Star, White Eagle
The War in the Air, 1919 to 1922
By David Meyler
With the outbreak of the First World War,
aircraft were few in number, they were technically
primitive, and their military value unproved.
By 1918, thousands of high-performance military
aircraft were in service on all fronts, fulfilling
various specialist roles: reconaissance,
artillery spotting, air defense, ground support,
strategic bombing. The concept of air superiority
was securely established, and military success
on the ground had become dependent on success
in the air.
The period between the October Revolution
in 1917, followed by the treaty of Brest-Litovsk
half a year later on March 3, 1918, saw the
disintegration of virtually all and any organized
Russian military forces. In the ensuing Civil
War (featured in our strategic wargame Red
Russia) it was relatively easy to organize
and equip a group of soldiers. Leftover German and Imperial arms and ammunition
were not that difficult to scrounge, but
rebuilding an air force was an entirely different
matter. There were cast-off aircraft available,
but these also needed spare parts, ammunition,
fuel, air strips and repair facilities, as
well as the trained technical personnel to
fly and maintain them; and in the chaos of
civil war building and maintaining a military
air support infrastructure was no easy task.
Yet all sides in the conflict recognized
the need for air power, and fledgling air
forces were soon in combat.
Much was improvised on both sides. The Reds
began with about 150 aircraft in total, organized
into 36 squadrons as the Workers’ and
Peoples’ Air Fleet. Many of the "squadrons"
consisted of a single flight of two or three
planes. Equipment was a virtual WWI museum,
including compartively ancient Farmans and
Morane-Sauliniers from 1914 and 1915, Spads,
Nieuports, Caudrons, Sopwith 1½ Strutters,
and, after March 1918, a number of discarded
German Fokkers, Pfalzs, Halberstadts and
LVGs. By the end of 1918, the WPAF had 52
squadrons, including some units equipped
with the Fokker D.VII, the most modern fighter
of the war. The top Red pilot was the Latvian-born
Jezup Beshko. He had been a pilot in the
bomber force of IAS. Others included Ivan
Pavlov, Ivan Satunin, Yuri Bratolyubov, and
The situation among the various White forces,
lacking any centralized command, was even
more chaotic. Like the Reds, they used whatever
cast-off aircraft they could find, with limited
supplies of new aircraft from the British
and French. By the end of 1918, Camels and
Snipes equipped some fighter units.
The Arctic Front
In the Murmansk area, severe winter weather
generally hampered aerial operations. The
White and Allied forces based at Murmansk
(a mix of British and French) had the support
of a small number of British naval aircraft.
The White Russians had 37 air and ground
crew of the former Imperial Air Service (IAS),
under Captain Alexander Kazakov. Kazakov,
in the Imperial 19th Squadron’s “Death
or Glory Boys,” had 17 or 19 confirmed
kills (tallies vary) during the First World
War, but 32 unofficial victories (aircraft
which did not crash within Russian lines
were not counted; the Imperial service apparently
did not promote the cult of the “ace”).
Equipment consisted of nine Nieuport 17C
and Sopwith 1½ Strutters, late of
the IAS, found still in their crates at Bakeritza.
These aircraft were organized into two flights,
later strengthened with some British reinforcements.
Kazakov used the Sopwith Snipe as his primary
aircraft. By the middle of 1919, the White
forces had suffered a number of serious reverses.
Kazakov died August 1, 1919 while performing
a stunt in a Snipe during an air show put
on to improve morale. Some claim the captain
had committed suicide. Ironically, the Red
ace Sapozhnikov, with seven victories to
his credit, would also die in a crash in
1920 while flying his captured Sopwith Snipe.
The Bolsheviks never had strong presence
in the air. They had about a dozen aircraft
in the Arctic, comprising Caudron GIIIAs
and a single Nieuport 28.
The Far East
Few aircraft were used in the east by any
of the combatants. The Japanese had a strong
expeditionary force in and around Vladivostok,
but this was intended more to further their own imperial
goals than to help re-establish czarist rule,
and they withdrew in October 1922 once the
Red armies had defeated the Whites there.
The United States had a small unit with Farmans
based at Spassk, but these withdrew with
all U.S. forces before the end of 1920. The
White air element comprised two Nieuports,
two Morane-Saulniers and a Farman. The Reds
had about 20 aircraft of the usual miscellaneous
types, but these were mostly used to engage
Mongolian and rebel Cossack forces.
The White armies led by Admiral Kolchak were supported by a small air
element. The most important ground force,
the Czech Legion, however, had surrendered
their heavy equipment, including aircraft,
to the Reds, as part of an earlier agreement
for their safe passage east to Vladivostok.
The deal eventually broke down, and the Legion
became the support of a number of short-lived
White regimes in central Asia. Upon the defeat
of Kolchak, however, Soviet aircraft in Siberia
were concentrated in the Ukraine.
The Ukraine and the Caucasus
General Denekin commanded the White armies
operating in the Ukraine. His air forces
comprised seven squdrons commanded by General
Tkatchoff, with equipment comprising Sopwith
Camel fighters and DeHavilland DH9 bombers.
He was also supported by No. 47 and No. 221
Squadrons RAF, and A Flight, No. 17 Squadron
RAF. Equipment included Camels, DH9s and
RE8s. No. 221 and 17 Squadrons operated mostly
No. 47 Squadron, three flights, equipped
with Camels and DH9s was commanded by the
Canadian Ray Collishaw. Collishaw was the
third-leading RAF ace of the First World War
with 60 victories to his credit. His force
was largely made up of Canadians (53 of the
62 officers), but also included British,
Australians, a New Zealander and one American.
The Ukrainian front saw some of the most
intense air fighting of the war. Much was
focused on the see-saw battles for Tsaritsyn
(later Stalingrad) from June 14 to September,
1919. The WPAF and the bulk of its air forces
here, with aircraft including Nieuport 28s,
Spads, Pfalz D.IIIs, and Fokker Triplanes
and DVIIs. Collishaw gained the first White
victory on the southern front, shooting down
a Red Albatross D.V. In another frequently-described
incident, a 47 Squadron DH9, damaged and
forced to land due to ground fire, was in
danger of being captured by a unit of Red
cavalry. While the cavalry was held off by
the DeHavilland’s twin machine guns,
a second DH9 landed under fire and rescued
the original crew.
Red air crew were clearly gaining experience.
Unlike other fronts, the Reds here were aggressive.
One of the largest air battles of the war
occurred when two squadrons of White DH9s,
escorted by No. 47 Squadron’s Camels,
bombed Urbabk airfield. A dozen Red fighters
led by an all-black Fokker Dr.I Triplane
rose up in defense (ironically, in 1917,
Collishaw had led a flight of all-black Sopwith
Triplanes). The Camels were hard pressed,
and although they accounted for five enemy
fighters, the Reds broke through to the bombers
and shot two down in flames. Little damage
was inflicted on the air base.
After initial success, Denikin was driven
back by a Red counter-attack in the fall
of 1919. In October Kharkov was abandoned.
First, 221 Squadron was disbanded, followed
by 47 Squadron. All British forces, including
the RAF personnel, were withdrawn from Rostov
in March 1920.
The White army, now under General Wrangel,
led a counter-attack out of the Crimea while
the Red army in the Ukraine was tied up fighting
the Poles. Wrangel was still effectively
supported by Tkatchoff’s DH9s. In a
possibly unique encounter in air history,
Tkatchoff leading a squadron of six DH9s
on July 6 near Melitopol, was met in combat
by his equivalent, the area commander of
the Red air force Peter Mesheraup, leading
a pair of Nieuport 28s. After a 45-minute
dog fight, both formations broke off. While
some aircraft had sustained damage, none
Following the Treaty of Riga with Poland,
October 23, 1920, the Red army concentrated
its forces against Wrangel. The Red air force
now began to use concentrations of up 15
aircraft together, something not yet seen
in the Civil War. The Whites claimed that
German pilots were flying for the Bolsheviks.
These claims could not be proven, but the
Red air force did begin to adopt German air
tactics towards the end of the conflict.
Wrangel was decisively defeated and the Reds
captured Sevastopol on November 21.
Polish and Baltic Air Forces
In April 1919, the Poles had some 200 aircraft,
mostly ex-German, but many were not serviceable.
There were virtually no spare parts, leading
to a very high attrition rate among the operational
aircraft. The air forces were divided into
20 squadrons, with about 150 aircraft in
total. By July 1920, just 35 operation airplanes
wer left. The Poles had received some reinforcements
from Britain, Bristol fighters, in time for
the defense of Warsaw. At the beginning of
the war against Poland, the Red army was
supported by an air group with 25 planes,
but by the time of the Treaty of Riga, Oct.
23, 1920, had 170 combat aircraft in the
Although Finland boasts one of the oldest
air forces in existence, its beginning was
inauspicious, relying on aircraft and volunteer
crews from Sweden (although the Swedish government
did not condone the participation of its
citizens in foreign combat). The first two
aircraft acquired in 1918 were the Thulin
Typ.D and the NAB Albatross (the former a
Swedish manufactured version of the Morane-Saulnier
monoplane, and the later was the Albatross
BII). The Albatross was shortly lost in a
crash, but four more were acquired during
1918, with a second Thulin.
Estonian aerial operations were also minimal
during this time period. It was not unitl
January 1919, that the first operational
aircraft was acquired, a captured Red Air
Force Farman HF-30.
Latvian aviation began with the defection
of three pilots (later joined by a fourth)
from the Red Air Force. Equipment comprised
just three aircraft, a Nieuport 28 and two
Sopwith 1½ Strutters, which were active
against the Bermondist faction (an alliance
of German Friekorps and White Russians) during
the summer and fall of 1919. In December,
the first Sopwith Camel was received from
the British, while a captured German Fokker
D.VII was made operational.
In Lithuania, an Aviation
Unit was officially formed at Kaunas in January
1919 and became operational in February 1919
with its first aircraft, a captured Soviet
Sopwith 1½ Strutter.
Some German aircraft were also acquired.
In early 1920 the Allied Military Control
Commission overseeing German disarmament
forced Germany to abandon its remaining military
facilities in Lithuania, and so a number
of additional aircraft were acquired.
In August 1920, the Lithuanian air force
participated in the fighting against Poland
over the ownership of Vilnius, including
bombing and reconnaissance sorties. In the
uneasy peace that followed, further air bases
were established, but the economic situation
severely limited the procurement of new aircraft.
With the end of the Civil War, the Soviet
air force had grown to 325 aircraft in 54
land-based squadrons and 13 seaplane units.
An Aviation Research Institute had been created
in September 1920, but attempts to establish
an indigenous aircraft industry proved abortive,
and for the early part of the 1920s, the
Soviets relied on foreign imports.
To avoid dependence on British, French or
American industry, the Soviet government
as early as 1920 had begun secret negotiations
with Weimar Germany. The resulting pact,
in 1922, allowed the Germans to establish
a clandestine training base at Lipetsk. Germany
was banned from having an air force by the
Versailles Treaty. The deal would allow them
to train combat aircrew, while the Soviets
would benefit from German technical expertise.
The problem was where to find modern fighter
How do you smuggle a factory? Following
the collapse of Imperial Germany in 1918,
Anthony Fokker dismantled what he could of
his aircraft manufacturing firm near Berlin,
and got what equipment and parts he could
out of Germany to his homeland, the Netherlands.
Fokker had been one of the leading producers
of military aircraft for the Germans during
the war. The Dutch government bought a large
number of the 98 D.VIIs and 20 D.VIIIs Fokker
was able to salvage, but he needed bigger
markets — and Soviet Russia was in
great need of aircraft.
In 1922, Fokker developed a modern biplane
fighter, the D.XIII. Fifty were manufactured
and sold to a German millionaire, Hugo Stinnes,
ostensibly for the Argentine military. However,
the aircraft ended up at Lipetsk air base,
where the both the modern German Luftwaffe
and Soviet fighter forces were born. But
the great test between these two air forces
would have wait another 19 years.
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