(excerpted from Chapter 53: Shot Down)
I took off, with fifteen Shturmoviks following me.
The wide Vistula with its lush islands came into view ahead. Somewhere to our right lay Warsaw, seemingly sheathed in fog. The day before, on our way home from a mission, we had glimpsed the city, engulfed in flames and a dense cloud of smoke. We had lost several pilots in that inferno as they delivered food and arms to the insurgents…
“Four ‘Fockes’ on the left,” came Nazarkina’s (Yegorova’s tail gunner’s) voice…
Long-range anti-aircraft guns blocked our path. We maneuvered. Shells exploded, so dangerously near that fragments drummed ominously on the “Il’s” armor. Oerlikon tracers whizzed by the airplanes like glowing red marbles, so beautiful that it was hard to believe they brought death.
My wingmen were in position on the right echelon. The gunfire intensified by the minute. If we made a direct approach, we’d find ourselves in an even denser wall of fire. If I turned left, my wingmen would find themselves under merciless fire as well. So I decided to veer to the right, making a gradual bank that I hoped wouldn’t be noticed from the ground. The powerful curtain of fire moved away from us. But we were pushing further from the target, and the enemy guns would soon adjust their aim.
We turned back left and maneuvered through the artillery fire. It was time for the attack. I went into a dive. I couldn’t see my wingmen, but I knew they were with me. We unleashed our guided missiles, cannons, and anti-tank bombs against the tanks. The ground beneath us erupted into flames. In the heat of battle, I forgot about the enemy’s anti-aircraft guns. I didn’t notice the rockets or the machine gun tracer bullets anymore.
Another attack, and another. Suddenly, my plane was shoved upward, as if someone had punched it from below. A second blow came, and then a third. The airplane became harder to control. It wasn’t responding. For God’s sake, climb! I could no longer maneuver.
I tried with all my strength to force the Shturmovik into a dive and open fire. At first, I seemed to have succeeded. I led the group on another pass at the tanks, and my wingmen followed. Then they noticed I’d been hit. Someone shouted over the radio, “Try to make it to our side!”
The plane must be damaged, I thought. Suddenly, I noticed the silence–not a word from Nazarkina. Is she dead? flashed through my head. The plane shivered feverishly. Flames licked into the cockpit from the engine. The plane wouldn’t obey the control stick at all. I tried to open the canopy, but it was jammed shut. Smoke filled the cabin, choking me.
The blazing plane spun towards the earth, and I burned and tumbled with it.