Numerically, the most important fighter in the V-VS arsenal at the time was still the Polikarpov I-16—revolutionary in 1935, but obsolescent in 1941. The second most numerous Soviet fighter, the I-153, was essentially a refined I-15 biplane with retractable landing gear, designed in 1937 after the I-16 because Nikolai N. Polikarpov, concerned that the higher wing loading of monoplanes reduced climb rate and agility, still thought the biplane might have a future. Powered by an 850-horsepower Shvetsov M-62 nine-cylinder radial engine, the I-153 had a fair turn of speed for a biplane—280 miles per hour at 15,090 feet. Armament consisted of four fuselage-mounted 7.62mm ShKAS machine guns, which would later be supplemented by underwing racks for up to four fifty-five-pound bombs or six 82mm RS-82 rockets.
The new biplane entered service in the spring of 1939 and was soon committed to combat in the Khalkhin-Gol region at the border of Mongolia and Japanese-controlled Manchuria, where an undeclared war had been raging since May 11—and where Nakajima Ki.27s of the Japanese Army Air Force were outmaneuvering the I-16s and outrunning the older I-152 biplanes. Aside from the startling performance of the Japanese fighters, Soviet personnel assigned to Mongolia up to that time were generally substandard, since the region was regarded as a backwater.
So serious was the beating the V-VS had taken, however, that on May 28, People’s Commissar for Defense Kliment Y. Voroshilov ordered a temporary suspension of combat sorties, and the decimated 70th IAP (Istrebitelny Aviatsionny Polk, or Fighter Aviation Regiment) was pulled back to Bain Tumen for replacement aircraft and personnel. Among its new consignment of aircraft were twenty I-153s, fresh off the assembly line and shipped by road across the Soviet Union and assigned to one of its squadrons. The regiment also got an infusion of Spanish Civil War veterans, including its new commander, Mayor Sergei I. Gritsevets, who had thirty victories over Spain to his credit, as well as two Gold Stars of a Hero of the Soviet Union (HSU).
The I-153’s fighting debut came at 1100 hours on July 25, when Gritsevets took nine of the planes into the sky, divided into three-plane zvenoi (flights) led by himself and two other pilots, Nikolai Viktorov and Aleksandr Nikolayev. Within seconds of noting a white marker in one of the foothills of the Khamardaba, indicating the forward-most position of friendly ground troops, Gritsevets’s deputy waggled his wings to attract his attention and then pointed toward the Uzur-Nur, a lake on the Japanese side of the lines. There, about 5,000 feet above the lake and climbing toward the Soviets, was a gaggle of Ki.27s.
To the surprise of his pilots, Gritsevets turned a few degrees away from the Japanese and led them off at a leisurely speed. It soon dawned on them, however, that he was trying to draw the Japanese into Soviet territory, at the same time presenting an angle that would conceal the I-153s’ retracted landing gear from their view so that they would think they were dealing with I-152s—relatively easy prey. As the Japanese eagerly closed in on them, the Soviet pilots cocked their gun triggers into the “fire” position, then, once the Japanese had closed to 2,200 yards, Gritsevets made a circling gesture over his head. Gunning their engines to full boost, the Soviets broke formation and turned on their pursuers.
The wild dogfight that followed only lasted five minutes, but it certainly left the Soviet pilots satisfied, as all of them returned to their base and reported seeing at least one Nakajima break up in the air, a second spiral down trailing smoke, and two others plunge down to the steppe below before the rest retreated over the lines. Their perception proved to be somewhat exaggerated—the enemy unit involved, the 24th Sentai, reported the loss of only two planes and their pilots, Sgt. Maj. Kiyoshige Tatsumi and Cpl. Shunji Takagaki—but it was far more conservative than the Japanese description of their run-in with the I-153 squadron that appeared in the Tokyo newspaper Yoshiura a few days later, stating that “although flown by veritable devils, it had been bested by fighters of the Imperial Japanese Army which had accounted for no fewer than eleven of this new warplane.” In fact, only two of the nine I-153s that returned had bullet holes in their fabric skins to indicate that they had been in combat.
In spite of that promising start, the I-153 soon lost its fleeting ascendancy over the Ki.27. Allegedly some Soviet pilots would fly with their landing gear down in the hope of convincing Japanese pilots that they were flying I-152s rather than I-153s, retracting it as the enemy closed in on them—no mean feat, since the I-153’s undercarriage had to be hand-cranked. More often, however, the I-153s took the worst of it against the Ki.27s, and they only proved effective if used in concert with a higher element of I-16s, just as the older I-15s had done over Spain. Its leading exponent, Gritsevets, added a total of twelve Japanese planes to his civil war tally, but his wealth of experience was to be denied his comrades later, when it would have been needed most. Appointed a regiment commander just before the Soviet invasion of Poland on September 17, 1939, he was taxiing for takeoff on the preceding day when another plane coming in for a landing, flown by fellow Spanish Civil War veteran Mayor Piotr I. Khara, suddenly stalled and crashed on top of Gritsevets’s machine, killing him.
The overall success of the Khalkhin-Gol campaign did not blind the Soviet High Command, or Stavka, to the shortcomings displayed by its standard fighters, but by then Polikarpov was committed to production of the I-153; 3,437 were completed by the time manufacture finally ceased in early 1940. The embarrassing showing that the V-VS displayed during the 1939–40 Winter War against Finland reinforced the need for a major modernization of its arsenal, and, indeed, by that time Soviet designers were already developing a generation of airplanes to bring the V-VS back up to world standard. These newer types were only entering service, however, when the Germans struck in June 1941. In consequence, the first line of Soviet fighters, and the men who flew them, would have to buy time for production of the more advanced types to reach full tempo—time for which they paid in blood.
In January 1939, Stalin and the Commissariat of the People for the Aviation Industry issued a specification for a new general-purpose fighter to compete with the Messerschmitt Me 109. Ten design bureaus took part in the resulting competition, including those of Aleksandr S. Yakovlev, Semyon A. Lavochkin, and Nikolai Polikarpov. One of Polikarpov’s proposals, more of a high-speed interceptor than a frontline fighter, was to be powered by the new 1,400-horsepower Mikulin AM-37 engine, which was expected to give it a normal maximum speed of 416 miles per hour and briefly boost it to 445 miles per hour by means of two turbosuperchargers.
The I-200 project was adopted for development in December 1939; but since Polikarpov was then engaged in developing the I-180—essentially a refined I-16—the Commissariat set up a special design department to proceed with the I-200, headed by Artyom Mikoyan, a talented engineer who was the younger brother of Anastas Mikoyan, the future deputy chairman of the Council of the People’s Commissars of the USSR and People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Among Artyom Mikoyan’s deputies was Mikhail Y. Gurevich.
When work on the AM-37 engine was abandoned, Mikoyan’s team proceeded using the 1,200-horsepower AM-35A engine and produced a sleek fighter of mixed metal and wooden construction that made its first flight, with Arkady N. Yekatov at the controls, on April 5, 1940. Engine overheating problems were eventually overcome by redesigning the radiator, and after overflying Moscow in the May Day parade, the I-200 was put into production on May 25 as the MiG-1. An improved version, the MiG-3, was flown by Yekatov in February 1941. Its maximum speed was 397 miles per hour at its normal service ceiling of 25,500 feet, but during a test flight on March 13, 1941, the supercharger impeller suffered damage and the prototype went down out of control, killing Yekatov. In spite of that and subsequent crashes, the MiG-3 was also hastily put in production, resulting in operational aircraft of such crude manufacture that performance almost invariably fell below the intrinsic specification, and the armament was not properly harmonized. The MiG-3 also suffered from increased weight, most of which shifted its center of gravity aft, making it a difficult plane to fly and land.
By mid-1941, 1,289 MiG-3s had been delivered to V-VS units. Piotr M. Stefanovsky, a MiG test pilot sent to convert the 4th and 55th IAPs of the 20th SAD (Smeshannaya Aviadiviziya, or Combined Air Division), later recalled:
The division had two complete sets of fighter equipment comprising the outdated I-16 and I-153 and the brand-new MiG-3, but by the time I arrived they wouldn’t dare even to make a test flight with the latter type, so I had to push it. Surprisingly, the pilots weren’t at all enthusiastic about the new aircraft, and nobody volunteered to master it. Well, I had to show off right away with the MiG-3. So I took off and squeezed everything I could out of the aircraft, and a bit more. Once I landed it appeared that their suspicious attitude toward the fighter had gone. . . . The ensuing conversion training had to be completed in some haste as time was pressing, and we flew from dawn to dusk.
One of the more talented pilots who managed to master the MiG-3’s idiosyncrasies was Starshy Leitenant Aleksandr Ivanovich Pokryshkin of the 55th IAP who, after flying I-16s, was instantly captivated by its sleek lines. “I liked it at once,” he later said. “It could be compared to a frisky, fiery horse—in experienced hands it was to run like an arrow, but if you lost control you finished up beneath its hooves.”
Another 55th IAP member, Mladshy Leitenant (Junior Lieutenant) Valentin I. Figichev, had barely completed his training at Pyrlitsa airfield, near the Romanian border, before he became the first pilot to employ the MiG-3 in the interceptor role. While leading a patrol near the Romanian border on June 9, he reported sighting a Junkers Ju 88 with German markings in Soviet air space, and tried to force its pilot to land. The intruder—more likely a Dornier Do 215B of the 3rd Staffel of Aufklärungsgruppe (Fernaufklärung) des Oberfehlshabers der Luftwaffe, which conducted high-altitude photoreconnaissance missions over the Black Sea and the southern USSR from Pipera airfield near Bucharest—turned back, and Figichev and his flight pursued it several kilometers into Romania before abandoning the chase. This caused a diplomatic incident with Romania that would have led to Figichev’s arrest had events thirteen days later not caused it to be forgotten. Figichev went on to be credited with eight German and one Romanian plane in the next month’s fighting over Moldavia and the southern Ukraine. The 4th IAP, stationed at Kishinyov, claimed to have brought down three Romanian aircraft that had intruded into Soviet air space prior to the German invasion. In most cases, however, Stalin ordered his fighters to refrain from attacking Axis intruders, lest the Germans use any such incident as an excuse for war.
That all became meaningless at 0300 hours on June 22 when the Luftwaffe launched a comprehensive strike that destroyed about 2,000 Soviet aircraft, mostly on the ground, in the first twenty-four hours. At that time, 917 MiG-3s were distributed among units in the Baltic, Western, Kiev, and Odessa military districts, with an additional 300 defending Moscow and Leningrad. Two days later, only 234 MiGs were operational, the highest proportion of losses to any fighter type in the V-VS in that time period. Worst hit was the 9th SAD, which lost virtually all of its 37 MiG-1s and about 200 MiG-3s—out of total divisional losses of 347 out of 409 aircraft—by June 25. On the twenty-sixth the 9th SAD’s commander, General-Mayor (Major General) Sergei A. Chernykh, a five-victory Spanish Civil War ace and Hero of the Soviet Union, was court-martialed and executed by firing squad.
Ironically, that sort of comprehensive disaster was avoided by the older I-16s of the 67th IAP based at Bolgarijka (Bulgarica) airfield in southern Bessarabia, which had prudently dispersed some of its zvenoi to temporary “ambush fields” closer to the Romanian border. From these they were able to react and intercept enemy strikes from the outset, starting with a Romanian Bristol Blenheim of Escadrila 1 Recunoastere on a reconnaissance sortie destroyed at 0400 hours on June 22, along with its four-man crew, by Mladshy Leitenant Nikolai Yermak—the first Axis loss during Barbarossa.
Shortly afterward, two successive groups of nine I-16s each from the 67th intercepted two waves of Savoia-Marchetti SM.79B bombers of Romanian Grupul 1 Bombardement, escorted by IAR-80s of Grupul 8 Vânãtoare, as they attacked airfields at Bolgrad and Bolgarijka. According to the Soviet account, Kapitan Ivan Artamonov led his flight against the fighters, which soon disengaged and retired, leaving Kapitan Feodor Chechulin’s flight free to disperse and drive off the bombers, all Soviet fighters returning intact. The Romanians, in contrast, claimed four victories for the IARs—including one by Sublocotenent Aviator (Pilot Officer) Ioan Miháilescu for his first of an eventual five victories—and two by SM.79 gunners, as well as four Soviet fighters destroyed on the airfield, for the loss of two bombers. IAR-80, No. 56, was driven down near Brãila in Romanian territory, and Sublocotenent (Junior Lieutenant) Gheorghe Postelnicu returned battle-damaged IAR No. 18 to base with wounds to his head and neck.
Other Soviet units besides the 67th IAP managed to get some planes into the air. Situated only twelve kilometers from the Polish border, the 129th IAP at the advanced base at Tarnovo had fifty-seven MiG-3s, fifty-two I-153s, and only forty combat-ready pilots. Many of the MiGs were not airworthy, and so few of the pilots had accustomed themselves to its flying characteristics that, given the choice, most of them flew the old biplanes. The unit’s senior political instructor, Anatoly M. Sokolov, was still engaged in converting pilots from I-153s to MiG-3s when the Germans struck. Commissars already had an unsavory reputation for being more politically reliable than competent, but when the chips were down that morning, Sokolov proved to be an exception. Joining the twelve MiG-3s and eighteen I-153s that managed to get airborne at dawn and intercept a dozen Me 109s at 0405, Sokolov shot down one of them. Another interception by the 129th caused eighteen Heinkel He 111s to drop their bombs short of Tarnovo before retiring. Inspired more by Sokolov’s example than they ever could have been by his words, his comrades claimed another five German aircraft for the loss of only one of their own in aerial combat. At 1000, however, a series of strikes by small formations of Ju 88s and Me 109s succeeded in destroying twenty-seven MiG-3s, eleven I-153s, and eight training aircraft on the ground, as well as rendering Tarnovo airfield inoperable.
The badly mauled 129th IAP withdrew to Balbasovo four days later, but it would go on to greater things. Sokolov would be credited with eight enemy planes and received an HSU before being shot down and killed by enemy fighters on January 25, 1942. Later equipped with Lavochkin LaGG-3s, La-5s, and finally La-7s, the 129th produced a number of outstanding aces—the highest scoring of whom, Vitaly I. Popkov, was credited with forty-one and awarded two HSUs—and on December 6, 1941, was given an honorary Gvardiya (Guards) redesignation as the 5th GvIAP. By the end of the war the 5th GvIAP had been credited with 737 victories, the highest score of any fighter regiment in the V-VS, as well as the destruction of 1,832 military vehicles and 283 artillery emplacements.
The 124th IAP had its forces divided between two airfields on June 22. One, Wysokie-Mazowieckie, was a small field forty miles from the border, hosting seventy MiG-3s and twenty-nine I-16s. There was little taxiing room, handicapping the MiGs in particular, since unlike the I-16s they needed at least 540 yards of field to take off. Consequently, when the base underwent six successive fighter-bomber attacks by Me 110Es of II Gruppe, Schnellkampfgeschwader 210, the field and its aircraft were wiped out. A few MiGs managed to take off and 124th’s deputy commander, Kapitan Nikolai Kruglov, was credited with bringing down a Dornier Do 215 at 0415 hours. Fifteen minutes later Mladshy Leitenant Dmitry V. Kokorev fired a few rounds at what he identified as a Do 215 before his gun jammed. Kokorev then ran his MiG into the enemy plane’s empennage, chewing it away with his propeller until it fell, then managed to bring his plane home. According to German records, II./SKG 210 lost two Me 110s, and one, downed near Zambrow, may have been the first—but by no means the last—victim of Kokorev’s desperate tactic; as many as eighteen other such aerial rammings, called tarans, were recorded on that first day alone.
The 55th IAP, based at Beltsy, got some MiGs into the air to intercept twenty He 111s of III Gruppe, Kampfgeschwader 27, escorted by eighteen Me 109s, claiming two Heinkels and a Messerschmitt for three MiGs damaged. The Germans acknowledged a wounded Ltn. Gerhard Krems force landing his He 111H-2 near Sileni with 30 percent damage, and two other Heinkels returning with wounded crewmen. Seven more claims were made by the Soviet regiment in the course of the day.
The next day saw the 55th IAP carry out a dubious interception, as its MiGs attacked six light bombers with single radial engines, one of which force landed and three others of which returned to base—in Soviet territory, since the MiGs’ prey had in fact been Sukhoi Su-2s of the 211th Blizhnebombardirovochny Aviatsionny Polk, which suffered the loss of one navigator killed and another wounded. One of the claimants was “Sasha” Pokryshkin. Soon after this embarrassing combat debut, however, he redeemed himself by shooting down an Me 109, followed by two Henschel Hs 126s in one sortie. More important than the aerial victories were the lessons Pokryshkin was learning, which he would later convert into something the V-VS pilots needed even more than new fighters: an effective tactical fighting doctrine. Pokryshkin proved to be a great teacher and leader, as well as being the second-ranking Allied ace of World War II with a final tally of fifty-nine victories. He would also be one of only two Soviet pilots to be awarded the HSU three times, as well as the US Army’s Distinguished Service Medal.
On the morning of June 22, V-VS commander Gen. Pavel F. Zhigarev ordered ninety-nine new fighters to be rushed to the front, but the chaos of the German advance made that impossible. There were no new fighters to oppose the Luftwaffe by June 24, but two hundred fighters arrived the next day, and after that a new regiment reached the front almost daily. Prominent among the aircraft were MiG-3s; but they never fully measured up to expectations and were eventually relegated to units of the PVO (Protivovozdushnaya Oborona, or Defense Group), protecting Moscow and other cities, and serving in the high-speed reconnaissance role. Overall, the design team of Mikoyan and Gurevich was not a particularly successful one during World War II, although the postwar jet age would make their names world famous.