Interview with V.N.Zabelin

Main >> History >> Interview with V.Zabelin >> 3. The Great Patriotic War



3. The Great Patriotic War

91 IAP. Squadron commander – and Dvirnik

— You arrived at the front, a war is going on there, you could be killed there, while at the rear you had warm and quiet work. Why did you want to fight so much? Was it patriotism, a hunt for awards?

Yes, they also bombed us and artillery shelled us. There were many reasons, but patriotism was the first. We were trained for fighting, and we trained pilots for the war. It was already stamped in our minds, and we thought in one direction only. At the front you feel yourself completely differently. The relationship between people was different, you feel yourself as a free man.
Among other reasons was vengeance; for example, German bombs killed my mom in Stalingrad. I asked and begged for a chance to avenge her.

— What were your first flights at the front?

Our sorties began with familiarization flights around the area of combat actions. We flew in groups – we four, and another flight of four for our cover. We flew and looked where all other airfields were located, and then we flew along the front line. There were no enemy planes in the air – it was a moment of complete supremacy of our air force. The Germans were flying very cautiously by this time and tried to avoid flying in large formations. We made a couple of such flights, and then an order came to fly to Dembica. We flew there, and from there we began flying real combat missions to intercept enemy aircraft from an alert-1 posture.
Alert-1 means we had to sit in the cockpits with warmed-up engines. Alert-2 meant that we were sitting under the plane’s wing fully dressed with parachute and, for example, played cards. Everything went well. We occasionally flew on intercepts, or on a reconaissance mission toward Krakov, which was still in German hands. There we had to look around; a fighter pilot had to have a long neck.

91 IAP. Kudryavtsev with his wingman.

— Did you have silk scarves?

No, we did not.

— What did you wear?

It was summer, so we were dressed in ordinary gray flight suit. On our feet we wore boots.
Several times we chased an enemy reconaissance plane. It went over us into our rear area, but he always flew at high altitude. However I tried, there never was a chance for me.

— Was it due to the low altitude engine capacity or the lack of oxygen equipment?

Lack of oxygen equipment. Once I even got quite close to the enemy plane, but it was at seven or eight thousand meters, and there was no sense of chasing him above five thousand meters without oxygen.
We also flew on reconaissance missions. Right at that time, 1st Ukranian Front was involved in the so-called Duklinskaya operation, which was a part of Karpatsko–Duklinskaya operation. Karpaty – those are the mountains that separate Poland and Czechoslovakia, and Duklya was a Czechoslovakian city. Our troops were marching along the roads, while we covered them from the air. German planes, most commonly Focke-Wulf 190s, came loaded with bombs and tried to strafe our columns. Once we got involved in a dogfight and shot down several enemy planes. I was also successful.

— And what do you think about German pilots?

These were not the impudent Germans of the old days. There were four of them. One pair separated and went to the flank. I managed to approach them from below and opened fire from point blank. He dove straight down and exploded on the ground. I think that I shot down the leader, while the wingman got away.

— Was it on fire or was it smoking?

I saw a lot of pieces fly away from his tail section. As I recalled later, I must have damaged his controls – my shells and bullets hit him in the stabilizer and tail fin… (Zabelin was credited with 1 FW-190 southwest of Yaslo on 26.10.44. M.Bykov)

— What kind of armament did your Yak have?

The Yak was equipped with a ShVAK 20mm cannon and two 12.7mm machine guns.

— What do you think, was the FW-190 that you shot down a fighter or a ground attack airplane?

There was no bomb hanger under his wings or fuselage. I think that they were fighters. Otherwise there was no sense for them to get to four and a half thousand meters. Ground attack airplanes flew much lower.

— It looks like the German had missed your attack.

I also think so. I spotted them first, and reported to flight leader squadron commander Miokov. He immediately ordered:
— Attack!
He, meanwhile, chased another pair that turned right. (HSU Miokov Nikolay Dmitrievich was credited with destruction of 22 enemy airplanes. M. Bykov.)

— Were you paid for this victory?

I have no idea. There was no discussion about this.

— You scored one FW-190. Did you participate in other fights?

Well, there were brief dogfights; the Germans didn’t have enough strength for a real fight.

— Did you fly strafing missions?

We flew a couple of times. The Germans were retreating toward Czechoslovakia. A muddy road was packed with troops and heavy equipment. We dove at them and strafed them with cannon and machine gun fire. And we saw how they tried to run away from our fire.

— Were there bomb hangers on your planes?

No, not on a single airplane.

— What kind of planes was your regiment equipped with?

The entire regiment had Yak-3s, but we brought the first Yaks from the Tbilisi plant – it was the last to switch to their production.

— Was there any difference between Yaks made in Tbilisi and other plants?

I had no chance to test them in the air. There shouldn’t have been any difference.

— When you arrived at the front, did you receive money for combat missions flown?

I flew only 20 missions. We flew rarely, because there were no Germans left to shoot at.
I just recalled an interesting moment. We were spotted by German artillery. Our runway was narrow, but about 1500 meters in length and was located near the forest. We used to stay there for the night, after covering our aircraft in the forest under the trees. There were no revetments. We simply hid them under the trees. Germans shot over our heads, and shells often flew with a whistling sound and exploded somewhere near Zheshuv. At first these shells annoyed us, but later we got used to them and stopped paying them attention. They shot and shot… We continued to play cards. Nearby, off to the side, stood a church, a Polish church. And shells started exploding right over it at the same altitude. We looked at it like at the circus. At this time an artillery officer came to us across the airfield and said:
— Guys, drop everything, and prepare yourselves! You will be hit soon!
— Who will hit us?
— Didn’t you just see that registration? Prepare, you will have to run soon.
We did not believe him. We had no idea how it was done in artillery. But in a few minutes: “Boom! Boom! Boom!” Shells flew low, and when they caught tree branches they detonated. We all ran to the slit trenches, and jumped in. They were dug behind our planes, but no one used them for what they were planned. They served us as toilets. And our pilots jumped in there. Those who made it first, got the most. My friend and I decided to run toward the Germans through the forest. We ran to the area where the shells were not yet bursting in the trees. The shelling lasted for about twenty minutes. Then everything became quiet, but we did not want to return. When we heard our friends begin calling us, we came out of the forest near the canteen. A few shells had exploded there. Our regiment’s komsorg (Komsomol organizer) was crying in pain. He always tried to raise our spirits before an operation begun. He was not a pilot, but kept saying:
— Comrades! We will avenge them! We must…
“We, we”… Never saw a live German, but he tried to teach us to fight! So, imagine a picture, he stands with a hole in his blouse. He had a new blouse, but there was a hole in it, and a fragment was sticking out. And he wildly yells:
— A-a-a-a! Help me!
The regiment’s doctor came, and tore this blouse. This shell fragment only scratched him, like a thorn. And a little bit of blood. This komsorg had to ask for a transfer, because everybody was bullying him after this event.

— Did political workers fly in your regiment?

In Korea political officers had to fly. But I never saw them fly during the GPW.

— Were there losses caused by this shelling?

There were losses, but insignificant. An alert flight was taking off; some of them got into the air, while others received an order to abort take off. Planes that were closest to the forest were hit, but only planes were damaged. That artillery captain understood that someone was adjusting the bombardment, so he ran to the nearby village, and in one house he caught a German artillery spotter.

— Who repaired the craters after the bombardment ended?

The airfield service battalion (BAO). Locals were not involved.

— What was your relationship with the locals?

With the Poles? We lived at the airfield in some light buildings, and no one would have ever allowed locals on the airfield. After the shelling ended, we hurriedly flew to another airfield near the small town of Zheshuv. We contacted locals only if we wanted to buy alcohol. But we were not too eager to drink it, either.
We had already been assured that we would stay at the regiment when, at the end of December, we were summoned to see the regiment commander:
— Guys! I could do nothing, — and he showed us a telegram from the supreme commander of the VVS.
“To be sent back immediately…” We were loaded onto the car and sent to Lvov. We were escorted by soldiers, because there were cases when our soldiers were attacked by Banderovtsy [Ukrainian nationalist guerrilla group, adherents of Stepan Bandera]. Because of this, special patrol units were created to protect the lines of communication.

— How much alcohol did you drink in those days?

At the front–100 grams each evening to relieve the stress. We got up early in the morning and getting drunk was not an option.

— And in the ZAP?

In the ZAP there was no alcohol at all. There it was a major offense.

— If I understand correctly, finding alcohol was not a problem?

If someone wanted more – he could get it. But I always thought that 100 grams was more than enough.

— How did you return from your probationary duty at the front?

By train. There were four of us: me, Boris Fadeev, Sotnikov, and Balalaev. We travelled together from Lvov to Kharkov, where we parted ways. I went to Stalingrad.

— You went there to find your relatives?

My mother was killed during a German air raid. Dad was working in some PARM [mobile aviation repair facility] in Belorussia. My younger brother, Nikolay, who was 15 at the time, was homeless somewhere. He ran away from Stalingrad, and from time to time lived at our distant relatives. I wanted to find him and take him with me to Kutaisi. Well, eventually I found him, brought him with me, and he lived at our barracks – I enlisted him as a soldier. Then I continued my previous work.

— That is, after finding your brother, you returned to that same 11th ZAP?

I flew out to the front from the 26th ZAP, but returned to the 25th, where my squadron commander was Kondratyev, and my flight commander was Sobolev. In the 25th ZAP we flew Cobras. Nothing interesting happened until Victory Day.

— How did you meet Victory Day?

It was in Kutaisi. At dawn on May 9, we heard uncontrolled firing. All kinds of weapons were being fired—cannons, machine guns, pistols, flares, rockets, everything. It was announced over radio, and we started to fire.

— What kinds of decorations did you receive for the GPW?

For training pilots, and I must have trained over two hundred pilots, all instructors were awarded the Order of the Red Star and two medals “For Combat Service.”

© Oleg Korytov, Konstantin Chirkin, Igor Zhidov 2007-2009

Дата публикации: 22.08.2010
Авторы: Олег Корытов, Константин Чиркин, Игорь Жидов

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