Raymond Collishaw: Cabin boy to Air Vice Marshal

Part 2. The Russian Campaign

Towards the end of WW1 the British government turned its attention to Russia!, as the effects of the October Revolution in Russia in 1917 were being felt throughout the world. It was decided to send troops to Russia to support the White Russian Army led by General von Deniken who was locked in a bloody civil war with the Bolshevik Red army In the Crimea region.

In July 1919 Collishaw was sent to Ekaterinodor, Novossibirsk, with 47 squadron comprising 300 personell, they would be flying Sopwith Camels that had frankly seen better days and DH9 bombers and Collishaw was allowed to hand-pick 10 of his pilots. Their Squadron was tasked to ‘aid’ the Tsarist White army wherever possible?. This mean’t stopping the Bolsheviks crossing the Volga river at all costs, strafing rafts full of enemy troops and bombing the bridges and and gunboats. The aircraft were equipped with 8 machine guns! and bombs, in one ‘battle’ Collishaw’s squadron caught a Kuban Cossack cavalry division out in the open and in the following attack inflicted 1,600 casualties upon them.

Collishaw became the first pilot to be credited with sinking a ‘Red’ gunboat as it tried to force a crossing. The Bolsheviks did have their own airforce of sorts, whose ranks were supplemented by German pilots who seen action in the recent war? but they were few and far between and no match for Collishaw’s seasoned pilots who had survived 4 years over the Western Front.

Because they had very little air support the Red army decreed that if any pilot shot down and captured would be ‘crucified on the spot’. This decree must have been uppermost in the minds of two of Collishaw’s squadron when seeing another aircraft brought down close to a Cossack cavalry unit, landed to rescue their colleagues, and as they rescued them their own fuel tank was holed by gunfire and started to leak badly, a crew member climbed up onto the wing and stuck his thumbs into the holes and he remained in place until all 4 crew men got back to their own lines, a V.C was reccomended for this action, but turned down because there was ‘no corroborative evidence to confirm it’! so D.S.O.s were awarded instead?.

However the White army and it’s ally’s did not have it all its own way! the Red army steadily gained the upper hand by sheer force of numbers and the Whites were forced into retreat across a broad front.

Collishaws squadron were ordered to leave Ekaterinodor dismantle their aircraft and load them onto trains and head for the port of Theodosia, nr Vladivostock. 500 miles away, so they set off in several trains carrying the aircraft personell, dispossessed aristocrats, and anti bolshevik peasants across the steppes being pursued all the way through hostile territory. Collishaw was recorded as being stricken down with typhus at the start of this journey, but he was nursed back to health by “a beautiful Russian Countess” who was attempting to get to safety.Typhus still raged through the train so badly that they were forced to throw out the dead each day from the train.

Because they were in retreat there was no fixed plan of action, Collishaw, when he recovered decided on a ‘fighting withdrawal’, His idea was, to drive the train as hard and as fast as they could, stop, unload their aircraft, re-assemble them, and then fly back to engage the enemy!, leaving behind the refugees to collect water, ( frozen snow) and firewood for the engine. On their return from a sortie the aircraft would land, be dis-assembled and reloaded onto the train and they would speed off again. All the time the Bolsheviks were in full pursuit with an armoured train equipped with troops and a 9″ cannon. Collishaws train was also under attack constantly by the local people who would constantly snipe at the fleeing train as it passed through their villages, or try to derail the train by ripping up the tracks ahead, once attempting to ram it off the tracks with another train?

Communications at this time was by the telegraph system. Collishaw used to ‘tap’ into this to try and find out information about what was up ahead of him. He once got information that a meeting was being held for very important Bolshevik leaders in a nearby town, his squadron took off and bombed the meeting place so thoroughly that the Red army leadership was all but destroyed in that area for a considerable time. His squadron had some amazing successes during the retreat, they blew a train completely off the track and severely damaged another but they were still always having to fight a losing battle. In one sortie Collishaw’s own aircraft got severe damage to its wings causing him to make an emergency landing, and he was forced to ‘taxi’ his aircraft 40 miles back to the train across the steppes while being pursued by Cossack cavalry.

By the time that Collishaw’s train had reached,Vladivostock, the retreat had turned into a rout. The Red army had won and was encircling the port. He was ordered by the British government to bulldoze his aircraft and crates of equipment into the dock, and destroy all stocks of food and ammunition. Raymond Collishaw was on the last ship out of the port with his pilots, mechanics and about 500 Russian refugees on March 20th 1920.

During this action he was personally credited with 2 planes, 2 trains, 1 gunboat and a bridge. He was also awarded 3 Czarist medals and an O.B.E. from a grateful British government.

Privately he was given a beautifully engraved 7.62 (broomhandle) Mauser pistol by the grateful Russian aristocrats who where on the train with him. This pistol was handed in to the Canadian Police during a gun amnesty by Collishaw’s widow, it is now believed to be in the hands of a private collector.

After this Collishaw came home to Canada and set up his own mining business’s which were very successful. But the man had a restless spirit inside him and he took up work surveying landing sites for the growing number of commercial airlines the were emerging after WW1.I have already started to put together Collishaws further exploits between the Wars, and his service during WW2. This will come at a later date.

Written for GVHS.GJ.

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