Red Pilots

Stepan Karlovich Dzhevetsky
Who but specialists could have supposed that Gatchina, forty kilometres distant from the Baltic, could be so closely connected with the sea? Admittedly, the Gatchina people’s first meeting with Neptune’s kingdom had no direct connection with aviation, unless we count the participation of N. E Popov in an expedition to the North Pole in the dirigible “America”. As we know, Popov was – on 13 December 1909 - the first Russian aviator to fly over Paris. But the author of this study has something else in mind… These lines about Popov are just a prologue.

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.

Yan Nagursky
Yan Nagursky
Another event connecting the “airy element” with the sea: it happened that Gatchina was for many aviators the gateway to the Arctic. In 1913 Jan Nagursky, a Pole, graduated from the Gatchina aviation college as a military pilot. This brave aviator is famous for “looping the loop” in a Russian hydroplane: a feat which took place on 17 September 1916 on Esel (Saaremaa) island. However, Nagrusky is more famous as being the first polar aviator.

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.

Boris Grigorievich Chukhnovsky
Another citizen of Gatchina, B. G. Chukhnovsky, also had an interesting fate. In 1917 he graduated as a naval pilot, and wrote in his memoirs that it was in Gatchina that he made his choice of profession – it was there that he first felt called to be an aviator.

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…

Mikhail Sergeevich Babushkin
Another member of the expedition to rescue the personnel of the dirigible “Italia” was Mikhail Sergeevich Babushkin, who graduated from the Gatchina military aviation school in 1915.

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.

Mikhail Nikiforovich Yefimov
In the spring of 1918 the Germans took Sevastopol, and Yefimov was imprisoned. When the Red Army arrived he was freed, but soon the town was captured by Denikin’s forces. Yefimov was evacuated, and ended up in Odessa. However, in August 1919 the White Guards landed in Odessa, and he was arrested by a patrol under the command of captain (2nd class) Kislovsky and taken at gunpoint to the port. He was bound, put into a boat and taken to the middle of the bay. The officer escorting him said he would give him a chance to save himself if he could manage to swim ashore. He was unbound, he dived in, but then a pistol shot rang out…

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.

Nadia Fedorova
Nadia Fedorova
Then – the war! And here we must not pass over one interesting episode… At the Gatchina aerodrome – which was known to the Germans – worked Nadia Fedorova, an intelligence officer. In the words of the Leningrad writer N. V. Mosolov: “In the evening of the last day of February 1942 the duty officer of the staff of the Red Baltic Fleet reported to the commander: ‘Comrade Admiral, our radio operators have intercepted a strange radiogram from the Gatchina region…It was sent in clear, not in code, and it stated twice that some “quail” or other would transmit something, and at the end were the words “Goodbye – Nadia from the aerodrome.” ’

“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
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