Project 337

Soviet Union (1941)
Biological Weapon – 1 Built

With recent study trips to Russia, the Plane Encyclopedia team has been working closely with the Russian Archives to record and scan aircraft performance data and various other aviation related documents. While doing this, the team has accidentally rediscovered a series of then-classified documents regarding a secret biological weapon designed in 1941 intended to be used on Berlin in an attempt to stop or at least delay the German advance on Moscow. Classified “Project 337” by the Soviets, the weapon would have been able to bring havoc on any city it was deployed on. Come read the story of the newly discovered Project 337!

History

In the early stage of Operation Barbarossa during the shift of fall to winter, the Soviet high command became increasingly worried and desperate for a way to halt or at least delay the seemingly unstoppable German advance. On September 29th of 1941, a top secret meeting was held at the Kremlin to discuss the current losses of the Soviet Union, and how to replace the lost equipment. With mostly desperate ideas such as using outdated equipment such as 19th century rifles and cannons taken from stockpiles. Finally, a serious and feasible idea was brought up, which was to bomb Berlin with biological weapons, causing the city to plunge into chaos, and to warrant the retreat of the Germans. With Stalin liking the idea, he immediately agreed and ordered the project to be finished no later than November 29th.

Unfortunately, the dimensions, location, team and materials used to develop Project 337 is unknown as the documents that specifies these are still classified and withheld by the Russian government. What is known however, is that the disease which would be used in Project 337 was tularemia.

This rather unclear photo shows what appears to be the finished Project 337 prototype, resembling a huge metallic peanut with the black canopy.

With extensive research in the Russian archives, two photos of Project 337 were able to be obtained. The first photo shows the roof of the weapon, which consisted of a bowl shaped canopy with more than a dozen holes. This would have been how the tularemia bacteria would be released. The second photo shows what seems to be the finished Project 337 prototype, which looked like a huge metallic peanut with the black canopy.

The upper section of the weapon, which consisted of a bowl shaped canopy with more than a dozen openings. This would have been how the tularemia bacteria would have been released.

On December 1st of 1941, Project 337 was completed and was now ready to be tested on Berlin. To carry such a weapon, the Soviet Air Force began looking for a capable heavy bomber which would be able to fly at tall heights. Although scarce, the bomber chosen was the Petlyakov Pe-8 bomber. A single Pe-8 was transferred from the Far East Regiments and modified to carry Project 337. As for personnel, experienced pilots Lieutenant Igor N. Timoshenko, Junior Lieutenant Dima I. Pokryshkin and Lieutenant Mikhail Gorkin were chosen to complete the task of dropping the prototype biological weapon on Berlin. These pilots were not told of the contents they were carrying, and was only instructed to fly to Berlin, drop the payload and return to base as the Soviets still wished to maintain the secrecy of the project.

On December 5th, Lieutenant Igor N. Timoshenko, Junior Lieutenant Dima I. Pokryshkin and Lieutenant Mikhail G. Gorkin took off in the Pe-8 carrying Project 337 at 8:31 PM from an undisclosed secret airfield. With the intent of maintaining stealth, the Pe-8 crew would have maintained radio silence in order to not get detected. Approximately 1 hour and 14 minutes into the flight, the Soviet ground crew were surprised to receive an emergency radio call from the aircrew. According to the recently declassified Soviet documents, the ground crew reported that Lieutenant Gorkin shout in the radio in panic that the Pe-8’s inner starboard engine caught fire, and that the plane was rapidly losing altitude. Lieutenant Gorkin decided the best thing to do was to perform an emergency landing, and he made this decision known to the ground crew. Unfortunately, the documents stated that contact was lost with the crew during the botched emergency landing. One of the documents dated April 1st of 1944 stated that efforts to locate the Pe-8 has failed, and that the plane likely crashed into a body of water. Due to the loss of the sole bomb, tests were unable to be completed and the project was set back. This led to the eventual abandonment of the project as the Soviets couldn’t afford to spend more time development such a weapon.

The final document which referenced Project 337 dated April 20th of 1948 mentioned that the incident which caused the destruction of the Pe-8 was improper maintenance. It is said that the mechanics responsible for the maintenance were executed, while the radio crew were sent to the gulag. Timoshenko, Pokryshkin and Gorkin’s families were all sent a letter stating that they died in combat as heroes. In conclusion, Project 337 can be considered a failure. With the current evidence that the Plane Encyclopedia team has, it is reasonable to assume that the Pe-8 carrying Project 337 is perhaps still out there buried beneath layers of mud, sand, or water, never to be seen by mankind again.

Sources

Rep. No. Поддельный источник, используемый для апрельских дураков (04.01.1944) (1944).

Rep. No. Полностью реальный источник, а не подделка (04.20.1948) (1948).

Doc. No. Я люблю Энциклопедию (01.14.1943).

 

About Leo Guo

Leo Guo is an avid aviation enthusiast based in West Vancouver, Canada. Specializing in the history of Chinese aviation, Leo has written numerous articles on indigenous Chinese designs and foreign planes in Chinese service on Plane Encyclopedia, of which he holds the position of team manager, head writer and co-owner.

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