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Canadians Against The Bolsheviks: Air Force, Part 25

Members of No. 47 Squadron of the RAF gather for a photo in Russia in 1919. [PHOTO: RAYMOND COLLISHAW COLLECTION, LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA203556]

Members of No. 47 Squadron of the RAF gather for a photo in Russia in 1919.

Historian Owen Cooke identified three levels at which a country interferes militarily in another nation’s conflicts. The first involves military advisers and technical experts who support one side in a civil war. Next come units of foreign “volunteers” operating on the favoured side, still nominally subordinate to the host country’s civil and military authorities. Finally, the intervening power introduces large forces that turn local administrations into puppets of the occupying power. Britain operated at all three levels during the Russian intervention of 1918-1920, which itself began with one objective that may have been realistic, and mutated into another which was not.

The Russian Imperial monarchy capitulated to popular revolution in March 1917 and the eastern front gradually dissolved. Eight months later a shaky provisional government was overthrown by a Bolshevik coup d’état. By March 1918, the Bolsheviks had signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk which took Russia out of the war altogether. The Western Allies, wishing to reconstitute the eastern front, intervened on the side of anti-communist forces in what was becoming a vicious civil war, described by Winston Churchill himself as “a war in which there were no real battles, only raids and affrays and massacres…a war of few casualties and unnumbered executions.”

When Germany surrendered in November 1918, the need for a second front dissolved, but the Allied intervention continued, partly from anti-Bolshevik conviction and partly out of loyalty to anti-communist allies–the so-called White Russians. Only when the Whites were defeated–through internal divisions, incompetence, and the utter ruthlessness of the communist leadership–did the western allies withdraw their expeditionary forces.

Canadian gunners supported British troops in North Russia until September 1919; 41 Canadians were present with British units in southern Russia, and 4,000 Canadian soldiers were sent to Vladivostok in April 1919, only to be withdrawn in June. Yet Canadians were still in Russia–as members of the Royal Air Force, engaged in the last desperate rearguard actions against the advancing Bolsheviks. How did they get there and what did they accomplish?

For most of the war Canada had no national air force; Canadian airmen served in British units and went where British commanders directed. The first RAF personnel in Russia landed at Murmansk–not far from the Barents Sea–in June 1918; the air commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur C. Maund, was British-born but Canadian by adoption. His pilots included Lieutenant Frederick C. Robinson of Winnipeg, who commanded a flight of DH.4 bombers that subsequently supported troops advancing along Russian railway lines.

The bombers had been designed for service in Britain and France and were ill-suited for Russian conditions, particularly the harsh winter. Over the next year the aircrews performed most of the duties associated with the western front–reconnaissance, photography, directing artillery fire, contact patrols and tactical bombing. Aircraft sometimes descended to incredibly low altitudes, stampeding horse transport to sow confusion among the enemy. A new task was that of dropping propaganda leaflets in what became as much an ideological as a military campaign. Bolshevik air opposition was virtually nil in northern Russia, but anti-aircraft fire was another matter.

One of Maund’s men was Captain Dugal MacDougall, a seaplane pilot from Lockport, Man. On July 18, 1918, he flew his first reconnaissance mission. On Aug. 7, he was airborne for two hours and 15 minutes, escorting a flotilla of paddle steamers conveying Allied troops up the River Dvina. He was subsequently decorated with the Distinguished Flying Cross and two Russian honours. MacDougall was killed Aug. 25, 1919, when an ammunition barge blew up alongside HMS Glowworm, killing 20 or more officers and men.

Eventually, some 60 Canadians would fly and fight on the northern and southern Russian fronts. Space does not allow a complete listing of names or accounting of deeds, and some of those involved were–admittedly–only nominally “Canadian.” Lieut. Harvey A. Miller, awarded an Air Force Cross in October 1919–apparently for instructing Russian airmen in North Russia–was described by some as being from Idaho. 2nd. Lieut. Robert B. Gordon, though a Canadian Expeditionary Force veteran, had been born in Britain and ultimately was demobilized in that country.

Flight Lt. Archibald J. Rankin was decidedly Canadian, having been born in Edmonton and served with the CEF before transferring to the flying services. Early in 1919 he was sent to Archangel, North Russia, and assigned to Her Majesty’s Ship Pegasus. This converted merchant ship weighed 3,070 tons and accommodated nine seaplanes. On July 20, Rankin was injured when his aircraft crashed into a barge on takeoff. For him the campaign was over, although he subsequently made the RAF his career, rising to air commodore.

Another Canadian in North Russia was Lieut. Frederick J. Stevenson, DFC, of Winnipeg, later a renowned bush pilot. He was with a reinforcement of Fairey seaplanes sent to Murmansk in July 1919.

Intervention and its accompanying aerial effort came later to the southern front, but given British interests in Persia (Iran), Afghanistan and India, it lasted much longer. At one time or another, four RAF squadrons were committed to the campaign, using seaplanes and landplanes. A single seaplane operating from a small vessel managed to attack a Bolshevik flotilla at Alexandrovsk on the Caspian Sea five times in a single day–May 21, 1919. It scored numerous bomb hits and created havoc among the ships. This was no small accomplishment, for the machine had to alight on the water after each raid, be hoisted aboard for rearming and refuelling, then be hoisted back to the water for the next strike. Two of these five sorties were flown by a Canadian crew, specifically 2nd. Lieut. Howard G. Thomson of Belmont, Ont., and Lieut. Frank R. Bicknell of Dunnville, Ont. Both men were decorated for their actions. Another Canadian, 2nd. Lieut. Robert G.K. Morrison of Chesterville, Ont., flew one seaplane sortie against the flotilla.

The British eventually withdrew from the Caspian/Caucuses region in September 1919, but they had already committed other resources to support General Anton Denikin’s armies in southern Russia. Maund was transferred from northern Russia to the southern front in April 1919. Fewer British troops were assigned to the region, but the RAF commitment was substantial. It was to support the Russian troops in much the same way as western front operations had been conducted during the war. At the same time, it was expected that experienced RAF personnel would train a new air corps for Denikin.

The plan, however, never succeeded. The training program itself was badly organized. Some pilots, assigned to instruct Russian aircrew, turned out to be unfamiliar with the RE-8s that had been allocated for training. It became necessary to switch some pilots from operational to instructional duties and replace them at the front with the failed instructors. Paradoxically, the Russian pupils were usually old, experienced Czarists aircrew who resented young foreigners telling them what to do. One White unit refused instruction altogether and tried flying the RE-8s on their own, although the Russian mechanics servicing the aircraft were comparatively unskilled. Within days, seven pilots had died in crashes and rumours spread that the RE-8s were unsafe.

Operationally, the size of the theatre–coupled with fluid movement rather than static fronts–immediately stretched the RAF to its combat limits. Flying was unlike anything previously encountered in France. Fuel, munitions and supplies moved long distances through a chaotic logistical system, made frail because it depended on an ill-administered and deteriorating railway network. Military operations were normally conducted some 15 miles on either side of the railway lines; the large tracts between those lines were patrolled by Red and White cavalries that lived off the country and seldom engaged one another.

Denikin’s campaign achieved a triumph on July 1, 1919, when he captured Tsaritsyn (later Stalingrad, now Volgograd). Shortly afterwards, Major Raymond Collishaw, Distinguished Service Order, Distinguished Service Cross, and DFC arrived with fresh aircrew to replace men seeking demobilization. A native of Nanaimo, B.C., he was a leading western front ace and a man ideally suited to command. He took charge of No. 47 Sqdn. just as fortune turned against the Whites. The Bolsheviks were counter-attacking and Denikin’s forces needed all the help the RAF could offer.

Red Army commanders had threatened to crucify any British fliers taken prisoner. And so against this backdrop, on July 30, 1919, a strange drama was played out involving two DH.9 bombers and four men.

The aircraft had been detailed for a reconnaissance mission and raid on Bolshevik forces. One machine was hit by ground fire and landed five miles behind Bolshevik lines. Hostile cavalry were closing in. The downed crew burnt their machine and held off the enemy with a Lewis machine-gun, apparently intent on selling their lives dearly. At this point, Captain Walter F. Anderson of Toronto, and his observer, Lieut. John Mitchell rushed to the rescue. Their aircraft had already been damaged; a bullet punctured their fuel tank and Mitchell was on the top wing, somehow hanging on as he stanched the flow of petrol with his thumbs.

Nevertheless, the two chose to land, and the crew of the downed machine climbed aboard. Anderson took off again, but with petrol leaking rapidly, desperate measures were needed. Mitchell remained atop the wing, slowing the loss of fuel, but the engine exhaust stack burned his legs. This ordeal lasted 50 minutes and Mitchell was hospitalized immediately after landing. Anderson and Mitchell were recommended for the Victoria Cross, but corroborative evidence was lost during later evacuations and they ultimately received DSOs instead.

Unlike the northern front, Bolshevik forces occasionally used air assets–an observation balloon here, a former Czarist Nieuport fighter there. On Aug. 28, Anderson, with Capt. George G. MacLennan of Owen Sound, Ont., as his observer, shot down an observation balloon, then attacked an airfield at Tcherni-Yar, destroying a Nieuport on the ground. MacLennan, however, was wounded by ground fire and bled to death before the DH.9 could regain its base. New equipment was ordered for both the combat and training elements of the air mission, but only a few Sopwith Camels had arrived by the end of September. Collishaw was flying one on Oct. 9 when he shot down a Bolshevik Albatross D-5 fighter–his 61st victory claim. Nevertheless, within three months the Camels had been worn out.

Denikin himself was the author of his own misfortune. Having captured Tsaritsyn, he continued to advance and ordered other White armies to converge on Moscow. Yet there was no concentration of forces, no particular strategy and no manoeuvring. Every major force had open flanks; the front grew to 1,200 miles, yet there were gaps everywhere. In the rear, corrupt officials and the decomposing railway system undermined all efforts. Peasant conscripts, weary from five years of war, deserted. Denikin reached Orel, 250 miles from Moscow on Oct. 13, 1919. A week later he ordered a retreat that ultimately carried him back to the Crimea.

Meanwhile, British parliamentary opposition to the intervention in Russia led to a decision to withdraw No. 47 Sqdn. It was disbanded on Oct. 1, 1919, and promptly replaced by A Detachment, RAF, with the same organization, personnel, aircraft and tasks as its predecessor. When Moscow appeared within Denikin’s grasp, General Peter Wrangel proposed a bombing raid on the city. It would have involved concentrating the aircraft–40 in all–at an advanced airfield near Kharkov. The War Office forbade the attempt, declaring that it would have “no military value.”

A Detachment shrank as the campaign went on; its only reinforcements came from other RAF units which were being withdrawn. On occasion it was necessary to burn unserviceable aircraft to prevent their falling into Bolshevik hands. Collishaw’s force was finally evacuated from the Crimea in March 1920. British air operations continued until June, using ship-based seaplanes co-operating with Black Sea naval units. These were the last gasps of a failed air campaign. Wrangel maintained a White presence in the Crimea until 1921, when he, too, was driven into exile.

Of the 60 or so Canadians who flew in Russia, four were killed, four wounded, and six more were injured in crashes. Decorations were liberally dispersed–one Commander, Order of The British Empire, one Officer, Order of The British Empire, one Member, Order of The British Empire, one DSO, 10 DFCs, and two Air Force Crosses. In addition, the various Russian generals showered their allies with old decorations–at least 14 to Canadians alone. In addition, France bestowed the Croix de Guerre on eight Canadians for services in Russia.

History is riddled with ironies, and our story would be incomplete without mention of Lieut. James S. Griffith. Californian by birth, he joined the Royal Flying Corps just before America entered the war. He trained in Canada, went overseas–earning a DFC in France and a Bar to the DFC in Russia. In the case of the latter he was singled out for numerous low-level bombing raids and the destruction of a Bolshevik balloon. Griffith served in the American forces during World War II and was included in a party that negotiated United States Army Air Force bomber bases in Russia.

Most of the Canadians who flew in Russia returned home to civilian occupations as prosaic as dentistry. Some remained in the RAF to fight later wars, colonial as well as global. These included Collishaw, Rankin, and Lieut. Herbert S. Broughall of Toronto. Walter Anderson stayed with the RAF until 1927, became a commercial pilot, and died in a crash at Gatwick airport, London, in September 1936. Fred Stevenson continued to fly in the context of Canadian bush operations, but was killed in 1928. Capt. Harold Edwards of New Aberdeen, N.S., who had gone from a German PoW camp to the RAF force in Russia, joined the postwar Royal Canadian Air Force and rose to the rank of air marshal, fighting numerous battles with the RAF to ensure a distinct Canadian aerial presence overseas during WW II.

The Russian intervention failed when its primary purpose became redundant with the German capitulation. Thereafter, it was driven in different directions by competing, conflicting forces–American, British and French differences of opinion, foreign office versus war office, David Lloyd-George versus Winston Churchill. Most of all, it foundered because the White commanders were identified too closely with the departed Czarist regime, and peasant soldiers who either sought neutrality through desertion or preferred domestic tyrants to foreign intruders. It all has a terribly familiar ring.

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