THE RAF IN SOUTH RUSSIA : A BRIEF DESCRIPTION

Evacuation of Taganrog. Copyright The Author.

The RAF were arrived in South Russia in April 1919 under the auspices of the RAF Training Mission as separate from the British Military Mission. In charge of RAF the Training Mission was Lieutenant Colonel Arthur Maund. Commanding Officer of 47th Squadron was Canadian ace Raymond Collishaw. Maund seems to have been something of a bureaucrat. John T. Smith recounts in his book Gone to Russia to Fight how Maund sent a letter to Collishaw criticising his record keeping in regards to a Ford van he and some other pilots had “requistioned” earlier that year. The date of this letter was 22nd of December 1919 when South Russia was in chaos and thousands were losing their lives. Collishaw for his part was one of the greatest fighter pilots of all time according to Smith though not as famous as some other World War 1 pilots, though as Smith claims, he was prone to exaggeration about his feats in his book Air Command, recounting his time in South Russia. Another pilot tells of a time Collishaw was a passenger in a plane that crashed in the desert. Disentangling himself from the wreckage Collishaw said..

“If only we had some beer we could have a party..”

(Smith, 2010)

Collishaw rescued many refugees by adding as many carriages as he could to A Flights’ train as it retreated from Taganrog to the Crimea in the first days of 1920. Typhus was rife onboard because of it even though Collishaw ordered all dead bodies be thrown off. Many refugees hid the bodies of children, spreading the disease. Collishaw himself had nearly died of typhus in the autumn of 1919 (Smith, 2010).

General Holman, overall head of the British Mission would fly reconnaissance with Collishaw a number of times. On one occasion they accidentally bombed their own troops (Smith,2010).

The RAF in Russia flew DH9s and DH9 s primarily but there were also 130 RE8’s and B Flight would fly Sopwith Camels from September 1919. Their job was to train Russian pilots but as time was short often a pilot would get only a few hours flying time resulting in  numerous crashes of RE8s  to the point that the Russians began to believe the RE8s were faulty already rejected by the British. Training the Russians was frustrating across the board, with the Tank Corps and artillery units as well as the RAF. Captain Hugh Boustead, a Lewis gun instructor said of the Russians:

Training the soldiers was delightful since they were so gentle and straightforward, and at the same time maddening because they were forgetful and lazy. Their interest was intense for  a short time, and then quite suddenly they would say to themselves, ‘I know it all now,’ and nothing but firm driving or bitter experience at the front would make them learn more (Wright, p.401-402).

Canadian air ace and leader of the 47th Squadron Raymond Collishaw (Wright, p.414)

No wonder there were planes dropping out of the sky. For this reason the British often found themselves fighting in the Civil War, particularly the RAF, who were not as yet bound by being part of the British Mission and whose 47th Squadron, sent to Russia from Salonika, were a fighting unit rather than a training one. Add to that a number of air aces who volunteered and it was inevitable that the British would take to the skies (Kopisto,p.120).

Sopwith Camel, c1916. Unknown RAF photographer. Available at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sopwith_Camel#/media/File:RAF_Sopwith_Camel.jpg

Elsewhere I have mentioned that each flight had their own armoured train in this Railway War. This was a mobile base complete with workshops and supplies. The procedure was for the senior pilot to fly down the track until an area beside the track which was suitable as a landing strip was found. The pilot would land and wait for the train which could take hours or days. When the train with the mobile base arrived the Flight could commence flying missions (Wright,p. 425).

47th Squadron were divided in A, B, and C Flights with an extra Z Flight secretly being created in the autumn of 1919 by The British Mission HQ at Taganrog with the aim of bombing Moscow, a mission which would never get off the ground. So to speak. The pilots role was reconnaissance and bombing. In the summer and autumn C and then B Flights would dominate the skies of South East Russia, playing an important part under the direct command of (the dashing) General Wrangel in taking Tsaritsyn (later renamed Stalingrad). The Bolsheviks were determined to re-take this key city, which would be devastated a number of times in this war and in others, and A Flight, which arrived in Tsaritsyn in October, along with B and C Flights, were essential to supporting Wrangel and bombing the Bolshevik advance on the River Volga. Wrangel, being a well brought up fellow, sent them a thank you letter for their support and also awarded Collishaw the Cross of St. Stanislaus 2nd class with swords (Gunn, p.227).

B Flight would enter the city after its fall.

In every street bodies, animal and human, lay rotting…in the rubbled street with their shattered houses our whispers came back to us in hollow echoes. People staggered through doorways into the sun, and sat witlessly picking at their rags of clothes. Starving children looked at us blankly. In such a place in seemed sacrilege to be alive (Aten, p.88).

B flight in their Camels would engage in air battles with the Bolshevik fighters and while they claimed there must have been German air aces among the Red Army because some of them were so good they could not have been Russian, the British maintained the upper hand (Kopisto, p.120-125). 47th Squadron would be instrumental in holding off the Bolshevik advance. The collapse of the White Army front in the ensuing months meant the RAF was forced to retreat too but they continued to fly missions supporting the Whites until March of 1920.

At home, the more involved the RAF became, the more overt their participation was and the British were becoming less enthusiastic about being part of the offensive. There was pressure to make the RAF part of the Military Mission which would mean withdrawing their pilots from combat. However as the RAF squadrons were so valued by the White Army, particularly by General Wrangel, a compromise was reached and in October 1919 The RAF was made part of the British Military Mission  of South Russia headquartered at Taganrog while the men of the flight squadrons were invited to volunteer for missions. Nearly all of them did.

Damien Wright recounts some of the adventures  and tragedies of 47th Squadron in his book Churchill’s Secret War (pages 404-429). One such tragedy occurred when one of A Flights planes was landing with engine trouble. The observer stood up as they were coming into land and the pocket of his coat caught on the bomb toggle dropping a bomb directly beneath them and blowing their wings off, dumping the fuselage on the ground and detonating the rest of their bombs, killing both men. Being inclined to bang into walls and get caught on doors and the like, that is the sort of chilling accident I can identify with.

C Flight from Wright’s book (p.406). Mitchell is at the top right. Click to embiggen image.

Another story captures all the precariousness, adventure and freewheeling spirit of flying in the early days of aviation. Around the time Tsaritsyn fell to the Whites, in the Summer of 1919, two DH9s took off on a reconnaissance mission. Because of the heat, the crews, a captain and observer in each craft, were dressed only in shorts and shirts. One of the planes sustained ground fire which holed its fuel tank. The observer, a Lieutenant Mitchell, climbed out onto the wing and plugged the leak with his thumb. The second plane was put out of action by more ground fire and forced to land at which point a unit of Bolshevik cavalry bore down on them. The first plane, with the holed fuel tank, held off the cavalry, then landed where Mitchell continued to fire at the cavalry while the crew of the second plane torched their craft and scrambled into Mitchells’ cockpit on the first plane, which took off, a tad unsteadily it has tobe said, Mitchell resuming his place on the wing. The flight back to base took 50 minutes. Mitchells’ legs were burned from exhaust gases. Both he and his captain were awarded DSO’s (Distinguished Service Orders) (Kinvig, p.226).

The retreat of A flight and B Flight have been mentioned elsewhere. They would leave many of their supplies behind. As recounted a few weeks ago, my granddad who was attached to the RAF, helped to burn B Flights Sopwith Camels before evacuating Taganrog. Later, in Novorossiysk, at the height of evacuation, a number of Sopwith Camels, DH9s, RE8s and other aircraft would be deliberately crushed by a tank to prevent them getting into Bolshevik hands. The tank then committed hari kiri by waddling into the sea (Wright, p.423). Collishaw flew for the last time on March 29th when he made a reconnaissance of the whole of the front line. He confirmed that the Reds were about to launch an attack. That evening the last British ship left Novorossiysk with my granddad aboard (Gunn, p.227).

Further Reading & References

Gunn, R., (2013), Raymond Collishaw and the Black Flight, Toronto:Dundern.

Kapisto, L., (2011), British Intervention in South Russia, Helsinki:Helsinki University.

Kinvig, C., (2006), Churchill’s Crusade:The British Invasion of Russia 1918-1920, New York:Hambledon Continuum.

Occleshaw, m., (2006), Dances in Deep Shadows:Britains Clandestine War in Russia 1917-1920, London:Constable & Robinson.

Smith, J., T., (2010), Gone to Russia to Fight: The RAF in South Russia 1918-1920,  London:Amberley.

Wright, D., (2017), Churchill’s Secret War:British & Commonwealth Intervention in the Russian Civil War 1918-1920, Solihull:Helion Publishing.

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15 responses to “THE RAF IN SOUTH RUSSIA : A BRIEF DESCRIPTION

  1. Love this post, being a fan of the mighty Sopwith Camel. 🙂 How lovely of Gen. Wrangle to send a thank you letter in the midst of all the chaos, he’s the star of the show for me, or at least best supporting actor next to grandad.

    Liked by 2 people

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