Colors of Khalkin Gol
by Vyacheslav Kondrat’ev
in AviaMaster 6/2002
translated by George M. Mellinger, Twin Cities Aero Historians

What was the appearance of the aircraft of the USSR and Japan participating in the air battles of 1939? I’m thinking of their finish, camouflage, location of national markings, aircraft numbers and other markings. This is a complicated question, particularly in relation to Soviet aviation, and to give a definitive answer unfortunately is not possible at this time.

The fact is that in the units of the 57 Special Corps including aviation units, there was a strict ban on photography proclaimed for reasons of secrecy. And on airfields it was categorically forbidden, not only to take pictures, but even to possess a camera. Considering the recent wave of political repressions in the Red Army, thinking of violating this ban and bringing on one’s self accusation of spying, would seem not a good idea.

The first Soviet photo journalists Bernshtein, Tyomin and Troshkin arrived in the Transbaikal Military District only at the end of June together with a group of writers and journalists who were to produce a front newspaper “Heroic Red Army”. Therefore the first airfield photographs date only from the beginning of July.. in them we see mostly people and not aircraft which only rarely appear in the background. Obviously this was the result of that same hypertrophic secrecy.

Unfortunately the camera lens not once happened upon a Khalkin-Gol R-5, I-15bis, I-153, or SB. Indeed, the photos of the Ishak can be counted on the fingers. Of considerable help in the reconstruction of the aircrafts’ external appearance were the photos from the “incident reports” of air regiments deployed in Mongolia in 1939. In these were noted the aircraft which had made forced landings for various reasons, or had been destroyed or damaged in flying accidents. However, among them I was unable to find a single photo of an I-15bis or R-5Sh.
Independent discussions informed that from time to time there might be found movie films under the name “Khalkin Gol Film Chronicle”. Careful examination of these materials in the Russian state Motion Picture Archive led to the conclusion that they simply had no relation to Khalkin Gol. For example, in this “chronicle” I-15 fighters appear, but not the I-15bis, rather only the I-15 with the gull wing. Such aircraft participated in Spain but simply were not present in Mongolia. Also appearing frequently are SBs of the last modification with sharp-nosed engine cowlings and tunnel radiators, which began to enter service only at the end of 1939.

But one can still draw some conclusions on the basis of archival documents and photographs. Aircraft ending up at Khalkin Gol had two types of finish used by Soviet aviation at the end of the 1930s. The first was silver (or a variant, silver-gray) finish over the entire aircraft, the so-called “peacetime camouflage” introduced in the summer of 1937. it seems that such a finish provided heightened resistance to atmospheric conditions.

And the second was green protective color on the upper surfaces of the aircraft and light blue on the undersurfaces. In both instances the stars were carried on both the upper and lower wing surfaces and also on the side of the fuselage near the cabin. There is information that aircraft built at the Moscow factory GAZ-39 had black motor cowlings. But I have not found confirmation in photographs that such machines ended up at Khalkin Gol.

Silver-gray were the machines of the 22 IAP, sent out to Mongolia at the end of May. The first battles demonstrated the necessity of an immediate change of finish, as the Japanese Ki-27 fighters appeared almost identical, differing only in the tint of the gray, and this could lead to tragic incidents. Among the June documents of the 22 IAP, there is a copy of a request addressed to “VVS Engineer Comrade Bugrov”.

In it was written “I ask you to give instructions for the immediate dispatch to the 22 IAP of specialists with air brushes and paint for the camouflage of aircraft. - Assistant commander of the 22 Regiment for equipment Kotkov.”

The upper and side surfaces of the fuselage, wings and tail of the I-16 were repainted in green. During this process the stars on the fuselage side were also painted over. While applying the green paint, there was left an unpainted gray band circling the fuselage ahead of the tail. These bands around the fuselage became the distinguishing mark of fighters of the 22 IAP. When experimental I-16s with rocket weapons arrived at Khalkin Gol and were assigned to the 22 IAP, they were also marked with a similar band. In a number of sources it is stated that on the rocket carriers, the bands were white.

On the tail fin of the I-16 there was usually marked a large white tactical number, which is encountered both as single and two digit numbers. Sometimes one digit was marked in a different color or was significantly larger than the other. Perhaps one of these signified the number of the squadron within the regiment and the other the number of the aircraft within the squadron.

In a series of photographs of Khalkin Gol Ishaks, there are seen other “elements for quick identification”, such as coloration of the top of the tailfin (the pilotka ), a thin white horizontal band on the tail, a white or silver leading edge of the rudder, a colored trailing end of the rudder, and finally wide white bands on the tail surfaces. Orders and instructions regulating the application of these graphic elements have not been preserved., so now it is possible only to guess at hat they exactly meant. Perhaps some of these markings proclaimed that the airplane belonged to this or that squadron, and others identified commanders’ machines.

We must not forget one more photograph in which is portrayed the Hero of Khalkin Gol, Vitt Skobarikhin against the background of his (or maybe not his) I-16. In the photo it is easily seen that the fighter is finished in a sectioned camouflage, at that time very rare in the Soviet VVS. Unfortunately it is impossible to determine the colors of the camouflage from the black and white photo. Perhaps this camouflage appeared under the influence of Spanish experience where our pilots became convince that such a finish sharply decreased the visibility of aircraft against the background of the earth.

Tthe Chaikas (I-153) appearing over Khalkin Gol initially glistened brightly in their factory silver. It goes without saying, that such a “de-camouflaging” finish just didn’t do for war. And already by July the aircraft had acquired their own intricate camouflage consisting of small fields, bands, snakes and spirals thickly smeared over the original silver background. The paint was applied without a stencil, so every machine appeared individual. The lower surfaces remained silver and on some machines also the upper surfaces of the lower wings. The tactical number was applied to the rudder in red.

In exactly the same manner were painted the Douglas transports and the SB fast bombers, although there were also uncamouflaged light gray SBs. the TB-3s, judging by the sole preserved photograph, were in the finish standard for this type of machine, dark green above, and light blue lower surfaces.

Artistic representations of Khalkin Gol I-153s are found in a series of publications, (for example the magazine “Aviatsiia i kosmonavtika”, issue 22, 1996), showing camouflage of wide green bands on a silver background with red, tw0=digit tactical numbers on the fuselage side. In that journal the information is attributed to the memory of a veteran of the 56 IAP I. P. Bakseev. It is hard to say whether this reconstruction actually corresponds with reality. In any case, not one photo of a Chaika with a similar camouflage is known to me.

Even greater doubt attaches to the drawing “Chaika” from the book “Samoletostroenia v SSSR 1917-1945” (Aircraft construction in the USSR 1917to 1945), also attributed by the authors to the period of the Khalkin Gol battle. The green finish and light blue undersurfaces, a bright red cowling and rudder are confirmed nowhere. On the other hand, judging by photographs, green-blue I-153s appeared in Soviet air regiments deployed to Mongolia only in the summer of 1940.

We move to the description of the finish and markings of the enemy aircraft. National markings of Japanese aircraft, then as now, were a red circle the “hinomaru” - symbol of the rising sun. In 1939 the circles were displayed only on the wing surfaces, above and below. In addition, it was ordered that on aircraft participating in combat action a vertical white band should be painted around the rear fuselage, just ahead of the tail section (in English language sources they are usually called “combat stripes”). However, judging by photographs, we can notice that in reality such bands appeared on far from all Khalkin Gol machines.

The far most numerous Japanese aircraft fighting at Khalkin Gol was the Ki-27 fighter. Three regiments (in Japanese - Sentai) of these aircraft the 1st , 11th & 24th fought practically the whole war, and later joining them were the 64th and just before the curtain the 59th Sentai.
All Ki-27s in the discussed period were entirely finished in a pale light gray color with a faint greenish tint (to our pilots, at a distance it was sometimes taken for white). This uninteresting finish was notably beautified by a variety of graphic elements signifying membership in the regiment and squadron and the responsibility of the pilot (regiment commander, squadron commander), and also individual emblems. Almost every regiment had its own symbol which was painted on all its aircraft. For the 1 Sentai the role of such symbol was played by colored elevators and rudder, in which the 1 Chutai (squadron) had black, the second - red, and the third - green The emblem of the 11 Sentai was a diagonal arrow-lightning flash on the vertical tail fin; for the 1 Chutai - white, the 2 - red, and the 3 - yellow.

Aircraft of the 24 Sentai were distinguished by horizontal bands on the tailfin and rudder: on the fin two wide bands, and on the rudder four narrower (that is 2 & 4 - 24). The squadron colors of the bands were the same as for the 11 Sentai.

The 59 Sentai flaunted long zigzagging lightning flashes painted along the fuselage from the tail to the leading edge of the cabin. The lightning flash was supplemented by a white combat stripe around the tail. The lightning of the 1 Chutai was green, the 2 - black or dark blue, and the 3 - yellow.

Finally, the fighters of the 64 Sentai were marked with a stylized red eagle of a red color painted beneath the rear portion of the cabin hood.(originally the individual emblem of the regiment commander Tateo Kato), and just as with the 59 Sentai, a white band around the fuselage. Also, the 1 Chutai bore two narrow white bands with red outlines near the cabin, the 2 Chutai - two red, and the 3 Chutai was marked by the lower third of the rudder painted black.

Diagonal bands were supposed to be painted on the wings of the commanders of the Sentai. The color of the bands corresponded with the colors of the chutais in the regiment. the machines of the Chutai commanders were distinguished by vertical or diagonal bands around the rear section of the fuselage, in the corresponding color of the Chutai. White bands usually had black or red borders for contrast.

Sometimes the above-described symbols were supplemented by hieroglyphic inscriptions and non-regulation decorative elements, for example colored cowlings or landing gear spats.

On very rare occasions the Japanese pilots at Khalkin Gol drew on their aircraft victory markings in the form of small red five-pointed stars, placing them on the left side of the fuselage below the cockpit canopy. Only two aircraft with such markings are known from photographs, one of them flown by Chutai commander Captain Kenji Shimada, and the other by an unknown pilot.

The Ki-15 reconnaissance and Ki-30 light bomber aircraft of the 10 Sentai were finished on the upper surfaces in a three color camouflage consisting of two shades of green and (cinnamon-GMM) brown. The lower surfaces remained light gray. On the Ki-15 there were no regimental markings, but on the Ki-30 there were two horizontal white bands on the upper part of the vertical tail surfaces.

The Ki-15 and Ki-36 of the 15 Sentai, just like the fighters were finished in light gray and were marked with two horizontal bands on the upper part of the rudder (1 Chutai - white, 2 Chutai - red, 3 Chutai - yellow). The Ki-30s of the 16 Sentai appeared exactly the same, except that their “squadron bands” extended not just on the rudder but also the tail fin. The Ki-15s of the 29 Sentai also were light gray and the only regimental emblem was a yellow hieroglyph inscribed within a circle on the center of the rudder.

The Ki-32 light bombers of the 45 and 65 Sentais were camouflaged with the same colors as the 10 Sentai. There were not individual regimental marking s on them but squadron markings were displayed in a rhombus in the form of stylized representations of a bird, mountain, and cherry blossom. All were painted in white, red, or yellow and appeared on the vertical tail surfaces.

The two- motored Fiat BR.20s of the 12 Bomber Sentai were finished (earlier in Italy) in a three color camouflage of wide fields of yellow ochre, dark green, and dark brown color, with silvery undersurfaces of the wings, fuselage and tail. As a regimental marking was a huge white hieroglyph. on the outer surfaces of the tail fins, with each of the two chutais of the regiment having its own hieroglyph.

And finally the heavy Ki-21 of the 61 Sentai, like most of its contemporaries bore a light gray finish on all surfaces. The unit markings appeared as a thin diagonal band on the vertical tail surfaces: yellow- 1 Chutai, dark blue - 2 Chutai, and Red - 3 Chutai.