The VVS/Allied Bell Airacobras

Conceived by Lawrence Dale Bell and made practicable by his gifted chief engineer, Robert J. Woods, the P-39 emerged from two ideas for fighters that sought to improve maneuverability by locating the engine near the center of gravity, using a ten-foot shaft to connect it to the propeller. The Bell Model 3, with the cockpit placed far aft behind the engine, afforded poor visibility for the pilot, so the Model 4, with the pilot sitting just ahead of the engine, was selected for development, using an Allison V-1710-E4 engine with a B5 turbosupercharger. Never a man to stop at one novel approach when a second or third would be even better, Bell also proposed installing a 25mm cannon, which would fire through the propeller shaft, and a tricycle landing gear arrangement. His proposal was approved on October 7, 1939, and the first XP-39 was completed in March 1939, with the cannon’s bore increased to 37mm at the Army Air Corps’ request, along with two synchronized .50-caliber machine guns placed in the nose.

The prototype was flown under a veil of secrecy on April 6, with James Taylor at the controls, and achieved a speed of 390 miles per hour at twenty thousand feet. Severe cooling problems were encountered, so the oil-cooler scoops on the fuselage sides were enlarged. As the promising design made the transition from testing to acceptance, the Army abandoned the supercharger, a measure that facilitated production and maintenance, but which sacrificed a critical amount of performance. The oil-cooler intakes were relocated from the fuselage sides to the wing roots, a carburetor intake was installed behind the canopy, and covers were added over the main wheels. Two additional .30-caliber machine guns were also installed in the fuselage.

While the turbosupercharger had been removed, the extensive modifications that the Army Air Corps had had done to the P-39 raised its empty weight from about 4,000 pounds to over 5,600 pounds. Its maximum speed was reduced to 375 miles per hour at 15,000 feet, but the Army Air Corps was satisfied and ordered 80 P-45s, as the revised fighters were initially called, although that designation was later changed back to P-39C. After 20 P-39Cs were built, a small dorsal fillet was added to the vertical stabilizer, and the gun arrangement was changed to one 37mm cannon and two .50-caliber machine guns in the nose, and four .30-caliber machine guns in the wings. In that form, the remaining 60 planes—followed by 369 in a follow-up order—were designated P-39D. In addition to the American order, on May 8, 1940, the British Purchasing Commission ordered 675 of the fighters under the name of Caribou, later changed to Airacobra Mark I. Export Airacobras were to use a 20mm cannon in place of the 37mm, and 175 of them were repossessed by the US Army Air Forces in December 1941 and given the designation P-400.

The only operational British unit equipped with Airacobras was No. 601 “County of London” Squadron of the Auxiliary Air Force, which received its new planes in August 1941. The squadron flew its first desultory low-level strafing mission, or “Rhubarb,” on October 9, when two planes left Marston airfield, crossed the Channel and attacked a German trawler, although its ultimate fate went unrecorded. Two more Airacobras flew over the same area the next day, but found nothing and returned without firing a shot. On October 11, two Airacobras attacked German barges near Gravelines and Calais, while three planes scouted the area around Ostende.

Those four missions in three days constituted the entirety of the Airacobra’s fighting career in the RAF. Problems with the plane’s compass was the official reason for grounding 601 Squadron’s fighters. But in spite of the superior maneuverability displayed by the Airacobra when pitted against a captured Messerschmitt Me 109E, its rate of climb was inferior to those of both the Me 109E and the Supermarine Spitfire Mark VB, and it was clearly no match for the new Me 109Fs and Focke-Wulf Fw 190As that it would be more likely to encounter. “Iron Dog” became the third British term for the P-400, courtesy of its disgusted pilots, as 601 Squadron stood down until it was reequipped with Spitfire VBs in March 1942.

While the Channel Front had stabilized enough for Britain to afford to hold off using its Airacobras in earnest, the situation in the South Pacific in early 1942 offered no such luxury. In March, the American 8th Pursuit Group was shipped to Australia. From there, in early April it moved to Port Moresby, New Guinea, which had been under increasing pressure from units of the Japanese Navy Air Force, operating from bases at Lae and Salamaua, since February 3.

Petty Officer First Class Saburo Sakai’s memoirs refer to victories over P-39s as early as April 11, 1942, but these have since turned out to be Curtiss Kittyhawks of the Royal Australian Air Force. The 35th and 36th Pursuit Squadrons of the 8th Pursuit Group settled in at Port Moresby much later, on April 26, and the first encounter between the group’s Airacobras and the vaunted Zeros actually occurred on April 30, when Lt. Col. Boyd D. Wagner, commander of V Fighter Command, led eleven drop-tank-equipped P-39Ds of the 35th and 36th Squadrons on their first major sweep. Crossing the Owen Stanley Mountains at twenty thousand feet and then descending to a hundred feet above Huon Gulf, they surprised the Japanese at Lae, with four Airacobras leading the pack to draw off any patrolling Japanese fighters they encountered; the rest of “Buzz” Wagner’s force achieved complete surprise, heavily damaging nine bombers and three fighters on Lae airfield.

As Wagner led his pilots to carry out a similar strafe of Salamaua, the Tainan Kokutai scrambled up after the departing Airacobras, catching up with and attacking the last four in the formation as it was departing Salamaua. Seven other P-39 pilots turned to assist their comrades, and the resulting dogfight ranged thirty miles up the coast and back. Although a number of Americans claimed to have scored hits on their opponents, only Wagner’s somewhat ambiguous claims were officially confirmed, adding three victories to the five already credited to him over the Philippines. The Tainan Kokutai’s only recorded loss in the action was Petty Officer 2nd Class Hideo Izumi, killed in action.

The Americans lost four planes, but only one pilot, 2nd Lt. Edwin D. Durand of the 35th Squadron, was killed; last seen going down twenty miles south of Salamaua, he was later reported to have been captured and executed by the Japanese. First Lieutenant Arthur E. Andres, his 35th Squadron P-39 hit by antiaircraft fire, force landed eighteen miles south of Buna, but with the help of local natives he made his way back to Port Moresby on May 27. In the 36th Squadron, 1st Lt. James J. Bevlock ran out of fuel and crash-landed on a beach, but natives helped him get back on May 2, while 1st Lt. Paul G. Brown went down due to coolant loss. He, too, returned after running into Australian soldiers, who sent him home with the added charge of a Japanese pilot they had captured.

All things considered, the P-39 had acquitted itself reasonably well in its first action, but the shoe was on the other foot on May 1, when Port Moresby’s Seven-Mile Drome came under a strafing attack by seven Tainan Kokutai Zeros. Five P-39s of the 36th Pursuit Squadron intercepted them, and in the low-level melee that followed, 2nd Lt. Donald McGee chased a Zero that was on another Airacobra’s tail, and after scoring hits in its fuselage, saw it veer off to the left and explode in the jungle. He, in turn, was attacked by Zeros that shattered his canopy and damaged his plane before they departed, probably short of fuel. First Lieutenant David Campbell of the 36th also claimed a Zero, and the Americans claimed three others damaged. The only Japanese loss, however, was McGee’s victim, Petty Officer 1st Class Yoshisuke Arita, whose body was later found about a mile from Seven-Mile Drome.

The Tainan Kokutai, including its most skilled ace, Petty Officer 1st Class Hiroyoshi Nishizawa, made the more extravagant claim of eight victories. The principal American losses were the P-39 of 1st Lt. John Mainwaring, who crash-landed, and McGee’s, which was badly shot up but was restored to flyability using parts cannibalized from Mainwaring’s wreck.

In the month that followed, the 8th Pursuit Group claimed forty Japanese planes destroyed, but at a cost of twenty-five of its own planes in combat, eight in forced landings, and three destroyed on the ground. The group was relieved by the 35th Pursuit Group shortly thereafter, but that outfit was to fare no better with its P-39Ds and P-400s, the latter of which was derisively referred to by its crews as “a P-39 with a Zero on its tail.”

By July 1942, the USAAF had issued orders that P-39 pilots were not to engage enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat over any front, unless circumstances compelled them to do so. In spite of the appalling losses they suffered, the Airacobra pilots did their best to hold the line in the Pacific until the arrival of better fighters made it possible for them to relegate their planes to the fighter-bomber and reconnaissance roles. The RAF had already abandoned the Airacobra, but Free French pilots flew P-39s over North Africa and the Mediterranean when there was nothing else available, and so did members of the Regia Aeronautica after Italy changed over to the Allied side in September 1943. There is only one American P-39 ace, William Fiedler at Guadalcanal, killed in an accident on June 30, 1943, hit by a P-38 while waiting for take-off. Francis Dubisher had 4 victories on the P-39. Don McGee had three victories, one of which was on the P-400.

The Bell Airacobra was despised by both the Americans and the RAF, the RAF so much so that they refused to accept it, even during a period of great need in the summer of 1941. Yet, it proved the most appreciated of all lend-lease aircraft provided to the Russians, and one of the most successful fighters in VVS service. The Russians actually preferred it to the P-47. Consequently, the Russians received over half of all Airacobras produced (212 Airacobra I, 108 P-39D, 40 P-39K, 347 P-39L, 157 P-39M, 1113 P-39N and 3291 P-39Q), and about three quarters of the later Kingcobra. Unfortunately, histories of these Bell fighters give only passing, and generally erroneous mention of the Eastern Front. Interesting though the South Pacific campaign is, the Cobra’s record really was written in Russia.

First let’s correct the popular myth that the Russians were so successful with the P-39 because they used it as a ground attack aircraft taking advantage of the tank-killing qualities of its heavy cannon. Please! First, the P-39’s cannon was not effective against anything but lightly armored vehicles. Remember the Hurricane IID’s 40mm proved ineffective against serious armor, as did the 30mm guns of the HS-129A. The Ju-87G used a special tungsten-core ammunition, and even then could breach the armor on Soviet tanks only at the thinnest points. Dr. Alfred Price recently published statistics calling into question the myth of the WW II aerial tank-buster. Even the Il-2 Shturmovik found its guns, with anti-armor ammunition, generally ineffective. For anti-tank work it used the RS-82 and RS-132 rockets, and more importantly the PTAB-100 anti-tank cluster bomb, with shaped-charge bomblets. As “tank-busters” all of these aircraft were “busts”. Thin-skin vehicles and other soft ground targets were a different matter entirely. But for those targets even light caliber machine guns would also be effective. An I-153 could be as effective a truck-buster as a shturmovik or P-39. Also, there is no instance of the VVS equipping any ground attack unit with the Cobra. In 1945 one such regiment was re-equipped with the P-63, but was redesignated as a fighter regiment. Since the Soviets produced over 36,000 Il-2 shturmoviks, they did not need to assign any P-39s. Part of the confusion is due to the fact that the Soviets used the term “ground support” to include not only ground attack in the western sense, but also air coverage of their own troops, interception of German recon and spotting missions, and any other air combat mission in immediate support of their ground forces, including escort of Il-2s. Of course, it is true that during the course of the war Soviet Cobra units did conduct many ground attack missions, but so did every other fighter used at the front. The same can be said for the American P-51s and P-47s of the 8th Fighter Command, which have never been considered “ground attackers”. The truth is simpler. During the war, capable fighters were what the Russians needed most, and they used and loved the P-39 as a fighter.

Three of the Russians’ top four aces, Aleksandr Pokryshkin (59 individual and 6 shared), Nikolai Gulaev (57 & 4), and Grigorii Rechkalov (56 & 5) used the Airacobra for the majority of their kills. Of the 14 Soviet aces who scored more than 40 individual victories, thus ranking as the “all-allied” leading aces, 6 were P-39 pilots, (Dmitrii Glinka with 50; Pavel Golovachev with 43; and Aleksei Aleliukhin with 40 & 17 victories). Of their top 43 aces scoring 25 or more kills, 16, better than a third were “Cobrsty”. It was flown during the war by at least 44 fighter regiments (IAP) of 441 that have been identified, and 8 of 36 naval fighter air regiments. There might have been even more, since I have been unable to identify the type of aircraft flown by 43 of the PVO interceptor fighter regiments located in quiet regions. Some of these may have had Airacobras as well.

The first Airacobras received were 212 of the British Airacobra Mk I rejects which were shipped to Arkhangel in December 1941. They wore the standard RAF camouflage and kept their RAF serials which were in the AH, AP, BW & BX blocks.. Some even kept the “Sky Type S” fuselage band. Stars were placed on both wing surfaces and the fuselage. Confusingly, on some machines, the standard RAF camouflage was the older dark green and dark earth, while others sported the newer dark green and ocean gray. They were soon joined by 108 ex-USAAC, P-39D-1 and P-39D-2 Airacobras wearing standard American olive drab camouflage. On the P-39Ds, the red star was painted in all six positions. Where there had been US insignia it was painted directly over the white star, appearing within the dark blue circle. On the P-39Ds, the white “bort number” was painted on the fuselage behind the star, but in the case of the ex-British aircraft, the number was painted on the tail fin where the RAF fin flash had been previously. Even though these aircraft arrived in winter, they were not given the winter whitewash since they were in a rear area, and when they finally entered combat, it was May 1942, but the next winter white camouflage was already going out of style. While there have been documented instances of Airacobras in winter camouflage, they seem to have been the exception.

One peculiarity was that the Soviets initially did not equip their regiments completely with Airacobras. Each regiment receiving Airacobras had to take a squadron of Kittyhawks as well, so that a regiment would have only its first two squadrons with Cobras. This was intended to stretch the supply of the preferred Cobra and to find a home for the less desired Kittyhawk. When the later models of the P-39 became available in large quantity, IAPs converted to a pure Cobra organization.

The 19 Guards IAP (145 IAP till 3/7/42) was the first Soviet unit to take the Airacobra into action, entering combat near Murmansk on May 15, 1942. The regiment had 16 Airacobras (AH618, 619, 660, 664, 679, 692, 697, 703, 707-709, 713, 724) and 10 Kittyhawks. On their second day in action the regiment lost AH660, flown by I. D. Gaidaenko, who was shot down by BF-109s and made a forced landing. Among the most famous pilots of the 19th Guards was Pavel Kutakhov who finished the war as a Major with 14 individual and 28 shared victories, and later in the 1970s was promoted to Marshal and C-in-C of the Russian Air Forces. By the end of 1943 the regiment had flown 7451 sorties and claimed 171 kills, for the loss of 46 pilots (35 in combat), and lost 86 aircraft (59 shot down). Of their losses, 20 were Airacobras (3 non-combat).

Even more famous were the units which received the P-39Ds and operated in the south, over the Caucasus, and the Kuban. The most famous units here were the16 GIAP,100 GIAP, and 104 GIAP which were formed into the 9 Guards Fighter Air Division (9 GIAD), the Soviet counterpart of the 56 Fighter Group or JG-52. During the war the 9 GIAD flew 33,654 sorties, claimed 1147 kills, and included 46 pilots with the HSU, 3 twice-HSU, and one three times HSU – Aleksandr Pokryshkin. The 16 GIAP, Pokryskhin’s regiment, alone accounted for 697 of the kills and had 15 of the HSUs, 2 of the 2xHSUs, and 1 3xHSU pilot. All three units had distinguished themselves from the first day of the war flying other aircraft. The first of its regiments to convert to the Cobra was the 45 IAP (100 G IAP from 7/43) which was withdrawn from combat in late October 1942 and returned in February 1943 with 10 P-39D-2, 11 P-39K-1, and 9 P-40E. Next was the 298 IAP (104 G IAP from 8/21/43) which re-equipped with the P-39D-2 and P-39K-1 and returned to the southern front in March 1943. The Regimental officers and squadron commanders and political officers received the K model, while the flight leaders and line pilots got the Ds. In April the famous 16 Guards IAP followed, receiving 14 P-39L-1, 7 P-39K-1, and 11 P-39D-2. They returned to the combat over the Kuban and Crimea which the Russians consider to have been the battles which broke the back of the Luftwaffe in Russia, and much of the credit is given to the 9 GIAD. Another equally famous regiment flying over the Kuban and Crimea was the 9 Guards Fighter Regiment, which began the war flying the I-16 over the Crimea and converted to the P-39 from the Yak-1. During the war the 9 GIAP scored 558 Kills and had 26 pilots with HSU, including Aleliukhin (40 & 17 kills), Lavrinenkov (35 & 11 kills), and Amet-Khan (30 & 19 kills) who each received the award twice.

One reason the P-39 prospered in Russia was that combat seldom took place above 10,000 feet, and usually lower. When strafing, flying FLAK suppression, or escorting Il-2s, they often flew at virtual ground level, called “shaving”. The Russians liked the P-39’s heavy armament, and considered it to be quite maneuverable, particularly in the vertical plane. When the later versions arrived with the underwing gondola machine guns, these were removed by the Russians. Also very notable to the Soviets were the P-39’s radio, far superior to native product and superior instrumentation and accommodations. Even though the cockpit may have been cramped by American standards, the physically smaller Russians considered it comfortable, and in winter warm, and throughout the war Western cockpit glass was better quality and more transparent than on Russian aircraft. Initially, they had some difficulty adjusting to its spinning characteristics and to the nosewheel gear, but soon mastered these. Another Russian insight was that you did not want to bail out of an Airacobra, since exiting the side door made hitting the tail much more likely. However, they considered it’s shape perfect for belly-landing .

A summary list of the Soviet units flying the P-39 is 1 GIAD (54, 55 GIAP & 53, 56 GIAPS with Yak-9), 5 GIAD (28, 67, 68, 72 GIAP), 9 GIAD (16, 100, 104, and later 159 GIAP), 22 GIAD (129, 212, 213 GIAP & 116 GIAP with Yak-3), 23 GIAD (21, 69 GIAP), 329 IAD (57G, 101G, 66 IAP), 190 IAD (17 IAP & 2 unidentified), 9 GIAP (303 IAD), 19 GIAP, 20 GIAP, 30 GIAP, 102 G IAP, 103 G IAP, 9, 159, 185 (disbanded), 191, 196, 246, 255 (transferred to naval aviation), 295, 352, 416, 484, 494, 821 IAPs of Frontal Aviation, 28, 403, 631, 738, & 908 IAPs of PVO, and 2 G IAP (NF), 11 GIAP (BSF), 7 (NF), 20 (NF), 31 (POF), 43 (BSF), 78 (NF), and 255 (NF) IAPs of Naval aviation.

Since the Airacobra was such a success in Russia, naturally the Soviets would be a major recipient of its bigger brother, the P-63. They were sent 2456 Kingcobras, flown across the Al-Sib ferry route, of which 2421 actually arrived, including both major variants, the P-63A and P-63C. However, contrary to Dorr and other western authors, it did not prove to be a potent tank-buster. It never got a chance. Only in September 1944 did the first P-63 begin it’s long journey across two continents, from Buffalo, New York to Russia. By May 1945 there were only 51 P-63As in service, assigned to PVO air defense regiments, which by that stage of the war had little real chance of combat. Consequently, the P-63 never got to show its stuff against either a panzer or a “messer”. However, the P-63 did see brief combat in Russian service. Soviet units continued reequipping after the German surrender. Many P-63s went to Soviet units assigned to the Far East and Transbaikal Fronts preparing for war against Japan. The 12th Air Army of the Trasnbaikal Front equipped its 245 IAD, consisting of the 940 and 781 IAPS. This Air Army was reinforced after the German surrender by the transfer from the west of the 190 IAD which included the 17 IAP and 21 IAP, both of which replaced their P-39Q and La-5 fighters with the Kingcobra. One of the pilots of the 17 IAP was Captain Viacheslav Sirotin, HSU, a 21 victory ace. On August 15, he and his wingman, Junior Lieutenant Miroshnichenko caught 2 Japanese fighters (either Ki-27 or Ki-43, the records are unclear), and shot down one of them. This was the Kingcobra’s only aerial victory – ever.

In July 1945 the 128 SAD (mixed air division), with the 888 IAP and 410 ShAP (assault air regiment) based on Kamchatka converted to the P-63. The Shturmovik Regiment at this time was redesignated as Fighter. Interestingly, the 888 IAP was the very last regiment flying the old I-16; transition to the 410 mph, tricycle gear P-63A must have made an impression! Also, during the summer of 1945 the 7 IAD of the Pacific Ocean Fleet received several dozen aircraft in time to fly them during the brief hostilities.

After the war re-equipment with the Kingcobra continued at an accelerated pace, including several former P-39 air divisions, and other units as well. Notable were the 5 GIAD based in the Baltic district, the 269 IAD in Armenia, the 6 GIAD in the Ukraine, and the 1 GIAD based at Neuhausen, Germany. Other units based in Austria and China also flew the P-63. During this time 25 P-63s were converted to P-63U two seat conversion trainers. By the early 1950s the P-63 was replaced by the MiG-9 and MiG-15, but a few regiments continued to use them fairly late. The 307 and 308 IAPs continued flying the P-63 in the Kurile Islands through the end of 1951. There has been no report of the P-63 being passed along to the Koreans, Chinese or European satellite air arms.

One of the last incidents of the Kingcobra’s career happened in 1952 when two USAF jets mistakenly (?!) shot up Sukhaya Rechka airfield outside of Vladivostok. The Soviet losses consisted of 8 P-63s, which they maintain had already been decommssioned. A sad and ignominious end for a warbird’s career.

Bell P-63 Kingcobra in the Soviet Union

Airacobra Advantage: The Flying Cannon, The Complete Story of Bell Aircraft Corporation’s P-39 Pursuit Fighter Plane by Rick Mitchell

Sources: Wings of Fame 10 with its article on the P-39 by Robert Doerr; Roman, V., Aerokobry vstupaiut v boi: Bell P-400, P-39D-1, P-39D-2, Seriia istrebiteli 1, Aerokhobbi, Kiev 1993; Bakurskaia, Evgeniia, Chief Editor. Kryl’ia – daidzhezt vypusk 3, Seriia Samolety mira Istrebitel’ P-63, AviaKosm, Moscow 1997, and notes from a number of Soviet aces’ memoirs. FIGHTER AIRCRAFT COMBAT DEBUTS, 1915–1945. Innovation in Air Warfare Before the Jet Age, JON GUTTMAN.


Lavochkin La-7

The La-7 was flown by the top Soviet ace of the war, Ivan Nikitovich Kozhedub. The Ukrainian-born Kozhedub, nicknamed “Ivan the Terrible”, a three-time Hero of Soviet Union, scored his last 17 air victories in 1945 in the La-7 numbered 27, which is now preserved in the Central Air Force Museum at Monino on the outskirts of Moscow. The last German aircraft that he shot down was the Messerschmitt Me-262, of Sergeant (German: Unteroffizier) Kurt Lange from 1./KG(J)54, over Frankfurt an der Oder on 15 February 1945.

While the Yak-1’s fundamentally sound airframe lent itself to progressive improvements that culminated in the superb Yak-9 and Yak-3, it took a more radical step to turn the LaGG-3 into something more than a deathtrap: the replacement of its inline engine with Arkady Shvetsov’s M-82 radial. Ironically, other Soviet designers had experimented with the radial on their existing airframes, such as Mikhail Gudkov’s Gu-82, Mikoyan’s MiG-9, and Yakovlev’s Yak-7 M-82, while Lavochkin hesitated. By early 1942, only the Sukhoi Su-2 short-range bomber was using the M-82 when Lavochkin and Shvetsov were called in to a conference of the People’s Commissariat of the Aircraft Industry in Moscow. In essence, Lavochkin was told that reports on his LaGG-3 were so unsatisfactory that if something significant were not done soon, production of the fighter would have to be canceled. And since hundreds of unwanted M-82s were piling up at Shvetsov’s Plant No. 19 in Perm, Lavochkin was strongly urged to try fitting the radial in his plane.

Lavochkin protested. Modifying the LaGG-3 airframe to take an air-cooled radial that was eighteen inches greater in cross section and 551 pounds heavier than the inline M-105P would be complicated by a shift in the center of gravity. The M-82’s propeller shaft could not accommodate a 20mm cannon. He also feared that production would cease before he and his design team would effect such complex alterations. There was already a precedent for such a fighter, however. As early as March 1941, Gudkov had lifted an M-82 directly from an Su-2 and had worked out a way of mounting it on a LaGG-3 airframe, and on October 12 the Commissariat announced a willingness to put his Gu-82 into production at the Gorky plant instead of the LaGG-3. Gudkov’s attention was then diverted by a project to mount a 37mm cannon to fire through the LaGG-3’s propeller hub, and the more resolute Aleksandr Yakovlev secured a contract to produce his new Yak-7B fighter at Gorky.

News that LaGG-3 production at Plant No. 31 in Tbilisi was to be halted in April gave Lavochkin some added incentive to intensify his efforts. The LaGG-3’s fuselage midsection was widened and the engine mount reworked. Two variable cooling flaps on the fuselage sides and altered cooling-air baffles provided uniform cooling. Two 20mm ShVAK cannon were mounted above the engine. The machine was completed in February 1942, and Lavochkin anxiously awaited the results of its first evaluation. “The aircraft is good, pleasant to control and responsive, but the cylinder heads became hot,” reported test pilot G. A. Mishchenko. “Measures should be taken to correct this.” He also reported that level speed was 10 percent greater than that of the LaGG-3. Encouraged, Lavochkin and his team did further work on the prototype, which got its first official evaluation from May 9 to 14, 1942. Cooling and controllability problems were encountered, but with a speed of 372.8 miles per hour at its service ceiling of 21,000 feet, a climb rate of 16,400 feet in six minutes, and maneuverability that was superior to foreign as well as indigenous designs, the M-82-powered LaGG was good enough to completely reverse Lavochkin’s shaky fortunes. Since Gorbunov had left the design team by then, the new fighter was designated the LaG-5 and ordered into production, the first example rolling out of Gorky’s Plant No. 21 on June 20. Gudkov also parted company with Lavochkin soon afterward, and from September 1942 the radial engine fighters were officially referred to simply as La-5s.

In August 1942 the first operational LaG-5s replaced the I-16s and LaGG-3s of the all but decimated 49th IAP on the Northwestern Front. In the course of flying their first 180 sorties, LaG-5 pilots of the 49th claimed sixteen German aircraft in the course of seventeen combats. The regiment lost ten planes, however, and five of its pilots were killed in action.

Soon after the 49th IAP, fifty-seven LaG-5s were assigned to four regiments of Col. Stefan P. Danilov’s 287th Istrebitelnaya Aviatsionnaya Diviziya (IAD), attached to the First Air Army near the embattled city of Stalingrad. The Lavochkins flew their first combat missions on August 20, but they displayed the unmistakable signs of hasty production, only two-thirds of them being combat capable. One plane crashed during takeoff, while two others collided while taxiing, due to two aspects of the Shvetsov radial engine: a greater degree of propeller torque that took getting used to, combined with poor visibility from the cockpit. Again, impaired visibility compelled the pilots to fly with their canopies open, and cooling problems and lack of confidence in the retractable tail wheel resulted in flying with the cowling side flaps fully opened and the tail wheel down, all contributing to an 18.6 to 24.8 miles per hour reduction in speed. In the first three days of fighting, the LaG-5 pilots claimed eight German fighters and three bombers but lost seven of their own planes—including three to Soviet antiaircraft gunners who mistook them for German Fw 190As.

Among the first standout pilots was twenty-three-year-old Lt. Evgenny P. Dranishchenko, who joined the 287th IAD’s 437th IAP on August 20 and scored his first victory, over a Ju 88, just three days later. He was credited with two Ju 88s of II./KG 76 on September 8, and by the thirteenth he scored his fifth victory in the course of ten combats. Dranishchenko’s total stood at twenty-one individual and seven shared victories in 120 missions and fifty combats when he was killed in action on August 20, 1943, exactly one year since his arrival at the front.

The LaG-5’s debut yielded mixed results at best. Pilots of the 287th IAD’s 27th IAP concluded that their planes were inferior to the Me 109F-4—and, even more so, to the newer Me 109G-2 in speed and vertical maneuverability. “We have to engage only in defensive combat actions,” they reported. “The enemy is superior in altitude and, therefore, has a more favorable position from which to attack.” Concentrating on German bombers for a time, the LaG-5 pilots claimed fifty-seven of them within a month, but continued to suffer heavy losses whenever they encountered enemy fighters.

Again, Semyon Lavochkin was eager to read and respond to the criticisms leveled at his fighters. For a start, he removed two of the five fuel tanks that had been intended to extend the plane’s range, but whose added weight adversely affected performance. Aerodynamic improvements, lightening of the airframe, and the introduction of the new supercharged M-82F engine resulted in a better fighter, which entered production in January 1943 as the La-5F (for forsirovanny, or “boosted”). In addition, the ninth production La-5 batch, produced in November 1942, had control surfaces of reduced area, redesigned trim tabs, and larger flaps, which improved both controllability and maneuverability. The after part of the dorsal fuselage was also lowered, and a new teardrop-shaped canopy of armored glass was installed, greatly improving visibility from the cockpit. With the subsequent introduction of the fuel-injected M-82FN engine, which boosted takeoff power from 1,700 to 1,850 horsepower in the La-5FN during the Battle of Kursk in July 1943, the curious transition of Lavochkin’s wooden “grand pianos” from “mortician’s mates” to instruments of ultimate Soviet victory was nearly complete. As the tide of war turned in favor of the Red Army, production standards would improve. Lavochkin continued to refine his now-proven design, culminating in late 1943 with the La-7, one of the cleanest radial-engine fighters of its time.

Amid the heady successes that attended Operation Barbarossa, it may have been difficult for Luftwaffe pilots to imagine the V-VS recovering at all from the initial blow dealt it, let alone do so sufficiently to replace the obsolescent or flawed new fighters that they had first encountered. It would have been harder for even the Soviet airmen to imagine that the unpromising LaGG-3, or even the less than world-beating LaG-5, were steps on the way to one of the great fighters of World War II. Nevertheless, the La-5FN and La-7, which were at their best at low altitudes, did much to clear the skies over the battlefield for the Red Army’s resurgent ground forces. It might be added that the leading Allied ace of the war, Ivan Nikitovich Kozhedub, scored all sixty-two of his victories—including one Messer schmitt Me 262 jet—exclusively in Lavochkin fighters, from the LaG-5 to the La-7. His last wartime La-7, displaying his three HSUs, can still be seen at the Air Force Museum at Monino.

The ultimate wooden Lavochkin, the La-7, was another interim design, put into production late in 1943 pending development of the all-metal La-9. Its M-82 FNV engine generated 1,850 hp and, with the air intake moved under the fuselage, the cowling was one of the most streamlined ever to enclose a radial engine. Armament was increased to three 20mm ShVak or 23mm NS cannon, which could be supplemented by six RS-82 rockets or 331 pounds of bombs on underwing racks. The La-7 had a wingspan of 32 feet, 5 3/4 inches, and was 27 feet, 4 inches long. Maximum speed was 423 mph at 20,997 feet. Takeoff weight was 7,496 pounds. Reaching the front late in 1944, the La-7 was arguably the best Soviet low- and medium-altitude fighter of World War II.

Lavochkin’s final wartime variant was the La 7. This was basically an La 5FN fitted with a more powerful engine and additional aeronautical refinements. These included metal wing spars (earlier craft being made entirely of wood) for greater strength and lighter weight. The armament was also increased to three 20mm cannons that spat out seven pounds of lead per second. In an attempt to shed even more weight, the fuel capacity was cut in half, reducing the fighter’s operational radius to about an hour. However, because Soviet fighters were usually deployed right on the front lines, this was not viewed as detrimental. Lavochkin fighter craft were major contributors to the ultimate Soviet victory, and their designer received the prestigious Stalin Prize.

Tactical significance

The La-7 ended the superiority in vertical maneuverability that the Messerschmitt Bf 109G had previously enjoyed over other Soviet fighters. Furthermore, it was fast enough at low altitudes to catch, albeit with some difficulties, Focke Wulf Fw 190 fighter-bombers that attacked Soviet units on the frontlines and immediately headed for German-controlled airspace at full speed. The Yakovlev Yak-3 and the Yakovlev Yak-9U with the Klimov VK-107 engine lacked a large enough margin of speed to overtake the German raiders. Only 115 La-7s were lost in air combat, only half the number of Yak-3s.

Mikoyan MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ (1977)

A MiG-29 (9.12) ‘Fulcrum-A’ of the 237th Composite Aviation Regiment, stationed at Kubinka in the Moscow Military District in the early 1990s. This historic unit still serves as the Air Force’s Aviation Equipment Demonstration Centre.

Three views of the prototype of the original, abortive MiG-29M armed with advanced weapons including Kh-31 (AS-17 ‘Krypton’) anti-radar missiles and R-77 (AA-12 ‘Adder’) air-to-air missiles.

The original MiG-29M launched efforts to create a genuine second-generation ‘Fulcrum’, including flyby-wire flight controls, advanced structure, improved powerplant, avionics and weapons systems. The 9.15 yielded five prototypes.

Developed by the USSR in response to increasingly sophisticated Western warplanes, the MiG-29 soon established a formidable reputation as an agile dogfighter. Despite its shortcomings, it has continued to undergo development with efforts to extend its range and the addition of a multi-role capability.

Although it entered Soviet Air Force service as a lightweight counterpart to the heavyweight Su-27 fighter, the MiG-29 traces its roots back to a design for a heavy fighter. This was later scaled down to meet a requirement for a ‘frontal’ fighter that would primarily serve in a short-range air defence role, but would also offer a secondary ground-attack capability. Detailed design work began in 1974. In order to keep pace with Western fighter development, the MiG-29 was to make use of a look-down/shoot-down capability and be able to operate in an electronic countermeasures environment. Other important elements of the design were undercarriage and engine intakes optimized for operations on rough and semi-prepared forward airstrips.

Employing a blended high-lift, low-drag wing and forward fuselage, the MiG-29 was tailored for high angle-of-attack performance, providing superb low-speed and high-Alpha agility. The first of 11 prototypes completed a maiden flight in October 1977. After eight pre-production machines, the initial production version began to be delivered to the Soviet Air Force’s Frontal Aviation elements in 1983, and was known to Mikoyan as the 9.12 and to NATO as the ‘Fulcrum-A’. In this original form, the primary mission sensors comprised an N019 pulse-Doppler radar and an infra-red search and track system. The pilot was provided with a helmet-mounted cueing system. The similar 9.12A version was delivered to Warsaw Pact countries and other close allies, while the further downgraded 9.12B was produced for export to non-Warsaw Pact operators.

A two-seat combat trainer was developed and fielded as the 9.51 MiG-29UB ‘Fulcrum-B’, with radar deleted and a second seat under an elongated canopy. In 1984 Mikoyan flew a first example of the improved 9.13 ‘Fulcrum-C’ that retained the basic MiG-29 nomenclature, but which carried additional fuel and avionics in an enlarged spine. A further improved ‘Fulcrum-C’ was the 9.13S model, the key features of which were a more advanced flight-control system and an improved N019M radar with multi-target tracking/two-target engagement capability and compatibility with advanced R-77 (AA-12 ‘Adder’) air-to-air missiles. Underwing fuel tanks were also now offered as standard.

After the Cold War, the 9.13 formed the basis of a family of increasingly advanced MiG-29s aimed at the export market, and with enhanced capabilities that included expanded multi-role flexibility and Western communications systems. The first of these upgrade configurations was the baseline MiG-29SE, with the improvements developed for the Soviet MiG-29S, together with the option of Western-style displays and instruments and Western navigation, identification friend or foe (IFF) and radio equipment. The MiG-29SD includes NATO-compatible IFF and navigation/communications equipment, improved radar, R-77 compatibility and provision for a bolt-on retractable in-flight refuelling probe. The MiG-29SM focuses on enhanced air-to-ground capabilities, and includes a new cockpit display, radar modifications and weapons system improvements allowing the use of TV- and radar-guided bombs and missiles. Most advanced of these upgrades is the MiG-29SMT featuring a ‘glass’ cockpit, enhanced air-to-ground capabilities and a new, even larger dorsal spine to accommodate extra fuel.

During the 1980s Mikoyan had ambitious plans for a second-generation MiG-29 that would employ an all-new airframe design. This took the form of the land-based 9.15 MiG-29M and the carrier-based 9.31 MiG-29K. However, post-Cold War funding cuts saw these programmes abandoned in the early 1990s.

As the manufacturer’s fortunes improved in the twenty-first century, MiG returned to advanced MiG-29 variants, and brought to market a new, unified family of MiG-29 multi-role fighters derived from the 9.15 and 9.31.

The latest variants are based on the navalized MiG-29K and MiG-29KUB (9.41 and 9.47) developed for the Indian Navy. The land-based equivalents are the MiG-29M/M2 variants, and all feature open architecture avionics, Zhuk-ME radar with a slotted planar array, and new RD-33MK engines with full-authority digital engine control (FADEC).

Further enhancements are incorporated in the MiG-35 and two-seat MiG-35D, which boast a multi-mode phased-array radar, a new electro-optical targeting and reconnaissance system, an improved IRST sensor and a new defensive aids system. All of the new versions are also offered with thrust-vectoring engines.

During the 1980s Mikoyan had ambitious plans for a second-generation MiG-29 that would employ an all-new airframe design. This took the form of the land-based 9.15 MiG-29M and the carrier-based 9.31 MiG-29K. However, post-Cold War funding cuts saw these programmes abandoned in the early 1990s.

As the manufacturer’s fortunes improved in the twenty-first century, MiG returned to advanced MiG-29 variants, and brought to market a new, unified family of MiG-29 multi-role fighters derived from the 9.15 and 9.31.

The latest variants are based on the navalized MiG-29K and MiG-29KUB (9.41 and 9.47) developed for the Indian Navy. The land-based equivalents are the MiG-29M/M2 variants, and all feature open architecture avionics, Zhuk-ME radar with a slotted planar array, and new RD-33MK engines with full-authority digital engine control (FADEC).

Side number 712 is the Product 9-67 MiG-35D/UB two-seater prototype/demonstrator.

Further enhancements are incorporated in the MiG-35 and two-seat MiG-35D,

which would have boasted a multi-mode phased-array radar, a new electro-optical targeting and reconnaissance system, an improved IRST sensor and a new defensive aids system, plus thrust-vectoring engines. [see below]

The first batch of six RAC (Russian Aircraft Corporation) “MiG” MiG-35 multi-role combat aircraft will soon be delivered to the VKS (Russian aerospace forces), according to Ilya Tarasenko, director general of RAC MiG, in an announcement made at the production plant at Lukhovitsky on November 28. He also said that an active phased-array radar would be offered as an option and stated that a prototype equipped with such a radar had already been completed.

The contract for the production of this initial batch of six MiG-35s was signed during the 2018 Army Forum on August 22. Delivery of these aircraft will allow completion of all planned tests in early 2019, after which serial production will begin at the Sokol Nizhnii Novgorod Aircraft Plant. In 2013, Novosti reported that 37 MiG-35s would be purchased, but 170 aircraft are now planned for the Russian air forces.

The MiG-35 is part of what RAC MiG calls a unified family of multi-role fighters, consisting of the carrier-borne MiG-29K/KUB for India and MiG-29KR/KUBR for the Russian Navy, the MiG-29M/M2 for Egypt, and the MiG-35 for the Russian air forces. All use the same basic airframe, with tandem cockpits (the single-seaters have extra fuel in place of the rear cockpit but still employ a two-seat canopy) and a bigger wing compared to the MiG-29, with bigger flaps and horizontal tails. Carrier versions have an arrester hook and folding wingtips, while land-based variants have a braking parachute and no wing-fold.

The MiG-35 designation was originally applied to an earlier attempt to produce an advanced version of the MiG-29. Six MiG-29M prototypes were produced between 1986 and 1991, and the MiG-29M was briefly re-branded as the MiG-35 before being abandoned.

Some years later the fourth MiG-29M prototype (Side number 154) was converted to two-seat configuration, becoming the MiG-29MRCA in 2005/06 for the Indian Multi-Role Combat Aircraft competition, and was subsequently re-designated the MiG-29M2. In January 2007 it became the MiG-35 demonstrator. Soon afterwards, the fifth MiG-29M prototype was rebuilt to become the MiG-29KUB (Product 9-47) prototype, while the sixth MiG-29M was modified as the thrust-vectoring MiG-29OVT testbed.

The MiG-35 was originally conceived as having a range of advanced systems and capabilities, and the MiG-35 demonstrator was fitted with an NIIR Zhuk-AE AESA radar in December 2008. Two further MiG-35 demonstrators flew in the autumn of 2009, converted from MiG-29K/KUB airframes originally intended for India. The single-seater was known as the Product 9-61 (MiG-35) and the two-seater as the Product 9-67 (MiG-35D). They were delivered to the VKS for flight testing in November 2016.

In 2011/2012 two further aircraft were built to meet a Syrian order, which was subsequently canceled. The Syrian version featured a basic Zhuk-ME radar (as used by the MiG-29K/KUB) and was designated the MiG-29M in single-seat form and as the MiG-29M2 in two-seat form. In March 2014 Egypt decided to buy 24 MiG-35s, but changed its order to the “Syrian” MiG-29M/M2 variant before signing a contract for 46 aircraft in April 2015. They were delivered from September 2017.

Russia also quietly “dumbed down” the specification of its planned MiG-35, and when the first MiG-35S and MiG-35SD series production prototypes were unveiled by RSK MiG at Lukhovitsky on January 27, 2017, they lacked the once-planned thrust-vectoring and AESA radar. The MiG-35S/SD is now closely comparable to the export MiG-29M/M2 with the exception of a few additional advanced weapon integrations. State trials began in January 2018.

The single-seat MiG-35S prototype was rolled out in January 2017.

Polish ‘Fulcrums’

A NATO member, the Polish Air Force remains an enthusiastic MiG-29 operator. Poland first ordered nine MiG-29As and three MiG-29UBs, the first of which were delivered in 1989. In 1995 Poland decided to purchase 10 surplus MiG-29s (nine MiG-29As and one MiG-29UB) from the Czech Republic. With the withdrawal from service of Luftwaffe MiG-29s, 22 former East German aircraft (18 MiG-29Gs and four MiG-29GTs) were offered to Poland for a symbolic Euro. The offer was accepted and in September 2003 the first aircraft arrived in Poland. In order to operate within NATO, and to extend their service lives, Polish MiGs are being upgraded with a new digital databus with open architecture, a cockpit using imperial units of measurement, a laser inertial platform with embedded GPS and INS, digital video recorder and data transfer system, an up-front control panel, a new UHF/VHF radio, an upgraded IRST sensor and modernized NO19 radar with increased target detection and tracking range.


Ikarus S-49

The first postwar fighter to be designed in Yugoslavia, the S- 49 was a development of the prewar Ikarus IK-3, production of which had been halted by the German invasion after only a few evaluation aircraft had been completed. The prototype flew in 1948, powered by a Klimov VK-105PF-2 liquid-cooled engine, and the first examples entered service as the S-49A in 1951. Subsequent aircraft were powered by the Hispano-Suiza 12Z-11Y engine, purchased after Yugoslavia severed relations with the USSR. In this guise, and with other refinements, the aircraft emerged as the S-49C.

The Ikarus S-49 was a Yugoslav single-seat, single-engine fighter aircraft built for the Yugoslav Air Force (Serbo-Croatian: Ratno vazduhoplovstvo i protivvazdušna obrana – RV i PVO) shortly after World War II. Following the Tito–Stalin Split in 1948, the RV i PVO was left with an aircraft inventory consisting of mostly Soviet aircraft. Unable to acquire new aircraft or spare parts for its existing fleet, the RV i PVO turned to its domestic aviation industry in order to create an indigenous design to fulfill the need for additional aircraft.

The same constructors that built the Rogozarski IK-3 before the war, engineers Kosta Sivcev, Slobodan Zrnic and Svetozar Popovic, used existing technical documentation of the IK-3 to construct the new fighter aircraft, the Ikarus S-49.

The S-49A was of mixed construction, with Soviet-built VK-105 engines held in stock, which were no longer available after 1948. Therefore, it was decided to produce a new version of the aircraft powered by the similar French Hispano-Suiza 12Z-17 engine. Because of the bigger and heavier engine, the new aircraft had to be of all-metal construction with a much longer nose. While the aircraft were mainly built by Ikarus, the wings and tail were built by the SOKO factory in Mostar. The armament consisted of one 20 mm Mauser MG-151/20 autocannon produced by Germany during World War II and two 12.7 mm Colt-Browning machine guns. In addition, underwing racks for two 50 kg bombs or four 127 mm HVAR missiles were provided.

The first prototype of the S-49A flew in June 1949. The first operational aircraft were delivered to combat units at the beginning of 1950.

An S-49B Ikarus had been proposed with the German DB-605 engine, but for mass production the Ikarus S-49C was chosen.

The S-49A was superseded by the improved S-49C, featuring an all-metal construction and a more powerful engine. The Ikarus S-49C went into service with the units of the Yugoslav Air Force at the beginning of 1952.

The aircraft factory “Soko” produced the assembly of the wing and empennage for the S-49C fighter, starting in 1952. An all-metal version of the S-49A powered by a Hispano Suiza HS 12Z-17. Underwing mounts were fitted for rockets, MG-151 or Colt-Browning M2 12.7- mm machine guns, or two 50-kg bombs.

A total of 45 S-49A and 113 S-49C were produced by the Ikarus Aircraft Factory in Zemun. The last aircraft were retired from RV i PVO service in 1960/61, having been replaced by more modern jet-powered aircraft.


S-49A – mixed construction and Klimov M-105 engine (45 built)

S-49B – planned version powered by a Daimler-Benz engine; unbuilt.

S-49C – all-metal construction and Hispano-Suiza 12Z engine (113 built)


Yugoslav Air Force

Ikarus S-49A – 46 aircraft (1949–1957)

117th Fighter Aviation Regiment (1950–1953)

204th Fighter Aviation Regiment (1950–1953)

107th Fighter Aviation Regiment (1953–1957)

Training Squadron of 44th Aviation Division (1953–1954)

Ikarus S-49C – 112 aircraft (1952–1961)

116th Fighter Aviation Regiment (1952–1960)

185th Fighter Aviation Regiment (1953–1956)

40th Fighter Aviation Regiment (1955–1959)

109th Fighter Aviation Regiment (1956–1960)

88th Fighter Aviation Regiment (1957–1959)

Training Squadron of 39th Aviation Division (1953–1959) S-49C



Engine: Klimov VK-105PF, 1180 hp

Wingspan: 10.30 m

Length: 8.43 m

Height: 3.20 m

Wing area: 16.60 sq.m

Empty weight: 2320 kg

Normal take-off weight: 2950 kg

Maximum speed: 554 kph

Range: 690 km

Rate of climb: 1026 m / min

Ceiling: 10,000 m

Crew: 1


1 x 20-mm motorpushka ShVAK with 120 rounds

2 x 12.7 mm UBS machine gun with 200 rounds


Engine: 1 × Hispano-Suiza 12Z-17, 1,104 kW (1,500 hp)

Length: 9.06 m (29 ft 83in)

Wingspan: 10.30 m (33 ft 91 in)

Height: 2.90 m (9 ft 6 in)

Wing area: 16.65 m2 (179 ft2)

Empty weight: 2,818 kg (6,200 lb)

Max. takeoff weight: 3,568 kg (7,850 lb)

Maximum speed: 628 km/h (339 knots, 390 mph) at 1,525 m (5,000 ft)

Range: 690 km (373 nm, 429 mi)

Service ceiling: 10,000 m (33,000 ft)

Climb to 6,000 m (19,700 ft): 6 min 54 sec


1 × 20 mm MG-151/20 cannon

2 × .50 Colt Browning M2 machine guns with 650 rounds per gun

2 × 50 kg (110 lb) bombs or 4 × 5 in HVAR missiles

Crew: one pilot

Bombed Up Fw 190 inTunisia

Many fighter versions of the Fw 190 but the earliest examples to be tested with bomb-carrying equipment appear to have been two from a second batch of preproduction aircraft – WNr. 0022, coded SB+IB, and WNr. 0023, coded SB+IC. They flew test flights with either a 500kg bomb or 300 litre drop tank fitted beneath their fuselages up to June 30, 1941. This This basic bomb-carrying configuration was given the designation A-0/U4. Another prototype was used to test different arrangements of SC 50 bombs carried either beneath the fuselage or under the wings.

The first attempt to create a dedicated Schlachtflugzeug (ground-attack aircraft) was the Fw 190 A-3/U3, devised in May 1942. The /U3 denoted Umrüstbausatz (Umbau for short), a kit of parts that could be fitted to any standard Fw 190 fighter immediately following its manufacture at the factory.

The Fw 190 A-3/U3 had extra armour plates fitted around and beneath the engine, on the sides of the fuselage and on the undercarriage doors. A variety of different armament options were proposed, ranging from bombs to under-wing cannon pods but just 12 aircraft received these modifications.

Next came the A-4/U3, featuring the same armour and weapon options as its predecessor. In addition, the A-3/U3’s centreline ETC 501 bomb rack featured the ER-4 adapter, which allowed the Fw 190 A-4/U3 to carry a set of four SC 50 bombs. Again, only a handful, perhaps a dozen, are believed to have been made.

Next came another small-run type, the A-5/U3. This had two ETC 50 racks under each wing and a hefty total armour weight of 794lb. The A-5/U3 was scheduled for limited production in December 1942 with the ultimate goal of using it as the pattern aircraft for the full production Fw 190 F ground-attack aircraft, scheduled to enter production in June 1943.

Although the successes of the Jabo raids had been relatively insignificant, the Germans resolved to intensify them as 1942 drew to a close.

It was decided that a new sort of unit should be established to specialise in these attacks – the Schnellkampfgeschwader or `fast bomber wing’. SKG 10 was to have three Gruppen, each comprising four Staffeln, compared to the more usual three.

Since existing Fw 190 pilots were all needed elsewhere, SKG 10 would be manned by ex-III./Z.G. 2 which was a former Bf 109 Jabo unit, and the rest of S.K.G. 10 was formed from former Bf 109 and later FW 190 Jabo units.

Meanwhile, the first Fw 190 unit had arrived in North Africa – III./ZG 2. Heavy losses inflicted by the British in the theatre had prompted Göring to promise that 40 of the new Focke-Wulf Fw 190 fighter-bombers would be transferred there to help.

III./ZG 2 arrived in Tunisia, having flown there via Italy and Sicily, in early to mid- November and flew its first mission against Bone harbour, held by the Allies, on November 12 and numerous clashes with enemy ground forces and Spitfires ensued. Five days later, II./JG 2 began to join III./ZG 2 at Sidi Ahmed. Its pilots were soon battling P- 38 Lightnings of the 14th Fighter Group and B-17s of the Twelfth Air Force.

In December 1942, it was decided that III./ZG 2 would be renamed III./SKG 10 to become the third Gruppe of the new Geschwader, though it continued its bombing operations in North Africa – attacking Allied ground targets ranging from ships to tanks and motor vehicles and supporting German ground forces.

In March of the following year, a third Fw 190-equipped unit moved to North Africa, II./Schl. G 2. In April, III./SKG 10 was issued with the Fw 190A-5/U8, the predecessor of the Fw 190G, but was deeply unimpressed with it, regarding the twin under-wing 300 litre drop tanks as perilously vulnerable to ground fire.

However, it then began to receive the Fw 190F predecessor, the A-5/U3s with added armour protection, and found that these were much better suited to the fighter-bomber role. Intense fighting followed, with hundreds of sorties being flown against advancing British forces but to no avail. All of the Luftwaffe’s surviving Fw 190s in North Africa were evacuated on May 8, 1943.


As the first of the Fw 190s entered service with the ground-attack arm, two new Hsl29-equipped units were raised for operations in the Middle East and the first, 4/Sch. G 2, alternatively known as the Schlacht und Panzer-fliegerstaffel ‘Afrika’, left Poland on 2 November with fourteen aircraft. At the end of the first week’s operations from Staraset, however, only two aircraft survived and the unit’s personnel, evacuated to southern Italy, were refitting at Bari when. The Jabostaffeln of J.G. 27 and J.G. 53 had been used to form Jabogruppe Afrika in the autumn of 1942, a unit that was subsequently amalgamated into I./Sch.G. 2.. This unit was more successful than its predecessor but could make no substantial or distinctive contribution to the Tunisian fighting. Based at the large airfield at El Aouina, 8/Sch. G 2 joined the Ju87s of St. G 3 and the Fw 190s of III/SKG 10 (formed on 20 December by redesignating III/ZG 2). During the British October-November offensive from El Alamein, St. G 3 lost approximately 125 aircraft during 960 sorties mounted in support of the Afrika Korps against troop columns, tank concentrations and troop transport generally. Thereafter the number of Stuka sorties dropped, mainly due to low serviceability and the vital necessity of avoiding losses in view of the overall situation. Also, increasing use was now being made of the Fw 190s in the ground-attack role and between 11 November and 11 February, III/SKG 10 claimed 449 vehicles destroyed and a further 196 damaged during 51 operations undertaken in a vain effort to stem the Allied advance. In January, however, III/SKG 10 lost about half of the 30 Fw 190s transferred to Gabes when the airfield was heavily bombed by the RAF, and further losses occurred from extremely accurate AA when the unit attacked the airfield and harbour at Bone. From 10 November, battered Luftwaffe units encountered a new hazard when RAF Beaufighters from Malta made numerous night and day raids against the airfield at El Aouina, destroying hangars and setting workshops and parked aircraft alight. As the Allies closed in on the remaining Axis units in Tunisia, III/St. G 3 was badly shot up over El Guetter by newly-arrived American Spitfires on 3 April and had to be finally withdrawn to Sicily. The remaining Fw 190s could not redress a hopeless situation and on 12 May the North African campaign came to an end with the final surrender of German and Italian troops.


Review  Focke Wulf Fw 190 in North Africa

Andrew Arthy & Morten Jessen

Published by Classic Publication in 2004

176 pages

111 photos

15 colour profiles (incl. 2 plan view)

9 x 12″


ISBN: 1903223458

For someone with a special interest in the operational history of Germany’s superb radial-engined fighter of WWII, the Focke-Wulf Fw 190, the brief period this fighter spent in the North-African theatre of operations has always been a bit mysterious to me. Very little has been written on this subject and it seems that even fewer photos were available. And those that were available tended to be re-published countless times. Who haven’t seen the classic shots of Fw 190A-5 KM+EY?

I was therefore pleasantly surprised when I read on Andrew Arthy’s Fw 190 website that a book on this subject was forthcoming. At first opportunity I bought it.

Let me start by concluding that this is a masterpiece of aviation writing! As a scientist I am very, very pleased to see the academic approach taken by the authors when writing this book. By this I mean that not only is the research conducted thorough and extensive but it is also presented in the best possible manner, at least in this reviewer’s opinion. The authors use footnotes extensively throughout their work and this is conveniently placed below each page. I would strongly urge all aviation authors to use this system as it is very easy to find the required reference and a great aid in one’s own research. Fortunately, it seems to be a trend in aviation writing of late.

The authors present their work in a chronological day-to day manner, another approach I must admit I am inclined to favour! The book is broken down into ten chapters, five appendices, a reference section (in addition to the aforementioned footnotes) and thankfully a personnel index. The chapter breakdown is as follows:

  1. The early desert war – brief introduction to Luftwaffe operations in North-Africa, tactics and command structure.
  2. Erprobungskommando 19 – brief chapter on the first Fw 190 unit in North-Africa (all of which was news to me)
  3. III./ZG 2 in North Africa – chronological war diary November-December 1942
  4. II./JG 2 in Tunisia – chronological war diary November-December 1942
  5. III./SKG 10 – chronological war diary December 1942 – February 1943
  6. A successful period for II./JG 2 – chronological war diary January – February 1943
  7. Kasserine – 14. – 24. February 1943, the famous battle described
  8. II./JG 2 leaves North-Africa – chronological war diary Late February – March 1943
  9. Axis reversals – chronological war diary Late February – March 1943
  10. The final days – April – May 1943

Even if emphasis is on Fw 190 operations the allied perspective is not forgotten and combat reports and war stories from several participating American and British are presented. Together with the German view these are an interesting documentation of an air war that has often been overlooked in the past. At the end of each chapter the authors present their “conclusions”, an assessment of the Fw 190 units’ significance and achievements during the time period just described. An interesting way to end each chapter, I think! There are also a few bibliographies in the book, like that of Kurt Bühligen and Erich Rudorffer. Interspersed among the text are various small tables, like summaries of Fw 190 claims or losses for a given period or of unit commanders.

Moving on to the aircraft profiles all that is needed to say is that they are by Claes Sundin! Everyone with an interest in aviation art knows what that means. The profiles included in the book are some of the very best I have seen, indeed some of the best from Sundin’s hand, even if I am not entirely partial due to my interest in the Fw 190. Naturally the emphasis is on the Fw 190 (12 of the 15 profiles are devoted to the fw 190, including the two plan views) but there are one of a Bf 109G-4/R-6 (Franz Schiess’ Black 1, probably thrown in for the Bf 109 guys!), an American Spitfire V and a French P-40F. Sundin has also made three maps in colour of the areas of operations.

A crucial aspect of any Luftwaffe book, at least it is the one aspect I tend to consider the most, is the choice of photos. I am sure that the authors have done their utmost to find new photos and there were several here that were new to me. Of course there are old “friends” like the abovementioned shots of KM-EY, but they have also managed to find a few new ones of this machine that I have not seen before. There are not really any big surprises as far as photographs are concerned, although the Gruppeemblem of III./SKG 10 was one that I have not seen in print before. Furthermore, I find the shots of White 1/White E fascinating, especially since this machine apparently belonged to Eprobungskommando 19, the first fw 190 unit in North-Africa who only carried out non-operational tests. There are also four pages (appendix V) devoted solely to presenting more photographs, including many of KM+EY and four of a captured Fw 190A-4 with strange red-white-blue tricolor markings painted over the German national insignia.

If I have to find a negative point with this book it is that the photos are far to small for my comfort. At least some of them are deserving of much more space than they have been allocated. The majority of the photographs are only approximately 9×6 cm or smaller and that is not enough. I have been told that this is the choice of the editor and not the authors. Good thing that the profiles span an entire page and are reproduced with excellent clarity.

The appendices include the obligatory claims and loss lists but also a section on Jabo escort missions and, for modellers, a section on camouflage and markings. Perhaps surprisingly for many, the majority of the Fw 190s depicted in the book did not carry tropical camouflage, but the regular greys. Finally, there’s a list of Fw 190s captured in Tunisia.

This then, is my impression of this work. If it is not clear already let me say it again, this book is excellent, it represents marvellous scholarship and is obviously the result of a passion for the chosen subject and I can only look forward to any future titles from these authors.

Kjetil Aakra

Navy Patrol Squadron 16

A great deal has been written about the battle for Saipan, including the Battle of the Philippine Sea, remembered today as having included “The Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” However, certain events that could have turned the battle in any number of directions are often mentioned only in passing.

One of these events is the role played by one Martin PBM-3D Mariner aircraft of Navy Patrol Squadron 16 (VP-16) in locating the Japanese fleet as it sailed east for what both sides hoped might be a decisive naval battle. Admiral Raymond Spruance, in overall command of Operation Forager, the campaign for the capture of the Mariana and Palau island groups, was receiving reports from American submarines as to the movement of Japanese ships under Admiral Jizaburo Ozawa that were heading in the direction of the Marianas. However, Spruance’s carrier-based planes under Admiral Marc Mitscher of Task Force 58 had limited range and little luck in pinpointing the exact location of the Japanese ships.

Likewise, Spruance, always the cautious warrior trying to think like his Japanese opponent, was concerned that Ozawa might try to draw him west while splitting his force to do an endaround and attack the U. S. transports off Saipan. That is when he ordered a number of available PBM-3D flying boats up from the Marshall Islands. His hope was that with their longer range they might locate the Japanese fleet and thus help him make his decision as to how best to meet the coming threat.

By the summer of 1944, the United States and its allies were no longer just holding the line but pushing back on all fronts. The Russians were advancing west and closing in on the German homeland. In the Southwest Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur had advanced along the north coast of Papua New Guinea and, in late May of that year, made landings on the island of Biak as part of the final effort to return to the Philippines. A week later, on June 6, Allied forces under General Dwight D. Eisenhower began the liberation of Western Europe with landings in Normandy.

As the Japanese were putting together a relief mission to stop MacArthur at Biak, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief Pacific Ocean Areas, gave them a right hook with Operation Forager. With the exception of Guam, the Japanese had been in control of the Marianas since 1914 during World War I, when they simply sailed in and seized the islands of German Micronesia without firing a shot. Thirty years later they would have to give up those islands, but the process would be anything but bloodless. On Saipan alone, the Japanese would lose more than 40,000 of their nationals, including civilians. The Americans suffered roughly 15,000 casualties, almost a third of them killed in action.

For almost 300 years the Philippines and the islands of Micronesia had been Spanish colonial possessions. This all changed in 1898 with the war between Spain and the United States that resulted in Spain giving up the Philippines and also the island of Guam in the Marianas. Guam was taken because it was needed as a coaling station for U. S. ships sailing to the newly acquired colonial possessions in the Philippines. A year later, Spain, in need of capital, sold the rest of Spanish Micronesia to Germany. Germany’s interest in the islands was economic but short lived, being forced out by the Japanese just 15 years later.

With America’s entry into World War II following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Guam, just a few miles south of Japanese-held Saipan, fell within hours to a superior Japanese force and would not be liberated until July 1944, a month after Saipan had been secured. Although American offensive operations in the Central Pacific got off to a rather late start compared to other theaters, once they got going with landings in the Gilbert Islands there was no slowing them down. Soon the Marshall Islands fell at minimal cost compared to the bloody three days required to take Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands. As a result of these successes, Admiral Nimitz felt comfortable in advancing the date for operations in the Marianas, which both the Japanese and Americans knew would put the Allies within striking distance of the Japanese home islands. More than 500 ships-most sailing from Hawaii-and more than 127,000 men were involved in the operation to wrest Saipan, an island only 15 miles long and eight miles wide at its widest point, from the Japanese.

War came to the Japanese on Saipan when U. S. carrier planes struck in February 1944. The enemy garrison then had just over three months to prepare for a tsunami of fire and steel that would soon turn this tropical paradise into a broken and burned wasteland.

In the months before U. S. Marine and Army forces assaulted Saipan, the Japanese were moving to evacuate some of the thousands of civilians living on the island. At the same time they were attempting to bring in more military personnel and equipment to fend off what was obviously going to be an attempt to break what the Japanese considered their outer ring of defense in the Pacific. However, by this point in the war U. S. submarines and aircraft dominated the waters and skies throughout most of the Pacific. As a result, most of the ships evacuating civilians, while at the same time attempting to reinforce island garrisons, were being sunk in record numbers

Heavy carrier air strikes against Saipan began several days before the American landings on June 15 and continued throughout the campaign. Likewise, to prevent Japanese land based planes from disrupting the landings, planes from Mitscher’s fast carriers attacked island airfields on nearby Guam and Rota, and also those farther to the north in the Bonin and Volcano Islands.

Meanwhile, Spruance, in overall command of Operation Forager, started receiving reports of the Japanese fleet movements. The first report came from the submarine USS Bowfin. Even before the landings started, Bowfin reported a large number of Japanese ships off the northeast tip of Borneo. This was followed by another report from the submarine USS Flying Fish, this time of a Japanese fleet that included aircraft carriers exiting San Bernardino Strait in the Philippines. Later, the submarine USS Sea Horse reported another group of Japanese ships approaching from the west and slightly south of Spruance’s Fifth Fleet.

These reports and Spruance’s own contemplation led him to believe that the main Japanese objective was to disrupt the landings on Saipan by drawing the Fifth Fleet west, allowing Ozawa to split his forces and attack the U. S. transports under Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner, which were off the coast of the Marianas. Mitscher, on the other hand, saw the Japanese move as an opportunity for a decisive fleet engagement that had the potential of putting the Imperial Japanese Navy out of the war completely. However, Spruance’s caution and focus on protecting the landings prevented Mitscher from doing what he wanted. Instead, Spruance ordered him to sail west during the day and east during the night to protect the transports still offloading men and supplies in a battle that was not going as smoothly as hoped.

Mitscher was sending out carrier aircraft to try and locate Ozawa’s fleet. However, given the limited range of U. S. carrier aircraft and the vastness of the seas west of the Marianas, he was not having any success, prompting Spruance to order up from the Marshall Islands the available PBM- 3Ds of Navy Patrol Squadron 16.

Patrol Squadron 16 was formed in December 1943 at Harvey Point, North Carolina. The PBM-3D Martin Mariner was a larger but less reliable cousin to the Consolidated PBY Catalina that was first developed in the early 1930s. The PBMs, unlike the PBYs, did not become operational until the early 1940s and suffered a number of problems common to a new type of aircraft. Besides design and structural issues, the underpowered Wright R-2600-22 engines were a source of constant worry to those who flew in the Mariner. Engine failures were common, and few PBMs could boast making it back to base on just one. The failure of both often resulted in the loss of all aboard. The one thing the Catalina and the Mariner had in common, however, was that they were both slow, with maximum speeds of around 200 miles per hour and a normal cruising speed of well under that. Put another way, they were both meat on the table for any fighter plane of that era.

William Sheehan was born in Oakland, California, in 1922. He wanted to enlist in the U. S. Navy right out of high school, but his mother would not sign for him until after he received his draft notice. Thinking he was better off in the Navy than in the Army, his mother readily signed on the dotted line. In October 1943, he entered the Navy and was sent to boot camp in Farragut, Idaho, probably not an ideal location for a California boy not used to cold winters.

After boot camp, Sheehan was sent to aviation mechanics school in Norman, Oklahoma, and from there to PBM School in Banana River, Florida, now better known as Cape Canaveral. He then joined VP-16 in North Carolina. The squadron’s commanding officer was Lieutenant William Scarpino, and the executive officer was Lieutenant Ralph John. Sheehan’s patrol plane commander was Lieutenant K. O. Hotvedt. The bureau number of the PBM-3D nicknamed Boomerang that Sheehan would fly in for the duration of the war was 48198, a number that Sheehan remembered for more than 50 years.

After a brief period of training out of Naval Air Station Key West, Florida, VP-16 received orders in April 1944 to Naval Air Station Alameda in California for deployment to the South Pacific. From Harvey Point, North Carolina, the squadron flew to Eagle Mountain, Texas, before setting off the following day for San Diego. On the way, Lieutenant John’s PBM- 3D lost an engine. In spite of every effort to stay in the air on the one remaining engine, within five minutes the plane crashed with the loss of all aboard. This would not be the last time VP- 16 had to either abort a flight or a plane was lost because of engine failure. On the way to Hawaii from California in May, Lieutenant R. W. Briggs and his crew had to ditch and spent almost two days in rubber life rafts before being rescued.

From Hawaii, VP-16 flew to the Marshall Islands via Palmyra Island and Canton Island, where airfields had been built before the war in anticipation of their use in case of conflict with Japan.

When the first five PBMs arrived in the waters off Saipan late on June 17, 1944, the men were based aboard the destroyer USS Ballard but later transferred to seaplane tender USS Pokomoke (AV-9). Almost immediately upon arrival they were sent out on patrol. In the early morning hours of June 19, Lieutenant Arle, flying one of the PBMs, made radar contact with 40 ships 470 miles west of Guam. However, the radio operator aboard the PBM, Chief Petty Officer Tibbets, could not make radio contact with the Fifth Fleet. He said he had a problem with what was called “skip distance,” bouncing the message off the ionosphere. It was picked up in places such as Pearl Harbor and even Washington, D. C., but not by the ships off Saipan. Those who did receive the message did not forward it to Spruance. Had they done so, the history of the Battle of the Philippine Sea might well have been different.

In desperation to get the news to Spruance, the message was then sent “in the clear.” Still, it was not received. As a result, Arle immediately headed back to Saipan to deliver the news in person. However, that was more than a seven-hour flight, and by that time it was too late. As a result of not receiving this information in a timely fashion, Spruance launched his fighters late, not to attack the Japanese fleet as Mitscher had hoped, but to engage carrier aircraft launched by Ozawa before they could do any damage to the ships of the Fifth Fleet. Because of the inability to radio the contact with the Japanese fleet in a timely manner, the Americans had lost an opportunity to inflict an even greater defeat on the Japanese. It is possible that the enemy fleet might have been annihilated along with the many enemy planes that were shot down.

When the initial Japanese airstrike of the Battle of the Philippine Sea approached Task Force 58, most of the attacking planes were shot down by U. S. carrier-based Grumman F6F Hellcats or the massive antiaircraft fire thrown up by Fifth Fleet’s escorting ships. The few Japanese planes to survive the ordeal either headed back to their carriers or fled to one of the Japanese-held islands in the Marianas. Even then, there were patrolling Hellcats waiting to do them no good when they attempted to land. One Japanese pilot landed on Saipan after the main airfield had fallen into American hands. His fighter was shot to pieces as he landed, but the pilot somehow managed to walk away from his wrecked plane without injury. When asked why he landed on Saipan, he said he was told that the island was still in Japanese hands. He was one of the few Japanese airmen to survive the battle.

Admiral Spruance was criticized by some for his cautionary approach to the battle that allowed Ozawa to escape with most of his fleet intact, just as some had criticized him after the Battle of Midway in June 1942, for not chasing the Japanese after they had lost four aircraft carriers. However, as any number of Pacific War historians have pointed out, regardless of the caution that Spruance displayed both at Midway and the Battle of the Philippine Sea, both were one-sided victories for the Americans.

In October 1944 during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Admiral Spruance’s good friend Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey, mindful of the criticism leveled at Spruance for being overly cautious at both Midway and Saipan, did just the opposite and suffered criticism of his own. Upon General MacArthur’s return to the Philippines with landings on the east coast of the island of Leyte, Halsey was lured away from the San Bernardino Strait to the north. Ozawa, who had lost most of his planes in combat earlier in the year, was used along with his now nearly empty carriers to lure Halsey away from his guard duties. Halsey took the bait, and as a result Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita, with his force of battleships and cruisers, came within a breath of wiping out the landings on Leyte. Guarding those landing beaches was something Spruance felt was his priority earlier in the year at Saipan, yet he was criticized for being too cautious.

VP-16 had other problems besides not being able to report the position of Ozawa’s fleet. One of its planes became a casualty of the air battle, but not as a result of enemy fire. On the contrary, one of VP-16’s PBMs returning from a patrol was mistaken for a Japanese Kawanishi flying boat by a group of F6F Hellcats and was attacked. Before the offending pilots had realized their mistake, one of the crew, Gilbert Person, was dead. Then on June 22, another PBM, this one piloted by Lieutenant Harry R. Flashbarth, was shot down while on a night patrol by a destroyer of Task Force 58. There were no survivors.

After most of the excitement was over, Sheehan and the crew of Boomerang finally arrived off Saipan on June 24, having been forced to wait in the Marshalls to have a damaged propeller replaced. Sheehan noted that at this time it was not unusual to see bodies floating in the water off the coast. If the bodies were Japanese, they were left alone. If they were American bodies they were retrieved for possible identification and a proper burial.

Toward the end of the fighting on Saipan, one of the damaged PBMs was hauled ashore at the former Japanese seaplane ramp in Tanapag on the west coast of Saipan, and Sheehan was sent ashore to guard it until it could be cannibalized for spare parts. There were still unburied Japan ese bodies lying around from the fighting that had recently taken place in the area, and some diehard enemy soldiers remained active. One Japanese soldier had been hiding under a wrecked plane near the ramp. When he thought it was safe, he made a run for it but was killed by Marines before he could get very far.

On August 1, 1944, VP-16 was relieved by VP-18. VP-16 then regrouped at Ebeye Island in the Marshalls for engine overhaul and replacement and other much-needed maintenance. On August 21, the squadron was sent to Kossol Passage in the Palaus west of the Marianas. The crews conducted routine patrols until late November 1944, when they were ordered home. The pilots flew from the Palaus back to Hawaii and eventually to Alameda. However, they again were plagued by engine problems. Boomerang, with Lieutenant Hotvedt still at the controls, made three attempts to get home. The first two attempts resulted in turnarounds to Kaneohe Naval Air Station in Hawaii because of engine problems. When Boomerang was finally nursed home the plane was scrapped. Sheehan spent the rest of World War II at Alameda and was discharged in November 1945.

If remembered at all, VP-16 is probably recalled as just one of many seaplane squadrons that served in the Pacific in various roles. The fact that one of its PBM-3Ds spotted Admiral Ozawa’s Japanese carrier force in the opening moments of the Battle of the Philippine Sea, well in advance of its last-minute location by Fifth Fleet radar, is mentioned only in passing in most histories of the Marianas campaign. The incident remains one of many what-ifs of the Pacific War.

Martin PBM Mariner

An increasingly powerful and efficient Allied intelligence, from the breaking of the Enigma cipher and also the highly sophisticated use of Huff-Duff, or HFDF, to pinpoint the position of U-boats far out in the ocean, and apparently safe from air or surface attack.

One example from June 1942 shows how effective this was. The crew of the type IXC U-158 had sunk thirteen ship in the Gulf of Mexico and off Bermuda. They had boarded and scuttled their final victim, a 4,000-ton freighter, after using all their torpedoes. The skipper, Erich Rostin, reported to U-Boat headquarters on 30 June, but his brief signal was picked up by several different direction-finding stations, including one on Bermuda, to give an accurate position, Bermuda-based US Navy Patrol Squadron 74, equipped with Martin Mariner flying boats, ordered one to the reported position.

After a 50-mile flight, the crew found U-158 on the surface with sailors sun bathing on deck, In waters so close to Allied bases, they paid the price for this criminal negligence within minutes, Before the crew could react, the Mariner dropped two anti-submarine bombs, but not close enough to the submarine to inflict serious damage, The plane turned and delivered another attack, dropping two Mark XVIl depth charges with shallow settings on the now rapidly diving submarine, One seemed to jam in the conning tower structure, and when the U-boat finally submerged, it detonated with fatal results, U-158 was lost with all her crew, in a fast and clinical operation that would become increasingly routine.

A Mariner meets its watery grave. In 1944 this aircraft was on a test flight when it suffered an engine fire and the pilot was forced to make an emergency landing. It hit the water so hard that both engines were ripped off, but the integrity of the strong PBM hull remained. The crew evacuated the aircraft safely and the stricken machine continued to float for an hour and a half before finally succumbing to its inevitable fate.

The Martin Mariner didn’t get a lot of press. Various sources credits ASW Mariners with 10 U-boat kills in the North Atlantic; other runs that up to 12. Martin Mariners were nicknamed “flying gas tanks” because they tended to leak fumes.

Martin had a history of producing flying boats, and in 1937 the company began work on a design to replace the Consolidated Catalina in US Navy service. Martin’s Model 162, naval designation XPBM-1 (Experimental Patrol Bomber Martin 1), had a deep hull and shoulder-mounted gull wings, a flat twin-fin tail and inward-retracting wing floats. The gull wing design was used to produce the greatest possible distance between the engines and sea water. A less than half-scale single-seat version was produced to test the aerodynamics of the design, and its success led to the first flight of the full-scale prototype XPBM-1 in 1939.

The XPBM-1 prototype first flew in February 1939 and test flights called for a redesign of the tail, which resulted in the dihedral configuration that matched the angle of the main wings. The aircraft had been ordered before the test-flight, so the first production model, the PBM-1, appeared quite quickly in October 1940 with service deliveries being complete by April 1941. By now the type was named Mariner. The PBM-1 had a crew of seven and was armed with five 12.7mm/0.5in Browning machine-guns. One gun was mounted in a flexible position in the tail, one was fitted in a flexible mount on each side of the rear fuselage, another was fitted in a rear dorsal turret and one was fitted in a nose turret. In addition, the PBM-1 could carry up to 908kg/2000lb of bombs or depth charges in bomb bays that were, unusually, fitted in the engine nacelles. The doors of the bomb bays looked like those of landing gear, but the Mariner was not amphibian at this stage.

In late 1940 the US Navy ordered 379 improved Model 162Bs or PBM-3s, although around twice that number were actually produced. This order alone required the US government-aided construction of a new Martin plant in Maryland. The -3 differed from the -1 mainly by the use of uprated Pratt & Whitney 1700hp R-2600-12 engines, larger fixed wing floats and larger bomb bays housed in enlarged nacelles. Nose and dorsal turrets were powered on this version. Early PBM-3s had three-bladed propellers, but production soon included four-bladed propellers.

The PBM-3C, rolled out in late 1942, was the next major version, with 274 built. It had better armour protection for the crew, twin gun front and dorsal turrets, an improved tail turret still with a single gun, and air-to-surface-vessel radar. In addition, many PBM-3Cs were fitted with an underwing searchlight in the field.

US Navy Mariners saw extensive use in the Pacific, guarding the Atlantic western approaches and defending the Panama Canal. It was concluded that most Mariners were not likely to encounter fighter opposition, so much of the defensive armament was deleted – once the guns, turrets and ammunition were removed, the weight saving resulted in a 25 per cent increase in the range of the lighter PBM-3S anti-submarine version. However, the nose guns were retained for offensive fire against U-boats and other surface targets. Despite this development, a more heavily armed and armoured version, the PBM-3D, was produced by re-engining some 3Cs. Larger non-retractable floats and self-sealing fuel tanks were also a feature of this version.

Deliveries of the more powerfully engined PBM-5 began in August 1944, and 589 were delivered before production ceased at the end of the war. With the PBM-5A amphibian version (of which 40 were built), the Mariner finally acquired a tricycle landing gear. The Mariner continued to serve with the US Navy and US Coast Guard into the early 1950s, and over 500 were in service at the time of the Korean War. The USCG retired its last Mariner in 1958.

The first PBM-1s entered service with Patrol Squadron Fifty-Five (VP-55) of the US Navy on 1 September 1940. Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, PBMs were used on anti-submarine patrols, sinking their first German U-boat, U-158, on 30 June 1942. PBMs were responsible, wholly or in part, for sinking a total of 10 U-boats during the con­flict. PBMs were also heavily used in the Pacific War, operating from bases at Saipan, Okinawa, Iwo Jima and the South West Pacific.

Patrol Squadron 16 was formed in December 1943 at Harvey Point, North Carolina. The PBM-3D Martin Mariner was a larger but less reliable cousin to the Consolidated PBY Catalina that was first developed in the early 1930s. The PBMs, unlike the PBYs, did not become operational until the early 1940s and suffered a number of problems common to a new type of aircraft. Besides design and structural issues, the underpowered Wright R-2600-22 engines were a source of constant worry to those who flew in the Mariner. Engine failures were common, and few PBMs could boast making it back to base on just one. The failure of both often resulted in the loss of all aboard. The one thing the Catalina and the Mariner had in common, however, was that they were both slow, with maximum speeds of around 200 miles per hour and a normal cruising speed of well under that. Put another way, they were both meat on the table for any fighter plane of that era.

Mariners continued in service with the US Navy following the end of World War 2. The PBM- 5A, produced after the war, saw service during the Korean conflict.

Martin PBM-3D Mariner

First flight: February 18,1939 (XPBM-1)

Power: Two Wright 1900hp R-2600-22 Cyclone radial piston engines

Armament: Eight 12.7mm/0.5in machine-guns in nose, dorsal, waist and tail positions; up to 3632kg/8000lb of bombs or depth charges

Size: Wingspan – 35.97m/118ft

Length – 24.33m/79ft 10in

Height – 8.38m/27ft 6in

Wing area -130.8m2/1408sq ft

Weights: Empty – 15,061 kg/33,1751b

Maximum take-off – 26,332kg/58,000lb

Performance: Maximum speed – 340kph/211 mph

Ceiling – 6035m/19,800ft Range – 3605km/2240 miles

Climb – 244m/800ft per minute