The Korean War saw the only large scale direct clash between Soviet and American forces during the Cold War, when Soviet fighter squadrons, equipped with MiG 15s, were secretly posted to China to support the North Koreans. Nikolai Sutiagin was the most successful of those fighter pilots, and became the leading ace of the Korean War, with an official tally of victories higher than any other on either side.
The book provides a fascinating (and sometimes chilling) view of life in Stalin's Soviet Union. Denunciations were clearly still rife, and could threaten even a fighter ace such as Sutiagin. More than thirty years after the revolution Sutiagin's career could still be imperilled by suggestions that his father had been a 'kulak', one of the more successful farmers before the revolution, an accusation that reached as far as Stalin before being dismissed! We also learn that nothing was the result of an accident in the Soviet Union - every mishap has to be somebody's fault, every perceived failure results in an official reprimand.
The text can be a little stilted, probably as a result of an accurate translation from Russian (although the authors also apologize for the present of a large number of 'dry' official records), but not by enough to reduce the readability of the book. The long gap between the events described and the production of the book means that it is refreshingly free of any political discussions.
The authors have benefited from access to a wide range of sources. The fall of the Soviet Union means that the official archives are now open, and it is acceptable for veterans of the Soviet involvement in Korea to talk about their experiences. Yuri Sutiagin is the son of Nikolai, and had access to the family archives, including Nikolai's wife's diary.
One issue that the authors never really get to grips with is that the officially accepted claims of the Soviet fighter pilots are higher than the number of losses officially recognised by the United States. The authors tend to assume that the Americans were hiding losses, something much easier to do in the Soviet Union than in the United States, while at the same time providing the answer to problem. Once it became clear that the fighter pilots were over-claiming (something present in every fighter force in every war since the First World War, and an inevitable result of the speed of aerial combat - the Americans also over-claimed for victories over MiGs) the Soviet authorities only awarded victories that were supported by gun camera evidence. A detailed account of one battle, in which the Soviets claimed nine victories and the United States only a single loss, provides a key to this. Quite correctly the Soviet pilots didn't follow their victims down to make sure that they crashed, a habit that cost many earlier fighter pilots their lives. In most cases the evidence for a 'kill' was that an American aircraft had been seen to take damage and had then plunged towards the earth, sometimes on fire, before disappearing into the Korean haze. The authors make it clear that the Sabre could out-dive the MiG, and that visibility close to the ground was often poor. American pilots who found themselves in trouble could take advantage of those two facts to escape from their attacker then limp back to base. All this rather reinforces the idea that fighter ace's official 'scores' are best used to compare the achievements of pilots fighting on the same side, with the same rules in place for awarding victories.
This is a fascinating book that is valuable for several different reasons - as a view of life in the Soviet Union, for its account of the fighting over Korean, often dominated by the American view and as an account of the first battles to be fought between jet aircraft.
1: The Making of an Air Warrior
2: In China the Regiment Prepares for Battle
3: Combat Operations, Tactics and Routines in the Korean Air War
4: An Auspicious Debut
5: The Autumn Marathon
6: The Final Months of Deployment
7: Results and Lessons
8: After Korea
Author: Yuri Sutiagin and Igor Seidov
Publisher: Pen & Sword Aviation