Born on August 24th 1914, Peter Pokryshev was raised in a peasant family in the village of Golaya Pristan, in the Kherson region of modern day Ukraine. Initially it appeared that Pokryshev was destined for a life in industry, after working at a plant in Kharkov. However, the young Pokryshev took up gliding at the age of 14 and discovered a love for flying. Two years later he had graduated onto powered aircraft and at the age of 17 he began taking military sponsored classes at Kharkov Flying Club.
As a member of the Komsomol youth organization, Pokryshev’s passion for aviation was nurtured and supported. Enlisting within the ranks of the Soviet Army Air Forces, Pokryshev began formalized military flying traning at Odessa Aviation School in March 1934. He graduated in 1935 and was posted to his first squadron in the Leningrad area.
By the time hostilities had broken out between the Soviet Union and Finland in November 1939, Pokryshev had risen to the rank of Lieutenant. He flew 105 sorties during the Winter War and shot down his first enemy aircraft – a Fokker D.XXI – on December 18th whilst defending a formation of Soviet bombers in the vicinity of Vyborg. Pokryshev was hit by ground fire during the engagement but managed to carry out a successful forced landing. Five days later Pokryshev was credited with a second aerial victory.
The Moscow Peace Treaty of March 1940 brought a break in the hostilities, but Pokryshev would soon find himself facing a new enemy. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 saw Senior Lieutenant Pokryushev of the 158th Fighter Aviation Regiment (IAP) back in combat. The surprise achieved by German forces was overwhelming, and entire regiments of the Soviet Army Air Forces were caught on the ground and destroyed. Consequently, those who did survive the first few rounds found themselves in the air day after day, and often outnumbered. The 158th IAP were part of the 39th Fighter Aviation Division and were involved in some of the heaviest fighting in the Leningrad area.
On June 25th Pokryshev, piloting a Yak-1, encountered a Junkers 88 bomber. A chase ensued during which Pokryshev was able to climb above his opponent and execute a diving attack which brought the German bomber down. On June 29th he shot down a further two German aircraft, and another pair on July 3rd. Still often outnumbered and facing tough opposition in the form of modern German aircraft, the fighters of the 39th IAD were often pitted against the Bf109s of JG 54. In August 1941, Soviet pilots claimed 213 German aircraft destroyed in the area, half of which were attributed to the 39th IAD. Of these, Pokryshev accounted for 4.
Pokryshev was given command of a squadron within the 154th IAP, under the command of Major Matveyev. The 154th IAP were one of the first Soviet squadrons to be equipped with lend-lease P-40 Tomahawks supplied by the United States. The P-40 met with mixed reviews at the hands of Soviet pilots: the American fighter’s range was a significant improvement over the likes of the Yak-1 and MiG-3, and visibility was also commented on favourably. However, the P-40’s rate of climb was considered lacking and a high number of engine failures also caused a lack of confidence in the aircraft from some pilots. Nevertheless, Pokryshev and his comrades were able to demonstrate the strengths of the aircraft to achieve some notable successes.
On December 17th 1941 – nearly two years to the day after his first aerial victory – Pokryshev shot down a Bf109F piloted by Hauptmann Julius von Sella of JG 54, himself a 15 kill ace, who survived the encounter to become a Prisoner of War. In 1942 the regiment was reequipped with the newer P-40E Kittyhawk variant, which saw an increase in its offensive capability with six .50 calibre machine guns. It was with the new P-40E fighters that the 154th IAP took part on the massed air battles over the strategically vital Kronstadt harbour during April 1942.
Alongside fellow fighter ace Andrey Chirkov, Pokryshev was credited with examining and adapting Soviet fighter tactics in the region. The two looked closely at the advantages of the traditional ‘vic’ of three aircraft and the Luftwaffe system of basing squadron tactics around the ‘rotte’, or simple pairing of an element leader and wingman. As well as pioneering changes in Soviet airborne tactics, Pokryshev also pushed for improved communications in the air to play a more prominent role in how Soviet aircrew worked together in combat.
By July 1942 Captain Pokryshev was credited with 11 aerial victories and a further 7 shared. In November 1942 the regiment was given the elite ‘Guards’ prefix to become the 29th Guards Fighter Aviation Regiment (GvIAP). In February 1943 he was awarded the coveted title and medal of Hero of the Soviet Union for his leadership in the skies above Leningrad, and joined a pantheon of Soviet aerial heroes who were rapidly becoming household names across the nation.
Now promoted to Major, Pokryshev took command of the 159th IAP of the 275th IAD, equipped with the Lavochkin La-5 and still stationed at the Leningrad Front. He remained on the front lines until the end of the war and was credited with 22 aerial victories and 7 shared, achieved during 282 operational sorties of which 50 resulted in actions against enemy aircraft.
Following the cessation of hostilities, Pokryshev remained in the Soviet Army Air Forces until 1961, when he retired with the rank of Major General. During his impressive military career he was awarded the Order of Lenin, the Red Banner on three occasions and was twice declared a Hero of the Soviet Union. After leaving the military he worked in the management of Leningrad airport, and passed away in August 1967, two days before his 53rd birthday. His body was returned to his home village of Golaya Pristan for burial.
Pokryshev, like many Soviet fighter aces, was remembered perhaps more for his tactical guidance and leadership than his individual aerial accomplishments. A calm aviator with a serious mind, he later attributed his successes to knowing his aircraft, that of his enemy and the effects of the sky around them. Never a flashy or showy pilot, Pokryshev’s achievements were down to almost emotionless discipline, concentration, team work and favouring efficient flying over tricks or stunts.