Air Ace Ivan Kozhedub the Highest Scoring Allied and Soviet fighter pilot of World War II

anil chopra, air power asia, Air Ace, Ivan Kozhedub

Ivan Nikitovich Kozhedub was a Soviet World War II fighter ace. Credited with over 62 victories. He was the highest scoring Soviet and Allied fighter pilot of World War II. He is one of the few pilots to have shot down a Messerschmitt Me 262 jet. He was made a Hero of the Soviet Union on three occasions (4 February 1944, 19 August 1944, and 18 August 1945). After the war he remained in the military and commanded the 324th Fighter Air Division during Soviet operations in the Korean War. He finally retired in 1985 as the Marshal of Aviation. He was awarded Hero of the Soviet Union thrice.

Chief Marshal of Aviation Ivan Nikitovich Kozhedub. Image Source: ww2gravestone.com

Early life

          Kozhedub was born into a poor rural family on 8 June 1920 in the village of Obrazhiyivka, near the city of Shostka (now Sumy Oblast, Ukraine) in western part of the USSR. He was the youngest of five children in a Ukrainian family. He had a hard time when he was a child and never had enough to eat as a teen-ager. he had to work all the time back then. His only toys were handmade stilts, a rag ball and skis made of barrel planks. His father was rather an unusual person for his social status; working at the factory and doing country work, he found time to read books and even to compose verses. He was religious, strict and a persevering tutor. One time Ivan’s father, despite the protests of Ivan’s mother, sent his 5-year-old son to guard a garden at night. Much later Ivan asked his father about this situation pointing out that thieves were rare in that area and no matter what happened such a watchman would have been of a little use. His father answered – “I accustomed you to the difficulties.” At the age of six Ivan learned to read and write and soon went to school. After finishing a seven-year program he graduated and was accepted into the Shostka Chemistry Technological College.

Image Source: ww2gravestone.com

Inspired By Great Soviet Aviators

          The nearby aero club fascinated him. Later on, no matter what he might be doing–solving a difficult math problem or playing at ball, he would forget instantly about everything as soon as he heard the rumble of an aircraft motor. In the 1930s, the Komsomol (Young Communist League) was a patron of aviation and, naturally enough, all were crazy about flying. He remembers well the words of his school teacher: ‘Choose the life of an outstanding man as a model, and try to follow his example in everything.’ For him, a boy of 16, and for thousands of other Soviet teen-agers, the famous pilot Valery Chkalov was such a man. The whole world admired his bold long distance flights in the Tupolev ANT-25, such as his 1936 flight from Moscow to Udd Island, Kamchatka–9,374 kilometers in 56 hours, 20 minutes, or his shorter but more hazardous flight of 8,504 km in 63 hours, 16 minutes from Moscow to Vancouver, Wash., via the North Pole, on June 18-20, 1937. He was also a fearless test pilot, and it was during a test flight that he lost his life on December 15, 1938.

Valery Chkalov, the USSR’s most popular and record-breaking pilot. Image Source: rbth.com

Begins to Fly

          In 1938 he became a member of the aeronautic club. In April 1939 Kozhedub made his first flight the Polikarpov U-2 (U stands for Russian uchebny meaning “for study”). The inquisitive young man was greatly impressed by the beauty of his native land that opened up to him from a height of 1500 meters.

Polikarpov U-2. Image Source: aircraftaces.com

Recalled of His Younger Days Later

          Kozhedub recalled that his country was absolutely ready to rebuff any aggression. Any fighting on our own territory was considered unthinkable. Everything we read or heard over the radio about the war to the west seemed very remote to us. At that time we did not know that more than 40,000 of the most talented military leaders had been killed by Stalin’s purges a few years earlier. We realized what had happened much later. Every report about the retreat of our troops made our hearts bleed.

The first five Marshals of the Soviet Union in November 1935. (l-r): Mikhail Tukhachevsky, Semyon Budyonny, Kliment Voroshilov, Vasily Blyukher, Aleksandr Yegorov. Only Voroshilov and Budyonny survived the Great Purge. Image Source: Wikipedia

Joins The Red Army

          In 1940 Kozhedub was called up for military service in the Red Army. In 1941 he was admitted to the Military Pilots’ Aviation School in Chuguev. He was one of the best students and graduated as an aviation instructor. At the start of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, he continued to be retained as an instructor. Kozhedub remained at the school for nearly two years where he trained many young Soviet pilots. In 1941, following the start of the Great Patriotic War, the aviation school together with Kozhedub, was shifted to the Asian part of the country. Kozhedub was desperate to take part in military action and asked to be sent to the frontline. But he was not allowed to participate in the war until November 1942.

Transferred to Operational Unit

          Feeling his talents would be better used in combat, Kozhedub requested a transfer to an operational unit. Kozhedub remembers: “I requested a transfer to the front more than once. But the front required well-trained fliers. While training them for future battles, I was also training myself. At the same time, it felt good to hear of their exploits at the front. In late 1942, I was sent to learn to fly a new plane, the Lavochkin La-5. After March 1943, I was finally in active service.” In March 1943 he was posted, as a Senior Sergeant, to the 240th Fighter Aviation Regiment, one of the first units to receive the new Lavochkin La-5 aircraft.

Lavochkin La-5. Image Source: world-war-2.wikia.org

War Action Begins

          His first combat mission was on 26 March 1943 on an La-5 fighter. His plane was badly damaged by a pair of Messerschmitt Bf 109s. He was able to land his fighter but the aircraft was ruined. He did not get a single scratch, though his plane was finished. His leader told him later, ‘Make haste only when catching fleas.’ But he was in a hurry and thought he could down at least two or three enemy planes at one go. Carried away by the attack, he did not notice many Messerschmitt Bf-109s approaching me from behind. Of course, that was a bitter experience and a serious lesson for him.

Messerschmitt Bf-109. Image Source: Wikipedia

          He operated on the Voronezh Front and, in July over the Kursk battlefields. After that first flight , he flew many missions.  Then he was allotted a new La-5 with the cowl number 75. The plane was named after the famous Soviet aviator and Hero of the Soviet Union Valery Chkalov. The 23-year-old pilot, opened his fighting account with first aerial kill of a Junkers Ju 87 Stuka bomber, shot down during the Battle of Kursk on 6 July 1943 while engaging a fight with 12 enemy planes. The next day he gained a new victory by bringing down another Ju-87. On 9 July Kozhedub simultaneously destroyed two Bf-109 fighters.

Air Battle for Kursk. Image Source: weaponsandwarfare.com

Promoted Junior Lieutenant

          By 16 August he had claimed eight air victories. He was promoted to Junior Lieutenant. Then his unit moved towards Kharkiv. At this time he usually flew escort for Petlyakov Pe-2 twin-engine bombers. By October 1943 Senior Lieutenant Kozhedub had made 146 combat missions and brought down 20 enemy planes. By that time he was fighting as an equal with German air experts. Kozhedub skillfully combined his piloting technique with firing skills.

          In air fights over the Dnieper, pilots from Kozhedub’s air regiment engaged Göring’s Jagdgeschwader 51 (JG 51) Mölders squadron and won the air duel. Ivan Kozhedub increased his account. In 10 days of intense fighting he shot down 11 enemy planes. He was awarded with the order of the Hero of the Soviet Union on 4 February 1944.

Hero of the Soviet Union. Image Source: Wikipedia

Be Kind To the Aircraft – He Will Be Kind to You

          Aggressive, tireless, brave and skilful, Kozhedub was the ideal fighter pilot. His aircraft was his religion. Kozhedub once said: “The motor works accurately. The plane is obedient to my every movement. I am not alone – my fighting friend is with me.” For Kozhedub this was not poetic exaggeration or a metaphor; approaching the cockpit before take-off he always found some kind words for his plane.

Gets a New Plane – A Gift From a Farmer

          In May 1944 Kozhedub was promoted to Captain and became the commander of a squadron. With 38 air victories under his belt, he received a new La-5F – a gift from a farmer named Vasily Konev. Konev gave money to the Red Army and asked that a plane be constructed in the name of his nephew, Lieutenant Colonel Georgy Konev, a fighter pilot who died at the front. The request of the patriot was executed and the plane was transferred to Ivan Kozhedub.

Lone-Wolf Operations

          In July 1944, Kozhedub was posted to the 1st Belorussian Front as vice commander to the 176th Guards Fighter Regiment, and received La-7 No. 27, in which he would score his final 17 victories. Kozhedub was first upset by the new appointment but later found that he could fly with aces who went on lone-wolf operations. The 176th Guards Fighter Regiment carried out 9,450 combat missions, of which 4,016 were lone-wolf operations; it conducted 750 air battles, in which 389 enemy aircraft were shot down.

Ivan Kozhedub’s Famous La-7 “White 27”. Image Source: redbanner.co.uk

          By mid-1944 Guard Captain Ivan Kozhedub had flown 256 combat missions and shot down up to 48 enemy planes. On 19 August 1944 he was awarded a second medal, this time a Gold Star. Once, in an air combat over enemy territory, Kozhedub’s La-7 was hit. When the engine stalled Kozhedub didn’t give up, but chose a target on the ground and began to dive. When he was close to the ground the engine suddenly began to function again and Kozhedub brought the plane out of the dive and returned safely to his base.

Messerschmitt Me 262. Image Source: You Tube

Shoots Down a Me-262

          On 19 February 1945 during an operation near Frankfurt (Oder) Kozhedub shot a Me-262 jet that was piloted by Kurt Lange. The Me-262 was a latest German jet plane. Kozhedub’s La-7 was a turbo prop. The German plane was flying at much higher speed that was unreachable by the La-7 at a height of 3500 meters. Kozhedub later described this combat: “What is it? My formation member hurried opening fire at the enemy. But suddenly the German plane began to move to the left towards me. The distance was sharply reduced and I approached the enemy. With involuntary excitement I opened fire. The jet plane collapsed and fell down.”

Image Source: commons.wikimedia.org

          He served as a fighter pilot in several areas, including Steppe Front, 2nd Ukrainian Front, 1st Belorussian Front and at different ranks, starting from senior airman up to deputy commander of his air regiment. He claimed his 61st and 62nd victories – his final claims of the War– over Berlin on 16 April 1945.

          On 22 April 1945 Kozhedub was reportedly attacked by a pair of American P-51 “Mustang” fighter planes. After just two minutes of engagement, one of the “Mustangs” has hit and shattered into pieces; the second pilot barely had time to jump with a parachute. These kills were not confirmed.

American P-51 “Mustang” Image Source: Wikipedia

Greatest Soviet Pilot

          Kozhedub was attributed with the highest number of air combat victories of any Soviet pilot during World War II. He is regarded as the best Soviet flying ace of the war, and was associated with flying the Lavochkin La-7. He was reputed to have a natural gift for deflection shooting, i.e. aiming ahead of a moving target at the time of firing so that the projectile and target will collide.

Image Source: Pinterest

Kozhedub’s World War II record

          He flew 330 combat missions, 120 aerial engagements, 62 enemy aircraft shot down, including one Me 262 jet fighter (possibly Uffz Kurt Lange of 1./KG(J)54.). On 18 August 1945 he was again awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union for his military skills and personal courage.

At the Museum. Image Source: russiapedia.rt.com

Recalls of Tactics and Air Power

          In an interview to Aviation History Kozhedub recalled his experiences of hostilities in the early months of the war required a change in the tactics and organizational structure of fighter aviation. The famous formula of air-to-air combat was: ‘Altitude-speed-maneuver-fire.’ A flight of two fighters became a permanent combat tactical unit in fighter aviation. Correspondingly, a flight of three planes was replaced with a flight of four planes. The formations of squadrons came to include several groups, each of which had its own tactical mission (assault, protection, suppression, air defense, etc.). The massive use of aviation, its increasing influence on the course of combat and operations, required that its efforts be concentrated in those major specialties.

          Fighter air corps making up part of air armies were set up for that purpose. Hundreds of fighters took part in crucial tactical and strategic operations. Quite often, air-to-air combat developed into a virtual air battle. The arsenal of combat methods used by Soviet fighter aces came to include vertical maneuvers, multilayered formations and others. Out of the 44,000 aircraft lost by Germany on the Soviet-German front, 90 percent were downed by fighters.

With His Squadron Boys. Image Source: commons.wikimedia.org

          Since the war was teaching its bitter lessons, Soviets had to change tactics as they went along. The Air Force went over from 60-plane regiments, which appeared to be too heavy, to regiments consisting of 30 fighters (three squadrons). Practice showed that this structure was better, both because it made the commander’s job easier and because it ensured higher flexibility in repelling attacks.

Nose Art on Bf-109. Image Source: Pinterest

          Kozhedub’s impression about the Nazi pilots was that the sinister colors of the German Messerschmitt Bf-109s and Focke-Wulf Fw-190s with the drawings of cats, aces, arrows and skulls on their sides, were designed to scare Soviet pilots. But they didn’t pay much attention to them, and concentrated on finding weak spots in their tactics. But he always respected the courage of the German aces. Caution is all-important and one had to turn the head 360 degrees all the time. The victory belonged to those who knew their planes and weapons inside out and had the initiative. After August 1943, the supremacy in the air finally went over to the Soviet pilots. The onetime conceit of invincibility claimed by Göring’s aces had gone up in smoke.

Recalls Importance of Battle for Kursk  

          Kozhedub felt, the battle for Kursk was a landmark in the development of the forms and methods for operational and tactical use of Soviet aviation in the war years. In its first defensive stage, Soviet airmen flew 70,219 sorties. Tactical aviation accounted for 76 percent of the total, long-range aviation for 18 percent, and air defense fighters for six percent. During that period, they destroyed 1,500 enemy planes. Soviet losses were 1,000 aircraft. During the counter-offensive, they made 90,000 sorties, about 50 percent of which were designed to support attacking troops, and 31 percent to achieve supremacy in the air. The enemy lost up to 2,200 planes in that time.

The Korean War

Soviet MiG 15 in Korean War. Image Source: migflug.com

          After the war Ivan went back to the Air Force Academy and graduated in 1949. In April 1951, promoted to Polkovnik (colonel), he commanded the 324th IAD (Fighter Air Division) and was sent to Antung airfield on the China-North Korea border to fly the MiG 15 during the Korean War supporting the North Korean forces. He was not given permission to participate in combat missions. Under his leadership the 324th IAD claimed 239 victories, including 12 Boeing B-29 Superfortresses for the loss of 27 MiG-15s in combat and 9 pilots.

Image Source: Wikipedia

Higher Command

          In 1956 he graduated from the High Command Academy, after which he was promoted to General. From 1971 he served in the Central Office of the Soviet Air Force and from 1978 in the general inspection group of the Ministry of Defense of the USSR. He was made an Aviation Marshal in 1985.

Image Source: Pinterest

List of Aerial Victories

          According to Soviet aces 1941—1945. The victories of Stalin’s Falcons by Mikhail Bykov, Kozhedub’s all 64 air victories are well documented and include the target aircraft and locations. There is a general consensus among the historians. He mostly flew the La-5, and later part, its advanced variant La-7. The Lavochkin La-7 was a piston-engine single-seat Soviet fighter aircraft developed during World War II by the Lavochkin Design Bureau. It was a development and refinement of the Lavochkin La-5, and the last in a family of aircraft that had begun with the LaGG-1 in 1938.

Junkers Ju 87 “Stuka”. Image Source: militaryfactory.com

          His first victory was on 6 July 1943 when he shot a Junkers Ju 87 “Stuka”, west of Zavidovka, north of Kharkiv. There after he was achieving regular air victories. He shot a total of 18 Junkers Ju 87, 19 Messerschmitt Bf-109,  21 Focke-Wulf Fw 190, 2 Heinkel He 111, One Polish PZL P.24, three Henschel Hs 129, and one Messerschmitt Me 262. His last victory was on 17 April 1945, a Fw 190 at Kinitz. Until August 1944 Kozhedub was flying on Lavochkin La-5, after that Lavochkin La-7. He was never shot down though his damaged fighter was often cited at various airfields.

Alleged shooting down of two USAAF P-51 fighters

          Kozhedub allegedly shot down two USAAF P-51 Mustang fighters in a friendly fire incident 17 April 1945. He encountered a group of American B-17 Flying Fortresses under attack by Luftwaffe aircraft. His aircraft was apparently mistaken by American escort fighters for the enemy and attacked. Kozhedub, having no other option, defended himself by shooting down two of the P-51s. So far, this story is not confirmed completely. Film footage exists that had been touted as Kozhedub’s actual gun camera film from the event; however, the footage was shot using Zeiss equipment, which was used primarily by the Luftwaffe.

Ivan Nikitovich Kozhedub Photo at Central Armed Forces Museum of Russian Federation Image Source: tripadvisor.com

Honours and Awards

          Air Marshal Ivan Kozhedub was one of only two Soviet fighter pilots to be awarded the Gold Star of a Hero of the Soviet Union three times during World War II. The other, Aleksandr Pokryshkin, had flown from the German invasion in the summer of 1941 through the end of the war, during which time he scored 62 aerial victories in MiG3s, Bell Airacobras, Lavochkin La-5s and Yakovlev Yak-9Us.

KIEV, UKRAINE : Monument to the hero of World War II fighter pilot Ivan Kozhedub in the park. Inscription: Hero of the Soviet Union, Marshal of Aviation Ivan Nikitovich Kozhedub. Image Source: dreamstime.com

         Kozhedub was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union three times (4 February 1944, 19 August 1944 and 18 August 1945). Two Order of Lenin (4 February 1944 and 21 February 1978). Seven Order of the Red Banner (22 July 1943, 30 September 1943, 29 March 1945, 29 June 1945, 2 June 1951, 22 February 1958, and 26 June 1970). Order of Alexander Nevsky (31 July 1945). Order of the Patriotic War 1st class (11 March 1985). Two Order of the Red Star (4 June 1955 and 20 October 1955). Many campaign and jubilee medals. He was promoted to his final rank of Marshal shortly before retirement.

Alexander Pokryshkin, Marshal Zhukov, Ivan Kozhedub at Kremlin. Imake Source: commons.wikimedia.org

Stamp Release and Legacy

          Aleksandr Pokryshkin, Ivan Kozhedub is associated with a single fighter type, the series of radial engine, wooden aircraft designed by Semyen Lavochkin. The last of them, La-7 No. 27, has, like its pilot, survived to graceful retirement-in the airplane’s case at the Monino Air Museum.

Image Source: Wikipedia

         Ivan Kozhedub died on 8 August 1991. A special stamp was released to honour him by Russia in 2020.  A military university in Kharkiv is named in his honor, the Kozhedub University of the Air Force.

Ivan Kozhedub died 08-08-1991, aged 71, in Moscow and is buried on the Novodevitchy Cemetery in Moscow. Image Source: ww2gravestone.com

This Story of Soviet Ace Ivan Kozhedub is based on open source materials on Wikipedia and an Interview by Aviation History with the Ace pilot.  

Picture Credit: sputniknews.com

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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