Ivan Vasilyevich Smirnov

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Ivan Vasilyevich Smirnov
Bundesarchiv Bild 102-07771, Holländische Indienflieger Smirnoff und Ahler cropped.jpg
Ivan Smirnov after his military service, in his middle years.
Nickname(s) "Earl of the Goodwins"
Born (1895-01-30)January 30, 1895
Near Vladimir, Russian Empire
Died October 28, 1956(1956-10-28) (aged 61)
Allegiance Russian Empire; Netherlands
Service/branch Imperial Russian Air Service; Royal Air Force; U.S. Army Air Forces
Years of service 1914-1917; 1919; 1942-1945
Rank Captain
Unit 19th Corps Aviation Detachment
Battles/wars World War I; World War II
Awards Cross of St. George (all four classes),
Order of St. Anna, 4th and 3rd classes,
Order of St. Stanislaus, 3rd class with swords,
Gold Sword for Bravery,
Order of St. Vladimir, 4th class with swords,
Serbian Order of the White Eagle,
French Croix de Guerre,
Netherlands Knight of the Order of Orange-Nassau
Other work 25 years with KLM; service in World War II

Ivan Vasilyevich Smirnov (Russian: Ива́н Васи́льевич Смирно́в; January 30, 1895 – October 28, 1956) was a Russian World War I flying ace. He was born to a poor peasant family, but through courage and good fortune managed to become an officer in the Imperial Russian Air Service. After surviving extremely dangerous infantry combat, he trained as a pilot, and was subsequently credited with 11 aerial victories during World War I. When the October Revolution ended his participation in the war, he deserted and became an itinerant pilot. He would serve short spells in the Royal Air Force, the Volunteer Army of Anton Denikin, Handley Page and SNETA. The Russian emigre subsequently piloted for KLM for the next 25 years, pioneering air routes to Dutch East Indies in the process. In December 1941, Smirnov returned to military flying during the frenzied air evacuation of Dutch nationals. After the Dutch West Indies were overrun by the Japanese, he joined the U.S. Air Transport Command. Despite official attempts to ground the aged and oft wounded pilot, he served through war's end. He then returned to KLM. After the inevitable grounding (after 30,000+ flying hours), he continued with the company as its chief advisor. He died in Palma, Majorca on 28 October 1956.

Early life and World War I infantry service[edit]

Ivan Vasilyevich Smirnov[1] was born on 30 January 1895. He was the fourth child born into a peasant family whose farm was near Vladimir.[2] 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.[3]

At the outbreak of World War I Smirnov 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, Smirnov 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.[3]

In late October, Ivan Smirnov carried out a series of hazardous ground reconnaissance patrols.[2] 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.[3]

He was seriously wounded in the leg by machine gun fire[3] on 8 December 1914 and was medically evacuated on a hospital train to Petrograd.[2] He would be laid up five months.[1] 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 Smirnov's transition to aviation.[3]

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 Smirnov requested a transfer to aviation. It was granted, and he reported to pilot's training in Petrograd on 21 August 1915.[2]

World War I aviation service[edit]

Smirnov 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.[2]

As the IRAS revamped its structure in 1916, Smirnov 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 Smirnov qualified as a military pilot, on a Morane-Saulnier L.[2]

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, Smirnov 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. Smirnov would not score his first victory until 2 January 1917,[2] when he and his observer downed an enemy machine with rifle fire.[3]

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, Smirnov 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 Smirnov would not score his second confirmed victory until 2 May 1917. He was granted the Second Class Cross of Saint George for this feat.[2]

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.[2] 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 Smirnov's machine was badly damaged in the encounter.[3]

On 3 June, Smirnov was recommended for the official title of Military Pilot and rewarded with a month's leave. After his return, on 5 July, Smirnov moved up to a newer machine, Nieuport 17 serial number N2522. The 19th would move again a few days later. Smirnov continued to fly combat, and to fight, but with no further success until August,[2] when he was promoted to Ensign.[1]

In August 1917, Smirnov 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, Smirnov flew escort missions for the huge Sikorsky Ilya Muromets bombers on both 2 and 12 September, but encountered no opposition.[4]


The political turmoil of the October Revolution now affected the unit, with the local Revolutionary Military Committee usurping command in December 1917.[4] The incoming Bolshevik regime declared a ceasefire on 7 November 1917, though Smirnov continued to fly. Soldiers Committees began to take power in the Russian military; they condoned the murder of their officers. Smirnov's last victory had brought him a congratulatory telegram from General Vyatcheslav Tkachev; that brought the attention of Bolshevik enlisted men in his unit.[3] On 18 December 1917, the IRAS was grounded. Fearing Bolshevist persecution because they were officers, Smirnov 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. Smirnov 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 Smirnov with someone else's Russian passport to travel upon. Smirnov 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 caught on as pilots with a British Airco DH.9 squadron for a while.[4]

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 Smirnov demobilized from the Royal Air Force.[4]

The aerial victories of Ivan Smirnov[edit]

See also Aerial victory standards of World War I, List of World War I flying aces from the Russian Empire

Confirmed victories are numbered and listed chronologically.

No. Date/time Aircraft Foe Result Location Notes
1 2 January 1917 ca 1130 hours Nieuport 10 serial number N722 Aviatik C.I s/n C2775/16 Aviatik destroyed; air crew KIA Lutsk, present day Ukraine Observer: Captain Pentko
2 2 May 1917 Morane-Saulnier I Albatros C Class two-seater Air crew burned Albatros after forced landing Gorozhanki Loss from Feldflieger Abteilung (Field Flier Detachment) 220
u/c 18 May 1917 Enemy aircraft Steep dive into a forced landing Bolshovtse
3 16 August 1917 Nieuport 17 Enemy aircraft Melnitsy
4 23 August 1917 Nieuport 17 Enemy two-seater Crashlanded and overturned; engine and cooling system damaged Husiatyn, present day Ukraine Shared victory
5 8 September 1917 Morane-Saulnier I Enemy two-seater Husiatyn
6 25 September 1917 Spad VII s/n S1546 Enemy two-seater Albatros C.X Captured Between Balin and Prilip Loss from Fliegerkompanie 24
7 24 October 1917 Spad VII s/n S1546 Enemy fighter Kovel, present day Ukraine
8 10 November 1917 Spad VII s/n S1546 Hansa-Brandenburg C.I s/n 269.08 Set afire South of Zielona[disambiguation needed], present day Poland Loss from Austro-Hungarian Fliegerkompanie 9
9 10 November 1917 Spad VII s/n S1546 Hansa-Brandenburg C.I Overturned upon landing; destroyed by Russian artillery Zelyonaya Victory shared; loss from Austro-Hungarian Fliegerkompanie 9
10 23 November 1917 Spad VII s/n S1546 Lloyd C.V s/n 46.22 Destroyed; air crew KIA Letovo Loss from Fliegerkompanie 18
11 26 November 1917 @ 1300 hours Spad VII s/n S1546 Enemy aircraft Vicinity of Skalat, present day Ukraine Victory shared with Alexander Kazakov[1][3][5]

Between the World Wars[edit]

When he was demobilized, Smirnov snagged 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. Smirnov then took ship again, joining a group of other Russian pilots bound for Novorossiysk to join the Volunteer Army of the White Russian counter-revolutionists. When Smirnov arrived in August 1919, he was met by his old friend Lipsky. The latter advised Smirnov that the Volunteer Army was disintegrating from defeat, and that he should flee the coming disaster. Smirnov 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.[4]

After the new Communist government gained control in Russia, Smirnov returned to work in the Handley Page factory. Following this, he returned to piloting, joining the pioneering Belgian airline SNETA in 1920.[1] He carried passengers in SPADs and Airco DH.9s until a hangar fire consumed his assigned aircraft, leaving him jobless. He moved on to the Netherlands, and began flying for KLM[4] in 1922.[1] 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. Smirnov was consequently nicknamed "Earl of the Goodwins".[4]

In 1928, Smirnov pioneered the postal route from Amsterdam to Indonesia for KLM, an 18,000 mile round trip. In 1933-1934, he set record times on this route, flying Fokker F.18 (dubbed Pelikaan). In 1940, Smirnov was permanently posted in Indonesia by KLM.[4]

World War II[edit]

See also 1942 KNILM Douglas DC-3 shootdown

After the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Smirnov returned to military flying as a captain in the army aviation corps in Indonesia. During the heavy fighting in eastern Indonesia as the Japanese invaded, Smirnov evacuated Dutch women, children, and VIPs to Australia; at times, he took off just minutes before the invaders arrived. Eventually, on 3 March 1942, his luck ran out. He was flying PK-AFV, a DC-3 Dakota dubbed Pelikaan, when he was attacked by three Japanese Japanese Zeroes. Although wounded five times in the arm, the ex-fighter pilot threw his transport into a diving spiral away from the attacking fighters to make his escape. He crashlanded the DC-3 on a sandy beach, four of his passengers dying in the event. The survivors and cargo were rescued five days later, though a packet of diamonds went missing.[4]

After recovery from his injuries Smirnov worked as a captain in the US 317th Troop Carrier Group despite attempts to ground him because of his age and chronic injuries. He would serve through war's end, and return to his civil job with KLM.[4] His Second World War exploits brought him the Dutch Distinguished Flying Cross, the French Croix de Guerre, and installation as Knight of the Order of Orange Nassau from the Netherlands.[1]

After the war[edit]

Back in The Netherlands Smirnov took up old activities and began to fly on his beloved Java route again. But in 1948 Smirnov 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. Smirnov was delighted.[citation needed]

Postwar, Smirnov was eventually grounded for medical reasons after 30,000+ flying hours, but remained with KLM as a senior advisor.[4] In 1950 he retired from KLM and moved to Cala d'Or on the Balearic Island of Majorca.[citation needed] He died in Palma, Majorca on 28 October 1956 and was buried there. However, on 20 November 1959, he was reinterred in Heemstede Cemetery in The Netherlands.[4]

Honours and awards[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g Franks et al 1997, pp. 213-214.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Kulikov 2013, pp. 27-32.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Durkota et al 1995, p. 112-121.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Kulikov 2013, pp. 42-47.
  5. ^ Kulikov 2013, pp. 27-32, 42-47.


  • Allen Durkota. The Imperial Russian Air Service: Famous Pilots and Aircraft and World War I. Flying Machines Press, 1995. ISBN 0963711024, 9780963711021.
  • Norman Franks; Russell Guest; Gregory Alegi. Above the War Fronts: The British Two-seater Bomber Pilot and Observer Aces, the British Two-seater Fighter Observer Aces, and the Belgian, Italian, Austro-Hungarian and Russian Fighter Aces, 1914–1918: Volume 4 of Fighting Airmen of WWI Series: Volume 4 of Air Aces of WWI. Grub Street, 1997. ISBN 1-898697-56-6, ISBN 978-1-898697-56-5.
  • Victor Kulikov. Russian Aces of World War 1: Aircraft of the Aces. Osprey Publishing, 2013. ISBN 1780960611, 9781780960616.

External links[edit]