interview by Oleg Korytov and Konstantin Chirkin
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Interview with Lev Ivanovich Toropov by Oleg Korytov and Konstantin Chirkin.
Editor: Igor Zhidov.
Special thanks to Svetlana Spiridonova.
Translation: Oleg Korytov.
I was born on 10 September 1924, in village Volodarka, Topchikhinskii district of Altai.
What my father did when I was born, I have no idea, because my parents divorced soon after I was born… Before war dad worked as engineer, at the beginning of the war he was enlisted into the army, became a Colonel, artillery regiment commander. I met him when I was 33 years old, and was attending the Academy.
Mom was a teacher. Our family consisted of three: mom, her father, my granddad and I. Our village was located at Ob’ River, almost half way from Barnaul and Biisk. In 1929 we moved to Barnaul… And at 1935 to Crimea. First to Kerch, then to Simferopol. In 1936 we went to Achinsk, there I studied for one year, and then to Minusinsk where I lived for two years. Finally, we moved back to Kerch.
There, after graduating from 8th class I applied for a place in aero club. An instructor and technician from the club came to our school, they gathered senior pupils and talked to us. I heavily into sports then, mostly boxing. I was thinking about flying myself, there was some urge inside. So I filled in an application form. But, to be honest, I lied a bit — since only 16 and older were permitted, I added one year to my age. I was only 15 then. I still have a Komsomol card which states that I was born in 1923. I was accepted, because I looked like 16 years old. I was 164 centimeters tall and had a weight of 64 kilograms. I still look like I used to be then. Maybe gained a couple of kilograms, but I haven’t grown a single centimeter since the age of 15.
I graduated from aero club in April 1941, and immediately after we were sent to Kachinskaya fighter school named after Myasnikov. It was the oldest aviation school in Russia, organized in 1910, and located 25 kilometers north of Sevastopol.
Many famous pilots were graduates of this school, including one of VVS RKKA Commanders Alksnis, who finished it while being Commander. Graduates of this school also were Vasilii Stalin, Frunze, son of Yaroslavskii, first son of Mikoyan, Stepan.
— Both sons of Mikoyan were pilots?
Three. Mikoyan had four sons. Stepan is still alive. Vladimir was killed in
action near Stalingrad. I and Vladimir were cadets in the same flight. I once
visited Museum of Soviet Army, and at one of the exhibits a Komsomol membership
card of Vladimir was presented. I told my wife:
— If it is not a fake, there should be my signature. Because I was a Komsorg, collected monthly fees and signed for receiving them.
Unluckily, membership card was shown in such a way that fees marks were not visible.
Mikoyan’s third son graduated from some other flight school, while fourth was not a pilot at all.
— How you found out that war broke out?
That’s an interesting story, you should remember that there was a TASS
notification from 14 June 1941 that rumours about Germans gathering near our
borders and soon…
Just a couple of days later a Senior Battalion Commissar visited Kacha. There were such ranks then. He read a lecture in our squadron about international politics and general situation. He was introduced as lecturer from TsK KPSS. It was a good lecture, very informative. It happened just 4-5 days before war. He ended this lecture something like this:
— Comrades, there was a TASS notification. None the less, there will be a war with Germans, it is inevitable. You can’t even imagine how close we are to the war!
That’s how he finished it. We didn’t even think about it, and didn’t pay any attention to these words, because we were told for over a year:
— The war with Germans is coming! There will be a war! Despite all pacts…
We all got used to it. I remembered these words only after war begun.
In the evening of Saturday, at the end of the check up our detachment Starshina announced:
— Comrades, I have unofficial information from private sources that tomorrow we may be raised by drill alarm. Be prepared, and place your uniforms so that you will be ready to get dressed.
Everything was prepared, as drills were common. We went to sleep, and were raised by alarm in the morning. We got dressed, ran out and lined up…
— Had you high boots or ordinary soldiers boots with wrappings?
High boots. There were no boots with wrappings before war. We received them
after war broke out…
We ran out, lined up… There was a strong rain at night and strong wind. Even though it was second half of June, it was pretty cold. We ran out in soldier blouses only, lined up… «To your right! Run! Now!». And we ran, ran, ran. We ran out of military camp, beyond airfield, in a line one by one. After we stopped we were told to fall to the ground, stay down, no standing, no smoking, and no talking. This way we lay for about two hours, no less.
— Were you armed with rifles?
We thought it was another drill. We were lying at wet grass, strong wind was blowing from the sea, so we were freezing… in about two hours a truck came and brought us overcoats. Then we were announced that Germans attacked us and bombed Sevastopol. They bombed it for several nights. It was clearly visible: searchlights and AAA shells explosions. That’s how war begun.
— What was your attitude when you were told about war?
From the very start we thought: «We will kick them. In 10-30 days the war will be won». That was our attitude.
— When you understood that everything was not as easy as you imagined it?
Hard to tell now, but we became disturbed and worried after 1,5-2 month: «What
happened?», «Why are we fleeing?».
By this time our Kachinskaya school was evacuated to Krasnyi Kut, that’s former German Volga Republic.
— How was evacuation organized?
By train. Airplanes were loaded on flatbed carts. We marched from Kach to railway
station Alma, that’s just outside Sevastopol. That’s about 25-30
kilometers. There we loaded train.
Whole way to Krasnyi Kut I was on the flatbed cart, guarding the planes. When we arrived I looked like a coal miner, because there was no chance to wash myself, locomotive was smoking, and sooth landed on top of me.
— Didn’t you pass your airplanes to combat units?
We passed it at Krasnyi Kut. And not only equipment. On the basis of our school instructors and flight commanders a 627 fighter regiment was formed, under command of Major Vorotnikov. They flew to the front on our school airplanes. By the way Nikolay Grigoryevich Sidorov, who used to be my flight commander at school was included into this regiment, and later became HSU.
— How much did you learn before evacuation?
Very little, actually. I arrived to Kacha on 28 April 1941, and on 22 June war began.
— Were you flying U-2 by this time?
UT-2. I graduated from aero club on U-2. We passed a “young soldier course”,
very fast. The feeling of incoming war was in the air.
Oh, by the way, when I passed mandatory commission to enter flight school, I lied about my age…
But here, I thought, in the army I shouldn’t lie. I wasn’t even 17 then. I celebrated 17 on 10 September 1941 only. They asked:
— How did you make it here?
Well, I confessed:
— I wanted to fly and lied…
Somebody from the commission said:
— Study well, if you will study poorly we will expel you! Go out!
Training continued. But shortage of fuel and airplanes was more and more serious. Keep in mind that planes were getting worn out for natural causes.
We flew very rarely. There also was a problem with commanding officers. For example, there was a school chief General-Major of aviation Turzhanskii, who was suddenly arrested.
— What for?
We were cadets, and knew nothing… He was not shot, after the war he was rehabilitated. By the way, he is buried here, in Monino. There were two brothers. We were in Krasnyi Kut, when his brother came to visit him. Our school commander was General-Major, while his brother — Kombrig, awarded HSU title for Spain.
— With an old rank?
Yes. Kombrig. Our had two stars… He had one rhombus.
We, cadets, kids 16-17 years old, were surprised, why it was like this. But there was no way we could have received this information…
Some time later twice HSU General-Lieutenant Denisov was appointed as a commander of our school.
He was awarded twice before war broke out – first Star he received for Spain, second – for Finnish war.
He was more interested in drinking, than in working as commander, everything went in disorder. We flew very rarely. Some time after he was changed by Colonel Simonenko, who used to be Division commander at the front. He returned us to order. Reduced guard duty activity. Before his arrival we had a guard post near every box, he dragged them into a pile, and made a single post. Then he modified training system. Previously everybody flew a bit, he ordered a select group of 7-10 most promising cadets to be heavily trained, while all others do not fly at all, perform guards duty, kitchen patrols, and so on. Then next group is selected and prepared. When I graduated, my group consisted of 8 men only.
— Which planes did you fly? Still UT-2?
No, no. We began flying in UTI-4. After regiment was formed there were almost
no I-16s left, and we had to fly solo in UTI-4. This plane was even harder to
fly than I-16. Especially on landing. That’s why a saying appeared: «Those
who trained to fly UTI-4 can fly even on a broom».
In the end of 1942 – beginning of 1943 our school received several Hurricanes. I had no chance to fly them, because they were removed as obsolete before my group began flying. We flew Yaks. By the way, I saw Yak for the first time at Krasnyi Kut only. They were piloted by Vasilii Stalin and some Colonel. Before that, at Kacha, we saw MiGs, there was a regiment of them… But straight after war began it was sent somewhere, if I remember correctly, to Moldavia. And we haven’t seen any other new planes since, neither Yaks, nor Lavochkins. So we were at Krasnyi Kut, looking at a pair of incoming airplanes. Not even close to MiGs. They landed, we ran to the parking area, to take a look at them. From one of the planes a senior man got out, a colonel. From another – young boy, dressed in civilian short, trousers and leather coat. He walked towards colonel, slapped him on the shoulder and said:
— Well, let’s go.
We thought: Strange, a boy slapping a colonel…
Then we found out that he was Vasilii Stalin…
Returning back to my story, I graduated on Yak. Yak-1 or Yak-7. I believe it was Yak-1.
— Single-seated or dual-control?
Single-seated. I graduated in March 1944. There were eight cadets in our group.
We were directed to Lyuberetskaya High Officers School of Air Combat (VOShVB)…
This school was organized by personal order of Stalin, like German ace school in Berlin. I was in the second group.
— Was there a teacher with one arm and HSU title?
I don’t remember his surname… Not a Hero. He had 3 Orders of Red Banner and something on his right half of the chest. He had only left arm and saluted us by it. He was a garrison commander.
— That must have been Ivan Plekhanov, former pilot from 158th IAP.
I can’t say really. Commander of this school was Zhukov, fierce man. By the way, this Plekhanov of yours was also fierce. They cost each other.
— Does Kardopoltsev Benedikt Ilyich rings a bell to you? From 2nd GvIAP, who flew Lavochkins. He graduated from this school too.
No. There were squadrons flying Yaks and Lavochkins. Yaks were based at Lyubertsy,
Lavochkins were in Tyoplyi Stan.
It was a very good school. Half of the cadets came from front, from combat units. They were leaders. You should know, in fighter units basic formation was pair.
Greenhorns, like me — wingman. While our documents were checked, mandatory commission was checking us, we were living in the same building…
— One more commission?
Of course. We lived this way for five or seven days. Then we were lined up
in two rows. In one were leaders, in another one greenhorns. School commander
Zhukov came and announced:
— Now experienced pilots will pick their wingmen. If young pilot does not like his leader, he can reject him. Everything based on free will. But afterwards everything should be done in pairs: Sleep side by side, eat at one table, fly together, drink vodka together, and even dating girls together. Everything in pairs…
Ivan Ivanovich Shirokov approached me and asked:
— Will you fly with me?
— I will.
What could I have said, they all were similar to me, and I knew no one of them.
Another strong point of the school was that we flew our own airplanes. If one plane was not ready, pair did not fly. It was not like today I had one leader, tomorrow another.
— What about flying training?
Program was good for those days.
When we graduated, chief of examination committee was famous pilot General-Colonel Mikhail Gromov.
There were 3 graduation flights. 2 solo. Take off, fly by route with passing of turning points at specified time. There was an officer with watches who was controlling time of arrival.
— You had to arrive at predefined time? No sooner or later?
It was allowed, but marks would be drastically lower.
Then in the end of the route we had to locate shooting range at Noginsk, fire at ground targets and land at home base. Second flight was also by another route, solo again. Then locating a towed cone, fire at it and land.
— Did you know the routes you were ordered to fly?
No. But some time was given to prepare.
— As at the front – 10-20 minutes?
Yes, yes. Third flight in pair, climb to 3 000 meters above airfield, separation
and flight technique show. Leader on the left from landing “T”,
wingman on the right. Predefined maneuvers.
Veer to the left, to the right, half loop down, combat turn right, loop, immelman, barrel roll. Predefined figures. After it – fight of a leader against wingman above airfield. Landing solo. At the debriefing Gromov announced:
— I liked dogfights of two pairs. Pair of Junior Lieutenant Ivanov (he was a naval pilot from Black Sea. Can’t recall his wingman). And pair of Junior Lieutenant Shirokii.
He was my leader. When it was announced, we rose. Gromov told to school commander:
— Present all four to Lieutenants rank.
— Comrade General-Colonel, we have no right to present pilots for next rank.
Gromov was a bit of a feudal by nature, he looked at Zhukov from upside down:
— Haven’t you heard what I just said? Your task is to present them, all the rest is my business.
I believe that important role in this effect on Gromov was that I managed to perform left veer with vapor trails from wingtips, and I even managed to close the circle of trails. I managed to do it for the first and last time in my life. Right veer was not so clean. I also achieved vapor trails from wingtips, but trails were broken. It looked very effective from the ground. Gromov was a great pilot, and he understood it all.
— Did you graduate from flight school in a rank of Jr. Lieutenant or Sergeant?
When we were just 10 flying hours away from graduation, we were given new Yak-9s, straight from factory, slightly reduced pressure and we were told:
— Take care of them, do not race the engines. You will take these planes with you to the front.
— By the way, were there problems with propeller revolutions regulator R-7?
I had problems at Lyubertsy, but not with regulator, but with throttle control…
When I shot at the firing range near Noginsk a connection between throttle control
and engine broke, engine began working at full throttle. I reported to my leader.
— Let’s return home then.
We went home. I saw that engine coolant temperature was near critical. Airfield at Lyubertsy was a small one, I was very inexperienced then. I thought that if I’ll miss on first attempt, I’ll have to turn around with extended flaps and landing gear. Coolant temperature was near red line already. We flew past Ramenskoye, where there was a huge runway… I said to my leader:
— I’m going to try and land at Ramenskoye.
I decided that there I would land in any case from first attempt. So I did. I was very inexperienced then. I was worried that I had to switch the engine off. Will it start later if I will need to have some extra power? At high altitude I switched engine off, propeller was spinning under air pressure, and then I switched magneto on. It began working. So I thought that everything was alright.
Second time I met this problem at the front, I was flying another airplane, but now I was sure about outcome, because I experienced this problem before.
— How did you call each other in the air with your leader?
We had no call signs, and we recognized each other by voice…
After graduation we were sent to the regiments where our leaders served before VOSHVB. Before we left for front, a new batch of pilots arrived. Among newcomers there was a pilot from my leaders division, who knew him well. Ivan Ivanovich asked him:
— Vasilii… If there will be an order about our promotion, please write a letter to me with an order number and date of issue.
— I’ll do.
We went to the front. In a month or two a letter caught up with us:
"Ivan Ivanovich, you are promoted to a rank of Lieutenant. Order of Narkom number and date".
Well, Ivan Ivanovich told me:
— Pin a star to your shoulder boards. All four were presented for promotion, I can’t be that I was promoted, but you were not.
— How can I? It’s only for you.
We went to the regiment HQ. There was a special officer who was looking after these things. Ivan Ivanovich brought the letter to him.
— Well, you are promoted...
But about me he said:
— And what’s the reason to promote him?
That’s how I remained a junior lieutenant…
After the war, when I served in Bulgaria, I had a vacation and met my former flight commander from Lyubertsy, Vasilyev. He noticed that I was still a junior lieutenant, and asked:
— Listen, how did it happen? You were promoted… We were told about it in front of the row, you all four were given ranks of Lieutenant.
— So even after the war you were still a Junior Lieutenant?
Yes, that’s the problem…
— Where were you sent and how were you met there?
I was sent to 151st Guards fighter regiment. Just days before my arrival whole Corpus received a Guards title in July 1944.
— Did you receive a Guards title straight after arrival or flew some missions?
Can’t really say, but I believe that straight away.
I was met well. Just after we landed, I met Vasiliy Khvostov, who was a flight commander at Kachinskaya School, and he knew me well. He asked me:
— You came to our regiment?
He was a squadron commander in this regiment. He said:
— Come to my squadron.
— How can I? First of all, I came with my leader. Secondly, how regiment commander will decide.
I wasn’t sent to his squadron. We came to regiment commander, reported. Regiment commander was Major Ravikovich, a Jew. He was a good man. Did not return from combat mission near Budapest… Don’t remember his name… (Ezro Markovich Ravikovich did not return from combat mission on 5.12.44)
He sent us to another, 1st squadron. We came to this squadron, reported to commander, we were well accepted.
— Did you arrive in July 1944? Where to geographically?
At the Soviet-Romanian border. River Prut flows from North to South, on the left bank was Soviet territory, on the right - Romanian. Right on the bank, near village Bobulesti was our airfield.
— Were there heavy fights then?
It was a period of preparations for Yassko-Kishnevskaya operation. Fighting was of low intensity. Before Yassko-Kishinevskaya operation began I accomplished several escort sorties for sturmoviks flying reconnaissance missions.
— Do you remember which regiment Ils you escorted?
I don’t. I remember that they based far from us, and our group had to land at their base, refuel, and then we took off altogether, flew to their target and back, landed, refueled and returned to base.
— Did you fly Yak-1s or Yak–9s?
Regiment was equipped with Yak-1s, Yak-7s and Yak-9s. Which ones I flew when, I can’t recall.
— What about Yak-3s?
During war time we didn’t have them. I finished war with Yak-9U with M-107 engine. Other regiments of our division had Yak-3s.
— I’ll call some names now, can you say something about them? Lev Voznesenskii.
Voznesenskii was in our regiment. But when I came, he already perished in air accident.
— Ivan Demin. In September 1944 was killed in a ram.
Ivan Demin, I heard about him, but either it happened before I came, or he was transferred to another unit…
— Ivanov Vasilii Mitrofanovich.
He was in our regiment. HSU… He lost one leg…
— Did he fly with one leg?…
No, he did not.
— Kochukov Sergei Fedorovich.
Don’t know him.
— Noskov Alexandr.
He was from our squadron. We called him “Pokryshkin”.
He, while being drunk said:
— I’ll surpass Pokryshkin.
So we began calling him Pokryshkin. He perished. (Alexandr Vasilievich Noskov did not return from a dogfight on 17.11.44)
Do you have Tabakov on your list?
— Ivan Tabakov. MIA.
It happened in Hungary in December or January… Did not return…
— Did you shoot down enemy planes?
Two. Me-109 and FW-190.
— For some reason they are not listed in your regiment documents.
I’ll explain on two examples. First you know, what happened to my promotion.
Only in April 1947 commander of 17th Air Army Sudets promoted me to Lieutenant.
Second example. I flew combat missions from August 1944, but as I found out when was retiring from the army, I was listed in the regiment from January 1945. In my personal logbook they all were listed, but not in regiment documents. According to them I was listed from the moment when I returned after being wounded.
— That is, four month were completely lost?
Yes. That’s how it happened. That must be a reason why my victories were not officially credited.
— That is, complete disarray in paper work?
— How and where did you shoot down those Me-109 and FW-190?
It was in Hungary. We covered ground forces, Messers came, and after them Ju-87s.
Fighters came in first to tie us up in a fight, and they achieved this task.
During this dogfight a shell damaged my elevators, they couldn’t move
fully. I shot down that 109…
But I haven’t noticed it in a fight. Dogfight ended, we returned home. Our group, six planes was lead by Pavel Porovin, a chief of shooting training of the regiment. Before airfield he descended to low level and pulled up over airbase… Here I noticed that elevators did not have full mobility. Regiment commander radioed from the ground:
— What’s going on? What’s the problem?
— I have some problems with elevators.
— Test it once again. Level up, and then make another steep climb.
I leveled up and… All the same: Elevators moved, but not all the way. It pressed against something and did not move further.
— Bail out! Gain altitude over airfield and bail out.
— Which plane did you fly?
Yak-9. To be honest — I was afraid to bail out. For my entire flying
carrier I jumped with parachutes only 6 times. To speak short, I replied to
— No, I will not bail out. I’ll try to land.
— Then try to level up on high altitude to be sure that you will be able to do it. Then you will announce your decision.
I tried it at high altitude, and decided that I can do it.
I landed. To be honest, rather roughly, because I leveled up too high. Shock absorbers worked all the way, but held.
— But how did you bring that Messerschmitt down?
During dogfight. On the intersecting course Messer flew, made a right combat turn… He ended up between me and my leader. I just finished left turn, slightly adjusted my aim and fired.
— Where did you hit him?
I don’t know where, I just saw flames appear. I looked what happened to him further: it burned, made half loop down and fell, while I tried to catch up my leader…
— Did your leader notice your absence?
He did not see how I shot down the enemy. He told me that I was already joining
the formation when he noticed my absence:
— Where you were?
The fight was already over, I caught up with him when we were flying back to the airfield. When we landed he asked me again:
— Where were you?
I told him what happened to me.
— In your regiment confirmation of a kill came from your group pilots, or from ground troops? Or maybe there was a need to find a wreck…
Of course no one demanded a piece of wreck, because there was no time or forces to seek them. If two pilots confirmed, it was credited. Or there was a possibility of confirmation from ground troops… By the way, these criteria changed throughout the war.
— Did you or your leader claim a kill?
— Did your leader confirm your claim? Or he said that he didn’t see it?
Naturally he said that he didn’t see it. And he really didn’t see.
— What about the rest of the pilots?
Damn me if I know. I reported that I shot enemy plane down, where and at which circumstance. But I was not looking for witnesses. It is known who took part in that fight. Credited or not… Who really took care about it then, if you didn’t know whether you will live tomorrow or not?
— How did you shoot down that FW-190?
It happened in Czechoslovakia. We were covering Sturmoviks, which strafed enemy
They were at tree-top level, we — 600-800 meters higher. They bombed enemy column in some small town, which was burning, and covered in heavy smoke. Deputy Division Commander who was at forward CP ordered:
— Help them!
Strafing was almost over, so he ordered to “add some fire…”
Our entire group went down to strafe. And during this run we became separated in that smoke. The visibility was very poor. We returned to our airfield by pairs or single planes. I was returning alone too, since I lost my leader. After strafing I climbed, popped out of the smoke. I started yelling over radio:
— Ivan, I can’t see you, where are you?
So I shouted a bit, flew some circles, but still didn’t found any sturmoviks or our fighters. Then, out of nowhere a pair of Fockers appeared. I flew Yak-9U with a more powerful M-107 engine.
— And aerodynamics was better.
To say it rough, with all Yaks except Yak-3 or Yak-9U we were mice, while they were cats. But when we received two regiments of Yak-3s and our regiment was reequipped with Yak-9U we became cats, while they became mice.
— That is you started chasing them?
Yes. That is, I could have chased them or escape from them. I couldn’t
have done it with older airplanes.
I fought on Yaks only, but value more Lavochkins.
So we began fighting. They must have been rookie pilots, because they did not separate, otherwise they would have nailed me.
— Maybe they were following scheme? I mean, that Germans were famous for being prone to schemes in tactics.
Yes, that’s true. Not all, but… Well, they did not separate, thus making things easier for me.
— And thanks them for this…
One of them received my “gratitude” — I brought him down. Fight was going on in vertical maneuvers, because they closed in if I tried to fight in horizontal plane.
— That is, Fokker was better in horizontal maneuver then Yak?
Well, I don’t know why…
So… We fought in vertical plane, I was above them. A couple of times I tried to make a horizontal turn, but they positioned themselves behind me. Then I put my plane into a spin. Yak easily made it out of spins. It was excellent at it. So I spinned when I saw that they were gaining on me, and immediately after I recovered from the spin. But they were gone, overshot…
— Did you see hits this time?
It went down in uncontrolled manner. There was no flame. I just saw that it
was going down, down, down. Something like funnel like barrel roll.
I didn’t see the explosion. There was no time to look at it, there was another one, so I had to keep track of him…
— You must have fought in more than 2 dogfights?
— For you, as a fighter pilot, which plane was more difficult to fight against? Messerschmitt or Focke-Wulf?
You know, it all depended on the pilot in the cockpit.
— But there are some plane qualities that have their impact on the outcome of the fight.
Yes, for example you can extend away from Me-109 in a dive with Yak, but not from Focke-Wulf.
— And wings did not fall off?
I’ll tell you that only Yaks from which wings fell off were Yak-3s from
Tbilisi aviation plant. At the end of the war Tbilisi plant began building Yak-3.
They all were crushed by tractors later.
In our division there were four or five such cases. Even after the war.
— Did pilots die in these accidents?
Yes. But mostly they bailed out. For example, my friend Nikolay Kireev lost
a wing during strafing run over Czechoslovakia… He told us:
— I came to my senses when I was descending with parachute. I can’t recall how I left cockpit and opened it…
— Which belts you fastened?
Waist only. We did not use shoulder ones.
— Did you fight against bombers?
I did fight, but did not fire.
— How task was given: To shoot enemy planes down or prevent them from bombing some object?
Before Budapest operation, when our troops were crossing Dunai south of Budapest
our division commander Colonel Taranenko came to us with commander of commander
of infantry Army. Can’t recall his name, General-Lieutenant. All pilots
were gathered, and General briefed us. I remember this task almost by word,
because I heard such task for the first time. He said:
— Guys, we captured a bridgehead at the opposite bank of the river, a very small piece of land. Germans try to throw us out of there by all means possible. We built a pontoon bridge, but it was destroyed by bombers. We are building a new bridge, your task is to prevent it from being destroyed by enemy aviation. I know that there are a few of you against a lot of them. Your task is not to shoot enemy planes down, but to prevent them from dropping bombs on target. They may drop bombs anywhere, even on our soldier’s heads, but bridge has to be safe. Attack them, cut them on their course, do whatever you like, but don’t allow them to bomb precisely. If you will not shoot a single plane down, but bridge will be safe, I’ll sign any presentation for any award. If you will shoot down all Luftwaffe, but bridge will be destroyed, I will not sign a single presentation for award!
That I remembered well. And I was just 19 years old then.
— You were awarded by Order of Slava. This is a soldiers Order, not officers, and you were Junior Lieutenant. This Order was given out for systematic acts of bravery at the battlefield. What for you received it?
For one of fights over that river crossing. Our regiment was tasked with covering
this bridge. One group patrols, another en route to home base, third scrambles
to change us. Regiment was supposed to have 40 planes, but actually always less.
Maximum we could have 8 plane formations over crossing, but usually 6. On 11th December 1944 we also had 6 planes in a group, when Germans sent about 30 Ju-88s covered by fighters. A fight began. We attacked bombers, Me-109s fell on us. It was“porridge”. Then I suddenly noticed that a pair of Messers gained on Ivan Ivanovich plane. I saw that distance between them was too large. That is, it was too early to open fire, but they were a bit faster. I, just to scare him off, not to allow him open aimed fire made a 90 degree turn and fired myself. Don’t know if he was scared, but he or his wingman hit my left wing, and my plane caught fire… Fuel tanks were not damaged, but skin was on fire. And I fell out of that “fistfight”. Deputy Division Commander Colonel Borovoy was at the ground CP.
He had a squeaky voice. So I heard that he shouted with it:
— Bail out! Jump! Dear, bail out!
I thought: «Oh yes, bail out. Maybe I will be able to break flame off». So I slipped to the right…
— Left wing was burning?
Left… Flame was maybe a millimeter long, but still present. So I slipped, slipped, but it was still there.
— The earth must have been close by now?
No, earth was still far away because our fight began at about 3 500 meters. I thought that longeron will be burnt and then wing will fall off. If plane will go into a spin there is no way to predict, will there be a chance to bail out. So I decided: Time to bail out. So I stopped slipping. The flame immediately filled the cockpit, my face was burnt. Good point was that I wore gloves. I covered my face, opened canopy and bailed out.
— How did you bail out?
I should have pressed stick forward, but I decided to reduce throttle to decrease
speed. Then, I thought, I will fall over cabin side. But not even close: when
I extended half way my body was pressed against fuselage…
Airplane began spinning, so I jumped into the spin to the left side. Left wing was burning, plane was falling in a spin…
I even wanted to return to the cockpit and level out the plane and press a stick for bailing, but couldn’t do it. Somehow I got out. Then I looked around, understood that there was enough altitude, and opened parachute after some altitude was lost, because Germans were known for killing descending pilots.
— Was it a common practice?
Not too often, but such things happened.
— Did our pilots kill German parachutists?
Parachutists? Maybe. I never saw such things and there were no cases in our
regiment. But a few days before my event, there was a situation. We were stationed
at Kecskemet airfield in Hungary together with reconnaissance regiment…
So our reconnaissance Pe-2 was returning from a mission at cloud layer altitude 600–800 meters, and it was shot down by our AAA.
Shit happens. But it did not end there. All crew members bailed out. While they descended they were fired upon by ground troops, one was killed in the air, second one was killed on the ground and third was wounded – bullet hit him in the neck.
Since we were stationed at the same airfield, the word about this incident spread fast. So when I finally opened my parachute I looked down to see where I was going to land. We covered Dunai south of Budapest. It separates there and forms a large island Tekel with a metallurgic plant on it. We were covering river crossing sites at the left stream. So I noticed that I was falling to the right stream of Dunai. A thought pierced me: there was a movie “Big Waltz” about composer Straus shown before war. We, boys, dreamed to take a look at “blue Dunai”, even by one eye! So I thought: A fool had a dream, and now I have it fulfilled — I’m about to have to swim in this Dunai in December... And damn if it was blue, more of leaden appearance… But then I noticed that wind carried me to that island. To make sure that I will reach it I began to slip. When only about 200 meters were left to the ground I began swearing at full voice in order not to repeat that reconnaissance pilot’s fate. Until I landed, I kept swearing. Soldiers ran towards me, and stared at me with some surprised expression on their faces. I asked:
— What’s going on, guys?
One took a round mirror from pocket and gave it to me:
— Commander, take a look at you.
I looked — gorilla: no brows or eye lashes, skin was black and peeled off in large pieces. Before that moment I haven’t felt any pain, but after I looked at the mirror, it caught me with full force…
— Guys, is there any medicine nearby?
— Over there, in the village.
— Somebody, take me there.
Soldier walked along with me, it was about 1,5 kilometers away…
For covering my leader with my plane I was awarded with Order of Slave.
— How long did treatment take?
Skin healed pretty fast, but there were problems with eyesight. I spent ten
days in hospital, and with great difficulty managed to talk Division Commander
from sending me to the rear hospital. Gloves helped to preserve eyes.
Two of us were shot down that day. I and Merzlyakov from 149 IAP… He perished… (Most likely Merzlenko Andrey Andreevich from 149 GvIAP shot down in a dogfight on 11.12.44)
I was fully bandaged, with holes left only for mouth and eyes. When I walked to Division stab, Division commander asked me straight away:
— Who are you, Toropov? Or Merzlyakov?
— Well, it means that Merzlyakov perished.
He gave me vine, so I got drunk because I haven’t eaten for over a day. He said:
— Go on, drink.
— Comrade Commander, I can’t.
— I said, drink!
So I managed to talk him out of sending me to the rear hospital. Some time I spent in the front hospital. Then I went to my regiment commander. He said:
— Go visit doctor, he will check your eyes.
Doctor tested me and gave his conclusion to regiment commander. Commander said:
— For one month you shouldn’t appear at the airfield. One month later doctor will examine you again.
One month later I underwent another examination by doctor, who allowed me to fly. It was February 1945. But I had no chance to fly combat missions then. Whole regiment except stab personnel was sent to Romania to receive new Yak-9Us. They were not ferried, but brought in crates. Planes were taken out of those boxes, assembled and test flown… When this period was over we flew back to the front.
— Do you remember how many hours lasted M-107 engine?
I believe 150 hours or so.
— We talked to the pilots who called Yaks with 107 engines a King in the air, but a real problem at the airfield. Meaning that while you taxied to the runway the engine was already hard boiled.
— And another deficiency: long and heavy nose with a tendency to overturn especially at muddy airfields.
It was a problem with all Yaks and Lavochkins, with the only exception – Cobra. They had nose wheel, and did not suffer from such problem.
— Which Lavochkin you liked the most?
Well, LaGGs were universally disliked. Even those who flew them…
— I heard another version… There were planes built in Gorkii and Tbilisi… Airplanes built in Gorki were light on controls and extremely durable airplanes. And it was liked for its ability to withstand punishment.
True. Ivanov, whom I already mentioned, from the first pair noted by Gromov, was in love with LaGG. But most of the others swore at it. I’d say out of ten pilots 1 liked it, while 9 hated. With no third opinion.
— It must have been adored by those who mastered it.
Possibly, but I can’t say. I never flew them.
What to say about Lavochkins. La-5, La-7, La-9, La-11? La-11 appeared only after war end. La-9 by the end of war…
I haven’t flown them.
Why I liked La-5, La-5FN, La-7, even though I didn’t fly them. Air cooled engine, and that was survivability! In air combat it meant a lot. You know, there were cases when pilots returned to home bases in Lavochkins with a piston blown off. Can you imagine? If Yak was hit in the engine… Even smallest fragment hitting radiator or tubes was enough to boil the engine. If it boiled, it jammed…
— Yes, without water — four minutes.
Yak was a great plane for flying. And spins! Remove your hands from controls and it will stop spinning on its own.
— As pilots recalled, in Yak manual unlike in Lavochkins, it was said that it was suitable for pilot of lower then average qualification. Would you agree with an opinion that Yak was excellent for dogfights, but for general war Lavochkins were much better…
It did not matter for me who hit my radiator, was it AAA or Messer… Durability was very important…
— Let’s return to your story. How long did you assemble those Yak-9Us?
I don’t know, maybe ten days…
We test flew them after assembly, but not everything was tested. As later was found out, we received a shipment of faulty water radiators.
We flew to the front with several intermediate landings. First one was at Craiova – that’s Romania. Second at Arad — that’s in Romania too. Then — Budaersh, West of Budapest. From Budaersh we flew to Ket, where began flying combat missions. At each airfield we left several planes behind: we flew, suddenly water would start leaking. First, who saw it, said:
— Ivan, you got a stream.
He would make it to the airfield, land, and starts to repair the radiator. I got into such story West of Buda, at airfield Budaersh. Don’t know what “ersh” means. Magyar language is very difficult… Two of us got leaking radiators. Andrei Bondarenko, may he rest in peace, from another squadron, and I. Regiment commander left us two mechanics and a 1,5 ton truck. Regiment flew to Ket, and began flying from that field.
We were told:
— Take off radiators, Budapest is nearby, there are a lot of factories there, and here is a truck. Look where your radiators will be fixed.
We fixed it for three times. We poured water away from the engine, take radiators away, and went to Budapest. There we found some workshop, where they were fixed, brought it back to the plane, poured water back in. Throttle up… Now it leaked in another place... We had to repeat it all three times… We decided to take off without test throttling up on the ground, gain 4 000 meters of altitude over airfield. If it will leak, we will land, if not, we will fly. If it will start leaking en route, pilots will decide on their own whether to fly or return. So we took off, gained 4 000 meters, went to the Ket, and almost at the end of the route Andrei’s radiator began leaking. Mine remained fixed.
Ivan Shirokov, Alexandr Martynov, Lev Toropov, February 1945, Bucharest
Young pilot, General in the future Lev Toropov 1945
— Did you fly this Yak when shot down the Focke-Wulf?
— How and where dit the War end for you?
War ended when we were at airfield Kuhynya, that’s Czechoslovakia.
— That is, didn't you take part in Berlin Operation?
We went through Romania, Hungary and a part of Austria. For liberating Vienna
our regiment received a title “Viennskiy”. But I lost a medal "for
capturing Vienna" — it fell off… Kuhynya — is a small
Slovakian village. Airfield was about 1 or 1,5 kilometers away from the village.
There was a law: sunrise should meet us at the airfield. We didn’t fly
at night, but from Dawn till dusk we had to be by our planes.
On May 7th we heard that bells were ringing at the local church for whole day… We thought that it was some holiday or something. In the evening we asked locals:
— What’s going on? Why the bell rang all day?
— The war is over!
— What do you mean? We keep flying combat missions.
— BBC announced that armistice was signed at Reims — war is over.
Well, we were in confusion… No one told us anything about it. In the morning of 8 May we went to the airfield and flew escort missions for Shturmoviks, which strafed enemy troops.
— Was that when our troops were advancing towards Prague?
To Brno, Prague and further Westwards. Once again a bell rang whole day long,
while we kept flying combat missions…In the evening we came to the village,
for supper. We ate and went to bed… Pilots lived at local school. At half
past eleven or twelve o’clock regiment commander Andrei Alexandrovich
Oboznenko rushed in and announced:
— War ended!
We ran out of building with pistols and began firing…
But we kept flying till 12 May… We escorted German and Vlasov troops which were fleeing to the West, hoping to give up to Americans. Vlasov was caught there. That is, war continued until 12th.
— Did you suffer losses?
— When had your regiment last aerial fight?
Oh, that I can’t say. At least there were no fights after 9th.
— Do you remember who shot last enemy plane down?
Perhaps, it was regiment navigator Georgian, HSU Shalva Nesterovich Kiria.
He shot down 28 enemy planes. Here I have a book by Pollack «Stalin’s aces»…
— It is no longer a reliable source. Mikhail Bykov released new book where all fighter pilots were listed who had 5 or more kills credited to them.
Yes. I know a lot of men who had 20 kills or 13 kills, but were not mentioned by Pollack.
— You fought during war…
Not the war, just the end of it.
— Some didn’t last even for two days…
— You fought, saw all that Germans did to our population. Did you have an urge to strafe German refugees?
Your question reminded me one case, it happened during one of my first missions, before Yasso-Kishinev operation. Il-2 was sent to reconnaissance mission. It had photo cameras for making photos straight down.
The task was to make photos of the roads along frontline… To look after troops movement along the front line from one village to another. It was covered by two pairs of Shturmoviks, a pair on the left and a pair on the right. Reconnaissance plane flew at an altitude of 30-50 meters. Escort Shturmoviks were 250 meters higher. When they saw AAA site, they dove at it straight away at it and strafed it.
We were in a six plane formation at an altitude of 800 meters. We flew one mission that way and returned. No one shot at us, and Shturmoviks didn’t fire too. Only thing, AAA opened fire, and everybody began maneuvering… I remember, in first flight we were also flying calmly, but then all formation began wild maneuvers. I thought: «What’s going on? They all went nuts?» Only when I noticed explosion I understood what was going on. We were poor at navigation. Fighters were not equipped with enough navigation instruments. Just compass, altitude and speed indicators. And pilots eyes. No radio navigation or anything. Because of this we suffered a lot of losses…
For example if wingman got separated from his leader he might have got lost, and that was it. If he would be lucky, he would land somewhere. If not… There were a lot of losses for this reason…
So we made first mission, returned back normally. Second mission all the same. I thought: what kind of war is this? We took off for the third mission, I saw that he finished filming, and turned towards our territory…
We followed him to our territory, the terrain there was hilly. We flew at about 800 meters, when I suddenly noticed artillery pieces and soldiers standing around them. «A-ha, — I though, — now I’m going to show them. Third mission flown and not a single round fired. What kind of war is that?»
Our group flew just a bit to the left of that position. I turned away from our group, caught the site in my gun sight, and began shallow descent. Then I thought: «They don’t act like Germans would. They would have hid, these stand and weave their hats at me. It would be better if I wouldn’t strafe them». So I gently pulled off and joined formation. We landed, Ivan Ivanovich asked:
— Why did you break formation there?
— Oh, just wanted to take a look.
I didn’t say anything. Then sometime later I asked.
— Listen, Ivan Ivanovich, where I turned away from formation was our, or German territory?
— Our of course.
I thought: Thanks God I haven’t fired!
— A question about psychology. When you were shot down if a woman would have shouted “bail out” would you have bailed out straight away?
I think, reaction would be the same. I didn’t even think about it, actually…
— We talked to female radio operator from forward CP. She said that commander
of 6th Division Geibo always told her:
— Shout him to bail out.
Because pilots tended to save an airplane, a lot of them crashed or burned with the plane trying to land damaged airplane. But when she told them to bail out they obeyed.
Geibo. He was in our Corpus. I heard about it… People told me that it actually works… But Borovoy was an interesting man with a very high voice, and when he shouted it could be mistaken for female voice.
1946, Yambol, Bulgaria, Lev Toropov, Yakov Dudin, Vasilii Kocherga, Alexandr Martynov
Bulgaria, Sofia, airfiel Vrazdebno, 1945
— While examining your personal log book I’ve stumbled across P-63 King cobra. When you met it?
After the war. We ended war at Yak-9U and for three years we were stationed
in Bulgaria. We were transferred from 5th Army to 17th…
We flew from Kuhynya to Sofia, airfield Vrazhdebno, and kept flying Yak-9Us. Then we ferried Yak-9Us from Uzen airfield near Belaya Tserkov for another division which was stationed in Romania. At Uzen was a stock of Reserve of High Command. Yak-9Us were stocked there. But war ended and they were sent to regiments. There was no need so large amount of them in stocks.
There were ten of us, headed by Deputy Division Commander Borovoy. We made three or four flights. We loaded transport plane, flew to Uzen, received new planes and flew them to Bucharest. And again…
When we were transferred to Yak-3s? Either in Bulgaria or in Middle Asia… Our division was rebased in December 1947, when our troops were withdrawn from Bulgaria, to Chirchik, that’s near Tashkent. In Middle Asia I served for six years in three different places. Chirchik, Karshi and Kokayty.
I believe that we retrained to Yak-3 in Bulgaria before we left it.
— That is from all-metal Yak-9s you were given hated Georgian wooden Yak-3s?
We hated Yaks made in Tbilisi because their wings fell off. We passed Yak-9s to that same division from Bucharest. And when we were in Chirchik… Somewhere around 1949, we received King-Cobras, which were also in reserve… They were pulled out of the stock in order not to give them back to Americans, which demanded all lend-lease unused equipment to be returned. We flew them for a year or two.
— In your logbook it is said until 1952.
In 1952 we began flying MiG-15. From P-63 to MiG-15.
— Your first impression about King-Cobra after Yaks?
First impression: a lot of unneeded things. Four radio stations. What for a
fighter might need four stations? I can understand two, in case if one will
be damaged, but four?
By the way, I began flying combat missions when not all planes were equipped with radio transmitter, on some wingmen planes there was only receiver. It was the end of 1944. There was one case when we got lost. Yasso-Kishinev operation began. Its beginning was very interesting for me. Our regiment was ordered to participate in it from the very start, from 20 August 1944. Day before Division Commander came to us and gave an order:
— When dusk will fall, leaders should taxi to this side of runway, wingmen to this side. Tomorrow at dawn we will be escorting Division of Boston bombers, which are ordered to bomb railway station and junction Yassy. Since we have no connection with them on the ground, and no one knows when they will appear, everybody should be in cockpits ready for takeoff. When they will appear, start your engines and take off…
And they appeared. They flew in column of regiments, 27 airplanes in each regiment. Each regiment was covered by one our squadron. I was in a group at the highest possible altitude… Weather was excellent, as pilots say “million to million”.
We flew from north to south east of Yassy, turned 180 degrees and Bostons dropped their load from level flight. When they dropped bombs, their speed was quite good, so that it was quite difficult to catch them.
There was not a single enemy fighter in the air, but AAA shot down two Bostons. AAA didn’t fire at first regiment, only at second they began firing. This picture: a horde of bombers, bombs falling, explosions… Such an impression…
In one of the following missions we in eight plane formation covered 17 or 20 Bostons. They bombed the railway junction of Tyrgu-Furmos in Romania.
It was cloudy. Bostons found a corridor in the clouds... we followed them. They flew from North to South, turned around and went down. We had to pierce the clouds after them, but we never flew in complex weather conditions… I thought what to do now? In Lyubertsy I several times followed my leader into the clouds during training fights, but fell out of them like shit. That is, all my experience of flying in the clouds was that flying there was a difficult thing. They went down, and we had to follow them. I thought: I will fly as close to Ivan Ivanovich as possible, he is much more experienced then I am… Our standard distance was 100-150 meters, but I followed him by wingtip.
When we pierced clouds I noticed bombs exploding at station, and Bostons were already disappearing in the clouds again.
We went up. But we did not make it into that corridor, but pierced whole cloud layer. Sun was shining above us, we veered a bit, hoping that somebody else would pierce clouds too. No one did, and we went home with a “Slavic course” as we used to say.
— Ninety degrees?
Our “Slavic course” was “0”. Closest frontline went
from West to East there. We flew sometime and began piercing clouds again. We
fell out of them at an altitude of 600 meters. We were lost. Ivan Ivanovich
flew from one village to another, and I understood by his maneuvers that he
couldn’t pinpoint our location. A bit later he told me:
— If you know, where to go, lead me.
How should I know. I understand that frontline is there, Prut is there. But what if Ivan Ivanovich is so confused that he does not understand even this?
I couldn’t say a word to him, I had no transmitter. Do you understand? It was August 1944, but I had no transmitter. I moved to the front. To reach Prut we had to fly 90 degrees, to reach our territory by fastest rout we had to fly 90 degrees. I decided to take 45 degrees. The cloud layer rose as we flew to the North-East. We flew at the clouds rising with it because the higher we are, the more we saw. When we gained 1 500 meters I noticed a pair of Fockers behind us, their engines smoking. I saw them, but could say nothing to Ivan Ivanovich. What to do now? They were closing in because they were faster… That was not a company we needed right now… I decided when they will reach firing distance to turn towards them. So I did. But those were our Lavochkins… They looked pretty similar to Focke-Wulfs. We rocked our wings to each other, but we moved a bit from our previous direction a bit. I took 45 degrees again. Then I noticed Prut shining. Then I felt relieved, because there were several Shturmovik airfields at the shores…
We were closing in. Suddenly I saw an airfield straight under our noses. But which airfield I did not know. Oh, well I thought who cares which airfield that was… More important that it was at our territory. But when we were about to land I understood that it was our airfield! I had two such unexplainable cases in my life.
We landed and reported. It happened so that only two of us returned from all eight plane formation in pair. The rest either returned single or landed at other airfields. I thought that we will be shouted at for loosing formation, but we were set as example for returning in pair. In the evening we drank our 100 grams… Ivan Ivanovich asked me:
— Lev, how do you keep orientation so good: after such a loss of orientation you guided me straight to our field?
I told him about my thoughts, but he did not believe me:
— You don’t want to give out your secrets…
— Did you receive 100 grams daily? Or for combat missions only?
When we flew combat missions only. In Romania and Hungary we were given a glass of dry wine instead of vodka. If we asked waitress, she would bring us another glass.
— Let’s return to Cobras?
I began with excesses… Radio compass… Very important thing. However you roll, it will guide you to the field!
— But if enemy will use this same wave you will fly to him.
True, but chances were little…
— How about armament?
Good one: cannon «37» and two machine guns «12,7».
And I have to mention about spins… It was hard to put it into right spin, but it was even harder to recover. It had a tendency to flat spins.
They were heavy on controls. Heavier than Yak-9U. Yak was “oaky” at ground level, but at 4 000…
You asked how I was met in the regiment. First thing they did, they took my plane away, and gave me another one. If I flew a mission with a fight, my muscles ached. An “oak”. Other planes, as Yaks, were normal. But this one was a “log”.
What else I can say about Cobra. It was very strict to fuel and oil quality. At Chirchik whole division was retrained to Cobras, and there were a lot of catastrophes.
— Not accidents, but catastrophes?
There were cases when pilots managed to bail out. But there were a lot of catastrophes.
Why? Wrong oil, wrong fuel…
Main reason was snapping of connecting rods in the engines. When connecting rod snapped it pierced the engine and blocked connection to the elevators. Sometimes with, sometimes without flameout.
What was good, those engines had a guarantee for 300 hours. If something happened to it during this time the engines was dismantled and send to supplier. The manufacturer sent us new engine back. Of course in 1950 it was unthinkable thing…
Good view to the front. That was good.
— How fast you got used to nose wheel?
One more thing. It was decided to make a twin control Cobra. Behind main cockpit was an engine, so second cabin was placed in front of the main right behind the propeller. Very unpleasant feeling…
— Let’s discuss food. How you were fed?
When I was at Kacha - excellently. The only sorry thing was that Timoshenko ordered a “dry day” to be introduced once a week. At these days for breakfast we had porridge called “cum” among cadets, made of crushed to powder dry peas mixed with boiling water. This porridge, a piece of salami, dry bread, tea. For dinner: soup of that same “cum”, for main course “cum” with salami and dry bread. Supper identical to breakfast. That’s once a week. For the rest of the days we received different food, but always good and in large quantities.
— How about Krasnyi Kut?
In Krasnyi Kut we were also fed quite well in the beginning. But by the end
of 1941 we began feeling hunger. We received 800 grams of bread for a day. It’s
not too little, 800 grams, but we were young, all the time outside and moving…
We were not starving, but wanted to eat all the time…
Pilots who were not at the front were fed by 7th norm. Highest norm was for pilots at the front, 5th. In VoShVB by Stalin’s order we were fed by 5th norm. And we received a pack of “Belomor” cigarettes daily.
Once a week we received new underwear. Not clean, but new. We lived like “white people”.
— Your attitude towards political officers?
I met excellent political officers. Like Vladimir Pavlyuchenko, who used to be my Deputy Squadron Commander… Roughly for one good there were 3-4 bad ones.