The Korean War: Secret Soviet Involvement II

Most Soviet pilots were veterans of World War II, some were aces. One of the regiment commanders, Ivan Kozhedub, three-time “Hero of the Soviet Union with three Gold Stars”, had 62 German kills to his credit. During the Korean War, his pilots would claim 258 victories out of a total of 1,300 UN aircraft of all types the Soviets claimed they shot down, while losing 345 of their own. Sixteen Soviet MiG-15 pilots would make ace and claim they outscored the American F-86 pilots by 2:1. On the other hand, some reports indicate that the Americans knocked down MiGs in the hands of North Korean and Chinese pilots at a rate of 13:1. There are no recognized Chinese or Korean aces.

The number of aircraft shot down or destroyed in any particular series of engagements depends on whose report is cited. Both the UN and the Communists probably inflated their victories and deflated their losses.

In October 1951, for example, the Soviet’s 64th IAK claimed to have shot down 103 UN aircraft, which included 45 F-86s, 26 F-84s, 16 B-29s, nine F-80s, four Meteors, two B-26s and one F6F. They reported their losses as eight MiG-15bis and nine MiG-15s flown by the Chinese. The USAF claimed to have destroyed 34 MiG-15s, 24 by the Sabres, nine by the B-29 gunners and one by an F-84 while admitting to fifteen losses from MiG-15 fire: six B-29s, five F-86s, three F-84s, and one RF-80. Curiously, both sides appear to have inflated their claims by about the same figure, 50%. Omitted from the UN’s loss figures are five B-29s that made it back to South Korea, Japan and Okinawa but never flew again. Crediting questionable losses to AAA instead of MiG cannon, and not listing losses partially due to accidents (including one I was involved in), lowered the UN totals considerably. Other records show that during the month of October 1951, Soviet MiG-15 and La-11 fliers shot down or damaged beyond repair 41 UN aircraft: eight F-86A/Es, nine F-84Es, eleven B-29As, five F-80Cs, two RF-80As, two F2H-2s, one B-26B, one F7F-3N, one F4U-4 and one F9F-2B. They also damaged four F-86Es, three B-29As and one Meteor F.8.

The disparity in the numbers of kills reported by the two sides can be partially explained by the method each used to tally their totals. For the most part, Americans counted an aircraft as a loss only if the American plane went down over the combat area. The US Air Force usually did not count aircraft damaged beyond repair or forced to land elsewhere as “shot down”, even if they were never flown again. The Soviets counted these damaged aircraft, so their kill totals are higher than Allied loss totals.

It is also probable that a portion of the inflated totals can also be attributed to the “reward bonus” of 1,500 rubles ($53) paid to some Soviet pilots for each confirmed kill. According to Sergey Markarovich Kramarenko, MiG flight commander in the 176th GIAP, no rewards were paid from April 1951 until January 1952, although in January, Nikolay V. Sutyagin of the 17th IAP/303rd IA received a monetary bonus for being the first pilot credited with twenty victories. The 1,500 rubles reward, Kramarenko recalls, was implemented later by the 97th and 190th IAD, the units that replaced the elite 303rd and 324th IAD. The replacements from the Soviet Defense Force had been trained to intercept bombers, but not to dogfight. During the period, February to August 1952, both replacement units suffered heavy losses, became demoralized, and were reluctant to engage the F-86s. As motivation, a 1,500 rubles reward bonus was tendered for each confirmed kill.

To further motivate their pilots a rumor was started that American Sabre pilots were shooting at MiG pilots in their parachutes after they ejected. This apparent barbarism was further supported by eyewitness accounts. As it turned out, the American fighter pilots were not firing at the parachutist but off at an angle because F-86 gun cameras were activated by the trigger and the only way to confirm some “kills” was to get a picture of a parachuting MiG pilot, although the poor guy in the parachute would have no way of knowing that.

Diego Zampini, author of several articles on Korean War aces, has thoroughly researched the topic and interviewed numerous Soviet as well as Allied combatants. Zampini believes that no less than 50% of the 1,300 Soviet claims are unsubstantiated and that 15% of the remaining half were aircraft that were heavily damaged and thought to have been shot down, but somehow limped back to their bases in South Korea. This leaves, in Zampini’s estimation, 35% that were genuine aerial victories.

Further complicating the tally was a tendency to view the figures in reports from different units as separate entities when they may all have been based on the same engagement viewed from different perspectives. An extreme example occurred on Black Tuesday. One Soviet report placed the total number of attacking B-29s at 27, when, in fact, there were only nine. Such an error can best be explained by figuring that there were three separate reported sightings of nine B-29s (9 + 9 + 9 = 27) that did not take into account that all three were seeing the same formation. Likewise, the Russians claimed they shot down ten B-29s, which included those that had “ditched at sea or crashed in South Korea due to damage”.

Although many American pilots were veterans of World War II, virtually all of the Soviet pilots were combat seasoned. Whatever the controversy, it cannot be argued that eventually the Soviet pilots were the primary reason the US switched B-29 combat operations from day to night bombing in areas that were not off-limits to MiG pilots.

Pilots on both sides of the conflict were prohibited from crossing certain lines. For the UN pilots, it was the Yalu River. For the Soviets it was an imaginary line drawn between Pyongyang and Wonsan, the southern limit of an area that became known as MiG Alley. Soviet pilots were also prohibited from flying over the sea. It was assumed that if they were shot down, an American ship would pick them up and their secret involvement would be out of the bag. This observer, however, has wondered all these years why the pilots themselves did not take the initiative, especially in cases where bombers were severely crippled. When asked for the most likely explanation, Stephen Sewell (Korean Air War Historian) said that a Soviet Air Force officer either got ahead or got his head handed to him. In other words, for the same reason that we did not cross the Yalu and bomb the Manchurian MiG bases.

The Soviets were also severely restricted by the shortage of suitable landing strips. Until early 1951, Antung at the mouth of the Yalu was the only airbase available for combat operations. On the South side of the Yalu, North Korea’s 34 airfields were bombed before they could be used. Namsi Airfield, the 307th target on Black Tuesday, was being built not only to move the MiGs closer to the front lines but to provide a launch base that the Soviets, for whatever reason, believed could be used to conduct operations outside of MiG Alley.

In October 1951, the 303rd Fighter Aviation Division, headed up by General-Major A. Kumanichkin, consisted of two Fighter Aviation Regiments and one Guards Fighter Regiment assigned 36 MiGs each. Also available for combat was the 324th Fighter Aviation Division commanded by Colonel I. N. Kozhedub. The 324th had 72 MiGs assigned, split between two Fighter Regiments.

When the MiG pilots went up after a bomber formation, they usually divided into two groups, the attacking or strike group and the covering group. When attacking, the first priority of the strike group was to knock down as many bombers as possible in their initial attack. B-29s were usually attacked from the rear, the MiGs opening up their cannon fire from long range while flying at high speed. After the first pass, the squadrons broke into individual pairs and flights, continuing the attack from various directions until fuel dictated they must return to their home base. During the battle, strike and covering groups would often change places.

Before picking a fight with the B-29 fighter escorts, which sometimes numbered close to a hundred F-80, F-84, F-86, or British Meteors, the MiG pilots would seek a performance advantage. In many cases after attacking the opponents head-on, the MiG pilots would pull a high speed breakaway, climbing for altitude and a subsequent turn towards their safe haven across the Yalu. When UN aircraft tried to intercept MiGs returning to their protected airfield on the north side of the Yalu, they would be met by fighters assigned to protect returning squadrons. When American naval fighters came in from the Gulf of Korea to intercept the returning MiGs, Communist jets from a neighboring airfield would be launched to support landing operations at the blockaded airfield. Whatever the circumstances, the OVA covered the landings in the air, with additional fighters on ground alert, ready for take-off if the intervention continued.

The basic combat flight maneuvers used by MiG-15 pilots included the combat turn, tightening spiral, zoom climb, and split S. The MiG’s altitude advantage made the split S a particularly effective combat maneuver. Flying well above a UN fighter, the pilot would execute a half-roll and dive on the hapless fighter below. Because the MiG had a nasty habit of stalling without warning, especially when turning away from an attack and losing airspeed, combat maneuvering required the pilot to maintain a healthy speed reserve. The Russians were well aware that these stalls could prove fatal and even when recovered would often place the MiG in an attitude highly vulnerable to attack.

The regimental strike group were usually first to enter the fray. Overhead, a covering squadron would keep an eye on the progress of the battle, entering into it only when UN numerical superiority became overwhelming or to protect fellow pilots when they had to break off and head home. During the initial attack the leading pair in the strike group would maneuver to get behind their opponents and close to the leader’s effective cannon range before firing. The wingman would keep the leader informed of the whereabouts of enemy aircraft and engage those who tried to attack. If necessary, aircraft from another pair would attempt to ward off attacking UN fighters.

Only the regimental commander had the authority to break off combat. His decision was based on the situation. Voluntary or free exit took place in those instances when the MiG-15 fighters could leave without interference from the enemy. An essential or forced exit from the battle arena occurred when the situation was leaning in favor of the enemy or when the MiGs were low on fuel.

Returning to their home base, the formation would disperse across a broad front to make them less vulnerable to a surprise attack by UN fighters. To economize on fuel they would approach the field at high altitude, typically between 32,500 and 45,500 feet and descend on cue from the regimental command post, making a diving, straight-in approach, using their air brakes to slow for the final flare and touch down. Approaching the field at treetop level, using the lay of the land for cover, the fighters would land, one at a time, at 10 to 15 second intervals.

On October 23 1951, the Soviet Order of Battle boiled down to the 64th IAK, which controlled all USSR combat aircraft in Manchuria. Major General Georgiy Ageyevich Lobov, a World War Two veteran who had 19 victories against the Nazi Luftwaffe and four more against American F-80 Shooting Stars in August and September 1951, commanded the unit.

The 64th IAK controlled two divisions, the 324th and the 303rd, commanded by Colonel Ivan Nikitovich Kozhedub and General Major Aleksandr S. Kumanichkin, respectively. As previously noted, Kozhedub had earned the honor of being the greatest Soviet and Allied ace during World War Two. Although divisional commanders usually flew with their subordinates, Kozhedub was prohibited from flying combat missions. As the most famous airman in the USSR, the government felt that if he was shot down and killed his demise would be difficult to hide or to credit to “training” or “operational” duties. Kozhedub had two regiments under his command, the 176th GIAP (Gvard Istrevitelniy Avia Polk or Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment), led by Lt. Colonel Sergey Fedoseyevich Vishnyakov, and the 96th GIAP, led by Colonel Yevgeny Georgievich Pepelyayev.

The three regiments of the 303rd IA were the 17th IAP, led by Major Grigoriy Ivanovich Pulov, the 18th GIAP, under Lt. Colonel Aleksandr Yefimovich Belostotsky, and the 523rd IAP, commanded by Lt. Colonel Anatoly N. Karasyev.

Each Soviet regiment had about 30 MiG-15s, and divided them into three squadrons, usually numbered 1st, 2nd and 3rd. Two of the squadron commanders, Smorchkov and Os’kin, were key players in the Black Tuesday air battle. The 64th IAK, the fighter corps defending northern North Korea, launched regiments from both the 303rd and 324th. The 324th, nicknamed the Paradnaya Divisiya or Parade Division because it flew most of the exhibitions in Moscow, tangled with the fighter escorts while all three regiments of the crack 303rd hit the bombers.

By the time Black Tuesday rolled around, MiG units had developed combat tactics against B-29s that would prove devastating. Aimed at using a squadron of MiG-15s against a group of up to eight B-29s with a covering group of up to twelve F-80s or F-84s, doctrine decreed that the attack be carried out at top speed either simultaneously or sequentially by flights. Such an attack, they surmised, limited the fighter cover’s time to prepare against it. Further instructions read, “attacks should be made from behind at a deflection angle of 0 /4 to 2 / 4 using the moving reticle in the sight and aiming at their fuel tanks, engines, and cockpit. Long bursts should be fired from ranges of 800 meters down to 300 meters. When breaking off the firing pass it is best to go beneath the B-29 with a subsequent turn in front of it at an angle of 20-30 degrees. Waiting one to one and a half minutes, the aircraft should then turn 180 degrees to the opposite side and make a second attack from the front at a deflection angle of 0 /4 to 2 / 4. Firing should be carried out at a range of 1300-1200 meters; the firing run should terminate at 400 meters after which they should break off combat without changing direction.”

According to Soviet records, over 19,000 daylight sorties were launched from November 1950 to January 1952. During that time they claimed to have shot down 500 UN aircraft, more than 17% of them bombers. The highest scoring Soviet ace of the Korean War was “Evgeni” Pepelyaev, known as the “Big night boy,” with 23 confirmed kills. He was credited with twelve F-86s, six F-80s, four F-84s, and one F-94. Two of these were “shared” kills. Anatoly Karelin’s nine claimed victories were all B-29s shot down at night.

When, as a direct result of Black Tuesday, the UN stopped daylight B-29 raids within range of the MiGs parked across the Yalu, bombing in that region was conducted under cover of darkness. Because the MiG-15 was not equipped with radar for search and target acquisition, the fighters were only able to effectively intercept bombers that were illuminated. In other words, the question was no longer “how to shoot them down” but “how to find them”. Nonetheless, using an unusual combination of primitive and new technology, fighter pilots would sometimes home on bonfires that were laid out like points on a grid map and lit by people on the ground. This gave them a ground reference point that they could use to attack the bomber—along with altitude, course, and distance information provided by a ground controller. Without airborne radar and other visual aids, due to blackout conditions on the ground, MiG pilots could be directed to the bombers by the ground radar controllers with reference to the fires. Even when their radar was electronically jammed or cluttered by chaff, Soviet ground controllers could broadcast the position of the bomber in relation to the numbered bonfires to the MiG orbiting closest to that location. The MiG would then come in underneath the bomber’s flight altitude looking for the glow from the engine turbo chargers before opening fire. The bonfires were limited to nights when the skies were fairly clear, the moon wasn’t out, and the MiGs were prepared to launch. These factors would severely limit the number of occasions for the use of such bonfires, plus terrain would sometimes prevent them from being laid out in the true grid pattern necessary for precise intercepts. Because of the mountains, mobile radar stations likewise had great difficulty in strategically locating themselves for their most effective deployment.

In 1992, the Russians revealed that a total of 26,000 men had been assigned to Soviet air defense and fighter units during the Korean War. With that number of personnel and all the Soviet aerial activity, it is hard to believe that the official intelligence agencies in the United States did not have a clue that the Russians were flying the MiG-15s. It is perhaps easier to believe that the information was being deliberately withheld, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, for political reasons. Whatever the reasons, the crews flying the B-29s during the period leading up to Black Tuesday were well aware that you couldn’t stick a foot soldier in a high performance jet fighter and expect him to accomplish much more than to kill himself.