Stalin had made three overtures to the United States under the Lend-Lease Act, a U.S. program launched in 1941 to provide materiel to friendly nations, to get B-29s as part of a general initiative to obtain heavy bombers. Washington rejected all requests for the heavies, but was generous with medium bombers, fighters, and transports. The Soviets even attempted a ruse in 1943, adding the B-29 to a long list of aircraft it wanted, but amused Lend-Lease officials denied the request.
Soviet air power surpassed the Luftwaffe to become the most lethal tactical air arm of World War II, employing fighters and ground attack craft organized into vast air armies as part of the general offensive against Germany in 1944 and 1945. By spring 1945, the Soviet air force had amassed enormous striking power, with as many as 15,000 operational aircraft. But the Soviets were utterly lacking in strategic capability: Estimates said they could muster only 32 serviceable four-engine bombers—the outmoded and highly unreliable Pe-8. They therefore viewed the unexpected arrival of three B-29s on their soil as an extraordinary windfall, described as a dar Bozhii, or “gift from God,” by bomber pilot Vasiliy Reshetnikov in his memoirs.
Soviet air planners, and Stalin himself, had been impressed with the Allied bombing of Germany, and the B-29 pointed to the importance of strategic aviation in any future war. Now the interned aircraft offered the Soviets their first opportunity to examine the most advanced U.S. bomber first hand. Stalin ordered Admiral Nikolai G. Kuznetsov, People’s Commissar for Naval Affairs and Commander of the Soviet navy, to begin flight tests. (The Superfortresses had landed at Tsentral’naya uglovaya, a Pacific Fleet air base, hence the navy’s jurisdiction.)
Kuznetsov appointed Lieutenant Colonel Semyon Borisovich Reidel to spearhead the test program. Throughout 1944 and 1945, Reidel, a pilot and engineer, had amassed an impressive number of hours ferrying Lend-Lease aircraft to the front, and he gained wide respect as the deputy director of the naval flight test program during the war. His knowledge of English became useful when he and his team studied U.S. technical literature, including several manuals found aboard the interned B-29s.
Reidel had only a few weeks to study Ramp Tramp, its instruments, and its anticipated flying characteristics. Using an English dictionary, he and a group of technicians made a detailed inspection of the Superfortress, re-labeling each switch and system. On January 9, 1945, Reidel, with A.F. Chernov in the right seat, flew the airplane to a base near Romanovka. Two days later, V.P. Marunov, another understudy, made a short flight. For days the three test pilots, taking turns in the left seat, perfected their skills at the controls. Romanovka, with its long runway and flat, unobstructed terrain, was a forgiving environment in which to cope with an emergency, but the tests were completed without incident.
Kuznetsov, awestruck, sent Moscow an enthusiastic report. The lavish use of lightweight aluminum alloys, pressurized crew compartments, remote-controlled guns, powerful supercharged engines, Norden bombsight, radar, electronics, and instrumentation—all represented an advanced level of technology beyond Soviet industry’s reach.
Such reports only strengthened Stalin’s resolve to create a strategic air arm, and he called for the transfer of Ramp Tramp to Moscow. Accordingly, on June 22, 1945, the Soviets formally launched the B-4 program—a “bomber with four engines.” The B-4 (soon to be renamed the Tu-4) was to be an exact copy of the B-29 Superfortress.
Stalin simultaneously cancelled the Samolet 64 (“Airplane 64”) program, a new long-range-bomber project that had been launched in January 1945 with Andrei Tupolev as lead designer. Stalin had jailed Tupolev in the late 1930s on the improbable charge of aiding the Nazis in the design of the Messerschmitt Bf 110, but now Tupolev found himself elevated to a position of prominence as the head of a crash program. He accepted the assignment reluctantly, but he had no choice: Stalin had spoken.
Stalin launched the project with a purge, which always preceded a change and most often victimized the most loyal figures. So it would be in this case, as he removed A.I. Shakurin, wartime head of the aviation industry, and Air Commander Alexander Novikov, a war hero, accusing them of sabotage for the criminal failure to provide the technical means for a long-range bomber. Shakurin and Novikov were exiled and humiliated, but neither endured a public trial or faced the prospect of execution. Novikov’s fate struck many within the Soviet air force as both ironic and cruel. A champion of both tactical and strategic aviation, he had emphasized the former because of the contingencies of the war. But Novikov had made some enemies. The once proud fleet of the bomber force shrank to only one unit: the 18th Air Army. This earned him the enmity of Air Marshal Alexander Golovanov, soon to be appointed by Stalin to head the expanding strategic air arm.
Stalin’s personal interest in aviation could be traced to the early 1930s, when he first patronized the aviation industry with huge government subsidies. In 1940 he reorganized military aviation from top to bottom, calling for a new generation of fighters and ground attack aircraft. Their development was already in motion on the eve of Operation Barbarossa, the 1941 Nazi invasion of Russia, and the head start allowed the Soviet air force to rebound from the disasters of that year, when most of its air arm was destroyed in place. In the final year of the war, Stalin again mobilized his beleaguered aircraft designers, plant managers, and air force with a new goal: strategic aviation.