Air battle over Niš

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The air battle over Niš occurred on 7 November 1944 over Niš, in Serbia, between the Air Forces of the U.S. and USSR in World War II. This was the only direct military confrontation between the U.S. and the USSR in the history of these two countries, and is considered top secret in both Moscow and Washington, D. C.

After the successful joint offensive in October 1944 and the expulsion of German forces to the north, the military unit of the Red Army had been ordered to follow in their steps. On 7 November, a long column of vehicles belonging to 6th Guards Rifle Corps of the Red Army was moving from Niš towards Belgrade, with orders to reinforce the southern wing of the Hungarian front. Suddenly, at about 10 AM, from southeast over the Jastrebac mountain, three groups of American P-38 Lightning fighter planes arrived and the first group immediately started to strafe the leading vehicles, destroying several, with 31 killed and 37 wounded. The commander of the corps, Lieutenant General G. P. Kotov, was also killed in this attack.

While the second group of US P-38 planes were starting their attack, the commander of the 17th Air Army, General Sudec, who was at the Niš airbase at the time, issued an order for immediate takeoff to the pilots on duty flying Yakovlev Yak-3 fighters from 659th Regiment of 288th Air Division based at Niš. The American planes shifted their fire to the Soviet fighters which were taking off in spite of clearly visible large red star markings on their wings. One of the Yak-3's was destroyed right away.

The P-38s then climbed to about 500m and formed a defensive circle above the city of Niš itself waiting to see how will this uncertain situation would be resolved. According to aeronautical engineer Dragoslav Dimić who as a child was among the gathered inhabitants of Niš, the remaining Soviet fighters flew over the old city fortress at an altitude of only 20m and attacked the Lightnings from below in a steep climb. One Lightning burst into flames and fell to the ground near the airstrip of the Niš airbase. The Yaks flew through the circling Lightnings and attacked them again, this time from above. One of the Yaks was hit by American fire and fell to the ground.

Soon the battle was joined by a second group of Yaks led by a famous Soviet fighter ace Captain Koldunov, who took off from another airbase near Niš. The 'tangle of death' that formed in the air moved westward across the city with the sound of machine gun and cannon fire. 9 Soviet Yak-3 and an unidentified number of US P-38 fighters participated in the battle which lasted for about another 15 minutes. According to American author Glenn Bows, 4 Yaks and 2 Lightnings were lost, while Russian sources state that 3 Yaks and 4 P-38's have been destroyed. Joko Drecun, a partisan officer who was based at Niš airport at the time wrote in his diary that Americans lost 7 and Soviet 3 planes. The real numbers will be known only after the official documents from Russian and US archives about this event are declassified.

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