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of military aircraft, which evolved rapidly during World War I. Instead, Russia was soon reduced to purchasing outdated castoffs from Britain and France and trying to produce licensed copies, generally in inadequate numbers.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.

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