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From the start of WWII, the Soviet Union needed a second European front to be opened, The heads of the allied governments wrangled over this issue for two years. In the spring of 1942, President Roosevelt invited the allies to meet for discussions, at the highest level, to go over the details of future military operations, straighten out sticking points and agree military and humanitarian aid for member states. Due to the extremely difficult situation faced by Soviet Forces at the front at that time, and the fact that the front was very close to Moscow, the Soviet government took the decision to send Molotov to the UK and USA, although initial discussions had centred on Stalin himself making the journey.

In the early days of March 1942, Stalin asked Commander  Golovanov of the long Bomber Group, to tell him the best and quickest route to get to Washington by aeroplane.

Commander Golovanov Commander Golovanov

Golovanov quickly considered all the various routes and concluded that the best and safest route, at first glance, would be adventurous, as it followed the line of the front from Moscow to Washington via Iceland and Canada. “As I expected,” Golovanov later recalled, “when I reported on the various ways to fly to Washington, the flight along the line of the front caused consternation. But when I told Stalin all my the reasons for this suggestion, he recognised that they were sound. Sergei Alexandrovich Asyamov was named the Captain of the flight. I knew him well through our previous joint work on flights to Eastern Siberia. He was a good chap, undertook flights perfectly in any  conditions and never losing control, even in the most difficult situations. We worked together for three years in the north and his conduct was irreproachable. He was just very energetic when flying. But this energy was never the cause of any kind of accident or incident.

Many articles have been written about Molotov’s heroic flight, and there are also several documentary films. The heroes were the members of the crew of the Soviet PE-8 bomber: Major Pusep, Co-Pilot Captain Obukhov, Navigators Shtepenko and Romanov, Engineer Zolotarev, Assistant Engineer Dmitriev, Gunners Goncharov, Kozhin, Salnikov, Belousov and Smirnov, Radio Operators Nizovtsev and Moukhanov. They undertook a difficult and very dangerous flight in May 1942, flying from Moscow to the UK, Iceland, Canada and the USA with the Soviet Diplomatic Mission on board.

What is practically unknown is the other part of the story. A few weeks before the flight that took the USSR’s Minister of Foreign Affairs to the USA, the same crew of the PE-8, under the command of Major Asyamov, undertook a training flight from Moscow to Britain, with the aim of checking how safe it was, and whether it were really possible. It has recently come to light that the PE-8 plane also carried 2 Russian Scientists (Kasatkin & Sevastianov) and Stalin’s personal translator, Vladimir Pavlov for discussions with the British Government.   It was above Great Ouseburn in Yorkshire, on 30th April 1942 there was a terrible accident that almost changed the course of WWII.

On 29th April, after flying continuously for more than 7 hours, Asyamov landed the bomber at the military airport at Tealing, a big RAF base not far from Dundee, Scotland. Immediately, the plane on a secret mission was surrounded by curious British pilots and engineers. RAF men were very interested in the Soviet PE-8, not least because the best British and American long-range planes were not up to the same technical level as the TB7, especially during the first half of WWII. The RAF didn’t have anything of the same class.

The crew was transferred to London, but their holiday there was short. The day after they arrived, the crew, in response to many requests from their British colleagues, planned to return to the military airport at Tealing to provide an excursion on the Soviet plane, and also to have a look at the new military technology being developed by the RAF in East Fortune. But only one member of the crew could fly. Pusep and Asyamov, as Pusep recalled, decided who would go on the excursion by drawing straws. Fatefully, it was Asyamov who drew the long straw. Co-pilot Pusep was to stay in London and attend the 1st May celebrations being held by the Soviet Embassy together with the Military Mission in London.

After having inspected the British aircraft at East Fortune, the DH95 Flamingo (number R2764, No. 24 Air squadron based at Hendon), and its 6 passengers, including Asyamov, gathered for the return journey to London. There were no portents of the coming tragedy. The weather forecast was for sunny and practically still weather. Following inspection and readying of the aircraft for flight, the Captain took off for London at 4.25pm. It should be noted that the captain of the British plane was one of the most experienced pilots the RAF had. At the time of the accident Pilot Officer I. Ramsay had clocked up 3755 air hours piloting different types of planes. During his career he had piloted aircraft carrying famous passengers such as Prince Bernhard, Lord Sherwood, Sir Archibald Sinclair, and Lord Louis Mountbatten. The 24th Air Squadron was reserved for undertaking internal flights and as a rule carried VIPs including members of the royal family and members of the Cabinet.

Above Yorkshire, the right engine exploded. According to the report drawn up by the commission that investigated the accident, the passengers did not manage to use any of the life-saving equipment: all the parachutes were untouched. There was no chance of survival. The aircraft fell from a height of 600 metres (2000 ft) not far from the village of Great Ouseburn, between the towns of Easingwold and Knaresborough in North Yorkshire. The blast from the stricken craft was so powerful that parts were scattered for up to 3 miles around the crash site. The joint Soviet / UK commission under Chief Inspector Vernon Drown found the following: “The cause of the accident was an internal defect in the engine, its destruction and the subsequent ignition of fuel vapour, which led to the disintegration of the wing”. According to another version: “a snapped connecting rod broke the crank case. Parts of the connecting rod and the crank case pierced the fuel tank. Inside the wing, the fuel vapour mixed with air and ignited, which blew the wing to bits.”

The four crew members of the Flamingo and all the passengers died as a result of the accident. In total, the tragedy took the lives of 10 men. They included: Major Sergei Asyamov, members of the Soviet Military Mission to the UK: Assistant to the Head of the Military Mission on Aviation issues Colonel Grigory Pugachev, Assistant Military Attache Major Boris Shvetsov, Secretary to the Military Mission Peter Baranov, Officer Francis Wilton, Officer Kenneth Edwards, Pilot Officer Iain Ramsay, Sergeant James Smith, Sergeant Alan Stripp and Engineer James Lewis.

Because of the highly secret nature of the operation, the British press did not report these tragic events at the time. No information on the crew and members of the Soviet mission could be found in the British archives or the archives of the Imperial War Museum. It is likely that these documents are still sealed away as “Secret”. There was nothing in the media about these events. And, for example, the New Zealand Evening Post only mentioned Pusep’s flight in autumn 1942.

According to Golovanov, after the death of Major Asyamov and the mission members, Stalin said: “Well, with allies like these…!” The phrase reflects a belief perhaps in a different cause of the accident. Stalin, perhaps understandably, suspected that German forces or pro-German circles in Britain had attempted to end, or at least disrupt, the negotiations , and thus delay the opening of the second front. But the most likely cause of the accident is a banal technical failing in the aircraft. It is worth noting, however, that the British were very proud of their aircraft and believed in it 100%. That kind of technical failure had never happened before the accident, and never happened after it either. Planes of this type were used from 1939 until 1950 and according to the statistics, were one of the most reliable in service. Members of the Commission noted that no evidence of diversion or sabotage had been found in this accident.

One of the best pilots of the Soviet Union had died. The future Hero of the Soviet Union was born on 1st November 1907 in Krasnoyarsk, to a working class family. He served in the Red Army from 1929 to 1933. At the end of 1931, the young officer Asyamov left the Eisk Military School having studied the specialist of pilot – instructor, and he stayed in the same school as an instructor. In 1933 he began service in the Civil Air Fleet and in 1935 Asyamov further expanded his experience at the Lens Aviation Group of the North Sea Route (?), where he proved himself a real professional when flying in polar conditions. At the start of WWII, Asyamov was transferred from the Civil Aviation Fleet to the Long-Distance Air Fleet, where the most experienced pilots of the time were gathered. In July 1941, the pilot was named as the captain of a craft in the 746 th long-distance aviation fleet. On 10th August 1941, Asyamov took part in a famous raid on Berlin – the first in the history of WWII that attacked so far within the enemy’s territory. By January 1942 Major Asyamov had completed 48 operations. His craft had dropped hundred of tons of bombs and millions of leaflets on the enemy. The pilot was awarded the Order of Lenin and the Order of the Red Flag for his service.

Asyamov was posthumously awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union by Edict of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet on 20th June 1942, in recognition of his achievements, bravery and heroism. “During the bombing of the railway network around Minsk, there was low cloud around the target area. Despite the fact that the aircraft was carrying large-gauge bombs, Asyamov took the decision to undertake the bombing from below the cloud level. Going down to a height of 400-600 metres, the aeroplane came under heavy fire from anti-aircraft guns. Slivers of shells entered one of the engines causing a fire. Showing exceptional clarity of thought, and sticking exactly to the planned route, Asyamov carried out the task perfectly. All the bombs were released on target causing huge explosions and fire. The fire that had started in the engine was quickly dealt with and Asyamov brought the craft back home to the airport on three engines.” At a special gathering of the 45th air division, a petition to accord Major Asyamov eternal membership of the 746th Air Group was accepted. He had been posthumously awarded the Gold Star of Hero. A road in the village of Zirank in the Verkhnekolimsky region of Yakutia was named after the hero. In Khatang, (Krasnoyarsk Region) there is on permanent display a small steam-powered ice-breaker named “The Pilot Asyamov”.

It is a shame that not one of the available sources tells us where this Hero of the Soviet Union and his comrades from the Military mission are buried. And if, in the documents about the other officers it appears that their place of burial is Moscow, nothing is said about the burial of Asyamov. We can say for certain that the bodies of the Soviet citizens did not stay on British soil. According to military expert K Strelbitskov, the bodies could have been cremated and then transported back to Moscow. The most likely place of their burial is the Donskoi cemetery – the largest place in the capital for the burial of cremation urns.

On 6th June 1944, the Allied “Operation Overlord” began with the Normandy landings. The second European front was open. It wasn’t just the governments of the Allied states that brought about this final phase of the war: simple Soviet pilots, risking their own lives for the general victory, played an important role in this work.

The above information is based on a post by Group9May