The tragic end of Aleksandr Kozakov signaled the demise of the Imperial Russian Air Service.
On September 7, 1914, Austro-Hungarian pilot Franz Malina and his observer, Friedrich von Rosenthal, reconnoitered the Russian airfield near Volya-Vysotska for the second day in a row. That was one time too many for 27-year-old Russian pilot Piotr N. Nesterov, a prewar daredevil who on September 8, 1913, had been the first to loop an airplane. Taking off in his unarmed Morane Saulnier G scout, he apparently tried to bring the enemy Albatros B.II biplane down by ramming it with his landing gear, but crashed into it instead. None of the three airmen survived the collision. Nesterov would be awarded a posthumous Order of St. George for what the Russians still regard as history’s first air-to-air victory.
Some seven months later, Russian pilot Aleksandr A. Kozakov adopted a similar tactic, using an ingenious device consisting of a grappling hook with an attached explosive apparatus. Another airman, future ace Ivan V. Smirnov, watched in wonder from the ground as Kozakov took off in his own Morane Saulnier G. Smirnov later wrote:
On a fine sunny morning I was sitting outside the observer’s tent on the airfield when I saw Kousakoff [sic] take off to chase an enemy observer plane away. A very exciting air battle developed in the clear blue sky. Then he actually did get above his opponent—so close it seemed he was on top of him—then we saw the anchor fall on its spider’s web thread. It hooked on to the main wing of the enemy. The tail dropped and for a second it seemed the plane was hanging there in the air. Then the plane righted itself again, and to my dismay a wingtip connected with the tail of Kousakoff’s machine. They flew on for some minutes like this, but then the German lost control and fell to earth like a brick, dragging Kousakoff. Disaster seemed very near. Hardly 200 ft from the hard ground, they seemed to disentangle; a miracle! Kousakoff tore his machine out of the deadly downward course and landed rough but safely, only breaking his propeller. His opponent was a fraction too late and dived his nose into the ground. He became our prisoner.
Kozakov’s report stated: “The damned anchor got caught and was dangling under the bottom of the enemy plane, so I decided to strike across the upper surface of the Albatross [sic] with the undercarriage of my plane. I pushed the elevator down and collided.”
That was the beginning—and also the end—of the grappling hook tactic, but Kozakov’s unlikely methods on March 31, 1915, led to his being awarded Russia’s Golden Sword of St. George, the first of many decorations. He would eventually become the Imperial Russian Air Service’s leading ace.
Russian interest in military aircraft began with lighter-than-air craft. As early as 1885, Russians pioneered flights of several types of balloons, primarily for reconnaissance and observation purposes, that were used to a limited extent during the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. But the flying service really began with Tsar Nicholas II’s cousin, Grand Duke Mikhael Aleksandrovich, whose enthusiasm focused on airplanes. By the time World War I began, Russia actually had more planes than either Germany or France, but the quality of its aircraft was significantly inferior to the more modern fleets of other countries.
Aleksandr Kozakov was a 25-year-old cavalry officer with five years’ army experience when he was accepted into the Imperial Russian Air Service in February 1914, just five months before the war broke out. While pilots on the Western Front came to be characterized as hard-drinking, devil-may-care adventurers, Kozakov was a different breed. Born of well-to-do parents and educated in rigid military schools, he was a strong believer in the orthodox church and the Russian throne, with a strict sense of morality and conservative values. In the air Kozakov exhibited all the instincts of a killer, however, and he was also physically impressive: “A blond giant, just over six feet tall, egg bald, spur-mustached, with blue eyes,” according to one contemporary observer.
During 1915 the weather frequently proved a greater threat to Russian pilots than enemy aircraft. On August 29, for example, Kozakov was flying with his friend, observer/mechanic Piotr Kirs, when heavy winds caused them to abruptly lose altitude. Kirs, who was not wearing a seatbelt, fell from the plane to his death. Accidents and friendly fire incidents also proved devastating to the Russian air fleet, totaling many aircraft and depleting the ranks of aircrews.
Kozakov began his aviation career in the IV Corps Detachment, but on September 2, 1915, he was transferred to the XIX Corps Detachment, and one month later was appointed its commander. He was still flying an unarmed Morane Saulnier at that point, using a shotgun to take occasional potshots at enemy planes he encountered, but always without result. Late in 1915 he persuaded engineers to mount a Maxim machine gun on his new aircraft, a Nieuport 10, firing from a fixed position at a 24-degree angle. He made his first attack with his new weapon on February 5, 1916, but found firing an obliquely mounted machine gun more difficult than he had anticipated. For several months thereafter he targeted enemy planes without scoring any hits. Finally, on June 27, he made his second kill, another Albatros. On July 29, in one of the largest Eastern Front air battles, 11 Russians took on 11 German bombers near Dvinsk. Kozakov, still flying his Nieuport 10, managed to bring down an Albatros in that engagement.
Kozakov’s third victory came just before his squadron was pulled off the front line during a restructuring of air forces. Three air corps detachments—the IV, XI and XIX—were consolidated into the 1st Combat Air Group, with Kozakov appointed as its commander. Based near the important railroad town of Lutz, the group was soon resupplied with newer French-built fighters, the two-seater Spad A.2 and the Nieuport 11 “Bébé” single-seat scout. While still far from state-of-the-art, they were a definite improvement over the unit’s previous mounts—especially the Bébé, which was equipped with a machine gun mounted above the wing to fire straight ahead, over the propeller.
Under Kozakov’s example-setting leadership the XIX Corps Detachment had become known as the “Death or Glory” squadron, whose pilots challenged their foes in aircraft sporting a white skull and crossbones on black rudders. After taking command of the 1st Combat Air Group, Kozakov expanded that aggressive attitude to all three detachments. Pursuing local air superiority over their stretch of the front lines, his group became the Russian equivalent of Manfred von Richthofen’s renowned “Flying Circus.”
Piloting a Nieuport 11 on September 6, 1916, Kozakov shot down a German two-seater for his fourth victory. Two days later he dueled with two enemy fighters and sent one smoking toward friendly lines, although it was not confirmed. The weather again became a frequent problem for fliers that fall, but when Kozakov happened upon three Austro-Hungarian aircraft on December 21, he managed to down a Brandenburg C.I, his ace-making fifth confirmed victory.
In February 1917, Kozakov’s group was transferred to the Romanian front and reequipped again, this time with Nieuport 17s and 21s, Spad VIIs and Morane Saulnier Is, all with Vickers machine guns synchronized to fire through their propellers. The unit settled in near Stanislav, Romania, where it saw heavy action that spring. Kozakov scored four times in May, on the 6th, 10th, 17th and 25th. He was flying a Nieuport 17 on the morning of June 8 when he and Captain Pavel Argeyev sent a Brandenburg C.I down in flames near Kozov for his tenth victory. Ground troops later captured the Brandenburg’s two-man crew.
During a June 27 sortie, Kozakov joined Ernst K. Leman in challenging three enemy planes at 1700 hours. Although the Russian ace shot down two of them, he did not see them crash before his guns jammed and he was forced to land behind friendly lines. Refueled and rearmed, he took off again at 2100, found three more Germans and attacked. Kozakov was wounded for the first time in that engagement, but only after he and Leman put a number of rounds into a Rumpler C.I, which crashed. Kozakov’s arm wound was not serious, although it kept him on the ground for several weeks.
The group leader demonstrated his killer instinct on July 24 when another Russian shot down a German. Kozakov later wrote: “I quickly noticed the enemy pilot trying to run away into the forest, so I fired at him from the air. I almost hit him with my gun fire, but he unfortunately managed to escape.” Three days later he bested another Brandenburg C.I, and he scored victory number 15 on August 2—yet another Brandenburg, shot down near Dolynyany.
By then the war was going badly for the Russian army, but Kozakov and his “Death or Glory” boys continued to fight on. On August 8, he shot down an unidentified enemy aircraft, and on the 29th he downed an Albatros C.III.
On September 11, Kozakov forced down another Brandenburg inside Russian lines. Hours later he showed up at the crash site in his car, picked up the two wounded crewmen and drove them back to his base for medical treatment—proof that he sometimes showed compassion for a defeated enemy. He and Lieutenant Aleksei Shirinkin shared in bringing down a Brandenburg on September 23, and on November 26 he and Ivan Smirnov, then commanding the XIX Detachment, downed an enemy scout for Smirnov’s 11th and Kozakov’s 20th and final victory.
Meanwhile, the Russian army and navy had been in turmoil. In the fall of 1917, the tsar had abdicated, and by March 1918 the new provisional government under Aleksandr Kerensky proved ineffective. After the failure of a Russian offensive on June 18, the army collapsed in a series of mutinies and desertions. The Communist Bolshevik party began taking over the government in October-November. As the Bolsheviks began negotiating for peace with Germany, Russian pilots were ordered to avoid combat.
Members of the Imperial Russian Air Service were clearly in peril. A handful of its officers, along with those of other armed services, were even targeted for assassination by the Bolsheviks. While some fliers, including Shirinkin, became part of the fledgling Soviet air fleet, many of the aces fled south, where General Anton Denikin’s White Army was fighting the Red revolutionaries. Others traveled to Siberia to join the Cossacks, and a few departed to continue fighting against their original enemies, as volunteers in the French air service.
In December the new Soviet government promoted Kozakov to colonel and gave him command of the 7th Air Division, with orders to discontinue all combat flying. At that point, however, the ace was reportedly plagued with health problems—as well as confused by the volatile political situation. In January 1918, he resigned and reported to a field hospital.
The Bolshevik government repeatedly urged Kozakov to return to command, but he and more than 30 pilots and mechanics eventually decided to join British forces in north Russia, where he was put in command of the Slavo-British air detachment in Archangel. The journey north was a miserable ordeal that involved crossing Red-controlled areas to the territories surrounding Murmansk and Archangel recently wrested from the Bolsheviks in the Allied Intervention of 1918. The region was swampy and bug-infested in summer and frozen solid in winter, with temperatures often reaching 30 below.
The Royal Air Force had dispatched additional personnel and equipment from London to Archangel to strengthen the Slavo-British air units already flying out of the fields near Obozerskaya, on the Vologda Railroad, and Bereznik, on the Dvina River. The RAF contingent landed in Archangel on September 30, 1918, with the new north Russian Allied commander, Maj. Gen. William E. Ironside. The overall RAF commander was Colonel Kenneth Reid van der Spuy, a South African who had recently served in Africa and on the Western Front. Code-named “Elope,” the unit fielded a mixture of de Havilland DH-9 bombers and Sopwith F1 Camels, as well as a few floatplanes.
The Allies were hoping to lure the war-weary Russians back into the fight. Joined by American troops in September, the British, French, Canadian and other contingents numbered more than 11,000 troops, scattered across hundreds of miles of inhospitable territory.
The land forces, under Ironside’s command, were supported by ships off both Murmansk and Archangel, as well as by the air units. Colonel van der Spuy headquartered in Bakharitza, near Archangel. As soon as Kozakov arrived, he was sent to command his unit at airfields around Bereznik, near the junction of the Dvina and Vaga rivers, supporting Royal Scots and Americans of the 339th Infantry Regiment fighting Bolshevik forces. Temperatures during that bitter winter of 1918-19 were constantly well below zero. Mechanics struggled to service the aircraft in the freezing weather, and flying proved next to impossible.
The flying field at Obozerskaya had been carved out of heavily wooded lands by locals and whatever troops were available during the early days of the intervention. According to Lieutenant E.O. Munn of the American Military Mission, reporting on an inspection trip in late December 1918, it was certainly not a user-friendly site: “This field though recently enlarged by cutting and clearing is very small and easily overshot on fast landing. The ground is kept cleared of soft surface snow by Peasants, but in the spring will be nearly useless with mud…there will be many crashes on landing.” Munn had high praise for the Russian and Allied airmen, however, describing them as “experienced and capable pilots.”
Many of the Allied casualties were the result of accidents. Colonel van der Spuy wrote of one attempt to rescue a Russian pilot, Aleksandr Svechnikov, who had crashed in his DH-9 behind Bolshevik lines. By the time they reached Svetchnikov he was frozen stiff, still seated in the cockpit with his hands on the throttle. Van der Spuy recalled, “It was a weird experience trudging through the snow, the pale moonlight filtering through the tall pines, bearing on the stretcher the frozen body, still sitting bolt upright.”
Several airfields near Bereznik were better than the one in Obozerskaya, situated on flat, open ground that was not surrounded by forest. The disadvantage here was that the Allies were much closer to Bolshevik forces. On October 14, the Reds launched an offensive on the Dvina front after they were pushed back to the town of Seltso by the Allies. As the bitter cold set in, some RAF units on the Dvina, flying from advanced fields, found themselves cut off by the Bolsheviks. While the British and American infantry fell back, the airmen were unable to fly due to weather, so they improvised, disassembling their planes, tying them down on sleighs and hauling them to safer areas. Then they reassembled the planes and again took to the air. In recognition of his role in the evacuation, Kozakov was commissioned a major in the British army and awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
In following months Kozakov flew from Bereznik airstrips, mostly strafing and bombing in support of the infantry on that front. Occasionally a Red plane would wander over the front. The Red air arm had few aircraft—mostly obsolete planes wrested from overrun areas, whose pilots were for the most part conscripted, untrained fliers. One history of the conflict, Aaron Norman’s The Great Air War, credits Kozakov with downing 15 Red planes, but that figure is largely undocumented. His only substantiated air victory in that part of the conflict came in January 1919, when he reportedly shot down a Red Grigorovich M-9 seaplane.
The planes and pilots had virtually no protection from the elements. Frostbite was common in the open cockpits, particularly on pilots’ faces. Flying suits provided some relief, but were bulky, restrictive and far from comfortable.
Conditions on the ground were equally miserable, since the crews had only canvas hangars in which to shelter the aircraft. Some planes were equipped with homemade skis to make landings and takeoffs less dangerous when snow drifted across the makeshift airfields. They were so far north that in the winter complete darkness lasted up to 20 hours, with very little light even at the height of each day.
Navigation methods were uncertain at best. Moreover, given their antiquated equipment and the gloom of the Arctic winter, the Allied air forces found it extremely difficult to maintain morale. Requests for reinforcements and replacement aircraft were repeatedly turned down, partly because of critical needs on the Western Front, and later due to indecision at the War Office. Replacements finally arrived in early 1919 with new planes and parts, but by that time the British were already planning their withdrawal.
Major Kozakov and his fellow Russian pilots went up as often as they could manage in their Nieuport 17s and Sopwith 11⁄2- Strutters. Air support for the embattled Allied infantry was critical, particularly during the evacuation of key points on the Vaga River front. After Americans of Company A, 339th Infantry, and supporting Canadian units were overrun at Ust Padenga on January 19, 1919, the Allied troops began a series of retreats that became the first step in the evacuation of north Russia. As the Allies scrambled to avoid a massed Bolshevik onslaught, they called for air support from Bereznik to buy the ground troops time, in order to organize their retreat.
While the Americans suffered heavy casualties in the pullback, they could easily have been annihilated had it not been for the RAF aircraft and Canadian artillery. Forced to leave Shenkursk, Allied forces began a retreat shortly after midnight on January 23. Kozakov and a Canadian pilot, Frank Shriver of Hamilton, Ontario, went on a reconnaissance mission for the retreating Allies, scouting the only open road out of Shenkursk—flying at 300 feet by moonlight. They reported that the road was open, with no Reds in sight. Given that assurance, the Allies slipped away in the night, bloodied but intact.
A few days later Kozakov was once again wounded, this time on a bombing run, when a bullet passed through his torso, exiting his shoulder. He was hospitalized after that for almost six weeks.
By the end of March, the Allied situation was perilous, and the British announced privately that their forces would begin to withdraw as soon as the port of Archangel was free of ice that spring. It proved impossible to keep the evacuation a secret. But while it was embarrassing for the Allies, the evacuation was seen as nothing less than a death sentence for the White Russians who had joined them in fighting Bolshevism.
In April Colonel van der Spuy went on a Vaga front mission, flying Kozakov’s plane. The aircraft, which had been sabotaged by a disloyal mechanic, crashed, and after several days the colonel was captured. Van der Spuy spent 19 months in Soviet prison cells before being released in Finland.
The American contingent was withdrawn in May, and the British made preparations for a general evacuation of all foreign troops between September and October 1919. As the Allies’ final withdrawal date approached, their planes were pulled back on the airfields, and perimeter fences were set up to keep the aircraft from falling into Bolshevik hands. What little protection there was amounted to barbed wire and White Russian guards, inspiring a cynical poem written by F.E. Hale that appeared in The Airman’s War:
There’s a squadron near the Dvina
It’s called the RE 8
It might have been a great success
If it hadn’t come too late
They came to bomb the Bolsheviks
And Vickers guns to fire
But now they’re trying to stop them
By nailing up barbed wire.
After Kozakov’s hospital stay, he returned to duty a changed man. Apparently depressed by the prospect of the Allied withdrawal, he became irritable and short-tempered. He had formerly served as an inspiration to his squadron, providing stellar leadership that tempered the difficult times for those airmen. But as the Reds approached, Kozakov realized all too well that anyone who had supported the Allies would suffer. Offered a post in England, he could not bring himself to accept it, anticipating the grim fate of the men he would have to leave behind. He became increasingly gloomy and withdrawn.
On the evening of August 1, instead of attending a farewell dinner for departing British pilots, he climbed into his Sopwith Snipe and took off, climbing rapidly almost straight up. Observers later said it looked as if he was trying a loop, but at a low altitude his plane stalled, dropped its nose and plunged straight down, into the airfield.
One of those who witnessed the Russian ace’s last flight was British pilot Ira Jones, who was convinced that Kozakov “brought about his own death and staged it in the most dramatic manner.” In their book The Day They Almost Bombed Moscow, Christopher Dobson and John Miller summarized the Russian pilot’s tragic end:
Kazakov’s [sic] death had little effect on the outcome of the fighting because the British had complete control of the air, and using the close co-operation tactics developed by the Camel squadrons in the last months of the war on the Western Front, gave the ground and naval forces first class support. But the Russian ace had been an inspirational leader of men, the sort of officer so desperately needed by the White Russians to offset the behavior of those counter-revolutionaries who thought only in terms of a return to the ancient regime. Aloof, stern and intensely religious, he was a sort of Solzhenitsyn of his time and his death, especially the manner of it, dealt a severe blow to the morale of the White cause.
Aleksandr Kozakov’s funeral was held on August 4 at a church in Bereznik. Hundreds from the RAF and ground forces he had fought to protect attended the service. The burial of the 31-year-old Russian ace was attended by full military honors.
Robert L. Willett, who writes from Florida, is the author of Russian Sideshow: America’s Undeclared War 1918-1920. For additional reading he also recommends: Chasing the Wind, by Kenneth van der Spuy; and The Day They Almost Bombed Moscow, by Christopher Dobson and John Miller.
Originally published in the March 2008 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.