Penal battalions have always stood apart in Soviet troops. Those who got there were compared practically with prisoners, they were not spared in battle and they tried not to mention them again. However, it was the penal battalions that often performed some of the most difficult tasks at the front. This especially seemed to the pilots, because penalty squadrons also existed. And so it seems unfair that their contribution is not only underestimated, but is considered by many to be simply non-existent.
In fact, there are still many questions regarding the existence and activities of the penal aviation units. In the Soviet period, they preferred not to mention them at all, and therefore at some point more and more researchers appeared, confident that such squadrons did not exist at all. Only a little more than fifteen years ago, historians had the opportunity to documentary evidence of the existence of "penalties" among the pilots in the Red Army. It turned out that all the materials on their activities were strictly classified, and only in 2004 the stamp was removed from some of the documents.
The available information is still incomplete, however, it is possible to make a general picture of the appearance and activities of penalty squadrons during the Great Patriotic War. Penalties among pilots officially appeared in 1942 after the order of the Supreme Headquarters No. 227 of August 4, 1942, which went down in history as: "Not a step back." As the directive number 170549 read: "The headquarters sees here the presence of obvious sabotage, selfishness on the part of a certain part of the flight personnel."
The accusations fell primarily on the pilots, who, in the opinion of the command, turned out to be cowards. The next on the list were those who could be charged with negligence in military equipment. In fairness, it should be said that periodic breakdowns of aircraft, which were not uncommon at the first stage of the war, were the result not so much of the negligence of the pilots as the general situation in the state of technology: they assembled it quickly, but not always with high quality, and the repair crews were often insufficiently equipped spare parts. And the pilots themselves, many of whom had been trained at the take-off and landing level, had insufficient experience to properly repair their aircraft.
But the command did not care much about these problems, so the guilty ones were almost always among the flight personnel. Moreover, their fate evolved in different ways: for evading combat or violating discipline, they most often ended up in penalty squadrons.
Those who committed more serious offenses or they were systematic literally "went down to the ground": they were also sent to penal battalions, but infantry. But this practice remained uncommon - nevertheless, it would be absolutely irrational to use experienced pilots on the ground in conditions of large-scale hostilities.
The service life in the penalty squadron was also different. So, if in the infantry penal battalion they spent an average of three months or left it after being wounded, then the pilots were detained in such battalions until the set number of sorties was made.
The main task of the penalty box in the sky was to escort attack aircraft and bombers, cover the infantry, and, in fact, air battles with the Germans.
The RKKA kept records of downed enemy and their own planes with great care. If in the Luftwaffe it was enough for a pilot to simply report losses, and this information must be confirmed by witnesses, then in the Red Army this issue was dealt with more strictly. The reports of pilots and other eyewitnesses were often not taken into account at all - it was required to confirm the fact of the fall of an enemy plane from the ground. Therefore, it is not possible to accurately calculate the number of German aircraft shot down by penalty squadrons. As well as getting real figures on losses among the penalty boxers themselves.
Despite the fact that almost seventy-five years have passed since the victory in the Great Patriotic War, many of its pages are still full of white spots. Perhaps the most such gap in the history of the service of penal battalions, including in aviation. After all, information about them began to be declassified relatively recently and in a small amount. This means that today their contribution to the great victory remains underestimated.
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