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.