Operation Z: The sky is on fire

Operation Z: The sky is on fire

Air battle over the city in a painting by a Chinese artist

Continuation of the story of the feat of Soviet volunteer pilots in the war for the independence of China. See the beginning in the previous article: "Stalin's Falcons in the Sky of China".


Our fighter aircraft in China, which consisted of the then-modern I-16 and I-15bis aircraft, had the hardest share of the war. Aircraft from the first hours of arrival at the front airfields entered into an unequal battle with superior enemy forces. Having lost their commander, V. Kurdyumov, the first group entered the battle on November 21, 1937. In a battle with 20 Japanese, 7 of our I-16s over Nanjing were shot down without loss by 3 Japanese aircraft (2 I-96 fighters and 1 bomber). The next day, a group of G.M. Prokofieva won her first victory in the battle of our six I-16s against six I-96s. On November 24, 1937, six I-96s, accompanying a group of eight bombers, were damaged by three of the six intercepting I-16s, and the Japanese themselves won two victories.

From the memoirs of Colonel Aviation D.A. Kudymova:

The Japanese hung over the city without a break ... They made five to six flights a day. We took off in groups of five or six aircraft against 50 enemy bombers and 20-30 fighters ... We were saved only by arrogance, resourcefulness and complete confusion in the sky, which was densely packed with enemy aircraft, in a hurry to drop their bombs on the city and clear the way for a new armada of bombers ...

On December 1, 1937, the fighters defending the Nanjing airfield shot down or damaged about 10 bombers and 4 fighters. Two of our I-16s were shot down, their pilots escaped by parachute. On December 2, Soviet fighter pilots shot down 6 bombers without loss over Nanking. On December 3, our volunteers shot down 4 Japanese aircraft.

The Japanese Type 96 carrier-based fighter (Mitsubishi A5M) had an advantage in the horizontal plane and always tried to impose its tactics on combat, but our fighters moved the battle to a vertical plane, where they were in a better position. When attacking, they left the “candle" up - such a maneuver saved many lives.

Japanese deck fighter type 96 (Mitsubishi A5M)

Our aviation veterans told why an attack from above is more dangerous for an aircraft than shelling from below. It turns out that an incendiary bullet, which hit the gas tank from above, ignites gasoline vapors, and when it enters the tank from below, it does not have time to set fire to cold gasoline. Therefore, it was so important for them in battle to be above the enemy’s aircraft.

Aviation Lieutenant-General Hero of the Soviet Union A.S. Blagoveshchensky said that their losses were daily then. For himself, he believed that from this trip he was not destined to return alive, but he was mistaken.

So that you could imagine the conditions of the battle, I’ll say that there was no radio communication between the planes (the radio stations were dismantled at the factory “to reduce the weight of the vehicles”, but I think that it was due to the secrecy of the operation). Management issues were addressed at the link level. The commander’s plane gave all the previously agreed signals, and the arrow depicted on the ground of the airfield indicated the likely direction of the enemy’s appearance. There weren’t enough airplanes, the engines themselves increased the working life up to 120 hours or more instead of the prescribed 100 hours. They flew until thick smoke fell from the nozzles. Technicians did not leave the faulty aircraft until it was repaired. In the field, they restored radiators punched by bullets, straightened bent screws. We spent the night right there, under the wing, forgetting about the snakes, scorpions, and phalanges that lived here from fatigue. Due to the lack of air shooters, the technicians themselves replaced them. They were jokingly called "winged techniques" or "flying backwards." They sometimes shared the bitter fate of their crew. So the Japanese gunner Domnin, who jumped with a parachute from a burning Security Council, was executed by a parachute. The gunner I. I. Alexandrenko was killed in an air battle, the technician A. Kurin was seriously injured in the abdomen.

During the Japanese offensive on Nanjing, an extraordinary incident occurred. Our pilot Zhukotsky could not take off until the technician fixed the engine of his aircraft. Mechanic Nikolsky tried his best. He managed, but the plane was single-seat, and in order to take the mechanic on board, he had to disconnect and discard the battery with the engine running, and squeeze the mechanics instead. So the two of them took off right in front of the advancing Japanese.

But our falcons did manage to “pull the feathers out of the tail” to the illustrious Japanese aces with red arrows painted on the fuselage and other “royal” paraphernalia. During interrogations, captured Japanese pilots behaved defiantly brazenly, not admitting their defeat. Their silk scarves were filled with hieroglyphs with calls for courage and courage, but this did not help them to avoid defeat.

From the memoirs of Colonel Aviation D.A. Kudymova about the battle in the sky over Nanchang in February 1938:

We are quickly getting closer. Blagoveshchensky with his link is aiming at the flagship bomber, my link is closing. Suddenly I notice the top three I-96 diving from the side of the sun. I give a signal to the followers - follow me - and abruptly turn around to attack fighters ...
Frontal attack. We diverge on the opposite courses on the verticals. A battle ensues. The main thing has been done: these will no longer interfere with Blagoveshchensky.

In that battle, Blagoveshchensky was lucky enough to bring down the “invincible”, judging by the lightning on the fuselage, the Japanese colonel. And Kudymov managed to get out of the burning fighter overturned during a hard landing “on the belly” in time. The runaway peasants took him prisoner, but when they saw the "security certificate", they brought him with an "escort" of the wounded man on a stretcher to the hospital. Blagoveshchensky also got it - a bullet struck on the side, but the armored back of a chair saved his life, upon examination of which they found traces of bullets flying in his back.

The attack of Chinese fighters on Japanese bombers

Fighters defended airfields and settlements from attacks by Japanese aircraft, many times superior in numbers. Fierce fighting took place in the sky over the city of Wuhan - the heart of Central China, which became the command center of the troops after the capture of the capital. Especially difficult for our pilots are three air battles of 1938, in which nearly a hundred Soviet volunteer pilots died. In the first battle of February 15, 12 Japanese aircraft were shot down. On the birthday of their emperor on April 29, the Japanese wanted to take revenge. An entire armada of Japanese aircraft flew bombing strategic objects of Hankou, but Chinese intelligence helped. Command of the Soviet volunteer pilots led by P.V. Rychagov learned about the impending raid and secretly relocated fighters from the Nanchang airfield to Hankou in advance, strengthening the group. More than a hundred aircraft from both sides participated in the battle, but the numerical superiority was for the first time in our favor. The sudden attack factor helped. He led the fighters into battle A.S. Blagoveshchensky, the first to meet the enemy air group. Battled Japanese fighters were unable to defend their bombers. Randomly dropping the bombs, they turned back. Separated and slow-moving, they became easy prey for our fighters. A group of bombers flying next turned around and began to retreat at the afterburner. The Japanese then lost 20 aircraft (8 bombers and 12 fighters), but we also missed two fighters. The holiday was disrupted, and the birthday of the Japanese emperor turned into mourning for the country. In a major battle on May 31, 1938, more than ten of our pilots died, but 7 enemy aircraft were shot down. On this day, near the city of Hankou, Anton Gubenko made his air ram, for which he was awarded the Chinese command with the Golden Order of the Republic of China and a special badge - “eagle in flight” (a sign of the pilot’s valor and heroism). He even managed to land his damaged plane with a bent propeller. When the ammunition ended, in the heat of battle, our falcons repeatedly shot down Japanese planes in a desperate ram.

Aerial ram of volunteer pilot Anton Gubenko

In August 1938, near 160 airplanes from both sides participated in an air battle near Hankou. The Japanese had a three-fold advantage - almost 120 aircraft against 40 Chinese. In that battle, many of our brave volunteer pilots died. Mortally wounded Ivan Gurov managed to land a damaged plane and died right in his cabin. And on August 12, 1938, when we raided Wuhan, 5 of our SB bombers were shot down. Of the 15 crew members, only 6 were saved who used a prolonged parachute jump.

Japanese airfields were now far from the front line, and to increase the flight range, their fighters took extra fuel in hanging tanks, which were dumped on the ground before the battle. Our fighter pilots noted that before the Japanese attack, they observed a silver “rain” from dumped tanks. The Japanese also dropped campaign leaflets stating that the Soviets allegedly sent bad planes and untrained pilots to China. After the losses incurred from our aircraft, Japan decided to provoke a violation of the border at Lake Hassan. The result was unexpected for them. Japanese aviation stopped making massive day raids, and flew only at night and in small groups.

Hero of the Soviet Union distinguished himself twice in the reflection of night raids. Suprun. One night, he personally saved the crews of the approaching aircraft when the generator was disabled and the airfield plunged into darkness. Stepan jumped into the car, drove into the airfield and spotlights illuminated the runway, showing pilots the path to salvation. He will become a Hero of the Soviet Union in 1940, but will die at the very beginning of the war with Germany.

According to the memoirs of the Hero of the Soviet Union, test pilot K.K. Kokkinaki:

Over Chongqing, Japanese bombers appeared, as a rule, on moonlit nights, when large landmarks were clearly visible on the ground. They flew in formation and, entering the coverage area of ​​our fighters, from time to time, at the command of the flagship, fired all planes in the direction of the most likely fighter attacks. The spectacle was spectacular. Like a giant fiery broom sweeping the starry sky.

Soviet volunteer pilots (from left to right): Pavel Rychagov, Nikolai Smirnov, Alexey Blagoveshchensky

Map of the main routes and war zones in China


The Japanese clearly believed that all methods were good in war, and used their agents to carry out sabotage. Several pilot crews were poisoned by inhaling oxygen from cylinders at high altitude. Some felt unwell, others fell asleep and crashed like the crew of P. Panchenko. As a result of the investigation, it was found that something was added to the composition at a private oxygen filling station. The station was able to take control, and the "oxygen workers" the Chinese chopped off their heads. But there were sabotage at the airfields. The military transport "Douglas" caught fire in the air, taking to the Union of Volunteers, killing 22 people. TB-3 crashed in the mountains with 25 volunteers, and only two of them managed to survive. The ANT-9 passenger plane with stalled engines made an emergency landing in the desert.

Successfully knocked out in battle, the Japanese I-96 fighters with common forces managed to be repaired. G.N. Zakharov and A.S. Blagoveshchensky flew at them, evaluating flight qualities. Blagoveshchensky was later assigned to overtake the captured I-96 in the USSR, but during the flight the engine began to “sneeze”, and the plane nearly crashed. Aleksei Sergeyevich miraculously managed to land the plane in a swamp, and he survived a hard landing, but his face was severely damaged. Georgy Zakharov also failed to overtake his I-96, and during an emergency landing in the mountains, he broke his arm and leg. Everyone was inclined to think that Japanese saboteurs were operating, and a spy radio station was working somewhere in the rear. There were cases when they caught Japanese scouts among the aerodrome personnel. They gave signals to Japanese aviation with pocket lights at night. They were executed by cutting off their heads.

Looking through the lists of Soviet pilots who died in China, I found that almost half of them died not in military operations, but in air crashes. The pilots themselves believe that it was enough to add a little sugar to the fuel so that the engine at a height would smoke and stall. Apparently, this is how the Japanese avenged us for their defeat. In connection with these tragedies, there was a ban on the use of aircraft, and volunteers were sent home by rail, waiting in the tunnel for Japanese air raids, and where on trucks through mountain passes. There were almost a thousand kilometers to our base in Lanzhou, and then they still had a long flight from Lanzhou to Alma-Ata.

Loading bomber TB-3, converted for transportation of passengers

3665 Soviet volunteers came to defend Chinese soil, including about 2500 pilots and technicians. More than 240 Soviet pilots died in China, which is twice as much as our losses in the sky of Spain. The fate of the missing Soviet pilots remained unknown. Mass graves and monuments to our soldiers are found all over China. Some of them later had to be protected by the local population from destruction during the time of their Cultural Revolution. The older generation of Chinese people with great warmth belongs to our heroes, who brought freedom and independence to their people.

Monuments to Soviet volunteer pilots who died in Wuhan, Nanjing, Changchun ...

Hero of China Cooley-Shen

Volunteer Pilot G.A. Kulishenko, who commanded a group of DB-3 bombers, died during his impudent raid on enemy lines. He had to land his damaged car on the water of the Yangtze River, but the wounded he did not manage to escape. The Chinese called his group "air tigers." His name became very popular in China, an article was published about his exploits in the central newspaper "People's Daily". They composed verses and songs about him, wrote about his exploit in school books. At the grave of Grigory Kulishenko, Chinese volunteers took an oath to mercilessly smash the American aggressors, leaving for Korea.

Monument to the commander of the DB-3 bomber group pilot Kulishenko Grigory Akimovich

Touching words in Russian are carved on the monument to Soviet pilots in Wuhan:

The blood of the fallen Soviet volunteer pilots and the Chinese people merged for the liberation of China from imperialist oppression. The memory of Soviet volunteer pilots always lives on the Chinese people.

In the Beijing Chaoyang Park in 2015, the sculpture "Soviet Falcon" was depicted, depicting a young hero pilot wearing gloves

The feat of Soviet pilots forever remained in the memory of the people of China. Subsequently, the "Stalinist falcons", who were destined to fly to their homeland, taught the combat skill of young pilots, forged a victory in the crucible of a terrible war with fascism. Fourteen Soviet pilots defending the sky of China were awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union: F.P. Polynin, V.V. Zverev, A.S. Blagoveshchensky, O.N. Borovikov, A.A. Gubenko, S.S. Gaidarenko, T.T. Khryukin, G.P. Kravchenko, S.V. Slyusarev, S.P. Suprun, M.N. Marchenkov, E.M. Nikolaenko, I.P. Selivanov, I.S. Sukhov. They were already practicing their own tactics of future air battles with the enemy in China. Many of them will lead aviation units during the years of World War II, will become famous military leaders and will be awarded high government awards. Later, they will tell in memoirs about their military path, which began with the Chizha, Swallow and Katyush in the skies of Spain and China.

List of used literature

Yu.V. Miracles. A feat in the sky of China.
F.P. Polynin. Performing international duty.
P.T. Sobin. The air bridge of Alma-Ata - Lanzhou.
A. G. Rytov. In battling China.
M. G. Machin. Chinese routes (From the notebook of a bomber pilot).
D.A. Kudymov. "Kings of heaven" lose their crowns.
A. 3. Dushin. To the aid of the Chinese people.
N. G. Kozlov. In the sky of China.
F.I. Dobysh. Heading east.
J.P. Prokofiev. Protecting the Chinese sky.
A.I. Pushkin. Moscow - Hankow (notes of a bomber pilot).
I.P. Selivanov. Memory of the heart.
S.V. Slyusarev. In air battles over China.
A.K. Korchagin. Transbaikal people in fighting China.
V. D. Zemlyansky. For you, Swin.
K.K. Kokkinaki. Shield and sword.
S. Ya. Fedorov. Unforgettable pages stories.
Photos used:
migavia.com, facebook.com, aftershock.news, menswork.ru, coollib.com
Articles from this series:
Stalin's falcons in the sky of China
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