Frantic Scenes: VVS Aviation at Poltava in USAAF Cameras


Operation Frantic was a series of seven shuttle-bombing raids conducted by the USAAF during the war which utilised Soviet bases to enable a round trip attack on distant German targets. Of additional interest is the record made of the USAAF of these missions, and subsequently the capture of various Soviet aircraft on American film types. Experienced photographic interpreters will know that comparing images of subject matter on different types and categories of film is exceedingly valuable in achieving an understanding of the subject matter. By comparing the resulting images with the known-- or sometimes suspected-- behaviour of each respective type together, very significant progress can be made. As a result, such images are a god-send, and well worth another look here.



Poltava and "FRANTIC"

Operation FRANTIC was conducted during the period of June to September, 1944. The USAAF's HQ and main facility was located at Poltava airfield (Ukraine), where most of their photography was carried out, but flights were made from nearby Mirgorod and Piryatin aerodromes additionally. This time window of operations was fascinating from a VVS point of view as it coincided with the introduction of several new types (Yak-3, La-7, etc) into front-line service, with the increasingly common appearance of the later style 'outline' type star national marking (Victory Star) and with certain new concepts in factory camouflage (single-colour applications made during the winter-spring of 1944). Could the American photography shed any light on these matters?

Moreover, the vast majority of our photographic evidence regarding Soviet aviation comes-- quite obviously-- from Russian and German film stock. The two are rather different in terms of chemistry and behaviour, it is true, but alas German period photography is so extensive and complex that no unified understanding of it exists at this time. However, American photography of the period was often excellent, and the properties of the various relevant film types are exceedingly well known; in fact, historical film enthusiasts are still using these very emulsions to this day. As a result, the various behaviours of these films are clearly understood, and thus offer a superlative chance to compare their behaviour against other types when investigating our subject matter.

So, with this chance to compare and contrast images of Soviet aviation on yet another group of film types, what then does this record tell us? Let us examine some specific cases.


Yak-9s

One of the classic images of operations at Poltava is this a quality still taken from the USAAF film "Operation Frantic" (1944). Due to the quality of the print, one presumes that thats still was taken from the original 16 mm cine stock at that time (during 1944). The image shows some some Yak-9 fighters lined up near to a pair of USAAF B-17Gs.


...And here, some captures from a Flash video version of the film, these necessarily of low quality:





In the foreground we have the interesting specimen "White 16". This aircraft is a typical Yak-9 model, but sporting what surely looks to be a single-colour camouflage application in AMT-11 Grey-Blue of the style which seems to have appeared at the turn of the year (Jan/44). Yak-9s of this original type were still being manufactured at that date, however, and so the finish could have been factory applied. However, the black spinner and the rather 'blotchy' appearance would suggest that this machine was originally painted in AMT-4/-6 and re-finished in the field. The national markings were of the unremarkable white border variety (if a bit large on the fuselage), and the tactical number applied in white using a likely font style. The spinner looks to have received some smart trim both on the aft base of the unit and on the tip, and there is a miniature red star on the undercarriage leg cover over the wheel.


"White 20" is another Yak-9 model, but this time wearing the more usual two-colour AMT-11/-12 camouflage in the NKAP pattern style. The fuselage star is a typical white bordered unit, but the tactical numeral features a 'closed' style '2' font of a type which I cannot recall seeing on a VVS aircraft hitherto (it looks a bit like a German aircraft of the First World War).  [NB. The relatively dark appearance of "20" next to "16" is partly an artefact of image manipulation-- likely a level map adjustment-- but also this is a recognised behaviour of many period cine film types in which objects behind the immediate focal plane appear darker than those forward; examine the aftmost B-17 in comparison to the foremost.]  The spinner does not seem to have received any re-painting attention, and the star marking on the fin is rather small.


A Yak-9T can just be seen third in this line-up, and watching the film clip it would appear to have the tactical numeral "18". A white spinner is evident in this case, as is the expected and usual NKAP style camouflage. The national makings are typical white border types, and the numeral style is similar to (if larger) "16" in the foreground.


The last example in this line-up might be "White 15", shown to right in another 16 mm still. Once again we have a Yak-9 in NKAP colouration, albeit the scheme  certainly looks to have been field applied judging by its odd shapes and application. The national star markings are heavily worn, especially so on the fin/rudder. A 'blob' of AMT-12 lacquer is visible on the port wing tip which is unusually large and 'straight', again suggesting field rather than factory work (or a repair?).


The final screen grab shows a mixture of Yak-7Bs and Yak-9s in flight. The image is from the same film source as the others, and purports to have been shot at Poltava. On balance, there is no reason to doubt this assertion, and certainly this shows us a very common mixture of Yak fighter types of the kind seen in the other line-up images, and indeed known to have been stationed at this base. These examples would seem to be wearing NKAP type camouflage and white border type stars, as seen previously.

The Other Yaks

There is an exceedingly short bit of film in the original 1944 movie (no more than 2-3 seconds), "Operation Frantic", which seems incongruous with the other Yak fighters on display at Poltava. The following is a screen capture of this brief cut-over.



One presumes that the aircraft in foreground ("9"?) demonstrates the usual NKAP Template AMT-11/-12/-7 colouration, albeit the tonal variation in the image is exceptionally weak (poor exposure setting during the shot). However, even if this is the case, what are we to make of the machine behind? This is yet another Yak-9 model, in this case with an apparently darker (being careful to recall cine film behaviour) appearance, and a tactical numeral style not seen on any other Yak in all of the various "Operation Frantic" coverage. Moreover, the camouflage pattern visible around the cockpit is not similar to any NKAP scheme, but rather resembles a known factory applied pattern from Novosibirsk (as does the numeral font, as a matter of fact), which at the time of manufacture was completed in AMT-4/-6/7. The Yak behind this "White 17" looks to be similar.

Making no suppositions, the following profile is provided of "White 17" with this earlier appearance. Equally, the case could be made that the aircraft is, in fact, wearing a field applied -11/-12/-7 scheme with an unusual pattern, which was certainly not an overly uncommon practice.


Lavochkin La-5F

Here we see a very nicely turned out La-5F with a particularly ametuerish national fuselage marking, giving a rather incongrouous appearance! The caption suggests that this image was taken at Mirgorod; whether this is indeed the case I do not know. However, we see here some 35 mm Kodak film stock, the sharpness, clarity and characteristics of which may be compared to the other 16 mm stills.


Of relative note is the sensitivity of the film to blue colours-- a known characteristic-- giving an almost monochrome appearance. In fact, the upper/lower colour demarcation can be picked out by manipulating the image, and indeed this was executed in a very 'low' manner, suggesting that the scheme was not a factory application. Interestingly, we see another single colour AMT-11 scheme (as with "White 16"), but in this case the later style 'outline' or Victory type national markings. The rudder trim tab has been painted in red, and it would appear to be the case that the tactical number is "18" (impossible to be certain). The nose of the aircraft is not in view, and thus the following profile must be regarded as reconstructive in this respect.



P-39 "White 48"

Sadly, this attractive Airacobra has had its serial number obliterated, and so we cannot be sure whether this is an -N or -Q model P-39. We can say for certain, however, that it has received the aft fuselage strengthening modifications at the factory (suggesting a -Q model), and not via the field work directed in the late summer of 1944. The lack of obvious refinishing around the fuselage, similarly, suggests that the aircraft was delivered in this condition, and the very dark appearance is consistent with the later ANA paints (613 O.D., for example).


Of particular fascination is the small artwork device seen in the lower image (behind our rather dapper looking moustachio). During many years spent examining images of Soviet aviation I do not recall having seen the likes of this little crest, which appears to incorporate the VVS' flight wings with some text. The exact text in view is still unclear to my eyes-- is it "I A R D"? "K A R M"? Perhaps some younger eyes will sort this out. In the meanwhile, the numbers to left appear to end in '04', with another preceeding digit out of sight. Since the machine surely belongs to a Guard's Regiment, could this badge not denote the 104 GvIAP? The 104 (ex-298 IAP) was a strong Airacobra regiment with exactly the right deployment to have been seen in the Poltava area during August-September 1944.

Be that as it may, "White 48" demonstrates yet another example with a painted rudder trim tab-- something of a fetish amongst the VVS, it must be said. The fuselage star is in agreement with the usual Buffalo plant placement, but has been amended to the Victory (outline) type subsequently. The entire fin and rudder have been obliterated, here showing A-24m lacquer (which seems to be the most likely choice), which presumably was an example of the 'Anti-Yellow' school of thought, and another star added. The small triangular device, Guard's Badge and possibly the white spinner are likely related to the unit (104 GvIAP?), while the pilot's own claims total (nine 'kills') is apparent above the exhausts.



Conclusions

These images must, by their very nature, give us only the briefest and most limited record of VVS operations in the Ukraine ca. 1944. However, even so they represent valuable and relevant additions to our understanding of this topic; more, it must be said, in confirmation than in contradiction.

With regards to camouflage, that two examples of AMT-11 single-colour colouration may be seen in such a small sample is interesting. It is also notable that both were field applied, and no doubt this will spark yet more debate on the origins of this scheme-- field vs factory-- and upon the longevity of this type of livery. Further, we may have more evidence in view here for the occasional retention of the older Green/Black colouration into 1944, something which has been noted (especially on Yak fighters, it must be added) previously. If truly the case, moreover, it would represent the latest date for such an appearance known at this time.

All of the USAAF photography covering this episode, to include the 16 mm motion picture stock and the less frequently seen 35 mm films, agree categorically with our other sources of information regarding the wartime appearance of VVS colours. To find comprehensive agreement between physical and chemical evidence, and that offered up by Russian, German and now American photographic evidence, must be recognised to be decisive. I simply cannot see where those who maintain a different interpretation of the facts in this matter can go next (except into fantasy, as seems to be their want).

Lastly, we have the appearance of a new type of aviation badge, or unit device (at least, new to myself). This small, white triangular badge is fascinating and unique. However, as with all things which appear on official wartime camera, we must also ask (as historians) if this item was a normal type device, or if indeed it had been applied specifically so as to be photographed? A number of different aircrew and other persons were filmed on and around this aircraft, so presumably it was singled out for some reason and employed as a film prop. Is it this fact which explains the badge, or was it present already?

Whatever the case there, I hope that readers will find this little family of appearances to be an interesting example of operational colouration during the summer of 1944 in the Ukraine. However small the portrait, I always find such "family albums" to be endlessly intriguing.
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