Soviet Air Order of Battle for the Khalkin Gol Incident
by George M. Mellinger, Twin Cities Aero Historians
Thanks to a number of Western and Japanese scholars the Japanese perspective of the air fighting during the 1939 Khalkin Gol/Nomonhan border clash has been well known, and a fairly complete order of battle available. Eiichiro Sekigawa deserves particular credit. However, the Soviet perspective has been little known, even the public propagandistic version. And what was known has been generally misunderstood. For some time there have been scraps of information floating around about the Soviet Air Order of Battle, but nothing comprehensive, and with lots of mystery remaining. No surprise that much of what we have known is just plain wrong. With the end of Soviet paranoia , and its secrecy extending even into the distant past, information is becoming available as Russians, and some outsiders tap into the archives. Now we can make a serious effort to clarify the Khalkin Gol air campaign.
Some information is not new. For years we have “known” that the 22 IAP flew the I-16, the 70 IAP was equipped with the I-15bis, and the 56 IAP introduced the I-153. We may also know of the 150 Fast Bomber Regiment (SBAP) equipped with the SB-2, and there have also been reports of the R-5, TB-3, DI-6 and even R-10 seeing action at Khalkin Gol, though we have no idea what units flew these aircraft. Most of this information is partly correct, but badly distorted.
First, the 22, 70 and 56 IAPs were the three fighter regiments at Khalkin Gol. But it is a mistaken projection of western practice to assign the I-16, I-15bis, and I-153 to different regiments. Soviet doctrine at that time held that the I-15 family and the I-16 should cooperate in combat, the I-16s going after the bombers while the biplanes tackled the escorting fighters, and consequently both types of fighter were almost always assigned to each IAP, though they were segregated in the different squadrons of the regiment. Thus there might be two squadrons of I-15 and two of I-16. when the I-153 was introduced, initially it was assigned in the same way, substituting for the fixed gear biplanes. Only in 1940, after the Finnish War, did the VVS decide to shift its fighter regiments to a single-type structure. Thus, at Khalkin Gol, all three fighter types were found in every IAP.
In a similar fashion, we have misunderstood the 150 SBAP (or SBP). Most often this designation does mean Fast Bomber Air Regiment (Skorostnoi Bombardiovochnyi Aviatsionnyi Polk), and in fact does so signify for some Khalkin Gol units. However, in the case of the 150 SBAP, it stands for Composite (Smeshannyi) Bomber Air Regiment, and here is where the mysterious R-5 biplanes are found hiding, or rather the R-5Sh variant, intended for ground attack and light bombing (not to be confused with the R-Zet, though it most often is). For the first period of the conflict this regiment had three squadrons of SB and two of R-5Sh. During August the R-5 biplanes were replaced by more SBs, and the 150 SBAP became the Fast Bomber Regiment in fact. The other SBAPs at Khalkin Gol were indeed pure fast bomber regiments from the start.
Another major point to be considered is the size of the Soviet air regiment at this time. During 1939 an air regiment usually comprised four squadrons, each of fifteen aircraft, though occasionally there were only three squadrons, or sometimes five. Or more on rare occasion. At Khalkin Gol the norm seems to have been five squadrons.
During the conflict reinforcements were rushed to Mongolia from outside. However, these units did not arrive as separate units maintaining their original identities. Instead, pilots were sent from their home units on a tour of duty (kommandirovka, the same word used for a business trip) and assigned to one of the Khalkin Gol regiments upon arrival. Sometimes they maintained a certain autonomous identity, as with a naval squadron seconded to the 22 IAP, consisting of 10 pilots from the Baltic and 5 from the Black Sea Fleets. When special test squadrons or flights were formed to introduce and evaluate the cannon-armed I-16P, the I-16 armed with RS-82 rockets, and the first I-153s, these ad hoc squadrons were also integrated into a pre-existing regiment. Thus, by August, these fighter regiments may have had 7 or eve more squadrons on strength with a hundred or more operational fighters.
This “kommandirovka” approach also seems to explain another mystery which has bothered some of us who have studied in detail. From time to time we have found references to other fighter units, the 17 IAP in particular, or the 19 IAP as fighting over Khalkin Gol, even when there is no direct mention in the narratives. The truth is, groups of pilots from these units were making “guest appearances” at Khalkin Gol, flying with the 22, 70 and 56 IAPs.
The conflict began on the ground on May 11, and on May 20 the Japanese shot down a liaison aircraft variously identified as an R-5 or R-Zet. The next day, May 21, the air campaign began. At the beginning of the conflict the 57 Special Corps in Mongolia included the 100 SAB (Composite Air Brigade) comprised of the 70 IAP and 100 SBAP, but within a couple days they were joined by the 23 SAB with the 22 IAP and 38 SBAP, deploying from the Transbaikal Military District. These units were badly handled by the Japanese, so badly in fact that the Russians believed they were suffering a 3-1 loss ratio (actually even worse, since they reached this alarming conclusion without realizing they were overcounting even their few claimed victories). Within days a picked group of the VVS’s best and most experienced fighter pilots from the air battles over Spain and China were flown out to put some muscle into these inexperienced and helpless regiments. In late July the 56 IAP was sent out as a reinforcement and an exception to the kommandirovka principle, and also another SBAP which will be discussed below. At the same time the new test squadrons were also arriving. Further, a couple of squadrons of TB-3 heavy bombers from the Transbaikal Military District also began flying night combat sorties. A further development was the withdrawal of many of the I-15bis fighters from first line service and assignment to a second-line ad hoc Airfield Protection Group, based at Matat Somon to protect the airfields from Japanese air attacks.
On July 15 there was a higher level reorganization. The 57 Special Corps
was redesignated as the 1 Army Group, and the air units, at that moment
consisting of four over-sized regiments in two brigades, were formed into
the “Air Forces of the 1 Army Group” (VVS 1 AG), under the
command of Col. Aleksandr Gusev, a Spanish war ace. Major (later Colonel)
Ivan Lakeev, another “Spaniard”, was appointed Commander of
Fighters. The two SAB headquarters became superfluous. From August 13,
the three SBAPs were united under the command of the 100 SBAB, utilizing
the old 100 SAB staff. This remained the organization for the rest of
the conflict. In late August two more fighter regiments, the 8 IAP &
32 IAP, were sent to the Transbaikal, but they remained in reserve and
did not enter the combat zone before the end of fighting.
There remain a few problems, particularly the identity of the third SBAP dispatched together with the 56 IAP in July. Kondrat’ev identifies this unit as the 56 SBAP. While it is possible that a 56 IAP and a 56 SBAP would be dispatched simultaneously and together, it seems unlikely, particularly as some other sources have occasionally identified a 49 SBAP as participating at Khalkin Gol. Under whichever designation, no commander or strength has been identified for either. Of course this could well be the reflection of a bomber kommandirovka.
Another problem is the alleged presence of the R-10 and DI-6 at Khalkin Gol. Supposedly the DI-6, a two seat biplane fighter with retractable landing gear, was sent in an experimental squadron for testing against the Japanese who were misled much as the Germans initially were fooled by the Boulton-Paul Defiant a year later. However any such accounts are absent, along with any unit identification. Kondrat’ev maintains that he has been unable to find any evidence in VVS archives to support the notion that the DI-6 actually was at Khalkin Gol. There was a 2 ShAP assigned to the Far Eastern Military District in 1939, equipped with the R-10 ,and the R-5SSS version of the ubiquitous biplane, and that could have been a source providing the DI-6 and also the alleged R-10s, except there is no evidence that the unit actually did so.
Likewise, there has been mention of an independent reconnaissance fighter squadron equipped with the I-16, the 1 ORIAE, but this unit would seem most likely to have been subsumed into one of the three known IAPs.
Another unit mentioned without detail of commander or aircraft is the AE ON, the Aviatsionnaia Eskadril’ia Osobogo Naznacheniia - Aviation Squadron of Special Designation. Such units were almost always transport/liaison units for higher commanders, and not a part of the ordinary order of battle.
Finally, a word about the Mongolian Air Force. Though the Mongolians later flew the I-16, at the time of Khalkin Gol, their air force consisted of a single squadron equipped with a few examples of the R-5B, biplane bomber. They used these aircraft for night bombing missions from August, and suffered no losses.
A few further notes about the fighter regiments:
The 70 IAP is known to have had at least 6 and probably 7 numbered squadrons. I-15bis and later I-153 aircraft were assigned to the 5 AE, but other allotments are unknown. At the beginning of the conflict, this regiment still was equipped with the old I-16 Type 5 aircraft, armed with only two rifle caliber machine guns and sporting the hated sliding canopy.
The 56 IAP is less known than either of its two comrade regiments, but it, too seems to have had 7 squadrons.
Basic Organizational Structure
Unit Strength Rosters