August is the one year anniversary of The Blue Max Project so I wanted to do something special.
A passion for aviation, military history, storytelling, graphic arts and the flight sim community is what drives this project.. If I can find something that touches all of them at the same time, even better!
The video and story below started with an experiment to see if I could place the Russian Ilya Muromets S-22 bomber inside the Rise of Flight flight sim mission builder (thank you Duck). It led to a mission that I built that sent six bombers over Folkestone for a bombing run. I recorded the mission that consisted of all AI planes, no real players flying. One of the joys of simulations is that they generate their own random events. This one was visually stunning and I felt I needed to do something with it. Of course the actual “characters” and setting made in the mission made no sense at all. The Russian bombers belong on the Eastern Front, not here across the English Channel, hugging the cliffs of Dover and they certainly wouldn’t be bombing an Entente port.
I dug into the history of the town of Folkestone to see if it had ever been bombed during the war. This port was rarely attacked and the town itself was relatively untouched until 1917. It is sometimes referred to as the “Tontine Street Air Raid” and occurred on May 25, 1917. Twenty three German Gothas where on route to attack London, but hit bad weather and had to return. On the return their flight path crossed Folkestone so they decided to drop their bombs over the city instead of carrying them all the way home.
Folkestone was the primary staging port for sending soldiers across the English Channel to the front. Tens of thousands of men from various countries filled the town, marched up and down its streets, drank pints in their pubs. The townhouses and homes had been taken over for the duration of the war to provide housing for the soldiers as well as over 65,000 Belgian refugees.
It was Friday around six o’clock on a warm spring evening. The Whitsun Bank Holiday was on Monday, so mother’s where out with their children shopping and soldiers were in the pubs warming up to the weekend. Airfields and Military bases were nearby, so the sound of bombers overhead or the sound of distant explosions was nothing out of the ordinary for people living in the town. When the Gothas started dropping bombs on the town itself it was a complete surprise. Stokes Brothers Green Grocers was full of people and took a direct hit. The scene was tragic and grisly. Over seventy people were killed and another thirty injured, most of them women and children.
The final bit of history is about the Ilya Muromets S-22 bomber itself. This airplane was designed and constructed in pre-war Russia by Igor Sikorsky in 1913. It was initially conceived as a luxury airliner with ample cabin space and seating. It could hold sixteen passengers and had wicker seats and large side windows for views. When the war broke out the aircraft was converted to military use and fitted with bombs. It was the most advanced four engine bomber in its time. It dominated the skies over the Eastern Front during the early stages of the war, flying over 400 sorties and dropping 65 tons of bombs. German Albatrii stayed away from them because their formidable gun platform made them difficult to shoot down. As the war dragged on a lack of parts crippled the Imperial Russian Air Service. By 1917 very few of these planes were still flying in combat and those that were flying were relegated to the secondary role of trainers and transport planes.
Clearly more than enough here for a good story ….and no, I’m sure Russian bombers never bombed Folkestone, but it wouldn’t be a story if some it wasn’t made up right?
Juri’s Last Stand
(Ilya Muromets over Folkestone)
My name is Donat Federov and I am an old, old man. Yes, I was a navigator in the Imperial Russian Air Service, but I was no hero. I wanted to be a pilot, but in my military career I only flew for a few short minutes and those are minutes I try to forget. There are just a few of us left from the Great War, and every Spring, when Victory Day comes around, they dress us up in our old uniforms and put us on display in front of the tenement building where I live. I shouldn’t complain, Ilga takes good care of me. She makes sure I’m comfortable.
“Mr. Fedorov, is this spot okay? Do you need a blanket? You look very handsome in your uniform. The parade will come by soon. If everything is okay, I will leave you alone and come back in an hour.”
I force a smile, try to make her comfortable, “Everything is fine Ilga, this spot is fine, you can go now.”
I manage okay, but this time of year is hard. I can hear the marching band approaching from far down the street.
Ratty tatt tatt
Ratty tatt tatt
I think back on what I learned in the military, the three rules a good Russian soldier must follow. First, you must obey your Kapitan, and if you don’t you may be shot. Of course if you do, you may be shot as well. Second, you have to look out for your Komrades first and yourself second, because the value of the individual is highly overrated. Third and most importantly as a good Russian soldier you have to be strong, because if you are weak you will never survive the first two rules.
Ratty tatt tatt
Ratty tatt tatt
The marching band is almost here, the snare drums stop so the sound of their boots dominate.
Clump, clump, clump
Clump, clump, clump
The streets are crowded and the parade passes by. In my wheelchair I sit below most of the people and I stare at their backs. I look down at my folding wrinkled hands, bracing myself for what comes next.
I jump every time the beater hits the drum, I can’t help it. It’s the same every year. Once the memories start pouring out, it’s impossible to put them back.
It was May 1917 and our Otryad had been stationed in Folkestone for the better part of a month. Stavka sent us here to shuttle parts from our Entente friends back to Russia. It was an easy assignment, boring really. Six flight crews jammed into two floors of an apartment above a drapery shop on Tontine Street. Stokes Brothers Grocery store was across the street and it was the one place in town that we could find decent Vodka. When our planes were loaded up for the flight back home, we would spend the late afternoons at the large living room window drinking and playing cards. I was the youngest, barely sixteen years old, being trained as a navigator. I become close friends with the other pilots, Ernst, Ivan, Konstantine, Mikhail and of course Vladimir. Vladimir was not much older than me, but more experienced and had just gotten his first assignment as a pilot in the Ortyad. We would laugh, drink, tell jokes and play cards, watching the troops marching down the hill to the waiting ships. We used to wonder how many ever came back.
Our Kapitan was Juri Argeyev. He was a bear of man, old by World War 1 standards, almost thirty five. He did two things well… drinking Vodka and telling stories. If he happened to do them together it was certainly going to be a long night. He dominated our card playing with his commentary and there is very little about his life we did not know. In 1913 he was trained to fly the Ilya Muromets by its creator Igor Sikorsky when it was first introduced. The aircraft was going to bring air travel to the common man in Russia and Juri was going to lead the way. When the war broke out the S-22 was converted to a bomber and Juri came along for the ride. To hear him describe his wartime accomplishments you would be surprised that the war was not already over.
He talked about the Ilya Muromets like they still dominating the skies, but we all knew better. We struggled to keep our six planes in the air. The bullet holes from past adventures were patched with bedroom linens and cardboard. The engines were a collection of spare parts scavenged from other aircraft. Even though our planes were modified as transports, Juri insisted that each plane carry one bomb, “just in case”. We knew this was a joke, Juri’s last bombing run was years ago. The single bomb hung from the bomb rack, like an artifact from a past era. A wired circuit with a red lever was bolted to the floor next to it and we were careful to keep the cargo clear of it . You bombed by sighting through the bomb bay door and released the bomb by smacking the lever with a carpenter’s hammer that hung from a leather strap on the wall. A far cry from the sophisticated drift sights and levers in the shiny new Handley Page bombers that the English had lined up row after row on the grassy airfield.
When Vladi and I had time on our hands we would wander thru the Aerodrome looking over the Sopwith Camel’s and SE5a’s, wishing for real combat instead of spending our days loading crates and making deliveries. Juri came up behind us and put his two big arms around our shoulders and led us back to our S-22’s. “Komrades, don’t waste your time with these English toys. You are flying the Tsar’s most beloved aircraft, designed and built by the hands of the Russian people. Donat, look at your friend Vladimir, he is flying his own plane now. If you pay attention and do everything I tell you, someday soon you will get your chance as well!”
As we approached our side of the field we noticed an Australian pilot with his head in the door looking into the cargo area of Juri’s plane. “Christ all mighty, you guys really still fly these things? Aw look, little Ivan brought some bombs along, thinking you might see some action eh?”
Laughing, he tilted his cap back on his head and started to walk away, but Juri followed him. “Listen Durak you need to get your head out of your miner’s tunnels. Russia was the first country to dominate the skies of this Great War. The S-22 is better than anything Mr. Chamberlain can muster. We can sink any German ship in single pass and I have done it myself many times. ” Vladi and I glanced at each other and rolled our eyes.
We watched as Juri followed the Australian up the path to the main headquarters of the Base Commander. What had started as a friendly conversation had turned into a heated debate and Juri waived his arms wildly. Vladimir and I were embarrassed when we saw the Base Commander came out to see what the commotion was about.
A few minutes later Juri came back quite excited. “ The Komandir has given us special orders! They think that the Central forces may be sending a flight of Gotha’s to attack London this evening. The Entente fighters are moving everything they can to bases near London today so this airfield will be empty. I convinced him of the dominance of Imperial Russian Air Service and he agreed that we should be responsible for defending Folkestone while they are away!”
Vladimir and I tried hard to not start laughing. They were having some fun with Juri, he was just too headstrong to understand it. The German U-Boats fired on the Port of Folkestone now and again just to keep everyone honest, but the town of Folkestone had never been attacked. All Juri got us was a long night at the airfield instead of the comfort of our flat on Tontine Street. We spent the morning getting the S-22’s loaded up for our trip back home on Saturday. Since we had a long night ahead of us, Juri had as break early for lunch and a game of cards back at the apartment.
It was a beautiful Friday afternoon and the streets were jammed. Soldiers arm and arm, singing and drinking, mothers pushing their baby carriages, storekeepers minding their carts. Juri was in fine form, puffed up with his new “orders”. The Vodka flowed and so did the stories. By 6 o’clock it was time to get back to the base and Juri was drunk. He stumbled out of his chair and addressed us all. “ Komrades it is time! The people of Folkestone have put their lives in the hands of Mother Russia and we must show them what it means to be brave. Just like Ilya of Murom, we need to put on our armor and ride our horses into battle….”
The speech continued as we gathered are gear. I joked quietly to Vladimer. “Vladi, we are lucky these orders are a joke. Juri is so drunk, the only thing he will be riding is his wicker chair when he falls asleep in the cockpit of his beloved S-22.”
In the distance I could hear the drone of bombers, and Vladimer whispered back. “ Listen to all those bombers…must be sending most of the Entente forces after those Germans. Now that I have my own plane, I would give anything to fly it in a real battle instead of providing bus service for the Imperial Russian Air Service.”
We grinned at each other and started to head down the stairs to the waiting cars. The bombers were really loud now, must be right overhead. Eighteen men hurrying down stairs makes a lot of noise so we barely noticed. Laughing, talking, squeezing down the narrow stairs with our gear.
Clump, clump, clump
Clump, clump, clump
We fell on top of each other in a heap. The windows on the first floor shattered around us. The air was filled with dust and smoke. My ears were ringing, people were screaming but I couldn’t hear anything. We tumbled into the street and it was filled with rubble. Stokes Grocery Store was gone. It was a horror, people running, kneeling, bleeding. Bodies and parts of bodies where everywhere. I saw a baby carriage rolling slowly down the hill unattended, in flames. Dark shadows of Gotha bombers rumbled overhead as they headed out to sea. Vladimir and I started trying to look for survivors, help the wounded, when Juri came from behind and hit me hard on the back of the head. “What are you doing you stupid Mudak’s. We have our orders. The cars are in the alley, grab your gear and let’s go!”
He was right, our three cars were waiting for us, but the drivers were gone. With Juri, bullying us along we packed into the cars and I got behind the wheel. Our progress was slow. We weaved our way through the crowds and debris while ambulances and sirens wailed. By the time we made it to the airfield it was almost dark. Vladimir and I exchanged looks when we notice Juri was sound asleep in the back seat.
As the car came to a stop he roused himself and jumped into action. “ Komrades! No time to unload the supplies, start those engines and lets get into the air!”
Juri was flying lead and after the engines started he rolled out on the grass runway. The S-22 easily pulled up and rose into the sky. Juri was right about one thing, these old birds were tough, they pulled up fast even fully loaded. Were we ready for battle? I think not. Thank god the Gotha’s were long gone by now. I came up behind Juri, sitting in his wicker chair. I leaned on the steel ladder for leverage and looked over his shoulder. The town of Folkestone and the port were alive with search lights scanning the skies, nervous that the Gotha’s might return. Some of them even tracked our bombers and I began to be concerned. “ Juri, these English have not seen too many S-22’s, do you think they can tell us from a Gotha?”
“ Don’t be a fool Donat, the Base Commander gave us our orders, I’m sure he has informed the battleships that we are in charge of defense. Go back to the side window and keep an eye on the others for me.”
The S-22 had large side windows that gave a clear view of the horizon. I was proud of my Otryad when I saw them flying in a handsome spread formation. The searchlights were frantic but my Russian friends flew with discipline and order. We would teach these English dandy’s how real pilots performed in battle! Vladi was Juri’s wingman. As he pulled up I had a clear view into his glass cockpit and he gave me a small nervous wave. The S-22 had a steering wheel much like a car. Vladi had his left hand on the wheel, and was waiving with right. Suddenly a huge flack burst exploded above his right wing. I could see his head jerk to the right as he looked over his shoulder to assess the damage. Almost immediately his plane tilted to the left and began to pass underneath us.
Juri yelled out. “What the hell is he doing?”
I crawled over to the other side window, just in time to see Vladi’s plane pass by. There was an old castle on the top of the mountain with heavy rubble walls along the cliff. Vladi was heading straight for it. I could see the top gunner pounding on the hatch trying to get his attention. It happened so fast, the impact, the explosion and the crumpled bomber slowly sliding down the hill.
Juri continued to yell. “ Did you see that! There is German ship in the harbor, it shot Vladi down! I saw the flash. It’s right in front of us!”
“Juri your wrong, I was watching. It was a warning shot, the English don’t know what we are, but they didn’t damage his plane at all. Vladi panicked.”
Suddenly I was on my back. Juri’s big fist had backhanded me across the face. I was seeing stars. I lifted myself and looked at him as he spoke.
“ You idiot, don’t disagree with me. You’re nothing… barely a navigator. I know what I’ve seen. Open the bomb bay door and get ready to release the bomb. I will call it out.”
Still dazed, I kneeled besides the bomb rack and opened the bomb bay door. The turbulence filled the cabin with noise. I looked at the hammer on its leather strap and a sick feeling rose up inside me. I knew Juri was wrong. He was drunk. The flak was distant, it was a warning shot, but if we drop this bomb the English will be sure we are enemies and shoot us all down.
Juri turned to me, holding the steering wheel with his left hand, pointed towards the hammer with his right and nodded to me. I looked him right in the eyes and slowly turned my head side to side, letting him know I had no intention of releasing this bomb. His eyes grew big and his face turned red. He reached down on his right side and pulled out his service revolver, pointing it at my head.
He yelled over the turbulence.“ LISTEN TO ME ZHOPA, YOU GRAB THAT HAMMER OR I WILL SHOOT YOUR RIGHT HERE AND MAKE SURE YOUR PARENTS ARE TRIED FOR TREASON TOO!!!”
He meant it, I knew it. He was my Kapitan. I was only 16 years old and he was a seasoned veteran, perhaps he saw something I didn’t see. My hand was shaking when I pulled the hammer off the hook. I tried to convince myself that I was doing the right thing.
“THREE, TWO, ONE….NOW!!”
I slammed the hammer onto the trigger and watched the bomb drop. I had a perfect view over the ship below. Juri may be a drunk and a Huiplet, but he knew how to drop a bomb. I could see it went right into the smoke stack. For a split second, nothing…and then a small flash, than the whole smoke stack burst with fire and smoke. Suddenly the cabin shook and filled with light. Was the bomb really that big?
It wasn’t our bomb, it was the ships below shooting at us. No more warning shots from the English, they were sure we were enemies now. I crawled on my hands and knees and lifted myself up to look out the large side window. The night sky was filled with flashes as the flak exploded. The fully loaded S-22’s lumbered across the bay with nowhere to go. I had already lost Vladimir, but now I had to watch as each of my Komrades in the Otryad struggle to stay in the air.
The first to go was Ernst and his crew. On quick explosion and both his elevators burst, ripping them apart and large pieces spinning away. His plane made a slow, sinking tilt to the side and headed straight down to the ocean.
Another flash and boom to the east, and saw Ivan’s bomber shudder in the sky. At first I thought he might be okay, still flying straight and level. A second boom and his rudder exploded. A third boom and half the struts on his right wing split and the top and bottom wing started to separate. With each burst the whole plane shook and pieces and parts flew in all directions. Amazingly he continued to fly straight and level as his plane fell apart right in front of me. The top wing lifted up and the ailerons twisted away. The framing around the first set of double engines separated from the lower wing and tumbled forward, both propellers still spinning as the engines fell out of the sky. By the fourth explosion, Ivan’s plane was just debris spread out over the sky, fluttering and twisting its way down, making a pattern of splashes in the dark water below.
The last plane I saw go down was Konstantin’s. A direct hit right above the cockpit where the double fuel tanks sat. The double explosion was huge and engulfed the whole front of the plane in flames. His bomber looked like a streaking comet as it dropped from the sky. Among the smoke and flames I could make out the silhouette of the top gunner, slowly crawling up towards the tail of the plane as if he could find some refuge there. I had to turn away, I couldn’t watch any more.
Juri and I were the only ones left. He had continued straight out to sea after our bomb drop. He cursed as he tried to control the airship against the angry skies around him. He stomped on the foot pedals and turned the wheel hard side to side as he jinked about, attempted to make us a hard target for the gunners below. We were almost clear of the harbor and I was beginning to think we might get away when I was blinded by a flash directly in front of us. I felt the sting as shattered glass smacked against my face and the cabin filled with noise. The whole front canopy was shattered and Juri was slumped over the steering column. We still where headed out to sea, but the engines grumbled and popped, stopping one by one.
I crawled along the floor, grabbing what I could for leverage, trying to get to the pilot’s seat. My hands were bleeding from the glass shards. The turbulence whipping through the open canopy was deafening. I grabbed the steel rungs of the ladder and pulled myself in front of it. We were slowing down, and the nose of the plane pitched higher and higher. My back was pressed against the ladder. I reached out with both hands and yanked Juri by the collar trying to dislodge him from the seat. Finally gravity was in my favor and he tumbled to the side sliding towards the back of the cabin. I climbed over the wicker seat and dropped in front of the wheel.
The plane was almost vertical and it felt like it had stopped in the sky. No engine sounds, no air noise, just the distant thumping of the flack. The open canopy in front of me pointing me up to the sky. I could see stars and the criss-crossing trails of the search lights. Gravity pressed me into the seat.. The air frame groaned like a sinking ship and it started to drop backwards. For a moment I felt weightless in my chair and I reached out towards the stars thinking perhaps God himself would pull me from this wreckage.
At last the nose started to drop and the engine sounds and turbulence woke me from my stupor. I grabbed the wheel with both hands and pushed hard forward to try and bring the nose down. It did nothing at first but as we picked up speed I could feel some control coming back. Slowly I pulled the wheel back to level the plane. For a moment it felt like I might be able to set her down flat on the ocean, but then she started pulling hard to the left. I stomped with both feet on the right foot pedal, twisted the wheel hard to the right, trying to level out but it was not working. Tilting further and further to the left I struggled to stay in my seat. Finally the left wing clipped the surface of the ocean and the plane cartwheeled violently across the water. I was thrown from the seat, debris everywhere and came to a slamming stop in total darkness as the plane laid down inverted in the ocean.
The cold sea water rushed in through the open canopy, filling the cockpit with water. There was still a small amount of air captured against the floor boards. I pressed my cheek against the floor boards and took a deep breath. I dunked down to see if the side door would open, but it was jammed. I came up a second time, took another gulp of air and headed for the side window. The glass we cracked but still in place. I kicked at it a few times and it broke out. I crawled through, lungs burning, ears popping. I pushed off the side of the fuselage with my feet, swam to the surface. I gasped for air as my head popped above the surface. I struggled to tread water in my gear.
I shivered in the cold black water, struggling to breath. No more planes in the sky, no more flack, oddly quiet. What had I done? I knew Juri was wrong, but I still dropped that bomb. Now my whole Otryad was gone. I felt so alone. In the distant I could see a small fishing boat with a head lamp scanning the water, coming my way. In my heart I hoped it would not find me. I didn’t want to be saved. I rose and fell in the rolling swells and watched as the search lights turned off one at a time.
In the end they did save me. I was returned home. The Russian Imperial Air Service had two choices. They could have imprisoned me as a traitor or celebrated me as the sole surviving hero. In the end a shortage of happy stories in the paper saved me. The newspaper accounts in Russia described Juri as the fallen hero who defended Folkestone and chased away the German Gotha bombers single handedly. I was the novice navigator that successfully assisting Juri in the bombing of a German U-Boat that had snuck back into the Harbor . I was given medals and a new uniform, but they never let me fly again.
Ilga was back.
“Mr. Federov, the parade is over, may I take you upstairs now?”
“Yes Ilga, I think I have seen enough.”
“ Excellent sir, I will get you to your room and get you into some more comfortable clothes. Will need to get your uniform and those medals all put away properly. We are all so proud of you, we will want you to look good for next year.”
“Yes Ilga, I suppose you will”
And those three rules required of a good Russian Soldier? Well I followed orders and I wasn’t shot, but I surely did not look out for my Komrades. For that I was rewarded with medals and this nicely pressed uniform that I must wear once a year and smile feebly at people who want to tell me how proud they are of me even though inside I know I am a coward and a murderer. If a live another year, I will get to do this again.
To be a good Russian Soldier, you have to be strong.