Aviators in WWII

WWII—The Soviet "Gulbene Squadron"

CREATION OF THE UNIT

  • On June 16, 1940 the Soviet Union presented the Latvian government with an ultimatum demanding, in effect, the surrender of its sovereignty. The Latvian forces were hugely outnumbered by the Soviets, and the Latvian administration felt it had to choice but to agree to the terms. On the following day, June 17, the Soviet military occupied Latvia without resistance.
  • The Soviet Union, upon annexing Latvia, immediately dissolved the Independent Latvia's miitary. A number of the military personnel were conscripted into the Soviet 24th Territorial Corps, the aviation section of this being the Squadron stationed at Gulbene.

THE SQUADRON

  • The core of the Soviet Gulbene Squadron was the former Latvian 6th Reconnaissance Squadron, with its Stampe & Vertongen SV5s. Joining these were selected aviators and ground personnel from the other Latvian Reconnaissance units who became available as their units were disbanded. Quickly the unit found itself with approximately 50 aviators, far too many fliers for the ten SV5s which remained. Later, it was learned that the original intention had been to form three units from the available personnel.
  • In fact, the Squadron only had nine SV5s (one was destroyed in Corporal Morkan's crash at Gulbene on June 4, 1940), but a single KOD-1 aircraft was assigned to the squadron to permit additional training flights for the most recent flight school graduates.
  • The Latvian 6th Reconaissance Squadron had been commanded by Capt. Bernhards Pukse, but he was now replaced by Lt.Col.Z.Jere, whose second in command was a Russian, Capt. Jerosnikov. Russian Capt. Vasiljev was assigned as Political Officer. Most officers and officer candidates received promotions to bring their ranks within the new military structure into line with their experience. Joining the officers of the new Squadron was the only former fighter pilot to fly with the Gulbene Squadron - Ltn.V.Krastins.
  • The Squadron Headquarters was situated about 2 km from the airfield, on the property of the Gulbene church minister. - Aviators of the Gulbene Squadron included, among others, J.Aboltins, T.Aleksandrs, J.Alksnis, O.Austrums, A.Balodis, A.Batkovskis, Z.Beikmanis, V.Blumbergs, T.Brakeris, K.Bungss, O.Dzervitis, F.Ellins, K.Ercums, L.Grave, Irbe, K.Jandavs, M.Jankevics, Z.Jere, E.Jekabsons, A.Kadikis, K.Kalnins, K.Kleins, K.Krastins, V.Krastins, E.Kronis, Lejnieks, V.Malins, R.Mazlazdins, S.Milgravis, V.Munters, E.Nolbergs, Ozols, O.Pukse, A.Ruks, A.Salmins, N.Salna, F.Sprogis, N.Strukovs, A.Tirulis, A.Tomass, Viksne, A.Zalitis, E.Zalitis, J.Zarins.
  • Over the course of the following year, the personnel of the unit gradually decreased. Some were released from service, others were arrested and deported to Siberia, and some simply disappeared.
  • Flying was quite limited. Some aircraft were not used at all, but simply kept in reserve. At the end of a day's flying, it was not permitted to refill the aircraft's fuel tanks as is the normal practice, but they were left near-empty until the plane was scheduled to fly again. Gasoline was carefully doled out, and the aircraft were not to fly beyond visual range of the airfield. During the winter of 1940-41 flying almost stopped entirely, and the pilots turned to flight theory training.
  • On May 1, 1941 the entire squadron personnel was required to parade in the Gulbene May Day celebrations.

JUNE 14, 1941

  • On June 14, 1941, the squadron's personnel were all ordered to report to the aerodrome. A number of them were off duty at the time and did not attend, but learned of the events later.
  • Eight names (A.Tirulis, S.Milgravis, J.Zarins, O.Austrums, E.Zalitis, N.Strukovs, N.Salna and T.Brakeris) were read out, and these were taken away immediately. It was announced to the remaining personnel that these officers had been found to be "unreliable and disloyal" and were therefore arrested (and subsequently sent to work camps in Siberia). It was later learned that the Squadron Commander Z.Jere, and former members V.Munters, Capt.Pukse and A.Kadikis were similarily arrested elsewhere. Jere, Austrums and Zalitis were shot by the Soviets. Munters and Kadikis died of hunger and illness in Siberia. Strukovs, Pukse, Salna, Tirulis, Milgravis and Brakeris returned to Latvia after many hard years in Soviet prison/work camps in Siberia. The fate of Janis Zarins is unknown.

THE GERMANS INVADE

  • On June 22, 1941, the Germans attacked the Soviet Union.
  • Most of the Latvians stationed at Gulbene saw the German advance as an opportunity to liberate Latvia from the Soviet occupation. As a result, there was a great hunger for information about the advancing lines, and many secret plans were being made to escape from the aerodrome just before the unit is withdrawn into the Soviet Union.
  • Near Gulbene is the huge Lubana forest. The officers obtained maps of the area and prepared to slip away to the woods before the unit can move east. Not all officers were involved - some flew, as directed, to the Soviet Union, a couple escaped to German-held territory, and others were withdrawn on ground transport.
  • One pilot, Janis Alksnis, took off in an SV-5 with Ltn.Irbe as passenger. Alksnis intended to cross over to the German side and when Irbe objected, Alksnis shot him dead.
  • Two other aviators baled out of their aircraft and came down on the Soviet side of the lines. They reported that they had been shot down by a German night fighter (and maintain that position to this day) but it was also suspected that they may have been trying to desert to the German side and simply miscalculated their bale-out point.
  • As the German forces advanced their bombers struck at Soviet troop positions, but for the most part ignored the aerodrome at Gulbene. It is very possible that they knew the base only held SV-5s, which were no threat to the German aircraft, and they therefore paid them no attention. In the final days before the Squadron left Gulbene the airfield was intentionally littered with farm equipment and other large objects to thwart any possible attempt by the Germans to take the airbase from the air. A narrow corridor was left for the Squadron's own aircraft to use when they depart.
  • A group of 39 Latvians escaped to the Lubana forest on June 27. The group consisted of 13 officers, 13 NCOs and 13 enlisted personnel.
  • June 28, 1941 - the Gulbene Squadron is transferred from Gulbene to the Soviet Union. Eight aircraft remained, one (the KOD-1) was crashed by V.Krastins as he attempted to take off (he struck one of the obstacles which he had ordered to be placed on the field) so only seven actually flew out.
    - July 9, 1941 - Maj.Gen. K.Kacanov, commander of the 24th Territorial Corps, writes in a report to the Command that "I currently have 60 Latvian aviators from the former 24th Corps' aviation Squadron." He goes on to say that as he lacks sufficient modern aircraft or bases he cannot properly utilize these aviators. He suggests that using such skilled personnel as regular soldiers in the infantry is wasteful and is also potentially troublesome, as their recent experience has shown that Latvian soldiers will, at the first opportunity, desert to the German side. He proposes the following:
    1. Isolate those who are deemed to be politically unreliable
    2. The remainder to be assigned to aviation workshops/factories behind the lines.
    Accordingly, at Rzev it was determined that the SV5s were of no military use and they were struck from service. The unit was broken up - some of the skilled technical staff were transferred to Moscow to work in the aviation industry, while many of the others (presumably less-skilled ground crew) were "volunteered" for a rifle regiment and sent to the front.

Sources

  • Bruvels, Edvins Latvijas Aviacijas Vesture
  • Krastins, K. Gulbenes Eskadrilas Liktenis in Daugavas Vanagu Menesraksts, 1982, No.5
  • Strods, Heinrihs Sarkanarmijas haotiska atkapsanas no Latvijas (1941. gada 22.junijs - 5.julijs) published in the Latvian Occupation Museum 2001 Yearbook, pgs.31-93.

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