Red Star, White Eagle
The War in the Air, 1919 to 1922
By David Meyler
October 2015

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.

Grigory Szpozhnikov.


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 Grigory Sapozhnikov.

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.

Alexander Kazakov.


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 over Astrakhan.

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 were lost.

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 theatre.

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 aircraft.

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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