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2: First World War had come to an End

To their disappointment, Ivan and Lipsky did not manage to participate on the Western Front before the whole thing was cancelled, in November 1918 the war was over. Hundreds of thousands of men were now streaming home, but unlike the others, the two friends had no home, no one waiting to welcome them.

Still in Royal Air Force, Ivan got a job at Netheravon. He was to be an instructor to Russian pilots released from German concentration camps. Many of them had been prisoners since the wood-and-wire-crate days of 1914-15. They had never even imagined the modern machines they were now expected to fly. Some of them were in the last stages of fatal illness, some so nerve-shattered as to be almost certifiable. Ivan had to be nurse and psychiatrist as well as instructor. A tough assignment, but it gave him new confidence, making him forget his own troubles.


De Havilland DH9

One of the military aircraft that Ivan Smirnoff flew at Netheravon was the De Havilland DH9.
The national markings are of the standard British type; at the time the rudder stripes on
British aircraft were the same as French ones - something that was not reversed until 1930.


Soon the number of pupils were tailing off and Ivan was warned that the school would have to close. He was then offered the choice of serving with White Russian troops on the north or on the southern front near Novorossisk at the Black Sea. He chose the latter while Lipsky was now an interpreter under General Denikin's command down there.

In 1919 he sailed from the East India Docks in a freighter carrying aeroplane, tank and gun parts for the Denikin Army. At Constantinople (Istanbul), where they called to pick up final instructions, they heard devastating news. General Denikin had suffered a major defeat and had ordered the evacuation of Novorossisk. Nevertheless the ship continued on to Novorossisk, still being in the hands of the White Russians.

At the same time Ivan understood that the planes he had expected to fly were now on their way to India. So he felt trapped. How would he ever get out of this situation? The White Russians, fearing a wholesale exodus of their own officers, would never grant him an exit visa. Useless to stay in town, the Reds were expected any moment.

From some friends Ivan heard that a colonel, who had been a cadet with him at the Moscow Flying School, was about to leave with six thoroughbred racehorses. The colonel had been given a visa because the horses were valuable and must not be allowed to fall into the hands of the Reds. He was to leave on a boat sailing at midnight. The colonel suggested that Ivan was hidden between the horses as a stowaway...

...Sailing back to Constantinople Ivan wondered: "Was ever a man in such a humiliating position? Imagine! Smirnoff, ace of the Imperial Russian Air Force, decorated hero, instructor of brave British officers, now sheltering underneath the belly of a female horse! What would the British chums say if they knew?"

An interesting story about those racehorses is, that they have been mentioned in yet another book, written by her highness, Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna (1882-1960), a sister to the last Russian Czar, Nicholas II (1868-1918) and to Grand Duke Mikhail Alexandrovich Romanov (1878-1918) mentioned before on the previous page.

During the war and until 1917 she had been working as a nurse, mostly in the southern part of Russia. Now, she and her husband Nicholas Kulikovsky (1881-1958) and their two small sons, Tihon (1917-1993) and Guri (1919-1984), were trying to escape the Reds from their residence on Crimea at the Black Sea, and early 1919 they managed to reach Novorossisk by boat. Afterwards they decided to travel north to a place near Rostov. But later in 1919 it became obvious to them that it had been a great mistake, because the Reds were advancing there too.

Everybody, including the little Olga family, were now rushing for Novorossisk at the Black Sea hoping for shipping opportunity, hoping to get away on time.

Grand Duchess Olga wrote in her book that among the refugees in Novorossisk she saw a colonel on a magnificent horse, trying to control a string of racehorses that he wanted to rescue from the Reds. Most certainly, that was the very same racehorses Ivan Smirnoff was now stown away behind!

The Olga family got away on the overcrowded steamer "Habsburg", and via Constantinople, Belgrade and Vienna they finally arrived in Copenhagen. They were to visit King Christian X and Queen Alexandrine of Denmark.

In 1920 after some turmoil, Ivan ended up in Paris and finally got a job as chief test-pilot. He was going to test and buy surplus machines for General Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel, the commander of the White Russian Army who were still fighting the Bolsheviks in southern Russia.
General Wrangel
One day he was asked if he would go to London to see a Mr. Handley Page who was the head of an organization called the Aircraft Disposal Company, trying to get rid of surplus warplanes. It was Handley Page who later supplied RAF with the famous Hampden and Halifax bombers before and during WW2.

Now, at this very moment, as a passenger on one of those first commercial planes between Paris and London, Ivan suddenly (at last) knew his destiny - that come hell or high water; he would never rest content till he had a job as a commercial pilot.

Being in England he tested huge amounts of machines and bought what ever was able to fly. But unfortunately, on the third day, he read a headline in some newspaper: "Defeat of General Wrangel... Evacuation of White Russia." Now again, Ivan was going to be unemployed.


Back in Paris he was frightening the way his few francs disappeared, though he cut out wines, cigarettes even. It was no help knowing that thousands were as badly off. The hunger in his belly increased the misery.

Mr. Handley Page, 1919
One morning he decided to leave all that misery behind him. Travelling third class this time, he reached Dover and London. He phoned Mr. Handley Page who thought he was going to buy more planes (obviously he had not yet heard about the defeat of General Wrangel). Ivan did not dare to tell the truth beforehand. It was only after being invited out to lunch and after a lot of eating and drinking he finally informed Mr. Handley Page about the terrible situation. Well, everybody laughed themselves helpless. Ivan was forgiven and was offered a four-pounds-a-week fitter's job in the company.

One day in September 1920 he met one of his former Russian pupils from Netheravon, who was now flying commercial for SNETA, the Belgian company that preceded SABENA. Ivan went to Brussels, was tested in a De Havilland DH9, the kind of plane he had already flown at Netheravon. He was hired immediately.

The De Havilland DH9 was a comparatively slow machine for warfare with its maximum speed of 182 km/h, but for civil transport it was just fine. It provided a useful load carrying capablity and was very cheap because of the large number of surplus DH9's available after the war (4091 were build). So the DH9 became very successful to air transport companies those days. Early air services between London, Paris and Amsterdam were operated by DH9's which were slightly modified to carry 2 or 3 passengers where the rear gunner formerly had had his place.

Already next morning he was booked to fly a service from Brussels to Croydon (London) with two passengers. The record flying time was then three hours and a half. But they glided down at Croydon exactly three hours and twenty minutes after take off; Ivan had broken the record on his first run.


After the War DH9's were modified as two or three passenger versions.
Smirnoff in cockpit of a Belgian DH9 from SNETA.


Besides the pilot's Antarctic Explorer outfit, the passengers got hot-water bottles as well as flying-boots and gloves to overcome the lengthy open air trips!

Ivan was busy, now, on routes from Brussels to Paris, London and Amsterdam. How different and how delightful it was to land in a capital city with money to spend - to be free of debts - to eat and drink without having to count the cost first.

Soon after Ivan joined, probably early in 1921, SNETA took delivery of some incredible Farman Goliaths. They had Salmson twin engines, 260 hp each. Travel speed was only 120 km/h @ 2000 metres altitude.

It was unfortunate that the unimaginative designers had built the Goliath to take a dozen passengers, because this, with the pilot, meant thirteen souls when the plane was full. Superstitious people refused to fly in them and called them "flying hearses". Ivan laughed. His only complaint was the Goliath's slowness.

The incredible Farman Goliath

The Farman Goliath was first introduced in 1919 and afterwards new models were seen frequently until 1929. Though the purpose of those planes altered between civilian and military purposes, one thing was not changed: The pilot still sat with his head outside the fuselage (see right below).

Goliath interior Pilot is sitting outside!

Then one September morning in 1921 disaster came along. Clouds of thick black smoke swept from the hangars at Brussels; where seven of the company's planes were ablaze.

Ivan, once again, was a man without employment, a foreigner, with nothing to do and nowhere to go. But this time he was better placed to land a new job. His reputation had grown in the twelve months spent with SNETA, and the infant airlines of the Continent were competing for the flying skills available.



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