Somewhere at a transshipment airport, a group of Soviet volunteers awaiting departure
In the summer of 1937, when a civil war was raging in Spain, the military "incidents" between Japan and China turned into a full-scale war in East Asia. Japan sought to seize the raw materials of its neighbor and get its own territorial benefits. But China was not ready for this war. The industry was in decline, the population lived in extreme poverty, and there was an internal struggle for power in the country between various military groups. Taking advantage of this, the imperial army of Japan occupied Manchuria, some Chinese provinces and, capturing such large coastal cities as Shanghai and Tianjin, advanced into the interior of China. The situation was becoming more than dramatic. The surrender of China would have turned into a subsequent Japanese attack on the USSR from the east, and Germany from the west. And it is not known what else would have ended if we had then fought on two fronts at once. Through the Comintern, the Chinese Communists received the message that assistance to our country would be provided only if they united with the Kuomintang party in a united front against the Japanese invaders. Having received consent from both parties, on September 26, 1937, JV Stalin began a secret operation with the code name "Z".
Air route Alma-Ata - Lanzhou
There were many volunteer pilots who wanted to fight in Spain, so they were invited to go to help the Chinese people in the war with Japan. Mostly party members were selected from the most experienced aviators, mainly flight commanders. Some have already fought in Spain, had their own combat experience and military awards. Volunteers traveled by train to Alma-Ata, and their planes were delivered there unassembled. All worked hard, tirelessly. Together, pilots, navigators, engineers and technicians collected the planes delivered here in boxes. Then they made a flyby, sighting of weapons, refueled with fuel, oil and on the road. The long-haul flight from Alma-Ata through the Tien Shan, Tibet, the Takla-Makan and Gobi deserts was not successful for all crews. One of the first flew Kurdyumov's group. During the flight and landings at intermediate airfields, several planes crashed, the unit commander V. Kurdyumov himself died during landing in Suzhou. His plane at landing did not calculate the speed, rolled out of the strip, turned over and caught fire. Captain Kurdyumov was thrown out of the cab, but he died without regaining consciousness. There was no radio connection with airplanes and lighthouses. Right, left, back and front - only mountains and sand dunes. No matter where you look, not a single landmark. In the event of a loss of course or in the event of an aircraft malfunction, there was nowhere to make an emergency landing. To jump over the mountains, we went with a climb of 6000-7000 m, where even experienced pilots lost their orientation due to lack of oxygen. In the darkness, having run out of fuel, their planes crashed in the mountains. About 3000 km from Alma-Ata to Lanzhou; there were 11 small transshipment air bases along the flight route. The route ran through the desert and mountainous regions of Northwest China. There was no connection between the points of intermediate landings; there was no weather weather reports. At the two airfields in Suzhou and Lianzhou, where gas was so easily delivered by camels through the desert and mountains, the Japanese forced gang hunuz gangs to raid in order to destroy fuel depots and interrupt our air traffic. By the way, there was no fuel in China, it had to be bought from the Americans and a string of gas carriers served on the rocker arms in 20-liter containers from neighboring Indochina.
On a different route, several air groups left Irkutsk via Ulan Bator and Dalan Dzadagad to Chinese Suzhou. Only in April 1938 it was possible to arrange the delivery of goods along the built-up "road of life", the route Alma-Ata - Urumqi - Hami - Suzhou - Lanzhou. Columns of ZIS-5 trucks stretched day and night through Xinjiang province, transporting boxes of I-16 and I-15bis to the first assembly base in Lanzhou and to the second base in Hami, behind which the Gobi Desert began. Arriving aircraft in Lanzhou repainted and affixed Chinese identification marks.
SB-2M-103 in silver color. Chinese markings on the fuselage, wings and rudder
During the period from 1937 to 1940, 1250 combat aircraft were delivered from the USSR to China, including: I-15 fighters (345); I-16 fighters (216); SB bombers (292); DB-3 (24); TB-3 (6).
Soviet heavy bomber TB-3
At the end of 1937, almost a month after the start of the haul, not one of our fighters managed to reach the Chinese front. All planes stood in the snow at the airfield in Chinese Gucheng, not having the opportunity to take off. As well as a group of SB bombers, under the leadership of F.P. Wormwood, hiding from a sandstorm overtaking them on the way, got stuck at the air base in Suzhou.
As early as the beginning of 1937, the Chinese had about five hundred aircraft, as they say, with a pine forest. Long obsolete models of various designs of American, English, French, German and Italian production. These were mainly Curtiss BF2C Goshawk biplanes and American-made Boeing P-26 Peashooter monoplanes with a maximum flight speed of up to 350 km / h. The training of Chinese pilots, mostly coming from wealthy classes, was clearly insufficient in comparison with well-trained Japanese aces. Our pilots said that their Chinese colleagues prayed before departure that they would not meet with Japanese aces in the air. They, at the opportunity, intentionally spoiled their planes, only so as not to fly to certain death. By the beginning of the fighting for the capital, Nanjing, there were only 14. There were Japanese fighters that were superior in speed and quickly destroyed most of the Chinese aircraft and gained complete air supremacy. Japanese bombers, feeling their impunity, leveled Chinese cities and industrial facilities with the earth. By destroying civilians and demoralizing the Chinese army, they ensured the successful advancement of their army inland. This is where our “Stalinist Falcons” came to China.
Soviet volunteer pilots at the Wuhan airport. November 1937
The military leadership of China faced the choice of purchased equipment. The wife of Chiang Kai-shek, Ms. Song Meiliying, as Minister of Aviation of the Kuomintang Government, arranged demonstration flights of aircraft of many countries to select the best models of equipment. But the Soviet “Stalinist falcons” managed to win her heart with their article and expertly executed aerobatics, leaving behind all competitors. Our pilots believe that this is why the choice of aircraft purchased by China was made in favor of the USSR.
The main strike force in the second Sino-Japanese war was the Soviet high-speed SB bombers, back in Spain affectionately called the Katyusha pilots. They were superior to the main enemy - the Japanese ship fighter I-96 (Mitsubishi A5M) in height (it operated up to 3000-3500 m). The ceiling of our SB in that modification was 10000 m. Two M-100 engines of 860 l / s each with a supercharger and a variable-pitch pitch propeller (VIS) provided a maximum speed of 445 km / h and a flight range of up to 1600 km. Front and rear coaxial machine guns ShKAS (1800 rounds per minute for each barrel), and even the lower machine-gun installation "dagger fire" PV-1. Terrible such "Katyusha" still carried almost a ton of bombs of various calibers. Thanks to the efforts of our craftsmen in China, a way was invented to additionally place home-made container boxes with small high-explosive bombs in the SB cargo compartment, which significantly increased the efficiency of the bombing. In parallel with the flight, training was conducted for the flight crew. At the end of 1937, Soviet pilots were able to train more than forty Chinese recruits from the SB.
The crews of the Chinese SB-2 M-100A are preparing for the start
There were several more four-engine heavy bombers TB-3, distinguished by the fact that they were able to overcome the enemy’s air defense and, flying over the Japanese islands, discard campaign leaflets of anti-war content. Slow-moving and outdated, they were also useful for urgent transfers of heavy goods and transportation of personnel. In the fall of 1939, a group of long-range bombers DB-3 from a height of seven kilometers bombed the Japanese airfield in Hankou three times, destroying 136 enemy aircraft, ammunition depots and fuel.
The air workers of the war were our I-16 monoplane fighters, nicknamed the "Swallow", and the I-15bis "Chizhi" fighter and half-planes. As a rule, the faster I-16s were attacked by a group of Japanese bombers, while the I-15bis group fought with enemy fighters. Our "Swallows" (or "Ishachki") had an advantage in armament, having not only two ShKAS machine guns of 7,62 mm, but also two 20 mm small-caliber high-speed ShVAK guns. The Japanese fighters at that time had no guns yet, losing to us in firepower.
Chinese pilots on the I-15 and I-16 pose near their aircraft
At the beginning of 1938, more than a hundred aircraft were located at the air base in the Hankou area, including 31 bomber under the command of Captain F.P. Polynin. And at two aerodromes in the Nanchang area there were still about ninety aircraft - the bombers of M. G. Machin and the fighters of A. S. Blagoveshchensky.
Volunteer pilots in China (from left to right): A. S. Blagoveshchensky, A. G. Rytov, P. V. Rychagov, F. P. Polynin
Pilots from cadets of the Zhukovsky Moscow Flight Academy, who still had no military experience of their own, were sent to China by so-called Voroshilov business trips. All of them immediately had to study in a real battle against more experienced Japanese aces. The numerical superiority was for a long time on the side of the Japanese, but the forces of our air groups managed to significantly reduce them. Bombers acted decisively and delivered unexpected attacks on airfields, transport communications, concentration of troops, ferries and enemy ships.
Bombed the airfields of Nanjing, Shanghai, Taipei, crossings and raids on the Yangtze River.
Especially the first raids of our bombers were a complete surprise for the Japanese. They believed in their own exclusiveness in the air so much that they did not take care of air defense. On December 2, 1937, two nines of SB bombers, under the command of M. G. Manchin, bombed an airfield in Shanghai under the command of “Nines in the Right Bearing”. At the same time, another nine SBs bombed ships on the Shanghai raid. More than 30 enemy aircraft, fuel depots were destroyed, a Japanese cruiser was sunk, and six more ships caught fire. I had to fly without cover, as fighters were needed to protect their airfields. On their own, they repelled the attacks of Japanese fighters. Four shooters were slightly injured. One of our SBs was hit, but was able to reach the Hangzhou airfield and land safely.
Colonel-General of the Air Force F. I. Drobysh describes the bombing of 26 bombers of the Katyusha SB airfield in Nanjing, occupied by the Japanese (January 1938):
They approached the target at an altitude of 5500 m. The navigator ordered the anti-aircraft maneuver and reported: “I see the bombers, arranged in two rows, from the second airfield I-96 take off.” The enemy opened strong anti-aircraft fire, the gaps lie above and to the right. The navigator Vasiliev gives the command "To bomb".
Airplanes with open hatches seemed to stop. 40 seconds in the anti-aircraft fire zone seems like an eternity. The bombs were aimed.
Airplanes with open hatches seemed to stop. 40 seconds in the anti-aircraft fire zone seems like an eternity. The bombs were aimed.
Destroyed on the ground 48 aircraft, take-off runway, fuel and lubricant depots and ammunition depots. The Japanese managed to bring down one of our bomber, killed three Russian young men.
At the Hankou airfield. From left to right: B. B. Kamonin, Chinese pilot, A. A. Lebedev, translator.
Major General Aviation G.M. Prokofiev recalls:
Japanese planes stood as if on parade, ready for take-off: twin-engine bombers in three lines, fighters in two lines. There were more than a hundred! Ahead and left along the course, from all sides, anti-aircraft shell explosions became visible. They fired anti-aircraft guns of all calibers from all ships, including “non-belligerent” countries: English, French, Italian, American. And suddenly I saw how the right engine abruptly “stuck” on the lead’s plane.
In that battle, Captain Polynin’s plane was shot down. The radiator was broken, and the overheated engine soon jammed. SB sharply began to lose altitude, and he had to make an emergency landing in a swampy meadow with one engine running. To fall into the hands of the Japanese meant a painful death. Cases were known when the Japanese first brutally tortured our surviving pilots and then executed them anyway. Standing ready with a gun, he saw the Japanese and Chinese running from different directions to the plane. The Chinese ran first and drove the Japanese away with shots.
In case of recognition by the Chinese population on the chest of each pilot, a "security certificate" was pinned - a piece of thin silk, scribbled with Chinese characters. It follows from the text that the bearer of the “document” is a foreigner who arrived in China to provide military assistance. And that all military and civilians are obliged to take measures to save him. Wormwood was lucky, and the Chinese, who had run into the SB swamp and sat in the swamp, like ants, stuck around the plane. About three hundred peasants were able to first pull out a multi-ton car from the mud, and then drag it dragging it to the river. There they made wooden gangways, the bomber was rolled onto an old barge and sent to the Chinese captain on receipt along the Yangtze River to Hankow itself. For three days the crew was considered dead, but they returned, and the aircraft was soon delivered to the base by water too.
Heading to Formosa
The most famous operation of Soviet pilots was the destruction of the main Japanese air force base in Taipei (in Japanese Taihoku) on the island of Formosa (Taiwan). The air group of high-speed bombers was commanded by Captain Fedor Petrovich Polynin (in China he was known as Fyn Po). On February 23, 1938, on the anniversary of the Red Army, twenty-eight SB-loaded bombs took off toward Taiwan. According to intelligence there the day before were to deliver a large batch of aircraft purchased by Japan from Germany and Italy. Japanese aviation suffered significant losses, and the emperor was forced to increase the production of his I-96 fighters, as well as to purchase aircraft abroad. The risk of the operation was great, the distance was more than a thousand kilometers, and if something happened - there would be nowhere to land, there was water all around, and there was not enough fuel left for the return trip. If captured in Japanese territory, then an international scandal may break out, since officially we are not at war with Japan. We climbed to a height of 5500 meters, so that anti-aircraft gunners could not spot the ground. Everyone began to feel dizzy, because oxygen cylinders had to be left at the base to reduce the weight of the machines. Immediately passed the party, north of the island. They turned around with a decline and on muffled motors entered the Taipei area from Japan, from the sun.
Soviet high-speed bomber SB "Katyusha"
The planes stood in a clear line in two rows, containers were near the hangars, and planes without wings were nearby. There was no camouflage at the base, the Japanese did not notice a raid, and the exact blow of more than three hundred air bombs destroyed over 40 assembled aircraft and everything that was in the containers. And also a three-year supply of fuel, a radio station, a large number of ammunition, numerous flight and technical personnel were destroyed. By coincidence, they were all gathered in one room for the holiday, where our bombs hit. Not a single Japanese fighter took off from a base in Taipei. SB bombers sat down to refuel with gasoline from 20-liter tanks at the tiny mountain jump airfield in Fuzhou and immediately went home. In that flight, they spent more than seven hours, but the result was grandiose. They were greeted as heroes of China, carried out of the aircraft in their arms, and Ms. Song Maililiin presented the Soviet pilots with a large cake with a congratulatory inscription in honor of the Soviet volunteer pilots and the anniversary of the Red Army. China celebrated the victory, and in imperial Japan declared national mourning. The commandant of the Japanese airfield committed a ritual suicide. And our pilots had to modestly keep silent about their success. Then there were lovers to appropriate other people's fame - a group of American and English volunteer pilots, led by Vincent Schmidt. By the way, these pilots practically did not fly out to military operations, but they never refused to reward the Chinese for their help, unlike our military. This myth was dispelled by the Japanese themselves, saying that their pilots bombed their base. Japanese secret intelligence was excellent, and they then announced a protest note to us. The American allies, once flew out on a combat mission, mistakenly dropped bombs on Chinese positions, for which they were subjected to fierce shelling. After this incident, they did not fly out for a long time. During the raids of Japanese aviation, they did not try to take off to repulse the attack or take the planes out of attack, but immediately left by car in the city under the protection of the flag of their embassy, which they did not bomb.
Speaking of foreign volunteers: there were French pilots on Curtiss P-36 Hawk fighters. Machin describes their participation in the defense of the Nanchang airfield from the Japanese attack: “Most of these young and fervent guys died in air battles with Japanese fighters.” The fact is that the engines of their aircraft were inferior to the Japanese in power, and among the French pilots there was no coordinated interaction. Soon their group ceased to exist at all.
And in March 1938, a group of 25 SBs of Captain Polynin, again in the enemy's deep rear, destroyed the railway bridge and, in parallel, built a pontoon crossing over the Yellow River, along which the Japanese army was supposed to cross. So the Japanese offensive on the entire Northern Front was foiled, which we did not allow to join with the Central in a large group.
To be continued ...