How American Pilots Attacked Soviet Troops in 1944: The Aerial Battle Above Niš

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard


On 7th November, 1944, the US air force unexpectedly bombed a Soviet military convoy near the Yugoslav city of Niš. The incident had the potential to escalate into a full-scale war.

Relations between the USSR and the US on the eve of the opening of the Second front were neither friendly nor hostile – a certain tension was present. We should remember that the United States was among the last to recognise the Soviet Union, while strongly objecting to the entry of the Baltic States into the USSR.

Caution in relations between the two countries did not allow them to sign a fully-fledged alliance treaty, which, for example, was signed between the Soviet Union and Britain. However, this didn’t affect the agreement on lend-lease at all: vehicles, weapons, raw materials, and food products were supplied by the Americans regularly.

The United States carried out their obligations also after the opening of the Second front, however, fighting was waged in such a way that the civilian population suffered from it the most. The bombing of Belgrade by the US Air Force, which happened during the days of Orthodox Easter, looks very suspicious. At the time several times more local residents died than German soldiers.

According to eyewitnesses, falling bombs were “decorated” with the mocking slogan “Happy Easter!”. This was clearly addressed to Yugoslavians, and not the Germans – their Protestant Easter had already passed. It is also possible to perceive in this a hidden challenge to the Soviets, whose ally was the Yugoslav Communist leader Broz Tito.

Amid the intense and often chaotic bombing of European cities, the American aircraft’s attack on a Soviet column headed by Lieutenant-General Grigory Kotov could be called an unfortunate accident and written off as the price of war.

But two facts cause intrigue. Firstly, American commanders already knew that near Niš there were no German troops, and secondly, “friendly fire” was carried out on the anniversary of the October revolution. Another bombing during a celebration!

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On the ground below red flags were waved, trying to convince raiders that they aren’t German troops, but the Americans did not see – or did not want to see. 34 people, including the corps commander Kotov, were killed by the air raid, 39 soldiers were injured, and more than 20 vehicles loaded with goods were torched.

In response to the bombing, the Soviet air defenses managed to shoot down one American plane. Immediately two Yak-3 and Yak-9 attack planes took off to meet the “allied” squadron, and six more Yak-9 followed them.

Having established the “nationality” of the enemy, the commandment gave the order: “to take all measures to prevent a mid-air collision”, however, after one of the “Yak” aircraft was downed, Soviet attack planes engaged in battle and during the first attack they destroyed two US aircraft. Among the pilots was the ace Aleksandr Koldunov, who tried to use gestures to point out the error to the Lockheed P-38 Lightning – it seemed to work.

Soviet aircraft encouraged the American squadron to go over the mountain range, however, very soon about 40 “Lightning” aircraft resumed the attack. The Soviet “Yaks” went again in the direction of the American planes, having fired some warning shots from cannons and one machine gun. Only then did the American squadron return to base.

Immediately afterwards the command of the US Air Force was forced to apologise to the Soviet side, calling the incident an “unfortunate accident” – saying that their target was a German column, marching from Greece to Trieste. The US Air Force went astray by about 400 kilometers. However, the second group of planes shouldn’t have repeated the mistake of the first one, since they maintained radio contact. But this is only one of the mysteries of this strange story.

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It is the answers of American pilots – who, in their opinion, indeed for a long time didn’t see the Soviet markings – that are interesting. And only after Colonel Edwinson’s words “these are Russian, get the hell out of here!” did the squadron of the US Air Force leave Niš.

One of the American pilots braggingly recalled:

“We were left without ammunition, or close to having no ammunition. A big expense was the attack on the column, otherwise the Russians would have had it even worse. We downed five to seven Russian ‘Yaks’. They were like ‘Messer’, but on our side there were better tactics and initiative”.

Of course, the results of air combat are interpreted differently by the American and Soviet sides. Americans write about the 4 downed Soviet planes and 2 from the US Air Force, both American pilots – according to their information – perished. Our statistics say 3 lost “Yaks” and two dead pilots, with 5 downed “Lightnings”.

The Soviet command had many questions regarding the incident above Niš, but the investigation was terminated – nobody wanted to spoil relations with their allies. If such things happened at the end of the war, then everything could have ended differently.

The US Ambassador to the USSR Averell Harriman apologised about the accident on behalf of President Franklin Roosevelt and the General of the army George C. Marshall. Harriman proposed to send American representatives to the headquarters of the 3rd Ukrainian front in order to coordinate joint actions of Air Forces. Stalin rejected this proposal, citing an already established line, differentiating the actions of allies.

It would be possible to forget about the incident above Niš if it wasn’t for the two rapidly ensuing meetings of Russian and American aircrafts.

On 17th April, 1945, Ivan Kozhedub was attacked by two North American P-51 Mustang aircraft in the skies over Berlin. All the more strange is that it happened after the Soviet pilot tried to defend his allies from an attack by “Messerschmitts”. “Who are you firing at? Me?!”, shouted back then the indignant Russian ace. In a matter of minutes both Mustangs were downed – one exploded in the air and another one by a miracle glided to Soviet territory. After the battle, to the question “who shot you down?” the “burly Negro” who survived answered: “Focke-Wulf”. However, it is not clear whether the American pilot was mistaken or refused to recognise the victory of the Russian pilot.

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After developing the camera film of the gun camera, it was succeeded to consider all the details of the aerial battle. The division commander Evgeny Savitsky, having given the film to Kozhedub, strictly ordered to reveal them to nobody, and then added: “These victories will go on the account of future wars”. Even back then, the Soviet high command perceived the Americans as the potential enemy.

The Americans distinguish themselves by their unprecedented arrogance and conceit. Georgy Zhukov preserved for us the statements of the commander of the US Air Force Spaatz, who during a meeting with Marshal Zhukov pointedly and indignantly said when talking about flying over the Soviet zone, “American aircraft fly everywhere, and they do so without any restrictions!”.

At the very end of the war, Kozhedub met bombers of the US Air Force once again. Back then a squadron of multi-engine giants, ignoring warning shots, entered the zone of Soviet occupation. The Russian ace shot down three planes – the rest fled. However, he wasn’t allowed to fill the official list with these trophies.

The regimental commander Pavel Chupikov whether in jest or seriously said that we will have to fight the Americans very soon, and that on the first day of a new war trophies will be credited retroactively.

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