Soviet Fighters in the Sky of China IV
by Anatolii Demin
Aviatsiia i Kosmonavtika 12.2000
translated by George M. Mellinger, Twin Cities Aero Historians
{For Russian names I have used a simplified version of the Library of Congress system; for Japanese names, the rendition common in Western literature.  Except for a very few well-known exceptions (Beijing, Chiang Kai Shek) Chinese names and places have proven very difficult.  I have been given by a friend a table for transliterating Pinyan phonetics into Cyrillic, and have tried to work it backwards to obtain Pinyan from the Russian.  I am not confident of any success.  I ask your indulgence, and any corrections the knowledgeable may wish to give. -GMM}
                In August 1938 Soviet volunteers informed the motherland that recently the relations of  the Chinese administration with our people had sharply deteriorated.  In the opinion of the Soviets, the Chinese had begun deliberately to limit the participation of their own pilots in combat and  to shift the entire burden of battle to the Soviet volunteers.  The serious warning of the Soviet government forced the leadership of China to call to order their military officials.  However, even after this, difficulties continued with maintenance, feeding and supply of our volunteers.  The commander of an SB Group, S. V, Slyusarev remembers that at the end of the year relations with the higher Chinese command began to grow worse.  “We noticed that the Chinese service personnel changed, in the mess hall different cooks and servers appeared.  Food deteriorated.  To our questions we almost never received answers.  We wee occasionally advised to get out of he dayroom, particularly in the evening.  It was decided that we should go into town only in groups of three to five people.
                The Japanese claimed that the Chinese Air Force hd lost its strength already by the end of summer 1938, although from time to time there occurred sharp air battles on a lesser scale.  On October 5 the 26th squadron flying to Hankow to provide defense against bombers intercepted the Japanese.  The new squadron commander Huang Hanwen was seriously wounded and made a forced landing on the outskirts of the city.  He was sent to Hong Kong for medical treatment, but on March 20, 1939 he died during surgery.  Lieutenant I. P. Podogov is listed as killed on October 5,1938, though there is no information about the place of his burial (according to other data, he is listed as killed in a flying accident and buried at Hami).
                The Japanese justly presumed that they had destroyed a large portion of the Chinese airplanes in the air or on the ground, and that to survive a large share of the Chinese aircraft had been evacuated to the rear to get beyond the combat range of the A5M which began regularly to fly with underbelly fuel tanks.  According to Japanese data, from September 1937 to the end of August 1938, the A5M, the main naval fighter, alone had destroyed more than 330 Chinese aircraft while losing less than 30 of their own machines.  Chinese data confirm only a third of their losses.
                According to Soviet data, by the beginning of September 1938 the Chinese government had received from the USSR 123 SB, 105 I-16, and 133 I-15 & I-15bis.  Together with the Hawks and Martins and other aircraft from the USA, 26 Dewoitines, 36 English Gladiators, 12 German Henschels, and others, this comprise in all, 602 combat aircraft.  In battle 166 were destroyed, 46 destroyed on the ground, smashed in landings - 101, and 8 were disassembled for the aviation factories.  In total, the Chinese lost 321 aircraft, and in the fall of 1938 there remained only 281 airplanes, of which only 170 were serviceable, because most of them were used in the aviation schools.
                At this time the Japanese began to develop their offensive against Wuhan, which they captured on October 25.  the situation of the Guomindang Air Force continued to worsen.  The aviation units suffered heavy losses of both personnel and equipment.  They required replenishment, rest and reformation.  As of October 28 only 87 combat aircraft remained in service, that is 14.4% of the total quantity of machines received, while at the same time the number of warplanes in service with the Japanese Air Force stood at about 700 machines - overwhelming superiority.
                In November 1938 the Soviet volunteers received an order to temporarily discontinue participation in battle.  During air combat their burden was extraordinarily stressful.  The period of a ‘special tour” (spetskommandirovka) the fighter pilot averaged between150 to 250 combat hours (in K. K. Kokkinaki’s flight log, from June 1939 to June 1940 there are noted 166 combat sorties.).  All the aircraft were ordered to Langzhou for major overhaul.  On October 20, during the transfer flight four fighters ran out of fuel and crashed while attempting to make a forced landing in a mountainous region under conditions of limited visibility.  The leader, Captain N. P. Matveev and the other three pilots were killed.  (The composition of his group is not established and buried together with N. P. Matveev in Langzhou between 1938-1939 were 25 other volunteers, about whose combat activity there is no information.)  At the same time as the volunteers, the Chinese also ceased participation in battle and busied themselves with rebuilding.
                On October 13,1938 the 3rd air Group received an order to relocate the ground staff and all ground equipment of the 7, 8, and 32nd squadrons to Liuzhou (Guangxi Province), but the pilots until further notice were to remain at Lanzhou.  The 34th squadron underwent an interesting “metamorphosis”.  After the battle in Guangxi, on April 17, 1938 it was rebased to Hankow and its ancient aircraft passed on to the reconnaissance group at Chungqing, the training center at Chengdu, and the branch flying school at Liuzhou.  The pilots were sent to retrain for bombers, and on November 1, 1938 the squadron was assigned to the 6th Bomber Aviation Group.  At the end of December at Zhuning they received four German Henschel Hs-123 dive bombers.  But there were not at all enough bombers, and it was decided to retrain the pilots once again as fighters.  On April 1,1939 they were again organized as a fighter unit and were sent to Langzhou.  From June 1, 1939 they became a special unit, subordinated directly to the Aviation Committee.  But on August 1, 1939, during one of the recurring reorganizations, all the ground personnel were dispersed to other units, and the pilots remained alone but for a single clerk, a counter- intelligence officer and a single soldier.  Om January 1, 1940 the 34th squadron was deleted from the list of active units.  It was reborn only on March 1,1945.  The 16th squadron was reorganized into a fighter squadron on October 1, 1938 and was immediately sent to Zhijiang (Hunan Province) for nine new Hawk 75s.  The retraining was led by the American advisor “K. Shenno”[1] (later commander of the “Flying Tigers”).  At the end of the year they were rebased at Chongqing and Yibin (Sichuan) for air defense of the capital, and in January 1939 the squadron flew to Kunming (Yunnan Province).
                The 24th squadron was resubordinated to the 4th Air Group at the end of November 1938, and was sent to Sichuan Province.  On October 1 the 28th squadron was assigned to the 3rd Air Group, while the 26th and 27th squadrons remained on the strength of the 5th Air Group.  They were sent to Lanzhou for conversion to the I-15.  In January 1939 the 17th squadron was left in Lanzhou for defense against air attacks.  The 26th, 27th and 29th squadrons were concentrated at Chengdu.  At this time the 5th Air group had one each I-15 and I-16 at group headquarters, and the 17th, 28th, and 29th squadrons each had 10 I-15s.  It is curious that the transfer of the 26th squadron from Liuzhou (Guangxi Province) to Chengdu for inclusion in the 5th Air Group was delayed from February to September 1939, possibly from difficulties with transport.  In Chengdu they received seven I-16s.
                According to Chinese information, by the beginning of 1939 there remained in the Chinese Air Force fewer than 100 aircraft of various types.  Soon, mainly due to quantity of Soviet shipments, the count rose to 200 combat aircraft.  Thus, on July 18, 1939 there arrived in Langzhou a new group of 30 I-15bis, and on August 3 - 30 I-16s.
                After the fall of Guangzhou and Wuhan, the main air bases in China became Chengdu and Chongqing, the new Chinese provisional capital.  Throughout 1939 the Japanese continued to mount attacks on the Chinese city, but tactics changed a bit.  While in 1937-1938 the Japanese operated over the near rear of the Chinese forces in groups of 20 to 25 aircraft, and over large industrial and administrative centers in groups of up to a hundred aircraft, as early as April 1939 there were noted only occasional flights by individual aircraft, while over the cities they flew, with rare exceptions, in small groups numbering up to ten machines.  The main task of the Soviet and Chinese fighters remained air defense of the large cities.
                From the middle of 1938 as the front lines drew closer, Lanzhou began to experience Japanese air attacks.  According to the recollections of P. T. Sobin, in the second half of 1938 and first half of 1939, several times the Japanese conducted attacks on Lanzhou, but serious damage was not suffered because F. F. Zherebchenko’s[2] group of 10 I-16s met them on the approaches to the aerodrome and shot down several.  Also among their duties was defense of the air corridor.  Shot down and killed in the air battles over Lanzhou in December were Lieutenants M. M. Gordeev and  I. V. Isaev on the 26th and M. E. Kunitsa on the 28th.
                In the attack of February 20, 1939 thirty Japanese bombers flying in three groups, according to the memory of S. V. Slyusarev, attempted to force our fighters to take off prematurely so as to be out of fuel  at the height of battle (the first time they had used this tactic).  But the Chinese following the advice of our advisors did not rush all their fighters aloft at once.  They sent up forty fighters in small groups at five minute intervals, attacking the Japanese one after the other.  In the battle nine bombers were shot down, killing 63 crew members.  One Soviet volunteer was wounded. on this day the bombs fell on the city and not the airbase.  After three days, on February 23, a group of 57 bombers set off against Lanzhou, but only the first group of twenty bombers went all the way t the city.  Attacking them along the route, fighters shot down six bombers and instead of pursuing the remainder, waited along the route for the next group.  However, they bombed a secondary target.  Something similar happened a bit earlier, on February 12, when of 30 bombers observed on a course for the airfield, 18 did not continue to target but turned away at a distance of 10-15 km, and headed back.
                In some justification for the Japanese, it may be said that they were operating form aerodromes in Shanxi Province, at the margin of their operational range, without fighter protection.  They flew in the Italian Fiat BR.20, and later the Mitsubishi Ki 21 (Type 97)m whose operational debut occurred in attacks on Chongqing in December 1938.  The “Japanese” differed from the “Italian” in being more survivable, and in better withstanding the bullets of our ShKAS machine guns.  None the less, losses amongst the Ki 21s during unescorted daylight attacks were excessively high.  In the February battles over Langzhou alongside the volunteers fought the Chinese pilots of the 17th squadron, who in the words of Taiwanese sources, scored complete victory on all three occasions.
                In March 1939 for defense of Chongqing against air attacks the entire 4th Air Group (21, 22, 23, 24 squadrons) was transferred to Guangyangba aerodrome where they remained until July, cutting off enemy attacks.  On May 3, 1939 54 Japanese bombers bombed the city.  The commander of the air group, Dong Mingde himself led the group in battle, and according to Chinese sources shot down 7 Japanese aircraft.  Deputy squadron commander Zhang Mingsheng (aircraft R-7153) was shot down and escaped by parachute, but later died of his wounds.  On July 11, Chongqing was again bombed by 27 bombers.  Eight I-15s, led by squadron commander Zheng Shaoyu gave battle.  The leader’s aircraft (No. 2310) suffered 38 bullet holes, while I-15 No. 2307 of Liang Tiancheng fell in flames.  During a night attack on August 4, I-15 No. 2310 of Li Zhiqiang was shot down, killing the pilot.  At the end of October the air defense of Chongqing was strengthened with the redeployment of the 24th squadron to the airbase at Baishing.
                The Japanese began to go over to night attacks soon after their first misfortunes in the air battles of February 1938.  They bombed Nanchang during the full moon, primarily as single aircraft or in flights, practically without any significant damage.  But already by the summer and the battle for Wuhan our volunteers had dispersed their aircraft to reserve aerodromes in the surrounding area.  In the spring of 1938 Blagoveshchenskii organized the first flight of night fliers, and A. Dushin and A. Shiminas set about developing tactics to counter the Japanese.  They set about using the searchlight projectors, broke down the area of operations into zones, considering the approach routes of the bombers, which as a rule oriented along the course of the River Yangtse and Lake Poyang.  There was success from the very first combat sortie, when they shot down one bomber, but the remainder dropped their bombs without flying on to the aerodrome and the Japanese were forced to refrain from bombing by the light of the full moon.  But in October 1938, for three nights in a row, from October 8 to October 11 the Japanese bombed the airfield at Henyang, dropping from 69 aircraft up to 50 tons of bombs.  They received a good orientation from fires set by saboteurs to military storehouses, and also, the Chinese switched on their searchlights too early, marking the locations of their airfields.  On the ground six SBs and one fighter were damaged, and one more fighter was shot down and its pilot killed.  On October 2 or October 4, in a night battle over Chengdu Captain S. K. Bdaitsiev was killed, and was buried at the Baishi airbase.  In air combat our pilots and the Chinese shot down four bombers, with 27 killed, and one falling into captivity.
                In 1939 the Japanese began to conduct their attacks mainly at night.  Arriving in mid-year, the test pilot K. Kokkinaki (at first the deputy commander of a rotational group of volunteers, and after the departure of S. P. Suprun, their commander)[3], remembered that, “the Japanese bombers appeared over Chongqing on moon-lit nights when they could see easily the major landmarks.  They flew in formation, and when passing through the zones of our fighter activity , from time to time, on command of the formation leader all the aircraft would open a defensive barrier of fire in the direction of most likely attack by fighters.  The performance was effective.  It was like a gigantic fiery broom sweeping the starry sky.”  But on one occasion toward the end of 1938, in the memory of the volunteers, the Japanese got so carried away that in their eagerness they began to shoot not only at the ground but also into each other.  there were no Chinese aircraft in the air, but on the day before they had fairly well ‘nibbled’ and seem to have fairly frightened the samurai.  With their “fiery brooms” the Japanese “swept up” 11 of their own bombers.  Naturally, the Chinese credited them to their own antiaircraft guns.
                S. P. Suprun’s group ( up to 50 fighters) soon became one of the main forces containing the Japanese.  Air victories appeared on the scores of Suprun, Kokkinaki, Mikhailov, Kondratyuk, Kornienko, and others.  In December 1939 Suprun’s group was transferred to the south where the battle for Yunnan Province had become much more intense, traveling along what would be named the “Burma road”.  Our pilot protected the airfields and communications lines from air attacks.  Already in June 1939 the 17th squadron had been transferred to Kunming, the provincial capital to receive 12 Dewoitine D.510 fighters, but their strength clearly was insufficient.
                In December 1940 S. P. Suprun, alone of his group, was recalled to Russia at the urgent request of the NII VVS[4].  There, until the war, he was given many responsibilities, calling on all his administrative talents (at this time he also became a Deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR).  In the spring of 1939 in a letter to the People’s Komissar of Defense, K. E. Voroshilov, he complained that “they don’t trust” him and that after the death of V. P. Chkalov they won’t let him test the second example of the I-180-2, and also “... during the course of several years I have asked to be sent on a tour to China or Spain - to acquire combat experience.  All my efforts have remained without result.”  Suprun complained further that “people who have combat experience” took away from him even the privilege of flying in the (Red) Five[5], which he had led in parades, simultaneously maintaining his flying proficiency and for air combat and air gunnery”.
                Unquestionably, the experience of the test pilots, and there were several - A. S. Blagoveshchenskii, S. P. Suprun, K. K. Kokkinaki, V. N. Savkin, A. P. Deev, A. N. Chernoburov, S. N. Viktorov, I. E. Fyodorov, and others, helped in combat.  On January10, 1940 Kokkinaki’s aircraft was hit, and he managed to pull out of a steep spiral with great difficulty only on account of his experience as a test pilot.  According to recollections, in that battle the Soviet volunteer I. K. Rozinka was killed.  Once during a night attack over Chongqing, Suprun managed to save a Chinese fighter, organizing a night landing with the headlights of his automobile.  The Chinese managed to land between two waves of bombers.  (According to the archives of the Ministry of Defense, the last Soviet pilot shot down in air combat is listed as killed on December 30, 1939 and buried in the city of Liuzhou, Guangxi-Zhuanxi Autonomous Region.)
                With the appearance of a new group of Soviet volunteers, the Chinese began to reorganize their fighter air groups.  To a definite degree the Japanese themselves also helped, shifting the main weight of air combat from China to Khalkin Gol.  However, there are no statistics to support this.  The air battles over Mongolia began according to a “Chinese scenario”, with the Japanese successfully operating against pilots without combat experience.  Quickly a group was organized there of fighters with Chinese and Spanish experience, the best known of them being S. A. Gritsevets and G. P. Kravchenko, who again distinguished themselves in air combat and became the first Twice Heroes of the Soviet Union.  However, no documented evidence has yet been found that in Mongolia Kravchenko squared accounts with his “old acquaintances” from China as is sometimes claimed by popular aviation writers.  The only known Japanese fighter fighting over both China and Mongolia was Tateo Kato, fighting over China from the fall of 1937 to May 1938 in the Ki 10 (Type 95).  According to Japanese information, he shot down a total of nine aircraft, including four I-15s in a battle of March 25, and 3 I-15s on April 10.  There is no record of deaths of our pilots on these days.  At Khalkin Gol T. Kato was the commander of the 64th regiment, fighting in the Ki 27, and also increased his score.  It is unknown if he ever met Kravchenko in the air.
                While the Japanese were fighting “on two fronts”, the 4th Air Group in July 1939 was sent to Liangshan where they received the I-15 (21st and 22nd squadrons).  On July 29, the 24th squadron received 7 new I-16s  from Liangshan.  In August the 26th squadron again was sent to Liangshan for 9 I-16s.  At the same time the 5th Air Group was transferred to Chengdu for defense against air attacks.  Here the Chinese at the Taipingsi airbase stationed  the “Main Bomber Unit” (training center) where the Chinese retrained on the SB and then the DB-3.  In the city was located an aviation factory which later attempted to copy the SB.
                From January 1939 the 29th squadron with the I-15bis protected Chengdu from air attacks.  But at the end of April six aircraft headed by the squadron commander were sent on a special deployment to Nanzhen (Shenxi Province) for protection of the ground forces.  In a battle on April 29 they shot down two Japanese, losing 3 Chizhi.  One Chinese pilot baled out, and two were killed.
                In June 1939 the 27th squadron was attached t the 29th squadron at Chengdu.  At the end of the year it took part in several air skirmishes.  On November 4 1939 54 bombers conducted an air attack.  Nine I-15bis of the 29th squadron , on the staff of the 5th Air Group shot down three Japanese aircraft.  The pilot of Chizh No. 2903 was killed.  The pilots of I-15s No.s 2910, 2904, 2907, and also the deputy commander o the air group (I-15bis No. V-2) were wounded and made forced landings.  Of six aircraft of the 26th squadron taking part in the battle, led by the deputy commander of the 5th Air Group, Wang Hangxun, two were lost (I-16s No.s 2609 and 2604).  Both of them broke from the formation, and the first was destroyed at Jintang, and the second mad a forced landing at Pengshang.
                According to Japanese data, from May to September 1939, Japanese bombers from the aerodrome at Hankow completed 22 air attacks on Chongqing and Chengdu (about 200 sorties).
                In December 1939 at the height of the fighting for Guinang, in addition to our volunteers (Suprun’s Group), the Chinese Aviation Committee gathered there almost all their fighter aviation - the 4th Air Group (Commander Liu Zhihan) with the 21, 22, and 23 squadrons equipped with the I-15bis, and 14 I-15bis from the 27 and 29squadrons under the command of the commander of the 3rd Air Group, Huang Pantang, seven Gladiators under the deputy commander of the 3rd Air Group, part of the 18th squadron with the Hawk 75, and even the 32nd squadron with the ancient “Douglas”.  The Chinese have not reported details of the air battles.  It is known only that they lost three Gladiators on December 27.  The remaining four “Englishmen” were sent to the Shuangliu for the air defense of Chengdu.  On that same day over Ertang, according to Taiwanese sources, three Douglases of the 32nd squadron shot down 3 Japanese, but squadron commander Bei Yiqin was killed, and the remaining two pilots had to bale out.
                At the end of December the 4th Air Group returned to its airbase at Guangyangba. The situation around Guinang was not finally resolved, evidently, until January 13, 1940, when the 27th and 29th squadrons returned to Chengdu.  However, the railway line between the two southern provinces of China was subjected to a massive air attack by the Japanese, and therefor on January 7 the remaining part of the 18th squadron was dispatched for the defense of Kunming and Mengzi (Yunnan Province).
                The last year in which Soviet pilots participated in air combat was 1940.  At the end of 1939 and beginning of 1940, relations between the USSR and Chiang Kai Shek began a new period of cooling.  The official reason was that the Guomindang and terminated military and material supply to the Communist 8th and New 4th Armies.  there even occurred several military clashes opening a large breach in the united front anti-Japanese struggle.  These did not exclude the use of aviation in the battles against the communist forces.
                In my view, the actual reason was not the falling out between Chiang Kai Shek and Mao Zedong (Later, for the same events, the second criticized us along with the first.)  Rather, it was like a rolling echo in Asia of the Soviet German Non-Aggression Pact signed on August 23, 1939.  Later Hitler proposed that I. V. Stalin should become the fourth member of the Berlin-Rome-Tokyo axis., but everything would depend on a Soviet-Japanese non-aggression treaty.
                Under these circumstances the USSR had to temporarily shipment of weapons and military equipment (ultimately they again resumed.).  By the summer of 1940 all Soviet aviators were recalled from China.  (According to our data, they were recalled in 1941, but it is possible that this refers only to advisors.  In any case, noted the withdrawal of our of our pilots from combat as early as the beginning of 1940).  A number of advisors, instructors in flight schools, and a unit of technical personnel remained in China into 1942-1943.
                As historians from the Chinese People’s Republic write “the Soviet pilots deprived the Japanese of mastery of the air, inflicting serious destruction on them, and forced them to remove their air bases from the front lines by 500 km.  By an incomplete tally from the beginning of 1938 to May 1940, Soviet pilots participated in more than 50 major air battles, shooting down (together with the Chinese) 81 aircraft, damaged 114 aircraft and damaged 14 large warships.”  During the period of the Sino-Japanese war more than 200 Soviet aviators were killed ( more than 100 were passengers in aviation accidents), 14 became Heroes of the Soviet Union, and more than 400 were awarded orders and medals.
(Series continues.)

[1]I could not resist leaving this Russian spelling of C. Chennault. - GMM
[2]This pilot is known for his attempt, on the eve of departing for China in the fall of 1937, to establish a world attitude record for hydroplanes.  On October 23,1937, flying a floatplane version of the Polikarpov U-2 modified with a wingspan extended to 17.0  meters and an M-25E motor, developed by I. V. Chasovik and N. G. Mikhel’son at the Leningrad “Red Flier” Factory No.23, he attained a national altitude record of 11,280 m, and then 11,869 m.  Later Zherebchenko even reached 13,400 m, but the world record for hydroplanes (14,000 m) stood.
[3]A photo caption informs us that K. K. Kokkinaki completed 166 sorties in China and shot down 7 enemy aircraft. - GMM
[4]Scientific Testing Institute of the Air Forces. - GMM
[5]The “Red Five” was the Soviet fighter aerobatics group which customarily led the air parades over Red Square on May Day and Revolution Day. - GMM