Table of contents
  1. A Scotman in Russia
  2. The First Steps
  3. Russian Military Flying Schools
  4. The Imperial All Russia Aero Club
  5. General Baron Kulbars & Aviation
  6. The Imperial Russian Technical Society
  7. The Prototype of the Zeppelin
  8. Contruction, Aviators & Workmen
  9. Famous Russian Flying Men
  10. I.I. Sikorsky
  11. Foriegn Aviators in Russia
  12. Heir Fokker's Russian Lady Pilot
  13. Just Before the War
  14. Aerial Russia & the British Press
  15. Aviation & the Russian Press
  16. By Way of Conclusion

Chapter XIV - Aerial Russia & the British Press

England's ignorance of Russian progress in aviation before the war has been extended to her military achievements in the air since the war began. This is no doubt partly due to the secrecy with which the Russian Government shroud the work of the Flying Corps, the feats of our gallant aviators rarely being published. Nevertheless I have noticed over and over again that the striking achievements of Russian aviators. which are published in the Russian newspapers arc never by any chance reproduced in the British Press. I imagine this must be due to the shortage of paper in this country. I can imagine no other possible reason. I suppose indeed that only a small proportion of the British people even know that Russia has squadrons of fighting aeroplanes, larger and more formidable than those possessed by any other of the belligerents. As I have said once or twice before, the Sikorsky giants have succeeded in keeping the German Zeppelins at a reasonable distance from the Russian front and have in their turn delivered heavy blows on German positions. Many Russian officers and pilots have been killed during these operations and their names remain unknown. The Russian aerial losses have not been published. The extraordinary activity of the Russian Flying Corps is very well known to the enemy, who certainly never expected to find the Czar's Empire so perfectly equipped for war in the air. The Kaiser has himself publicly recognised the supreme ability of the Russian flying-men. In one of his "orders of the day" he said: "I am proud indeed of my infantry, my cavalry, and artillery and I should be happy if I could have the same feeling for my flying corps. I desire that my aviators shall be on the same high level as the Russians." This order of the day was captured on the battlefield and it was reproduced in the Russian newspapers. Its publication however, passed quite unnotIced In the English Press.

 

 

Above: A Russian Military Biplane at the Front.

I quote the following interesting article from the Russkoie Slovo as an illustration of the attention given to the prowess of their aviators by the Russian newspapers. It is written by a Flying Corps officer and it is a very vivid impression of life above the clouds.

"We flew over the fields! It seemed to me that the carth was running away from us at a mad speed. Away to the right I noticed a tiny cloud of smoke coming from a moving train which suddenly vanished into the shade of the forest. Along the road an endless file of men and transports passed along like a procession of ants. We outpaced two motor-cars which to us seemed like children's toys exhibited in the shop windows. For a moment only I noticed our giant kite-balloon, employed for observation of the enemy's positions. It vanished behind us with the same suddenness with which we lost everything we met on our way.

"The cold wind blew on my face, forcing me half to close my eyes, and I felt the tears on my cheek. I felt supremely happy, for I was carrying out the first serious task entrusted to me by my commander. My thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a voice. The pilot, a little man in a leather coat and cap, who had seemed nothing but a moveless wooden manikin, turned to me and said: 'Pay attention! We are now close to our positions.' The road had vanished and on the right a lake glistened like a gigantic emerald. Through the thin fog caught sight of a yellow German cap the balloon, a motionless sentry of the air. The Russian ambulance station was just beyond it. I could see the Red Cross on the top of the largest tent.

 

 

Above: Russian Military pilot receiving instructions before flight on a "Morane" parasol at the Front

Our biplane gradually started to rise. The ambulance station vanished from my view. I could see a mass of wood and thicket and then another lake which I knew was actually beyond the enemy's lines. We were right over our own posit;on. I could see the huts of a small village, the people looking like black beads. I noticed the backs of horses rounded as it were into the earth. In spite of all my efforts I could not discover our battery positions, so perfectly were they masked. 'One thousand, five hundred metres we are now over the trenches,' said the pilot. I rose slightly from my seat, holding on to the bars of the gondola. A series of thin crevices connecting thicket, with thicket were traced on the earth below. Here and there I could pick out the shelters and the grey figures of men. A river that looked like a snake protected our lines and about half a verst farther on I could see the black lines of fresh-dug earth and thousands of little black points moving towards our position. They were the Germans.

 

Above: One of the giant air-screws of the experimental aeroplane "Kennedy No. 1," altered construction, on the aerodrome of the Imperial All Russia Aero Club at Petrograd in 1914

"At the same moment a soft white cloud of shrapnel burst just in front and rather below us. Our aeroplane bucked a little, swung slightly, and turned to the right. Three new white clouds followed the first and lazily hung in the air. We were flying now along the Gennan front. With my field-glasses I could make out every detail of the German entrenchments and I hurriedly made notes on my planchette. More soft clouds of white shrapnel smoke, made golden by the sunshine hung on our left. My heart beat a little, but neither the pilot nor I paid much attention to the attacks from below. We were nearing the end of my reconnaissance. The church which was its limit came into view and grew larger and larger. Below me I saw a road absolutely covered with German troops and transports. I hurriedly noted the new lines of the German trenches with their barbed wire entanglement, appearing from the clouds like small white points. That was the end of my work. 'Finished,' I thought to myself joyfully. The explosion of a shrapnel close on ill}; right sent a shudder through my body. I glanced anxiously at the biplane and noticed three holes in its left wing. A moment after we were absolutely surrounded by little white clouds. Suddenly the biplane dived down and I must confess that my heart fell into my boots. Unconsciously my hands clutched the sides of the gondola. Looking downward I saw the German captive balloon again and then on the earth groups of small black figures like little black nails.

"A Taube flew at us from the left evidently meaning to bar our way. The Russian batteries saw it and at once opened fire and the Taube in its turn was surrounded with a fleece of white cloud. 'Do you see the Taube?' I asked the pilot. 'Yes, I do,' he replied grimly. 'It's a thousand pities we didn't bring a machine-gun wlth us. Now he is going to attack us.' I fixed my eyes on the enemy. Seconds passed which seemed like hours. The Taube rose a little and, making a semi-circle, flew right at us. It was the time for a critical decision. We could neither fly right nor left, both our flanks being threatened by the enemy's guns. One way only was open to us. We must go forward. The distance between our biplane and the Taube lessened at enormous speed. I could recognise the details of the hostile machine and could pick out the black silhouettes of the heads and shoulders of the officers. My pilot suddenly turned to me and I read his stern decision in his expression. 'Now you'll see,' he said and he went straight for the enemy. For some seconds we flew. towards each other, when suddenly our biplane diyed down and shot towards the earth like an arrow. I looked behind. The Taube was far above us and was circling in pursuit. Its speed was much greater than that of our biplane, ""hich was an old machine recently fitted with a new pair of 'wings. By diving the pilot hoped to entice the Taube into the range of our batteries. At a height of fifteen hundred metres we were uttedy powerless.

The Taube rushed after us at full speed. I looked back and noticed the observer aiming at us with a gun. 'Look out,' I shouted to the pilot, 'they are going to fire on us.' By flying in a series of zigzags we contrived to escape the bullets. The Taube came nearer and nearer. Again my pilot dived down and we dropped almost vertically. The descent was a risky one and it threw me on my back. I could see the roof of a farm-house, meadows, a forest, rushing at us at a tremendous speed. For five hundred metres we remained in the same position and then gradually our course was straightened. I shall never forget those few seconds as long as I live. I cannot tell what I felt, but I am certain that I never thought about the approaching end. The risky manoeuvre saved us. When I recovered myself and was able to look about we were only four hundred metres above the earth. Our batteries opened a terrific bombardment on the Taube, which was now flying in thick clouds coming from the bursting shrapnel.

'Look,' I shouted to the pilot, but he never moved. My eyes were fixed on the enemy's machine, which suddenly dipped down and crashed to the ground like a wounded bird. 'They have brought it down,' I screamed. 'Good boys,' replied the pilot and his voice was lost in the noise of the motor and the whistling of the wind.

"We were saved. I could see now our aerodrome hangars and a strong smell of oil and petrol told me that we were home again. A few seconds more and we were safely on the ground welcomed by the cheers of our comrades."

This is one of many such thrilling stories that have appeared in Russia since the war began, and it is a matter of deep regret to me that the English public is given no opportunity of becoming acquainted with the fine prowess of their Russian allies. One Russian writer, Mr. A. Theodoroff, has compiled records of the exploits of Russian airmen which would. fill a volume. "During the latest period of ;the war," says Mr. Theodoroff," the enemy has been unfortunate in his aerial raids and a very large number of his machines have been shot down by the Russians." It is not an easy matter to hit an aeroplane, particularly when the weather allows the pilot to rise high and get out of the range of shrapnel and bullets. It must be remembered that a flying machine is only seriously affected when either the engine, petrol tank, the propeller, or the pilot himself is hit. One fortunate shot forced a German Albatross to land close to the Russian positions at Sochatchef in Poland, the petrol tank having been hit. The Russians, of course, saw the fall and galloped to the place where the Albatross had alighted, which was some versts away. The German pilot and the observer started immediately to repair their machine and they were able to put things right before the Cossacks reached them. As they approached they saw the observer turning the propeller. Unfortunately for the enemy the pilot switched on the contact too soon and caused the propeller to hit the observer on the head and kill him on the spot. The pilot left the machine and ran for safety towards a neighbouring forest, but he was captured before he could destroy his notebook, which supplied some particularly valuable information. From it the Russians learned that the German head-quarters was situated in a well-known Polish castle and they also discoyered the exact situation of the enemy's aerodrome. The Russian Flying Corps made a raid on both these points the same day, and the most interesting feature of this raid was that the captured Albatross was used against the Germans.

Aviation is a yery young branch of military art and it develops so rapidly that every day brings its new surprise. New types of machines and new methods of flying and manoeuvring spring up in the aviation world like mushrooms after rain. In peace times hazardous experiments were not encouraged by the authorities responsible for material and men, but war which makes the individual of small account is a splendid opportunity for the aviators to test new projects and often succeed in doing what has regarded as impossible. Despite all the assertions of the so-called experts, British aviators have proved that it is quite possible to fly safely even on the darkest night. The same thing was done in Russia in the very early days of the campaign. At ten o'clock one night orders were received at the aviation head-quarters at Blony that Lieutenant Tc. should make a night flight. It was the first time that such a thing had been attempted and the Germans had never dreamt of sending their aeroplanes over the Russian lines after dark. The Russian soldiers were warned that one of their own machines was taking the air. The night was very cloudy and nobody believed that Lieutenant Tc. l would be abie to carry out his difficult task. He started with two observers at eleven. The familiar noise of the Gnome engine could be heard over the Russian position, but it was absolutely impossible to see the aeroplane even by means of the most perfect optical instrument. The flight through the darkness was a great and thrilling experience. The pilot had been ordered to land close to the railway at Sochatchef, which he was supposed to find by observing the railway line by the light of the moon. Unfortunately the moon was hidden behind the clouds and only showed its light on the rails for a very short time. That, however, was sufficient for the pilot and he carried out his landing in safety. The reports which he brought back decided the Russian staff to undertake a night raid on the German positions. Lieutenant Te. was selected for the task and he was accompanied by Lieutenant B., an expert bomb-dropper. They started at one-o'clock in the morning in a strong wind. The moon appeared for a few seconds and then disappeared entirely. For half an hour the flight was extremely difficult, but while the plane was flying along the railway lines the moon appeared for a considerable time. The airmen were able to observe the character of the country and discover that they were proceeding in entirely the wrong direction. The wind was blowing from the right and continually edging them towards the left. The pilot suddenly noticed the lights of a city and recognised Warsaw. He picked up his direction, realising that he was thirty versts from the point for which he was making. The aeroplane had been ordered to land at the small town of Blony, a difficult task in the darkness without a single guiding light. Nevertheless the landing was skilfully achieved and Lieutenant B. at once moved towards the railway station. He ran into a group of soldiers. "Halt, who goes there?" The lieutenant answered, "An observer from an aeroplane. . We are looking for some one to look after om aeroplane while it is on the ground." And he again approached the soldiers. "Do not move or we will shoot," one of them shouted. Lieutenant B. was able now to see that the men who were stopping him consisted of the station-master, a group of armed civilians, and a number of territorials, all under military age, whose clean-shaven faces and queer uniforms made them look more like music-hall artists than soldiers. The chief of this odd band stepped fonvard. He was a short man, round as a ball and carrying as many different weapons as a pirate chief. He was evidently a man who would strongly object to jokes and Lieutenant B. addressed him with great respect.

"Well," he said after he had heard the explanation, "I cannot permit you to fly any farther without permission from Warsaw. I will telegraph to head-quarters now." And noting the names of the officers and the number of their machine in his pocket-book, he ordered his men to rake charge of the aeroplane.

"Why are you all clean-shaven?" one of the aviators asked their guard.

"Oh, your honour, we went to the station with long beards, but the Station-master was very much annoyed at our appearance. He said we looked more like scare-crows than soldiers and he ordered us to shave. Of course we did as we were told, but when he saw us clean-shaven, he nearly fainted, and now we are ordered to let our beards grow again."

Lieutenant B. explained the situation to his pilot. It was clear to them that they could not lose their way again and ther had no time to spare.

"Are you ready? " whispered B. to the pilot.

"Yes," was the reply.

The pilot ordered the men to hold the wings and Lieutenant B. suddenly turned the propeller. This naturally caused the guard to loosen their hold and after a short run forward the aeroplane rose in the air and vanished in the darkness.

"Stop there, stop them! " shouted the little fat commander but it was too late. After a short flight in complete darkness, the aeroplane landed again near the town of S. and from there began the dangerous flight over the enemy's position. Bombs were dropped for a period of three hours, and although the Germans' anti-aircraft guns replied energetically, the Russian aviators returned in safety. How near, however, they had been to disaster was proved when the aeroplane was inspected the next morning. There were eight holes in her wings and part of one of the propeller's blades had been chipped by shrapnel. This night raid is regarded as one of the most brilliant achievements of the Russian Flying Corps.

The Russian, even to a greater extent than the Englishman, has the habit of constant self-depreciation. He is always surprised by successes while he accepts failures as normal phenomena. It is the custom of the Russian to profess that he cannot possibly organise anything, that he must learn from the West and obtain Western help before order can be created from chaos. As a matter of fact, and bearing in mind the existence of difficulties unknown in any other civilised country, Russia is organised unexpectedly well and this organisation has been distinctly helped by the national habit of constant criticism. This fact can be proved by the observation of every development of the nation's activity and particularly in the world of aviation. It must be accepted that Russian organisation to be successful must proceed along its own lines. The Russians have followed with keen interest the developments of military art in the rest of Europe, but they have not slavishly copied the innovations of other peoples. Their method is to examine and estimate and adapt that which they consider good to their own customs and their own national mind. It often happens that what is admirable for Germany or Austria would be fatal for Russia. I may state that in this the Russians are much closer to the British. It therefore follows that an accurate judgment of the organisation of the Russian army must be accompanied by a complete understanding of the character of the Russian soldier, who twill be happy and content under circumstances that would be intolerable to his Western comrades. In this fact lies the strength of the Russian army and it largely explains the success of the army's aviators.

A story which I have recently read in the Russian papers of the aerial adventures of Captain Tch-y to an extent illustrates this point. The adventure took place during the fighting for the possession of Warsaw. Winter in Russian Poland is often mild and almost snowless, a short rainy season, with oceans of mud on the earth, and high wind above the earth making aviation practically impossible. Nevertheless strategical reasons forced the Russian pilots to ascend even under the most unfavourable circumstances. On one particularly bad morning Captain Tch-y was ordered to discover a new movement of the enemy towards the Polish capital. The wind was choppy and constantly changing its' direction. At the height of twelve hundred metres the aviator got into a bank of thick clouds. He was without the proper instruments for observing direction and he had nothing to depend upon except his own courage and persistence. After about twenty-five versts he was through the cloud-bank and was able to observe that the Germans had occupied several villages. The captain was, of course, at once observed and he switched off his engine. Generally when an aviator stops his engine at considerable height from the earth there is a silence, more profound than any silence experienced on the earth. On this occasion, however,, the atmosphere surrounding Captain Tch-y was filled with the noise of bursting shrapnel and bullets whizzed by him like flocks of birds. The aviator relates that the sound of explosions seemed to slither along his body and to play diabolic music on his nerves. He saw that the wings of his aeroplane had been pierced in several places. He started his engine again, and as he did so a bullet struck his petrol tank and the petrol sprinkled into the fuselage. It was a critical moment. Nothing remained for him to do but to plane down as near the Russian lines as possible. He landed safely in a field between the hostile armies. His aeroplane was a pitiful sight, a large sadly wounded bird. Parties of Germans at once hurried towards him, for a flying-man is always a good prize. The captain was only armed with a revolver and defence was impossible. The only thing for him to do was to run away.

"It was with a very bitter feeling that I abandoned my aeroplane," he said afterwards, " but I was as helpless as a hare and I had to attempt to escape. The heavy slushy earth hung on my boots and it was with the greatest difficulty that I could drag my feet from the ground. Indeed, I was obliged frequently to stop to relieve my boots of some of their weight. I dodged the bullets as well as I could and I imagine from the wild shooting of the Germans that they had been ordered to endeavour to take me alive. As I ran, first I noticed a small hill in the distance and said to myself, 'If I reach that I shall be safe,' Then looked ahead again and saw another hill and the same thought came to me. Farther along still there were some bushes that gave me another inspiration. Often though I was running as hard as I could, I felt that I was not moving at all. But I never despaired. I expected that at any moment a miracle would save me, and it did. Three horsemen suddenly galloped towards me and with a great relief I saw that they were Cossacks. Filled with new hope and, energy I rushed towards them. Three hundred feet separated us when one of the horses gave a spasmodic jump and then fell to the ground. His rider sprang to his feet like an acrobat in a circus and jumped behind one of his comrades. The third Cossack still galloped towards me. I hardly know what happened next, but I found myself on horseback clinging to the Cossack who had saved me and riding hard for home. I afterwards learned that of the three Cossacks who had come to my rescue one had been killed and another grievously wounded.

Captain Tch-y's pursuers were attacked by Russian infantry before they could capture the aeroplane and it was bro'ught into the Russian lines on a motor-car. The village of R., where the Russian local head-quarters were situated, was afterwards severely bombarded by the Germans and it was impossible to repair the aeroplane there or to take it away when the Russian line fell back.

"It almost broke my heart to leave my Farman behind," said Captain Tch-y. "We had had so many adventures together and we had passed successfully through so many perils that I regarded the machine as my best friend, and I felt guilty of treachery in allowing it to fall into the hands of the enemy." Captain Tch-y went back to R. next day only to find his aeroplane completely destroyed by the enemy's shells.

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