Various Lend-Lease aircraft saw action in the Courland region throughout 1944 and 1945, but one of the more prominent was the Douglas A-20 Boston. In fact, the twin-engine Boston (or Havoc, its official American name) was the most numerous Lend-Lease bomber in the Soviet air force, serving as a conventional bomber, torpedo bomber, heavy fighter, and high-speed transport. The American aircraft was on strength with various VVS KBF (Red Banner Baltic Fleet Air Force) units, including the reconnaissance regiment 15.ORAP, and mine and torpedo regiments 1.GMTAP and 51.MTAP. With the latter two units, the Bostons were used as both conventional and torpedo bombers, and as minelayers, and enjoyed various successful outings against convoys sailing to and from Courland. This post looks at two of the less successful operations by the Bostons of 1.GMTAP.
14 September 1944 was a very significant day in the Baltic States, as the three Red Army Baltic Fronts launched massive ground offensives against the German Heeresgruppe Nord in several locations along the frontline in Estonia and Latvia. The air fighting was correspondingly hectic, with air battles raging from Estonia all the way down to Memel in north-western Lithuania.
It was the air fighting off Memel that involved the Bostons of 1.GMTAP, a very experienced mine and torpedo regiment subordinated to 8.MTAD (8th Mine and Torpedo Division). 1.GMTAP had rested from operations for the previous ten days, after suffering some heavy losses to German fighters and anti-aircraft fire, mostly in the seas off Courland in late August and early September. Its resumption of operations on 14 September 1944 would not be particularly successful.
The 1.GMTAP plan for the day was to operate against any convoys sighted sailing across the eastern Baltic Sea. An initial anti-shipping mission by four Bostons of 1.GMTAP was broken off in the morning due to bad weather, inexperienced crews, and poor formation flying: it was an inauspicious return to battle for the regiment. Mid-afternoon, five A-20Gs from 1.GMTAP took off from their base at Ponewiesch, including two torpedo bombers and three low-level bombers (the Soviets referred to them as masthead bombers), accompanied by Yak-9s from fighter regiment 21.IAP. The Bostons were led by Mayor Tarasov, and they flew to the assigned target area at low altitude, looking for enemy shipping.
The Soviets attacked, and optimistically claimed a 4.000-ton steamer damaged by a torpedo off Memel, but they were met with strong shipboard anti-aircraft fire, and an estimated fifteen to twenty German fighters.
The Soviet formation had been intercepted by Focke-Wulf 190s of the Stabsstaffel of JG 51, which was based at Memel and whose primary duty it was to defend the port and any German vessels in the nearby Baltic Sea. The recently arrived Leutnant Gustav Sturm was part of the German formation, and the Austrian pilot claimed a Boston III shot down in the sea just off the Kurische Nehrung, a narrow strip of land that connected Memel with East Prussia to the south-west. Five other victories were claimed by the German fighter pilots from low altitude, including one Yak by Helmut Schönfelder, and one of the German naval vessels also reported shooting down a Soviet fighter. Schönfelder had pursued the Soviet formation as it made its way home, and his victory came a third of the way between the Baltic coast and the 1.GMTAP base at Ponewiesch.
VVS KBF losses were indeed quite heavy. Two A-20Gs were shot down by German fighters, the pilots being Lt Nikolay Pirushkin and ml.Lt Nikolay Ilyasov, while another Boston fell victim to the anti-aircraft gunners. Meanwhile, the Yak-9 piloted by ml.Lt Biryukov likewise failed to return. This encounter demonstrated that the Luftwaffe in the Courland region still packed a punch.
Various other anti-shipping missions were flown by Bostons of 1.GMTAP and 51.MTAP during the day, the latter unit focusing on shipping further to the north, in the Gulf of Finland, and a number of other Soviet Bostons were lost or damaged by anti-aircraft fire, with no successes achieved against German vessels.
It had been a difficult day for the Bostons of 1.GMTAP and 51.MTAP, and September 1944 would prove to be the costliest month of the entire year for 8.MTAD. The commander of 1.GMTAP’s sister unit, 51.MTAP, Ivan Feofanovich Orlenko (1907-1992), later wrote of this period: “With such strong opposition from the enemy, the slightest inaccuracy or oversight in the crew’s actions led to sad consequences. But it was also a good school.” Despite the losses though, the battle between the Bostons and the German convoys sailing across the Baltic would continue until the very end of the war, as the ebb and flow of the air fighting over the Courland peninsula swung back and forth between the Germans and the Soviets.
NA DEFE 3/460
NARA RG 242 T-313 R-322
TsAMO Bestand 500 Findbuch 12466 Akte 112
VVS KBF Operative Report
Schönfelder, Helmut Flugbuch
Schönfelder, Helmut Leistungsbuch
Sturm, Gustav Documents
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Russ Fahey, Andrey Kuznetsov, Rémi Tracanelli