In March 1881 the engineer Stepan Karlovich Dzhevetsky began testing the first Russian submarine in the waters of the Silver Lake, beside Gatchina palace, where, in rooms decorated with chintz, Alexander III was living. The submarine measured 5.7 metres in length and 1.7 metres in height, and carried a crew of four. The court and their servants watched daily as Dzhevetsky searched for the best place to demonstrate his brainchild to the Tsar, who had just ascended the throne following the assassination of Alexander II on March 1, 1881.
The fate of our Polish comrade was to be an unusual one. He took part in the polar expedition of G. Ya. Sedov, travelling 100 kilometres distant from dry land, and during the First World War commanded a detachment of hydroplanes. In a battle above the Gulf of Riga in 1917, Nagrusky fell with his burning plane into the sea. In a report to headquarters it was stated that officer Jan Nagrusky had been killed in action. But in fact he was only injured and had been picked up by an English submarine.
During the Russian Revolution Nagrusky returned to Poland. He concealed his rank and his flying expertise, and worked for many years in the sugar industry. Not until 1956 did the journalist Yuri Galperin succeed in “resurrecting” this legendary flier and inviting him to Moscow.
During the Civil War Chkhnovsky took part in the fighting against Wrangel, then headed the flying arm of the Volzhsko-Kaspinsky flotilla. But the most memorable year of his life was 1928, when a large expedition led by the Italian designer and aeronaut Umberto Nobile reached the North Pole in the dirigible “Italia”. The dirigible’s gondola brushed grazed an ice-hummock, six aeronauts fell into the ocean, and ten members of the crew were stranded on the ice. On June 3 a radio amateur in the northern town of Voznesene-Vokhmo, Nikolai Schmidt, chanced to pick up a distress signal and immediately informed Moscow about the Italians by telegraph.
In the middle of June 1928 an expedition set off in search of General Nobile; it consisted of 14 ships and 22 planes, and included three Soviet ice-breakers. Gatchina was represented by the aviators B. G. Chukhnovsky and M. S. Babushkin. The ice-breaker “Krasin” carried a three-engined plane fitted with floats and skis. And when the “Krasin” came to a stretch of impenetrable ice, Chukhnovsky suggested mooring the ship to this large ice-floe and sending the plane out onto it. On June 10, as a member of the rescue misson, he set out on a reconnaissance flight.
Soon, on a small ice-floe, the aviators spotted two men. They reported this to the ice-breaker. But on the way back the plane was caught up in fog, ran out of fuel and had to make a forced landing. Chukhnovsky and his crew had to spend five days on the ice, and during this time the ice-breaker’s crew saved three groups of aeronauts from Nobile’s dirigible. The international press proclaimed that the Russians had set the whole world a splendid example of courage and comradeship…
He took part in expeditions on the ice-breakers “Cheliuskin” and “Sadko”. In 1937, for having taken part in the landing of polar explorers on the drift-ice research station “North Pole 1”, Babushkin was made a Hero of the Soviet Union. M. T. Slepnev also became an aviator in Gatchina, graduating from the Flying school in 1917. He was made a Hero of the Soviet Union in 1934 for his part in the rescue of the crew of the ice-breaker “Cheliuskin”.
The next page in this epic of the sea was written by the first man in Russia to receive a pilot’s diploma, M. N. Yefimov, who in 1911 had made a night flight in Gatchina, and who in 1913 had tested aeroplanes there before they were handed over to the War Department. In February 1917 Yefimov was appointed an instructor in Kacha, when he turned his hand to hydroaviation. He was immediately elected a member of the hydroaviation committee. During the October Revolution he became a member of the Sevastopol revolutionary committee.
The Red aviator’s enemies knew that he had served as a pilot attached to the commissar of the Black Sea fleet, and did not forgive him this. But the grateful people of Gatchina set up a bronze memorial to him at the entrance to aircraft repair plant 218. The pilot-aviator is depicted striving to direct his gaze upward and outward, to survey not only the former aerodrome but also his native Smolenshchina, and Odessa, which lies on the same meridian as Gatchina and Petersburg, although the north was also dear to him.
The famous aviator Valery Chkalov, too, did not shun the Baltic Sea nor yet the Arctic Ocean. He served at the Gatchina aerodrome in the years 1926-1928, and it was from here that he took off for sea manoeuvres in the Kronstadt region. There, in extreme weather conditions, he found the battleship “Marat” and dropped onto her deck a message bag containing instructions for the exercise. The exercise continued for three days; contact with the flag-officer of the “red” squadron was lost. The commander received a categorical order: “establish contact with the battleship ‘Marat’ and warn her of the appearance of the ‘enemy’.” Down to his last few litres of fuel, Chkalov found the battleship, fulfilled his mission, but did not make it back to the aerodrome. He had to put down a few kilometres from Oranienbaum, at the very edge of the sea. He returned safe and sound to Gatchina. His superiors valued this operation highly.
“The text was incomplete and confused, but these words came through clearly: ‘At the goods station there is an unusual concentration of enemy forces.’
“The commander-in-chief of the Baltic Fleet, Admiral V. F. Tributs, thought for a moment, and said: ‘We need to attack the station.’
“But Field-Marshal K?chler’s staff well knew that our guns could not fire from forty kilometres, and they were protected from air attack by the aircraft stationed at Gatchina and Siverskaya.
“However, the 19th division’s heavy artillery opened fire with their mighty weapons on the indicated target. Battalion commander Major Mesniankin took an exceptional risk – he increased the range of the shells by firing them half-loaded. And these shells reached the enemy forces.
“The name of the brave Komsomol resistance worker Fedorova was given separate mention in a special despatch from Seidel: ‘…Nadezhda Fedorova, who has been working in the last few days in the German pilots’ headquarters, kept in constant contact with Leningrad…Despite prolonged interrogations, confrontations and cross-examinations she consistently remained silent…’
“Nadezhda Fedorova was one of twenty-five Komsomol resistance workers who were shot on 30 June 1942 in the Silvia Park, where today a memorial to them has been placed.
“And lastly: writers, scholars and veterans of the Baltic Fleet often visit the Central Naval Archive in Gatchina, a place to which ‘the path lies ever open’ for sailors of all generations. The Naval Cadet class has established itself here. In a word, Gatchina’s naval tradition continues…”
The Main Page | The Dawn of Aeronautics | The Cradle of Military Aviation | The Shchetinin Flying School in Gatchina | Kotelnikov’s Parachute | Aces of the First World War | Red Pilots | The Chkalov Squadron | Leningrad’s Southern Outpost | Gatchina’s Bomb-blasts | The Light of Memory | About the author