In early July 1944 Soviet intelligence detected a large warship in the Finnish port of Kotka. It was erroneously identified as the coastal defence ship Vainamoinen, the largest warship in the Finnish Navy. In reality this vessel was the 6000-tonne German heavy anti-aircraft depot ship Niobe, formerly the Dutch coastal defence destroyer Gelderland, which was similar in appearance and displacement to the Vainamoinen. Following instructions from the People’s Commissariat of the Navy, Adm N G Kuznetsov, preparations began for a simultaneous mass assault on the ship led by Gen M I Samokhin of the Red Banner Air Forces of the Baltic Fleet
Two Naval Air Forces regiments equipped with the Pe-2 were awarded the title of Guards Regiments during the war. The first was 73rd BAP of the Baltic Fleet Air Force, formed in August 1940 by Hero of the Soviet Union Col A I Krokalev. He was subsequently relieved of his command on 14 November 1940 owing to a high accident rate. Maj F M Koptev replaced him, but Krokalev returned as CO on 9 August 1941 after his replacement was hospitalised with serious injuries after yet another flying accident.
Prior to the German invasion of June 1941, 73rd BAP was equipped with some 60 aircraft (Ar-2s and SBs) as part of 10th BAB, based at Pyarnu and Koporie airfields. On 8 July 73rd BAP flew to Kerstovo, only to return to its home airfields ten days later with orders to protect the Baltic Fleet’s main base near Tallinn.
Although most of the `Peshkas’ initially sent to the Baltic region were issued to 57th BAP, 73rd BAP had received four Pe-2s by early July. These were mainly used for the reconnaissance of ground targets in the vicinity of Tallinn.
On 19-23 August the regiment was redeployed to an airfield near Leningrad. Here, it became part of 8th Air Brigade, and was tasked with striking advancing German troops who had broken through the Luga defensive line. The number of aircraft available to 73rd BAP decreased rapidly, and by the beginning of September there were only 12-15 SBs and Ar-2s left serviceable. One of the aircraft lost to Bf 109s in late August was the Ar-2 flown by Col Anatoliy Krokalev. However, he and his navigator 2Lt Dmitriy Fomin managed to bail out.
In accordance with a decision by Command dated 24 September 1941, 73rd BAP was withdrawn from the front to be strengthened and convert to the Pe-2 dive-bomber. This period passed without any accidents or serious incidents in flight, despite numerous mock dive-bombing runs being made. With a total of 20 crews having been cleared to fly the aircraft in combat, the regiment was sent to Irkutsk in May 1942 to collect its new aircraft. A month later 73rd BAP returned to a base near Leningrad.
From July 1942 crews from the regiment took part in the battle to capture the island of Sommers, in the Gulf of Finland. The German depot ship Nettelbeck and the Finnish gunboat Turunmaa were damaged by shrapnel as a result of continuous raids by the `Peshkas’. Pilots Maj D YaNemchneko and Maj F E Sayenko and navigators Capts N I Grigoryev and D N Fomin distinguished themselves during these raids.
On 20 August regimental CO Col Krokalev departed for a new posting, and 73rd BAP came under the command of Lt Col M A Kurochkin. He oversaw a subsequent augmentation of equipment and personnel that turned 73rd BAP into a mixed regiment for a few months, with two squadrons of low-powered U-2 biplanes operating alongside two squadrons of Pe-2s and two squadrons of obsolete Neman R-10 light bombers. It was with this motley collection of equipment that the regiment took part in Operation Iskra to break the siege of Leningrad.
During the preparatory period for this campaign the regiment struck enemy forces and strongpoints along a wide front, diverting attention from the areas where the breakthrough would take place. After the ground forces had begun to advance, the air component concentrated its efforts on striking fortifications on the Sinyavino Heights.
German artillery housed in the 8th Hydroelectric Station was a particular hindrance to advancing Red Army units. Covered on both sides by high passes, the power station looked like an ancient fortress from the outside. It soon became clear that only heavy aerial bombardment could destroy the power station’s main building. The bombs would have to be dropped in such a way that the infantry entrenched nearby would not be harmed. The shadow of the power station that was projected onto the walls on either side of the site clearly revealed the location of the artillery. Moreover, crews of 73rd BAP had crossed the frontline in this region many times, and had studied the locality well. The guns were knocked out during the course of a single mission against the power station.
The regiment had to tackle an even more complex challenge in May 1943 – to destroy the railway bridge across the River Narva. In accordance with instructions given by Kurochkin, the regiment’s elite `sniper squadron’ trained on a specially equipped range for one week prior to targeting the bridge. Each crew carried out no fewer than three practice bombing runs on a 15-metre by 100-metre (50 ft x 330 ft) target, which replicated the dimensions of the actual bridge.
From 12 to 14 May the squadron, led by 2Lt V S Golubev, dive-bombed the target on three occasions, pulling out to level flight at an altitude of about 700-800 metres (2300-2625 ft). Fighter attacks were successfully repelled, but the bad weather and heavy artillery fire over the target (there were four small-calibre and two medium-calibre anti-aircraft batteries defending the site) prevented completion of the mission – there were no direct hits.
A fourth raid took place on the morning of 21 May, when three aircraft dropped four FAB-250 bombs each, while the others expended two or three FAB-100s and FAB-250s – 700-800 kg (1540-1760 lb) for each `Peshka’. This time the bombs were on target and the bridge was destroyed. Movements along the Tallinn-Gachina route were interrupted for 28 hours. However, uncoordinated attacks by enemy fighters brought down two `Peshkas’, killing the crews of P A Vedeneyev and A I Chubinidze, and others were seriously damaged.
73rd BAP achieved its greatest notoriety in the Baltic region when Maj Vasiliy Ivanovich Rakov became a squadron commander. A graduate of the Kachinsk and Sevastopol flying schools, he distinguished himself as commander of the 57th SBAP during the Winter War with Finland, after which he became a Hero of the Soviet Union. He then entered the academy to study, and following graduation at the beginning of 1942 was sent to the Air Forces of the Black Sea Fleet. He was persistent in refining his tactical and flying training, and commanded both units and individual formations. During the concluding phase of the defence of Sevastopol, Col Rakov was a deputy commander of 3rd Special Air Group. He then commanded 13th SBAP, but was removed from this post and demoted to major following two accidents. Rakov was eventually sent to 73rd BAP as a squadron commander.
In January 1944 73rd BAP became 12th GvBAP. From that month onwards, and with Rakov’s direct participation, the regiment set about mastering dive-bombing raids as a flight. The celebrated pilot recalled; `The formation stretches slightly when recovering from a dive and it is difficult to maintain position. One can feel the g-loads – if one tries to raise an arm or a leg it is as though a weight weighing two pounds has been tied to it. If a man weighs say 70-80 kg [150-175 lbs], then as he pulls out of a dive his weight literally increases to 400 kg [880 lbs]. One is pushed back in the seat and there are stars in your eyes. However, it is far better to be sitting in the pilot’s seat than that of the navigator or gunner. The g-load is easier to bear if one is sitting down. The navigator and gunner, though, are mostly standing up, and have to move the machine gun in the standing position.
`In the first years of the war aircraft would dive onto the target on their own, and enemy fighters would join them by flying below and slightly behind them, anticipating the right moment to shoot the bomber down. Divebombing as a flight was more dangerous for intercepting fighters.
It was not easy for the dive-bomber crews to fend off attacks by heavily armed Fw 190s, not least because the enemy fighters had a significant advantage in terms of speed (100 km/h (60 mph) or more). Moreover, the Pe-2 could not fly far on one engine. Thus, alongside the successful bombing raids, carried out with no losses, there were the unsuccessful ones in which significant numbers of Pe-2s were shot down. For example, four Pe-2s from 12th GvBAP failed to return from an attack on a German convoy at sea on 17 May 1944. One of those aircraft was flown by 2Lt Yuriy Kosenko, who crashed into the water not far from the Finnish naval base at Khamin. Flying his 76th sortie, Kosenko was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.
During early July 1944 Soviet intelligence detected a large warship in the Finnish port of Kotka. It was identified as the coastal defence ship Vainamoinen, the Finnish Navy’s largest warship, but it was in fact the German heavy anti-aircraft depot ship Niobe. Originally built for the Dutch Navy as the coastal defence destroyer Gelderland, Niobe had a similar appearance and displacement to Vainamoinen. In accordance with instructions from the People’s Commissariat of the Navy Adm N G Kuznetsov, preparations began for a simultaneous mass attack on the vessel led by Gen M I Samokhin of the Red Banner Air Forces of the Baltic Fleet.
This was to be an assault by four air groups, consisting of 133 aircraft, and they were to carry out their bombing runs within a narrow seven-minute window. The aircraft were divided into specific groups, with some suppressing flak batteries and others acting as decoys. There would also be a powerful fighter presence. The principal task of sinking the ship was assigned to 24 Pe-2s led by 12th GvBAP CO Maj V I Rakov and four A-20Gs led by Maj I N Ponomarenko.
The vessel was attacked with clinical precision on 16 July, Niobe being hit by as many as ten large bombs that left the ship burning. According to reports from returning bomber crews, the vessel broke up and sank. Soon after he had returned from the mission, Maj Rakov was promoted to the rank of colonel. By war’s end he had flown 172 combat sorties, of which around 100 were in the Pe-2, and participated in the sinking of 12 ships. Rakov was the first aviator in both 12th GvBAP and the Red Banner Air Forces of the Baltic Fleet to have been twice awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.