Australians in Bomber Command

The Bomber Command operating fields were divided into Groups. By March 1943 the groups from the north were: 6 (Royal Canadian Air Force) Group in the Tyne valley and north Yorkshire, 4 Group in north and east Yorkshire, 1 Group south of the Humber in north Lincolnshire, 5 Group from Scampton in central Lincolnshire to Woodall Spa in the south, 2 (later 100) Group in north Norfolk, 3 Group in Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire, and 8 (Path Finder Force) Group further west in Cambridgeshire centred on its headquarters in Huntingdon. Of the main Australian squadrons, 460 was in 1 Group (Lancasters), 462 was in 4 Group and then 100 Group (Halifaxes), and 466 was in 4 Group (Halifaxes), 463 and 467 in 5 Group (Lancasters). Other Australian squadrons that operated in Bomber Command were 455 (1941-42 then transferred to Coastal Command), 458 (1941 then transferred to the Middle East) and 464 (1942-43 then transferred to Second Tactical Air Force).

Airmen feared being a squadron spare, the bomb-aimer called up to fly with the crew whose bomb-aimer was injured, sick or for other reasons relieved of flying duties. That meant flying with strangers, no reassuring voices in the earphones, no confidence in mutual competence, a high chance of filling-in again and again with inexperienced crews, and no friends to share the easing of postflight tension and the generous breakfast prepared for returning crews. R. J. Cantillon, a wireless operator, was told at the last moment to replace a sick crewman in a Halifax. He found himself flying as mid-upper gunner with two Englishmen, a Scot, an Irishman, a Canadian and an American on their first operation deep into Germany. They were without teamwork and they survived long enough to bale out over Holland on the return flight.

Men who came as a replacement to an experienced crew could not hope to complete a tour in one crew. When the original crew finished its 30 operations the replacement had to shift to another crew and that might mean joining a sprog crew and again going through the hazards of those first four or five raids. Even where a crew began operations together, and all demonstrated the capacity to do their job when reality replaced practice, they were unlikely to do all their flying together. Men became ill, were wounded or involved in minor accidents. Cliff O’Riordan went to `Quite a bright party’ that started in the mess, tapered off in the early hours of the morning, then resumed at ten the next morning. It was some time later that O’Riordan tried to ride a horse, fell off and broke a bone in his arm. He missed operations.

Experienced men could be asked to fly with new crews, and some volunteered. Bob Murphy went with several crews on their first trip over enemy territory `to point out the difference between light flak and heavy flak and what the different searchlights were and so on’. And to boost their confidence. After his first tour Arthur Doubleday sometimes flew with a scratch crew. Given that it was both his duty and his inclination to ensure that the bombs fell in the right place, this would have been both exhilarating and terrifying. Doubleday also learnt the danger of flying with unknown men. Over the target he heard the unfamiliar voice of the bomb-aimer say in a matter-of-fact voice, `Flak on the port, skipper’. Normally, says Doubleday, a flat statement like that implied the flak was some distance away. But he had no idea that his scratch crew bomb-aimer was not given to excitement or exaggeration. This bomb-aimer meant exactly what he said. The flak was in fact on the port wing, and within a few feet of the bomb-aimer’s nose.

Bob Kellow, who flew as wireless operator in Les Knight’s dambuster crew, said that their crew was together through 27 successful raids: `We had the utmost confidence in each other and were like a little band of brothers’. That crew of two Australians (Knight and Kellow), three Englishmen and two Canadians was unusually stable. But even in that group which was bound together by extraordinary training, operations and publicity, the flight engineer Ray Grayson, an Englishman, had joined late and was going to have to complete his tour with another crew, having done seven less operations than the rest of the crew. In fact they did not return from their 28th operation. Knight was killed, Kellow evaded capture and Grayson was one of those taken prisoner. Most crews, having selected themselves, were welded together by experience and tried to stay together. Often four or five stuck together, but very few crews flew a tour unchanged.

By the time most dominion men were being fed into Bomber Command, the slow, low-flying, under-powered and under-armed early bombers were being replaced by Wellingtons, Stirlings and Halifaxes. Stirlings and Wellingtons were then phased out of major operations in October and November 1943, and from 1944 the superior Mark III Halifax replaced less efficient models. From early 1942 the two most efficient and admired aircraft in Bomber Command, the Mosquito and Lancaster, were being delivered to operating squadrons. The sleek two-engine Mosquitoes, relying on their superior speed to keep out of trouble, marauded widely. Carrying a light bomb load, the Mosquitoes guided the main bomber stream by dropping marker flares at turning points and over the target; flew independent raids (sometimes on distant and specific targets); confused German defences about the direction of the main force raid; gathered weather information; checked the damage done to targets; and fought the German night fighters. The Mosquito was much less likely than any of the main aircraft in Bomber Command to be destroyed by the enemy, and equalled the Lancaster in its low accident rate. But the Lancaster transformed the destructive capacity of the bomber.

In some of the major final raids of the war, there might be about 500 Lancasters, 250 Halifaxes and six Mosquitoes, and sometimes the Lancaster was the only heavy bomber. But the Halifax had its supporters. David Leicester, who flew 30 missions in a Halifax and more in a Lancaster, thought the later Halifaxes were easy to fly and could be manoeuvred quickly at height and when fully loaded, and that was essential to keep out of trouble. Ivan Pellas said `We loved our Halibags’. The Halifax Mark III was, he claims, mild in manner, stable in flight, and while they could be flown with one finger, they could also be thrown around the sky. One Halifax of 158 Squadron, known as Friday the 13th, flew 128 missions. Grateful and astonished crews gave it an unofficial VC. It was also more difficult to bale out of a Lancaster. Aircrew in terminally damaged bombers had more chance of getting to and through the escape hatches on a Halifax than they did on a Lancaster. By the end of the war, however, the Lancaster was dominant. Although not used on a raid until 3 March 1942, Lancasters went to war nearly twice as often as any other heavy bomber: 156,192 times compared with the Halifaxes’ 82,773.

When the crews of 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds heard late in 1942 that they were changing from Halifaxes to Lancasters `Pandemonium broke out … The dark days were over’. In September 1942, 460 Squadron was running out of operational aircraft; its Wellingtons were not being replaced because the squadron was about to convert to Halifaxes. When it had just five aircraft left, the squadron was taken off operations to learn to fly the four-engine Halifaxes, but on 20 October the squadron was suddenly switched to Lancasters, a `very popular’ decision. Lancaster crews cheered when they learnt that other bombers, such as Stirlings, were on the same raid. The Stirlings, lower and slower, were likely to draw the German night fighters.

Air Officer Commander-in-Chief Harris had no doubt that the Lancaster was the `finest bomber of the war’:

Not only could it take heavier bomb loads, not only was it easier to handle, and not only were there fewer accidents with this than with other types; throughout the war the casualty rate of Lancasters was also consistently below that of other types. It is true that in 1944 the wastage of Lancasters from casualties became equal to, and at times even greater than, the wastage of Halifaxes, but this was the exception that proved the rule; at that time I invariably used Lancasters alone for those attacks which involved the deepest penetration into Germany and were consequently the most dangerous.

Harris so admired the Lancaster that he wanted to lose a year’s production of Halifaxes while the factories were converted to Lancaster production. His superiors thought the cost too high and did not agree. Because Harris pressed as many Lancasters as possible into front-line service, few were available for training, and the crews began their heavy bomber flying on Wellingtons, Stirlings and Halifaxes. Often these aircraft were worn, battered, early models, and some of the enthusiasm for crews for the Lancaster was simply a result of encountering for the first time an aircraft that was new, the most advanced available, and carefully maintained.

Harris was right in his claim about the performance and reliability of the Lancaster. The number of Lancasters on operations that crashed in England was significantly less than that of Halifaxes, half that of Stirlings and one-quarter that of Wellingtons. In its capacity to avoid flak and fighters, the Lancaster’s superiority was not so marked, but the Lancaster’s loss rate was still marginally less than that of the Halifax, clearly less than that of the Wellington and markedly better than that of the Stirling. The enthusiasm of squadrons when they learnt they were converting to Lancasters might have been tempered had they known that their commander was now going to ask more of them and their machines, but on the figures – then yet to be recorded – their celebration was justified.

The Lancaster gave pilots hope, and they returned admiration, even affection. George Hawes encountered the Lancaster soon after it was used in operations. He told his family in April 1942, `They certainly are wizard kites’. After his first solo flight in a Lancaster Geoff Maddern wrote in his diary: `They are the most beautiful kites imaginable to fly – they climb like a bat out of hell, very light and responsive to the controls. The main trouble is trying to keep the speed down … Quite easy to land – you feel them down like a Tiger Moth’. A few days later he tested it further by `shooting up’ Scunthorpe and then: `Coming back feathered an engine and flew hands and feet off on three. Cut another engine and flew on two. It maintains height easily … They’re wizard’. At the other end of the aircraft Tom Simpson, a rear gunner, liked the stability of the Lancaster: `To me every time that you climbed into the Lanc it seemed to say “Pleased to have you aboard. I’ll try to make the flight comfortable” ‘. The Lancaster could climb on three engines; bent and battered it would get the crew home. Fifty years after he flew K for Kitty, Dan Conway wrote: `Just to sit in the cockpit and admire its layout was a great pleasure’.



Night Witches and Soviet Female Aircrew I

Marina Raskova

Nothing creates more intense pressure than war, except plague and famine. In 1937, Russia had been at war for over twenty years, first against Germany in 1914–17, then against itself – in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, a terrible civil war, and a class war, all involving a nationwide struggle for industrial advancement. Grim times, made worse by a state sending millions to a variety of battlefronts and Stalin’s secret police sending millions more ‘enemies of the people’ to Siberian prison camps. But for young women not stigmatized by the arbitrary arrest of some family member, there were new socialist freedoms: equality, childcare, education, divorce and work, bringing unheard-of opportunities, in cash, in status, in self-confidence.

For women in the armed forces, the ground work had been laid in 1917, in the last days before the Revolution, when Russia was still fighting Germany. A peasant woman named Maria Bochkareva had suggested countering poor morale among front-line troops by forming a ‘Women’s Battalion of Death’. She commanded some 300 recruits in one inconclusive action, but then vanished from history after opposing the Bolsheviks. Aviation promised new opportunities. The Soviet government saw air travel as the best way to tie together their vast nation with commercial planes and to defend it with long-range bombers. By 1941, there were over 100 military flying schools. Despite opposition from conservative commanders, 25–30 per cent of all pilots were women, though they were not registered for military service.

One of these was Marina Raskova, a good-looking, intelligent and strong-willed daughter of the Revolution. She started work in a chemical plant, got married (Raskova was her married name), had a daughter, got divorced, and restarted work at an air-force academy. That inspired in her a new, thrilling, romantic vision. She wanted to fly. So did many other young men and women. There were more pilots than planes, but not enough navigators. That gave her an opening. At twenty-two, Raskova became the Soviet Union’s first female navigator, and proved perfect fodder for the Soviet propaganda machine, which was keen to promote the nation’s successes by idolizing ‘heroes’ in many different fields, including air travel. Women as aviators made excellent heroes, promoting both aviation and socialist ideals of achievement and equality. Raskova took part in two record-breaking flights, and then, in September 1938, in a spectacular attempt to fly non-stop the length of Mother Russia, from Moscow to Komsomolsk in the Far East, 6,500 kilometres, one-sixth of the globe, which would be a world record for straight-line flight without refuelling. The venture was a propaganda epic, followed by the nation. Stalin himself took a personal interest. In a long-range bomberfn3 named Rodina (Motherland), there were two women pilots, with Raskova as navigator in a glass nose-cone with no door to the rest of the aircraft.

It didn’t work out as planned. The plane hit bad weather, and lost radio contact after ten hours, sparking a massive search-and-rescue operation that cost the lives of sixteen people, killed in a mid-air collision, of which the public was told nothing. Raskova, with rudimentary maps, was trying to navigate with a sextant and compass over landscapes no one had ever seen from the air. Over the immensities of the Siberian forests, circling above low cloud in search of a gap and some place to land, the plane ran low on fuel. Since a crash-landing would most likely kill Raskova, in her glass nose-module, she bailed out. Landing safely, warmly dressed, but with only half a bar of chocolate, she set off walking in the direction she thought the plane must have crash-landed. For ten days, she survived on berries, mushrooms and one square of chocolate per day. She lost a boot, and became weaker, supporting herself with a stick. On the brink of collapse, she saw rescue planes circling, followed them, and found Motherland, which had belly-flopped in a swamp. It had covered 5,947 kilometres in 26 hours, 29 minutes, a world record. The three women, with a collapsible canoe, walked and paddled their way back to civilization. The nation went wild with carefully orchestrated joy. They were taken back to Moscow and driven in an open car to the Kremlin, while adoring crowds threw flowers. Stalin greeted them with kisses and a speech about avenging the oppression of women. All three were made Heroes of the Soviet Union, the first women to receive the honour. Raskova was the favourite, with her astonishing survival story, her good looks and a bestselling book, Notes of a Navigator. She had the world at her feet.

Then, suddenly, she didn’t. At 0415 on 22 June 1941, German bombers struck sixty-six Soviet aerodromes, opening the invasion codenamed Operation Barbarossa. By noon, over 1,000 Soviet aircraft had been destroyed on the ground, the first of 6,500 lost over the next three months. ‘We have only to kick in the door,’ Hitler told his chief of staff, General Alfred Jodl, ‘and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.’ Not so easy, as it turned out. Stalin turned from brutal oppressor to the saviour of his nation. Factories and people moved eastwards by train and road. By October, the Germans were at the outskirts of Moscow, but General Winter was coming to the rescue, as he had come when Napoleon’s army stood at Moscow’s gates in 1812.

Meanwhile, many female pilots, mostly members of flying clubs, had written to Raskova saying they wanted to fight and complaining that no one would take them. She decided to form a regiment of women military pilots. With her fame, legendary toughness and status, she had a direct line to the top. This was in early October 1941, with Moscow likely to fall to the Germans in days. The Defence Ministry, perhaps Stalin himself, gave the go-ahead (accounts conflict). So the world’s first women’s combat aviation unit came into existence not because there was a shortage of pilots – far from it, because so many planes had been destroyed on the ground – nor for propaganda (of which there was remarkably little), but almost entirely because one formidable woman cajoled and argued until she got her way.

There were to be three regiments: fighters, heavy bombers and night bombers, all staffed by women – pilots, navigators, mechanics, armourers, support personnel. Raskova gathered a few dozen of the volunteers and got uniforms issued – male ones, with massive overcoats and oversized boots. On 15 October Stalin ordered the evacuation of government departments and armament factories from Moscow. Over the next two weeks, 200 trains and 80,000 trucks headed east with the contents of 500 factories. Two days after Stalin’s order, Aviation Group 122, as Raskova’s 300–400 young women were called, marched in their ill-fitting uniforms past immobile trams and closed-up shops to Kazansky Station, and piled into goods wagons for the journey to the town of Engels, on the Volga, 800 kilometres to the south-east. It took eight days to get there. Hours were spent in sidings as troop trains lumbered westwards, while others headed east to the lands beyond the Volga with the wounded, government staff and heavy machinery. There were no toilets, and the food was grey bread, herring and water. Raskova went from car to car, keeping up morale. No one complained. Many of the women, scarcely more than girls – average age twenty – had been raised in harsher circumstances. All dreamed of serving Stalin, the Motherland and Marina Raskova.

Engels, chosen because it was a safe distance from the front and had a flying school, was a grim little place of houses made from clay mixed with straw and brushwood, and just four stone buildings – three Party houses and a cinema. The women lived in barracks in one large room, each with a plank bed, with a straw mattress and a blanket. For training pilots it was perfect. To the west ran the Volga, 2 kilometres across, but in every other direction lay steppe, flat and treeless to the horizon, in effect one vast runway.

Women fighter pilots of the 586-th IAP PVO (from the left to the right):

– Burdina Galina Pavlovna –  victories: 2(Bf-109, Ju-88)+1(Ju-52)

– Pamjatnyh Tamara Ustinovna –  victories: 2(Do-215)+0

Homjakova Valerija Dmitrievna – (1914-10.1942, died in a air crash during a night start), victories: 1(Ju-88)+0

– Lisitsyna Valentina – victories: 0+1(Ju-88)

The photo was taken at the Anisovka airfield (Saratov Region) in September of 1942. At that time the regiment was equipped with the “Yak-1” fighters


There were hard decisions to be made, because everyone wanted to fly. The class system was supposedly consigned to the dustbin of history, but some were still more equal than others. Armourers and mechanics wanted to be navigators, navigators wanted to be pilots, pilots wanted to be fighter pilots. The three units got names: 586th Fighter Regiment, 587th Heavy Bomber Regiment and 588th Night Bomber Regiment. Top pilots with competition experience in aerobatics became fighters; those who had flown in civil aviation or had been flying instructors would fly heavy bombers; and those with the least experience would be night bombers. But character sometimes trumped experience in Raskova’s eyes, and she spent much time cajoling, reassuring and explaining her decisions to the many who objected to them.

So began a harsh military life, under male instructors – months of drills, parade-ground humiliation, early-morning roll-calls, indoctrination by Party officials, flights in training aircraft, navigation, firearms, equipment maintenance, and a total convent-like ban on long hair, make-up, fancy clothes and socializing with men (not that the ban always worked). There was no toothpaste, toilet paper or shampoo. No one thought of issuing them with anything but men’s clothing – no bras or women’s underwear, not even the basic designs produced for the general public. Occasionally, they sewed underwear from torn parachutes, much in demand because they were made of silk. For twenty-year-olds, it was tough, unrelieved by the fact that there was no real action. December 1941 gave way to a bitter new year. They had no aircraft, and anyway the advancing Germans were over 400 kilometres away, too far to reach by plane. They had little idea of the defeats and the deaths by the hundred thousand along the 2,000-plus kilometres between besieged Leningrad and the Caucasus.

Maria Dolina (1922–2010) was a Soviet pilot and acting squadron commander of the 125th “Marina M. Raskova” Borisov Guards dive bomber Regiment. She was active primarily on the 1st Baltic Front during World War II. She flew 72 sorties with Pe-2, dropping 45,000 kg bombs. In six aerial combats her crew shot down 3 enemy fighters. On August 18, 1945 Dolina was awarded the title of the Hero of the Soviet Union.

Through all this Raskova proved a true leader. Since she supervised the training of all three regiments she was on duty twenty-four hours a day. ‘We did not notice any outward signs of fatigue,’ wrote one of her pilots. ‘To all of us it seemed that this woman possessed unprecedented energy.’ When one of her team tried to get her to rest, she replied, ‘We’ll rest when the war’s over.’ She could fall asleep instantly and wake up instantly. She was firm, yet always soft-spoken. One of her subordinates, Ekaterina Migunova, said in a 1976 interview, ‘I don’t remember a single case when she yelled or even raised her voice, or rudely interrupted a subordinate … She never punished anyone in a fit of temper.’ In pursuit of her aims, however, Raskova was a force of nature. As a friend of the director of the factory that was making good the disastrous loss of planes, she demanded priority in receiving the superb new Yak-1s for her women, and she got them. Her one form of relaxation was to play the piano, which she did extremely well. No wonder the women adored her.

The first fighter planes – the Russian equivalent of the Spitfire, the Yak-1, named after its designer, Alexander Yakovlev – arrived in January, and 20 Pe-2 dive-bombers (designed by Vladimir Petlyakov) in the summer, all with radios, thanks to Raskova’s perseverance. These two regiments employed some men as mechanics and administrators, so our focus is mainly on the most Amazonian of the women’s regiments, the Night Bombers, a female contingent from top to bottom for the whole war, and always with the same commander, Yevdokiya Bershanskaya.

Their task was to fly over enemy lines at night to bomb fuel dumps, trenches and supply depots. They flew flimsy biplanes designed principally for flight training fifteen years previously. Each plane had two open cockpits, one for the student or pilot, the other for the instructor or navigator. It was made of plywood covered with densely woven cotton known as percale, in effect sturdy bedsheets, which made it a flying tinderbox. Driven by a clattering little 100-horsepower engine, its top speed was 120 kilometres per hour. No radio, no brakes. It was about as basic as a plane could be: a small, cheap, lightweight, manoeuvrable and low-speed workhorse, rather like the plane in Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, in the scene when Cary Grant is driven into and then out of a cornfield by a crop-duster. It was the brainchild of a great designer, Nikolai Polikarpov, who was able to focus on his work rather more intensely than he would have liked because he spent much of his life in prison under interrogation by the secret police. Designated the U-2, it is not to be confused with the later U-2, the 1950s American spy plane which was pretty much the complete opposite of Polikarpov’s. This U-2 (re-designated as Po-2 in 1943) was ideal for transporting the wounded and dropping supplies, slowly and at very low altitudes. It could take off from a forest clearing and land on a road. Thirty thousand of them were produced over thirty years, up until 1958. When war broke out, air clubs had U-2s by the hundred, all quickly requisitioned for front-line work.

It was Polikarpov himself who suggested that his U-2 could be used for night bombing, gliding in over enemy territory and releasing either two or four bombs tucked under the wings. But action would start in a Russian winter, in an open cockpit, in brutal cold that froze exposed flesh in minutes. If a bare hand touched metal, the skin froze to it and got stripped away. Snow could blot out the horizon, and induce delusions about what was up and what was down. And the women would be flying at night, when they couldn’t see the ground and had to rely on rudimentary instruments, when a single light below might be mistaken for a star and guide a disorientated pilot to her death. There was, of course, no parachute. Chief of staff Irina Rakobolskaya explained in an interview with Reina Pennington for her book on the women fliers: ‘The frame of mind was such that if you caught fire over enemy territory, it would be better to die than with the help of a parachute to be taken prisoner. And if you were damaged over your own territory, then you would be able to land the aircraft somehow.’

All this to inflict minor damage with four 50-kilogram bombs, a tenth of what a heavy bomber could carry. Was it really worthwhile? Yes, as the official agenda of the Night Bombers said, it was vital ‘to harass the enemy, to deprive him of sleep and rest, to wear him down, destroy his aircraft on his own airfields, his fuel depots, his munitions and food supplies, disrupting transport movements, hindering the work of his headquarters.’ And the women had no doubts. ‘We were all sportswomen, with good coordination,’ said one of them, Galina Brok-Beltsova, at that time just seventeen, interviewed for Italian TV in 2016 at the age of ninety-one. ‘We were fit, in control of our bodies. But most of all we had the will to win, and we were a community.’

But this was a dangerous life, even before real action started. On 10 March, training flights ran into wind-whipped snow, which obscured the horizon and the runway lights. Two U-2s crashed, two of the women died. After their bodies were recovered, Raskova organized the funeral, placing flowers on the coffins. Nina Ivakina, administrator for Komsomol (the youth organization), wrote in her diary, ‘We tenderly put the coffins with our friends, who only yesterday had been so full of fun and laughter, on the truck and to the strains of the Funeral March slowly accompanied our dear young falcons on their last journey, to the graveyard.’ Raskova spoke the oration: ‘Sleep, dear friends; we shall fulfill your dreams.’

In May, before the German advance on Stalingrad, the Night Bombers were put into action. Raskova led them in a flight from Engels to a village near Morozovskaya, some 230 kilometres from the front line, where they would form part of the Night Bomber division of Fourth Air Army on the Southern Front between Stalingrad and the Black Sea. On arrival they were inspected by the divisional commander, Dmitrii Popov. ‘I’ve received 112 little princesses,’ he complained to Fourth Army’s boss, General Konstantin Vershinin. ‘Just what am I supposed to do with them?’ ‘They’re not little princesses, Dmitrii Dmitrievich,’ Vershinin replied. ‘They’re fully fledged pilots.’

Raskova, called to Moscow for new orders, left them with uplifting words: they had to show that women could fight as well as men, ‘and then in our country too women will be welcomed into the army.’ It was the last the Night Bombers saw of her. By June, after a month of further training, they were ready for action, flying out of their new base near Krasnodon, only 30 kilometres from the front, and part of the effort to stop the German advance on Rostov and Stalingrad, the lynchpin of the Russian south.

But there was no stopping the enemy. Rostov went up in flames, driving endless lines of refugees eastwards through unharvested grain fields. The Night Bombers retreated with the Soviet army, flying out of base after base, learning to navigate first on the endless, featureless steppe, using the stars or a church or railway station to find their way, then in the mists of the North Caucasus mountains. They trained by day and flew at night on successive one-hour missions, because that was how long the fuel lasted; over 100 missions per night – five or more, sometimes ten, for each pilot – even in high summer.

The stress was constant: finding their way in darkness without instruments, blinded by searchlights, deafened by anti-aircraft shells, coughing to get rid of the gunpowder smoke, focusing to drop their bombs, then finding their way home to an unfamiliar field, guided in by kerosene lanterns or car headlights. They were constantly, desperately short of sleep. They slept where they could, an hour here, an hour there, in the cockpit, under a wing, in abandoned peasant huts. How did they endure it? Partly because they were all there by choice, all volunteers, able to leave if they wished. No one did. Partly pride: they were eager to prove they could do anything the men could, and more. They kept careful notes: Polina Gelman recorded that she flew 860 combat flights. Partly, they were all in a tight-knit community, as efficient as a pit-stop in a car race. Mechanics could refuel and re-arm a plane in five minutes – faster, they noted, than any of the men’s regiments. Also there were remarkably few losses. So morale remained rock solid. ‘It’s really difficult to shoot a plane down,’ wrote Zhenya Rudneva reassuringly to her parents. ‘If anything happens, though, what of it? You will be proud that your daughter was an airwoman! Being up in the air is really such a joy!’ Later, after the war, they were amazed at themselves. ‘Even I find it difficult to believe sometimes that we, young girls, could endure such incredible stress in our combat work,’ recalled Raisa Aronova. ‘Apparently, our moral strength was immeasurable.’ The chief of staff, Irina Rakobolskaya, put it down to group solidarity: ‘Women fight more effectively in a separate unit than men. The friendship is stronger, things are simpler, there is greater responsibility.’

Night Witches and Soviet Female Aircrew II

The Germans hated the U-2s. They drifted in low like ghosts – at scarcely more than the speed of an owl, 80 kilometres per hour – too low to be held by a searchlight, the air flowing over the wing-struts making a soft whooshing noise, then in seconds they were gone again, leaving an ammunition dump ablaze, a bridge destroyed or a slit-trench blown apart. It was over before there was time to mount an effective defence. When the Germans learned from Russian broadcasts that their tormentors were women, they started to refer to them as the Nachthexen, the Night Witches. The Russian women pilots loved that – Nochnye Vedmi, Night Witches: that’s what they have been ever since.

In August 1942, German forces clogged the roads to Stalingrad. The city, a symbol of victory for both sides, seemed about to fall. Hitler said it would, ordering a massive air assault on 23 August that set the city ablaze. Stalin said it would not, must not fall – ‘Not one step back!’ had been his famous order in July 1942. The city would be held, at least enough of it for long enough for armies to build up around the besieging Germans. Then the Germans would become the besieged. The Night Witches played their part, flying from Salsk to bomb the Germans as they crossed the Don, then moving eastwards ahead of them.

What might have been their greatest moment came in September 1942, in the Caucasus, when they were ordered to destroy the headquarters of General Paul von Kleist. As part of Operation Edelweiss, he was leading 1,000 tanks through the Caucasus towards Baku, the source of 80 per cent of the Soviet Union’s oil, and had set up his HQ on the Terek River in Georgia. While the German forces were crossing the river, the Night Witches attacked, killing 130 Germans, but failing to kill Kleist himself. Their attack remained a footnote in Russia’s desperate resistance to a vast operation, which would anyway grind to a halt, mainly because of German losses on other fronts and a consequent lack of supplies to this one.

To the north, Stalingrad was in dire peril. The eight women in Raskova’s 1st Fighter Squadron were re-allocated to the two vastly outnumbered air regiments defending Stalingrad. The women lived inside a bubble of ignorance and bravado. Without any idea of the catastrophe unfolding in the city, they were thrilled at the thought of combat on equal terms with men, fighting in their Yak-1s, which they could all control as Amazons had once controlled their horses. But these were brief, disappointing assignments: the commander of one regiment kept the women clear of all danger, and the second regiment was disbanded after two weeks. The girls flew only two missions, losing sixteen aircrew and twenty-five aircraft in that short time.

Back in their base in Saratov, 300 kilometres up the Volga from Stalingrad, Raskova’s 2nd Squadron had a remarkable success. On the night of 24 September, a searchlight picked out a twin-engine Junkers Ju-88 bomber. Valeriya Khomyakova in her Yak-1 attacked, machine gun blazing, and apparently killed the pilot, for the huge plane banked right, went into a dive and exploded on the ground. She checked the crash site later – the four crew members had bailed out, but too close to the ground for their parachutes to open, and their bodies lay around the plane’s shattered hulk. It was the first kill by Raskova’s fighters and the first enemy bomber shot down at night by a woman. The next morning there was vodka and watermelon for breakfast, plus 2,000 roubles in cash for the regiment from Comrade Stalin, followed by a trip to Moscow for Raskova to receive a medal, the Military Order of the Red Banner, from the hands of the eminent revolutionary and head of state Mikhail Kalinin. This success was followed, two weeks later, by a sudden reversal. Valeriya Khomyakova, who had been dozing in a dug-out and had no time for her eyes to adapt to the darkness, crashed on take-off and was killed. Commanders were blamed, fired and replaced by men. That was the end of 586th Regiment as the only group of all-female fighter pilots.

The Night Witches, meanwhile, were still divided between Stalingrad and the front further south in the Caucasus. In Stalingrad, searchlights presented a big problem. The Germans arranged flak guns and searchlights in concentric circles around probable targets. Planes flying in pairs in a straight line across the perimeter risked being ripped to shreds by flak. So the Night Witches developed a way of dealing with the problem. They flew in groups of three. Two would go in and deliberately attract the attention of the Germans. When several searchlights were pointed at them, and just before they judged the guns would open fire, the two pilots suddenly separated, flying in opposite directions and manoeuvring wildly to shake off the searchlights. The third pilot would fly in through the dark path cleared by her two teammates and hit the target virtually unopposed. She would then get out, rejoin the other two, and they would switch places until all three had delivered their payloads. It took nerves of steel to risk attracting enemy fire, but it worked well.

In the Caucasus, they were raiding the German front line, which crossed what is now a clutter of little republics on Georgia’s northern border with Russia. Their successes, with no casualties, were rewarded with praise and medals – more of them were Heroes of the Soviet Union than in any other bomber regiment (twenty-four by the end of the war). In November, their commander, Yevdokiya Bershanskaya, received a letter from Konstantin Vershinin, commander of Fourth Army: ‘Comrade Bershanskaya and all your fearless eagles, glorious daughters of our Motherland, intrepid pilots, mechanics, armourers and political workers!’ Her boss had something more in mind than praise and medals. He was sending ‘certain necessary but non-standard accessories’, namely women’s underwear.

Why now, after all this time? Because of an incident referred to by Vershinin. Two women gunners had taken the parachute from an aerial flare bomb and sewed themselves panties and bras. Someone had denounced them for undermining the war effort. A military tribunal sentenced them to ten years’ imprisonment. But Vershinin saw that Mother Russia could not afford such a waste. ‘As regards the two girls who were guilty of error, give them the opportunity to carry on working in peace, and at some later date file an appeal to strike out their criminal records.’ A supply of underwear would save careers and lives.

Now it was not the Soviet army but the German Sixth Army that was trapped in Stalingrad. Soviet forces had held small pockets of land inside the city, down by the Volga, with building-to-building fighting around them and a fearful aerial war in the skies above, until the Volga froze and trucks could bring supplies across. On 19 November 1942, a vast build-up of guns, tanks and infantry began the counterattack. By mid-December, 250,000 German troops were surrounded. Bombs, bullets, frostbite, disease and starvation took a terrible toll.

The 587th Women’s Heavy Bomber Regiment, still commanded by Raskova but operating from several different airfields, was ordered to Stalingrad. On 4 January 1943, Raskova was due to join them from her base in Arzamas, 750 kilometres north of Stalingrad. The weather was bad: dense fog. She knew that the instruments in her Pe-2 dive-bomber would not be good enough to cope with the fog, but she was keen to join the regiment, as were the three others with her – a navigator, gunner-and-radio-operator and the squadron’s chief mechanic – so she planned to land halfway, in Petrovsk, and wait for the fog to clear. She was leading two other planes, piloted by Lyuba Gubina and Galya Limanova. Over Petrovsk, it seemed clearer. On Raskova went, heading south, losing touch with the two other planes. In ever denser fog, with night approaching, they managed to crash-land, injured but alive. Of Raskova there was no news. Two days later, when the fog cleared, a search party found her plane. Apparently she had tried to get under the fog, and dived straight into the steep right bank of the Volga. She and her navigator had been killed instantly. The tail had broken off, leaving the other two hurt but alive. A blood-soaked towel showed they had tried to staunch each other’s wounds, before they froze to death.

Their bodies were picked up by a U-2 and flown to Saratov, where the director received orders to bury three of the dead locally, and to prepare Raskova’s body for an overnight journey to Moscow. Her shattered head was stitched together, but not well enough to be seen in public. The news spread nationwide. Hundreds filed past her closed coffin before it was put in a special carriage for the train journey to Moscow. All her women pilots, navigators, gunners and technicians in their scattered units gathered in tearful shock. One of the Night Witches took a little comfort from the thought that, though the other two regiments were no longer exclusively female, hers, the 588th, had remained true to Raskova’s ideals.

The whole nation mourned. Pravda’s front page described this, the first state funeral of the war: the funeral hall, the strips of black crêpe cascading from the ceiling either side of the funeral urn with Raskova’s ashes, the gathering of the top politicians, the guard of honour, the slow march with the urn to the walls of the Kremlin, the threefold volley of shots, and the fly-past, all proclaiming ‘that Marina Raskova, hero of the Soviet Union, great Russian aviatrix, has concluded her glorious career.’

A new commander, Raskova’s No. 2, Zhenya Timofeyeva, led the Women’s Heavy Bombers into combat against Germany’s besieged Sixth Army, trapped in the charred, snow-covered ruins of Stalingrad. Several raids were shared with planes flown by men, until 30 January, when the women were allowed to go in on their own, preparing the ground for assaults by tanks and infantry. The next day, Hitler, who had ordered General Friedrich Paulus never to surrender, made him a field marshal, on the grounds that no field marshal in German history had ever surrendered. But Paulus had no choice. On 1 February, a German soldier crawled out of the basement of the Sixth Army’s HQ, the Central Department Store, waving a white flag. Two days later, the news reached the final, isolated pocket of Germans, and it was all over. Russian deaths in the siege were over 100,000, while the Germans lost 160,000 dead, with a further 90,000 shuffling off into captivity and to almost certain death. On the Eastern Front, the tide of war had turned. Russian forces began to advance westwards, the Women’s Heavy Bombers with them.

In the Caucasus, the Night Witches started to move northwards and westwards, into devastated lands. It was the first time they had seen war close up, as if the women lived in a world of their own, sowing damage and death, never seeing the results first hand, until now. Moving forward yet again, in Rasshevatka, 400 kilometres north of their old front-line base on the Terek River, navigator Natasha Meklin and her pilot Irina Sebrova saw dead Germans for the first time. The place had just been liberated. The village was on fire, bodies of men and horses lay scattered about. The first German she saw was young, Meklin recorded, ‘pale and waxen, the head thrown back … straight fair hair frozen to the snow.’ She felt a flow of emotions: depression, revulsion, pity, and a sudden insight into the effects of what she was doing. Not that she was deterred. ‘Tomorrow, I shall be bombing again, and the day after that, and the day after that, until the war is over, or I am killed myself.’

Lilya Litvyak

Spring came, turning the steppe to mud, bogging down planes and fuel trucks, curbing operations. The pilots of 296th Regiment, which had absorbed Raskova’s women fighters, had to share the fifteen surviving planes, which was OK by fighter pilot Lilya Litvyak, because the man she was sharing with was about as small as she was, so there was no need to adjust the pedals. Life for her was fine, because she was in love with another pilot, Alexei Salomatin. They had official permission to marry. He was a bit reckless and she notoriously sharp-tongued, but they were a popular couple, so the others did their best to give them time together as the regiment moved forward, even if it was only in one abandoned peasant hut after another.

Litvyak, still just twenty, was a star, thanks to the Soviet propaganda machine. In February she had claimed a Stuka (a Junkers Ju-87 dive-bomber), in March another Stuka and a Ju-88 fighter-bomber, an encounter that left her with a bullet in the thigh and in a damaged plane, which she managed to land safely. ‘The Girl Avenger’, as she was called in a magazine article, was the perfect heroine, ‘20 years old, a lovely springtime in the life of a maiden! A fragile figure with golden hair as delicate as her very name – Lilya,’ a fragility that contrasted with her fighting spirit: ‘When I see a plane with those crosses and the swastika on its fin tail, I experience just one feeling – hatred. That emotion seems to make my grip firmer on the firing buttons.’ She left hospital after a few days, still limping, but happy, and eager for some R & R with family in Moscow. Her brother recorded that she had with her a dress made of German parachute silk, trimmed with little green bits made from viscose that had once held gunpowder in German anti-aircraft shells. She fought well, and sewed well too.

In May, Litvyak was back on duty in Pavlovka, almost on the Ukrainian border, sitting in her cockpit waiting for action. Her lover, Alexei Salomatin, was in the early-summer skies above, flying his Yak, training a new pilot. Two women mechanics were sitting on Litvyak’s wings, chatting to her. Suddenly they heard the noise of a plane engine, rising to a roar. It cut off with a boom at the far end of the runway. Someone else had seen a Yak come out of the clouds doing rolls, far too close to the ground. The three women ran to the crash site. It was Salomatin, killed by his youthful recklessness, or as the official report put it, because of ‘undue self-confidence, self-regard and lack of discipline’.

Lilya Litvyak faced death many times in the next two months. Two immense Russian counterattacks were under way: to the north, the greatest ever tank battle around Kursk, and to the south, along the Mius River, where Soviet forces were trying to break the line formed by reinvigorated German armies. She had a string of successes and narrow escapes: in June, she and her wing-mate, Sasha Yevdokimov, set on fire two German observation balloons; on 16 June, she was leading a new arrival into the air when she veered off course, causing the pilot following her to crash to his death; that same afternoon, she and Yevdokimov were chased by four Messerschmitts, returning to base with several bullet holes in their machines; five days later, her Yak was hit by a Messerschmitt, but she crash-landed safely.

On 1 August, having moved further west to Krasnyi Luch in Ukraine’s coal-rich Donbass, Litvyak flew three sorties in support of Ilyushins attacking German ground troops. When she was climbing into her Yak for her fourth sortie – leather boots, khaki tunic, dark-blue flying breeches, blue beret tucked into her map case – her mechanic, Nikolai Menkov, tried to talk her out of it. He recalled the scene vividly later; it was etched into his memory by what happened next.

‘It’s very punishing for one person to fly so many missions in this heat,’ he said. ‘Do you really need to do so much flying? There are other pilots.’

She replied, ‘The Germans have started using weaklings! They’re wet behind the ears and I feel like blasting one more of them!’

She said goodbye, bright and cheerful as usual, closed the canopy and took off. She and five other Yaks were escorting eight Ilyushins. Approaching the front line, they shot down two Messerschmitts then, as they turned for home, another Messerschmitt emerged from clouds, fired at Litvyak’s Yak, and vanished again. Two of the other pilots saw her plane falling out of control, and guessed that she had been shot and was either dead or seriously injured. She did not bail out, and no one saw an explosion on the ground. Back at the base, everyone waited and hoped, until hope died. A day later, as the Soviet troops advanced, Yevdokimov and the mechanic Menkov searched the villages and gulleys where they thought she had crashed, but found nothing. Then two weeks later, Yevdokimov was killed, and no one went looking for Lilya any more. ‘Lost without trace,’ said the official letter to her mother.

But the loss of a heroine often inspires legends, especially if she’s a slender, feisty, good-looking blonde of twenty-one. A returning prisoner said he had seen Lilya in captivity. Rumours spread that a plane had landed in a village in German territory, that a girl had been driven off by Germans. Or perhaps the Germans had buried her with full military honours. Political officers asked questions. Could she have gone over to the other side? Another returning prisoner claimed she had. But these were strange times, with prisoners being re-imprisoned by their own people, and forced ‘confessions’ made and retracted, and cancerous jealousies in the regiment of Lilya’s looks and skills and popularity. There was never any evidence, only hints to the contrary: in the 1970s, village boys pulling out a grass-snake from its hole found fragments of a helmet and underwear made of parachute silk. But the discoveries were buried and, despite continuing research and much controversy, Lilya remained lost without trace, and remains so today.

Her memorial is the record of what she achieved in her two years of service: the first woman pilot to shoot down an enemy plane, 66 sorties, 11 or 12 solo victories and 4 shared (though these figures too are disputed, like so much in her life and death), giving her the greatest number of kills by a woman pilot.

The day before Lilya Litvyak vanished, some 400 kilometres to the south, the Night Witches, now honoured as the 46th Guards Night Bomber Aviation Regiment, suffered their worst night. The Russians had driven the Germans back along the Taman Peninsula, which divides the Black Sea from the Sea of Azov. The Germans needed it as a base for regaining all the ground they had just lost. Fifteen Russian U-2s took off that night, as searchlights sliced through the darkness ahead. Strangely, the anti-aircraft guns fell silent. The pilots soon learned why. The Germans had for the first time deployed a night-fighter, who had perfect targets in the spotlit, slow-moving U-2s, each as ‘clear as a silvery moth caught in a spider’s web’, as one of the returning Night Witches put it.

Serafima Amosova, one of the surviving pilots, recorded what happened:

The searchlights came on, the anti-aircraft guns were firing, and then a green rocket was fired from the ground. The anti-aircraft guns stopped, and a German fighter plane came and shot down four of our aircraft as each one came over the target. Our planes were burning like candles. We all witnessed this scene. When we landed and reported that we were being attacked by German fighters, they would not let us fly again that night. We lived in a school building with folding wooden beds. You can imagine our feelings when we returned to our quarters and saw eight beds folded, and we knew they were the beds of our friends who perished a few hours ago.

Success in the Taman campaign brought more fame and more honour to the Night Witches, redesignated as the 46th ‘Taman’ Guards. They fought on to the end of the war, moving westwards with the land army – to Belorussia, Crimea, East Prussia, Poland, and in May 1945 to Berlin and victory. They were disbanded in October 1945, because women were being reintegrated into society. Motherhood and factory work took over from fighting as Soviet ideals.


Everyone knows the analogy of the whistling train rushing through a station to illustrate the Doppler effect, the apparent shift of frequency of a wave motion if the source is moving with respect to the observer. Doppler naturally applies to radar. If a fighter detects another aircraft coming head-on, the received signals from the target will have a frequency higher than the true frequency of the fighter’s radar; similarly, the frequency will be reduced if the two aircraft are moving apart. This shift in frequency can be used to separate a target return from a background of clutter. In most traditional-type interceptions there is little clutter, except that caused by chaff or heavy rain, but today non-stealth attacking aircraft would invariably penetrate hostile territory at treetop height to try to get under the defending radar coverage. A fighter would therefore see them from above, against the Earth’s surface. Except in stark mountain or desert areas, the Earth’s surface is moving: sea waves, trees and even grass are constantly in motion, causing clutter that shows as interference on the radar display. The fighter’s radar is itself moving with respect to the Earth.

With a PD (pulse Doppler) radar the received RF signal is processed by mixers and bandpass filters that cleverly eliminate everything except targets of real interest. (The reader will note that targets may be flying in such a way that the radial distance from the fighter is constant, i.e. they seem to have no relative speed; they too can be distinguished, but it needs radars with very small ‘sidelobes’ and other advanced features.) The returns from these real targets are converted into streams of digital pulses which are fed to a computer and thence to the pilot’s display. On the latter, nothing appears except real targets and inserted information. Instead of being a mere CRT, the modern display is a synthetic picture made up of target spots and pictures, sightlines, impact points, velocity vectors, markers, range scales and a host of alphanumeric information.

Some of the most challenging radar problems of all are met with ‘overland downlook radar’ of this type, especially those having power to search beyond the visual horizon out to a radius of about 245 miles. Such a radar is fitted to the AWACS (Airborne Warning And Control System), the aircraft platform being the Boeing E-3 Sentry. This can pick out hedgehopping aircraft coming head-on, trying to protect themselves with every hostile ruse, even though the signal pulses have to travel for scores of miles right along the surface of the Earth. Only a few years ago this would have been quite impossible. AWACS and the Russian Il-78 are airborne stations which, among other things, serve as the main GCI directors for all modern fighters in the same airspace. Of course, there is no need to talk, because all data and even radar pictures are transmitted from computer to computer across perhaps 150 miles of airspace by high-speed digital links. Thus, today’s fighter may well know precisely what is coming long before any target gets within the range of its own radar.

As for software control, this simply means the control by digital computer I have been describing. The computer has to be digital, small, fast and completely reliable. As in many fields, the compact digital computer has revolutionized airborne radar (we no longer talk about ‘AI’).

To a considerable degree today’s radar is designed as a collection of standard modules, each equipped with automatic fault diagnosis, and capable of being pulled from its racking and replaced in about two minutes by a man at an Arctic base wearing fur mitts. The actual collection of modules assembled into the fighter depends on what the customer wants and can pay for. Even then the characteristics can be grossly changed, either with a screwdriver or on pilot command, by the software programmed into the computer. The computer can change the p.r.f. (pulse-repetition frequency) or the wavelength; it can change the characteristics of the signal or the pulses; it can change basic parameters according to flight-test results or different kinds of expected targets; it can change the radar ‘signature’ (how the radar’s emissions look to an enemy) between peace and war, or even hour by hour, to defeat hostile intelligence (electronic intelligence, or Elint) or countermeasures.

Countermeasures is a gigantic subject today, but it still embraces passive jammers such as chaff (which is now automatically cut to length on board the ECM aircraft or fighter by a system that listens to the hostile radars and sizes the chaff to match it) and plain noise jammers which blot out the hostile radar frequencies. One obvious way of making the noise-jammer’s life more difficult is to work your own fighter radar on changing frequencies. Modern magnetrons and TWTs (travelling-wave tubes, another potent source of microwaves) can operate over a frequency spread of more than 1 GHz, instead of being tuned exactly to a central frequency. It is possible in modern software-controlled radars, if they are switched out of the PD mode, to make their operating frequency vary rapidly and seemingly randomly all over the available range. Thus a hostile jammer has to jam on all these frequencies, so instead of using a small transmitter he needs something coupled to the National Grid. All fighters, of course, carry simple dispensers for chaff, flares or active RF-jammer payloads, and most also have passive warning receivers on the fin and many other ECM systems.

Typical of the best Western practice of the 1970 period is the F-15 Eagle. This big twin-engined aircraft was designed by a team at St Louis which still thought of itself as McDonnell, creator of the Phantom, but which in 1966 had become McDonnell Douglas. Most of them were shocked to find themselves in August 1997 part of Boeing; thus, today it is the Boeing F-15. When it was being planned, a popular slogan in USAF corridors of power was ‘Not a pound for air-to-ground!’. This meant that the F-15 was to be absolutely uncompromised as an air-combat fighter, with no thought of carrying bombs or similar uncouth stores. Of course, the winds of fashion often reverse direction, and before long the F-15E was in production, with a maximum bomb load of 24,500 lb!

From the outset, the F-15’s avionics were ‘state of the art’. The original radar was the Hughes APG-63, with a flat-plate mechanically driven scanner (such scanners are discussed later). The basic ECM system, the Loral ALR-56, was based on low-band and high-band tuners fed by a blade aerial and by small spiral receiver aerials on the tips of the wings and vertical tails to give all-round coverage. It served several functions, the most crucial being to warn the pilot if his aircraft was being illuminated by a hostile radar. It also provided steering directions for the ALQ-135 internal jamming system. ‘Internal’ does not mean the system jams the fighter’s own systems, but that the equipment is an integral part of the aircraft, not contained in an external pod.

This was typical of the EW (electronic-warfare) suites fitted to fighters of the 1970s. At least, such equipment was fitted to the fighters of most countries. In Britain the purse-strings were clamped so tightly by the Treasury that most British warplanes were worse equipped than they had been back in the Second World War. When, in April 1982, a task force had to be assembled to retake the Falkland Islands from the Argentine invaders, the last Fleet carrier had been withdrawn and there was no seagoing airpower except for Harriers and helicopters. With no sense of urgency, British Aerospace was delivering Sea Harriers, which had some air-combat capability. Suddenly, these aircraft were seen as absolutely crucial. It was then discovered that no money had been voted to equip them with any electronic-warfare system. Harriers and Sea Harriers went into action with bundles of chaff jammed under the airbrake; thus, to release chaff, the pilot had to open the airbrake just at the time when he wanted maximum performance! Frantic orders for chaff and flare cartridge dispensers were placed with the American Tracor company, to bring the Harriers and Sea Harriers almost half-way to the standard of fighters in other countries.

In the 1950s the Moscow-based Central Aero and Hydrodynamics Institute (CAHI, often rendered as TsAGI) had refined a configuration for Mach-2 aircraft with a triangular delta wing and swept tailplanes. This shape was used by Mikoyan for the MiG-21 family, and by Sukhoi for the significantly larger Su-9 all-weather interceptor. By 1962 this had been developed into the Su-11, with a more powerful radar and better missiles. By this time the Sukhoi bureau was working on a much more powerful twin-engined design, the T-58, which matured as the Su-15. Production aircraft followed the Yak-28P at Novosibirsk, the final batches being of the Su-15TM version with R13-300 engines, later radar and additional weapon options including externally hung UPK-23-250 gun pods. Called ‘Flagon’ by NATO, these attractive aircraft had a wing extended in span to just over 30 feet, but a fuselage no less than 69 feet long. They achieved the rare distinction of shooting down unidentified targets that turned out to be civil airliners that had strayed far from their authorised track: a 707 on 20 April 1978 and a 747 on 1 September 1983, both of Korean Air Lines.

In 1966 PVO regiments began receiving the biggest fighter in history. The sheer size of the Soviet Union made it almost impossible to defend against the multiple threats from USAF Strategic Air Command, partnered by US Navy carriers on which were A-3 Skywarriors carrying nuclear weapons. Thus, defence had to be provided even along the 15,000 km northern frontier. The job called for big aircraft with big radar and big missiles. For a start, in January 1958 work began on Kompleks K-80, which included the RLS Smerch (waterspout) radar and PR-S-80 sighting system. Biesnovat worked on the K-80S missiles, which in production became the R-4. Cutting a long story short, the aircraft part of the system was the Tupolev Tu-128. Prototypes puzzled the West, which called them ‘Fiddler’. Powered by two AL-7F engines, the mighty interceptor could reach over 1,200 mph, Mach 1.96, even though it was almost 100 feet long (the upgraded Tu-128M just exceeded 100 ft) and carried four giant missiles externally. Factory 18 at Voronezh delivered 189 of the initial version, plus eleven trainers with stepped cockpits.

The threats from Strategic Air Command continued to escalate. According to legend, Artyom Mikoyan, who had previously concentrated on quite small fighters, was instantly impressed by the (secret) intelligence on the North American project which became the A-5 Vigilante. He liked the broad box-like fuselage with sharp supersonic inlets to the two engines, high-mounted thin wing with sweep replaced by leading-edge taper, and (an innovation) twin vertical tails. In late 1959 he authorized project design of a similar aircraft, with the range of the Tu-128 but greater speed and altitude. He calculated that two R-15B engines would give a speed of 3,000 km/h (Mach 3, 1,864 mph) and a sustained ceiling of 26 km (85,300 ft).

While Britain was regretting that the primitive Lightning had already reached a stage where it would be difficult to cancel, but certainly was not going to be permitted a steerable nosewheel, the Soviet Aviation Ministry urged development of a series of Ye-155 prototypes, which began flight-testing from 6 March 1964. The first to fly was actually the Ye-155R-1, to lead to a reconnaissance aircraft, the MiG-25R. The Ye-155P-1 first flew on 9 September 1964, leading to production of the MiG-25P interceptor. These amazing aircraft were to sustain the biggest development programme in history, leading to forty-nine versions, of which thirty-three flew and more than twenty entered service. Production of the two basic subfamilies, the MiG-25P and the MiG-25R reconnaissance aircraft, amounted to 1,186, all from the enormous Factory 21 at Gorkiy (today called Nizhni-Novgorod).

Apart from the SR-71 ‘Blackbird’, a specialized unarmed reconnaissance aircraft, no other country had aircraft with anything even approaching the speed/altitude/range capability of the MiG-25. The United States decided against offering a bribe to the first MiG-25 pilot to defect, so it was with astonished delight that a team of US experts arrived at Hakodate airbase in Japan to examine a MiG-25P which had been flown there (undetected by Japanese defences) by a defecting PVO pilot on 6 September 1976. This event spurred development on the next generation, which had been launched in 1968 when the Council of Ministers ordered Mikoyan to build the Ye-155M.

The Mikoyan experimental factory built two prototypes, called Izdeliye (product) 83. Aircraft 831 began flight testing on 16 September 1975, and the fully equipped 832 followed in May 1976. These led to the production at the Gorkiy factory of 500 MiG-31s. At first glance a MiG-31 might be mistaken for a MiG-25, but in fact in order to find common parts one has to come down to the level of rivets and pipe-joints. It would be inappropriate here to list all the equipment carried by even the original MiG-31, prior to ongoing upgrades, but in my book on MiG aircraft I list thirty-three different items of fire-control and navigation electronics. The biggest item is the SBI-16 Zaslon (barrier) multimode radar, which has electronic scanning and can track ten targets simultaneously while guiding four R-33 missiles against those posing the greatest threat. On-board computers and secure data transmitters can link a finger-four formation to defend a front 900 km (560 miles) wide, the outer members of the formation being 600 km (373 miles) apart. In 1990 the MiG-31 was replaced in production by the MiG-31B, with improved avionics and R-33S missiles, but the largely redesigned MiG-31M came after the collapse of the Soviet Union and was never funded.

To round off the former Soviet scene, in the late 1960s design began on two engines for a future generation of fighters. As before, MiG was (at this stage only verbally) tasked with a smaller aircraft and Sukhoi with a larger edition. By 1974 both the new engines were on test. The Klimov RD-33 and Lyul’ka AL-31 are turbofans with large afterburners and advanced variable nozzles. Each of the new fighters was planned around two of the new engines mounted wide apart in a broad fuselage that merged imperceptibly into a broad wing tapered on the leading edge. A vertical tail was mounted above each engine, while a snake-like forward fuselage projected ahead from between the engine inlets. In partnership with the Central Aero and Hydrodynamics Institute, this shape was refined until it was perfect.

As in the 1950s, Sukhoi was assigned the bigger aircraft. The T-10-1 prototype flew before the first MiG, on 20 May 1977. Powered by AL-21F-3 engines, almost identical to those of later Tu-128s, it was impressive, but as testing of later T-10s progressed they ran into severe and sometimes fatal problems. Some redesign was necessary, and General Designer Simonov told the author, ‘In the end, we managed to retain the main wheels and ejection seat’ (he was not really joking). What followed, starting with the T-10S, became the Su-27, perhaps the most beautiful, and certainly most impressive, fighter ever built. When it appeared, Western analysts predictably wrote things like, ‘A cross between the F-15 and F/A-18’. Simonov said, ‘You can’t win if you just copy.’ Once Western pilots were allowed to fly the Su-27 one heard comments like ‘What an airplane! If only I could afford to buy one.’ Most production versions have the outstanding AL-31F engine, which among other things can tolerate having its inlet rotate nose-up through up to 135° in what is called the Cobra manoeuvre (which no Western fighter has yet been able to do). Later Su-27 versions, including the Su-30, 33, 35 and 37 (note, not the S-37), have later engine versions, some of which have a fully vectoring engine nozzle, and in many cases canard foreplanes. Virtually all production today is for export, though small numbers of naval and land-based bomber versions have been delivered, and advanced variants are being produced under licence in China and India.

In terms of numbers, the smaller rival MiG has done ever better. First flown as the ‘901’ on 6 October 1977, virtually no redesign was needed and production aircraft were delivered from 1982. The initial production version, called Izdellye (product) 9-12 for the Soviet Union, 9-12A for the Warsaw Pact countries and 9-12B for export, is much better known as the MiG-29. For some reason NATO gives it an extra name, ‘Fulcrum’. There have since been almost twenty versions, all similar externally apart from some later variants having canards, like certain Su-27 derivatives. Crippling lack of money meant that the Russian Air Force could no longer buy fighters after the 1980s, and production of MiG-29s tapered off in the early 1990s with a large number of aircraft not quite finished. Fortunately for what is now the MiG Aviation Scientific/Industrial Complex, many air forces (thirty at the most recent count) have enabled these aircraft to be completed, and have also bought used MiG-29s. This brought the number of completions by 1997 to 1,257. Since then the only immediate prospect of new construction has rested on Indian Navy adoption of the MiG-29K carrier-based version.

Income from these sales enabled MiG to design and build a single example of a supposed next-generation aircraft, the impressive 1.44, also known as the MFI. This big aircraft, with both foreplanes and tailplanes and with a huge chin inlet feeding two of Viktor Chepkin’s superb AL-41 engines, made two flights in early 2000. Slightly less strapped for cash, Sukhoi conducted an extended test programme with the even more astonishing black-painted Su-47 (originally, confusingly designated S-37) Berkut (eagle), which has a forward-swept wing and two D-30F6M engines almost identical to those of the MiG-31. An extended test programme with this aircraft has helped underpin the only funded programme for a new Russian fighter, the Sukhoi LFS (light frontal aeroplane). Possibly to fly in 2005, this will be powered by two AL-41F engines, and have a predictably outstanding suite of electronics.

Turning now to the USA, in April 1972 the US Air Force picked General Dynamics and Northrop to build prototypes, respectively called YF-16 and YF-17, of an LWF, standing for Lightweight Fighter. Restyled ACF, for Air Combat Fighter, the F-16 was selected. At a USAF briefing, the author was told, ‘It’s an exercise in seeing what can be done using one F100 engine instead of two. We expect our allies will buy it, but there’s no question of it becoming an important type in the Air Force inventory – why buy a Volkswagen when you can have a Cadillac [the speaker meant the F-15]?’ Allies did indeed buy it, starting with 306 aircraft for Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Norway. By the end of the twentieth century they had been joined by sixteen other countries, but what the 1975 spokesman would have found amazing is that, of the current total of 4,347 F-16s, no fewer than 2,230 are for the USAF, plus another twenty-six for the Navy!

The loser in the ACF competition was the Northrop YF-17, which differed in having two engines. In a unique about-face, this was metamorphosed into the F/A-18 Hornet for the US Navy, a McDonnell Douglas aeroplane with Northrop reduced to the role of mere forty-per cent associate contractor. Compared with the F-17, the F/A-18 was marginally bigger, and had a stronger and heavier airframe suitable for carrier operation. Unlike the F-16, the Hornet had a large multimode radar, the Hughes APG-65, and thus could be armed with big medium-range missiles such as Sparrow and later the AIM-120 Amraam. While McDonnell Douglas got on with the US Navy order, Northrop tried to sell a simpler version, 2,600 lb lighter, and with significantly higher performance and anything up to double the payload/range. To its astonishment, all the export customers (who had to go to McDonnell Douglas, not Northrop) chose to buy the heavier and supposedly inferior carrier-based version, even though they were going to operate from airfields. The situation led to an unprecedented lawsuit between the two partners. This led to the F/A-18 becoming an all-McDonnell Douglas product. By 1996 the original F/A-18 versions had been developed into the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which is more of an upgrade than it looks. But Boeing had the last laugh; in 1997 it bought McDonnell Douglas.

By the 1970s the technology of what was officially called LO (low observables), but became better known as ‘stealth’, appeared likely to revolutionize the whole of warfare. Few commentators recalled that in 1936 Watson-Watt had pointed out how important it would be in future for all weapons, even small ones, to be designed to minimize their signature on hostile radars. Certainly nobody cared to offer an explanation of why this advice had been ignored, and then regarded as if it were something new. Cutting a long story short, the LO technology was first put to use in a dedicated attack aircraft, the F-117 Nighthawk. Astonishingly, the even more stealthy Navy counterpart, the A-12A Avenger II, was cancelled in 1991, so in the twenty-first century the Navy/Marines still fly the venerable A-6.

Fighting MiGs in Vietnam

The dominant producer of Soviet combat aircraft throughout the cold war was the Mikoyan-Gurevich (MiG) design bureau. U.S. Air Force pilots encountered four primary Soviet combat aircraft over North Vietnam: the MiG-15, MiG-17, MiG-19, and MiG-21. Soviet-designed aircraft were generally technologically equal to their American counterparts. Although Soviet pilots flew combat missions in Korea and probably flew them in Vietnam, the U.S. airmen most often battled pilots from China, North Korea, and North Vietnam, all of whom were trained by the Soviet Union. The first jet aircraft to enter into service was the MiG-15, referred to by its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) nickname, Fagot. American pilots encountered the MiG-15 for the first time in Korea. The small, swept-wing, nimble fighter outclassed everything in the theater in 1950. The U.S. Air Force was forced to rush F-86 Sabre aircraft to Korea to deal with it. The second Soviet aircraft that American airmen encountered was the MiG-17, code-named by NATO the Fresco. The MiG-17 was an advanced model of the MiG-15 with wings that were swept even further than its predecessors, an afterburner, and high maneuverability.

The consummate fighter pilot Robin Olds described the MiG-17 thus:

That little airplane could give you a tussle the likes of which you never had before in your life. It’s fast enough, it turns on a dime, it has a reasonable zoom capability, has very light wing loading. I’ve seen them split S from 2,000 feet. It’s absolutely impossible to follow them. I’ve also seen an MiG-17 turn from where I had him at a disadvantage of perhaps a 30-degree angle off, about a mile and a half out, maybe two miles, trying to get a missile shot at him, and I’ve had them actually turn to make a head-on firing pass at me even though I was going about .9 mach at the time when I was closing on him. So their turn radius has to be seen to be believed. It’s incredible!

The two other primary Soviet aircraft in the theater were the MiG-19 Fishbed and the MiG-21, which quickly followed it. Markedly different from its predecessors, the MiG-21 more than equaled its primary adversary, the F-4 Phantom. The North Vietnamese preferred to send their MiG-17s after the F-4s and the MiG-21s after the less capable F-105s. This approach gave them certain advantages against the Americans. For example, the heavy and slow F-105 carried a particular electronic countermeasures pod, the QRC-160, which enabled the North Vietnamese to identify it easily on radar. This perceived advantage in technology actually worked against American pilots. Furthermore, the F-105s used the same call signs for every mission. Although this was done so friendly units knew what type of aircraft they were, it gave the North Vietnamese the same information. After North Vietnamese radars detected the F-105s, MiG-21s intercepted them, forcing the F-105s to drop their bomb load and engage the MiGs or break off the attack and return home. Either way, contact between the North Vietnamese and American aircraft ended the bombing mission. However, American ingenuity ended this practice when a tactical deception operation, Operation Bolo, resulted in the downing of seven MiG-21s.

Soviet and American aircraft each had strengths and weaknesses that helped or hindered them in any given engagement. The MiGs were highly maneuverable, with a very small turning radius. However, such a tight turn caused them to bleed off speed and energy, two very important aspects of an air-to-air engagement. By contrast, American fighters were much larger. The greater size meant larger engines, which gave them greater thrust. The pros and cons of size, thrust, and maneuverability will be discussed later. The larger American aircraft, especially the F-4, could be seen miles away due to black smoke billowing out the back end of the aircraft when its afterburner was on. As one American pilot sarcastically stated, “If you want business, you’ve got to advertise.”


To overcome the lack of training and the problematic equipment, the in-theater unit commanders changed tactics on their own. In particular, Colonel Robin Olds pushed his pilots hard. Speaking about the lack of training that he had to overcome, Olds later said, “Even after coming home from a long mission if we have enough fuel to burn to afford five to ten minutes of practice tactics. We always do it. I never let them rest. We don’t want to waste a moment in the air.” Olds used these last minutes of returning flights to practice formation tactics, breaking away from a surface-to-air missile, air-to-air combat tactics and maneuvering, and rolling in on targets. Even the most mundane operations, such as simply taking off with a full combat load, had never been taught back in the United States.

Robin Olds’s legendary status is well deserved, and his use of the most able and qualified pilots as flight leads, rather than the pilots who had the highest rank, would be echoed in the changes that occurred within the USAF tactical forces throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Olds, while wing commander of the Eighth TFW, also began scheduling dissimilar aerial dogfights with local Australian F-86 pilots who were also stationed at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base. These training dogfights exposed Olds’s pilots to aircraft similar to MiGs. It was an in-theater fix to a training deficiency, and it was very successful. The changes to training and combat missions that Olds instituted with the Eighth TFW became standard practice and had direct results during the Vietnam conflict.

In perhaps the most famous air force tactical combat operation of the Vietnam War, Olds deceived North Vietnamese MiG-21s into launching against his F-4s, which were masquerading as slower and more vulnerable F-105s. Olds’s in-theater adaptation showed exactly the kind of innovative thinking that was not occurring at the Fighter Weapons School, at other training facilities back in the United States, or at Tactical Air Command. Contrary to oral tradition and fighter pilot barroom tales depicting Olds as a maverick with no use for authority, he went to General Momyer, Seventh Air Force commander at the time, and asked for permission to go after the MiG-21s. Momyer agreed, and Olds named the operation “Bolo” after a fighting knife. Of course, Olds and Momyer knew that the easiest way to destroy the MiGs would be an attack on the bases where they were stationed. However, the rules of engagement established in Washington precluded attacks against North Vietnamese air units on the ground until later in the war.

Olds knew that his enemy was a living, thinking organism capable of analysis and adaptation. It was common at this time for air force fighters or fighter-bombers to use the same call signs on missions. As an example, F-105s often used vehicle names, such as Ford, Chevy, and Oldsmobile, and this was a clue to the North Vietnamese that the slow and heavy Thunderjets (“Thuds”) were approaching. In Bolo, the F-4s used these same call signs. Olds also equipped his F-4s with QRC-160 jamming pods that, until then, only the F-105s had used. Thanks to a New Year’s ceasefire, Olds had enough time to retrofit his F-4s with the jamming pods. Starting on 1 January 1967, maintenance crews installed the QRC-160 electronic countermeasures pods in secrecy and equipped each aircraft with a full complement of AIM-7 Sparrow and AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles.

On 2 January, a mammoth package of aircraft lifted into the sky from Ubon and Da Nang. By including support aircraft, Olds had ensured that the phantom package mirrored a large F-105 strike in every way. Olds had his F-4s spread apart at five-minute intervals, hoping to ensure that once the MiGs were engaged they would not be able to escape. Heavy cloud cover both helped and hindered the operation. On one hand, the MiGs didn’t know a trap had been set until they burst through the cloud cover, right into the waiting F-4s. On the other hand, the MiGs used the clouds to escape before the second wave of fighters entered the fray. As many as twelve MiG-21s came up to engage Olds’s men that morning, and seven of them were shot down. The lost aircraft represented between one-third and one-half of the total MiG-21 aircraft operating in North Vietnam at the time. For the rest of the war, the North Vietnamese never sent that many MiG-21s skyward simultaneously.

Olds and his crews quickly became known, thanks to Bob Hope, as “the leading MiG parts distributor in Asia.” Olds’s Bolo operation worked as he had planned it. Still, a combat zone was not the preferred location to make changes to training and operations, despite Olds’s belief that only in combat could a fighter pilot truly learn his trade. Interviewed by the air force’s Historical Research Agency in 1967 when he returned from Vietnam, Olds stated, “You can’t train a man in the United States to do what he’s going to have to do in combat. It’s difficult to simulate air-to-air combat.” Olds retired from the USAF in 1973 just as changes he had made as a wing commander were being made throughout Tactical Air Command.

Project Red Baron

At the request of the director of defense research and engineering, the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group began a study of every air-to-air encounter in Southeast Asia. The project code name was Red Baron, and the reports detailed the problems faced by U.S. fighter pilots during the Vietnam War. The major problems included the pilot’s difficulty in locating the enemy in the air before he could move into an advantageous firing position, the need for an all-weather air superiority fighter and, most important, the need for realistic training to properly prepare fighter pilots for combat.

In 1969, General Momyer, who by that time had become TAC commander, used the Red Baron reports to evaluate the effectiveness of TAC air crews in air-to-air engagements in Vietnam. Written in three volumes over several years, the reports covered each engagement chronologically. Furthermore, the air force did not limit itself to evaluating only its own engagements; it dissected navy operations as well. Volume 1 covered F-4 and F-8 engagements prior to March 1967, volume 2 F-105 engagements in the same period, and volume 3 the very narrow period of March to August 1967; volume 3 did not cover a particular aircraft. In total, Red Baron project officers assessed 320 engagements and conducted more than 150 interviews of mission participants.

As was the case with the Graham Report, the data in the Red Baron project came from after-action mission reports and interviews with the aircrew, when possible, for each engagement. The data collection for Red Baron was exhaustive. Beyond mission reports and interviews, the project’s members combed through the records of the chief of naval operations, the chief of staff of the air force, the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, the commander of the Pacific Air Forces, and the commander of the Seventh Air Force. Researchers used, when available, videotaped footage from gun cameras, letters from participants, and in-flight communication tapes—anything that could help them to re-create the engagements. The intent of the massive data collection effort was to obtain sufficient information to reconstruct the various air-to-air encounters in as much detail and with as much accuracy as possible. While some interviews lasted only a few minutes, many lasted several hours as the pilots and interviewers struggled to piece together a particularly chaotic dogfight.

Psychologists also aided in the interviews, primarily to help alleviate the difficulty pilots had in piecing the encounters together minute by minute. Those who undergo extreme stress during a traumatic event such as dogfight often suffer some type of temporal distortion. In retrospect, events that occurred within a few seconds seemed to the pilots to have dragged on for an indeterminable time, and other aspects seemed to occur instantaneously. It became clear during the course of the interviews that the air-to-air combatant rarely had an accurate sense of time during the event in question. Amazingly, however, pilots were able to recall a battle in very minute detail, such as where their hands were positioned or the nose angle of the aircraft. The psychologists from the Institute for Defense Analyses helped piece all this information together.

The Red Baron reports are essentially oral histories by those who participated in air-to-air combat in Vietnam. Volume 1 alone covers 248 separate encounters, 164 air-to-air engagements, and 331 interviews. The other volumes are similarly bulky. For each engagement, the report presented a narrative and in many cases a visual diagram to aid in the understanding of the “sufficient complexity” of the engagement. During Vietnam, military aircraft did not carry, nor did there exist, computers capable of automatically tracking known flight paths and locations of aircraft in time and space during aerial combat. Thus, the oral record of events in the Red Baron reports gives us the best available picture of aerial combat during Vietnam.

The first engagement recorded in volume 1 of the Red Baron reports detailed how four F-8s (Blue 1-4) were engaged by three MiG-17s in April 1965. Blue 1 was orbiting over the target at about eight thousand feet when he was hit by what he presumed to be ground fire. The pilot was concentrating on looking for antiaircraft weapons and was not maintaining a lookout for enemy fighters, which were the responsibility of his combat air patrol of F-4s at twenty-five thousand feet. As soon his aircraft was hit, the pilot climbed to eighteen thousand feet in an attempt to escape the perceived ground fire. After considerable maneuvering, Blue 1 noticed the attacking MiGs, which departed the area due to the heavy number of incoming American aircraft that were part of a separate strike package. Blue 4 attempted to engage the fleeing MiGs but withheld fire despite a missile lock for fear of inadvertently hitting another American aircraft. The first dogfight in Vietnam ended in a draw. The American aircraft did not recognize that an attack had occurred until the enemy had departed the area. In a scenario that would be repeated in many other Red Baron reports, the American pilots did not know they were under attack until the enemy had already fired at them.

Two days later, the air battle resumed with the first losses for both sides when one F-4 and one MiG-17 were shot down. The air battles increased in duration and intensity over the next several months, with neither side developing any decided advantage over the other. On 17 June 1965, the air force scored two kills in an engagement between two F-4s and four MiG-17s, the first time the air force claimed kills without also suffering losses. Many of the aerial engagements were “sightings only” or ended with no damage or loss of aircraft to either side. In fact, between the first battle in April 1965 and June 1966, the air force lost only one aircraft to an enemy MiG. After that, however, the air force experienced an increasing loss rate, losing seven aircraft to MiGs over the next seven months but killing seventeen in return. Of those seventeen, seven were killed in a single engagement during the trap that was the Bolo operation. Although the air force maintained a superior kill rate to the MiGs, it never approached true air superiority over Vietnam, as for the better part of the decade air force pilots engaged in aerial warfare that they had not been properly trained to conduct.

The Red Baron reports demonstrated that there were a few universal truths about air combat in Vietnam. The first was that the majority of American pilots who were shot down did not know enemy aircraft were in the vicinity until it was too late. The MiG-15s, 17s, and 21s were smaller, faster, and generally more maneuverable than their larger American counterparts. Furthermore, the MiGs were notoriously hard to spot unless they were giving off contrails. Finally, the enemy’s preferred method of attack with MiGs was high and fast from the rear. Olds spoke about this tactic after his return home: “Going in a pair of MiG-21s hit us, two of them, and they came in supersonic from six o’clock high and [were] right on top of us before we ever knew anything about it, launched a bunch of missiles, and shot down two of my F-4s. Bang. Just that fast. I turned around, I heard them scream, I turned, and all I saw were two burning objects on the side. . . . These MiGs were gone, supersonic.” There is an old adage among fighter pilots: “Lose sight, lose the fight.” In the case of many engagements in Vietnam, American pilots never had sight in the first place. Finding a way to locate and fix enemy aircraft became a major goal when changes were made in training after the war ended.

The second lesson learned from Red Baron was that American pilots, even if they could locate and engage a MiG, lacked sufficient skill to dogfight the enemy. Pilots interviewed in the Red Baron reports repeated this time and again. In volume 1 pilots stated that they had “received insufficient training in air combat tactics,” and that “safety restrictions severely limited air combat tactics training prior to deployment.”

The final finding from Red Baron was that pilots were so task-saturated in learning how to employ air-to-air weapons for one mission, air-to-ground munitions for the next mission, and electronic jammer operation for yet another that they never could become proficient in any of these tasks. The U.S. Navy discovered this reality, as indicated in the “Report of the Air-to-Air Missile System Capability Review,” more commonly called the Ault Reports. The Ault Reports, conducted in the latter half of 1968, demonstrated to the navy that its fighter pilots were not trained to place their aircraft in an advantageous position to use missiles against MiGs. The navy began fixing this problem in 1969 when it established the Fighter Weapons School, more commonly known as Top Gun. However, the U.S. Air Force already had a weapons school, which raises the question of what, if anything, was being taught and learned there.

Failures in air combat were not always linked to weaknesses in the training of American pilots or to any special successes of the MiGs. The Red Baron reports backed up what fighter pilots were already saying: that the missiles did not work as billed. In one encounter, two F-4s fired a total of six missiles. The motors of three did not engage, causing them to plummet uselessly to earth, and two did not track the enemy aircraft, causing them to arch, again uselessly, into the distance until their fuel ran out. The one missile that did track its target was evaded. The report did not contain the pilots’ reactions to the complete failure of their missiles. Even though missile developers (Raytheon, BAE, Douglas Aircraft Corporation, and Ford Aerospace) promised certain kill rates, the missiles consistently failed to deliver, due in large part to the fact that the Americans were rarely in the position to fire from directly behind the enemy. The missiles had been designed to be fired from the six o’clock (rear) or twelve o’clock (in front of) position against nonmaneuvering bombers, and MiGs learned quickly to prevent American pilots from getting into this position. Besides, once merged, fighters were often too close to employ missiles effectively. It did not help combat pilots engaged with the enemy at close range that initial designs of the F-4 did not include a gun—aircraft designers and the military establishment believed that a gun would not be needed thanks to the advent of missiles. Later versions of the air force’s F-4 included a gun.

There are several reasons for the missiles’ low Pk rates. First, as already suggested, many missile motors failed to fire. Second, the missiles’ extreme acceleration sometimes caused a guidance fin to separate, resulting in the missile hurtling away from the target. Third, some missiles were fired outside weapons parameters, as was the case with the AIM-9B, which could not be fired in a turn of over two Gs. Fourth, in some cases the missiles failed to track the targets due to either internal failures or enemy countermeasures, including turning into or away from the missiles. Fifth, in the enormously complicated process of “switchology” necessary to fire a missile, some pilots missed a step, causing the missile to hang on the rails. As one fighter pilot humorously noted, “They’re called missiles and not hittles for a reason.”

Beyond missile failure, the air force also noted a need to develop and exploit “all weather, night and adverse weather conventional weapons delivery.” As it turned out, the weather in North Vietnam often precluded the air force from flying scheduled sorties. When the pilots took to the skies on clear days, so did the MiGs and surface-to-air missiles. By 1974, the air force’s chief of staff, General George S. Brown, and Tactical Air Command commander Robert J. Dixon recognized the need to be able to conduct air operations in all weather.

Despite the Graham and Red Baron reports, the air force as an organization refused to accept that tactical losses were matters of serious concern. Some air force leaders refused to admit a problem existed. In 1968, General Bruce K. Holloway, wrote an article for the Air University Review in which he stated that “in South Vietnam, our air superiority came by default. In North Vietnam it has yet to be seriously challenged.” This view was egregiously wrong. The U.S. military never held air superiority over North Vietnam, because it never held, in Holloway’s own words, “the degree of dominance in the air battle of one force over another which permits the conduct of operations by the former . . . without prohibitive interference.” Holloway claimed air dominance in terms that were simply not true. The North Vietnamese routinely made a point of preventing the U.S. Air Force from accomplishing its mission. Enemy surface-to-air missiles, enemy aircraft, and enemy antiaircraft artillery posed a serious and ongoing threat to American air operations over Vietnam.

Holloway admitted that “our tactical fighters were designed primarily for nuclear war where penetration was more important than maneuverability, ordnance load carrying ability more important than armament, alert status more important than sustained sortie rates. The tactical fighter became less and less an air superiority system.” Holloway’s inability to admit that this thinking had proved costly to the ongoing war in Vietnam proves just how deeply ingrained the Strategic Air Command’s mentality was among air force leaders. Holloway argued for the creation of a new air force fighter, then called the F-X and later designated the F-15. However, it is difficult to believe the sincerity of his desire for an air superiority fighter.


The United States entered World War II deficient in doctrine, technology, and force structure. Because the United States had an Army Air Corps rather than an independent air force, over the interwar era the doctrinal pronouncements of the Army Air Corps (which became the Army Air Forces [AAF] in 1941) stressed the subordination of aviation forces to the service’s ground commanders. This drove development of “O”-prefixed spotter aircraft and “A”-prefixed attack aircraft, intended for battlefield air operations. “B”-prefixed bombers were intended for interdiction strikes against lines of communications, supply points, and the like. “P”-prefixed (for “pursuit”) fighters were intended for defensive operations, including destroying enemy observation, attack, and bomber aircraft and protecting the operations of friendly aircraft. The Army Air Corps made a small investment in aerial resupply, logistical support, and medical evacuation, acquiring military derivatives of American civil air transports (such as the DC-3, which became the C-47). By Pearl Harbor, the AAF had approximately 125 modern transports, the core of a force that would expand almost sixtyfold over the next three years.

The Technical and Industrial Dimensions

Watching the remarkable development of American civil aviation, army and naval airmen increasingly championed applying this design (and performance) revolution to the Air Corps’ own force structure, necessarily affecting both doctrine and combat capabilities. Largely through the Air Corps Tactical School (predecessor of today’s Air University) at Maxwell Field (now Maxwell Air Force Base [AFB]), they argued vigorously for a more offensive and strategic view of airpower, exemplified by the drive to produce long-range bombers capable of striking at any enemy threatening American possessions or the homeland, or striking deep into the heart of an enemy nation against its leadership, means of production, and war-making capacity. At great effort, they succeeded in forming a so-called GHQ Air Force that served a vital nurturing function for America’s wartime strategic bomber force.

While the Navy and Army made commendable progress in two major aircraft types—maritime patrol planes and long-range bombers, typified by the PBY Catalina and B-17 Flying Fortress—progress on other types was less satisfactory. At the time of the Blitzkrieg in 1939, both the Army Air Corps and naval aviation were forces in transition. The Army Air Corps was transitioning from early monoplane fighters such as the P-26, P-35, and P-36 to the P-38, P-39, and P-40; the P-47 and P-51 were yet to come. The Navy was still operating mixed biplane and monoplane Carrier Air Groups—Japan, at the time, had all-monoplane Carrier Air Groups—but was transitioning into the era of the F4F fighter, SBD scout/dive bomber, and TBD torpedo bomber with the F4U fighter in design (and the F6F, like the Army’s P-47 and P-51, still to come). Much as the Air Corps rejected operating in a “support only” role, naval aviators demonstrated using carriers in pairs to achieve maximum effect, operating as a vital strategic and operational striking force with torpedo planes and dive bombers. In this, the U.S. Navy had greater insight and operational boldness than the Royal Navy (which had evolved the first aircraft carriers) though less than the Imperial Japanese Navy, as was sadly evident on the morning of December 7, 1941.

On the eve of Pearl Harbor, the United States possessed tremendous innate productive and training capacity as well as a mastery of relevant military technologies largely reflecting the dual-use civil-military industrial base developed over the previous fifteen years. While each of the major combatants in Europe and Asia at that time—France, Germany, Great Britain, and Japan—had larger aviation workforces than the United States, America’s was arguably the most highly trained and most sophisticated in employing mass production techniques. Its productivity exploded, with aircraft production doubling between 1939 and 1940, and doubling again by the end of 1941, when it reached 26,277, of which 19,433 were military airplanes. Between the outbreak of war in Europe and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States began to serve as a major weapons supplier to the Allies; by mid-August 1940 Great Britain had already placed orders for 20,000 American airplanes and 42,000 engines. After Pearl Harbor the industry expanded further, adding new plants and distributing production among multiple facilities.

Confronting Flawed Doctrinal and Operational Assumptions

Overconfidence, flawed prewar assumptions, and inept leadership caused problems that were largely resolved by the end of 1943. The military services did not profit as much as might be expected from having studied air operations in the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), the Sino-Japanese War (1937–45), and the Battle of Britain (1940). All afforded important lessons that were largely missed, in large measure because these conflicts did not conform to expectations of what planners considered “real” air war.

The Battle of Britain offers a particularly disturbing case of valuable lessons missed, for Air Corps observers were present on scene throughout. While recognizing by mid-September 1940 that the Royal Air Force was winning, the observers tended to dismiss its outcome, one then-planner astonishingly writing afterward that “concrete ‘lessons’ simply did not materialize.” Three missed lessons proved particularly costly: the value of comprehensive radar coverage, the vulnerability of unsupported bombers, and the need for longer-ranging fighters to protect bombers. Missing the first helped ensure the success of Japan’s attack at Pearl Harbor. Missing the second and third led to the high bomber loss rates over Germany in the late summer and fall of 1943, pending changes in fighter strategy and introduction of the new long-range P-51.

For America, 1942 constituted a year of holding off the Axis and positioning forces for sustained combat in the Pacific and Europe. The Pearl Harbor attack and the loss of Wake, Guam, and the Philippines shattered prewar illusions of any innate superiority of American airmen over their Japanese counterparts. The Doolittle raid on Tokyo in April 1942 set an important standard for future joint operations as well as demonstrated to the Japanese that the Home Islands were not immune from attack. Hard-won U.S. victories at Coral Sea in May and Midway in June halted Japan’s advance, eliminated many of its prewar cadre of trained naval aviators, and rendered easier the establishment of footholds in the Solomons from whence America began its Pacific counteroffensive. Japanese forces landed in the Aleutian Islands, triggering a year-long war in which American and Canadian airmen faced greater challenges from the bitter environmental conditions (including blizzards, fogs, and winds) than from enemy action. In the European theater, the AAF built up both its strategic bombing and fighter forces; not until mid-1943 were American air forces in Great Britain ready to significantly participate in the European air war.

Joint service sea-air-land invasions of the Solomons in August 1942 and North Africa in November 1942 marked the beginnings of two major campaigns: in the Pacific against Japan, and in North Africa against German and Italian forces then already retreating toward Tunisia. The two campaigns had very different but highly significant outcomes. Fighting in the Solomons resulted in establishment of a true joint air command with responsibilities shared among Navy, Marine, and AAF units. Nicknamed the “Cactus Air Force,” it secured control of the air over Guadalcanal, extended it more generally over the Solomons, and then used that control to prosecute sea control and anti-access strikes that disrupted and then severed Japanese sea lines of communication, leading to the collapse of Japanese resistance ashore. By early 1943 coalition air operations over the Solomons and over eastern New Guinea had effectively achieved air denial over opposing Japanese forces and Allied airmen were preparing to extend Allied air control more broadly over New Guinea and New Britain.

Air operations in North Africa revealed the bankruptcy of prewar and early wartime air-land operational doctrine, exemplified by FM 1-5, FM 1-10, and FM 31-35, which dictated the control of air forces in support of ground forces. The humiliating defeat of American forces at the Battle of Kasserine in February 1943, where too-restrictive air control procedures had constrained AAF participation, resulted in an immediate review and rewriting of American air doctrine. The new guidance, issued as FM 100-20 “Command and Employment of Air Power,” dramatically reshaped and transformed the nature of relations between the AAF and Army ground forces. FM 100-20 famously declared (using upper-case lettering for startling effect) “LAND POWER AND AIR POWER ARE CO-EQUAL AND INTERDEPENDENT FORCES; NEITHER IS AN AUXILIARY OF THE OTHER.” It stipulated three sequential air priorities: (1) air superiority, (2) air interdiction, and (3) battlefield air support. For the rest of World War II, FM 100-20 governed the employment of AAF airpower, and its historical legacy has influenced profoundly the postwar U.S. Air Force (USAF) to the present.

The year 1943 was the Allies’ year of testing and preparation prior to 1944, the year of great offensives. In the Pacific, the AAF began a comprehensive program of antishipping strikes against Japanese maritime traffic supporting deployed Japanese forces and on supply convoys transporting raw materials from the Dutch East Indies and Southeast Asia to Japan. In the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, a mixed Australian-American attack force sank twelve of sixteen vessels, including all eight transports and four of eight escorting destroyers. It was a signal that Japan, having lost control of the air over the Bismarck Sea, could no longer expect to supply its forces in New Guinea. In the far north 1943 marked the expulsion of Japanese forces from the Aleutians and the beginning of Allied air operations from those islands against the Japanese homeland’s northern flank. At sea the U.S. Navy had made good its losses from Pearl Harbor and the fleet actions of 1942 and now fielded new and powerful fleet carriers of the Essex class; a superb new carrier fighter, the F6F (which “made” more fighter aces than any other American aircraft of any service); and the TBF, an excellent torpedo bomber. Thus, for the Navy in the Pacific, 1943 constituted a period of “working up” prior to the great island campaigns and fleet battles to come in 1944–45. Informed by Ultra signals intelligence, the Navy and AAF prosecuted an extensive antisubmarine campaign in the Atlantic and Caribbean Sea, using a mix of shore-based, long-range maritime patrol bombers (including those of the AAF) and flying boats coupled with small escort carriers deployed in “Hunter-Killer” teams. Overall, the Allied coalition’s antisubmarine air effort effectively won the Battle of the Atlantic in 1943, reducing losses of shipping to levels that, if still unfortunate, were at least tolerable.

In Europe FM 100-20 received its combat test during air operations in the Sicilian campaign, which was also noteworthy for being the first great test of American airborne forces. The latter took heavy losses during the invasion of Sicily from friendly fire, illustrating the need for better command, control, communication, and coordination among joint and combined air, sea, and land forces. The invasion of Italy in September 1943 and the collapse of the Mussolini regime enabled air operations by the 15th Air Force against targets in the Mediterranean theater and across the Alps to Germany, Austria, and various captive nations. Over Germany the 8th Air Force experienced stinging losses in its first deep forays. During the Regensburg-Schweinfurt mission on August 17, 1943, it lost 60 of 346 bombers; Schweinfurt on October 14, 1943, was worse, with 60 lost out of 291. As a consequence, bomber and fighter tactics were reviewed, new leaders—generals Carl Spaatz and James Doolittle—assumed command of the “Mighty Eighth” and its fighter component, fighters were freed from escort and allowed to sweep ahead and to the side of bomber formations to destroy intercepting fighters before they engaged the bombers, and the superlative P-51—having innately long range due to exceptionally streamlined design, jettisonable drop-tanks, and a low-drag wing affording high internal fuel capacity—entered operational service at year’s end, complementing the P-38 and P-47.

The Maturation of American Wartime Airpower and Its Implications

The year 1944 marked the beginning of the liberation of captured territories in Europe and the Pacific. In this year of great invasions, airpower played a crucial role. Protected even on strikes deep into Germany by drop-tank-equipped P-38, P-47, and new P-51 long-range fighters, British and American bomber operations in Europe now reached a full and deadly maturity. During “Big Week” (Operation Argument, February 20–25, 1944) the German fighter force was severely mauled by the new tactic of fighter sweeps, never to recover from the combined loss of increasingly scarce aircraft and skilled airmen. As a consequence, in the buildup to the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944, the Allies enjoyed not merely air superiority but (as Gen. Dwight Eisenhower told his son) air supremacy.

The liberation of France and the Marianas-Philippines campaign in 1944 marked the apotheosis of American land-based and naval airpower during the war. Afterward the Axis had no chance to reverse the decline in its fortunes, and by early 1945 industrial output in both Germany and Japan had come to a halt. In Europe the Nazis’ “V”-weapon (cruise and ballistic missile) campaign, the introduction of jet fighters and bombers, and the Bulge offensive in December 1944—the latter undertaken in winter precisely to minimize Allied air attacks—could only slow, not stop, the inexorable Allied advance into Germany, an advance undertaken under the protective cover of American and Allied airpower. In the Pacific, the last-ditch kamikaze campaign, while terribly costly in lives lost and shattered and ships lost or damaged, could likewise do little against the massive joint-service, land-based, and maritime airpower forces deployed against the Home Islands. The dropping of two atomic bombs by B-29 bombers on August 6 and 9, 1945, brought the war to a sobering end, launching the atomic era and an uncertain peace that soon created its own challenges and quandaries.

World War II: Observations, Lessons, and Reflections

World War II taught many and varied airpower lessons, of which these constitute some of the more significant.

Overall, World War II marked the ascendency of airpower to a level coequal to land and sea power. While airpower was not superior to either, neither land forces nor sea forces could function effectively without considering the air dimension, both in its offensive and defensive perspectives. At the operational and tactical levels of warfare, air attack had overturned traditional notions of what constituted maneuver warfare, Germany’s Vice Adm. Friedrich Ruge noting immediately after the Normandy invasion that American and British airmen had effectively transformed what constituted “modern type of warfare” by “turning the flank not from the side but from above.” Indeed, one can go further and state that, by early 1943, Britain and the United States had established what effectively constituted a new “Anglo-American” form of warfare, joining traditional surface forces to powerful, robust, and land- and sea-based aviation forces. These forces had the ability to strike with unprecedented power across the levels of warfare, from tactical through strategic, and with power ranging from that of a machine gun through 4,000-pound bombs. In 1945 that would rise into the kilotons with the atomic bomb.

In the aftermath of World War II few argued (and none persuasively) against the establishment of an independent United States Air Force. The most important justification for that transformation was arguably not America’s own wartime experience (impressive though it had been) but, rather, Great Britain’s. British airmen validated the concept of an independent Royal Air Force by their victory in the Battle of Britain. While this battle was at once more complex and nuanced than simply an “airpower victory,” it was nevertheless undeniably a victory made possible by airpower, as was plainly evident to the British citizens in southeastern England during the late summer and fall of 1940. Britain arguably would have lost the battle had it not established an independent air force in 1918. It is impossible to imagine the British Army supporting and funding development of the integrated radar- and telecommunications-based air defense network along Britain’s eastern and southern coast that did so much to save Britain in 1940, let alone establishing Fighter Command with its expensive high-performance aircraft.

After the war, with the tremendous record of the virtually independent AAF around the globe, it was inconceivable that this post–FM 100-20 genie could be put back in a pre-1943 doctrinal “air in support of” bottle. The same was true of the Navy. The days of a battleship-centric force relying on aircraft for “scouting” and fleet protection while seeking the climax of big-gun, battle-line surface combat were over. The airplane and the submarine, the two great progenitors of twentieth-century three-dimensional warfare, had generated a transformation so powerful that it effectively rendered traditional naval surface maneuver forces both dependent upon them and subject to them.

The war highlighted as well the value of air mobility, resupply, transport, and logistical support. In this respect, America possessed more robust air transport forces at the beginning of the war than other combatants, a reflection of the tremendous investment made in the interwar period in civil air transport design. The most emblematic transport aircraft of the war, the Douglas C-47, was a militarized civilian airliner, the DC-3. The United States built upon its prewar accomplishment to develop more capable (i.e., higher capacity and longer range) aircraft such as the C-46 and C-54 (civil DC-4). It likewise became the major supplier of transport aircraft (such as the C-45, C-47, and C-54) to the Allied powers. By 1945 more than two hundred flights per week were crossing the North Atlantic, and within just months after the end of the war “demobilized” transports were appearing in civil service, together with literally thousands of C-47s.

Finally, the war demonstrated that airpower forces required the same extensive investment in science, technology, and industry that had previously characterized the rise of navies (and to a far lesser extent armies), and that they needed to operate according to sound doctrinal principles rooted in a thorough understanding of modern war. Powers that might otherwise have fared far better against their opponents—France, Italy, Japan, and, ultimately, Nazi Germany itself—had been undone by failures to develop comprehensive balanced strengths across all these areas. While all four of these nations had produced some remarkable aircraft, various failures in research and development, acquisition, production, operational concepts, and (common to all four countries) air doctrine led to disaster against enemies that, in some cases, possessed only slight but still critical advantages in these same areas over them.

Henschel Hs 129B-2 series

By the end of 1942 the growing capability of Soviet tank battalions made it essential to develop a version of the Hs 129 with greater fire-power, leading to the Hs 129B-2 series which was introduced into service in the early part of 1943. They included the Hs 129B-2/Rl which carried two 20 mm MG 151/20 cannon and two 13 mm (0.51 in) machine-guns; the generally similar Hs 129B-2/R2 introduced an additional 30 mm MK 103 cannon beneath the fuselage; the Hs 129B-2/R3 had the two MG 13s deleted but was equipped with a 37 mm BK 3,7 gun; and the Hs 129B-2/R4 carried a 75 mm (2.95 in) PaK 40L (‘L’ for Luftwaffe) gun in an underfuselage pod. Final production variant was the Hs 129B-3 of which approximately 25 were built and which, developed from the Hs 129B-2/R4, substituted an electro-pneumatically operated 75 mm BK 7,5 gun for the PaK 40 (Panzer Abwehr Kanone 40). The lethal capability of the Hs 129B-2/R2 was amply demonstrated in the summer of 1943 during Operation ‘Citadel’, the German offensive which was intended to regain for them the initiative on the Eastern Front after the defeat at Stalingrad. During this operation some 37,421 sorties were flown, at the end of which the Luftwaffe claimed the destruction of 1,100 tanks. However accurate these figures, not all of those destroyed could be credited to Hs 129s, but there is little doubt that the 879 of these aircraft that were built (including prototypes) played a significant role on the Eastern front. In spite of its small numbers and deficiencies, proved extremely successful in the anti-role, however, it suffered heavy losses and not many examples survived the war.

The Hs 129B equipped three Staffeln of the 8th Assault Wing of the Royal Romanian Air Corps. On 23 August 1944 there was a coup in Romania, as a result of which the country changed from being an ally of Germany to becoming an enemy. These Hs 129Bs, accordingly were used against the German armies, finally being combined into a unit equipped with the Ju 87D Stuka.

In late September 1944, the entire manufacturing programme was abandoned, along with virtually all other German aircraft production except the ’emergency fighter programme’. Total production had amounted to only 879, including prototypes. Because of attrition and other problems, the Hs 129 was never able to fully equip the giant anti-tank force that could be seen to be needed as early as winter 1941-42, an overall effect on the war was not great. Towards the end, in autumn 1944, operations began to be further restricted by shortage of high octane petrol, and by the final collapse of Germany only a handful of these aircraft remained.

The massive build-up in Soviet armour strength with thick-skinned tanks contrasted with the faltering strength of the Sch.G. units, which continued to be afflicted by poor engine reliability despite the addition of properly designed air filters. The overriding need was for more powerful anti-armour weapons, and on 10 January 1944 a special unit, Erprobungskommando 26, was formed at Udetfeld out of previous Sch.G. units to centralise the desperate effort to devise new weapons and tactics. Its Hs 129s soon appeared with various new armament, some of which were too much for what was, after all, a small aircraft.

The outstanding example of the new weapons was the radically different Forstersonde SG 113A. This comprised a giant tube resembling a ship’s funnel in the centre fuselage just behind the fuselage tank. Inside this were fitted six smooth-bore tubes, each 1.6 m (5 ft 3 in) long and of 77 mm calibre. The tubes were arranged to fire down and slightly to the rear, and were triggered as a single group by a photocell sensitive to the passage of a tank close beneath. Inside each tube was a combined device consisting of a 45 mm armour piercing shell (with a small high-explosive charge) pointing downwards and a heavy steel cylinder of full calibre pointing upwards. Between the two was the propellant charge, with a weak tie-link down the centre to joint the parts together. When the SG 113A was fired, the shells were driven down by their driving sabots at high velocity, while the steel slugs were fired out of the top of each tube to cancel the recoil. Unfortunately, trials at Tarnewitz Waffenprufplatz showed that the photocell system often failed to pick out correct targets.

Another impressive weapon was the huge PaK 40 anti-tank gun of 75 mm calibre. This gun weighed 3,303 lbs (1500 kg) in its original ground-based form, and fired a 7 lbs (3.2 kg) tungsten-carbide cored projectile at 3,060 ft/sec (933 m/sec). Even at a range of 3,280 ft (1000 m), the shell could penetrate 5 1/4 inches (133 mm) of armour if it hit square-on. Modified as the PaK 40L, the gun had a much bigger muzzle brake to reduce recoil and electro-pneumatic operation to feed successive shells automatically. Installed in the Hs 129B-3/Wa, the giant gun was provided with 26 rounds which could be fired at the cyclic rate of 40 rounds per minute, so that three or four could be fired on a single pass. Almost always, a single good hit would destroy a tank, even from head-on. The main problem was that the PaK 40L was too powerful a gun for the aircraft. Quite apart from the severe muzzle blast and recoil, the sheer weight of the gun made the 129B-3/Wa almost unmanageable, and in an emergency the pilot could sever the gun’s attachments and let it drop.