A week after the outbreak of war, Stalin took an interest in the status of this unique WS unit. He summoned to the Kremlin the regiment’s commander, Colonel Novodranov, and Colonel Lebedev of the NII WS, who was responsible for refining the TB-7. The leader, who had repeatedly raised objections against production of the aircraft, regarded the four-engined bomber as a retribution weapon, even if only symbolically, but it was ideal for striking blows against targets deep in the enemy’s rear. On Stalin’s initiative it was decided to strengthen the regiment immediately by drawing air and ground crews from civil aviation and the NII VVS.
The re-formed regiment was named the 412th, and later the 432nd, and Lebedev became its new commander. Nine of the dozen aircraft built had diesel engines, while the rest had AM-35As. After initial preparations eight M-40-powered aircraft were detached for an attack on the Reich capital. Computations showed that the desired radius of operation could be guaranteed by using the advance airfield at Pushkin, in the environs of Leningrad. Of eight TB-7s that took off on 10th August 1941, only five dropped their bombs on Berlin. The serious losses were due to the low reliability of the diesel engines, which failed to come-up to expectations. Seven TB7s were lost during August 1941, one in a crash, rendering the regiment practically useless. Command quickly took corrective action, re-engining the remaining aircraft with AM-35As. This increased their altitude to 16,400ft (5,000m), clear of anti-aircraft fire.
In October 1941, after replenishment with new aircraft from Plant No. 124, the regiment launched raids on Berlin, Konigsberg, Danzig and other objectives. In the winter of 1941-42 it was given the unusual tasks of bombing a railway bridge across the Volga in the Kalinin region and delivering a special agent to the Zhitomir area, in the enemy’s rear. In April 1942 a crew captained by Major Asyanov accomplished a non-stop flight to Great Britain, carrying embassy officials and diplomatic mail. This flight presaged another, to the USA and back via England, on 19th May 1942. On board for this trip were the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, and his staff. In spite of great difficulties the flight was successful, and the aircraft’s commanding officer and navigators Major Romanov and Major Shtepenko were made Heroes of the Soviet Union.
In brief, the results of TB-7 operations at the beginning of the war were as follows. From August 1941 to May 1942 the regiment flew 226 operational missions and dropped 606 tonnes of bombs. The total attrition was 14 aircraft (nine were non-combat losses) and 61 crew members. Seventeen new and modernised TB-7s replaced the casualties.
In May 1942 the government decided to increase TB-7 production in Kazan. As a result the 746th Long Range Regiment (as the unit was named in 1942) was expanded into a two-regiment division. As Colonel Lebedev took command of division, Major N Egorov was placed in command of the 746th Regiment and Major A Lebedev led the newly created 890th Regiment.
After a short training period the division returned to combat. Its TB-7s bombed enemy positions in the Orel, Bryansk, Kursk and Poltava regions in the summer of 1942, and in August 1942 alone they made as many flights as they had during the preceding ten months.
In the autumn, and especially in the winter of 1942-43, the activities of the TB-7 (redesignated Pe-8 at that time) diminished somewhat. This was partly due to the increased difficulty of operating in winter conditions, and partly to the discovery of serious manufacturing deficiencies which meant that barely half of the available aircraft were usable.
In 1943 Kratovo was the 45th Air Division’s main base. Operating from there it bombed enemy airfields, railway lines and stations, and echelons of troops. One of the regular targets was Gomel, in Belorussia, and from February to September 1943 753 tonnes of bombs were delivered on the railway station and other targets, resulting in 139 large conflagrations and 79 explosions.
Operations against troops and material in occupied towns and enemy territory were no less important. The use of ‘superheavy’ FAB500 bombs dates from this period, the first being dropped on Konigsberg in April 1943. In July 1943 the Germans strengthened their defences against Soviet heavy night bombers, and their Messerschmitt Bf 110 night fighters shot down four aircraft. This was due firstly to the increase in night fighter activity in the Kurskaya Duga area, and secondly to the fact that the new Pe-8s with M-82 radials were more visible in the night sky because they lacked flame-damping exhausts.
Crews noted both the advantages and disadvantages of the M-82-engined Pe-8. Among the new variant’s obvious merits, its increased range was especially appreciated. With a 4,4091b (2,000kg) bomb load it covered almost 3,106 miles (5,000km), some 932 miles (1,500km) further than the AM-35Apowered aircraft. First among the shortcomings was the complex throttle control of the M-82s. Uneven increase of power during take-off could cause the aircraft to veer off, with the attendant danger of damaging its undercarriage. In 1943 alone, six Pe-8s were lost to such accidents. Shortly after the arrival of the M-82-powered aircraft, Pe-8s with ACh30B diesel engines entered service with the 45th Air Division. Although this engine was considerably more mature than the M-30 and M-40 it was not flawless, suffering frequent failures of its compressor bearings and piston rings. In 1943-1944 the heavy bomber pilots fondly remembered the less powerful and economical but far more reliable AM-35A, the production of which was curtailed.
By the spring of 1944 it was clear that the 45th Division could not be equipped solely with the Pe-8. The production rate was too low, and in the whole of 1944 only five were built. Consequently the WS Command decided to equip the newly formed 362nd Air Regiment and, partially, the 890th Air Regiment, with US-built North American B-25 Mitchells. From June the flight hours accumulated by the division’s Mitchells increased all the time, but even in 1944 the Pe-8s completed 276 operational sorties, including attacks on Helsinki, Nazi-occupied Tallinn and Pskov. However, the number of Pe-8s available decreased steadily, and on the night of 1st/2nd August 1944 the type flew its last operation.
It was clearly necessary to bring Pe-8 operations to an end. In 1942 the loss rate was one aircraft for every 103 flights, but by 1944 on it was up to one for every 46 flights. The aircraft had evidently become obsolescent, and it was impossible to continue using it as a long range heavy bomber. Its high-altitude capability, speed, defensive firepower and reliability were now inadequate. The Pe-8 served in the transport role beyond the war’s end.