How the Bolsheviks used aircraft carriers on rivers

Archive photo
These slow-moving giants made a significant contribution to defeating the “enemies of the revolution”, as well as the Chinese troops during the armed conflict between the two countries in 1929.

Aircraft carriers today are rightfully viewed as a symbol of power and domination in the sea. Although their finest hour came in World War II, they had a significant role to play in World War I, too.

Most of the early models of aircraft carriers did not have capability for aircraft to perform take-off and landing on their decks. But they could deliver to a designated point, launch and pick up a whole squadron of seaplanes.

Otlitsa seaplane carrier.

In the early 20th century, the Russian Empire was one of the global leaders in the use of this type of ship. It had seven seaplane carriers fighting against the Turks and Germans in the Black and Baltic Seas. Unfortunately, after Russia withdrew from World War I in 1918, it lost all of them, one way or another.

The Bolsheviks, who came to power in Russia, kept up the traditions of building aircraft-carrying ships that they had inherited from their predecessors. Except that they intended to use these ships not at sea, but on rivers and lakes.

Kommuna

Kommuna river aircraft carrier.

During the Russian Civil War, naval operations did not have a significant role to play, as most battles between the Bolsheviks and the “enemies of the revolution” were fought on land. That is why the Soviet leadership decided to build aircraft carriers capable of operating on the wide rivers of Siberia, the Urals and Volga regions.

It was for the Volga that the world’s first river aircraft carrier was created in August 1918. The Kommuna (“commune”), as it was called, was built on the basis of a 140-meter-long and 19-meter-wide oil barge called ‘France’.

Kommuna river aircraft carrier.

The seaplane carrier had a squadron of six M-9 seaplanes and three wheeled-undercarriage Nieuport fighters deployed on it. The main striking force were the seaplanes, which the ship’s crew launched into the water and pulled back using specially equipped wooden platforms.

The “carrier group” consisted of the Kommuna, a tug boat that pulled it, a passenger steamer, which accommodated the flight crew and carried ammunition, as well as fuel and several escort boats. For the group’s defense, machine guns and two 37-mm anti-aircraft guns were mounted onto the seaplane carrier.

The extremely slow-moving Kommuna (which could reach a max speed of just 11 km/h) nevertheless, at times, played an important role in hostilities. Its planes bombed the enemy’s infrastructure and its troops and carried out reconnaissance missions.

Pilot Sergei Kozlov recalled how in 1918, during a battle for Tsaritsyn (now Volgograd), seaplanes were trying to locate a well-camouflaged artillery battery of the Whites, which had in its sights the water approaches to the city that the Reds were defending. Since regular aerial reconnaissance turned out to be of not much use in this case, it was decided to use the seaplanes onboard the Kommuna.

Pilots of the 68th Air Squadron.

“On August 25, one of the battalion’s pilots took off in an M-9 seaplane on a reconnaissance mission to locate the battery from a low altitude,” Kozlov wrote. “The plane passed back and forth over the ravine several times, but to no avail. So, the pilot decided to descend lower still. It was nerve racking. And the Whites lost it. The enemy opened heavy fire on the plane and thus blew their cover. The wings and the boat were hit in several places. A shard hit the steering wheel. Two fingers on the pilot’s right hand were wounded and Maksimenko, the navigator sitting next to him, was pressing them with a handkerchief while the plane continued to circle. It was only after they established the coordinates of the battery that the crew returned to the flotilla and reported their findings.” The enemy’s positions were then destroyed by targeted artillery fire.  

A short era of river seaplane carriers

Following the Kommuna, more functional seaplane carriers, the Poseidon and Svoboda (“freedom”), also converted from oil barges, appeared on the Volga. The warehouses and cabins for pilots were no longer located on a separate ship, but on the carriers themselves, where the seaplanes were stationed.

Svoboda functional seaplane carrier.

In addition to their low speed, another common downside of the first Soviet aircraft carriers was the fact that the aircraft onboard them were always in the open air, which could not but affect their condition. The problem was solved on the seaplane carrier fittingly named Smert (“death”), which had two hangars built on its deck.

An interesting fate befell the seaplane carrier Pripyat, which was built in March 1919 on the basis of the passenger steamer Tatiana. During the Soviet-Polish war, it was captured by Polish troops and used by them as a military transport, until it was sunk during the troops’ retreat on July 25, 1920. The Bolsheviks raised it from the riverbed and brought it back into service as a staff ship. However, soon, during a hasty retreat, they, too, had to sink it. In April 1921, this time the Poles raised it to the surface and, under the name Admiral Sierpinek, included it in their navy. On September 17, 1939, when the Red Army entered eastern Poland, the ship was sunk again and then raised yet again. In September 1941, it went to the bottom once more - it was sunk in the Dnieper by Soviet troops retreating from Kiev. Three years later, the long-suffering ship was raised a final time; but, by then, it was beyond repair, so it was finally sent for scrap.

Admiral Sierpinek in 1930.

The Whites tried to create an aircraft carrier fleet of their own. In the early summer of 1919, on the Chusovaya River in the Urals near Perm, they converted an 84-meter barge into a seaplane carrier called Danilikha, which was capable of carrying four aircraft. However, it did not get a chance to prove itself in action: already in July of the same year, it was captured and burned by the Reds.

After the end of the Civil War, Soviet river aircraft carriers had only one exciting episode in their history. In the fall of 1929, during the Soviet-Chinese armed conflict on the Songhua River, the Amur seaplane carrier served as a base for the 68th Air Squadron. It successfully conducted reconnaissance missions, while attacking enemy positions, particularly distinguishing itself during the landing operations in the Fujin area. “The squadron pilots destroyed a gunboat [...] an armed steamer, a barge [...] Enemy artillery and machine-gun points were suppressed. The White Chinese cavalry was scattered, which helped the landing forces,” commander of the detachment Eduard Lukht recalled.  

Amur seaplane carrier.

With the rapid development of aviation and shipbuilding in the 1930s, the USSR gave up its bulky river giants. But, their use was taken up in the United States. During World War II, several training “freshwater” aircraft carriers operated in the Great Lakes to train naval pilots.

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