Originally shared by Lord Anubis

P-39 Airacobras in Soviet markings attacking a formation of Ju-88s.

The P-39 was originally designed as an interceptor and was unorthodox in three ways- first, it was designed around a gun, a 37 mm cannons, secondly it had a tricycle undercarriage (The first fighter to have one) and the engine was situated behind the pilot.

In the Pacific, the Airacobra was outclassed by the Zero and Ki-43 Hayabusa, but despite this it fought over Guadalcanal and Papua New Guinea, although the USAAF only produced one Airacobra Ace. It was deemed unsuitable for use in Europe as a fighter although some tactical reconnaissance units did use the Airacobra.

The British did order some P-39s but had them armed with Hispano 20mm cannons, which were designated P-400s by the Americans. These aircraft equipped one Squadron for a few months in 1941, 601 Squadron, but they were disliked by the British.

By this time Germany had invaded the Soviet Union, whose air force was largely equipped with obsolete aircraft and there was a pressing need for modern equipment. The British sent in their Airacobras and a perfect match was made.

The Soviets liked the Airacobra and asked for more to be sent to them. Unlike in service with the USAAF or RAF, many Soviet Aces were made in the P-39 “Kobra”, as it was called in the Soviet Union. It could fight well against the Bf-109 and Fw-190, especially as they were flying at low altitude where the P-39’s Allison engine worked best. Some Soviet pilots requested that their wing guns should be removed in order to improve manoeuvrability. The highest scoring Aces included Aleksandr Pokryshkin and Nikolay Gulaev. There are reports of Kobras being used against German tanks as Tank-Busters, with little success due to the thick armour of later German tanks such as the Tiger and Panther.

In all, 4,719 P-39 Airacobras were sent to the USSR and over 1000 were still in use at the end of hostilities in May 1945, with some serving until 1949. Of the 6 Soviet Aces that scored over 50 kills in WW2, four made most of their kills in P-39s. The Airacobra was possibly the ultimate Lend-Lease fighter sent to the USSR and contributed significantly to Russian victory.

The picture featured is courtesy of the brilliant Adak Whidbey​