On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany launched Operation Barbarossa against the Soviet Union and also the largest-scale invasion in human history.

Many Soviet pilots fought bravely and reached the level of “Ace” when they shot down 5 or more enemy planes, contributing to stopping the advance and repelling the Nazis. Among them, there were three Soviet pilots who shot down the most planes and were only inferior to the most best German “Aces”. They have superior flying techniques and good tactical thinking and high determination in close air combat. They were the best fighter pilots among all the countries of the anti-Hitler coalition.


Ivan Kozhedub

He was the top Soviet pilot with a confirmed record of 62 downing enemy aircraft, becoming the most successful Allied fighter pilot during World War II.

Kozhedub learned to fly planes at the Shostkinsk club before joining the Soviet Red Army in 1940. He graduated from the Chuguev Air Force School in 1941, when Germany was about to invade the Soviet Union. However, Kozhedub decided to stay at the school for two more years to train young pilots. Feeling that his talent would contribute more in combat, Kozhedub offered to be transferred to the front line. The request was approved in March 1943, and he was assigned to the 240th Fighter Aviation Regiment.

His initiative, daring, shrewdness, courage and intelligence made him the Soviet Union’s number one ace. Skilled in combat, Ivan Kozhedub always strove to aggressively attack the enemy first. At the same time, he was also capable of acting cautiously and coolly if the occasion demanded. Despite having started in the regiment as a regular pilot, he quickly mastered the new La-5 and was promoted to flight commander. He opened his tally on 6 July 1943 with the shootdown of a Ju 87 dive bomber.

Over the next few months Kozhedub steadily gained more aerial victories and a promotion to squadron commander, but in the first half of October he rapidly increased his tally with 14 shootdowns. On 10 October 1943 he was nominated for the title Hero of the Soviet Union for flying 146 sorties, engaging in 27 aerial battles, and totaling 20 aerial victories; he was awarded the title on 4 February 1944.

In mid-February 1945, during a free-hunting mission in an area south of Frankfurt with his wingman Dmitry Titarenko, Kozhedub shot down an Me 262 jet, thereby becoming the first Soviet pilot to do so. When Kozhedub and Titarenko encountered the Me 262, Kozhedub quickly accelerated from low to full speed; when the Me 262 banked left and slowed — spooked by tracer rounds fired by Titarenko — Kozhedub shot it down.

By the end of the war, Kozhedub tallied 330 sorties, had engaged in 120 dogfights, and had shot down 64 enemy aircraft. Having gained all his aerial victories on the La-5F, La-5FN, and La-7, he expressed his strong preference for Lavochkin fighters, and met with Semyon Lavochkin to comment on various aspects of the fighters’ designs. Having been nominated for a third gold star in May 1945, he became thrice a Hero of the Soviet Union on 18 August 1945, and remained deputy commander of the 176th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment based in Schönwalde until September that year.


Alexander Pokryshkin

With 59 kills, Alexander Pokryshkin is considered the second best Soviet pilot of World War II. Starting his military career as an aeronautical engineer, Pokryshkin always dreamed of flying an airplane. After being rejected 39 times to transfer to the air force school, his request was approved on the 40th time.

Pokryshkin always attacked the aircraft leading the enemy formation, the most difficult task in air combat. German pilots were always so afraid of confronting Pokryshkin that they often warned each other when he took off. “Attention! Attention! Pokryshkin’s in the air!” was how German warning posts used to alert Luftwaffe airmen to the appearance on the horizon of the P-39 Airacobra fighter with the tactical number “100” piloted by the famous Soviet ace Alexander Ivanovich Pokryshkin..

During World War II, Pokryshkin viewed air battles with Nazi Germany as an environment for learning and research. He meticulously analyzed each battle in which his squadron participated and contributed to pointing out the outdated tactics of the Soviet air force in the early stages of the war, in order to apply many changes later.

Alexander Pokryshkin was not only a talented pilot but also the inventor and champion of new tactical formations and aerial combat maneuvers such as the “scissors”, “falcon punch”, “pincers”, “pendulum”, and others. Thanks to him, the highly effective “Kuban stacks” combat formation, which gave fighter planes more room for maneuver when looking for targets, became widespread in the Red Army.

In the course of the war, Pokryshkin flew over 650 sorties, took part in 156 aerial battles and downed 59 enemy aircraft individually, and six in group kills. According to another estimate, his tally of aerial victories exceeded 100.

Grigory Rechkalov

Grigory Rechkalov, a fellow pilot of Alexander Pokryshkin’s, flew 452 sorties during the war, took part in 122 aerial combats and notched up 56 individual shootdowns (some records confirm 61 aircraft) and five group shootdowns of enemy aircraft. He sat at the controls of many fighter aircraft but the Airacobra became his favorite.

Rechkalov was a master of the “free hunt”, which he usually conducted at high altitudes (up to 6,000 meters). For him, finding his prey was no problem since his eyesight was exceptionally sharp.

Rechkalov’s finest hour came in the large-scale aerial battle for the Kuban region in the spring of 1943 in which he shot down 17 enemy planes. “There were no sorties which did not involve us engaging in combat,” he recalled. “Initially, the Fascists were as bold as brass. A group would appear from nowhere and set upon us, and you’d see first one and then another of our planes on fire and plummeting to the ground. But we soon saw through the tactics of the Fascist pilots and started doing things differently: going out in pairs rather than larger flights, making better use of radio for communications and targeting and forming groups of aircraft into so-called “stacks”.”

Rechkalov went on to become a Major General of Aviation in the Soviet Air Force in 1957 before leaving the military in 1959. He wrote two books about his wartime experiences: The Smoking Skies of War, and In Moldavian Skies. Rechkalov lived in Moscow until his death on 20 December 1990.


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