Fortress Aircraft of the World War I

War of motors

In the early 20th century, the structure of the Russian Army included 12 military districts (St. Petersburg, Moscow, Finland, Vilna, Warsaw, Kiev, Odessa, Kazan, Caucasus, Turkestan, Siberia and the Amur). The Don Cossack Army was an independent military formation.

The armed forces of the Russian Empire, as well as in many other countries around the world, had a twofold structure: the army and the navy. Even when in the second half of the 19th century some countries, including Russia, began to form the first military units using air as a new dimension for the projection of military power, these units continued to operate as part of an al-ready established twofold structure. Typically, those units were part of the army, where, in addi-tion to infantry and artillery units, a significant role was played by the engineer corps.

The World War I is often called the First War of Motors. Not counting the small wars that preceded this Great War, applying the new mobile technical means of war, WWI not only became the scene of a large-scale application of new military equipment, but also showed so clearly for the first time that the size of army was not anymore crucial in achieving the victory in combat con-frontation. A basic tool in the hands of the skillful warrior was his technical equipment, the ability to maneuver quickly and to focus the previously unprecedented firepower on the main attack di-rection, the vector of which was selected based on the topography of terrain and the reconnais-sance results of the location, amount and structure of enemy forces.

While wars were not clearly mobile confrontations, outposts, the fortification of which was carried out by engineer troops, were a major deterrent to the advance of enemy troops before the start of the 20th century. Unlike infantry and cavalry, these troops had a large percentage of techni-cally competent personnel. Therefore, it is not surprising that many of the scientific and technical innovations in the army were born as part of engineer corps.

Human resources

One of such basic innovations for the Russian Army was the creation of the troops using the air for the military and practical purposes in the structure of the Military Engineering Department in the late 19th century. As early as October 27, 1884, at the direction of the Minister of War, P.S. Vannovsky, the formation of “regular” team of military balloonists began in St. Petersburg. These were the first steps towards the birth of the future staff of the Russian Air Force. The first com-mander of the unit was lieutenant of the 1st Engineer Battalion, Alexander Matveyevich Kovanko, who as commander of the Training Aeronautic Park created in 1885 on the basis of “regular team”, was promoted to Major General on April 26 (May 9), 1906, after the Russian-Japanese War, thus becoming the world’s first general of aeronautics, although technically still remaining in the engineer corps.

The first assignment of a new military formation, “regular team” of the military aeronauts, was the development of new aeronautical equipment in the form of balloons and kites, which were originally supposed to be used for reconnaissance and surveillance. Moreover, the use of these air-craft for practical free flights in the military was not planned, except for scientific purposes, alt-hough the experiences of application of balloons for aerial bombardment of the besieged fortresses were already known at the time. Therefore, this equipment was used mainly in the attached form for a vertical climb to a certain height to be able to conduct a more distant observation of the sur-rounding area, which was extremely important for the early detection of enemy troops, their esti-mated numbers and determination of the direction of their movement. This feature of aeronautic equipment before the emergence of free flight airships was one of the main reasons of adopting this new equipment for the defense of fortresses. Subsequently, with the development of aeronau-tical equipment, the unstable in the air flow round spherical aerostats were replaced by the cigar-shaped observation balloons.

In December 1903, a manned aerodyne rose in the sky, and in 1909, Louis Blériot’s flight across the English Channel proved to everyone that progress in aviation enables a fresh look at the use of airplanes, which are capable of flight far beyond their airfield. Aviation equipment, adopted at the turn of early 1920s, also joined the already existing structure of the former fortress aeronau-tical and now fortress aviation units.

We deliberately do not consider military pigeon stations that were in the structure of field units and fortresses, as they largely duplicated the goals and tasks performed by the aircraft lighter and heavier than air, and were not associated with the immediate involvement of people in flight.

My home is my fortress

Airplanes were initially used for reconnaissance, but on the more distant boundaries from their fortresses, as well as for communication with field units and command headquarters, located far from the front lines.

In addition to aerial reconnaissance and communications, fortress aeronautic and aviation units were also involved in the adjustment of artillery fire of the fortress batteries. The use of air-planes as bombers or as a means of fighting enemy airplanes and balloons at the time of the be-ginning of the World War I has not yet been considered. The pilots of the future new kind of troops would get this experience on the battlefields of the Great War.

Fortress aeronautic companies of the Russian Imperial Army (RIA) have been formed at forts and garrisons of Vyborg, Kovno, Grodno, Warsaw, Osovets, Modlin, Brest-Litovsk, Ivango-rod, Kars and Vladivostok. In Sveaborg the aeronautic office, and in St. Petersburg the aeronautic battalion started operation. Thus, Russia entered the World War I, having seven fortress aeronauti-cal companies in the European part of the country (in Brest-Litovsk, Grodno, Ivangorod, Kovno, Modlin, Osovets and Sveaborg). Every company had three supervisory stations (aeronautic posts). Later, one more company was created at the Naval Fortress of Emperor Peter the Great in Revel.

Russia had no fortress aviation units in the army at the beginning of the World War I. Only a few army corps had their aviation units that, accordingly, were called the corps aviation units. However, later in the war, fortress aviation units in Kronshtadt, Ivangorod, Sevastopol, Narva, Vladivostok, Grodno, Nikolaev, Brest-Litovsk, Kars, Kovno, Modlin and the Osovets Fortresses were formed in the RIA. But they didn’t last long: in the course of the war along with the fall of the fortresses, the number of the fortress engineer units, a part of which were aeronautic and avia-tion units, decreased. They were disbanded, and their personnel was transferred to replenish the field units. However, a number of the fortress companies assigned to field units retained their names until the collapse of the Russian Army in the winter of 1917-1918.

From Ivangorod to Brest

In the initial period of the war the aeronautic units were subordinated directly to the Chiefs of Staff of corps or fortresses they were assigned to. In this maneuverable period of the World War I, which lasted for the Russian theater of war until the fall of 1915, field aeronautic units were relatively seldom used. However, this period gave a vivid example of the use of aerostats in the defense of Ivangorod and Osovets Fortresses.

The Ivangorod Fortress defended Warsaw from the south, forming with the Modlin Fortress a fortified area. August 13, 1914, the commandant of the fortress was appointed Major-General Alexei Vladimirovich von Schwarz – a talented military engineer, a member of the defense of Port Arthur.

Schwarz asked in Brest for tethered aerostats, and on August 19 the 6th aeronautic company with two stations of kite balloons was sent at his disposal. And on August 29 14th aeronautic com-pany arrived in Ivangorod, formed from the battalion of the Officers Aeronautic School (OAS) (commander – Captain A. N. Wegener). In mid-September the garrison was reinforced by the 5th aeronautic company commanded by Staff Captain Duksht-Dukshinsky.

The first combat of the balloonists occurred during the Warsaw-Ivangorod operation (Sep-tember 15(28) – October 26 (November 8), 1914), which led to the disruption of Hindenburg’s plan of a flank attack on the Russian forces advancing in Galicia.

The observation balloons explored the surrounding area in places of armed clashes, adjusted the artillery fire and monitored the air for the early detection of enemy aircraft, airships and bal-loons. The ascents were made even when the wind speed was 18–26 m/s. Atmospheric conditions were extremely unfavorable. Low clouds, fog and smoke from the fires made it difficult to ob-serve. So the balloons had to be placed very close to the enemy positions, constantly risking get-ting shot by the enemy, which is why a reserve balloon was always at hand, ready to replace the destroyed one.

In case the enemy opened fire on the observation balloon, the ground crew maneuvered the balloon via a winch by height and moved it from place to place. As a result of skillful actions of the balloonists, the ground forces provided valuable information and coordinates of targets, while the balloonists themselves were able to avoid losses. As a result, the work of a tethered balloon of the 14th aeronautic company near Ivangorod was marked in the order of the commandant of the fortress as “valiant and useful”.

Aerostats over Osovets

During the 1915 campaign, the Osovets garrison, together with a redeployed from East Prus-sia 57th Infantry Division, has successfully repelled the attacks of superior forces of the 8th German Army for more than six months (from January 30 (February 12) to August 9(22)).

The Osovets Fortress was established in 1882–1887 and was intended to cover the Białystok railway junction and the Brest-Litovsk operational direction.

During the battle for Osovets in July 1915 the 9th aeronautic company adjusted the artillery fire near the town of Augustów, which tried to break the floodgates of the Augustów Lakes to the canals that fed the Bóbr River, because the enemy has closed the floodgates to drain the marshes that prevented the offensive. For days the aerostat has corrected the fire for the heavy artillery bat-tery specifically put forward for that. However, due to lack of artillery shells only one of three floodgates was destroyed, but without the aid of an observation balloon, this task could have been virtually impracticable.

Still, as a result of the Gorlice-Tarnow breakthrough of the German-Austrian troops on April 19 (May 2) – June 10(23) 1915 in Galicia, Russia lost all the fortresses at its western border: July 22 (August 4) – Ivangorod, July 23 (August 5) – Warsaw, August 6(19) – Modlin, Au-gust 9(22) – Osovets and Kovno, August 12(23) – Brest-Litovsk. After that, many fortress aero-nautic and aviation units were reorganized and assigned to field armies and corps.

Serbian “Triangle”

We cannot but mention the international role of Russia in the formation of aeronautical de-partments of other countries. For example, at the request of the commander of the first aeronautic unit of Serbia, Major Kosta Miletic, Russia at the beginning of July 1915 gave Serbia two kite bal-loons made by the St. Petersburg plant “Treugol’nik” (Triangle).

After the February Revolution and the First All-Russian Congress of Polish military in Pet-rograd (end of May 1917), the Russian Provisional Government allowed to form the 1st Polish corps of legionaries of up to 25,000 people in Belarus. In August 1917, command of the corps was taken over by General I. R. Dowbor-Muśnicki. The corps consisted of three infantry divisions, cavalry and heavy artillery, and the aeronautic unit was supposed to be added to it.

By the Order No. 877 dated November 9, 1917, Chief of Staff of the Supreme Command, Lieutenant-General N. N. Dukhonin ordered to reform the 27th army aeronautic squad into the 1st Polish aeronautic unit, retaining the property, staff and the tables of the unit. However, this de-cision was appealed by soldiers of the squad who declared the unit to be Ukrainian. After that N. N. Dukhonin imposed a resolution on its previous decision, “Put on hold”.

The combat work of the Russian pilots volunteers in France is also well known, but originally Russian volunteers also served in aeronautic units of France and the United States.

One of such examples is the famous Russian pilot Nikolai Evgrafovich Popov, who lived in France. After a serious injury that he received in an accident on May 21, 1910 in Gatchina during a flyby on a Wright airplane for the War Department, he could not fly a plane anymore. However, in late 1916, he managed to become a steersman of a French airship, used in the patrol and recon-naissance service of the sea to combat German submarines.

And the ex-Chief of Vladivostok aeronautic park, Lieutenant Colonel-Engineer, F. A. Postnikov, who in 1906 emigrated to the United States, became a first lieutenant in the Aer-onautical Division of the Signal Corps of the U.S. Army on March 21, 1917. Having an experience with kite balloons during the Russian-Japanese War, he became captain on July 21, 1917, and as a junior military pilot trained American balloonists at Fort Omaha, Nebraska. Then, in January-May 1918, as a guest aeronautical engineer, he participated in the experiments and the development of dirigibles with the Goodyear company (USA).

Thus, we can say with certainty that the aeronautic units of the Russian Imperial Army be-came the basis of the Russian Air Force and contributed to the development of aviation and aero-nautics in other countries.

Vitaly Lebedev, Chairman of the Section of History of Aviation and Cosmo-nautics of St. Petersburg Branch of the National Committee for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology of the Russian Academy of Sciences, specially for the magazine “New Defence Order. Strategy”, e-mail:

Our partners