The Bell P-39 Airacobra had a terrible reputation amongst British and American pilots, but it rapidly became one of the favourite fighters in the Soviet Union. Of the top six Soviet air aces, four scored the majority of their victories in the Kobra.
The first Airacobras to reach the Soviet Union were British Airacobra Is. By the time the Airacobra I entered service with No.601 “City of London” Squadron it was already clear that they would not needed by the RAF. Although that squadron did not replace its Airacobras with Spitfires until March 1942, Churchill offered Russia the RAF’s stock of surplus Airacobras soon after the German invasion, and the first 20 aircraft reached Murmansk by the end of 1941. Eventually the British dispatched 212 Airacobras to Russia, although 54 were lost on the voyage, leaving 158 intact aircraft (Soviet sources claim that the less aircraft were lost). Eventually nearly 5,000 Airacobras would reach the Soviet Union, all but the first 150 from the United States.
Most of the British Airacobra Is ended up at Ivanovo, north east of Moscow where the 22nd Supply Aviation Regiment (22nd ZAP) was based. Assembly of the aircraft began in January 1942, and most of the units to use the Airacobra on the northern and central fronts trained at this unit.
Russian tests gave the Airacobra I a speed of 306mph at ground level and 363mph at 13,800ft, making it as good as the Yak-3 and MiG-3 then in Russian production.
The fighting on the Eastern Front suited the P-39. Both the Soviets and the Germans concentrated on relatively low level activity, designed to support their armies. As a result the Soviet P-39s rarely needed to fight above 15,000ft.
The basic Soviet fighter unit was the Istrebitelnyi Aviatsionii Polk (Fighter Aviation Regiment, or IAPs). Elite units formed part of the Guards, and are known as GIAPs. Some units were created as part of the Guards, while successful fighter regiments were sometimes rewarded with a promotion to the Guards, normally with a change in number.
The first Soviet unit to use the P-39 (or Kobra) was the 19th Guards IAP. This unit had originally been the 145 IAP, before on 7 March 1942 being rewarded with a promotion to the guards. In April 1942 the unit was withdrawn to Afrikanda Airbase to receive its P-39s. The first test flight was made on 19 April 1942 by Captain Pavel Kutakhov, the commander of the regiment’s first squadron. Less than a month later, on 15 May 1942, the squadron returned to the front at Shongui, and on the same day flew its first sortie with the P-39, recording the first two Soviet victories with the Airacobra.
Eventually the P-39 equipped 20 GIAP in Karelia, where it fought alongside 19 GIAP, all five fighter regiments of the Northern Fleet Air Arm, 102 and 103 GIAPs at Leningrad, 191 IAP, operating over southern Finland, while 17 and 78 IAP used their Kobras to protect the Soviet end of the Arctic convoy route.
The majority of American Airacobras reached the Soviet Union from the south, via Teheran. In November 1942 the 25th ZAP was set up at Aji-Kabul in Azerbaijan. Aircraft were assembled at Abadan, before being ferried to Aji-Kabul where they were given to their eventual end users. The P-39 would be at its most effective on the southern fronts, where it would be used by Grigori Rechkalov and Aleksandr Poykryshikin, the 2nd and 3rd ranked Soviet Aces. A limited number of aircraft probably fought at Stalingrad, but they rose to real prominence in the post-Stalingrad battle of the Kuban River.
The Soviet air forces involved in these battles were part of the 216th Air Division, which later became the 9th Guards Air Division (GIAD). By the end of the war the air division was credited with 1,147 victories and contained 31 Heroes of the Soviet Union, amongst them three two time winners and one of only three three-time winners of the award.
The first of the divisions’ regiments to convert to the P-39 was 298 IAP. This unit had been equipped with the Yak-1 until January 1943, when it was withdrawn and given a mix of 20mm and 37mm cannons. The regiment was deployed to Korenovskaya where on 17 March it began to fly in support of the Pe-2s of 219 BAD. Between then and 20 August 1943 the regiment flew 1,625 sorties against 8 Fliegerkorps, took part in 111 air combats, and claimed 167 victories for loss of 30 aircraft destroyed. As a result of this performance on 25 August 1943 the regiment was renamed 104 GIAP.
The 45 IAP had begun to convert to the P-40, but before it could enter service with this aircraft it was decided to convert it to the P-39. The squadron reached Krasnodar on 9 March 1943, but entered combat after 298 IAP. Like that unit 45 IAP performed well enough to be renamed as 100 GIAP.
The third unit to use the P-39 over the Kuban was the 16th Guards IAP, the most famous Soviet fighter unit. Although it was only the second highest scoring unit, it contained the highest number of Heroes of the Soviet Union (15) as well as two two-time winners and one three-time winner of the award. That three-time winner was the second ranking Soviet ace Aleksandr Pokryshkin, who ended the war with 48 Airacobra victories in his total of 59. He won his three awards for combining the second best performance of any Soviet fighter pilot with increasingly important leadership roles – from 1944 he commanded the entire 9 GIAD (Guards Fighter Aviation Division). Amongst his achievements was the introduction of the “Kuban stairs” tactic. This saw the rigid three-aircraft V formation used at the start of the war replaced with formations of two pairs, copied from the Luftwaffe. The lowest flight of four aircraft would be supported by two further flights, each above and behind the previous flight.
The third ranking Soviet ace, Grigorii Rechkalov, also served with 16 GIAP, from the summer of 1942. Like Pokryshkin he scored most of his victories while flying the P-39.
The first successful regiment to use the P-39 on the central fronts was 153 IAP. After training at 22 ZAP this regiment was posted to Voronezh, arriving on 29 June 1942 and entering combat on the next day. Between then and 1 October when the unit was withdrawn to rest it took part in forty-five aerial battles, claimed to have destroyed 64 German aircraft and only lost 8 aircraft in combat. The unit was rushed back into combat in November 1942 to counter a new German offensive, before on 21 November being redesignated as 28 GIAP. Between 1 December 1942 and 1 August 1943 the regiment took part in 66 air battles, flew 1,176 sorties, claimed 63 victories and lost 19 aircraft in combat. Amongst the German aircraft claimed destroyed were 23 Bf 109s and 23 Fw 190s.
30 GIAP also saw success with the P-39. The regiment converted to the P-39 late in 1942, arriving at 22 ZAP as 180 IAP before being rewarded with the Guards designation on 21 November 1942. The regiment returned to the front line in March 1943, taking up a position close to Kursk. In 1944 the regiment took part in Operation Bagration, the invasion of Belorussia and Poland, while in 1945 it took its P-39s to Berlin in the final campaigns of the war.
Not all P-39 squadrons performed well. 185 IAP reached the front just after 153 IAP, but was disbanded (probably in August 1943), and its pilots used to ferry P-39s from Siberia. 494 IAP appears to have been equally unsuccessful, flying on 62 sorties in two months while equipped with the P-39. This unit was disbanded in December 1943.
Amongst the regiments that did perform well was 9 GIAP, known as the Regiment of Aces. This unit scored 558 victories, making it the third most successful Soviet fighter regiment. Unlike 16 GIAP this regiment only used the P-39 for a short time, from August 1943 until July 1944, when it converted to the La-7.
27 IAP also did well, converting to the P-39 in the spring of 1943 and using it during the battle of Kursk and the Soviet counter-attacks that followed.
Of the six Soviet aces generally credited with fifty or more victories, four scored most of their successes while flying the P-39 Kobra. The Soviet (and Allied) second ranking ace of the war, Alexandr Pokryshkin, scored 48 of his 59 victories while flying the Airacobra. To the end of the Second World War these men were able to use this underrated American fighter to take on some of the best German pilots, equipped with the latest versions of the Bf 109 and Fw 190. When the fighting ended there were still 1,178 P-39 Kobras in service with the Soviet air forces. Despite its technical faults, the Airacobra had become the most successful of all lend-lease aircraft sent to Russia, and had played an important role in the final Allied victory.
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