Ivan Konovalov

Published september 27, 2010

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I was born into a poor family in Lipetsk province. My father died whilst I was still rocking in my cradle. My mother married for a second time and in 1933 our family moved to Moscow. Soon afterwards my stepfather died and four children were left to be raised by my mother who worked as a medical orderly at the 'Dynamo' factory. Her pay and pension were barely enough to make ends meet. We lived in a state of half-starvation. At the beginning of the 30's there was a ration card system in operation in Moscow. 300g of bread was issued on a child's card. What was 300g of bread to a ten-year-old lad? In the morning for breakfast I'd have a glass of tea and eat a chunk of bread. Whilst still studying at school I began to dream of becoming a pilot. I'd read a great deal about our renowned airmen who had flown over the North Pole and about our lady aviators. In 1939, when I still hadn't reached 16, I was walking one day along the school corridor past the staff room where there was a telephone. I looked in - nobody about. I summoned up the courage and rang the aeroclub. They replied that they were recruiting. I got together the necessary documents and went to enlist. They cast an eye over them and replied, "You're not 16 and we can't enrol you in the aircraft section, but you can start learning to fly a glider. OK?" Having come up with the idea of flying, I just had to agree. Lessons were due to start in spring, but it was already autumn before a notification arrived that I report to the aeroclub to undergo a medical and appear before the credentials committee. Once I'd got through these I was enrolled in the class training on aircraft proper.

On 11th March 1940 I went up for the first time in a U-2 trainer from Medvezhye Ozero airfield. Spring had just begun and it was cold. Words cannot express the joy I felt when flying. After a few circuits my instructor throttled back and set up to land. I shouted out to him, " Just one more flight!" - the engine was cut back and I heard - "No, I'm frozen to death!"

Nearer summer I began to fly independently. In summer we passed our exams and the "head-hunters" from our patrons, the Boris-and-Gleb Fighter School, came to get us. We all wanted to be fighter pilots! One of them told me, "We can't take you at the school since you're not yet 18. Give yourself another year, you'll be only a few months off 18, but that's no problem - we'll take you then." At a regular medical commission I even told the doctor that I was just under 18. Eyeing my scrawny figure up and down she said, " No, you're not 18." "My mum's just outside, she'll tell you I am!" I have to say my mum was totally against me becoming a pilot. In the house opposite lived a nice young lad, not one of those street- corner louts. He had finished the aeroclub and flying school, and had come home on leave in his gorgeous, dark-blue airman's uniform. We couldn't see enough of him. Literally one week after his departure to his unit came the news, 'Your son has been fatally injured whilst carrying out his military duties.' And there was I, walking around in my overalls with my 'wings' in my buttonholes. All the neighbours started trying to dissuade both my mum and me, but I wasn't for turning and my mum did not go against my will.

In short, the doctor wrote in my certificate age 22. Whilst I was engaged in this 'forgery', recruitment to the Boris-and-Gleb Fighter School had already finished and I was offered the chance to go to study at Bomber Flying School set up in the town of Slonim. I wasn't about to 'kick off' about this. In Slonim we were lodged in some former stables. We cleared out the horse manure ourselves, erected trestle-beds and stuffed mattresses and pillows with hay. The only electricity was in the mess room where breakfast, lunch and evening meals were prepared for us. It's true! I have to say that it was only at school that for the first time I got my fill of food since we were fed according to the student pilot's ration - butter, meat, tea.

In the late autumn of 1940 we transferred to the town of Postavy where we were billeted in the barracks of a former Polish cavalry unit. I have to say the garrison was excellently equipped. There we began to cover theory and take tests. We had marvellous teachers. I remember a handsome young navigator, Doroshkin...

We flew a bit on U-2's and started a course on the R-5. In spring we were taken to camps located near to the village of Mikhalishka where we completed our flying training.

There was the feeling everywhere that war was approaching. Night after night tanks, artillery and infantry would pass by us along the road only to disperse and become camouflaged during daytime hours. Troops were being assembled up along the border, meaning that war was imminent. We, though, were convinced that we would smash them (the Germans). The saying at the time went like this: 'Leave us alone and we'll leave you alone, but put one finger on us and you'll get no quarter.'

Our training continued right up to the 22nd June 1941. On Saturday the officers had gone off on leave to their families at the garrison. At the airfield all that were left were the students and a few duty officers. The next morning the rumour suddenly went round that war had broken out. The air-raid siren went. We grabbed our overcoat rolls and gasmasks, dropped the tent flaps and threw a couple of branches over them to camouflage them somewhat. And you know, it never occurred to anyone to disperse the planes! They were standing in the middle of the airfield wing to wing. As I now recall, seventeen superb Tupolev SB high-speed bombers and facing them as many R-5s. That afternoon we went to the mess tent and had lunch. It happened as evening was coming on. Suddenly some Heinkel-111 bombers approached; I managed to count twenty-four of them. Word went round: they're ours. So we were standing around discussing this when there came the screech of falling bombs. This terrifying howling smothered all other sounds. Someone nearby yelled, "Get down!" I scrambled underneath a wing. It felt like the bombs were falling right on my head. The screech and then the explosions! It was really dreadful...A bomb hit the opposite wing of the plane under which I was lying. The Germans completed their bombing run and began to turn away, but at the same time their rear gunners started machine-gunning us. I remember my greatcoat roll getting a round through it but I escaped being hit. They turned about and made for home. What a sight! The whole aircraft park was ablaze. Of the seventeen SBs only one remained untouched. Not one R-5. All over were the bodies of colleagues, the screams and groans of the wounded...It was a shock. That day we buried forty-eight in the bomb craters. The most seriously wounded were loaded onto lorries and taken to the field hospital. I have a persisting memory of delivering our blood-soaked lads to the first-aid station by lorry and of a gentle young Lithuanian girl bringing out six feather pillows to prop them up.

The next day we were regrouped and marched off to the garrison at Postavy. We had to walk eighteen kilometres. I was one of the guards. We were desperate for a drink. Whilst on our way to the village we were on the lookout for Germans, but then gave the all clear to the main column which instantly raced towards a well. That was how we reached the main garrison. We were assigned a special train onto which we loaded the school's equipment whilst still under bomber attack. I remember there were, amongst all the other items, some replacement engines, weighing almost a tonne, which we tossed around like feather beds. Where we got the strength from, I don't know!

 

 

In short, we loaded up and we were evacuated to the rear. On route we were soundly bombed but the train remained intact. We arrived at the Orenburg Flying School. It was there that I began to fly SBs. There wasn't much flying because of a lack of fuel, but in spite of that, by spring 1943 I had successfully completed a series of flights on this aircraft. I really enjoyed this plane - easy to fly and to land. We were expecting "head-hunters" to come and take us away to the front. Some of the students were taken to fly Pe-2s or into long-range bomber units, but I successfully held out for the Il-2 'head-hunters' to arrive. We were quickly retrained on these aircraft. After the SB with its two engines, flying a single-engine aircraft was easier. I cannot say that the Il-2 was as uncomplicated as a block of wood, but it was resilient on landing. Even if your approach was short, it would squat down and land OK. The main thing was that it was reliable and hardy. Precisely the qualities required of an assault aircraft. Of course, its gun- and bombsight equipment was primitive, but at the Regimental Flying Training School, where we covered its tactical use, we trained long and hard on bombing and shooting. I mastered firing cannon and machine-gun. I remember one sortie when I was strafing the German trenches: a touch of left rudder and the salvo went straight down the trench...

And so I completed training school; we were not given a rank- that would be done at the front, they said, and I went straight into...a penal company! How did that come about? Like this: I was passing through Moscow and got held up my mother's for several days. At the hospital she worked in she wrote out a fake excuse for me. I was detained by a patrol and taken to the command office. There my papers were checked and in December 1943 I was serving in a separate army front-line penal company attached to the 69th Division of General Batov's 65th Army. I don't like to remember this period,,, Later on I fought in Shturmoviks, but it was far worse in the infantry. After the war I had a recurring dream: a German was pointing his sub-machine gun at me - and about to open fire at any moment. I'd wake up with a start thinking 'Thank God I'm still alive.' I was lucky - I found myself at the front during a quiet spell and did not take part in an attack. On several occasions I was tracked by an informer. True, the lads from the penal battalion sussed out that I was a pilot and began to cover up for me: "We'll steal a plane and you'll fly it." In March we were gathered for a meeting or something, I don't remember. Just as we began to disperse a shell exploded. I ended up in hospital with severe shell-shock. I laid up for about a month and was then transferred to the Kinel'-Cherkassy Regimental Flying School in the Samara district for military duties. We spent about a month there and then went off to the front. I was assigned as a pilot to the 311th Assault Aviation Division of the 953rd Assault Aviation Regiment.

First of all we flew to one of the base airfields from which we were to transfer to the regiment. Six crews in all were supposed to fly. For the transfer of the aircraft six experienced pilots headed by the deputy regimental commander were sent over from the regiment. At the time, in the workshops at the airfield was a repaired Shturmovik awaiting transfer to the regiment. The deputy regimental commander came up to me and said,

"Can you deliver it?"

"Yes, I can."

"Well, watch out, it's a small airfield. It's not your Orenburg steppe where you can fly in and out as you please. Come in too short - and the plane's a write off, overshoot - same result."

"Don't worry, I'll sort it."

We sat the new crewmembers in the gunners' turrets and we set off as a sixsome, but I was allocated a leader to take me to the airfield because I had no map. The cloud ceiling was low, the weather poor and not fit for flying, you might say. Even old hands sometimes 'fouled up' in such weather. For that reason the whole regiment turned out to watch the new man's landing. My leader broke away and came into land with me following. He landed and I did a perfect three-point touch down right up to the T square. Oryol, the Commander of the third squadron, later told me that he had immediately dashed to the active-service personnel department to ask for my enrolment in his squadron. Then we did some investigative training flights, some formation flying and he nominated me his wingman.

A.D. How were reinforcements commissioned?

The older pilots had a good rapport with the younger pilots. But there was no passing on of experience, at least not in our squadron. This was a great failing. I'll give you the following example: Approaching the target, I'd trim the prop and open the throttle to maximum. That's what I thought you were supposed to do over the target. Result? Speed increased, but also the radius of the turn in its wake, and coming out of a dive I'd find myself on the outside of the circling group - separated from it. And that's just where the German fighters were waiting to 'pick me off.' I did a couple of sorties in this fashion before deciding to reduce power as I pulled out.

Just before one sortie one pilot went and said, "A German can immediately spot a weak link." For some reason this became imprinted on my mind. And when I climbed into my plane loaded with its 400kg bombs, rocket projectiles, armed cannon and machine-guns, I felt tied hand and foot! I could hardly pilot my Shturmovik , being so afraid. Right over the target the group dispersed and took up attack positions. The main thing was to ride out the first flak salvo until you could determine its target. The commander turned left. Suddenly, eight puffs of flak to my left! I had to follow my commander, not get separated... but bursts of flak there... And at that point flooded into my thoughts: "That's it. You've had it. They've spotted the weak link." My heart began to hammer fearfully: any minute now it'll burst, I thought. I'll be honest, I've never been so afraid in all my life. And yet this fear could not dampen my determination. I didn't go to the left, but sideslipped to the right. Just for a few seconds and then a steep dive to the left after my leader. I went into a dive, launched my two bombs. We closed up the circle above the target and began to harry them. On my second approach I dropped two more bombs, on my third fired all my rockets and then blasted them from cannon and machine gun. The sortie was a success - not one of ours shot down.

Some time later, after my ninth or so operational mission, I spotted a poster on display: "Well done young pilot Ivan Ivanovich Konovalov!" The political workers had been doing their bit. I felt really good. And you know. I got the feeling that I would never be brought down. Airmen are a superstitious lot, our main concern was to get past 'unlucky thirteen', and here was I with a sense of invincibility before the event. This cost me dear. On my twentieth mission I made a mistake. We dived, dropped our bombs and, banking left out of the dive, climbed back up to the circling group. On my second approach I released my second bomb and did exactly the same - a left bank to return to the circle. A pattern had emerged which the Germans had "sussed out." On my next approach I should have taken evasive action, but I carried on to the left and instantaneously a shell exploded in my left wing. This flipped me over on my back. Somehow I got the plane back into horizontal flight. Looking left I saw one half of the aileron had jammed in its uppermost position and the other half had become detached from its linkage, but was still manoeuvrable. It was this that saved me. If the aileron had jammed completely, then we would not be here today talking about it. Whilst I was regaining control of the aircraft, the group had re-assembled and I was now detached from it. I didn't give it much thought and charged for the front line. I couldn't control the plane properly because it was constantly dragging to the left. Flak was all around. Hell on Earth! How was it they didn't shoot me down?! I was amazed ... I got myself over the front line and set off back home in relative peace! The plane was dragging to the left. My right arm began to feel tired so I propped up the joystick with the edge of my left knee. Upon landing the plane slewed to the side - it turned out one wheel had been smashed, but the plane landed.

 

 

And you know - I'll tell you the honest truth - I wasn't frightened even when the plane was thrown over on its back. I have to say that there was never any resurgence of fear after that first sortie. Why should I have any? No wife, no children, my mother might cry a little but no more than that - that's how I made sense of it all.

A.D. When an airman was lost, where were his things sent?

Official items were handed in. Personal stuff? What personal stuff? Almost everyone had the same: kitbag, footcloths, spare underwear. With us was a pilot called Misha Uvarov who had been brought up in a children's home. His gunner, Kolya, was an Ossetian. Misha was a bit of a show-off: sideburns, a pistol hanging half way down his thigh, just like the fighter pilots. His gunner had a moustache, as was the required custom for Ossetians. This was just before the end of he war. Some commander from HQ met this gunner and ordered, "Lose the moustache!" And immediately told Misha, "Uvarov, keep your men under control, I've ordered your gunner to shave off his moustache." Before even carrying out this order, Misha shaved off his own sideburns. So his gunner did likewise and shaved off his moustache. Next morning we arrived at the command station and there they were standing like orphans - unrecognisable. Their faces had changed... We went off as a foursome. Misha's plane went last and, it appears, became detached from us. He didn't like flying in the middle of the formation - nothing worked out for him. A gunner later told me that a pair of fighters had shot him down. The Germans had began their approach, at which point Kolya started fired back but a covering pair of fighters forced them down. It turned out that Misha had a bank savings book where he would deposited his pay. He had no close relatives or friends, so the deposited cash was not promised to anyone. It was just at that time that we had to go over to just outside Minsk to pick up some new planes. The commander from HQ gave us his book to retrieve the money. We "blew it all away" in the Officers' club whilst the fitters were preparing our planes.

A.D. Did fighters always accompany you?

Basically, yes. They would cover us on our approach to the target and whilst we were engaged over it. As we were finishing off the job more often than not they would leave us and return home low on fuel. Even with the front line still some way off they would show us their tails. True - and I don't blame them for this - they had less fuel than we did. But we weren't fools either - we'd hedgehop away from the target so that the fighters couldn't creep up on us from below, and we had our rear gunners. In spite of that we still suffered losses from fighters.

A.D. You flew in groups of six as a rule?

When the weather was normal, yes. You cannot fly a large group in poor weather - get into cloud and you lose your bearings. At such times we flew in pairs or as a foursome.

A.D. Did the radio function well?

Depends. If the engine was going at full revs you couldn't hear a thing for interference. To pick anything up you had to throttle back. Normal pilots were given receivers. The leader had a receiver and a transmitter.

A.D. Were there any incidences of 'friendly fire'?

Our troops indicated the front-line positions with rockets. Sometimes marker panels were laid out. At the front line there were aerial gun-layers. I never hit any of our own troops. True, on one occasion the six-group returned from a mission, we were all loaded into a van straight from the landing strip and were driven off to Division's Special Department. There each one of us was intensively interrogated: what were flying conditions like, what did we bomb and so on and so forth? Then came: OK, take it easy. We sat there wondering what the fuss was all about. Then came the second interrogation, then the third. Night drew on, and we were getting really sleepy, dammit- we'd been fighting! Then they emerged: "Please accept our apologies, you can go and sleep in peace." It turned out that one of our groups had given its own troops a real working over.

A.D. Was navigator training adequate?

Yes. We had good training at flying school. We would study the area flight plans. We were required to provide a detailed knowledge of location within a radius of 50 km and a general knowledge for 300 km. A navigator of the school, Senior Lieutenant Lomov, would shut us in a classroom and make us draw the flight plan. Major Alekhin, the Regimental navigator of the school I was serving in was also very demanding. Besides that at the school we used to fly the route blind, in a UT-2 trainer, under a cover. During the war, of course, there were very many pilots who lost their lives because they were unable to fly in cloud. A special sort of training was needed for flights like that! In such circumstances all you could do was have faith in your instruments. Never ever put trust in your instincts. You did a right turn but it felt like you were being pulled to the left. Pull the nose up and you felt like you were diving. I almost got myself killed flying an Il-10. I thought the artificial horizon was giving a faulty reading.

That was how I was trained to fly in cloud. And that's how I remained alive. I was having my engines replaced just outside Konigsberg and was ordered to test fly the plane. I put a colleague on board to show him Konigsberg. We took off. Looking up I saw crosses: six fighters. Well, I thought, that's my lot. All the same I managed to dive into the clouds. I stayed there awhile and then flew home. They lost me.

A.D. How was the daily routine of the airman organised?

Normally we'd live in a built-up area, in some sort of squadron hut. Beds were laid out as in a barracks. We slept in our underwear. Reveille was always early. We'd get washed and dressed, go down to the mess for breakfast. I can't say that the food was up to much, but it filled us up: meatballs, gruel, bread, butter and tea. Then we'd make our way to the airfield, to the command post, accompanied by our gunners. The regimental commander would give the squadrons their tasks. The squadron leaders would specify the details of the mission. We'd start to get ready: plot a course, finalise our estimations. At the command post we awaited orders to take off. When the order came in, we'd run off towards our aircraft. We'd give the plane a quick look over. A mechanic would help us fasten on our parachute and settle in the cockpit. The squadron would then take off, the leader forming the group as a loop, and at an altitude of 1200-1300m set off to the target. There was no strict formation flying over our own territory. It was too dangerous. Just before crossing the front line the wing would fan out and each plane begin to move into its attack position. The group leader would drop his wing and, banking in a full turn, make for the target. Bombs were launched at no lower than 600m, and we'd pull out at 500. The leader would pull out of his dive and close up on the tail-ender of the group, closing the circle. On a regimental sortie you never formed up into a circle, and would drop all your bombs in one go. In the squadron two were always detailed to draw the flak since the main opposition occurred on your approach. For that reason resistance over the target during our attack was quite negligible. As we left the target zone, flak emplacements would open up again. The circle had to be worked out very carefully. You had no sense of relaxation. That was the job - no time to think about it. All attention on hitting the target, the dive-bombers dropping their loads at hedge-top height. If you hit the target, spirits soared. Back to the front line at hedge-top height and re-form. Back over the line. Arrival, landing and turn to park up. Everyone climbed out of their machine. Report to the squadron commander. Then every one would start discussing the sortie. The gunners would group together on their own whereas the pilots would muster in front of the planes. They'd form a little group and start rolling their cigarettes (I didn't smoke). Everyone's hands were shaking, nobody spoke. After a few puffs on their cigarettes it all came out: " I was watching but he...I went this way but suddenly...Just then the flak went and...!!!" After that we were loaded onto a lorry and off to the command post, and perhaps a new mission.

 

 

By evening-time the war was just a memory for us. If we'd been on a mission we'd each be given the prescribed 100g (of vodka). We'd sit around in the mess-room. We had an accordion player - Vasya - whom we'd pilfered from the artillery. So we had dancing and singing to the accompaniment of the accordion. There were quite a lot of girls in the regiment: signallers, armourers. Two young women, Tamara Kudishina and Tasya Golovanova, flew as gunners. In the evenings Tasya would write poetry. I've memorised just one line: "And on my wild, courageous head no blue flying helmet will you see..." She and Vasya Kalnichenko both died. In the winter of 1944 Tamara was shot down with Radiukin as her pilot. They came down in German territory. The pilot was in a dreadful state; he was wearing ankle boots - it was warm in the cockpit and pilots rarely wore high boots. Tamara put the pilot into her own high boots, and put his ankle boots on. She dragged him across the front line. Doing this she got frostbite in both feet and had both feet amputated. The Head of the Air Army, twice Hero of the Soviet Union Lieutenant-General Khriukin, personally presented her with the Military Order of the Red Banner whilst she was still in hospital. Then there was Tasya Golovanova...

I had a very devoted gunner, a 26-year-old Tatar called Karim Salakhutdinov, whom everyone in the regiment called Kolya. Some girl called Sonya Keselman came to ask me to take her on, but you know yourself that we are superstitious - we didn't take a woman on even if she had completed her course and was able to fly as a gunner. On one occasion four units from our squadron failed to return from a mission. They had been jumped by fighters. Whilst fighting off the attackers they had run out of fuel and had come down in our territory, but the crews soon all returned to the regiment. Whilst they were missing, though, I was detailed to fly to a neighbouring squadron as a reserve pilot. This meant that I had to fly in the event of another crewmember being unable to fly. I went and said, "Sonya, we're off together tomorrow." What joy for her! I said to Karim,

"Kolya, I'm not taking you. Sonya will be in the rear turret, pretending to be you." He reacted strongly to this:

"I cannot allow this, what happens if you fly off and are shot down? How am I supposed to live with this."

It wasn't easy but in the end I persuaded him.

"Believe me or not, I'm not taking you."

The next morning I started the engine, Sonya sitting in for him as gunner. I said to her,

"Sonya, can you hear me ok?"

"Yes, ok."

"Sonya, just make sure you keep your head down, don't let anyone see you."

I was watching the attack group rolling out when one aircraft dropped into a pit or a crater and dug the edge of its wing in the ground. I instantly opened the throttle and quickly taxied to take off. Meanwhile technicians had rushed to the stricken plane, put their backs and shoulders under it, lifted the wheel and the pilot opened up the throttle, scrambled free and took off. I calmly turned around and steered back to dispersal. Sonya just carried on sitting there, waiting patiently. It eventually occurred to her that we were not taking off, and when she took a peek out saw only the aircraft park zone. She began sobbing her heart out. At which point the fitters and mechanics appeared, saying, " Well, how did she do, Sonya? Better get an understudy, or what?" She just sat in the cockpit bawling. She stayed there until evening and did not even turn up for the evening meal. Kolya too was deeply offended and had gone off somewhere into the forest...we sorted it out though by evening.

A.D. You got your 100g vodka allowance only after operations?

Of course, only after tactical sorties. There was one occasion, true, when we went off on a mission drunk. It was like this. That day we were supposed to be celebrating the anniversary of the founding of the regiment. That morning we had assembled at the command post and had been assigned our tasks. But the weather was really foul. We hung around but no order came through. Lunch had come and gone. The guess was that there was no prospect of decent weather, so the regimental commander said, "Off you go and celebrate." We had fine meal and plenty to drink. Then suddenly from division came the order to scramble the regiment on a mission. And we were all already tipsy. The regimental commander remained on the ground but the regiment itself took off to carry out its mission. It was a success. To a man we took off, completed the mission and returned. Aerial reconnaissance confirmed a successful sortie.

A.D. What did you wear on a mission?

What came to hand in summer - it was hot in the cockpit. In winter we put on fur-lined flying suits, helmets with earphones and gloves. On one occasion a glove screwed me up: I pressed the trigger but the glove got stuck in it. I was already bringing the plane out of a dive but my machine guns and cannons carried on firing. Obviously I got it out in the end.

A.D. When was the first time you were given an award?

I got my first Order of the Red Star for ten missions. I got the Order of the Red Banner for saving the squadron leader. We flew off as a foursome: the deputy regimental commander, the head of the air-gunnery section, my squadron leader and myself. I brought up the rear. We had successfully dropped our bombs on the target when my leader was hit. As required of a wingman I followed him as he banked away down. He was losing speed. I remained on guard above him. In the end he crash-landed in no-man's land. I saw Germans running towards him. I moved in and began to drive them off with gunfire. Meanwhile he and his gunner had extricated themselves and rushed off in the direction of our own troops. That's why I was given the medal. I got my second Order of the Red Banner for military action.

A.D. How many missions did you do in a day?

Up to three. Usually two or three sorties. We had no say in this. Physically I could have taken on more than this. I have no personal recollection of ever being tired.

A.D. Were there any premonitions or omens surrounding what you did?

None at all. We never contemplated death, and we never talked about it amongst ourselves. Sometimes, you'd get to evening and think, 'Perhaps tomorrow is the last time..." There were no moments of depression, though.

 

 

A.D. Superstitions, then, for example, not having your photo taken, not shaving before a mission?

Firstly there was nobody to take photos of us. As regards shaving, I'd nothing to shave - I was still young!

A.D. Did the Deputy Political Officer fly with you?

No. Amongst the flying personal were only the regimental commander, his deputy, the head of the air-gunnery section and the regimental navigator. Then, of course, there was the party organiser, Nikolai Vladimirovich Bogdanov, who flew as an air gunner simply to earn himself a commendation. Many did this. The squadron adjutant flew with me. My gunner was strongly against this. I said to him, "Well, he's the squadron adjutant after all, a person of some importance."

The regimental engineer did three operational sorties with me. True, there was a good reason for this. On take-off with a bomb load, the engine would cut out as my plane gained height, then suddenly pick up revs again. I reported this to the engineer. He suggested we do a test flight together. On the first flight exactly the same thing happened. He could not make it out. After our second flight together he suggested I open the throttle smoothly. On the third flight I did as he had asked and all behaved as it should.

A.D. Did the commandant of the regiment fly too?

The regimental commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Karpinskii, was a fine, conscientious person. He had already been awarded the Military Order of the Red Banner four times. He only flew when the regiment needed a leader. True, he had not received the 'Hero' grade, but neither had squadron leaders Oryol, Pimenov and Slobozhaninov.

A.D. How did you get on with members of the ground crew and quartermaster's section?

Really well indeed. They kitted us out in full. They would hand out anything you asked for on demand. We were equipped with ammunition and food without question. There were few girls in the section. I married a nurse from the ground crew. We've been together now for sixty years.

A.D. Are you aware of any incidences of cowardice amongst the fliers?

No, not in the regiment. They were all daring, courageous lads. Our main task was to complete a mission and successfully wipe out the enemy. We did have one pilot in the squadron. I think he sometimes went to the medic more often than necessary to complain about his state of health - but I'm only guessing.

A.D. You said that the Il-10 arrived in your regiment at the end of the war. How did it compare with the Il-2, in your estimation?

It was easier to fly from a pilot's point of view, and pilots were given all round armoured protection. The Il-2 was more resilient on landing, and that was very important especially if you had been damaged in combat. The Il-10's wing configuration was worse for combat conditions. Later, when they were brought into service, they often suffered piston-rod failure.

A.D. You advanced into East Prussia, into German territory. How were relations there with the local population?

We almost never saw Germans. In reality they had all been moved out. If there were incidences of looting, then we were severely punished. On one occasion...I'm not going to talk about it...well, not to put too fine a point on it, one lad whose family had all been wiped out during the occupation shot dead an elderly German woman. The court-martial gave him ten years, commuted to a penal battalion. Obviously, we would go into houses, looking for hard liquor basically. Their houses all followed a typical pattern and we soon learned where to look. Rank-and-file and sergeants were allowed to send home 5kg parcels, officers 10kg. I used to give my allowance to ranks and sergeants who basically were older than myself and had families. Just before my return to the USSR I got together a lot of crockery and crystal and loaded it into my two bomb bays. We flew back from East Prussia and were immediately sent on leave, but when I got back the bomb bays were empty. So I didn't bring back any trophies! I personally had no contact with prisoners of war.

A.D. Apart from that incident when you were hit by flak, any other scrapes?

Of course there were. I took a hit in the air intake on one occasion. On another sortie the crankcase was holed by a piece of shrapnel or a bullet. I looked down and oil was flooding into the cockpit. My trousers were covered in oil. Where should I fly? I knew an emergency airfield was nearby. I'll put down there, I thought, but I didn't know any of the crews there...Best to get home to my own field, that's what I'll do. I was young, a fool. And set off. Normal oil pressure is 6-8, mine was 0-2... And guess what. I got back, landed at base and the engineer tore one hell of a strip off me! I remember it to this day. He began bawling and shouting about what would have happened to me if the engine had seized up. Later a piece of my propeller was shot off and the plane turned into a vibrating test-bed. Not to worry, though, I got back and landed. I reckon I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth.

Interview:Artem Drabkin
Translated by:Paul M. Roscow


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