The names of WWII air aces are well known to everyone, they won dozens and hundreds of aerial victories and were awarded the highest awards, however thousands of pilots perished without a trace in ruthless battles and who often had no less high potential then the lucky ones that managed to survive the war and were caressed by fortune and command. Today’s story is about a Soviet pilot, who could have become as widely known as Pokryshkin or Kozhedub, but the history did not leave us even his name.
A German fighter pilot Hermann Graf became the first ace in the world to claim 200 aerial victories by the 26th of October 1942 and in total they were 212 in 832 combat missions. The command noticed such success and the best Luftwaffe pilot for that moment was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves, Swords and Diamonds. The end of the War in Europe colonel Graf met as the Wing Commander of JG 52 (the 52nd Fighter Wing), with the remainders of which he surrendered to the US Army on 8 May 1945, but soon he was turned over to the Soviet side and until the end of 1949 he was held in a war prisoners camp. After the War, Graf was criticized by his fellow pilots form Luftwaffe veterans' associations for the collaboration with the Soviet camp administration.
The book of ace’s recollections came out in 1970, the translation of which was published in Russian in 2000. In one of the chapters, Graf described an intense air fight that took place on October 14, 1941 in the Kharkov region with an unknown Soviet pilot. Based on Soviet and German sources today on can try to restore that episode of the aerial war on the Soviet-German front and identify the pilot who was so memorable for Graf among his other numerous rivals.
That day Soviet planes from the Kharkov air hub attacked German airfields in Poltava region several times. The first blow was struck by 12 MiG-3s of the 186th Fighter Aviation Regiment (FAR or “IAP” in Russian) at 08:10 (here and further, all events are given in Moscow time; Berlin time in October 1941 was differed by an hour in a smaller direction). According to the Soviet pilots’ reports, six Bf 109 Messerschmitts were destroyed on the ground as the result of a bomb-storm strike, and in the following aerial fight between Poltava and Kochubeyevka, another German fighter was shot down.
At that time, the newest fighters Bf 109F-4 of the III Group of the 52nd Fighter Wing were based at the Poltava airfield, and the fighters of the Group afterwards glorified with their effectiveness. Air squadron 9./JG 52 pilots that fought with MiGs of the 186th FAR (IAP), had a little bit different opinion about the collision results: at 08:14-08:25, Unteroffizier Alfred Grislawski stated a Soviet fighter, identified as Polikarpov I-26, and the victims of Feldwebel Johann Klein became two I-26s at once. The Germans had no losses.
Unfortunately, the statements of 9./JG 52 pilots had grounds for themselves. Three MiG-3s made forced landings upon returning to the airfield in Kharkov near the Bezlyudovka — Gremushnoye-Osnova area (pilots: Senior Lieutenant R. P. Andriyanov, Second lieutenants D. M. Koltsov and V. V. Egorov were not injured), and one more Soviet fighter fell and crashed literally on the border of the airfield — its pilot Second lieutenant V. I. Kucherov died.
At 15:40, seven “I-16”s from the 6th FAR (IAP) carried out the attack on Poltava airfield: according to the pilots’ reports they succeeded to damage eight Bf 109s on the ground without losses. At 16:40 the turn came to three IL-2s from the 285th Ground Attack Regiment (ShAP in Russian), that stormed and bombed the Central Airfield of Poltava, claiming the destruction of six twin-engine aircrafts. On the departure from the target, one ground-attack aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft artillery fire, and IL-2 of the squadron commander, Senior Lieutenant V. M. Kaganovich, did not return from the flight. According to the German data, at 16:45 the commander of 8./JG 52 Oberleutnant Günther Rall shot down one IL-2 north of Poltava.
The LaGG-3 fiver of the 254th IAP, which was supposed to accompany the ground-attack aircrafts, attacked Poltava-Grazhdansky airfield. The air squadron commander Captain C. M. Mihailin was counted with one German plane, burnt on the ground, Second Lieutenants P.I. Ivanov and A.V. Trishkin — each one was counted with one Bf109, shot down in an aerial fight. LaGG foes in that battle were Messerschmitts from 9./JG 52. Lieutenant Kurt Schade, who were performing the duties of the Squadron Leader, claimed one “I-26” shot down at 16:46 over Poltava. The Germans suffered no losses that cannot be said about the Soviet group – Lieutenant P.L. Smirnovsky and Second Lieutenant A. I. Balyasnikov did not return from the task. The first of them is still reported missing, and the future Hero of the Soviet Union Alexey Balyasnikov was luckier – on October 26, he arrived to the regiment and finished the War with 620 combat flight and 16 aerial victories.
In such a nervous situation, Lieutenant Hermann Graf and his partner Unteroffizier Heinrich Füllgrabe got a combat mission on the attack of the airfields near Kharkov, from which Soviet pilots acted:
The Oberfeldwebel reported that the guns assembly was completed [we are talking about a set of two 20-mm MG 151 underwing guns. According to the updated data, the first «Messerschmitt» Bf 109F-4/R1 with suspended guns appeared at the front only in November 1941, and first in the air group I./JG 52, so, apparently, Graf spent the fight on October 14 on a usual «three-point» fighter with an armament of one 20-mm cannon and two 7.92-mm machine guns- author's note].
- Excellent! Let’s try them. Heinrich, will you join me?” – Unteroffizier Füllgrabe was immediately on his feet. Apparently, he was also interested in the question.
It was foggy. There was a light cloud cover at three or four thousand meters altitude. The visibility was about 30 kilometers. At an altitude of 2500 meters, the Messerschmitts switched to horizontal flight, preparing to attack enemy airfields. However, the Russians did a favor and started to meet them”.
According to the following narrative, at around 17:05 Graf and his wingman found four “I-26” and took the fight. From the Graf’s story follows that the Soviet pilots fell for a simple trick: a German pair on a dive slipped past and went up, two Soviet pilots rushed after them and they were shot down by the Germans – Graf stated his victory at 17:10, and at 17:12 Füllgrabe distinguished himself. But further, the fight took an extremely hard form: the Soviet group lead fought as an equal, and later Graf believed that was the hardest fight in his career. It is remarkable the German ace called the story “The knights duel”:
“The enemy group lead is flying alone and bring troubles on himself. I attack, the Russian is trying to leave on the descend. I order Heinrich stop getting my way.
So begins one of the most beautiful and dangerous dog melees that I took part in. That was the maximum of what the man and the plane could do: loops with a radius of a good 1000 meters, turns, and it's over and over again. The sweat is literally streaming down my body. He is no least worse than me, my rival… A steep turn is following a steep turn. We meet each other face to face again and again. Everybody’s shooting. Only the last moment he flies over my plane, and then my burst again. Once we almost run into each other.
Another Russian fighter comes back then. I just don't have time to take a little break. The second Russian is trying to go down. And my opponent is already hanging behind me, but he is at least 400 meters away. I shoot at the second one. He jerks the machine up, and then starts going into a tailspin…
The plane fells down on the ground. Apparently, I hit him in his head. But Füllgrabe informs me about this on the radio. I’ve no time for any monitoring. The expert’s gunsight is still on my nape. The Russian squad lead came up about 200 meters. I press myself to the ground. A quick look at the instruments – 600 kilometers per hour! That’s enough. Having accelerated, I go to the height. Hurray, “Daimler-Benz”! I am sure, I will gain 1200 meters for a combat turn and the Russian will not gain more than 1000 – at least I think so. But we are going higher and higher, until 3000 meters. My enemy is attacking because he is craving for revenge. A new fight starts. 10 more minutes passed. With each attack, my hat is mentally off to him. I think this is their best aerobatic pilot. It's good that I've been practicing aerobatics for years, otherwise I will be dead.
Heinrich Füllgrabe leaves the battle. He has ran out of fuel. Five minutes more. We are flying again along the same curve after each other or at each other head-on. Once I don't turn to him, but try to fly past him sideways. Oddly enough, he also does the same, and therefore we skip on opposite courses just a few meters from each other. What is he going to do now? Maybe he let me pass by, so that he could turn around and decisively attack again? I am keeping an eye on him every second.
But something unexplained happens: he is flying further East, and I am flying West. I arrived with literally last fuel drop. My propeller stops on landing…
My knees are trembling when I am coming out. What a foe it was! Congratulations on my two aerial victories do not really penetrate my consciousness. All my thoughts are with the Russian pilot, I fought with. I would like to sit down and have a talk with him at least once. I am sure he is a great guy. What will be his opinion about me? These questions bother me more than the fact that on that day at 16:10 and 16:13 I managed to win my 13th and 14th victories.”
With whom, 10-15 km north of Valka, did Hermann Graf fight, who is this Soviet ace, about whom he remembered so respectfully?
According to the papers of the 36th Soviet Fighter Aviation Division (FAD or IAD in Russian), four MiG-3s of the 186th IAP took off at 16:44 from the Kharkov airfield. That was another group sent for the strike on Poltava-Central airfield, from which Graf and his wingman started several minutes before. Graf’s pair take off was a vengeance act for the previous Soviet raids, but instead of airfield ground attack the Germans had to run an aerial fight.
Unfortunately, there are no fight details from the Soviet side and there will not be: none of MiG-3s returned from the flight, including the pilot with whom Graf had such a long and hard battle.
Graf wrote that fought with the Soviet group leader. By the logic, that was the squadron leader Captain Piotr Krupenya, but all four Soviet pilots were experienced enough to match Graf and Füllgrabe both the age and the military service duration and in the whirl of the battle, the German could not understand who exactly he was fighting with. Alas, we would hardly be able to find out who was the first to die from the “MiGs” pilots and who was the last, but somebody of the Soviet pilots skilfully ran a deliberately unequal battle with the enemy, who piloted the newest Bf 109F-4. So why didn’t the fourth MiG-3 come back to the airfield and we could not find out the Soviet ace’s name?
The answer on the question is hidden in the victory statements of other group III./JG 52 pilots. Judging by all, not only the Graf’s pair ran the fight with MiGs. At 17:20-17:25 three victories over I-26 were stated by other two 9./JG 52 pilots: two victories went to the feldwebel Alfred Emberger’s account and the third was credited to feldwebel Johann Klein. The data a little bit spoils the ideal picture, which was painted by Graf in his memoirs. At first, it is already quite difficult to claim all three downed MiG-3s, and in a certain scenario, the pair of Graf and the Füllgrabe could not shoot down a single Soviet fighter at all.
Moreover, based on the chronology, described by Graf, who stated that after the second victory he ran the fight with the second MiG during 15 minutes, one could calculate with a known assumption that the last Soviet pilot left the fight at around 17:28-17:30. And here it turns out another significant detail: at 17:30, Unteroffizier Edmund Roβmann from Squadron 7./JG 52 won his 20th victory over the I-26.
Of course, this is just an assumption but Luftwaffe hunters had a favorite trick to ambush and shoot down a single plane, which pilot was in a hurry towards home without fuel and ammunition. With a high probability, one can suppose that namely the attack of Edmund Roβmann who was hunting with another future ace Unteroffizier Hans Dammers, cut the life of a promising Soviet pilot.
With the lapse of time, that nameless pilot could have grown into one of the best the Red Army Air Force aces, but as his three comrades, he did not return from the battle flight, but fulfilled their duty. Unfortunately, as in hundreds similar cases, we can often learn about the skill, courage and heroism of Soviet pilots only from enemy documents, and there is only regret left that these feats were not marked with awards. And fortunately, now we can tribute to their memories, using the German data.
Edmund Roβmann had a more favorable destiny than the one of the unknown Soviet pilot: on the 9th of July 1943, he made a forced landing on the Soviet territory in the midst of the Battle of Kursk and was taken prisoner. By that moment, the Knight's Cross cavalier was credited with 93 aerial victories achieved in 640 combat missions. In 1949, he returned home from the captivity and died on April 4, 2005 at the age of 87. Hermann Graf died on November 4, 1988 at the age of 76.
- OBD Memorial (https://obd-memorial.ru);
- OBD Pamyat Naroda (https://pamyat-naroda.ru);
- OBD Podvig Naroda (http://podvignaroda.ru);
- TsAMO, fund 36 iad, inventory 1, case 9;
- TsAMO, fund 58 gv. shap, inventory 216324, case 3;
- TsAMO, fund 254 iap, inventory 104648, case 2;
- Bernd Barbas. Die Geschichte der III. Gruppe des Jagdgeschwaders 52 — Rogge GmbH, 2010;
- Berthold Jochim. Oberst Hermann Graf: 200 Luftsiege in 13 Monaten — Erich Pabel, 1970;
- Jochen Prien, Gerhard Stemmer, Peter Rodeike, Winfried Bock. Die Jagdfliegerverbände der Deutschen Luftwaffe 1934 bis 1945. Teil 6/II — Rogge GmbH, 2003.