75 Years After A Russian Fighter Was Shot Down, Experts Heaved A Wreck From This Murky Lake

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Two teams of Russian researchers have spent four years hunting for a WWII Soviet attack plane. The aircraft ditched in a lake near the Russian-Finnish border in 1943 after being damaged by enemy fire. It’s now 2017 and sonar has shown a promising signal from a 36-foot-deep lake bed near the city of Murmansk. Divers enter the chilly waters to check. It’s a delighted thumbs-up; they’ve finally found their quarry.

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The plane in question is an Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik, known during WWII as the “flying tank.” Its name came from the fact that its forward section was built with armor plating fashioned from an alloy expressly developed for the Shturmovik.It was a multi-purpose craft capable of bombing, ground attack and fighter operations. And its heavy armor made it a formidable fighting machine.

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Captain Alexander Ivanovich Kalichev was the Soviet airman piloting this particular Shturmovik on August 22, 1943 on a flight from an airfield near the north-western Soviet city of Murmansk. Along with the squadron he led, Kalichev was attacking German forces on Russian territory. His target was Loustari airbase not far from the border with Finland, a country then allied with the Nazis.

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Kalichev’s plane was hit by ground fire from anti-aircraft weapons at Loustari. His aircraft lived up to its name for toughness and despite extensive damage he was able to pilot it back towards his base. However, the Shturmovik was so badly stricken that he couldn’t make it back to his home airfield, although he did fly into Russian-held territory. He had no choice but to crash-land into a lake, where his plane sunk to the bottom.

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We’ll hear more about Captain Kalichev’s doomed mission and the ultimate fate of his sunken plane shortly. But first, let’s take the opportunity to learn more about the WWII combat workhorse of the Soviet air force, the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik. We can actually trace its origins back to pre-war days in the 1930s.

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It was in 1936 when senior officers of the Soviet air force, the Voenno-Vozdushniye Sily or VVS, came to the conclusion that they badly needed a new attack aircraft to add to their arsenal. Their specification called for an aircraft that could mount assaults on ground forces, especially armored vehicles. It would also need to act as a dive bomber.

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The man who could fulfill such a requirement was Sergei Ilyushin, boss of the Ilyushin Aircraft Design Bureau. He apparently had the ear of Joseph Stalin himself and in 1938 told the Soviet leader about his idea for an aircraft that would effectively be a flying tank. Stalin green-lighted the project, and as we’ll see took a very hands-on interest in its progress.

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Two prototypes were commissioned and the Shturmovik took off for its maiden flight in October 1939. In its initial design, unlike the one flown by Kalichev in 1943, the plane was a two-seater with a gunner ensconced to the rear of the pilot. It was quickly redesigned as a single-seater to improve handling but soon reverted to the two-seater design apparently after a personal intervention by Stalin. A pilot had written to him pointing out that the plane was too vulnerable to attack without a rear gunner.

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Catastrophe hit the Soviet Union in June 1941 when Hitler reneged on his non-aggression pact with Stalin and Nazi troops poured across the Soviet Union’s western border. Suddenly, with German troops rampaging across Russia, the need for the flying tank was all the more pressing. Unfortunately, only 249 had been built by this time. Worse than that, only some 70 of the Shturmoviks were actually ready for active service.

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Many, many more flying tanks would be needed to give the VVS a realistic chance of having a significant impact on the Nazi invaders. Stalin was infuriated by the Soviet air force’s sorry state of unpreparedness and he directed his ire upon the production factories. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s website quotes from a telegram that the Soviet leader sent to the factory managers.

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“You have let down our country and our Red Army,” wrote Stalin ominously. “Our Red Army now needs Il-2 aircraft like the air it breathes, like the bread it eats. (This plant) now produces one Il-2 a day….It is a mockery of the Red Army….I ask you not to try the government’s patience, and demand that you manufacture more Il-2s. This is my final warning. Stalin.”

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A final warning from this ruthless Communist dictator was something no Soviet citizen could ever take lightly. Sure enough, production numbers quickly soared. In fact, during the course of the war, the Soviets built as many as 36,000 Shturmoviks. That makes it the most prolific battle plane ever produced. The only aircraft that can claim higher numbers is the Cessna 172, an overwhelmingly civilian plane used by the military only as a trainer.

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Although the front section of a Shturmovik was constructed out of robust metal alloy, the rear section of the fuselage was actually built with Siberian pinewood. This configuration meant the plane could be built by relatively unskilled labor in quick order, presumably keeping Stalin happy. The designers also concentrated on making the plane easy to maintain, a boon for support staff often working in difficult conditions near the frontline.

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The Germans, who were on the receiving end of the Shturmovik’s attacking capabilities, testified to the durability of the Il-2 by nicknaming it the Betonflugzeug. That translates as “concrete plane.” Indeed, the Germans found that they generally couldn’t shoot down a Shturmovik with their standard 20mm cannons or machine guns. The Russian aircraft could absorb an enormous amount of punishment yet still stay in the air.

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The Smithsonian site quoted the memories of one WWII Shturmovik pilot, Yurii Khukhrikov. He recalled, “It was an excellent aircraft for those times! We carried 1,300 pounds of bombs, eight rockets, 300 23mm shells for the cannon (150 rounds for each gun), and 1,800 rounds.” Despite this glowing endorsement, there was one very real problem with the Il-2.

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Although the Shturmovik had much success in disrupting German troops, it had its own glaring vulnerabilities. These centered on its somewhat lumbering performance in the air, making it an easy target despite its strong armor, especially when no Soviet fighter planes were available for protection. The German Luftwaffe claimed to have shot down 6,900 in 1943 and another 7,300 in 1944.

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Despite these shortcomings, there’s little doubt that the Il-2 played a crucial role as the Red Army began to push the Germans out of Russian territory in 1942 and 1943. The aircraft provided vital air support to Red Army infantry and tank battalions as they fought the Germans at huge set-piece battles such as Stalingrad and Kursk in 1943. Both of those encounters resulted in resounding Soviet victories and laid the ground for the eventual fall of the Nazi empire and Hitler’s bunker suicide.

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It’s worth pointing out that the Shturmoviks were not the preserve of male pilots. Senior Lieutenant Anna Yegorowa, for example, piloted the Il-2 on 243 missions and was awarded the high honor of Hero of the Soviet Union. She was eventually shot down in August 1944, badly wounded and taken prisoner by the Nazis but survived the war.

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But it’s time we got back to Captain Kalichev. On that fateful flight in the summer of 1943, the 34-year-old pilot was flying a single-seater Il-2 with the serial number 1870930. This number enabled the researchers to be sure they’d found Kalichev’s plane since it was still clearly visible in two places on the plane’s superstructure when it was hauled from the lake.

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State Aircraft Factory 18 built Kalichev’s Shturmovik in June 1942. It was located in south-western Russia in what was then the city of Kuybyshev but is now called Samara. The plane came armed with a 23mm cannon on each wing mounted beside a 7.62mm machine gun. It could carry nearly 900 pounds of bombs and four or eight rockets, depending on the type.

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The captain and his plane were part of the 46th Shturmovik Assault Regiment and were posted to the Russian Arctic near the city of Murmansk. This Soviet region was near the northern borders of both Norway and Finland, while Murmansk itself was strategically important as a port city where supplies from the Allies to support the Soviet war effort were landed after passage across the North Atlantic.

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As a result of Murmansk’s significance as a key part of the Allies’ supply line to the Soviets, the Germans, accompanied by Finnish troops, made a determined attempt to seize the city in 1941. But the Red Army held firm, and the Germans’ offensive failed. Both sides now formed defensive positions and fighting continued until the Russians finally expelled the Germans in 1944.

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So it was in this context that Kalichev took to the air in his Shturmovik in August 1943. That month, the Soviets had decided to attack an airbase in Finland that the Germans were using for attacks on Murmansk. The airfield was called Loustari by the Finns but Petsamo by the Germans. Just to add to the confusion, today the Russians call it Pechenga.

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In any case, after several postponements due to poor weather, Kalichev’s squadron and other units took off on August 22 from their Veanga-2 base, just 65 miles from the enemy airfield in Finland. The mission included 14 Shturmoviks plus fighter cover from Russian Yaks, British Hurricanes and American P-39 Airacobras. Fierce air battles ensued as the Russians approached the German base, with losses on both sides.

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Some of the Shturmoviks had lost their way and failed to attack the base, but those in the second wave reached the airfield, inflicting considerable damage. The Il-2s dropped 32 of their 220-pound bombs while the Hurricanes dropped smaller munitions. The Russians succeeded in destroying ten German aircraft and damaging various installations and anti-aircraft weapons.

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German anti-aircraft fire damaged two of the Il-2s as they attacked the airfield. One of those was a two-seater flown by the 46th Attack Air Regiment’s Group Leader Mikhailov. The other was Shturmovik 1870930, Squadron Leader Kalichev’s single-seater plane. Both pilots managed to fly their damaged planes back to the safety of Soviet-held territory.

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Mikhailov crash-landed his plane in a swamp; he and his gunner escaped with their lives and were picked up by friendly troops. Kalichev, on the other hand, ditched his plane into a lake and it sank to the bottom. And that was where it would remain until it was hauled off the muddy lake bed 75 years later in 2018.

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But what about Kalichev? Not only had his Shturmovik been hit on the tailplane and undercarriage by 20mm cannon shells, a round had smashed into the engine, damaging the camshaft. It was probably that last hit which finally brought his Il-2 down. Yet, he had managed to fly some 45 miles after his aircraft was attacked over the Loustari airfield.

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Once his plane could limp no further, Kalichev spotted a lake and that’s where he brought his Shturmovik down. He managed to clamber out of his cockpit before his plane sank to the bottom. After what must have been a worrying 30 minutes on the water, rescuers appeared and pulled him out of the lake. As he’d succeeded in flying to Soviet-held territory, thankfully they were Russians.

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After his rescue, Kalichev was posted to another squadron. He stayed on in the VSS until 1955 when, after a 22-year career, he retired with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He lived on until 1985, dying in that year. And that might have been the end of the story but for the curiosity and determination of some enthusiastic Russian researchers.

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Russian researchers got wind of the fate of Kalichev’s Il-2 early in the 2000s almost by accident. They’d actually been researching the details of a different Shturmovik which had been shot down near Murmansk in November 1943. Piloted by Junior Lieutenant Valentin Skopintsev, that aircraft had crash-landed on an ice-covered lake. That two-seater plane was recovered in 2005 and actually restored to airworthiness 12 years later.

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At first the researchers, keen to locate a rare single-seater Shturmovik, had unfortunately been sent on a wild goose chase. That was because Kalichev’s report of his crash stated that he landed in a body of water called Lake Arno. This is a large lake with waters as deep as 200 feet. But extensive searches of Arno drew a blank.

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In fact, Kalichev’s crash report had been wrong. You’d have to forgive him that, given the fact that he’d just been shot up and forced to crash-land in water. The researchers now cast their net wider, looking in other nearby lakes. Then a solar scan of a lake called Krivoe in 2017 came up trumps – there was something lying 36 feet below the lake’s surface. It looked promising.

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Once divers got into the water, video footage showed beyond doubt that the wreck at the bottom of the lake was Kalichev’s Shturmovik. As mentioned earlier, the clearly visible serial number stenciled on the plane was conclusive evidence of that. And despite having lain at the bottom of Lake Krivoe for 74 years at that point, the plane was in remarkably good condition.

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The front part of the Il-2’s fuselage, the cockpit, the engine and the wings were all largely intact. Unsurprisingly, the rear part of the fuselage, the part made from Siberian pine, had rotted away in the water. But what remained of the plane was definitely worth salvaging. However there was one thing that gave the research team serious pause for thought.

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Video footage on the Shturmovik showed that the cockpit’s canopy was closed. Could that mean that there was the remains of the pilot inside? Perhaps the records showing that Kalichev escaped were wrong. That would change the whole tone of the operation. However, it was soon established that the cockpit was in fact empty. It must have slid shut after Kalichev had made good his escape.

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All that remained now was to drag the Shturmovik from the bed of Lake Krivoe, no mean task. Fascinating footage of the operation gives an excellent view of how this was achieved in August 2018. Divers secured harnesses around the plane’s fuselage and wings. The straps were then attached to large orange balloons which were fully deflated. Air was then pumped into the inflation bags, and the Shturmovik gradually emerged from its watery grave.

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The plane was then carefully dragged to the shore of the lake by a tractor, and pulled on to dry land across a makeshift jetty built with timber beams. Once ashore, the plane’s engine and wings were removed and the parts were all loaded aboard a flat-bed truck. On close inspection, the researchers found something fascinating in the cockpit – Soviet propaganda leaflets. These were clearly intended to be dropped for the benefit of Nazi personnel.

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Although sodden with water, some pages were still clearly legible. One showed a German soldier tucking into what looks like a tasty bowl of soup. It was captioned, “So begins a new life.” Another showed a German cutting hair. Its caption read, “Airman Schmidt has now become barber Schmidt again.” Presumably the idea was to claim that Germans who surrendered would be well treated. How true that was is a moot point.

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The truck carrying Shturmovik 1870930 now headed for Aviarestoration in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. That’s the outfit that restored Junior Lieutenant Skopintsev’s Il-2 which we mentioned earlier. The hope is that Kalichev’s Shturmovik, like Skopintsev’s, will sometime in the future take to the air again. That’ll certainly be a day to remember.

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