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.
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 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.