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Operation Z - Red Falcons in China

On August 21, 1937, the Soviet Union signed a non-aggression pact with the Kuomintang government of China. Later, in the war with Japan, the USSR helped its southern neighbor with equipment and its pilots, who shot down nearly a thousand enemy aircraft and, in general, saved China from complete defeat. Soviet volunteer pilots who courageously fought for the freedom of the Chinese people made a special contribution to strengthening China’s defense capability during the war. The Russians remained to fight the common Japanese enemy until Russia was imperiled by the Germans on their western front. The peak Russian advisory effort included over 1000 planes and over 2000 pilots, in rotation.

This episode is well known in Russia and largely unknown elsewhere. The similar story of the American pilots of the Flyhing Tigers under Clair Chennault is very well known. But the Soviet's Operation Z utterly dwarfed the Flying Tigers. It lasted five times longer, had more than ten times as many aircraft, and nearly ten times as many people. The Soviet effort lasted three years, whereas the Flying Tigers were only in action for seven months. The Flying Tigers numbered fewer than 300 pilots and ground crew at the time of Pearl Harbor, while at least 2640 people of the flight technical staff of the Red Army Air Force took part in the hostilities on the side of the Chinese army.

The Flying Tigers had only 99 aircraft before Pearl Harbor, while China received 1,250 Soviet aircraft from October 1937 to June 1941. This was not a token force, even allowing for combat attrition. While in November 1944 the American air force in China had comprised approximately 800 planes, only by March or April 1945 had the number had increased to between 1,500 to 2,000 against the Japanese meager 150. By comparison, by some estimates during the border wars with the Soviet Union (Khalkin Gol), the Kwantung Army was outnumbered by Soviet aircraft by 809 to 250.

The military situation in the Far East become aggravated due to the militarist plans of an active member of the “Anti-Comintern Pact” - Japan. Using the previously captured territory of Manchuria and areas of Inner Mongolia as a springboard, in June 1937, Japanese troops invaded the hinterland of Central China. In a short period, a number of large Chinese cities were captured (including Beijing, Tianjin, Kulgan, etc.).

The aircraft fleet of China (Kuomintang Air Force) consisted of about 600 combat aircraft, of which 305 fighters, the rest - light bombers and reconnaissance aircraft, of which only 50% were combat-ready. The total number of Japanese military aircraft involved in the Japanese-Chinese war, amounted to 700 aircraft.

In less than two months of fighting, the Chinese Air Force lost more than half of its combat aircraft. By October 22, out of 305 combat-ready aircraft, only 81 aircraft remained in their flying state.

Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Kuomintang, the country's conservative party, had no illusions about the combat capability of his army and appealed for immediate support to the leaders of the leading world powers. But Britain, France and the United States decided to distance themselves from interfering in the conflict, not wanting to spoil relations with official Tokyo for the time being.

In Germany, where the Nazis came to power in 1933, the curbing of military-industrial assistance to the Chinese began. This was explained by the fact that Adolf Hitler decided to reorient the country's foreign policy from China to Japan. With the latter, the Third Reich concluded in the autumn of 1936 the Anti-Comintern Pact. Soviet representatives had taken part in the hostilities in China in the 1930s. In particular, Soviet instructor pilots helped repel an attack by Muslim rebels who besieged the capital of Urumqi, bordering with the USSR on the Xinjiang province, in December 1933.

The Japanese soon took exception to the German involvement in China and convinced the Germans to leave by July, 1938. Before the arrival of the Soviet pilots in China, a small group of foreign mercenaries had worked there. Of them was formed, in particular, the so-called 14th Bomber Squadron, consisting of 12 pilots led by Vincent Schmidt. Their actions in China brought no benefit, and their behavior represented a stark contrast to the selflessness and selflessness of the Soviet volunteers. “A bunch of volunteer pilots from England, the United States and other capitalist countries,” recalls Ya. P. Prokofiev, “arrived in China hoping to get rich. These “defenders” did not look for a fight, but preferred not to take off at all, holed up at the rear airfields, having fun, collecting souvenirs and doing business ” {14}. The successes of the Soviet volunteer pilots allowed the Chinese government to abandon the services of foreign mercenaries. March 1, 1938, shortly after the raid on the Taiwan Polynin group, it was announced the disbandment of this squadron, which never made a single sortie.

In accordance with the non-aggression treaty and agreement on military technical assistance, the government of Chiang Kai-shek turned to the leadership of the USSR for help. Through the Air Force, China soon received the first batch of Soviet aircraft: I-15bis fighters (62 vehicles), I-16s (93 vehicles) and 8 training UTI-4 fighters, 62 SB and 6 TB-3 high-speed bomber, and also spare aircraft engines and aircraft parts.

In accordance with the plan of the secret "Operation Z (Zet)", it was envisaged to engage Soviet volunteer pilots in the fighting (following the example of the Spanish events). According to the decision of the military-political leadership of the USSR, the following tasks were formed: an I-16 fighter squadron (31 aircraft, 101 people) and a SB bombers squadron (31 aircraft, 153 people).

In October 1937, in the flight brigade of the Academy. NOT. Zhukovsky (Moscow) were collected volunteers from all military districts to be sent to China (447 people of the flight technical staff). A serious disadvantage was the lack of any combat experience for all pilots.

Aircraft were transferred to the Chinese side by air. In addition to participating in hostilities, Soviet specialists took an active part in the preparation of the Guomindang air force flight crew. In the cities of Chengdu, Suining, Lianshan, Laohekou and others, flight and aviation technical schools were opened. Only in the Lanzhou school for the period from December 1937 to March 1938, it was possible to train 73 Chinese pilots. Part of the flight personnel of the Chinese Air Force was sent to study in the Soviet Union. In general, by the spring of 1938, 200 pilots had trained in Soviet aviation schools.

The first military confrontation of the Soviet pilots with the enemy took place on November 21, 1937. In a battle with 20 Japanese aircraft, the Soviet air group (seven I-16) over Nanking (at that time the capital of the Republic of China) was hit by 3 enemy vehicles without loss (2 A5M fighters and one bomber). The next day, on November 22, a group of GM Prokofiev, 6 I-16 fighters opened a combat account in a battle with six A5Ms, they won one victory without loss.

According to the Japanese side, by the end of 1937, Soviet fighter pilots in the area of Nanking and Nanchang managed to temporarily achieve local air superiority. At the same time, successes in the land theater of war have allowed the Japanese military commanders since the beginning of January next year to noticeably increase the activity of their naval aviation, sharply increasing the frequency of its raids on major Chinese cities. In air battles, both sides suffered heavy losses. The actions of the Soviet-Chinese bomber aviation on advanced Japanese airfields forced the enemy to withdraw the main forces of their aviation away from the front line.

Due to the low level of flight training, Chinese aviation suffered heavy losses among the pilots. Soviet bomber pilots also suffered losses when confronted with a new high-speed Japanese fighter, the Ki.27 (type 97). For the purpose of safe flight and bombing, it was now necessary to fly at altitudes beyond anti-aircraft fire (at least 7500-8500 m). This required the development of high-altitude flights and technical re-equipment of aircraft (including oxygen masks). Gradually, Soviet pilots were replaced by Chinese crews, and the released flight crew was used as instructors to train new personnel of the Kuomintang Air Force.

Soviet pilots continued to participate in the fighting until the beginning of 1940. The USSR continued to support China’s resistance to Japanese aggression, but now preferred to provide purely material assistance. The recall of Soviet volunteers had an extremely negative effect on the combat capability of the Chinese air force. Inexperienced Chinese pilots crashed planes, and inexperienced technicians did not ensure proper maintenance of the equipment.

With the deterioration of political relations with the government of Chiang Kai-shek in early 1940, military supplies from the USSR to China decreased noticeably. The last high-speed bombers of the SB were delivered to Chinese territory in June 1941. Soviet pilots had been recalled from the front a year earlier, only military advisers remained.

In total from October 1937 to June 1941, China received 1,250 Soviet aircraft. In general, over the years of the Sino-Japanese war, the Kuomintang air forces received from the Soviet Union 322 bombers (292 SB, 24 DB-3, 6 TB-3 ), 575 fighters with spare aircraft engines, equipment, spare parts and bombs.

By one count, at least 2640 people of the flight technical staff of the Red Army Air Force took part in the hostilities on the side of the Chinese army. In total, in 1937-1941, 3,665 military volunteers from the USSR participated in the war of China against Japan [this larger number probably includes non-aviation personnel]. Of these, 211 died or died from wounds. At the same time, more than half of the deaths occurred in the crash of aircraft overtaken on the way from the USSR to China.

Many of them were honored with high government awards of the USSR and the Chinese Republic. A total of 14 Soviet pilots were awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union. Later, three "Chinese": G.P. Kravchenko , S.P.Suprun and T.T.Hryukin, received this high rank twice. On a combat score, 6 Soviet pilots had from 5 or more enemy aircraft. For participation in the damage of the Japanese aircraft carrier Soviet military pilot T.T. Hryukin was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union.

During the Sino-Japanese War, the Soviet Air Forces performed almost the same tasks as the battles in Spain : fighting for air supremacy, supporting ground forces, conducting aerial reconnaissance, disrupting enemy communications, and bombing the Japanese ships.

Claire Chennault later wrote "Russian pilots were tenacious and determined, distinguished by excellent physical form. They could safely withstand 12-hour duty, heavy air combat and a night-time, so abundant that I can not remember anything even close to her similar. They were much older and calmer than American pilots. The Russians never suffered from combat overwork".

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