Despite the plethora of wartime biographies now widely available, these mostly cover the lives of the Western Allies and their Luftwaffe opponents. Relatively little has appeared in the west detailing the experiences of Soviet pilots in the face of the German onslaught of 1941.
First published in 2007, Artem Drabkin's book (translated in this edition from the original Russian by Bair Irincheev) represents the fruits of a series of personal interviews with members of the Soviet air force and provides a vivid account of their day to day lives in the period before the war, through the 1941 invasion, and then on to the turn of the tide as the Russians steadily gained the upper hand against the Germans.
The bulk of the book consists of 6 chapters, each a separate interview with:
1. Vitaly I. Klimenko
2. Alexander E. Shvarev
3. Vitaly V. Rybalko
4. Victor M. Sinaisky
5. Alexander F. Khaila
6. Ivan D. Gaidenko
These are followed by useful Appendices covering the major fighter aircraft used by both sides on the Eastern Front and Soviet fighter production, but it is the personal stories that rightly hold pride of place, because they are a fascinating testimony to the young men and women caught up in the maelstrom of war.
There are 68 illustrations, among them a number of photographs from the personal archives of the interviewees. A nice touch is the inclusion of some profiles (some repeated in colour on the back of the dust jacket) of their aircraft.
Five of the six interviews are with fighter pilots, while the sixth (with Victor Sinaisky) is equally interesting, as he was a ground crewman and his account gives a valuable alternative perspective.
The accounts are fresh and vivid, filled with personal anecdotes and remembrances that provide so much extra life and colour compared to official histories. Common themes emerge;
- the almost total lack of preparation in the period leading up to the German invasion, despite the fact that they viewed the Nazis with deep distrust. Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft penetrated Soviet airspace, but the pilots were forbidden to intercept them, or face court martial, and in one major exercise of April 1941, a unit that should have been able to have sixty aircraft ready for takeoff within twenty minutes, actually manage to field just four in two hours!
- a straightforward recognition of Luftwaffe superiority in the early part of the campaign, both in terms of training and tactics, and the quality of their aircraft. But against this, a firm belief in the character of the Soviet pilots and a steady improvement in both the numbers and quality of men and machines they could pit against the enemy.
The descriptions of the aircraft make fascinating reading. The I-16 is generally regarded as obsolescent and hard to fly "you just had to touch it (the stick) to start the plane spinning", and anyone trained on the "Donkey" (as the pilots call it here) had little problem mastering later machines. The MiG was Vitaly Rybalko's favourite fighter, but others agree with him that it was "cow" at low altitudes. Vitaly Klimenko's opinion that the Hurricane was "a piece of junk rather than a fighter" may shock some, while Ivan Gaidenko's fond memories of the Airacobra - "I loved this plane. It was only on Cobras that I fought with confidence in dogfights." will equally surprise those that tend to dismiss the Bell fighter. Yaks are generally well regarded, but the La-5 (and La-5FN) is seen as the supreme fighter in the conflict - except for No. 94 in Victor Sinaisky's squadron - a machine plagued with constant problems that nobody wanted to fly and described as a "bitch".
Anyone interested in Soviet wartime aviation will find this book valuable. Although it's not a modeller's book, per se, the small details in the descriptions of life on the airfields will be useful for bringing dioramas and vignettes to life. It's a fitting tribute to a generation of servicemen that is sadly passing into history. Recommended.
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Highs: Highly readable, varied stories around a common theme. Well translated.Lows:Verdict: Artem Drabkin's collected interviews provide a lasting tribute to the members of the VVS in wartime.
About Rowan Baylis (Merlin) FROM: NO REGIONAL SELECTED, UNITED KINGDOM
I've been modelling for about 40 years, on and off. While I'm happy to build anything, my interests lie primarily in 1/48 scale aircraft. I mostly concentrate on WW2 subjects, although I'm also interested in WW1, Golden Age aviation and the early Jet Age - and have even been known to build the occas...