This most numerous and important Soviet fighter of the War is perhaps the best known Soviet fighter as well.
Let’s take a look at an important fighter from a unit that really emphasized the World at War.
A new fighter design entered service with the VVS (Soviet Air Force) in November of 1940 as the I-26. It was the first product of the new Yakovlev Design Bureau, and in keeping with new Soviet naming practice it was redesignated “Yak-1” a year later. The Bf 109 is often considered the most produced fighter in history with 33000 examples, yet Yakovlev’s family of fighters numbered 43000 built; its a fairly arbitrary sort of distinction that breaks this into several different aircraft. Although to be fair, Yakovlev’s fighter was developed in some pretty unexpected directions.
The Yak-1 used a Klimov M-105 engine. Early versions produced just over 1000 HP, the engine would be developed through the whole series of Yak fighters. Combined with a modern looking airframe and retractable landing gear this was broadly comparable to other modern aircraft at the start of the War. Its construction was a little misleading, it used far more wood and fabric than most modern aircraft of the time and flight instrumentation was basic. There was light pilot and fuel protection (very light, and not self sealing fuel tanks as other nations were using). It was also pushed into service well before what any Western Nation would have considered ready. When Germany attacked in June 1941 there over 400 Yak-1 on inventory with front-line units, yet apparently only about 60 were considered “finished” and ready to serve. Like all other Soviet air power they were overwhelmed and destroyed pretty quickly. Even so, it was obvious the Yak-1 was the most acceptable of the “modern” Soviet types (MiG-3 was really only better at high altitude and LaGG-3 had serious problems all around). From early on, it was felt that with an experienced pilot the Yak-1 was superior to a Bf 109E, maybe comparable to a Bf 109F.
During Yak-1 production a Yak-1b was introduced that was distinguished by a bubble canopy (like seen on the Yak-9 here). All told about 9000 Yak-1 were built.
The Yak-1 was further modified, both lightened and given more power, into the Yak-3. Keep in mind, even as we get to higher numbers in a moment, that the Yak-3 was broadly considered the most dangerous and effective of the entire family. Supposedly it was the only Yak that veteran Luftwaffe pilots feared (almost certainly that part is propaganda for the benefit of those who flew it). But it was clearly a match for a Bf 109G or Fw 190. It was really a lightweight too, the smallest fighter to see wide production during the War.
Its drawbacks involved being short range, fuel tankage was among the areas of weight savings, leaving it a true defensive interceptor. Its construction was overall lighter which caused some problems at forward airfields too. Total Yak-3 production was just under 5000, including around 20 built for the warbird market in the 1990s.
Both Yak-1 and Yak-3 would come to be called “light fighters” due to an unexpected twist in late 1941. A “UTI-26” trainer was built to enter service along side initial Yak-1 production. This was meant to be a transition trainer, to get new pilots from light training aircraft to high performance fighters. It used the basic Yak-1 airframe, but it was lengthened to add a second pilot position and had an enlarged wing form to carry and balance the extra weight. With the Nazi blitzkrieg that was Barbarossa the Soviets found themselves in desperate need for any kind of airpower. So the factory building UTI-26 was ordered arm them and send them to the front. The second pilot’s seat was removed and the type was designated “Yak-7”. Surprisingly this improvisation was completely successful. Pilots loved how balanced and smooth it was, a little slower but more maneuverable than the Yak-1. With a big bonus, the bigger wing meant it could carry more load; sometimes both with extra fuel where the second cockpit used to be and bombs carried underneath.
The Yak-7 came to be in such high demand that some in the training units (now tagged “Yak-7UTI”) were armed and sent forward even though they had a very simplified fixed landing gear. (Keeping in mind the Soviets were desperate!)
Over 6000 Yak-7 were built as “heavy fighters”. Eventually a new design actually meant to be a combat aircraft was derived from the Yak-7. It was built around a newer development of the Klimov M-105 engine that had been intended for the Yak-3. Known as the Yak-9 this would be the most numerous of the family. It was built with numerous little twists, the “D” seen here had almost 50 extra gallons of gas for long range. It was built as a “T” for tank destroyer, a “B” as a fighter-bomber, a “TD” for long range tank destroyer, a “DD” for very long range (!) and others. Late in the War, and even more so after, late production Yak-9 (and Yak-3) started using far more aluminum and steel for a stronger and more aerodynamic structure. All told almost 17000 Yak-9 were built.
This particular aircraft was flown by the famous French Normandie-Nieman Group. Summer of 1942 Charles DeGaulle decided it was important for Frenchmen to be seen helping on every combat front, so a Group was formed and negotiations were made to offer their services. Surprisingly the Soviets liked this idea and 40 pilots were sent. They were classified as a regiment (GC 3 Normandie) of four squadrons and began training on Yak-7. They flew three combat tours; first from March to November 1943, including the massive Battle of Kursk that summer. This tour was in Yak-1.
The second tour was through most of 1944 flying Yak-9. Stalin personally awarded the name “Neiman” to be added to group designation in honor of a series of battles they won in the area of that river. At the end of this tour the unit travelled to Moscow to join DeGaulle on a state visit, they received several awards from both DeGaulle and the Soviets at this time.
A third tour, starting in January of 1945 was flown in Yak-3s. At the end of the War in May, the men were awarded their airplanes as a payment bonus and allowed to fly directly home.
No doubt maintaining Soviet fighters was difficult in France, the planes were parted out to keep a diminishing number of Yaks serviceable for the next few years. The group numbers were filled out with Fw 190s. Finally one last Yak-3 was preserved at the Musee de l’air et de l’espace. The Normandie-Neiman remains active to this day.
Their record in World War II was significant. 40 pilots at a time would be less than two squadrons in USAAF service, so its not a large group. They claimed 273 kills for 52 pilots lost in action. 30 pilots made ace. It won accolades from both France and the Soviet Union, including four pilots winning “Hero of the Soviet Union”, the highest Soviet individual honor.
This aircraft was flown by Marcel Lefevre on the Goup’s second tour. He was an ace with 11 kills and 3 probables. He was awarded a Hero of the Soviet Union. The plane is a mid-production Yak-9, actually a Yak-9D for the extra range.
This is the Modelsvit kit. My second “limited run” completion. In some ways, it went better than the first, but it did take longer than I expected, a lot of filling and little tweaks along the way. I could mention one thing I like about the Modelsvit kits is they include very well presented instructions. 12 pages on thick glossy paper… that I managed to drop on the model when it was almost done and shattered the landing gear! I considered getting replacements, but after a couple days of fiddling around I did get things put back together, more or less straight. I’ll call this a win in spite of a few minor (and one self inflicted major!) frustrations.