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Nikolay Semyonovich Ilinkov
interview by Oleg Korytov and G. Wabishchevich
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Ilinkov, Nikolay Semyonovich
Deputy squadron commander for communications, gunner–radio operator
124th Guards Leningrad Bomber Regiment (10th SBAP)
Personal account: 5 personal kills and 8 shared

Interview conducted on 21 July, 2013, in Ostrov, Pskov oblast

Interview conducted by O. Korytov and G. Wabishchevich
Literary presentation and commentary by G. Wabishchevich
Arrangements for the conduct of the interview in Ostrov by N. Kolobova
Translation and editing by Oleg Korytov and James Gebhardt

Please, introduce yourself, and tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born in a poor peasant family in Turemsk village, Monastyrshinskiy district of Smolensk oblast. I wasn’t even two years old, when my father was murdered, so my mother raised me alone. I successfully completed 7th grade but, due to poverty, I was not able to complete my education. In 1939 [age 26], I voluntarily enlisted in the army.

Your goal was to enter the VVS? [voyennyye vozdushnyye sily – air force]

No, I was thinking to become a sailor. But during the medical examination, I was either too short or lacked 700 grams of weight. I can’t recall now. I was not accepted as a sailor, so I had to live through it. I was sent to the Army school for junior commanders. There, apart from studying, I was a clerk and had to work as a Komsomol chief. I graduated from that school in three months, and was given a post of squad commander. That’s when a representative from Omsk aviation school came there, and selected out men, myself included. I passed a commission [a board or exam process], and began studying.

What did Omsk school look like?

It was located in a large, beautiful, well built brick building in Omsk. This building had several annexes. When Marshal of the Soviet Union S.D. Timoshenko was the People’s Commissar of Defense of the USSR, May 1940–July 1941, he put a great effort into physical training of Red Army personnel, including cadets. They drilled us vigorously. While training in formations, we were able to stand a full hour at the position of “attention.” If someone fell out, he was expelled from school. But I believe that it was right.

How long did you study? What kind of equipment did you have? Were you trained in the air?

We were supposed to study for three years; but due to the Finnish War, our education length was reduced, and we graduated after 18 months with a shortened program. We studied R-5s, that’s what we began with, and the U-2. Initially we studied in the classroom. In the third course, we were taken aloft, and we got 24 hours in the air on board the R-5.

Did you study only these types of airplanes? What about more serious airplanes?

These were the only airplanes in the school. We saw real bombers — the SB and the all new Pe-2 — a lot later, in the regiment. But we passed the complete theoretical course of navigator training and flew in R-5s. I graduated with a rank of starshina [senior sergeant].

You fell victim to the famous Timoshenko order. I’ve been told by veterans that after graduating as sergeants and starshinas, they were held in barracks. School graduates felt themselves as officers, but they had been reduced in practice to the private level. It led to alcohol abuse, debauchery, and other misbehavior. Was it the same for you?

Everyone who did not serve in the Army, even officers, was sent to the barracks. After graduation, when I was sent to the regiment, I also had to live in the barracks. But there was nothing like what you describe. Our 10th Fast Bomber Regiment, which was based on the 2nd Detached Bomber Squadron (equipped with R-5s), was based in Gatchina, where all of Russian and Soviet aviation started – from Tsarist times. We were taught to respect this place and the aviators that were there before us. We felt responsibility and upheld discipline by ourselves.

Where did you live exactly in Gatchina? What did your barracks look like?

They were ordinary buildings in the city.

Did you have any training in flying? For example, the Il-4 navigator had the possibility to fly the airplane. The Pe-2 also provided the theoretical possibility for the navigator to fly.

Since we were retraining during war time, we had no time for such a training regime. But some pilots gave some training to the navigator. It was unlikely that we would be able to fly on our own, but we could help our pilots if needed.

Anything could happen in the fight. Could you have brought home and landed your airplane in case of serious need?

Not on my own. But there were such cases. We were based in Poland. Our crew of pilot Viktor Zakharchenko accomplished their mission and dropped bombs on target, when he was wounded in the hand and leg, and couldn’t fly his airplane. He was fortunate that he had given some practice to his navigator, so that the navigator brought the bomber back and landed it. It wasn’t as good a landing as a pilot would perform, but they still had accomplished their mission and saved the crew and airplane.
There were cases when navigator would take control over airplane – as an exception. But I personally wouldn’t have dared to do so.

What was pilot morale like after the Finnish War?

I came to the regiment in 1940, when the Finnish War was already over. It was a very difficult war. It was very cold, all technical liquids went solid. People told me, that if an overcoat was taken off, in a couple of minutes it could be positioned so that it stood on its own. But our technical crew managed to overcome all problems.
The Mannerheim Line was difficult to breach and almost impossible to hit with bombs. But our regiment was pretty successful. Our regiment was based at the Levashovo airfield during the Finnish War.

What did Levashovo look like back then? Do you remember it?

I went there only once before war. It was just a large village and a small airfield nearby.

So, you, a young starshina, came to the regiment. How you were greeted there?

Our group consisted of seven young navigators. I was sent to the squadron of Squadron Commander Mikhailov. The deputy squadron commander was Mikhail Zhivolup. I flew 94 combat missions with Hero of the Soviet Union [28 Sep 1943] Zhivolup. We began the Great Patriotic War as an Army Air Force regiment, equipped with the SB. In 1943, Zhivolup was appointed to the post of 126th Guards Regiment commander. Later he was a division commander.
I graduated flight school with the specialty “navigator, chief of radio communications of a squadron,” and was a secretary of the Komsomol organization. Soon I was appointed as the deputy squadron commander for communications, so I had to fly with Zhivolup as a gunner–radio operator. I had 12 gunners under my command.
I could fly as a navigator only when there was no available navigator. But that was not so common – I flew about 30 missions as a navigator.

Weren’t you bothered that a navigator with a diploma had to fly on a back seat facing backwards?

Yes, at the beginning. But when I got subordinates, I had an awful lot of work to do, and absolutely no time for reflection. But I did not lose my navigator’s practice. I had to drop bombs by leader’s command and by personal aim. I flew 126 combat missions in both stances, as gunner and navigator.

How would you assess the training that you received in the school? Was it sufficient for the beginning of your service in the combat regiment?

In the beginning, we were taken into the air and had to prove that we were worthy of flying solo. Some flew three times, some five, some even seven times to become confident. Then we were appointed to the crews.

Did you like to fly?

Since I chose to fly myself – yes, I did. Even though I was shot down, burned alive and wounded. I still have four pieces of shrapnel in my vertebras.

Weren’t you afraid to fly? When some bastard, some Messer was gaining on you?

I was not a nervous type! But sometimes – yes. One of them did catch me once, in the left shoulder. We were flying with Zhivolup then:
“Mikhail, two are attacking us!”
“Fine, I will hide in that cloud, and they will lose us.”
Our airplane went into the cloud and I lost sight of German fighter, but he still saw us and fired. I was hit, everything went dark in the eyes. Mikhail shouted:
“What happened?”
“This parasite scratched me.”
“What do you mean by ‘scratched’?” He was yelling over the intercom.
“Nothing serious.”
But he still notified the airfield that I had been wounded. We came home and landed. An ambulance came to the parking space. But I still felt fine, even though my hand was “burning” after German had “bit” me. The bullet had gone through.

What is your opinion about SB bomber? What can you say about it?

It was a pretty decent fast bomber, although very lightly armed – only ShKAS machine guns. But we had to fly them from the first day of war till October 1941. Its speed was low by the standards of that time, average height of flight: 1200–1300 meters. This particular altitude was driven by the mission, while the practical altitude for the SB was 7800 meters. Its maximum speed was 450 km/h, but was typically reduced by wear and tear.
We were supposed to be covered by fighters, but none were available. We were told that we would be covered by fighters, so we flew to their base and made a couple of circles over them. One or two would take off to cover us – and that’s it. We couldn’t keep flying over their base until they were ready – we had a specified time to strike our targets.

So you flew without fighter cover?

Almost. We had no fighters. There were very few of them, mostly I-153 Chaika and I-16 Ishak. They flew at almost the same speed as we did, 260–280 km/h [average speed of formation flight – ed.]. We were soon wiped out. By autumn 1941 (September), when the regiment was sent to the rear for rearming, only seven airplanes were left in the regiment. But this airplane was very productive for me, I had to bail out of it, and we had to make forced landings with Zhivolup; he had to drag me out of the fuselage twice, when I had a concussion.
[Editor’s note: On 4 July 1941, the crew of squadron commander Leonid Vasilyevich Mikhaylov (navigator Captain Gavriil Vasilyevich Levenets, gunner–radio operator Ivan Dmitrievich Sheremetyev) executed a fiery ramming of an enemy tank column. This was the first loss of the 10th Fast Bomber Air Regiment in the GPW.
As the deputy squadron commander for communications, Ilinkov was a member of the crew of Squadron Commander Mikhaylov. But on this day, he was included in the crew of Deputy Squadron Commander Zhivolup. He witnessed Mikhaylov’s crew perform their heroic feat.
According to data on the combat losses of 10th SBAP for the period 22.06–22.08.1941, the regiment lost 57 flight crew personnel, of whom 33 were lost on 7 June 1941 in the Ostrov area, attacking tank columns on the Rezekne – Daugavpils [Latvia] highway.
Altogether during this period, the 41st BAD lost 194 personnel in these battles, of these 84 in the 201st SBAP; 20 in the 202d SBAP, and 33 in the 205th SBAP. (according to summaries regarding combat losses, 9554933, from 12.08.1941, TsAMO)]

Which turret did you have in your SB, the new ball-shaped MV-3, or the one with removable roof?

I had a closed canopy with a window, through which we fired. When I was hit, the canopy was smashed and I was covered with pieces of shredded plexiglass.

Were there any Ar-2s in the regiment?

No, we had only the SB until September 1941.

When the war broke out, was your regiment fully equipped with airplanes?

Yes, there were three squadrons with 12 airplanes in each. The regiment was fully equipped.

Your regiment had three squadrons?

At the beginning it consisted of five squadrons, while we were stationed at Gatchina and were a part of a mixed aviation division. When the war began, the division was disbanded and its regiments were passed to other divisions, fighters and bombers separately. Two regiments were formed out of our five squadrons - our 10th SBAP with 1st, 2nd, 3rd squadrons, and some other regiment was made of 4th and 5th squadrons. They were sent to Estonia. It was the 202d Regiment, if I remember correctly; 200-something.

This was done at the beginning of the war?

In the first days. We were stationed at Sivoritsy airfield. Our squadron at Sivoritsy [now a general aviation airfield at Nikolskoye, 14.5 km south of Gatchina – ed.], others at Siverskaya.

Can you recall how the war began?

When the alarm was sounded, technicians prepared the airplane, while we sat under its wing, waiting for an order to fly. After war was announced, after Molotov’s speech, our regiment was given the mission to strike (I don’t know for what reason) the Finnish airfield at Mikkele [During the GPW, the high command of the Finnish Air Force was stationed at Mikkele – ed.] This was on 24 June. Intelligence had established the presence of large quantities of airplanes there, which were interfering with ground actions of 35th Division. We had to help this division protect our borders by destroying these airplanes. So we flew a mission, dropped bombs, and returned. There was even a dogfight – the Finns took to the air and we exchanged some rounds, with no visual effect for either side. Nobody actually understood what the war was about.
Some even spoke:
“So, how was it, what’s war like?”
“Nothing interesting, just like bombing practice range.”

Was there practice to give pre-orders for each regiment in case of war, to bomb this and that target after “hour X” comes?

No. Each time we were given orders from headquarters of the district to the division commander, who would choose which unit would fly the mission. Usually nine-ship formations were assigned for a strike. The regiment had three nine-plane formations with differently prepared aircrews. Even our regiment had differently trained crews, even though it was very disciplined and had some combat experience in the Finnish war.

Prior to the war, was there a feeling that Germany or Finland could attack?

No, when the Finnish war was over, we simply forgot about them. It all started from bets on who will win – Britain or Germany. Discussions and arguments were going. Some said:
“It would be better if UK would win.”
“England can’t fight like Germans can,” replied another. To be honest, quite a few sympathized with the Germans.
There was absolutely no feeling that war was coming. We thought:
“They have begun fighting, they should sort it out between themselves.”

Were there exercises and maneuvers before the war?

Of course! As planned. We flew to bomb the practice range, shot at the towed cone... We had special crews trained to tow the cones.

A few weeks before war, Stalin summoned his People’s Commissars and gave them a stern dressing down for not applying camouflage measures to hide airplanes and airfields. In particular, SB airplanes were still in silver livery, instead of prescribed camouflage. Were you given orders to repaint airplanes?

[Editor’s note: On 15.05.1941, a German Junkers-52 flew across the border unmolested and executed a landing at Moscow’s Central Airfield. A number of sanctions ensued for the higher echelon leaders. After checking the condition of camouflage in aviation units, a Resolution of the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR and the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks) was issued on 19 June, 1941: “Concerning camouflage painting of aircraft, takeoff–landing strips, tentage, and airfield facilities.”]
After war started, we began camouflaging airplanes. Painted airplanes came much later.

That is, they were still silver?

No, not repainted, we simply camouflaged them in their revetments. We dug out oval revetments, and if there were not enough of them, airplanes were towed into the forest tail-first, and everything sticking out was covered by branches. All airplanes were unpainted, except for the regiment commander’s airplane, which also had a pike-fish drawn on the nose.
It was mostly fighters’ practice to draw on the airplanes. We had only one such airplane. It was flown by regiment commander. It was such a beautiful pike or shark with a mouth and teeth. [I.Ya. Novikov commanded the regiment. –ed.]

Was it just the “shark mouth” or the fish?

A complete fish. Very beautiful! We all wanted to have something like that, but we were not allowed. It was said, that the Germans could see who was flying from far away. But the Germans still knew all our commanders by name. When we flew in the Kuban in 1943, we were covered by Pokryshkin, Prokushev, and the Glinka brothers. Two brothers with call signs BB and DB [call signs of the Glinka brothers, Boris and Dmitriy – ed.]. When we got into the air and the Glinka brothers were covering us, the Germans shouted over radio:
“Achtung! Achtung! BB und DB in der luft!” [Attention! Attention! BB and DB are in the air! – ed.].

What was the color of your tactical numbers?

I can’t recall in the beginning, later they were white.

Let’s return to 1941. What was the main threat to you back then: fighters, AAA or lack of training?

For bombers, the highest threat was enemy fighters, then AAA.

Data published in 1990s showed that up to 60 percent of fatal accidents had no connections to enemy action. Pilots crashed due to insufficient training or technical malfunction.

As I had mentioned at the beginning of our discussion, our regiment was very well trained. Even when we received mass replacements, which happened twice, in 1941–42, then in 1943, they were well trained. In 1943 we got a full squadron of novice pilots, straight from the school, with a well trained commander Petr Tsvetkov. But the regiment commander placed them at the rear of the formation for starters, since the Germans tried to get the leader first to break up the formation. Then they would pick out the lone ones. But we didn’t have a single flight accident caused by lack of training.

Where did you get young pilots from?

The first batch came from Kazan; I can’t say anything about others.

 

When you were in the Baltic area, did you fly against sea targets, naval bases?

At the beginning we flew against advancing Germans, then strong points, defensive positions and troop concentrations with the Pe-2. In April 1945, we had to fly several missions against Libava. Our regiment commander was shot down over Libava on 25 April 1945 [I.M. Armenyev was shot down in the Pillau area. – ed.] The navigator and gunner perished, while the pilot returned. He was treated well, but couldn’t return to his work. He used to live in Moscow, but soon died [died of illness in 1947 – ed.].

Did you fly missions over Libava?

I did not… Do you know Konigsberg and Pillau? We bombed those ports, too. Most importantly – the assault on Konigsberg. It had such awesome fortifications, that they still stand today. We dropped FAB-250 and FAB-500 bombs. Some walls were damaged, but definitely not “destroyed.”

Some veterans say that their regiment commanders, regiment navigators and political officers did not fly.

Our deputy regiment commander for political affairs did not fly. He was not from among the flight crews. The rest did fly regularly.

What was a typical formation for your missions?

It depended on the target. Usually in a nine-plane formation; in 1944 there were missions flown by the entire regiment.

Did you fly missions in a division formation?

No. Sometimes we had missions to bomb simultaneously, but each regiment had different targets. On 14 September 1944, when we started the offensive to liberate the Soviet Baltic republics and Riga, our regiment was given the mission – destroy a 200-strong airplane concentration at Riga airfield. The German airplanes were harassing our ground forces. So, we had to destroy them.
At the beginning we had a lighter mission – to destroy a bridge 60 km from Riga. We flew the first mission that day early in the morning. Everything went well, we were resting. Suddenly, the regiment commander called us, announced the mission and said straight out:
“We are to fly a sortie from which there is a great chance to not return. Anyone who thinks he is not fit, step out of the line.”
That’s how the task was issued. No one stepped out. One navigator was informed that his father was dying, and the regiment commander allowed him to go visit his dad, but he chose to go after this mission. If he would have left, his crew would be incomplete, and would be unable to participate. His pilot asked him to stay, and he agreed.
We flew out in a formation of three “nines.” Our regiment bombed the airfield as was ordered. The task was broken down as follows:
1st “nine” – wreck the runway;
2nd “nine” – destroy airplanes in their parking areas;
3rd “nine” – destroy the fuel depot.
It was frightening. Absolutely clear sky, not a single cloud. The flight altitude was 4000 meters, bombs were to be dropped from 3800 m. It was a mess… It is even hard for me to describe now… It was such a mess…
Our regiment was covered by 26 fighters, including a flight of Airacobras. We were met by German fighters 100 kilometers away from target. We were coming in from the sea, to reduce the amount of time under AAA fire, but there was plenty of ship-borne AAA there, too.
They had special tactics. Their fighters met our first group and prowled there; then they moved to the side, and AAA started firing, up to 400 high explosive shells in the air. We could see them from our cockpits.

How did you avoid AAA fire?

We couldn’t maneuver, because we had to keep course. A slight altitude change, 50 meters higher or lower, would be less deadly. When we entered the AAA fire area, we spread out to avoid several airplanes getting hit with one round; when fighters were attacking, we gathered together, to provide massed counter-fire.

How precisely you could bomb from 3800 meters?

We hit well that time; it was confirmed by photo control.

You did it yourself?
Yes, we had two cameras mounted in the planes. If there was no photo, the mission did not count as having been accomplished. It was visible on the film that we hit 29 airplanes on the ground, and five enemy airplanes were shot down in dogfights. Our regiment alone lost 11 crews that time... Out of those 11 crews, 11 men returned later, 27 perished and were buried in Riga…

It is the general idea that enemy aviation is best destroyed on the airfields, but with rare exceptions, like what had happened on VVS airfields at the beginning of the war, these operations are relatively ineffective. Even if 5–10–15 airplanes are wrecked, the main part of the aviation force is not harmed and pilots stay alive, while the attacking force suffers large losses. How effective in real life were your strikes against airfields, and could our crew losses be justified by destroying several unmanned airplanes?

We raided enemy airfields only on special occasions. We tried to hit one airfield near Leningrad three times, with no real effect… There was some short-time effect – the Germans would be in disarray for a brief period of time. But… too brief. Destroying strongholds and troop targets was much more effective.
To suppress an airfield is a tactical task; it is more important to not allow the enemy to use it for some duration of time, while ground forces play their part. Usually our commanders ordered strikes against airfields only if a lot of airplanes were found there. A big program was developed for each case. We almost never participated in them.

That is, your regiment mostly flew front aviation missions?

Yes, and reconnaissance. My crew flew 26 reconnaissance missions by order of the front commander. [A front in the Soviet Army was a force equivalent to an army group in the British/American forces. – ed.]

Let’s return to 1941 again. Could you specify the types of missions flown in percentages?

We mostly bombed tanks and supply columns that were heading toward Leningrad.

What was a normal bomb load?

Mostly FAB-100.

Why them? Tanks and armored cars will not be damaged, unless it was a direct or near-direct hit, while infantry and other soft targets would suffer more from smaller caliber fragmentation bombs but in larger quantities.

If we flew against infantry; we took 100 kg boxes filled with 10 kg bomblets and dropped them at the front line. If we needed to destroy a hard target, we dropped two FAB-250s. An SB with these bombs could open it up.

How precisely could a well-trained navigator hit such a target?

Not speaking for myself, but there were two snipers in our regiment – Kostrykin and Grigoriy Suprun. They never missed. When we flew training missions, everybody was trying to show off in front of the others. Not everybody could get stable results. These two always did.

Did you use KS ampules? [Ampules with flammable liquid for the creation of fires – incendiaries. –ed.]

No, we did not.

What was normal bomb release altitude against live targets?

1000–1200 meters only. Otherwise it would not count. There was a belief among top brass that it was impossible to hit a target from higher altitude. Bull shit! A well-trained crew could hit a bucket from the airplane’s ceiling.

For those days, you had flown enough missions for an award, at least a Red Star.

We were paid and were awarded as it was supposed to be. I can’t say if I was lucky or what… On 4 July 1941, our squadron commander repeated Gastello’s heroic act – he crashed his burning airplane into a German column. Zhivolup and I were his deputy leaders for the mission, and that day I shot down my first enemy airplane with the ShKAS.
I was in the first flight. He was trying to attack us from behind, and then zoom upward. I caught a moment when he showed me his full belly. That’s how I got him.
In July, I think it was the 28th, we flew a sortie with only two fighters as cover. Five Germans had jumped us. There were three flights – a full “nine.” One of our airplanes was shot down, then another, and our formation became a bit scattered… Now we were flying in a one-flight formation – three bombers against four fighters. I shot one down. Then their fighter shot down one more of our airplanes, but I managed to get him when he was finishing his attack. Two fighters in one fight with ShKAS from an SB. [The regiment suffered greater losses in battles on 14 and 25 July 1941, in the area of Bolshoy Sabsk, Volosovskiy region. –ed.]
It was mentioned in Leningradskaya Pravda newspaper, that Ilyinkov downed two enemy fighters in one fight. It was later reprinted in Rodina and Strazh Baltiki newspapers.

Can you remember where this fight took place?

Somewhere in the Tosno-Mga area, can’t recall now. You should find that newspaper. I used to have a copy, but then I lost it.
Then we retrained for the Pe-2 in Kazan, and came to Volkhov Front to the Kamenka airfield... I used to have a list of all airbases that we used during war time. But I forgot to bring it with me... So, on 4 February, 1942, our flight got an order to bomb some village. The leader was Mikhail Ratnikov, a very experienced flight commander. Our navigator was a bit young, while the gunner was my friend, also experienced. So they took off… And they are still flying…We never found them. [Sr. Lt. M.I. Ratnikov died on 3 February, 1942, TsAMO – ed.].
On 7 February we were flying in a “nine” formation. I managed to shoot down an enemy fighter from the lower turret with a Berezin machine gun. It was the first confirmed enemy fighter shot down from the regiment after we arrived from training. I have an album, with an inscription “To Ilyinkov, who managed to open the score with a new airplane type.” Our crew was recommended, but instead of HSUs we got Orders of Lenin, which was the highest award in USSR. That’s how I got my first award for participation in the GPW. I believe that I am the only gunner in the VVS with two confirmed fighters in one fight.

 

How was downing confirmed?

Mostly by ground forces. When I shot down a fascist vulture near Mga station… There was a whole squadron of them at the nearby airfield. I downed one, and they damaged us in return... The German survived, descended with parachute, and was caught by our ground troops. He was interrogated. We were also brought to that same dugout, where he was actively talking. I was wounded. The German pilot asked who shot him down. Our officer pointed at me:
“This boy.”
I was just 22 years old. He walked over to me and slapped on the shoulder:
“Zer gut! Gut!”

How many times you were shot down?

During war period I bailed out four times. Once I got entangled on a machine gun and had to fly behind our burning airplane. The flames were around me, I almost burned to death, but then somehow I broke loose. The second time I bailed out, but had to descend “soldier style” – my parachute wouldn’t open for a long time. Then I bailed out normally, but two German fighters strafed me under the parachute. Upon landing, we counted 32 bullet and shell holes in the silk. Luckily, it did not catch fire.

What about the crew?

Whole crew bailed out… 11 times I had to crash land in a burning airplane with Zhivolup. We made a belly-landing; twice he had to drag me out of the wrecked burning airplane. I had concussions, I was wounded three times – one light, two heavy; I have a damaged spine with four shell fragments still inside.

How much punishment could your airplane take? Which one was better in terms of survivability?

It’s hard to say. It all depended on the damage inflicted. If a fuel tank was hit, burning fuel could ignite the entire airplane. It was dangerous, and required immediate landing. If an engine was hit, or some other damage inflicted, we tried to determine how well the airplane responded to control inputs. But we always tried to cross the battlefront. If there was no chance, then crews had an arrangement to ram enemy ground forces, like Mikhailov and Nikolaev. Mikhailov rammed near Ostrov, while Nikolaev at Riga–Yelgava highway.

Did you try to reach home at all costs to save the airplane, or was the crew’s life important?

The main task was to cross the front line. Then – as you saw fit. Bail out, belly land or try to land normally somewhere.

Could you tell us about your commander, Mikhail Zhivolup?

He was my “father,” he was older then me and cared for me as if I was his son. He used to call me – “my savior.” Zhivolup fought during the Winter War, he was a highly educated man, kind, humane, never left anyone in trouble. He taught his crews by personal example, passed his experience and knowledge to them. It was his idea that once a crew is inside the airplane, it is one. Whatever happens – we are one.

Did you keep in touch after war ended?

Of course! I arranged four meetings in Riga. People came from all over the Soviet Union, 147 men. Zhivolup lived at my home. Even though he later became another regiment [126th Guards BAP – ed.] commander, I kept inviting him. He always gave me advice or helped with something.

Can you recall your last mission with Zhivolup?

They all were alike… We were falling, he ordered to bail out. Navigator Vassiliy Bogatyrov got burned, then fell into the water, almost drowned. We got him out… Then on the shore, he was blind; his eyes were burning, he was beat up, covered in blood. Zhivolup said to me:
“Look after him, I’ll go look for a truck.”
I gave my hand gun to the navigator and climbed a tree. Nearby I noticed a village, but Mikhail had gone in the opposite direction. He wandered for a long time before he found a truck. While he was away, locals had found us and helped us. Our navigator was getting worse. Then we loaded onto the truck and went to the hospital… How can I point something out, if we made 94 missions together, and I remember each one of them?!

How did war end for you?

Our regiment finished fighting at Gargzhdai airfield in Lithuania. From there we were transferred to Liepaia for about a month… In April 1945, our regiment commander was shot down.
[Gargzhday airfield is now a general aviation field five km east of Klaypeda, 55°42'38"N 21°14'39"E – ed.]
Then it got even worse. On 8 May 1945, our troops stumbled across a stronghold, which didn’t allow them to pass. Our flight was sent there, and it never returned… All three crews were later located, exhumed and properly buried…
We met the war’s end at Gargzhdai. We knew nothing, when at 4 o’clock we heard firing from rockets and pistols, and crackling! That’s how we met victory.
Then I participated in the Victory Parade in 1945 and was invited to a banquet with Stalin.

Tell us how you ended up in 51st MTAP?

After the war I was signed off flying duty due to a gastric ulcer. That was in 1949. I had to find a new place to serve, and this place was found in 51st MTAP.

Was it a setback for you?

A major one. I was not willing to leave my former regiment.

124th GvBAP was also transferred to the Navy. When did you receive your black uniform?

In about three months.

Were there any difficulties due to the transfer?

Flying crews had no problems with flying. There were some problems with aiming and dropping torpedoes. We tried to use the Pe-2, but unsuccessfully. [The Pe-2 was not equipped to carry torpedoes, though it cannot be excluded that attempts were made. However, the 124th Regiment was re-equipped in 1950 with the Tu-2, which was outfitted with torpedo bridges, about which more is said below. Ed.]

You tried to use Pe-2s? There was some kind of special equipment?

Yes. There were special “torpedo bridges” under the fuselage… In the 51st Regiment, I used to be the chief of the personnel department for two years. I didn’t want this position, but was appointed. Then I returned to my regiment. So, I began serving and ended in one regiment. I was chief of signal service and then secretary of the Party Commission.

What was the political officer’s work during the GPW, and was it really needed?

Up until 1942, all units had “non-flying” zampolits. Aviation units had deputies for political affairs, secretaries of the party bureau, secretaries of the party commissions, and squadron party organization secretaries. In 1942 they all got reduced, and it was a rule that the deputy squadron commander must be a pilot or navigator. All the rest were removed.

Do you think it was correct?

I can’t say if it was correct or not, but there was a need for flying people. Those who did not fly should be somewhere else.

One Veteran used to tell me, “How can he teach me, if he never took to the air? I’m a commanding officer; I have no need in an overseeing person. I fought equally well in 1941–42 when I was not a party member and in 1943–45, when I became a party member.

He must have been fighter or sturmovik pilot. A bomber pilot wouldn’t use such words.

He was a sturmovik pilot.

Whether we liked it or not, there were different people among pilots, navigators, gunners, and technical crews. A zampolit was needed to keep them all disciplined. It was needed to keep people informed, so that everybody would know what was going on. That helped to keep people on their toes. Fighters had different mentality – they were “free hunters.”

Weren’t you upset that fighter pilots got all the awards, while strike aviation was much more helpful to ground troops?

For ground troops, the most important airplane was the sturmovik. Flying tank. They flew low and slow, bombed and strafed enemy troops. Fighters were there to scare enemy bombers away and escort our bombers.

Fighters were used as sturmoviks quite often, and a lot of them perished there. They couldn’t deliver such a punch to the enemy, while our strike aviation was left defenseless.
What kind of sturmoviks were they? We flew without cover, but if we had some fighters, they would have fended enemy off, so our strikes would be much more accurate and effective.
During war time, a few orders were issued that described how pilots should be awarded. It was much more difficult for bomber crews to achieve the criteria. Our crew was recommended for HSU as one. But who out of three should get the title? The gunner shot down four enemy fighters – in the spring of 1942, a rare fighter pilot had such a score. Our pilot accomplished a lot of missions bringing us safely home. Our navigator successfully bombed the enemy. So, the entire crew received Orders of Lenin.

How many Heroes of the Soviet Union were there in your squadron?

We had four Heroes of the Soviet Union and one full knight of the Order of Glory. In the 125th female squadron, there were 12 heroes, and I knew them all.
I was a member of organization commettee for the 25th V-Day anniversary, so I sought out all our unit veterans from across the country. We gathered together in Moscow – our 124th GvBAP and female 125th GvBAP, which were a part of 4th Bomber Division. After that we met regularly.
4th BAD consisted of three regiments – 124th, 125th and 126th – equipped with Pe-2 bombers. From October or November 1942 we constantly worked together. Our regiment was reformed in Kazan, then we were moved to Kirzhazh, then to Kamyshin, then in November we were sent to the airfield Stalingradskiy.
At about the same time, a female bomber regiment was formed under the command of the famous aviator Marina Raskova. Those girls flew well, but were not baptized with fire, so we had to give them the essentials. We flew combat missions in “nines” – three flights of three airplanes each, each flight had one “girlie” airplane included. That’s how we taught them. Then one flight was included into a nine-ship formation. As time passed, they got used to flying combat missions. But still, they got easier missions to fly, if it was at all possible. That’s how we flew together.

When was the female regiment disbanded?

When the war ended, and we were based in Panevezhis, their regiment was disbanded. Two female crews refused to demobilize, and went to our 124th regiment. It was the crews of Antonina Skoblikova and Tamara Rusakova. Tamara was a very modest woman – she did not mix well with men – God forbid! But I was regiments Komsomol organizer, so she had to communicate with me.
There were three Rusakova sisters: Captain Tamara Rusakova – bomber pilot, Colonel Alexandra Rusakova – engineer in the radio-technical service, and Colonel Nina Rusakova – test pilot.
When girls were transferred, they had to fly with male crews. All the other girls left army service. Our girls didn’t fly long, either. Our regiment was stationed at Kaliningrad then, and we were practicing torpedo runs. Once Tamara Rusakova’s crew flew to the practice torpedo range, but their airplane fell into the water after the torpedo was released… [The crew perished on 22 March, 1952 – ed.]
Tonya Skoblikova demobilized when the regiment was transferred to the Navy.

Okay: At the present time, are you in still in contact with anyone in your division?

Earlier, we had 147 people altogether. At that time, the rayon committee of the party helped; they gave material support, they provided us places to stay during meeting times, gave us a bus, and fed us free of charge. We traveled to our places of combat over a four-day meeting period. The council of veterans was in Moscow, and in Riga we had a committee of seven persons. I was the deputy chairman of this committee and did all this work.
Now, there is no one with whom it is possible to maintain communication. I keep hoping, I’m looking, but no one is so inclined. There is a veteran in Nikolaev, but he is “young,” now a colonel, a lawyer; he was a navigator. He is married to a lady from M. Raskova’s regiment.

Let’s record your greeting to the camera. One of the division’s veterans may suddenly become interested.

I am Nikolay Semyonovich Ilnikov. I would be glad to meet with people who are interested in veterans of the Great Patriotic War. These days, it is exceptionally difficult to find genuine veterans who served from the first to the last day of the war, from 22 June 1941 to 9 May 1945. If any veterans are still out there, they are already from the 1943–44 cohort, born in 1926–27. I can’t find any others. All of them are already in their declining years. If they even remain alive, they are no longer in any condition to do patriotic work. They need care and attention themselves.
Just the same, I want to say that perhaps, somewhere there still remain veterans of our 124th Guards Bomber Aviation Regiment and our 4th Guards Bomber Division. I wish them good health, happiness and success! If someone is able, I ask them to respond to my appeal. My address: Riga . . .
I ask the members of my cohort to preserve our combat friendship, to hand down our rich experience to the young people and to educate our youth. They do not know what war is; they do not know who began the war; they also do not know who finished the war. It’s up to us, the veterans; we need to tell them, to discuss with the young generation, to give them a pathway, so that they might be able to accept the baton from the veterans of the Great Patriotic War.
In 1949, our division, including our regiment, was transferred to the Red Banner Baltic Fleet (KBF). We worked in naval aviation until 1961. It was interesting! We were introduced to torpedo bombing. To these naval aviators, to my naval friends, I pass on a hearty greeting; I wish them happiness and success! If someone wants to, let him converse with me. I will become his friend, share recollections, share experiences, and make plans for the future to educate our younger generation. Enormous — enormous greetings to our guards sailors! We were all Guards!