Tail and wings to the sides
In December 1941, after the sixth report with a request to send him to the front, Vitaly Popkov was enrolled in the 5th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment (5 GvIAP). In the very first battle, he shot down his first enemy aircraft – a heavy Do-217 (Dornier). True, this happened under very curious circumstances.
In one house of a village abandoned by the Germans during the retreat from Moscow, Popkov picked up a puppy. The puppy was not only quick-witted, but also trained. When building a unit, he certainly took a place at the feet of the owner and, together with the pilots, carried out all combat commands. “Equalization right-a-a-vo! Ra-ah-ah! Attention! Shago-oh-oh … arsh! – With hilarious seriousness, the puppy followed the commands, upsetting the ranks of fighters choking on laughter. As a result, for violation of discipline, Sergeant Popkov was suspended from flying and appointed as an eternal duty officer in the kitchen. “Until he turns blue,” the regimental commissar figuratively put it then.
Shot from the film “Only Old Men Go to Battle”
Shot from the film “Only Old Men Go to Battle”
On a hot May morning in 1942, barely holding back tears, the penalty box Popkov was probably already peeling a thousandth bucket of potatoes, and suddenly four German aircraft appeared in the sky above the airfield (two Bf 109 Messers and two Dorniers). Methodically and with impunity, they began to shoot Soviet fighters standing on the runways. As he was in an apron, Popkov jumped into the nearest commissar’s LaGG-3 and, rising into the air, shot down a Do-217 from the very first run.
“It was then that three shells for the Messer were enough for me, and then I put all the ammunition into it, so that the tail and wings of the Do-217 flew off to the sides,” recalled Vitaly Ivanovich.
Another German aircraft was set on fire by the regimental commander who followed him up. When on the ground the young pilot was congratulated on his first victory, he unexpectedly noticed for everyone that it was not difficult to topple the German. “Why didn’t you hit everyone then?” – I decided to put in place the young pilot of the regiment commander. Popkov instantly retorted: “So you, comrade commander, scared all the Germans with your underwear,” hinting that the commander who jumped out of bed was dressed completely out of shape.
By the way, we have seen the adaptation of this absolutely real case many times in the popular Soviet film “Only Old Men Go to Battle”, where Vitaly Ivanovich Popkov became the prototype of two movie heroes at once: Lieutenant Grasshopper and Maestro.
In 1942, Popkov added five more downed enemy planes near Moscow and seven more near Stalingrad to his personal book of revenge.
Meeting with Zhukov. “We shoot few scoundrels!”
It was with Stalingrad and Marshal Zhukov that one of the most unpleasant and humiliating memories of the pilot Popkov about the war is connected – this episode, even sixty years later, evoked rage and bitterness in him.
“When signatures were being collected to rehabilitate Zhukov, I refused,” Vitaly Ivanovich sincerely and very childishly puckered up in his chair. – Not because I don’t consider him a great commander, but because of a personal …
And the personal is as follows. On August 23, the Germans bombed Stalingrad. The city turned into one huge fire: water mixed with oil from broken storage facilities burned in the Volga. Making five or six sorties a day, losing one after another the best pilots, the “seven” (7th Air Army) was not able to cover the city and crossings. German air superiority was overwhelming. The fighters of the 5th Guards fought with desperate courage, often single-handedly rushing to the links of German bombers going under the cover of “experts” (as the Germans called their best fighter aces). And they died in unequal air battles.
Popkov was one of the most skillful, brave and lucky pilots. Having already shot down seven enemy vehicles near Stalingrad, he knew his own worth, and when on August 26, 1942 he was called to headquarters among the other three best fighter pilots of the front, he was not surprised. “Probably, the authorities decided to arrange a banquet, feed and reward, and then again into battle,” Sergeant Popkov decided with his usual optimism. But in the dugout there were neither tables with front-line delicacies, nor awards, but at least thirty generals gathered. The pilots were placed on the edge, and when Zhukov and Malenkov entered, they were pushed into the front row.
Why are you fighting badly? the marshal shouted, adding the obscenity, which he could not do without. – Not enough of you, bastards, we shoot! How many have you personally shot?
Popkov was not at a loss:
“Comrade Marshal, we have enough Germans. We don’t shoot our own.
– But I shoot cowards and traitors! In their yard…