Monday, 16 March 2015

Red Devils Over the Yalu - Igor Seidov, Translated by Stuart Britton

Title: Red Devils Over the Yalu
Author: Igor Seidov, Translated by Stuart Britton
ISBN: 978-1-909384-41-5
Publisher: Helion
Pages: 598
Photos: 64 b/w 

The Korean War by October, 1950, was all but won by the UN and American forces; the North Koreans were pushed into pockets deep in the north of the country and the Allies ruled the skies and oceans. Everything changed however with the entrance of Chinese forces into the war on October 17th, 1950. What occurred immediately afterwards is very well known and chronicled in the histories of the Korean War, what has not been well remembered however, was the key role that the Soviet Union played not only in training and equipping the North Korean and Chinese Air Forces, but also in the direct provision of air force personnel into the fighting.  

For the first time, Seidov has chronicled in detail the exploits of Soviet aerial operations throughout the Korean War. Fighting wearing Chinese uniforms, utilizing Chinese phraseology while flying and operating in aircraft of Soviet make but bearing Chinese markings, these forces directly engaged Allied air forces and wrested control of the skies over the northern part of the Korean peninsula away from the West.  

Limited in their operational range due to restrictions imposed by the Soviet Government, these forces nevertheless had an immediate and dramatic effect upon the allied air campaign once they commenced operations on November 1st, 1950. The Mig 15 dominated the skies over the F-51's, F-80's, F9F's and F-84 of the West and heralded the demise of operational bombing with the heavy losses they inflicted upon the B-29 formations of the Far East Air Force. It was not, in fact, until the introduction of the F-86 Sabre of the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Group on the 15th of December, 1950, that the Allies were able to engage the Russians again on a level playing field. 

Seidov draws upon the declassified archives of both Russian and American combat records to verify or repudiate many of the long standing claims and beliefs associated with the Korean air war. For example, conventional wisdom has the American's destroying Migs at a rate of 8:1 and, while in absolute terms this is true, it is based primarily on the fact that the US attributed a majority of their losses to non-air combat related causes. Seidov goes on to show that many of the losses were in fact shoot-downs as opposed to mechanical or ground fire reasons. I found his evaluations to be very balanced and equally critical of both sides.  

Additionally, Seidov looks into the strategic engagement plan of the Soviets and analyzes it for strengths and weaknesses. He is very critical of the Russian practice to rotate units in their entirety due to the loss of operational experience and the necessity to relearn lessons and goes into great detail regarding the training and practices that US fighter pilot replacements went through before they were considered capable for full frontline duties. One area that would have been beneficial for Seidov to have investigated more was the reason why the Soviet High Command followed the rotation practice that they did. They were aware of the losses and the changes in the dynamic of the air war but Seidov only skirts the surface. 

The author has obviously interviewed numerous Russian, Chinese and North Korean veterans as he has incorporated hundreds of first hand accounts into the books narrative. These were fascinating as they discussed challenges, tactics and experiences of the other side that have heretofore never been related. 

The book is very detailed in its accounts of the engagements of the different Russian units throughout the period of the war. The degree of detail is a two edged sword in my opinion as it provides the reader a deep appreciation of the nature of Korean War air combat, while, concurrently, blending the individual stories thereby tending to blunt the tight narrative. 

Helion has published an excellent quality book and Stuart Britton's translation is outstanding. The book would have benefited from maps detailing the area of operations of the Russians and a regional map to facilitate an appreciation of the distances flown by the US and Russian aircraft. Overall, a very meaty book full of incredible detail that provides deep insight into the nature of air combat in Korea from the Russian perspective. For those fans and historians of the Korean War looking for new material, I would strongly recommend this book.

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