AUGUST 20, 1915: Harbinger

Just a quick note to remind anybody not paying attention that, a hundred years ago today, Russian aircraft bombed the Topkaneh arsenal in Constantinople. So what? So the Russian Army Air Service performed most of the tasks carried out by First World War air forces with borrowed or inferior aircraft, and was generally more characterised by bravery that effectiveness, but it was way ahead of the rest of the world in one, dark aspect of aerial warfare. I’m talking about strategic heavy bombing, possibly the most gruesome of all the terrible legacies left us by the First World War, and a hideous blight on human history ever since.

While the western pioneers of powered flight were scrambling to design faster, more manoeuvrable single- or two-seaters for interception and ground support work, and while the theorists of heavy bombing as a war-winning strategy awaited machines capable of the task, one Russian engineer was producing bombers of the future by the time the War broke out. By 1915 the Russian Air Force was using them as fleets to deliver heavy, long-range attacks on enemy targets, setting an example to be followed by strategic bombing believers all the way to Hiroshima and ‘Shock and Awe’.

The designer in question was Igor Sikorski. A genius destined to become the greatest name in Russian aviation, he had built the world’s first four-engined aircraft, ‘Le Grand’, in 1913, and by the following February his improved ‘Ilya Mourometz’ model entered service as a passenger aircraft. Named after a mythical Russian hero, the IM was an astonishingly advanced machine, featuring twin tailfins and an enclosed cockpit, and when war broke out the Russian Army began ordering the ‘flying ships’ as bombers.

Before the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution halted production, a total of 73 IMs were built for the Russian Air Service, and they carried out more than four hundred heavy bombing missions, most of them against targets along the Eastern Front, in Germany or in Austria-Hungary. Heavily armed and reliable, they were steadily refined during the course of the War, so that later models could carry bomb loads of up to 700kg and featured a machine-gun turret in the tail. Thanks to their deadly array of well-positioned guns and because interceptors couldn’t fly through the backdraft from their four big engines, they proved almost impossible to shoot down. Only one IM was lost to enemy attack, along with two to mechanical failure, and they went on to fight on both sides of the Russian Civil War.

The raid on the Turkish arsenal was, like all Russian heavy bomber attacks, conducted on a relatively small scale using primitive bombs. It came on the same day that Italy belatedly declared war against the Ottoman Empire, a useful coincidence because you can’t talk about the early days of heavy bombing without mentioning Italy.

The theory that massed heavy bombing of its homeland would bring an enemy to its knees was pioneered by an Italian theorist, Douhet, and was well known throughout the West by 1914, but nobody had a Sikorski. By the later years of the War, two-and four-engined German, British, Italian and French designs would be able to deliver long-range attacks, using purpose-designed aerial bombs capable of causing serious damage to buildings and installations – but they were never available in sufficient numbers to carry out the kind of devastating attacks envisaged by strategic bombing theorists.

In any case, the theorists were never going to get their way.  Despite the enthusiasm of men like RFC commander Trenchard and his protégé, Harris, the barbaric practice of attacking civilians with vast amounts of ordnance was never seriously considered in the relatively civilised atmosphere of the First World War. That gruesome, doomed experiment would get fully underway in its aftermath.

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