More than 50 years after World War II, the fall of the Soviet Union has brought information to light about its fighter aces.

By Jon Guttman

Like successive veils being lifted, new information continues to emerge regarding aerial operations during World War II. In the past few decades, for example, details of the German and Japanese air arms have been added to the already extensive records of Western Allied air forces. Until the downfall of Russia’s Communist government in 1989, accounts of Soviet air operations had been limited to generalities. In the past few years, however, the opening of once guarded records and the dedication of a handful of aviation historians have brought to light more specific details on the men and women who eventually prevailed over the Eastern Front.

Ironically, a German scholar, Hans D. Seidl, has compiled the most complete record yet published in the West on the leading Soviet fighter pilots. In his mammoth volume Stalin’s Eagles: An Illustrated Study of the Soviet Aces of World War II and Korea (Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., Atglen, Pa., 1998, $59.95), he presents hundreds of solid biographies that include unit affiliations and details of significant exploits. The author tries, whenever possible, to connect the victories and losses of the Soviets with corresponding successes and losses among their German counterparts. The book also contains a comprehensive list of Soviet air corps, divisions and regiments and is illustrated with hundreds of photographs, many of which came from personal albums and are being published for the first time.

Although their individual scores never approached those of the top German Experten, several of the Soviet aces’ tallies surpassed those of their leading Western colleagues. They also boasted the only female aces in history, Lidya Litvak and Ekaterina Budanova. In addition to the fighter pilots’ exploits, author Seidl devotes a chapter to the “tank-busting aces” who flew the Ilyushin Il-2 Shturmovik. Leading that list was Aleksandr N. Yefimov, who destroyed 126 German tanks, 30 locomotives, 193 artillery pieces, 43 anti-aircraft guns, 85 aircraft on the ground and two in the air. Another bonus in Stalin’s Eagles is a brief study of Soviet jet fighter pilots of the Korean War, which the author admits is not complete, but which nevertheless expands considerably on the material that had previously been available.

If Soviet military aviation had to undergo a difficult resurrection after the 1941 German invasion, Poland’s air arm faced an even more challenging ordeal, as meticulously described in Jerzy B. Cynk’s epic two-volume set, The Polish Air Force at War: The Official History, 1939-1943 and The Polish Air Force at War: The Official History, 1943-1945 (Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., Atglen, Pa., 1998, $59.95 each). After September 1939, the Polish air force ceased to exist. When the Germans invaded France in May 1940, however, they found themselves fighting squadrons of exiled Polish airmen flying French aircraft. After France’s fall, the Poles escaped to England and carried on the fight in the Royal Air Force (RAF).

Unlike Stalin’s Eagles, The Polish Air Force at War takes a chronological rather than encyclopedic format. Its scope includes all types of aircraft and missions flown by the Poles in their own and foreign air arms. Cynk’s treatment of the Poles’ RAF operations are the most detailed, but his second volume includes a fascinating look at the problems faced by the Soviet-sponsored Lotnictwo Wojska Polskiego (Aviation of Polish Forces), whose ranks had to be supplemented with Soviet personnel of Polish descent. Also covered are the seven Poles who served in the U.S. Eighth Air Force’s 56th Fighter Group–whose leading ace, Lt. Col. Francis Gabreski, was an American of Polish descent–and the unique case of Witold Urbanowicz, who scored his last two victories over China as a Curtiss P-40E pilot in the Fourteenth Air Force.

Both the Soviet and Polish air forces have long been overlooked subjects, but these volumes make up for it. “Essential” can be an overused word in describing a book, but it is no exaggeration to say that Stalin’s Eagles and The Polish Air Force at War will both constitute an essential part of any balanced library dealing with World War II in the air.