Problems in Attributing Ace's Aircraft-- B.F. Safonov

There have been many cases involving the misattribution of various aircraft to specific pilots-- usually to the higher scoring aces-- over the years. By now, most VVS enthusiasts are familiar with the better publicised cases: I-16 "11" to Safonov, Yak-1 "44" to Litvyak, and so forth. However, these types of cases continue to be a problem, despite the fact that Regimental records often do record the tactical numbers, and such details, of the pilots' aircraft. In this series, we will look to examine some of the more problematic examples of such misattribution and see what, if any, sense can be made of the actual historical situation.

Boris Feoktistovich Safonov was born on 28 August, 1915, in the Tula region, directly south of Moscow. The young Boris showed an early interest in all things aviation related, joining the local aero club in 1931. He enlisted in the Red Army in 1933, and during 1934 gained an appointment to the 1st Pilot Training School in the Belorussian Military District.

Safonov was enthusiastic and thoughtful in service. He gained very high marks as a regimental pilot, and subsequently gave instruction on parachute techniques to Army fliers. His work extended to two stints with the Komsomol's aviation programme, during which his contribution was highly praised.

Always a student of aviation theory and tactics, Safonov worked meticulously on topics such as aerial gunnery. His preferred tactic in this regard involved diving attacks behind the intended target, opening fire at close range from slightly below. His suggested modifications to the VVS' air gunnery target apparatus were later adopted as standard throughout the service, and he published a fair amount of written work on aerial cones of fire as explained by mathematical analysis.

In 1938 Safonov was transferred to the Navy and joined the Northern Fleet's (VMF-SF) 15 IAP, in which by 1940 he was a flight (zveno) commander. By June 1941, Safonov was a squadron (ehskadrilya) commander within the 72 SAP (Mixed Air Regiment) of the Northern Fleet, where he began his participation in the war. In October 1941, Safonov was placed in command of the 78 IAP, newly established on the various Hurricanes left behind by the departing RAF 151 Wing in Murmansk. His last assignment was as regimental commander of the 2 GvSAP-SF, which he led in outstanding fashion until his tragic loss on 30 May 1942.

Safonov's finial wartime score is still a matter of intensive debate. Alas, such was his public standing and popularity that his personal flight book was pinched by souvenir hunters only hours after Safonov was declared missing, making any attempt to reconcile his own notes and claims with Naval records impossible. His official tabulation has been widely criticised by his regiemntal comrades, and whom also unanimously maintain that Safonov regularly attributed victories to junior members of the unit (to boost their morale and confidence), and also "set up" victims for junior pilots by severely damaging targets and then inviting the neophyte fliers to apply the coup de gras.
Many authors on the history of the VMF give Safonov's total claims as 39 (usually split 25+14), based on several documents, and including a memorandum signed by Gen. Kuznetsov. Ivan Savitskiy's original tabulation (1960s) of Safonov's score was given as 41 'in total' (without reference to how these were divided), and included what appeared to be very specific and convincing individual details per claim.

In any event, Boris Safonov's current official Navy victory total is given as 18 Personal Confirmed and four Shared claims (18+4). Much more debate will no doubt pass on this subject for the foreseeable future.

Safonov's Aircraft

There is, alas, a very great deal which is currently unknown about the aircraft piloted by Boris Safonov. When he entered regimental service, Safonov would likely have piloted the Polikarpov I-15 fighter, about which no details of any machine piloted by him are available.

In 1938 he transferred to the 15 IAP SF, then mainly equipped with the I-15bis. During 1939, the 2nd and 4th ehskadrilyas participated in the Khalikin-Gol conflict, mainly flying the I-15bis and I-153, whilst around Leningrad the 1st and 3rd ehskadrilyas-- led by the regimental commander, and including Lt Safonov-- faced the Finns during the Winter War with the I-15bis.

I-15bis White 10

At the time of the Winter War, Safonov piloted an I-15bis with the tactical number "White 10". No other details-- and no photograph, alas-- are known of this machine. The number "10", for reasons unknown, came to be associated with Safonov quite heavily; perhaps it was a personal favourite?

I-16 unknown ?

When Safonov joined the 72 SAP SF (early 1941), it seems likely that he again piloted an I-15bis, many of which were on strength in the regiment. It is was not until the start of the Patriotic War that Safonov, himself, confirms that he was piloting an I-16. On this occasion, Safonov criticised his fighter's armament of four rifle-calibre machine-guns as 'clearly inadequate'; he was a long and vociferous exponent of aviation cannon weaponry. The specific I-16 type is not mentioned in these comments, but we can surmise that the aircraft would most likely have been an I-16 Type 10 or Type 24-- these being on strength in the 72 SAP, and were fitted with this armament package.

In an article commemorating Safonov's loss published in 1942, TASS supplied this image along with the attached caption. This caption claims that the date of the image was 1941, and that we are looking at Safonov in his aircraft (the posthumous timing of the article is made evident by referring to Safonov's two Hero of the Soviet Union awards). The image is interesting in that it shows a Type 24 whose wing, tragically, manages to obscure the entire fuselage and tail surfaces, thus covering any possible markings! Also of note is the modified windscreen unit which has been fitted with an extra brace. A PAU-22 tactical camera mounting bracket is in view.

This machine would agree with Safonov's description of his early I-16 mount. However, the snow on the ground suggests a timing which must, then, date from before the war. By August 1941, Safonov had acquired his cannon armed Type 28, so that this aircraft, if it indeed shows Safonov, would have to have been taken earlier in the spring. That said, it is impossible, of course, to know with certainty whether this aircraft was indeed his. Additionally, one cannot see how the aircraft is marked nor identified, which is all the more frustrating.

Khaldey and Confusion

During September 1942, widely read war reporter E. Khaldey, accompanied by official Naval photographer I. Smen'chev, visited the 72 SAP-SF. The main purpose of the visit was to highlight the Navy's rising star, and newly titled Hero of the Soviet Union, BF Safonov. Khaldey was a journalist-- not a war correspondent-- and sought to assemble an attractive article for publication in Moscow (that is to say, not necessarily for the military papers or journals). He had no technical knowledge of aviation nor aircraft, and from his other work it seems clear no interest in such details, besides.

Khaldey asked Safonov to pose for various photographs in, and in front of, the most attractive aircraft available-- this so happened to be "White 11", production number 24R21891. No doubt "White 11" was chosen for its over-all appearance, but also likely for the huge inscription it wore to port, "Za Stalina!" (For Stalin!). Such a photo could hardly have gone un-noticed in Moscow (Khaldey's target audience), after all.

Naval photographer I. Smen'chev taking shots of BF Safonov. "White 11" looks as if it had been thoroughly cleaned and polished for the occasion. Note the newly applied exclamation mark and national star marking, which may be contrasted with this aircraft's earlier appearance in the famous TASS 16 mm film sequence.

Newly titled Hero of the Soviet Union St Lt Safonov looks out stoically from the cockpit. The composition and execution of the various shots in this series were classic Khaldey-- evocative, dramatic and highly staged.

As a direct result of this photographic work, it was assumed for many years-- by virtually all observers, including this author-- that "White 11" must have been Safonov's aircraft. Being photographed in front of a specific aeroplane has, alas, been too easily accepted as 'evidence' of ownership, when in fact it represents no such thing. In such way many errors of attribution have been-- an continue to be-- made, and this example is a case in point.

When the 72 SAP's regimental documents were examined, the only tactical number mentioned for Safonov's I-16 was "White 51". Nothing else. Indeed, there appears to be no assignment for "11". Moreover, Safonov himself described his I-16 at the time of his HSU award as having had cannon armament, and bearing the inscriptions, "Smert' Fashismu!" ("Death to Fascism!") to port and "Za VKP(b)!" ("For the Communist Party!") to starboard. None of these features match those of "White 11", which makes this particular misattribution all the more inexplicable.

I-16 Type 28 White 51

These details match only Safonov's I-16 Type 28 which hung for years from the ceiling of the Naval Museum in St Petersburg (Leningrad). It should have been obvious to all observers-- myself included-- that "White 51" (p/n 28213-95) was Safonov's main-- and only documented-- I-16. These inscription and tactical number details were independantly confirmed in copius documents, including most tellingly those from Gen Kovalevskiy’s order accepting this machine into the VMF Museum.

It is true, of course, that this aircraft's exact markings have been thrown into a bit of confusion over the years due to certain refinishing and repainting of the airframe, and other contradictory documents relating to the exhibit. Indeed, the entire aircraft was repainted with some kind of contemporary paints during the 1970s. The reason for such re-finishing is not known. Upon inspection, it was clear that parts of the fabric outer covering on the starboard side fuselage had been stripped away and filled in with putty. This procedure may (or may not) explain the inauthentic inscription on that part of the fuselage, which replaced the original white
"Za VKP(b)!" with "Za Rodinu!" in red colour. Curiously, the tactical numbers on both sides of the rudder were also over-painted with red colour, but generally in the same shape as the original ciphers.

This excerpt from The Polikarpov I-16 In Profile & Scale gives a useful resume of the museum exhibit's appearance.

The Hurricane Months

At the end of October 1941, Boris Safonov was placed in command of new fighter regiment, the 78 IAP-SF. This unit was formed to operate the various Hawker Hurricanes which had been brought to Russia by the RAF's 151 Wing, who in addition flew these aircraft in the defence of Murmansk during the familiarisation of the Soviet forces with their foreign mounts.

During his own familiarisation and training, it seems clear that Safonov piloted a number of different aircraft. There are photographs of Safonov standing in, or on, Hurricanes "GU-35" (Z4012?), "FU-56" (Z4017) and "FK-49" (Z3768), just for starters. However, it is known that on 16 November Safonov flew PO Elkington's Hurricane IIb "GO-31" (Z5236) to Shongui aerodrome for "familiarisation and inspection". This airbase was an interesting destination, as the 7th Army shortly thereafter established the 769, and then 768, IAP-PVO at this base, all flying Hawker Hurricanes.

PO Tim Elkington's Hurricane Mk.IIb Z5236, 134 Sqn, 151 Wing, 1941

The evidence regarding Safonov's utilisation of Hurricanes on operations is somewhat fragmentary. However, it is known that he piloted, initially, Hurricane Z5159 (ex- "GV-33") for at least a few missions. Thereafter, the serial number associated with Safonov's sorties is usually given as Z5227 (ex- "FE-53"). Alas, we do not know how either of these aircraft might have appeared when flown by Safonov.

Hurricane Mk.IIb White 10

The 78 IAP-SF's regimental documents mention that Safonov's aircraft carried the tractical number "White 10". The image, below, has been reputed for years to show "Safonov's Hurricane". What are we to make of this claim?

In the first case, the location certainly may well be Vaenga-2 aerodrome; the surroundings bear a very close similarity to other images of this base. The Hurricane in view, "White 10", is a Mk IIb type and shows various details that might be expected from one of the ex- 151 Wing Hurricanes taken over by the regiment. The original armament remains (12 x .303 Brownings), but the sand filter has been removed. AMT lacquers -4, -6 and -7 (Green, Black, Blue) have been employed for the repainting work, while the spinner looks to have been painted black on all of the examples in view. These details, and the lack of permenant snow cover, would suggest a date fairly soon after the establishment of the 78 IAP, perhaps during October-November.

One may say, over all, having examined these items that the claim is certainly plausible. But, without further evidence on this machine's ownership (and keeping in mind previous mistakes of this type) it seems unjustifiable to accept that this is, indeed, Safonov's Hurricane. This is almost certainly a 78 IAP-SF aircraft, and one might add, 'possibly that of BF Safonov'.

Regimental Commander

On 20 March 1942 BF Safonov returned to his old unit, the 72 SAP, as its new commander. Now promoted to Maior, the 72 SAP had, in his absence, been rechristened the 2 Guards SAP (2 GvSAP-SF) for their outstanding contribution to the defence of Murmansk. Arriving at his new command, Safonov brought along his Hurricane from the 78 IAP and continued to fly this operationally until May.

At the beginnng of May 1942 the 2 GvSAP began to receive numbers of the P-40E Kittyhawk fighter. Conversion to the P-40 was very rapid, and by 5 May Safonov had already led a combat sortie on the new type. Once more, Safonov's aircraft was stated to have carried the tactical number "White 10", and photographs exist of him standing in, and in front of, a P-40E so marked.

P-40E Kittyhawk White 10

This aircraft has been persistently rendered in various colour profiles as having been painted in a medium-to-dark blue colour. At the time of writing, I have yet to ascertain any substantial reasons for such a claim.

I must say that I remain thoroughly unconvinced regarding such repainting. In the first case, the depicted colour does not correspond to any authentic Soviet aviation lacquer of the period; it therefore cannot be correct. Secondly, whilst no one would question that the Navy's aircraft camouflage was not at times quite...erm... "unique", there appear to be no other examples of these early P-40Es which share the same appearance. The majority of the first batch of such machines delivered to the 126 IAP and the 154 IAP were finished with American Du Pont paints in their 'RAF equivalent' two-tone disruptive scheme. A few of the 126 IAP examples (near Moscow) looked to have a monotone upper surface, which of course would be expected to be Olive Drab. The first P-40E examined at the NII VVS (from the same delivery) was also painted in the
Du Pont two-tone livery. Moreover, a shot taken during the summer of 1942 at the 2 GvSAP shows P-40Es wearing the Du Pont two-tone scheme, as well. Finally, the best image we have of what is likely "White 10" shows what may be a lighter area on the fuselage aft of the opened sliding hood. If true, this is in agreement with the standard pattern application of P-40Es completed with the Du Pont scheme during 1941.

Safonov in the cockpit of what is surely "White 10". The custom radio mast is clearly in view, but evidence of repainting is nowhere to be seen.
A poor image of the port fuselage showing the tactical number. The tonal change in view certainly resembles a colour demarcation; its placement is also in agreement with the 1941 Du Pont scheme.

A typical P-40E built during 1941 showing the Du Pont 'RAF equivalent' scheme.

What we need most are more images of early 2 GvSAP Kittyhawks, but even minus such we must ask why Safonov's aircraft should be painted "blue"? I can see no reason for such a supposition, and I am aware of no written evidence suggesting this appearance. To me, the most likely finish to be found on "White 10" would have been a Du Pont camouflage application. Thereafter, a single colour upper surface would be explained by the normal Olive Drab scheme. Blue-- and if such were the case then the finish would have to have been something like AE-10 Grey-Blue lacquer-- simply does not present itself as a likely possibility.

The fact that Safonov's aircraft was equipped with extra radio equipment is not in doubt. "White 10" was fitted with some kind of custom, or ad-hoc, radio mast which was certainly not of the usual type found on P-40s. This unit seemed to have been slanted aft, and looked to have a light colour type of appearance (it might even have been white). The other details of the profile (above) agree with the appearance of the early P-40Es noted previously: aft star position on the fuselage; use of AMT-4 to obscure the USAAF roundel; no under-wing roundel to port; no USAAF s/n stencil on the fin (no signs of such repainting on these examples, as per the 1941 photo). The white spinner is a bit of conjecture, but very commonly seen on 2 GvSAP aircraft (including Kittyhawks).

Sadly, this was the great ace's final aircraft. BF Safonov was lost on 30 May 1942 whilst in defence of convoy PQ-16. His last radio transmission indicated that his aircraft had been damaged, following which it was observed to crash into the sea.