Interview with Kukin Alexei Alexeevich by Oleg Korytov and
Redactor: Igor Zhidov
Translation: Oleg Korytov
Special thanks: Svetlana Spiridonova, Eugene Rudman, Todd Long and Mikhail Bykov.
Alexei Alexeevich Kukin:
I’m a former pilot of 19th Red Bannered IAP (176 GvIAP). In 1938 I was a deputy squadron commander. Nowadays this regiment is stationed in Kubinka and is called “a 237th Guards Red Bannered, Proskurov, Order of Kutusov and Alexandr Nevskii Order Center for Presenting Aviation Capabilities named after Marshal of Aviation I.N. Kozhedub”. It was called so after Kozhedub’s death. I’m still in touch with “Russian Knights” and “Swifts” aerobatic teams.
I was born in Leningrad on 9th of February 1916. Father worked at “Russian Diesel” factory, mother worked at the “Arsenal” plant. In 1919 father went missing – he was in “prodotryad”, they were ambushed and perished… (Prodotryady – an extreme measure of fighting with hunger by means of collecting unused food reserves from peasants. Naturally, they were not eager to give their food for free and eventually it lead to several riots.)
— How you ended up in aviation? Through aero club?
I did not study in aero club. I worked at the “Sverdlov” factory. I
got my education in “Fabzavuch” and stayed to work as the turner.
In 1935, when time came to be enlisted into the army, I was invited to the voenny commissariat for a medical commission. There were a lot of guys from our factory, but only I got the invitation to flight school. Theoretical education was given in Leningrad, where “Mozhaiskii” Academy is now… When we ended theory, we were sent to Kachinskoye flight school, near Sevastopol. In 1936 I ended primary flight education with U-2, and begun training to fly I-5. In 1937 an order came to prepare 25 pilots for I-16, and I was included in this group.
Planes were with M-22 and M-25 engines. I flew plane fitted with M-25. After that I was sent here, to Gorelovo. We had planes with M-62 and M-65.
— When you were studying, did you have UTI-4 already?
Yes, we had them.
— I-16 M-22 were in flight schools only, or you had them in the IAP?
Yes, they were available in frontline regiments.
— Did you have an open or closed canopy?
We had ones with closing canopy, but it was difficult to open even on the ground, so we just kept it open. Finally, the moving part was simply removed...
— Did you have a three-point I-16?
We had 2 synchronous ShKAS in the cowling. We also had I-16’s with ShKAS’s and 20 mm cannons, and with 2 ShVAK’s only…
— Was I-16 considered to be a strict plane?
Yes, if you pulled the stick to hard on the leveling – you would get killed. I used to study with a pilot Krupenya. He pulled the stick too hard, plane half rolled and ripped pilot’s head off… In general, this plane was extremely sensitive to any control input.
— Did you have radios on your Ishak’s?
No, we had none. There wasn’t even a place for it. Even when I flew MiG we had none. It appeared only after I was shot down the second time. The teaching procedure was as follows: In one classroom someone would sing the song into radio transmitter, in another one someone would have to listen to it through the radio reciever. I once got arrested for three days. I was “the singer”, but someone settled the same frequency that was used by our “Alert-1” flight, and I effectively blocked all radio connections. So I had a three day “Guba” rest.
— Did you use flaps on landing in I-16?
We had none of those. I remember – we had flaps and slats on MiG-3. MiG-3 was a marvelous plane!
— Were you taught aerobatics at school?
— Shooting practice?
No. In combat units only. But I did not shoot before hostilities begun.
I made first combat flight in MiG on 23rd of June, and caught Ju-88 above
Leningrad Sea Port. I shot then at my pleasure… Until enemy gunner hit
me back! He hit me so good, that I had to go home. He damaged hydraulics
line, so that one leg did not come out from its niche on the landing and
I had to land on one wheel, engine was damaged, and one bullet went through
the windscreen and hit the armored headrest, barely passing my head…
Everything started at 7 000 meters – I noticed a green dot, moving above gray water at 4 000 meters and dove to investigate what it was. I was shooting at him, but I couldn’t bring him down. I remember I thought: “Damn! What I should do? I wasted almost all ammo, but it does not go down!” The problem was in my aiming device, it was way off. I started aiming by tracers, and had to move my head to the side. If I had not done this – I would get bullet right between my eyes.
— According to archival data your regiment begun rearming in May 1941.
I began flying MiG-1 on 22nd June 1941. At our airdrome 7th IAP was
stationed. They studied this plane for all winter, but their regiment was
moved to the North, and they left all of the planes to us. They were not
When war broke out, I was a teacher at the Zveno commander courses. Alarm was sounded. It happened at about 4 o’clock in the morning. We came to the airfield, kombrig Blagoveshenskii gives us an order: Dispatch flight of three zveno’s to cover Leningrad…
We knew that on 25th large maneuvers were supposed to begin. We thought that they begun earlier. We flew out, made several circles and returned to our base. Ivan Neustruev went to Blagoveshenskii, who told him:
— Guys, war! Neustruev – pilots will remain with you, instructors will return to their regiments.
(Neustruev Ivan Pavlovich, HSU, later commander of 11th GvIAP)
The courses were at the same Gorelovo airfield that our regiment was based on, so returning to my regiment wasn’t a problem. My squad commander, Maximov, told me:
— There is your new plane. Go, take a look!
That’s when I first time saw MiG. I went to the plane pointed to me, and saw Anatolii Tolstikov in its cockpit. He told me, that he was studying this plane for… two hours already! Mechs were doing their business – one wing was attached, another was still lying on the ground…
When I got to the cabin squad commander came and said:
— Are you ready? We are flying out on combat patrol tomorrow!
And tomorrow, on 23rd I flew my first combat mission and caught that Junkers.
— What is your opinion about MiG? Many pilots thought that MiG was good only for the best pilots, and if pilot was of poor quality he would not be able to fly it at all?
Never heard of such opinions. We were given planes – and we flew what we had. It was a true beauty! I flew it in such manner that even lost consciousness from high G’s!
— Did your MiGs have wing mounted machine guns?
No, MiG had one 12,7 BS and two 7,62 ShKAS.
— Was it enough?
It was nothing. I always say, that the weakest point of the MiG was its armament. The plane itself was marvelous, and it flew excellently.
— We were told that it was “King” above 1 500 meters, but below it was a “Log”.
Yes, it was great higher up… It was great up to 7 000 meters. If you
flew below 1 500 – it was different story. If you had to do a split-S,
you needed 1 200 meters of altitude. One other thing – there was a “shield”
in the cabin with a notice: if your aircraft did not recover from spin
before your altitude reduced to 2 000 meters – bail out. But we flew at
any height, spinned at any height and recovered…
One of our pilots got killed – Georgii Auhtin, he had only 600 meters of altitude…
— Could you tell us, was there any armor on the MiG? Armored windshield, headrest or seat back?
We only had armored seat backs. When I was shot up by enemy gunner I looked at the damage done by him, and noticed that there was quite a big space between engine and cockpit, so I asked engineer of my squad to put seat back armor there to protect my chest. I can’t remember, whether he did it or not…
— What was the difference between MiG-1 and -3?
On MiG-3 we had slats, and MiG-1 didn’t have them. I remember that MiG-3
was even better in piloting – it could turn around its tail, if you knew
how to do it, of course. It was absolutely magnificent aerobatics plane!
(note: probably he is describing an early type MiG-3 as MiG-1. The differences between MiG-1 and 3 were deeper)
— Did you feel that war is coming?
Not really. But we talked about it among ourselves. We already participated
in Liberation of Western Ukraine and in Winter War. I remember, when Finnish
campaign ended my friend Dmitrii Pikulenko, that became a test pilot after
the war, said:
— Who will be next? Germans? I wonder how it will be to fight them?
Well, we all got the chance to find it out...
— During Winter War you flew Ishak?
— Did you fly them on wheels or skis?
On skis, and they were not retractable then.
— Tell us, did skis complicate the fighting?
We met Finns only once in the air. We strafed airbases, trains, ground
forces… All that we would see...
Once, I took off behind our squad. When I gained on them I saw that some aircraft was above our planes. By it’s silhouette appearance, I thought it was an I-15. So we strafed our target… What for? We were fighters, but we had an order to strafe… In general, we had no idea how to use our aviation to the full extent. That plane was hanging above us, with no intent on attacking, just making some strange maneuvers. Later we discussed this, and came to a conclusion that he was “showing off” in front of his superiors, trying to make them believe that he was fighting with us. When we were returning, already passed Vyborg, it dove and shot at Ivan Neustruev’s plane. No serious damage was done, since he had same caliber machine guns as we did, and it lacked destructive power. Couple of holes in engine cowling… That one was the only case when I saw Finnish plane in the air. Truthfully speaking, we simply did not notice that the Finns had any aviation at all.
About our losses during Finnish campaign… I know of 3 pilots being lost from 44th IAP. Priemov, Tyurin and Pasechnik. It happened almost at the end of war… Priemov was shot down by AAA, and he made forced landing on ice of some lake. Tyurin landed close to him, with intent to rescue him. But the Finns prevented him from takeoff with machine gun fire… Pasechnik brought squadron to the Ropsha airbase, and flew back to find out what happened. He was subsequently downed, as well…
When hostilities ended Blagoveshenskii flew there, and found out, that Tyurin and Priemov had committed suicide, while Pasechnik was captured by the Finns. In the end after torturing him they tied him to the armored seat back and drowned him in the lake. Their bodies were brought to Gorelovo and buried. And I can not recall any other combat losses by our brigade during that war.
Speaking of aircraft losses – in Gorelovo Blagovesheskii ordered a metal runway to be built, similar to what the Americans sent us later during war time. We lost about a dozen of planes due to it. Those planes which had rear wheel would scramble normally, but those that had rail would loose their tail. That metal runway was soon removed.
— What is your opinion – was that war really needed?
When it begun, we did not question our orders. Later I thought a lot about this matter. If there would be no GPW after Winter War, it would not be justified. But, if we did not move the border away from Leningrad in 1940, in 1941 most likely Leningrad would have fallen, since there would be no “safety bumper”, and eventually all of the war’s outcome may have been different.
— In 1939, on average, what experience your regiment had?
We were all young – 24-25 years old. Not quite the boys, on the other hand, some of us, me included, were even married by the time GPW had begun. And we had great flight experience…
— How your Ishaks were painted?
They were green, with no special markings. Stars were painted on fuselage only, the belly was blue. We did not repaint them during winter time either.
— And MiGs?
— Tactical numbers were painted in the regiment, or at the factory?
In the regiment.
— Do you remember your number?
I had two hundred – something...
— You said, that there were no special markings on the plane?
When Finnish war ended Blagoveshenskii told us that our regiment got
awarded by Red Banner Order:
— We shall paint it on the sides of our planes.
But we did not do it in the end. Oh, yes! We also had red keels.
— During Finnish campaign, did you only strafe?
— What kind of weapons did you use?
Only machine guns, we did not even use bombs.
— What kind of targets you attacked?
Straight after Vyborg there were some airbases. The camouflage was great,
so we were strafing “something out there”… Sometimes this “something” even
burned. Another target was Utti. On one side of the town was real airbase,
and false one on the other side, so we strafed both. To be honest, we strafed
a lot of false targets…
Another kind of targets was railway trains. Once pilots from 3rd squad came back and announced: «We killed Mannerheim!». They found some luxury cart and blew it up…
— Your regiment belonged to PVO. Why did you have to go for ground attack missions?
There were very few fighters. Three regiments only. And no Shturmoviks existed at that time. So this task fell on our shoulders.
— But there was a lot of aviation here?
There were a lot of bombers. At Gorelovo we had a lot of DB-3 bombers and our fighter regiment.
— Most commonly the beginning of the GPW is described as two or three days of strafing and bombing. How do you remember the first days?
Ivan Neustruev, who was a squad commander at the time, was stationed
The Commissar of the air corps ordered a strafing sortie. After a few minutes he cancelled this order. So bombs were first loaded, and then unloaded. Of course, taking off with half loaded airplane was forbidden. At this time twenty Me-110 came, and begun strafing. They always came in large numbers. Seven our pilots took off and downed 7 110’s. They burned 7 our planes on the ground in return. This happened within the first couple of weeks of the war beginning…
When this situation was uncovered, a search for guilty one begun. The commissar said that he was “white and fluffy”, so Neustruev was appointed to be responsible for losses. There was no written order, and you can’t use someone’s words as proof. Ivan eventually got 10 years imprisonment for that. With possibility to clear himself in combat…
— How do you like Me-110? Could they fight, or was it ground attack plane only?
Good machine. It was a fighter as well as ground attacker. I managed to shoot one down…
— English say that they used to shoot them as turkeys, and our pilots remember this machine as very reliable and powerful fighter…
Can’t say about British… 22 July at about 16 o’clock we intercepted
a group of Germans near Pulkovo. There were 69 enemy planes, and four of
us: Pikulenko, Titorenko, Tolstikov Anatolii and me. It was the largest
air raid on Leningrad. We piloted MiG-1’s.
They came from Gatchina, and flew in squadron wages, each under cover of Me-110 fighters. When we intercepted them each one attacked a leader of a wage. I shot from head-on-above at Ju-88, saw how blister was ripped open by the traces, but it kept flying. It was a common problem – you are spraying enemy with bullets like from shower, but the effect from them was not good enough to bring enemy plane down… I made a combat turn, and found myself right behind last 110, and I used my chance to the full. The 110 which I shot at went descending towards Ligovo with big trail of smoke. When I knocked out my target, the rest started to make a defense circle, so I made another combat turn, and ended up in the tail of 109 flight. There were three of them, so I positioned my self as fourth. I tried to shoot, but there was no ammo left – I wasted all of it on those two. I tried to reload, but with no effect…
Somewhere near Dudergof I noticed that one of our planes was under attack. I decided to try and scare the attacker off… But when I left formation, 109 pilot finally realized that I was close, approached me and shot at my plane from a rather large distance – well beyond 300 meters. The cabin was completely destroyed, stick was blown off, instrument panel was torn to pieces… And then my plane blew up and I was thrown away from it. I was lucky that I did not tie myself before take off. The right half of my body was stuffed with fragments, and they still won’t let me sleep… As I was falling down I saw that all of the enemy planes were turning back. We four did not allow them to go through! But when I was descending hanging on a parachute, I was looking down, and saw a stream of blue tracers below me. It was that same Messer trying to finish me off! Luckily, a group of our fighters appeared, so I had a chance to land safely. You say that my planes crash site was found? Very interesting…
(22.07.1941 Hptm Reinhard Seiler from 1./JG54 claimed 2 I-18 at 18,05 and at 18,08. No location was given, so it is quite possible that he shot A. Kukins plane down. On the other hand it seems to be unlikely that Hauptmann would be a third wingman…)
— Did you have personal plane?
We flew those planes which were available.
— At first time was there some decrease of morale?
We would deal with disbelievers ourselves…
— Were there cases when non-existent planes would be credited to somebody?
I know about such case. But I will not name that person. There were cases opposite to this. I, for example believe that I downed 8 enemy planes, but I was credited with 3 only. We needed a confirmation, but it was not always possible to get one… For that I got Red Banner Order.
— At which period your regiment had most difficult time?
Which period? I was shot down first time in July, second time in September… After that I was in hospital. Half a month my wife tried to bring me on my feet.
— In which hospital you were treated?
First time in Institute of traumatology, second – in Military Medical
I was evacuated in such short time, that my wife did not know of it. I remember, it happened under severe bombing. Germans knew the location of every installation in the city, and even though they knew that it was hospital, they bombed it.
— Did your wife leave Leningrad with you?
My regiment was transferring to Cherepovec, and they arranged a seat
for me in a Li-2. Then I was transferred to Vologda, and then – to Serov.
Suddenly I received a letter with black line across envelop. I decided
that someone had died. It was a letter from my wife. She let me know that
she had sold all of our belongings and gave all that she got to some Jew,
who made false documents and got her out of blockaded Leningrad.
So, let’s return… I was in the hospital, when Tkachenko, our regiment commander comes to me with a bandage on his throat.
— What happened?
— I was sent to Kresty a week ago.
(Kresty or “Crosses” – the name of the main prison in Leningrad. Got it’s name after the appearance of the buildings – they are made in the shape of Cross)
There was a pilot Kurasov, and after one of the fights he said that he liked, how German intelligence worked – it seemed that they always knew where and when they could strike best.
So, squad commissar Abramov heard it, and went to Tkachenko: «That’s how your pilots think…». Tkachenko did not react.
Kurasov made one, two, four sorties that day, and did not return from the fifth. Commissar went to osobysty this time… Tkachenko was sent to Kresty, and also got “10 years” on the front line.
— Were osobysty needed?
They were needed for state, not for us…
— What about commissars?
Commissars? If they were good – yes. But they were different. For example in our squad commissar was Pavel Ivanovich Naumov – great pilot and man. (Naumov Pavel Ivanovich, Captain, was shot down by AAA while strafing Spasskaya Polist airfield on 25.8.1941.)
— How many sorties you did in one day?
One, two, up to five.
— Germans write that they made 12-15 sorties.
I find it hard to believe…
— Germans also state that they shot down 3-4 planes in one fight. Is it real?
That I can believe. They had good planes and tactics. I remember I was in a hospital for a first time, and Vasilii Bohoncev was brought to the same ward. We both had burns on our faces and hands... We discussed how we were shot down, and came to a conclusion that it was our tactics fault. We flew in three plane formations and had to look after each other in order to avoid collision. It was rather awkward. They flew in pairs, and usually one would appear in front of our flight, we would start chasing him, and second German would shoot us from behind… Then they would change places. But as pilots – we were better. If we met one-on-one we would easily get an upper hand.
— When you started to fly in pairs?
Mostly we flew alone or in flight formation. In our regiment I was among the first, who demanded to fly in pairs. There was a short period of time when we flew in pairs, due to the lack of planes, but then we had to fly single flights…
— Did you fly during GPW on MiG’s only?
— How you found MiG’s cockpit after I-16?
In Ishak cockpit was quite spacious. After them we were sent to train in the LaGG-3, and their cockpit was truly luxurious. It had a lot of new instruments… The MiG cockpit was a lot narrower.
— How did you like the LaGG?
We called it “LaGG – oak dork”. We flew very briefly in it. First LaGG was received in the end of 1940, and for a couple of month in 1941 we studied them. Speed wise it was perhaps the fastest plane I flew, but it was very heavy on controls, and it was not an “aerobatic plane”. It would be better to compare it to the express train...
— Why there was a need for a door on the left side of the cabin in I-16?
Yes, there was one… But I personally never used it. I just stepped there
like in the bath tub… Tolstikov was rather short, so his head was barely
visible from the cockpit, Pikulenko was taller, and his head was sticking
out into the air stream. At MiG the canopy could be closed, but we flew
it with the canopy open – it quite often got jammed. How was the view?
It mostly depended on how you would turn your head.
Just reminded me of one fight… I was going to intercept bombers bound to Siverskaya. I attacked one Ju-88, trailed it for 40 kilometers to the Samro lake, smoked him, but his gunner shot back and hit my oil tank. Oil “left” my plane. I wanted to ram him, but he wisely gave me way. So I gained altitude, and went to my airbase. Landing was all right, but with no engine!
— Which German planes you personally met?
He-111, Ju-88, Me-110 and 109… And FW-189…
— Which one was most difficult to shoot down?
It was very difficult to shoot anything down with rifle bullets. You
see on TV how enemy planes blow up. Believe me – they did not. If you hit
the pilot – it would be the best. If you hit engine, or damaged controls
– not bad also. But you had to hit it precisely. Most commonly we had no
chance for aiming – we had to look around in order not to miss enemy plane
attacking ourselves, so we just sprayed enemy planes with bullets hoping
that something important will get hit. If I had ammo, I could have easily
shot down those three me-109’s, since I was in their blind spot and no
further then 10 meters – no place for mistake…
Most difficult was FW-189. It had small cabin, and it was very nimble. Blagoveshenskii raised us by alarm:
— Volosovo is on fire!
We flew out in flight – Nasonov, Pavel Ponomarev and me. When we came to Volosovo the station and village were burning. Clouds were low at that day. We would go up through clouds layer – no one, we would go down – no one. We had to fly for 15 minutes from Gorelovo to Volosovo. Of course Germans were not going to wait for us, they dropped their bomb load and left. I’m fighter, and I had to punish them. So I flew towards Narva, and suddenly I noticed a couple of “crosses”. I got close to their flight leader at 4\4, and started to fire at him. Second Messer ran away towards Finland. Pavel Ponomarev left chasing him. Nasonov started turning above us, while I attacked my enemy head-on. Somehow I turned faster than he did and ended up on his tail. Enemy pilot made a split-S, but he had no altitude and crashed in the forest near Klopicy. Nasonov was turning above, so I flew to him, gave a signal and he joined formation. (Nasonov Georgii Ivanovich was KIA 22.7.41 near Nizino.) I was flying towards my base, when near Ropsha I spotted two MiGs chasing FW-189. I decided to help. It was trying to slip away at tree-top level. My wingman exchanged places with Dmitrii Pikulenko, and stayed behind, covering us while we two attacked 189. Finally it’s pilot raised a bit, so I shot and hit it. It caught tree-top by wing and fell to the ground. Pikulenko made a strafing run to be sure. As I turned around I saw how our second pair was attacked by Messers. One MiG went down and disappeared. It was Georgii Auhtin. In 1985 his plane was found, and he finally was properly buried. If our regiment still had I-16’s, we would have kicked them. Everything is in pilots hands.
(On 21.07.41 in II/JG54 a Bf-109F-2 WNr 12780 KC+SZ is listed as unbek. 100% missing near Gusjatine. How it corresponds to the location given by A. Kukin is still unidentified – in the general area of the combat (40X40 kilometers) more that 25 villages were completely destroyed during WWII and were never rebuilt).
— By the way… A lot of historians say that I-16 was inferior in comparison with German aircraft, but many pilots preferred I-16 to new types. Why?
Because we knew the Ishaks like the back of our hands. And suddenly,
after single training flight we had to fight in completely unknown planes!
Last time I flew out to airfield reconnaissance on 23.09.1941. I was caught by Messers, and had to fight for my life against six of them. I fought from Gorelovo to Malaya Okhta. No memories remain about this fight in my head. I was shot down, and had fallen with my plane onto the railway station Okhta. I had broken leg and skull. That’s how my life as pilot ended.
— After you were wounded, did you return to your regiment?
No. I was not suited for flight service anymore, so I was in PVO fighter regiment from 1943 on at the Chief of Staff post. We met war end in Romania, at Karol-1 airfield. How we waited for it! Then we had to live normal life again…
List of kills:
21.07.41 by pair 1 Me-109 Vruda-Moloskovicy 15.20
21.07.41 by 4 1 FW-189 Sabsk 15.20
22.07.41 by flight (3) 1 Me-110 North of Kingisepp 19.20
Brief history of 19th IAKP: Was formed on 22.03.1938 at Gorelovo near Leningrad on the basis of 70th, 58th and 33rd detaced squadrons. Utilized I-15bis, I-153 and I-16. Was a part of 54th light aviation brigade. During summer of 1039 had participated by means of about half of the pilots at Khakhin-Gol conflict. From 17.09. to 06.10.39 participated in Liberation of Western Ukraine and Belorussia (made 1420 combat sorties). From 30.11.39 till 13.03.40 regiment participated in Finnish War, made 3412 combat sorties without losses. 11.04.40 regiment was awarded by Red Banner Order, 87 members of the regiment were awarded by Orders and medals. In June 1941 became a part of 3rd IAD, had 2 main bases: Gorelovo and Vitino. In 1941 19 IAP commited 3145 combat missions, 415 aerial fights, and claimed 116 enemy aircraft destroyed (by the data provided by A. Kukin - 64). 17 pilots were KIA, and 13 MIA. Combat losses were 57 aircraft with no non-combat losses.
Kukin A.A. after Finnish campaign
Kukin after ending Kachinskaya flight school. 1937.
Two pilots - brothers met in Budapest, 1945.
18.08.1942 after awards were handed over by Kalinin. Kukin in the 3rd
row, first from the left.
-, Utkin, Poddubnii, Kukin, Sholopov, -, -
Remains of the MiG in which Kukin was shot down with a serial No 3008 (it should be an early type MiG-3; MiG-1s were serialled from 2001 to 2100)
Aerobatic teams “Russian Knights” and “Swifts” coming to the museum of the defense of Leningrad.
Kukin talks to regiment commander Tkachenko about that memorable fight.
Leader of Leningrad excavation teams Ilya Prokofyev (in white shirt on the left) is preparing to hand the pieces of MiG No 3008 to its former pilot. 02.07.2007. Museum of defense of Leningrad.