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Invincible IvanText by Divan MullerWith so much exposure currently given to the 'Ghost of Kyiv', who, according to legend, would be the first ace of the 21st century, it is perhaps appropriate to take a look back at Ukraine's most famous ace of all time.Early Life
Ivan Nikitovich Kozhedub was born in June 1920 in a village called Obrazheyevska, Ukraine, which was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). He grew up in an environment where food was scarce and toys were considered unnecessary luxuries. Ivan developed an interest in aviation as a teenager and, after completing studies at a technical school, he joined a local flying club. During the late 1930s, Ivan noticed that world events could lead to future air combat opportunities, so he reasoned that flight training could steer his life in the right direction, should war break out. Ivan’s reasoning was correct, as World War II began in 1939. In 1940, Ivan joined the Chuguyev Military Aviation School, where he received combat training on a Polikarpov UTI-4 and I-16. Ivan soon completed his training with excellent results. In fact, he was seen as such a good pilot, that it was decided to keep Ivan in the school as an instructor, rather than sending him into combat. That decision frustrated Ivan, as he had always wanted to fly in combat. Finally, after submitting several requests, Ivan was transferred to a combat unit in 1943.
Ivan Kozhedub received his first taste of combat over Kharkov, a city in north-eastern Ukraine. As was the case with most Soviet pilots, Kozhedub had family in German occupied territory, so he was highly motivated to fight the enemy. During his first mission, his unbridled enthusiasm was met by German Me 110s, which severely damaged Kozhedub’s Lavochkin fighter, almost killing the young Ukrainian pilot in the process. Nevertheless, Kozhedub nursed his stricken aircraft back to his base and learned from the experience. Ivan Kozhedub claimed his first ‘kill’ during the famous Battle of Kursk, which took place in July and August 1943. It was the largest tank battle in history, whilst massive aerial battles raged in the skies. Almost 7 000 tanks and 5 000 aircraft partook in the battle. Kozhedub’s first ‘kill’ was a Junker Ju 87 Stuka. These dive bombers often had a very demoralising effect on ground forces and could be seen as an icon of Axis blitzkrieg tactics. This is how Kozhedub described his first few aerial victories, “We were ordered to attack a group of Junkers Ju-87 dive bombers. I chose a victim and came in quite close to it. The main thing was to fire in time. Everything happened in a twinkling. It was only on the ground, amongst my friends, that I recalled the details of this battle. Caution is all-important and one has to turn one’s head 360 degrees all the time. The victory belonged to those who knew their planes and weapons inside out and had the initiative. On July 7, I downed a second plane and, on July 8, I destroyed another two Bf-109 fighters.” Kozhedub became an expert at ‘deflection shooting’, which involved shooting enemy aircraft down from oblique angles. He frequently adjusted his tactics and never stopped learning, as each battle trained him for his next mission. In May 1944, Kozhedub destroyed eight enemy aircraft in seven days. Five of those aircraft were highly capable Focke-Wulf FW-190 fighters. Kozhedub was then transferred to a Lavochkin La-7 unit in the 1st Belorussian Front. That is where Ivan shot down one of the first Me-262 jet fighters. His account was as follows: “On February 19 1945, I was on a lone-wolf operation, together with Dmitry Titorenko, to the north of Frankfurt. I noticed a plane at an altitude of 350 meters. It was flying along the Oder at a speed which was marginal for my plane. I made a quick about-face and started pursuing it at full throttle, coming down so as to approach it from under the belly. My wingman opened fire and the Me-262, which was a jet, as I had already realised, began turning left over to my side, losing speed in the process. That was the end of it. I would never have overtaken it if it had flown in a straight line. The main thing was to attack enemy planes during turns, ascents or descents, and not to lose precious seconds.”
One of the more controversial stories involves Kozhedub aiding a formation of Allied B-17 bombers, which were being attacked by German fighters. According to legend, two American P-51 Mustang pilots thought Kozhedub’s radial engined Lavochkin was an FW-190. They attacked the Soviet pilot, who, in self-defence, shot them both down. By the end of World War II, Kozhedub had flown almost 330 sorties. According to official records, he destroyed 62 enemy aircraft, making Ivan Kozhedub the top scoring Allied ace of World War II. Many of his kills were not confirmed or were attributed to his wingmen, so it is possible that Kozhedub may have shot down as many as 100 aircraft.
Kozhedub’s first aircraft was a Lavochkin La-5, which eventually became one of the most important Soviet fighter types of the war. According to Kozhedub, his aircraft was different to those of his fellow pilots. He commented, “Other fliers had aircraft with three fuel tanks, which were lighter and more manoeuvrable, whereas my five-tank aircraft was heavier. For a start its potential was quite enough for me, a budding flier. Later on, I had many occasions to admire the strength and staying power of this plane. It had excellent structural mounting points and an ingenious fire-fighting system, which diverted the exhaust gases into the fuel tanks, and once saved me from what seemed certain death.”
Later, Ivan flew a La-5FN, which was powered by a more powerful 1 850 hp radial engine. Other than the engine, it was to a large extent a simplified version of the La-5. The aircraft was tough, highly manoeuvrable and outperformed contemporary German fighters at low and medium altitudes.
However, Kozhedub is mostly associated with his final aircraft, a La-7. It was a further development of the La-5. Although pilot workload in a La-7 was much higher than in its German fighter counterparts, its performance was much better. In fact, some historians reason that the La-7 could have been, arguably, the most capable fighter of the Second World War. Of course, that is a highly debatable and controversial statement, but one thing we can be sure of, it was the best fighter produced by the Soviet Union. In the hands of a competent ace, such as Kozhedub, a La-7 would seem quite invincible. After the War
Ivan Kozhedub was awarded the Gold Star of the Hero of the Soviet Union on three occasions. He also received numerous medals of honour and awards, including two Orders of the Red Star, an Order of the Patriotic War First Class, two Orders of Lenin and seven Orders of the Red Banner. Although not allowed to participate in combat sorties, Kozhedub commanded a North Korean MiG-15 unit during the Korean War, which lasted from 1950 to 1953. His unit fared remarkably well against United Nations fighters. A few years later he graduated from the High Command Academy and was subsequently promoted to general. He later became Inspector of the Soviet Ministry of Defence and during the late 1960s, Kozhedub was the vice president of the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, the world governing body for air sports, aeronautics and astronautics’ world records. After living an eventful and fast-paced life, Kozhedub died in 1991 at the age of 71. Ivan Nikitovich Kozhedub was an excellent pilot, a brilliant tactician and shot down more enemy aircraft than any other Allied ace.
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