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Mikhail Devyatayev: Stealing A German Plane: Escape From Concentration Camp Usedom

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Date of birth: 08 July 1917

Place of birth: Torbeevo, Russia

Date of death: 24 November 2002

Place of death: Kazan, Russia

Mikhail Petrovich Devyatayev (Russian: Михаил Петрович Девятаев; Moksha/Erzya: Михаил Петрович Девятаев; 8 July 1917 – 24 November 2002) was a Soviet fighter pilot known for his incredible escape from a Nazi concentration camp on the island of Usedom, in the Baltic Sea.

Mikhail Petrovich Devyatayev

Devyataev (Left: courtesy Klimbim Art) was an early entrant of World War II, destroying his first Ju-87 on 24 June 1941 just two days after Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Soon he was awarded the Order of the Red Banner. On 23 September he was seriously wounded (he was hit in his left leg). After a long stay in the hospital he was assigned to slow-speed aviation (using the Po-2 night bomber) and then assigned to medical aviation. He resumed his duties as a fighter pilot after his meeting with the famous Soviet ace Aleksandr Ivanovich Pokryshkin in May 1944. Commander of an echelon with the 104th Guardian Fighter Pilot Regiment (9th Guardian Fighter Pilot Division, 2nd Airforce Army, 1st Ukrainian Front), Senior Lieutenant Devjatayev destroyed 9 enemy planes.

Early life and military career

Born in 1917 at Torbeyevo, Mikhail was the thirteenth child born to the family of a Mordovian peasant. In 1938 he graduated from a School of River Navigation (Речной Техникум) and worked as the captain of a small ship on the Volga. That same year he was conscripted into the Red Army and began education at a Chkalov Flying School, graduating in 1940.

Capture and imprisonment

On 13 July 1944 Devyataev was downed near Lwów over German-held territory and became a prisoner of war, held in the Łódź concentration camp. He made an attempt to escape on 13 August but was caught and transferred to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Devyataev soon realised that his situation was perilous - as a Soviet pilot, he could expect extreme brutality; therefore, he managed to exchange identities with a dead Soviet infantryman.

With his new identity, Devyataev was later transferred to a camp in Usedom to be a part of a forced labor crew working for the German missile program on the island of Peenemünde. Under hellish conditions, the prisoners were forced to repair runways and clear unexploded bombs by hand. Security was rigidly enforced with vicious guards and dogs, and there was little chance of escape. Even so, by February 1945, Devyataev concluded that, however remote, the chance of escape was preferable to certain death as a prisoner.


Devyataev managed to convince three other prisoners (Sokolov, Krivonogov and Nemchenko) that he could fly them to freedom. They decided to run away in the dinnertime, when most of the guards were in the dining room. Sokolov and Nemchenko were able to create a work gang from Soviet citizens only.

At noon on 8 February 1945, as the ten Soviet PoWs, including Devyataev, were at work on the runway, one of the work gang, Ivan Krivonogov, picked up a crowbar and killed their guard. Another prisoner, Peter Kutergun, quickly stripped off the guard's uniform and slipped it on. The work gang, led by the 'guard', managed to unobtrusively take over the camp commandant's He 111 H22 bomber and fly from the island.

Devyataev piloted the aircraft.

The Germans tried to intercept the bomber but without success. The aircraft was damaged by Soviet air defences but managed to land in Soviet-held territory. The escapees provided important information about the German missile program, especially about the V-1 and V-2.

In the paranoia of the Stalin era, the NKVD (Secret Police, precursor to the KGB) did not believe Devyataev's story, arguing that it was impossible for the prisoners to take over an airplane without cooperation from the Germans. Therefore, Devyataev was suspected of being a German spy and sent to a penal military unit along with the other nine men. Of the escapees, five died in action over the following months. Devyataev himself spent the remainder of the war in prison.


Devyataev was discharged from the army in November 1945. However, his classification remained that of a 'criminal' and so he was unable to find a job for a long while. Eventually, though, Devyataev found work as a manual laborer in Kazan.

Soviet authorities cleared Devyataev only in 1957, after the head of the Soviet space program Sergey Korolyov personally presented his case, arguing that the information provided by Devyataev and the other escapees had been critical for the Soviet space program. On 15 August 1957, Devyataev became a Hero of the Soviet Union, and the subject of multiple books and newspaper articles. He continued to live in Kazan, working as a captain of first hydrofoil passenger ships on the Volga.

Devyataev was awarded the Order of Lenin, the Order of Red Banner twice, Order of the Patriotic War (first and second class), and many other awards. He became an honoured citizen of Mordovia Republic, the cities of Kazan, Wolgast and Zinnowitz (Germany).

He died at Kazan in 2002, aged 85, and is buried in an old Arsk Field cemetery in Kazan near a World War II Memorial.

There is a museum of Devyataev in his native Torbeyevo (opened on 8 May 1975) and a monument in Usedom and Kazan.

Brief Family Details

Born on July 8, 1917 in Mordovia, in the working village Torbeevo. He was the thirteenth child in the family. His father, Peter T. Devyatayev was a hard-working labourer working for his landlord. His mother Akulina D. was mainly occupied taking care of the children. By the beginning of the war six brothers and one sister were killed participating in the battles for the Motherland. The four brothers were killed at the front, the other ahead of time passed away due to wartime injuries and adversity.

After marriage, his wife, Faina Hayrullovna, raised their children, and then retired. They had 2 sons: Alexis (born 1946), who became an anesthetist at an Eye Clinic, gaining a PhD; and Alexander (born 1951.), who is a member of the Kazan Medical Institute, and gained an MD. His daughter Nelya M. (born 1957) graduated from the Kazan Conservatory, and is now a music teacher at a drama school.


At school, Michael studied successfully, but failed to show outstanding ability. But one day, it was as if he had been transformed. It happened after a plane landed in Torbeevo. The pilot, who appeared to Michael like a magician, came in on a swift-winged bird of steel - reducing Michael to silence. After some encouragement, he plucked up the courage to ask the pilot:

'And how do I become a pilot?' The pilot answered:

' It is necessary to study well and practice sport, and above all be brave, be brave.'

Since that day, Michael decisively changed: giving everything to studies and sports. After the 7th grade, he traveled to Kazan, intending to enroll in aviation school. There was a misunderstanding with the documents, and he was forced to go to River College. But the dream of the sky was not extinguished. In fact, it captured him more and more. There was only one thing to do - to join the Kazan flying club.

Michael did just that. It was difficult. Often he sat late at night in his airplane and flying club classes, and in the morning, he had to hurry to school. Eventually the day came when Michael took off for the first time, but with an instructor. Excited, beaming with happiness, he said to his friends: 'I have found Heaven - this is the life for me!'

This high dream led him to graduate from River College, and after he had mastered the Volga expanses, he went onto the Orenburg Aviation School. Studying there was the happiest time of his life. He was gathering the crumbs of knowledge about aviation, with a lot of reading, and much diligent practice. Happy as never before, taking off into the sky, which until recently had only been a dream.

In the summer 1939 he became a military pilot. And most special - he was in fighters. At first, he served in Torzhok, then he was transferred to Mogilev. There again luck came his way because he was in the same squadron as famous fighter pilot Zakhar Vasilievich Plotnikov, who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and Khalkhin-. From this Devyatayev gained great combat experience.

When the war broke out he flew on the very first day. Although at first he could not knock down the German Junkers, he said that by maneuvering, he brought the enemy under the guns of his commander Zahar Vasilyevich Plotnikov, who did not miss, and slew the enemy.

Soon he was lucky himself. Once through a break in the clouds his eyes hit a Ju-87 Stuka and Devyatayev, without missing a second, ran straight at the German and a moment later saw him in his crosshairs. Immediately he fired his two machine guns and the Stuka "broke and fell to the ground. He had other good luck too.

Soon, by distinguishing themselves in battle Devyatayev and his comrades were summoned to Moscow from Mogilev to be awarded the Order of the Red Banner.

The war situation became more acute as the Germans advanced and Devyataeva and his comrades were called on to defend the approaches to the capital. In brand-new Yaks, they intercepted the Germans, hurrying to drop their deadly cargo on Moscow. Once near Tula, Devyatayev along with his partner James Schneier came to grips with the Nazi bombers. They managed to shoot down one Junkers. But Devyataeva's plane had been damaged hurt. Still, yet pilot managed to land. Wounded, he was taken to hospital. Despite not being fully recovered, he discharged himself and ran back to his regiment, now already west of Voronezh.

On September 21, 1941 Devyataeva was instructed to deliver an important package to the headquarters of troops surrounded by Germans on the Southwestern Front. He carried out this mission, but on the way back entered into an unequal battle with Messerschmitts. He shot one down but was himself wounded and so found himself back in the hospital.

The medical authorities made the decision that he could no longer fly fighters and so had to move to slow-moving aircraft firstly in a regiment of night bombers, and then in the air ambulance.

However he never gave up the dream of being in fighters and after meeting with Alexander Pokryshkin he could once again become a fighter pilot. It happened in May 1944 when Devyatayev found 'Pokryshkina economy'. New colleagues greeted him warmly. Among them was Vladimir Bobrov.

Devyatayev is mentioned (at about the 26 minute mark) along with other squadron members in a brilliant Russian film made about the incredible fighter leader Pokryshkin. This is one of the most insightful films about what it takes to be a fighter pilot. (Unfortunately the English subtitles are missing)

Devyatayev was frustrated at not taking his plane into the air because repeatedly, along with other pilots, the AIeksander Pokryshkina squadron was coming to grips with the 'Fascist vultures'.

The following comes from a secondary source and whilst it repeats some of the above information, it is quoted in full to preserve its authentic tone.

But then came the fateful July 13, 1944. In a dogfight over Lviv, he was wounded and his plane burst into flames. At the command of his master, Vladimir Bobrov, Devyatayev jumped out of the plane in flames ... and found himself in captivity. His interrogation was long and brutal. Then he was transferred to the Abwehr Intelligence Service. From there - a Prisoner of War camp in Lodz. And there again - hunger, torture and humiliation. Following this - Sachsenhausen concentration camp. And finally - the mysterious island Uzedon, which houses and services heavy-duty weapons, and to which, according to its creators, no one survives. A prisoner sent to Uzedon is in practical terms sentenced to death.

All this time in captivity his thoughts had been on escaping - run, run, come what may but only on the island Uzedon did he realize it might become a reality. Nearby, at the airport Peenemunde there were planes. And Mikhail Devyatayev, a fearless man of courage, was able to carry out his daring plan to escape.

Despite the incredible difficulties on February 8, 1945 he stole a Heinkel and with 10 other Russian prisoners he landed on Russian soil. Devyatayev delivered to the Russians strategically important information about the secrets of Uzedon, which is where the Nazis manufactured and tested missiles Nazi.

However, in the paranoia of Stalinist Russia, the mark of Prisoner of War was to affect him for a long time. He was neither trusted nor given work ...and suffered from depression that fostered despair. It was only after the intervention of the famous chief designer of spacecraft Sergei Korolev, that his case moved forward.

Eventually, on August 15, 1957 Devyataeva's feat and those of his comrades got their just rewards. Mikhail Petrovich was awarded the title Hero of the Soviet Union, and the other participants were also awarded medals.

Mikhail Petrovich finally returned to Kazan and at the river port he returned to his first profession - riverman. He was entrusted with the testing of the first speedboat 'The Rocket' and became its first captain. For several years he drove the Volga-speed vessel 'Meteora.'

And now the war veteran enjoyed a peace he could only previously dream of. He became actively involved in the veterans' movement, he created the Foundation Devyataeva and gave assistance to those in special need. He never forget about the veterans and youth, and often met with students and soldiers of the garrison.

(Left: The hero. Next to Golden Star - the Order of Lenin, two Orders of the Red Banner, Order of the Patriotic War I and II degree, many medals. Mikhail Devyatayev - Honorary Citizen of the Republic of Mordovia, the city of Kazan, and Tsinovichi Wolgast (Germany).

As in his younger years, he remained fond of literature about aviation, especially concerning the exploits of his Russian comrade pilots.

Sources: Побег из ада/Pobeg iz ada ('Escape From Hell'), Kazan, 1988, Wikipedia, personal Russian source (translated by Aircrew Remembered researcher)
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SY 21 Nov 2015 *

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