Aviation of World War II

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I-16 in the Great Patriotic War

Mikhail Maslov

I-16 in flight

From 1938 to 1941, the industry produced 3727 combat I-16s of all types. It was these aircraft that, for the most part, turned out to be combat-ready in 1941.

In the summer of 1941, when defeated Europe was almost completely occupied by Germany, the German war machine prepared for a decisive thrust to the east. The invisible film of the state border of the Soviet Union literally caved in under the weight of the German units and formations supporting it. Since May, violations of the Soviet border by German reconnaissance aircraft have become almost daily. Although the official Soviet press dismissed rumors of a possible German attack, it was felt that war was not far off. The main part of the troops, and above all aviation, was deployed in the region of the country's western borders.

As of June 22, 1941, the Air Force of the Western border districts consisted of 4226 fighter aircraft. There were 1635 I-16 fighters of all types along the border line. Judging by these official figures from the archive of the USSR Ministry of Defense, I-16s accounted for 26% of other types of fighters. By district, the distribution of I-16 looked like this:

Air Force of the Leningrad Military District -396

Air Force of the Baltic Military District - 142

Air Force of the Western Special Military District -361 (424 according to other sources)

Air Force of the Kiev Special Military District -455

Air Force of the Odessa Military District -143

In total, in the border districts there were 57 regiments armed with I-16 fighters, some of these regiments had a mixed composition of vehicles. A certain number of I-16s were available in flight schools, repair plants and reserve aviation regiments. In addition to the aviation of the Red Army, the air forces of the Northern, Baltic and Black Sea fleets were concentrated in the western part of the Soviet Union, numbering 778 fighters, of which almost half - 344 were I-16s. At that time, there were 155 I-16s in the aviation of the Pacific Fleet and 110 such aircraft in the flight schools of the Navy. As of 06/22/41, there were also 145 copies of UTI-4 in the fleet and in naval aviation schools.

The given data allow us to conclude that the I-16 were the main fighters of all the Air Forces of the Soviet Union. The important fact that the I-16 fighters were perfectly mastered in military units, unlike the new YAK, LAGG, MIG machines, made the donkey the main defense of the country in the event of hostilities.

At dawn on Sunday, June 22, 1941, Germany repeated its perfidious invasion scenario, repeatedly tested in Europe. The border of the Soviet Union along its entire length from the northern to the southern seas at about four o'clock in the morning was suddenly attacked by German troops. Almost simultaneously, 66 airfields were attacked, on which the main Soviet aviation forces were located to cover the border. The suddenness of the attack paid off - 900 red-star aircraft were destroyed on the airfields. By evening, losses increased and amounted to about 1,200 aircraft.

The main forces of the German armies of the Center group, supported by the 2nd Air Force of the Luftwaffe, were directed against the Soviet troops of the Western Special Military District (OBO). The Air Force of the Western OVO suffered the most significant losses on the first day of the war. By the end of the day, the aviation of the district had lost 738 aircraft (528 were lost on the ground, 210 in the air), which amounted to about half of the original composition. The main objective of the German plan to destroy Soviet aviation on the ground and gain air superiority was a success. Unfortunately for the Soviet side, the initial success of the Germans was consolidated in the following days - confusion, the helplessness of the command and the mediocrity of defense management created very favorable conditions for them. Subsequently, when it was necessary to indicate the reasons for the summer defeats of 1941, the treachery of the Germans and the outdated weapons of the Red Army were always quite firmly called. Although in fact there were many reasons for military failures, it was equipment and, especially aircraft, that were given the role of the main "scapegoat" as obsolete and worthless. The role of the most notorious loser was assigned to the I-16 fighter ... Today it is worth finally declaring something the opposite, because it was the I-16 fighters, together with another brainchild of Polikarpov - the I-153 biplane, who defended their native country in the first days of the war. Despite the suddenness of the attack and heavy losses on the ground, the pilots of these aircraft provided the most severe resistance to German aviation already on the first day of the summer disaster. Already at 3.30 am, I-16s of the 33rd IAP of the Western OVO, based in Pruzhany, shot down the first German aircraft over Brest. After about an hour, five more enemy vehicles attacking the airfield of this regiment fall to the ground. In the Baltic Military District, under similar circumstances, I-16s of the 21st IAP destroyed 9 Germans, the same number of victories from the 15th IAP and 7 shot down from the 10th IAP. In the Odessa military district, the 55th IAP, based in Balti, by the end of the day had 10 victories, the 67th IAP in Belgrade had even more victories - 15. In general, the first day of the war was not so simple for the German Air Force - on that day they lost 300 aircraft.

Many I-16 pilots had victories in air combat on June 22, many of them got these victories at the cost of their lives. The pilot of the 67th IAP, Lieutenant Moklyak, having destroyed four enemy vehicles in the morning air battles, rammed the fifth - SM.79 - and died himself. The third plane destroyed by Lieutenant Gudimov, pilot of the 33rd IAP, was also a ram and also at the cost of his own life. Vasily Loboda - pilot of the 19th IAP, who shot down two Germans in an air battle, rams the third enemy with his "donkey". Of course, ramming on this first day was a natural phenomenon for people imbued with hatred for the enemy, striving to delay the invasion of the invaders at least at the cost of their own lives, the pilots used ramming in cases of combat excitement, in a desperate situation and when weapons failed. On the first day of the war, 15 Soviet pilots used a ram attack to destroy the enemy, and they used it in the following days. In the face of military setbacks in 1941, the pilot's decision to ram was even encouraged. The first pilots to receive the title of Hero of the Soviet Union were also pilots who decided to ram. The pilot of the 158th IAP, junior lieutenant Kharitonov on June 27 rammed a Ju 88 dive bomber with his I-16 in the Pskov region. A day later, two of his brother-soldiers, junior lieutenants Zdorovtsev and Zhukov, on the outskirts of Leningrad, also deprive German bombers of the opportunity to fly through the sky with their I-16 propellers, and they themselves safely return home. Joseph Stalin, having learned about the rams of the fighters of the 158th regiment, and most importantly that the pilots had saved their vehicles, ordered that they be immediately awarded the title of heroes.

It has already been noted above that the aviation of the Western OVO lost a significant part of its aircraft as a result of the first bombardments. However, some formations located to the east were not attacked in the morning. In this position was the 43rd Air Division, commanded by the hero of the air battles in Spain, Major General Zakharov. The division was based at the airfields of Mogilev and Orsha, by the beginning of the war had the following combat strength:

160 IAP - 60 (according to other sources 66) I-153 aircraft - 72 pilots

161 IAP - 62 (according to other sources 64) I-16 aircraft - 70 pilots

162 IAP - 54 I-16 aircraft - 75 pilots

163 IAP - 59 I-16 aircraft - 72 pilots

According to the given data, it is clear that 175 I-16s of the 43rd Air Division were its main weapon, and after the morning failure of the entire district, they formed the basis of fighter aircraft in the direction of movement of the main German forces.

On the morning of June 22, all four regiments received a combat mission and flew over to meet the German offensive. Already on the same day, the division joined the fighting. The 163rd IAP acted most successfully, which, together with the 160th regiment, received the task of covering the city of Minsk. On the first day, the pilots of the 163 regiment scored several victories. Two Ju 88s were personally shot down over Minsk by the commander of the division, Zakharov. A day later, on June 24, I-16 163 IAP shot down twenty-one enemy vehicles during the day. Such a number, according to Zakharov, could not be shot down in one day in the subsequent years of the war, even by the composition of an entire fighter division. Organized resistance paid off - in most cases, I-16s in the air had more victories than losses. However, the incessant bombing of the airfields on which these fighters were based led to their steady reduction. It was the destruction of aircraft on the ground that was the undeniable success of German aviation. Another reason for the high losses was the need to send fighters to hold back the armored and motorized columns, which, as a rule, were well protected by mobile air defenses. Half a month after the start of hostilities, the regiments of the 43rd division had only 15-20 combat-ready vehicles each. By this time, the combat activity of the division was assessed by the command of the Air Force of the Western Front (with the outbreak of war, the districts were called fronts) in the following description: “The 43rd Fighter Aviation Division carried out tasks to repel and destroy enemy aircraft in the air on the outskirts of Minsk, Pukhovichi , Bobruisk, Mogilev, Smolensk and Vyazma. It escorted bomber aircraft, destroyed enemy aircraft at airfields and manpower at the front, conducted reconnaissance and covered ground troops. The 43rd Division flew 4,638 sorties with a total flying time of 5,956 hours. During this period, she shot down 167 enemy aircraft in air battles, losing her own: 63 aircraft were destroyed on the ground, 26 were shot down in air battles, and three pilots were shot down in disasters.

In general, the attack on Soviet Russia was not so painless for the German Air Force. During the period from June 22 to July 5, 1941, Germany lost 807 aircraft of all types, and from July 6 to July 19 - 477. This did not take into account the losses of the aircraft of the German allies, for example, Romania, which opposed the USSR in the southern part of its western border. German and Romanian aviation in the southern sector was opposed by the Air Force of the Odessa Military District and the Air Force of the Black Sea Fleet. The fighters of the 20th and 21st mixed air divisions were engaged in direct cover of the border. Almost 300 I-16s of these divisions were the basis of the fighter aviation of the Odessa Military District. The pilots of the 21st SAD on the first day of the war shot down more than 20 enemy aircraft, after a month of fighting, the division had 150 victories. By this time, when the offensive of the Romanian troops was stopped on the outskirts of the city of Odessa, the 69th IAP from the 21st SAD became the main force holding back enemy aircraft on the southern sector of the front. 69 IAP, having 70 I-16s and 5 MiG-3s on June 22, 1941, during the three months of the defense of Odessa, not only defended the city, but also carried out numerous sorties to counter the enemy offensive. Only in air battles, the pilots of the 69th IAP shot down 94 German and Romanian aircraft during this period. The regiment commander, Lev Shestakov, mastered the I-16 back in 1936. In 1937, he fought in Spain, where he made 150 sorties, conducted 90 air battles, had 39 air victories, 8 of them personally and 31 in a group. In the sky near Odessa, he shot down 3 more planes personally and 8 in the group. Before his death on March 13, 1944, Lev Shestakov had 23 personal victories and 44 in the group. The successful offensive of the German troops into the depths of the territory of the Soviet Union, after a month of hostilities, allowed the Germans to start bombarding the Soviet capital. For the defense of Moscow from the air, the Soviet command formed the 6th Fighter Aviation Corps of Air Defense (6th IAK PVO). Fighter planes of this air corps were located at airfields around Moscow within a radius of 100-120 kilometers. As of July 10, 1941, the 6th IAK had 783 fighters, of which 223 were I-16s. On July 22, the first night raid on Moscow took place, in which 250 German bombers took part.

The Germans were met on the distant approaches to Moscow over false objects imitating city blocks, searchlight installations standing in dense forests imitated airfields. That night, in 25 air battles, Soviet fighters shot down 12 German bombers, another 10 enemy aircraft were overwhelmed by anti-aircraft gunners. At the same time, single planes broke into the city. Literally on the same day, at 10:10 p.m., another raid began, which lasted until 2:00 a.m. on July 23. That night the Germans lost 15 bombers.

In total, until August 15, 1941, 18 night raids were carried out on Moscow, while the attacking side lost about 200 vehicles. The intensity of these night battles was very high, in fact, the question was about gaining air superiority over Moscow, especially since the Germans declared that they would destroy the Soviet capital from the air. In this psychologically difficult situation, Soviet pilots continued to use ram attacks. On the night of August 7, the pilot of the 177th IAP, Viktor Talalikhin, having shot all the ammunition, rammed his I-16 Not 111 over the city of Podolsk near Moscow, after which he left his collapsing fighter on a parachute. In the morning he became a national hero.

IAP - Istrebitel'nyy aviatsionnyy polk - Fighter Aviation Regiment

GIAP - Gvardeyskiy istrebitel'nyy aviatsionnyy polk - Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment

IAD - Itsrebitel'naya aviatsionnaya diviziya - Fighter Aviation Division

IAK - Istrebitel'nyy aviatsionnyy korpus - Fighter Aviation Corps

PVO - Protivo vozdushnaya oborona - Air Defense

OVO - Osobyy voyennyy okrug - Special military district

In early September, the activity of German aviation decreased, the raids on Moscow began to be mostly of a harassing nature, many air defense fighters began to be used in the daytime. They were used in this way before, and it was the I-16 pilots who had the most impressive results of air victories. The pilot of the 126th IAP, lieutenant Kamenshchikov, shot down four German vehicles on his I-16 in the first days of the war near Bialystok. On July 7 and 10, Kamenshchikov shot down a Bf. 109 and Yu-88. Kamenshchikov's brother-soldier, junior lieutenant Stepan Ridny, shot down a Yu-88 on July 10, chalked up He 111 the next day, and on July 12, together with his partner, junior lieutenant Levsha, destroyed two more Yu-88s. On August 9, Vladimir Kamenshchikov and Stepan Ridny were awarded the title of Heroes of the Soviet Union - these pilots turned out to be the most successful hunters using the I-16. By the end of October 1941, Ridny had 29 victories, of which he personally shot down 21 aircraft and 8 in the group.

Naturally, the number of I-16s in the Moscow air defense zone decreased: on October 1 there were 117 donkeys, in early December there were only 90. The air defense of Moscow had only 13 such machines, in the spring of 1943, according to official data, the I-16 was no longer in the 6th IAK.

The first appearance of German bombers over the Soviet "northern capital" - Leningrad was noted already on the second day of the war - June 23. To protect the city, on June 19, the 7th Air Defense Fighter Corps (7th IAK PVO) was created. Of the 232 fighters of the 7th IAK I-16, more than half made up 149 vehicles. At the end of 1941, Leningrad was surrounded and blockaded by German and Finnish troops. The blockade lasted until 1943. All this time, Leningrad was subjected to fierce attacks from the air. Together with the pilots of the 7th IAK, the air defense of the city, the closely located front and the ships of the Baltic Fleet were vehicleried by fighters of army aviation and naval aviation. Among the fighter aviation regiments defending Leningrad, the 13th IAP of the Navy conducted combat operations most effectively. Part of the regiment was based on the Hanko Peninsula in the Gulf of Finland and covered from the air not only the garrison of the peninsula, but also the ships of the Baltic Fleet. Since the airfield on which the fighters were based was in the zone of action of the Finnish artillery and was often fired upon, I-16s took off from underground caponiers in short minutes of stopping firing. Pilot-inspector of the 13th IAP Aleksey Antonenko arrived at Hanko on June 25 and literally a few minutes after arrival took off to intercept a Ju 88 reconnaissance aircraft and shot him down. Eyewitnesses claimed that at the same time, the naval borscht had not yet had time to cool down, from which he was torn off by the visit of an intruder. For a month of fighting, this capable pilot chalked up 11 personal victories won on the I-16 type 29. However, flights from the shelled airfield were a daily game with death, on July 25 a Finnish mortar shell exploded almost under the belly of Antonenko's landing donkey. It was impossible to escape in this case ...

Antonenko's partner, Petr Brinko, continued his combat score - by mid-September he already had 15 downed aircraft and one tethered balloon. On September 14, during the attack of the second tethered balloon, Brinko was seriously wounded by anti-aircraft shell fragments. The strength of the pilot, who did not know defeat in air battles, was only enough to bring the vehicle home.

After the Soviet troops left Khanko, the 13th IAP covered Leningrad and the supply route of the encircled city, passing through Lake Ladoga. This food supply route, known as the "road of life," was constantly attacked by bombers. From the end of 1941, the pilots of the 13th IAP entered into this air battle, which was nowhere noted, which lasted almost two years with short breaks. Only in the period from March 12 to April 13, 1942, 13 IAP shot down 54 German aircraft, losing only two I-16s. Most of the victories the regiment won in a new capacity - in mid-March, the 13th IAP was renamed the 4th Guards IAP. It should be noted that the title of Guards was awarded in the Russian and Soviet armies only for high merit, to the most distinguished units.

The pilots of the 4th GIAP deserved this high rank - by the summer of 1942, many of them had 10 air victories. By the end of 1943, captain Golubev, appointed commander of the regiment, personally shot down 27 aircraft on his I-16. This number also included two FV-190s shot down by him on January 10 and 15, 1943. Subsequently, the regiment was re-equipped with La-5 and Vasily Golubev brought the number of victories to 39. As for the I-16, the 4th GIAP actively used these fighters until 1944.

The most productive fighter pilot in the northern sector of the war - in the Murmansk region - was the pilot of the 72nd IAP Boris Safonov. The first German aircraft Lieutenant Safonov shot down on his I-16 on June 24, 1941. Within a month he had 10 victories. In the fall, the 72nd IAP received British Hurricane fighters. Before transferring to the Hurricane, Safonov shot down 14 German aircraft only on the I-16. By the summer of 1942, Safonov, with the rank of major, was appointed commander of the 72nd IAP, and the regiment was renamed the 2nd Guards IAP for the successful conduct of hostilities. Boris Safonov himself had 25 personal victories and 14 victories in the group, he was the first Soviet pilot to be twice awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union. The bright military fate of Safonov was, unfortunately, short. Meeting the sea convoy PQ16 on May 30, 1942, he died while performing a combat mission.

In general, the I-16, controlled by a skilled pilot, was a dangerous enemy - in 1942, the number of combat losses of the I-16 was less than that of other fighters in service with the Soviet Air Force. The German pilots who fought on the Eastern Front did not at all consider the I-16 to be easy prey. Although they could almost always impose their initiative in air combat on the pilot of the "donkey", nevertheless, they tried to avoid maneuvering combat with the Russian veteran. In their own circle, the Germans used to say that it was not necessary to drive the rat into a corner. This meant, of course, the nickname of the Rata aircraft, which has existed since Spain - "Rat". If the Messerschmitt pilots changed this principle, the result of the fight could be very painful for them.

Nevertheless, the number of "old men" in the active units has been steadily declining. In the aviation of the Navy, the presence of the I-16 from 1942 until the end of the war looked like this:

I-16 in Active Units
Northern Fleet 12/3* 8/3 10/6 5/0 4/0 3/1 1/0
Baltic Fleet 52/17 23/7 28/11 21/3 8/1 - -
Black Sea Fleet 27/0 14/8 8/2 3/1 7/3 12/0 -
Total 91/27 45/18 46/19 29/4 19/4 15/1 1/0

* In the numerator - total vehicles; in the denominator - including faulty at the moment.

In the spring of 1942, the largest number of I-16 fighters were in air defense units - rear facilities and large cities were guarded by 333 aircraft of this type. In addition to the already mentioned 6th IAK PVO of Moscow, 7th IAK PVO of Leningrad, 118 I-16s were in the 8th IAK PVO of Baku, 13 I-16s from the 106th IAD guarded Bologoye, 24 I-16s from the 102nd IAD PVO - Stalingrad, 8 I-16s from the 105 IAK PVO - Rostov-on-Don. During the summer of 1942, the presence of I-16s in air defense even increased to 348 units, but in the autumn it again began to decline - fighters were transferred to the front. In the middle of 1943, there were 143 I-16s in the air defense, by the end of the year there were about four dozen of them. In 1944, I-16s were withdrawn from the air defense, now only modern vehicles remained there.

In the front-line units of army aviation, the departure of I-16s was the most intensive, here by the end of 1941 there were 240 I-16s. By mid-1942, this figure remained unchanged due to repairs and replenishment from rear units. During this period, "donkeys" were used not only as fighters, but also as attack aircraft and reconnaissance aircraft. With the advent of night bomber regiments at the front, I-16s were transferred to such regiments and operated at night - their main goal was to destroy searchlights. At the end of 1942, there were only 75 combat-ready I-16s at the front, and 42 in mid-1943. In 1944, the I-16 was no longer included in the official lists of combat aircraft, and some of the remaining ones spend their lives on the edge of airfields.

Until August 1945, I-16s were in service with 888 IAP, based in the Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky region. The vital activity of this unit, protecting the country's borders in the Far East, was restless. From the south, from the side of the Kuril ridge, Japanese planes often flew here, on the other hand, “visits” by Americans were no less frequent. They had to engage in battle with the Japanese, the Americans were forced to land for violating the border. So on September 12, 1943, I-16s landed B-25s and B-24s near Petropavlovsk, and on June 12, 1944, the donkeys repulsed the American Ventura from Japanese fighters and brought it to their airfield. There were cases when the Americans supported the I-16 in battles with the Japanese.

Air activity in the Kamchatka region did not weaken until the end of the war. The pilots of the 888th regiment had to land American planes until 1945. Of the known cases, the landing of the B-24 on September 25, 1944 and May 11, forty-fifth. In August 1945, the regiment was re-equipped with P-63 Kingcobra fighters.

Therefore, when it came to hostilities, there was no need to disturb the honored veteran - there was enough military equipment in 1945.

I-16 type 24 Lieutenant Krichevsky. Budogoshch airfield, Leningrad Front, 1943 (V. Stankov)


  • "Fighter I-16." /Mikhail Maslov/