Saturday, December 31, 2016

Imperial Russian Air Service

Morane-Saulnier Type I, Imperial Russian Air Service. The most combat seen by the Type I was in the hands of the 2nd, 7th, and 19th Fighter Detachments of the Imperial Russian Air Service. The Russian fighter pilot Ivan Smirnoff of the 19th Fighter Detachment was probably the only one who attained five or more victories flying either the Type N, Type I, or Type V Morane 'Bullet' monoplanes.

The Imperial Russian Air Service had its origin in the observation balloon units that were formed in 1885 and expanded after the Russo-Japanese War. In 1909, the czar’s cousin, Grand Prince Mikhail Aleksandrovich Romanov, recognized the military implications of Louis BlĂ©riot’s historic flight across the English Channel and began to promote aviation in Russia. As a result of his sponsorship, in 1910 both the army and the navy established flying services, with Grand Prince Mikhail himself commanding the Army Air Service. He bought aircraft abroad and promoted the founding of domestic aviation firms such as Dux, Grigorevich, RBVZ, Anatra, Lebedev, and Sikorsky.

During the next few years, flying became fashionable among the younger nobility and included a number of women pilots. One of these early female pilots, Princess Evgeniya Shakhovskaya, joined the air service in 1914 and became the world’s first female combat pilot.

In contrast to its general image as backward and unprepared, Russia in August 1914 had the largest air force in the world, with some 250–300 aircraft and 11 airships. Germany, by contrast, had 230–246 aircraft and Austria only 35; France and Britain had 160 and 110 aircraft, respectively. Although historians have pointed out that most of Russia’s aircraft were old and almost unflyable, the designs of other countries in 1914 were not much better.

Russia’s real problem lay in its industrial infrastructure, which was totally inadequate to keep pace with the design and production of military aircraft, which evolved rapidly during World War I. Instead, Russia was soon reduced to purchasing outdated castoffs from Britain and France and trying to produce licensed copies, generally in inadequate numbers. There were two significant exceptions to this grim scene. The Grigorevich firm produced a series of small and medium flying boats that proved superior to the Germans’ in combat over the eastern Baltic and Black Seas, and the Sikorsky factory designed and produced the world’s first four-motor heavy bomber, the Ilya Muromets. During the war 93 Ilya Murometses were produced and flew 400 sorties, dropping 65 tons of bombs and proving almost indestructible to German fighters.

There were also difficulties finding adequate numbers of recruits capable of being trained as pilots and observers, as illiterate peasants still constituted more than 90 percent of the population. Still, the Imperial Russian Air Service was able to grow from about 40 detachments in 1914 to 135 detachments by the time Russia left the war.

During the war, 26 Russian pilots became aces, scoring a total of 188 air victories. Among them was leading ace Aleksandr Kozakov, but possibly the most significant was Captain Aleksandr Nikolaevich Prokofiev de Severskii, who scored six air victories as a naval pilot flying over the Baltic in 1916 after his leg had been amputated in 1915. After the Russian Revolution he emigrated to the United States, achieving fame as Alexander de Seversky. While the achievements of Russia’s air aces seem paltry next to those of Germany, France, and Britain, we should remember that even over the Western Front aerial combat was a rarity until late 1915. Suitable fighting machines began to appear only in 1916, and almost all the leading Western aces scored the great majority of their victories in 1917 and 1918, by which time the Russians had already left the war. Further, the vast spaces of the Eastern Front and the fewer numbers of German and Austrian aircraft committed meant that contact between enemy aircraft occurred less often.

After the abdication of Nicholas II in February 1917, the army, and the air service in particular, continued fighting, and the air service even continued fighting briefly after the Bolshevik coup in November. However, as the army collapsed and ground crews went over to the communists, operations became impossible. Some of the noble pilots were lynched by revolutionary ground crews, and others either went over themselves or fled to areas controlled by the anticommunist Whites. The Imperial Russian Air Service became ashes, out of which emerged the Air Fleet of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army.
Durkota, Alan, Thomas Darcey, and Viktor Kulikov, The Imperial Russian Air Service: Famous Pilots and Aircraft of World War I. Mountain View, CA: Flying Machines Press, 1995, pp. 58–71.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Russian Military Air Fleet I

In 1885 a military balloon school was opened near St Petersburg. The value of military balloonists was demonstrated during the Russo-Japanese War by the accurate observation of Japanese troop movements at distances up to 8km (5 miles). In 1906 it was decided to increase the number of balloon units from one to ten battalions within a time frame dictated by the military budget. During the next year three battalions and a training unit were established as were eight companies dedicated exclusively to observation from fortresses. Large airships with engines capable of speeds exceeding 40km (25 mph) and the capacity to carry bombs and undertake long-range reconnaissance were seen as the future of aerial warfare.

In July 1909 an order was placed with the Army Airship Works in St Petersburg for a semi-rigid airship. During October 1910 the airship was accepted into service. Over the next three years several powered airships were imported from France and Germany and a smaller number built domestically. By 1914 the Air Fleet possessed fifteen airships, only four of which were to see limited service. However, experience during the early war period had clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of such large targets that were difficult to manoeuvre and hugely expensive in material and human resources. Although the airships had carried out a few missions the results were negligible. On the other hand tethered balloons had demonstrated their worth as artillery observation platforms, they did not require the resources of the large ships and were easier to replace and maintain.

By the autumn of 1914 airships were being phased out of service and their equipment and their men reassigned to observation balloon units. The tiny Russian aircraft industry now devoted its limited capacity to the production of aeroplanes.

During the first decade of the twentieth century heavier than air machines were still in their infancy. When in 1909 Louis Bleriot flew the English Channel, the military began to take them seriously. If nothing else an aeroplane was capable of carrying out reconnaissance missions over a broader landscape than a tethered balloon with its limited horizon.

The driving force behind the use of aeroplanes was the Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovitch, a cousin of the Tsar. In January 1910 the Section of the Air Fleet was formed. By 1914 this department would be known as the Russian Military Air Fleet headed by the Grand Duke Alexander. A Bleriot monoplane was bought from France and six officers went there to learn about aviation. During 1911 the St Petersburg balloon facility was expanded to include aeroplane pilot training. To enable all-year-round training another base was opened in the sunnier climes of the Crimea near Sebastopol. A plan to create ten air detachments by the end of 1912 failed as pilot recruitment and training was slow. Therefore it was agreed that non-commissioned officers and other ranks could be trained as pilots. The majority of the first volunteers were from the artillery as observation for the guns and reconnaissance were the prime remit for the Air Fleet.

Pilot training was rudimentary and involved courses in flight theory, mechanics and practical flight training. During the latter the student would sit behind the instructor and simply watch what he did. Having accompanied an instructor for three or four hours the student would then fly solo for thirty minutes and, having performed several figures of eight, attempt to land. If the student passed the theory and survived the practical he graduated as a pilot.

Lieutenant P. N. Nesterov performed the world’s first full loop of an aircraft on 8 September 1913 in a Nieuport IV. Although placed under arrest for endangering, “…a machine, the property of his government,” Nesterov was soon promoted to Staff-Captain.

Domestic production and imports
The machines available to the Air Fleet were, almost without exception, imported from France or made in Russia under licence. Various types made by Henri Farman, Morane Saulnier, Nieuport, Bleriot and Deperdussin were issued to flying units with little or no thought given to the problems of having such a miscellany in one formation.

There were four major Russian aircraft manufacturers: Dux in Moscow, Antara in Odessa and Lebedev and the Russo-Baltic Railway Wagon Company (RBVZ) in Petrograd. Before the war approximately 600 aircraft had been built in Russia, some of these were one-off, experimental machines, but the majority were licensed copies or the machines noted above. During the war over 5,500 aircraft were produced under licence of which 1,100 were seaplanes for the navy that operated a separate air fleet. The numbers are low in comparison with Allied and German production figures but the Russian aero-industry was hamstrung by its limited ability to manufacture engines. Virtually all the engines were imported from France for final assembly in Russian factories.

Repair, maintenance and the provision of spares were, within a short space of time, to assume nightmarish proportions. Although flying the aircraft was relatively simple the mechanical work was not. A pilot required little time to convert between aircraft types but the ground staff needed to know as many as five or six different engines and airframes. During autumn and winter aircraft had to be fitted with skis which, given the often unmade nature of airfields, made take-off and landing risky in the extreme.

By the summer of 1914 the Air Fleet’s inventory numbered some 250 aircraft and a little over 200 pilots. Of these aircraft, 145 were frontline types and of the pilots thirty-six were NCOs. Germany and Austria had roughly 300 aircraft divided between the Eastern, Western and Serbian fronts. On paper the Air Fleet was a formidable protagonist and certainly capable of waging the short war that was generally anticipated.

The organisation was based on six aviation companies that acted as depots for twenty-eight Air Detachments attached to individual army corps with nine in the major fortresses. The HQ of the Air Fleet was eventually established in Kiev. The Grand Duke Alexander commanded the units supporting SW Front, General A. V. Kaul’bars those on NW Front. There was no attempt to standardise the six machines within a detachment. Initially the task of the Air Fleet was observation and reconnaissance.

It rapidly became obvious that it was necessary to intercept enemy machines similarly employed. Although various engineers had experimented with interrupter gear nothing satisfactory had been developed and the problem of firing through the propeller remained. Therefore it was only possible to arm the observer behind or in front of the pilot. At first only carbines or pistols were carried but the chances of hitting the enemy pilot were negligible. So other, equally lethal, methods were experimented with such as swinging hooks on ropes or throwing hand grenades and darts. But it was Staff Captain P N Nesterov’s ramming of an Austrian aircraft that was to gain him a second entry in the history books. Austrian fliers had attacked the airfield of Nesterov’s 11th Aviation Detachment on 8 September 1914, so it was necessary to regain the unit’s honour. Nesterov took off in his Morane-Saulnier G and rapidly gained altitude. Flying above the Austrian, Nesterov put his aircraft into a dive, his propeller slashed into his enemy’s wing and both aircraft plunged into the ground. Both Nesterov and the Austrians were killed. This dramatic act of self-sacrifice caught the mood of the time and the imagination of the public and service alike. As the citation of his Order of St George 4th Class read, “Nesterov died the death of a hero in that battle.”

Although notable for its lack of aerial combat, 1914 was remarkable for the attrition rate caused by the inexperience of the pilots and incidents of damage by friendly fire. Russian troops, unaccustomed to innovation being anything other than foreign, automatically assumed all aircraft to be hostile and consequently opened up with everything they had despite orders to the contrary.

By the end of 1914 the Air Fleet had lost 146 planes and the units on SW Front had been reduced to eight serviceable aircraft, resulting in the majority of frontline units being withdrawn for repair and re-equipping. Nonetheless the Air Fleet had performed its task well. General A. A. Brusilov, not initially an aviation enthusiast, commented on the effect of aerial reconnaissance at the battle of Gorodek in September 1914 thus. “This report [produced by aerial reconnaissance] could not have been made except by aeroplane…it gave me time to bring all my reserves to the assistance of the VII and VIII Corps.”
During the course of the winter 1914–15 the fragility of the machines and the severity of the weather precluded much flying by either side. Indeed the lack of good, weatherproof shelter for the aircraft caused many problems particularly damage to the fabric covering of the wings.

The Russian retreat from Poland led to a restructuring of the Air Fleet bringing the number of detachments up to Fifty-eight. The fortress units became Corps Detachments. When Novo-Georgievsk fortress surrendered during August 1915 pilots of its aviation detachment broke the news to Stavka. The pilots flew out the garrison’s standards and were redesignated the XXXIII Corps Detachment. The speed of the retreat resulted in the loss of aircraft on the ground as unserviceable planes were often abandoned.

By the autumn of 1915 the Air Fleet had re-established itself along the length of the front. In the rear four or five training schools were now producing pilots who were able to draw on the combat experience of men such as Military Pilot Y. N. Kruten. Kruten wrote six pamphlets with titles such as “Air Combat” and “Manual of a Fighter Pilot” and defined the classic sequence of aerial warfare as altitude, speed, manoeuvre and attack.

The Russian Military Air Fleet II

Captured aircraft
As many of the early planes were unarmed and mechanically unreliable pilots were sometimes driven down inside hostile territory. If the crew were unable to destroy the plane it would be captured. The Russians made extensive use of captured Albatros and Aviatik two-seaters. Another bonus of capturing enemy planes was the opportunity to copy their technology. One such instance was the Lebedev 12 that incorporated features from the L.V.G C. II and the Albatros BI. Engines were taken from enemy aircraft and installed in Russian machines, as were any other useful parts. At the end of 1917 about seventeen captured aircraft were in Russian service, the number captured throughout the war is estimated at between 120 and 150, many of which were cannibalised for parts.

Imported aircraft
Between 1914 and 1917 the Allies supplied Russia with 1800 aircraft but many of these were left to rot on the quaysides of Murmansk and Archangel due to limited transport and storage facilities. The quality of these (mainly French) aircraft was variable. Naturally the French government was not going to provide the Russians with the most up to date models, and so it was that the Air Fleet received a number of obsolete or unpopular machines. A prime example of the latter was the Spad A.2, a remarkably hideous design. Heartily disliked by its French crews approximately fifty A.2s were shipped to Russia in 1917 where they rapidly gained a reputation as death traps. Later that year the French supplied the Spad VII, one of their best fighters of the period.

From late 1916 Britain supplied 251 aircraft amongst which were the B.E.2e, Vickers F.B.19 and Sopwith 11/2 Strutters, a combination of reconnaissance, fighters and bombers respectively.

The E.V.K.
The Russian Military Air Fleet in 1914 was the only air force to possess the four-engined long-range aircraft, the Il’ya Muromets (IM) named after a legendary Russian folk hero. The first IM had flown in early 1913. It was an immense machine with a wingspan of 27m (88 feet) and a fuselage length of 19m (65 feet). During the next year redesign and modifications were undertaken and the War Ministry placed an order for ten IMs to undertake long-range reconnaissance and bombing missions, followed by a second for thirty-two machines of an improved type. The IM had an enclosed cabin with windows and a glass floor section that provided excellent vision for the pilot, cameraman and bomb aimer, at a height of 2,000m (6,562 feet). Ideally it was suited for the bomber role. By August 1914 only two IMs had been completed, IM I and IM II. IM I was sent by rail to Brest-Litovsk whilst IM II flew to the same destination. Unfortunately IM II was damaged by friendly fire, forced to land and complete the journey by train.

Between October 1914 and January 1915 IM I carried out several reconnaissance missions but these were not entirely satisfactory. Consequently Stavka cancelled the second order. M. V. Shidlovsky, chairman of RBVZ, travelled to Stavka, pleaded his case and the order was reinstated. In January 1915 the Command of the Squadron of Flying Ships, better known by its Russian acronym of UEVK, was established at Jablonna north of Warsaw. The first commander of the UEVK, with the rank of Major General, was Shidlovsky himself.

The first bombing mission against German positions on 15 February 1915 went well. The next five months were very successful for the UEVK. Better cameras were installed, as were rudimentary bombsights. On later models 1,000 kg (2,200 lbs) of bombs could be carried. The defence of an IM rested with three to four machine gunners, although on a bombing mission the norm was three. The machine guns carried were Madsen, Maxim, Lewis and Colt. Often a mixture of guns was carried on each plane, and as the reliability of each one varied considerably this probably enabled the gunners to choose the most suitable weapon for them. The final IM series, the E, featured a retractable belly gun bay and a tail gunner. One early IM had been armed with a 37mm Hotchkiss gun for shooting down Zeppelins but it was never used.

In May 1915 the UEVK became the EVK. Interestingly, it was a tail-gunner with the EVK named Marcel Pliat from the French colony of Tahiti who was to become the first black aviator to shoot down an aircraft in combat.

As more IMs, improved with experience gained in combat, rolled off the production line a detachment of two IMs was established to operate on the SW Front to be based at Wlodowa. The retreat from Poland had forced the relocation of NW Front’s IM base from Jablonna to Pskov with another at Minsk. Such was the success of IM production from mid-1915 to early 1916 that a Third Combat Detachment was formed at Minsk to fly in support of the Russian summer offensive of 1916. The fourth and final IM detachment became operational in March 1917 at Belgorod on the Romanian Front.

During the 1917 summer offensive the First, Second and Third Detachments shared an airfield with Kozakov’s First Fighter Group that often flew escort for the IMs. The collapse of the SW Front forced the EVK to relocate to Vinnitsa in the Ukraine where the bulk of its equipment was taken over by nationalists towards the end of 1917.

By the end of the war the EVK had dropped 20,000kg (53,580lbs) of bombs and taken thousands of reconnaissance photos. Out of eighty-eight IMs of various types completed only three were lost to enemy action, one to fighters and two to ground fire all during 1915. Several were lost through mechanical failure or accident.

The Caucasian Front
The fighting on the Caucasian front began in November 1914. The prewar establishment comprised the 1st Caucasian Corps Air Detachment based in the fortress of Kars in Russian Armenia. Details of operations during 1914–1915 are scarce but there is a reference to some twenty aircraft carrying out reconnaissance during the Russian offensive of early 1916. The 1st Siberian Air Detachment operated on this front. Certainly at least one aeroplane operated with the Russian forces in Persia as a photograph exists of the Shah inspecting one in Teheran during 1916.

The air war on the Eastern Front was less intense than that in the west. The sheer scale of the combat zone played a part as fewer aircraft had to cover such a huge area. However, the Air Service did have several pilots of note. To achieve the status of “Ace” it was necessary to have five kills confirmed by the men on the ground. Each member of a plane’s crew that destroyed an enemy machine was credited with that victory.