The input of Komsomolskii-on-Amur aircraft building plant into the formation of the long-range bomber aviation during the WWII

The main plane of USSR long-range bomber aviation during the Great Patriotic War and WWII was legendary IL-4 (it was called DB-3f [«dalnii bombardirovshik», which in Russian means long-range bomber] till March of 1942) in all types. During the war 5 256 aircrafts of this kind were built and 2 732 of them were produced in Komsomolsk-on-Amur on the aircraft plant №126. Also in 1938-1942 the plant №126 produced 280 aircrafts DB-3 (the ancestor of Il-4 and DB-3f), which took its part in the battles of WWII, especially against the militaristic Japan.

No significant operations of Great Patriotic War were conducted without participation of Il-4. They were used in Stalingrad and Leningrad. This plane was the first to bomb Berlin on 7-8 August of 1941. Its part the ancestor of Il-4 (DB-3) played in the refusal of Japan to fight against the USSR during the WWI. In the beginning of 1939 24 aircrafts DB-3 (which were built on the Komsomolskii plant) were given to China to fight Japanese aggressors. Planes distinguished themselves in the attacks of Japanese military objects, including airfield. More than 140 Japanese planes were destroyed during these attacks. DB-3 losses totaled to only three planes. These successes had the impact on signing the non-aggression pact between Japan and USSR in 1940. One of conditions of the pact was cancellation of supplied of DB-3 planes to China. The signed pact was one of the factors that prevented Japan from entering the war with USSR on German side. Few records of speed, altitude and range were set on this plane.

But the manufacturing application of this aircraft in the plant №126 was extremely hard and right before the start of Great Patriotic War the production of Il-4 (DB-3f) was practically stopped. The thing is that DB-3 aircraft at the moment of putting it into the serial production was «raw» and had a great amount of significant constructive gaps. During the parade in honor of 1-st of May in 1936 test-pilot V. Kokkinaki performed several aerobatic maneuvers on CKB-26 (ЦКБ-26, the name of developmental prototype of DB-3). It was the first time when such maneuvers were performed on a long-range heavy bomber. Members of Soviet Government, including I. Stalin, were so amazed by the flight, that they gave an order to put the aircraft into serial production by the end of the summer of 1936. But the machine was not finalized yet.

Three plants were chosen to organize the serial production of the plane. They were Voronezhskii (№18), Moscow (№39) and Komsomolskii (№126) plants. According to the governmental program, plant №126 was supposed to build 100 DB‑3 aircrafts in 1937. Later it was reduced to 15 machines, but even this figures were not achieved. First DB-3 aircraft built by the plant №126 was handed over to the army only in March of 1938. The main reason of it was a great amount of constructive changes made by development laboratory of S. Iliushin. The former director of the plant K. Kuznetsov said «… if we will take all the work, which was done by the plant in 1937 based on constantly changing sketches, than we will have that the plant accomplished not one, but three annual governmental programs. Unfortunately all of the work was throw-out, and not by the fault of the plant, but by the fault of constructive changes made by the development laboratory».

Altogether in 1938-1941 Komsomolskii plant handed over to the army 280 DB-3 bombers. And when it seemed that the serial production more or less was organized, in the beginning of 1940, new constructive changes came to the plant from the development laboratory. The aircraft was significantly modernized to the model DB-3f (future Il-4). Constructive changes included the change of the engines for more powerful ones. It caused the significant upgrade of performance and flight characteristics of the aircraft. As an example the max bomb load increased for 1000 kg to 2500 kg. Of course it caused huge changes in plane design, which were directed to boost the endurance and durability of all aggregates. To understand the amount of design changes it is enough just to compare the pictures of DB-3 and DB-3f (Il-4). Find 10 differences!

DB-3 Aircraft

Pic.1. DB-3 aircraft

DB-3F aircraft

Pic.2. Il-4 (DB-3f) aircraft

Taking into account remoteness of the plant №126 from the main industrial bases of the country, small number of skilled aircraft industry workers, and the fact that repressions of 1930-s didn’t bypass the plant (more than 60 engineers and technicians were announced «enemies of the people»), by the beginning of Great Patriotic War the production of so essential plane for the army was practically stopped. From January to June of 1941 only 25 of old DB-3 type aircrafts were handed to the army.

But, thanks to selfless work of aircraft builders in remained days of June (from 22 of June till 1st of July) aircrafts DB-3f (Il-4) of the pilot line were finalized and tested, and in July the governmental plan of aircraft output was accomplished. For the remained 5 months of 1941 Komsomolskii plant handed to the army 360 planes. In 1942 the production was doubled. Altogether during the war time Komsomolskii plant gave to the Front 2 732 Il-4 (DB-3f) and 25 DB-3, which was more than half of the total supplies.

Sometimes workers to keep up the production tempo were have to use trickery. The engines for the plane (M-88b) were produced in the city Ulan-Ude (Siberia) and were delivered to Komsomolsk-on-Amur by railroad. Taking into account huge pressure for railroad transport during the war, disruptions of supplies were not uncommon. In such situations the test-pilots and plant staff conducted the test flights of assembled aircrafts with one and the same engines. Engines from the plane that passed the test-flight were removed and placed to the next plane to test it and so on. So when the engines finally reached the plant they were mounted into the already tested plains and machines were handed over to the army without additional detentions. This method allowed to maintain the production of aircrafts in needed numbers, though it requested additional efforts and violated all safety requirements. And here I want to mention, that during the whole war, despite the work intensity, design changes and such tricks, only one plane crashed during the test-flights.

Planes had been delivered to the front by two ways: disassembled by rail road and on its own. By railroad aircrafts were delivered to the city of Buzuluk (Orenburg territory) to 7-th reserve wing and to Moscow to 456-th aircraft repair plant, where they were assembled by front team of workers from Komsomolsk-on-Amur and handed to the army.

But most of the planes were transferred to the front on its own through the route Komsomolsk-on-Amur – Khabarovsk – Kuibishevka – Vostochnaya (after 1957 Belogorsk) – Chita – Krasnoyarsk – Omsk – Sverdlovsk – Moscow. Usually Krasnoyarsk route infrastructure was used to deliver Il-4 planes to the front.

Route Il-4

Pic.3. Route of Il-4 air-ferry from Komsomolsk-on-Amur to front-line airfields

The same as US lend-lease planes the air-ferry of Il-4 from Komsomolsk presented severe difficulties: traditional ones – tough climate conditions and law quality meteorological supply) and specific for this kind of planes. This machine was relatively new, that is why most of ferry pilots never flew Il-4 before. They were taught to operate this planes straightforwardly on the plant’s airfield by the crash program, called in Russia «takeoff – landing». For this purposes in August of 1942 the 444th long-range bomber air wing was relocated to the plant’s airfield. More than that Il-4, because additional armoring was longitudinally-unstable and had a tendency to nose-diving, that is why pilots had to control the column whole flight long, and nonstop section were of max length so sometimes pilots had hold the column very stiff for 5-6 hours. Fuel also was filled accurately for a length of a ferry section, so when the destination airport didn’t accept planes found themselves in critical situation. The other thing is that planes ferry usually was done without navigators.

In fond of the danger of the airferry speaks the fact that in November of 1942 the airferry form Komsomolsk was forbidden and it was decided to deliver the planes to the front only by railroad. Although because of the insufficient railroad capacities in the beginning of 1943 the air-ferry was renewed.

There was no special air wing to ferry the Il-4 planes from Komsomolsk-on-Amur to the front (as it was for the lend-lease planes – 1st ferry air division). In different times machines were ferried by 12th special air group of Civil sky fleet (till the route was closed in 1942), then by 73rd back up air division of long-range aviation, which was created out of the air group mentioned above (from May 1943). Lots of planes were ferried directly by the battle crews. Crews from the front-line headed to the plant, where they were handed a plain, ferried it to the front-line and fought on the planes they ferried afterwards. Also graduates from flight schools and civil pilots entering military, who were taught in 444th long-range bomber air wing in Komsomolsk, headed to the front-line on Il-4 from the plant № 126. Also crews from the Far Eastern air divisions, who were relocated to the front-line, were supplied by the planes directly on the plant and then ferried Il-4 by themselves.

Aside from accomplishing the government program of Il-4 production, the plant during war time equipped more than 10 so called «named squadrons» – the squadrons which were build in excess of the plan at the expense of private citizens. Usually planes of such squadrons had an inscription of the organization, which donated them, no their fuselage. Such squadrons were: «Komsomolsk» (citizens of Komsomolsk-on-Amur raised money to build it), «Khabarovsk Komsomol», «Kolima Komsomol», «Farmers of Sukhinichi», «Far Eastern militia», «Kamchatka to the Front» and so on.

The ferry and operational record of such squadrons – is an individual page of the history of Great Patriotic War. The squadron «Khabarovsk Komsomol» was equipped in late 1941. Group of pilots from 13th hydroplanes squadron of the Far Eastern department of Civil sky fleet, which was situated in Khabarovsk, took on the task to ferry the squadron to the Front. The commander of the group was Arkadii Ivanonich Romanov, and the commissar – Vasilii Ivanovich Khloptsev.

One of the pilots of the group was Pavel Prokophievich Petrenko, who told the next story: the group, which was formed out of civil pilots had to ferry the bombers DB-3F (Il-4). But, suddenly it was found out that not one of them previously operated such kind of a plane. Then civil pilots were taken to the plant airfield where testing-pilot started to take them for a flight one by one. When Petrenko completed his second landing, the test-pilot said: «Ok. Drive to a parking. You are doing ok. Enough».  When Petrenko heard it he was horrified: «How is it possible!!! Two round over the airfield on brand new plane and that is it – go for a long and hard solo  flight». But there was a need to ferry the planes as quick as possible and on 25th of December of 1941 first ten aircrafts leaded by Romanov took-off from the iced runway of Khabarovsk. And on 29th of December the last squad started its way.

The road to Krasnoyarsk with short stop in Chita, thanks to good weather conditions, was performed without any accidents. In Omsk, because of the severe frost, one of the planes out of the first squad (the squad of Petrenko) got tire blow out during landing. The pilot managed to land the aircraft, but the gear leg was seriously damaged, so the plane with the crew was left in Omsk to wait for spare parts, were supposed to be brought by the next group of planes.

After Omsk the weather changed for the worse. On the section Omsk – Sverdlovsk planes started to lose visibility of each other and practically had to get to the destination on their own. It was dangerous because navigators were only in leading aircrafts and followers (wingmen), after losing the visual contact with leaders, wandered off the course. Thus, one of the planes out of Petrenko’s squad was not able to find the airfield of Sverdlovsk and had to land on the frozen lake. During the landing aircraft nosed over the snow covered ice piling and crashed. Luckily crew was saved. The plane of Petrenko also didn’t make it to Sverdlovsk and landed in Kurgan.

The next section Sverdlovsk – Kurgan also had low cloud cover and blizzard. As a result wingmen lost their leaders again. The plane of Petrenko had to land in Naberezhnie Chelni instead of Kazan. And the airfield of Naberezhnie Chelni was not waiting for any planes, so the runway wasn’t ready. Luckily the ground services spotted the plane in time and managed to prepare the runway for it.

The last section from Kazan to airfields near Moscow, where planes were handed to battle pilots, the wing passed safe. Afterward pilots A. Romanov, V. Khloptsev and P. Petrenko served on ALSIB track.

The other «named squadron» «Far Eastern militia» out of 10 bombers took-off from the Khurba airfield (the airfield of the plant) on 23 of February 1943. It was equipped by air and technical staff of 444th long-range bomber air wing. They not only ferried the plans to the front-line airfields, but also fought on them afterwards as a part of 18th guards air wing of 2nd guards air division of Central Front. The first class pilot captain Alexey Vasilievich Gavrilin was appointed as a commander of the squadron.

The flight also was very difficult, because of technical problems and weather conditions. The squadron landed on the airfield Astafievo near Moscow on 4th of March 1943 consisting of only 7 planes (out of 10 in the beginning). First loss happened already on the section Khurba – Khabarovsk. Because of unknown cause the aircraft of experienced pilot lieutenant A. Akinshin in the middle of the route suddenly rocketed up, lost its speed and crashed. Pilot and navigator died, radio operator and onboard technician survived.

Not far from Chita because of the brake in fuel pumps aircraft operated by second lieutenant P. Trifonov had a crash landing. The pilot was able to save the aircraft and crew, but the plane demanded a long repair. So the squadron moved on without it.

Near the Krasnoyarsk the bomber of first lieutenant P. Altuhov had a fire in left engine. The pilot didn’t take any measures to save the plane and the crew and was the first one to eject the machine. As a result the Il-4 lost control and crashed with the remained crew.

Other planes of the squadron got safe to the destination airport and on 15th of March of 1943 they had their first combat mission.

For 780 days of war crews of the squadron «Far Eastern Militia» conducted more than 160 combat flights. The squadron participated in the fights around Leningrad, Belgorod, Orel, Prokhorovka, Sevastopol, Minsk and finished their combat path by the participation in Berlin operation. Only three members of the squadron’s original crew were able to celebrate the end of the war in service.

It is hard to over evaluate the significance of this legendary bomber Il-4 (DB-3f) in the fields of WWII and Great Patriotic War. Combat pilots wrote lots of acclaims to this aircraft. They acknowledged its high flight characteristics, endurance and tolerance to battle damage. The staff of the plant № 126 in Komsomolsk-on-Amur did everything to give to the Front as many of such machines as possible. This explains why on 18th of July of 1942 the plant was awarded with Order of Lenin and 113 workers – with different orders and medals. In memory of those days there is a monument of Il-4 in Komsomolsk-on-Amur. It is a real battle aircraft which was made in Komsomolsk, crashed in the fights of Kolskii peninsula in 1943 and restored by the means of the plant.

Il 4 Final picture


Research center for SCO and APR, Khabarovsk State University of Economics and Law

Aleksandr Voronenko, Ph.D.

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