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In 2004, salvagers pulled a Bell P-39 from a Siberian lake, where 60 years earlier pilot Ivan Baranovsky had crash-landed it. (Courtesy Boris Osetinskiy Via Mark Sheppard And Ilya Grinberg)

Lieutenant Ivan Baranovsky’s P-39

An airacobra's journey to the eastern front...and back.

At the time it entered operations, the airplane was the only U.S. fighter with the engine located behind the cockpit. Bell chief designer Robert Woods wanted the nose section free to carry a 37-mm cannon, which fired through the propeller hub. “Normally, one strike on an enemy fighter and he was finished,” said World War II ace Nikolay Golodnikov in a 2003 interview published on Grinberg’s Lend-Lease Web site. The cannon fired a round that “no engine could withstand,” explained Golodnikov.

There are military aviation histories and Web sites in which you can read that Russians used the P-39s as tank busters, flying ground attack and strafing missions. “That’s a fairy tale,” says Grinberg. “It flew air superiority missions. Yaks and Ilyushin Sturmoviks flew in the ground attack role, at low altitude. The P-39 plugged a very important gap” by prowling the mid-altitudes used by the German and Russian bombers, Grinberg says.

“If we had flown it [as] the Americans outlined in the aircraft’s specifications, they would have shot us down immediately,” said Golodnikov, a retired major general in the Soviet air force. “This fighter was a dud in its [design] regimes. But we conducted normal combat in ‘our’ regimes.”

Cobras had another feature the Soviets desperately needed: good radios. Before World War II, only one in 10 aircraft was equipped with a radio, and “they were poor excuses for radios,” said Golodnikov. “Garbage! The circuitry was wound on some kind of cardboard material. As soon as this cardboard got the slightest bit damp, the tuning of the circuit changed and the whole apparatus quit working. All we heard was crackling.” To communicate with their pilots, commanders relied on hand signals. With the arrival of the P-39 and other Lend-Lease aircraft, Soviet pilots were finally able to communicate effectively, and this ability was a significant factor in their success against the Germans from 1943 on.

NO. 44-2911 REACHED FAIRBANKS on January 9, 1944, and was accepted by a contingent of the Soviet air force’s foreign service. Nearly a month later, on February 1, a Soviet pilot flew the airplane west to Nome and across the Bering Strait to the Soviet Union. The P-39s were flown in groups of six or more, escorted by a North American B-25 or other medium bomber with more sophisticated avionics than those in the P-39. Hopping from base to base across Siberia, in March the aircraft reached a central Siberian base at Krasnoyarsk, the end of the ALSIB. There it received the designation White 23 and may also have been repainted with Soviet markings, including the red stars it would wear.

White 23’s log shows that it flew several missions from a base near Murmansk during an October 1944 offensive to drive German forces from the Finnish town of Petsamo. Ground forces were pushing the Germans back; they occupied Petsamo and a Norwegian port city, Kirkenes. On November 19, Lieutenant Ivan Baranovsky was to fly the airplane with his squadron to the recently captured air base Luostari, near the Norwegian border. White 23 took off from the base near Murmansk, but did not make it to Luostari.

In 2010, workers at the Niagara museum lifted the engine from White 23 and found two gaping holes in the engine block. “The engine had thrown two rods,” Hugh Neeson says. Grinberg believes the poor quality of lubricants explains the crippled engine and Baranovsky’s attempt to land on Lake Mart-Yavr. Neeson asked Grinberg to track down the pilot’s family to let them know. Working with a Russian group that investigates the cases of soldiers and airmen missing in action, Grinberg quickly found telephone numbers for Baranovsky’s brother and nephew.

GRINBERG STARTED his Web site on the Lend-Lease program, he says, as a way to remember and honor the past. “The people who fought, these people who flew and serviced these airplanes, there are very few of them still alive,” he says. “With every month, literally, there are less and less of them. I think the world should know who they were and the weapons that they fought with and what they felt. How do they feel, really, without any limitations of what they could say or could not?”

The Soviet recovery from the initial German onslaught in World War II is miraculous. Operation Barbarossa, the surprise Nazi attack in June 1941, decimated the Soviet air force. Within the first week, the Luftwaffe destroyed approximately 2,000 Russian airplanes, most of them as they sat on the ground, while losing fewer than 40 of their own. From this devastation, the Soviets rebuilt while they fought. They moved their factories east, away from attacking German aircraft, and eventually produced more than 140,000 aircraft, among them almost 60,000 fighters.

Post-war Soviet propaganda claims Lend-Lease aircraft did not play a significant role in the Soviet defeat of Germany because they represented only 13 percent of the aircraft the Soviets fielded. “And this figure continues to sit in the public consciousness,” says Grinberg. But to have supplied the 9,775 fighters sent by the United States (which included Curtiss P-40 Hawks and Bell P-63 Kingcobras), the Soviet government would have had to build four more factories, according to Grinberg, a project that would have drained resources and taken much longer to accomplish than merely taking deliveries from the United States. The resources that would have been required to build factories were instead sent to the front to repel German attacks. The Lend-Lease aircraft did not change the outcome of the war, he says, but without them, defeating Germany “would have cost many more millions of lives in several more years of fighting.”

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