SOVIET FIGHTER ACES IN KOREA

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Russian MiG-15 Aces in Korea, from left to right: Aleksandr P. Smorchkov (8 kills), Nikolai Ivanovich Ivanov (6), Semen Alexeievich Fedorets (8), Yevgeni G. Pepelyayev (19) and Sergei Makarovich Kramarenko (13).

On Sunday, June 25, 1950, the North Korean Peoples Army suddenly launched its invasion of South Korea by crossing the 38th Parallel. Spearheaded by T-34/85 tanks and supported by swarms of 11- 10 Shturmovik ground-attack aircraft, the offensive rapidly pushed South Korean and UN troops back.

USAF F-80s, F-5 1 s, F-82s, and B-26s were quickly in the fray, wreaking successful havoc on Communist supply lines, and some big scores were built up against obsolescent Russian- built piston-engined aircraft; as the tide of war was beginning to turn and the North Korean advance slowed down to a halt, the advent of the Mikoyan-Guryevich MiG-15 mid-wing monoplane jets came to the Allies as one of the nastiest surprises of the war.

On November 1, 1950, UN pilots submitted first sighting reports of MiG- 15s in Korean colors and, although 12 days later the first victory was reported, it soon became very obvious that the F-80s, F-84s, and Meteors had at a stroke become obsolete. The MiGs could even outclimb the F-86s that entered combat in December, 1950, and enjoying an untouchable ceiling of 15,200 meters, they could dive down on their prey and climb back up to a safe position after striking with relative impunity. From their experience Russian pilots determined that the MiG’s main strength though lay in its enormous firepower, offered by one N-37 37mm cannon and two NS-23KM 23 mm cannon. A two-second burst would pour a devastating 14 kilograms of lead into the enemy plane, tearing it to pieces, while the MiG could take a lot of punishment from the Sabres’ .50 caliber guns thanks to its heavier armor protection.

United States military authorities have always felt certain that skilled Soviet airmen fought in Korea. The actual Soviet involvement has long been due to continuous Soviet attempts to hide their participation at all. Glasnost and Perestrojka as late as 1993 have laid Open fragments of Russian files, allow allowing to make a fairer comparison of the history of aerial warfare. Although there are many Russian participants who are still reluctant to talk freely about their experiences, there is no more denying that the combatants in Korea in terms of technical and psychological quality were actually more evenly matched, and that UN estimates of their air-to-air losses were grossly underestimated.

The VVS posted its 64 IAK on secret mission to Korea primarily tasked with blunting the Allied air offensive against the north. It was comprised of some elite fighter divisions which were rotated in and out after six to twelve months of combat. Commanding officer at its peak was General Major G.A. Lobov, late of the crack 7 GIAD of World War I1 fame with I9 air victories to his credit, who was destined to add four more kills to his already distinguished record in the ferocious air battles fought over Korea. In 1952 the 64 IAK commanded three fighter air divisions along with two antiaircraft divisions (85mm and 57mm guns), having a total of 26,000 men in strength. Recent information from Russia reveals that a total of 10 fighter divisions were committed to action in Korea at one time or another. The following units have been traced so far:

32 IAD

913 IAP

151 IAD

29 GIAP

216 IAD

518 IAP

303 IAD

18 GIAP,

523 IAP,

17 IAP

304 IAD

324 IAD

176 GIAP,

196 IAP

As the Soviet Air Force was undergoing a complete transformation in modern equipment, units were deployed not uniformly prepared, some containing a relative proportion of pilots with an all too brief training period on jets; the tough veterans of the Patriotic War, however, formed the bulk and guts of the Soviet fighter force in Korea. They devised tactics under combat conditions that put the good qualities of the MiG to best advantage. In fact, the aircraft itself was confidence-inspiring, as it proved a clear ascendancy in many respects over the best enemy fighter, the F-86.

For fear of Soviet airmen falling into enemy hands, orders were given that prohibited pilots from penetrating a restricted area 100 kilometers wide north of the 38th Parallel, and from flying over coastal areas with the risk of imminent enemy naval vessels. Some Russians said that American pilots were quick to make good use of these restrictions when things were beginning to become too rough, running for the safety of these areas.

One of the first divisions to become operational was the 324 IAD under the high caliber leadership of the legendary Ivan Kozhedub, the Allied ace of aces of World War I1 with 62 kills. The unit had distinguished itself against the Luftwaffe during the so-called Svir-Petrozavodsk campaign (June-August, 1944) and was now tasked with neutralizing the Allied bombing campaign against North Korea, producing six more Heroes of the Soviet Union, the highest Soviet military distinction; whereas Kozhedub did not see any combat in Korea, his deputy, Vitalij Ivanovich Popkov, did. Popkov, a brilliant pilot and able tactician with 41 air victories against the Luftwaffe, went off whenever the opportunity arose, reporting the destruction of three more enemy planes in the skies above Korea.

On September 19, 1950, well before the first MiG-sightings were reported by the Allies, Podpolkovnik Aleksandr Karasyov, another notable fighter ace of World War 11 with 30 kills, again proved his attributes by flaming three F-84 Thunderjets in quick succession. On December 24 Kapitan Stepan Naumenko of the crack 29 GIAP had the distinction of becoming the first Soviet fighter ace in Korea by scoring his 5th air victory.

Aggressive, flying a formidable fighting machine and almost always enjoying the advantage of height, the Russians in time enjoyed moments of glory in their principal function of stopping the B-29s from systematically bombing North Korean industries, airfields, and bridges. On April 12, 195 1, 48 B-29s were ordered off to strike the railroad bridges at Andong and Sinuiju, but 36 MiGs rose to engage them and claimed to have knocked down nine heavies, while the Americans admitted the loss of three of their number with seven more sustaining damage. On May 20 Starshij Lejtenant Fyodor Shabanov became the first fighter pilot in history to destroy five jets in air combat when he forced down an F-86 to bring his tally to six – five against jets – tying him with the American Jim Jabara of the 335th FIS, who, by coincidence, racked up his fifth and sixth victories that same day.

The MiGs appeared in increasing numbers as the war wore on, with poorly trained Chinese and North Korean units entering the fray, only to be whittled down by the battle-hardened Sabre pilots. The Allied fighters, though, again fared badly engaging Soviet MiGs on September 10, when the 64 IAK submitted claims for five F-86s, five F-84s, and one each F-80 and Gloster Meteor, all without loss; Kapitan G.I. Ges, an ace with five kills in World War 11, accounted for the Meteor. Two weeks later, on September 26, Starshij Lejtenant N.V. Sutyagin claimed another of these to raise his bag to nine as the 303 and 324 IADs were claiming a total of four F-86s, three F-84s, and two Meteors, again without loss. In fact, the Soviet fighter elite in Korea considered the Americans less aggressive and flexible when met on equal terms, and lagging behind in fighting morale considering them unmotivated, fighting without cause.

The B-29s took another terrible battering on October 23. This time the MiGs were really ready. 56 fighters were put into the air during the raid, 12 of which were kept in reserve to intercept any bombers that might break through. 44 relentlessly attacked the bombers, 12 of these being claimed destroyed despite an escort of 55 F-84s, four of the Thunderjets also being knocked down. One MiG fell victim to the screening force of 34 F-86s over North Korean territory. As is so often the case, accounts from the opposing sides vary, and the exact figures are a matter of dispute. Whatever the truth, the B-29s were relegated to night raids following their heavy losses.

The hopelessly inferior Meteors were again meat on the table on December 1, 195 1, when the glorious 176 GTAP got into its last scrap with the Australians, coming away with nine kills. Kapitan S.M. Krarnarenko was high-scorer that day with a double, while singles were turned in by Podpolkovnik S.F. Vishnyakov, Major S.P. Subbotin, Kapitan A.F. Vasko, who was a 15-victory in World War 11, Starshij Lejtenant F.A. Zubakin, P.S. Milaushkin, A.F. Golovachyov, and 1.N.Gulyj.

The number one jet ace of all time is squadron leader Kapitan Nikolaj Sutyagin. He went to war as a deputy squadron leader with the 17 IAP and claimed his first success on June 19, 195 1. Three days later he was able to bring his tally to three with two F-86s. He continued to chalk up victories on a regular basis and excelled in December, 195 1, reporting the destruction of five enemy planes in the air. He finished with a confirmed total of 22 kills during 149 sorties, his score running as follows: 15 F-86s, three F-84s, two F- 80s, and two Meteors.

The runner-up was the highly talented commander of the 196 IAP, Polkovnik Yevgenij Pepelyaev, whose score is quoted by some sources as 23, although this is considered a combined total of his personal victories and shares. Pepelyaev required only 108 sorties to amass his impressive score of 19 kills, all of which were achieved against jets: 14 Sabres, two F-84s, one F-94, and one F-80. He also made a distinguished record as leader of the regiment, which finished the conflict as one of the top-scorers with 100 air victories against 24 aircraft and five pilots lost to enemy action during the period of April, 195 1 to February, 1952. Among stellar performers in Korea was Major Dmitrij Oskin, who scored a string of eight victories in 23 days of combat between October-December, 1951 and wound up as an ace with 15 confirmed kills. Major S.A. Bakhayev is credited with 11 victories in Korea and one RB-29 intruder during the cold war period on December 29, 1950, while serving with the 523 IAP.

The Korean War produced 51 Russian fighter aces scoring five or more confirmed air victories; numerous other pilots made acedom by combining their World War II bag with credits in Korea. The 303 IAD boasted a total of 12 Heroes of the Soviet Union in MiG- 15s.

The war ended on July 27, 1953. Total losses are a matter of dispute. Material disclosed by the VVS General Staff in 1993 indicates that the 64 IAK was credited with downing 1,106 enemy aircraft, 650 of which were F-86s, in 1,872 aerial en-counters. Overall losses (conceivably not including missing in action or non-operational causes) were 335 planes and 120 pilots. Some Soviet sources quote a final score (not including Chinese and Korean victories) of some 1,300 for the loss of 345 MiGs. The Chinese and Korean air forces claimed a combined total of 231 victories at the cost of 271 of their number; the Americans reported the destruction of 954 aircraft, 827 of which were MiGs (or 893 resp. 841 as suggested by other sources), admitting the loss of 78 Sabres, 14 F-80s, and 18 F- 84s in air-to-air combat and 971 losses overall, mostly to groundfire and non-operational causes.

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