Dogfight Over the Don
During the latter half of 1942, the Soviet Eighth Air Army (8 VA) suffered bloody losses in repeated attempts to knock out the bridges across the Don bend, which prevented the German Sixth Army from opening its advance toward Stalingrad.
On August 17, 1942, the Soviet bomber pilot Starshiy Leytenant Aron Shapiro arrived at Kirov front airfield together with 86 BAP following an eight-month period of rest and refit in Astrakhan. Two days later, the Petlyakov Pe-2 crews were sent out on their first mission against the German river crossings. Aron Shapiro recalls this event:
“We were filled with energy and enthusiasm. Two formations of nine planes each plus the staff aircraft--in all twenty Pe-2s--took off, led by our CO, Mayor Belyy. Only three aircraft returned from this first operation. Where were the other? Some damaged planes had gone down 'anywhere.’ We learned that Mladshiy Leytenant Andrey Terchuk had crashed his burning Pe-2 into a congestion of German tanks. The lesson taught to us due to our lacking experience was merciless. Antiaircraft artillery and enemy fighters had ripped the entire formation apart. One of our damaged aircraft made an extremely hazardous landing. One bomb had been stuck and hung in its shackles in the bomb bay. The safety pin of the windmill had been torn off, and it was a miracle that it didn’t explode during the landing.”
The unit log book of 86 BAP made the following entry for August 20: “August 20, 1942: Led by the Polk commander Mayor F. Belyy, nine Pe-2s carried out a raid against the river crossing near Kalach (Duboviy Ovrag). [Mladshiy Leytenant] Nikolay Mamatchenko’s Pe-2 was attacked by fighters and went down in the river.” Of these nine Pe-2s, two were lost to German fighters and one to AAA.
A formation of twenty Pe-2s of 270 BAD fared even worse on this August 20. As they arrived in the area where they were supposed to rendezvous with their fighter escort, they found no fighters to escort them--just a large formation of Bf 109s. The pilots of III./JG 3 and I./JG 53 made a savage attack against the Soviet bombers. Soviet sources confirm that none of the twenty 270 BAD bombers survived. III./JG 3's adjutant, Leutnant Heinrich Graf von Einsiedel, alone brought down four Pe-2s in a space of six minutes. Together with the MiG-3 that he had brought down earlier that day, Einsiedel’s total score for the day was five --bringing his total tally to thirty-one.
Between August 17 and August 23, 8 VA carried out more than one thousand sorties against the Don bridges. The Official History of the Soviet Air Force dryly remarks: “But that effort was not sufficient . . . the enemy held control of the air.” The statistics in the combat files of 8 VA reflect the increasingly difficult situation the Soviet airmen encountered: Between August 11 and August 22, 8 VA recorded 152 operational losses (100 bombers and 52 fighters) against 98 victory claims. Then, between August 22 and August 31, 8 VA lost another 201 aircraft, against 156 victory claims.
Interview with Aron Shapiro.
Chazanow, Nad Stalingradem.
Russian Central Military Archive TsAMO, Podolsk.
The Soviet Air Force in World War II.