The Petlyakov Pe-2 was one of the most successful dive bombers and light bombers of the Second World War, the third most built twin-engined bomber after the Ju-88 and Vickers Wellington. It was built in much larger numbers than the second most numerous Soviet twin engined bomber, the Tupelov Tu-2, and was in service for the entire duration of the fighting on the Eastern Front.
This is indubitably an interesting story. It begins with Petlyakov in prison on trumped up charges (along with a very high proportion of Soviet aircraft designers) and given the task of developing a high altitude twin-engined fighter with a pressurized cockpit, to intercept high altitude German bombers that were believed to be in development. When this threat didn’t appear, the promising new aircraft was instead modified to become a very advanced dive bomber, but just as it was going into large scale production the factory had to be evacuated east to escape the advancing Germans. Under the pressure of war the aircraft was generally used as a level bomber at first, although dive bombing became increasingly common as the war went on.
In general this is a very good book. There is a good mix of material on the technical development of the aircraft and its combat performance, with a series of valuable mini-biographies of some of the more famous Pe-2 pilots, including some who played a part in developing Soviet dive bomber tactics and others who had lengthy combat careers. There is also an interesting section on the combat units that fielded female Pe-2 crews, something that was unique to the Soviet Union. The technical section includes an impressive number of attempts to improve the basic design, none of which actually entered production (plenty of less dramatic changes were made over time, but the only major sub-variant was the Pe-3 fighter).
One irritant is the author’s constant attempts to over-play the importance of the Pe-2, especially compared to the Il-2 Sturmovik, and to claim that there were ‘political’ reasons why the Pe-2 didn’t get as much attention in the western press. At one point he gives production figures for various aircraft in an attempt to prove his point about the Il-2, but doesn’t actually give production figures for that aircraft. The reason for that is clear – while the Pe-2 was indeed an important aircraft, with over 11,000 produced, this was dwarfed by the 36,000 Il-2s and 5,000 similar Il-10s. There is also a tendency to reproduce Soviet claims of successes without analysis – at least in the text. One example comes from the section on naval use of the Pe-2, where the text says that the Soviets claimed to have sunk the German anti-aircraft cruiser Niobe in the Black Sea early in 1944. However this wasn’t true – that ship had already been sunk by the RAF late in 1943 in the Adriatic. Smith does acknowledge this, but only in a book endnote, where it is almost certain that hardly anyone will ever find it. Book endnotes might be acceptable (barely) for references, but should never be used for important factual comments. The problem with this approach is that Smith makes a big fuss about how much more effective the Soviet dive bomber was compared to Western level bombers, but he is clearly comparing uncorroborated Soviet claims of success with carefully scrutinised western figures, making the entire exercise rather invalid. The Il-2 production figures are also relegated to the book endnotes,
However these are fairly minor quibbles and overall this is an excellent, comprehensive study of one of the most important Soviet aircraft of the Second World War.
Chapters (each has lots of sub-headings – these are the first)
1 – Inspiration Imprisoned
2 – Many Starts, Many Endings
3 – Sotka becomes Peshka
4 – The Pe-2 Described
5 – The Pe-3 fighter variant
6 – First Combat
7 – Counter-Attack
8 – New Tactics, New Defences, New Confidence
9 – Tilting the Scales – Stalingrad to the Donets
10 – Heroines of the Skies
11 – The Fighting Finns
12 – Production Line Progress
13 – The Great Offensive – June 1944
14 – On to Berlin!
15 – Action in the Far East
16 – Variations on a Theme
17 – Pe-2 Colour Schemes
18 – The Final Developments
19 – The Peshka in Foreign Service
20 – The Survivors
Author: Peter C. Smith
Publisher: Air World