Soviet Fighter on Three Fronts
In the years before World War II, Russia’s Evgeny Stepanov flew against the Germans over Spainand fought the Japanese over Khalkin Gol.
Interview by Jon Guttman
Colonel Evgeny Nikolayevitch Stepanov is one of a rare breed of Russian military aviators. Although the Soviet Union could claim many notable airmen during World War II, Stepanov represents a pioneering cadre of pilots who fought during the 1930s–years before the Nazi invasion of Russia and the “Great Patriotic War.”
Politically, the late 1930s was a confusing time of shifting alliances based on ideology and perceived national interests. American volunteers fought Italians in Spain. But American and Italian advisers worked together uneasily to build an air force for Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalist government, or Kuomintang. At the same time, the Soviets openly aided the Republican government in Spain and the Kuomintang in China. Then, in 1939, the Soviet Union came into direct conflict with Imperial Japan. At stake were the Khalkin Gol borderlands between the Socialist Republic of Mongolia and the Japanese client state of Manchukuo. The undeclared battle also represented a crucial test of strength between the armies and air arms of the two rival powers.
The 1930s were also important years in aviation, during which aircraft made the transition from refined World War Istyle biplanes to the sleek monoplanes of World War II. One of the great aircraft of those formative years was the Polikarpov I-15 Chaika (gull). This airplane brought Soviet fighter aviation up to Western standards, and it became the first Soviet fighter to see action over Spain.
Evgeny Stepanov flew the I-15 in combat over both Spain and Khalkin Gol. He flew against some of the most formidable aerial opposition of the decade–the elite airmen of the Nazi Condor Legion and the veteran aces of the Japanese Army Air Force. During the fighting over Khalkin Gol, he commanded an eskadrilya (squadron) and was awarded the Gold Star of a Hero of the Soviet Union.
Now retired from aviation, Colonel Stepanov works at the Central House of Aviation and Cosmonautics in Moscow. In a recent interview for Aviation History, Stepanov discussed his flying career:
Aviation History: Could you share with us your early years and education?
Stepanov: I was born in Moscow in 1911. During the hungry years of 1919-1920, I used to go to a canteen set up in a community center by the American Relief Agency, where they provided free lunches for Russian children. By 1929, when I was 18, I had finished school. I graduated from a technical college as a qualified metalworker.
AH: Did you then become interested in flying or had you been interested earlier?
Stepanov: As a youngster I was into cycling and also joined the factory’s ham radio club. Living near a military airfield, I was often able to watch pilots practicing aerobatic maneuvers. That’s when I decided that I wanted to join them. In those days that was quite feasible, since the USSR was establishing an air force as rapidly as possible. Recruiting slogans, such as “Young People, Take to the Skies” and “From Models to Gliders and from Gliders to Aircraft” were successful and popular.
AH: Can you describe your aviation training? Was it typical of a Soviet pilot, civil or military?
Stepanov: In 1932, I qualified as a pilot after receiving lessons at a Moscow airfield, and in 1933 I entered a military pilots’ school for an intensive course. At the time, I had logged 80 hours of flying time. It is no exaggeration to say that this was then a typical route into the air force: flying club, air force academy, and then posting to a combat unit.
AH: What did you think of the state of Soviet military aviation in the 1930s?
Stepanov: Aviation was undergoing intensive expansion. Flying clubs, military colleges and academies were training personnel, and design and research bureaus were being organized throughout the industry. Also, an important role in building up the country’s air force was played by the voluntary societies established at various times, such as the Voluntary Society of Airmen, the Air Force Society, Society to Assist the Air Force and Chemical Defense, and others.
AH: To what unit were you first assigned?
Stepanov: After qualifying as a military pilot, I was posted to a heavy-bomber unit, but the romantic dream of my youth was to become an air ace. That could only come true if I was a fighter pilot, and after numerous requests and applications I managed to be posted to a fighter unit.
AH: What was the typical makeup of a Soviet air regiment (aviatsy polk) and a squadron in the 1930s?
Stepanov: Until 1937-38, the air force was typically organized into air squadrons, each consisting of three separate platoons. Three or four air squadrons (including one reconnaissance squadron) would make up an air brigade. From 1938 on, air regiments were the main organizational unit. Each one consisted of three squadrons of 12 to 15 aircraft, each squadron being made up of platoons of three to four aircraft.
AH: What aircraft did you fly prior to the Polikarpov I-15?
Stepanov: Before taking to the I-15, I flew Polikarpov I-16 monoplane fighters and Polikarpov R-5 light bombers.
AH: When did you first fly the I-15, and what were your impressions of it?
Stepanov: I started flying the I-15 in Spain. Its performance was inferior to that of the I-16, but it was easy to fly and heavily armed, with four 7.62mm machine guns synchronized to fire through the propeller blades. Also, it could perform a 360-degree turn in eight to nine seconds. No other Soviet or foreign aircraft was so maneuverable. It was unbeatable in horizontal dogfighting. The I-15 was also able to use small airfields. It had other excellent features, such as a rapid rate of climb, an operating altitude of up to 9,000 meters (29,700 feet), ease of control and low-speed stability–even while taking off in crosswinds. However, it was inferior to the I-16 in vertical maneuverability.
AH: When did you go to Spain? Did you volunteer, or were you ordered to go?
Stepanov: I arrived in Spain in June 1937, together with some other Soviet pilots. We were all volunteers, wanting to help the Spanish Republic. Apart from our wages, we received no combat bonuses or other incentives.
AH: How did you make your way to Spain?
Stepanov: Posing as Soviet tourists going to an international cultural exhibition in Paris, we took a steamer from Leningrad to Le Havre and, with the assistance of a Spanish support group, flew from there to Valencia. Other Soviet volunteers sailed directly to Spanish ports aboard Soviet freighters.
AH: Were you and your comrades assigned to an existing Spanish Republican squadron, or did you form an all-Soviet unit?
Stepanov: We served in units with all-Soviet flight crews and Spanish ground crews. Republican units consisted of Spanish airmen trained in the USSR.
AH: It is reported that the early Soviet pilots in Spain were given Spanish names to hide their true nationality. Were you one of those “Spanish” pilots?
Stepanov: Initially, Soviet military advisers assumed Spanish names. Among them were: “General Douglas” (aviation adviser Yakov V. Smushkevich); “Colonel Julio” (Colonel Pyotr Punpur); “Pavlito” (Lieutenant Aleksandr Rodimtsev); “Pablo Palenkar” (fighter group commander Pavel Rychagov); “Rodrigo” (fighter squadron commander Anatoly V. Serov) and “Captain Antonio” (fighter squadron commander Sergei Tarkhov). But I, and the Soviet pilots alongside whom I served, operated only under our own Christian names and surnames.
AH: Did you have contact with any of the Spanish airmen?
Stepanov: In all major air operations, an active part was played by Republican pilots in I-16 and I-15 fighters, R-5 light bombers, and Tupolev SB-2 high-speed bombers. Those pilots deserved the highest praise for their devotion to their homeland. On more than one occasion I flew alongside them in dogfights, and I knew that they could always be relied on.
AH: There were other foreign volunteer airmen on the Republican side, some of whom flew alongside Soviet pilots. Did you get to meet any of those fliers?
Stepanov: During the initial stages of the civil war, until about the beginning of 1937, volunteer pilots from France, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, the United States and Austria also took part in the fighting, but by May of that year most of them had departed.
AH: What type of enemy aircraft did you encounter?
Stepanov: In dogfights I took on Fiat CR.32s, Romeo Ro.37s and Savoia-Marchetti SM.81s flown by Italian aircrews, and German Messerschmitt Bf-109s, Junkers Ju-86s, Heinkel He-111s and Dornier Do-17s flown by German airmen.
AH: The I-15 was generally regarded as being superior to the German Heinkel He-51 biplane fighter, and roughly equal to the Italian Fiat CR.32. Would you agree with that appraisal?
Stepanov: The I-15 easily outperformed the Fiat CR.32, especially in horizontal maneuvers. I never encountered the He-51 in the air.
AH: Did you have occasion to fly the I-16 monoplane in Spain or later, back in the USSR?
Stepanov: I flew the I-16 very little while in Spain, and then mainly on reconnaissance missions. I often flew it in the USSR, however, both before and after the Spanish campaign. The I-16 was a good aircraft, but it was rather unforgiving to inexperienced pilots.
AH: What was your impression of the Messerschmitt Bf-109B or Bf-109C fighters that the Condor Legion introduced to counter the I-16s over Spain?
Stepanov: I often came up against the Bf-109 in combat, especially in August 1937, when the Northern Front was closed. It performed well, but was inferior to the I-16 in vertical maneuverability.
AH: Do you have a record of any aerial victories over Spain? Do you recall the dates and other details of any of your combats there?
Stepanov: I personally shot down four CR.32s, two Bf-109s, one Ju-86, one Do-17, and two SM.81s. All of those kills were on the Aragon and Teruel fronts. My greatest success was on October 15, 1937, during our I-15 squadron’s attack on the airfield at Garanillos, near Saragossa. According to subsequent reconnaissance reports, we destroyed six Fiat CR.32s, three Junkers Ju-52/3ms and three Heinkel He-45s on the ground. We also damaged about 20 other Italian and German aircraft.
AH: I understand that you were credited with a double night taran, or midair ramming attack. Can you describe how you accomplished that remarkable double victory?
Stepanov: I did not really carry out a premeditated ramming attack. On the night of November 27-28, 1937, I shot down two SM.81 bombers in the vicinity of Barcelona. During this attack, I had to ram one of the bombers with the left leg of my Chaika’s undercarriage. There was no special technique for ramming, nor could there be, since that was a last-ditch method in combat. During World War II, Soviet pilots carried out more than 580 rammings of German aircraft, after unsuccessful attempts to destroy them with gunfire.
AH: When and how were you withdrawn from Spain?
Stepanov: “Withdrawn” is putting it rather mildly. My last mission was on January 17, 1938, over the town of Ojos Negros. I was shot down by either Italian or Nationalist aircraft. I spent the next six months in various prisons–Saragossa, Salamanca and San Sebastian. I was taken out to be shot on three occasions. The Republican government managed to exchange me via the International Red Cross for some German POWs. I departed Spain in July 1938, passing through France and Belgium, and then on to Leningrad by ship.
AH: It is reported that many Soviet airmen who had served in Spain fell victim to Stalin’s purges in 1937-38 — a terrible waste of men whose experience might have helped against the Luftwaffe in 1941-42. Were you aware of those purges, and did you know any flying comrades who “disappeared” during them?
Stepanov: In 1939 and 1940, a number of Soviet pilots who had fought in Spain were framed and arrested, usually without any formal charges being laid and without any kind of investigation–Felix Arzhenukhin, Evgeny Ptukhin, Pyotr Pumpur, Emil Shakht, Pavel Proskurin and others. Most were executed by firing squad. Yakov Smushkevich, who had been awarded the Gold Star of a Hero of the Soviet Union on June 21, 1937, and a second Gold Star on November 17, 1939, rose to deputy commander of the air force–only to be arrested for treason shortly afterward. He spent almost two years in an NKVD (Narodnyy Komisariat Vnutrennikh Del, or secret police) prison; then, as the invading Germans neared Moscow in October 1941, he was executed on the rationale that he might be freed by the Germans. Pavel Rychagov, a 15-victory ace over Spain, delivered a critical speech on the state of the air force at the end of December 1940. He was arrested early the next year and eventually executed.
AH: When were you sent to Mongolia, and in which regiment did you serve?
Stepanov: I arrived in Mongolia at the end of May 1939 as a member of a group of Soviet aces who had fought in Spain and China. The fighter force there was organized into three air regiments: the 56th and 70th, both equipped with improved I-15bis (also known as I-152) fighters, and the 22nd, under Major Grigory P. Kravchenko, with I-16s. One squadron of Major Vyacheslav M. Zabaluyev’s 70th Air Regiment was equipped with I-153s–upgraded I-15s with retractable landing gear. I was in command of an I-15bis squadron. I flew the I-153 very little–only five missions, in Mongolia.
AH: What was your impression of your Japanese opponents?
Stepanov: Japanese army pilots were quite skillful. They were courageous in the attack and stubborn in pursuit of their goal. The Japanese pilots tended to operate individually, however. Organized mass attacks were few and resulted in great losses to them.
AH: How did the Japanese fighters compare with yours?
Stepanov: I was impressed by the maneuverability of the Nakajima Ki.27 Type 97 fighter. It was, nonetheless, outclassed in maneuverability, speed and armament by the I-16 and I-153.
AH: Did you ever have occasion to meet any captured enemy airmen–or did the Japanese Bushido tenet of victory or death make that impossible?
Stepanov: I once attended the preliminary questioning of a Japanese pilot who had been shot down. I remember my amazement at his honest manner when asked why he had not chosen to commit hara-kiri. “My father’s a merchant,” he said, “and told me to come back from the war in one piece. Let the emperor himself commit hara-kiri.”
AH: Describe a typical day’s work for a Soviet fighter pilot. How many sorties did you normally fly per day? How many did you fly during major battles, offensives or campaigns?
Stepanov: Soviet airmen lived in yurtas (Mongolian tent dwellings) in the immediate vicinity of their airfields. The technicians would check the engines and armaments at dawn, so the pilots were always ready to scramble if the alarm was sounded. In times of heavy fighting, we would fly as many as four or five missions a day. When things were quiet, there would be a duty flight of three aircraft on standby, with the pilots at readiness in their cockpits.
AH: Did you know any of the Soviet aces who fought over Khalkin Gol?
Stepanov: Yes, I did. Friends I flew with in Mongolia would include Sergei Ivanovich Gritsevets (commander of the I-153 squadron), Grigory Krivenko, Alexander Zaitsev, Victor Kustov, Boris Smirnov, Platon Smolyakov, Alexander Nikolayev, Pavel Korobkov, Nikolai Gerassimov, and many others.
AH: Did you or your comrades know the names of any of the Japanese aces?
Stepanov: No, we didn’t. We were never told, and it didn’t matter anyway. As far as we were concerned, we weren’t fighting against specific pilots, but against all that we encountered. Among them were some high-class airmen, who led groups and decided how to commit them to battle.
AH: While the Khalkin Gol incident was virtually ignored by the West, it involved some mammoth air battles, didn’t it?
Stepanov: There were many major air battles near the Khalkin Gol River, with as many as 200 aircraft from either side taking part. The first of them took place on June 22, 1939, between 120 Japanese and 95 Soviet aircraft. The first phase of the battle was begun by the I-15bis squadron under my command. Japanese losses came to 31 and ours to 12. The second major dogfight was on June 26, when 25 Japanese were shot down. On the same day, our 22nd Air Regiment attacked an enemy airfield in the region of the Uzun-Nur Lake and disabled the 12 aircraft stationed there.
AH: There is mention of an especially sizable air battle on the morning of June 27. Did you take part in that particular day’s heavy activity?
Stepanov: On the morning of June 27, there was a surprise mass strike by 150 fighters and 50 bombers against our airfields. We lost 14 aircraft that were damaged during takeoff. The Japanese lost 32 aircraft on July 3 in two combat encounters. We lost one. Between July 2 and 5, there were pitched battles for air supremacy. Japanese losses amounted to 45. In intense fighting between August 20 and September 1, Soviet pilots claimed a total of 184 enemy planes. On September 15, the Japanese government announced to the Soviet government its consent to a cease-fire in the air over Khalkin Gol. That, however, was a trick, as simultaneously the Japanese decided to launch a 212-plane surprise attack on our airfields. That armada was intercepted, with resultant losses of 20 Japanese planes. There were no Soviet casualties among the 180 pilots who took part in the operation.
AH: There were several cases reported of Japanese airmen landing to pick up downed comrades. Do you know of any occasions on which a Soviet pilot landed in enemy territory to help rescue a downed comrade?
Stepanov: On June 26, Sergei Gritsevets landed his I-16 in the vicinity of Ganjur Mountain to take on board Major Zabaluyev, commanding officer of the 70th Air Regiment, who had crash-landed his own I-16 following an engine failure. Gritsevets, who had been awarded the Gold Star on February 22, 1939, received a second one on August 29. He added 12 victories over Khalkin Gol to the 30 individual and seven shared kills he had scored over Spain. But he was killed on September 16, 1939–ironically, not in combat, nor by the NKVD, but in a flying accident at Bolbasovo, near Vitebsk, while en route to a new duty assignment in Belorussia.
AH: What role did you and your comrades play in the Soviet victory at Khalkin Gol?
Stepanov: My personal mission, and that of my comrades in arms, was to pass on my combat experience to pilots who had not yet engaged the enemy in the air, to organize scrambles when the alarm sounded, and to take part in aerial combat. That work brought its results–throughout the hostilities, we claimed 660 Japanese aircraft, while 179 Soviet pilots were downed.
AH: For what deed or deeds were you awarded the Gold Star?
Stepanov: I was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union for my cumulative activities in carrying out combat missions in both Spain and Mongolia. According to archival figures, I am credited with 13 personal kills in dogfights, and with personal participation in a group strike against an enemy airfield that led to the destruction and damaging of nearly 60 aircraft. I took part in 36 air battles and logged a total of 326 combat flying hours.
AH: Where were you stationed after the resolution of the Khalkin Gol incident?
Stepanov: Following my command in Mongolia, I was posted as an adviser to air force units that fought in an operation referred to as the liberation of western Belorussia (the occupation of eastern Poland) in September 1939, and during the armed conflict with Finland in the winter of 1939.
AH: After the German invasion on June 22, 1941, you served in the Moscow air defense system. Did you see combat while engaged in those duties?
Stepanov: No, I did not. Initially, I was a flight inspector for the air force in the Moscow Military District. Later, I became head of that district’s pilot training department.
AH: What were your activities after World War II?
Stepanov: During the Great Patriotic War and subsequently, I served in air academies of the Soviet army, performing various duties. After the war, I headed the air sports department of the Chkalov Central Air Club, led Soviet delegations to international parachuting competitions in Prague and Paris, and participated in conferences of the Fédération de l’Aviation Internationale (FAI) in Paris and Istanbul. For a number of years, I was vice president of the FAI.
AH: Looking back, what do you consider to have been the best fighter aircraft of the 1930s–and of the early 1940s?
Stepanov: During the 1930s, I think the best fighter was the I-16 and its modifications. During World War II, there were three: the Yakovlev Yak-3, the Lavochkin La-5 and the Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-3. *
For additional reading, Senior Editor Jon Guttman recommends: Red Stars: Soviet Air Force in World War II, by Carl-Fredrik Geust, Kalevi Keskinen and Kari Stenman; Aircraft of the Spanish Civil War, by Gerald Howson; and Fighter Aces, by Christopher Shores.