Korea-Against the B-29s…

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The Last War of the Superfortresses: MiG-15 vs B-29 over Korea

Leonid Krylov and Yuriy Tepsurkayev 

On 26 August 1950, the aircraft carrier Cape Esperance left the quayside at San Diego naval air station. On the deck of the ship that was headed for Japan were F7F-3Ns from the 524th US Marines Corps’ Night Fighter Squadron. On 11 September, the Cape Esperance put into the port of Yokosuka for discharge. The 524th Night Fighter Squadron became part of the 5th Air Army – and after disembarking from the carrier, they were sent to Itakuze airfield on Kyushu Island where the pilots kept watch at first readiness for a week – carrying out patrol flights periodically. On 19 September, the squadron transferred to Gimpo airfield, which had previously been used by UN forces. At sunset that evening, Tigercats lifted off the runway – heading north in the rapidly-gathering twilight. That night, the pilots of the 524th Squadron opened the air war that was to take place in the skies over Korea by night. The 523rd US Marines Night Fighter Squadron were soon to join the battle flying the F4U-5N.

As daytime fighter-bomber operations became more efficient, the North Koreans steadily transferred to supplying the army on the front line by night. At the same time, the North Korean air defence system grew stronger – and soon, UN aircraft began to pay a very high price for every ‘foray’. The air force also transferred to night-time operations at around the time that the Pusan Perimeter was crossed in September 1950 – following on from the marine night fighter aircraft. Their use of Mustangs, as well as F-80 and F-84 jet fighters not designed for night-time operations, was short-lived and ineffective. The F-82 was more successful, however, out of all the air force’s aircraft – it was really only the Invaders that were assimilated into night-time operations. In June 1951, the six bomber squadrons operating the B-26 – and which came under the 3rd and 452nd Bomb Groups – were officially re-organised and were renamed. These became bomber squadrons equipped with light intruder aircraft for night-time operations, even though prior to the re-organisation, more than 75 percent of B-26 sorties were carried out by night. Finally, in October 1951, Bomber Command joined the US Marine Corps and the air force. While all the lighter aircraft, such as the Corsairs and Invaders, would perform small-scale patrols, with the advent of the Superfortresses, the night war entered a new phase.

According to American reconnaissance, by the end of October – after the Superfortresses had been routed – the Sino-Korean Combined Air Army transferred some of their fighters to airfields on the south bank of the Yalu River. To begin with, 26 MiG-15s appeared at Uiju and then 64 piston-engine aircraft were transferred to Sinuiju from mainland China. Worse still was the fact that the final daylight sorties by Superfortresses had not succeeded in taking the North Korean airfields at Namsi, Taechon and Saamchan out of action for very long; the enemy employed thousands of workers to repair the damage quickly. It was these same forward bases that were the most dangerous for UN troops, so the Superfortresses continued to bomb them even though they had transferred to night-time operations.

Night raids on Uiju, Namsi, Saamchan and Taechon – using the SHORAN system – began on 4 November. Initially, these raids were carried out by single aircraft; however, as SHORAN began to be installed on more and more B-29s, the intensity of these raids grew. Admittedly, their accuracy left a great deal to be desired. The majority of crews had never touched SHORAN and were only able to gain experience on actual combat sorties. Since each of the crews were only given eight practice bombing runs, the statistics showed that they only gained confidence using this system after 35 sorties. Apart from that, it appeared that the locations of Namsi, Saamchan and Taechon airfields were not entirely accurate on the maps that the crews had been given. They had to adjust the point at which the bombs were dropped visually, and since the raids took place at night, crews were not able to do this. The lack of bombing accuracy needed to be balanced by a high ‘payload’ tonnage.

During November, 170 tonnes of bombs were dropped on Namsi in 26 sorties. For Taechon, this figure was 160 tonnes in 23 sorties and for Saamchan, 85 tonnes in 12 sorties. For Uiju, this was 80 tonnes in 12 sorties. The principal task was to take the runways out of action, as well as the taxiways and revetments, so 45 and 227 kg high-explosive bombs were used. At the same time, fragmentation bombs with explosives designed to detonate in the air were used against Uiju to destroy the MiGs, where according to US reconnaissance, the latter were already based. Despite the fact that during the raids on the first three airfields, circular error probable was 350–370 m by the end of November, they had been so badly damaged that they could no longer be considered viable as aircraft bases.

Uiju and Sinuiju were not taken out of action, and bombers would return to hit these airfields more than once right up until the end of the war – thus on one of these raids in January 1952, the B-29s set about bombing the airfield. As a result of this bombing raid, the airfield was taken out of action for 24 hours – and four La-9s, one Yak-11, one Yak-18 and three vehicles were destroyed; three La-9s, one MiG-15, one Po-2 and 85 mm anti-aircraft artillery were damaged. Three soldiers on the anti-aircraft battery were injured, up to 160 civilians were killed and more than a hundred were injured. Moreover, Anju – the largest of the airfield complexes – was located on the far side of the Yalu River, exactly opposite Sinuiju. It is hard to imagine how the B-29s achieved this success on a daylight raid right under the noses of the MiGs.

In the last few months of 1951, the B-29s flew more than 1,000 sorties – and in the first half of 1952, this figure stood at 1,500. Furthermore, the bombers would fly to the front line two or three times a night every night, where they would soften up the enemy’s forward perimeter using ground guidance.

An important part of the B-29’s role remained the bombing raids on North Korea’s railway lines, which were carried out with varying degrees of success. In January, reconnaissance identified a section of railway line near the village of Wadong as the most suitable for a bombing raid. At this point, the railway passed along the bottom of a long narrow gorge. The cramped conditions would mean that the North Koreans would not be able to repair the railway quickly. Over the course of 44 days from 26 January, the B-29s flew 77 sorties against this section of line, while a further 125 sorties were flown by Invaders. In total, almost four thousand 227 kg bombs were dropped. However, it was much cry and little wool; only 33 bombs actually hit the railway line. The outcome of this huge effort by Bomber Command was that rail traffic along this section of line was brought to a standstill for a week.

By spring 1952, the Superfortresses had switched to destroying bridges. In March, the Far East Air Force launched ‘Operation Strangle’, which aimed at reducing supplies getting through to frontline troops – and ideally, stopping them altogether. In contrast to all the other battlefield interdiction operations, ‘Strangle’ proposed that the entire air forces would be concentrated not on the communications network in North Korea as a whole, but on individual areas – the most vulnerable and least-defended elements of this network. Regular bombing raids on one of these would mean that the enemy’s frontline troops would be cut off from their logistics units.

On 25 March, as part of the operation, 46 bombers carried out a bombing raid on the double-track railway bridge at Pyongyang – damaging it in nine places. Three days later, 47 B-29s destroyed the bridge at Chongju – thus two main railway routes leading to Sinuiju were severed once again; 10 bridges sustained 143 direct hits over the course of 66 raids during May. In total, 85 sorties were flown against the bridges in the spring of 1952.

Since the destruction of the airfields was always considered the most important component of the battle for air supremacy, B-29s would visit them regularly. Aerial reconnaissance of the 34 airfields and airstrips in North Korean territory was constant, and information on the course of repair work on these airfields would flow into the Joint Operations Centre. As soon as the photographs showed that repair work was nearing completion, the bombers would hit them again – thus in the spring, more than 400 sorties were flown against the airfields.

At the beginning of June, the bridges and railway stations around Sonchon, Pakchon and Huichon remained the B-29’s principal targets. By that time, according to American reconnaissance, more than 200 radar-guided anti-aircraft searchlights – capable of illuminating the bombers for several minutes – were at the disposal of North Korean Air Defence units. The Superfortresses, which were brightly illuminated by searchlights, could fall victim to the fighters. Fortunately, North Korean night-time air defence did not have any aircraft capable of intercepting a B-29. All this changed on the night of 10/11 June when the railway bridge around Kwaksan was the designated target for 11 B-29s from the 19th Bomb Wing. That night recalled for Bomber Command the nightmare of the previous autumn…

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Up until autumn 1951, resistance to night raids by the US Far East Air Force in Korea had only come from anti-aircraft artillery. Its forces, however, were inadequate to be able to reliably defend all the most important and vulnerable sites. From almost the very beginning of the war, it was decided that the North Korean night-time air defence system would be augmented by Soviet aviation. In order to provide a more robust defence of assets, such as the airfields around Antung and Chongsu; the bridges across the Yalu River at Sinuiju and the hydroelectric power station at Suiho during the night, the 351st Fighter Air Regiment – equipped with La-11 aircraft – was incorporated into the 64th Fighter Air Corps under Directive No. 640644, issued by the USSR’s Armed Forces Minister.

The 351st Fighter Air Regiment comprised 32 pilots – and 11 Lavochkins were redeployed to Anshan airfield on 23 June. Twenty La-11 aircraft – required to build up forces to a 15/39 state level – arrived from air force units based inside the territory of the USSR. The aircraft that arrived were in an unsatisfactory condition – having component failures, defects, shortcomings and so on – although the regiment’s technicians soon turned them into mission-ready aircraft. The regiment began to prepare for combat operations, which was made all the more difficult by the fact that of the 32 pilots, only four of them were trained to fly at night – and even then, they were only able to fly circuits or in a holding pattern. They had to undergo intensive training – and in a short time, every pilot in the regiment had amassed on average 40 ‘day’ and 33 ‘night’ hours, which corresponded to 31 and 77 flights respectively. The regiment was ready for night operations by the beginning of autumn and began to undertake these missions from 9 September. In the order issued by the Commander of the 64th Fighter Air Corps, which was directly responsible for the 351st Fighter Air Regiment, these missions were conceived as follows: ‘… to destroy individual enemy bomber and reconnaissance aircraft around Anju–Antung operating within the searchlight zone with the potential for ten sorties per night’.1 This mission was confirmed on 10 October by way of Combat Order No. 19, issued by the Corps Commander.

By November 1951, the regiment’s pilots were engaging the light B-26 bombers in combat – and on the basis of the results of two of these battles, the head of the Regimental Air Gunner Service, Captain Simko, was credited with shooting down one Invader and damaging another. The La-11 was able to intercept the B-26 successfully, but was not able to cope with the B-29s that arrived in November. On 28 November, Captains Karelin and Golyshevskiy encountered a Superfortress. Close to Sinuiju, the bomber was caught like a ‘moth’ in a set of searchlights. After dropping its bombs, it began to head away from the target – entering a descent. The pilots of the 351st Fighter Air Regiment did manage to fire at this aircraft from a great distance, but after evading the glare of the anti-aircraft searchlights, the aircraft disappeared into the darkness. The B-29 was recorded as damaged, but in a private conversation with I. Seidov, however, I.P. Golyshveskiy denied that the bomber had been damaged that night, as the pilots had opened fire from too great a distance.

On 4 December, Captain Dushin – on patrol at an altitude of 7,000 m – noticed a B-29 in the searchlight zone 1,000 m above and in front of him. Dushin went on the attack. To begin with, the closing speed was high and the pilot was able to come within 700–750 m of the aircraft. After the bomber had dropped its bombs, however, the distance between the two aircraft began to increase steadily and Dushin had to open fire, but from a distance of 700 m, this was ineffective and the bomber was not damaged at all. Following Dushin’s attempt, this Fortress was again attacked: this time by Senior Lieutenant Khvalenskiy. He was not able to see the outcome of his attack due to muzzle fire coming from his own guns. The B-29 escaped the searchlights and headed out to sea.

At 2330, Dushin encountered a second B-29 and attacked this aircraft twice from a distance 400–200 m at an aspect angle of 1/4–2/4. As he was firing, Dushin watched his shells explode on the engines and the nose section of the fuselage of the Superfortress, but he was not able to shoot this aircraft down, as he ran out of ammunition in the course of his second attack. This bomber was also attacked by Khvalenskiy, but disappeared from the searchlight zone – descending out of sight. Captain Dushin and Senior Lieutenant Khvalenskiy were credited as having damaged this Fortress.

According to Western sources, on the night of 4/5 December, one Superfortress carrying out a raid on Uiju was caught in the glare of the searchlights and was damaged by enemy fighters. Furthermore, on 5 December, one B-29 from the 307th Bomb Wing was written off – and it is possible that this aircraft was damaged by Dushin and Khvalenskiy. Twenty days later, a further two Superfortresses were damaged. On the night of 23/24 December, the bombers took off to hit Uiju. This time, before they even reached the area in which the searchlights were deployed, a lone B-26 from the 3rd Bomb Wing appeared. The pilot of the Invader, Captain Willis Jessup, managed to destroy eight searchlights; those that remained, however, illuminated a group of ‘Fortresses’ from the 19th Bomb Wing perfectly well. One of the bombers was damaged by cannon fire from a night fighter, while a second was hit by anti-aircraft crews. Both aircraft returned to base successfully; one of them was, however, written off the following day. Our pilots were not credited with shooting down or damaging any aircraft on the night of 23/24 December 1951.

During the air battles at the end of 1951, it was established that the speed, manoeuvrability and rate of climb of the La-11 was insufficient to be able to counter the B-29s successfully at altitudes in excess of 6,000 m – given that the searchlight area had been bounded. If a Superfortress was flying at a speed of 450–460 km/hr before it had dropped its bombs, this would increase to 500–510 km/hr once it had dropped its payload – thus an La-11 fighter that was still at some distance from the enemy would not be able to catch up with a bomber within the illuminated area at the edge of the searchlight field. In their attempts to counter the raids by American bombers, the pilots of the 351st Fighter Air Regiment completed 230 individual sorties on patrols and to intercept enemy aircraft, although our pilots were only able to engage enemy aircraft in combat on 12 of these sorties. Their only encounter with a B-26 on 16 November ended in a victory for Captain Dushin, although we were not able to find any evidence of actual kills to emerge from the remaining air battles with the B-29s. Subsequently, 64th Fighter Air Corps Command concluded that MiG-15 aircraft had to be used during night raids. Out of all the Soviet aircraft available at that time, it was the MiG-15 that was best suited to the challenge of intercepting aircraft such as the B-29. This was demonstrated very clearly in the daylight battles with the ‘Fortresses’. Apart from that, the MiG-15bis, which was the 64th Fighter Air Corps’ principal fighter, was better suited to night operations than the La-11. The OSP-48 instrument landing equipment that this fighter was fitted with – and which incorporated an ARK-5 ‘Amur’ radio-compass, an RV-2 ‘Crystal’ low-altitude radio-altimeter and an MRP-48 ‘Chrysanthemum’ marker radio-receiver – made flying the MiG at night and in poor weather conditions much easier. The SRO-1 ‘Barium-M’ IFF transponder fitted to the ‘Bis’ was very highly rated. The way this was tracked on the plan position indicator on a ground-based radar station made the process of controlling the fighters under his command – and guiding them onto their targets – much easier for the guidance officer. Thanks to this equipment, each MiG in flight had its own unique onboard transponder code – and not only was the guidance officer able to tell his own aircraft from those of the enemy, he could distinguish our fighters from one another. The MiG’s armament was also more powerful, but the biggest advantage for the MiGs was in their layout. The cannons in the MiG were located under the nose section of the fuselage – and the face of the muzzle was hidden from the pilot’s eyes. In contrast to the ‘fifteen’, the La-11’s armament was located in the upper fuselage section under the engine cowling, right in front of the pilot’s cockpit. As a result, the first bursts of muzzle fire, which were particularly bright at night, would temporarily blind the pilot of the Lavochkin and, as a rule, he would lose his aim – therefore repeated night raids using La-11s were only possible against well-illuminated targets; the MiG-15 did not suffer from this drawback.

The MiGs began night operations over Korea from 28 December 1951 when a flight was allocated from the 196th Fighter Air Regiment, 324th Fighter Air Division to protect assets around Antung. One flight from the 303rd Fighter Air Division also began to undergo training for night operations. In the first month of 1952, Lavochkins from the 351st Regiment, MiGs from the 324th Division and the corps’ headquarters completed 127 night patrol sorties – spending 233 hours in the air. This was a sufficiently intensive combat regime: every night, each of the corps’ patrols would spend around seven-and-a-half hours in the air on average – completing four sorties each. However, for all their efforts, the effectiveness of our fighters remained low. In all of January, the fighters only engaged one B-26 in combat, which was not successful.

One of the reasons behind the lack of effectiveness of our fighters was the insufficient numbers of MiG-15s drafted in for night combat operations. One flight was clearly insufficient, but it was not possible to resolve this situation in January. The combined efforts of the 303rd and 324th Fighter Air Divisions were directed at countering daylight raids by enemy aircraft and on committing the units that had arrived to relieve them. At the beginning of January, the 324th Division began to transfer its materiel to the 97th Fighter Air Division that was replacing it – and for the majority of the month, it operated as a single regiment. On 31 January, the last of the aircraft were handed over to the 97th Division – and the following day, the 324th Fighter Air Division departed back to the Soviet Union.

Since the 97th Air Defence Fighter Air Division had entered the war, the number of pilots trained to fly at night and in adverse weather conditions increased, and the situation began to improve. Of the 16th and 148th Guards Fighter Air Regiments incorporated into this division, four crews from each of them were selected. A night fighter squadron was formed from these crews and introductory flights began on 20 January. The squadron commenced combat operations 10 days later. Apart from that, in February 1952, pilots from one of the squadrons in the 351st Fighter Air Regiment began to assimilate the MiG-15 – completing their first day flights in this jet aircraft in March; night sorties began the following month. By May 1952, the regiment had 12 MiG-15s and 18 La-11s on hand.

On 16 May, the 351st Fighter Air Regiment redeployed in full to Antung. The day before this happened, a squadron from the 147th Guards Fighter Air Regiment – operating from Tatung-kou airfield – commenced combat operations. This regiment was subordinated to the 133rd Air Defence Fighter Air Division, which had arrived in the Korean theatre of operations in mid-April. As soon as the two squadrons of MiGs from the 147th Guards and 351st Air Regiments had come on stream, the 97th Fighter Air Division was withdrawn from night operations – and this unit transferred exclusively to daylight operations. From mid-May, the Commander of the regiment was able to draw up to 17 MiG-15s and up to seven La-11s into battle in the hours of darkness.

June 1952 became a critical month in the night war over the ‘land of the morning calm’. Operating from Antung and Tatung-kou airfields, the night fighters of the 64th Fighter Air Corps operated not only in the corps’ searchlight zone, but also within the Korean People’s Army Air Force’s searchlight field around Anju and Huichon. Along with their patrols in the short duration zones close to the searchlight field, the fighters were also sent – using ground guidance – to intercept enemy bombers at inaccessible locations and specially-guarded assets outside this area from the Corps Control Point. That month, the night fighters of the 64th Fighter Air Corps opened their tally of B-29 kills.

On 10 June at 2215, the corps’ radar station detected a trace from a B-29 flying in a northerly direction around Chang-Yi. By 2238, the radar screen showed a group of 10 aircraft flying singly at intervals ranging from one to 10 minutes. The corps’ fighters began to take to the air at 2226; four MiG-15s were scrambled in the space of 21 minutes.

The pilots – Commander of the 147th Guards Fighter Air Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Studilin; his deputy, Major Bykovets; the navigator of the 351st Fighter Air Regiment, Captain Karelin; and his regimental colleague, Senior Lieutenant Ikhsangalyev – were tasked with patrolling at different altitudes to protect assets around Antung from possible strikes by the ‘Fortresses’:

… At 2132 [2232] Lieutenant-Colonel Studilin took off under orders from the Fighter Air Corps’ Command Post. The pilot set course for the bombers at an altitude of 5,000 m on the basis of information from the Command Post and navigated using a bearing. At 2145 [2245] Studilin encountered an enemy B-29 illuminated by searchlights above and to the right of him 15 km west of Taesu and at an altitude of 6,500 m. Guards Lieutenant-Colonel Studilin closed on the aircraft in a climb and attacked it from behind, below and to the left at an aspect angle of 1/4 opening fire from a distance of 1,000–800 m. This attack was not successful. The B-29 turned away to the left and increased speed as it began to leave the searchlight zone, firing at our fighter.

The Lieutenant-Colonel made his second attack from behind, to the left and from below the bomber at an aspect angle of 1/4 opening fire from a distance of 600 m. He took aim using a movable gunsight reticle, using all his guns at the same time in a long burst of fire. As a result of this attack the port inboard engine on the B-29 caught fire. After this second attack the aircraft began to head away from the searchlights… as the bomber was heading away from the searchlights Guards Lieutenant-Colonel Studilin used the burning port engine to track the aircraft, making a further two attacks. The first of these was at an altitude of 6,000 m and an aspect angle of 0/4 at a distance of 600–500 m at the same altitude as that of the bomber. His was a concentrated attack with a long burst of fire. He made his second attack from behind and below the bomber at an aspect angle ranging from 1/4–0/4 at an altitude of 5,500 m from a distance of 300 m. The engine on the aircraft’s starboard flank caught fire as a result of the second attack and the B-29 departed towards Korea Bay descending sharply in a left turn. Lieutenant-Colonel Studilin did not pursue the bomber any further as he was completely out of ammunition.

The B-29 aircraft continued to descend and crashed into Korea Bay at CHOLSAN some 15 km from the coast. The loss of this bomber aircraft was confirmed by the Chinese volunteer infantry and the local Korean authorities (the Police).

This battle lasted 10 minutes.

Captain Karelin was scrambled at 2154 [2254] along with Snr Lieutenant Iskhangalev at 2157 [2257] to intercept the next batch of bombers that were approaching the Taesu area from the south.

Once over the Taesu area at 2200 [2300] Captain Karelin encountered a B-29 that was illuminated by searchlights and heading towards him at an altitude of 7,800 m. He attacked this aircraft head on at an aspect angle of 1/4. He opened fire from a distance of 300–400 m. As a result of this attack the B-29 exploded in mid-air and the wreckage went down approximately 15-20 km south-east of SONCHON.

As he broke off the attack the left outer wing panel of Captain Karelin’s aircraft was damaged by wreckage from the B-29 following its explosion (there was a significant dent and a hole in the left outer wing panel) and the pilot’s cockpit was scratched.

As they resumed their patrol of the area around Taesu they received information from the Command Post concerning the approach of a new batch of enemy aircraft and attacked it from a distance of 400–300 m at an aspect angle of 2/4 using a medium burst of fire. As a result of this attack the B-29 caught fire, dropping its bombs haphazardly and losing altitude heading towards the sea on a bearing of 200°. Captain Karelin did not pursue the burning B-29 any further as it had crossed the coast.

On resuming his patrol over this area Captain Karelin encountered a third B-29 caught in the searchlights at 2225 [2325] at an altitude of 7,000 m that he attacked from behind at an aspect angle of 2/4 opening fire from a distance of 400–300 m in one long burst. As a result of this attack the B-29 caught fire and departed out to sea losing altitude rapidly and crashed 35 km from the coast west of SUKCHON. Captain Karelin observed an enemy launch making its way to the crash site to search for survivors.

The Fighter Air Corps’ Command Post also observed the aircraft exploding and burning as it went down.

The ammunition expended was as follows: NS-23-71 shells; NS-37-22 shells.3

Snr Lieutenant Iskhangalev who was on patrol over Taesu encountered a B-29 aircraft that was caught in the searchlights, which he attacked from behind at an aspect angle of 2/4 from a distance of 1,000–800 m giving this aircraft one medium burst of fire but without success. Captain Iskhangalev did not attempt to make any further attacks as the B-29 had left the searchlight field.

Western publications state that on the night of 10 June, of the 11 Superfortresses that flew to the complex of railway bridges at Kwaksan, 10 were caught in searchlights. One of the B-29s escaped the glare of the searchlights, and this was the only one to attempt to knock out the radio guidance system for the searchlights (using strips of foil). The MiGs headed for the 12 B-29s illuminated in the searchlights, and two of them were shot down following a hit-and-run air battle, while a third (that was heavily damaged) did not make it back to its home base – making an emergency landing on Kimpo airfield. Five days later, the pilots of the 64th Fighter Air Corps recorded another Fortress in their tally: at 2235 on 15 June, the 147th Guards Fighter Air Regiment’s senior pilot – Senior Lieutenant Volodarskiy – intercepted a B-29 that had been caught in searchlights 10 km west of Chungju. According to the archive documents, the Superfortress crashed into Korea Bay 10-15 km west of the Hancheng Peninsula after four attacks; we did not come across any descriptions of the battle itself in Western literature.

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