Red Riposte: the Soviet Volunteer Group Over Formosa

In Volume 2 Number 2, Chandelle featured an article on China's aerial resistance to Japanese invasion during the 1930s. The piece mentioned a dramatic but little-known episode of that long conflict, an air raid mounted against the island of Formosa (now Taiwan) by Tupolev SB bombers of the Soviet Volunteer Group in China, then assisting Chiang Kai-Shek's forces. At the time, this was one of the longest-ranging air attacks ever mounted. But details have been all but impossible to find in English, until now. Chandelle reader/correspondent Alexis Luks has located and translated firsthand Russian accounts of the Formosa mission and produced the following report.

The commanders of the Soviet Volunteer Group in China planned a dramatic operation to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Red Army, a mission that would stretch airmen and aircraft to the very limits of their capabilities: an attack on Japanese air fields on the island of Formosa, 100 miles off China's Fujian coast. The raid was a daring undertaking for the 1930s, and more than likely to fail. Against all odds, it succeeded.

At the beginning of February 1938, the Chinese high command found out that the Japanese were activating a large air base on Formosa. Huge containers of aircraft assemblies were regularly supplied there by sea. Planes were being assembled on the base and readied for operations around Shanghai. Many aircraft were, in fact, already complete. China's limited air strength at the time would make it difficult to counter this new Japanese air fleet after it became operational. But a preemptive strike might eliminate or greatly reduce the threat, if ush could be mounted in time. The Chinese command thus turned to its only available force capable of such an operation, the Soviet Volunteer Group in China.

On 22 February, the commander of the Soviet Volunteer Group, Major P.V. Rychagov, and the group's voenkom (military commissar), Battalion Commissar A.G. Rytov, arrived at the unit's main base at Hankou. As usual, they conversed with the Russian pilots and mechanics. Then the two officers went to the bomber-group CO, Captain Fedor Polynin, and had a private talk.

"Tomorrow your group will have a bombing mission against the air-base at Taipei," said Rychagov unfolding the map. "You have to fly there by the shortest route. On the way back you are to land at Fuzhou to re-fuel. It's the airstrip in the mountains, twenty-three clicks from the coast." He tapped the map. "The Nanchang bomber group—twelve bombers—will accompany you."

Formosa made a formidable target. The distance from Hankou (a suburb of Wuhan nowadays) to Formosa is more than 1,000 kilometers, so the target was barely within the range of a twin-engined Tupolev SB bomber. The Japanese airfield was ringed by mountains and hard to approach. It would probably be defended by fighters and would surely be protected by anti-aircraft artillery.

The Russian bomber crews had ample combat experience, however. They were used to flying without fighter escort, and the SB was a speedy bird. Contemporary Japanese fighters were not able to catch it, let alone outrun it. So, while the mission was risky, the risk were at least well calculated.

After Rychagov and Rytov departed, Polynin sent for the group navigator, Fedoruk. Together, they elaborated on the route sketched by the two senior officers. They decided to fly at 13,500-16,500 feet to extend the range of the SB. The crews would suffer from anoxia in the course of the long flight, since there were no oxygen masks available, but there was no alternative. The bomber group would pass the island to the north, turn south, and come down to 12,000 feet with engines muffled to delude the Japanese. The bomber group would then hit the target and run for the coast. On the way across the strait, the bombers would be at 6,000 feet, and the crews would be able to catch their breath a little before climbing to 12,000 feet. They would land at the mountain airstrip for re-fueling.

As the day of the raid approached, security was tight. The mechanics and engineers were ordered to inspect the bombers and fuel them. But the planes were not armed until the last minute, just before the flight. To deceive Japanese spies at Hankou, word was spread among the Chinese personnel on the airfield that the squadron was preparing to bomb Japanese ships on the Yangtze river near Anquing.

When the airmen woke up on the day of the raid, it was still dark. After the breakfast the crews were briefed. All the twenty-eight bombers were already prepared for the mission: the engines had been warmed up, the bombs loaded, and the machine guns tested. Just before dawn the crews began to cluster near the planes.

Suddenly, the silence of daybreak was broken by air-raid sirens. Dark dots appeared on the skyline, and the distant roar of Japanese bombers joined with the banshee howls of the alarms. Ground crews and flyers had to take cover. Two groupds of nine airplanes were now clearly visible against the lightening sky. They were heading for the Hankou air field. Polynin stared at the approaching bombers: "How did the Japs manage to catch us? Who's the rat?" he shouted. There was no time for take off or for taxiing the planes along the airfield. The anti-aircraft artillery could not hope to fight off the Japanese planes. If the bombers hit the airstrip when it was cluttered with armed and gassed aircraft...Feelings of despair and helplessness gripped Polynin, maybe for the first time in his life.

Then, as suddenly as they had appeared, the Japanese turned and headed for Changsha. In a couple of minutes, they were gone. This unbelievable bit of luck was ardently discussed in the bomber group later. Why the Japanese planes passed by the Hankou air-base is still an enigma. Perhaps, they could not see the bombers on the airstrip— it was dark—or perhaps they direct orders to bomb Changsha. At the edge of the airstrip, Polynin ran into Rychagov and Rytov. They were also agitated. "While driving we noticed the Japanese bombers. Surely, they could give us hell! We rushed the driver: 'Come on! Floor it!' as if we could help you here in any way. After the bombers had turned we were ready to go out and dance," said Rytov. Both had reason for anxiety. The former was also the chief staff adviser on employment of VVS in China. If the air-base and the bomber group had been destroyed at the start of the mission, he would have been held chiefly responsible. It was a cruel time, and failures were treated harshly.

Shortly thereafter, the chief military adviser, M.I. Dratvin, and the air attaché, Colonel P.V. Zhigarev, arrived for a formal send-off. The bomber crews were drawn up, and Rychagov delivered a brief speech. In conclusion, he reminded the crews that 23 February was Red Army Day and urged them to honor this date in a special way. Then. at 0700, a signal rocket started the heavy laden bombers on their way. they took off runs one by one and vanished into the clouds.

At 16,000 feet, the bombers lined up in column and headed for Formosa, flying above above the clouds. Mist limited visibility to a couple of kilometers. The thermometer was reading 4° Celsius degrees, but the crews felt hot in their fur flying suits. The first symptoms of anoxia—rapid pulse, dizziness and sleepiness— soon appeared. The planes passed the Yangtze valley and lake Poyang Hu. The clouds became sparse. After another hour of flight, the planes flew past Fuzhou, the last Chinese city en route.

A quarter of hour later, they saw the coast of Formosa through the haze. As planned, the bomber group flew north of the island and then turned south. Thick clouds, driven from the tops of the mountains by the sun, were now covering the ground. Polynin now faced an unhappy choice. He had to choose between dropping the load of bombs at random or breaking through the clouds with high ground all around. "We're approaching the target. Waiting for your orders, Captain." The calm voice of navigator Fedoruk sounding in Polynin's earphones encouraged him. They would break through in spite of the danger. At this moment, a large opening in the clouds appeared. The busy streets of Taipei lay beneath them, and the enemy base would be nearby. Polynin headed for the gap with the rest of his formation close behind. The bombers reduced speed and began to dive.

The crews were on edge. Everyone was waiting for fighter attacks and anti-aircraft fire. The gunners scanned the sky for enemy planes, but there were none. The anti-aircraft guns remained silent. Apparently, the Japanese ground observers assumed that a close formation of bombers coming from the North would be Japanese. The main Japanese air base looked impressive. The combat-ready planes were lined up in two rows. Hangars and huge white fuel tanks were stretched along the opposite side of the base. Large grey boxes of aircraft assemblies were everywhere. The Japanese had made no attempt at camouflage or dispersal. They seemed sure of their safety. The Imperial red circles were now visible on the nearest planes. Polynin felt a jolt as the navigator dropped their bombs.

The Russians dropped their first series of bombs from 10,000 feet. They hit the planes in the center of the airfield. A pair of fighters was taxiing to a takeoff through falling bombs, but the bursts put an end to this desperate attempt. Then flights led by Yakov Prokofiev and Vasiliy Klevtsov attacked the hangars, stores and fuel tanks. Secondary explosions blew the fuel reservoirs apart. In all, the Soviet planes dropped two hundred and eighty bombs. The Japanese anti-aircraft artillery began to fire near the end, but too late. The now much lighter bombers had already turned and headed for the Taiwan Strait, running flat out for the Chinese coast.

The refueling strip at Fuhzou was narrow and confined by the mountains and swamp. However, all bombers landed safely and ground crews began to fuel the planes. Part of the group overshot due to a navigational error and had to turn back to reach Fuhzou, however. So, though the crews worked fast, refueling was not as rapid as Polynin might have wished. He was all too aware that a Japanese retaliation raid might catch them at any moment while they were on the ground. There were other problems too. Polynin noticed that Klevtsov was distracted "What's up?" he asked.

"The left engine went dead over the strait." the pilot replied.

Klevtsov had nursed his crippled bomber across the Taiwan strait and managed to land it at an unfamiliar mountain airstrip on one engine. The Fuzhou mechanics were able to to repair the engine, however. Pilot Sinitsyn was another casualty of the rigors of the flight. Exhausted by anoxia, he had to fly to Hankou as passenger. A spare pilot of the Nanchang group replaced him at the controls.

The group had been in the air for more than seven hours when the bombers returned to Hankou, and it was getting dark . A representative of Chinese Air Force was waiting. The Chinese officer held out an atlas to Polynin, as soon as the latter got his feet on the ground. He wanted to know the group's target. Polynin shook his head as the officer turned the pages until the map of Formosa appeared. He pointed and nodded. The Chinese officer squeaked and rushed to his car. Meanwhile, word of the successful raid quickly spread among the local inhabitants. On the way from the airfield the Russians saw crowds of people on the streets. The Chinese waved their hands and yelled "Hao, hao!" and "Kharasho!"Crowds waited for the airmen near the club-house where the Russian volunteers lived. The Chinese had their thumbs up and kept repeating "Taiwan, Taiwan!" The war going disastrously for China. The Chinese army was retreating from a series of fiercely fought and bloody defeats. So, the successful raid was reason enough for the joy and enthusiasm. To celebrate the event some Chinese decorated the streets with colored lights and lit fireworks. Those near the sea enjoyed another kind of illumination that night: the glow over the Taipei air base could be seen across the strait.

The next day, the weather was too bad for flying. So the airmen were able to catch up on their sleep. After dinner Polynin met Rychagov, who was glad and gleeful. "It seems that all of Hankou is talking about the raid. The governor-general just phoned me—to honor you they're organizing a victory banquet this evening." Soong Mei-ling arrived at the banquet to congratulate the Russian flyers. She was wife of president Chiang Kai-shek and sister of Soong Ch'ing-ling, widow of Sun Yat-sen. She was also the de facto minister of the Chinese Air Force. As the CO of the bomber group, Polynin was asked to sit down to table next to Soong Mei-ling. The chief military adviser Dratvin sat opposite them. Zhigarev and Rychagov were also invited. The Chinese Air Force commander, the governor of Hankou, and some Chinese officials were sitting with them. The Russian pilots, navigators, and gunners occupied seats at two big tables. Madame Chiang Kai-shek proposed a first toast to the Soviet volunteers and the successful raid. The meal finished with an enormous cake. The Cyrillic dedication on its top read "In Honor of the RKKA (i.e. Workers' and Peasants' Red Army). To the Volunteer-Airmen."

News of the raid on Formosa was published in several newspapers. The raid was a shock for the Japanese. The air base at Taipei was out of action for a month. According to Chinese intelligence, about 40 planes were completely destroyed on the airfield. A number of unassembled planes were also destroyed in their shipping containers. The hangars and a three-year store of fuel had burned. The Japanese government recalled the governor of Formosa, and the base commander was court-martialed and subsequently committed a suicide.


Polynin F.P. Boevye marshruty [The Combat Routes] (Moscow, 1981).

Rumyantsev H. "Operatsiya 'Formoza'" [The Mission to Formosa], collection of articles Shagnuvshiye v bessmertiye, in 3 vols (Saratov, 1971) I:59-66.

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© 1998 by Alexis Luks.