THE BELL P-39 AEROCOBRA AIRCRAFT IN SOVIET RUSSIA
THE FIRST AIR FIGHTER REGIMENT OF THE SUAF TO START FIGHTING WHILE FLYING THE BELL P-39 AEROCOBRA AIRCRAFT
“… the Bell P-39 Aerocobra performance exhibits an advantage over the latest types of enemy aircraft in speed, maneuverability, and firepower. This information is based on the battlefield performance in the air battle where our pilot would have to take on two or three enemy warplanes and have a victory.”
An excerpt from a book entitled, The Aerocobras Go into Battle by V. Roman. Translated from Russian.
There can hardly be a more controversial warplane in the history of military aviation than the Bell P-39 Aerocobra. The design and performance evaluations of the aircraft would include feedbacks reading “…a particularly disappointing aircraft with a low ‘ceiling’, low rate of climb and relatively poor maneuverability, exposing the pilots to a total disadvantage in combat,” according to the official History of the United States Air Force in World War II,” or “… the Bell P-39 Aerocobra performance exhibits an advantage over the latest types of enemy aircraft in speed, maneuverability, and firepower. This information is based on the battlefield performance in the air battle where our pilot would have to take on two or three enemy warplanes and have a victory,” according to the report on combat operations of the 16th Guards Air Fighter Regiment in April 1943. During World War II, the USA and the USSR used approximately equal numbers of P-39s; the Soviet Union Airforce pilots A. Pokryshkin, D. Glinka, and B. Glinka claimed close to one hundred enemy warplane kills when flying the Bell P-39 Aerocobra aircraft.
The Bell-39 Aerocobra had deadly firepower. During WWII, no aircraft would survive its accurately targeted broadside salvo. On the Eastern Front, the Aerocobra was the most successful American fighter in terms of shot down German warplanes. Thus, Alexander Pokryshkin was credited with 48 aerial victories whereas Gregory Rychkalov claimed 50 kills both when flying their Bell P-39 Aerocobra aircraft. The Soviet front-line pilots would express their appreciation and thanks to the American Bell P-39 Aerocobra aircraft on multiple occasions, nicknamed “My Bella.”
The Aerocobra fighter aircraft was the most popular foreign-made aircraft in service with the Soviet Air Force. From December 1941 to February 1945, 4,953 “Airacobras” were sent to the USSR under the lend-lease or 51.6 % of all the aircraft of that type built, or 35 % of all American aircraft delivered during the war.
The Bell P-39 Aerocobra did their best work on the Eastern Front, where Soviet pilots did battle with the Luftwaffe at medium altitudes from 1,000 to 5,000 meters
The Bell P-39 Airacobra aircraft proved perfectly suited to air combat operations on the Soviet-German front. The struggle was not for gaining total aerial superiority, but for domination in certain areas of active combat operations. Both the Luftwaffe and the Red Army Airforce were primarily using the dive bombers and fighter aircraft, i.e. warplanes tasked to ensure the immediate and direct support of ground troops in action while operating at low altitudes above the battlefield or at medium altitudes in the operational and tactical airspace. Accordingly, fighters had to either engage the enemy or escort friendly bombers at the same altitudes, and aerial battles above 5,000 meters were a rare occurrence. And at those operating altitudes, the Bell P-39 Aerocobra aircraft exhibited the best flying performance features, coming on top of good maneuverability, ease of piloting, weapons power, and excellent visibility; therefore, the Bell P-39 Aerocobra’s success in air battles on the Soviet-German front was logical rather than unexpected.
The 145th Air Fighter Regiment was the first regiment of the Soviet Union Airforce to begin combat operations flying the Bell P-39 Aerocobra I aircraft; effective 4 April 1942, they were reconstituted as the 19th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment. The pilots began their training to acquire proper skills to fly the Lend-lease delivered aircraft within their zone of combat operations, i.e. less 100 km from the front line; they had neither instructions, nor operating manuals translated into the Russian language, nor instructors were assigned to assist them during their training.
The regiment was created on January 17, 1940, in the town of Kairelo, and took part in the Finnish campaign (the Winter War); they shot down 5 enemy aircraft and lost 5 of their aircraft. When the GPW war broke out, the regiment flew the Polikarpov’s I-16 aircraft; then pilots flew the LAGG-3 and MiG-3 fighter aircraft, and then the Hurricanes. In April 1942, the regiment was reconstituted, and that included the assignment of their new number and the Guards Air Fighter Regiment Flag; the pilots were tasked to receive their training so that to acquire flying skills and fly the P-39 Airacobra I and “Kittyhawk” P-40E aircraft. The training was provided at the Afrikanda airfield when the Lend-Lease supplies packed in boxes were delivered by the Kirov railroad line. In May 1942, the regiment personnel assembled 16 Aerocobra and 10 Kittyhawk aircraft using their own skills and resources. Those works were performed under the conditions of the Arctic Zone including exposure to the effects of Polar Night and severe frosts. On April 26, 1942, Captain Kutakhov, Squadron Leader, — in his subsequent professional career he would be awarded the title of two-time Hero of the Soviet Union and promoted to the rank of the Marshall of the Soviet Union Airforce — performed three test circle flights flying the Bell P-39 Aerocobra.
By 15 May 1942, 22 pilots were qualified to fly the new type of fighter aircraft; concurrently the regiment was reorganized into three fighter squadrons according to the 015/174 staffing schedule. All aircraft were in good condition and operationally available on the day the regiment went into action; there were neither incidents nor failures on their record. On 15 May 1942, the regiment relocated to the Shongui Airfield with 16 Aircobras and 10 Kittyhawks aircraft in service. On the same day the first air battle between the “Aerocobras” and German He-113 fighter aircraft took place (most likely it was He-100D, 20 of them were built and 60 aircraft were similar to He-112). The following day the regiment reported its first loss in the battle with 2 He-113 and 6 Me-109; one Aerocobra was shot down and pilot Ivan Gaidaenko crash-landed his aircraft.
As time passed, their combat performance and effectiveness improved. On 15 June 1942, at the area of Murmashi Airfield, six Airacobras intercepted six bombers escorted by 16 Me-110s that were flying to attack their targets in Murmansk. Nine German aircraft were shot down, with no losses on their part. The pilot of the 19th Guards air fighter regiment Lieutenant Krivosheev performed the first air ram flying Aerocobra. On September 9, 1942, he shot down one “Messerschmitt” and rammed the second one which was Me-109 tailing to attack another Soviet aircraft. The Airacobra was destroyed and the pilot died, and he was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.
By the end of the year, the losses incurred by the regiment totaled 14 Aerocobras. During the same period of time, they received 9 aircraft delivered on top of the 16 originally available aircraft. By 1 January 1943, the 19th Regiment had 11 Bell P-39 Aerocobra aircraft operationally available.
From May 1942, Hero of the Soviet Union Captain Bochkov was credited with 7 solos and 32 shared victories; he was killed in action on April 4, 1943, in an air battle, 4 km to the southwest of Murmansk. By August 1942, Lieutenant Gaidayenko, Deputy Squadron Leader, was credited with 29 solos and shared victories. By May 1, 1943, Major Kutakhov, Squadron Leader, Hero of the Soviet Union, was credited with 7 solos and 24 shared victories.
Through 1943, the Regiment continued flying the Bell P-39 Aerocobra I; however, in February, they got their new 17 aircraft; and in October, they got another 25 Bell -36N and Q aircraft, flown via Krasnodar. Therefore, all pilots of the regiment had their new aircraft available for their missions; though a few Aircobra Is were still operational until the beginning of 1944.
By December 31, 1943, the 19th Guards Air Fighter Regiment reported 7,451 combat sorties, the regiment’s credits accounted for 56 Me-109E, 43 Me-109F, 15 Me-109G, 1 He-113, 30 Me-110, 7 U-88, 9 U-87, 1 He-111, 2 Do-215, 5 Henschel 126, 1 Fi-156, and 1 FW-189 shot down.
The regiment’s losses accounted for 46 pilots, including 35 listed as KIA in aerial combat, and 86 aircraft, including 59 a/c shot down in air combat, of which 20 were Aerocobras. The air incident losses totaled 3 aircraft crashes, one of them was Aerocobra. The regiment received new 128 aircraft, including 56 Aerocobras.