June 22 1941.

The Polikarpov I-16 in Action

I-16 in action

I-16 in action

On June 22 1941, Nazi forces launched a massive surprise attack on the USSR. Codenamed ‘Operation Barbarossa’, it saw three million Axis troops drive into the Soviet Union on three fronts. More than 1200 Luftwaffe aircraft struck first, attacking targets with such ferocity and speed that in the space of two days, some 2,000 Soviet aircraft were destroyed on the ground. In what was arguably the most successful and devastating attack in the history of air power, the Luftwaffe’s own losses came to less than 40.

A-8 attacking Polikarpov I-16s

Like fish in a barrel

In the desperate attempt to defend their homeland, many Soviet pilots resorted to extreme measures. It is hard to think of any higher form of courage than ramming an enemy aircraft with your own machine - but on the first day of what Soviet citizens came to call ‘The Great Patriotic War’, 15 Soviet fighter pilots downed enemy aircraft by means of this ‘taran’ or ‘battering ram’ tactic.

I-16 ramming Ju 88

No greater courage - a ‘taran’ attack rams a Ju 88 to destruction

On day two of the war, having already shot down four enemy aircraft, Lt Alexandr Moklyak of 67th IAP (Fighter Aviation Regiment) crashed his Polikarpov I-16 fighter into a Ju 88. In a single moment, he destroyed another enemy bomber; became an ace; and destroyed himself. Many more Russian pilots would follow Moklyak’s example.

Polikarpov I-16 attacking Ju 88, tracer visible

The ‘mule’ strikes back with its guns

At the outbreak of hostilities, there were 1,635 Polikarpov I-16 fighters - or about 40% of the total Soviet fighter inventory - in service. By the end of June 1941, only 873 were left - including 100 or so in need of repair. At that time, Soviet aircraft were in general no match for their enemy counterparts: with a top level speed of 280-290 mph (450-470 km/h) against the Bf 109E’s 350 mph (570 km/h), the I-16 was no exception. The ‘Emil’ also had faster climb and dive rates, greater firepower and a higher operational ceiling.

Despite such disadvantages, many Red Army Air pilots achieved ‘ace’ status with five enemy kills or more. One of the most successful was Major Leonid Galchenko. On 15 September 1941, Galchenko led five Polikarpov I-16s against a fleet of 30 Ju 88s. By the time the cordite fumes had settled, the flight had claimed four enemy bombers without loss and sent the others packing. Galchenko ended the war with 24 individual and 12 shared victories.

I-16 shooting up enemy fighter

Many I-16 pilots favored attacking enemy aircraft head on - unless they could catch them from behind

How did he and other Russian pilots achieve these scores? The I-16 could turn on a sixpence - invaluable in a dogfight. It was also able to soak up a lot of punishment; and, once later models were up-armed with 2 x 20 mm (0.787 in) ShVAK wing-mounted cannons, and 2 x 7.62 mm ShKAS machine guns in the upper cowling, it became a much more lethal opponent.

I-16 pounces on enemy convoy

I-16 pounces on enemy convoy

I-16 attacking enemy ground assetsy

Direct hit

Nicknamed ‘ishak’ or ‘mule’ for its stubborn dependability and general awkwardness, the open-cockpit I-16 could also carry 6 x unguided RS-82 rockets or up to 500 kg (1,100 lb) of bombs. A March 12 1942 attack on the Mga railway station demonstrates the I-16’s effectiveness in the ground-attack role. At 0530, in an effort to confuse the enemy flak gunners, a flight of 18 I-16s buzzed the station from the south at zero feet. Then, splitting into two groups of nine, the ‘mules’ looped around and attacked the trains crammed with Wehrmacht troops, weapons and ammunition from two different directions. Rockets, cannon and machine gun fire smashed into the packed carriages and wagons, causing explosions and fires that burned for hours.

I-16 rocketing enemy bomber

I-16 rocketing enemy bomber

Soviet pilots were also among the first to use rockets to break up enemy bomber formations. In November 1941, five Polikarpov I-16s of the Black Sea Fleet Air Force attacked a flight of eight Ju 88s heading for Sevastopol. Four of the ‘mules’ fired all 24 of their rockets at the bombers simultaneously. One bomber burst into flames and spiralled into the sea. The rest released their bombs over open ground and made a run for it.

I-16 downing enemy fighter

Victory at last

By the end of 1943, newer Soviet aircraft such as the Lavochkin LaGG-3 and Yak-7 had replaced the Polikarpov I-16 in service. But in the hands of the increasingly skilled Russian pilots, the humble ‘mule’ had helped propel the USSR to victory.

Thank you for your passion and support,

Yours sincerely,

Eagle Dynamics Team