Flying Tigers
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Ki-27s
against I-16s

Japan v. Russia, 1939

Few in the west knew or cared that Japan and the Soviet Union fought a small war on the Siberia-Manchuria border in the summer of 1939. On the ground, these were the largest tank battles since WWI. In the air, large forces were likewise engaged, with the Japanese taking something of a beating. It is difficult to get a fix on actual losses, both countries being notoriously secretive and notoriously apt to over-claim. The best history in English is Alvin D. Coox, Nomonhan: Japan Against Russia, 1939 (Stanford Univ Press, 1985). Below are my notes from Coox's book. (Expect typographical errors; it was done in haste.)

Nomonhan appears to be a village west of the Holsten river (NS at that point) just before it crossed the Soviet claimed boundary (NW-SE at that point). Holsten rises in Lake Abutara a few miles inside Soviet claimed territory, and flows into the Halha river (Khalkhin Gol, the name by which the Russians remember this war).

The cry before destroying the colors and committing suicide: "Tenno Heika Banzai!" three times.

Duty is weightier than a mountain / Death is lighter than a feather. -- Imperial Precepts to Soldiers and Sailors, 1882

Summary of JAAF air

The air force involved was the 2nd Hikoshidan, commanded by General GIGA Tetsuji. At the time of the August offensive it consisted of 4 scout planes attached to air force headquarters, 15 scout planes serving with the ground troops, and two combat wings with 125 aircraft:

12th Hikodan with 88 fighters, commander unidentified. Three fighter groups took part in the offensive, all of which later saw combat against the American Volunteer Group in Burma: 1st Sentai commanded first by Maj HARADA Fumio and later by Maj YOSHIDA Tadashi; 11th Sentai; and 64th Sentai commanded by Cap KATO Tateo. A fourth group, the 24th Sentai, evidently did not take part in the offensive.

9th Hikodan with 24 light bombers and 13 heavies, commanded by Maj Gen SHIMONO Ikkaku. The combat units included one squadron of the 10th Sentai (light bombers plus 2 scouts), three squadrons of the 16th Sentai (light), and one squadron of the 61st Sentai heavy commanded by Col MIKAMI Kiso

Japanese ground commanders tended to discount verbal reports of air recon. Photos were rare because cameras difficult to operate.

The 2nd Hikoshidan was worn down by August. In July, the Japanese had claimed 481 Russian planes while losing 14 of their own. In August they claimed 134 while losing 23. On the Russian side, Soviet AF officer A. B. Vorozheikin says the loss ratio was 4 Russ to 1 Jap in May but improved to 1:3 in June, 1:4 in July, and 1:10 in August. (That's a remarkable admission!)

Nomonhan got most of Nakajima's production of Ki-27 fighters. The crews were exhausted and replacement pilots untrained. Flying up to 6 hrs daily. "An air staff officer remembers the drawn faces, glazed eyes, and hollow cheeks of Japanese aviators. Scout pilots . . . were having difficulty with their respiratory systems" (lungs?).

Prior to the August offensive, 52 airmen were killed and 24 wounded, including Col ABE Katsumi c/o 15th Sentai killed by Russian strafing Aug 2. Lt Col MATSUMURA Korjiro c/o 24th Sentai shot down Aug 4 in fight with Russian veterans of Spanish Civil War, undersides of their wings painted violet. He was pinned by the tail of his own plane, his flight suit set afire, and lost all the fingers on one hand, but was rescued by another pilot who landed, pulled him free, and bundled him into his one-seater fighter. In all 80 percent of squadron commanders killed or wounded since fighting began. 70 percent of JAAF pilots had upwards of 1,000 hrs flight time.

Rising Sun Over Burma

The big push, 21 August 1939

In July, Kwantung Army hq at Hsinking urged Imperial Army High Command for permission to launch an air offensive against Soviet-Mongol strongpoint at Tamsag. This was approved on Aug 7.

"Operation S" set for dawn Aug 21. Estimated Soviet air strength 80-90 fighters, 30-40 larger planes. Says Giga had eight groups with 88 fighters, 24 light bombers, 13 heavy bombers, 21 scouts.

16th Sentai light bomber: 6-plane sq took off at 4:20 a.m. Bombers in two tiers escorted by 50 fighters flew across Halha for Tamsag airfield 60 km SW Higashi-watashi crossing. First squadron bombed at 6 a.m., still dark but could see outline of airfield, encountered flak returning. Second squadron (?) saw 16 large planes on field, encountered 20 I-16s (Polikarpov single-wing open cockpit fighter) when returning and took some hits. Third squadron could not find target and instead bombed tank formation. From 10th Sentai lt bomber 6 planes saw 10 Tupolev SB twin-engine bombers on airfield NE Tamsang, bombed them and claimed 2 destroyed. Escorting 12th Fighter Wing met no planes.

Second wave attacked 11 a.m. Squadron from 16th Sentai bombed southern airstrip, claimed five of eight large planes. Another squadron same group intercepted by fighters so turned for home and attacked ground installations; lost one plane and claimed 3 fighters. 61st Sentai heavy bomber with 12 planes met eight fighters at southern airstrip and claimed two; on way home claimed three more. 12th Ftr Wing? met 50-60 enemy planes, claimed 27 fighters and 1 SB bomber, lost 3 own.

In afternoon, supported Jap ground forces by bombing tanks and vehicles near Fui Heights; met enemy planes. 16th lt bomber claimed 6 of 30 I-16s, losing one man killed and two wounded. Escorting 11th Sentai fighters claimed 11 of 40-50 I-15s (Polikarpov biplane fighter) and I-16s. Evening: 10th Sentai squadron bombed 3 fighters taking off from concealed aistrip west of Hara Heights. Escorting fighters engaged 50 enemy fighters, claimed 9, lost 1 from 64th Sentai. Still, had failed to neutralize enemy air so scheduled followup for next day.

AUG 22: 61st Sentai heavies attacked by 30 I-16s, claimed 6 but lost 1 with entire crew of 5. Fighters met 30 enemy, claimed 3, lost 1 from 1st Sentai to AA. Scouts attached to 23rd Div reported that Soviet armor was endangering Jap positions, so Giga called off the air offensive to support the ground forces. AA shot down scout from 10th Sentai. Capt MOTOMURA Koji, 11th Sentai sq ldr, shot down while single-handedly battling 30 I-16s strafing ground forces north of 23rd Div hq. Though claimed 109 Russ planes in two days, had actually lost air supremacy. Worst losses since outbreak of Nomonhan fighting, say 8 planes first day, 6 the second. Plus 22-24 men killed or wounded. Jap airmen exhausted but ordered to keep flying. Soviets reinforced air.

Climax battle 28-31 Aug. Soviet AF reported four encounters with JAAF, downing 4 bombers and 45 fighters. Major battle 31 Aug, when 126 Soviet fighters bounced 27 Jap bombers and 70 fighters, shooting down 22. Japs claimed 20 Russ planes that day, losing 3 planes and 4 men. Altogether, Japs claimed 108 Soviet a/c shot down while losing 29 (and 20 airmen killed and 32 wounded) from 23 thru 31 Aug.

After 5 Sept, major changes in JAAF. Operational strength down from 160 planes on 29 Aug to 141 planes on 5 Sept. The 31st Sentai and 64th Sentai had come up from China in July and August. More reinforcements began to move on 1 Sep.

Giga's 2nd Hikoshidan absorbed by EBASHI Eijiro's (?), increasing air strength at Nomonhan by 50% with 9 new squadrons -- 6 fighter, 1 recon, 2 light bomber -- to a total of four wings (hikodan?) with 34-37 squadrons and up to 325 planes. [Later: my guess is that only three hikodan were deployed at Nomonhan.]

Russians likewise reinforced air units at the front. On 13 Sep, Ebashi gave go-ahead. 225 planes airworthy; fighters and some light bombers deployed to forward bases. Weather improved on 14 Sep.

Maj YOSHIDA Tadashi's 1st Sentai (Ki-27) bounced about 28 Soviet I-15 and I-16 fighters in afternoon, claiming 3. Weather still fair on 15 Sep, and Ebashi sent all Ki-27s and two light bomber groups plus scouts -- total 200 planes -- to hit enemy airfields. 20 Nates from Lt Col IMAGAWA Issaku's 59th Sentai engaged 50 Russ fighters, claimed 11. But one squadron followed Russ to south, was ambushed, and lost six Nates and their pilots, inc. squadron leader YAMAMOTO Mitsugu. 24th Sentai under newly arrived Capt SAKAGAWA Toshio claimed 13 Russ fighters; Sakagawa wounded but lost no planes. Total Jap claims: 39 in air, 4-5 on ground; lost 9, with 8 pilots killed incl 2 squadron leaders, plus three lt bombers damaged.

Russ say six air battles: 1, 2, 4, 5, 14, and 15 Sept, the last being the biggest, with 102 Jap planes engaging 207 Russ. Russ claimed 20, lost 6. Altogether for Sept, Russ claimed 70, lost 14; Japs claimed 121, lost 24.

The aftermath

JAAF casualties 141 killed, including 17 officers squadron leader or higher, w/ highest ranking being Col ABE Katsumi, c/o 15th Sentai. One-third of losses were over enemy lines. Plus 89 wounded. 10% of casualties in May and June, 26 percent in July, 50 percent in August, 14 percent in September.

Russ returned bodies of 55 JAAF airmen from west side of the Halha. In one PW compound, the Russians held 500-600 Japanese prisoners, including a JAAF colonel.

The "released" (I am pretty sure that this refers to dead bodies) included Maj HARADA Fumio, 1st Sentai c/o shot down 29 July, possibly by Senior Lt V. G. Rakhov, who claimed to have shot down a Jap "ace" that day, who bailed out, tried to commit suicide, but was captured alive. As Rakhov told the story, the Japanese prisoner asked to meet the Russ pilot who defeated him, then bowed "in tribute to the victor" (quoting Georgi Zhukov THE MEMOIRS OF MARSHAL ZHUKOV, Delacorte, 1971, p 164).

Also 1st Lt DAITOKU Naoyuki of 11th Sentai. The Russians sent him to Shintan hospital at Kirin, with MPs guarding the train and toilet doors always kept open, to prevent suicide attempts. Tight security also at hospital, where most of the orderlies were actually MPs.

As the story was told, two coffins were carried into the hospital the day before a six-hour "trial," after which guards were forbidden to go into the officers' rooms. The Japanese officers duly shot themselves, Harada supposedly after being given a loaded pistol and a Japanese publication describing his "heroic death in action" (quoting Japanese sources).

Nor was being returned alive necessarily a better option. JAAF Master Sgt MIYAJIMA SHIKO, Ki-27 pilot of 24th Sentai, bellied in 22 June, wandered 4 days without food or water, captured by a Mongol patrol and imprisoned under harsh conditions for 10 months. He was returned to Japanese forces in 1940, tried, and sentenced to two years and 10 months for "desertion under enemy fire." Released 31 Dec 1942. (quotes Hata Ikuhiko, interview and article)

Gen Giga in August 1940 made commander of a bomber basic training school, then retired in Oct 1941 at age of 56 and spent most of WWII as a farmer.

Unit citations to Col Noguchi's 11th Sentai for air battles in May, Lt Col Matsumura's 24th Sentai for combat in June. Also to all three wings and to a squadron of 16th Sentai.

Russian I-16 fighters used 82 mm rockets to attack Jap ground positions, and there are reports of using air-to-air missiles against Jap planes. I-16 saw service on Western front until 1943, and in Spanish service under 1952. Says it was replaced at Nomonhan by the retractable-gear I-153 Chaika fighter-bomber, much more powerful than the I-15.

JAAF had trained only 1,700 pilots in 30 years; losses at Nomonhan crippled it. By December 1941, army flight schools graduating 750 pilots a year.

Remains - A Story of the Flying Tigers

Alexei Stepanov on the Annals of Military Aviation message board:

Apparently, [a fourth wing, or hikodan] was formed in the end of the actions.... Therefore, one can assume that the fourth wing (if existed) might contain 11th Sentai, 64th Sentai and the newly arrived 59th Sentai.

My special thanks for the information about claims of 64th Sentai at Nomonhan. Surely, the victory claims of both sides (JAAF and VVS) were enourmously exaggerated. According to official Soviet data, VVS claimed more then 650 enemy a/c; the VVS losses were stated as 143 a/c. Later, in 1980s, this estimation of own Soviet losses was revised upwards: 207 a/c (including 160 fighter planes). So it is interesting to compare this data with the JAAF victory claims (1000+) and real losses of the Japanese a/c....

[About Russian pilots using a "boom & zoom" tactic to counter the more-maneuverable Japanese fighters in China:] According to information from the Soviet pilots, Nakajima Ki-27 had a serious weakness: the wing-tips of the plane had insufficient strength. If a Japanese would choose to dive away, the wings could have desintegrated during the sharp pulling-down. So the Japanese had neither possibility to break away by diving, nor the way to follow the Soviet "boomers".

Sander Kingsepp comments further:

Dear Sir,

I read your account about Coox's book (air battles during the Nomonhan conflict) and found it very interesting. I am an aviation fan from Estonia aged 36 and have researched this campaign myself. Besides reading Russian memoirs dealing with the conflict I also had a chance to discuss it with two veterans from Soviet side. From Coox's excerpts I somehow got the impression that the Japanese were the only ones who took a beating. This is certainly not true. Soviet losses in air were at least as appalling and all survivors still consider themselves members of a chosen (and lucky) club.

First some comments on planes involved in this conflict. The main Soviet fighters in Mongolia were Polikarpov I-152 biplane (I-15bis in Russian parlance) and Polikarpov I-16 Type 10 monoplane (better known as the Rata). According to "mutual support" doctrine the more agile biplanes had to engage enemy fighters so that monoplanes could simultaneously bust the bombers. You certainly wonder why it wasn't the other way round. The cause was in unstable flying characteristics of I-16--it simply could not hit anything smaller than a decent two-engined bomber. I'd like to quote the book Fighters of WW II edited by David Donald (Grange Books 1998, p 132): "Trying to bring guns to bear on another aircraft needed great skill and concentration... Any prolonged air combat, or tight turns, needed great skill and experience if the aircraft (I-16) was not to flick and spin." Such teamwork between mono- and biplanes had functioned in Spain and (not so well) in China, where biplane losses were already higher.

It should be added that Soviet pilots of that time preferred dogfighting as a rule. The Polikarpov fighters had a good turn rate (I-152 could master a full circle in some 11 seconds) and the Russians were confident to out-turn every other plane on earth. We should also remember that the only thing that was known about the Japanese that time was that they "could not take high Gs because of their fragile stature".

Another important factor to be considered is the difference in training. While JAAF pilots had "upwards of 1,000hrs flight time", the bulk of Soviet V-VS pilots of that time usually flew 100-120hrs yearly. Of course there were some exceptions, such like the veterans who had fought in Spain and China.

Already on May 29 the first replacement consisting of Spain and China vets was sent from Moscow to Mongolia (they were flying on brand-new DC-3s, by the way). Among 48 pilots 22 had the coveted title of the Hero of the Soviet Union (the equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honor). At the end of June the Soviets had at least 150 fighters and 116 bombers ready (according to the official Soviet history of the conflict entitled 20 August 1939, by Yevgeni Gorbunov, Moscow 1986).

At the first briefing after arrival the pilots were told that their main opponent was "I-97 (Ki-27 Type 97) fighter, an inferior development of I-96" (A5M2--an opinion that still regularly appears in Russian publications). According to Soviet intelligence data, the I-97 had two Vickers machine guns (most Soviets fighters were having four) and a "major design flaw--oil cooler located before the engine that could be hit easily". Thus it was advised to attack Ki-27 head-on. No word was said about Ki-27's advantages, such as all-metal construction, radio equipment and closed cockpit or its range (which was at least 565 ms longer than that of the newest I-16).

Contrary to what Mr Stepanov said, diving with Japanese fighters was prohibited because already in China many I-16s had been lost while following their counterparts. I-16's mixed structure enabled no sharp pullouts: so the Japanese usually waited until the "boomer" had passed and then downed it while the Russian pilot was struggling with G-forces. Any talk about "boom & zoom" tactics applied at that time is sheer nonsense. Remember, we are talking about all-metal fighters vs. mixed structure Polikarpovs that had only a marginal strip of metal in order to keep their engines in place.

I-153 Chaika mentioned by Coox was intended to replace the I-152 biplanes and retractable gear was the main difference between the two modifications. Contrary to what was said, it had the same (and rather unreliable) 750hp M-25V engine like old I-152 and I-16 and its performance was disappointing. Structural integrity once again presented the main problem of the new version and Vorozheikin mentioned in your account personally saw one of them "folding its wings like a butterfly" in combat.

Many Soviet memoirs grudgingly admit that Japanese tactics and logistics at Nomonhan were superior in many ways and better adapted to local conditions. On June 27, for example, two Type 97 scouts (Mitsubishi Ki-15-I Babs?) crossed the front-line, acting as "battle managers"--they instructed large groups of bombers which targets to attack while Jap agents in Soviet rear severed all radio telephone lines leading from HQ to fighter bases. During great battles in June and August the Japanese used to sent a few fighters over enemy airfields in order to bounce the returning and crippled a/c. Already then Soviet airfields were often attacked simultaneously by several groups of bombers that emerged from different directions, confusing Russian ground observers. In August the HQ of General Zhukov himself was bombed so often and so heavily that the Soviets had to deploy all their cannon-equipped I-16P fighters to this area. On downed Japanese planes survival kits and provision for up to 3 days were found while nothing like this existed on Russian side.

Finally it must be said that the result of the battle was decided by regular reinforcements from the Soviet heartland. Anyway, in Mongolia the tanks (not to mention the up-to-the-minute information provided by Richard Sorge's spy ring) and not planes had the final word. To quote Alan Lothian: "Stalin knew that Soviet international prestige was at stake and his new negotiations with Hitler, no respecter of weakness, had reached a critical juncture. Neither blood nor treasure would be spared."

The revelation that the Japanese fighters were more than a match for their own was a major shock for Soviet top brass. In order to save his face Polikarpov (the Soviet "Fighter King") organized a fancy mock combat with a captured Kawasaki Ki-10 biplane against I-16 monoplane before the members of the Soviet government, including Stalin. It's not hard to guess which fighter won. Stalin was not to be fooled so easily, however. Polikarpov soon fell into disfavour and was replaced with younger designers like Mikoyan or Yakovlev. After Nomonhan bloodletting the "mutual support" doctrine was finally abandoned but meanwhile the Soviets had produced so many biplanes that they simply could not replace them before the next war began.

Speaking of Soviet losses. . . A source from long-forgotten glasnost time (Grif sekretnosti snyat, Moscow 1993) admits already a still higher number than 207. I would also advise to check up Lt.Gen. Krivosheev's book.

About Japanese casualties. . . According to Russian sources the "ace" shot down on 29 July by Lt. Victor G. Rakhov (not Pakhov) was Takeo Fuchida. The photo of his downed Ki-27 with white "Ru" Hiragana letter on its tail rudder can be found in almost all Russian publications. [I've corrected Rakhov's name above--DF]

With best season greetings Your
Sander Kingsepp

Taildragger Tales

... which brought this reply from Alexei:

Dear Mr. Kingsepp,

I thank you for your attention to my remark. I read your viewpoints of the Nomonhan events with great interest.

It is very interesting that you collected stories and memoirs of the Nomonhan veterans. I hope that you will publish this narrates someday. Maybe, meanwhile you will post pieces from the stories at Dan's site?

I had also interviewed such people. One was a member of tank crew, three others were airmen. One of them flew missions to escort the fighters of special unit of Capt. Zvonarev, which was equipped by air-to-air rockets. The paper about it was published by me in the journal "Aviatsiya i Kosmonavtica" (Aviation and Cosmonautics), 1996, No.12.

Not so far ago I published brief paper about Nomonhan at the site by D.Sribniy www.airforce.ru and invite you to read it. (It is in Russian).

I can agree with some of your statements, while the others seem to me at least questionable. I decided to comment the latter.

Sander Kingsepp (S.K.) > First some comments on planes involved in this conflict. The main Soviet fighters in Mongolia were Polikarpov I-152 biplane (I-15bis in Russian parlance) and Polikarpov I-16 Type 10 monoplane (better known as the Rata).

I'd like to clarify this statements: the main Soviet fighter of Nomonhan conflict was monoplane I-16, which was known in USSR as 'Ishachok' (i.e. 'Little Donkey'). In Spain Civil War the Nationalists named it 'Rata' and the Republicans called it 'Moskas'. The Japanese dubbed it as 'Abu' (i.e. 'Gadfly')

There were 76 I-16s in Mongolia in May 1939. They were mainly I-16 Type 5, which were equipped with the engine M-25 of 710 hp and armed with two 7.62 mm machineguns ShKAS. It were they who engaged the first air-battles. In the progress of the conflict the other modifications of I-16 were deployed. They were I-16s Type 10 and Type 17: either had the engine M-25B (750 hp). Several aircraft of Type 18 with the engine M-62 (830 hp) arrived in the second half of the summer. A handful of I-16 Type 24, which had the engine M-63 (930 hp), were used in the end of the war. The latter types had already four ShKAS, and the I-16s Type 17 were armed with two 20 mm ShVAK cannons and two ShKASs. In all, 313 I-16s of different types were deployed during the war.

13 of 49 engaged I-15bis fighters were lost in the hot combat on 22 June 1939 and after that these biplanes were not used as fighters anymore (with rare exceptions). They were used mainly for attacks of the ground targets. Note that in this very air-combat I-16s proved themselves: only 1 of 56 I-16s was lost. S.K>The cause was in unstable flying characteristics of I-16--it simply could not hit anything smaller than a decent two-engined bomber.

It sounds really interesting, but according to the official Japanese data, 90 Japanese a/c were lost in combat. 62 of them were Nakajima Ki.27. It is nearly impossible that all these fighters were lost due to Soviet AAA, or shot down by a few I-153. But I can tip you the real culprits - they were Polikarpov's I-16s.

S.K.>"It should be added that Soviet pilots of that time preferred dogfighting as a rule". "Contrary to what Mr Stepanov said, diving with Japanese fighters was prohibited because already in China many I-16s had been lost while following their counterparts. I-16's mixed structure enabled no sharp pullouts: so the Japanese usually waited until the "boomer" had passed and then downed it while the Russian pilot was struggling with G-forces. Any talk about "boom & zoom" tactics applied at that time is sheer nonsense. Remember, we are talking about all-metal fighters vs. mixed structure Polikarpovs that had only marginal strip of metal in order to keep their engines in place".

There are other viewpoints on this issue. For example, W.Green & G. Swanborough in "Japanese Army Fighters" stated that at Nomonhan I-16s used "hit and run" tactic against Ki.27: the former swooped on the Japanese and then disengaged thus avoiding the dogfight.

A famous test-pilot S.Suprun wrote: " I-16 can disengage only by long steep diving_ The common way of combat for I-16 was utilization of attitude and horizontal speed gained after attack due to acceleration. When attack is over, I-16 descends and _ gains the attitude for the next attack."

The I-16 construction strength can be estimated from the following account by S.Belolipetskiy "V srazhayushchemsya Kitaye" ('In the warring China').

In July 1938 A.Gubenko, who fought for C.A.F. in the Central China, demonstrated aerobatics in his I-16 over Nanchang airfield: "Anton ended his show by unusual and dangerous maneuver. His plane made a steep dive from high attitude with engine at full throttle that was roaring and spitting black fumes of smoke. Over the ground the plane aprupted steep diving into steep climbing".

In my opinion it is pure power-dive.

Note that several months after the Nomonhan war, I-16s were successfully used for strafing and bombing in dive-attacks of the Finnish ground targets during the Winter War.

On the contrary, the Japanese monoplane I-97 (or Ki.27) was not suited for long diving. For example, N.Yakubovich in his paper "Tam vdali za rekoy" ('There, far across the river') quoted the report by A.S.Nikolayev, who was Captain of VVS RKKA:

"I-97 dived steeply lesser then 700-1.000 meters, then they stopped the chase. During interrogation the captured {Japanese} airmen were asked why they were diving steeply but not long. The latter stated that there was considerable vibration of wings, especially their cantilevers and the engine was rapidly cooling off (it could halt after). There was an episode during the combats when the cantilever of I-97 was torn off during diving. {The I-97} was chased by I-153 (its pilot was Captain A.S.Nikolayev). The cantilever disintegrated after 500-700 m diving; the possibility of the wing damage in the chase was impossible as the fire was aimed to the cockpit. The eyewitnesses confirmed that it was brand-new aircraft."

S.K.>I-153 Chaika mentioned by Coox was intended to replace the I-152 biplanes and retractable gear was the main difference between the two modifications. Contrary to what was said, it had the same (and rather unreliable) 750hp M-25V engine like old I-152 and I-16 and its performance was disappointing. Structural integrity once again presented the main problem of the new version and Vorozheikin mentioned in your account personally saw one of them "folding its wings like a butterfly" in combat.

In the second half of summer 1939 a batch on new biplanes I-153 'Chaika' was deployed. They had the M-62 engine (not M-25) and were inferior to monoplanes I-16s.

I quite agree that I-153 was unfortunate aircraft. Its engine could stopped in diving and its wings could disintegrated. The undercarriage was also unreliable. The mass production of this plane was a serious mistake of the Soviet leadership.

S.K.>Another important factor to be considered is the difference in training. While JAAF pilots had "upwards of 1,000hrs flight time", the bulk of Soviet V-VS pilots of that time usually flew 100-120hrs yearly. Of course there were some exceptions, such like the veterans who had fought in Spain and China.

Again, I agree with this statements. I believe that the Japanese airmen were the best at this time. A fighter-pilot B.Smirnov, who took part in the Spanish Civil war and later added air victories at Nomonhan to his score, stated: "I think that the Japanese airmen are more skilled then the Germans and more aggressive then the Italians".

But the advantage of extensive training was, in fact, sad disadvantage, too. It was impossible to recover the losses fast and adequately. The Nomonhan was a dressed rehearsal and later, during proper WWII the Japanese were doomed to meet the crisis again.

S.K.>According to Soviet intelligence data, the I-97 had two Vickers machine guns (most Soviets fighters were having four) and a "major design flaw--oil cooler located before the engine that could be hit easily". Thus it was advised to attack Ki-27 head-on. No word was said about Ki-27's advantages, such as all-metal construction, radio equipment and closed cockpit or its range (which was at least 565 ms longer than that of the newest I-16).

Ki.27 was light and maneuverable fighter and the listed features were great achievements indeed. But the metal construction lead to higher price of aircraft and decreased productions volume, which were rather low. On the contrary, the mixed wooden metal construction of I-16 allowed to mass product this plane against the deficit of aluminum in USSR. Note that in WWII the Japanese also had to use wood in the fighters' construction.

It is known that both JAAF and JNAF airmen used to fly with the cockpits opened for better visibility, so the advantage of the closed cockpit seems elusive to me.

S.K.>The revelation that the Japanese fighters were more than a match for their own was a major shock for Soviet top brass. In order to save his face Polikarpov (the Soviet "Fighter King") organized a fancy mock combat with a captured Kawasaki Ki-10 biplane against I-16 monoplane before the members of the Soviet government, including Stalin. It's not hard to guess which fighter won. Stalin was not to be fooled so easily, however. Polikarpov soon fell into disfavour and was replaced with younger designers like Mikoyan or Yakovlev. After Nomonhan bloodletting the "mutual support" doctrine was finally abandoned but meanwhile the Soviets had produced so many biplanes that they simply could not replace them before the next war began.

After the Nomonhan the JAAF abandoned the idea to have light agile fighter and decided to go on the Western way of high-powered fighter. (e.g. W.Green & G. Swanborough)

This mentioned combat was described in the book "Under the Red Star" (Vol.1) by K.-F. Geust in quite different way:

* * *

"In the recent history of NII VVS the dramatic testing of the Nakajima I-95 is also reported: the captured aircraft was delivered by train from Mongolia to the NII VVS at Chalovskaya, where it was first flown by Aleksey I. Kubyshkin. After the initial tests it was decided to organize a simulated dogfight between the Polikarpov 1-153 Chaika and the Japanese fighter in August 1939. The People's Commissar of Defense Kliment Ye. Voroshilov and the top command of the Soviet Air Force were invited to attend the dog fight demonstration, with Kubyshkin piloting the Soviet fighter and Mikhail N. Vakhrushev (the second NII VVS test pilot to fly the 1-95 after Kubyshkin) piloting the Japanese fighter.

"After chasing each other for six minutes the eagerly awaited result was finally achieved, as Kubyshkin was able to hang at the I-95's tail and take a good aim. Vakhrushev however did not want to give in, but wanted to show his best and did his utmost to escape. His violent turn resulted in a tragedy - the Japanese fighter started spinning, and at the low altitude crashed and exploded in the forest surrounding the aerodrome. After having expressed his regrets to the head of NII VVS Gen. Filin, Voroshilov departed, leaving the upset Kubyshkin mouming his test pilot colleague and friend.

* * *

As we see, neither N.N.Polikarpov, nor I.V. Stalin were involved or present at this contest. It was the leadership of VVS RKKA decided to test if new Soviet biplane is better then the Japanese one or not. Judging the results, the combat cannot be considered as "fancy and mock". There is one more version of the event in the Soviet literature. According to memoir of prominent test-pilot P.Stefanovskiy "300 neizvestnykh" ('300 Unknown Ones') not I-153, but I-15bis participated the combat. However, no-one mentioned I-16 at all.

S.K.>Speaking of Soviet losses. . . A source from long-forgotten glasnost time (Grif sekretnosti snyat, Moscow 1993) admits already a still higher number than 207. I would also advise to check up Lt.Gen. Krivosheev's book.

I have an exemplar of this book. There were no data about Soviet aircraft losses at Nomonhan. The book contains only partial data of the Soviet airmen losses there.

I don't consider the figure of 207 lost aircraft as final. However, the interesting data from "Grif sekretnosti snyat" are far from being accurate and complete. The book itself is rather biased and it can be easily proved. In my opinion, the sweet magic word Glasnost is not equivalent for Revelation.

My best regards, Aleksey A. Stepanov, Samara, Russia 23 February 2000

Click here for a Russian list of aircraft losses, giving a total of 249 aircraft lost to all causes.

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Poland's Daughter

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Posted August 2016. Websites © 1997-2016 Daniel Ford; all rights reserved.