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The Russian Front: A brief look at the Imperial Air Service

July 23rd 2009
By: Raul Colon

The war between the Central Powers, mostly, Imperial Germany, and Tsarist Russia lasted three hard fought years. It ended abruptly on October 1917 when the Bolsheviks seized power in Moscow.

When the Great War started on August 1914, Germany and Russia shared a vast frontier that stretched from the midway between Danzig and Riga, near the Baltic coast, running west of Warsaw, south through Galicia, finally ending on the mouth of the Danube in the Black Sea.

The first phase of the air action took place in two main sectors of the border; the northern area and Galicia. Initially, German air assets in the east were limited. Nevertheless, this token force would have been enough to annihilate the chaotic Russian air force.

In 1914, the strength of the infant Imperial Russian Air Service consisted of 244 airplanes, 12 airships and 44 observation balloons. Of the 244, 145 were operational and deployed near the combat theatre. Most of them were French designed and built under license by Russian manufactures such as Duks and the Russo-Baltic Wago Works. During the months prior to the war, the Imperial Flying Corps received most of its assets from France. Aircraft such as the Farman MF-IIs, Morane-Saulniers, Nieuport IIs, Nieuport 17s and Spad VIIIs found their way to the Corps ranks.

Russian manufactures did built indigenous flying machines as the Anata DS and Lebed. But both were inferior copies of foreign designs, and because of it, they never saw extended action. The only Russian-designed air platform to see action during the first year of the war was the massive Sikorsky four engine bomber. Seventy three of the Ilya Mouromez G-9 heavy bombers were constructed from 1914 until 1917.

The G-9 began offensive operations on February 1915. As was the case in the Western Front, early air combat tactics in the east were primitive and unimaginative. Still, the Russian high command placed much of its war strategy in the Air Service’s ability to disrupt the German rail road access system near its border. But that was never the case. By 1915, the combine strength of Germany and Austro-Hungary managed to push back large Russian army formations without much harassment from the skies.

As the Russian army retreated to the Ukraine, its air service began mount, for the first time in the conflict, combined offensive operations. From the Lutsk and Kovel regions, young Russian pilots took to the air in an effort to engage German troop columns moving deeper inside their homeland. As their territory was savagely invaded, more and more Russians joined the armed forces, most of them went into the air force.

One particular airman distinguished himself on the cold Eastern Front, his name was Aleksandr Kazakov. Kazakov was born in the Kherson province. After attending the prestigious Yelizavetgrad Cavalry School in 1908, Kazakov joined the Gatchina military aviation school, completing his training by 1914.

Russian leaders

In 1915 Aleksandr was sent to the Ukraine with the purpose of shoring up air operations in the region. It was there that his reputation as a top ace was formed. Flying Morane-Saulnier, Spad – SА2, Nieuport 11 and Nieuport 17 planes, the young airman is credited with shooting down 17 Central Powers aircraft, top among Russian pilots at the time. There was a rumour that the number is actually 32, but because the Russian only counted aircraft which crashed on its territory, seventeen is the figure recorded in the history books.

In 1917 he was assigned command of the newly formed No. 1 Fighter Group, but the unit was disbanded when the Bolsheviks took control in October. In November, Kazakov made his way north to Archangelsk to join in with the British who landed there in 1918. He perished in August 1st, 1919, while practicing aerobatics for the Russian White Army. Overall, 18 medals, including the British Distinguished Service Order and the French Legion d’Honneur Order; were awarded to this aviation pioneer.

Another trailblazing Russian pilot was Alexander de Seversky. As with fellow inventor, Igor Sikorsky, Seversky’s path would ultimately lead him to America. But not before he made an invaluable contribution to the Russian war effort. Stationed in the Gulf of Riga, Seversky, a naval aviator with the rudimentary Russian Naval Air Service, performed his first combat sortie, a solo attack against a German destroyer. While diving for his bomb run, he was shot down by anti-aircraft fire only seconds before he was set to drop his bomb. As the plane crashed, the bomb exploded on contact with the sea, killing his spotter and blowing off his right leg. After healing, he returned to active duty and was assigned the mission of coordinating all fighter aviation units in the Baltic sector.

Seversky is cited with 13 kills, but, as with many of the records of the era, this fact is disputed. He was in America when the revolution started. Shortly after which he applied for full citizen status. In the spring of 1922 he founded the Seversky Aero Corporation.

The fact the many Russian pilots became World War I aces, despite flying obsolete platforms and using poor tactics, were a tribute to their skill and training. In general, the bulk of the Russian Air Service assets, although lagging almost a year behind in technology, still were good enough to hang in with the experience German-Austro pilots. The weakling was the command structure. The officer corps was filled with Tsarist-created nobility. A sense of entitlement permeated its core. Because of this, when disasters in the front mounted, they were ill equipped to handle the situation. As was the case with much of the armed forces, they simply collapsed in the face of attrition.

It was the collapse of discipline all along the front, particularly in the Ukraine, in the aftermath of the Revolution that inspired a counter political and military movement. Despite explicit orders from the new Soviet regime, many Russian air force personnel continued to resist the Germans. One of them, Lieutenant Commander Viktor Utgov, of the Black Sea Fleet who, flying his Grigorovich M-9 seaplane out of the seaplane tender Imperator Nicolai Pervyi, attacked a German U-boat. After the war, Pervyi joined the large cradle of Russian pilots immigrating to the United States.

Beside the East, Imperial airman found their way to the Western Front where they participated actively with the British Royal Flying Corps. Some British and a great number of French airmen fought with the Russians in the east. In a footnote of history, one of the first women to see combat action was Princess Eugine Shakhovskaya. She flew reconnaissance missions on the Riga region.

Way of the Fighter, Claire Chennault, Putman Books 1949
The First World War, Hew Strachan, Penguin Books 2003
The Encyclopedia of Military Aircraft, Robert Jackson, Parragon Publishing Books 2006