Following the encirclement of the huge German formation in Kurland, the trading port and base at Liepaja took on particular significance for the besieged Wehrmacht. Troops were brought in through this location, and up to 30 transports would be loaded simultaneously. Making use of some favourable flying weather, aircraft of the Naval Air Forces set about bombing Liepaja. To protect it, the Germans had concentrated 17 medium-calibre and 12 small-calibre flak batteries (up to 200 guns) at the site. The vessels moored in the bay off Liepaja also used their own anti-aircraft weaponry to fire on Soviet bombers. However, the real threat was from enemy fighters based on nearby airfields.
Soviet aircraft suffered heavy losses in the early attacks on Liepaja, ten Pe-2s and three Yak-9s being shot down in an aerial battle over the harbour on 10 October – five of the `Peshka’ crews were killed. One of those who failed to return was Capt Yuriy A Kozhevnikov, a squadron commander from 12th GvBAP. It later emerged that his bomber had been seriously damaged in an air battle with Fw 190s, but the pilot was still able to drop his bombs accurately. The aircraft was then hit by an artillery round and caught fire. It was too low for the crew to bail out, so Kozhevnikov landed in a clearing behind enemy lines. Radio-operator/gunner Snr Sgt N A Sazonov helped the injured pilot and the navigator, 2Lt V I Melnikov, out of the cockpit. Unfortunately Kozhevnikov was killed in the crossfire while crossing the frontline, but the navigator and gunner returned to their unit following treatment and a period of recovery.
In an effort to reduce losses over Liepaja, the Soviet Command hastily conducted training in tactical flying – this included formation bombing practice on a range and techniques for fending off attacks by Fw 190s. Following the completion of this training, the Soviets planned to attack targets in Liepaja simultaneously using naval dive-bombers, ground attack aircraft and torpedo-bombers. The operation, codenamed Arcturus, incorporated several mass attacks scheduled for different dates. Each raid would vary from the previous one in terms of the aircraft used and the tactics they employed.
On 30 October, for example, the ground attack aircraft were the first to arrive over the target, escorted by fighters. Although the Il-2s managed to attract the attention of a group of Fw 190s, the German pilots could not be drawn away from intercepting the main attack group. As 30 Pe-2s and eight A-20G torpedo-bombers, escorted by 43 Yak-9s, drew nearer, some of the Fw 190s turned on them. Nine `Peshkas’ and two Bostons failed to return to their airfields, and one damaged Pe-2 was sent for repair following an emergency landing. According to reports from Soviet crews, three transport vessels with a combined displacement of around 16,000 tonnes (15,750 tons) were sunk during the raid.
German sources state that fighters of I. and II./JG 54 achieved extraordinary successes in air battles over Liepaja during this period, some 50-55 Fw 190s typically being sent aloft to counter each of the raids. The Luftwaffe indicated that the most successful pilot on 27 October was the commander of 2./JG 54, Oberleutnant Otto Kittel. He allegedly secured seven victories in three sorties, reporting that he had shot down two Yak-9s, three Il-2s and two Pe-2s. Less than half of these victories are confirmed in Soviet records, however. Three days later German fighter pilots really did operate quite effectively, claiming 15 Pe-2s destroyed – II./JG 54 was credited with 12 of them. As previously noted, in reality nine `Peshkas’ were destroyed on this date.
Capt A F Kalinichenko led a group of 22 Pe-2s during the final raid of Operation Arcturus, carried out in fine weather on 22 December. 12th GvBAP pilot Andrey Filippovich recalled;
`We were met over Liepaja by bursts of anti-aircraft artillery. The city was shrouded in smoke and dust. Our ground attack aircraft that went in two minutes ahead of us had thinned the ranks of Hitler’s air defence forces substantially. They didn’t even allow some of the flak batteries to fire a single shot.
`The day before it had been decided that the principal strike should be on the commercial port, where the greatest number of enemy transports had gathered. Remembering the order from divisional commander M A Kurochkin, I tried as much as possible to lead a tightly packed group against the target. The anti-aircraft artillery intensified as the aircraft turned onto a combat heading. I thought to myself, “Evidently the ground attack aircraft did their job and departed”.
`There followed 30 to 40 seconds of extreme stress for the crew. I had to maintain the flight pattern as much as possible while the navigator took aim. The “Peshka” passed over the target itself. It was at that moment that the anti-aircraft artillery started to fire more accurately. The rounds were exploding right next to us, and I felt an urge to pull the aircraft off to the side somewhere, but somehow I held my nerve and suppressed my instinct of self-defence. The group of nine dived as one, each onto its own target. Some of the bombs fell on the quay, while the rest of them covered a large transport. One minute later a group of eight torpedo-bombers appeared over the target, having emerged from the direction of the open sea. They rushed past in a low-level whirlwind and suddenly attacked the transports moored in the outer harbour. Three huge explosions leapt into the air.
`The dive-bombers had set a warehouse in the port ablaze and sunk a large transport vessel, the latter laden down with both troops and various items of equipment. However, successes such as these came at a high price, for we lost one of the most highly trained and battle-hardened crews that day when the Pe-2 of 2Lt F N Menyailov failed to return. `Documents record that one of the most dangerous enemies for our pilots was the Fw 190, which downed four Pe-2s and two Yak-9s over Liepaja that day. A further three “Peshkas” fell victim to anti-aircraft fire.’
In addition to the vessels listed above that were sunk, 13 transports, one minesweeper, two torpedo boats and one landing barge were certainly damaged.
According to the Germans, the results announced by Soviet pilots were exaggerated. It follows from German documents that ground attack aircraft inflicted the most damage. Thus, on 30 October, two transports were damaged by direct hits and caught fire (the fires were extinguished by the Germans), and a further transport was damaged by shrapnel. On the same day a hospital ship, three tugs, a minesweeper and a coast guard vessel were damaged, and a fire ship was sunk by torpedo-bombers. On 14 December two transports were damaged by direct hits from bombs and another was damaged by a nearby explosion. Six transports, a tug and a minesweeper were slightly damaged by shrapnel and machine gun fire.
Reports reveal that 18 Pe-2s from 12th GvBAP were destroyed around Liepaja during the course of Arcturus – five missions on five different dates. The unit’s losses in the fourth year of the war (48 `Peshkas’, predominantly to enemy fighters) were greater than in the first year of the war. The regiment lost 29 Pe-2s in the last three months of 1944 alone. Nevertheless, its combat readiness remained at a high level. The regiment, which ended the war attacking vessels in Pillau harbour, was awarded the Order of the Red Banner and the Order of Ushakov and given the honorary title `Tallinn’.
34th BAP of the Air Forces of the Pacific Fleet formed in 1938 in the Far East, the regiment being assigned 52nd and 53rd BAEs equipped with SBs. Based at Nikolayevka airfield, it was part of 29th AB (Aviatsionnaya Brigada – Air Brigade), and from March 1942 it came under 10th AB of the Air Forces of the Pacific Fleet. Seeing no action until the summer of 1945, by the start of combat operations against Japan in August of that year, the regiment was led by Capt (later Maj) N I Druzdev. On 9 August the regiment had 63 Pe-2s (of which 36 were airworthy) and one Tu-2 at its disposal. These aircraft were assigned to 36 crews, almost all of whom had no combat experience. Squadron CO Capt G V Pasynkov was the only exception, as he had been made a Hero of the Soviet Union in May 1944 whilst serving as a member of 12th GvBAP. He had been posted to the Air Forces of the Pacific Fleet as a result of staff rotation.
34th BAP prepared for battle carefully, and the raids on vessels in Rasin harbour on 9-10 August 1945 had a positive effect. The regiment flew 81 combat sorties and reported that five transport vessels had been sunk. During an airborne operation from 13-17 August to capture the port of Seisin, the regiment managed to negate Japanese resistance with several mass raids against their defensive positions. It is recorded that the dive-bombers flew 180 combat sorties in this period (more than half of which were flown by 34th BAP), dropping 85 tonnes (84 tons) of bombs of various calibres. Amongst the targets hit was the railway station in Seisin, which was destroyed, as was railway track up to a distance of 100 metres (330 ft) from the station. Nearby offices, a depot and two oil petroleum storage areas were also successfully bombed. Finally, a local workshop of the Mitsubishi company and 16 related buildings were also destroyed.
A solitary Pe-2 was shot down by anti-aircraft fire during operations to bomb the railway stations, the crew ditching successfully in Seisin harbour. On 9 August 1945 another bomber made an emergency landing behind its own lines owing to a lack of fuel while returning from a mission. The aircraft broke up and all three aircrew were injured. There were no recorded losses due to Japanese fighter activity.
The recommendation for the title of Guards regiment, signed by the Military Council of the Pacific Fleet and ratified on 26 August 1945, stated that 34th BAP had flown 221 combat sorties during the course of the war with Japan. It had inflicted much damage on the enemy in the ports of Yuki, Rasin and Seisin, where it had sunk two freighters and two tankers. In the cities of Ranan and Funej an armoured train, three warehouses and more than 30 railway wagons were destroyed and an anti-aircraft battery put out of action.
The regiment became the 34th GvBAP of the Air Forces of the Pacific Fleet.