Aviation pioneer Boris Sergievsky began his flying career in the World War I air battles over the Eastern Front.
While the exploits of air aces in the skies over France during World War I remain legendary, the feats of their counterparts over the Russian Front have been all but forgotten. One Russian ace, Boris Sergievsky, survived years of combat against German, Austrian, and Bolshevik forces before making his way to the United States in 1923 and becoming a pioneer of American aviation.
Born in Russia in 1888, Sergievsky learned to fly in 1912. Despite his interest in aviation, however, he began his World War I adventures as an officer in the 125th Infantry Regiment. In 1914, after two years of infantry battles, Sergievsky fell into a man-trap and injured both of his ankles. These injuries prevented him from continuing his service with the infantry and made him available to become one of Imperial Russia’s earliest military aviators. The following passages on Sergievsky’s World War I aviation experiences have been excerpted from his memoirs.
During my stay at regimental head quarters while recovering from my ankle injury, an order came asking officers to volunteer for aviation. The first phase of the war, when the infantry was making sweeping maneuvers and marches, was over. We were dug into dirty trenches, and infantry warfare was becoming increasingly more monotonous and inactive. I was eager to take up aviation and applied for a transfer.
My request was granted, and I was as signed to the Sevastopol Military Aviation School. But first I was sent to the Twenty-fifth Scouting Squadron [with the Third Army near Pinsk] as an observer to learn how military aviation worked in combat.
The Twenty-fifth Scouting Squadron was equipped with French Voisin two seat observation planes. Its tasks were scouting, photography, and correction of artillery fire. For protection we had one machine gun. The Voisin was slow and clumsy, which was a big disadvantage when we encountered much faster and more maneuverable German planes. Our assignments mostly called for flights deep into enemy country, and many of our planes were shot down there.
One bright day [June 6, 1916] we received orders to go one hundred kilometers behind the German lines over a certain railroad station and record the number of railroad carriages, the formation of the trains and which way the trains were headed, the number of trains between this station and the next stations east and west and which way they were heading.
This mission called for several hours of flight behind the enemy lines at a section of the front where we knew the Germans had fighter squadrons. Our squadron leader said he did not want to select a crew for such a dangerous mission. He offered to let us draw lots. When the pilots drew, a good friend of mine, Lieutenant Khudiakov, drew the assignment. He said that if I were willing to go with him as his machine-gunner and observer, he would feel better protected. Looking for an interesting experience, I was very glad to accept his invitation. This interesting experience started as soon as we crossed the line. We were attacked by a two-seater [observation plane] that tried to bar our passage. My pilot told me to keep it away with machine-gun fire but did not maneuver into fighting position. We proceeded on our mission, and the enemy landed after several at tempts to stop our progress.
After collecting all the information that the staff wanted, we turned back. We were not far from home when two single-seat fighters attacked us. The Voisin, a pusher biplane, is very vulnerable from the rear; planes attacking us from behind were well-protected from my fire by our own propeller and tail surfaces and could safely approach to close range and shoot at us.
I saw our wing fabric ripped by many tracer bullets. The cockpit was also shot through in many places and splinters of wood flew around. I was shooting as best I could, while Lieutenant Khudiakov kept flying straight east, unable in the clumsy Voisin to dogfight with the single-seat fighters.
Suddenly I saw him slump down on the stick, and our plane started to fall out of control. I stopped shooting and reached over him to grab the stick. I had managed to straighten out the plane when he came to. He was shot through both thighs. His right leg was badly fractured, and he could not operate the rudder. From my position behind him, I could only partly help him to operate the stick. He told me that he would try to make a landing before he lost too much blood, if we could make it in the next few minutes.
Pushing the nose down, we dove across the lines at an altitude of only a few hundred meters. The Germans in the trenches concentrated their fire on us but fortunately did not hit us. Close behind our lines I saw hospital tents marked with the Red Cross. Pointing them out to Khudiakov, I asked him if he could land on the lawn in front of the tents. He made a beautiful landing but fainted immediately after and was taken out of the cockpit unconscious. Only the fact that we landed right in front of a field hospital, where an immediate operation was performed, saved his fractured leg from amputation.
I telephoned the information gathered during our flight straight to corps head quarters and then called our squadron to tell them where I was. Soon a car arrived with a reserve pilot who flew our tattered plane to our squadron field, where I counted 65 bullet holes in the cockpit and wing fabric.
When I arrived, the squadron leader said he would not send me out again for at least 10 days, so that my nerves could be steadied after such a terrible experience. But two days later we all had to fly again. The squadron was needed about 250 kilometers south, where heavy fighting had started with the beginning of the Brusilov offensive. [General Alexei Brusilov launched the last Russian offensive of the war on June 4, 1916, and continued it into September, losing a million men.]
In November 1916, after months of aerial combat [as an observer-gunner], I proceeded to the aviation school at Sevastopol, in the Crimea. There I learned to fly all types of military planes while trying to qualify for single-seat fighters Pilots who wanted to get assigned to fighters had to go through special stunt training and an additional school of aerial shooting and fighting.
I was lucky enough to get through all my school training in only five months without a single accident. After graduat ing, I was assigned to the Second Fight ing Squadron, located at Radziwilow on the former Russian-Austrian border in Galicia. I considered myself very lu cky, as this squadron had a fine reputation with many air victories to its credit.
The organizer and first commander of this squadron was Captain [Yevgraph Nikolaeovich] Kruten , whom I had known in Kiev before the war. An ener getic and conscientious young man, and one of the best pilots I ever met in my lif e, he already had seven officially cred ited aerial victories.
I was glad to join the squadron of such a distinguished leader, but when I arrived at Radziwilow I found another officer in command-Captain Baftalov sky. Captain Kruten had been promoted to lead a group of six squadrons some 150 kilometers to the south.
The work of the Second Fighting Squadron was very strenuous. At day break we were in the air, flying in pairs over our sector, trying to prevent German scouting and bombing planes from crossing. Those who remained on the ground had to be in full readiness right by their planes and went up as soon as German planes were reported by tele phone from the trenches. The enemy’s aerial activity on this section of the front was intense. We were flying an average of eight hours a day, which, in a single seat fighter, is very tiring and nerve wracking. The only days of rest we had was when it rained and no flying could be done.
The first few days after my arrival, the squadron leader always took me as his wingman. He told me not to join the fight but to watch him and learn how to maneuver. The squadron’s losses were heavy. Young pilots from the flying schools were always arriving to replace those killed in action because most of our losses were killed, not wounded. Within two weeks of my arrival at the squadron I was already considered a veteran, as many younger and less experienced pilots had arrived after me.
I was soon allowed to fly on my own and had several successful engagements, with German planes reported shot down, but most of our fights were over the German lines, and my first few victories could not be officially credited to me. To get official credit for a plane brought down you had to bring it down on our side of the lines.
The standard equipment of our squadron was the single-seat Nieuport fighter of French design, most built in Russia under license. They had a splendid climb and perfect maneuverability but were not quite as fast as the latest German planes. As I grew experienced in aerial fighting, I developed my own methods of attack. My main principle was to keep the enemy plane in range as much as possible, by making a series of consecutive, short attacks from the enemy’s blind spots. Our squadron leader was a pilot of an older school. He tried always to attack from a higher altitude, flying straight at the enemy plane from the rear and ignoring the fire from the gunner in the back seat. Pressing his attack, he would turn away only to avoid a collision, then climb again and make another straight run.
At first, I followed the same tactics, but judging by the number of holes in my plane after every engagement, I knew that I was taking too many chances and had to develop more effective tactics. With some other pilots, I practiced a stunt that became my favorite method of attack and was successfully adopted by other members of the squadron. Instead of diving on the enemy plane from behind, I would maneuver to make a head on attack from a higher altitude. Due to our relatively great closing speed, I considered my shooting unnecessary and his shooting not dangerous. But I had noticed that whenever I approached this way, the enemy machine-gunner would swing his gun to aim forward, trying to meet me with his fire.
When I was right above the German plane, I would roll upside down and dive right on top of him, already flying in the same direction. While the machine gunner was swinging his machine-gun mount around to fire at me, I could shoot at the enemy plane at close range. As soon as I saw the gunner was ready to fire I would sideslip, fall below, and make a second attack from below the enemy’s tail, where the gunner could not shoot at me.
This maneuver required very accurate judgment of the relative speeds of the two planes, so I could open fire at close range before the enemy gunner could turn around to shoot. But there was a danger of making the wingover too close and colliding in midair. It was much easier to fight a single-seater, which could shoot only forward with a fixed machine gun, just as I had. Then it was a question of who was more skilled in maneuvering.
I had a memorable fight against a German single-seat Roland fighter. We met at the front and exchanged a few shots, then we both began to climb steeply. Flying right alongside him, I could even see the German flier’s face and little mustache.
When I finally got a few feet above him, I attacked, firing a few shots at close range before I had to veer off to avoid a collision. I fell below him, and it was his turn to attack. We continued maneuvering this way, each time able to take just a few shots at each other. Then we would find ourselves at the same altitude and start to climb again.
Our fight lasted for almost half an hour before I finally got a chance to climb higher. The German, seeing that he could not out-climb me, turned toward the German lines. That was my best chance. At full throttle I dove after him. He started to dive to, but he could not dive as steeply as I could, because he would not reach his lines in so steep a descent.
This time, I fired at least one hundred rounds at him. When his engine gave out a cloud of smoke, I knew that the fight was over, and I felt that I should not try to kill him. It was sufficient that the plane was damaged or destroyed, and he would be forced to land. Following him, I saw that his engine had stopped and he was simply gliding westward. Estimating the distance to the German lines, I realized that he might be able to glide to safety. Reluctantly, I maneuvered around him and started to shoot again, forcing him to change his direction and shorten his glide.
He landed in front of the first line of our barbed wire. I flew back to our field, took a car, and drove with some of my friends to the place where the enemy plane had landed.
When we arrived, the infantry officers told us the pilot had jumped out of the cockpit and started to run toward the German lines. Our infantrymen climbed out of their trenches and ran after him, trying to capture him. In his heavy flying uniform, he was losing the race. He flung off his leather coat, and his nearest pursuers stopped to investigate the pockets, giving him a good lead again. He repeated these tactics, dropping some piece of clothing whenever he saw that his pursuers were close behind. By the time he reached his own trenches, he was running in his underwear, but when the German troops started to shoot at his pursuers, they had to turn back. The only flying trophies we had of this victory were his helmet, his leather coat, and his uniform. The Germans, realizing that the plane would be taken behind the Russian lines as soon as it got dark , started an intensive artillery fire, which partly destroyed the Roland. This was the first victory officially credited to me, because I was able to produce a damaged engine and parts of the destroyed German plane as proof, together with many affidavits from the infantrymen witnessing the end of the dogfight, when I followed the German plane to his landing in front of our barbed wire. [This victory was reaffirmed years later in America, when Sergievsky described the fight to a gathering of air men and a voice from the back of the room cried out, “I was that man!”]
Destroying German observation balloons became for a while my favorite sport. I would cross the lines at about 10,000 meters and fly right above a balloon. The anti-aircraft artillery would start firing at me, but at such an altitude I felt pretty safe. I would circle above the balloon until one of the shells burst close to my plane or right below it. Then , pretending that my plane was hit, I would make a falling-leaf descent, then go into a tailspin, while trying to come as close as possible to the balloon.
The Germans would cease firing , thinking I was already shot down. When I was level with the balloon, I would suddenly straighten out and fire incendiary bullets into its side. As it burst into flames, I would dive to ground level and fly away across the lines very low, skimming the treetops.
I succeeded in shooting down three balloons following these tactics, but I was successful only once at each location. On my second attempt in the same area, the Germans kept firing as my plane was falling down, making the descent very dangerous; I had to pull out and fly away without firing a shot. A warning about my tactics doubtless was forwarded to all sections of the front, because after destroying my third balloon I never was able to attack them this way again.
In June 1917 my squadron leader, Captain Baftalovsky, was severely wounded in a fight over the German lines. Following his usual tactics, he was diving straight toward a German two-seater, ignoring the gunner’s fire. He was shot in the right shoulder, the bullet passing through his body and coming out through his right thigh. Being very strong, he kept control of his plane until he could land right be hind the Russian trenches.
He was immediately rescued and carried to the nearest hospital. There he insisted on being transported to the squadron’s headquarters. He wanted to transfer the command to his successor personally. Being the senior in rank, I was to assume command.
It was a difficult time to be in command, due to the tense political situation. The front was still holding fast, but in the rear revolutionary propaganda was undermining the provisional government and destroying discipline, and the position of those who had any responsibility was getting more and more difficult. But I could not complain of any trouble in my squadron; our mechanics remained loyal even though some had extreme socialistic ideas.
Alexander Kerensky [the minister of war after the mutiny of the Petrograd garrison on March 12] appeared at our front at this time and by endless speeches tried to persuade the soldiers to maintain discipline and go on with the war. But all too often during his eloquent outburst there would be a loud voice from the crowd of soldiers, “If you want to make war, go to the trenches yourself!” The revolutionary propaganda was rapidly spreading and affecting all the branches of the service more and more.
Our wagon train men, the most socialist element of the squadron, had a meeting, to which I was invited to represent the officers. They declared that they had taken care of the horses long enough and now the officers should take care of the horses. I told them that the officers were willing to take care of the horses, provided that they would fly our planes. A long silence followed my offer; then their leader said that they would have to sends soldiers to the flying academy, and that meanwhile they would carry on with the horses.
German aviation was still very active, trying to see what was going on behind the front infested by the revolutionaries. We had more flying and more aerial fighting than ever.
That summer a young lieutenant named Shudnovsky arrived at the squadron straight from flying school. He was just 20 years old and more of a child than even his age suggested. He was most eager to take part in aerial fighting, which he thought was the most thrilling and interesting thing in the world.
I was already the oldest and most experienced pilot in the squadron, all those who were there before me having been killed or wounded. So I ordered Lieutenant Shudnovsky to fly paired with me and to take no part in fights, but just look and learn. But whenever we had a fight, he could not keep out of it and tried to help me out. I carefully taught him my favorite maneuver of attack, but I repeatedly warned him that his wing overs onto German planes were coming too close.
One beautiful day in August 1917, when he was flying in a pair with me, we saw three German planes flying in battle formation and attacked them. I saw him make a very close wingover over a German two-seater and collide with it in midair. His plane cut the German’s fuselage in two. His wings were torn away by the impact and started to fall apart from the fuselage. That was at an altitude of 8,400 meters and about 15 kilometers behind the German lines.
In a few days a German plane flew low over our flying field and dropped a message. This message included Shudnovsky’s wallet with his money, some photographs of his family that he was carrying with him, a detailed description of the place where he was buried, a map of the cemetery with an indication of his grave, and photographs of the funeral procession, the church service, the grave, and the headstone.
There was also a request to acknowledge the receipt of this message and to tell them the fate of their two pilots who were shot down on the previous day. (Both had been shot down by me and taken prisoner.) They gave an hour when they would expect a return message and promised not to attack the messenger plane that would fly over their field then. I flew the message myself, and they kept their promise; though they had a few planes in readiness on the field, no one tried to take off and fight me. After that exchange of messages we started our everyday fighting again.
Our squadron was often assigned to escort our slower, two-seat observation and photographic planes. We would fly much higher, circling above our two seaters. When German planes attacked them, we would dive on the Germans, and a regular dogfight would start. In some of these fights it was hard to tell who should be credited with victories, because several of our planes might be shooting at the same plane simultaneously. In such fights the heaviest losses were always among the slower observation planes. They could not maneuver fast enough to gain a tactical advantage. With the advent of faster fighters and more elaborate tactics, accurate machine gun fire became increasingly important in aerial fighting. We set up a firing range and practiced machine-gunning at moving targets practically every day. But this did not help us when our guns jammed during an aerial fight.
One day we caught a German observation plane 50 kilometers behind our lines. With two fighters we would surely bring him down. My partner was a very skillful fighter, and we attacked the German plane from both sides at once. The German gunner could not decide which of us was more dangerous and was wasting quite a lot of his shots.
After the second attack my machine gun jammed. I knew I would need a few minutes to fix it, and I decided to pretend that my gun was all right. I kept diving at the German plane, trying to at tract the gunner’s attention so that my partner could bring the plane down.
I was surprised to see how close my partner went on every attack, and still the enemy flew on. My plane was already riddled with bullets, and I was getting perfectly mad. To my astonishment the German flew safely across the lines and further pursuit became useless.
My partner and I land ed together on our field. We both jumped out of our planes and ran toward each other with fists high in the air. I screamed at him that my machine gun had jammed, and I was making sham attacks to give him a chance to bring the plane down. He burst into laughter. His gun had also jammed, and he had been taking chances to allow me the same opportunity.
I always regretted having to kill or wound anyone in aerial fighting. The main objective was to bring the plane down, if possible behind our lines so that we could use it. It was always good to take pilots prisoner, weakening Austro German aviation, but the idea of killing an airman always disgusted me. Fighting the elements was quite a sufficient danger, and a certain sportsmanship and fraternity among airmen existed even after years of war.
Our fighter planes were much faster and more reliable than the observation planes in Russian service, so if army headquarters had some important reconnaissance task, it often was assigned to one of the fighter squadrons. Of course a pilot who is flying a single seater and trying to watch for a sudden attack from behind can hardly do a thorough job of observing the ground. Therefore, whenever such a task was assigned to our squadron, at least two and some times three planes would go out together. One pilot would fly low and concentrate entirely on his maps and ground observations, making all the notes and leading the flight. The accompanying plane or planes would ignore what was going on on the ground and not even know where the lead plane was taking them. Their job was to protect the scouting plane by watching for any aerial enemies and at tacking them on sight.
I particularly liked such assignments because it was always so interesting to see what was going on behind the enemy lines. The sensation of crossing the enemy lines and going deep into their country was like visiting another world. I discovered that there were certain altitudes where groundfire was particularly dangerous. Above three thousand meters, no rifle or machine gun could reach us. But the zenith batteries [anti aircraft guns] installed at important points along the front had a very high reach, and, having measured triangular bases on the ground, they were able to find out by observation and calculation not only the height but also the speed of the plane. Their first volley would often bracket the plane. Even flying at great heights-up to 5,000 or 5,100 meters would not help against them.
Respecting the zenith batteries, I worked out a plan for getting past these danger zones. When approaching one, I would fly straight, figuring that their first shots would miss me.
When I saw their first shells explode somewhere near my plane, I tried to visualize what was going on in the battery. I would tell myself, “Now the battery commander is correcting for the wind.” I would allow, say, 15 seconds for his calculations. Then I would allow a few seconds for his new commands to the battery and a few seconds more for the order to fire. When I calculated that the shells were actually on the way, I would change my course 10 or 20 degrees. Usually, I would see shells from the zenith battery burst exactly where I would have been if I had kept my course straight. Then I would repeat the same tactic until I was out of the danger zone. By applying such tactics, I almost always succeeded in passing the zenith batteries without the slightest damage to my plane. But on one occasion I probably made a mistake in my calculations or the battery commander waited a few seconds longer and found out my new course.
One of the shells made a direct hit.
My lower-left wing was very badly damaged, and the “V” wing strut of the Nieuport broke in two. The longer part of the “V” was entirely destroyed, and only the shorter strut leading to the rear spar of the upper wing was holding. I was more than 4,500 meters high, and my whole lower-left wing was moving as I looked at it, back and forth, up and down. I was expecting any second it would collapse; it was actually hanging only on the wires, and the strut had no rigidity whatever.
In those days we had no parachutes. I was afraid to glide in a straight line. I did not think that the wing could stand the stress of a straight flight. Shutting off my engine to eliminate all possible vibrations, I started to glide while side slipping on the right, healthy wing. That way the left wing was carrying the least possible load.
In this odd way, slipping on the right wing, I crossed the lines and glided all the way to our flying field, only straightening out for the landing. As the wheels touched, the left wing fell on the ground. That was one of my narrowest escapes.
The high command often needed to know whether Germans or Austrians were occupying the trenches in front of us. It was harder and harder to get prisoners from behind reinforced positions and several lines of barbed wire. Communication through spies and neutral countries was too slow, so such intelligence tasks were often assigned to our fighter squadron.
Flying low enough to see the color of the enemy’s uniforms sounded extremely dangerous, but I soon learned that if a fast plane skimmed the ground, any enemies who saw it would already be too late to shoot at it. I applied this tactic very successfully and recommended it to my squadron members. I would fly right along the trenches, seeing soldiers jumping out of their dugouts to look at the plane and knowing that before they could shoot, I would be hidden by some uneven ground or a little forest or hill.
I knew the contours of the countryside very well and studied photographic maps of the trenches in front of us, so I could pinpoint a German regiment simply by the color of their uniforms. I could tell headquarters what part of the trenches the Germans occupied and where the Austrian units began.
There were a few bullet holes in the wings after such an expedition, but they were probably accidental. I do not think anybody could aim at us.
Every day when the weather permitted, both sides flew. The many flying hours and very long days in summertime made most of the pilots so tired they would fall asleep on the grass in the shadow of their planes’ wings. No artillery or machine-gun fire, no matter how close, would wake them, for these sounds did not concern us. But at the slightest hum of an airplane engine, the pilots would be in their cockpits, wide awake and ready to take off and fight.
There were so many fights, and they were so much like each other, that it would be hard to describe them all.
Returning to the front after a leave, I found, as usual, several of my officers missing, lost on the other side or shot down in aerial battles on our side. Their replacements were again young men, almost boys. It was always a painful responsibility to send these inexperienced boys over the lines, but I had no alternative. The losses in aviation were very high, and the schools hardly could keep up, sending newly made aviators to replace the losses at the front.
While we were having our share of troubles at the front, the influence of the revolution kept growing. Insubordination was now common in other branches. We were luckier in aviation; our mechanics were loyal, and officers conducted most of our air combat, so we continued to fight. But after the Bolsheviks took power in Petrograd in November 1917, the Revolutionary Committee of the Army prohibited all fighting.
Toward the end of November, a German two-seat plane flew over and proceeded to carry out observation work behind our lines. When I ordered my plane out of the hangar, the chief mechanic told me: “Captain, if you fly now and fight this German you will get in trouble with the Revolutionary Committee of the Army. Our own committee will try to protect you, but they are getting quite mad out there, and you had better watch your step.”
I did not stop to argue with him. I was in a hurry to get the German while he was way behind our lines. I went up, fought, and brought the German down. That was the last plane I shot down on the Russian Front.
For his defiance of the Revolutionary Committee, Sergievsky was tried by the Communists and barely escaped with his life in December 1917. He then flew for the White Russians against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War, with a brief interlude as a British Royal Air Force flight instructor. His last defiant act as a Russian aviator came at the end of the civil war when, with enemy soldiers closing in on all sides, he shot his plane with his service revolver rather than allow it to fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks.
After the civil war, in 1923 Sergievsky traveled to the United States, where he became reacquainted with Igor Sikorsky, who had been a fellow student at the Polytechnic College of Kiev. During the next decade, as the Sikorsky company‘s chief test pilot, he tested the Sikorsky flying boats that Pan American Airways used to establish its worldwide routes. Along the way, he set seventeen world aviation records, including eight made in a single flight with Pan Am‘s technical consultant, Charles Lindbergh, sharing the controls and the records with him.
Sergievsky also flew pioneering flights across uncharted African and Latin American jungles in the 1920s and 1930s, tested early helicopters and jets, served with the United States Army Air Forces and Office of Strategic Services during World War II, and flew his own aircraft on charter flights until 1965. He passed away in November 1971. MHQ
ALLAN FORSYTH, who is related to Sergievsky by marriage, is co-editor with Adam Hochschild, Sergievsky’s nephew, of the aviator’s memoirs. Forsyth excerpted this article from the memoirs, which have recently been published under the title Airplanes, Women, and Song.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 1999 issue (Vol. 11, No. 3) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: An Ace for the Czar
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