While it is commonly known among war bird enthusiasts that the Soviet Union received large numbers of P-39 Airacobras and P-40 Warhawks, planes that many American pilots deemed to be inferior to the P-38 Lightnings and P-51 Mustangs that were flown over the Western Front, the VVS also received approximately 200 Republic P-47 Thunderbolts- heavy duty fighters armed with eight 50 caliber machine guns that were capable of flying more than 440 miles per hour at 29,000 feet. With a Pratt & Whitney R-2800 Double Wasp radial engine complete with a supercharger, the Thunderbolt was an extremely effective escort fighter and very capable of taking on any German aircraft both at high-altitude and low-altitude. Indeed, the USAAF’s top two aces in Europe, Francis “Gabby”Gabreski and Robert Johnson, flew P-47s.
In which role did the VVS use the P-47? Why weren’t more delivered? Unfortunately, very little is known about the Thunderbolts that arrived in the Soviet Union. Most of them were delivered to the 255th IAP of the Northern Fleet, where they were put into the high-altitude air defense role. While the Thunderbolt pilots of the US 8th Air Force did not have to look too hard to find a high-altitude dogfight, the aerial action over the entire Eastern Front was fought at a significantly lower altitude.
Whereas British and American bombers engaged in high-altitude bombing runs against German cities and industrial targets, requiring fighter escorts equipped with superchargers (P-47, P-51, P-38), the VVS focused more on low-level close air support, integrating the movements of their ground attack aircraft (IL-2 Sturmoviks) with ground forces. Consequently, while escorting the IL-2 “flying tanks”, Soviet escorts rarely found themselves in situations in which they would have to engage the enemy at high altitudes.
The Luftwaffe similarly used the Ju-87 and Ju-88 in close air support roles on the Eastern Front, meaning the VVS had little use for high-altitude interceptors.
Information from the archives of the General Staff of the Air Force of the Soviet Army does not differ much – 190 P-47 fighters were received in 1944 and five – in 1945. Apparently, the Soviet archive did not take into account one more aircraft – P-47D-10-RE Serial number 42-75202 Purchased with funds raised by US Senators, this aircraft received its own name “Knight of Pythias”. It was he who was tested in mid-1944 at the Air Force Research Institute and LII.
“Thunderbolt” disappointed Soviet test pilots. One of the best flight engineers at LII, Mark Lazarevich Gallay, recalled the flight on the P-47 this way:
– Already in the first minutes of the flight, I realized that this is not a fighter! Stable, with a comfortable spacious cockpit, comfortable, but not a fighter. “Thunderbolt” had unsatisfactory maneuverability in the horizontal and especially in the vertical plane. The plane accelerated slowly – the inertia of the heavy machine affected. The Thunderbolt was perfect for a simple en-route flight without harsh maneuvers. This is not enough for a fighter.
The opinion of the Soviet aviation engineers about the Thunderbolt was not much different from the pilots. Despite the sleek shape of the fuselage and the apparent perfection of aerodynamics, the Thunderbolt’s Cx coefficient turned out to be less than that of the main German Bf.109G and Fw-190A fighters. Interest was not aroused by the aircraft itself, but by the turbocharger (first of all!), the engine, and aviation equipment. The plane was disassembled to pieces and carefully examined at the Bureau of New Technology of the People’s Commissariat of the Aviation Industry (BNT NKAP). BNT specialists have published a complete technical description of the P-47 fighter in Russian. Engineers also drew conclusions regarding the quality and manufacturing methods of components and assemblies of the American fighter, noting that in terms of technology, the Soviet aviation industry lags behind the American one.
Combat pilots of the Red Army Air Force also did not appreciate the overseas miracle. The Soviet Union did not have the slightest need to escort heavy bombers in 1944 – the front-line aviation bore the entire burden of the war. Air battles on the Soviet-German front were fought at altitudes below 6,000 m, exactly at those altitudes where the Thunderbolt most resembled a flying target. At low altitudes, the P-47 lost in all respect to any Soviet or German fighter of the 1944 models. An interesting fact is that it is possible that the Americans tried to improve the maneuverability of the “Soviet” Thunderbolts by supplying them with removed external machine guns. In fact, the Thunderbolt repeated the story of the Soviet MiG-3 fighter – an excellent air fighter at high altitude and clumsy at the ground. Such an aircraft in the Red Army Air Force during the war years turned out to be unclaimed. Of course, it should be borne in mind that the opinion of Soviet pilots and engineers was formed on the basis of assessments of the P-47D-10-RE fighter. Under Lend-Lease, the P-47D-22-RE and P-47D-27-RE aircraft equipped with more powerful R-2800-59 engines were supplied.
In the West, it is widely believed that the Russians simply tested the wrong car, and the P-47D-22 and P-47D-27 arrived too late. That is unlikely. The entire course of the air war on the Eastern Front suggests that heavy high-altitude fighters did not take root here. Even the Fw-190, a fighter that was famous for its maneuverability on the Western front, turned out to be heavy and awkward. In the Red Army, all high-altitude fighters were “floated” into the air defense regiments. First, such a fate befell the MiG-3, then the Lend-Lease Spitfires, and finally the Thunderbolts. The only place where they appeared a year earlier, “Thunderbolts” could still show themselves, was in the aviation arm of the navy. Most of the Thunderbolts arrived in the Soviet Union via a 26,000 km southern route (the journey took 42 days) from New York to the Persian port of Abadan. In Abadan, the planes were assembled under the supervision of military representatives of the Red Army Air Force, then flew around, after which the pilots of the 6th Ferry Fighter Aviation Regiment drove Thunderbolts along the Abadan-Tehran-Kirovobad route. In Kirovabad, the 11th reserve bomber aviation regiment took over the aircraft. On the 1,450 km route, the pilots had to overcome two mountain ranges. With a stopover in Tehran, the length of the non-stop flight to Kirovobad from Iran was reduced to 754 km.
The first Thunderbolt fighters arrived at the airfield of the 11th ZBAP on August 24, 1944. On this day, the regiment received Order No. 30, which noted the adoption of the P-47D fighters equipped with R-2800-59 engines. -22-RE with serial numbers 42-25611 and 42-26633. Large-scale deliveries began a little later. According to orders No. 36, 38 and 39 of December 22, 1944, the unit entered service with P-47D-22-RE aircraft with serial numbers 42-25541, 543-7, 552, 553, 555, 557, 559, 560- 564, 566-568, 570, 574, 576-580, 582, 583, 586, 591, 594, 595,600-610, 612,614-617, 619-628, 631, 634, 636-638 – 62 aircraft in total. At the same time, 47 P-47D-27-RE fighters with serial numbers 42-27015, 018, 019, 021, 0222, 025-029, 031-033, 037, 038, 042-044, 050, 052-055 were adopted, 058, 061, 116, 117, 123, 129, 130-132, 134, 140, 141, 144, 149, 150, 154, 156, 157, 159, 160, 162 and 163. Thus, the 11th ZBAP received 111 Thunderbolts.
In 1945, the Thunderbolts arrived at the location of the 11th ZBAP in two batches, on April 21 – two P-47D-27s produced at the Fairmigdale plant (serial numbers 42-27136 and 42-27146) and on April 27 – four more similar fighters (serial numbers 42-25S51, 587, 590 and 593).
All stories about the delivery of “Thunderbolts” to the Soviet Union by northern convoys through Murmansk or along the Alaska-Siberia highway are pure fiction. The P-47 fighters arrived in the USSR only by the southern route through Iran. The technical specialists of the Red Army Air Force modified (or even changed) the Thunderbolt radio equipment to match the frequencies used in Soviet aviation; transponders of the “friend or foe” radar identification system were removed as unnecessary. The identification marks on the P-47D-22-RE were repainted in the Soviet Union – red stars with a white-red border were applied. On the P-47D-27-RE intended for delivery to the USSR, red stars were applied directly at the Ripablik plant. As a rule, they were applied in the same dreams and the same sizes as the US Air Force insignia, often a red star was painted in a white circle. The 11th ZBAP consisted of four squadrons – on the basis of the 1st and 2nd, training of bomber crews was conducted, on the basis of the 3rd and 4th – training of fighter pilots, mainly for P-39N / Q aircraft. In the official documentation of the 11th ZBAP, the P-47 fighter is called “Thunderbolt”. The number of pilots trained in the regiment for flights on “Thunderbolt” is small: 12 pilots in 1944 and 15 in 1945. In addition to the high-altitude air defense role, it has also been suggested that the Soviets used P-47s as reconnaissance aircraft, due to their range that was far superior to other aircraft available to the VVS.
While undoubtedly one of the finest American aircraft of World War Two, the P-47 simply did not fit into the conditions of the Eastern Front.