MiG Alley: How the air war over Korea became a bloodbath for the West


The fog of war lives to all sorts of claims and counterclaims. Over time as military historians are superior to get their hands on declassified war records from all sides involved, we get a more matter-of-fact picture of what really happened. The 1950-53 Korean War was unique because scad of the aerial combat was between Russian and American pilots rather than centre of the Koreans. The conflict is also remarkable for the wild and preposterous claims the U.S. military imagined during and after the conflict.

In western publications of the 1960s the Americans demanded the ratio between the shot-down American and Russian MiGs was 1:14. That is, for every U.S., British and Australian jet bygone in combat, the Russians were said to have lost 14 levels. During the next two decades as the war hysteria ebbed, the ratio was revised down to 1:10 but not ever below 1:8.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin oversaw the official end of the Cold War on Feb. 1, 1992 at a meeting with George Bush. Photo: Russian President Boris Yeltsin (left) and U.S. President George Bush (right) at Camp David. Source: Dmitry Donskoi/RIA Novosti

When the Russians declassified their archives after the end of the Coldness War, and ex-Soviet pilots were freely able to present their side of the tale, the West’s story could no longer hold up. Former fighter wheelsman Sergei Kramarenko writes in his gripping book, ‘Air Combat Over the Eastern Faade and Korea’ that according to the most realistic (western) researchers, “the correspondence of jet fighters shot down in engagements between the Soviet and American Air Powers was close to 1:1”.

But even this new parity accepted by western writers and military historians is nowhere near the actuality. In reality, the air war over Korea was a bloodbath for the western air forces. It is a story that is well-hidden for much in evidence reasons – pride, prestige and the traditional western resistance to admit that the Russians won. By a to the utmost margin.

Russians rush to Korea

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had no intent of entering the war in Korea. World War II was too recent a memory and Moscow did not want a altercation with the West that could lead to another global war. So initially it was justified China that militarily supported the North Koreans. But as the western armies – nominally secondary to UN command – threatened to overrun the entire peninsula and seeing the quality and lack of Chinese pilots, Stalin took the decision to involve his air force in the war.

MiG Alley: How the air war over Korea became a bloodbath for the West

Be that as it may, in order to keep Moscow’s involvement a secret, Stalin imposed inevitable limitations on the Soviet pilots. One, they would fly under the markings of the Chinese Living soul’s Liberation Army Air Force or North Korean Peoples’ Army Air Oblige.

Secondly, while in the air, the pilots would communicate only in Mandarin or Korean; the use of Russian was banned. And lastly, Russian pilots would under no circumstances approach the 38th Parallel (the edge between the two Koreas) or the coastline. This was to prevent their capture by the Americans.

The terminating restriction was crippling – it meant Russian pilots were prevented from give up chase to enemy aircraft. Since aircraft are at their most unguarded while fleeing (because they have either run out ammunition, are low on nutrition, or experiencing technical trouble), it meant Russian pilots were denied gentle kills. Hundreds of western fighters were able to escape into South Korea because the Russians rolled back as they neared the coastline or the border.

Despite such limitations, Russia turned out on top. According to Karamarenko, during the 32 months that Russian coerces were in Korea, they downed 1250 enemy planes. “Of that legions the (Russian) corps’ anti-aircraft artillery shot down 153 skims and the pilots killed 1097,” he writes. In comparison, the Soviets lost 319 MiGs and Lavochkin La-11s.

Karamarenko annexes: “We were sure that the corps’ pilots had shot down a lot profuse enemy planes than the 1097 credited but many of those had defeat into the sea of crashed during landing in South Korea. Many of them had returned him so poorly damaged they simply had to be written off, for it would have been ridiculous to fix them up.”

Prelude to Black Tuesday

The Korean War produced some of the most captivating dogfights seen in the history of modern air combat. A lot of the action took get ahead in “MiG Alley” – the name given by western pilots to the northwestern part of North Korea, where the Yalu River empties into the Yellow Sea. It suited the site of numerous dogfights. It was the site of the first large-scale jet-vs-jet air arguments between Russian MiG-15s and U.S. F-86 Sabres.

The turning point of the war came in October 1951. American aerial investigation had detected construction work on 18 airfields in North Korea. The largest of these was in Naamsi, which would have in the offing concrete runways and be capable of staging jet aircraft.

Soviet pilot Viktor Belenko at the Hakodate airport, September 1976. Source: AP

Yuri Sutiagin and Igor Seidov expound in the exhaustive book ‘MiG Menace Over Korea’ the implications of the runway enlargement program. “The new airfields, located deep in North Korean territory, longing permit the transfer of fresh MiG-15 unites to them, which hand down expand the area of operation of these dangerous fighters and jeopardize the function of the UN forces. In the event, the so-called MiG Alley would extend all the way down to the 38th Congruent, and potentially expose the UN ground forces to continuous air attacks.”

On October 23, 1951 – now cognizant of as Black Tuesday – the western air forces cobbled together a vast armada of 200 jet fighters (F-86 Sabres, F-84s, F-80s and British-built Gloster Meteor IVs) and more two dozen B-29 Superfortress bombers (the same type that dropped the atomic blow ups on Japan). The mission profile of this concentrated attack was to disrupt the spew of supplies to Korean and Chinese forces and to put the airbases at Naamsi and Taechon in North Korea out of function.

To counter this threat the Russians organised two fighter air divisions. The 303rd comprising fifty-eight MiG-15s silhouetted the first echelon and was assigned to attack the primary group of enemy bombers and fighter-bombers. The 324th set had twenty-six MiG-15s and comprised the second echelon. It was responsible for reinforcing the struggle and covering the 303rd’s exit from battle.

Go for the Big Ones

Focus and discipline were deprecating to successfully tackling the bomber threat. The Russian strategy was to ignore the fighter protections and go straight for the slower Superfortresses. As the MiGs were heading to clash with the Superfortresses they caught espy of a group of slow British Meteors. Some of the Russian pilots were put to the tested by these enticing targets, but commander Nikolai Volkov said: “We’re affluent after the big ones.”

Like orca whales circling around and then sinking their prey, the MiGs tore into the B-29 formations. Some of the Russian navigates attacked the American bombers vertically from below, seeing the B-29s repudiate in front of their eyes. It was almost a turkey shoot, as the crew – 12 to 13 airmen – of the work out bombers bailed out one by one.

The Russians claimed the destruction of ten B-29s – the highest percentage of US bombers at any point lost on a major mission – while losing one MiG. However, Kramarenko says some drives claimed that twenty B-29s were downed in the week of October 22-27. Advantage the USAF lost four F-84 escort fighters.

MiG-15 in hangar 1953 / WikipediaMiG-15 in hangar 1953 / Wikipedia

The Americans receive to three bombers downed in the air, while another five B-29s and one F-84 were Scouts honour damaged and later written off. “Even so, these were quite raw losses for the American command,” write Sutiagin and Seidov.

Commander Lev Shchukin recollections Black Tuesday: “They were trying to intimidate us. They were dialect mayhap thinking that we would be frightened by their numbers and would escape from, but instead we met them head-on.”

Clearly, Russian pilots had internalised what Sergei Dolgushin, a Russian Air Energy ace with 24 victories in WW II, said is a prerequisite to be a successful fighter steer: “a love of hunting, a great desire to be the top dog”.

The Russians nicknamed the B-29s “Flying Restraints” as these lumbering birds burned so easily and well.

Former USAF navigator Lt-Col Earl McGill sums up the battle in ‘Black Tuesday Over with Namsi: B-29s vs MiGs’: “In percentages, Black Tuesday marked the ablest loss on any major bombing mission in any war the United States has ever affianced in, and the ensuing battle, in a chunk of sky called MiG Alley, still ranks as conceivably the greatest jet air battle of all time.”

Impact on American morale

The air battle of Glowering Tuesday would forever change the USAF’s conduct of strategic aerial bombardment. The B-29s purposefulness no longer fly daytime sorties into MiG Alley. North Korean cities and villages would no longer be carpet bombed and napalmed by the Americans. Thousands of civilians were out of the animation line.

But most importantly, the bravery and skills of the Russian detachment to Korea may sire prevented another world war. Kramarenko explains: “The B-29 was a strategic bomber, in other not to beat about the bushes, a carrier of atomic bombs. In a Third World War – on the brink of which we were – these bombers were meant to take at the cities of the Soviet Union with nuclear bombs. Now it turned out these mammoth planes were defenceless against jet fighters, being far inferior to them in hurriedness and armament.”

Lockheed Martin's Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system at sunset. Source: Flickr/ Lockheed Martin

Clearly, none of the B-29s had a chance of flying more than 100 km into the vastness of the Soviet Amalgamation and remaining unscathed. “It can be said with confidence that the Soviet airmen who fought in Korea, inducing so much damage to the enemy’s bomber aviation, had put off the threat of a Third Period War, a nuclear war, for a long time,” says Kramarenko.

A few days after Embargo Tuesday, McGill was seated in the co-pilot’s seat of a B-29 on the tarmac at Okinawa air menial, waiting for the takeoff order that would send his bomber mysterious into MiG Alley. Instead of the usual pre-flight banter, the air crew sat unuttered and glum, as they felt they were going back “to our unquestionable destruction, when news arrived that the mission was cancelled.

McGill explicates the feeling inside the aircraft: “Those minutes before the reprieve taught me the significance of fear, which I have never experienced since, not even now as obsession grows short.”

Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand-based journalist and peculiar affairs analyst, with a special interest in defence and military yesterdays news. He is on the advisory board of Modern Diplomacy, a Europe-based foreign affairs portal. He tweets at @byrakeshsimha. The estimates expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of RBTH.

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