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Red Star Catalinas

by Marc Commandeur

It is an odd thing that the first Catalina of a country that produced Catalinas herself was a second hand Catalina: In 1937, Dr. Richard Archbold purchased Consolidated’s first commercial PBY. It was a modified PBY-1 licensed as a model 28-1. Guba, as Archbold called his aircraft, was to be used in support of a planned expedition to New Guinea. These plans were altered when Archbold was asked to aid in a mission of mercy. The Soviet government had asked him to sell Guba to them for $230,000[8]. Archbold agreed and the Soviets used Guba to search for Sigismund Levanevsky and his crew who disappeared during a flight across the North Pole from the Soviet Union to Fairbanks. The Canadian researcher Sir Hubert Wilkins flew Guba to Coppermine in Canada’s Northwest Territory on the 23rd of August 1937 and made five search-trips during August and September. In the end of 1937, Guba, now registered L-2, was flown to New York, dismantled, and shipped by steamer to the Soviet Union. From January to March 1938, Wilkins flew four more flights, two of which were during the polar night. Sadly Levanevsky and his crew were never found.

Wilkins wrote a letter to Reuben Fleet, saying he had flown 19,000 miles “… under the most adverse weather conditions, flying over rough and uncharted terrain, and for the most part heavily loaded with fuel, supplies, and equipment. It is my privilege to congratulate you and your associates and all those who had part in the fabrication of this airplane, and in no uncertain terms. Without this magnificent airplane, we could not have attempted our difficult task.”[2]

In the summer of 1938, L-2 was delivered to Moscow. The letters URSS (French short for USSR) were changed to CCCP, the registration L-2 removed, and the aircraft was equipped with military gear. This military gear consisted of 4 ‘SHKAS’ machine guns (7.62 mm) in the bow turret, tunnel gun, and where the two waist gunner’s hatches should be in small closed blisters; 6 bomb racks for several types of bombs; and other equipment. All these changes were standard on the GST, except for the blisters[8]. Note that L-2 must have been the first Catalina with (some sort of) blisters!

During her operational life, L-2 took part in the search for survivors of convoy PQ-17. After the search, while she lay at anker at Moller Bay, Novaya Zemlya, L-2 was destroyed by shellfire of a German submarine on the 25th of July, 1942[5].
The Soviets impressed with the performances of Guba, negotiated a contract in 1937 with Consolidated for three Model 28-2 aircraft, a license for production, and engineering support in the establishment of an assembly plant. One of the Model 28-2 aircraft, comparable to a PBY-1, was completed and test flown in San Diego. Later she was disassembled and shipped to the Soviet Union together with the other two aircraft. These three aircraft were the only three PBY’s build in the USA that were powered by other engines than the Pratt & Whitney R-1830s. Instead they were equipped with Wright Cyclone R-1820-G3 engines[2][7].

The GST (the Soviet designation for Soviet build Catalinas) was not exactly the same as the three Model 28-2’s the Soviets bought. First of all, the engine cowling front was different. It was possible to open or close it, probably for cold weather operations. The cowlings enclosed M-87 engines and not M-62 engines (which would have been license build Wright Cyclone R-1820-G3’s). The M-87 was a 2-row, 14-cylinder, air cooled, radial engine, rated at 950 h.p. The third difference was the bow turret. The few photos released of the GST show that it looked quite different from the PBY turret.
The Soviets did not produce as many GST’s as some sources[1][2] state. Instead of the 150, only 27 were produced. There were several reasons for that. First of all, the military interest in the GST was not large. Then the Soviets had difficulties building the GST and the production plant in Taganrog was overrun by the Germans in 1941. Most GST’s that came into service were later disarmed and given to ‘Glavsevmorput’ for civil purposes. The engines were changed as well and became M-62 engines, the license build R-1820-G3. These aircraft, with designation MP-7, could carry up to 20 passengers[8].
Very little is known about operations with either GST’s or MP-7’s. Of one GST though, a part of its history is known. On the 22nd of November 1941, a GST landed at Morphou Bay, Cyprus. The aircraft was flown by a Soviet sailor with, it is said, no previous flying experience. The sailor had taken off from Sevastopol and had flown across the Crimea, Black Sea, and Turkye. The aircraft was pressed into RAF service and wore the RAF serial HK850. It remained unused in Aboukir, Egypt, until blown ashore in a gale on the 23rd of February, 1943[1].

An effort of the U.S. Navy to improve the PBY, resulted in a major re-design. The changes to the hull, wing and tail, improved the performance and handling very much, both on the water and in the air. In order not to interrupt the PBY deliveries to the Navy, a new production line was established at the Naval Air Factory in 1941 to produce the new aircraft under the designation PBN-1 Nomad. Deliveries of the Nomad did not start until February 1943, with the last accepted in March 1945. Of the 156 PBN-1’s ordered, only 17 were delivered to the Navy[1]. The Soviet Union received 137 aircraft through lend-lease. Of the other two, one was destroyed on USA territory and the other was lost during ferry to the Soviet Union. N.V. Romanov was the commander on the plane when it was lost[5][6]. Apart from the 137 Nomads, the Soviet Union also received 48 PBY-6A Catalinas through lend-lease.

These lend-lease aircraft came to the Soviet Union via three different routes. In 1943, mixed English and Soviet crews ferried PBN-1’s from Elizabeth City (North Carolina) to Habbaniyah (Iraq) via San Juan (Puerto Rico), Trinidad, Bйlem (Brazil), Natal (Brazil), Bathurst (British West Africa, now Banjul (Gambia)), Port Lyauty (Morocco), Djerba (Tunisia), and Kasfareit (Egypt). From Habbaniyah the Soviet crew took the plane to Sevastopol via Bagdad and Baku (USSR)[4][8].
In 1944, PBY-6A’s were delivered via Newfoundland and Iceland to Murmansk, and in the same year Nomads were delivered to Vladivostok via Kodiak (Alaska), Anadyr, Magodan, and Nikolaevsk (all USSR). Of the 148 Catalinas and Nomads flown to the Soviet Union, 46 were delivered to Murmansk, 30 to Vladivostok, 59 to Sevastopol, and 28 to Moscow[8]. Several of the Catalinas and Nomads had radar. Photos exist of Soviet PBY-6A’s with radar and probably all the 48 delivered PBY-6A’s had radar. Of the 137 Nomads, it is said that 48 had radar. Confirmation of this figure is not found (could these be a mix-up with the 48 PBY-6A’s?).

The usage of the Catalinas (from here on Nomads and Catalinas are referred to as Catalinas) commenced in the summer of 1944 in the Baltic Sea, Barents Sea, and Black Sea areas. In July 1944 the fleet of the White Sea had 9 Catalinas. The air-regiment involved was the 118th omrap and the main activities of the Catalinas were escorting convoys and ati-submarine patrols.

Little is known about Soviet Catalina operations and whether the following facts are correct or not is questionable. Still, these facts give us an insight of how Soviets used their Catalinas.

  • On the 12th of August 1944, two Catalinas attacked a submarine on the surface near White Island. One plane, commanded by S. M. Ruban opened fire with its machine guns, which the submarine answered with its own guns. Two Catalinas that came to help, threw 8 depth charges on the submarine which, by that time, had submerged. Debris and oil were spotted.
  • On September the 5th of the same year, submarine U-362 was sunk near S. Kirov Island by joint effort of a Catalina, sweeper T-116 and hunter Bo-206.
  • An other submarine was sunk in a similar way while a Catalina was escorting convoy DB-9 on the 24th of October 1944.
  • In April of 1945 a lone Catlina attacked a submarine with depth charges and sank it.
  • A very successful attack was made by lieutenant Panichkin and his crew while they were patrolling over the Black Sea. During the patrol they spotted the wake of a periscope on the water. They attacked the submarine with depth charges and managed to severly damage it. But, unknown to them at that time, a second submarine, which must have been very close to the first one, was damaged as well. Survivors of both submarines were picked up, among them the two captains.
  • The Soviets used their Catalinas also for rescue missions. During a raid on Pillay, PBY-6A’s with fighter protection were patrolling some distance from the base and watched for downed aircraft.
  • On the 19th of August 1944, a Catalina picked up a downed Pe-2 crew and shot down a German fighter[5]. A second source[3] states that on the same day a PBY-crew shot down a BLohm & Voss Bv.138 over the Black Sea during a rescue mission. Although a Bv.138 is not a fighter, this was probably the same mission being described.
    An other purpose the Soviets used their Catalinas for was landing group delivery. Special forces or agents were put ashore at places unreachable to other craft or with relatively more safety.
  • On the 29th of August, 1944, a landing group was delivered by Captain Knjazev near Constanta (Rumania)[5]. An other source[3] states that on the 8th of September, Catalinas brought a new communist government to Bulgaria. They landed near Constanta (Rumania) with special ‘Spetnatz’ forces and some ‘good, old commerades’ of the Bulgarian communist party. Either these two missions were one and the same (in which case on of the dates must be wrong) or these were really two missions. Probably the second source is in error and has Constanta mistaken for Varna (a Bulgarian port on the Black Sea). The first source does mention a mission to Varna on the 8th of September but does not give any details. A new Bulgarian government was declared on the 9th of September.
  • On the 9th of September, 2 Catalinas delivered troops to Burgas and other Catalinas landed troops at Rцnne on the Danish island Bornholm. Two more landings were on the 24th of August, 1945 near Port-Arthur (?) and Dairen (?). Ten Catalinas brought 135 troops of sea infantry to Port-Arthur and seven Catalinas landed 90 paratroopers near Dairen.
  • While a fight was going on, I.Z. Maslin of the 48th omrap, landed a group of ‘submarine gunners’ on a Japanese airfield using a PBY-6A. This was on the 27th of August,1945 on the island Iturup.

The Soviets did a lot of experiments with motherships (converted bombers) carrying fighters. Among the many different types used and projected was also the GST. Theprojected development using a GST would have carried two I-15s on top of its wings.

It is clear that the Soviets used their Catalinas in many roles in many theatres of war. Although not in as large numbers as the Americans or the British, the Soviets used a large number of Catalinas. How many exactly can fairly precisely be estimated:

PBN-1137through lend-lease
PBY-6Ac48through lend-lease
GST27Soviet build Catalina
Guba1NC777; L-2
Model 28-23assembled in the Soviet Union

total: 216

Many Soviet Catalinas were used until the mid-fifties and some PBN-1’s (or KM-1’s as the Soviets called them) were refitted with new engines. The new engines were ASH-82FN engines which were rated at 1850 hp. Aircraft with these new engines got the designation KM-2.

It is unknown if Catalinas still exist in the GOS. There are rumours of a Russian pilot telling about a Catalina standing somewhere on her own. And about a Catalina doing guard duty at a military base near Nikolaev (Ukraine). It either is true, lets hope some enthusiast finds her and brings her back to static or even airworthy condition.


[1] Air Enthusiast Thirty-Nine
[2] Roscoe Creed; PBY, The Catalina Flying Boat
[3] Pеl Forus in a letter to the author
[4] Andrew Hendrie; Flying Cats, The Catalina Aircraft in World War II
[5] W. W. Iwanov in a letter to the author
[6] Mau / Stapfer; Unter rotem Stern, Lend-Lease-Flugzeuge fьr die Sowjetunion 1941-45
[7] W. E. Scarborough; PBY Catalina in action; Squadron/Signal Publications 1062
[8] Krylia Rodiny no. 9 & 10, 1992 (Russian aviation magazine)

Many thanks to all the people who helped putting this article together, especially Nikolai Lyssenko and wife for the translation of the Russian articles and letters.

TypeMilitary aircraftRussian PBNCivil aircraftUpgraded PBN
Wing span31.7 m31.77 m31.7 m31.77 m
Length19.35 m21.2 m19.35 m21.2 m
Height5.65 m6.47 m5.65 m6.47 m
Wing area130 m2130 m2130 m2130 m2
Flight weight9800 kg16524 kg11800 kg
Max. speed329 km/h299 km/h277 km/h
Ceiling5500 m4602 m5100 m9000 m
Range2600 km4165 km2800 km
EnginesM-87P&W R1830-92M-62IR*ASH-82FN

*The engines M-62IR are licence build Wright Cyclone R-1829-G3

The Russian Catalinas photogallery

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