Air battle over Niš

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Air battle over Niš
Part of World War II
Date November 7, 1944
Location Niš, Serbia
 United States  Soviet Union
Yugoslav Partisans
Commanders and leaders
United States Unknown Soviet Union Alexander Koldunov
Soviet Union G.P. Kotov 
Unknown number of P-38 Lightning fighter planes Possibly 2 groups of Yakovlev Yak-3 fighter planes
Soviet and Yugoslav ground forces
Casualties and losses
Unknown (2-7 P-38s) Unknown (3-4 Yak-9s)
Several vehicles destroyed
31 killed, 37 wounded on the ground

The air battle over Niš occurred on 7 November 1944 over Niš, in Serbia, between the Air Forces of the United States and the Soviet Union in World War II due to both countries mistaking the other for Germans. This was only one of two direct military confrontations between the U.S. and the USSR in the history of these two countries. The other being the attack on the Sui-ho Dam taking place during the 1950-1953 Korean war.

After the successful joint offensive in October 1944 and the expulsion of German forces to the north, the military units 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, believing they were being attacked by German Focke-Wulf Fw 189 fighters. 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 United States apologized to the Soviet Union, stating that the attack was the result of a grave error by American pilots sent to attack German forces on the road from Skopje to Pristina. On 14 December, American Ambassador to the Soviet Union W. Averell Harriman apologized on behalf of Franklin D. Roosevelt and George C. Marshall and offered to send liaison officers to the 3rd Ukrainian Front to prevent further incidents; Stalin rejected it, because a line of demarcation had been drawn indicating the boundaries of Allied air actions.

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