I was attracted to flying whilst still a young child. As a young lad I was active in a modellers' group and in an aeroclub. The instructors at the aeroclub were just like fathers to us. Their relationship with us was warm and friendly too. At the aeroclub we were kitted out with overalls and boots. We even got the 'Voroshilov' food allowance. We'd get up early in the morning, the dew still lying on the grass, the aeroplane standing ready for you. Do a flight and then off to the station - train to Moscow. That's how we learned to fly.
As I finished at the aeroclub at the end of 1939, a decision was taken to send me to the Serpukhov Flying School. I disagreed with the decision to study there. Why? My sister's husband (later to die near Smolensk) was a fighter pilot who had graduated from the Kachinskiy flying school. He told me, "It's great that you've gone into flying, but I don't advise you going into the naval air service."
I went to work at the 'Red Proletarian' factory, but was soon called up. We ended up at Klyuchevsitsy aerodrome just outside Novgorod. To begin with we remained separated from the rest, but by the end of a month we had completed basic military training. After that the 36 of us were summoned to the commanding officer to discuss our progress. We went in and were told: "You've now become part of a splendid aviation division and your duties will be guarding air-force equipment." At that point one of us stood up and said, "Excuse me, but I graduated from my aeroclub and have a certificate to prove it". Of the 36 of us, 34 had a passing-out certificate, yet we were being sent on sentry duty!
In the spring of 1941 we were called before a medical board, and on the 19th June I found myself enrolled in Moscow Military Pilots' School №2, located at Izmailovo aerodrome. Our tents were already erected, headquarters was on sight and there was even a pilots' mess room.
On the 21st June we went to bed, but next morning we were surprised that there was no reveille. We went down to the mess for a bite to eat but learnt that war had broken out. There was no panic, we were already morally prepared for such eventualities. They started splitting us up into appropriate groups. I don't wish to boast, but I'd had a pretty good induction to flying. I was attached to the group transferred to Chertanovo aerodrome. I was promoted to flight leader, and our instructor, Lilya, was a pretty young lady with a strict code of conduct.
Within a month the first air raids on Moscow had begun but our training continued. One day I was sitting in the cockpit and Lilya approached me saying, "Volodya, what would you like to serve in?" "Fighters." "OK." It was the end of our training and postings were in sight. I was sent off to Pavletskii station to travel on to Krasnodar. It was there we began to fly Polikarpov I-16s.
When Rostov-on-Don surrendered in the summer of 1942, anyone who was a poor flier was transferred to ground forces and sent the front. Later on we were to see a column of wounded amongst whom were those who had been on our course.
Any remaining trainees were withdrawn from Krasnodar to just outside Saratov. There we were re-trained on 'Yaks' and sent to the 8th Reserve Air Regiment at Bagai-Baranovka. It was there that I had to prove the regiment's good name before an Air Force Committee. I had to fly a circuit, fly cross-country, fly blind and demonstrate flying expertise in the combat zone. There followed firing at a drogue, ground targets, and individual aerial combat. My drogue score was 9 out of 60. Pretty good. My flying skills were scrutinised and I was told, "The Chairman of the Committee will now lead take off. You are to fly into the operations' zone and demonstrate your reconnaissance abilities and carry out a search. Engage in a dogfight and we shall assess your fighting capabilities." We both took off in Yak-1s. I spotted his plane and moved up in formation with him. He began spinning this way and that. I closed up right behind him and wouldn't be shaken off. With some annoyance he said, " Right, keep up, and land with me."
After this I left for the front. I went to the 91st Regiment of the 256th Division. The Divisional Commander was Hero of the Soviet Union Gerasimov, a Spaniard and friend of Kamanin - a decent bloke. Our regiment had been formed even before the war. He had taken part in operations in Bessarabia. The war caught up with him in Shepetovka and it was there that the regiment suffered its first bombing raid. Hero of the Soviet Union Major Romanenko was appointed Regimental Commander. We were stationed on an airfield between Kozelets and Borispol'. Experienced pilots accompanied us, the reinforcements, over the whole of the front line, pointing out everything. So we began to provide air cover for our ground troops. I became wingman to the Squadron Commander Borkov, from Leningrad. When I reported to him, he was sitting there reading a map. "Reporting for duty, sir," I said. He looked up: "You'll be flying with me, and if you lose touch with me, you're for it..!" But since I was a competent pilot, he had no opportunity of carrying out his threat.
Soon afterwards the Kiev operation began, and real fighting followed. On the 6th there was a particularly tense situation. First away on operations was Romanenko with his group. With him flew my friend Reptsev. Both went missing. Flight commander Misha Shilov did not return from the next sortie. Two-three hours passed and at 7 o'clock that evening we were sitting in the mess when up came a rider on a horse, Shilov to all appearances, swathed in bandages. It turned out he'd shot down a Heinkel-111 but had been hit in the process. After he'd done a belly landing, some kids had come running up to him saying in Ukrainian, "Mister Pilot, get away from here, there's Germans all about". He was secreted to some woman who gave him a dress. He'd scarcely had time to get a bite to eat when there was a thump at the door. He instantly leapt up onto the stove and just sat still. In came some Germans. Shilov had decided that if anything happened he would start shooting and jump through the window. The Germans spread out across the room, giving it a thorough looking over. They saw Misha sitting on the stove with his back to them. But his hair was so long, just like a woman's. "Who's that?" they demanded. The houseowner said that it was a woman staying there on her own, going to see her sister and just passing through. The Germans calmed down and asked in broken Russian, "Got any eggs or milk?" They had something to eat and left.
Soon after the loss of Romanenko, Kovalev was promoted to Regimental Commander - a real pilot. What followed? On one occasion we flew out from Kopaigoraya on a reconnaissance mission and discovered some strange-looking haystacks. They were arranged in chessboard fashion, not like they are in the countryside. We descended a little and then even lower. We discovered that they were camouflaged tanks. Back at base we reported all that we had seen. The Germans, it seemed, were preparing a counter-attack. Soon after this reconnaissance flight our commander told Neokov, " You and Tsygankov fly over to Zhulyany, top up with antifreeze and get kitted out with your winter uniforms." This was at the end of November. We took off, arrived at Zhulyany, and had just dispersed for landing when we got the message: "As you were. Reform at such and such a coordinate. You'll be covering a group of 'Ilyushins'." Tsygan and I set off, he flying to my right. I lost touch with him in the clouds and began to search around. It was then that I saw my time was running out, fuel was low, and it was time to land. So I did. Tsygan was already down. I asked,
"Where were you?"
"Right there with you. So you didn't notice anything then? They almost got you. A 'Focke Wulf' came right up on your tail. Another few metres and he'd have got you."
"Thank you, Vanyusha," was all I could say. I hadn't seen anything in those clouds.
There were battles of all kinds at that time. We flew a lot of missions escorting 'Ils'. On the 23rd February I chased a "Peshka (Pawn)". It was one of our planes, but the Germans were flying it unmarked and without its stars. But I couldn't catch up with it - the oil temperature was already 120 degrees and the front line was nearby. I decided to break off and return.
In the spring we were dispatched to Kharkov to collect some new planes, Yak-9Ts. We didn't have long to fly them because by summer at Bagai-Baranovka we'd already got Yak-3's. I was given the first production model to test fly. Yes, a good machine, but the engine was sluggish. What was the matter? A test pilot was called in from the factory. He said to me, "You don't know how to fly it." "Well, you fly it then." He climbed in, took off and disappeared somewhere. Then we saw him coming towards us with smoke trailing behind. He said, "There's something wrong here. You're right, the engine 's not firing properly."
Then came a telegram that Golovatyi had bought the plane for Yeremin. We sent this "one off" to him. No doubt a new engine would be fitted and he would get it in perfect working order. We received the new machines on Monday, June 13th. The general staff and Yakovlev's deputy turned up. They wanted to take our photo. We all turned our backs, saying that it was Monday, and, whatsmore, it was the 13th - unlucky and a bad sign. Our photos weren't taken.
During the first two days of the Lvov operation the weather was bad and we were grounded. We were scrambled on the third day. Regimental Commander Kovalev led the flight. The ensuing battle was no joke: 22 of ours against 85 of theirs, all at an altitude of 1500 to 1700 metres. The fight went on for some 40 minutes then stopped unexpectedly. At the time I was already a senior pilot. I looked around trying to find Shilov, my flight leader. I'd only just seen his plane with number 69 on it. He was flying support to the regimental navigator. Borkov and I put down at a neighbouring airfield - our own was too far away. Even after we'd been refuelled Shilov still wasn't back. I said, "He's got to come back. I saw him." But we couldn't wait any longer for him. We got back to our airfield about 90 minutes later. There was still no sign of Shilov. A fitter suggested, "Happen he's had to make a forced landing." We found out later that he'd crossed the front line and come under anti-aircraft fire. He got a direct hit and his engine packed up. He thought that he was in a front line area so decided to land. He dropped his undercarriage, set his plane down and ran on until it came to a halt. He leapt out, but all around were Germans. He was captured. This was a great source of worry for us. I became flight leader in Shilov's place. Then the Lvov operation came to an end and we transferred to Trostyanets. There I shot down a '109'. Initially we had approached each other head on, but I did a 180? turn behind him and brought him down.
Just at that time our regiment was awarded the Order of Bogdan Khmelnitskii. For a whole month we tested out our Yak-3s under frontline conditions. For each sortie we wrote a report on how the machine behaved. And it turned out there was a range of designer flaws. Particularly serious were problems with lowering and retracting the undercarriage.
Our squadron was based at Dembitsy, just to the west of the Vistula. One day we were sitting around playing dominoes, and it was drizzling. A young woman came up to me and said, "I know you." "Where from?" "I'm Shilov's sister" -he had two sisters at the front- "You know, I'd like to collect his things so that they're not sent back to mum and upset her." All the lads fell silent. I said, "Come on then." I explained to her how only yesterday we had received a letter from a certain woman doctor. She wrote that, in a former prisoner of war camp in Przemysl where her medical unit was stationed, she had seen an inscription on the wall of one of the barracks. "I, Shilov Stepan Mikhailovich, eternally devoted to the Party of Lenin and Stalin, was shot down in a fierce dogfight over Ternopol on 16th July 1944. Whosoever reads this, please inform..." That was how we found out that he was a prisoner.
I remember flying one time with the deputy squadron leader to a neighbouring fighter group situated just 1? km from the front line. For that reason we had to come in at hedge-top height to avoid revealing its position. No sooner had we landed than we saw the Divisional Commander, Gerasimov, coming towards us. Cursing, he said,
"So, you figured on flying over in weather like this! Stay here till the morning. Today's the anniversary of the division's formation. There'll be medals, a concert and a supper. And that's for your efforts," he said passing out some spirits and we found some beer to go with it. What were we supposed to do with it? I said to the deputy Squadron Leader,
" Tol', let's take off our tunic tops, wrap it up and stow it behind the armour-plated seat. The main thing is to avoid getting into a dogfight en route."
"Right. Let's do it."
The next day a breeze sprang up. We set off at treetop height. Looking up we saw Germans above and squeezed right down to ground level, but there was a herd of something there and I picked up a bit of wool on my tail. We landed back at Zheshov (Strzyow). I set down but Tolya said,
"I can't land, my instrument are all haywire." He went round for a second approach, and made it this time. The commander saw this.
" Smarten yourselves up!" he barked - he was so angry. We immediately buttoned up our tunics. He went on:
" Why didn't you come back yesterday?"
"Gerasimov wouldn't let us fly in such weather."
"Well, you've brought something back with you, I hope?"
"Off you go, fall out."
In January 1945 we were part of the air cover provision for the troops fighting for Krakow. On the 20th we completed 5-6 sorties in a day, and as evening approached we arrived at Krakow airfield. The aerodrome had been mined and we had to land to the right of the landing strip. 'Lavochkins' were coming into land head on. Everyone just got down as best they could. The town was ablaze. We were billeted to a five-storey building and at about 10-11 o'clock we went back to the aerodrome for an evening meal. The commander was not there, he had remained behind at the previous base. His deputy had us sit down round a П-shaped table for de-briefing. We all had a drink, but realised something was wrong with it. The mess sergeant said, "Comrade pilots, don't worry, it's special rations, it's all above board, and thank you for your efforts." Next morning I got up feeling awful, but three others were still laid out and unable to get up. You felt hungry but the moment you ate anything your guts knotted up. We were baffled as to what had happened. No one went for lunch. That evening a girl suddenly came running in: "Comrade pilots, anyone who's been poisoned must get themselves to the first-aid post immediately." Off we ran and got checked over. It turned out one of our blokes had collapsed and the girl had gone blind. 26 pilots - the whole of the regiment had been poisoned! I've no idea how or to where we were then taken. We were lain two to a bunk. Nuns looked after us. A navigator and two other pilots died and several went blind. True, the mess sergeant died too - the stupid sod had served us methyl alcohol. I was laid up for ten days and only on 2nd February could I fly with my wingman, Vanya Kudenchuk, on a mission.
Spring was in the air, it was already warm and everything was thawing out. We set course for the allotted zone - south-east towards the small town of Gorlitz. Our task was to provide air cover for our tanks. The patrol zone was overcast, the broken cloud suggesting that it wasn't all that solid and thick. There were small breaks in it, at a height of about 1200-1300 metres. For some 35-40 minutes we patrolled giving cover in the target zone. When our operation time was up we turned about face and flew off in the direction of our aerodrome, hoping on our way to root out some enemy ground target and assault it. We flew on at a pretty good 500-550 km/hr. All quiet, it seemed. So I said to my wingman, "Vasya, let's find something to hit, it's not on returning to base with all weapons unused. At that very moment I happened to turn my head to the left and saw eight Me-109's coming up behind out of the cloud at high speed. Instantly I shouted to my wingman, " Vaska, eight of them coming up on our tail." The thought flashed through my mind - low on fuel, they'd obviously been stalking us.
To avoid being hit I had to veer steeply to the left and get into the clouds to gain the advantage. It's a good job we had the speed. I didn't climb, but Vasya, behind and drifting wide on the outside of his turn, picked up speed and plunged through the cloud. From the other side of the cloud cover he shouted that there were eight FW-190s. Their plan was clear: with our fuel about to run out, force us to climb high then shoot us down or at least force us to crash for lack of fuel. I did a U-turn in the clouds, flew a little further on then dived below the clouds. I saw, flying in line astern, two pairs of Me-109s. The leader of one of the pairs spotted me - he side-slipped into the cloud, but I managed to head off the leader of the second pair with a burst of fire from the clouds, then get him in my sights and loosed several more bursts at him. He rolled over onto one wing and went down. I too immediately dived into the clouds - almost out of fuel and no longer able to continue the fight. I reported in to an observer. Ground control told me, " No Soviet losses. Execute a 555 (return to base)." There was no way of finding my wingman. About five minutes later, breaking out from the cloud I saw a Me-109 ahead flying a parallel course. I ducked back into the clouds and when I emerged a few minutes later he had disappeared. I returned to base. At the very point of landing my propeller stopped. So I landed without power. The Yak-3 flies fine for 1? hours, but then you have to get down. Clearly we'd been flying all this time on petrol fumes! I crawled out of the cockpit and walked about in a daze. No wingman. They told me, though, that none of ours had gone missing. A couple or so hours passed. Then I heard the sound of an engine. Yes, it was № 75, Kudenchuk! As soon as he touched down his undercarriage gave way. "All right," I thought, "we can fix that, no problem." It turned out that he'd landed at Pokryshkino, had been refuelled but nobody had noticed that he'd been holed. We were lucky on this occasion, very lucky!
On March 31st we flew out to attack Ratibor (Raciborz) airfield. The group was lead by Regimental Commander Kovalev. We got into a dogfight. I suddenly found myself on the tail of a pair of FW-190s. My wingman Gena Smirnov repulsed an attack on me from another pair and gave me the chance to attack the FW-190s. I shot down one, but as I chased after my wingman, German flak began to cut me off. I sensed that I'd been hit, the plane began to vibrate. It was cloudy with mist about. In such circumstances it was impossible to look for my group. Gena and I withdrew from the action, swung round onto course "0" reckoning on finding a main road. Before us in the haze a pair of Me-109s were following a parallel course to their own airfield. I could not overtake them because my machine was vibrating and I could not put on speed. I said to Gena, "Attack if you can, I'm right behind you." The Germans appeared not to spot us. Gena turned slightly to the right and attacked. I followed, a little distance behind. He got one but the second 109 quickly went into the clouds when he saw the attack. Like it or not, though, we had to return home. The cloud ceiling kept us down to 300-400 metres. I just could not recognise the locality although previously I had lead groups into this area several times already. We kept to our compass bearing "0" but in reality the course was quite different. Fuel was running low. The plane was shaking, so I decided to find a landing strip and set down. All around appeared quiet and I spotted a suitable landing site below me. I informed Gennadii, " Cover me, I'm going down". I landed, ran on a little, but the wheels began to dig in. The plane threw its tail up into the air and came to a halt. I leaped from the plane and noticed a chap driving a cart. I dashed over to him, drawing my pistol. Seeing me, he said in broken Russian, " I'm a Pole." I asked him whose territory was I in and where was the nearest airfield. He replied that it was Polish territory, now in Russian hands but that the front line was some 10-15 km away (waving his arm in it's direction). He added that there was an airfield at such and such locality. The aerodrome was quite close by in the event. I dashed to the plane and told Gena over the radio where to fly. I said, "Land there and come and get me." He flew away but returned 7-10 minutes later explaining over the radio, "I couldn't get down, the airfield's like a sponge, waterlogged and it's too dangerous to land." Following my suggestion he too landed alongside me as his fuel was about to run out.
It subsequently transpired that that there was magnetic distortion in this region. That's why the compass bearing was incorrect. Once we'd entrusted our aircraft to the local Polish authorities for safekeeping, we picked up our parachutes and with the help of the Poles made our way to a station. As it happened, we used to fly in overalls, and sometimes in sports clothes so that we wouldn't be taken for officers. That followed stories that officers were given rough treatment or shot when captured by the Germans.
From the station we travelled two stops and then got back to the airfield late at night on lorries from a motorised battalion that delivered ammunition and fuel to our troops. It was later revealed that six pilots, including we two, had not returned from the combat sortie. The Regimental Commander was pleased about our return especially since our aircraft were still intact. A team of fitters flew out to the site of our forced landing, they fixed my plane, refuelled it and flew it back to the aerodrome.
On 8th April our regiment was stationed at Grotkau. That morning the weather was fair, high cloud and a slight haze. My friend Misha Pyatak and I got orders to do a reconnaissance of the town's railway station and aerodrome located to the east of the town. Bypassing the airfield and the town itself, we approached from the west. At the station there were three fuel-tanker trains facing towards the front line. You got the impression that they had just arrived, although from the air there was no sign of them being unloaded. We reported our findings back to ground base. We immediately got orders to do two "dummy" runs to ascertain whether the Germans had any flak batteries. We did as commanded and reported that we had not been fired on. As it turned out the Germans had clearly not wished to give themselves away. We skirted the town and, setting a course towards the north-east, flew off in the direction of our airfield. We applied the 'scissors' manoeuvre as we flew, gaining speed to keep as low as possible and avoid ground fire. As we skimmed over an airfield we spotted a couple of airborne Me-109s which had just taken off. We were in a favourable position to attack with no need to deploy. We dived down to attack both. Lesha lead the attack, but after the first salvo his guns jammed. He shouted over the radio, "You continue the attack," which I did. One went down. We overshot the wingman, veered left and departed at hedge-top height for our airfield. We reported back to the commander who decided to send Tolya Malyshev and Vit'ka Alfonskii to attack the fuel train. We told them all we had seen. Malyshev approached his plane behaving in a somewhat unusual manner. I said,
"Tolya, what's the matter?"
"I've got a funny feeling. You know, it's stuck in my memory, being on fire whilst over the Kursk salient."
"Cut it out, Tolya! Good luck!" I retorted.
They flew out in their Yak-3s. An hour passed. The weather was getting steadily worse. A little while later there was the roar of an engine. One Yak came into land. It was Alfonskii.
He told us that they had flown off along our route towards the railway junction. They knew from us that there was no anti-aircraft fire. They had made their first approach on the trains at an angle to remain over the target as long as possible. But as they began to pull away, everything on the ground that could shoot opened up on them. A round hit Malyshev in the feeder tank. Alfonskii said he saw white, then black plumes of smoke coming from Malyshev's plane. Tolya began to be overcome by fumes and so he opened the cockpit canopy. (We flew with the canopy closed. We had been trained to. Incidentally, we also had to be trained in radio skills because initially radios weren't used. Only when the ranks of radio-operator 3rd, 2nd, 1st class and master radio-operator were introduced - and attracted extra pay - did we start using them.) So Tolya opened the canopy. I ought to say that we were flying in German gauze flying helmets. We had got our hands on them just outside Brzeg. Of course, when wearing flying helmets with integral headsets your head starts to sweat and your hair falls out. Even silk skullcaps were no salvation. Flames engulfed Malyshev's head. Alfonskii called out, " Tol'ka, hold on!!!" It was still about 15 km to the front line, but had only some 900 metres of altitude. Clearly he couldn't hold out any longer. He flipped the plane over on its back and ejected. He was captured but returned to the regiment on 13th May.
Breslau (Wroclaw) was taken on 7th May. We remained on combat roster as whole flights. The planes were kept supported on trestles alongside the landing strip. On duty with me were Lesha Pyatak, Yura Danilov and Gena Smirnov. It was approaching lunchtime. The weather was clear and sunny, real spring conditions. Suddenly we saw half a dozen Me-109s brazenly flying towards us along the landing strip at a height of 1500 metres. We were up into the air instantly as the alarm sounded. Following us up were two or three pairs of aircraft from another regiment based here alongside us at the airfield. A dogfight ensued. The group of German planes split apart. One Me-109 was attacking a Yak from a different regiment. It so happened that I was the nearest and best placed to attack the Messerschmitt. I gave one burst, then a second. I saw puffs of smoke from his engine, his flailing propeller halting, the face and expression of the German pilot - looking back over his left shoulder at me, the big white crosses on the wings of his plane. This image is burned into my memory. One more burst of fire, he flipped the plane over onto its wing and limped off towards the front line, trailing smoke.
As evening approached a group of Petlyakov Pe-2s supported by Yaks arrived, having carried out their mission. All the bombers landed and almost all the accompanying fighters. Just one Yak was on its third approach and dropped its undercarriage textbook fashion. Just at that moment a Me-109 attacked it at high speed, coming straight out of the sun at low level. We shouted, as if the pilot could hear, "Look out, there's a Me-109 on your tail!" He had been forewarned over the radio, it seemed. He banked sharply to the left and the Messerschmitt overshot at high speed. The attack failed. But that was not the only incidence of the Fascists coming to get their own back for their compatriots.
On May 8th we transferred to just outside Berlin. The weather was clear. The Regimental Commander ordered me up into the air: "Fly to area such and such..." I flew on and reported, "Prince, this is Swallow -8, carrying out a 204 (i.e. one of a foursome of planes), a mission, please." Came the reply, "Swallow-8, Markov, thanks very much for your work, execute a 555." That was the only number that signified return to base. I said, "Prince, you've made a mistake, other groups have been here, I've just arrived." I got a repeat message: "No mistake, execute 555, thank you for your work." As I was approaching the aerodrome, the regimental commander Kovalev chided me, " I'm serious about this, why has Swallow-8 returned?" I said I'd give a report after I'd landed. The fact of the matter was that our unit's anniversary was designated for the 5th May, but it had been rearranged for the 8th. Six pilots were ordered to remain on duty, the rest get ready for the party. I, though, had a sort of feeling deep inside about this, with everyone sprucing themselves up, so I didn't. And I was proved right, I heard the alarm going off. It was around two o'clock in the afternoon. The whole regiment dashed to the airfield and took off en masse in the direction of Prague. I brought back two holes in my plane - one bullet had hit the feeder pipe, a second had lodged in a wing spar. And with that the war ended. In all I had flown 139 combat missions and had brought down six enemy aircraft.
|Translated by:||Paul M. Roscow|