green. The stars on the wings? I don’t even remember where they were, but I think they were only on the bottom. The serial numbers remained on the fins, but I don’t remember their color.
Aleksey Semenovich Smirnov (1917–87) was born to a peasant family in Kalinin oblast north of Moscow. He joined the Soviet Army in 1938, completed flight training in Odessa that same year, and later participated in the Soviet–Finnish War 1939–40. Smirnov spent the entire Great Patriotic War in the same regiment—the 28th Guards Fighter Regiment, earning his first award of Hero of the Soviet Union in September 1943 for having flown 312 combat sorties and downed 13 enemy aircraft in 39 engagements. By September 1944 he had increased his sortie count to 396, and his personal score to 31 personal and 1 shared kill. He received his second award of Hero of the Soviet Union in February 1945. Smirnov remained on active duty until 1954, when he retired at the rank of colonel.
Do you remember your tactical number?
I remember one—42. This was already after they had shot me down and I had changed aircraft.
Let’s return to the ZAP.
The reserve air regiment… I was the duty officer for the airfield. The telephone rang:
“A colonel is arriving at your location in an UT-2. Meet the airplane and put it in the hangar.”
I did as instructed—I met him. He climbed out, but he was not wearing the Caucasian fur cap which was given to all officers starting from colonel as a part of the uniform, rather an Astrakhan fur cap. “The ‘merchant’ has arrived!”
This was sometime in February 1944. We had already completed transition training.
As described in the previous chapter, the “merchant” was a high-ranking officer from a regiment or division who flew to the flight training center to select pilots for assignment to his unit.
Was there a sense that the war was coming toward an end and you might not make it to the front?
The situation was not that clear yet. Some of the country’s western republics were still occupied.
I will continue. The guest—the “merchant”—turned out to be Colonel Ivanov, the commander of a front-line corps. He was a pilot, as they say, “from God.” He flew in spite of his general’s rank. The only thing he could not fly was a broomstick. He died in a crash after the war in a small German liaison aircraft, the Siebel. I believe that at the time he was a PVO commander.
So, I met him and sent him to the headquarters. I came from the airfield and everyone was already assembled. It turned out that everyone had already been “sold”! I was surprised, but my name was already on the list. In the morning, we were supposed to turn in our belongings and sign out. I gathered up my linens and mattress and carried them on my back to the supply room. A fellow student behind me, from Chuguev flight school but from another squadron, was shouting:
“Ovsyannikov! Wait! Don’t leave! Come back! I am going to go in your place! Captain Sarkisyan will explain everything to you.”
He was the adjutant there. I no longer remember what detachment or squadron. I went up to him indignantly:
“What’s going on?”
“Listen! You will still get there! What do you get—550 rubles? He only gets seven rubles.”
This guy, Boris Sosna, was a handsome man. We became friends, we exchanged letters, and he just died last year, in the south, in Pyategorsk. Back then he was a “string puller,” who had gone AWOL on at least one occasion. Because of this they gave him starshina rather than lieutenant. Therefore as a starshina he received seven rubles salary.
“Why am I being held back?”
“It’s all been decided. You’ll still get there.”
So I laid out my mattress again. It embarrassed me to tears.
It was the end of April before another “merchant” showed up. It turned out that they assigned me to the same regiment as my “friend-rival”, as I called him at that time. So at the end of April I left from Ivanovo and ended up in the same corps. But now instead of a colonel, a major general received me. We had a conversation, and from our group he sent me and one other comrade to the guards division. In our corps we had two divisions, one guards and the other not guards. They called it the 180th “wild” IAD. This division was also in Cobras.
How did you get there, to the regiment, from the school in Ivanovo?
Oh, you wouldn’t believe it. They told us how to reach the regiment: “Go to this station, and there you will find your way.”
This was in Valday rayon, the village Somenka, and Somenka airfield. [The 5th Guards Fighter Air Division, 6th Air Army, Northwest Front was stationed at Somenka airfield from March to May 1944. I.S.]
Aha! Right away! There was nothing there.
We arrived at the station with a friend at night, crawled out [of the conveyance], and it was cold. It was spring, the month of May, but still cold. An old woman was stoking a small stove. We asked her:
“Please tell us, how do we get to Somenka?”
“Down this path. Go this way. You will get there by daylight.”
“How far is it?”
“Six kilometers and a little bit.”
How much over six kilometers she did not specify, and like fools, we didn’t ask. We found the path and set off. We walked and we walked, and there, to our left and then to our right, the black grouse uttered their mating calls. We walked three-plus kilometers past the six she told us, and the road ended! The road just ended. It was an overcast day, with fog and low clouds. We reached a stream. On the other side was a settlement. The stream was wide, with a log in place of a bridge. We went across and stopped at a peasant hut.
“Does anyone live here?”
An old woman answered: “Yes, Yes, come in.”
We asked her:“Where is Somenka? We have to get to Somenka.”
“Somenka? Yes, I have been there, to a wedding.”
“How far is it?”
“Six kilometers and a little bit.”
Again that little bit!“Which way?”
“Go this way.”
We walked farther. We walked and we walked. Suddenly the overcast lifted and we saw an airplane fly over. It was a U-2, one pass. It dropped down and was hidden by the forest. We walked and we walked; we saw a stream, half full of water. The ducks flew off. We approached the stream and a man was walking, in a dark blue jacket. He was an aviator with a pistol. Perhaps he was duck hunting.
“Look here! Where is the airfield?”
“It’s over there, ahead of you.”
I took off my canvas boots and trousers. My friend Pasha walked straight into the stream and got all wet. I put on my dry clothes and he wrung the water out of his; then we waited for them to dry out. We made it to the airfield. We asked where the division was, and it turned out that the division headquarters was also on this same airfield, in a dugout.
Well, how did they greet us? We reported in the normal fashion. They directed us, I don’t really remember, either to the commander or to the personnel department. It turned out that they left me at this airfield, in the 28th Guards Regiment, in which I fought. My friend was also sent to a guards regiment—the 72nd. This was almost in the opposite direction, but he was lucky—they took him there in a Po-2.
Well, we walked out of the division headquarters, and this same Boris Sosna was walking toward me: “Ah, friend! Come on! Have you eaten? Let’s go eat!”
He took us to the dugout where the canteen was located. He was a regular there already.
“Hey, girls! Reinforcements have arrived! Feed us something!”
What food they had there! We were accustomed to rear-area rations. Here they brought out enormous portions—fried potatoes, a huge cutlet, and compote. I thought to myself: “One could live well here.”
When did you receive a personal weapon?
I arrived at the regiment and was issued a TT. We all had TTs. They gave us uniforms, weapons, and maps. I ended up in the 2nd Squadron. My commander was a major, Petr Ivanovich Isaev. He fought in the Finnish War. We called him “Grandpa.” He was over 30 years old. Later my flight commander became the squadron commander. And so began my front-line journey. They checked my piloting skills. My flight commander checked me out in a dual-control Yak. Later I took off in a Cobra. I flew around the airfield, made several flights, and later in the zone. Then we began to maneuver in pairs. This was to work on our so-called coordination. I established a sort of rhyme with my lead:
“I am your lead,” he said to me,
Looking me straight in the eye.
“Now remember, in your sleep,
You should be close to me!”
Tell us, did you conduct any practice aerial engagements?
Both coordination and training aerial engagements. They trained us well. We fired at both ground and aerial targets. The aerial target was a fabric sleeve towed behind an airplane. They used Cobras to tow it. They rolled it up in a ball, then cast it out, and it fully deployed. My time came to shoot at the sleeve. I sat in my cockpit, waiting for the signal to launch. I could already see the towing airplane—it was almost over the airfield. I took off on signal, raised the landing gear, closed the flaps, and gave it throttle. Suddenly, my engine cut out. It was as if I had closed the throttle myself. I was at about 100 meters altitude, no more. This was in Kalinin oblast — we were surrounded by trees. I glanced to my left and saw a small open area. There was a hamlet and a field. I did not have time even to turn or even drop the gear doors and I was there. I landed. I just sat it down. They said to me on the radio:
“Where are you? Where are you?”
I replied: “I made a forced landing. Everything is okay. Six kilometers out, perhaps.”
Well, the truth was that they had to drive around for 15–20 kilometers to get me to the airfield.
They said: “An aircraft is taking off. Direct him to you.”
So I did that.
“Well, any problems?”
I responded: “Everything is normal.”
“Wait there. They are driving out to get you.”
An engineer and some technicians finally showed up in about an hour, perhaps less. They had to go around a small stream. But they finally found me. The flight technician came with a mechanic for the “evacuation,” as they liked to call such operations.
I said, “I don’t know. It was as if I closed the throttle.”
Already a rumor was going around that we were going to the front, and now this. They had already sent someone from the regiment off somewhere, because he came down and broke his airplane. He crashed a second airplane. Then he left the regiment. At one time he was the wingman for my flight leader. Now I had taken his place, and also crashed.
I left for the airfield and reported in. We arrived at the regiment and reported there. I told my story. In the evening, we left the airfield to rest, to the village where we were billeted. Our squadron lived on the second floor of the building. I lay down.
Did the other men give you looks?
I don’t know. Some did, some didn’t. You know how a person can blow things out of proportion. I did not pay attention to anyone else. I lay there for a long time. Suddenly, it was night, perhaps midnight, the door opened, someone walked in, and came straight over to me. He came up to me and said:
“Ovsyannikov, you aren’t asleep?”
“It wasn’t your fault—the fuel pump broke.”
A great load was lifted from me. It was Fedot Aksenenko, the squadron engineer. He calmed me, relating to me in a caring way. He could have forced me to be tortured until morning. He understood what I was feeling.
Everything turned out alright. The regiment stood down for reconstitution: pilots arrived, new aircraft joined our fleet. At the end of June, somewhere around the 18th, we took off for the front.
We flew to the front at low-level, for purposes of camouflage, in order not to be observed. We went at an altitude of 100 meters. We made an intermediate stop at Andriapol. This was also in Tver region. By the way, my home regiment is now based at Andriapol. True, only its name remains there. We refueled at Andriapol, and flew on to Dretun airfield. It was a primitive strip, also in the forest, 18 or 20 kilometers from the front line. It had been registered by the Germans, and therefore was subject to artillery fire. After we landed, they fired on us. It killed one mechanic and burned up one airplane, but not ours. An American Curtiss was left behind from the regiment that occupied this airfield before us. They “unoccupied” this airfield on our behalf and left behind a damaged aircraft. This is the one that burned. A shell burst literally under the tail of my comrade Sergey Korobov, leaving a big crater. But his aircraft suffered not a single hole. It was sprinkled with dirt, and that was all.
What kind of Curtiss? A fighter or a bomber?
The devil knows, likely a reconnaissance aircraft.
Perhaps. They called it a Curtiss.
The Curtiss O-52 “Owl” was an observation aircraft, powered by a Pratt and Whitney radial engine. It was capable of 200 mph [320 kmh], with a service ceiling of 19,500 feet [6,000 m] and a range of 700 miles [1100 km]. It had a rear-facing .50 caliber machine gun for the rear cockpit. The USSR received 30 via Lend-Lease, which were delivered to Arctic ports by convoy.
We made our first familiarization flight somewhere around the 20th of June. It was right before the beginning of Operation Bagration—the liberation of Belorussia. The genuine combat sorties began soon after that, just two or three days later. The mission was to provide coverage of the battlefield. It was my first combat. On the first sortie, I became separated from my leader. But it was not my fault. The fact of the matter is that there were Messerschmitts there. For the first time I saw from the side how shells flew out of my leader’s airplane. I thought to myself, “That’s some kind of smoke. Is his engine knocking?”
He fired at a Messerschmitt and after his attack zoomed upward. There was an overcast, not thick, but scattered. He jumped into a cloud and I behind him. I came out of the cloud and there was no one to be seen. While in the clouds, he turned and went down, and I went up. This was already at the end of our sortie period. We were low on fuel.
What was the duration of flight of a Cobra?
About an hour. What was the capacity of the fuel cells—I don’t remember. Perhaps four hundred liters. I have forgotten everything. Well, approximately an hour, and if you were flying economically, 90 minutes.
A question about fuel. Not long ago a film was released, Peregon [ferry flight], in which they described the following situation. Upon landing a pilot pulled the control stick toward himself; the fuel in the fuel cell poured to the back of the tank and the engine died, although ostensibly there was still fuel. Did such a thing happen, or is this nonsense?
Nonsense, raving nonsense. I have heard so many lies. Horrible! Here now they are announcing commentary for an aviation catastrophe… The commentator says: “You know, the tire, when the pressure is seventy atmospheres…” [about 1000 lb/in2]
“…and when the tire blows, the airplane is penetrated through…”
Yes, the skin can be penetrated, but seventy atmospheres in the tire? When I hear this, I shout, “How is it possible to give this commentary if they don’t understand anything about the topic discussed?” All these journalists…
Let’s return to the past. You got lost and…
Me? Lost? I fell behind! And I heard – they were shouting:
“Back to base! Back to base! Assemble back at base!”
Well, back to base…
I saw that some Cobras were racing toward me. I wanted to turn around and form up on them, but they flew away. I took a course under the overcast. I knew where, in what area I was, and I arrived home normally. There I told them that I had become separated; I told them how it happened.
Did they chew you out?
For what? I didn’t try to lag behind. My leader—he didn’t transmit his plan to me. And in the clouds… In combat, you try to maintain a distance of 200 meters behind. My first aerial engagement was over rather quickly. Later, it just settled down, and sorties were conducted normally.
Tell us, did you immediately begin to get a picture of what was happening in the fight?
What can I say about “getting a picture”? I knew that I had to maneuver, that I had to get orientation. But the main thing that you visualize, that you must understand, is where you are and what you should be doing.
I will tell you a story. In a sense I was lucky, and in another sense I was not lucky.
In the first case, I did not see a single bomber in the sky. Not one. I had 204 combat sorties in slightly less than a year. Of all the young pilots, I flew more sorties than anyone else. I had a large number of reconnaissance sorties. But primarily we were engaged in non-standard missions—we did ground attack. Yes, they hung bombs on us.
Of course, everything came with time; with the passage of time, one visualized better, but it was very important to have good teachers. They did not simply teach us; before they took us into battle, they checked us out thoroughly. They trained us well and told us everything [we needed to know].
Did you consider your overall training, including that which you received in the aero club, in the reserve regiment, and later in the regiment before combat, sufficient or barely adequate?
Of course, it was not enough. When I went to the front, I had only 12 flights in a Cobra.
With whom did you most often fly in pair?
Not “most often,” but with whom did I begin to fly—this was Senior Lieutenant Boris Aleksandrovich Mukhin, my flight commander. I became his wingman. He ended his service as a division commander. I myself became a pair leader somewhere near the end of 1944.
Did you fly escort?
What other kind of combat missions did your regiment execute?
First—covering the battlefield.
Second—escorting groups of shturmoviks or bombers.
Third—reconnaissance. This was secondary.
Perhaps one might consider our main mission to be attacks against enemy ground targets. This included airfields, railroads, and road columns.
What was the most unpleasant mission for you?
What was so complicated for you in this mission?
First, I would say altitude. They are firing at you from the ground from every possible weapon. The shturmoviks’ maximum altitude was one thousand meters. When they drop down—say to 500 or 300 meters, the enemy flogs you with AAA. But you have to stay with them.
Second, they didn’t have much speed. For a fighter, speed is the main thing. They flew at about 250 kph—that’s approximate. For us this was slow. And we had to protect them from enemy fighters.
We have clarified the most difficult mission. My favorite mission? This was to escort the female bomber regiment. I don’t remember its number. The young ladies flew the Pe-2, Peshkas. We liked this mission. They held their formation like in a picture. The men—someone would fall back, the formation would be stretched out.
True, I never saw them drop their bombs from the dive. They always dropped level.
Now let’s turn to the Germans. In your opinion, how good were the German pilots, their training, and their conduct of a battle?
With the exception of the first battle, when I encountered but did not engage them, because I was so focused on holding onto the tail of my leader, I did not encounter any Messers and Fokkers. The Cobra was able to fight with them on par and overcome. The pilots? I don’t know. Either I encountered weak pilots or their aircraft were inferior (or rather defective). You should understand that when I encountered them, well, I had three aerial combats myself.
My first happened at Baus. We went out, this was after the 18th of August (Aviation Day), and I had only drunk a little, but my friends had drunk their “100 grams” and perhaps more, if they were able to acquire a supplementary ration.
We were covering the battlefield. Our commander, Captain Mukhin, was somewhat hard of hearing. I was the flight commander’s wingman, and our second flight was flying higher, somewhere at 600 meters higher. I was out on the far left (indicates with hands), here was the leader, and Sergey Korobov was leading the second pair to the right. I spotted a pair of aircraft coming from the left, trying to come up behind us. Then they put out some smoke. Not long before this, we were informed that a Fokker had come out with a supercharger. When they switched on the supercharger, they smoked. I transmitted to my leader, “Pair from the left!”
Then I transmitted the same message again. He paid me no attention and flew straight ahead. Then I transmitted, “Fokkers are attacking us!”
Again, no reaction. What could I do? Perhaps I was the first to spot the enemy. I turned sharply, zoomed up, and began to chase whomever was behind us.
We got into a dog fight. I turned this way and that, one against two. The rest of my flight did not see me and flew off. I was still engaged. It turned out that I began to get on their tail. I fired, but from a distance. They dove and flew off. I turned sharply upward—the Cobra could not catch them in a dive. Then I heard my leader, the flight commander. He later became a Hero of the Soviet Union—Leonid Aleksandrovich Bykovets: Look! A Cobra is chasing some Fokkers!
Bykovets was born in December 1921 near Moscow to a Russian working family. He completed aero club training in 1939 and joined the Soviet Army in 1940. In 1941 he graduated from the Kachinsk Aviation School. In late 1942 he was a deputy squadron commander in the 28th Guards Fighter Regiment. By March 1945, he had flown 200 combat sorties and had a personal score of 16 and four in group. He was awarded the rank Hero of the Soviet Union on 18 August 1945. Bykovets retired at the rank of colonel in 1960.
Kislyakov was born in February 1918 near Moscow to a Russian peasant family. He entered the Soviet Army in 1939 and graduated from Borisoglebskaya Aviation School in 1940. As a deputy commander of the 28th Guards Fighter Regiment, Guards Captain Kislyakov flew 532 combat sorties from June 1941 to the end of the war, downing 16 enemy aircraft (three shared) and one aerostat. He was awarded the rank Hero of the Soviet Union on 18 August 1945. Kislyakov retired at the rank of colonel in 1968.
Did your Cobras have automatic [propeller] pitch control?
Yes we did. It changed the propeller pitch. Well, when I jumped up to a higher altitude, I ended up in the rear of our group. They had not even noticed my absence. This was my first engagement with Fokkers. I drew the conclusion that I could fight on equal terms with them. My second encounter was near Prikula, also in the Baltic area.
This was your first combat with Focke Wulfs?
We had earlier encounters, but this was my, so to speak, first personal combat. Later came my second, again in an unfavorable situation, and again I was able to get out in one piece. Therefore I will tell you that I was able to fight the Germans in the Cobra.
It turns out that the German pilots did not suffer with enthusiasm during the conduct of a fight?
If someone came up behind me, I also would attempt to get away. What’s wrong with that? Who wants to get whacked? What kind of enthusiasm is that?
Tell us, please, what was your score of downed aircraft in the Great Patriotic War?
Two—not a lot but they are mine!
I don’t know.
According to the archives, it was three:
29.10.44, 1 FW-190, Ilmaya station
13.04.45, 1 FW-190, Khalenen Krayts
13.04.45, 1 FW-190, south of Gross-Dirkshkhaym airfield (according to Mikhail Bykov)
Listen to me. I absolutely do not believe those who say: “I was in an aerial engagement, I did such-and-such, and he went down. And I saw where he fell!”
He is either a fool or he is lying. How many aerial combats did I conduct? Regardless of how many times I fired my guns, not once did I say: “Comrade commander! I got him!”
I normally said: “I conducted an engagement, I fired.”
I take credit for two kills. That’s all.
Did you have gun cameras? Were victories confirmed with them?
They mounted them, but they did not use them to count. Or should I say very rarely. They did not believe them. Of course, if the enemy aircraft blew up… But that was a relatively rare occurrence. Confirmation was required. Who could confirm? Another pilot from one’s group could confirm.
From your own group?
Yes, from your own group. Or a ground unit.
Who among you overall in the regiment looked after this? A pilot didn’t fly out to obtain confirmations, did he?
No. We were fighting. Someone in the headquarters took care of this. Reports came in that an aerial engagement had occurred in such-and-such area and there were downed aircraft there.
Could over-claims be made?
Why not? There could be over-claims. But I don’t know of any such cases. It was difficult to confirm. How would one know if he truly over-claimed or not?
Tell us, did they pay you money for downed aircraft?
Yes. What did they do with the money? They did nothing with it, it was deposited on our account.
Was it common practice to transfer these monies to the defense fund?
I don’t know. That isn’t what we did. But I did not see any money. It evaporated into thin air.
So you didn’t receive it after the war?
I received it after the war, but later the government pulled a trick on us with ruble conversion, and it vanished.
Tell us, do you remember a case when they shot down our pilots?
Did the Germans shot at men under parachutes?
I know they did because I saw it. This particular pilot survived the experience. It happened over Dvinsk (Daugavpils). We were covering the battlefield. He was from our flight, Kolya Shmelev. Well, I saw how they shot him down. I saw the Fokker, and how, you know, he gave it to him with all barrels — he had six cannons. Kolya bailed out, and the Fokker tried to shoot him still.
Did the Germans come at you head-on?
You know, forget about these head-on attacks. I don’t know how it would be possible to shoot someone down in a head-on approach. I repeat—I don’t know how in a head-on approach, with a closing speed somewhere around 600 meters per second, to even take aim.
Were there cases when a victory was given over to another pilot? For example, someone did not have enough for Hero status, and they gave him a victory?
It’s possible that they gave it to him on paper, but…
The pilots themselves did not do it?
No, I know of no such case. We did not do that.
Where there cases when you fired on your own aircraft, by mistake?
It happened. And they were shot down. Our own Yak shot down our Cobra. But I am not able to tell you the details—it happened before my time.
In what period, in your opinion, did the regiment fight its heaviest battles?
“Intensive” I can talk about, but I can’t say “heaviest.” Intensive combat occurred when we were attacking Koenigsberg. We sortied five times in a day. But heavy? It was never particularly heavy for us. Well, someone was shot down, and didn’t return from a mission.
On average, how many sorties per day did you fly?
Sometimes two, two or three. The maximum was around five sorties, and this was at Koenigsberg. It was two or three days when we took Zemland Peninsula. Our regiment captured one town with ground attacks, by the way.
How did you accomplish this?
It was right after the capture of Koenigsberg. This town was named Palmnicken. You do not know it, perhaps? You might have heard of Yantarnyy?
Our forces captured Pillau, on the Baltic Sea. Palmnicken remained encircled. There was some kind of company there, defending, sitting in fighting positions. They ordered us to “dig them out.” We dug them out. We made five or six sorties. In the end, they came out and threw up white flags. [In early May 1945, a regiment sortie of 29 P-39s under the command of Major B.D. Milekhin and 16 P-39s led by Guards Captain P.D. Uglyanskiy sortied to conduct bombing attacks on an accumulation of enemy forces in the town Palmnicken. The enemy forces concentrated here had retreated from the Zemland Peninsula. Our fighters conducted two bombing attacks and five firing passes on the accumulated enemy troops and equipment. After these crushing blows, the Germans raised a white flag and surrendered. I.S.]
Bombed them with what?
Bombs, strafing. What bombs? Normally we carried 100 kg and 250 kg. Only one bomb; the bomb hanger was under the fuselage. We did not hang bombs under the wings.
Did you have drop tanks?
No. No drop tanks. They might have used them for ferrying.
How did you feel after five sorties?
In their memoirs, the Germans often write that they customarily flew 10 or 15 sorties in a day.
Well, I don’t know about that. They also say that they drank schnapps during the flight.
What is your opinion?
Judge for yourself—if they chased after each of our pilots. Let it be 15! Whatever the number, these poor bastards wouldn’t have had time to go to the bathroom.
Are you prepared to believe that a single airplane could shoot down 15–17 enemy aircraft during a single sortie?
More than 60 years after this conflict, claims for some Luftwaffe pilots have been exaggerated in the popular press. These questions seek to refute such claims.
Categorically. They did not have sufficient ammunition to accomplish this.
Perhaps they use one [cannon] shell for each kill?
One round per kill—do you know what you are saying? This might be possible in a shooting gallery. After the war we fired weapons in a shooting gallery. We managed there [to shoot at the target] with two rounds with a ShKAS.
7.62mm aviatsionnyy skorostrelnyy pulemet sistemy Shpitalnogo–Komaritskogo (7.62mm aviation rapid-firing machine gun designed by V.G. Shpitalnyy and I.A. Komaritskiy). This weapon, which dated from 1932, was produced in configurations for wing-mounting, turret-mounting, and synchronized firing through the propeller.
What was your opinion of the effectiveness of your armaments on enemy aircraft?
The armaments on our Cobras were good. If a 37mm shell hit an enemy aircraft anywhere, that was sufficient. And the machine guns—obviously, they were not cannons, but at least 12.7mm machine guns. These were not 7.62mm.
The number of rounds — wasn’t 40 [for the cannon] somewhat limited?
No. You know, its rate of fire was not that great. I don’t remember now.
Do you remember how you shot down two aircraft?
No. I fired, and it was over. The bullets flew. You could see the tracers. I fired a burst and then maneuvered so some other enemy could not come around on my tail. Just like they taught us. And they taught us well.
Were you wounded?
No. But I got a bump.
How many times did they shoot you down or damage your aircraft?
One time. This happened when we were strafing an airfield. My airplane was damaged, but I landed safely. It was a forced landing. Our forces were already near Berlin, the 24th of April . Koenigsberg and Danzig had already been captured. There were still Germans on Khel Spit. They were flying out of there. The spit extended to the north and south from [an area west of] Koenigsberg. Where the spit went south, there was a group of cut-off Germans. They had an airfield from which they were operating. We flew there several times to bomb and strafe. The fight on 24 April was my last over this airfield.
The area being described is a narrow spit of land extending southward from the present town of Baltiskiy, which is on the coast west of present Kaliningrad.
We flew as a regiment—24 crews. We took bombs. I was in the cover group, in the very last pair. My wingman was Nikolai Pivovarov. I made my dive and dropped my bomb on the airfield, and when I was pulling out, I spotted two aircraft under camouflage netting on the bank of a stream. The plan was to make two passes. I was last—the first aircraft had already dropped their ordnance, and the regiment commander gave the order, “We’re done! Assemble, return to base.”
I had still not made my second pass and went in to strafe these two aircraft. I was diving and had just commenced firing. I felt a thump under my wing. I fired a burst and pulled up. I glanced down and my oil pressure was zero. You can’t fly very far without oil. We did not know exactly where the front line was. They had told us that “everything across the Visla is ours.” That was all. It was spring, and the Germans had blown up the irrigation system. All around us was a virtual sea! Chimneys were sticking up out of the water. I was afraid to set it down in the water. The Visla was getting closer and closer. So I flew on, gained some altitude, perhaps 1,500 meters, but I could feel the engine.
I have already told you that if the connecting rod breaks in a Cobra, there will be a fire. But I made the decision to fly on. I spotted the Visla, where our forces might be. Then I saw an enormous field. On the right side, near the tree line, were some structures, probably hunting cabins and not village dwellings. I radioed to my wingman: “I am setting it down in the field!”
I began to turn and spotted a church up ahead. That meant a populated area, I’m thinking; our troops will be there. “Perhaps I can stretch it out.”
I stretched it out, shut off my engine, and glided, but did not reach it. I landed in swampy terrain, with lakes to the left and right. On my belly, of course. Away from an airfield, one should always land on the belly.
I heard from one pilot, true he flew Yaks, that in a forced landing in the Cobra the engine broke loose and drove the pilot into the instrument panel.
Drivel. I made a second forced landing. When I landed, the only thing that happened was normal for all aircraft—it rotated around 180 degrees. Well, I landed. On this occasion the antenna separated from the radio on account of the landing shock. I figured this out later. I pressed on the push-to-talk switch and nothing happened. I crawled out and my wingman was circling above me. I indicated to him, “Return to base!”
He acknowledged with his wings and departed. He had not even reached our own airfield and was forced to be re-directed to a secondary airfield.
I am standing on the wing. Looking around, I am thinking, “What should I do? Where should I go?” In front of me I spotted the high berm of a railroad embankment. Had I flown farther, my nose would have struck this embankment. It was not visible from above.
Three figures are running toward me. One falls to the ground and two are running. Then this figure gets up and runs and they go to ground. I see our greatcoats.
They are running up to a drainage ditch. When they are perhaps a hundred meters distant, they shout:
“Ruki vverkh! [Hands up]
“Whose are you? Come here!”
Don’t think that I was brave, or some kind of hero. I simply was sure that I was among our own forces.
Again they shouted:
I said, “Come here.”
They came over to me:
“What is this airplane?”
“It’s a Cobra.”
You have to understand, they thought it was a Messerschmitt. The German airfield was not that far away, and they had seen Focke-Wulfs and Messerschmitts flying around. They came right up to me and I said to them:
“How far is the front line?”
“A kilometer and a half from here.”
Now it came to me—had I not stretched out my glide toward the town, I might be a guest of the Germans. Not a good thing. I was lucky to have had the presence of mind to land there, in the field. It was a good thing I had spotted the church and thought there might be a garrison there.
Did pilots return to the regiment from German captivity?
They did not come to us. Hero of the Soviet Union Ziborov arrived in the neighboring guards regiment. They shot him down over the airfield that we were bombing and strafing on Zemland Peninsula. He bailed out and they captured him. He spent some time in the same guardhouse where I myself sat for two days in peacetime. Our forces were advancing quickly and liberated him. He flew for some time after that.
Vasiliy Mikhaylovich Ziborov, born in April 1923, joined the Soviet Army in 1941 and completed flight school in 1942. Arriving at the front in September 1942, by January 1945 he had flown 134 combat missions, participated in 23 aerial engagements, and had a personal score of 15. By the war’s end he had raised his score to 20 personal and one shared. He was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 18 August 1945. Colonel Ziborov retired in 1960. He was also a P-39 pilot, in the 72nd Guards Fighter Regiment.
SMERSH didn’t drag him off?
Listen, excuse me. I don’t know if we would have won the war had there not been a SMERSH.
To make a long story short, when my wingman landed, he told them that I had landed and everything was normal! But it seemed to him that I had landed in German-held territory, because when he was circling around, they shot at him from the ground.
The next day, I asked the battalion commander for a screwdriver. The battalion commander gave us permission, and I took the screwdriver and walked out to my airplane. I opened the compartment hatch, checked around, screwed the antenna connection back on, and turned on the battery switch. I sat in the cockpit and listened. In a minute or two I turned on the power. I picked up my book and read. Suddenly I heard:
“[breaking squelch sound] 116, 116, this is so-and-so.”
It’s ours! But they are approaching the reception limit of my radio. I shout:
“This is 115! How do you hear me?”
I did not get a response, as they went into a dive and at a lower altitude communication was lost.
When Kolka (Nikolai) Shmelev returned, he reported: “I connected with ‘Oves!’” [Oves – oat.]
They called me “Oves,” for Ovsyannikov.
“I connected with ‘Oves’. He contacted me and then communications was broken.”
Sergey Korobov requested a Po-2 from the regiment commander in order to find me and bring me out. By the way, he brought out Shmelev from behind enemy lines around Daugavpils when they shot him down and he bailed out. But it turned out that there was no Po-2 available, and he flew out in a Cobra. He found where my Cobra was lying and circled around. They shot at him again, so he flew home and reported:
“Perhaps the Germans have him! Because I saw the airplane, but there is no one there. I saw German positions not too far away and they fired at me.”
Perhaps it got back to SMERSH that I possibly was in the custody of the Germans. By this time I had gathered up my things and departed. However, no one interrogated me and they did not drag me off anywhere. When I returned, I simply reported to the commander what had happened, and that was it. It was over. By the way, on my return leg I came across Marienburg airbase, where some Navy shturmoviks were based. There were also about a hundred different Focke-Wulfs on the tarmac there, some with unusual long noses.
Did you have a SMERSH man or an osobist in the regiment? What did he do?
We didn’t know him. It was some lieutenant who hung around.
Did your political officers fly?
They flew. All the squadron zampolits flew. At the regiment? He seldom flew.
In general, describe their duties.
You need to ask them this question! They were engaged in ideological preparation. They conducted meetings and read lectures. Standard political work.
You flew cover for bombers and shturmoviks. Were you punished when one of your charges was lost?
It depended on what type of loss, in what conditions. Yes, they punished us. My former flight commander Mukhin, before my time, ended up in a penal battalion, in the infantry. The entire flight was punished because they lost five Ils [Il-2 Shturmoviks]. Fighters shot them down. They sent the entire flight to a penal battalion. But perhaps someone up high over there gave it some second thought, and sent them all back to us.
Did you ever hear of a penal squadron?
No. How so? Who is talking or writing about this?
Ivan Yevgrafovich Fedorov, I think, first put out the rumor that penal squadrons existed.
Well, I don’t know.
By the way, do you know this comrade’s story?
I’ve never heard of it. Have you found much confirmation?
So far, none. We have found some Il-2 pilots who were made [rear-seat] gunners for attacking our own troops. We have heard about this. This happened.
I will tell you what I heard. The Germans put out rumors that we were chaining our shturmovik pilots to their aircraft so they could not bail out. You never heard this? I heard it. But I came across confirmation of these rumors. One time I was flying, and something happened to my stomach. It was so hard that I was ready to stuff my pilotka [cap] under my butt. You understand? Well, I really had to go to the toilet. I landed, and I didn’t even make it to my parking spot. I jumped out of the cockpit and I looked up, and a woman was standing there.
“Oh, sonny, is it true, that they tied you in?”
I had a cord hung around me… It was my helmet-microphone cord.
“People are saying that they tie you in.”
It turned out to be even more scary—we tied ourselves up.
Tell us, how you were secured in flight—lap belt or shoulder harness also?
Normally – only the lap belt.
Did you have some kind of system?
What do you mean?
There was a British system, when the pilot was strapped in, a cable ran from his back to the armored seat. Like in an automobile. Did you have this system?
You know, I can’t give you a straight answer. We seldom used our shoulder harnesses. We had a buckle here, at the navel. We could shove our shoulder straps or our lap belts in here.
Were there cases when, for some reason or other, combat sorties were not counted?
I don’t remember if this happened with us. Perhaps it could have, somewhere. We did not have such instances.
Do you know of an instances of cowardice in battle? Refusal to go on a combat sortie? And the decisions of a tribunal in such cases?
We never had any such cases in our regiment. They brought some cases to our attention, of course. These things did happen.
What [uniform] did you fly in?
A flight suit. In the summer it was regular field blouse. I don’t know what color—some kind of gray-brown.
Did you wear your medals?
Some who had them wore their medals.
What about leather?
Leather jacket? Yes. Winter and summer.
We also had leather pants. American.
What was on your feet?
Fur boots in the winter, probably. In the summer we wore high boots. We didn’t wear low boots.
Did you have silk scarves?
Yes, I had some kind of multi-colored silk scarf.
Were you short of flight gear items?
No, no shortage.
What can you say about observation of radio discipline? They say that there were constant problems.
Discipline? We did not jabber any longer than was necessary! Jabber about what? Then we had to respond. We did not sing songs. I do not even understand your question. We used the radio only when it was necessary. That was all.
Did you address each other with codes, nicknames, last names?
Codes. There were exceptions; when the division commander, Rykachev, flew, he called himself “Yu. B.”—Yuriy Borisovich.
Can you provide any details regarding the death of Fedor Fedorovich Voloshchenko?
I can’t tell you anything. He was in our squadron. He did not return from combat when we were in the Baltic area. The battle was at Libava.
What about Yuriy Mikhaylovich Chapliev? Ivan Petrovich Grachev?
Ivan Petrovich Grachev (1915–44) joined the Soviet Army in 1936 and after completing flight training in 1939 participated in the Soviet–Finnish War 1939–40. He had flown 102 combat sorties by September 1941 and was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union on 16 January 1942. When he was killed in a ramming incident on 14 September 1944, his score was 18 personal and 8 shared victories.
They also did not return. How, what? It’s unknown. We used the phrase, “did not return from combat mission.” These were the first losses in the regiment that I can recall.
What can you remember about the regiment commanders?
I had only one regiment commander in the war. Before I arrived in the regiment, it was Lieutenant Colonel Oleg Markivoch Rodionov. Later, his deputy quickly became the regiment commander, Boris Dmitrievich Melekhin. Rodionov left to become Aleksandr Pokryshkin’s deputy commander, and perished in an automobile accident.
What kind of pilots and commanders were they?
Good, normal. I don’t know about Oleg. Of course, he flew less. It seems to me that regiment commanders did not have to fly often and did not need to.
Can you say anything about Aleksey Smirnov?
He was a remarkable person. He was our idol. A fair-haired Adonis, with a burnt face. But it was not visible too much (he didn’t stand out in a crowd). A hale fellow and a jokester.
This happened at Shaulyay, west of Panevezhis [in Lithuania]. Perhaps 20 kilometers from it was a primitive airfield. We always were stationed at primitive airfields. This was a plowed field, with potatoes or something growing there. We were flying there for the first time. Nearby stood a brewery or a vodka distillery.
To make a long story short, we were parked near this plant, and Smirnov had a rifle. It was a German rifle. Someone, somewhere obtained some shells for it. They were German training cartridges. You could fire at something point blank and the bullets broke into tiny pieces, and nothing else happened. So we taxied in and parked, and we were sitting around shooting the breeze.
The flight technician walks up and Smirnov calls him out: “Why are your aircraft not serviced?”
“What do you mean—not serviced?”
Smirnov presses down and releases—there are five cartridges in the clip. They appear to be absolutely genuine. He loaded the five cartridges into the rifle.
“Do you know what they do for this at the front?” Bang! And we all laughed!
“C-comrade c-c-commander! They’re joking, aren’t they?”
We laughed some more.
Well, this was nothing yet. The squadron commander, Petr Isaev, lands. He taxis over to the parking area. Normally he did not fly combat missions, but he ferried any leftover aircraft. We had one with the nickname “Zebra.” It was camouflaged, dappled. It was the only one like that. Where it came from—I don’t know. Very few men flew it, but they ferried it from airfield to airfield. This airplane was like a log, and normally they set it up for defense of the airfield. [To bring the guns level with the horizon] they dug in the front wheel.
So we hear them declare over the radio that he is coming in for landing, and Aleksey says:
“Hey, now we’ll fool the old man!”
The old man comes in and lands. He sets it down, but where he landed the potato rows went across. The nose of the aircraft drops, and the Cobra hits hard. The nose gear was broken in a big shower of dirt. Well, when there is an accident there is an investigation. The joking was over. But we did have fun sometimes.
Tell us. At the front in those years, was there any kind of nationality clashes?
What do you mean? Listen, guys. You understand that now our enemies are enflaming this national hostility. You understand that?
Bagramyan (Armenian) was our front commander. We had an Armenian aircraft technician and another aircraft technician was a Kazakh. There were Jews. We joked together. The Ukrainians called us “katsaps [butchers],” and we called them “khokhols” [“topknots,” for a Ukrainian custom of cutting all the hair but a single tuft]. But in order for there to be hostility, or some kind of prejudice…
Who has received their freedom today? And who is receiving rights? You and me? No, of course not. There you have it. This is where all this dissension comes from.
“Russian Independence Day?” What have we become independent from? Look into the future, look. This is nationalism; this is new. Our enemies have thrust this “new” on us. This is very serious, very serious.
Let’s return to the war. Tell us, please, did you have people in your regiment who lost relatives to the occupation? Or whose relatives were taken as forced labor to Germany?
You know, I don’t remember. I know that we had one man, pilot Zhora Baranov. He went home to his village after the war, and there he shot a starosta [a person designated by Germans to be a village supervisor – ed.]. The old man had helped the Germans.
Was he charged?
When you came into German territory, was there a desire to get vengeance on the Germans?
You know… Listen, I fought them. And if I had encountered a soldier… But when we settled in East Prussia, we had already driven the troops out. Those still living there were peaceful inhabitants. What was there to fight about with them?
What was your relationship with them?
Well, I generally did not associate with them. They engaged in exchanges of bits and pieces with us. In one of these exchanges, I acquired an accordion.
This was not a “trophy,” you got it in exchange?
This was not a trophy.
Did [the command] issue an order to you? About punishment for thievery and so on?
Where were you and what were you doing when the war ended?
Where did we greet the victory? We were around Riga. We had been launching strikes against the Courland pocket from Yushkas airfield. Well, you know that aviation fought only during the day. We were resting. Everyone had been at the airfield since dawn. The squadrons had been scattered about to various places. Suddenly, on the morning of 9 May, the telephone rang. The commander had a field telephone. Right away we were all “on our guard.”
Mukhin, the squadron commander, said on the telephone:
“Understood. Got it. Where? What? Immediately. We got it! We are launching! Mission: ground attack column of troops moving along highway from such-and-such point, in direction of Ventspils, where they are loading on ships.”
We all headed for our aircraft. This was my 204th combat sortie. Just another mission. We did not know about the end of the war. We took off, assembled, then gained altitude. The front was close—perhaps 25–30 kilometers. We were at altitude, and suddenly I hear:
“This is ‘Kedr’ [cedar]. Kedr was the front forward radio-vectoring station.
“111”! (Mukhin was “111”.)
“Do not cross the line! Drop your bombs in a safe place in the Gulf of Riga. Return to base!”
We did not take this at face value. Don’t cross! Who says so? The Germans were very cunning in this regard. Our leader demanded: “Password!”
The other end repeated everything, adding the password. All is in order!
It was strange. But an order is an order. It was forbidden to land a fighter aircraft carrying a bomb. That meant we found the German column, considered this a “safe area,” dropped our bombs, and made a couple of gun runs. Then we returned. When we passed over our airfield, we saw a crowd of people where there shouldn’t have been anyone. We landed, taxied, and shut off our engines. There was shooting on all sides. People were shooting whatever weapon they had, and shouting. We climbed out of our cockpits, which involved opening the door and climbing out on the wing.
You could use either one. On the left side, the throttle lever got in the way a bit, but it was possible. Can I continue? They did not let us to climb down from the aircraft. They grabbed us and began to throw us up in the air, catching and throwing us up again. We knew that this meant the war was over. Victory.
Did you ever operate against ships? And after the war, here you told us about the end of the war. Did you still fly combat sorties after the war?
We operated against ships in the Pillau area. We dropped bombs on them.
What was your level of accuracy?
We had hits. Aiming was conducted in the dive, “by the boot.” [An idiomatic expression indicating that there was no bombsight, rather that the pilot simply guessed when to drop the ordnance. An equivalent American expression might be “by the seat of my pants.” Ed.]
We did not fly any combat sorties after the war.
What about the Germans who were trying to make it to Sweden? Did you destroy them?
We weren’t involved in that.
You have said that in the Cobra, the engine coolant was flammable. What was this liquid?
Prestone. I do not know its contents [ethylene glycol – ed.], but it burned well.
Let’s return to the Cobras. The 37mm cannon, a fairly sufficient caliber. When they mounted it on our fighters, significant dispersion of rounds was noted. The first two rounds struck the target and the rest went all over the place. Did you have this problem on the Cobra? Did it shake the aircraft?
No. You must understand the reason for that is that our cannon was mounted precisely in the center of the aircraft.
But in the Yak it also fired through the propeller hub.
Well, I don’t know about that.
What about point of aim? How many rounds could you fire without disturbing the sight?
How would I know?
Well, what kind of bursts did you fire?
They told us to fire a burst of one second. No more than that was needed. Do not waste ammunition.
Tell us, please. Did you have armor-piercing rounds for the 37mm cannon?
We did. We had that type, I think.
Judging by lend-lease archival documents, only high-explosive rounds were delivered, and not armor-piercing.
In my opinion, we had them. But I can’t prove it. In my consciousness, they alternated [high-explosive with armor-piercing]. The same as with the machine guns: armor-piercing, then explosive bullets. Tracers. There was a tracer; this is how I know.
One of the enduring arguments about the employment of the P-39 Airacobra in the Soviet Air Forces (army and navy) is whether it was used to attack German armor. While Lend-lease documents do not report the delivery of armor-piercing ammunition for the 37mm cannon, many P-39 veterans claim to have used it. On the other hand, high-explosive ammunition was delivered in vast quantity (over 3.1 million rounds). Written Soviet accounts of P-39 attacks against German armor are extremely rare. The discussion continues. [JG]
What was easier to shoot down—a Messer or a Fokker?
I did not fight with Messers. I have talked about the Focke-Wulf. Either I encountered such weak pilots, or… I don’t know.
What about these airplanes? The Germans celebrate the Fokker and the Americans the F-86 Saber. They talk about their field of view, and in ours—ostensibly like in a cage or coop. Somehow I did not feel myself as being in a cage.
Translator’s note: Porfiriy Borisovich Ovsyannikov continued to serve in the 28th Guards Fighter Regiment after the war, and in late 1950 went with his regiment to China to train Chinese pilots to fly the MiG-15. During his several months in air combat along the Chinese–Korean border, Ovsyannikov shot down at least three B-29 Superfortresses and three F-80 Shooting Stars while piloting a MiG-15.
By Oleg Korytov and Konstantin Chirkin ©
Transcribed by Igor Zhidov ©
Translated by James F. Gebhardt © and edited by Ilya Grinberg ©
Special thanks to Svetlana Spiridonova, Mikhail Bykov, and Igor Seidov (whose commentary is annotated “I.S.”)