Monday, May 11, 2015

Air Power on the Eastern Front

A Ilya Muromets defends itself!

Even though the Imperial Russian Air Service had entered the war with slightly more aircraft than did Germany, the bulk were by and large obsolete foreign aircraft that the Russians would have a difficult time finding spare parts for once Turkey entered the war on Germany and Austria-Hungary’s side, thereby closing off the best access to Russia. The lack of skilled mechanics made the maintenance problems even worse, resulting in more Russian pilots dying from accidents in faulty planes than from aerial combat. Despite the limitations of its equipment and its industrial base, the Imperial Russian Air Service still managed to expand during the war. By the summer of 1915 it fielded 553 aircraft divided among 58 units, but this was hardly adequate for providing air cover along a front that stretched more than 1,000 km. In May 1916, for example, an average of seventy-two missions were flown each day with each mission averaging just 58 minutes. Indeed, by 1916 the Imperial Russian Air Service fielded more pilots than it had aircraft. The one major success story for the Imperial Russian Air Service was its organization of the Eskadra Vozdushnykh Korablei (EKV) or Squadron of Flying Ships, which was organized around Igor Sikorsky’s Ilya Muromets and which provided excellent service for long-range reconnaissance and bombing duties. Russia unfortunately did not produce the Ilya Muromet in sufficient numbers to make a difference before the Russian Revolution of 1917 brought aircraft production to a virtual halt. With the outbreak of the Russian Civil War in the summer of 1918, the Bolsheviks nationalized control over Russian aircraft factories and reorganized Russia’s remaining aircraft within the Red Army into some 30 squadrons. The Red Army would enjoy a major advantage in air power against the Whites, especially with the use of the Grigorovich M.9 flying boats along the Volga River.

Statistics for Russian production are not readily available on a year-by-year basis but a total of 5,300 aircraft were built. Although Russia had introduced the world’s first large bomber, Igor Sikorsky’s four-engine Ilya Muromets in 1913, and had twentyfour aircraft manufacturers operating in 1914, the Russian aircraft industry lacked the materials and personnel to replace the aircraft lost in 1914, much less fulfill demands for new aircraft. In particular, Russia’s great weakness was its reliance upon foreign engines. Although Russia produced 1,893 aircraft and imported just 883 aircraft between August 1914 and November 1916, it produced just 920 engines while importing 2,326 during the same period. Nevertheless, Russia did experience some gains in productivity. By 1916, for example, 73 percent of its aircraft were delivered from domestic producers. Russian factories unfortunately generally operated at below capacity because of supply shortages. Whereas Russia reached a peak of 352 aircraft produced in February 1917, the outbreak of the Russian Revolution at the end of the month resulted in a sharp decline in production and the virtual end of production by the time Russia left the war in March 1918.

By far the most important role of air power on the Eastern Front was reconnaissance and observation. Indeed, air combat was far rarer on the Eastern Front than was the case on the Western Front. Only 358 of Germany’s claim of 7,425 air victories occurred on the Eastern Front. Because the Eastern Front was more fluid compared with the West, with such breakthroughs as the German advance through Galicia in the spring and summer of 1915 making it more difficult to stabilize the front, pilots of reconnaissance aircraft faced different challenges in that they were not always flying over familiar terrain. Indeed, the vast scope of the front and the poor quality of maps made it difficult for pilots to orient themselves. Nevertheless, reconnaissance aircraft played an important role in many campaigns. Russian photo-reconnaissance of Austro- Hungarian forces during the spring of 1916, for example, contributed greatly to the initial success of the Brusilov Offensive by allowing Russian artillery to knock out many of the Austro-Hungarian guns in the preliminary barrage of 4 June, thereby clearing the way for the infantry assault launched on 5 June. Russia unfortunately lacked the resources to exploit its breakthrough before German reinforcements arrived. The outbreak of the Russian Revolution in March 1917 tilted air power on the Eastern Front decisively in Germany’s favor by almost completely disrupting Russia’s fledgling aircraft industry. A combination of Russian deserters and German aerial reconnaissance gave the Germans plenty of advance knowledge of Russia’s last offensive in the war—the ill-fated Kerensky Offensive launched on 1 July 1917. Although the Russians achieved initial success against Austro-Hungarian forces, they were caught totally off guard by a well-planned German counteroffensive. The ensuing military collapse of the Russian Army contributed to the Bolshevik Revolution on 7 November and ultimately to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (3 March 1918), by which Russia left the war.

Alexander Kazakov
Kazakov entered the Russian Imperial Air Service in February 1915 and quickly gained notoriety on 18 March 1915 when he attempted to snag a German Albatros two-seater with a weighted grapnel on a suspended cable, only to ram it with his own plane and force it down. Promoted to command a squadron, Kazakov would win seventeen victories by the time Russia left the war. He went on to shoot down fifteen Red Army aircraft while flying for the Whites during the Russian Civil War before dying in a crash landing on 3 April 1919.

No comments:

Post a Comment