Soviet Bombers in China
by Anatolii Demin and Vladimir Kotel’nikov
Aviatsiia i Kosmonavtika 3.1999
translated by George M. Mellinger, Twin Cities Aero Historians

{For Russian names I have used a simplified version of the Library of Congress system; for Japanese names, the rendition common in Western literature.  Chinese names and places have proven difficult.  I have been given by a friend a table for transliterating Pinyan phonetics into Cyrillic, and have tried to work it backwards to obtain Pinyan from the Russian. -GMM}

On July 7, 1937 the Japanese army invaded China.  Her soldiers attacked a Chinese post on the Lugouqiao Bridge on the border between China and occupied Manchuria.  According to the laughable pretext, the Chinese were guilty of abducting a Japanese soldier who went missing during maneuvers, and thus began the long Sino-Japanese war.   The Japanese militarists had planned for this for some time, and had gathered their strength well in advance.

Chinese aviation in those years was regarded as backward.  Their own aviation construction industry was just being born; and the national design bureau was only just beginning to find its legs with the help of foreign assistance.  In 1934 the Chinese imported 132 American aircraft and 14 aircraft motors for total sum of 3.7 million dollars (including spares).  The next year a further 81 aircraft and 80 motors were ordered for a sum of 2.5 million dollars.  In those years China was the largest customer for American aviation equipment, amounting to 20% of American aviation exports.  Bombardment aviation primarily was armed with American light attack bombers - the Northrop Gamma 2EC (24 aircraft imported from the USA in 1936 and a further 24 assembled from components at the Hanzhou aircraft factory) and the Curtiss A-12 Shrike.  Intended for direct battlefield support of the ground forces, they had a short radius of action and carried a small bombload. (the E2C up to 550 kg. and the A-12 a maximum of 200 kg), which allowed  bombs of only small  size.  For the same purpose of carrying light fragmentation bombs, also available were the reconnaissance aircraft Vought V-95 Corsair and Douglas O2MC (82 machines were purchased  in 1932-36, and later licensed production was organized at Hanzhou).

According to information of the Guomindang government, at the beginning of the war with Japan there were about 600 combat aircraft, of which 305 were fighters and the remainder light bombers and reconnaissance aircraft.  Medium bombers (the Chinese classified them as “heavy”) were not more than 20 machines.  All belonged to the three squadrons of the 8th Air Group (in Chinese- “Dadui” that is “Large Detachment”).  The 10th Squadron (“Zhongdui” - “Medium Detachment”) flew the Italian three-motor Savoia S.72.  In the summer of 1935 a sample copy, equipped for VIP transport was demonstrated and later presented to Chang Kaishi; the Chinese ordered and themselves assembled 6 such machines.  In fact these were military transport aircraft equipped with bomb racks for night activity.  By the beginning of the Sino-Japanese war all the S.72s were in shabby condition and were suitable only for transport.

The 19th Squadron was fitted out with Heinkel He-111A-0 twin motor bombers which had been rejected by the Luftwaffe (In 1935 six machines were purchased by the aviation command of Guangdong Province).  And finally, the  the 30th Squadron had the very best equipment, American Martin 139WCs (9 machines purchased in 1935, with the first 6 machines arriving in Shanghai in February 1937 for assembly and the training of crews).

In mid-August 1937 the 8th Air Group was rounded out by the 13th Squadron, receiving in Nanchang 4 SM.81B Italian bombers assembled in the local aviation factory.

At the beginning of the war the Japanese surpassed the Chinese in numbers and quantity, and also in the training of their flying and technical personnel.  In spite of their heroism, the Chinese suffered enormous losses.  During the first weeks of the war the Chinese lost almost all of their medium bombers.  In August-September five of the six Martins of the 30th Squadron were destroyed, bombed by Japanese forces near Shanghai.  The sixth and last was shot down on 22 October.  Most of the S.72s were destroyed in 1937 on the ground during air attacks.  On 25 August 1937, during an attack on Japanese ships in the area of Shizilin and Yuncaobin 2 He-111As of the 19th Squadron were shot down.  Later one Heinkel was transferred to the 13th Squadron for training, and one more was mistakenly shot down over Hankou on October 1 by a Chinese Hawk fighter.  In February 1938, during the course of two days, all the SM.81Bs were destroyed on the ground.

Ultimately the Chinese were forced to withdraw all their remaining bombers to the rear, beyond the radius of action of the Japanese fighters which completely dominated the Chinese sky.  Already by the autumn of 1937 the command staff of the Japanese air forces considered the enemy’s aviation completely destroyed.

Military assistance of the Soviet Union changed the situation.  On 21 August 1937 China and the USSR concluded an agreement of non-aggression and mutual assistance.  In March of the following year China was granted a credit of 50 million dollars for the purchase of weapons and military equipment.  In July 1938 and in June 1939 agreements were signed for new credits consisting of 50 million and 150 million dollars.

We note as comparison, that soon after the beginning of the war the Guomindang resumed purchasing aircraft in a number of countries.  Thus in 1938 the USA provided the Chinese with 143 aircraft and 84 motors for a sum of 6.4 million dollars.

But already by September 1937 the Soviet leadership began to implement “Operation Zet (Z)”, the dispatch to China of the newest combat aircraft.  In the middle of September in various units of the Soviet VVS there arrived secret circulars about the selection of the best prepared crews for fulfilling “special government assignments”.  Amongst the selected were crews of SB and TB-3 bombers.

First they began to prepare the southern route.  They planned to send the aircraft in crates to Alma-Ata, assemble them there, and ferry them the rest of the way to China by air.  The itinerary, beginning in Alma-Ata, passed through Kuldzhu (Yingying), Shihe, Urumchi, Gucheng (Qitai), Hami, Anxi, Suzhou (Jiuquan), Liangzhou (Wuwei), and concluded in Lanzhou on the Huanghe River.

The first commander of the ferry route was the already well-known NII-VVS test pilot Kombrig A. Zalevskii.  The base at Alma-Ata was commanded by Kombrig Alekseev.  At the series of Chinese aerodromes along the route there were also organized airbases with Soviet ground personnel, including meteorologists, radio operators, and maintenance technicians.  At Urumchi the chief of the base was Moiseev, and then A. V. Platonov, at Gucheng - A. V. Politiken, at Suzhou - Glazyrin, at Liangzhou - G. I. Baz’, and at Lanzhou - V. M. Akimov.

The first bombers, ten SBs, were shipped from Moscow on 17 September.  They were followed by another 16 machines on the 24th, and on the 27th five more.  In all, 31 aircraft, which according to our shtat, at that time composed  the full complement of a bomber squadron.[1]

Airmen were selected mainly from units of the 1st Army of Special Designation.  From there arrived 22 SB crews, five for the TB-3 and seven for the DB-3.  The last aircraft type, having just appeared as the “super-new” aircraft in Soviet bomber aviation, had not been gathered to hand over to the Chinese.  At first they were to be used as fast transports for servicing the ferry route itself.  Each DB-3 could carry 11 passengers or equivalent cargo.  Also alongside them on the route appeared transport TB-3s and the old civil ANT-9 used at the beginning to transport specialists and cargo.

At the beginning of October two DB-3s arrived at Moscow from the 11th Air Brigade based at Voronezh, and two from the 23rd Air Brigade at Monino.  At Factory No39 their bombing gear was removed and replaced by supplementary fuel tanks.  In the second half of  the month the whole group flew off on the route Moscow-Engels-Tashkent-Alma-Ata.  As they approached Tashkent, there was sufficient fuel remaining in the tanks, and they decided to fly directly on to Alma-Ata.  But on the approach to that city, due to the suddenly arriving darkness,  they lost orientation and all four DB-3s landed at different airfields.  Kaduk, the commander of the group landed at one field, the crews of Lomakin and Ul’yanov at another, and the pilot Dorofeev, while landing in the foothills, 70 km from Alma-Ata, broke his undercarriage - this was the weak point of the DB-3 in all the early series.

On 18 October one of the DB-3s completed the first flight to China.  The pilot was ordered to supply to the Suzhou detachment equipment and a barrel of ethyl liquid.  But the airplane did not fly all the way to the designated location.  During an intermediate landing at Hami the strut of the left landing gear leg was broken.  The next day a second DB-3 was sent out in pursuit.  It delivered to the intermediate field, mechanics, radio operators, various equipment, instruments and spare parts.  On 23 October, the second DB-3, due to loss of orientation, made a forced landing in a more or less suitable landing field about 70 km northeast of Angxingzhou.  The result was, they broke the landing gear, bent the propeller blades, and crumpled the motor cowlings.

Without awaiting the completion of the supply route, bombers were dispatched  along it.  this was urgently demanded by the Ya. I. Alksnis, Chief of the Administration the VVS -RKKA (In modern terms - Commander of the VVS).  Almost every day he bombarded Alma-Ata with enciphered telegrams.   13 October: “In order not to waste time immediately send the first echelon of SBs in a quantity of 10 examples as specified....”  14 October: “The delay of the flight of the first echelon is incomprehensible and intolerable.”  And so on until the departure was accomplished.

The first group of SBs (at first their commander was N. G. Kidalinskii, and then M. G. Machin), flew off to China in mid-October 1937.  The whole group was divided into the sections of I. Kozlov and P. Murav’yov, and a separate flight of N. Litvinov.  In all. 21 aircraft set out, awhile the remainder served as leaders for ferrying flights of fighters.  In place of the gunners, the aircraft carried mechanics, a full load of ammunition, and a bombload of 600 kg, though with the detonators carried separately. 

On 20 October the first seven SBs landed safely in Urumchi, except for one which blew a tire on landing.  It had to be left behind.  On take-off from Urumchi, Zakharov’s aircraft was damaged, and the remaining five reached Suzhou.  On 24 October the first SBs arrived at Lanzhou, and by the 26th there were already nine machines.  There were daily reports to Moscow about the movement of aircraft along the route.  Operation “Zet” was given very great significance.

The presence of Soviet military units in China was not paraded, and when possible was concealed.  In spite of the periodic border conflicts the USSR maintained normal diplomatic relations with Japan.  And the above-mentioned groups actually appeared as elite military units of the VVS-RKKS, the members of which underwent a careful selection and supplementary training.  Not forgotten were the political workers, for whom a fictional assignments were devised. to camouflage their actual duties.  Thus the air group commissar, A. G. Rytov became the “Head Navigator”.  Party meetings were held secretly from the Chinese, and upon the approach of any outsider they transformed into “technical discussions”.  All personnel had disguised assignments, even in Moscow, and there were orders not to discuss what happened  with the people and the aircraft.  About the pilot who allowed himself at a banquet, hosted by the Chinese governor, to propose a toast to Soviet-Chinese friendship, a denunciation was quickly sent to Moscow.  All these over legends were shields of gauze - You simply cannot pass off some peasant boy from Tambov or Voronezh as a Chinaman, and Japanese intelligence operated efficiently on Chinese territory.  The SB, I-15,and I-16 aircraft were well known to them, both from the military parades in Moscow and from the international air expositions in Milan and Paris.  None the less, they flew along the ferry route without any national markings.

According to the status report of 30 October eight SBs still remained in Alma-Ata, two were in Urumchi (one of them damaged), nine in Lanzhou, two in Suzhou, two in Angxingzhou (one was a leader for I-16 fighters), and eight had only just flown off from Urumchi.  The total - all 31.

On 22 October at Alma-Ata, six TB-3RN heavy bombers took off.  These machines had been used in the VVS-RKKA about a year.  Four of them came from the previously mentioned 23rd  Air Brigade, and two flew over from Rostov.  The Otryad was commanded by Captain Dontsov. In distinction from the SBs, a significant share of which were to fight with Soviet crews, the TB-3s were intended t be handed over to the Chinese.  the Soviet aviators participated only as ferrying crews and instructors.

From Alma-Ata the aircraft took off with extra cargo, each ten FAB-100[2] bombs internally, and two FAB-500 or four FAB-250 beneath the wings.  Additionally, each carried two complements of ammunition for its guns.  As with the SBs, the bombs and detonators were transported separately.  On 27 October the TB-3s landed in Urumchi, and then flew without incident along the route as far as Lanzhou, where they arrived on 31 October.

By 6 November 27 SB, 57 I-16, 6 TB-3, and  4 UTI-4 fighter-trainers had taken off from Alma-Ata for China.  After ten days 22 SB, 35 I-16, 4 UTI-4,and 6 TB-3  had turned up in Lanzhou.  In the entire Chinese territory there were already 58 SBs, which began the transfer of the second Soviet bomber aviation group (again of 31 aircraft) under the command of F. P. Polynin.  The aircraft traveled in relative safety as far as Urumchi where a sand storm arose.  for fifteen days they waited out the bad weather, with their aircraft tethered to stakes driven into the ground.  There were no further special misfortunes, although reports of minor flying accidents occurred periodically.

The landing fields with a weak soil base along the route were poorly suited for the SB.  Navigator P. T. Sobin reminisces that th aerodromes along the route Alma-Ata-Liangzhou as a rule were built on the sites of old graveyards.  There were instances when the wheels broke into the tombs.  For protection against mudslides from the mountains the landing fields were surrounded by stone fences, but many stones generally lay on the runways.  The local population were mobilized for their daily removal, but all the same the stones remained.

Far from all of our pilots had sufficient flying experience on the relatively new aircraft.  Nor were the series of intervening mountain airfields, located at heights of 1900 m. always taken into account.  Machines were often landing.  Reports from the route informed  “...flew into the earthen wall and wiped off his undercarriage”, “...became stuck in the mud and broke a strut”, “...landed wide of the mark and damaged the left leg”.  Also doing its bit was the low quality, dirty Chinese petrol, with which the motors could not produce full power.  And on one occasion at Urumchi, the Chinese erroneously began to fill the fuel tanks with water!

In the middle of November it was requested that Moscow send another ten SBs to replace those smashed  along the route.  They were assembled at Alma-Ata and by 12 December they were dispatched along the route.

By this time the southern route was beginning to work more or less well.  From 31 October, Komkor P. Pumpur was sent out from Moscow as its new commander, already wearing the still very rare Hero of the Soviet Union.  Supplementary TB-3s were required in the transport role because the DB-3s kept having accidents and crashes.  While returning from Lanzhou to Kuldzhu, Group Commander Kayuk made a mistake and crashed when he flew into a gorge.  Only two in the tail of the airplane survived, a passenger, colonel Zhuravlev, and the flight mechanic Talalikhin.  They reached Kuldzhu after a month wearing their flying boots and fur gloves!

A second DB-3 was lost in an accident at Shihe when the motors seized because of bad fuel.  It was repaired only in March 1938.  By then Moscow had dispatched a fifth DB-3 with Major Chekalin’s crew.  This was a new aircraft built at Factory No 39 and specially converted to the passenger variant.  It was not equipped with armament, and in factory documents was carried as “Aircraft No 24”. Before his appearance, even the Soviet ambassador to China  I. T. Luganets-Orelskii, flying directly from Alma-Ata to Lanzhou, in full accordance with “diplomatic etiquette” had to squeeze into the cabin together with the radio operator-gunner.  In addition to the passenger version, there was one more rare example of the DB-3  on the route, a flying fuel tanker, also specially converted in Moscow.

The northern route began to function with a great delay.  Although its organization began almost simultaneously with the southern route.  On 23 September 1937 Marshal K. E. Voroshilov ordered the organization of ferrying of bombers “along a  special route” from Irkutsk through Ulan Bator and Dalan-Dzadagad, and then to Lanzhou.  Thirty-one SBs were dispatched to Irkutsk along the Transsib Railway, where the local Aircraft Factory No 125 was charged with their assembly.  It is supposed that this entire group of aircraft was handed over to the Chinese and the ferrying was accomplished by the 64th  Air Brigade under the command of Major G. I. Tkhor.

The operation was planned to have been completed by 15 November, but it could not be accomplished in this time.  To Moscow went the telegram “Assembly of the birds in Irkutsk has been delayed”.  The assembly assignment was give to the Moscow SB factory, not reducing the original plan.  On 20 October the Chief of the GUAP (Main Administration of Aircraft Industry) M. M. Kaganovich gave the factory director an order to speed up preparation of the machines.  And as soon as 26 October they began to test the first ten SBs.  Major Tkhor relocated his group to the factory aerodrome and began to train his crews.  He gave his pilots the assignment of conducting flights up to30-35 hours, in all weather conditions, and to develop the habit of navigating to unknown locations.  The director of the aircraft factory complained about the Major to Moscow, demanding that he  remove the aircraft which were taking up the limited space of the factory airstrip, but his complaints were ignored.

Tkhor himself personally flew the entire route to Lanzhou and back in an R-5 communications aircraft.  But preceding his SB group, there flew along the route through Ulan Bator three TB-3s, delivering supplies of bombs and ammunition from the Transbaikal Military District.  This was because the first group of SBs to reach Lanzhou was able to accomplish only a single mission.  The Chinese had a reserve of foreign bombs, but without adaptors, our bombers were unable to use them (Later Chinese technicians were able successfully to manufacture such a device.).  On 19 November three TB-3s landed at Suzhou.  Along their journey they were supported by two R-5s, not so much for protection, as for assistance in the case of forced landing.

Captain V. I. Klevtsov led the first otryad of 15 SBs from Irkutsk.  By 7 December nine bombers and 3 R-5s with cargo arrived in Suzhou. They flew further along the already explored route to Lanzhou.  There an encoded telegram awaited Tkhor: “Return Tkhor to his place of service - Loktionov”.  Evidently, the Major dearly wanted to fight, but he had to submit.  In 1938 he returned to China as main Air Forces advisor.

Training of the Chinese pilots at Lanzhou had already begun in October 1937.  Almost none of them had previously flown a two-motor airplane, and in general the level of training of both the flying and maintenance personnel of the Chinese Air Force was very low.  First to begin retraining were the crews of the 1st and 2nd squadrons of the 1st Air Group.  They had found themselves “horseless” from the beginning of the Sino-Japanese war when the surviving Northrop 2E attack aircraft were taken to help replace the severe losses suffered by the 2nd Air Group.  soon they were joined by the airmen of the 11th squadron of the 2nd Air Group, and the 4th squadron.  Their instructors wee  the Soviet pilots, F. I. Dobysh, V. F. Nyukhtilin, N. Novodranov, and Saranchev.

Not everything went smoothly during training.  On 31 October a Chinese pilot during a landing cleanly wiped off the landing gear of his SB.  Japanese reconnaissance, which observed the concentration of new aircraft at Lanzhou attempted to destroy them on the ground, not awaiting their appearance at the front.  On 4 December 11 Japanese bombers attacked the aerodrome.  They made on pass, each dropping three bombs.  Four I-16s and four SBs managed to get airborne, but the Japanese would not risk a repeated pass and declined battle.  The bombs were dropped wide and there were no losses.

At the end of the year the personnel of the 19th squadron arrived for conversion, having lost the largest part of their Heinkels (On 2 October they had only 2 aircraft remaining).  Already by December 40-45 Chinese pilots had mastered flying the SB.

In parallel at Lanzhou they prepared crews for the TB-3RN.  At the end of November one aircraft was written off by a Chinese pilot.  On 30 November the remaining five aircraft with mixed Soviet-Chinese crews flew to Nanchang.  There they were discovered by Japanese bombers.  On 13 December during an air attack they attempted to take off and fly to Jian (Jiyangxi Province) but were unsuccessful.  The Japanese destroyed two aircraft and seriously damaged two.  On 25 December three TB-3s, including two repaired returned to Lanzhou.

Although clearly designated as heavy bombers, the Chinese never used the TB-3 as such.  Together with the surviving S.72s they transported people and cargo.  On 16 March 1938 a motor failed on a TB-3 flown by Guo Jiayang and Zhang Jiongyi. the pilots decided to turn back but crashed in the mountain gorge at Yingpan.  Of the 25 Soviet volunteers on board, only two survived.  The entire crew perished.  The fighter pilot D. A. Kudymov remembers that earlier he flew on this aircraft from Hankou to Lanzhou.  The commander took off without even checking to assure he had sufficient fuel.  The fuel ran out in the air.  With difficulty the aircraft crossed the mountain ridge and landed at the foot of the mountain amongst the boulders, not getting more than about a kilometer from the landing strip.  “We got out of the aircraft, wild with anger. The pilot of the TB laughed...”

Still another TB-3 was stood on its nose in 1938 in Chengdu, the pilot missing his mark while landing and overflying the borders of the landing field and coming to rest in a bog.  A Soviet mechanic then recorded that “The navigator’s cabin was pushed up like a Rhinoceros’ horn.”  The cabin was repaired, and the propellers replaced, after which the aircraft was sent back to Lanzhou.  With such an example the career of the TB-3 in China seems entirely short and completely inglorious.

Making up for it, the SB fought as well as anyone could have desired.  All the bombers arriving at Lanzhou were officially haded over to the Chinese authorities.  Here on the wings and fuselage were painted the white twelve-pointed star on a blue background (the emblem of the Guomindang government) and on the rudder white and blue zebra stripes - four dark blue and three white horizontal bands. (on a series of machines the stripes were more numerous).[3]  After 1945 with the beginning of the civil war between the communists and the Guomindang, the latter placed an additional white circle around the beams of the stars, and the communists made their “zebra” in red and white.  Frequently the flaking paint in photographs transform the rudder into a collection of dirty white fields of indistinct form.  Finally, on some  machines, the original finish of light gray paint was overpainted with patches of dark green paint.  On the fuselages o f their machines the Chinese marked with white paint a four digit number in large size covering the whole side of the fuselage. (An exception was our I-16 where the size of the numbers never exceeded 25-30 cm.)  the first two digits revealed the squadron number, and the last two the airplane number.  Sometimes the number was presented with a dash, for example No 3-6.

Already by the middle of November the SBs began to redeploy deep into China.  By 30 November there were 13 SBs at Xian, and by 18 December 18 machines had already departed..  Amongst them flew two combat groups of Soviet aviators.  M. G. Machin’s group deployed to Nangking, and already by 2 December nine SBs following Machin conducted an attack on the Japanese airbase at Shanghai.  From Nangking the aircraft flew along the right bank of the Yangzi, and then turned northeast and flew out about 30-40 km over the sea.  This maneuver allowed them to approach their target from a direction unexpected by the enemy.  But on their first pass they failed to find the aerodrome and had to make a second approach.  One aircraft was damaged by anti-aircraft fire, and then the group was attacked by six Japanese fighters.  The dense defensive fire of the gunners and navigators did not permit them to approach the bombers and two fighters wee damaged.  A second attack by the Japanese was unsuccessful and another of their fighters was knocked down.  the damaged SB was able to fly as far as Hanzhou, where it landed.. According to the evaluation of our aviators, in all they destroyed 30-35 Japanese aircraft on the aerodrome.

Soon afterward the same group conducted a strike on Japanese shipping on the Yangzi River.  Soviet sources usually claim the sinking of a cruiser (and memoirs even mention an aircraft carrier).  Whether a cruiser or aircraft carrier was there is doubtful.  In any case, there is no confirmation.  But that six Japanese ships were damaged is entirely possible..  According to the information of recent research by the Moscow Naval History Club (MKIF), Japanese sources do not confirm the irretrievable loss of any of their warships during the entire Sino-Japanese war.  In our reports there constantly figured sinkings of river boats.  Evidently these were landing-transport vessels of the barge or junk type.

During the first days of December, M. G. Machin’s group lost its first aircraft destroyed during a raid on the Japanese aerodrome at Hankou.  They were attacking near the city and the commander saw how the SB, flying at an altitude of about 100 meters was shot down and exploded on hitting the ground.

The Chinese forces soon abandoned Nangking.  Machin’s group rebased to Nanchang and their old aerodrome at Nangking became one of their main targets.  On 15 December they paid their respects to their old hearth spirits at almost full strength led by F. I. Dobysh, inviting with them nine SBs with Chinese or mixed crews. Twenty-seven SBs flew to the target in nine wedges dropping on the field from an altitude of 4300 m. high explosive and fragmentation-incendiary bombs in a fifty-fifty ratio.  Later, in his memoirs Machin described the result: “From the aerodrome arose gigantic tongues of flame and billowing clouds of dark smoke, punctuated by explosions.  A fiery train moved across the airfield.  The entire area around the aerodrome was also wrapped in smoke and flame.  There burned and exploded Japanese bombers, fuel depots, ammunition dumps.”  On the aerodrome at Nangking there burned 40 aircraft. While already on their return journey, flying along the Yangzi east of the city of Wuhu the group was intercepted by ten Japanese fighters.  They managed to shoot down one SB with a Chinese crew.  But during their first attack two fighters were shot down by the dense fire, and on their second attack two more.

The second Soviet air group under the command of F. P. Polynin began operations a little bit later.  Included in it were a group of crews from the Transbaikal who believed at first that they would only be ferrying the bombers and then flying home again in the TB-3.  The first four SBs of this group flew to Suzhou on 18 December.  They flew further to Hankou where it was planned to base a group of 12 Soviet bombers with a fighter covering of approximately 60 fighters of assorted types.  At Hankou Polynin’s group had to land “in the water”, the landing field turned out to be covered with 15-20 cm of water as the Japanese had destroyed a dam.  While landing they were protected by Chinese Hawk fighters.

Intensive combat activity began only in January 1938.  Daily reports went to Moscow about combat activity, losses and the maintenance of equipment.  In the archival folders are preserved carefully filed pages of reports with hurried notes in pencil.  Here are several notations from these archives:

“23 January 1938. 6 SBs bombed the aerodrome at Wuhu, 5 SBs the aerodrome at Nangking,  No losses. Two SBs landed from failure of motors... The same day the very same targets were repeated.  Seemingly 8 aircraft destroyed at Wuhu (Later reported on the 26th that according to reconnaissance information, 3 burned and 5 damaged)...Two missions of each of 9 SBs to the railroad station at Shanching.  The fuel facilities were set afire.

24 January 1938. 9 SBs bombed Japanese forces near Ninggofu. No losses... 9 SBs bombed the front lines at Wuhu-Shanching.  Bombs fell on a concentration of forces. 7 SBs have exhausted their motor resources.

26 January 1938. 5 SBs (Machin’s squadron) attack infantry in the Ninggofu region, twice from Nanchang.  13 SB (Polynin from Hankou) bomb Nangking.

About this last attack there is much more detailed information.  Japanese fighters and bombers began to concentrate at Nangking aerodrome in January 1938.  Chinese intelligence presumed that they were preparing a blow against Hankou, and decided to forestall it.

Polynin and his group took off before dawn.  The uncamouflaged Japanese aircraft stood in a line along the border of the airfield..  In the air was a defensive patrol of A4N1 carrier fighters - old biplanes.  They could not harm the SBs which bombed in wedge formation.  They set fire to 48 aircraft (In a report it was mentioned: “On the aerodrome at Nangking 40-50 aircraft burned”).  Also destroyed or set afire were aircraft maintenance facilities, and fuel and ammunition dumps.  The Japanese, it is true, admitted much lower losses - several G3M2  bombers burned and several more damaged.  The antiaircraft guns opened fire only after the first bombs had begun to explode.  Then the SBs were chased by eight A5M fighters.

The SBs suffered losses both from antiaircraft fire and fighters.  Bychkov’s aircraft was sent afire in the air.  The pilot and Udovichenko the navigator took to their parachutes over enemy territory, but Kostin the gunner was killed.  One more machine was wrecked in a forced landing.  Polynin’s own SB was hit and the cooling system of one motor damaged.  He made a forced landing in a bog having crossed the front lines.

For the event of forced landings, the Soviet airmen had sewn onto their flight overalls (or carried in their pockets) silk rectangles on which were printed in black hieroglyphs with a red rectangular seal requiring that the local inhabitants give all possible support to the bearer of this original warrant.  Attentively studying the silken document, the peasants pulled Polynin’s aircraft from the bog and pulled it by hand to the bank of the Yangzi and with a tug towing a barge delivered the bomber back to Hankou.

The next day, 27 January, nonetheless occurred the Japanese “return visit”, but evidently with far from the great strength which had been originally planned. Nine Japanese G3M2s bombed Hankou dropping 58 bombs (later the craters were counted).  There were no losses since the Chinese fighters did not shoot properly.  Not a single Japanese bomber was shot down.  Eight bombers visited Hankou dropping bombs from 2000 m.  But on an empty field - the Chinese notification service, as usual,  noted in time the approach of Japanese aircraft and all the SBs managed to take to the air and waited out the attack off to the side.  Antiaircraft shot down one enemy machine which fell not far from the airfield.  From the inability to properly defend their own aerodromes from the air the Chinese usually used the tactic of “dispersal” ( that is to disappear in time)  At the signal for an air raid, all aircraft would take to the air and fly off about 50-60 km from the aerodrome.  There, as a rule, beyond the hills, they would fly in a circle at low altitude for 15 to 20 minutes.  Then the leader would fly back to the aerodrome, and discovering that the attack was concluded, he would lead the group in for a landing.  The impatient ones were usually shot down.

Active operations of Soviet and then Chinese pilots against the Japanese aerodromes eventually forced the enemy to pull back his main aviation forces further behind the front lines.  This itself reduced the effectiveness of the air attacks and also led to complication for fighters supporting the bombers, for which the chief of staff of the 2nd Joint Air Fleet, Captain-Lieutenant Genda suggested using “special refueling bases” located closer to the front line (later such bases were called by us “jumping off aerodromes”).  The Japanese themselves understood that they “still had much to learn about the art of long range flight, and that nothing would be discovered during peace.  However the Chinese extracted a dear price for our lessons.  We discovered, almost immediately and with shattering clarity that bombers could not vie with enemy fighters.  We lost many aviators before learning this lesson.”

In distinction from the Japanese, during these first months the SBs went out without fighter cover, proving their name “fast” even with a full bomb load .  Both the army “Type 95” and the more modern carrier fighter “Type 96” (A5M4, called by the Americans “Claude”) were unable to overtake the SB and did not seem serious opponents for it.  Polynin later recalled “...Our SBs exceeding in speed the Japanese fighters, were not threatened by encounters with them.  Powerful armament gave us a very good chance of repulsing an attack, and if necessary on account of our speed, we could break off contact with the opponent.  We suffered greater losses from the poorly equipped and small Chinese aerodromes.  Suffering crashes during night landings at Guangzhou were an aircraft flown by a Chinese pilot in while A. G. Rytov was riding, and an I-16 flown by A. S. Blagoveshchenskii.  It happened that some pipes lay on landing field, which had been dug out of a ditch.  On  one occasion G. V. Titov’s group was unable to land on a reserve airfield because the Chinese had not leveled the the wheel tracks from the giant wheels of a TB-3.  After a dangerous landing with side winds, he spoke sharply to the airfield commandant: “We came to help China, and not to smash airplanes on your airfields. Therefore immediately take care of the ruts on the runway. Is that clear?”  After 10 to 15 minutes coolies with baskets began to run out, and soon there were about 300 people running, carrying baskets with earth, and singing their mournful song.

Combat assignments of Soviet pilots took place attached to air groups with Chinese officers, but general direction was conducted by the Soviet military advisors at Chang Kaishi’s air force  headquarters.  Often they led the Soviet air groups through the heads of the Chinese officers.  The main advisor for aviation then was Colonel P. F. Zhigarev, later Marshal of Aviation and Commander of the Soviet VVS.  Then in 1938 he was replaced by G. I. Tkhor, and then by P. N. Anisimov.

Experience led to the conclusion that the combat load of the SB had been underestimated.  On one of the bombers two containers were installed in the bomb bay, each configured to hold 12 fragmentation bombs AO-10 or 18 AO-8.  The experiment turned out successful and within a week such containers were installed on all the machines of Polynin’s group.

These cassette-boxes were later used successfully in combat operations.  But in one instance they became the cause of death of a crew.  On the aircraft of pilot Rumyantsev two small bomblets stuck in the container and only fell loose after the bomb bay doors had been closed.  Only after the aircraft had landed and taxied to its  dispersal point did the navigator Pesotskii open the bomb bay doors. The bombs fell out onto the ground and one of them exploded.  Fragments sprayed the Soviet and Chinese mechanics who had gathered around the aircraft.  In all eight people wee killed, the navigator dying of his wounds.  Only the gunner of the aircraft survived, the blast throwing him out of his cabin to land between a ditch and wire fence.

Beginning from the end of January 1938 the began to feel ever more strongly the limited motor resources of the M-100 motors.  They were overhauled and used further, they were operated beyond their established limits of 150 hours, but combat flights continued.  Bomber pilot A. I. Pushkin remembers that he himself spent much time along side the technicians, using a hand riveter (there were no pneumatic hammers).  Frequently they would make two aircraft out of three.

The raid on the Japanese airbase at Taiwan received great attention in the news.  It occurred on 23 February, actually greeting the twentieth anniversary of the Red Army.  On the aerodrome near Taibei the Japanese were assembling the Fiat BR.20 bombers sent from Italy, which they had designated “Type 1”.  It was decided to destroy the new aircraft before they could reach the front.

Two groups were prepared for the attack, 28 SBs from Hankou, and 12 SBs from Nanchang.  In the first group were only Soviet crews, while the second group was mixed.   For the sake of surprise, the course passed north of the island, and at the western tip made a sharp right turn and descended with the motors on reduced power to an altitude of 4000 m.  Only Polynin’s group from Hankou reached the target.  The Nanchang group made a mistake and had to turn back.

The aerodrome appeared covered in a thick blanket of clouds, but the pilots pressed on and at the last a window opened in the cloud.  The Japanese aircraft stood in two rows, and to the side of the field were as yet unpacked containers.  There was no concealment.  The SB group dropped 280 bombs.  The antiaircraft opened fire belatedly and fighters were unable to take off.  Diving lower, the bombers dispersed and flew off to the sea.

On the ground there burned about 40 assembled aircraft, hangers, and a three year supply of aviation fuel.  The commandant of the aerodrome committed harakiri.  The other side lost one SB from the Nanchang group.  A Chinese pilot after using up all his fuel made a forced landing in a lake which he mistook for the shallow waters of a rice paddy.  The entire crew drowned, including the Soviet navigator, M. A. Tarygin (who was also the air group commissar).

A detailed description of this attack was soon published in the Soviet papers, seemingly through the eyes of a Chinese pilot.  Comparison of this text with the later published memoirs of Polynin lead to the conclusion that either he himself wrote the article, or  it was written in his words.

Targets for the SBs were not only aerodromes, but also bridges, railroad stations and Japanese military positions.  In February 1938 a group of 13 SBs attacked one of the large stations of the Tianjin-Pukou railroad.  They bombed three trains.  A day later two flights delivered a blow against the Japanese crossing the Huanghe.  They dropped bombs on the rafts and boats, and with their machine gun fire dispersed the enemy infantry on the bank.  The crossing was disrupted. 

At the end of March Polynin was given an assignment to destroy the important railroad bridge across the Huanghe.  To accomplish this he had to fly more than 1000 km.  He made the decision to make a refueling stop at Suzhou on the return journey.  Three nines of SBs flew to the target and even “over fulfilled the plan”.  In addition to bringing down the railroad bridge, they also broke up the neighboring pontoon bridge.  The antiaircraft failed to respond.  Fighters took off but could not catch the departing bombers.

Strengthened by the Soviet assistance, the Chinese air force contributed in no small measure to the victory at Taiyechuang.  There, having achieved a significant numerical superiority, the Chinese surrounded a 62,000 man Japanese army.  Partisans destroyed the reserves of provisions and ammunition.  The Japanese commander threw in fresh forces to meet the surrounded forces trying to break out of their encirclement.  The Chinese aviation bombed and strafed the Japanese forces on both sides of the pocket.

Initially the plan was to replace all the personnel in the Soviet air group in China during the period 25 May to 5 June1938.  During June the Polynin Group returned to Lanzhou fro overhaul of aircraft and regalement of motors.  there they were replaced by a new group under T. T. Khryukin, which had arrived along the southern route.  New units also arrived from the north..  On 3 June Tkhor led 13 SBs to Ulan-Bator and another 15 arrived there on 7 June.  Captain S. V. Slyusarev became the commander of the group formed from these pilots.  Then across Mongolia flew yet one more group led by G. V. Titov.  these aircraft initially were deployed to Wanxian since Hankou was under severe Japanese air attack.

One of the main targets during this period became the river traffic along the Yangzi.  The Japanese noted a sharp increase in the activity of bomber aviation, from 14 June to 28 July counting 49 attacks on vessels, and troops along the banks.  The Japanese fighters were mainly occupied with escorting their bombers attacking Hankou. Wuchang, and Nanchang, and therefore only on isolated occasions did they manage in time to intercept the SBs flying along the river.  According to Soviet accounts, Slyusarev’s group alone by the fall had sunk more than 70 river vessels.

By this time the Chinese pilots had already mastered our SB sufficiently that they began to complete combat sorties not as part of mixed groups but on their own.  On the night of 20 May 1938 in the SB they even completed a flight over Japan dropping on Kyushu and Osaka Prefecture about one million leaflets.  The 1st Bombardment Group of the Chinese Air Force participated in in the defensive battles along the banks of the Yangzi.  On 12 July three SBs belonging to the 1st Air Group’s 1st Squadron flew from Jian to bomb enemy ships.  On the return trip they were attacked by five Japanese fighters.  Gunner Zhao Shulin shot down one of them but his own aircraft was set afire.  The gunner and pilot baled out but the navigator perished together with the machine.  the very same day three bombers of the 2nd Squadron of the same group together with two Soviet crews were assigned to bomb ships near Angqing.  And again on the return journey they were intercepted by Japanese fighters.  One Chinese SB was shot down in flames, the navigator escaping by parachute.  The pilot and gunner also baled out but were killed.  In all, on this day five SBs were shot down, and nine crewmen perished.  On 19 July fighters attacked the aircraft of pilot Gao Weilian while he was approaching the landing strip.  The crew managed to bale out, but only the gunner was saved.  The two other parachutists came down into a lake and were drowned.

The 4th Squadron completed attacks on Mengcheng, Yongcheng, Wangfu, and Guantaiji.  But the level of training of Chinese crews remained very low.  Training was rushed, flight were few, and technical and tactical understanding was very limited.  Raising combat morale was not facilitated by the social caste system and corporal punishment used by the Chinese army.  The Soviet aviation technician, A. K. Korchagin later remembered “the Chinese... flew much and carefreely... often without observing the rules of technical procedures, without the regulation work, without inspection and repair.”  And there was a price to pay for this.  During a night bombing training flight near Nanchang on 17 July the commander of the 1st Squadron Li Cizhen made a forced landing in a river near Jiujiang and drowned together with his crew.  On 21 August the new commander of the 1st Squadron, Lieutenant Tian Xiangchuo took off from Hankou for Chengdu, but along the way fell into the Nantuo River and perished with his crew.

Soviet crews also suffered significant losses.  For the most part these were connected with the appearance of the new Japanese Ki-27 fighter (Type 97) with significantly greater speed and rate of climb.  Until the middle of 1938 our bombers flew in China at altitudes of -2000 to 4000 meters.  The Ki-27 forced them to increase the bombing altitude to7500-8500 m.  At first this was a surprise for the enemy., but for us it was also a massive inconvenience.  At that time the ordinary aircrew of our air force were not trained for high altitude flight.  They picked it up during the course of combat flights.  The Chinese technical units often did not have an oxygen station and obtained oxygen from the repair depots.  Not rarely it was of doubtful quality, mixed with a large number of various impurities.  The possibility of sabotage and diversion cannot be ruled out.  At altitude the tubes and masks sometimes frozen, and occasions when individual crew members lost consciousness were not rare.  S. V. Slyusarev remembers that  “... as a rule in spite of the norms, we opened the oxygen valves half way in order to extend the range of the aircraft at high altitude.”  Slyusarev himself, during an attack on a group of ships near the city of Hukou on 18 August 1938 opened the valves only one third, and when a fragment of an antiaircraft shell cut the oxygen tube, on the return trip he lost consciousness. It returned to him a bit only after an hour at an altitude of 6500-7000 m.  After exhausting his fuel, he made a forced landing in a suburb of Yang (Qiangxi province).  The crew survived but the airplane was destroyed.

Due to the loss of their leader, the formation of the group fell apart, which was also a problem.  Direction of groups in the air was accomplished visually by the leader.  Although the aircraft radio was already established, they were not modern, the crews did not like to use them, and often to lighten the aircraft’s weight they were simply removed.  To the same point, the Japanese had a well organized radio intercept service, which frequently employed jamming and disinformation techniques.

The lack of reliable means of direction of the group not infrequently led to a failure to complete the mission by us and by the Chinese.  On one occasion the commander of the bomber group T. T. Khryukin was punished for this.  The entire group of 12 SBs got lost in the clouds and made forced landing as at various locations.  Fortunately, aside from minor damage, all came though all right..  The very same situation happened to the Chinese on 23 September 1941 when the commander of the 1st Air Group, Gu Zhaoxiang led a combined formation of the 1st  and 2nd Air Groups to bomb positions near Lake Dungtinghu.  Because his aircraft became inoperable, the formation was disrupted, the combat mission was aborted, and many aircraft broke from the course and made forced landings.

On 3 August 1938 three Soviet SBs (Slyusarev, Kotov, Anisimov), successfully bombed the aerodrome at Anqing, unexpectedly attacking from an altitude of 7200m.  A shell fragment hit the supercharger of Slyusarev’s aircraft.  It began to lose altitude.  Suddenly there fell upon the bomber at first two fighters, and then more than twenty (mostly Type 96, but also some of the older Type 95).  The flight closed up into a tight wedge and began to fight off the attackers.  Eventually five fighters were shot down and all the bombers returned safely home.  At the aerodrome the crews counted from 50 to 70 holes in each of the machines.  One gunner was wounded in the leg.

One of the last operations in which Slyusarev’s group participated was the counter-offensive of the Chinese forces at Laoshang.  Now they flew with fighter cover, the SBs were supported by Chinese I-16s.  They bombed mainly infantry and artillery, and therefore they loaded up to 70% with fragmentation bombs.

By October 1938 the motors had again used up their service hours and again the aircraft were ferried to Lanshou.  There an actual  repair base had been formed, which repaired the equipment of Chinese and Soviet units.  For the Chinese, only the 1st  and 4th  Air Squadrons remained combat capable, and they had few machines remaining.  The 2nd Squadron was withdrawn from the front to Nanyang and then to Liuzhou.

The crews of Slyusarev’s group were used to ferry new SBs from Irkutsk.  By the spring of 1939 they had delivered to China about 60 aircraft.  Most of this group were handed over to the Chinese air force.  The last pilots returned to the Soviet Union in February 1939 in a truck caravan.  of the beginning strength of the group of 60 men, only16 returned to the motherland.  In all, about 200 volunteers perished in China.

After this, the number of Soviet crews battling in the SB sharply diminished, though the last of them, evidently remained in China until May 1940.  In their stead, there was a significant expansion in the number of Chinese air units using these machines.  For conversion of crews and training of crews already familiar with the SB, at Taipingsi aerodrome in Chengdu (in all there were seven airfields at Chengdu),  a training center was organized (called the “Main Section” in Chinese sources), with Soviet pilot-instructors and engineering-technical staff.  by the middle of 1939 they had trained about 120 crews.

By the beginning of the year the 1st Squadron handed over two SBs to the 5th (reconnaissance) Group of Liu Fuchuan and returned to Chengdu for retraining.  In April their crews again took part in battle.  In June the squadron, which then had seven SBs was transferred to Hubei Province, but along the route four aircraft were lost in accidents.  Among the successful missions it is possible to note the 25 June 1939 attack on enemy positions north of Yichang.  Thanks to successful reconnaissance conducted by the commander of the 1st Group, Yu Hexuan, the assignment was accomplished with a blow by eight SBs led by Squadron Commander Gu Zhaoxian.

In February 1939 the retraining at Chengdu of the 2nd and 4th Squadrons concluded, and in July they were participating in the defense of Yibin, and soon afterward the 9th and 11th Squadrons finished.  The 9th Squadron flew to Nanchang in June and conducted attacks on targets along the lower course of the Yangzi.  On 3 July six SBs led by Squadron Commander Xu Yipeng departed to attack Japanese shipping.  Due to damage, two aircraft did not go all the way to the target, and the other four, at the moment of bomb release were attacked by enemy fighters.  The squadron commander’s aircraft was shot down first, with the loss of the entire crew.  The aircraft of Li Fuyu was damaged and made a forced landing with its gear lowered.  The crew were all wounded but survived.  The 11th Squadron flew from Nanchang.  On 28 June six SBs were dispatched to attack a steamer by the fortress of Madang.  Due to poor weather the fighter cover (I-16s with Chinese pilots) lost the bombers.  The formation of the latter group also drifted apart.  Only two aircraft reached the target and they were hemmed in by Japanese fighters.  The assignment was completed but one of the SBs was shot down, only the navigator baling out.

In September 1939 the 19th Squadron of the 6th Group converted to the SB.  After a very short retraining this unit was thrown into the battle at Guinang.  In all, by September 1939,  292 SBs had been sent to China.

In the summer of that same year the DB-3 long range bomber received its baptism of fire in the Chinese sky.  They had no occasion to fight in Spain, for they had not yet been sufficiently developed, and very few machines had left the factory.  It was decided to give the new equipment a test in China.

The first group of twelve DB-3s was commanded by Captain G. A. Kulishenko.  It’s crews were mainly from the 3rd  Air Brigade based at Zaporozh’e.  Kulishenko himself had a lot of flight time on this aircraft, even as a lieutenant he took part in the military testing of the DB-3 with the 90th Squadron.  About a month the group prepared near Moscow, In June 1939 the aircraft flew off along the route Moscow-Orenburg-Alma-Ata.  In each machine flew four to six men (since they took with them the staff and ground crews), and cargo of supplies, instruments, and replacement parts.  Polynin, who had just become deputy to the route commander, led the group along the southern route flying in an SB.  All the landing fields as far as Anxi were a bit short for the DB-3s and their fuel reserves permitted them not to land.  Therefore Polynin prepared a second SB at Urumchi.  And while the bombers circled over the airfield, he landed and “changed horses on the run” and then flew on further.  As leader he led the DB-3s to Lanzhou, whole they flew on their own the rest of the way to Chengdu.

After the first group there followed a second group, also of twelve DB-3s, under the command of N. A. Kozlov.  Wit it went experienced pilots of the Voronezh 11th Aviation Brigade.

The base for these groups at Chengdu became Taipingsi aerodrome (training center).  The aircraft were camouflaged, concealed with nets, and dispersed; the fuel was drained and the scaffolding was dragged off into a swamp.

The greatest success of Kulishenko’s group was attack on Hankou aerodrome on 3 October 1939, by then in the deep rear of the enemy.  The SB could not reach that far, and the Japanese did not expect anything similar.  On the open land the Japanese had located a naval aviation aerodrome designated “Base W”  It was also used by pilots of Army Aviation.  On this day the airbase prepared to festively receive new aircraft ferried from Japan.  Here were assembled representatives of the fleet command and the city authorities.

Nine DB-3s flew to the target secretly, in a tight wedge, maintaining radio silence.  They attacked as the ceremony was in progress.  Aircraft stood in four rows, wing tip to wing tip.  From an altitude of 8700 m. the Soviets dumped on them a mix of high explosive, fragmentation-high explosive, and incendiary bombs.  According to the reports of the crews, most of the bombs exploded along the rows of aircraft, which were tossed in every direction from the force of the blasts, with many burning.  Antiaircraft was silent.  Only a single fighter took off from the enormous bonfire below.  In it flew the later famous Japanese ace Saburo Sakai, but he was unable to catch the departing and lightened DB-3s.  The Japanese identified the unknown bombers as SBs and were very surprised at their appearance.

On the airfield there were found 64 aircraft destroyed and damaged, with 130 people killed and 300 wounded.  The fuel reserves burned of three hours.  Japanese sources confirm the loss of fifty machines, Killed were seven senior officers of Captain 1st Rank and higher, and twelve were wounded.  Amongst the latter was Rear Admiral Tsukahara, commander of the Japanese air flotilla.  A period of mourning was declared and the airfield commandant was shot.

The attack was repeated on 14 October.  Twelve DB-3s flew to the target, again led by Kulishenko.  But just after dropping their bombs they were attacked by Japanese fighters.  Three bombers received damage.  Wounded, Kulishenko flew his bomber as far as the city Wangxian, where he landed in the Yangzi about 100-150 m. from the bank.  After the aircraft came to a halt, he lowered the landing gear and the aircraft began to sink.  Kulishenko died of his wounds and the aircraft was later pulled from the water and repaired..  On this occasion at Hankou 36 Japanese aircraft were destroyed by the bombing.  It is possible that the Japanese suffered even greater losses - about forty naval and army machines.  Later there was a third attack which raised Japanese losses (according to Soviet reports) to 136 aircraft.

In return, the attempt to bomb Yuncheng aerodrome on 31 October was a complete failure.  This airbase was located all of twenty to thirty km behind the front lines, but at the limit of the radius of action for the DB-3s based at Chengdu.  According to Chinese intelligence, up to a hundred Japanese aircraft had concentrated at Yuncheng.  the target seemed very appetizing.  The Soviet aviation advisor P. N. Anisimov made the decision to deliver a blow with all available DB-3s,with out preparatory aerial reconnaissance.  He personally flew in Kozlov’s aircraft replacing the gunner.

Due to poor weather the navigators of both groups lost orientation.  The crews had no information about reserve landing grounds along the route.  Nobody reached the Airfield at Yunheng.  They landed where the came down.  A clear summary of the losses cannot be found, but on the basis of requests for  replacement parts sent to Moscow, it is possible to come to the conclusion that they disabled about ten machines.

Simultaneously with combat activities, Chinese crews were retrained.  From September 1939 the flight personnel of the 10th and 14th Squadrons of the 8th Air Group arrived at Chengdu. The group commander, Xu Huangsheng, together with some of his pilots had experience flying the SB, but had not flown much.  Most of the pilots had earlier flown the American Vultee V-11GB attack aircraft, but had no experience with two-motor aircraft.

Conversion was complicated by the fact that the DB-3 did not have a complete second set of controls in the navigator’s compartment.  The second, removable, control stick was intended not for an instructor, but in order that the navigator could relieve the pilot for short periods during a long flight (or return the aircraft home if the pilot had been disabled, which sometimes happened.) nor was there a throttle for the motors, and the view forward was obstructed by the machine gun.  None the less, by the spring of 1940 they had trained about 45 pilots.

At first the Chinese navigators and gunners began to fly operations in mixed crews, and then the Chinese began to operate independently.  From February 1940 the 10th Squadron began to operate with the DB-3.   In May 1940 the Soviet volunteers handed over the last eleven DB-3s to the 6th Squadron.

The Chinese did not use exploit the long range bombers extensively.  For example, the 6th Squadron by the end of the year had completed in all 30 combat sorties. Among them, at the beginning of October aircraft dropped leaflets over occupied Beijing.  On 18 November the squadron again returned t Chengdu for supplementary training.  It was desired to reequip also with the DB-3 the 9th and 11th Squadrons which also had been sent to Chengdu, but later they were again brought up to strength with the SB.

According to the recollections of our instructors, the Chinese crews were weakly prepared.  Systematic combat training practically did not exist, they flew little, and had not mastered high altitude flight.

Many  losses, in which sufficiently trained crews perished,  are difficult to attribute completely to combat.  Thus on 4 October 1940 a DB-3 of the 6th Squadron with a Chinese crew which had taken off on alert, out of impatience returned too early to base at Taipingsi and was shot down over the aerodrome.  On 2 January 1941 Li Changxiong, the commander of the 14th Squadron and his entire crew perished in a flying mishap over Chengdu.  On 13 February 1941 the deputy commander of the 8th Air Group, Liang Guozhang was making a training flight when a motor failed.  Attempting a forced landing in the Jianyang district, the aircraft crashed and burned together with the crew.  On 18 June 1941 due to un-airworthiness a DB-3 fell into an accident while flying off on alert to Lanzhou, killing the pilot, Meng Zonggao, his navigator and radio operator.  On 1 October 1941 during a long distance training flight to the Jiayuguan region, the DB-3 of the commander of the 6th Squadron, Zhou Shiyun vanished with its entire crew.

At the beginning of 1940 relations between the USSR and China worsened.  The basic reason appears to have been the discontinuation of supplies by the Chang Kaishi government  to the Communist 8th and New 4th Armies.  This was very displeasing to the Soviet leadership, and they sharply reduced military assistance.  Advisors remained, but our pilots no longer flew at the front.  Supply of aircraft, it is true, continued.

Among the aircraft supplied, the SB continued to feature.  Delivery of aircraft from the USSR continued almost until the beginning of the Great patriotic War.  The last machines were handed over to the Chinese only in June 1941.  Among the aircraft delivered to China from the beginning of 1941 were SBs of he last series with M-103 motors and the upper, enclosed MV-3 turret.  The Chinese knew them as the SB-III (aircraft with the M-100 the Chinese call SB-2).[4]  The 1st Air Group received the first new machines in the middle of January at the city of Hami (Xinjiang Province).  As a result, the 2nd Squadron completely reequipped with the new equipment, while the 1st Squadron had a mix of new and old machines.  In the middle of March, again at Hami, 30 new SBs were handed over to the 6 Air Group, training at Jiayuguan.  But in May this group was disbanded and the equipment was distributed to replenish other groups.  In part, three SB-IIIs went to the 6th Squadron where there remained few combat worthy DB-3s.

On the SB a new group was organized the 12th, consisting of the 45th , 46th, and 47th Squadrons.  It received a complement of crews comprised of graduates of the first class of the new aviation school in Chengdu.  The order for its formation was issued on 16 December 1940, but in fact the group assembled at Qiongla in January of the following year..  It received its equipment (14 old and 3 new SBs) only during the first tend days of March.  On 1 June, on the aerodrome at Zhaotung the Japanese destroyed four of these SBs.  This group never got into combat.  They remained in the rear until 1944 when they were transformed into an auxiliary unit, and in October of that same year were disbanded.

The first half of 1941 were very hard days for Chinese aviation.  As a result of the shortage of fighters and the complete air supremacy of the Japanese, the bombers continually had to disperse to various regions of northwest China.  The 11th Squadron even covered part of its equipment in a dismantled state.  The majority of Chinese air units refrained from combat and busied themselves with training flights,

Only the DB-3s continued to fight, making use of their long radius of action.  On 9 March six long range bombers bombed Yichang    The aircraft became separated in the haze and the DB-3 of Captain Gao Guancai was shot down by Japanese fighters.  Only the badly wounded pilot managed to bale out, and he came down in Japanese-occupied territory.  The local peasants at once concealed him and then carried him along the river to his own forces, but he died of his wounds on 18 March.

On 14 March the Japanese attacked Chengdu.  All the aircraft were ordered to relocate to Lanzhou.  In May-June, the bombers had to withdraw even further to Jiayuguan.  By December, with the 6th Squadron there were only three serviceable DB-3s remaining.  Due to a lack of spare parts, even training flights ended.  the squadron disbanded in January 1942.  At about the same time the same thing happened to the 10th Squadron.

At the end of September during the battle for Changsha, an order was received to redeploy the aircraft to the front.  The 2nd Air Group went to Hunan.  On 29 September eight SBs returning to base got lost and all the aircraft made forced landings in the fields.  The group had to fill up its strength from the 6th Air Group.  The 1st Air Group operated together with the 2nd.  On 23 September they bombed positions near Lake Dongtinghu.  In October the 11th Squadron was committed to the battle for Changsha.

During the course of these battles the Japanese managed to acquire a a completely intact SB.  On 29 September the aircraft of the commander of the 2nd Squadron, Zhang Tiqing failed to return from a combat mission.  Eventually it became clear that he had become a traitor and deserted to the aerodrome at Hankou.

Later the Chinese bombers flew little, completing episodic attacks on the Japanese during various key operations.  On 8 January 1942 the 2nd Group attacked Hunan and took part in battles with the overwhelmingly superior enemy.  Two SBs were shot down and three damaged bombers made forced landings.  On 22 and 24 January the same Group twice bombed the aerodrome at Annang.  Protecting he SB Group were the Flying Tigers - the American Volunteer Group.

During the second half of 1942 the greatest part of the SBs were concentrated on the border with Burma and were used in operations against the local “opium kings”.  the aircraft searched out and bombed poppy plantations to the west of Sichuan Province.  the aircraft also supported the ground forces defending positions on the border of China and India.

By the beginning of 1943 the only truly combat capable remaining on the SB was the 1st Group.  It had 19 SBs with the M-103 motor.  In May the Group completed its last sorties on the Hubei front.

Already by the middle of 1941 the bombardment squadrons of the Chinese Air Force began to convert to American air equipment received under lend-lease.  In August the 9th Squadron converted to the Lockheed A-29.  By the middle of October the entire Group was transitioning to it.  A year later the 10th Squadron converted..  In August 1943 the 1st Group received an order to send their crews to India to take possession of American B-25 bombers.

However, they continued to use the remaining Soviet aircraft for training as late as 1944.  The last DB-3s continued to serve in various places until September 1943.  The SB even survived the destruction of Japan and also took part in the civil war!  Several aircraft were included in the Northern-Western Combined Squadron of the Chang Kaishi forces, based at Tihua.  In November-December 1945 they supported the forces defending the city of Paotao.  They dropped bombs, and also supplies for the besieged.  The last Chinese SBs concluded their flying career at the beginning of 1946.

According to Chinese information, during the eight years of the Sino-Japanese war the Chinese Air Force received 2351 foreign aircraft, including 566 bombers (322 Soviet: 292 - SB, 24 DB-3, 6 TB-3,and 244 Americans.)  All our aircraft contributed all that they could to the repulse of the Japanese militarists during the beginning period of that war.

[1]At that time the eskadril’ya consisted of 3 otryady and an aircraft for the commander.  Each otryad had a commander and 3 zvena.  Each zveno had 3 aircraft.  Eskadril’i were grouped into brigady.  In 1938, with no change in unit strength, the eskadril’ya was redesignated the polk (regiment), and the otryad was redesignated eskadril’ya.  The zveno retained its name.  The term otryad continued in use for units corresponding to independent flights.

[2]FAB = Fugasnaya Avia Bomba, high explosive aviation bomb.-GMM

[3]Photographic evidence suggests that in fact six blue and six white stripes were the norm, and the combination of four blue and three white has seldom, if ever, been recorded in photographs. - GMM.

[4]This mirrors the Western confusion, which insists on calling the type SB-2.  Russian sources call it the SB.  Occasionally, technical sources refer to the SB-2-M100, and the later bomber as the SB-2-M103.  There never was an SB-1.  On the other hand, the TB-3 and DB-3 did refer to sequential designs rather than the number of motors.  Westerners were misled by the lack of a consistent designation system, and the superficial similarity to Western systems.-GMM