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1: From Czar Nicholas II to King George V

Ivan was in the middle of a crowd of brothers and sisters, and it was hard to bring about any special attention. So without notice he left home in 1914 and joined the russian army and became a soldier of the Czar.

After severe battles he got badly wounded and was transferred to a military hospital in Petrograd. (The city was formerly called Saint Petersburg, but was renamed to Petrograd in 1914. In 1924 when Lenin died, the name was changed to Leningrad. In 1991 the city became St. Petersburg once again). They told him that every bone in his foot was smashed and that it had to be amputated, which he stubbornly refused. And, against all odds, he fortunately recovered completely. He was in the hospital from 4 December 1914 until 4 April 1915, and had the opportunity to watch the flight training going on from a nearby flying school. He then decided that he would do almost anything to learn 'the art of flying'.

While being in the hospital he was lucky that his good looking nurse was the daughter of a general, who was in the staff of Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich Romanov, the man who founded and fostered Imperial Russia's first Air Force. With the help of her influential father he wangled a transfer from the Army to the Flying School at Gatchina, some 30 kilometres south of Petrograd. From October 1915 and until August 1916 he was further trained at the Moscow Flying School.

After training Ivan Smirnoff was sent to the 19th Squadron at Lutsk on the Eastern Front. In almost no time he became one of the Czar's most proficient fighter pilots. Barely twenty-one he now held the Cross of St. George, which he had won at Lodz when in the army, the Honorary Gold Sabre of St. George, the Order of St. Anna, the order of St. Stanislaus and a half a dozen lesser awards as well. He was now a legend in the Russian Air Force.

Ivan Smirnoff in Imperial Russia's Air Force

Although Commander Kousakoff himself, had the highest record in shooting down enemy planes, Ivan was still among the best. Some sources claim that he was the second highest Ace, while others are ranking him as Russia's 4th highest. But according to this link, he might have been pushed a little further down the list after he stopped flying for Russia in 1917. He brought down twelve enemy planes. Compared with the Western Front this number might seem small, but for the Eastern Front, where the Germans did not rely greatly on air strength, it was phenomenal.

The aircraft had a 110 hp engine, opposed to the former type N with only 80 hp

German prisoner of war (left) and Ivan Smirnoff.
The aircraft is a French Morane-Saulnier type I.

The German pilot had been forced to land and, subsequently, sat his plane on fire and threw his uniform into the flames. On the picture he is equipped with a Russian cap. A couple of years after the war, they met once again. The German was one of Ivan's passengers from London to Amsterdam. After the flight they had lunch together where they exchanged war memories from the Russian front.

Among others, Ivan flew the Morane-Saulnier type N, I and V 'Bullet' monoplanes.

Above picture is from 1917. Ivan Smirnoff is sitting in a Morane-Saulnier I (developed from type N). Having no ailerons, lateral control was achieved by warping the wings using a complex system of wires. Machine gun was a British Vickers Mk I synchronized by a French Alkan-Hamy gear....

Be aware that in 1914 when the war broke out, aircraft was centered totally on artillery cooperation and photographic reconnaissance, nothing else. In 1915 there were still not much fighting between enemy aircraft, while pilots and observers were only carrying hand weapon. But in 1915 the first serious attempts to shoot through propellers were made by the french Morane-Saulnier aircraft company in cooperation with the famous pilot Roland Garros. Because of the unsynchronized system though, the propeller blades had to be protected and shielded with steel plates. On that account a lot of bullets therefore never came any further than that. But the possibility of real air to air dogfighting was born.

Roland Garros used a modified Morane Saulnier Type L for the real life testing. In 3 weeks time, he managed to shoot down 6 german aircraft and to make the entire german air fleet turn into panic. But some weeks later Roland Garros unfortunately had engine trouble and was forced to land behind enemy lines. The germans took his aircraft to Berlin and Anthony Fokker was called upon from Schwerin (more about A. Fokker at bottom of page 3). He was asked to come up with a similar solution within 48 hours. But Anthony Fokker went much further than that; on the train back to Schwerin he developed the idea of a synchronized system instead. In the following days he and his most trusted men, Reinold Platz, Heinrich Luebbe and Bernard de Waal further refined the principles of a fully synchronized reliable machine gun. The basic principle was simple enough; everytime the propeller was in the right position, it mechanically signalled back to the machine gun that it was allowed to fire IF the pilot pulled the trigger accordingly. Above information is partly taken from the book "They fought for the Sky" written by Quentin Reynolds.

....Ivan's record in affairs of the heart was not less impressive. He had never been without a sweetheart since his schooldays and now that he was "a decorated hero" the competition for his favours grew hotter. But though he loved them all and gave convincing proofs of his devotion, too, in the end the girls all married other officers. For Ivan Vasilyevich, they found, was so in love with flying that he had precious little taste for the responsibilities of matrimony.

Russia 1917. Ivan is seen on top of the pyramid.

Still during WW1, but after the revolution in 1917, the private soldiers took command. They had received a message from Comrades Lenin and Trotsky saying that officers, as a class, was abolished. There were ugly scenes; many officers committed suicide, saying that if they did not take their own lives the Bolsheviks would do it for them.

Ivan and two friends, Longin Lipsky and another officer whose home was in Vladivostock, decided to escape. According to military journals from the 19th squadron, the following statement was made on 2 February 1918: "Three officers (Smirnov, Lipskiy and Silaev) from the 19th squadron who disappeared from the force on the night of December 14, 1917, and up till now have not returned, are excluded from the lists of force, while being considered deserters."

In the middle of the night they went off in an 'expropriated' automobile. In high moonlight they drove the 30 kilometres to the railway station, Kamenets Podolskiy. It was important not to look as officers on escape. They were aware of that, and to some extend they managed to camouflage as ordinary peasant people. After a couple of more days it became even easier for quite natural reasons. They looked more and more like trash.

From the railway station they traveled via Kiev, Moscow and the Trans-Siberian Railway and finally ended up in Vladivostock.

Now a struggle took place to find a friendly western Consulate that would help them to fly under some other flag. They were rejected from both the American and the French Consulate. The British Consul was sorry, but gave them their first glimmer of hope. If they could get to British territory, he said, there might be a good chance of joining the British Army if not the Royal Flying Corps itself (later that year on 1 April 1918 and eight months before the war ended, the RFC was merged into the new Royal Air Force).

England - almost a world away. But if Ivan and his friend Longin Lipsky wanted to get flying again, they had to keep going. So, on various ships, via Shanghai - Hong Kong - Saigon - Singapore - Rangoon - Colombo - Aden - Suez - Port Said - Alexandria and the Strait of Gibraltar, they finally managed to reach Plymouth.

After the long journey with lots of difficulties, Ivan and Longin arrived only to see more problems coming up. The War Office in London told them that no foreigners were accepted into the Royal Air Force!

Fortunately they had a following meeting with the great General Brancker (later Sir Sefton Brancker) at Gwdyr House, member of the Air Council. He asked them what they wanted to do. "We want to fly with your Air Corps but the War Office says we can't" said Ivan. "Who the hell told you that?" he roared. "The RAF is crying out for experienced pilots. Of course you can join!"

In 10 minutes time, giving orders on the phone, everything was settled and Ivan with his friend was told to meet at Blanford. After a short introduction there, they passed all the tests on the Avro, Scout Fighters and the SE 5.

Sir Sefton Brancker who helped the two friends to join RAF

Years later, in 1930, Sir Sefton Brancker was killed in an airship disaster. The airship R 101 crashed into a hillside at Beauvais in France. Seven hours into her maiden voyage to India, and in increasingly threatening weather, the life of the largest airship in the world at that time, had come to a sudden end.

Ivan had now been flying solo a long time and was being coached in mass-formation, air-battle, and flying attack on ground objects. Shortly after he became a flight instructor for british officers.

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