Italian Aircraft in Russia

By Kulikov, Viktor P. | Air Power History, Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Italian Aircraft in Russia


Kulikov, Viktor P., Air Power History


Contemporary Russia remains an acknowledged world leader in aviation, notwithstanding the country's present complicated position. Powerful military and civil aircraft have been built in Russia during the past several years and dozens of well-known design bureaus are working on new aviation technology. Their products, including "MiG" and "Su" fighters, "Tu" bombers, and "An" gigantic transports, are known world-wide.

At the dawn of its aviation development, Russia used many types of foreign planes. During the 1920s and 1930s, for example, Russia purchased Italian aircraft and engines. This article deals with the exploitation of Italian planes beginning in World War I. At the end of 1916, Italy and Russia signed a mutual aid agreement whereby Italy would deliver a variety of military equipment in return for Russian wood, metal, oil, wheat, potash, and sodium carbonate. The Italian government extended a credit line of 400 millions lire to Russia to purchase military technology and equipment.

At that time, Russia experienced great difficulty in supplying its air force with aircraft and aircraft engines. By the beginning of 1917, the Russian military air fleet numbered 1,670 aircraft, considerably fewer planes than the 9,640 planned by the Military Department. In the field there was a chronic lack of planes and engines; the actual number of serviceable aircraft at the front was fewer than 400. The Russian aircraft industry had low capacity, having turned out in the best of times about 1,500 aircraft per year.

This catastrophic state of affairs induced the Military Department to adopt a number of late but important measures concerning orders for aircraft engines and airplanes to Russia and her Allies in World War I. Russian embassies in Paris, London, and Rome were asked to seek out promising aircraft technology. The purchased machines would be shipped through the Northern ports of Archangel and Murmansk. Shipments from Italy first were shipped to England or France and then to Russia as a part of convoys. The situation was aggravated by the activity of German submarines that sank many English and French ships with aviation loads.

Moreover, because the Italian aircraft industry had limited capacity and was oriented primarily to support the Italian front, most of the Russian orders were for aircraft engines. The engines were technologically advanced and could be mounted on many aircraft of Russian and French design. Price Golitsin, Russia's military attache to Italy, ordered 1,642 aircraft engines, for 54,749, 414 lire, to be delivered by January 1918.

The extensive engine order included:

100 Fiat A.10 100-hp

250 Hispano Suiza 200-hp

490 Fiat A.12 200-hp

100 Le Rhone 80-hp

200 SPA 6-A 150-hp

300 Le Rhone 110-hp

200 Isotta Frascini 150-hp

2 Isotta Frascini V-5 200-hp

To fill this order within the time specified by the contract, Italian factories asked the Russian government to provide them with aluminum and other metals. But filling the order advanced very slowly and was frustrated frequently by unexpected circumstances. Thus, on June 8, 1917, the Russian military attache in Italy reported that 20 engines, produced by Isotta Frascini and 20 engines by Fiat were intercepted suddenly by Italian officials and sent to the Italian front. The Italian government representatives explained their action was driven by the relative calm on "the Russian front and the fear of [an anticipated] separate peace with Germany; and besides that considerable losses, connected with the offensive at the Italian front."

Later on the deliveries to Russia proved even more difficult. Military Pilot Junior Captain Bystritsky, having visited the aircraft factories in Italy, reported on September 21, 1917, that orders in Italy were in a desperate state. Fiat refused to fill any new contracts because of the lack of credit and untimely payments, which shook the Italians' faith in Russian orders. …

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