When the Soviets asked the United States for advanced B-17 and B-24 bombers in 1941, what they got instead were workhorse Douglas A-20s.
During the cataclysmic initial phase of Operation Barbarossa that began on June 22, 1941, the Ger- mans inflicted crippling losses on the Red Army Air Forces (VVS) and the Soviet Naval Air Forces (VVSVMF). By the end of 1941, the Soviets had lost 9,173 aircraft, a staggering number that could not possibly be quickly replaced. Desperate, the Soviets turned to the British and Americans for replacements under the Lend-Lease program. While the Russians didn’t necessarily get what they wanted from their new allies, in the dependable Douglas A-20s they got what they needed.
It was late August 1941 when a Soviet delegation rushed to Washington seeking state-of-the-art American bombers such as the Boeing B-17 and Consolidated B-24. The Americans rebuffed the Russian request for the more sophisticated aircraft and countered with the Douglas A-20 Havoc, which the Royal Air Force was already using and had dubbed the Boston.
The Boston evolved out of the Douglas 7A project, whose lead engineer was Ed Heinemann and project manager was the legendary John K. “Jack” Northrop. A twin-engine shoulder-wing, high-speed bomber with a payload of 1,764 pounds, the 7A was armed with three .30-caliber machine guns in nose (fixed, forward firing), dorsal and ventral positions and had a crew of three. In response to a U.S. Army Air Corps competition for a new attack bomber, a scaled-up version of the 7A— the 7B—was developed with a greater wingspan, tricycle landing gear and more powerful engines to give a maximum speed of 325 mph and a payload capacity of 2,400 pounds. Armament was increased to four fixed, forward firing .30-caliber machine guns and three flexible .30-caliber guns in dorsal and ventral gunner positions. The plane required a crew of three or four.
“A-20 is a darn good plane—best in the west,” declared Air Corps test pilot Captain Glen Edwards after the Douglas 7B’s first flight on October 26, 1938. The French government was so impressed with the bomber that it initially ordered 100, then increased its order to 270 planes. Before France surrendered in June 1940, 70 had been delivered. The rest of the order went to the RAF.
When the Soviet Union entered the war and requested aircraft, the British immediately sent 277 Bostons to the Russian port of Murmansk. The Russians later received 665 American A-20Bs, 555 of the A-20C variant, 1,530 A-20Gs and 140 of the A-20 H/K models. More than 2,990 A-20s of all types went to the USSR, making it the bomber’s single largest wartime user.
The Soviets obtained their Lend-Lease planes through an ingenious series of shipping routes. In 1942 a total of 126 A-20s were sent to Murmansk. Two additional routes for shipping A-20s were opened up that year. A total of 869 were flown from the United States to South America, across Africa and on to Abadan, Iran. An additional 550 were sent to Iran by ship, and from there to the Soviet Union. The Alaskan-Siberian route was used to fly 1,369 A-20s to the USSR. American pilots flew the planes to Alaska, where Soviet pilots picked them up and took them all the way to Central Asia to be delivered for modification and distribution to training or combat units. Five specially organized Soviet VVS ferry regiments were responsible for shepherding the aircraft home.
Once there, a number of modifications were made. They were altered to carry FAB 100- and 250-kg bombs. Later A-20G variants could carry FAB 500- and even FAB 1,000-kg bombs externally. A-20C and A-20G models flying for the VVS-VMF were fitted to carry AMG-1, AMD 500-kg or AMD 1,000-kg air-dropped naval mines, or one or two Soviet 45-36 AN torpedoes externally for use in antishipping strike missions. Many Bostons also served in a reconnaissance role.
Soviet aircrews grew to appreciate the Boston’s speed, agility, robust construction, radios, flight instrumentation and heated cockpit. Ground crews liked the plane’s ease of maintenance and reliability. One complaint, however, was that the A-20 did not come with the renowned Norden bombsight. They were equipped instead with the less accurate and almost obsolescent Whimpers D-8 bombsight, which the Soviets replaced with indigenous NKPB-4 or OPB-1 bombsights. Defensive armament on the Boston Mark III was considered inadequate, but the A-20B offered improved armament with one dorsal and one ventral .50-caliber machine gun. Soviet mechanics modified some with locally produced MV-3 dorsal turrets with a single 12.7mm UBT machine gun or a turret with a 20mm cannon. All modifications were made at the Zavod No. 81 aircraft facility near Moscow.
In 1942 the Soviets received 667 Boston III, A-20B and A-20C aircraft, either through Murmansk or Abadan. The bulk of A-20s delivered to Abadan eventually found their way to the Fourth, Fifth and Eighth Air armies, which supported the Red Army’s drive to push the Wehrmacht out of the north Caucasus and also supported it during the air blockade campaign. The VVS attacks, including the A-20 raids, contributed significantly to the historic defeat of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43.
In 1943 1,360 A-20B/C and A-20G aircraft arrived. A major improvement over previous models, the A-20G had bomb payload increased from 2,400 pounds to 4,000 pounds, a top speed of 339 mph, more powerful engines, improved armor, self-sealing fuel tanks and increased range. It also had a powered twin .50-caliber machine-gun dorsal turret and a single .30- or .50-caliber ventral machine gun for defense. The first 250 A-20Gs received by the USSR had four nose-mounted, forward-firing 20mm cannons for ground support missions, while the remainder of them were used by the VVS-VMF on various fronts for attacks on Axis shipping.
In 1943 VVS A-20s were used for reconnaissance prior to the Battle of Kursk and assaulted German installations and troop concentrations. The Fourth Air Army used A-20s heavily in attacks over Black Sea ports in the Crimea.
Meanwhile the Fifth and Eighth Air armies’ A-20s helped the Red Army to liberate the Ukraine in the Belgorod-Kharkov and Dnieper River crossing offensives. Captain S.P. Dezhenko was designated a Hero of the Soviet Union for his exploits with the Forty-fourth Air Army on May 24, 1943. He subsequently died in action on February 15, 1944, after flying, perhaps intentionally, his heavily damaged A-20 into a German ship at Kerch.
The VVS-VMF Red Banner Black Sea Fleet aircraft spent 1943 attacking and mining German, Finnish and Romanian ports, and interdicting Axis shipping. A navy A-20 launched from Murmansk and equipped with extra fuel tanks even made the first Soviet reconnaissance flight over the Norwegian port of Narvik.
The following year, an additional 743 A-20s were delivered to Russia. The Seventh Air Army’s A-20s supported the June 1944 Soviet Karelian offensive with attacks on Finnish forces near the Svir River in support of Red Army river crossings.
Elsewhere on the Eastern Front, Operation Bagration, the Soviet offensive against German Army Group Center, began June 23, 1944, with Bostons from the Fourth Air Army flying bombing and reconnaissance sorties in support of the 1st and 2nd Byelorussian fronts. Farther south the Fourth and Eighth Air armies, along with naval air forces, carried out relentless attacks against Romanian and German ground and naval forces along the Crimean and Romanian frontier.
On August 20, 1944, 62 Pe-2s and 14 A-20Gs of the VVS-VMF attacked the main Axis naval base at Constanta. The raiders sank or damaged three U-boats from the 30th Flotilla. In addition, seven Kriegsmarine motor torpedo boats (MTBs) were sunk and two damaged from the 1st Black Sea MTB Flotilla. Romanian navy losses included three midget submarines, an MTB and a tanker sunk, two destroyers and one gunboat ruined, and damage to an unknown number of lesser craft. The raid effectively destroyed what remained of German and Romanian naval power in the Black Sea.
In the final eight months of the war in Europe and the Mediterranean, A-20s were used on long-range missions to survey Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary and even Greece. The VVS-VMF continued to enjoy success at sinking Axis shipping, especially in the Baltic. In the days prior to the German surrender, A-20Gs of the 51st MTAP rendered the 14,000-ton pre-dreadnought battleship Schlesien a constructive loss and sank the 15,000-ton former auxiliary cruiser Orion, as well as a host of smaller vessels. In the Pacific, VVS-VMF KoF A-20s were used in reconnaissance missions against Japanese-occupied Korean ports, and flew missions against the Japanese island of Hokkaido.
Until the early 1990s, the accomplishments of A-20 crews were not widely discussed because of Cold War politics that caused Soviet historians to downplay the role of Lend-Lease-equipped units. A total of 830 A-20s were lost by the Red Army air force and navy in combat. While imported aircraft were only 15 to 20 percent of the total used by the Soviets, the contributions of the American-made workhorses proved critical to the eventual Allied victory.
Originally published in the February 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.