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Ivan Smirnoff


More Than A Russian Ace

Ivan Vasilyevich Smirnoff (alternative spelling: Smirnov) was born on 30 January 1895. He was the fourth child born into a peasant family whose farm was near Vladimir. He received little schooling; his family existed in a state of near-serfdom. The peasantry to which he belonged could not even work in a local factory without continuing to farm the community's land. It was a situation with little chance for improving one's life.

At the outbreak of World War I Smirnoff enrolled as a volunteer in the 96th Omsk Infantry Regiment. After a short spell of training, the unit went into ferocious combat in the Battle of Łódź; the barely-trained regiment suffered severe casualties both from its well-schooled German foe and from the foul weather. Concerning this period, Smirnoff later remarked, "We were thrown in as mere gun fodder...." He also noted that his contingent of 90 soldiers was rapidly reduced to 19 by casualties.

In late October, Ivan Smirnoff carried out a series of hazardous ground reconnaissance patrols. For this, he was recommended for the Fourth Class Cross of St. George on 24 October 1914. Shortly thereafter, he was the final man standing out of the original 90 recruits.

He was seriously wounded in the leg by machine gun fire on 8 December 1914 and was medically evacuated on a hospital train to Petrograd. He would be laid up five months. During that time, he became interested in flying. As it happened, his nurse's father was a general on the staff of Grand Duke Michael, who was the Inspector-general of the Imperial Russian Air Service; the nurse's father had sufficient influence to arrange Smirnoff's transition to aviation.

After healing in hospital, he was sent home on a month's convalescent leave. While on this leave, he sent an official appeal to Grand Duke Michael; in it Smirnoff requested a transfer to aviation. It was granted, and he reported to pilot's training in Petrograd on 21 August 1915.

Smirnoff trained for 18 days at Petrograd, progressing to flying 3.5 hours dual instruction with an instructor on a Caudron trainer. He was then shifted to the flying school in Moscow. He arrived there on 25 October 1915, to begin mastery of the Farman IV biplane. He soloed on the Farman, and was first in his class to graduate the primary course and begin advanced training.

As the Imperial Russian Air Service revamped its structure in 1916, Smirnoff received advanced instruction on Morane-Saulnier G and Moska MBbis aircraft to fit him for flying fighters in the new fighter squadrons being formed. On 10 September 1916, Efreitor Smirnoff qualified as a military pilot, on a Morane-Saulnier L.

Morane Saulnier L

He was then assigned to the elite 19th Korpusnoi Aviatsionniy Otrad (19th Corps Aviation Detachment) at Lutsk. When he reported in on 20 September 1916, he was cordially greeted by his new commander, Alexander Kazakov. As the newest pilot, Smirnoff was assigned a two-seater Nieuport 10, as more experienced pilots had first call on the unit's single-seater fighters. Undeterred by his inferior aircraft; as early as 1 October, he was already in combat. However, worsening autumn weather slowed the unit's operational tempo for the winter. Smirnoff would not score his first victory until 2 January 1917, when he and his observer downed an enemy machine with rifle fire.

While this was occurring, the 19th KAO was ensnarled in its logistical move to Galicia. Differing railway gauges and incompetent staff logistic work delayed the fighter unit's arrival at its new base until 6 April 1917. As a result, Smirnoff did not fly combat again until 18 April, when he closed within 50 meters firing range of an enemy plane, but failed to down it. On 27 April, he won the Third Class Cross of Saint George, in an action whose details do not survive. Ivan Smirnoff would not score his second confirmed victory until 2 May 1917. He was granted the Second Class Cross of Saint George for this feat.

His initial victory brought the young corporal a recommendation for commissioning. While the recommendation was in progress, he was promoted to Starshyi Unter-Officer (Sergeant). On 13 May 1917, the appointment as Praporshchik came through on Order 506 of the Southwest Front armies. Five days later, he fought an inconclusive battle with an enemy aircraft over Bolshovtse; there were no witnesses to the enemy's forced landing, and Smirnoff's machine was badly damaged in the encounter.

On 3 June, Smirnoff was recommended for the official title of Military Pilot and rewarded with a month's leave. After his return, on 5 July, Smirnoff moved up to a newer machine, Nieuport 17 serial number N2522. The 19th would move again a few days later. Smirnoff continued to fly combat, and to fight, but with no further success until August, when he was promoted to Ensign.

Nieuport 17

In August 1917, Smirnoff racked up more flight time than anyone else in the 19th, clocking 56 hours air time in 27 sorties. On the 23rd, he fought six times, and was credited with his third aerial victory. This began a victory run that extended through his 11th victory, on 26 November 1917. Intermixed with these successes, Smirnoff flew escort missions for the huge Sikorsky Ilya Muromets bombers on both 2 and 12 September, but encountered no opposition.

Russian Revolution

The political turmoil of the October Revolution in Russia now affected the unit, with the local Revolutionary Military Committee usurping command in December 1917. The incoming Bolshevik regime declared a ceasefire on 7 November 1917, though Smirnoff continued to fly.

Soldiers Committees began to take power in the Russian military; they condoned the murder of their officers. Smirnoff's last victory had brought him a congratulatory telegram from General Vyatcheslav Tkachev; that brought the attention of Bolshevik enlisted men in his unit. On 18 December 1917, the Imperial Russian Air Service was grounded. Fearing Bolshevist persecution because they were officers, Smirnoff and two other pilots deserted on the 27th. They commandeered an automobile to take them to Kamianets-Podilskyi.

The three deserters secretively boarded a train to continue their escape. They spent a hazardous month dodging Soviet authorities while transiting Russia. They reached Vladivostok before the incoming Bolsheviks could arrive to assume control. Smirnoff and his friends made the rounds of foreign consulates, being refused help by both the Americans and the French. However, the British were amenable to their joining the Royal Flying Corps in England. A friend supplied Smirnoff with someone else's Russian passport to travel upon. Smirnoff and his friend Lipsky set out on a nine-month voyage to the British Isles. Their journey took them through the ports of Hong Kong, Shanghai, Saigon, and Singapore; they had to escape confinement in a prisoner of war camp in the latter. After further stops in Yangon, Colombo, and Aden, they came ashore in Suez and signed on as pilots with a British Airco DH.9 squadron for a while.

When they left the squadron, they transited Port Said and Alexandria, Egypt. They finally landed in England at Plymouth. Through the intercession of Air Vice-Marshal Sefton Brancker, they were retrained at the Central Flying School at Upavon on Bristol F.2 Fighters, Avro 504Ks, and Royal Aircraft Factory SE.5as. However, the end of World War I saw Smirnoff demobilized from the Royal Air Force.

Between the Wars

When he was demobilized, Smirnoff obtained a flight instructor's job through a Russian officers' emigre association. The ace taught Russian pilots to fly Sopwith Camels, Airco DH.9s, Sopwith Snipes, and Bristol F.2 Fighters at RAF Netheravon. The flying school closed after a few months. Smirnoff joined a group of other Russian pilots bound for Novorossiysk to join the Volunteer Army of the White Russian counter-revolutionists. When Smirnoff arrived in August 1919, he was met by his old friend Lipsky. The latter advised him that the Volunteer Army was disintegrating from defeat, and that he should flee the coming disaster. He stowed away on an outbound ship the next morning. He ended up in Paris, where he became the assistant Air Attaché and Chief Pilot for the Russian royalist government in exile.

After the new Communist government gained control in Russia, Smirnoff returned to work in the Handley Page factory. Following this, he returned to piloting, joining the pioneering Belgian airline SNETA in 1920. He carried passengers in SPADs and Airco DH.9s until in September 1921 a hangar fire consumed his assigned aircraft, leaving him jobless. He moved on to the Netherlands, and began flying for KLM in 1922. On 19 October 1923, he departed Schiphol in a Fokker F.III loaded with three passengers. Engine failure brought them down on the Goodwin Sands of the English Channel, necessitating a rescue by the collier Primo before incoming tides submerged the aircraft. Smirnoff was consequently nicknamed 'Earl of the Goodwins'.

In September 1928, he pioneered the postal route from Amsterdam to Batavia, Dutch East Indies for KLM, an 18,000 mile round trip. The first flight to Java, scheduled to take 12 days of daylight flying, took 16 days including stops and accidents. Five years later, between 18 and 22 December 1933, he and his crew (Piet Soer, J.M.H. Grosfeld and C.H. van Beukering) set a record time of 100 hours and 35 minutes on this route, flying a Fokker F.XVIII dubbed Pelikaan. On the return flight (27-30 December), they bested this time by 10 minutes despite bad weather conditions. 22,000 people welcomed them back at Schiphol to celebrate their return. In 1940, Smirnov was permanently posted in Indonesia by KLM.

World War ll

At the time of the German invasion of the Netherlands in May 1940, Smirnoff and his wife lived in Naples, which since the outbreak of World War II had functioned as the terminal of the KLM route to the East Indies. He moved to Java and continued flying the route, until the Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies in December 1941. Though returned to military flying as a (reserve) captain in the army aviation corps, he remained also active as a civilian pilot. He evacuated Dutch women, children, and VIPs to Australia, at times taking off just minutes before the invaders arrived. Eventually, on 3 March 1942, his luck ran out.

With the advance of the Japanese invasion force early 1942 in The Netherlands East Indies, the Dutch military and civilians must have felt some panic and an true exodus started for making an escape to Australia by boat or by plane, the only free country within flight range of aircraft.

KLM had an East Indies fleet of DC-3s under KNILM banner and one of them, PK-AFV named Pelikaan, was busy making ferry flights from Bandung (Java) to Broome ( NW Australia) under Captain Smirnoff, a legendary ex Russian veteran/ pilot of WWI. He was one of the pioneers in the early 1930s East Indies flights, that settled the reputation of KLM worldwide as one of the first airliners that spanned the globe already in the era of the primitive aircraft as the tri-motor Fokkers.

On 3 March 1942, just a few days before the Japs arrived on Java, Smirnoff departed with the DC-3 with his co-pilot, a radio operator and 8 passengers, including one woman and her 18 months old child.

From Java to Australia, they hit the coast line in Kimberley on the way to Broome. By sheer coincidence, Broome airport had come that same day under heavy attack from Mitsubishi A6M Zeros. As they had finished their day of destruction, the fighters returned to their base on Timor Island, East of Java. The lower flying DC-3 was spotted by the Jap squadron, and was immediately attacked by a couple of Zeros.

The Dutch aircraft took a large number of directs hits, and the captain was hit several times in arms, hip and leg. Nevertheless, Smirnoff, as an expert combat flyer, made an evasive dive.

The port engine was in flames which seriously jeopardized the aircraft’s flight with the risk of an explosion or a wing collapsing with the flames licking over the airfoil. In what was later described as the most stunning flight of escape ever survived, the Smirnoff managed to land the aircraft on the water front, with wheels down. Just before touchdown on the beach, a tire exploded and the aircraft made a swing into the surf. That extinguished the engine fire instantly and all on board had survived this most miraculous crash landing onto the beach of Carnot Bay.

Unfortunately, even before they hit the beach, some passengers had been seriously hit by the Zeros, 300 bullet holes being eventually counted after the crash. Even though the DC-3 now lay crippled on the beach, the Zeros did a few strafing runs to inflict more harm and agony, as a result of which, the one lady passenger, her child and 2 more passengers, sadly died over the next day.

But the ordeal of the survivors was not yet over. They were far from the nearest post that could provide relief. Smirnoff sent out a couple of men to go in search for help. The first group returned with no results and a second group was formed with the explicit order NOT to come back before any help was found. They finally ran into a group of aboriginals that brought them in contact with a missionary post.

Pelikaan after being shot down

Seven days after the crash, the survivors were found and brought back by truck to Broome, where they learned of the Jap attack on the local airport.

But even with that, the affair was not over. Just before the departure of the doomed DC-3, the Bandung airport Manager had handed to Smirnoff a sealed cigar box with the message that the box was to be delivered at the Commonwealth Bank in Broome and that its content had a high value.

With the ferocious Zero attack and ensuing crash landing on the beach, and his own painful injuries, one can imagine Smirnoff had a few other things on his mind than caring about an anonymous cigar box packed in brown paper. He claimed later that the box must have washed out of the plane with the incoming surf. He had put the parcel in the first aid box in the cockpit and had seen it being flushed out of the fuselage. Whatever, it was never seen again.

It turned out that the content of the cigar box had a value of some 300,000 Australian Pounds, a huge amount in 1942 ( 2016 value $12 million). Was that amount gone into the water or into the pocket of someone? Smirnoff was later flown across the country to give witness at the trial of several men who were charged with the theft but in the end, all were acquitted for lack of direct evidence.

This account based on Hans Wiesman's story on his impressively comprehensive specialist DC-3 site The Dakota Hunter

After The War

Back in the Netherlands, Smirnoff took up old activities and began to fly on his beloved Java route again. But in 1948 he got an offer he could not resist. He was asked to pilot a World Tour. The American Atlas Supply Company, a subsidiary of the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey, was planning a 100-day round-the-world flight on which heads of important American firms would act as their own commercial travellers. The plane in which they flew would be a travelling stockroom, loaded with colour films, scale models, give-away samples and literature in many languages. The Sky Merchant, a Douglas DC4, was to travel a route of 80,000 kilometres, crossing the equator six times, visiting all five continents, twenty-eight countries and forty-five principal cities. Smirnoff was delighted.

Postwar, Smirnof was eventually grounded for medical reasons after 30,000+ flying hours, but remained with KLM as a senior advisor until his retirement in August 1949. The man who could have died violently several times in the past eventually passed away peacefully at home in his bed in Mallorca in 1956.

Sources: Wikipedia, Gregor Winter, Hans Wiesman site The Dakota Hunter

SPY 2019-08-28

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