SBs in Chinese service

Updated on April 12, 2018

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Japan started the invasion of China on 7 July 1937, without a declaration of war. Then, the Chinese Air Force had only 284 combat aircraft.

The Soviet Union and China signed a non-aggression pact on 21 August 1937; a secret clause was about military aid to China to reconstruct its Air force, nearly destroyed by Japaneses.

About 450 Soviet pilots and ground crew accompanied the first batch of 185 planes, that included 115 fighters, 62 bombers and 8 advanced trainers. They were at first sent, dismantled, to Alma Ata (now Almaty) in Khazakistan, where they were assembled and flown by volunteer Soviet pilots along the so-called 'southern route' Alma Ata-Urumchi-Lanzhou.

After being grounded for a sandstorm, they flew to Lanzhou where the training of Chinese pilots started. Some planes were lost due to accidents, bad weather and bad runways.

Further SB-2M-100A for China were built at Zavod 115 in Irkutsk, Siberia; further batches were flown by volunteer Soviet pilots along the 'northern route': Irkutsk - Ulan Bator - Dalan - Dzadagad - Lanzhou.

The first war mission was made on 2 december 1937 against Japanese naval target in the occupied Shanghai; involved two groups of nine bombers each with Soviet crew. The planes defended themselves from Japanese fighters; one of the SB was hit by AA fire, but managed to land in friendly-hold territory.

Some time after, some SB were damaged on the ground due to a Japanese attack on their air base at Nanking. A SB, surprised during the take-off, was shot down and exploded.

In January and February 1938, Soviet volunteer pilots flew 150 missions of war against Japanese targets, including the airport of Nanking.

On 23 February 1938, Capt. Polyakin led 28 SB against the Hsin-Chu Japanese air base in the occupied Formes (now Taiwan); the raid lasted 7 hours flying at 5500 m altitude, that caused severe headaches to the crew because of the lack of oxygen equipments; it was a total subcess, with the destruction of 40 Japanese planes on the ground, including BR-20 just delivered from Italy, of hangars, of ground equipments and of an enormous amount of fuel.

On this phase of the war, SBs operated with few lossed, being faster than the opponent fighters; higher lossed were substained because of the Japanese raids over their air bases in China.


Image from Squadron-Signal in Action n.194- Tupolev SB

The first SB 2M100 A deliverd to China had the Soviet early matt light grey livery, with Chinese stars above and below the wings and white-blue rudders.

Many planes had their upper surfaces crudely repainted with green, with evident brush strokes, often covering the Chinese emblems over the wings.

Other Chinese SB are described as green blotched over a grey or aluminum background.

It is not known if that green was of Soviet origin, or supplied by local manufacturers.


Plane n.5 had its upper surface crudely painted green. The area around the circular window on the fuselage sides was put into evidence with the green paint.



A crashed SB-2 M100 A shows the crude green repainting that let see the underlying light grey finish.

The Chinese markings over the wings were covered by the repainting. The factory serial on the fin was left unpainted. The symbol on the fin is the cyrillic letter zhe.


Images from Squadron-Signal in Action n.194- Tupolev SB and Tupolev SB of M.Maslov, ed. Icarus




During the summer 1938, Chinese crews started to be massively introduced on SB.

Unfortunately, the training of Chinese crew was scarcely successful, and many planes were lost due to uncompetent handling; besides the planes were hoarded instead of being sent in combat.

On the other hand, when in combat, they suffered heavy losses because of the well trained Japanese pilots, now equipped with Ki-27 fighters; this obliged to increase the operational altitude of the bombers up to 7000-8000 m. Unfortunately, the oxygen bought from local manufacturers was contaminated, causing poisoning of the crew and sometimes their death.

In December 1939, Soviet volunteer units withdrew from the war in China, leaving the planes fully in the hands of Chinese crew.


SB-2M103, produced in 1938/39 and recognizable because of the three blade propellers, the extended windshield protecting an upper mirror, two circular windows on the rear fuselage, bomb racks under the wings and other details. The factory finish of this type was usualli in Aluminum paint.

On this plane, we see a camouflage made with small green dots on the upper and side surfaces.

Images from Tupolev SB and Tupolev SB of M.Maslov, ed. Icarus





poor photo showing an SB after a forced landing.

The couple of circular windows and the aluminum finish of the lowe surfaces suggest that the plane was equipped with M-103 engines as that of the photo above.

Image from Aviatsiya i Vremya 2009-05

Deliveries of SB to Chinese units continued up to early 1941; they stopped when Soviet Union and Japan signed a neutrality pact on 13 April 1941.


a Chinese SB 2M103 with pointed cowling and shutters on the inlet of the cooler, produced in late 1939.

The plane seems to have an uniform aluminum livery; the white paint on the markings and rudder seem replaced by aluminum too. It is not clear if the plane had national markings on the upper surfaces too.

On the background some C-47s are visible, so it is likely that the photo was taken in the '40s, and that the painting of the SB was not the original delivery one.

Image from Squadron-Signal in Action n.194- Tupolev SB




two photos of a SB- 2M105 produced in late 1940 or early 1941; this was the last version of SB into production.

The plane is distinguishable because of the pointed cowlings without shutters on the cooler intake, for the raised sliding hood, radio equipment and factory-built MV-3 turret.

The livery looks the original factory one, with A-19f green upper surfaces and A-18f light blue-grey undersurfaces.

The inscriptions reads 0109, with a smaller white code B-1727 on the fin.


Images from Squadron-Signal in Action n.194- Tupolev SB and Tupolev SB of M.Maslov, ed. Icarus



The number of SB in Chinese service quickly decreased due to the losses, but some dozens were still employed in late 1942 on the China-burma border against the opium plantations in Sichuan province.

In early 1943, the operative service of SB was practically ended tue to the delivery of more modern US planes to the Chinese Air Force.

Some SB survived the Second world War, and were employed by the Kuomintang in the Civil War.

In total, 392 SB were delivered to China, including SB 2-M103 with pointed cowlings and even some SB 2M-105.



Tupolev SB of M.Maslov, ed. Icarus

Squadron-Signal in Action n.194- Tupolev SB



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