Conversations with N. G. Golodnikov
translation by James F.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, your previous interview evoked great interest
and a plethora of additional questions. Of course, while it’s not
possible to answer all of them, you have agreed to respond to a portion
Let us begin with this. Already after the war, the following basic
deficiencies of the training of [Soviet] fighter pilots were being
discussed. 1. Insufficient flight hours in combat aircraft. 2. Pilots
lacked skill in firing at aerial targets. 3. Pilots did not know how to
observe (did not “see the airspace”). 4. While some knew how to conduct
one-on-one aerial combat, no one knew how to conduct group-on-group
aerial combat. 5. Our pilots were completely unprepared to employ radio
communications, even if the capability existed. Nikolay Gerasimovich,
how do these criticisms correspond to the truth?
N.G. Let me respond in order. It’s true that we did not get many flight
hours in combat aircraft, but it cannot be said that what we received
was insufficient. Everything depended on how much time was spent in this
The assertion that we did not know how to engage aerial targets is
false. We had plenty of gunnery practice in flight training. We fired at
sleeves. My class had 15 sorties for firing at aerial targets and 20-25
sorties for firing at ground targets.
True, it must be said that before the war began, in 1941, there were
classes that fired much less—somewhere around five times at aerial
targets (also at sleeves) and five times at ground targets. But this
“accelerated course” consisted of pilots who had relatively good flight
training, primarily former aeroclub instructors. They were not being
taught, rather they were being refreshed, and therefore their period of
training was abbreviated.
It is another issue that firing at a sleeve as a training exercise is a
relatively serious deficiency. It was impossible to determine the range
to the sleeve itself because it was small. We estimated the range by
looking at the towing aircraft. Because we did not develop the habit of
determining range to the target, this led to the practice in actual
combat of commencing fire from too great a range, particularly at
bombers (for some reason it seemed so enormous!). This error plus the
mounting of small-caliber weapons made our gunnery ineffective. When we
learned how correctly to determine the range to the target—“at the
rivets” (when you could distinguish the rivets it was time to commence
firing)—we began to get good hits.
In other respects, firing at sleeves developed good habits of aerial
gunnery because it taught how correctly to compute lead and economically
A.S. I have heard that many pilots, having become accustomed to firing
at sleeves, commenced firing at targets when it became the size of the
standard towing aircraft.
N.G. No, this is not true. You calculate lead that is appropriate for
the sleeve, not the towing aircraft. Therefore no one aimed the sight
ahead of the towing aircraft. What would be the sense of that?
A.S. You did not use gun camera film at flight training school?
N.G. No. We knew that such a thing existed but we did not have the
A.S. I see. What can you say regarding the ability of pilots to observe
N.G. Regarding observation, our primary deficiency was an inability to
look all around. We did not acquire the practice of all-around vision,
that is, we were too slow in detecting the enemy. This gave the enemy
the opportunity to conduct a surprise attack.
The war underscored that one had to be able to look all around, in all
directions. Moreover, maneuver of the flight had to be constructed so
that one could carefully examine the entire airspace, particularly the
rear hemisphere. We had to do a “snake”, a “pair of scissors”. When we
arrived in the regiment, Safonov said to us directly, “Look to the rear
so that you can see the tail skid of your own airplane.”
In addition, it was not enough simply to look, but one had to observe
with a proper technique. First far away and then closer in. We had to
evaluate sighted “points” (objects). If we saw a dot in the sky, we
immediately had to make a determination if it was an aircraft or not.
If, while looking, one saw a complete aircraft, then it meant only one
thing—it had approached undetected and would now open fire. You didn’t
even have time to maneuver.
Correct observation technique required diligent conditioning, constant
analysis, and critique of actions in group, with commensurate training
and their practice, both for the group as a whole and for each
individual member of the group. What’s left?
A.S. Group battles.
N.G. What can I say about group aerial combat? Yes, it’s true that we
did not conduct them during flight training. Only individual. Rarely we
conducted a “flight-on-flight” engagement. Normally even those
engagements were only conducted in the horizontal plane.
Even in units we did not conduct group battles, but worked on developing
good habits of individual combat, with good techniques of individual
piloting. We did this.
A.S. What was the impetus for this, in your view?
N.G. On the one hand, before the war the form of combat known as “group
battle” was greatly underestimated. On the other hand the maneuver of a
tightly formed flight (we flew in threes then) was risky. There could be
mid-air collisions and no one needed that risk.
Group battle was undervalued because the entire combat experience of the
previous wars—Spain, China, and Khalkhin Gol—spoke to the greatest
success being attained by pilots conducting individual combat, not part
of a formation. This was the case with our leading aces as well as the
leading enemy aces—the Italians and Japanese. The Germans, by the way,
did not particularly stand out compared to the Italians in Spain. As the
future made clear, our experience gained in these wars was correctly
leveraged. But it did not receive subsequent development.
A.S. I’m not clear. What are you saying?
N.G. Let me explain. Group aerial combat with precise coordination of
pairs and flights, that is without their breaking up, achieved its
classical realization only in 1941, on the Soviet-German front, in the
battle for Moscow, the Far North, and at Sevastopol. Before 1941 all
mass air battles were conducted in accordance with a single
scheme—massed air raids of bombers escorted by a large group or groups
of fighters. As soon as the air battle was initiated, the fighter
formation broke up and subsequently each fighter conducted individual
battle. We operated in this fashion in Spain, along with the Germans and
Italians. We and the Japanese operated in the same manner, for the most
part, at Khalkhin-Gol, and the British and the Germans in the Battle of
Britain. Only at the end of the Battle of Britain did the Germans begin
to operate more rigidly in flights. But at the same time many German
pilots continued to fight in combat as individuals. It is another issue
that in matters of combat coordination of flights, the Germans surged
strongly forward and by the summer of 1941, having generalized the
experience of previous wars, definitively formulated their tactics on
the basis of relatively rigid coordination of pairs and flights.
Previously pairs and flights had been employed only episodically. It
happens that in isolated issues of tactics someone is always out in
front. Therefore one can’t say that in training our flight crews we did
not take into consideration the peculiarities of group battle. We were
unfortunate in 1941 that we were faced with completely unfamiliar
tactics of the conduct of group aerial combat, which had never been
employed to any significant degree prior to this time.
A.S. Did you conduct many aerial engagements in flight training?
N.G. Air battles were at the very end of training, at the end of the
course. We conducted perhaps 10—15 of them. Only the accelerated
instructor course had more battles, somewhere around 15—20. Cadets
conducted all engagements with instructors in accordance with a
previously developed plan.
A.S. What engagements counted, all of them or just the ones you won?
N.G. Every engagement. What happens happens. You or your enemy, you let
an opportunity pass, someone makes a mistake, and it’s over. If someone
ends up on our tail, it’s too late to turn it around. Both aircraft are
of the same type, identical in speed and maneuver. In order to shake
someone off your tail, you’d have to do something very dangerous. And
this, of course, would benefit no one. It’s better to learn without
A.S. And radio communications?
N.G. Yes. We had no practice in the use of radio because radio-equipped
aircraft for all practical purposes did not exist at our flight schools.
Also in combat units, not all aircraft were radio-equipped, and the
radios already mounted in aircraft left much to be desired in their
effectiveness. The quality of the radios in the I-153 and I-16 fighters
was completely unsatisfactory. We badly undervalued radio communications
before the war.
A.S. How did you introduce the young replacements into combat in the 72d
Air Regiment? What steps did you take for the most rapid elimination of
the training deficiencies mentioned above among these young pilots?
N.G. We introduced them to combat gradually. Our “old” pilots watched
over them. Our young pilots were not sent out on just any mission. We
tried, whenever possible, to select something simpler for their first
mission. If the mission might include flight over enemy-controlled
territory, such as escorting bombers or adjusting artillery, the
composition of the flight of four for the combat mission would be three
veterans and one “newbie”. The veterans closely monitored the actions of
the young pilot.
Before the sortie they told him, “Your mission is to stick with me. Do
not get separated, no matter what maneuver I make, and OBSERVE! You
return from the mission and the first question is “What did you SEE?”
[emphasis in original]. They compared what you saw with what your [pair]
leader saw. Then there was the mandatory discussion of the sortie. They
examined every one of your maneuvers, made observations, corrections,
gave advice, in short, they instructed.
In this manner a new pilot conducted three or four engagements in such a
group while his more experienced comrades looked on and determined if he
could carry a normal combat load or not. If the answer was “yes”, then
he was given full access to combat missions. If the answer was “no”, he
made several additional flights under their watchful eye. Until he
reached proficiency. So an inexperienced pilot was not sent into a
serious battle right away. We did not do that in our regiment.
A.S. Did you conduct training aerial engagements with experienced
N.G. My cohort did not. We had few aircraft and those that we had were
constantly being flown on combat missions or were in repair. We were
extremely short of equipment. In my recollection, when we arrived in the
regiment there were ten serviceable aircraft and eighteen pilots.
What kind of battles were these? There were 25 of them [Germans] and 6
of us! If they got the jump on you—good luck! Aircraft were damaged and
pilots were wounded. We flogged these aircraft and the mechanics spent
all night patching them up and getting them running again. When was
their time for training battles?
As soon as the equipment supply situation improved, this was somewhere
around early 1943, then training battles became obligatory, the new
pilots with the veterans.
A.S. How were you personally introduced to combat? Did the fact that you
had been an instructor pilot have any influence?
N.G. They brought me in just like all the others. I was stronger than
the rest in piloting skills, spent less time in controlling my aircraft
and therefore “saw” the airspace better. They began assigning me normal
combat missions after my third combat sortie.
A.S. What were the strengths of Soviet prewar fighter pilot training, if
there were any?
N.G. The strong side was the fact that we were well grounded in the
techniques of piloting. Despite the fact that we did not get a lot of
flight time, all of it was spent in development of pilot skill. It was
practiced until it became reflex. Before the war, much attention was
paid to precise flight control, so that if you did a spiral, for
example, the instruments did not gyrate.
Before the war it was an axiom that “pilot technique was the foundation
of victory in combat” and there was good reason for this belief. No one
ever looked at their gages but flew the airplane “by the seat of his
pants.” A sixth sense, a gut feeling, when and what to do. We did not
fear that we would stall out into a spin, overpower the stick, and so
on. We took everything from the aircraft that it was capable of. We
pushed it to the limit and sometimes just beyond the limit.
It’s another matter that pure piloting skill, if it does not provide one
the opportunity to fire on the enemy, is useless in combat. But again,
having pilots who possess extraordinary piloting skill, as soon as we
received modern aircraft, we mastered new tactics, tied maneuver to
fire, and we began to win. The Germans lost technical supremacy, we
acquired combat experience, and that meant that the Germans much less
often had the opportunity to launch a surprise attack. This greatly
reduced their ability to conduct maneuver combat. They fell further and
further behind with each year of the war. The majority of German pilots
did not have our level of pilot skill and did not like to “dog fight”.
Maneuver combat was not the Germans’ preferred style of conducting
A.S. When did well-trained cohorts begin to arrive in the combat
N.G. Somewhere in the second half of 1944. We fought the second half of
the war in modern equipment and had acquired good combat experience. The
loss levels in combat regiments were dropping and regiments began to
demand significantly fewer replacements. From this came the possibility
of pilots being sent directly from flight school to reserve air
regiments [ZAP], where their instructors were combat-experienced pilots.
At the ZAPs young pilots practiced only combat flying, and in a quite
serious manner. After the ZAPs these pilots moved on to combat regiments
with good combat habits. The ZAP was one of the most needed and
effective components of the Soviet school of combat training.
A.S. Researchers note the following basic deficiencies of Soviet fighter
tactics in the 1941—42 period. 1. Passivity of fighter elements, which
always attempted to conduct battle from the defense (“defensive
circle”). 2. Inability to employ vertical maneuver. 3. They disregarded
echeloned combat formation by altitude. 4. The basic flight consisted of
three aircraft (not two pairs).
In your view, to what degree were these deficiencies a result of
equipment obsolescence, low qualification of rank and file pilots, and
the upper level command component?
N.G. Let’s look at these one at a time. First, there was no passivity.
Our fighter forces never asked how many enemy they faced and were always
eager to fight.
Second. Deficient observation, which I have already addressed, played a
large role in these shortcomings. We spotted the enemy too late and
therefore were forced to initiate combat on his conditions, by his
initiative. This led to situations where we were forced to begin an
engagement “from the defense,” more simply manifested in the
aforementioned “circle defense”.
Third. Frequently this perceived passivity was a direct consequence of
the inadequacy of our aircraft in speed. If you lack speed, you conduct
A.S. Did the 72d Air Regiment employ the “defensive circle”? If so, when
did you finally abandon it?
N.G. We frequently used the “defensive circle” when we were flying the
I-15bis and I-153. The practice fell off sharply when we transitioned to
the I-16 type-28 because this type of “Ishak” was superior in the
majority of tactical and technical characteristics to the Bf-109E (the
basic German fighter in the Far North at that time). It’s too bad that
this type was so scarce in our VVS then.
Later we transitioned to the Hurricane and the most common German
fighter was the Bf-109F. At that time the “defensive circle” was used
more broadly in combat with enemy fighters because in the Hurricane
combat with this type of Messer was possible only in one manner—to
attempt to engage it in the horizontal plane. We simply were forced to
conduct strictly defensive battle. The Hurricane was unable to engage in
active offensive battle and it lagged behind the Messer in both speed
and vertical maneuver.
We completely abandoned the defensive circle as soon as they re-equipped
us with the P-40. The P-40 was equal to the Bf-109F and therefore we had
no reason to resort to the defensive circle. No reason at all.
Our neighbor 20th IAP also rarely employed the circle and they flew
In addition, I want to make clear to you that the circle was a
legitimate multi-faceted tactical maneuver. The circle had its
application and it cannot be said that it was always bad. Fairly often
it happened that we went out to escort attack aircraft and, engaging
enemy fighters, pulled them into this circle. What a sweet deal! What’s
most important in providing cover? To distract the attacking enemy
fighters and give our own bombers the chance to either drop their
ordnance or get away. And if you manage to suck enemy fighters into the
“carousel”, then consider your mission accomplished. They have nowhere
to go. This was a legitimate tactical method and not a bad one.
A.S. What about vertical maneuver?
N.G. Yes, let’s talk about vertical maneuver. To say that we didn’t know
about it and didn’t study it is not true. It was practiced on a par with
horizontal maneuver at flight schools. It was a normal, legitimate
It is another matter that when the Germans brought out the Bf-109F and
later the FW-190, vertical maneuver was nearly abandoned. The “F” and
the “Fokker” were very strong in vertical maneuver (especially the “F”).
It was practically impossible to conduct battle with them in the
vertical plane. They significantly surpassed the I-16 and particularly
the Hurricane. Why would we employ a maneuver in combat in which our
fighter was markedly weaker? Yes, and the speed of the “F” and the
Fokker exceeded that of our aircraft. We tried to pull the Germans into
horizontal combat. Again, as soon as we had aircraft that were
competitive with the enemy, we began to fight magnificently with the
Germans in the vertical.
A.S. What can you tell us about the echelonment of combat formations [by
N.G. We were aware of the necessity to echelon combat formations even
before the war. One need only look at Soviet prewar tactics manuals to
know this. I can’t speak for 1941, but when I reached the front in 1942
echelonment was not being utilized for one reason—a shortage of
aircraft. We needed echelonment but had nothing with which to achieve
it. Just the same, if we flew in a flight of six, we were echeloned.
Four flew together and a pair flew above or conversely flew below the
A.S. Why did we fly in “threes” for so long? Some fighter regiments were
still flying in “threes” into 1943.
N.G. All IAP in the Northern Fleet were flying in pairs in 1942.
A.S. How long from the beginning of the war did you fly in “threes” in
your regiment, and when did you finally abandon the practice?
N.G. Our regiment began to fly in pairs somewhere around the second
month of the war. As soon as we understood why the Germans flew in
pairs, we evaluated the benefits of this formation and then began to fly
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, it is well known that the pair was not
mandated by any kind of regulations. Tell us, did the higher command
visit any recriminations upon B. F. Safonov for the fact that his pilots
were not flying “according to regulation”?
N.G. No. What regulation? A regulation in war can only carry so far. The
combat regulation prescribes only the general characteristic of a
formation. As for its specifics, that is the right of the commander to
decide, which, by the way, is also expressed within the regulation.
The regulation OBLIGATES the commander to show thought and initiative.
Safonov was just such a commander. Safonov decided that the regiment
would fly in pairs. He had the full right to make this decision and he
made it. Did the regiment fight well? It fought well. And when a
regiment is fighting successfully, then who will condemn the commander
for the display of initiative? He was within his rights.
What did we have before the war? Threes, sixes, and nines. A squadron of
three threes. During the war, as we began to fly in pairs, a squadron
became twelve. A pair, four-ship flight, six-ship, and so on.
A pair was a pilot and a senior pilot. As a rule a flight was a
four-ship formation—the flight commander and senior pilot were leaders
and two pilots were wingmen. If six aircraft flew, then a pair was added
to a four-ship formation.
A.S. So as I understand you, the higher command acquiesced to the
transition to pairs.
A.S. I heard that light machine gun armaments (conventional caliber [.30
caliber]) “forced” the employment of the three-ship formation (two
attacking aircraft and the third for cover), especially for attacking
N.G. No. I’ve never heard that. Even when we began to fly the Hurricane,
which was armed only with conventional caliber machine guns, we did not
revert to “threes”.
A.S. What were the strengths of Soviet prewar tactics, if there were
N.G. First of all, it must be said that all the tactical methods that we
developed before the war for combat training were analogous to German
tactics. There were no substantial differences.
The strength of our tactical construct was that our pilot knew how to
conduct maneuver battle. That is, he was taught quickly to evaluate the
situation and not to fear a numerically superior enemy. It was very
difficult to get the better of our pilot in maneuver battle. The Germans
understood that immediately. Therefore they preferred not to enter into
a maneuver battle if they did not have numerical superiority.
The strength of German tactics was precise coordination of pairs in a
flight and, particularly, between flights. Just as the war was
beginning, we began hurriedly to study the German success in
coordination and at the same time to incorporate everything that we had
conceived and yes, observed in others before the war.
A.S. What specifically did we learn from others? I thought that in
regards to tactics, we got everything only from the Germans.
N.G. No. For example, echelonment was a French innovation. They
developed this concept in the early 1930s and we observed it during
maneuvers (as did the Germans). The French were strong in tactics before
the war. Had the French Army held on longer in 1940, perhaps French
pilots could have demonstrated their skills. I don’t know about their
flying mastery and airplanes, but French fighter tactics were the most
advanced. I discovered this fact after the war when I was an Academy
student [Academy – advanced, graduate level, military institution of
higher education, I.G.].
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, you have said that in battle the Hurricane
against the Messer had to engage the enemy in the horizontal plane. How
was this accomplished? You yourself have said that the Hurricane was not
capable of “active combat” against the Messer.
N.G. That is completely true. If the Germans did not want to accept
combat, then there was nothing we could do and they flew away. But if
the enemy himself actively attempted to conduct battle, then it was
possible to take advantage of the desire of the German pilot to shoot
you down. The Germans were eager for kills.
Let’s say that we were formed up in our “carousel”, and the Germans were
above us in pairs. They were unable to break up our circle and waited
until one of us left it. You justified their expectation and provoked
the German to attack. You gave the appearance that you were breaking
off, as if to say “I’m not too bright and I’m flying out of the
‘circle’!” This stray was too tasty a morsel for the German. He came
after you immediately. Because the Hurricane was very good in horizontal
maneuver, you took advantage of this and immediately turned back into
the “circle” at maximum turn rate. The German could not poke his nose
into the circle (if he did, it was all over for him) and rushed past or
turned away, exposing his flank. In a Hurricane it was simply impossible
to contest with a Messer in any other way. All combat was conducted in
this manner. The primary factor was to calculate everything correctly
and jump back into the “circle” neither too soon nor too late. Then your
counterattack would have a chance of success.
A.S. I understand. But what did you do if you made a mistake and didn’t
make it back to the “circle”?
N.G. They shot you down. The Germans were serious fighter pilots and did
not forgive such mistakes.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, in a previous interview you pleasantly
surprised everyone with your evaluation of the P-40 fighter. “The
Tomahawk was equal to the Bf-109F and the Kittyhawk was slightly
better.” And more: “When the later types Bf-109G and FW-190 appeared,
the P-40 Kittyhawk became somewhat dated, but not by much. An
experienced pilot could fight an equal fight with it.”
N.G. Yes, I said those things.
A.S. I’m quoting to you. M. Spik, a very authoritative military aviation
historian, says: “Aviation units stationed on Malta and in the North
African desert had to be satisfied with second-class aircraft. At first
these were Gloster Gladiator bi-planes and worn out, shot up Hurricane
Is. Later they received the Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk and Kittyhawk
fighters, in June 1941 and April 1942, respectively. Acknowledged as
unsuitable for the European theater, they were sent to the desert, where
they were fully capable of contesting with the majority of Italian
aircraft, though they did not stand comparison [emphasis mine, A.S.]
with the German Bf-109E and F. The same can be said regarding the
Hurricane IIC fighter, despite its more powerful Merlin engine and
exceptionally heavy armament consisting of four Hispano 20mm cannons. It
also lagged behind the German fighters in flight characteristics. Only
in March 1942 did the first Spitfire Vs begin to arrive at the front,
first to Malta and later to squadrons stationed in the desert. But by
this time the Luftwaffe units were transitioning to more modern
aircraft—the Messerschmitt Bf-109G.” (M. Spik, Asy Luftvaffe (Smolensk:
Regarding the Hurricane, you have already explained everything very
well, and your evaluation coincides with that of Spik. But the P-40?
According to Spik, the P-40 was a “second-class airplane”. Can you
explain why your evaluation of this fighter is so different?
N.G. Even during the war I recognized the fact that the Allies
considered it inadvisable and almost impossible to conduct aerial combat
in the P-40. We considered the P-40 to be a full-fledged fighter plane.
When we began to use the P-40, we immediately discovered two
deficiencies that reduced its value as a fighter. 1. The P-40 was a
“slug” in acceleration, rather slow to acquire speed. This weak dynamic
resulted in a low combat speed. It had trouble maintaining the speed
required for combat. Speed is essential for a fighter. 2. It was weak in
the vertical, especially the Tomahawk.
We compensated for poor acceleration by holding the engine at higher
revolutions and cruising at a higher speed. We corrected the second
deficiency by removing a pair of machine guns. That was all. The fighter
came up to par.
Now everything depended on you, the pilot. Keep your head! And work the
It is true that because of our unforeseen operating regime the engines
had a limit of about 50 hours, and often less. Normally an engine might
last 35 hours and then it was replaced.
A.S. And because of your intensive stick movement the Tomahawk still did
the “Abracadabra” [Soviet flying jargon for “tumbling”, A.S.]? By the
way, I have not seen mention in a single foreign article of the tendency
of the Tomahawk toward tumbling. The Allies found many deficiencies in
the Tomahawk, but don’t refer to tumbling a single time. Why is this?
N.G. I don’t know, but the Tomahawk did have that deficiency.
A.S. Just the same, the evaluations of the P-40 series seriously
diverge. Is all of this because of the differences in Soviet and Allied
N.G. Not at all. Tactics has nothing to do with it. The primary
difference in evaluating the combat capabilities of the P-40 arises from
the fact that we and the Allies exploited the aircraft in a completely
different manner. They were required to use the aircraft in accordance
with written instructions [technical manuals – I.G.]. Any violation of
those guidelines was a “no-no”.
In our case, as I have already mentioned, the primary rule was to get
everything out of an aircraft that it was capable of and a bit more. How
much is “everything” the documentation for an aircraft does not say.
Often even the designer of an aircraft himself did not have even a clue.
It would only be revealed in combat.
By the way, everything I have said also applies to the Airacobra. If we
had flown it in those regimes that the Americans outlined in the
aircraft specifications, they would have shot us down immediately. This
fighter was a “dud” in its “native” [by-design] regimes. But we
conducted normal combat in “our” regimes, be it with the Messer or with
the Fokker. But in some cases we flew 3—4 such aerial battles and it was
done. “Replace the engine.”
A.S. There is still an outstanding question regarding the machine guns
on the P-40. What about the armaments? There was some kind of
hodge-podge. I can’t find any definitive detail in any handbook. [This
is with respect to the answers of N.G. in the first series of the
interview – I.G.].
N.G. The Tomahawk and Kittyhawk had different armaments. The Tomahawk
had four machine guns—two synchronized heavy machine guns in the nose
and a pair in each wing. I have already forgotten the caliber of the
wing-mounted machine guns, because we immediately removed them. Perhaps
they were standard [they were .30 caliber—JG].
The Kittyhawk did not have [nose-mounted] synchronized machine guns. It
had only six (three in each) wing-mounted heavy machine guns. We removed
two of these machine guns immediately, leaving four.
A.S. From our previous conversation, did I understand correctly that the
lack of cannon armament on the P-40 was not regarded as a “tragedy”? The
more so in that two machine guns were sufficient? Did this opinion
originate with a pilot who commenced firing at point blank, or were
there other opinions in the regiment?
N.G. The absence of cannons was not a “tragedy”. When we had Tomahawks
with two machine guns, of course, we would have liked more machine guns.
When the Kittyhawk arrived with four machine guns, that was sufficient.
But the “signature” of course remained—firing from close range, point
A.S. It’s all clear. Nikolay Gerasimovich, can you provide for us an
example of an aerial engagement in the P-40? Something distinctive, that
could not have been done in a Hurricane.
N.G. Yes, I can. This combat occurred approximately at the time when we
had been completely re-equipped with the P-40. No more Hurricanes
remained in the regiment.
Four of us in Tomahawks engaged six Bf-109Fs. We shot down three without
losing one of our own. We did this employing correct tactics and the
aircraft did not fail us. Here is how it went. We were flying at an
altitude of 3—4,000 meters [approximately 10—13,000 feet]. The Germans
in the Bf-109Fs were 500 meters [1,500 feet] lower. We attacked them
with surprise, out of the sun, at a good speed. They never saw us. We
shot down two in the first pass, leaving four. They reacted
appropriately, dispersed in pairs and attempted to engage us in battle
in the vertical plane, counting on the superiority of the Messer in this
We also split up and entered the battle “pair versus pair”. This was our
kind of fight! We shot down the third right away, since we were clearly
stronger in maneuver combat. The P-40 was superior to the Messer in
horizontal combat and did not lag behind in the vertical (we had a good
reserve of speed). Their will to fight quickly left them. They split up,
went to full power, and broke away in a steep dive.
In Hurricanes we would simply not have been able to engage the enemy in
such an active, offensive combat.
A.S. What strong suits of the P-40 were used in your regiment?
N.G. Primarily speed.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, did you have any kills in the P-40?
N.G. Yes, one, in a Tomahawk. Bf-109F. I was a wingman. The German
attacked my leader and did not see me or simply did not take me into
account. Most likely he did not see me.
I had spotted him at considerable distance. I could see that he was
making a run at my leader. I already had considerable experience and was
quite familiar with the capabilities and tendencies of German pilots.
Had I less experience, I would have commenced blocking fire and simply
driven the German away. But I resolved to shoot him down. I calculated
approximately from where he would open fire and constructed my own
maneuver so that I would catch him. Of course, this was a serious risk.
You make a mistake and lose your flight leader, that was an unthinkable
disgrace. In this case I had to maneuver in such a manner as not to lose
my flight leader and at any moment be able to commence blocking fire. In
the end, when the German reached the position of commencing fire, and
this was 100 meters behind my leader, I was 25 meters behind the German.
I fired first, beating him to the punch. Two large-caliber machine guns
at point-blank range. It has taken much longer to tell this story than
the incident itself lasted.
I was seriously shot up in a P-40 one time but limped back to my
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, give us your estimation of German fighter
pilots. Of their combat qualities: pilot skill, coordination in battle,
tactics, what were the Germans’ strongest attributes at the beginning,
in the middle, and at the end of the war?
N.G. At the beginning of the war the German pilots were very strong in
all the qualities you have listed. They were excellent pilots,
outstanding in gunnery. They practically always operated in a tactically
rational manner and cooperated well between and among themselves in
battle. Their coordination was phenomenal. You could not get in behind
him because another pair would intervene and drive you away.
At the beginning of the war the German pilots were trained (I am not
afraid to use this word) almost ideally. They were well organized and
took good advantage of their numerical superiority. If it was really
required, they could be engaged in a dog fight. Their mastery gave them
this option. Though, of course, they lagged behind our leading aces,
like Boris Safonov, in this form of combat even in 1941.
Again, they had constant numerical superiority and believe me, they used
it to their advantage. Moreover, flight characteristics of German
aircraft in most cases were superior to ours and German pilots utilized
this tactical and technical superiority very intelligently.
The Germans excelled in this high class of pilots in 1941—42. By 1943,
we had heavily attrited these German pilots of prewar training. They
began sending pilots to the front whose training quality was markedly
lower. This shortage of well-trained flight crews led to a condition
which by the middle of 1943 caused the Luftwaffe to form special
designated groups of the most experienced ace pilots. These groups were
rushed to various fronts, to the most critical sectors. The remaining
units were manned with ordinary pilots, not badly trained but not highly
trained. Just average. The “entrenched middle class.”
In 1943 the majority of German pilots lagged behind us in maneuver
combat. Their gunnery skills had weakened; they began to lose to us in
tactical training, although their aces were very “tough nuts”.
German pilots slipped further in 1944, when the average German pilot was
a product of accelerated training. Their piloting skills were poor,
gunnery was weak, they were unable to coordinate their actions in
battle, and they did not know tactics. It can be said that these pilots
did not know how to “look behind”. They frequently neglected their
responsibilities to cover troops and installations. These pilots rarely
executed the classic maneuvers of air combat and then only if they had
managed to create serious (2—3 times) numerical superiority. They were
very passive and tentative during equal strength battles; if we would
shot down one or two then the rest would flee.
In the North we fought our last protracted heavy air battles with the
Group of Schmidt in the first half of 1943. He was a famous German ace
who, according to intelligence data, had pilots in his group each of
whom had not less than forty victories.
We fought bitterly with them for two weeks and inflicted capital losses
on them, but suffered serious losses ourselves. As far as I know,
Schmidt himself was shot down twice during these battles. We shot Muller
down at this time, when he was in Schmidt’s group. Then they pulled this
group out for reforming and reconstitution, after which they transferred
it to more critical sectors. It never returned to the Far North.
After this there remained almost no “serious” German pilots, only
average, on our front. And the Germans were falling behind us as well.
On the whole, they attempted to fly at the level of “hit and run” or
“drop [bomb] and flee”. We ruled the skies from the middle of 1943 to
the end of the war. We began more often to fly on free hunt,
periodically caught them and gave them a good thrashing, and showed them
who was master of the airspace.
A.S. These “quick-trained” pilots, in their level of training were they
better or worse than you after pilot training?
N.G. Worse. At least we were taught how to fly! These men were
“yearlings”. We cut them to ribbons! These Germans basically did not
know how to do anything. I suspect even their takeoffs and landings were
poor. We shot down many of them.
A.S. It is well known that the Germans frequently built a group of
fighters as an ace and his “support and cover team”. How often did the
Germans employ this method and what, in your view, were the shortcomings
of this method of conduct of battle?
N.G. In the first half of the war, the Germans very broadly employed the
tactic “one or two fight and six provide cover”. This also occurred at
the end of the war, but significantly less often. Of the most well known
who worked with a “cover group”, in the Far North we had Müller.
[Rudolph Müller, JG 5, 94 victories, shot down and captured on 19 April
Later, when the Luftwaffe began to experience a serious shortage of
fighter aircraft, they were forced to abandon this method. They had
already expended a large quantity of serviceable aircraft. It seems that
the pilots who were tied down in covering the ace were unable to do
When they attacked our bombers, we, naturally, were providing cover.
When we became more experienced, we did not bother with the cover group
but immediately organized an attack on the ace. The rest of them, all of
his “team”, abandoned the bombers and threw themselves on us, which was
precisely what we wanted. Our primary mission was to protect the bombers
and, it turned out, that the Germans by their own tactics helped us to
accomplish our mission. Of course, one could amass an astronomical
personal score by this method, with the assistance of a team. But from
the point of view of strategy, this method was a failure.
In general this method can be employed, but only if you have serious
numerical superiority, along with a “free hunt”. Near the end of the
war, we began to fly “free hunt” more frequently. We had numerical
superiority, which permitted us to do this. We went out in fours, as a
rule, but at tree-top level. We already knew where their lines of
communication were and where transport aircraft flew. We went out,
struck at them, and immediately departed the area. We did not fly on
“free hunt” when we were few in number.
A.S. Tell us, Nikolay Gerasimovich, what were the weak aspects of German
fighter pilots in 1942?
N.G. They had none of the weaknesses that hit you in the face. They were
very calculating and did not like to take risks. They liked to get
kills. They really made money on this.
A.S. This was a shortcoming?
N.G. Often, yes. We also got paid for our kills, but for us this bounty
was the least of our concerns. It was not that way for the Germans. If
they shot someone down, they received money. If they did not discard
their drop tanks, they also got paid.
A.S. Was it common for them not to discard their drop tanks?
N.G. Yes, frequently. Several times we were attacked by German fighters
still holding their drop tanks and we couldn’t understand why the pilot
did not drop his tank before an attack. Then POWs explained that they
paid something for a drop tank brought back—its full value or a fraction
of their full value. This is how they conducted aerial combat: to make
sure to shoot someone down and remain untouched themselves.
A.S. What’s so bad about that?
N.G. Often, in order to be victorious, one has to risk it all and tilt
the battle in one’s own favor. But the Germans did not like to take
risks. If they felt that the battle was equal or was just beginning to
develop not in their favor, they preferred to withdraw from combat more
A.S. Well, that’s correct. The next time they might win it all.
N.G. It depends! There are times when situation does not repeat itself.
There are such battles when one must fight to the death—there will be no
A.S. Can you give us an example?
N.G. The defense of a facility or convoy against the attack of bombers,
or escorting one’s own bombers. Here you die, you provide the escort,
without any “next time”.
And just the same German fighter pilots had a single, overarching
deficiency. A serious shortcoming, in my opinion.
The Germans could be engaged in battle when it was entirely unnecessary.
For example, during the escorting of their own bombers. The whole war we
took advantage of this. One group tied down the escort fighters in
combat, attracting the fighters to themselves, while the other group
attacked the German bombers.
The Germans jumped at a chance for a kill. They abandoned the bombers
immediately and ignored the fact that our other group would shoot down
the bombers, so long as we had the strength.
A.S. I didn’t think the German escorts would be so careless.
N.G. Well, how else could we, flying Hurricanes, shoot down the German
bombers? Had they covered their bombers like we protected ours, we never
would have gotten to them.
Overall, I got the impression that bombers were not a priority in the
Luftwaffe. Their priority was fighters and then reconnaissance. One had
unbelievable freedom of action and the other had the very best cover.
But bombers, this was a “flat iron”. Hey, they have gunners—they fend
off attackers or they don’t—whatever happens, it’s on them.
Formally, the Germans escorted their attack formations very heavily, but
just get involved in battle and poof—the cover evaporated. It was
relatively easy to distract them and it remained so for the entire war.
At the beginning of the war, in one of these distraction engagements,
the Germans were lured away unbelievably easily, because our fighters
were always in the minority and in technical and tactical
characteristics were less capable.
The likelihood that the German pilots would shoot someone down was high.
They were glad to become engaged in any battle, just give them a reason.
It was clear that they were paid very good money for each victory. This
cavalierness surprises me to this day.
A.S. How did our pilots operate when escorting bombers?
N.G. We had a group of immediate or direct escort of attack aircraft,
bombers, or shturmoviks. The mission was always postulated in a strictly
determined manner. We were not to be shooting down, but fending off. Our
basic mission was protection. We had a rule that it was “better to shoot
down no one and not lose a single bomber than to shoot down three and
lose one bomber.” We had some serious explaining to do if we were
providing fighter escort for bombers or shturmoviks and would loose any
If even a single bomber was shot down, a complete investigation was
begun. How, where, and why was it lost? Who permitted it to happen? And
so on. Judging by what I saw, the Germans did not have a similar
procedure. It was obvious that they had a whole different approach to
these cases, because for the entire war they abandoned their bombers if
a chance for a kill appeared.
A.S. Tell us, was there an order stating that if a fighter escort
mission for bombers was not satisfactorily executed, the combat sortie
was not counted?
N.G. No, there was no such order. There was an order by which fighter
escort was severely punished if they lost bombers. This happened. All
the way up to military tribunal [courts martial]. We didn’t have any
cases like this in the regiment, where we abandoned bombers. But there
were occasions when bombers took themselves out of formation.
The Germans were also not fools. One group would tie us down in battle
and the other would lie in wait. Our bombers departed the drop zone at
maximum speed and we flew back and forth fending off German attackers
from one side and then the other. If we were not careful, we could not
catch up with our bombers. Well, as soon as the bombers had completely
separated from the escort fighter group, they became easy pickings for
enemy fighters. In this case we called them on the radio to reduce the
speed of their entire group so that our fighters could take up
With time we developed very good coordination with the bombers and these
cases of separation became a rarity. We practiced coordination with
bomber pilots—they began to maintain the required speed, and with
gunners—who should defend what hemisphere. Normally we defended the
upper hemisphere and the gunners the lower hemisphere. If the Germans
attempted to attack from above, we chased them off. If they came in from
below, the gunners “hosed” them. If that drove the enemy fighters back
up, we engaged them again. It worked out well.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, you have implied that by the end of the war
the German pilots openly disregarded their duties for covering troops
and facilities. How was this manifested?
N.G. An example. We were escorting shturmoviks. German fighters showed
up and circled around but did not attack. They were too few in number.
Our Il-2s were working over the front line area—the Germans still did
not attack. They concentrated and brought in fighters from other
sectors. The Il-2s departed from the target area just as the Germans
launched their attack. By this time the Germans had concentrated and had
gained numerical superiority of 3:1. What was the sense in this attack?
The Il-2s had already done their work. Only for personal score. This
N.G. Yes, and there were even more interesting cases.
A.S. More interesting?
N.G. The Germans had a habit of circling around us but not attacking.
They were not fools; their intelligence was working. Red-nosed
Airacobras belonged to the 2d GIAP VVS KSF [Guards Fighter Air Regiment,
Air Forces of Red-Banner Northern Fleet]. They were not about to lose
their heads by tangling with the elite Guards. They might get shot down.
It was better to wait around for easier prey. Very calculating.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, in you view, what explains the tendency of
German pilots toward enlargement of their personal score?
N.G. To us it was crazy. You know, when we shot down Müller, they
brought him in to us. I remember him well. Average height, athletic
build, red-haired. We were surprised that he was only an oberfeldvebel
[master sergeant]. This was an ace with more than 90 victories! I still
remember how surprising it was to learn that his father was a simple
Well, this Müller, when we asked him about Hitler, declared that
politics did not motivate him; he did not have any hatred toward
Russians. He was a “sportsman”; results were important to him and he
wanted to shoot down more. His “cover group” engaged in combat and he,
the “sportsman”, struck or did not strike as he pleased.
I got the impression that many German fighter pilots were just such
“sportsmen”. It was all about money and glory.
A.S. Well, let’s agree that for the German fighter
pilots—“sportsmen”—the war was a form of sport. What was the war for our
pilots, for you personally?
N.G. It was the same for me as for all the rest. Work. Back-breaking,
bloody, dirty, fearsome, and never-ending work. To withstand which was
possible only because we were defending the Motherland. It was nothing
close to a sport.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, it is a well-known fact that in the
Luftwaffe, especially in the second half of the war, very often German
fighter pilots had the right of independent selection of the place and
time of combat. A kind of freedom of action that Allied fighter pilots
could not even dream of. In your view, was this a strength of the German
fighter command or, conversely, a weakness?
N.G. This was a “loophole”—an attempt to interest the fighter pilots to
operate more actively. By all accounts, this measure did not bring any
Bear in mind that a pilot does not want to fly into those situations
where the fate of the war will be decided. They order him to go there
because he would not go there on his own. By human nature everyone wants
to be a survivor. And “freedom” gives the fighter pilot the “legal”
possibility to avoid these places. A “loophole” is transformed into a
“Free hunt” was the most preferred method of conduct of the war for a
pilot and the least preferred for his army. Why? Because the interests
of the rank-and-file pilot almost always basically diverged from the
interests both of his own command and of the commander of the forces
that his aviation unit supported.
To give complete freedom of actions to all the fighter pilots would be
the same as giving complete freedom to all the infantry soldiers on the
battlefield. Go where you want, dig in where you want, and shoot when
you want. This is absurd. An infantryman cannot know where and when he
is most needed because he cannot possibly see the battlefield as a
The same is true of the fighter pilot—the foot soldier of the air war.
He could rarely determine correctly both the place and time that he was
most needed. A simple rule applied here—the fewer fighter planes (and
airplanes in general) one had, the more centralized had to be their
command and control. Not the reverse. Fewer in number but employed only
in those places were needed and only at the time required, not
distracted to the accomplishment of secondary tasks.
It must be said that in the Luftwaffe “free hunt” was used very often in
the first half of the war when they had numerical superiority, and less
in the second half of the war. One cannot disregard the “free hunt” as a
legitimate tactic. In some sectors German “hunters” inflicted
significant losses on us, particularly in transport aircraft.
It should also be stated that after the aerial battles on the “Blue
Line” [Kuban, summer 1943—JG], the Luftwarffe gradually lost overall air
superiority. Toward the end of the war, when air superiority had been
completely lost, “free hunt” remained the only method of conduct of
battle by German fighter aviation by which they obtained any kind of
positive result. In places away from the principal contested areas, they
would occasionally “catch” someone. By this time it had become a matter
of inflicting a loss—any loss—on the enemy. These “hunts” could not
possibly have any effect on the outcome of the war.
A.S. Yes, but the scores of the aces were in the hundreds. Wasn’t there
a direct relationship: “the more you shot down, the greater losses you
inflicted on the enemy, and the more it contributed toward victory”?
N.G. No, that direct relationship did not exist. Everything was caught
up in the priority of missions. The Germans had this problem throughout
the war and never did resolve it properly.
Here is an example for you. During the escort of their own bombers
German fighter pilots were constantly distracted and got tangled up in
secondary aerial engagements. It turns out that the Luftwaffe command,
when it prioritized missions to its pilots, gave protection of their own
bombers and destruction of enemy aircraft the same priority. Under these
circumstances, the German fighter pilots chose to get kills. How this
all came out in the end—you know.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, how would you evaluate the operational
control of Luftwaffe units?
N.G. Very high. They showed the utmost skill, especially in the first
half of the war. Later this control diminished somewhat.
The Germans maneuvered their aviation assets well, both their attack
groups and their fighter groups. They concentrated a large quantity of
aviation on axes of main attacks and at the same time conducted
“distraction” operations on secondary axes. The Germans attempted to
overcome us strategically, to overwhelm us with mass in the shortest
possible time period, to smash our resistance. We must give them their
due, they transferred units from front to front very skillfully. They
had almost no aviation units that were “tied” to army formations. On a
sector where at a given moment they were in the minority, they conducted
demonstration flights and with great talent gave the impression of
activeness and high numbers. They showed that they were strong and
capable of launching powerful attacks.
A.S. All in all, how did we defeat the Germans in aerial combat—in
numbers or in skill?
N.G. We used both numbers and skill.
A.S. I was referring to the arguments that one frequently hears now,
that if the quality of our aviation had been better, we could have
accomplished what was required with fewer numbers.
N.G. Those who hold this position have a poor understanding of the
subject. Numerical superiority with parity in equipment quality and
flight crew training is a great thing. It will bring victory.
At the beginning of they war the Germans were beating us, and why?
Tactics, radio communications, and so on. But what was the main reason?
The Germans were able to create tactical and strategic numerical
In their initial attacks the Germans destroyed an enormous number of
aircraft. The Germans bombed our equipment directly on the airfield and
shot us down in aerial combat. What we were unable to evacuate we
destroyed ourselves to prevent it falling into enemy hands. This all
happened. But there was still another cause that few mention.
A.S. Insufficient training of Soviet pilots?
N.G. No, that’s not it. Our pilots were not bad. In fact, we had good
pilots and we had outstanding pilots. The main reason was that the
Germans captured enormous number of facilities to produce and,
particularly important, to repair aircraft. Plus gigantic reserves of
spare parts were seized by the Germans. This is why we did not have
enough aircraft in the first half of the war.
The production of new aircraft had fallen sharply and it was impossible
to rehabilitate and restore old types in the required quantities. No
aircraft! We had to get aircraft from every possible source!
The Germans achieved numerical superiority and did not allow us to catch
up. Continuous combat with no time to catch our breath! Losses, of
course, occurred on both sides. But the Germans replaced their losses
much faster that we could. And they kept us in this condition, “unable
to catch our breath”. It goes without saying, that from their side, this
was military mastery of the highest class.
We, rank-and-file pilots, knew what it felt like. Strategic numerical
superiority of the enemy, for us—simple pilots—manifested itself in the
fact that we fought EVERY aerial engagement in the minority. And even if
you were a good pilot, you should try six against twelve! You turned
away from one of them and came under the fire of another. These twelve
enemy pilots were not lesser pilots than you; they also were not
“pushovers”. They were masters, the best of the best. But no matter what
kind of masters the Germans were, we overcame!
We acquired combat experience and came up to par in numbers. As soon as
we gained numerical superiority over them, everything started to go our
way. Understand that all these German tricks with the rushing of
aviation units from one front to another were reduced to a minimum. They
no longer had the ability to fully concentrate their strength. All this
developed while the enemy was falling behind in numbers, or while he
still maintained numerical superiority, the quality of his equipment and
flight crews fell sharply, on the order of one-half.
When against our thousand aircraft the enemy put up two thousand, and
still another thousand in places where we had only two hundred, and he
attacked in both places simultaneously, and both his pilots and his
aircraft were at least as good as ours, it was impossible to defeat him.
We could put up stiff resistance and inflict great losses on him, there
was much we could do, but defeat him we could not.
Look what happened in the second half of the war. Our equipment was as
good as the Germans’, the quality of training and combat mastery of our
flight crews was equal, and later even exceeded theirs, and add to that
the numerical superiority that we attained. As soon as this happened,
our victory became inevitable.
You have to understand that the Germans simply could not produce combat
aircraft in the numbers required to complete the war nor could they
train the necessary number of pilots. They could not and we could. This
is the whole argument in a nutshell.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, is it true that even in 1942 there were
serious problems with equipment repair? The war had been going for a
N.G. Very serious. The lack of spare parts was disastrous. We were
constantly short of repair parts for the M-63 engines for the type-28
I-16. Because of this, in fact, we never had more than ten aircraft of
this type flying simultaneously in the regiment. The remaining six to
eight aircraft sat for weeks waiting for repair. They delivered spares
to us using the Li-2 transport aircraft and only by this means were we
more or less able to remain operational.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, how would you evaluate the German fighters
Bf-109E, Bf-109F, Bf-109G, and FW-190?
N.G. The Germans had good fighters. Power, fast, maneuverable, and able
to withstand damage.
Regarding the Bf-109E I can say that in its tactical and technical
characteristics, he corresponded to the type-28 and type-29 I-16,
surpassed all earlier types of the I-16 and Hurricane, and was inferior
to the Yak-1, P-40, and P-39. According to the pilots of the 20th IAP,
the Yak-1 was superior to the E in all parameters. This fighter was
beginning to show its age by 1942, although in the North they employed
it almost to the beginning of 1943. Later they withdrew all of them in a
matter of a week or two. Apparently they had begun to suffer very
serious losses. Later we encountered only the Bf-109F, Bf-109G, and
The Bf-109F was superior to the E across the board; it was more modern.
It was an unbelievably dynamic aircraft, with good speed and vertical
maneuverability. In the horizontal it was not as good. Its armaments
were normal—a 20mm cannon and two machine guns. Overall, of course, it
was superior to all types of the I-16 and the Hurricane. It was equal to
the Yak-1 and P-40, and slightly inferior to the P-39.
The Bf-109G was a powerful aircraft, fast and very good in vertical
maneuver. It was not bad in horizontal maneuver but it appeared late,
only in 1943, when all of our regiments had already been reequipped with
modern aircraft. Overall in its tactical and technical characteristics
it was on a par with the Yak-1B (7B, 9), La-5, and P-39 Airacobra, and a
bit better than the P-40.
The Fokker [FW-190] also was a powerful and fast aircraft, but as a
fighter it was inferior to the Bf-109G. It did not accelerate as quickly
(large frontal area) and was not as capable in the vertical plane. The
Fokker was extremely powerful and therefore was often employed as an
attack aircraft. It carried external stores [bombs].
It must be said that the Bf-109G and FW-190 carried very powerful
armaments, with five and six firing points respectively, for the most
part cannons. This was a very strong aspect of German aircraft.
A.S. From the literature we know the strong suits of the Bf-109G: 1.
Powerful engine that was altitude-capable. 2. Powerful cannon armament.
3. Good dive characteristics. 4. Simple in control. 5. High speed and
Its weaknesses: 1. Poor vision from cockpit. 2. Narrow chassis, which
created serious difficulties during landing, especially with a
Does this cover it?
N.G. Regarding high altitude performance I can’t say anything. I flew
the Airacobra up to 8,000 meters [26,000 feet] and didn’t have any
particular problem with the Messer. Neither we nor the Germans flew any
higher than that. I heard that the Yak had problems at altitude but we
rarely fought high altitude battles. The Messer engine had a
supercharger. It had exceptional acceleration; if the pilot “firewalled
it,” as they say. But I couldn’t describe its speed as outstanding. It
was fast, but our aircraft had just as much speed.
The armaments were indeed powerful—five firing points, of which three
were 20mm cannon. But again, my Airacobra had a 37mm cannon and
therefore I had no inferiority complex regarding weak armaments.
The G model was heavy and dived very well.
I can’t say anything regarding simplicity of control, the narrow
chassis, and poor cockpit visibility. You’ll have to address these
issues to German pilots. I will say that we shot down many Messers by
attacking from the rear, but you can never tell precisely if it was
because of poor visibility or the pilot simply didn’t look to the rear.
A.S. Now about the FW-190. The strong points of the FW-190: 1. Powerful
and high-altitude capable engine. 2. Powerful cannon armament. 3. Good
dive characteristics. 4. Light on the controls. 5. Good visibility from
The weak points: Average acceleration.
N.G. As far as the power and high-altitude performance of the FW-190
engine, again I am unable to make any specific comments, but I know it
I can say that the Fokker engine was significantly more reliable and
resistant to damage than the Messer engine. If the Fokker lost two
cylinders it could still fly. Though increased reliability and
resistance to damage are characteristic for all radial engines in
comparison to in-line engines. German engines were not quite at the
level of our own in this regard. Our I-16 and La-5 could lose four
cylinders and just the same make it home. The Fokker could not lose more
than two and still fly.
Because of the radial engine the German Fokker pilots loved to employ
the head-on attack, especially early on. They were protected by the
engine and it had powerful armaments—four 20mm cannons and two machine
guns. One burst was sufficient to down any aircraft.
The Fokker was also very good in a dive; this was a common strength of
It was very good in the horizontal plane and not quite as good in the
As far as ease of control and visibility from the cockpit, again you’ll
have to address those issues to the Germans.
Regarding acceleration, the Fokker was indeed weak. In this aspect it
was inferior to almost all of our aircraft except perhaps the P-40. The
P-40 was its equal to in this regard.
A.S. In spite of all this, Nikolay Gerasimovich, in your view why did
the FW-190 not “rule” on the Eastern Front? By all accounts from Soviet
pilots, it was a good fighter, but no more than that. On the Western
Front, the Fokker caused an uproar.
N.G. You are correct. It was a powerful fighter, equal to any other. But
in its combat qualities it was not unique in any way.
Overall I got the impression that the Germans expected a lot from this
aircraft, but clearly overestimated its impact and exaggerated its
For example, who ever gave them the notion that the Airacobra was
inferior to the Fokker in speed? They believed it. At first the Germans
were very confident in its superiority in speed, and it happened
frequently that, after an attack, a Fokker would attempt to break away
from us at full throttle. We caught up to him and “poured it to him”
from above. He “huffed” and “puffed” but could not break contact. We
quickly broke the Germans of the habit of using full power. Later, it
became a rule with Fokkers—to break off from an attack or pull away from
under fire only by a steep dive, and by no other method.
The Fokker also was not equal to the Airacobra in the vertical, although
they initially attempted to fight with us in the vertical plane. We also
quickly broke them of this habit. I still don’t understand why they
decided that the Fokker could outperform the Airacobra in the vertical.
The acceleration dynamic of the Fokker was a weakness, perhaps its
weakest characteristic. Later they attempted to maneuver the Fokker so
that they would not lose speed. In a protracted maneuver battle of a
Fokker against a Yak, Lavochkin, or Airacobra—the Fokker lost from the
start. He lost his speed and then it was over. Until he acquired new
speed, we had more than one opportunity to shoot him down. Our aircraft
were very dynamic.
The Fokker was powerful in head-on combat and the Germans often took
advantage of this. They knew that their aircraft could withstand two or
three hits but could shoot down the enemy with a single burst. This gave
them great confidence in frontal attack. However, the Germans quickly
began to regard frontal attacks on Airacobras with great caution. We had
a 37mm cannon, a round from which no engine could withstand. One hit and
it was over. Knowing this, it took nerves of steel to conduct a frontal
attack. The engine could not save him. We had stronger nerves than the
I experienced this myself one time. We were engaged frontally by four
Fokkers. Four against four. It turned out that during a turn my wingman
got in front of me. I told him, “Go ahead, you’re in front; I will cover
you!” He hit the lead Fokker in the nose with his cannon. He hit the
German with one, perhaps even two cannon rounds. The Fokker
disintegrated. The three that were left immediately dispersed and we
lost sight of them. The whole engagement lasted several seconds.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, you have told us a great deal but nonetheless
have not explained the principal reason why the Fokker did not become
the “be all and end all” fighter on the Eastern Front that it was on the
Western Front. Look at what James “Johnnie” Johnson (No. 1 British ace
of World War II) wrote in his memoirs: “ . . . When the flight control
officer told me that a group of enemy fighters had been spotted up
ahead, I tried to avoid combat if the sun and altitude did not give us
an opportunity for a surprise attack. The superiority of the Focke-Wulf
over our Spitfires was too great in the spring of 1943.” (James E.
Johnson, The Best British Ace, Moscow: “AST”, 2002). And Johnson flew
the Spitfire Vb, an aircraft that in the West was considered better than
the P-40 and also better than the P-39.
Even if one considers the fact that on the Eastern Front the Fokkers
were often piloted by fighter-bomber pilots, who had not distinguished
themselves in fighter combat, just the same this does not explain the
difference in the evaluations of the effectiveness of the FW-190.
N.G. Well, perhaps the answer is rooted in the difference in employment
of the Fokker. The Fokkers in our theater were employed as a front-line
fighter and fighter bomber, and in the West as interceptors.
It might be that the whole explanation can lay in radar support. In the
West, Fokkers were vectored by radar; that is, by the time that contact
occurred the Fokkers had managed to acquire speed and to gain altitude
superiority. In this case, the low acceleration rate of the Fokker did
not play any special role because it had already acquired speed and
altitude. The Germans were still less likely to conduct a prolonged
On our front the Germans did not have the kind of radar support density
that they enjoyed in the West. Both we and the Germans, on the whole,
used visual means to detect the enemy. You fly and you look around. If
you spot something, go to full power and engage it. In conditions of the
absence of radar vectoring, the dynamic of acceleration played a crucial
role in the most rapid achievement of maximum speed. The Fokker was just
mediocre in this respect.
As far as I can recall, when the Germans began to employ the Fokker in
the West as a fighter bomber, they also began to suffer heavier losses.
A.S. Did you ever have occasion to encounter the “ground attack” variant
FW-190F in battle and how did you evaluate it?
N.G. The one carrying bombs? Yes, I encountered it and shot it down.
While it was carrying external stores this aircraft, of course, was
“harmless”; but after it had dropped its ordnance it was a standard
Fokker, no better and no worse.
Recall that I have already told you how we were covering patrol torpedo
boats. I misspoke, actually I didn’t tell you the whole story. Six
FW-190s with bombs were attacking the PT boats and six Bf-109Fs were
providing cover to them.
We had my flight of six and a pair led by Vitya Maksimovich. The Fokkers
went low and the Messers flew 500 meters [1600 feet] above them. I set
up a good attack. We came out of the sun, and with this advantage all
six of us struck first at the Messers. I shot down one, rocketed past
them and immediately, in a continuation of the attack, shot down a
Fokker. We zoomed upward like on a child’s swing, into the sun. We were
on top of the Messers again! It turned out very well. We dispersed the
Messers and the Fokkers (dropping their bombs into the sea) also
scattered in all directions. We hit them again from above. We chased
them all over the place.
Altogether I shot down three in this engagement, but another pilot also
shot at one of them and they counted this one toward his score.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, you constantly say that the basic Soviet
fighters, the Yak and the Lavochkin, were equal to the German fighters
in speed, although reference books contradict this. According to
reference data, German aircraft always have superiority in speed. How do
you explain this difference between reference data and practical data?
N.G. Reference data is obtained under ideal conditions, in “ideal”
aircraft. Tactical and technical characteristics are always lower under
actual use conditions.
A.S. Yes, but we also determine the tactical and technical
characteristics of our aircraft in ideal conditions. So let’s attempt to
approach this phenomenon from another perspective. What kind of actual
speed (by instrument) did German fighters attain in aerial combat?
N.G. The Bf-109E—from 450 to 500 kmh [270—300 mph]. The Bf-109F: 500—550
kmh [300—330 mph]. The Bf-109G was equal to the F in speed or perhaps
just a bit faster. The superiority of the G over the F was in armament,
The FW-190 reached speeds of 470—550 kmh [280—330 mph]. All of these
aircraft approached speeds 30 kph greater in a dive.
You know, we didn’t pay particular attention to our instruments during
an aerial engagement. It was obvious without looking that your own
aircraft was lagging behind in speed or it wasn’t. Therefore I can
affirm that the Airacobra, Yak, and La [Lavochkin] were not surpassed by
the German fighters in speed.
A.S. What can I say? Can we agree that the speeds you have indicated to
me are somewhat lower than those listed in reference works?
N.G. What have we been talking about? You must understand that you have
been making the same mistake as do all people who have no connection
with combat aviation. You are confusing two concepts: maximum speed and
combat speed. Maximum speed is attained under ideal conditions:
horizontal flight, strict maintenance of altitude, calculated engine
revolutions, and so on.
Combat speed is a range of maximum possible speeds that an aircraft can
develop for the conduct of active maneuver aerial battle, and at which
all forms of maneuver attendant to that battle can be executed.
When I speak to you about speed, I have in mind namely the combat speed
at which I conducted battle. To me maximum speed is neither here nor
A.S. What if you had to chase someone down? Don’t you need maximum speed
N.G. Well, I caught up to them, and then what? If you get going too
fast, at some point in time you will have to scrub some off or you will
outrun your target. Firing accurately on a target at high speed is
problematical. More precisely, if I am fortunate enough to hit the
target, how many hits are sufficient—that is the question. So first I
catch the target, then I slow down, fire, hit the throttle, and
accelerate again. The capability of an engine to drive an airplane
forward and brake it in the shortest space of time is called
Many consider that if an aircraft has a high maximum speed, then its
combat speed will also be high, and this is not always so. It happens
that during the comparison of two types of fighters, one of them may
have a higher maximum speed and the other a higher combat speed. Such
factors as responsiveness of the engine and thrust-to-weight ratio have
substantial influence on the combat speed. These are the same factors
that provide for maximum acceleration.
One need not look far to find an example of this. We had the fighter
LaGG-3. I flew it myself. Well, in 1941 this aircraft had greater top
speed than the Yak-1. It had several indisputable advantages over the
Yak in addition to its higher speed. The LaGG was more durable and
harder to set on fire. Why? It was made from delta wood
[del’ta-drevesina]. In addition, the LaGG was more powerfully armed. But
you know what? Ask any pilot who fought in the war, “Of the two
fighters, the Yak and the LaGG, which would you prefer?” He would most
certainly respond “the Yak”. Why? Because the Yak was a very dynamic
aircraft with high responsiveness and the LaGG was a “slug”, a “boat
anchor”. The LaGG was somewhat heavier than the Yak, which meant it was
more inert. The maximum speed of the LaGG was higher because the
aircraft was aerodynamically very “clean”. If you “poured on the coal”
it would “sweat”mightily. [Think steam locomotive—Golodnikov is of that
generation—JG.] If it lost speed, it was very difficult to regain it. In
order not to lose speed in combat, one needed a deft touch. I had to
construct my attack, combat maneuver, or dive in such a manner as to
preserve my speed. And one more thing—the LaGG required decent effort on
the stick for control.
The Yak had only two advantages over the LaGG, but they were
significant!—outstanding responsiveness and ease of control. The Yak
could regain speed that it had lost very easily—full throttle and that
was sufficient. One did not have to dive; the Yak picked up speed even
when the nose was up. In addition to everything else, the Yak was
considerably easier to control than the LaGG. On the one hand it was
stable but on the other it reacted instantly to the slightest pressure
on the stick.
I only flew the LaGG-3; I never fought in it. But now, from the
perspective of my combat experience, I can say that the LaGG-3 was a
fair fighter. It was fully equal to the P-40 in its tactical and
technical characteristics, but could contend on an equal footing with a
Messer only in the hands of an experienced pilot, who really knew how to
exploit its engine and was tactically skilled. An inexperienced or
insufficiently trained pilot (we had many of these early in the war) in
a LaGG could not in any way stand up against a Messer. He simply did not
know how to take advantage of his aircraft’s strong points. A Yak
offered such a pilot a significantly greater chance of survival. At the
same time an experienced pilot in a Yak felt himself significantly more
confident and gave little thought to any speed he might lose during the
Here is another example. Between the I-16 type-28 and the Bf-109E, the
Messer had a higher top speed and the combat speeds of these two
aircraft were practically equal. If one compares the type-28 with the
Hurricane, the Hurricane had higher maximum speed but the I-16 higher
combat speed. The Hurricane was a very sluggish fighter.
You can try, but it is a difficult and thankless task to compare the
combat qualities of aircraft using reference book data. There are simply
too many nuances to consider.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, you may know that now many consider the Yak
to be a mistake of the Soviet aircraft industry. The arguments go
something like this:
1. In all stages of the war, all types of Yaks were inferior to the
Messer in maximum speed. 2. The armaments of the Yak also were inferior
to the majority of Bf-109 types except, perhaps, the F model.
There were other deficiencies, such as how easily it burned, it had
structural stability, and so on. Now the popular opinion is that we
produced the Yak only because Yakovlev was “close” to Stalin, was his
primary consultant on matters of aircraft construction, which he took
advantage of. His fighter was just average.
N.G. This is not true. Yaks were outstanding aircraft. I flew them
myself and knew many excellent pilots who fought in Yaks. They gave them
very high marks.
Keep in mind that the Yaks were unique in one aspect—this fighter had
very high combat speed. Yakovlev from the very beginning built a fighter
not simply with high maximum speed (as did all aircraft designers of
that era), but with high combat speed. I do not know whether it was
intentional or accidental, but the Yak had these qualities. And
throughout the war the Yak was improved, first and foremost by
increasing its combat speed.
Understand that if you look at German fighters, either the Messer or the
Fokker, their combat speed was 80—100 kmh [50—60 mph] lower than their
maximum speed. As far as I know, British and American aircraft of this
period were analogous in this respect to the German fighters. This
relationship of speeds of the Western aircraft was maintained for the
duration of the war. The difference between maximum and combat speeds of
the Yak was on the order of 60—70 kilometers [35—40 mph], and during the
second half of the war even less. The Yaks were the most dynamic and
lightest fighters in the Soviet VVS and therefore were very good in
vertical maneuver. Throughout the war a standard, average, adequately
trained pilot in Yaks could contend with Messers on a par. At the
beginning of the war the Yak was any pilot’s dream.
I haven’t yet said anything about the Yak-3 that appeared in 1944. In
its ability to accelerate and thrust-to-weight ratio, and for magnitude
of combat speed, it was a unique fighter. The difference between its
combat and maximum speed was 40—50 kmh [25—30 mph]. Perhaps during this
period there was no other country in the world whose fighter could be
compared with the Yak-3 in combat speed. The responsiveness of the Yak-3
was phenomenal, and its maximum speed was not too shabby, though it was
not the fastest fighter in the world. It was not the fastest, but in
combat it could outrun any enemy in practically any form of maneuver.
In addition, the Yaks were simple and cheap to manufacture, which
permitted us to produce them in large numbers. You see, if you have a
good fighter but you can’t produce it in the numbers required for war,
then it isn’t such a good fighter after all. Simplicity and low cost of
a combat aircraft in production are almost just as important qualities
for war as its speed and maneuverability.
A.S. But the armaments of the Yaks were weak; there can be no argument
about that fact. Two, maximum three firing points, of which only one was
a cannon. The Messer had five, of which three were cannons.
N.G. If you know how to shoot, then two firing points are sufficient (I
should know—I got by with two large-caliber machine guns on the P-40).
If you don’t know how to shoot, you will miss with five. Extraneous
armaments do nothing except weigh down the aircraft and consume extra
A.S. Understood. So if I can paraphrase the words of one famous German
pilot of World War I, one can cleverly say that ten firing points on
five Yak-9s will be more powerful than ten firing points on two
N.G. Absolutely. In addition it should be said that by the second half
of the war, we were using our fighters in a specialized manner. For
example, when they assigned fighters to escort bombers, the “attack
group” was comprised of Airacobras or Lavochkins, and the direct cover
group was comprised of Yaks. This was appropriate.
The “attack group” engaged in and conducted battle with enemy fighters;
therefore it was preferable for them to have engines that performed
better at altitude. They needed to arrive at the place of battle with a
reserve of altitude and more powerful armaments. The initial attack was
a surprise and therefore more effective in terms of results. It was
better to have heavier aircraft in this group in order to chase down
Germans in a dive. The Lavochkin and Airacobra met this requirement
In the direct cover group it was better to have more dynamic and lighter
aircraft with good vertical capabilities. They circled around the
bombers and fended off German fighters who managed to break away from
the “attack group”. The Yaks were just this type of aircraft. It was
another matter that in the direct cover group the chance to get a kill
was significantly less than in the “attack group”. The Yak pilots were
constantly unhappy about this specialization, but had to live with it.
A.S. Erich Hartmann (the highest-scoring Luftwaffe ace of World War II)
acknowledged that on two occasions he avoided combat with A. I.
Pokryshkin [second-highest Soviet ace of the war, P-39 Airacobra pilot
from March 1943—JG]. Hartmann had the right to choose the time and place
of combat, so he did not violate any orders or regulations. But now two
points of view are expressed regarding Hartmann’s actions.
1. Hartmann was a coward, and this action does not make him look good.
2. Hartmann acted properly in avoiding this quite dangerous engagement
with an unpredictable conclusion. Better he survive to shoot down
countless Soviet aircraft on other sectors of the front, inflicting
great losses on the enemy, than he shoot down Pokryshkin alone.
In your view, which of these two opinions is correct?
N.G. It’s not that simple. One has to look at the situation from two
The first—if “free hunters” were to meet in the air, pair against pair
or six against six, then Hartmann undoubtedly acted appropriately. It is
highly unlikely that Hartmann would have the opportunity to achieve the
element of surprise (considering who his foe was), and Hartmann couldn’t
even dream of having the kind of preparation for maneuver combat as had
Pokryshkin. It is most likely that in avoiding this kind of combat,
Hartmann simply realistically considered his own strengths and
opportunities. He was not ready for such an engagement.
Our own Safonov several times dropped a message bag on the Germans,
challenging any of the German aces, be it Müller, Schmidt, or whomever,
to combat. In an I-16! Not once did any of them respond and never did he
encounter any of them in the air or in a fight.
A.S. Did he really drop a message bag? I thought this was just a legend.
N.G. No, this was not a legend; it actually happened. The bag fell on
the center of the airfield. “I challenge you one-on-one, at
such-and-such time, in such-and-such area.”
No one responded to his challenge. One can understand why not. What good
could come of it? In group combat, which his subordinates would
initiate, he would choose the high ground [altitude] and come out the
victor. In one-on-one combat the result would be totally unpredictable,
and the Germans knew that they had insufficient training to contest with
leading Soviet aces such as Safonov. I have already told you that the
Germans fought in a very calculating manner.
A.S. You said that the Hartmann question had to be looked at from two
points of view. What is the second?
N.G. The second perspective is when Pokryshkin was not on a “free hunt”
but escorting attack aircraft (bombers or shturmoviks), or covering an
area of terrain. Pokryshkin spent his entire wartime career fighting in
frontal aviation, and they did not fly “free hunt” very often. Normally
they were covering terrain or in immediate escort of bombers. As you
know, they did not send an elite guards regiment such as Pokryshkin’s
[16th Guards Fighter Regiment of 9th Guards Fighter Division—JG] to
cover just any sector nor did they assign it to a secondary axis. Most
assuredly they would place it where the main attack was being launched.
In the case where Pokryshkin was escorting bombers, Hartmann would be
OBLIGATED to attack. Not Pokryshkin personally, of course, but the
bombers. It is another issue that Pokryshkin simply would not permit an
attack against “his” bombers to go unpunished. Here, of course, Hartmann
did not have an option.
Here is another alternative. Pokryshkin is covering a piece of terrain
and Hartmann is supposed to clear the airspace over that terrain for the
actions of his own attack aircraft. In this case, there is also nowhere
to hide, he has to fight, there is no way out. In this case, if he does
not engage Pokryshkin in combat, Pokryshkin will shoot the bombers into
little pieces, which in fact Pokryshkin did frequently.
So, everything depends on the situation.
A.S. Do you think that Hartmann actually shot down 352 aircraft?
N.G. I doubt it. Although, for sure, he did shoot down a great number.
The Germans had a relatively lax system for confirming victories.
Frequently all that was required was confirmation by a wingman or camera
film. The actual fall of the aircraft did not interest them, especially
toward the end of the war.
A.S. And us?
N.G. It was difficult. And with each year of the war, it became more and
more difficult. From the second half of 1943 a shoot-down could be
counted only with the confirmation of the kill by VNOS [vozdushnoe
nablyudenie, opoveshchenie i svyaz—air observation, notification, and
communication] posts, gun camera film, agent network, and other sources.
It was best of all if all these sources were taken together. The
testimony of a wingman and other pilots was not taken into
consideration, no matter how many of them there were.
A.S. If I understand you correctly, kills were not counted without
N.G. That is correct. We had a case when one of our pilots, Zhenya
Grediushko, shot down a German with a single round. (By the way, he
later became a helicopter test pilot in the Kamov bureau and achieved
fame there as the first to land a Kamov helicopter on the deck of a
cruiser.) They were flying in a group of four and encountered four
Germans. Because Grediushko was out in front, he fired off a round from
his cannon. We had such a “guards’ style”—if we realized that we did not
have the element of surprise, then normally the group leader fired a
single cannon round toward the enemy. This “fiery ball” was a
summons—“Fight or scram!” Zhenya fired off this single round from some
distance, and it struck and blew up in the lead Messer. Shot down by a
single round. The remaining Messers, of course, dispersed. In the end
they avoided the engagement.
Because we were flying over the tundra, in the German rear, there was no
one who could confirm the victory. Neither VNOS posts nor an exact
position of the downed German (no terrain features). No way to find the
individual pieces of wreckage. Gun camera footage was useless because
the target was too far away. The ammunition expenditure was a single
37mm round from four aircraft. Thus they did not give him credit for
this kill, even though three other pilots clearly witnessed it, how he
destroyed the German.
So if there was no “external” confirmation, it was as if the kill did
Only later, unexpectedly, did confirmation of this shoot down by
infantrymen occur. It turns out that their reconnaissance group in the
German rear witnessed this engagement (they returned to our positions
with a “tongue” [captured live prisoner—JG]). Upon their return, they
made note of this aerial battle and the downed German in their written
report. It happened.
A.S. They say that German pilots avoided frontal attacks, they were
cowards. Is this true?
N.G. No. They did not like them, as a rule. A frontal attack is risky, a
lottery, and the Germans did not like to take risks. (Therefore we also
did not like fontal attacks. A frontal attack was almost always a forced
element of an engagement.)
But it was not any kind of cowardice, only a calculation. The German
might not survive a frontal attack on an Airacobra or a Yak-9T; he could
be struck by a 37mm round. Not so against a Yak-1b or Yak-9. Think about
it. If he is in a Bf-109G (five firing points) or an FW-190 (six firing
points and a radial engine), and he is facing a Yak-1b or Yak-9 (two
firing points), the German should attempt to conduct a frontal attack
(if he does not have the element of surprise). He has a great advantage.
I have already stated that the Germans were very calculating. Here,
conversely, our pilot had to avoid a frontal attack and try to pull the
German into the vertical plane.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, you spent some time fighting along side
British pilots. Could you talk to us about the strong and weak points of
British pilots (pilot skill, firing, coordination in combat, tactics)?
What did the 2d GIAP incorporate from British tactics?
N.G. The 151st Air Wing came from the aircraft carrier. It was rather
diverse. They had one squadron commanded by a Müller (not exactly a
British surname) [It should be Miller – I.G.]. This was the strongest,
the best squadron. They had very good individual and formation flying
skills. But a Hurricane is still a Hurricane. They lost five men while
shooting down, I believe, twelve aircraft. This was from 1941, September
I think, through May 1942. I can’t remember the exact dates now.
The other two squadrons were clearly weaker. Müller’s [Miller’s - I.G.]
squadron flew with us on all significant missions.
A.S. So you flew together?
N.G. Yes. When they had already transferred a portion of the aircraft to
us, we conducted joint flights.
A.S. How did you communicate with each other when airborne? You had
hardly anyone who spoke English.
N.G. What’s to discuss? The flight plan was worked out on the ground,
zones of responsibility had been assigned, basic variants of
coordination during the fending off of attacks were worked out (“you
here, we there”), what has to be agreed upon once airborne? Everyone
knew what to do without words.
A.S. Did the British have any particular tactical methods?
N.G. At first their flight formation was interesting—a rhomboid. Three
flew conventionally, a leader and two wingmen. The fourth flew behind
them and flew a figure 8, both vertical and horizontal—controlling the
rear hemisphere. They introduced this tactic to us and we were already
flying in pairs. We tried it, flew in this rhomboid a time or two, and
did not employ it again.
In the first place, to fly in threes was bad in and of itself. Secondly,
what was this fourth aircraft supposed to do, the one in the back? If he
flew to the left of the three-ship flight, and at that moment the
three-ship broke to the left, there was the danger of collision. If he
was flying to the left and the three-ship broke to the right, he would
lose contact with them and be shot down himself.
Later the British, watching us in action, somewhere toward the end of
1941 began gradually to transition to pairs. Very gradually. They
dragged out this transition for some time.
I don’t recall any other peculiarities in the British tactics.
Understand, the Hurricane was the kind of airplane that if you sat the
best pilot in it from any country and forced him to contest with a
Messer, he would last only if he held the Messer in the horizontal
plane. There was no other way.
A.S. How do you evaluate the combat qualities of the British pilots,
their aggressiveness and energy?
N.G. They were not cowards. They never shied away from combat. They went
straight into battle. Any of our fighter regiments would have taken
Müller’s [Miller’s – I.G.} squadron complete and not been disappointed.
These were competent pilots.
A.S. Did you ever have the opportunity to fly with American pilots?
N.G. No. The only one I ever saw was a test pilot who came in to check
out the P-40 Tomahawk for stability. He said himself he was a “check
pilot” and not a fighter pilot.
A.S. What was your first impression of B. F. Safonov? What can you say
about him as a fighter pilot and a man?
N.G. My first impression of Safonov—he was a very fascinating person. He
knew how to relate to people. He was a good psychologist.
He was also a good analyst. He analyzed every occurrence, each battle.
Safonov examined every engagement, no matter how insignificant; he
assembled everyone and dissected the actions of each pilot, no matter
who they were. It happened that someone might come back with a score of
bullet holes. He took everyone to this aircraft and examined each hole
to determine how each one might have been inflicted. “You got this
one—he would say—when you were not looking, what they were firing at
you, when you did this and when you did that. And you should have done
this and that, and if you had you would not have these holes.” Safonov
had “vision”! He had a real talent.
He was always thinking about improvement of the technical possibilities,
and it was because of him that rockets were mounted on the I-16. It was
also his idea to mount rockets, cannons, and “Bereziny” [Soviet-made .50
caliber machine guns] on Hurricanes.
He took responsibility on himself. We were the first to begin flying in
And when the British made noises about making technical modifications to
the Hurricane without their permission, he said to them, “Nonsense. The
war justifies it. Do it under my authority.”
There was yet another quality, not insignificant—he was almost a
teetotaller. I never saw him drink vodka. In the evenings, when we
gathered, he would drink 25—50 grams of red wine and that was all.
He did not smoke. He was very literate, well-read, cultured. He spoke
well—concisely, with precision and pleasant diction.
He did know how to curse; you know yourself that some of us often do not
understand normal speech. But he only swore when the occasion required
it. Communications in battle contained more cursing than normal speech.
But to curse someone without reason – never!
A.S. What did Safonov consider to be most important for a fighter pilot?
N.G. Number one was the ability to shoot. Moreover, to shoot “in the
Safonov way”—taking no chances, “at the rivets”.
Number two was maneuver—to be able to close to the range of firing.
Number three was “to look around”! Vigilance and observation were the
bases of everything.
You spotted [the target], maneuvered, closed, opened fire, and killed!
This was his formula.
A.S. At the present time doubts are being raised about Safonov’s
personal score. Did he in fact personally shoot down 22 German aircraft?
N.G. He did, and perhaps even more. Safonov was an exceptional marksman
and in a single engagement might shoot down two or even three German
aircraft. But Safonov had a rule—“do not register more than one kill per
battle for yourself.” He passed along all the others to his wingmen. I
remember well one engagement when he shot down three German aircraft and
then ordered that one be scored to him, one to Semenenko (Petr Semenenko
flew as wingman to Safonov), and the third to someone else. Petya stood
up and said, “Comrade commander, I didn’t even fire. I did not break the
muzzle cover.” (After the machine guns on the Hurricane were reloaded,
the wing muzzle openings were covered with percale to keep the dust and
dirt out. AS) And Safonov said to him, “You did not fire, but I did
fire, and you supported my firing!” And Safonov played out this little
charade on many occasions.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, how many times were you shot down?
N.G. They hit and damaged me times.
A.S. Can you describe to us in more detail, under what circumstances did
they hit you the first time?
N.G. I was the leader of a pair of P-40 Tomahawks. We were escorting
shturmoviks. Messers showed up.
I saw a pair of Messers begin their attack and went to meet them, head
on. Our intercept course was very unfavorable but I wanted to fire a
short burst, not so much as perhaps to hit one of them but more to show
that “I see you, peel off!”
Normally the Germans broke off, but on this occasion I looked and the
lead German was “showing smoke”, he had commenced firing. I still had
time to think, “He missed”—and at that moment there was a flash, a boom,
shaking, and smoke! I blacked out for several seconds and then came to.
I regained control; my fighter shook, the instrument panel was
destroyed, there were metal shards everywhere. I manipulated the stick
and worked the rudder pedals—the aircraft responded to inputs but the
trimmer did not work.
I began to consider why the aircraft was shaking. It became obvious that
the propeller was loaded up and there was nothing I could do to lighten
it. I reduced rpms, made some small flat turns, and flew back to my
airfield at very low level.
It was later determined that two rounds had struck my aircraft. The
first hit in the propeller hub and disabled the mechanism for pitch
control. The second entered the cockpit, in the left side.
And only on the ground did I understand that the entire left side of my
body (but primarily my arm and thigh) were peppered with small pieces of
shrapnel. I had about a hundred pieces in me! While I was flying, I had
not felt any particular pain. I understood that I had been hit, but did
not think it was so serious. True.
They sent me to the VVS hospital at Severomorsk. They removed some of
the shrapnel, the larger pieces, and a large portion, the smaller
pieces, remains in my body to this day. Thank God there were just a few
that penetrated deeply. I lay in the bed for several days and then they
brought in casualties from convoy PQ-17, almost all of them with
hypothermia. At that time all the military and civilian hospitals were
full. They asked me if I would object to being sent back to our own
medical station for further recuperation. Every bed was needed. Of
course, I voted in favor of this.
As soon as I returned to my unit I went right back on flight status. I
did not take any special treatments. I was an experienced pilot, not a
“greenhorn”. Who was going to fight if not me?
A.S. Wow! A round in the cockpit! How did you survive that?
N.G. An interesting design peculiarity of the P-40 saved me. Its trimmer
was controlled by a large, 8—10 centimeter diameter steel wheel, with a
thickness of 1.5—2 centimeters. From this gear went the Hall chain. This
wheel was immediately under my left hand. The German round hit it. It
did not penetrate through it, but because it struck it, all the shrapnel
went along the left side rather than across the cockpit. I caught the
fragments at an angle.
A.S. Of course I understand that this question is not very tactful, but
how would you evaluate the power of the German cannon shell?
N.G. Powerful. Like our own ShVAK.
A.S. And the second time?
N.G. It was also in an aerial engagement. I was in an Airacobra. The
four of us were fighting with eight Messerschmitts. My engine was
damaged. I had to make a forced landing and did not reach my airfield. I
got out without any injuries.
A.S. Did you have any unconfirmed victories?
A.S. How many?
N.G. There were some. This is like shaking your fists after the fight is
A.S. Did you have any group kills?
N.G. Yes. Eight. “Partial” victories. There were some of those, but
don’t write this down. (Pardon me, Nikolay Gerasimovich! A.S.)
I personally scored seven kills. These were confirmed. No more about
A.S. Rudel in his memoirs writes, “RAF commanders, who piloted the
Hurricanes with the Russians at Murmansk, are divided in their memoirs.
They are extremely harsh. Of all those who were shot down, almost none
remain alive.” (Hans Ulrich Rudel, Stuka Pilot, Text from website
Millitera. A.S.) What did the British see that was so terrible?
N.G. I don’t know. What could they have seen?
A.S. Perhaps someone was shot?
N.G. War story! Think about it. Why would they kill a captured pilot?
They brought some shot down German pilots to our airfield and showed
them to us.
I recall how Müller was very indignant. After he had been hit he was
trying to land, when one of our pilots began to fire at him. He said
that this was un-chivalrous, to fire at a damaged aircraft attempting to
land. And we said to him, “And our pilots, who are hanging under
parachutes, you shoot at them in the air. It that chilvarous?”
Müller could not believe that Kolya Bokiy had shot him down. Kolya was
about a head shorter than him and noticeably narrower in the shoulders.
Our brigade commander was Petrukhin, a blunt man. He said to Bokiy,
“Punch him in the face, so he would hit the ground, then he will
believe!” We all laughed.
German pilots always asked to see the one who shot them down and, when
we showed them, they almost always did not believe it. “How could it
have been him? To shoot down me?!”
A.S. Did the Germans often shoot at pilots who had bailed out?
A.S. This question is not particularly tactful and you do not have to
respond to it, but did you ever personally shoot at German pilots in the
air who had bailed out of their airplanes?
A.S. We have covered these “high subjects” very well. Now I have some
more practical questions.
The pliers/wire cutters on the I-16, to cut through the landing gear
cables—were these common cutters or special, aviation wire cutters
intended for this purpose?
They say that these were special wire cutters, aviation, manufactured in
the factory and stored in a canvas pocket.
N.G. Special wire cutters did exist, but most of the pilots used
A.S. It is well known that the I-16, for indicating the position of the
raised gear, inside the cockpit between the cover and instrument panel
was located a flexible metal hose, inside of which ran a cable with
dowel pins on the ends. The hose was formed in an arch, in the upper
portion of which was an open section; if the dowel pin was visible—the
gear was completely raised.
N.G. Yes, that’s how it was. Inside the hose was a cable with a slide
block. In addition there was a back-up control for raising and lowering
the gear—dowel pins on flats.
A.S. Were the I-16 or Hurricane ever used on skis?
N.G. The I-16 had special skis, but we did not use them. It didn’t have
enough speed, so why would you use skis? There were no skis for the
Hurricane. As far as I know, it was never contemplated.
A.S. Were non-standard armaments ever mounted on the I-16 or on other
aircraft? Were the armaments of first-series I-16s strengthened?
N.G. As I have told you, large-caliber machine guns and rockets [RS]. I
never heard about any other modifications.
A.S. Were I-16 aircraft with the M-25 engine re-equipped in the regiment
or did they come from repair shops with the M-62 or M-63 engine?
N.G. No, neither in the regiment nor in the repair shops.
A.S. How were the RSs fired (were they fired at aircraft, at what range,
were they fired in salvo at ground targets, how was the range to the
N.G. We determined the range using the sight and commenced firing
independently. We fired in salvos. We aimed at individual aircraft but
the dispersion was great. Therefore aimed firing, in the literal meaning
of the term, was impossible. But in salvo, with proximity fuses, the
results were not bad.
A.S. At what range did you fire the wing-mounted machine guns?
N.G. Now I don’t remember exactly. We fired on the firing range at
special targets, I think at 100—200 meters. We commenced firing “at the
rivets” [when we could distinguish the rivet heads].
A.S. How much more complicated was it in maneuver combat to get hits
from the wing-mounted gun and synchronized armaments in comparison with
the engine-mounted cannon?
N.G. It was more difficult with the wing-mounted gun. The wing-mounted
gun required more precise determination of range. It fired with greater
dispersion of rounds and therefore had a larger beaten zone. How much
more complicated? That’s difficult to say.
A.S. Did the aircraft “move around” during firing (compare the
wing-mounted, synchronized, engine cannon; ShKAS, BS, ShVAK)?
N.G. While firing the cannon and machine guns—no. When launching RS—yes.
The aircraft shuddered and twitched from side to side.
A.S. Can you talk in a bit more detail about the 57mm RS? Was this a
N.G. The 57 millimeter RS was used only in the beginning of the war.
Pre-war supplies. By the end of 1942 we had completely shot them up and
later, for the remainder of the war, they mounted only 82 and 132mm RSs
A.S. What was your personal firing technique—did you adjust using the
tracer or put the burst right on target? How did you input lead during
firing from 1/4, 2/4?
N.G. Basically, I fired immediately for destruction. When you are
“firing at the rivets”, the range was minimal.
When it was necessary to force the enemy to turn, to change course, when
there was no possibility of reliable destruction because of long range,
we fired by tracers, using up to 4/4 lead. Lead was determined by the
A.S. What was your ammunition expenditure in combat?
N.G. The expenditure of ammunition depended on the type of combat. The
greatest expenditure occurred when we were escorting bombers or
shturmoviks. We frequently fired long “barrier” bursts. In this kind of
combat, we frequently did not have enough ammunition.
A.S. Did it happen that destroyed [enemy] fighters were counted to
bomber gunners or antiaircraft artillery?
N.G. Probably. It happened, especially when there was no gun camera
film. These things happen in combat, where it is very difficult to
establish who exactly got the kill. Everyone was firing.
A.S. Did it also happen that when a mission was not accomplished the
combat sortie was not counted?
N.G. Of course. You did not carry out the combat mission.
A.S. A combat sortie and an aerial engagement. Are these one and the
N.G. No. A combat sortie could occur without an aerial engagement.
Frequently, even if one encountered an enemy in the air, a combat sortie
did not result in an aerial engagement.
An aerial engagement occurs when both sides are attempting to accomplish
their mission in maneuver combat, where they are actively attacking the
enemy. If there is no active maneuver combat, it means that you did not
conduct an aerial engagement.
Here is an example. We were covering a convoy. Then it began! “Messers
from the right!” We went that way. We fired at them, they fired at us.
“Junkers from the left!” We went at them. They spotted us, dropped their
bombs into the ocean, and turned back. “Messers behind us!” We turned to
meet them, we fired, they fired, they dispersed. We flew this way and
that way over the convoy, then flew home wet with perspiration. But this
was not considered an aerial engagement. It was simply a combat sortie.
A.S. How did you maintain contact with the convoy? Did the sailors
vector you to the airplanes attacking them?
N.G. Primarily we maintained contact with them by radio, although
sometimes we did not have that. Frequently the sailors guided us to the
aircraft attacking them with red rockets, particularly if we did not
have radio communications.
A.S. Compare the difficulty of piloting the I-16, I-15, LaGG, Hurricane,
and so on.
N.G. The most complicated was the I-16; the remainder were easier to
In general, every airplane has its own peculiarities and complexities of
piloting. Here much depends on the degree of one’s familiarity with the
A.S. You flew the I-16 in the winter, in fur flight suits? If yes, then
what influence did this have on observation?
N.G. We did not fly in fur flight suits in a combat situation. They were
too bulky and uncomfortable, constricted movement, and blocked vision.
We flew in normal quilted [padded] trousers and jackets without collars,
with silk scarves.
A.S. Did you use shoulder harnesses?
N.G. We used them. Although sometimes we just had seat belts.
A.S. How was your visibility to the rear in the I-16? For example, was
the tail or the area behind it visible, did you simply have to look
back, or did you have to crane your neck?
N.G. We stuck our heads out far enough to see the tail wheel. If you
could see that, it meant that you could observe the rear hemisphere
normally—you could see behind you.
A.S. If you were shooting at a bomber, what was the ammunition
expenditure for defeat of individual components? Was it difficult to hit
a gunner, into the cockpit, where did you normally fire?
N.G. When attacking a bomber, first of all we tried to shoot out the
engines. Even if you don’t get a kill, he dropped his bombs before
reaching the target. If we were attacking from below we fired at the
The ammunition expenditure depended on the weapon. For example, it took
2—3 rounds of 37mm cannon and 20—40 .50 caliber rounds to shoot down a
Ju-88 in a single attack by a P-39.
A.S. This question is not exactly on topic, but in your view, was the
Ju-88 a better dive bomber than the Pe-2?
N.G. The Ju-88 never dropped bombs from a dive, only in horizontal
A.S. Well, according to reference book data, the Ju-88 was a dive
N.G. Aren’t you a little confused? The Germans’ dive bomber was the
Ju-87 Laptezhnik. This aircraft only bombed out of a dive. It bombed
very accurately, but was also very slow. It was relatively easy to shoot
down. In my opinion, the Germans stopped using it in the North sometime
The Ju-88? I never saw it drop bombs from a dive and never heard that it
was used that way either.
A.S. Did our pilots employ the “clock” orientation method (as in “enemy
at 2 o’clock”)? If not, how did you name directions?
N.G. No. We did not use the clock method. We used the simple method of
“from the right-above, from the left-below, from behind,” and so on.
[These are one- and two-word expressions in Russian, making them much
simpler and quicker to enunciate in Russian than in English—JG.]
A.S. How difficult was it to bail out of a Hurricane, P-40, and LaGG-3?
Could you jettison the canopy at high speed?
N.G. The canopy had to be jettisoned. The methods for abandoning those
particular aircraft were practically identical.
A.S. How would you compare the survivability of a belly landing in say
an I-16, the LaGG, and the Hurricane? How dangerous was it for the pilot
and could the aircraft be repaired?
N.G. In the conditions of the Far North, forced landings could be
accomplished on a frozen lake. As a rule, in these particular types of
aircraft, a forced landing did not present any particular difficulty.
Later the aircraft was recovered and repaired at repair shops. True, the
aircraft were often further damaged during recovery and transportation
from the forced-landing site.
A.S. How would you compare the survivability from enemy fire of the
I-16, Hurricane, and so on?
N.G. Fighter aircraft returned [to base], as a rule, with bullet holes
from small-caliber machine guns, less often from large-caliber machine
guns, and very rarely from armor-piercing cannon shells. By types? The
differences were not great.
A.S. How many aircraft were there in a regiment?
N.G. The number of aircraft in a regiment depended on the nature of the
combat actions and enemy competence. On average a regiment had 30—40
fighters, but there were times when 8—10 or even fewer aircraft were
left in a regiment.
A.S. What kind of antiaircraft coverage did our own airfields have?
N.G. Antiaircraft coverage of our airfields was accomplished in the
larger system of antiaircraft coverage for the VMF. The airfield
normally was protected by 5—6 batteries of 20mm and 37mm cannons. They
were employed for aircraft takeoffs and landings, and also to defend
against air raids and enemy attacks directed against the field proper.
A.S. In your discussion of the Hurricane, everyone is a bit perplexed by
the information about the desert camouflage. Were the aircraft actually
yellow, or was this just a reference to the British green—brown
N.G. We had 15—20 Hurricanes in desert camouflage (at least that’s what
we called it), which consisted of large yellow areas with brown spots.
The remaining aircraft, those that were handed over to us by British
pilots, were in the standard green—brown British camouflage.
A.S. Also about camouflage: can you be specific, were the lower surfaces
of the lend-lease aircraft painted in our blue color, or did they keep
their American gray? In general, how common was it to repaint aircraft
in our color schemes? Were the aircraft numbers painted in silver? Was
the white dispenser used in winter?
N.G. We never repainted American aircraft and we did not use white
True, P-40s came to us with national markings on them—white American
stars. We simply painted these stars red. We also painted the numbers
and propeller hubs red. All the other paint was left “as is”.
A.S. They say that Safonov’s Kittyhawk was painted blue. Is this true?
N.G. As far as I can remember, no. It was the standard olive green.
A.S. Were there any peculiarities or difficulties in maintenance of the
Hurricanes, in comparison with other aircraft?
N.G. No. As far as I can recall, we had no special problems maintaining
the Hurricane. All the technical maintenance work was accomplished in
accordance with instructions developed in Great Britain. The same
applied to the service periods of the equipment [engine hours between
service or replacement of components, et cetera].
A.S. You have already mentioned that during the exploitation of imported
equipment our “culture” regarding the changing of oil increased sharply.
What other examples of heightened technical culture in other systems can
N.G. I can’t think of any other examples.
A.S. In many publications it is mentioned that Safonov received a P-40E
Kittyhawk from the American delegation, and you say that it was from the
VVS. Could it have been directly from the Americans?
N.G. I guess it is possible that the aircraft went from the American
delegation to the VVS, and from their to Safonov. But I doubt it. In any
case, there were no special procedures, such as “turnover of aircraft
from the American delegation,” in the regiment.
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, can you recall, either to affirm or deny the
presence in the regiment of a P-40 with the inscription “Za Safonova!”
[for Safonov] and an ace of spades with anchor on the tail? Whose
aircraft was this? And in general, how widespread was the practice of
individual emblems in the regiment?
N.G. I don’t remember if we had such an aircraft in our regiment. We did
not paint either aces or anchors on our airplanes. We did not use
It is possible that there was such an aircraft, but in the 78th IAP.
They loved “illustrations”. They painted a “shark’s mouth” on their
“chins”. I saw this with my own eyes.
Safonov at one time flew an I-16 with the inscription “Za VKP(b)!” [for
the communist party (bolshevik)].
A.S. By the way, how did you get spare parts?
N.G. Our spare parts system was centralized. Spare parts for foreign
aircraft were delivered together with the airplanes, in containers
[crates]. These spares were stored in warehouses and delivered to units
A.S. Nikolay Gerasimovich, altogether, how many types of aircraft have
N.G. I’ll give them to you in order. Before the war: Po-2; R-5;
I-156bis; I-16 types 4, 5, 10, 17, and 21 [most likely type 24 – I.G.];
During the war: I-16 types 28 and 29; LaGG-3; MiG-1; Hurricane; P-40
Kittyhawk and Tomahawk; P-39 Airacobra almost all types; and UT-2 and
After the war: Yak-1b, Yak-7b, Yak-9, Yak-11, P-63 KingCobra, La-9,
La-11, Yak-12, Yak-18, MiG-15, UTI-MiG-15, MiG-19r, MiG-19spsv, Yak-25,
Yak-28, Su-9, Su-15, Su-15UT, An-14, Il-14, Tu-124, L-29, and An-2.
I made three flights on the MiG-21, but did not qualify in it. That is
A.S. What were your most favorite and least favorite postwar aircraft?
N.G. I had several favorites. The last series of the MiG-19, the PM. The
Su-15 was very good, reliable, with two engines. The Su-9, as a
“aerobatic aircraft” was very good. I executed an entire routine of
complex maneuvers in it, but the engine—help us God! It was a “one-time
use” engine, as I heard, it was derived from a cruise missile engine. It
simply was not meant for “aircraft” regimes and multiple-use employment.
We lost many pilots because of engine failure. Later they “refined” the
engine and the Su-9 became a completely normal fighter.
A.S. Why didn’t they make the Su-9 a frontal aviation fighter?
N.G. I don’t know. Probably because of the engine. Though the airframe
was sound. This aircraft was unique in its piloting characteristics, and
for this I loved it.
A.S. And your least favorite airplane?
N.G. Perhaps, the Yak-28.
First, it was clumsy, it was awkward. Heavy, though the engines were
powerful and reliable.
Second, it “shook” in supersonic flight. After it had been flown in
supersonic regime, mechanics drilled into cracks that appeared in its
fuselage with a 2mm drill bit.
Third, no matter how many flights you made in a day, you could never
land it on the same spot twice. No matter what regime you maintained, it
flew and then it dropped. It hit the pavement where it wanted to and not
where the pilot wanted it to.
Fourth, its radio compass worked very poorly, making it a very difficult
airplane to fly in bad weather. The radio compass was mounted in the
tail and the tail vibrated, causing the indicator to jump around. We
oriented not by the arrow, but by the center of its field of motion.
This is why I did not like the Yak-28. Nobody liked it.
A.S. Thank you for a very interesting interview.