It came time for my final interview to see if I qualified for the IL 2 flying tank. Question after question then finally the Colonel looked up and noticed my Order of the Red Banner on my chest.
"Well in the first year of the war they did not give many of those."
"I suppose not sir."
After what seemed like an eternity I was assigned to the 805th Ground Attack Regiment of the 230th Division.
"In three days we are heading to Derbent...be ready."
My training commander tried once more to convince me to stay up high with the fighter planes but I would have none of it. I wanted to be down near the ground dealing death to the enemies of the motherland. I wanted to be close in. To see their faces as I tore into them with cannon and rocket. No...ground attack was for me. I made myself a promise that no matter what I would not fire on anyone who was helpless. Too many times being chased by 109s while running from my damaged plane I supposed. No strafing women and children for me. But if you try and shoot me down, I will kill you where you stand. I have fulfilled that promise too many times to count. That is war.
I found out that the new Regiment I was joining had just lost 80% of it's planes in the latest fighting over Gezel village. Even though our planes were armor plated they still were shot down in greater numbers than any other plane. Of course there were more of us by far as well. Stalin did love his Sturmoviks. We were given 2 days to learn the Sturmovik before our final exam. I was sent to the 3rd Squadron.
The Regimental Engineer asked questions about the Mikoulin Engine (the most power engine of its time and developed especially for the Sturmovik), what kind of armament, how to aim etc. All practical questions designed to find out if you knew how to use the machine to it's utmost before you got into combat.
Finally we were assigned to UI1-2 or 2 seat trainer Sturmovik with dual controls. I couldn't get my fill of it. Such a fine machine with cannons, bomb bays, external racks for rockets and bombs. It was not a plane but a flying cruiser. Every vital piece was covered by armor. My instructor took me up and when we landed he said I was ready for solo flight. I protested that it was only my second flight but he insisted that I take it up again...and then again. On the third solo flight the engine sputtered and stalled...I was over the Azov Sea and I could not swim. I now had a very heavy glider on my hands but my only thought was to get to dry land. My speed and altitude were falling very fast and I knew that I couldn't make to the landing field. At least I would make it to land. Somehow I managed to come to a stop just before a very large ravine filled with skeletons of animals who had not seen the edge in time.
The training flights became more and more complex. Shooting at white Xs on the ground. Bombing old trucks, dummy tanks and railroad cars exploded under our withering fire. Some of us more withering than others of course but all in all a good Squadron. The Squadron Lieutenant Andrianov stated that whomever learned the fastest and shot the straightest would be his wingman. To become the wingman of and experienced combat leader, what more could we dream of. The German pigs knew how valuable the leaders of the Squadrons were. It was not easy to pick out targets in the bomb cratered moon scape and how to avoid the ack ack and screening fighters in order to drive home your attack. If the leader fell then the attack could often times not be carried out. In order to learn the craft of leader you had to be the wingman of a leader. A wingman repeated the maneuvers of his flight leader in order to survive. Most Sturmovik pilots died within their first 10 sorties because there was so much to learn while staying in formation. A good leader watched out for the entire flight as well as himself.
My comrade Valintine was sure to become the leader’s wingman when one day he confused his levers and retracted his landing gear while parked setting his plane down flat and creating ram horns with his prop blades. He had tears in his eyes but no one had to reprimand him or scold him. He was his worse critic. He was a very sad man from the beginning and later I found out why. His whole family was dying from tuberculosis while he was fighting for them in the only way he knew how.
The news from the front was good. We were finally advancing from Stalingrad. The Hun had been stopped. Now it was time to rid our land of the Nazi pigs. We missed the fighting around Stalingrad but there was plenty more before the wars end and we would be in the thick of it. It was February, 1943.